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A Lonely Night (kingsland Road) Post by :singh_punjabi Category :Essays Author :Thomas Burke Date :November 2011 Read :3302

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A Lonely Night (kingsland Road)

A LONELY NIGHT


In the tinted dayspring of a London alley,
Where the dappled moonlight cools the sunburnt lane,
Deep in the flare and the coloured noise of suburbs,
Long have I sought you in shade and shine and rain!
Through dusky byways, rent with dancing naphthas,
Through the trafficked highways, where streets and streets collide,
Through the evil twilight, the night's ghast silence,
Long have I wandered, and wondered where you hide.

Young lip to young lip does another meet you?
Has a lonely traveller, when day was stark and long,
Toiling ever slower to the grey road's ending,
Reached a sudden summer of sun and flower and song?
Has he seen in you the world's one yearning,
All the season's message, all the heaven's play?
Has he read in you the riddle of our living?
Have you to another been the dark's one ray?

Well, if one has held you, and, holding you, beheld you
Shining down upon him like a single star;
If Love to Love leans, even as the June sky,
Laughing down to earth, leans strangely close and far;
Has he seen the moonlight mirrored in the bloomy,
Softly-breathing gloom of your dear dark hair;
And seeing it, has worshipped, and cried again for heaven?
Then am I joyful for a fire-kissed prayer!

Kingsland Road is one of the few districts of London of which I can say, definitely, that I loathe it. I hate to say this about any part of London, but Kingsland Road is Memories ... nothing sentimental, but Memories of hardship, the bitterest of Memories. It is a bleak patch in my life; even now the sight of its yellow-starred length, as cruelly straight as a sword, sends a shudder of chill foreboding down my back. It is, like Barnsbury, one of the lost places of London, and I have met many people who do not believe in it. "Oh yes," they say, "I knew that 'buses went there; but I never knew there really was such a place."

Many miles I have tramped and retramped on its pavements, filled with a brooding bitterness which is no part of seventeen. Those were the days of my youth, and, looking back, I realize that something, indeed, a great deal, was missing. Youth, of course, in the abstract, is regarded as a kingship, a time of dreams, potentialities, with new things waiting for discovery at every corner. Poets talk of it as some kind of magic, something that knows no barriers, that whistles through the world's dull streets a charmed tune that sets lame limbs pulsing afresh. Nothing of the kind. Its only claim is that it is the starting-point. Only once do we make a friend--our first. Only once do we succeed--and that is when we take our first prize at school. All others are but empty echoes of tunes that only once were played.

There are fatuous folk who, having become successful and lost their digestions, look back on their far youth, and talk, saying that their early days, despite miseries and hardships, were really, now they regard them dispassionately, the happiest of their lives. That is a lie. And everybody, even he who says it, secretly knows it to be a lie. Youth is not glorious; it is shamefaced. It is a time of self-searching and self-exacerbation. It is a horrible experience which everybody is glad to forget, and which nobody ever wants to repeat. It knows no zest. It is a time of spiritual unrest, a chafing of the soul. Youth is cruel, troubled, sensitive to futilities. Only childhood and middle-age can be light-hearted about life: childhood because it doesn't understand, middle-age because it does.

And a youth of poverty is, literally, hell. There is a canting phrase in England to the effect that poverty is nothing to be ashamed of. Yet if there is one country in the world where poverty is a thing to be superlatively ashamed of, that country is England. There never was an Englishman who wasn't ashamed of being poor. I myself had a youth of hardship and battle: a youth in which I invaded the delectable countries of Literature and Music, and lived sometimes ecstatically on a plane many degrees above everyday life, and--was hungry. Now, looking back, when I have, at any rate, enough to live upon and can procure anything I want within reason; though I am no longer enthusiastic about Art or Music or Letters, and have lost the sharp palate I had for these things; yet, looking back, I know that those were utterly miserable days, and that right now I am having the happiest time of my life. For, though I don't very much want books and opera and etchings and wines and liqueurs--still, if I want them I can have them at any moment. And that sense of security is worth more than a thousand of the temperamental ecstasies and agonies that are the appanage of hard-up youth.

At that time, fired by a small journalistic success, I insulted the senior partner of the City firm which employed me at a wicked wage, and took my departure. Things went well, for a time, and then went ill. There were feverish paradings of Fleet Street, when I turned out vivid paragraphs for the London Letter of a Northern daily, receiving half a crown apiece. They were wonderful paragraphs. Things seemed to happen in London every day unknown to other newspapers; and in the service of that journal I was, by the look of it, like Sir Boyle Roche's bird, in five places at once. But that stopped, and for some time I drifted, in a sort of mental and physical stupor, all about highways and byways. I saw naked life in big chunks. I dined in Elagabalian luxury at Lockhart's on a small ditto and two thick 'uns, and a marine. I took midnight walks under moons which--pardon the decadent adjectives--were pallid and passionate. I am sure they were at that time: all moons were. Then, the lightness of my stomach would rise to the head, so that I walked on air, and brilliance played from me like sparks from a cat's back. I could have written wonderful stuff then--had I the mind. I wandered and wandered; and that is about all I remember. Bits of it come back to me at times, though....

I remember, finally, sloughing through Bishopsgate into Norton Folgate, when I was down to fifteen-and-sixpence. In Norton Folgate I found a timid cocoa-room, and, careless of the future, I entered and gorged. Sausages ... mashed ... bread ... tomatoes ... pints of hot tea.... Too, I found sage wisdom in the counter-boy. He had been through it. We put the matter into committee, and it was discussed from every possible point of view. I learnt that I could get a room for next to nothing round about there, and that there was nothing like studying the "Sits. Vacant" in the papers at the Library; or, if there was anything like it, it was trusting to your luck. No sense in getting the bleeding pip. As he was eighteen and I was seventeen, I took his counsel to heart, and, fired with a repletion of sausage and potato, I stalked lodgings through the forests of Kingsland Road and Cambridge Road. In the greasy, strewn highway, where once the Autonomie Club had its home, I struck Cudgett Street--a narrow, pale cul-de-sac, containing fifty dilapidated cottages; and in the window of the first a soiled card: "One Room to Let."

The doorstep, flush with the pavement, was crumbling. The door had narrowly escaped annihilation by fire; but the curtains in the front-room window were nearly white. Two bare-armed ladies, with skirts hiked up most indelicately behind them, were sloshing down their respective doorsteps, and each wall was ragged with five or six frayed heads thrust from upper windows for the silken dalliance of conversation. However, it was sanctuary. It looked cheap. I knocked.

A lady in frayed alpaca, carrying a house-flannel, came to hearken. "Oh, yerss. Come in. Half a jiff till I finished this bottom stair. Now then--whoa!--don't touch that banister; it's a bit loose. Ver narsely furnished you'll find it is. There. Half-a-crown a week. Dirt cheap, too. Why, Mrs. Over-the-Road charges four for hers. But I can't. I ain't got the cheek."

I tripped over the cocoanut mat. The dulled windows were draped with a strip of gauze. The "narse furnicher" wasn't there. There was a chest of drawers whose previous owner had apparently been in the habit of tumbling into bed by candle-light and leaving it to splutter its decline and shed its pale blood where it would. The ceiling was picked out with fly-spots. It smelt--how shall I give it to you? The outgoing tenant had obviously used the hearth as a spittoon. He had obviously supped nightly on stout and fish-and-chips. He had obviously smoked the local Cavendish. He had obviously had an acute objection to draughts of any kind. The landlady had obviously "done up" the room once a week.... Now perhaps you get that odour.

But the lady at my side, seeing hesitation, began a kind of pæan on the room. She sang it in its complete beauty. She dissected it, and made a panegyric on the furniture in comparison with that of Mrs. Over-the-Road. She struck the lyre and awoke a louder and loftier strain on the splendour of its proportions and symmetry--"heaps of room here to swing a cat"--and her rapture and inspiration swelled as she turned herself to the smattering price charged for it. On this theme she chanted long and lovingly and a hundred coloured, senescent imageries leaped from the song.

Of course, I had to take it. And towards late afternoon, when the grey cloak of twilight was beginning to be torn by the gas lamps, I had pulled the whole place to pieces and found out what made it work. I had stood it on its head. I had reversed it, and armlocked it, and committed all manner of assaults on it. I had found twenty old cigarette ends under the carpet, and entomological wonders in the woodwork of the window. Fired by my example, the good lady came up to help, and when I returned from a stroll she had garnished it. Two chairs, on which in my innocence I sat, were draped with antimacassars. Some portraits of drab people, stiffly posing, had been placed on the mantelshelf, and some dusty wool mats, set off with wax flowers, were lighting the chest of drawers to sudden beauty. In my then mood the false luxury touched me curiously.

There I was and there I stayed in slow, mortifying idleness. You get stranded in Kingsland Road for a fortnight ... I wish you would. It would teach you so many things. For it is a district of cold, muddy squalor that it is ashamed to own itself. It is a place of narrow streets, dwarfed houses, backed by chimneys that growl their way to the free sky, and day and night belch forth surly smoke and stink of hops. The poverty of Poplar is abject, and, to that extent, picturesque in its frankness; there is no painful note of uncomely misery about it. But the poverty of Kingsland is the diseased poverty of bead flowers in the front room and sticky furniture on the hire system.

My first night was the same as every other. My window looked out on a church tower which still further preyed on the wan light of the street, and, as I lay in bed, its swart height, pierced by the lit clock face, gloated stiffly over me. From back of beyond a furry voice came dolefully--

Goo bay to sum-mer, goo bay, goo baaaaay!
That song has thrilled and chilled me ever since. Next door an Easy Payments piano was being tortured by wicked fingers that sought after the wild grace of Weber's "Invitation to the Valse." From the street the usual London night sounds floated up until well after midnight. There was the dull, pessimistic tramp of the constable, and the long rumble of the Southwark-bound omnibus. Sometimes a stray motor-car would hoot and jangle in the distance, swelling to a clatter as it passed, and falling away in a pathetic diminuendo. A traction-engine grumbled its way along, shaking foundations and setting bed and ornaments a-trembling. Then came the blustering excitement of chucking-out at the "Galloping Horses." Half a dozen wanted to fight; half a dozen others wanted to kiss; everybody wanted to live in amity and be jollyolpal. A woman's voice cried for her husband, and abused a certain Long Charlie; and Long Charlie demanded with piteous reiteration: "Why don't I wanter fight? Eh? Tell me that. Why don't I wanter fight? Did you 'ear what he called me? Did you 'ear? He called me a--a--what was it he called me?"

Then came police, disbandment, and dark peace, as the strayed revellers melted into the night. Sometimes there would sound the faint tinkle of a belated hansom, chiming solitarily, as though weary of frivolity. And then a final stillness of which the constable's step seemed but a part.

It was a period of chill poverty that shamed to recognize itself. I was miserably, unutterably lonely. I developed a temper of acid. I looked on the world, and saw all things bitter and wicked. The passing of a rich carriage exasperated me to fury: I understood in those moments the spirit that impels men to throw bombs at millionaires and royalties. Among the furious wilds of Kingsland, Hackney, and Homerton I spent my rage. There seemed to be no escape, no outlet, no future. Sometimes I sat in that forlorn little room; sometimes I went to bed; sometimes I wandered and made queer acquaintance at street corners; sometimes I even scanned that tragic column of the Daily Telegraph--Situations Vacant. Money went dribbling away. At "Dirty Dick's" you can get a quartern of port for threepence, and gin is practically given away. Drink is a curse, I know, but there are innumerable times when it has saved a man from going under.... I wish temperance fiends would recognize this.

After a time, all effort and anxiety ceased. I became listless. I neither wondered nor anticipated. I wandered about the Christmas streets, amid radiant shops. The black slums and passages were little gorges of flame and warmth, and in Morning Lane, where the stalls roared with jollity, I could even snatch some of their spirit and feel, momentarily, one of them. The raucous mile of Cambridge Road I covered many times, strolling from lit window to lit window, from ragged smears of lights to ragged chunks of dark. The multitudes of "Useful Presents," "Pretty Gifts," "Remarkable Value," "Seasonable Offerings" did not tantalize me; they simply were part of another world. I saw things as one from Mars.

That was a ghastly Christmas. Through the whole afternoon I tramped--from Hackney to Homerton, thence to Clapton, to Stoke Newington, to Tottenham, and back. Emptiness was everywhere: no people, little traffic. Roofs and roads were hard with a light frost, and in the sudden twilight the gleaming windows of a hundred houses shone out jeeringly. Sounds of festivity disturbed the brooding quiet of the town. Each side street was a corridor of warm blinds. Harmoniums, pianos, concertinas, mouth organs, gramophones, tin trumpets, and voices uncertainly controlled, poured forth their strains, mingling and clashing. The whole thing seemed got up expressly for my disturbance. In one street I paused, and looked through an unshaded window into a little interior. Tea was in progress. Father and Mother were at table, Father feeding the baby with cake dipped in tea, Mother fussily busy with the teapot, while two bigger youngsters, with paper headdresses from the crackers, were sprawling on the rug, engaged in the exciting sport of toast-making. It made me sick. A little later the snow unexpectedly came down, and the moon came out and flung long passages of light over the white world, and forced me home to my room.

Next day, I had no food at all, and in the evening I sprawled on the bed. Then things happened.

The opposite room on the same landing had been let to a girl who worked, so I understood from my hostess, at the cork factory close at hand. She came home every evening at about six, and the little wretch invariably had a hot meal with her tea. It was carried up from below. It was carried past my door. I could not object to this, but I could and did object to the odour remaining with me. Have you ever smelt Irish stew after being sixteen hours without food? I say I objected. What I said was: "Can't you keep that damn stink out of my room?" Landlady said she was sorry; didn't know it annoyed me; but you couldn't keep food from smelling, could you?

So I slammed the door. A little later came a timid tap. I was still lying on the bed, picturing for myself an end in the manner of a youth named Chatterton, but I slithered off to answer the knock. Before I could do so, the door was pushed softly open, and Miss Cork Factory pushed a soft head through it.

"Say, don't mind me, do you? But here, I know all about you. I been watching you, and the old girl's told me, too. She given you notice? Listen. I got a good old stew going in here. More'n enough for two. Come on!"

What would you have done? I was seventeen; and she, I imagine, was about twenty. But a girl of twenty is three times older than a boy of seventeen. She commanded. She mothered. I felt infinitely childlike and absurd. I thought of refusing; but that seemed an idiotic attempt at dignity which would only amuse this very mature young person. To accept seemed to throw away entirely one's masculinity. Somehow, I.... But she stepped right into the room then, instinctively patting her hair and smoothing herself, and she took me by the arm.

"Look here, now. Don't you go on this silly way; else you'll be a case for the morchery. Noner your nonsense, now. You come right along in." She flitted back, pulling me with her, to the lit doorway of her room, a yellow oblong of warmth and fragrance. "Niff it?" she jerked in allusion to the stew. I nodded; and then I was inside and the door shut.

She chucked me into a rickety chair by the dancing fire, and chattered cheerily while she played hostess, and I sat pale and tried to recover dignity in sulky silence.

She played for a moment or so over a large vegetable dish which stood in the fender, and then uprose, with flaming face and straying hair, and set a large plate of real hot stuff before me on the small table. "There you are, me old University chum!" served as her invitation to the feast. She shot knife, fork, and spoon across the table with a neat shove-ha'p'ny stroke. Bread followed with the same polite service, and then she settled herself, squarely but very prettily, before her own plate, mocking me with twinkling eyes over her raised spoon.

Her grace was terse but adequate: "Well--here's may God help us as we deserve!" I dipped my spoon, lifted it with shaking hand, my heart bursting to tell the little dear girl what I thought about her, my lips refusing to do anything of the sort; refusing, indeed, to do anything at all; for having got the spoon that far, I tried to swallow the good stuff that was in it, and--well ... I ... I burst into tears. Yes, I did.

"What the devil----" she jerked. "Now what the devil's the matter with---- Oh, I know. I see."

"I can't help it," I hiccuped. "It's the st-st-st-stew! It's so goo-goo-good!"

"There, that's all right, kid. I know. I been like that. You have a stretch of rotten luck, and you don't get nothing for perhaps a day, and you feel fit to faint, and then at last you get it, and when you got it, can't touch it. Feel all choky, like, don't you? I know. You'll be all right in a minute. Get some more into you!"

I did. And I was all right. I sat by her fire for the rest of the evening, and smoked her cigarettes--twelve for a penny. And we talked; rather good talk, I fancy. As the food warmed me, so I came out of my shell. And gradually the superior motherliness of my hostess disappeared; I was no longer abject under her gaze; I no longer felt like a sheepish schoolboy. I saw her as what she really was--a pale, rather fragile, very girlish girl. We talked torrentially. We broke into one another's sentences without apology. We talked simultaneously. We hurled autobiography at each other....

That was my last week in Kingsland Road; for luck turned, and I found work--of a sort. I left on the Saturday. I parted from her at Cudgett Street corner. I never asked her name; she never asked mine. She just shook hands, and remarked, airily, "Well, so long, kid. Good luck."


(The end)
Thomas Burke's essay: Lonely Night (Kingsland Road)

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