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Authors: Mike French

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Underground Rivers (2 page)

BOOK: Underground Rivers
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Keep the Home Fires Burning

by Paul Harrison

The rain fell without mercy. It was hard to believe it was July, even more difficult to believe it was 1919 and we were finally celebrating the peace. Ernest Greer stood on that makeshift platform in front of Luton Town Hall in a sodden straw hat, shaking his fist and preaching Bolshevism to the crowd.

Greer wore my vestments and the dog caller torn from my throat. Such was the antagonism from the crowd that the attendant police were too pre-occupied in defending the Town Hall to worry about appearances. But I knew
He
would find it hard to accept the explanation of my drunken loss at the hands of so ungodly a man. Only
He
could let the heavens pore down in retribution. I sensed there was a lot more rain to fall on this land once fit for heroes.

I only caught fragments of the Bolsheviks rant because the crowd was rowdy and numerous. Then I noticed I was almost sober and the rain was soaking through Greer's thin municipal trousers. We were of a similar height and his working man's clothes fitted well enough but with the moisture clinging to my thighs, I felt as though he was becoming absorbed into me, like some terrible poltergeist. I further felt the irritation of something heavy and metallic inside a grimy pocket. At first I assumed it was money that we had somehow failed to drink during our furious debate at
The
Abbot
public house. Then I realised it was a set of keys.

Even they were moist, as though left poised in an external door on a cold January day. But I realised they were too big to be normal house keys. And that set me searching for those of my parish. Fortunately, they were left there amongst a crumpled wrapping that I identified as a half ounce of Greer's tobacco. At least I would be able to return home once I had recovered my clothing from the mindless reprobate.

Even my church keys smelt of stale ale after the long afternoon's argument and my ultimate humiliation. I lost the wager and at about four o'clock was defrocked in the lavatory at
The Abbot.
Despite all the privations and horror at the front, nothing so humiliating had ever occurred before. I could only imagine the Bishop's fury when he would hear of the events of the 19
th
of July in Luton. My name would surely be mud. Unless I could save the day somehow, I feared I was looking at a second defrocking of a more permanent nature.

And I assumed the vote would go with me, that even less than sober, the discharged troops would side against Greer's murderous intentions. That they would choose to ignore his plea for blood and leave the Mayor in peace. That I had been a pal with many of them after Gallipoli, that although I did not carry a weapon, we stood and fell together as Lutonians. I wagered my frock on their decency and the Bolshevik took me up on the offer.

Ernest Greer limped across the bar room towards me. I know his mind held anger but his face was flat, almost expressionless, as though ironed of emotion from Shaking Palsy. His eyes hinted at inebriation and half forgotten horrors. But his tongue was like a lasso, winding in support for those who wanted rebellion.

He said Mayor Impey ignored the common man. That he wanted to charge unemployed soldiers to attend the Peace Banquet and had ignored their plea for a Memorial Service at the pleasure grounds in Wardown. All of this was true of course but it was no excuse for a lynching.

Ernest Greer was a big man, a career soldier. He looked too old to have been injured at Sulva Bay, too old to have fought in this last war at all. Surely he should have been retired from the 5
th
s after Spionkok? His breath smelt of cheap sausage. When he brought his face near to me in the gloom of the
Abbot,
I saw it was tanned brown. The other pals were also bronzed or burnt from a summer of idleness, wasting away the hours on the streets of New Town.

But I remembered Greer was a caretaker of some description because I offered him spiritual guidance on his return: such wasted words. His face bore an unhealthy, flame thrown glow, reflected back from the hard rock of Gallipoli. He grimaced at me with the frozen smile of a puppet.

“You are a man of God and a follower of false truths. But you were their Chaplain with the boys and we bear you no malice. I will give you my own clothes in return rather than see you naked and foolish. If the men in this hostelry agree with you, I will follow their counsel and leave Impey alone. But if they vote with me, I will rub salt in your wound and lead us to Impey dressed as a clergyman.”

And when it came to the vote I was comprehensively beaten, Christian values refuted. Only a couple of men, too ancient to have served in the Great War, lifted reluctant, pacifist hands. The rest raised their arms and roared with Greer. Amongst them I recognised burley Blockers from Hightown, the ‘Yellow Devils' who led the fight up Kidney Hill but returned to a hat industry bereft of work.

That heroism was exhausted now. The men were a disgrace to their insignia, to the name of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire regiment, to the good name of Luton and to the name of our Lord-Jesus Christ. Greer approached me. He called out:

“Hey whiskey priest, time to get stripped down...”

In a moment of sanity and no doubt mindful of his license to a degree, that fellow traveller of a landlord intervened. A wire haired terrier of a man, he stood with his arms folded in front of the godless mob:

“Ernest Greer, if you are to swap clothes with the Chaplain, I want no scenes of embarrassment in the public bar. Behave like gentlemen and carry out the exchange honourably in the lavatory.”

And we would have done, but some drunken hooligans followed us in and fair ripped the clothes of my back. Greer stood by grinning inanely before stripping to his underclothes and climbing into my holy vestments. As he left he said:

“I told you so, Chaplain. The days when you could stop working men and soldiers from reaching their destiny are
finally
over.”

His uniform of the Water Board was left behind in an untidy heap on the floor like droppings from the devil. Eventually I climbed into it. Only my drunken state prevented me from registering fully the shame of being witnessed in such apparel. There was no choice but to follow Greer to the Town Hall and recover my belongings after his inevitable arrest.

After my assailant's incoherent rambling up on the platform, Cecil Barber spoke. Barber that shell shocked projectionist, who should have stayed in the darkness of the cinema rather than let his pale face rouse so much fury in the warm summer rain. Worse of all he shouted that he knew where Impey lived and could lead the crowd to him. Egged on by Greer, a bad five hundred men, women and children followed Barber down George Street.

I had no choice but trail behind as though the clothing on Greer's back demanded I follow. Surely they would not harm the man in the bosom of his family home? As we climbed London Road, the talk ahead of me was only of violence. “Lynch the Mayor!” “Hang the bastard!” Barber told the crowd where we were heading. I saw arms stretched above the white of my collar and heard Greer shout that he would be ‘Going over the top' at Whitecroft.

Whitecroft stood high on a bend above the road, a pleasant and modern abode, separated from the mob by a steep front garden and defended by a handful of constabulary, drenched to a man. Their straw hats were pitiful defence against the raging elements. Tufts of pink crowned the skeletons of Willow Bay Herb blown almost prostrate along the side of the garden path. Barber demanded they let us question the Mayor but the police said he was elsewhere. I wondered if he was still hidden at the now surrounded Town Hall, lurking in a cellar or aloft with the pigeons?

The police agreed that one of the rabble would be allowed to search the house to prove Impey was absent. A man unknown to me was escorted through the front door and returned less than five minutes later shaking his head. Neither the Mayor nor anyone in his family was to be found. After a few moments consultation, Barber and Greer led the crowd back down the hill towards the town centre.

Surely someone in the crowd would challenge Greer on his sacrilegious appearance? I prayed desperately that no foolish souls believed they were being led by a holy man. Equally, that they did not believe
I
was leading the fury. The rain intensified and followed the mob down steep pavements as though enthusiastically joining in the pursuit for Luton's most wanted man.

I stayed behind, alone on London Road, defeated as though my powers of persuasion had left me. I felt things were completely out of hand, my clothes completely stolen now, my soul heavy from witnessing such unchristian behaviour. My head ached from so many pints of unfamiliar ale and I
needed
to urinate. One of the constabulary shouted from his shelter under Impey's porch:

“Move on
now
or we will arrest you. Get away you drunken degenerate!”

I hastily made my way up London Road, knowing that to be arrested outside Mayor Impey's house would be an even greater humiliation. I imagined the respectable faces peering at me through lace curtains in this normally genteel suburb. So, I drank a little. The war had turned me that way, but to be linked with Greer's hooligans was a shame I could not bear.

Where the ground levelled off, I watched the beacon that was being prepared for later that evening. A huge pile of wood lay ready for tinder, but it was already soaked a deep brown colour and I wondered would it ever burn? As I watched two workers added straggly branches to the pile and I remembered for some reason that I was close to Ernest Greer's place of employment. Of course, he worked at Bailey Hill Water Tower.

I left the growing beacon and proceeded down Westhill Road. The Water Tower was stood just beyond the junction with Tennyson Road at the edge of town. For a moment, I imagined Greer, perpetually hung over, staggering up the steepest hill in Luton from his place in Adelaide Terrace each day. I remembered visiting him in his squalid hovel when we returned from the front. He did not want to pray and virtually turned me from his door.

The Water Tower, along with its counter part on Hart Lane is a wonderful building: a good hundred feet high, ornate and graceful yet entirely functional, guaranteeing that the good townsfolk receive water in their taps, even those who live across the valley at Stopsley. Even the scum of the earth, gathered now in George Street, benefit from its modern technology.

Built of grey Luton brick and decorated with rubbed red dressings, the tower is capped with a slate triangle of a roof. On a misty day, it could easily pass for a poor man's castle, a symbol of security. What a terrible contradiction that that a man like Greer should be involved in its maintenance?

I remembered the key in my pocked. My head ached badly and I now
desperately
needed to relieve myself. I reasoned that on this day of celebration the Bailey Tower workers would be elsewhere. Hopefully, only Greer amongst them was involved in the mounting unrest at the Town Hall.

I feared for the Mayor's life if that band of hooligans happened upon him and realised now there was nothing I could do to change my parishioners' behaviour. I also realised I needed to be fully sober and required some rest. It was still surprising, on this day of surprises, when I walked up to the solid wooden door and inserted a key. Surprised even more so when it opened quietly as though Greer kept it well oiled. And there I was, trespassing in the Bailey Hill Water Tower, searching for a urinal like a common criminal. This day was truly shocking.

The interior was spacious, but I delayed my full observation until my bladder was relieved. The toilet was at the back of the building in an anteroom. Feeling more comfortable, I looked around in the limited light cast from the narrow windows high above. I saw a measuring board that recorded the tank to be three quarters full but the water tank itself was obviously contained much higher in the tower.

Despite my weariness I noticed the National Gas Engine and Lee Howl Triplex pump that drove the water upwards. Both pieces of machinery were polished so they even shone without illumination. It seemed inconceivable that a man like Greer could be involved with such modern engineering. In a moment of shame I wished he had been blown apart by Turkish guns and never returned to Luton. I prayed for forgiveness.

At one side of the room was a table with some papers from the Luton Water Company piled up on one side. It was a relief to sit down on a chair and lean my arms across the smooth wood. Hardly comfortable, but with so much of the day spent on my feet, I was grateful for any form of seating. It was almost silent in this peculiar building, only an occasional humming sound disturbed the calm. When my head stopped aching, I was determined to reappraise the situation.

It seemed only moments passed between allowing my head to touch the smooth table and lifting it up again with a jerk. But as always after sleep, I knew it was much later. The circulation had left one arm from where I lay across it and I could barely feel my fingers. It was with some pain that I pushed them against the table to bring back the blood. Looking around me I saw the gleam was faded from the pump and I could no longer read the level off the measuring board. My watch told me it was nearly nine o'clock. I had been asleep for almost four hours.

There was a dry feeling at the back of my throat and I quenched it with tap water. I climbed the spiral staircase and half way up remembered that I was yet to locate the tank. Unfamiliar vistas of the town and surrounding countryside were visible from the narrow ‘archers' windows. I imagined I was climbing a medieval tower in the Eternal City; a strange idea because I have never set foot in Rome. The first floor landing was installed near the top of the building, obviously just below the water level.

As if in a Parisian town house, a city I have visited, four exits led out onto balconies. I took the Northwest facing door and took in the view of the fields either side of the Tennyson Road summit. Umbrellas of white cow parsley stood out radiantly in the gloom gathering around the hedgerows.

BOOK: Underground Rivers
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