Sailortown

Barrymore dropped Boz and his companions off in Whitechapel. The entrances to Aldgate East station were heavily barricaded and guarded by an armed contingent of Brick Lane Zapatistas who were clustered around a brazier. The gang exchanged pleasantries with the troopers and then walked briskly down Leman Street. Just off Cable Street they could hear Wilton’s Music Hall in full swing. Underneath the Arches was being sung above the accompanying Wurlitzer organ and periodically drowned out by heckling from an enthusiastic, mostly inebriated audience. When they reached Ratcliff Highway it was alive. Sailors and their doxies lurched in huddled groups about the pavements, cursing costermongers wheeled their barrows through the crowds, a dozen different accents and languages sang out. Barrel organs vied with each other in the middle of the thoroughfare, pop music blared from the jukeboxes of every pub and bar, squeals from every brothel. Fast food vendors shouted enticements to passers by and the scent of fish and chips made Phoebles’ mouth water. Pulsating, pastel coloured neon signs directed the unwary to strip joints and tattoo parlours.

“Hullo deary, fancy a quick one? Oh, sorry Mr Boz. I didn’t recognise you straight away. You been in the wars?”

“Hello Mavis. Just singed. Things nearly got on top of me a bit back, but I’m fine now. Thanks for asking.”

There was a good deal of squawking and not a few growls as they passed Jamrach’s Pet Emporium.

“That place always depresses me,” said Ferdy.

“Oh it’s not so bad nowadays,” Ginsbergbear replied, “Jamrach Jnr has abandoned the sale of exotics and runs an endangered species breeding program. He even has a Bornean Orang-utan working the counter.”

“There is a rumour he also runs illicit interspecies porn shows on the side,” added Phoebles.

Narrow Street was quiet, all but deserted, smelling of Stockholm tar and cinnamon, and appearing reassuringly normal at first. Yet, unusually, there was a Palomino pony tethered to the hitching rail outside Bozzy’s Den. Inside, Dark Flo perched on top of the saloon’s upright piano, her bare right foot pressed gently against Sam’s chest. The left dangled, beating time with her big toe. She was wearing a bowler hat and singing The Ballad of Sexual Obsession. Several local girls were standing in, without much enthusiasm, for the absent Kittens and an aging wizard wielded a cocktail shaker behind the bar.

“Aunty Stella!” cried Ferdy.

Aunty Stella sat in the bay window, in the full-dress uniform of a captain of the Hampshire Light Horse, midnight blue knee length top coat trimmed in gold, crimson paisley cummerbund, an ultramarine and mellow yellow striped turban, white jodhpurs and black patent leather cavalry boots complete with spurs. A Persian style sabre and SMLE .762 bush carbine rested on the table and she was smoking a hookah. She beamed at the bird.

Most of the clientele wore grubby raincoats, trilbies and reflector shades. As Boz led the way towards Aunty Stella one of the punters rose. His gabardine trench coat was not grubby and his homburg neatly brushed. He came over.

“Hello Slasher,” said Aunty Stella.

“So,” he asked Boz, “what’s Larry got to say for himself?”

Phoebles and Augusta pulled up a second table so they could all sit in a group. They parked. With her set concluded Dark Flo came over, wrapping a silk Liberty print kimono about her slender body. She retained the bowler. Sam vamped an extended improv on Blue Rondo à la Turk.

“Nothing new,” said Boz in answer to Slasher McGoogs. “The city’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth and I’m beginning to think Mrs King might be right. We need to gain access to her computer thingy.” He looked over at Aunty Stella. “What’s the situation here?”

“We have deliberately allowed Les Chats Souterrains to infiltrate Sailortown. Specialist units of the Autonomous Revolutionary Insurrectionary Limehousesailortown Irregulars, in mufty, have them under close surveillance. At least that way we can keep an eye on what they’re up to. We have thwarted several attempts to gain access to the docks, but so far they seem unaware that they are being exploited.” Aunty Stella turned to Dark Flo, addressing her in a discrete, concerned tone. “I couldn’t help noticing during that last number, you have some nasty bruises, Flo.”

“They’re fading now,” replied the chanteuse barmaid. “Anyway the punters enjoy a subtle suggestion of off stage S&M. We’ve had a few narrow squeaks since I saw you last. I don’t think anyone’s come out of Jersey totally unscathed.”

“Does one ever?” mused Ginsbergbear.

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Shad Thames

The Anchor Tap nestles between towering warehouses in Shad Thames, a corner pub on a cobbled street criss-crossed by walkways two storeys or more overhead. Inside, the furniture is distressed, the shabby décor predominantly faded blues, and the floor is bare boards. The cockney barmaid welcomed them with practiced bonhomie. Slasher got a round in for the ship’s company by way of thanks to the Kronstadt sailors. Somewhere round about the second pint the sailors began to sing, the gang relaxed into an alcoholic reverie and Barrymore walked into the saloon bar.

“Barrymore! How did you know we were here?” asked Boz.

“She would,” said McGoogs.

“It’s my job to know,” Barrymore replied. She stood, paws on hips. Her bottle-green cap and blazer were causing something of a stir amongst the stevedores and seafaring clientele of the dockside hostelry; mainly on account of their doing nothing to hide her silky, long, bronze and buff with a touch of red legs, her furry buttocks, or elegantly curved tail. Grabbing a bentwood chair she turned it to face her and straddled it. A collective sigh spun round the saloon bar.

“Finish your drinks. Larry wants to see all of you, pronto.”

“All of us?”

“Not the Ruskies, just you reprobates,” Barrymore gave an apologetic nod towards Augusta, “And you and your Tibetan if you’d be so kind, your ladyship.” She picked up the nearest pint and downed it in one, ushered the company out into the street, put her fingers to her lips and gave a long piercing whistle that started low, rose dramatically and ended in a baroque twiddle. With a purring of its vectored thrust Stanley steam-turbine aero-engines Larry’s dirigible runabout manoeuvred overhead, came to a halt and dropped a rope ladder.

“Not another ladder,” exclaimed Ferdy. “Can’t we take the tube?”

Slasher McGoogs melted quietly into the shadows and was gone.

“The underground is not running,” replied Larry’s factotum. “Up you go. One at a time.” She was last up.

“There’s a selection of single malts in the cocktail cabinet,” she said as she made her way to the empty flight deck and took the helm. Boz appeared in the doorway.

“How do you do that?”

“What?”

“Control this airship from the ground.”

“Confidence.”

Before long they were standing in Downing Street.

“Evening all.” The policeman on duty outside the gloss black door with its brass number ten below the Georgian shell fanlight nodded to Barrymore and directed the party inside. Larry was at his imposing mahogany desk in the old Cabinet Room.

“Can you rustle up a pot of Earl Grey for eight, Barrymore? And perhaps some scones?”

Barrymore gave Larry a reproving glance and left. After a few minutes she returned with a tray, perched her bum on a corner of the desk and poured out nine delicate china cups of builders tea, including one for herself.

“It’s PG. Scones are just coming, there’s only raspberry jam I’m afraid.”

“London seems very quiet,” observed Boz.

“Evacuated. Les Chats have overrun the underground. We’ve tried to board up as many stations as possible. Limehousesailortown is so cosmopolitan quelques Chats more or less makes no difference and it’s business as usual on Ratcliff Highway. But much of the city is deserted. Fortnum’s is locked up and the staff have left town.” Larry whimpered. “I don’t feel I’m in control any more.”

“You never were,” said Ginsbergbear.

Limehousesailortown

 

Slasher in Angel Alley RedChapter Three

Limehousesailortown does not do politics – sailortown exists for the sailor.   Whilst the ships are in dock unloading their cargo their mariners and ships cats scurry ashore.   After weeks at sea battling with the elements, cooped together in small, over-familiar groups they come onto land, wherever they may be in the world, with a little money in their pockets and a desire to be entertained.   Just beyond the dock gates they find dance halls and music halls, ale-houses and catnip dens, brothels and night clubs.   They are enticed by ice-cream vans, burger bars, winkle stalls and pie-‘n-mash tents.   Juke-boxes blare, fish and chips sizzle and dour missionaries fret after their souls.

Westwards along Ratcliff Highway the stews and doss houses peter out to be replaced by wholesale warehouses stuffed with pepper and cinnamon, teas and coffees, wines, spirits, carpets and beds, monkeys, macaws – and the contraband wares of smuggler and river pirate, produce not fanfared on the signs above the doors.   At the Highway’s western end, dingy curiosity shops, junk shops proclaiming themselves to be antique emporia, ships’ chandlers and the tagareen stores of the bum-boat men huddle together between the river and the soup kitchens and meeting halls of Whitechapel.   Whitechapel does do politics.

 

Boz and Phoebles stopped off for a light lunch in the ground floor bar of the catnip den that occupies the remainder of the building below their bedsit.   Snowdrop was singing a selection of songs from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and should probably have stuck to juggling.   She was accompanied by Sam on upright and Mouse Jackson on tenor sax and they were really quite good, as was the eel pie and mustard ice-cream.   Once fortified, the ginger pair set off towards Wapping High Street and onward to Whitechapel, for a little under-cover detective work.

Toynbee Hall, that vicarage-gothic edifice which might well have seen William Morris and Peter Kropotkin pass through its doors in times gone by, was hosting a debate on Class Unity, The Co-operative Movement and World Solutions to World Problems.   As delegates gathered a degree of disharmony was already beginning to emerge.   Old Labour was present with a Yorkshire ex-colliery brass band; Marxists and Leninists and Trotskyists and Maoists were in dispute over the subjects for discussion, procedural details and the exact fillings for the sandwiches; La Columna Internationalistas, in red neckerchiefs were acting as unofficial bouncers.   Huddled in small yet noisy groups and eyeing each other suspiciously were collectivist-anarchists, mutualist-anarchists, communist-anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-surrealists, Situationists and The Brick Lane Zapatistas.   Consuella Starcluster was there with her tambourine, and the Kittens of Chaos had brought along a breakaway anarcha-feminist chapter of the WI who were starting to heckle.    Boz and Phoebles, thinly disguised in matching ‘Red Ed’ t-shirts, cloth caps and mufflers, slipped unobtrusively into the hall and, with backs to the wall, quietly observed.   The discord was beginning to spread to a gathering crowd outside in Commercial Street and scuffles were breaking out.

 

Round the corner, where an insignificant and darkly narrow passageway, plastered with faded and torn inflammatory posters and bills, opened out into Angel Alley a soapbox had been set up outside the offices of the Freedom Press.   White cats in brass bound and riveted, midnight-dark goggles guarded its corners like Trafalgar Square lions and Slasher McGoogs had mounted it to address an unenthusiastic crowd.

“Comrades!   You do not need me to point out the architects of your sorry condition.

I am not here to itemise the burdens heaped upon you by self appointed tyrants, to list the injustices, to pick through the corruption and filth, the graft and malfeasance that has shackled the masses to a life of perpetual toil and wrung out a wealth of obscene proportions to heap on the privileged few.   You can denounce your oppressors without my help.

Yet, to be just to these poor men of pelf,

Each does but HATE HIS NEIGHBOUR AS HIMSELF:

Damned to the mines, an equal fate betides

The slave that digs it, and the slave that hides!”

He paused at this dramatic climax – Silence… until one of the sinister white cats began to clap pointedly.   There was a ripple from the audience followed by a Whoop and a couple of Yeahs.   The front two rows of uncomprehending felinity were made up of feckless alley cats of assorted shapes, sizes and colours, but behind them was a press of black and white ships’ cats and their docker cousins.   These toms were politically aware and wanted to be roused.   Slasher stepped up the rhetoric, wringing his cap and waving a clenched fist.

 

Early next morning began the first ever mass-strike of ships’ cats.   Vessels without their cats could not sail, the docks clogged up with stranded shipping and new arrivals rusted at anchor in the roads; cargos rotted and rats ran wild.   Dockland fell eerily silent.