An excerpt from

Pompey

Jonathan Meades

I know more than anyone about the firework maker’s children, about their antic lives and special deaths.

The night is shrill with colour. It’s bright enough to blind. Rubies change to white cascades. The man I saw becomes a bird. The man I saw becomes a bird. All the sky is filled with fountains. My head falls back so far it hurts. Their little mittened hands clutch mine. They gasp to see the flowers go dancing. Loud saltpetre fills our noses. Mineral light beats out the black. Darkness is defeated. That’s when I remember that I know more than anyone about Bonny and Donald Tod (as they were from that day forward, for better surely and for richer, yes, till death did) and about Poor Eddie and his fearful gift, and about Jean-Marie’s troubles with his work permit, and about Mrs Butt – all about her and her Daph and her Ray and her Ray’s big boy Jonjon, who had double the muscles too. And there’s nothing I can’t tell you about the Old Man Dod who used to work in the print and whose hearing got so sharp with blindness. I can tell you about the teeth and diet of a six-year-old crocodile, and about the way that cancer does its stuff, how it moves like fires beneath the ground. I’ll make you feel the noise of a skull being broken. I’ll make you listen to the motor of obsession. I’ll make you listen to another motor, the one that screeched at night in the dunes to free the wheels – there’s the gun beside him, there’s the panic in his eyes, there’s his forehead slapping against the steering wheel (they found blood on it: AO–1, not much, but enough). I can show you the flaw in the stone in the ring on a stiff finger and you’ll never want to eat another soggy biscuit the rest of your days. You’ll never take the kiddies to see the fleet or to picnic in a wood. Here’s a palm that bleeds to order. Here’s another that bleeds because the bolt went through the line of life and two arteries and a delta of tendons and through the median nerve and right into the wood.

I know these people. I lived around them. I’ve felt their breath and read their brains.

‘Snooping?’ Bonny’s mother used to ask when she found me gaping into the fridge.

You bet.

I’ve looked on this lot as I did on the lactic profusion and dead animals that littered the racks of that humming coffin all those years ago: I can still inventory the stacked oblongs from the Commonwealth and the fatty fists of beef and the brand-new plastic tubs whose lids were the colour of surgical rubber, what I liked, what I sought when I sidled off to that kitchen was the icy balm, the cold gust when the light came on. There was the excitement. It was the defiance of summer and the certain eternity of electric midwinter that pulled me to it. The chill was all artifice, sure. But it stabbed for real. Did I think thus then?
I didn’t. I didn’t think of the plays that could be made on frozen. I didn’t know the milestones to eternity were quarterly bills – and bankruptcy was a distant state of disgrace, akin to tuberculosis and divorce.

After using this book please wash your hands. Thank you.

It was me that pushed Poor Eddie in the river.

The Grieving Widow gasped and started from the prone willow, so ripping her tartan trews (McGuinness, yellow and black). I remember my father’s glare in the mini-second before he waded in after the floundering boy: I was for it. I remember the ripple on the water, the weed billowing like the hair of a drowned Venusian, the weeping leaves that stroked the stream, the moored boat and the rod with a gyroscopic reel. A gingham Thermos spilt, the rug turned moss green, a thistle spiked my thigh, my mother held a sandwich as though it was a Schick. John Constable had stood just here thirteen decades before and now Poor Eddie was in The Grieving Widow’s arms, soaking her, sobbing, trembling, his hair stuck down with temporary brilliantine. That was the end of that picnic.

We rowed round the point and up the dark stream away
from the spire past the jungle and Old Morphill’s jazz-modern palace and the great cedars and Douglas pines in the garden of The Garth (which Bonny’s parents didn’t buy till years later, when Saxon-Smith the dentist disgraced himself and Grace Saxon-Smith moved the family away). Poor Eddie sat swaddled between his mother and mine in the stern and I cowered in the bow; my father’s arms had never looked so big, he feathered the oars with giant’s ire, the rowlocks squeaked, his tattersall back glowered at me.

He moored the boat and had me drag the oars, one at a time, between the barren apple trees to the brick shed which had once been Twose’s abattoir and whose stalls now housed the apiarist’s tackle of Twose’s deaf son, a reluctant butcher with a snail in his ear. I tripped over the slimy tiled duct down which the blood of countless beasts had flowed to the river, to the green pool where pike with massive memories still waited for the viscera of kine. The Grieving Widow led the ambulatory blanket to the Morris Minor whose muddied seats I would be blamed for; I hung back among the hives and lichenous trees of the orchard till my mother took me by the hand. No one spoke as the car jostled with the furrows; I sat in the back, in disgrace. I knew that what I had done would have been bad enough in any circumstances, no matter whom I had caused to ruffle the surface.

But with Eddie: it was a wicked thing to do to Poor Eddie, to say such things, to hurt him that way. Sure, he did invite it, all his life he invited it. His terrible passivity made ogres of us all, he was quarry.

Beside the willow where his mother sat an arterial leet, which fed the water meadows, joined the river. Mr Thick, the octogenarian drowner who worked the baby sluices, had properly succumbed to his trade disease (arthritis) and the channels were grown over with reeds. Poor Eddie gingered behind me as I stalked along the muddy bottom. I stopped where a rotten fence stake lay across my path; I had seen a viper here the previous autumn. It was in slough, it was the milky pink of antibiotic syrup. I kicked the reeds with my colander sandals and told Eddie that though it had been three feet long and broad as a cricket bat he was not to be scared because me, I had a father who would slay it (my very words) should it chase us. Poor Eddie’s marmalade eyes seeped, he clambered from the leet and knock-kneed beside it towards his mother. When I caught up with him he was on the bank where the water-rats had sculpted model cliffs; the river was immediately impervious to scrutiny, it was all surface, its bed was invisible, John Constable coloured it shiny tar and it hadn’t faded.

‘There are’, I said, tugging his aertex sleeve, ‘crocodiles in there, lots.’

He cried mutely, he must have marvelled at the abomination of the world. And then he was in a different plane to me, quitting the solidity of kingcups and cowpats for an horizontal foxtrot through the elements.

It was the splash, the splashes, the collisions of water with water that made her gasp, that made The Child Bride (not yet The Grieving Widow, not quite) gasp and start, and the cries
too, those screeches – the last sound she heard the man she loved make was an appalling one, in all his life he’d never uttered
such a noise. Death isn’t like what goes before it, it brings along its own props, makes you do things dignity forbade, we’re all cowards at the last – the screams were those of a man telling the devil he’d made a pact, that he’d sacrifice the poor little boy, anything, to be spared. The Child Bride (just about The Grieving Widow – now) hauled herself from the back seat of the shooting-brake where she’d been napping and, with one foot shoed and with one shoe in her hand, ran between trees with scaley, leprous bark, obscene blooms and leaves whose fallen spines pierced
her instep. She ran by the abandoned termitaries where her son and his father had stood for her Leica five minutes before, for the last photograph – l. to r.: Eddie shying from the sun; his father, dressy in bush hat, dashing kerchief, martial shirt, jodhpurs, leather and canvas boots (one, filled still with limb, was netted two miles downstream); his father’s left arm gripping a bargain knobkerrie; the termitary which was a ruined gothic asylum tower. She ran past the site of this unrepeatable tableau. She stumbled and hobbled towards the great river. And there was Eddie. She called to him, swooped in embrace, and he turned from the sparkling caramel water which was also a grave and told her: ‘Daddy gone in the river with a big fish.’

Now Eddie was not yet four years old or literate, but he’d been to the zoo, he owned a book of colour plates and avuncular prose called Your Reptiles, his sight was fine, his view had been unobscured. He knew what he had seen, he knew that a fourteen-foot-long crocodile (Crocodylus cataphractus, doubtless) is not a big fish; equally he knew he had to protect his mother from that terrible reality and thus discovered the comforting power of euphemism; and he was protecting himself too – an unspoken beast is a beast already in transit to oblivion. Shock possesses this apparatus of diversionary solace, shock is intoxicating, it invades your head, it’s a benevolent trank (you can o.g.), it’s a sensory tourniquet (you can tie it too tight). The trouble is, it doesn’t last; when its anaesthesia dissipates the hurt begins, the unbandaged wound begins to fester. The strength of shock is its aptness: it is a phenomenal reaction to a phenomenal circumstance. When it disappeared and you, Eddie, were returned to a mundane state, the memory of that circumstance refused to abate with it – the enemy was still there, and you were unprotected.

In the month following his father’s death Eddie curled round his mother at night, cosseted her and hugged her as he had on the river bank. He stroked her while she keened, he clutched the hand that hadn’t the cork-tip viced in it, he kissed her marvellous neck and her cheeks – which powder and light made like fruit, which tears made like brawn. He stood with her beside the aircraft when the box that brought back the bit was loaded. He nodded gravely when she cursed the man at the embassy whose desk had been so big it was like the incomprehensible continent itself. When she wept and wiped the pink moustache from the glass with her ever kneading fingers Eddie offered his hanky, said that he’d take care of her and of the little sister they had always promised him.

‘He’s quite the little man,’ said a porky, floral-printed woman who boarded the plane at Lagos. The Grieving Widow believed, wrongly, that she was mocking Eddie and ignored her while
she listed the variety artistes she knew (Sid Field, The Fabulous Dunstables, Ray Butt, Luton And Who?), but Eddie revelled
in the compliment and enjoyed listening to her because her friends had exotic names and cars with rumble-seats. When, though, he sensed his mother’s distaste for his new companion he feigned sleep. He was that loyal; shock gave him strength. And the funeral protracted the shock: ritual heightens grief, makes it momentous, enforces concentration on its object who
is yet gone for so short a time that it is unimaginable that he
will not come back – the conviction of death’s certainty is founded on prolonged exposure to absence rather than on the presence of the meat in the coffin or on bearing witness to
the agent (physical or chemical, alien or quisling, sudden or chronic) of that immeasurable change. Thus it wasn’t for a while that Poor Eddie properly connected his father’s infinite truancy (and the lack of stairs in the house where his mother took him to live) to what he had seen under the equatorial sun that ruddied afternoon.

In the morning they had, once again, driven through the
mad streets of Léopoldville from the Hotel Troozlaan (one bed for three) to the house behind the white wall on rue C. Lemaire where flies lived in the moist, crateral sores on beggars’ limbs and where soft-boned children bit on roots protruding from the unmade pavement. Once again Eddie had sat with his mother on the terrace of the house (cubistic, piebald – dazzling bianco and acacia shade) while the balloon-breasted servant brought them coffee and fruit pulp. And for the third day running Eddie had, whenever he turned towards the house, seen his father and the man who spoke funny English together in the room whose ceiling fan made slow parabolas: mostly the man sat on the edge of a teak table with verisimilar elephantine legs, mostly his father moved. He made scrolls in the muggy air with his hands, sometimes his hands were palmate claws, sometimes he pushed them across his huge forehead which Eddie thought was a sort of cheese. One time when Eddie looked his father was enacting a domestic calvary, his arms stretched along the window,
the seat of his jodhpurs corrugated on the sill. Then he beat a pretend-drum and revolved to look out to the terrace: Eddie had never seen his face like that before, Eddie was frightened and delighted by his father’s magical metamorphosis into pirate or giant or wicked gypsy. Eddie sensed (though he can hardly have articulated it to himself) that the intense actuality of panto and picture-books might shift into the everyday crawl – when you’re that little time is a basket case in a broken chair, it moves with quadriplegia.

The man scratched his face which was made of roast, cracked pigskin and decorated with extra moustaches above his eyes, then he put a hand on Eddie’s father’s shoulder. Oh, Eddie
was proud of the way his father scowled, of the way he spat words (jagged speech-bubble, exclamation marks), of the way
he removed the chummy hand. You don’t hear anything, the puzzling panes with massive boughs and a version of the sky on them preclude hearing, this is all mute-show. But there is sound in this scene: beside the interminable loop of hoopoes, grey parrots, green monkeys etc., there is the violin of the man’s son. This, too, is repetitious.

In an upstairs room, behind a window meshed against insects, he is, once more, playing Dvorak’s Humoresque; his tone, his phrasing, the length of pause between reprises are invariable,
as they were yesterday and the day before. Now and then he walks onto the sun roof beside his room and stares unsmilingly down at The Child Bride and Poor Eddie, all the while gripping the metal deckrails with hands too large for a boy of six years, too meaty for a violinist, so sprawlingly knuckled they promise willed asphyxia, paroxysmal ill, the fistic law. His eyes abet all this, they’ll look indulgently on the wrong wrought by the hands. They track Eddie as he runs to greet his father who picks him up and holds him to his trunk; the little boy is soon astride his father’s shoulders, complicating the silhouette. Then, before he knows it, they are back in the car. This time they have not bidden the man who spoke funny English goodbye, nor the boy. And this time they do not drive back to the hotel.

‘Herman’s Cross,’ says Eddie’s poor father, regretfully.

Poor Eddie’s father drove to his death through the eastern suburbs of Léopoldville. Street goats fled nimbly from the shooting-brake’s path, men in skirts on bicycles teetered as it passed. He held his hand on the horn and it cried like a fractious animal. Eddie sat on the rear seat gauging their progress into disorder: the houses got smaller; their white walls got dirtier; the walls stopped trying to be white; the houses stopped trying to be houses and became hutches, cardboard kennels, machines for subsisting in; a black face pressed itself to the window – it owned no teeth and had grey pus for lips; the king of Belgium’s face was printed on a woman’s bottom; Mr Macadam who lived near Bristol zoo and had visited every road before Eddie had not come here; Eddie felt car sick. And he was worried by the loudness of his father’s voice and the way his father said the same things over and again: ‘loose wallah [or loose Walloon] . . . morals of a pig’. Eddie assumed that morals were contiguous with skin. Another thing his father repeated was ‘every last penny’. Also: ‘no ruddy redress . . . end up in the damned slammer . . . you know what the Frogs say about them . . . over a barrel . . .’

The Child Bride raced herself at smoking, chain-lighting Craven A in a serial Dutch fuck while the vehicle did jarring vaults from one furrow to the next. When Eddie’s father wasn’t shouting he was hissing oaths and mocking roadside women with enamel bowls and plaited mats: he responded to Eddie’s complaint of car sickness with the phrase ‘you wincey little driveller’. He accelerated and punched an insect. Eddie endured his oesophagal torture, the ball of socks in his gullet which jumped and distended as the hills became a switchback.

There was the river, there, across it, was Brazzaville with its sinuous attic of smoke. At Kallina Point Eddie’s father stopped the shooting-brake and walked towards the cliff with a bottle of alcool blanc. The Child Bride was crying; she turned to Eddie and told him to go to his father. They looked down on the lake-like pool named after Stanley who first saw it the year Custer got his. Eddie’s father stared at the bottle’s label (gothic script and belfry), he didn’t drink from it. He scraped the umber ground to reveal earth that was flowerpot red: ‘Like Devon Eddie.’ Eddie knew Devon was a sort of celestial chocolate that he was going to eat lots of when rationing ended; now, having seen the colour of the stuff, he wasn’t so sure. He was even less sure when his father told him he had seen a calf born in Devon when he was the age Eddie was now. Eddie accepted that the mysteries of life and confectionery might be but one. Now, why was his father standing so still, so close to the edge of the cliff, what could he see in the river by coma-gaping at it? (River: pale chocolate and eight knots, cliff: 50 feet above it). And did the half gill of viscous liquor he distractedly and painfully swigged help him see? Unequivocal no – the label was a lie, it was a distillation of palms flavoured with mango skin, it promoted optical neuritis, coagulation of the tissues, melancholy, red noses in black people: it was good for camp-stoves and wounds. Eddie’s father drank more; then he turned and took his little boy by the hand.

The next place they stopped was different because The Child Bride had quit weeping, just. She got out with the smaller of the two Leicas Eddie’s father had given her the day after they met, and he followed her through the passenger door to avoid the cutting rushes he had parked against – they swayed like a chorus of hissing sibyls. The happy family snaps: perm eight from mother, father, son, tree, termitary, bargain knobkerrie; it’s The Child Bride who holds the bottle; in the one that Eddie took his parents are at a mad angle – his father’s falling from the frame, his mother is begrutten but still pretty. Then the film is expended, she puts the camera in its case and lobs the bottle to him: ‘Shut eye – ’t’ll make me beautiful for you again Poppet.’ She moued and went back to the shooting-brake.

On the river bank Eddie wondered at his father’s thirst and capacity for stillness (only his right arm and his thyroid cartilage moved). He liked the look of a thin isthmus stretching into the river, it was on his scale. The sun overachieved that day; shadows were black, made pygmies of everything, made pygmies. In the river floated black bodies, logs maybe – Eddie peered and the sandbanks, which rose like the dorsal deformations of drowned beasts, hurt his eyes. Everything seemed derived from animals: the trees were totemic ruins of animals; their super-terrestrial roots were skeletal claws dug for ever into the earth; their trunks were trunks – thick skinned proboscides frozen for all time; all the puny bushes wanted to be trees but couldn’t, so cowered. And from one to another swung monkeys, gymnastic prostitutes, screeching because they wanted to be men but couldn’t: animals have much to resent, and they get their own back – check the bottom of your shoes, the joint of heel and instep. That’s nothing; when men conspire with them in that revenge (for no matter what end) men cede primacy.

Eddie’s father knew that, knew this was sure death. He threw the empty bottle in the river and beckoned Eddie and hugged him, squatting.

‘I love you Eddie,’ he said, and fell back on his bottom. He bothered to dust the seat of his jodhpurs; he wasn’t good at getting to his feet, he was a temporary quadruped when he
told the bemused boy: ‘Never trust a Belgian Eddie, never ever trust . . .’ He tried to become a man again but his hooves failed him. ‘Trusht’ would be a phonetic misrepresentation, in that last stage he achieved emphatic consonantal precision. Then his elbows let him down. He shrugged and made a face that was all gums, and crawled towards the knobkerrie; he didn’t turn to see Poor Eddie, who thought this was a game, crawling after him till his knees itched. The knobkerrie became a prosthesis for the already dying man. It just about supported him on his terminal stagger – wood alcohol, sun-glare and sweat turned that drip down the sandy isthmus (which was also a pirate’s plank) into a babel for his eyes.

He conceived a formula for computing the number of grains of sand in the entire isthmus but forgot it before he could
apply it.

He saw grains of sand the names of whose colours he knew
he knew.

He forgot whether he was very hot or very cold. He saw a spur-winged plover grubbing on a little mudberg and his eyes told him the mudberg moved when the bird screeched, flew, became a mote. Then there was no mudberg. He was shagged by the strength he used, by the weakness that gave him strength, by his fear of the future that would never be the past, by his fear of the water that would quash oxygen, turn him eternally inert, fill him up till he overflowed. The finger of sand narrowed, water lapped up close by him either side, his short shadow rippled. He was with the river now, nearly. He took one last swing with the knobkerrie, at a pile of rotting branches and sun-stewed leaves and bark shards and something white.

Well, that did it. The mudberg showed its teeth and its terrifying grin with many folds too many like an evil Irishman, it slapped him with its tail, the knobkerrie skittled to nowhere, he screamed before the first teeth got him – he could not believe it.

He saw the churned water getting red, as he bucked in frozen time he saw the machine that had come to keep him from himself, he saw its awful eye (just one) and teeth like amber arrowheads and the special tooth which had already severed his right leg. Up and down he went, in and out the water – he might have died of drowning after all; he might have died of shock (just the sight of such a lizard from hell is enough to make my spine sing). This one smelled of rancid musk, its skin was crazed, cratered scale, self-distending scale.

This one dismembered Eddy’s father without ever letting
go of him – it had many mouths; the water crashed in cataract. There was pink spray, that’s the pink you see when you die – you give your blood to the world now you no longer need it.

In less than a minute Poor Eddie’s father was dead; in his time, in real time it took the beast (387 kg; two full grown impala, a black child and part of a sewing machine already in its stomach) forty-one years to do for him – each of those years was meant
to crawl in front of him. Something ruptured his kidneys and spleen during the seventeenth year, and his cerebral cortex snapped in the mid thirties – so he never reached the end, never saw himself as he was in that last instant, mouth to mouth (the second mouth is a deadly weapon). Now he’s in the full foul reptile. Now Eddie hears his mother behind him. Poor Eddie’s poor father was shaken into sobriety before he died.