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London, 1910: young Adam Raine’s impoverished childhood becomes even darker when his mother is killed in a workers’ protest march. His grieving father, Daniel, seeks a second chance for them in a coal mining town, where he begins working for the miners’ union. But tensions escalate between the miners and their employer, Sir John Scarsdale, and finally explode with tragic consequences.
In the aftermath, Adam is brought into the opulent Scarsdale family home where Sir John’s son subjects Adam to a succession of petty cruelties for daring to step above his station. When, despite everything, Adam finds love with the beautiful parson’s daughter and wins a scholarship to Oxford, he starts to feel that his life is finally coming together—until the outbreak of war threatens to tear everything apart. Inspired by the real-life war experiences of the author’s grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien, No Man’s Land delivers a Dickensian, page-turning novel of Edwardian England and World War I.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Simon Tolkien studied modern history at Trinity College, Oxford, and went on to become a London barrister specializing in criminal defense. He is the author of Final Witness and The Inheritance, courtroom dramas drawing on his firsthand knowledge of the British criminal justice system, and The King of Diamonds and Orders from Berlin, set during World War II. Simon is the grandson of J. R. R. Tolkien and is a director of the Tolkien Estate. He lives with his wife and two children in Southern California.
Read an Excerpt
The first world Adam knew was the street. It came to him through his senses without mental dilution, filling up his head with sounds and smells and images that he couldn’t begin to unravel. Lying in bed at night with his eyes closed, he could see Punch and Judy bludgeoning each other with rolling pins, just as if they were right there in front of him. Down they went and up they came, again and again: gluttons for punishment. He knew that Benson, the rag-and- bone man with the blue scar across his chin, was pulling the strings behind the tattered red curtain, but that didn’t make the garishly painted puppets any less real. Just thinking about them made him laugh until his insides hurt, in the same way that he laughed years later in the bioscope when he saw Charlie Chaplin with his bow legs and stick and black moustache, marching confidently up the road towards his next disaster.
For a long time there was no cinema in Islington where they lived. There didn’t need to be—the street was a complete world, turning on its axis to the sound of the waltzes that flew up on a thousand notes out of the brightly painted barrel organ as the bald- headed grinder methodically turned the handle, looking neither to right nor left. He was solemn and sad and apparently unconnected to everything around him, even his monkey, which had a blue cap on its head with a tassel that bobbed up and down as it jumped around with the collection box. Sometimes the children danced to the music, weaving around each other in elaborate patterns, watching their feet to keep clear of the leaking tar and the horse manure. Some of them had no shoes and the tar was hard to get off the skin. You had to use margarine and even that didn’t always work.
The street was familiar and exotic all at the same time: a mael- strom of life. The muffin man carried his wares in a tray balanced on the top of his head; it swayed as he walked but it never fell. The fishmonger wheeled a barrow and, if he dared to look inside, the dead black eyes of the cod staring up out of the white-crystal ice made Adam shiver. And the flycatcher wore a tall black hat with long strips of sticky paper fastened to it, all covered with dead insects, calling out dolefully as he passed: “Flies, flies, catch them alive!”
On Saturday nights in summer Adam could look out of his bed- room window and see Baxter, the fat butcher in his bloodstained greasy white apron, standing in the doorway of his shop, lit up by the flare of a paraffin lamp, shouting out to the worse-for-wear men leaving the Cricketers’ Arms on the corner: “Buy me leg, buy me leg.” It was because the poor man couldn’t afford to keep the meat cold overnight, Adam’s father told him; by morning it would be good for nothing.
And once a month two bent-over old men came slowly up the street, pushing a small cart with long handles, from which they sold solid blocks of salt. “Any salt please, lah-di?” they asked in their sing- song foreign-sounding voices, holding up the white salt in their black fingerless gloves like an offering. Sometimes Adam’s mother bought from them and sometimes she did not. It depended on whether there was any money in the house.
Adam’s mother, Lilian, believed in God but Adam’s father, Dan- iel Raine, did not. He believed in something else instead, called socialism, which Adam didn’t understand until later, even though his father tried to explain it to him sometimes. Adam’s mind wasn’t yet ready for abstract concepts. God was different. He couldn’t see God, of course, but he could feel his presence in the high fluted arches of the Holy Martyr Church with the soaring white spire that he went to with his mother on Sunday mornings. God—as Adam pictured him—had a huge head and a white snowy beard and he lived up above the grey London clouds, gazing down at his creation with big eagle eyes. He was surrounded by a throng of ancient saints who had slightly shorter beards and a lesser number of winged angels who did not. They were extra eyes in case God needed them.
And God was not happy. In fact he was angry, filled with “a righ- teous rage” according to Father Paul, an old priest with red mottled cheeks and thick grey bushy eyebrows that met in a wiry tangle in the middle of his wrinkled forehead, who was the rector of the Holy Martyr. God was incensed not by the poverty and injustice that Adam’s father complained about, but by the wickedness and debauchery, the unbridled lechery and fornication, that was going on day and night down below. Adam wasn’t clear what these sins were but he knew they were bad, very bad. “Repent; repent now before it is too late,” the rector shouted at them all from the high, elabo- rately carved pulpit. Adam watched fascinated as beads of perspira- tion formed in the crevices of the old man’s face and trickled down, dripping in globules on to his surplice. He sat very still, clutching his mother’s hand, and wanted to urinate.
“Will Daddy go to hellfire?” he asked her as they crossed the park afterwards, going back home under a leaden November sky.
“No,” Lilian said. “Definitely not. Your father is a good man.” “But he doesn’t believe,” said Adam. “And Father Paul says that if you don’t believe, you can’t be saved. That’s what he said. I heard him.”
“Jesus died for all of us,” she said, squeezing her son’s hand. “He loves us. You need to know that.” And he was grateful to his mother for the reassurance, even though what she said didn’t make much sense. Adam didn’t like to think about Jesus if he could help it, bleeding to death on the big wooden cross, stuck up there under the hot sun in that horrible Golgotha place with all those Roman soldiers gawping at him; and he was secretly glad when his father said that the Bible was all lies, stories that the rich had made up to keep the poor in their place, doing the rich man’s bidding.
“ ‘The opium of the people’: that’s what Karl Marx called religion and he was absolutely right,” Daniel Raine shouted at his wife across the kitchen. “It’s the promise of heaven to justify a hell while we’re alive. The hell we’re living in now,” he added for good measure.
When his father raised his voice, Adam was frightened and slipped down under the table where he could push the black-and- silver-painted train with real tiny wheels that his father had made for him up and down the patterned lines on the oilcloth-covered floor. They were like the web of railway tracks he had seen at King’s Cross Station when his mother had taken him there in the summer to see the steam trains coming and going in all their smoky glory.
He could still see her from where he was, standing at the range, stirring a pot with a big wooden spoon. There were onions in the soup she was preparing; he could smell them, and perhaps that was why there were tears in her eyes. Adam didn’t know and he would have liked to run to her and put his arms around her thin waist, encircling her in a tight embrace, but he knew instinctively that he had to stay where he was; that he couldn’t stop the trouble because the argument was about more than God and the man called Marx that his father so admired. It was about his father being out of work again and there not being enough money to pay for what they needed to buy.
The next day two men in brown overalls came with a horse cart and took away the piano that stood in pride of place in the front room of their small house. They brought a paper and said it was by order because Adam’s father hadn’t kept up with the payments. Adam knew what “by order” meant. It meant there was nothing you could do; it was the same as if God had ordered it as a punishment because you had sinned. There was no right of appeal.
Lilian had played the instrument sometimes in the evening, her long beautiful fingers caressing the keys, gliding in a space of their own. Her music was different from the barrel-organ waltzes the hurdy-gurdy man played—thinner and frailer and sadder, full of sweetness and loss, hinting at places far away that had vanished from the world. And Daniel would sit on an upright chair in the corner of the room, listening to his wife play with bowed head and folded hands, quite still; as though he was one of the devout worshippers in church on Sunday mornings, Adam thought, although he would never have dared say so.
Adam watched his father when the men came; watched the way his hands balled up into useless fists, rocking from side to side as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again; and watched as he beat his head uselessly against the frame of the front door after they had gone.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lilian said, laying her hand gently on the back of her husband’s shoulder. “We don’t need it, Daniel . . .”
“But we do,” he shouted, refusing to turn around. “Life should be about more than grubbing around, trying to stay alive. We’re not animals to be given just enough food and fuel to keep producing goods for the capitalists to sell until we get old and sick and are no more use to them any more. We’re entitled to more than that; we must be.”
It was as if he was asking a question but Lilian didn’t have an answer, unless she told her husband to trust in the Lord, and she knew better than to do that. And he was wrong about the fuel. They had none, and that evening Daniel broke up the chairs and burnt them in the hearth. They ate bread and dripping in the light of the flames and later that night Adam heard his mother coughing on the other side of the thin wall, on and on into the small hours, making Adam’s chest constrict in sympathy so he couldn’t sleep and prayed instead to the big angry God in the clouds to give his father work.
God didn’t answer at first. The building trade was always slow in winter and Daniel hadn’t helped his prospects over the years by his largely fruitless efforts to persuade his fellow workers to stand up for themselves and join the union. What jobs there were came in dribs and drabs, and Adam’s mother had to go out to work as a charwoman, bringing back scraps of meat to feed her family. “Leav- ings from the rich man’s table,” Daniel called them in disgust, but the family missed them when Lilian fell ill, and he had to go and ask for help from the thin-lipped, tight-fisted relieving officer known to everyone on the street as “Old Dry Bones.”
Daniel came back furious. “Told me that I should put my new suit on next time I came,” he said. “I told him that if I had a new suit I’d pawn it to get what I need rather than coming cap in hand to the likes of him. Like going in front of a judge and jury it was.”
Adam’s Sunday clothes had long ago been pawned. To begin with, his mother would take them in on Monday morning and then queue up on Saturday night to redeem them for use the next day. And at church she told Adam not to kneel but just to sit on the edge of the bench and lean forward, as she was worried about him getting the trousers dirty. But when she got sick she stopped going to church and the pawn ticket stayed where it was, gathering dust on the front- room mantelpiece, across from the bare patch on the wall where the piano had once stood.
“God will understand,” she told her son. But Adam wasn’t sure she was right. He didn’t miss his tight-fitting Sunday clothes or his visits to the church with the high arches, but he thought that their non-attendance would make God significantly less inclined to help his family in their hour of need.
That said it wasn’t as if his father was being singled out for mis- fortune. Other families on the street were faring even worse. Some couldn’t pay their rent and took off without warning, piling their belongings into over-laden donkey carts so that the bailiffs couldn’t seize them when they came to levy distress. There was even a local barrow firm that advertised moves by moonlight. Friends that Adam made playing around the drinking fountain out in the street changed from day to day.
On Christmas Eve the gypsies set up a boxing ring in the mar- ketplace and a tall black-eyed Romany in a frock coat, with red lapels buttoned over a dirty lace cravat, offered five shillings to anyone foolish enough to challenge his heavy, muscled champion; double if you managed to last a three-minute round; and a sovereign if you knocked him down. The man in the frock coat held up the gold coin, twirling it between his finger and thumb so that it glinted in the winter sunlight, attracting the attention of the crowd.
The gypsy fighter sat waiting on a folding stool in the corner of the ring, which seemed barely able to hold his weight. He was stripped to the waist in defiance of the cold and behind him an old grey-haired woman with long silver hoop rings in her ears stood with her legs akimbo, massaging oil into his broad back.
Adam was fascinated by the whole spectacle, although he didn’t want to get too close. He remembered what the children sang on the street: “Take the earrings from your ears and put them through your nose and the gypsies’ll take you.” But from where he was, standing up on his tiptoes, he could see the coloured tattoos on the big fight- er’s biceps—a snake that writhed and a girl whose chest expanded each time he flexed his muscles. Thick black curly hair sprouted up on the top of the champion’s flat-shaped head, and his tiny eyes set back under a domed forehead seemed to be focused on nothing at all. Staring up at the gypsies, Adam only became aware of his father’s decision to take the challenge when it was too late to try and stop him.
“Hold these for me,” Daniel said, handing Adam his shirt and jacket. “And stay where you are. I’ll be back in a minute, I promise,” he added with a smile, seeing the look of panic on his son’s face.
“Don’t do it, Dad. He’ll knock you out,” Adam shouted, but his father had already climbed up into the ring and the gypsy man in the frock coat was leading him forward to introduce him to the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, here’s a brave volunteer. What’s your name, mister?”
“Daniel. Daniel Raine,” said Adam’s father in a loud clear voice, and Adam felt a rush of pride springing up side by side with his fear. His father had to be scared—the gypsy fighter was built like a house—but he certainly wasn’t showing it.
“And what do you do, Danny?” asked the man in the frock coat. “I’m a builder when I have the work. But now I don’t, which is why I’m up here. I sure as hell wouldn’t be otherwise,” said Adam’s father, glancing over at his opponent. The crowd laughed and began to shout out words of encouragement.
“Well, good luck to you,” said the man in the frock coat, beck- oning his own fighter to approach. Standing, the man was even more formidable than he had looked sitting down. It was almost comical the way he towered over Adam’s father, watching impassively as his opponent took off his shoes and pulled on a pair of old boxing gloves. Adam felt sick. He wished his mother was there because she would know what to do and for a moment he thought of running home to fetch her, but he knew that by the time he got back it would be too late and the fight would be over. His father had told him to stay where he was; he could always close his eyes if he couldn’t bear to look.
At a signal from the man in the frock coat, the old woman in the corner rang a brass bell and the fight began. It was obvious from the start that Daniel had no chance of winning. He was a short, slightly built man and he didn’t have the power in his arm to fell the ox-like strongman he was up against. But his focus on survival instead of victory seemed to help his cause. He was quick and courageous and he had the support of the crowd. Some of them seemed to know him and shouted out his name: “You can do it, Daniel. Don’t let him get too close.”
Time and again the huge gypsy swung his arms and missed as Daniel ducked or leant away, jabbing at his opponent’s chest as he passed. Adam counted down the seconds. The round was supposed to last three minutes and it had surely been at least that already, and his father was still on his feet. But he was tiring. Adam could see that. And now the gypsy had him hemmed into the corner of the ropes, the same one where the old woman was still standing—Adam could see she had the bell in her hand but she wouldn’t ring it. And his father couldn’t stay where he was—he feinted to the left and spun away to the right and the gypsy almost missed with the haymaker punch he’d aimed at Daniel’s nose. Instead he caught him on the side of the cheek and Adam’s father fell down on the boards, momentarily stunned.
The man in the frock coat started to count to ten in a loud voice, hamming up the drama for the benefit of the crowd. Adam couldn’t remember ever feeling more terrified. Everything seemed frozen, hanging suspended in the thin cold air. He stared at his father, focus- ing all his concentration on his prone figure, willing him to move. And, as if in response, he did. First with one arm and then with the other, Daniel hauled himself up on the ropes into a standing posi- tion. And behind him the gypsy woman rang the bell and the crowd roared their approval. The round was over. And he hadn’t lost.
Walking home, Daniel made light of what had happened. He seemed pleased with himself, happy with the ten shillings that he had won, jingling the silver coins in his pocket.
“My winnings will pay for Christmas,” he said. “Your mother will be pleased.”
He looked over at his son and saw to his surprise that the boy was crying. “It’s all right,” he said, putting his arm round Adam’s shoulder. “Nothing bad was going to happen. I knew what I was doing.”
Suddenly something inside Adam snapped. “No, it’s not all right,” he shouted, the pent-up fear exploding out of him. “He could’ve killed you, but you didn’t think. You never think.” He didn’t know he was beating on his father’s chest with his fists until his father lifted him up and held him away.
He’d never shouted at his father like this and he expected him to be angry, but he wasn’t. Instead he looked conscience-stricken, full of remorse.
“I’m sorry, son,” he said, putting Adam down. “You’re right. I didn’t think, and I should have. It’s in my nature, I suppose, to rush into things, to look for challenges wherever I can find them. Next time I’ll try to be more sensible. Will that work for you?” he asked, squatting down and looking Adam in the eye.
Adam nodded, using his father’s proffered handkerchief to dry his tears.
“Come on,” said Daniel, looking across the street. “I know what we need.” Weaving their way between horses, carts and bicycles, they crossed the road and went into a brightly lit confectioner’s shop. It was a perfect heaven, but an earthly version, very different from the one they talked about in church. Row upon row of cylinder-shaped show-glasses were lined up on polished mahogany shelves containing liquorice shoestrings and peppermint drops and brandy balls and tiger eyes, and on the counter was a set of brass scales and weights for measuring out purchases. But Adam wanted none of them; before they had even entered the shop he had had his mind made up and his heart set on a perfectly sculpted brown toffee pig standing on its own in the window.
On the way home he clasped it tight to his chest, while his father clutched a hunk of ice to his bruised cheek. And at the door Daniel stuck out his hand for Adam to shake. “Quite a day we’ve had of it, haven’t we, old man? Quite an adventure!” And Adam nodded: the pig was the best Christmas present he’d ever had.
The New Year brought fog: the kind of London fog that was like a moving creature, sucking at the air as it moved, enshrouding the people who had to endure its wet embrace. Dirty and acrid, it crept inside their clothes, clinging clammily to the skin, breeding sick- ness. The traffic slowed almost to a halt and men and horses reared up out of nowhere, suddenly illuminated by the gas-fired streetlights. One evening Adam was out with his father and they bought two jacket potatoes at a stall, holding them in their palms to warm their ice-cold hands before they began to eat. After a few minutes the fog began to clear a little and they could see a large shed-like building on the other side of the road with “Salvation Army” emblazoned on a board above the main door.
“Come with me,” said Daniel, suddenly excited. And taking his son’s hand they went inside. For a moment Adam’s eyes had to adjust to the light before he was able to take in the great size of the hall and the huge number of men inside it. They were sitting in rows on long benches all facing forward, and most of them were resting their heads on their folded arms, which were themselves supported by the backs of the benches in front of them.
“Listen,” Daniel told his son, putting his finger to his lips to hush the questions about the place that the boy was clearly about to ask. And after a moment Adam could hear it—the deep rhythmic snoring emanating from hundreds of mouths and nostrils. Everyone was asleep, sitting down.
“They can’t lie down. It’s not allowed,” Daniel said, pointing to a notice on the wall. “If they pay a penny they can sit here all night and keep warm but they’ve got to stay upright. “Penny sit-up”: that’s the name of this place, and it’s better than the public library, where they have to sleep standing up, hanging on to the newspaper stands. And anyway the library’s closed at night, like the parks. That’s what the iron railings are for—to keep the paupers out,” he added with a bitter laugh.
“But who are they? Where do they come from?” asked Adam, awed by this mass of sleeping humanity, the rows of destitute men stretching endlessly away as far as he could see.
“They’re the poor of London. Men who have worked hard all their lives but have now outlived their purpose. Chewed up, spat out and left to die by the capitalists who’ve got no use for them any more. Look! They’ve got nothing to look forward to but their deaths, and that’ll come soon enough.”
Adam was frightened by the anger in his father’s voice. He wanted to leave this terrible place behind. But Daniel hadn’t finished.
“The strangest part is not that the poor suffer but that they accept their suffering,” he went on, and it was almost as if he was talking to himself; as if he had forgotten his son standing beside him. “Ask them, and they’d say they are truly grateful for the crumbs that are thrown to them from the rich man’s table and, if they had the vote, they’d vote without thinking for the perpetuation of the system that keeps them poor and cold, and will keep their children poor and cold when they are gone. But I won’t accept that,” he said passionately, turning back to his son. “I want a better world for you to live in: one where men are valued for who they are, not for what the rich can get out of them. It may never happen, but it’s still worth fight- ing for. Can you understand that, Adam? I know it’s hard, but it’s important—what I’m trying to tell you.”
The boy nodded slowly. His father had used a lot of long words that he hadn’t heard before; and with his patched clothes and thin, unshaven face Daniel hardly looked convincing. In fact he looked almost as disreputable as the paupers sleeping on the benches in front of them. But the flame of his father’s conviction burnt more strongly than ever in his bright blue eyes and Adam felt in that moment that he would follow his father into any danger, even that lion’s den in Babylon that Father Paul had talked about in church, which had given him nightmares for days afterwards. It was a man called Daniel just like his father who had gone in there and come out unscathed, Adam remembered.
An attendant approached them, asking if they wanted to sit down, and his enquiry broke the spell.
“I’m sorry, Adam. I hope I didn’t frighten you,” Daniel said as they began to walk home through the gas-lit streets. “I forget how young you are sometimes.”
“I’m not young. I’m old enough to go to school,” said Adam. “So you are. So you are,” said Daniel with a smile, as if realizing the fact for the first time. “Well, we shall have to see about that, shan’t we?”
School expanded Adam’s horizons. Beyond his street, beyond his tiny terraced house with the small patch of ground at the back where his father dug at the hard sooty soil with a broken spade and tried to raise shrivelled vegetables under his mother’s dripping washing line. Into a new world.
Lilian gave her son a St. Christopher medal to wear around his neck because he would be a traveller now, walking to school and back with his slate hung by a string over his shoulder. And she rubbed ointment into his head each morning to stop the lice coming. It smelt of sarsaparilla and Adam hated it, but it was better than being singled out and sent home when Matron ran her steel comb hard through the children’s hair on her tours of inspection.
School was hot with combustion stoves where the children were allowed to warm their flasks of tea in the morning, and noisy with the sound of their coughing as they tried in vain to expel the coke fumes that they breathed down into their chests. All day the windows of the schoolroom were misted over with the humidity and the children drew faces in the fog. Some of them were unflattering pictures of Old Beaky, the first-form teacher, who was too short-sighted to see what they were doing. He had a tassel on his mortar board that reminded Adam of the organ grinder’s monkey. It made Adam laugh, and, not for the first time or the last, his inability to control his mirth got him into trouble. Beaky needed to make an example and he punished Adam by shutting him up in the cellar. It was dark and wet and there was a creature, maybe a rat, rustling somewhere, and Adam was frightened. And when his father found out what had happened, he went with Adam to the school and shouted at Beaky who backed away into a corner of the classroom with his hat and tassel wobbling ridiculously on top of his old bald head.
After that school was better. Beaky taught his class about the Empire on which the sun never set and showed them a map of the world covered with pink. The pink was British and London where they were was the capital, the centre of everything. Sometimes the children sang “Rule Britannia” and threw their pens up into the air at the climax so that the nibs stuck in the ceiling.
Adam had boots too now, replacing the leaking, broken shoes that he had worn through the long winter. Just as in previous years, the building trade had picked up with the coming of warmer weather and his father was back in regular work. His mother coughed less and they had meat to eat on Sundays, and could go to the eel pie shop up on the High Street in the evenings where they wrapped the food in sheets from the penny newspapers which Adam read as he ate: accounts of stabbings and poisonings that made him shiver even as the hot food warmed his insides.
In the summer the travelling fair came to Islington and encamped on Highbury Fields. Adam went there every day, greedy to experi- ence everything it had to offer. He rode swinging boats that went high up into the air, turning his stomach over when they fell, and the joy wheel that spun the riders round and round, whirling up their clothes so he could feast his eyes on the girls’ white drawers and bare pink knees. He ate hot chestnuts and black peas and wiggle waggle, a toffee that blackened his face and lips; and gazed entranced at the strongest man on earth, who was twice the size of the champion his father had boxed in the market square, and at the human beast from the jungle who snarled and roared in his cage just like a wild animal. There were real beasts too—an elephant that stood on its hind legs and a lion on a steel chain that looked sad and dejected, not lion-like at all. At night Adam left his bedroom window open so that he could hear the roaring of the menagerie coming to him across the rooftops. Beyond the fairground, beyond Islington, London went on for- ever, the roads and the rails and the tramlines snaking outward like the Gorgon’s hair in the story his mother had told him about Perseus, the hero who had killed the monster by avoiding her eye, taking care only to look at her reflection in the face of his shining silver shield. At weekends he helped the cabbies at Euston and King’s Cross, loading and unloading bags, and used the pennies he earned to ride the brightly painted trams as they swayed through the city streets—he liked it best in the evenings when the flashes from their overhead cables lit up the darkness like blue lightning.
Or he would sit on the open upper deck of the new motor buses feeling the wind and the rain on his face as he looked down at the people in the streets—people everywhere, poor and rich, idle and hurrying, no end to them. He wondered where he fitted in amongst them all, what his place might be in this mad rushing world that stopped for no one.
He was getting older. He gambled with his school friends for cig- arette cards on the canal towpath. If the policeman caught them, he passed his hat round for a bribe, the price of turning a blind eye, but often they just threw it in the water and then dived in themselves, surfacing on the other side, laughing. Always laughter surging up through Adam like life, making it possible to forget for a moment about his troubles: his mother’s sickness, his father’s anger, the end- less need for money.
Everything changed when Halley’s Comet came. That’s how Adam remembered it afterwards. He was transfixed by its brightness—the flash of dazzling light drawn across the still night sky. He knew it was only gas and dust and rock held together by gravity, but he couldn’t shake off the sense of foreboding that every- one seemed to feel as the comet approached its zenith. And when the King died it seemed as if the doomsayers might be right.
Adam went to Westminster with his parents to watch the funeral procession. Daniel had been going to stay at home but relented at the last moment. “I’m coming to watch, not to mourn,” he said defi- antly, refusing to put on his newly purchased best suit which Lilian had laid out for him, hoping for a change of mind. “He was king of his class, king of the one per cent who own half the wealth of this country and want to keep it that way,” he added as he pulled on his working clothes and straightened his cloth cap.
“Daniel, please don’t speak ill of the dead,” said his long-suffering wife. She’d heard it all before—every statistic, every argument. Repeating them didn’t change anything.
“He embodied them,” Daniel went on, ignoring her. “I’ll say that much for him. Gorging his way through four huge meals a day while the rest of us were left to starve; filling his fat stomach with disgust- ing rich food. I’m surprised the old devil lived as long as he did.”
Something inside Lilian snapped. “Don’t come if you don’t want to. You’re not doing me any favours. In fact, to tell you the truth, I’d prefer it if you didn’t,” she told her husband. She was soft-spoken by nature and her harsh tone startled him, making him look up. “You talk to me like I’m not here, like I don’t exist except as an audience for your politics. But I do exist. I’m flesh and blood and tears and pain and—” She broke off, unable to go on as she strangled the cry in her throat, but the tears on her cheeks bore witness to the depth of her distress.
Out on the half-landing, Adam, uncomfortable in his tight Sun- day suit, stood watching his parents’ argument through the open door of their bedroom, the bed between them covered with a cheap eiderdown, the dust motes in the air illuminated by the morning sun coming in through the open window, a cheap wooden cross the only ornament on the mildew-stained wall. The moment burnt into his memory like an X-ray photograph.
Daniel was white-faced, standing up straight as if he had been struck, searching for words. He wanted to go to his wife, beg her for- giveness, but he couldn’t, forced back by the intensity of her emotion. “I’m sorry, Lil,” he said, stumbling over his words. “You’re right. I get carried away sometimes.” He reached out his hand across the bed, but she ignored it, wiping her tears away instead with the back of her arm.
“It’s for Adam’s sake I want to go,” she said. “It’s history when the King of England dies and our son needs to see it. What you do is your own affair.”
Daniel nodded, accepting the reproof. He picked up his best suit and began to change his clothes.
In the streets everyone was in black. The women seemed like giant crows behind heavy crape veils. Everywhere was closed up, silent, except for the muffled tolling of the church bells and the monotonous tread of the mourners walking from all directions towards Westminster.
It was still early when they reached Hyde Park and they were able to work their way to the front of the crowd by the time the draped gun carriage with the King’s coffin came into view, followed immediately by a small dog, the King’s fox terrier, Caesar, led by a kilted Highland soldier. But that was the last homely touch. The new king, George, rode behind his father’s coffin at the front of a group of men dressed in wildly extravagant uniforms. The bright May sun reflected on their shining white-plumed helmets, half blinding Adam as they came abreast of where he was standing. And then for no apparent reason the cortège stopped—only for a moment or two but it was enough for the horseman closest to Adam to look down and catch the boy’s eye. Immediately Adam recognized him. The huge absurd upturned moustache was unmistakable—it was the German Kaiser. It was only a few seconds at most, but Adam had time to sense the man’s extraordinary rigidity—his frozen left arm, his chin thrust forward, his unblinking blue eyes; his concen- tration and self-absorption. He seemed mad somehow, capable of anything. And then, while Adam’s impression was still forming, he was gone—a memory of scarlet and silver and gold. And the march- ing soldiers and sailors followed—thousands and thousands of them following their dead king down the road that led to Paddington Sta- tion, while the drums beat and the bagpipes wailed.
It was as if the old order had passed away into the mist, and now everything was changing. It was an age of wonders: a Frenchman had flown a monoplane across the Channel; there was newsreel of it at the Picture Palace where Adam also went to watch the official motion picture of the King’s funeral, peering up at the grey-specked screen, hoping in vain to catch a glimpse of himself in the crowd, a participant in history.
The world seemed to be turning faster, rushing towards some invisible climax. Motor cars were everywhere, blowing their horns, whipping up clouds of dust from the poorly surfaced roads, run- ning down people who left the safety of the pavements. And above the noise the newspaper boys cried out their violent headlines about a country torn apart by strife: suffragettes breaking windows in Whitehall; the need for more dreadnoughts; riots and mayhem.
And strikes—that word was on everyone’s lips. Everywhere men were demanding better pay; better hours; better conditions. It was the time Daniel Raine had been waiting for: the dawn of a new age of social justice when workers would be fairly rewarded for their toil. He was the secretary of the local branch of the building workers’ union, which met in a small private room at the Cricketers’, the pub on the corner of his street. Membership was up and meetings went on late into the night, taking all his attention. But Adam’s mother was unwell again and sometimes she sent Adam with messages to ask her husband to come home. Like other women on the street, she hated the pub, although in her case it was not for the usual reasons. Daniel had never been a drinker, wasting what little money they had on alcohol. Politics and the union were his addiction and the pub was where he was able to indulge his passion. Fired up with righteous zeal amid the dazzle of the gas lamps, he could forget about the rent arrears and the grocer’s unpaid bill. But Lilian couldn’t. She knew they couldn’t afford a strike—not with the colder weather coming. The winter before had been bad enough; and everyone said that this one would be worse. But her husband wouldn’t listen whenever she tried to talk to him about her worries: it was as if she didn’t exist.
She felt as if there were taut strings inside her body that were being tightened like piano wire until they were almost at breaking point. When she tried to exert herself she coughed and coughed, and had to grope her way up the rickety stairs to her bedroom where she lay completely still, listening to the sounds of the street below coming up to her through the open window like the noise of the sea, receding away from her on an ebb tide.
In the end it was a safety issue that lit the fuse. Daniel and his crew had been refurbishing a department store on the north side of Oxford Street. It was a large job needing to be done quickly and the contractor had been cutting corners by using high ladders instead of scaffolding for painting the high ceilings. Some were so high that the painters had to work, balanced at ninety degrees almost on the top rung, and it wasn’t long before a man fell, suffering appalling injuries when he hit the ground. The union demanded proper scaffolding be installed and refused to carry on working until it had been put in place, and the employers responded by bringing in new labour. They saw the strike as an opportunity: times were hard and the strike- breakers were prepared to work for lower wages.
Daniel was tireless, toiling day and night to organize the picket lines that the new workers had to cross to enter the building, but the strikers’ shouts and curses didn’t deter them. And as the refurbish- ment continued apace, the strikers’ anger grew. Police were called in to keep the peace and stood in a solid blue line between the two sides, their truncheons at the ready. The rain ran down their capes into pools on the ground, but they stood motionless, ignoring the strikers’ fury, indifferent to their frustration.
“How long will this go on?” Lilian asked her husband, confront- ing him in the hallway on one of his rare visits home.
“I don’t know,” he said. “As long as it takes. Until the owners see reason.”
“And what if they don’t? What do we live on?” “The union will help.”
“A few shillings,” she said contemptuously. “That won’t pay the rent.”
“I don’t know,” he said wearily. He was dog-tired—all he wanted
to do was sleep. “We’ll have to do our best, make sacrifices. We have justice on our side—it’s a cause worth fighting for.”
“Worth starving for, worth dying for,” she shot back, mimicking her husband’s phrase, echoing it back to him, invested with all the despair she felt inside.
“It won’t come to that, Lil,” he said, moving past her to go up the stairs. “I promise you it won’t.”
Another week passed and she’d had enough. There was nothing to eat in the house and no money to pay the tradesmen who came knocking at the door. Next it would be the bailiffs. Daniel talked about justice but there was no justice in leaving her alone and aban- doning his family. For Adam’s sake he had to come home, give up the cause once and for all and start over; she would make him if she had to. Wrapping herself in her thin overcoat, she set out to find her husband.
It was getting towards evening and the strike-breakers were beginning to come out, keeping their heads down, hurrying between the lines of police to where the special buses provided by the employ- ers were waiting to take them away. Another week’s work done and Sunday, a day of rest, to look forward to, at home or in the public house with beer in their bellies and a warm fire in the hearth.
For the strikers it was too much. Enraged by their own impo- tence, hating the scabs who had stolen their jobs, imagining the pay jingling in the pockets of their enemies’ overalls, they held up their banners and pressed forward against the phalanx of police, trying to find a way through the human barrier. And when it stayed firm, they began to throw stones. It was what the police had been waiting for. At a whistled command from behind, their front rank charged for- ward, laying about them indiscriminately with their truncheons and trampling the strikers, who fell down under their blows.
Daniel was hit on the side of the head and lost consciousness. When he came to, he was lying on his back in the gutter; he opened his eyes and then closed them immediately as the darkening sky came hurtling down towards him. His head ached and his shoulder hurt, and he swallowed back hard on the vomit that had risen up into his throat, mixing with the blood in his mouth. Slowly, very slowly, he pushed himself up on to his knees, looking back down the road to where his workmates were fighting a losing battle with the police. Everything was blurred and confused: a melee of movement; a cacophony of noise—cries and shouts and something else, a beating, and someone running towards him, calling out his name. Someone he recognized—Lilian, his wife, Lilian, with her beautiful blonde hair flying out behind her as it had when she was a girl and they had first met faraway by the sea—in another time, another century.
She was shouting: “No, no, no,” running towards him and shout- ing: “No,” and something else was running too—behind him where he could not see. The beating was the beating of hooves on the asphalt. In despair he held out his hands towards his wife—whether to stop her or to receive her he didn’t know. His back contracted, shrinking up, anticipating its own destruction. But miraculously the horse passed over him, leaving him unscathed and able in the next instant to watch his wife being crushed to death only a few feet in front of where he knelt.
Afterwards he crawled forward, indifferent to the madness all around him, and covered her body with his, even though he knew that he had failed her and that it was too late to redeem his fault.
Daniel broke the news to his son in a flat, matter-of-fact way. He told him that he was responsible and that none of it would have happened if he’d been a better husband and a better father. And when Adam rushed away up the stairs he didn’t follow him but just went out the back door and stood with his hands thrust deep into his pockets under the empty washing line, gazing up at the stars with dry, unblinking eyes.
Adam buried his face in his pillow, turning, winding the sheet around his body. And from outside he could hear a cry, human but inhuman, coming up from down below. Falling and rising on uncon- scious breath, it was the cry of a broken spirit, someone alive who could not bear to be alive. He heard it again five years later in the trenches in France on the night after battle and recognized it for what it was.
He slept, stupefied by exhaustion, and woke up in the early light and for a moment didn’t know. And when he did, he pulled on his clothes quickly. He had to keep moving. Across the landing, his father was asleep, lying face down on the bed in all his clothes. His shoes hung over the edge and Adam thought of untying them, but he couldn’t. It was his mother’s bedroom too and he couldn’t bear to go in there. In fact he couldn’t bear to be in the house.
Downstairs her sewing machine and her needlework, her spectacles and her apron, all spoke of her continuity, but her coat missing from the stand by the door told a different story. She was gone; she wasn’t coming back. And each time he remembered, it was like the twist of a sharpened knife in a raw, open wound.
He went out into the street. But now he saw it with new eyes: it was a tawdry show, a mockery of life. Cabbage stalks and refuse in the gutter; horse manure; a dead cat. And the uncertain sympathy on people’s faces made him remember when all he wanted to do was for- get. He walked on quickly but aimlessly—anywhere to get away, and found himself outside the church his mother used to take him to. He gazed up at the high tapering spire pointing like a compass needle towards heaven and wondered if it was a meaningless gesture. Was there anyone up there? If there was, the God in the clouds wasn’t a loving God as his mother had said. Adam knew better now: God was more cruel and vengeful than even Father Paul could imagine. Adam shook his fist at God and turned away.
He was hungry; famished. He wanted to die but he was desper- ate to eat. He had two pennies in his pocket and bought some fish and chips and ate them standing up, gulping down the food like an animal. Afterwards he felt sick, but he also felt as if he’d made a choice—to stay alive.
A day passed and then another and he went with his father to the inquest. He sat at the back, forgotten at the end of a long grey bench, while a police sergeant described in a monotonous voice what had happened to Adam’s mother “on the fateful day,” as he called it, cradling his helmet in his hands as he talked, as though it was a baby. The sergeant said he wasn’t the horseman who had crushed the deceased, but that he’d had an excellent view of all that had occurred: the woman had run forward, giving the rider no chance to take evasive action. And then Adam’s father spoke too, saying over and over again that it was his fault; that he was the one responsible: “If I’d been at home like Lilian wanted, then she’d be alive now and this would never have happened.” But the coroner couldn’t punish him; he didn’t even want to. It was an accidental death, a tragedy, and he extended his sympathy to the family as he released the body to them for burial.
Daniel was a broken man but on one issue he was adamant: he wouldn’t allow his wife’s crushed and mutilated body to come home. There would be no wake, no laying out, no chance for Adam to see what had really happened to his mother. He rejected his neighbours’ sympathy and their offers of help, and invited no one to the funeral, so that there was just Daniel and Adam and Father Paul’s curate at the graveside as the undertakers’ men dropped the small plain pine coffin down into the pit that the parish sexton had excavated out of the hard ground. Father Paul had made it quite clear that he consid- ered himself far too grand for what was little better than a pauper’s funeral.
Most of the other families on the street belonged to funeral clubs, contributing a penny or two a week to guarantee a proper send-off when their time came. And, left to her own devices, Lilian would have liked to have done the same, but Daniel had refused to allow it. He hated the idea that the only thing the poor saved for was their deaths, as if that was all they had to look forward to. He had wanted better for his family and now the cost of even the cheapest funeral that the undertaker had been able to offer had left him almost des- titute.
Every day he walked the streets looking for work and came home in the evening empty-handed. The building trade was always slow in winter and his work with the union had marked him out as a troublemaker. He knew he was getting nowhere but being out was better than being at home, trapped inside with his memories, and he needed time to think, to come to terms with his grief.
He met Adam in the evenings, sharing inadequate meals beside the cold hearth. The silence between them had become tangible, almost developing into an estrangement. Daniel knew he was fail- ing his son when the boy needed him most, but he also knew that he had nothing to give. Not yet, not until he had worked out what to do.
Each day he went farther, walking to forget his hunger, wearing out his boots as he tramped past miles and miles of windswept brick terraces until he reached unnamed places where tarred fences studded with nails and “No Trespass” boards stopped him from going on into wastelands strewn with broken glass, tin cans, and ash. And there, on the borders of nowhere, he finally made a decision and turned for home.
It was dark inside and Daniel wrote the letter to Edgar, the cousin he had not seen in fifteen years, by the light of a guttering candle, as there was no oil left for the lamp. It was harder than he had anticipated to find the right words and he abandoned his first draft after only a few sentences, screwing the paper up into a ball and throwing it into the empty fireplace. He got up from his chair and paced the room back and forth. He knew what was wrong. It was pride that was making him frame his sentences so carefully. And he had no right to pride: he’d left that behind forever in the Oxford Street gutter. All that he had left was a capacity for honesty and a love for his son that he had buried for too long underneath his grief. They were the emotions that should guide his pen.
Now the words came quickly and the scratching of Daniel’s nib provided a counterpoint to the noise of a mouse burrowing in the shadowy wainscot on the other side of the room. He held nothing back and when he was done he folded the letter without reading over what he had written and sealed it in the envelope with wax from his candle, adding a penny stamp that he had bought on the way home.
He got up from the table and opened the front door and then paused on the threshold, looking up at the moon that seemed to be rushing across the sky as ragged clouds scurried across its face. The winter wind was gusting down the street and he held firmly onto the letter as if worried that it might be blown away out of his hand. It felt so light and inconsequential and yet it contained all his hope for the future. If his cousin couldn’t help him, then no one could. The letter was his last throw of the dice.
At the corner, opposite the Cricketers’, Daniel leant his head against the iron top of the mailbox after dropping the letter through the aperture. He was weak from lack of food and sleep and hardly aware that he was uttering a silent prayer to a God in whom he didn’t believe until a tap on his shoulder brought him back to reality.
“ ’Ad one too many, ’ave we?” asked the constable, his fleshy face wrinkling in disapproval as he bent forward to sniff Daniel’s breath. “No, I was posting a letter. That’s all. I’m going home now,” said Daniel, retreating across the road as he spoke. He hurried on with- out looking back even though he thought he could hear the heavy footfalls of the policeman following behind him. And when he got back through his door, he stopped in the narrow hallway waiting for the knock. But none came and after a few moments he went up the stairs and lay down on his bed. The moon had emerged now from out of the clouds and its pale light illuminated the cheap wooden cross hanging slightly askew on the bedroom wall. But Daniel did nothing to straighten it; he just gazed up at it for a long time without stirring before his eyes finally closed and he fell asleep.
The reply came earlier than Daniel had expected, arriving at the same time as a peremptory letter from his landlord giving him notice to quit.
Edgar’s handwriting was laboriously formed but easy to read, and it didn’t take Daniel long to understand the purport of what his cousin was saying. He read the letter through twice and breathed hard, trying to control the sudden wild rush of elation that was shak- ing his thin body like a physical force.
He ran up the stairs and threw open the door of Adam’s room but then stopped in his tracks, momentarily silenced by the look of settled hostility etched on his son’s face.
“We have to go,” he said.
“Go where?” asked Adam.
“North. There’s a job. My cousin’s found me one. And we can’t stay here.”
“Because there’s nothing for us here, Adam. Not unless you want to go to the workhouse.”
Adam flinched at the word almost as if he had been struck. He was angry with his father and wanted to defy him, but the thought of the workhouse terrified him. He remembered what his father had said about the place in times gone by: it was where the poor were sent to die when they were no use to the rich any more; it was the house at the end of the world.
“I haven’t got a bag,” he said dully. “I’ll need something to put my stuff in.”
An hour later father and son left the house for the last time. Adam knew that he wouldn’t be coming back, at least not for a long time, not until he’d become an older, different person revisiting childhood memories when they were no more than dust in the wind. And as he followed his father down the street on that bright winter afternoon it all came back to him. The sepia lens through which he’d seen the world since his mother’s death dropped away and he saw the barefoot children running behind the water cart soaking their legs and feet in the spray as it rattled over the cobblestones; saw them dancing round the horse trough where he’d spent a hundred Sundays; saw them stop and wave goodbye as he reached the Cricketers’ on the corner and paused to look back one last time.
The golden rays of the sun glared back at Adam and his father from off the thick engraved glass in the pub’s window panes, and from somewhere inside they could hear an invisible woman singing a popular song to the accompaniment of the pub’s penny-in-the-slot piano:
“If I should plant a tiny seed of love In the garden of your heart,
Would it grow to be a great big love some day? Or would it die and fade away?”
She sang well, holding the melody, and Adam stopped to listen, but his father took his arm and pulled him forward. Away from every- thing that was familiar and into an unknown future.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I stumbled across the author. Having both admired and loved his grandfather's writing, I gave him a chance. Excellent, descriptive and easy to lose oneself. J.R.R. Tolkien would be proud. I'm now reading all I can find of this fabulous grandson.