Authors: Tobias Hill
For Kit Fleet Hill
Cities give us collision
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Why do things smell more in the cold?
This March still keeps one foot in winter. Last night the fog had ice in it – you couldn’t see it but you felt it, prickling your nose and cheeks – and the fog still lingers now, with its vinegary crocus smell of London docks and factories.
Why are the smells so sharp? It’s because the cold is dangerous. Even now spring is here, the cold can go to the back or chest. This weather can take a man, and these people, the survivors, they know what danger is. How they cried, when the bombs came down! They’ll remember it all their lives. The early risers sniff the air, the organs of their senses prick; their bodies are on tenterhooks.
In Columbia Road the barrowboys are setting up the market stalls. It’s Sunday, and Sunday is flowers . . . but flowers are still hard to get, so these days there are other trades. A rabbit on the sly. Laughing Boy, with his pills and Fairbanks smile, and a stranger with a mynah bird you could learn French off of in a month, and a woman with four puppies that leap and flop and writhe like trout.
Thank God, now the fog is lifting. London comes clear under it. Rubble and waste ground. Crenellations of chimneypots. A mile and a half away, the indestructible St Paul’s.
And now, at last, the punters come . . . though too many are here to look. Only the lucky few will buy.
‘Nothing worth selling,’ Michael Lockhart says, watching them all with his gas-blue eyes, ‘and no one left worth the pitch.’
‘Bollocks to that,’ says Rob Tull, as he sets out his blooms. ‘Don’t listen to Mike,’ he says to the rest, ‘it only ever rains on him.’
The costers loosen their throats, Ted Frost outshouting Michael and Rob Tull outshouting both of them. Alfred Shrew, the wreathmaker, is making up a crucifix. Business is quickening, though not as quickly as they’d like. Michael leans on his horse-head stick and waits for the world to come to him. His look says: I’ve family to feed. Come, spend. Nothing you give will be too good for me and mine.
Laughing Boy stamps his feet. Michael dickers over pennies. The runners fetch them jugs of tea. Come dark there’ll be nightbarrowmen, their stalls decked out in lights, and Noakes and Judd, the market mastermen, thickset and flush, counting their cuts. Eating fat blackmarket meat, each in his accustomed haunt. And at midnight there’ll be a ghost –
Not yet. The sky’s still brightening. The churchbells are only just beginning. The birdseller peers in longingly as he reaches the Birdcage, and a boy stops short and goes around him. He is a slight thing, the boy, with poor clothes and a poor face. Surely he matters as much as anyone does, though no one looks at him twice.
‘Such colours!’ somebody says, in earshot of the boy in the milling crowd. ‘Columbia Road must be the gayest street in London. Still, we can’t eat flowers, can we? Where next, Club Row or Petticoat Lane?’
‘Not yet,’ says her friend. ‘Don’t let’s go yet, I do so need some gaiety.’ And on they pass between the stalls, with Frost and Tull and Michael Lockhart crying out their hearts to them.
‘Lemon trees, ladies, lemon trees, ever so ladylike, just add your G and T . . .’
‘A bunch for a shilling, freesias, a bunch for a shilling, roseys, two bunches . . .’
‘Have a look at them, girls, have a look at these, look at the SIZE of them, four for a bob –’
‘She’s touching me, Mike, she’s TOUCHING me, ooh, tell her to stop, Mike, tell her, she’s digging her nails into me, she wants her posies so bad –’
‘Oh, I’m not, I’m not!’
‘Two bob! Perfume! Two bob! Sweet pea! Say two bob! Perfume!’
‘– Beautiful flowers, put that in your garden it’ll come up like
, it’s all Wedgwood blue, it’s beautiful, it’ll
itself, this will, who wants it? Where are you? I’m not going to muck about, six plants, three bob, where are you? Who wants it? There it goes . . .’
‘WHO WANTS SERVING?’
‘Oh, I don’t mind’
‘NO SECONDS, ONLY THE BEST! Just you wait your turn, ducks. I’ve only one pair of hands, dear, if I had more I’d be in the circus.’
And Rob waggles his elbows, like a chicken.
Poor clothes, poor face.
The boy goes on, south and west, down Club Row and Commercial Street. Every car is black as a hearse. There is the cidery smell of dung. Already, ahead of him, he can hear Petticoat Lane: Sunday is the day for it.
He walks like a man with a train to catch, but there is no train and he isn’t a man. He is just a boy, though he is small for his age.
An old woman in a worker’s cap shoves past as if he isn’t there. The boy shudders but doesn’t stop. The noise of the Lane draws him on. The sounds are like a fairground, or a streetfight, or an accident.
Now it opens out around him. Goulston; Strype; Cutler; Cobb, Bell Lane, Wentworth, Old Castle; the great market’s streets connect like the limbs of a living thing. Here and there land lies bombed out, but the market abhors a vacuum, growing to fill any unfenced ground.
It isn’t what it was, this place. Six years of war, nine of rationing, and everywhere feels the pinch – even Petticoat Lane, where it used to be you could buy anything. No meat on show, no sweets in sight, no bread or butter above board. No clothes but hand-me-downs, unless you know where to look. No fat on anyone: all lean. Even spuds are on points now. All the more reason to do your best, then, to make a proper show of it. Everyone likes a show . . . still, it’s not the place it was.
Sunday clothes and day perfumes. Yardley mixing with the smell of the Bell Lane slaughter houses. Bill Dove, the Eel Man, works his knife and board. Mrs Peacock guards her mushrooms. Solly Lazarus, the shy watchmaker, mends a worn-out Ingersoll, fish-eyed behind his spectacles.
The boy knows all their names.
He has come into Middlesex Street, still called Petticoat Lane by all but the authorities. He sits on the steps of a boarding house and peers down at the crush of people. He looks as if he is looking for someone, though no one would ever find anyone here.
Percy Webb, the tic-tac man, on lookout for the food inspectors;
Mr Wolf Witch, the Russian spy, yanking hairs out of his nose;
S. FLAUM BIRD SEED 1d/PINT
A wedding dress, two guineas, once owned by One of Quality;
The Banana King, ten foot tall, a black man with a blackened crown of precious foreign fruit, only for those with special rations;
A woman, dire skin and bone, with two babies in a pram, and on a blanket, at her feet, a bottle of fizz, a celery vase, and a slice of old, old wedding cake, set on a silk handkerchief.
The boy gets up. Idly he scratches the sores on his arms. It’s cold even in the sun and he has been sitting still too long.
‘We can come again,’ he says, as if encouraging a friend, although there’s no one with him. ‘We can try another time,’ he says.
He starts towards Liverpool Street. He checks people as he goes, gazing into faces, but nothing he sees in them alters his own. He doesn’t look panicked, as a lost child might. He is cautious but determined, like the scavenging sparrows, or the better of the beggars who work the crowd around him.
‘Smell that?’ he asks. It is apple fritters. His stomach cramps at the tang of them.
He has stopped to watch the fritter seller when he hears snarling and a cheer. Limbs press around him as he moves towards the commotion. A hatless man with cockerel hair is selling off a pair of lurchers. The dogs have turned on one another. A woman in a sealskin coat laughs herself red in the face.
‘Who wants them?’ the hawker says. ‘Who wants the useless fuckers? A crown for the pair of them, and you can dash their brains out right here.’
‘Two bob on the bitch,’ a man says, and someone else, a Welshman, ‘Four on the little fellow.’
‘Done. She’s the measure of him.’
‘She’s all bark.’
‘Stroll on. He won’t last.’
Elsewhere the money is already coming out. The crowd don’t know where to look: they’re drawn to both fight and coin. The boy sees the whites of eyes under the brims of hats.
All of a sudden the bitch is hurt. She growls in outrage. When she shakes her head she leaves blood in the dirt. The second lurcher circles her. He is smaller, quieter, but he won’t leave her be.
‘He’s only a little thing,’ the boy says, though no one listens to him.
‘Blast you!’ someone says, a docker in the oily lounge suit he wears for work all week. The Welshman grabs his arm.
‘Four bob. Fair’s fair.’
‘Leave off, will you? They ain’t done yet.’
‘I’ll bet on her,’ the boy says, and this time the men hear him.
‘Alright, son,’ the Welshman says, ‘what are you in for? Make it quick.’
He only has one piece of money, a paper note. He shows it. ‘Ten bob it is,’ the Welshman says, and he spits fast and shakes on it.
‘Ten bob, you say?’ the docker laughs, and glances down at the boy and his cash. ‘You’ll be in for a hiding and all,’ he says, but he’s only half-watching, and the Welshman not at all: his eyes are back on the fight.
‘She’s done,’ he says, with certainty.
‘She’s down!’ echoes the woman in the sealskin coat. ‘Oh, look at her, poor thing, she’s down!’
The boy looks. The man with cockerel hair is prising off the smaller lurcher. The bitch lies panting on her side. There’s not much blood in the end.
‘Now then,’ the Welshman says, and the docker pays up, muttering all the time that it smells like a twist to him.
‘What about us?’ the boy says. ‘What do I get?’
‘Get?’ says the Welshman. ‘You don’t get a thing. You pay up. The bitch lost, didn’t she?’
The boy thinks about it. He gives the Welshman his money.
‘It wasn’t really mine,’ he says. ‘It was a man’s, but he didn’t need it no more.’
The Welshman doesn’t reply. The crowd are all looking the same way. A policeman is coming up Middlesex, parting the onlookers with one hand, the other resting on his truncheon.
‘Come along, then,’ he says. ‘Move on, all of you.’