Monday, July 1, 2013

Downland: part nine

Electric trams glide and rattle; an endless promenade. Their delicate waltz stretches the length of the street: from St. George’s Circus at the bottom, to the terminus at the top. From the overhead cables, sparks shower down outside the doorway of number 72 Waterloo Road. The cascade briefly illuminates the lettering on the window boards: ‘George Burchett – Artistic Tattooing – Crude Work Covered or Removed – Antiseptic Treatment’. It is late in the afternoon on a day late in November. Ridler is standing on the step; below him on the pavement is Gladys. She is impatient to catch the tram back home. Seventy-five times in six months they have made this trip; three times a week since 24th May 1934 – the date when Ridler had put his skin in Burchett’s hands with a formal letter of permission - they had travelled up from the clipped, suburbia of Raleigh Gardens in Mitcham, to the metropolitan mayhem of Waterloo Road. And now that it was finished, Ridler was taking one last look at this scene, taking in the sensual bustle before him.

Warm orange lights from shop windows reflect on wet glassy pavements. Angelic haloes of bright, white mercury street lamps plot a route that melts into a blue-grey infinity in the smoggy middle distance. Beneath the lights of this heavenly procession a more moribund parade: be-hatted travellers flood on foot to and from the railway, cheap cardboard suitcases hanging at their sides; passengers of a superior bearing, sweep through in Hackney carriages; market traders and barrow boys running their stalls from their pitches to the arches of their night-time perches. The carts’ clatter adds to the cacophony: steam trumpets from the engines above pierce the darkness; urgent bursts of the policeman’s pea-whistle direct the traffic at the junction with The Cut; the paper seller at the corner alternates his cry between “Star, News and Standard!” and “Germans re-arming, says Churchill!” The air is cold and damp and heavy with a sulphurous taste – the beginnings of a London particular from Bankside and the home fires burning in the Coin Street terraces. A hint, also, on the breeze of yeast and hops drifting downriver from the Anchor brewery to join the malodorous soup. He had known chaos nearly twenty years before - the noise and stench of war – and it was on its way again.

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