Jerusalem, My Happy Home
The bullies were lying in wait for Clive, a small posse of them at the end of the street, barring his way to school. They were there most mornings, and most mornings he could evade them, for it seemed that their pleasure was as much in the pursuit of him as in his capture, a chase around the streets and alleys eventually ending with their breathless arrival at school. Today, though, they seemed more earnest in their pursuit, he less able to escape them, and slowly they gained on him.
Darting along a narrow cobbled alley, then cutting down a second, the backs of the terraces on either side muffling the sounds of the city traffic, Clive shouldered his way through a rotting wooden gate and into an overgrown back yard. Falling back against the gate, he heard the heavy feet of his pursuers thunder past, fading into the distance, sat there on the cold ground for moments after, catching his breath, stilling his heart.
The house before him was rather more decrepit than derelict, its structure still sound enough because the curious had been kept at bay -so someone thought- by the corrugated zinc curtains which covered each window. A heavy padlock at the door was a further deterrent to any unwanted visitors. The only point of entry overlooked, he saw, was the coal-hole, a heavy cast-iron disc the size of a car's tire. It was almost hidden by moss and weed, glued in its seat with all manner of gunge and shit, but Clive chipped away at it with a bored determination, poking and probing with that patience that only an idle young truant could muster, and eventually found his way inside, down the crumbling coal chute and into the cellar.
Bruising his behind as he bumped his way down, falling into a pitch dark silence and wondering if he would ever be able to get out again, it was so eerie that he knew straight away no one else would go to the trouble of breaking into the place, not even the most desperate squatter. To some absentee landlord it was a dump of a property, he could neither afford to refurbish it or demolish it, but to Clive it could be a haven, a young Englishman's castle, the perfect place to hide out when he needed to, at times such as now, when it was best he kept off the street, away from the bullies.
Climbing from the cellar, stepping into the hallway, there was a little more light, gray like twilight but sufficient to see by, thin cracks from the windows where the corrugated metal didn’t fit quite flush, a broader beam from the broken skylight above the door.
He moved from room to room, exploring. The floors he found to be sound, the staircase safe and the walls intact, the roof only leaked a little; there were even a few pieces of furniture left behind by whoever had been the last to live there, armchairs with their stuffing bursting out, a rickety table or two, dining chairs with broken legs. Three floors above, directly over him, another skylight in the roof cast a bright dusty beam like a spotlight onto him, while in the sloping attic at the very top of the house there was a third. Beneath this there was an ancient mattress that wasn't too stained to prevent him stretching out on it, which he did, sprawling like a man of leisure, his hands behind his head, gazing at the sky.
He let out a satisfied sigh.
Summertime, and the living is easy.
“Easy... easy... easy...,” his voice echoed, in the empty room.
He closed his eyes for a while, but was soon compelled to open them again because the silence around him was so deep. The sky he gazed up at was a clear unbroken blue, through the dirty glass a little paler than he knew it to be, sort of powdery, like the color of a faded pair of jeans stretched tight over a young girl's bum. There wasn't a wisp of cloud to be seen, not the slightest breeze to stir any up or sweep them in from the river.
So what was causing that sound, then, like something was shifting the house and making it groan? Maybe the old place wasn’t quite as sturdy as he thought. He recalled seeing the tall ships down at the Pier Head the previous summer, all wood and canvas and rope, each one creaking and moaning as if they were living things, tired old men who were weary of life. The house sounded just the same.
And was it moving, just slightly, as if it was bobbing on the tide?
He sat bolt upright and felt a sudden lurch, but it was only the springs of the mattress moving beneath him, one pinging against another. The sound was still there, though, there was no mistaking it, a soft creak, another, and then a longer moan which made the place sound almost human.
Human. And unhappy.
That was it! Someone on the stairs, but heavier than him and making each step groan. Not his bullies, they were too cowardly to enter such a place, but maybe the squatters he thought would never bother with such a decrepit hovel? A wino or a junkie? Had someone taken it into their head to turn the place into a crack house?
He got cautiously to his feet.
“There's someone down there, man!” he said loudly, his voice rattling at the back of his throat, and then even gruffer, “Yeah! Who the fuck is it?”, faking the voice of someone bigger, broader, no kind of guy for some squatter or wino to mess with.
He braced himself in the doorway of the attic, just out of sight of the top of the stairs, and waited for some response to his threatening babble of voices. All that came was a low cackle of laughter, but now from behind him, sounding as if it was from within the empty room.
He screamed, then, yelled, as much to cause a fright as to give vent to the fright he felt, and launched himself down the stairs, not giving a shit whether they were solid or not, never pausing to look back but taking them two and three at a time, his pounding feet echoing throughout the house but still not drowning out the mocking laughter.
It followed him still as he tripped and tumbled down the final flight of stairs, cracking his head on each step as he fell.
He could hear voices nearby but his pain was such that he lacked the will to turn his head their way, not even when it seemed that there might be some kindness spoken, some sympathy offered. Sympathy he would have welcomed, had he but the energy to accept it, for sympathy was the best that could be hoped for; he knew that he was beyond help.
“I pity the poor beggar lying there, taking the sun all this time,” said a hushed voice.
“Aye?” said another, harsher, more gruff. “Well he’s a splendid enough shade of mahogany to begin with. His kind can bear it.”
“And the cold at night.”
“They’re a sturdy breed.”
The barque ‘Hosanna’ was four weeks out of Jamaica, three days yet from Liverpool, and for all but the first morning he had been shackled on deck, his hands and feet in irons. In the heat of the afternoon he scorched, in the chill of night he shivered, in the fiercest of squalls which marked their course east he was tossed about as helpless as an infant in a cot. But only as far as his chains would permit. Then the harsh metal cuffs would snap at bone and bite at flesh, jar at his joints until he feared that he would be torn limb from limb.
“…the pitiful wretch.”
“Pitiful? Ha!” There was a hawking rattle, a vicious snort, and a gob of phlegm splattered on his shackled leg, the color and consistency of the pus which was seeping from his open sores and weeping wounds. “Serve the cocksure nigger right for laying claim to be as able a seafarer as the rest of us.”
“He was only after passage. How else was he to get it?”
“You pays in coin,” came the uncaring reply. “If you can’t do that then you pays in kind, trading your skill and craft. If you boast no skill then you warrant no passage. But him? Boast was all he could do!”
And the boast had so quickly been seen to be idle and unfounded. Even while yet in sight of land the Second Mate, Seymour, had taken the lash to him for his lack of competence, flailing out like a man possessed, First Mate Rodgers lending a hand to the punishment while Captain Miles looked on in silent approval.
He had heard from the old folk of what it had been like on the slaving ships, in the evenings at the Worthy Park Estate his history had been related to him by those who remembered, by Gullah Will and Shovel Jack, and most vividly by his mother’s mother, Grandma Raveface. For more than forty years she had toiled as a field hand at Worthy Park, had survived through to emancipation and then for another score years or more. Even in her dotage her memories had been bitterly clear, though; she felt no gratitude for the freedom she had been granted, just resentment for all that had gone before. Five hundred and more slaves had been packed into a vessel, she told him, they were stacked on shelves like any other goods, shoulder to shoulder or head to toe, evacuating their bowels wherever they lay, on whoever they lay, and eating by hand from common troughs; their mouths were washed with vinegar to ward off scurvy, that same vinegar which was used to swab the decks; their anuses were stopped with wadding and oakum to hide the signs of dysentery; the dead and the dying lay chained together with the living.
Yet this suffering of his forebears had not been without its purpose, as cruel as it was he could see the necessity for it; of those taken into slavery in the Guineas as many died as were successfully transported and there were profits to be made, quotas to be maintained. His present suffering had no such suspect motive, could be excused by nothing other than a simple sadistic pleasure; he was there for the ghoulish entertainment of the Captain and his mates, to break up the monotonous routine of their voyage home. If he had been a woman they might have used him a little more kindly, fed him well enough to keep sufficient flesh on the hips to cushion the thrusts of their greedy cocks; being male, though, he was there to be buggered and beaten and that was all.
A voice called out that land was sighted and there was a hubbub of excitement, the clatter of feet across decks, the chatter of voices rising above the straining of timber and the cracking of sail.
“I can sniff out the perfumed pudenda of those whores on Castle Street already!” said one.
“All the way from Anglesey?” marveled another with a laugh.
“With a nose like mine? Aye! I can smell them alright!”
The son of the daughter of Grandma Raveface could smell nothing other than the stink of his own excrement, though; made to eat it, having it smeared across his face, it plugged his nostrils and caked his cheeks, baked dry by the sun. The day before a bowl of pea broth had been slipped to him, but not slyly enough to avoid being seen by Seymour, who had dashed the bowl away and then thrust his face into the excrement in which he had lain for weeks.
“Sit in your own filth and that’s what you’ll get to eat!” he was told. “And you-!” This to the Samaritan, the one Christian soul aboard that ship of Satan. “-any more pity shown to the nigger and you join him!”
The stench of his excrement at least served the purpose of keeping the Captain’s dog at bay, deterring it from the daily mauling which its master gleefully encouraged. It would sniff curiously, lick cautiously as if with distaste, but no longer was it inclined to feast on him, chewing chunks from his limbs. It was as if he had fallen into so decrepit a state that even the most miserable of curs shied from him.
In his despair he prayed for deliverance.
In his pain he begged for death.
In his misery he sang:
“Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end?
Thy joys when shall I see?”
There was a surge of laughter when his song was heard, mocking taunts from the crew, derision that one of his color could take up a white Christian hymn of theirs. They turned from the sighted land and gathered around him, smiling down, nudging each other and cheering him on.
He thought to amuse them, then, to make them smile; knowing anger to be no use he raised his voice to the heaven he believed they all shared, sang louder, letting it ring out as clear as his weakened state would permit.
“Jerusalem, my happy home,
Would God I were in thee!
Would God my woes were at an end,
Thy joys that I might see!”
The mocking crew were suddenly swept aside as a figure cut a path through them, arms wheeling about its head, fists catching any who were too slow to move out of reach, bruising cheeks and breaking noses.
“Woes? Sorrows?” Captain Miles raged, glaring down at him, eyes blood-red with anger. “You know nothing of such things! Not yet! Rodgers!” he snapped to the First Mate. “Gag the creature! Stop his heathen tongue!”
Rodgers looked around, for scraps of sailcloth or linen, but the Captain had no patience with the dithering about and snatched up a heavy iron bolt.
“Here! This will do well enough!”
His head was pushed back, his jaw forced open and the hard metal jammed against his teeth so hard that it chipped them, so cold against them that it made them ache. He tried to swallow, his mouth stretched as wide as it would go, but could only make a feeble choking sound.
“Eh? What’s that?” Captain Miles demanded, pacing the deck before him, coming close and then pausing, as if the living creature at his feet was no more than animal dung. “Tell me, nigger, do you hate me? Do you? As much as I hate you?” He gave a smile of sufferance, of distaste, said, “What I wish, nigger, is that you would either drown or hang yourself.”
And what he wished, in his misery…
His answer was no more than an incoherent gurgle, saliva and blood spilling from his lips, bruised tongue freezing against the raw metal gag which filled his mouth.
“What does he say? Does anyone understand? Does anyone speak his heathen tongue?” the Captain asked, turning to his crew and wanting his smile returned, though there were many who were already becoming uncomfortable with the entertainment. “Unplug him! Let’s hear!” he laughed.
The bolt was torn from his mouth and his head sank to his chest as he filled his lungs with the fresh brine air.
“Well speak!” he was invited, a hand beneath his chin forcing his head back and working his aching jaw. “Tell us! What you wish…?”
“What I wish,” he answered weakly, wearily, “is that you would do it for me.”
“Do what? Hang you? Drown you? Then willingly!” Captain Miles ranted, and as the chains which fastened him to the mast were loosed he was dragged across the deck, his emaciated body lifted as easily as an empty sack and hung over the side.
There were prayers he remembered but they were no longer the Christian ones of mercy and forgiveness, the God he turned to was not their lord of love and light but a blacker creature, as black as the darkness of his dying.
“Now do you hate me, nigger?” the Captain hissed in his ear, and gave a tug on the chain which held him suspended, jarring his limbs. “Eh? Do you? Give me your hatred, God damn you! Let me feel your anger!”
No, he vowed.
When Clive came to he was back in the attic, on the soiled mattress, his head throbbing, his vision blurred. Squatting beside him was a man as black as bitter chocolate, and with such a high sheen to his complexion that it seemed that he was melting. His chest, bare beneath a waistcoat of coarse sacking, ran with sweat which was so profuse that it pooled in the gullies of his bony ribs, then spilled down in a series of salty cataracts to soak the tattered trousers he wore. His elbows rested on his knees, chin jutting, leaning forward eagerly like an old man telling a favorite tale.
Like a grandfather.
Only this was no ordinary old man, no grandfather of anyone Clive would ever want to meet. But still Clive remained rooted, attending to every word, like a dutiful child in class.
“Do you know what the dropsy is, Clive? The dreaded beri-beri? Do you know how it affects people? Their bodies bloat and swell...”
As Clive could imagine the figure now doing, the spare frame filling, the bony rib cage vanishing beneath an eruption of flesh, the cheeks ballooning to swamp the skull beneath.
“...and then we had yaws and dropsy and the bloody flux to suffer, the surgeons were charlatans and drunken incompetents, their idea of hygiene would be to wash our mouths with vinegar to stave off the scurvy, the same vinegar they swabbed the decks with, the same vinegar they gave Christ on the cross. We had to sleep shoulder to shoulder, stored on shelves like any other cargo, and piss and shit in buckets when we could, or just wherever we lay, on whoever we lay. No wonder there was dysentery. And then what did they do, these purveyors of the white man´s medicine? What was the only help they could offer? Why, to bung our anuses with oakum to stop the shit spilling out. There was the fever and the pain, the weeping skin eruptions, the stinking ulcers which dripped, dripped, dripped.”
Like fat splattering on the floor, burning into the bare boards and splashing onto the mattress, a viscous yellow pus spouted from the sores which burst out all over his body, hissing and sputtering all around Clive. Then, with an imagined hiss of sulfurous steam, the figure became as it was before, the sweating chocolate skeleton. The arms lifted from the knees, spreading wide, and Clive thought that it might be a welcome, trembled as he resisted the impulse to fall into that embrace. He had misunderstood the gesture, though, saw the figure turn his head slowly to one side, then the other, taking in their surroundings.
“We are in Captain Miles' house, did you know that? And isn't it grand? As grand as they all were, hereabouts, the homes of the slavers, the merchants and the ship owners, the men who prospered from our misery.
For a brief moment Clive could picture the room as it might have been, carpeted, sumptuously furnished, the walls crowded with pictures in gilt frames, almost claustrophobic in its clutter, the air so thick that it caused him to catch his breath.
“You no doubt live in a room in such a house, with a dozen others in a dozen rooms, when those rooms were intended for just one man and his family. Ironic, isn't it, that the homes your forefathers might once have envied are now the slums you would dearly love to escape. Doesn't that make you angry, Clive?”
Yes, it might, if he gave the matter some thought, but for the moment his only concern was to get away. Struggling to sit upright, fighting a wave of nausea, he said that he had to go, he would be late for school, which was no doubt already the case. He would be happy to accept whatever punishment awaited him, though, to be away from the vision before him and the horrors it conjured..
He swung his feet to the floor, slowly stood, wondering if he had the strength in him to dash from the room and down those stairs again. The figure who squatted by the mattress made no move to stop him, though, it seemed that any anger was spent, had given way to a weary resignation.
"I must stay," he said, as Clive backed from the room. "I must wait for Captain Miles."
However much time had passed, in that house, with its unsettling shade of the past, it seemed to have been no more than a moment, for back on the street Clive saw that there were still people making their way to school. How was that possible? It was as if the day so far had passed in a dream. A pretty scary one, but a dream nonetheless. Joining in with the flow of bodies, dwelling on this, he was too distracted to notice the posse waiting at the school gates, was only aware of their presence when they surrounded him, three, four, five of them.
A hand against his chest brought him to a halt, another at his back pushed him on, shoulders bruised him from either side.
"Caught up with you at last."
"An elusive little wanker, isn't he?"
If he had responded to their pushing and shoving it might have ended there, a little jostling, a few insults, then on into school. That would have been enough to satisfy the cowards that they were. He understood, though, that there were worse things than a beating, and his lack of a response only served to infuriate his bullies, to encourage them. A slap to the back of the head was followed by a blow to the side of the face, then a clenched fist to the stomach, but the only sounds which escaped his lips were the words of a remembered hymn.
“Jerusalem, my happy home,
Would God I were in thee..."
He reeled beneath the blows, but refused to fall beneath them, stubbornly stayed on his feet, further infuriating his attackers.
“Well come on!”
“Fight back, for fuck's sake!”
“Let's see a little bit of anger, at least!”
No, Clive vowed.