The following is an ode to Charles Dickens, written for and read at the Griffith University Smallroom Writers Collective’s Masters and Slaves Auditions and Reading Night, to which I was invited by the principal author of wideworldseeker.wordpress.com – and to whom I owe my gratitude for the invitation and his ongoing albeit long-distance friendship:
There was only one thing I found, in me days as a young street urchin, more displeasur’ble than the cold cobblestones o’ the pre-dawn night. It was that old gentleman we’d all see, by and by, stalkin’ the slums, alleyways and river-side hovels. Always at night. And for no apparent reason. Always a tattered leather notebook ‘e’d keep, ‘e would; but ‘e was no reporter, no ‘e wasn’t. They’d all be asleep in their comf’table warm beds nights, they would, and rarely be seen enquiring in the affairs o’ the likes o’ us. Nor was ‘e brutal enough o’ face and truncheon arm to be a bobby; nor was ‘e bloated enough o’ stomach and red enough o’ nose to be a beadle; nor again was ‘e stern enough o’ count’nance and skinny enough o’ limb to be a pastor. Of vaguely unkempt character, ‘e was: wild, dark greying black hair tumbling in a tangled waterfall over the left side of ‘is ‘ead; bird’s nest beard descending chaotically from a close-cropped moustache bordering a curious thin-lipped smile; and penetrating brown eyes that seemed to linger on people and objects long enough not just to ascertain their form and function, but also their origin. And perhaps even fate. I ‘ated ‘im.
Only once did ‘e cause me any trouble. But once was enough. I’d spent a generous portion of the morning following a drunken member of the judiciary – I could tell ‘e was one o’ them, ‘cause ‘e’d babble incoherently about “blasted no-gooders should all be shot” and the like, by and by – under the steaming yellow Thames-side lamplight from the Dancing Damsel tavern one early, moonless morning. I’d finally judged ‘im to be almost ‘ome, on account of ‘im fumbling in ‘is pockets for ‘is keys while maintaining a meandering gait. I’d lifted ‘is coattail and was moments away from removing ‘is pocketbook, after ‘e stopped to concentrate on searching for the elusive keychain in ‘is front pants and jacket pockets, when I spotted ‘im: the bearded brown-eyed stalker of black mornings. ‘E stood at the end of the block, just outside the lamplight, by a building. Smoothing ‘is beard with ‘is left-hand and holding that notebook by ‘is waist with ‘is right. Otherwise motionless; passive. I froze in ‘is far-flung gaze, and all the while the magistrate ascended ‘is stairs, having finally found the keys, and entered ‘is ‘ouse. Unaware o’ the loss ‘e’d narrowly escaped. After straightening up, I was just about to direct a rude gesture toward the unwelcome voyeur, when ‘e put both hands in ‘is pants pockets, turned, and walked away until swallowed by the darkness. I shuffled quite dejectedly in the opposite direction north across London Bridge back to the cellar I called ‘ome – where the master was sure to be cross that I’d returned empty-handed. As ‘e beat me I silently nurtured a growing ‘atred for the spectral note-taking stranger.
I resolved to stalk the stalker one night, after Jimmy “Bones” Jones assured me ‘e wasn’t a deviant or police informant or nothin’. “ ‘E’s a writer, Paddy,” said Bones. “Goes by the name ‘o Dickens, ‘e does. But as for ‘is Christian name, I don’t rightly know, by and by.”
“A writer?” I said, not terribly surprised on account o’ the notebook.
“Mmm hmm,” mumbled Bones by way o’ confirmation.
“But what’s ‘e write about, then?”
“Yeah, uz,” Bones spat on the mouldy pavement. “Me, you, them,” ‘e motioned to some older street people hovering around a fire in a metal barrel. “Creatures o’ the pre-dawn hours. Like ‘im, but not like ‘im, if you’s savvy to what I’m sayin’.”
“Where’s ‘e live?”
“I don’t rightly know.”
“Where’s ‘is family?”
“I don’t rightly know.”
“Ooo does ‘e work for?”
“Look, Paddy,” Bones added ta the phlegm on the cobblestones, “ ‘e don’t mean you no ‘arm, ‘e don’t. ‘E’s a watcher; an observer; a neutral native o’ the cold gloom o’ London mornings.”
For weeks I didn’t see ‘im. ‘Is wanderings were random like that. Unpredictable. And from me own enquiries it seemed none o’ me fellows had taken such an interest in ‘is moonlight activities. But sure enough, soon enough one night I did spot ‘im. While I was playin’ cards with Bones and the boys in the full-moon shadow of Saint Paul’s. ‘E strolled out o’ Distaff Lane and turned east onna Cannon Street, in slow pursuit of a young dame who’d just left The Wine Tun in a subtly sodden state. I cashed in me pennies and bid the boys goodnight, before tailing the erstwhile hunter o’ literary inspiration. For many blocks we moved in a spaced procession o’ three between Cannon’s lamps, all stopping as one when the young lass was inevitably accosted by lecherous drunks. Whom she’d quickly, but quietly, brush from ‘er path. It was after she turned up Saint Swithin’s Lane, and we followed suit, that I noticed the fourth member join this grim theatre. The old man and I stopped at once upon seein’ ‘im, standing on the other side of the lane, about halfway up its length, watching ‘er pass; unnoticed. Then when ‘e started to follow ‘er, we promptly fell in behind – remaining as unnoticed by ‘im in ‘is dirt-streaked, grey great coat and battered top hat, as ‘e was by ‘er in ‘er best weekend dress and somewhat sight stiflin’ bonnet. Every few seconds ‘e’d raise ‘is right hand up in front of ‘is face – an action accompanied always by a sniffle and sometimes a sneeze, indicating a cold or fever of some description. She’d hear these em’nations, turn briefly, then quicken ‘er step. It was at the junction with King William Street, near the Saint Mary Woolnoth Church of England, where the miserable bastard finally made ‘is move.
When ‘e broke into a jog then sprint toward the young lady’s back, the old man and I immediately mirrored his actions in pursuit. From me greater distance away the mongrel appeared to tackle ‘er into the bushes at the feet o’ the old church, after which the old man followed suit on top o’ the assailant. And I stopped. A single punch and ‘e’d immobilised the creep, and the woman promptly screamed before running up Lombard Street deeper into the city’s north. I stayed put as the writer all calm-like got to ‘is feet and pulled out the leather book. After producing a pencil ‘e scribbled with it for a few seconds. Stopped. Continued scribblin’. Paused again, and looked down at the criminal. Flipped to a new page, scribbled for a few more seconds, ripped out the page, threw it on the unconscious degenerate at ‘is feet, then blew a whistle I ‘adn’t seen on ‘is person thus far. Then turned and walked away back in me direction, where I’d hid in the shadow of a silent doorway. As ‘e passed I could still scarcely make out the rage present in ‘is eyes and lips. I fell back in behind this man, about whom I’d be lyin’ if I said hadn’t presently grown in me esteem, and followed him back down Saint Swithin’s then up Cannon to where the sordid journey had begun. ‘E stopped, upon which so did I only metres behind, and sat on a bench within view of the boys playin’ at cards in me absence. The notebook reappeared and received its pencil once again, in appreciation of the lads’ clumsy card handling and naive, adolescent boasting. Until ‘is hand rested, ‘e turned, and ‘e looked me in the eyes. They seemed somewhat sad, they did. It was me who broke the stare, by stepping back out of the lamplight into the familiar gloom within which so much of the city’s evil dwelt.