The Fillings of the Sky
“I was 59 when Shakespeare died,” shouted Shakewell from the tow-path.”So was I,” returned Tom Hopper from the bridge of a canal boat and, after much hesitation, as if trying to remember something he’d learned by heart, he completed his sentence: “…when I died.”
Their contact established, Hopper threw a mighty hawser towards Shakewell who, in turn, fished it from the reeds and fastened it, hamfistedly, to a mooring-spike already hammered into the soggy bank.
Several other figures had now gathered around Shakewell. They were cross-grained, as if lately snatched from the warm chimney corners of the local inn. They pulled neckchiefs and flat caps from their deep pockets: they certainly felt the chill of the mist down their throats and between their joints, and scowled the more for it.
And Shakewell, too, was irritable with frowns, as Hopper flopped ashore from the Narrow Boat. Gathering his thoughts like scrumping for crab-apples and dredging rehearsed words from under his short breath, Hopper finally uttered another communication, not aimed towards Shakewell in particular nor to Shakewell’s close-bosomed compatriots, but rather in the direction of the inky cut where his boat bobbed:
“I’ve got the Pope.”
Shakewell remembered, momentarily, his makeshift role as inn-keeper and arch-gossiper, as he replied: “How can we accommodate His Holiness in the vile dens of our fithy barrows?”
Hopper shrugged: “Did I say Pope. I meant the dope is with me, several wafers of the stuff.”
The flat caps guffawed in delight at the slight misunderstanding.
Another shape had pounced to the tow-path from between the frothing frenzy of the seemingly powerless paddlewheels. And then another … and another. Hopper introduced his nephew Grimace (who smiled a lot), his son-in-law Padgett Weggs (who, according to Hopper, knew something mainly about nothing) and, finally, a nameless fellow follower whose role as hanger-on was made obvious by such a non-introduction.
Shakewell grasped their proffered vertical handshakes, acknowledged the partially accepted truce and tried to keep the fatty lumps in his tongue from engorging further and, thus, from protruding beyond his smirking lips: that would only have meant his visitors suspecting greed and pressing, as it were, fast reality rewind. Yet Shakewell wanted the dope, badly, impatiently…
On arriving at the inn, the rusted ruins of the Halt could still be seen, its broken teeth of rotting sleepers silhouetted against the fennish dusk, together with the giant bottle-openers and sardine tins of a steam train’s ancient holocaust.
Grimace wondered what the fuss was all about, as he and the rest of the canal party arrived in the inn’s erstwhile car park on foot. Being once a TV chat show host, Grimace’s first impulse was to interview the nameless fellow.
“What’s that they’re stirring, John?”
“My name’s not John. A bad guess. But to answer your question, I don’t know. I’m only here for the company.”
“I’ve seen it all before,” suddenly announced Padgett Weggs.
“Well?” said Grimace, artfully enticing Weggs to continue.
“There are black wings in there,” said Weggs, “a bit like coal and coke, and they come here of a night, from the cities. They swarm in batches from the stews. They make a fine fizzy wine when their scales are scalded off.”
“Black wings, you say? But what about the bodies between the wings?”
“Well, Grimace, if they have bodies, they must’ve left them in the sewers.”
“They’re just crunchy wings, then, with juice inside?”
“Sort of. That’s what Shakewell wants the dope for. It fattens the drink, yeasts it up, gives it body, kind of. Gives it, what they call ‘consistency’. They sell it at ten bob a flagon in the Snuggery.”
“Don’t you think the bamboozers are being ripped off?”
“I don’t see why. Without the Shakewells of the world, there would only be solid rings of grease in your Christmas soup. He at least uses the fall-out for a good cause. His own profit. Capitalism.”
“Where are the wings from?”
“I know that,” abruptly piped up the nameless fellow.
But then, Tom Hopper, having finished the deal, arrived, saying: “We need to return on board and take our cargo of human heads to Harchwee. Come on, let’s git back to the jolly old cut!”
“Wait, Nuncle,” said Grimace, “let this fellah finish off what he’s about to say.”
Hopper nodded quizzically, as the fellow continued: “Well, the wings are the winnowing of the Old Ones, who are about to take over the world, and their detritus flutters through the air, when their young are shelled, when their effluent is jettisoned, when their bilges are pumped, when…”
“A likely story,” interrupted Hopper. “No time for further argument, ripe ‘un – on to meadows afresh. We have a market to promote and punters to see.”
The nameless fellow, either through being irked or as a result of sheer inertia, did not return with them on board. If the truth were known, he had forgotten that he was a member of the crew. The others had forgotten, too. He approached the huge copper cauldron vat, to listen to the muffled screams of the dark crab-wings as they scalded in the piping gruel. He could also smell the fetid reek of their mouthless breath.
Later, Shakewell poured the newly acquired dope, since powdered, into the vat, the wailing then reaching an unbearable pitch. The locals gathered around to partake of this unwholesome liquid barbecue, the end product of which would be sluggishly pumped into the kegs of best bitter.
The fellow shrugged, strolled towards the canal, just in time to see his erstwhile companions preparing to cast off. Their singing could still be heard as the boat passed the cut’s last bend. He looked skyward and shuddered. Another black batch was arriving, by the look of it: swarming and flapping like scabby vulture-moths. Their Mothership hovered above them, humming monstrously. A Great Old One, if there ever was one, thought Blasphemy Fitzworth, who was more preoccupied with recalling his own name than with the fillings of the sky.
It was not long before they extended the inland waterways system in Surrey; and the long flight of locks from the Mount in Cullesdon to the inner reaches of the Southern Mysteries near Red Hill was an architectural wonder of the times.
“This is where Blasphemy Fitzworth, the great designer of the slip lock died – smashed his skull on that kerb between the oaken gates, when white water had just begun its spate…”
The guide stood, biting his lips, stemming the blood’s embarrassing rise to his cheeks.
“What of that Fitzworth fellah?” queried one gongoozler with a remonstrative finger bowing and scraping in the air. “He’s said to have been tiddlier than this finger of mine.”
The Narrow Boat chugged sedately down a long stretch of freshly primed locks in the Surrey Badlands. The heavy lock-gates were tended, it was said, by the ghosts of gongoozlers. The boat slipped through the night between the tow-path and what locals called Onyx Meadow; and were it caught by the canal police, its lot would be rustication to the distant Ring near Wolverhampton, to tread those drizzly steps for the next eternity and a half. Or so the story went.
Old Tom Hopper stood at the stern, once a fine young architect with fresh sown beard, but now hunched and humbled by decades of weed-hatch tending, moor-spike hammering, not to mention several resorts to pumping the bilge by hand. His left cheek, barely discerned in the darkness, had been half sliced off in a battle with brown ones, revealing his weathered gums tracking like bacon rind below the ear. Another indescribable wound was the remains of one particularly nasty fracas in the vicinity of a winding-hole, one with a humourless fisherman whose wiring-systems were not much less than the iron netting used by the ancient Allies to entangle foreign submarines.
Nuncle Tom’s Narrow Boat was narrower than most, because he enjoyed sliding between those parts of the new Surrey canals that were, even at this early stage, growing back to Mother Nature. His own backside may have been as portly as the next man’s, but his boat had the slenderest hips to negotiate even the legendary Fitzworth slip locks.
“Ay! Ay! I could tell yer at the time, stripling, when I took three straight boats, each as long as the length of any healthy lock-pit you may have seen, by meself, through seventy hefty flights of ’em. The boats, they be called Nygremaunce, ReynBouwe and, ah yes, Cthulhu. By meself, I say, just me and me dog Harris. OK, I know it don’t seem likely, but you’d better believe it, for I spent a month or more on that trip, mayhap a year and needed not one pump-out for me boat’s honest-to-goodness excuse-mes. A pair of excuse-mes on each of them were enough for any man’s voidings. Stink to high heaven, yer say? Course they turned up their noses as we pro-seeded through, young sapling. But me dog Harris, he were a real clean fellah – he used the boat’s excuse-mes, yer see – he did not leave turds like they do in the posh streets that abound round here in Surrey. Well, be patient, yearling, I’m coming to the stranger parts of me tale. It’s all to do with that Fitzworth fellah. He who…”
…miniaturised the scale of locks so that they were strings of pearls that you could pod like peas. Another voice had taken on the story at this crucial point, as if a character in the story couldn’t be trusted to tell it properly. It was said that the whispered-of black-winged Old Ones were using the city churches further north as launching-pads for infiltrating the otherwise unfathomable parts of Our Green and Pleasant Land. They had masterminded the arterials of our lands south of the great M25 motorway, in an attempt to loosen up the clannish feuds around Seven Oaks and beyond into the Low Garden of Septic England. They had recruited this so-called Blasphemy Fitzworth to oil the workings of the waterways southward. It was then he came up with the slip lock, an idea of genius if ever there was one. Simplicity itself…
“…and why it be?” proudly intoned Hopper, finally shutting off the hissing valve of the rude co-narrator’s interruption. “He had been, yer know, me lad, change-giver on Walton-on-Naze pier, so he got a good idea how to use turnstiles ‘gainst Naze-men. If you put ’em on a strong rubber band or coiled spring, mebbe, after sev’ral turns they’ll just wind smartly back, slicing off yer wotsits good and proper…”
The tale thus ended with guffaws of crude humour, but it tailed further off round a sudden bend that hours of pre-steering of the unwieldy craft were required to encompass. I could not be bothered to follow, being on foot. The environs of the hauling-bank had become clogged up with the nesting young of Great Old Ones, in any event. Also, I did not like being interrupted. Moreover, I’m browned off with spending my whole holiday as a gongoozler, opening and shutting locks for ingrates. Go find some lazy winding-hole ol’ Hopper, and sleep away the rest of your life.
The guide stared at the foul-mouthed punter, who had thrown unreasonable doubt on the manliness of Blasphemy Fitzworth.
The group had been listening to an interesting lecture on slip locks, whilst jigging from foot to foot (for lack of convenience) around the sole version still in use. Could it be that Fitzworth had met his death here at this very place, after a particularly violent tiff with a lover?
The snide fingerer now waggled a lower digit; and the guide had no recourse but to set the lock slipping … a wild hairtrigger affair, like an overwound heavy-duty alarm clock on feathertouch alert. The bamboozler was momentarily aghast – for the interdependent canal systems within his own territory of flesh were unbecomingly interrupted…
Feemy Fitzworth, to escape the fillings in the sky, thought to disguise his own person as an anonymous suburban man … but Fate would dig deep to find its victims … it would chase him through Victorian London in the belief that a cat’s meat vendor was simply another version of him; it would skim along the ley-lines of Thomas Hopper’s aborted ambitions for canal systems in Southern England; it would seek Grimace, Weggs and Harris until it discovered they were mere decoys of a diversionary destiny; it would sup, midway, a few enriching bevies in Shakewell’s snuggery along with the tippling flat-capped gongoozlers who happened to be wink-eyed in tune with the strobe-alternations of history; and Fate, finally enlodged between its tasty tandoori wings, would, at the last, pursue Fitzworth, even to the extent of flapping into mundane reality itself…
Suburban Fitzworth tended to talk to himself. He tightened the dressing-gown round his waist and listened to the wall listening to him:
“Houses take on the characters of their owners … or maybe vice versa. If so, what is the television aerial? My external brain, saluting the sky like a smart metal feather in my roof-hat? And what about the chimneystack? A blaster-gun pointing at the sky? And if so, why?”
Fitzworth believed that, at night, when the eyelid blinds toppled down the suburban windows, night-critters (“Call them Old Ones,” he whispered) emerged from up-sky like hairy tentacled rocs to roost upon the ridges of the roofs. They climbed (“Call it clambering – whether they be upright or upside down”) from gutter to gutter (“Gambolling on the gambrels.”)
“Call it clambering, call it shuffling or shambling – long’s we don’t know about it. But one morning, I got up early – too early – and found one of them tangled up on the aerial outside. It stopped struggling when it spotted me. It had large, staring moon eyes, deep as the well at the bottom of Snow White’s garden, almost pitiful – and limbs as red and raw as the pantile roofs themselves.”
Feemy Fitzworth had been an officer in the army before becoming a cat’s meat man or a canal smuggler or the slip lock inventor or, indeed, this now lonely old fart. He had had the smell of death in his nostrils, when he told his men to go over the top.
“Call it clambering, the mud flying at all angles, feet slipping through the soft mud – they couldn’t go quick enough in their innocent eagerness. They wanted at the enemy, wanted real bad, wanted to tear them arm and leg. They needed to wreak their anger on the other ones…”
His monologue, when all seemed at its worst, was like making up stories. He had a yen to be another Homer – or was it Hopper? Or had he already been Hopper? But he usually forgot to switch on the reel-to-reel…
“My soldiers got to the other ones, they did … and found them all brown and older than the hills where we had dug our trenches – or were they starts for canals? The others’ smiles – call them enemies – were set into their faces like letter-boxes and, as they moved, they croaked – or was it creaked? My soldiers felled them like tall lumps of lumber and slashed them to red rubble.”
He remembered that the reel-to-reel – or did he call it real-to-real? – was still switched off and decided to make one last statement, a confession that the suburban wall repeated to itself for years after.
“Call it clambering, call it anything you like, except learning or thinking or athletics round a Greek bowl. Yep, clambering is the best word, but scuffling, scrimmaging, skittering — they will do, too. My soldiers turned on themselves, for they decided they had done wrong by the good old earth. My soldiers climbed up on each other, seeking for vital parts, a sheer mountain of clambering. I watched, but then went the other way, trying to blot out their screams and screeches and squawks … growing feebler and feebler.”
Fitzworth recalled the affair in outright disbelief, as if he were not now the same person who had witnessed it all. Having rid himself of the guilt, he decided to switch on the reel-to-reel. Night was then as deep as it was ever going to be and the semi-detached began to echo with bustling sounds from up the dark stairwell.
“Hear them? Proof in the pudding. It’s not the central heating system, either, governor. It’s those that squat and brood on my roof tree. It’s like having them on my very skull. The gutters flow with their sweet juices, like heavenly canals…”
Tears weltered in his moon eyes at the last thought. Soon he would be off to Heaven himself, through Heaven’s testing turnstile (manned by the Pope)…
The recording went on for some time with no further words from Fitzworth. Him breathing out sobs could just be heard, as other sounds grew in intensity. Snapping locks – lumping steps – rattling lips – blinking lids – creaking joints – wind breaking…
The dawn broke early the following day. The sun came as if out of nowhere, a margin of screaming orange across Cullesdon’s cluttered roofs. The night wind had dropped and become unmoving balloons in the items hanging from the washing-line – anorexic ghosts of gongoozlers. The darkness had seeped to shoe level and pretended to be channels of mud. Yapping dogs (one mutt in particular) that had previously punctuated the otherwise complete silence of the small hours had either gone into hiding or died amid the empty video boxes in the pavement gutter. The incontinent dog dirt, too. And starved corpses of cat.
The roofs glistened with dew; some appeared sticky with waxy, treacly cuckoo-spit; and one roof among them bore a skewed TV aerial dripping an inchoate substance like brown flesh with hairy ridges of inflamed pores.
Mrs Hopper, in her winsome night-gown, was now to be seen pegging out her husband’s smalls on the already over-borne washing-line. She scowled, as she saw her neighbour Mr Fitzworth raising the lid of his dustbin.
Blimey, he must have been in there all night, she thought.
(Rewitten version of ‘Tom Hopper’ in ‘Midnight in Hell’ 1991)