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Authors: Peter Ackroyd

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

Hawksmoor (6 page)

BOOK: Hawksmoor
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During these long summer evenings he would lie on his bed and read, sometimes concealing himself beneath a light cotton sheet which lent the pages an even and gentle glow. As his mother was climbing the stairs, he was reading an historical romance for children entitled Dr Faustus and Queen Elizabeth. He had just finished the chapter where the Virgin Queen had sent for the Doctor after she had been informed of his magical powers: for she had been told by a wise man that, if she could unriddle the mystery of Stonehenge, she would bear a child. And so Fausrus had sailed to England, only just escaping death as a dark whirlwind threatened to overwhelm his frail bark.

And now they were walking together towards the great stones: 'Faith,' exclaimed the Queen with a rueful smile, 'I wish I knew their dark mysteries.'

'Forsooth do not disturb yourself, your majesty,'

Fausrus replied in an imposing manner, 'I verily do believe that I can unriddle them.'

'Well deuce take you if you cannot,' she replied haughtily. And Thomas had read on quickly, hoping to reach the passage where the Devil takes Faustus into the air and shows him the kingdoms of the world. He had another book beside him, entitled Some English Martyrs; he had found it lying discarded at the back of the church, and the first of the stories he had read was of Little St Hugh: that he was 'a child of ten years, the son of a widow. One Koppin, a heathen, enticed him to a ritual house under ground where he was tortured and scourged and finally strangled. Then his body was left there unknown for seven days and seven nights. Immediately Hugh's body was recovered from the pit a blind woman was restored to sight by touching it and invoking the martyr; other miracles followed'.

Thomas often gazed at the pictures of the martyrs in this book, with their flesh being carved out by laughing men; their bodies were always thin and yellow but their bowels were very red, and underneath each illustration there was a phrase in Gothic lettering: Prophesy Now, Violent Hands, Devouring Fire, and so on.

His mother had stopped calling his name and was now climbing the second set of stairs to his room; for some reason he did not wish her to see him lying sprawled upon the bed, and so he jumped off it and sat on a chair beside the window. 'How's my Tommy?' she said hurrying towards him and then kissing him on the forehead; he flinched, turning his face away from her, and then pretended to watch something in the street outside in order to account for this gesture.

'What are you thinking about, Tommy?'

'Nothing.'

And then, after a pause, she added, 'It's so cold in this room isn't it?'

But he hardly noticed the cold and, after she had gone downstairs in order to prepare the evening meal, he sat very still in his chair and let the shadows pass across his face. He could hear faint voices from the adjoining houses, and then the chiming of a clock; and he heard, also, the rattle of plates and cups in other kitchens as his mother called for him to come down.

He descended slowly, counting out the stairs so loudly that he might have been hurling abuse; he was shouting out different words as he entered the kitchen, but then stopped abruptly when he saw that his mother was engaged in her unequal battle against the world -a world which, on this evening, adopted the dimensions of the wooden chairs which fell down at her feet, the gas rings of the oven which refused to light, and the kettle that burned her fingers; although growing within this little space there was also, as he knew, his mother's fury at the house and neighbourhood in which she felt herself to be trapped. She had just dropped a packet of butter upon the floor and was running her fingers along the table as she stared at it, when she caught sight of her son standing in the doorway: 'It's all right,' she explained, 'Mummy's just tired'. Thomas bent down to pick up the butter and looked at her shoes and ankles as he did so.

'Look at the dust in here,.' she was saying, 'Just look at it!' The sudden anger in her voice disturbed him but, as he stood up from the floor, he asked her in a dispassionate voice, 'Where does dust come from?'

'Oh I don't know, Tommy, from the ground probably.' And as she said this she looked round with increased distaste at the narrow kitchen, before realising that her son was gazing at her and biting his lip in distress. 'I don't know where it comes from, but I do know where it's going to,' and she blew the dust from the table into the air. And both of them laughed before turning their attention to their food: they might have been in competition, for they ate ferociously and did not even glance at each other as quickly and silently they finished their meal. And then Thomas took the empty plates, and carried them in silence to the sink where he began running water over them. His mother gave a little burp, which she did not try to conceal, before asking him what he had done today.

'Nothing.'

'You must have done something, Tommy. What happened at school?'

'I told you, I done nothing.' He never chose to mention the church, since he preferred his mother to believe that he disliked the area as much as she did. At that moment the single bell chimed seven o'clock.

'It's that church again, isn't it?' He kept his back to her and did not reply. 'I told you time and again.' He let the water flow over his fingers. 'I don't like you going there, what with that runnel and all. It could cave in and then where would you be?' For her the church represented all that was dark and immutably dirty about the area, and she resented the fascination which it obviously held for her son. 'Are you listening to me, young man?'

And then, turning round to look at her, he said, 'I think there's something inside that pyramid. It felt hot today.'

'I'll make you feel hot if you go near it again.' But she regretted the severity of her tone when she saw her son's anxious face. 'It's not good for you to spend so much time on your own, Tommy.' She lit a cigarette and blew the smoke towards the ceiling. 'I wish you was more friendly with the other boys.' He wanted to leave her now and go back to his room, but her dejected expression kept him back. 'I had friends at your age, Tommy.'

'I know. I saw the pictures.' He remembered the photograph of his mother as a young girl, her arm around a friend: both of them had been dressed in white, and it seemed to Thomas to be a painting of a time infinitely remote, a time before he had been thought of.

'Well then.' And a note of anxiety entered her voice again. 'Isn't there someone you want to play with?'

'I don't know. I'll have to think about it.' He examined the table, trying to puzzle out the secret of dust.

'You think too much Tommy, it's not good for you.' Then she smiled at him. 'Do you want to play a game?' She put out her cigarette with a quick movement and took him in her lap, rocking him backward and forward as she chanted a song which Thomas also knew by heart: How many miles to Babylon?

Three score miles and ten.

Can I get there by candle light?

Yes, and back again.

And she rocked him faster and faster until he felt dizzy and begged her to stop: he was sure that she would pull his arms out of their sockets, or that he would crash to the floor and be killed. But just as the game had reached its height she let him down gently and, with a sudden and unexpected sigh, rose up to switch on the electric light. And all at once Thomas saw how dark it had become outside: 'I think I'll go up now'. She was looking out of the window at the empty street below: 'Goodnight,' she murmured, 'Sleep tight'. And then she turned round and embraced her son so tightly that he had to struggle to get free while outside, as the amber street lights were illuminated, the local children were playing at catching each other's shadows.

Thomas could not sleep that night, and he was filled with a growing sense of panic as the solitary bell of the Spitalfields church chimed the half-hour and the hour. Once again he contemplated the events in the schoolyard, and in the darkness he imagined other scenes of suffering and humiliation: how the same boys might lie in wait for him, how when he passed they would fall upon him and kick him, and how he would not resist until he lay dead at their feet. He whispered their names -John Biscow, Peter Duckett, Philip Wire -as if they were deities to be propitiated. Then he climbed from his bed and leaned out of the open window; from here he could see the silhouette of the church roof, and above it seven or eight stars. In his mind's eye he tried to draw a line between each star, to see what complete figure it might make, but as he did so he felt a pressure on his cheek as if an insect were crawling across it: he glanced down into Monmouth Street, beyond the shed where the coals were kept, and saw what seemed to be a figure in a dark coat looking up at him.

It was winter now, and in the late days of October the children of Spitalfields made figures out of old clothes or newspapers and prepared them for the burning. But Thomas spent these evenings in his room, where he was constructing out of plywood and cardboard a model of a house. He used a small penknife to cut windows in its sides, and with his wooden ruler he laid out the plan of the rooms: indeed, so great was his enthusiasm that the little building already resembled a labyrinth. And as he walked to the churchyard in the early afternoon he was considering whether it was necessary to construct a basement: would the model be complete without it, or would it not? He came to the south wall and sat down in the dust, settling against the corner of the buttress in order to reflect upon these matters.

Until he became aware of movement in front of him: he looked up in alarm and pressed himself closer against the great church when he noticed a man and woman walking beneath the trees, which shook in the rising wind. They stopped; the man drank from a bottle before they both settled down upon the earth and lay beside each other.

Thomas glared with contempt as they kissed but, when the man put his hand upon her skirt, he grew more watchful. He got up slowly from beside the buttress in order to lie on the ground closer to them, and by the time he had done so the man had taken the woman's breast from her fawn jacket and begun to feel it. Thomas caught his breath, and started rocking himself on the ground in the same rhythm as the man's hand which now worked up and down; he felt a large stone digging in his stomach as he lay sprawled upon the earth but he was hardly aware of the discomfort as the man put his mouth to the woman's breast and kept it there. Thomas's throat was dry and he swallowed several times to try and control his rising excitement; it seemed as if his limbs were growing, like those of a giant, and he was sure that at any moment something would burst from him -he might be sick, or he might cry out, and in his alarm he rose to his feet. The man saw his shape against the stone and, grabbing the bottle which was lying by the woman's side, hurled it at Thomas who looked wildly around as it swung in an arc towards him. Then he ran to the back wall of the church, passing the entrance to the abandoned runnel before he collided with a man who must have been standing there. Without looking up, the boy ran on.

Pleading tiredness he went to bed early that night and, as he lay in his dark room, he could hear the sounds of rockets and flares issuing from the neighbouring streets. He believed that he did not miss such things, but he lay face downward on his bed and put the pillow over his head so that he could not hear them. And once more he watched as the man and woman walked beneath the trees and as they kissed, and now he was taking her breast into his mouth. He rocked upon his narrow bed, his body growing and growing, and he spread out his hands in horror as the ache turned into a stream which he entered and which at the same time left him like blood coming from a wound.

When eventually he came to rest, he stared dully at the wall. He did not want to move in case the blood poured from him and soaked the bed, and so he lay quite still in the darkness wondering if he was about to die: just then a rocket rose and exploded in the sky outside his window and, in its instantaneous white light, the plywood model cast an intense shadow on the floor. He started up from his bed in alarm, and then stared down at himself.

When he walked through the streets of Spitalfields on the following morning, the people whom he passed seemed to glance at him in curiosity or amazement, and he was sure that what he had done, or felt, had left some mark upon him. It would have been natural for him now to visit the church and sit beneath its walls, but he could not go back to the spot where he had seen the authors of his woes. He passed its entry two or three times, but then hurried back to Eagle Street with gathering excitement: and his mouth became dry when he entered his own room in order to fling himself down upon the bed. He lay quietly for a moment, listening to his heart beating, and then started tossing up and down with a fierce rhythm.

And then later he went downstairs to stoke up the fire, as his mother had asked him. He turned it around with his poker so that the new coals tumbled into the centre and, as they stirred and shifted in the heat, Thomas peered at them and imagined there the passages and caverns of hell where those who burn are the same colour as the flame.

Here was the church of Spitalfields glowing, red hot, and then in his exhaustion he fell asleep. It was his mother's voice which roused him, and in the first few seconds after waking he felt lost.

A succession of bright days did not lift Thomas's spirits; the bright ness disturbed him, and instinctively he sought the shadows which the winter sunlight casts. He felt at peace only in the hour before dawn, when the darkness seemed to give way slowly to a mist, and it was at this hour that he would wake and sit by his window. He had also taken to wandering: sometimes he walked through the streets of London, repeating words or phrases under his breath, and he had found an old square by the Thames in which a sun-dial had been erected. At weekends or in the early evenings he would sit here, contemplating the change which had come over his life and, in his extremity, thinking of the past and of the future.

Then one cold morning he woke and heard the screeching of a cat, although it might have been a human cry; he rose from his bed slowly and went to the window, but he could see nothing. He dressed quickly, combed his hair, and then walked quietly past his mother's bedroom: it was Saturday and she had what she called a 'lie in'. There was a time when he would have crawled into her bed and, as she slept, watched the dust stirring in the shafts of sunlight which entered her room, but now he crept down the stairs. He opened the door and crossed the threshold; as he went out into Eagle Street, the sound of his shoes on the frosted pavement echoed against the houses. Then he passed Monmouth Street and walked beside the church. He could see someone walking in front of him and, although it was not unusual in an area such as this for people to rise and go to their work early, Thomas slowed his pace so that he would not come too close. But as they both turned into Commercial Road the figure ahead, who was wearing some kind of dark top-coat or overcoat, seemed to slow down also -although he gave no sign that he was aware of the ten-year-old boy behind him.

BOOK: Hawksmoor
5.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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