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Authors: Peter Ackroyd

Tags: #prose_contemporary, #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective

Hawksmoor (5 page)

BOOK: Hawksmoor
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She could hear a train in the distance. 'And where we are standing now would have been open fields, where the dead and the dying came.' And as they looked at the site of the plague fields, they saw only the images on the advertising hoardings which surrounded them: a modern city photographed at night with the words HAVE ANOTHER BEFORE YOU GO glowing in the dark sky above it, an historical scene in washed-out sepia so that it resembled an illustration from an old volume of prints, and the enlarged face of a man smiling (although the building opposite this poster cast a deep shadow, which cut off the right side of the face). 'It has always been a very poor district,' she was saying when a group of four children, whose cries and whistles had already been heard, marched between them. They ignored the strangers and, looking straight ahead, chanted: What are you looking for in the hole?

A stone!

What will you do with the stone?

Sharpen a knife!

What will you do with the knife?

Cut off your head!

They marched on and then turned round to stare as the guide took her party forward, her enthusiasm now diminished as she tried to recall more facts about this neighbourhood: and if I can't remember any, she thought, I'll just have to invent them.

And the streets around the Spitalfields church were soon filled with the children who had come tumbling and laughing out of school, shouting out nonsense words to each other until a general cry of 'Join in the ring! Join in the ring!' was taken up. And the question became 'Who's it?' until the answer was given, 'You're it!' and a small boy was pushed into the centre of the ring, an old sock wound around his eyes, and he was spun three times on the spot. He kept very still and counted under his breath as the children danced around him and called out, 'Dead man arise! Dead man arise!'. Then quickly and unexpectedly he lunged forward with his arms held out in front of him, and the others ran away screaming with excitement and fear.

Some of those in flight ran towards the church, but none of them would have dared to enter its grounds.

Where now the boy, Thomas, half-crouched behind the small pyramid which had been erected at the same time as the church itself, was watching them. The late afternoon sun threw his shadow upon the rough discoloured stone, as he traced its hollows and striations with his finger -afraid to look directly at the children, and yet not wanting to miss any of their movements. Thomas could feel the pyramid quiver as the lorries turned roaring into the Commercial Road, sending clouds of dust into the air as they did so: he had once noticed with astonishment how above an open fire the air itself quivered, and now he always associated that movement with heat.

The pyramid was too hot, even if he himself could not feel it. He jumped back from it and started to run towards the church; and, as he approached its stone wall, the noises of the external world were diminished as if they were being muffled by the fabric of the building itself.

The church changed its shape as he came closer to it. From a distance it was still the grand edifice which rose up among the congerie of roads and alleys around Brick Lane and the Market; it was the massive bulk which seemed to block off the ends of certain streets; it was the tower and spire which could be seen for more than two miles, and those who noticed it would point and say to their companions, There is Spitalfields, and Whitechapel beside it!' But as Thomas approached it now it ceased to be one large building and became a number of separate places -some warm, some cold or damp, and some in perpetual shadow. He knew every aspect of its exterior, each decaying buttress and each mossy corner, since it was here that on most days he came to sit.

There were times when Thomas would climb the fifteen steps and walk into the church itself. He would kneel in front of a small side-altar, with his hands shielding his eyes as if in prayer, and imagine the building of his own church: he constructed in turn the porch, the nave, the altar, the tower but then always he lost his way in a fantastic sequence of rooms and stairs and chapels until he was obliged to begin again. These journeys into the interior of the church were rare, however, since he could not be sure that he would remain alone: the sound of footsteps at the back of the church, echoing in the half-light, made him tremble with fear. On one occasion he had been roused from his reverie by voices chanting in unison, Take thy plague away from me; I am even consumed by the means of Thy heavy hand and I am falling, falling…', and he had left the church quickly, not daring to glance at those who had so unexpectedly joined him. Yet outside he was once again alone and at peace.

From the south wall of the church he could see an area which, although perhaps designed as a cemetery by the architect, was now merely a patch of ground with some trees, faded grass and, beside them, the pyramid. From the east wall there was nothing to be seen except a gravel path which led to the entrance of an old tunnel. The place was now boarded up and, although the large grey stones of its entry suggested that it had been built at an early date (and might even be contemporaneous with the church itself), it had been used as an air-raid 'shelter' during the last war and since that time had like the church itself decayed. Stories had accumulated around this 'house under ground', as the local children called it: it was said that the tunnel led to a maze of passages which burrowed miles into the earth, and the children told each other stories about the ghosts and corpses which were still to be found somewhere within it. But Thomas, although he believed such things, always felt himself to be safe when he was crouched against the stone of the church itself -as he was now, after he had run from the pyramid and the sight of the playing children.

And it was here that he tried to escape the memory of that day's events.

He attended the local school, St Katherine's: on charcoal grey mornings he would sit at his desk and savour the sweet classroom smell of chalk and disinfectant, just as he enjoyed the distinctive odour of ink and of his own books. In History class (which was known to the children as the 'Mystery' lesson), for example, he liked to write down names or dates and watch the ink flow across the spacious white paper of his exercise book. But when the bell rang he would walk out into the asphalt schoolyard uncertain and alone; among all the shrieking and shouting, he would move surreptitiously from one group to another, or he would pretend to find something of interest by the walls and railings away from the other children. But, if he could, he would always listen when they talked -so it was he learned that, if you say the Lord's Prayer backwards, you can raise the Devil; he learned, also, that if you see a dead animal you must spit on it and repeat, 'Fever, fever, stay away, don't come inside my bed today'. He heard that a kiss takes a minute off your life, and that a black beetle crawling across your shoe means that one of your friends is about to die. All these things he stored up in his memory, for it seemed to him to be knowledge that he must possess in order to be like the others; they had somehow acquired it naturally, but he had to find it and then cherish it.

For he was still eager to be with them and even to talk to them, and he did not mind showing that eagerness: on this particular afternoon five planes had passed in formation in the sky above the children, and they had pointed to them and chanted, 'It's a war! It's a war!'. And Thomas, too, joined in the excitement: he experienced no fear but in a curious sense he felt protected as he jumped up and down, waving at the planes as they disappeared into the distance and still shouting with the others. But then one boy came up to him and, with a smile, pinioned Thomas's arm behind his back, levering it upwards until he was forced to cry out in pain. And the boy whispered to him exultantly, 'Are you going to be burnt or buried? Answer me! Are you going to be burnt or buried?' And eventually Thomas muttered 'Buried!' and lowered his head.

'Say it louder!'

And he screamed out 'Buried!' before his tormentor would release him. The others had been alerted to the scene of Thomas's humiliation and now began to crowd around him, singing: Thomas Hill is no good, Chop him up for firewood.

 

When he's dead, boil his head,

 

Make it into ginger bread.

He knew that he should not cry, but he stood in the centre of the schoolyard with the tears running down his face; and when they saw the tears the children shouted 'Dry up and blow away!' as his sobs were drowned by the roar of the planes once more flying overhead.

Now he was crouched against the wall of the church, in such a position that he was effectively hidden from the street. He gazed at the grass and trees which bordered this place and, as a leaf fell from one of the branches and drifted slowly to the ground, the vision of the afternoon's pain and humiliation disappeared. The pigeons made elaborate formations around and in front of Thomas, wings upon wings until their shapes were indistinct, and the rustling also comforted him. He turned his face to the sun, and the clouds made a patchwork of shadows upon his body: he looked up at them and they seemed to be disappearing inside the church. And then he was climbing towards them, climbing the tower until the clouds hid him, climbing the tower as a voice called out, Go on! Go on!

A wind started up, carrying the odours which suggest the end of summer, and as Thomas awoke he saw the sunlight leave the grass like an eye suddenly closed. He stood up and as he walked away from the church the noises of the world returned; it was colder now and when he entered the street he began running, slightly clumsily as if he were aware of his own body as he ran. And there were some who glanced at him and thought Poor boy! as he hurried towards his home in Eagle Street, which is off Brick Lane.

He was not the only visitor to the church that day. Two boys were standing at a place where three roads meet (Mermaid Alley, Tabernacle Close and Balls Street), saying nothing but digging with their fingers into the mortar of an old wall which was already crumbling.

One of them looked at the side of the church, rising up at the end of Tabernacle Close, and then punched his companion on the shoulder: 'Do you want to go down the old tunnel?

'Do you?'

'Do you?'

'Do you?'

'Do you?'

And they continued this ritual incantation until they were beside the locked gates of the churchyard from where they could see the entrance of the tunnel, boarded up with planks which were already rotten and half-covered with foliage which was spreading over the curved roof. The two boys squeezed through the railings of the gates and then, hanging on to each other, walked towards the abandoned tunnel which had been the source and inspiration for so many local stories. They knelt down at the entrance and knocked upon the planks as if they were banging on someone's front door; both of them then began pulling at the wood, gingerly at first but soon with more eagerness and ferocity: one piece came free, and then another, until there was space enough to enter. They sat down upon the ground and gazed at each other: 'Are you going first?'

'Are you?'

'Are you?'

'Are you?'

Until one of them said, 'You're bigger. You go first'. This was unanswerable: they spat on their hands and touched their thumbs together before the older boy lowered himself through the entry they had made and the other followed.

They stood up in the dark portal, and clutched each other in the manner of those who are in danger of falling. The first boy then tentatively began going down the steps, reaching out for his companion's hand as he did so, and as they descended the sound of their rapid breathing was quite audible in a place which was otherwise silent. When they reached the bottom they paused until their eyes became accustomed to the darkness: a tunnel seemed to appear in front of them, although it was of incalculable length, and there were words or drawings on the stones above their heads. The older boy moved a little way into the passage, flattening his right palm against the side although the wall itself was damp and cold, and after six or seven steps he came to a room on the right. They peered in, hesitating while the deeper darkness swirled around them, and slowly there emerged in one corner the outline of a bundle of rags. The older boy started to make his way into this small room when he thought he saw the rags heave and move: something might have been turning in its sleep and he screamed, stepping backward in his fright and knocking the smaller boy to the ground. Was there now a noise coming from within the room, or was it an echo of his scream? But both of them had already scrambled back to the stairs, and were escaping through the aperture they had made. They fell out of the tunnel and then stood up in the shadow of the church, looking in each others' faces for signs of the fear which both of them felt, before running down the gravel path towards the gates and the streets beyond. 'I fell over,' the younger one said when they were once more part of their own world, 'I hurt my knee. Look!' He sat down by the side of the road, and was sick in the gutter. 'You can put some iodine on that,' his friend told him before turning away in the expectation that the other would follow. And the darkness grew like a tree.

Thomas was now lying on his bed and, at the time when the two boys were escaping from the runnel, he was making shadows against the wall with his hands: 'Here is the church,' he whispered to himself, 'And here is the steeple. Open the doors and where are the people?'

Then he tired of this game, and turned the page of his book.

He and his mother lived in the upper two storeys of the old house in Eagle Street (beneath them was a dress-making establishment owned by an Indian family). His father, a baker, had died six years before: Thomas remembered a man sitting at the kitchen table, taking up a knife to carve some meat and then falling sideways with a smile upon his face, and his mother with a hand over her mouth. Now he heard the front door opening and then his mother climbing the stairs: Thomas!' she called, 'Are you in, Tommy?'. There was a slight quaver in her voice the second time, as if the fact that he did not reply at once meant that in some way he had been harmed. The death of her husband had rendered her timorous; the ground was now made of the thinnest glass through which she could see the abysses beneath her, and she had communicated this fearfulness to her son who always preferred to remain in his small attic room.

BOOK: Hawksmoor
3.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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