Saturday, March 2, 2013
Downland: part five
He stepped inside and, removing his hat and scarf, backed himself into the corner. Behind him the pair of windows with Matthew’s succour for strangers - the hungry, the thirsty, the cold and the lonely: ye gave me meat, ye gave me drink, ye clothed me, ye visited me. Tolerance, at best, was Ridler’s view of the hospitality that had been extended to him. This was a memorial to a Viscount’s son; retrospective earthly munificence enshrined in stained-glass - a guarantee of celestial immortality. But this felt like sanctuary; the shelter and calm tranquillity of the church.
To his right, at eye-level, was the memorial stone to Allen Cornelius Thorold Mann, son of Colonel J.R. Mann. It was too far away for Ridler to make out the inscription from his corner but he knew what it said; he had read it many times before. This Midshipman had been one of five hundred aboard when HMS Captain had foundered off Cape Finisterre in 1870. He was 19 years of age when he perished. Gladys had looked it up for him in Lewes Public Library: the ship had capsized because of design faults. Captain Cowper Phipps Coles had pursued his turret ship design in the face of naval opposition but had pushed his plan through by soliciting public and political support. Fittingly, he went down with the ship but along with four hundred and eighty others. That the folly of one could have such an impact on so many staggered Ridler. He had himself come from that background of privilege and expectation but any trace of this inheritance had long since dissipated as he set himself apart from all men; but these arrogant men in positions of power, they were still displaying their idiocy to the world.
Eden, only two years ago, had sent young British soldiers to invade Egypt and airmen to bomb Cairo. At least the villagers here - despite living in the thrall of a feudal estate - had recognised this aristocrat’s stupidity, riotously burning his effigy on Guy Fawkes’ night on the Downs that year. Ridler had seen this for himself when out nightwalking. They had looked like a torchlit mob; he felt that if they had caught sight of him, it would have been the peasants marching on Castle Frankenstein to lynch the creature. He and Gladys had seen that film at the magnificent Granada Cinema on Mitcham Road the year it had opened. The cinema was so opulent and ostentatious it had seemed like the new world had come to south London. That was probably three years before Burchett had started on his face and most of his work could be safely hidden. He could go out in public unnoticed then; by the time Burchett had finished, and Ridler had completed the transformation with piercings and dental work, America would be the only place he would find acceptance.