Monday, October 6, 2014

The Tale of the English Sailor: A Victorian Flash Fiction, with a Macabre Touch of Francis Marion Crawford & Bertholt Brecht



Scene: Newgate Prison. A Cell, Solitary Confinement. A Prisoner, chained hand and foot, looks up as you enter, and Speaks.

Back in my seafaring days, when I hove into port for a spell, I would stay in a rat-trap of a place down by the scabrous, steamy, chill-yer-bones quays of London. It was all cobwebby and stink there: most of the guests—and I use the term loosely, mind ye—were seadogs like me, who would bed the poxey doxeys for an hour at most, toss ‘em a handful of coppers, and throw ‘em out. They laughed, and call’d’t “an hour’s rent.” I never slept with a dox, though: not for any high-and-mighty morality—who speaks of Morality to a loveless, orphaned, take-yer-pay-and-damn-yer-eyes sailor lad?—I was fearful of catching the pox, Lord’s my witness. My room—if ye’d call that four-by-four closet a room—was a dank and dreary den of darkness, all moist and muggy; I kept the windows wide whene’er I slept, with the blowy bursts of London fog all through my chambers, if chambers I could call them.
            Lonely, d’ye ask me? Aye: lonely and alone ‘twas I; that is, ‘til I met Polly Peachum, the landlord’s daughter. He was a greasy, thieving sort, not to be trusted, even in that den of thieves, hugger-mugger men, and Resurrection-dealers, all penny-grasping and curvy-clawed; she, contrariwise, was a merry minx, young as a day in spring, pink-cheeked, laughing like a robin’s trill, crimson hair all flowing down, larruping light and high-breasted, always a-wiggling her rump just out o’ my eager, reaching fingers, and I, a landsman for only a month or two, betwixt and between sea-voyages, like—well, I was taken by the curl of her saucy lip, and the curve betwixt her bumpers when she’d bend over, pretending to be buttoning her high boots, forgetful-like. Pretending? Ha!
            One night, I’d drunk a bit more rum—leastways, rum was what the barkeep called it, though ‘twas flavored like whale-piss mixt with lampblack, if’n you ask me—at that sailor’s bar, the “Admiral Nelson’s Scabbard” between Oakum Lane and King George’s Cove, down by the docks, and I stumbled home, more drunk than sober—some thieving scalawag had slipped me a Mickey Finn, sure as death, and I felt nothing below my hips—could barely move ‘em—and went stumble-bumble up the stairs to my sodden saloon of sadness—all alone, the bedsprings sagged; all alone, Poor Jack Tar; all alone….
My head hit the headboard, an old dollop of deal from H.M.S. Erebus, no doubt, until, tossing and tremblous, I slept, in a fit o’ near-madness: the rum mixt with the Mickey, all through my pounding brain and liver and lights, ah me….
            ‘Til, long around three in the morning, I woke, to hear what sounded like two—alleycats?—fighting, just outside the splintered-and-crazed isinglass of my attic window. I threw a shoe at them; they did not, would not, stop their hellish caterwauling. Head a-spin and temples pounding, I heaved myself up and towards the porthole, its crackleglass shining w’the earliest rays of dawn, and saw—
            Nothing.
            Once back to bed, I stretched to my fullest length—and I am not so tall, but can reach above my head, to touch the main-s’l halyard, in my bare feet, I’ll have ye know—and smelled—
            A smell of—violets, as if of Polly’s scent—for so she was oft to wear; yes! A sort of cologney-water, which her father’d bought off a Chinese merchantman, had sailed back from Peking, in the land of the mushroom-hatted men—
            Kiss me, Bart, I heard a whisper, and reached out with both hands—into—
            What?
            It felt—it felt—
            Like Slime—and, screaming, I rose up, and jumped to the opposite wall, where a poker, left to stoke the fire (now grown cold, so many months since any fire had kept alive that brazier, it having been the summer’s end, but with fall now come) I grabbed, and waved before me—while
            The Slime, making a Horrible Gobbling Noise reached out, and reached and reached and
            Reached
            For
            Me
            While I stabbed at it, again and again and
            Again
            Until my arms grew weak, and It
            Retreated—I was able
            To put my sea-trousers on, and run run run
            Out of that foul
            Hellish Place
            To—where?
            I cannot
            Remember—
            But that
            only I am escaped to tell thee…
            They found Polly’s body, lying, lifeless, the next day,
            Covered in stab wounds—
            And coated in some
            Monstrous—phlegm? Pus?
            As if from a—What?
            No one would believe my Story;
            I was accused…
            And now, I am
            To hang.
            (Sobs)
            But I
            Am
            Innocent

            ….