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The Undertowby Jo Baker
The Electric Theatre, York Road, Battersea, London August 14, 1914
THE LIGHTS GO OUT. The cheap seats erupt in shrieks and roars, as though the dark has changed everyone into wild animals and birds. It’s hot. The stench is terrible. Amelia fumbles for William’s hand.
A mechanical whir and clatter starts up behind her. She twists round to look over her shoulder. All she can see is a saturating flood of light, which makes her blink, and then the light begins to flip and flicker.
"It’s starting,” William says.
Amelia turns back in her seat and cranes to look between the heads in front, through the twists of tobacco smoke.
A man snaps into existence. The audience cheers. He bows, blows kisses. He’s framed by rich, draped curtains, and wears an elegant morning suit. He is very handsome. He is soft shades of porcelain and charcoal, silky-grey.
"That’s Max,” William says. “Max Linder.”
Amelia’s hand squeezes William’s. “What’s the story?”
"He’s on stage,” William says. “Taking a curtain call.”
The miracle of it. A gentleman like that, bowing to them; to the audience crammed there, two kids to a seat, all of them jabbering away as if this was nothing. The place smelling of old clothes and boots and sweat and bad teeth and disease.
“What do you think?” William asks.
She just shakes her head, smiles.
The image changes: she sees a husband and wife now, talking. There’s a title card: the lady wants to meet Max; can the husband send a note? The kids in the cheap seats gabble out the words, translating or just reading out loud for their parents: a tangle of English, Yiddish, Italian. It’s like bedlam in the theatre, but on the screen everything is beautiful: the husband is in evening dress, and the lady’s wrap is just the loveliest thing Amelia’s ever seen, the silky drape of it. It would feel so good on the skin. But the husband is jealous. You can tell that by his eyebrows, his fists.
The man in front of her leans to talk to his neighbour, and she moves closer to William, shoulder against his shoulder, to peer round the obstacle.
In the dark, William draws her hand into his lap, unbuttons her glove and peels it off. She repossesses the empty glove, smoothes it flat on her lap. He twists the narrow wedding ring around her finger, then strokes her palm with his thumb, the calloused skin grazing and snagging on her hot skin. It’s distracting, but she doesn’t pull her hand away. Tonight he is allowed.
She glances round at him, at his angular profile. His eyes are on the distance, watching the screen; they catch the flickering light and flash green. Then he laughs, creases fanning, and she looks at the screen to see what made him laugh. The maid lays out a china coffee set, and Max is charming, and the husband seethes, and, while the wife and Max are turned away to admire a painting, the husband pours a dose of salts into Max’s coffee!
The audience roars. Amelia claps her gloved hand over her mouth.
The husband dodges over to join his wife and Max, and, when all their backs are turned, the maid, who is also beautifully dressed in hobble skirt and high heels, goes to take away the tray. Seeing the coffee is undrunk, she sets it down again, but has, by chance, turned the tray around, so that the tainted cup is set before the husband’s seat. The audience roars again. Amelia’s hand drops away from her face. And then, for good measure, the husband dodges round and pours another dose into what he thinks is Max’s cup, but it’s the wife’s. They’re all going to cop for it now!
“Oh my goodness!”
On screen, the three of them sit down at the coffee table, but then there’s an exchange of courtesies, of sugar lumps and cream that just goes on and on and you can’t bear it because you know any moment they’re going to drink, but it keeps on not happening, and not happening until the husband, dainty for his bulk, smug in the expectation of Max’s humiliation, lifts his china cup and sups long on his coffee. He doesn’t know what’s coming! A moment later, he grips his stomach and rushes for the door. Max and the wife look on, bemused. Then Max drinks, and grimaces, and has to rush out too! And then the wife! They return, with accusations, and then there’s outrage, confusion, revelation, and then a caption: the wife isn’t in love with Max—she just wants to be in one of his films!
A wave of laughter, and the kids are gabbling again, and there’s a second wash of laughter afterwards.
On screen, everyone shakes hands, kisses cheeks; they resolve to make the film together. All troubles are over, all discord is resolved: no-one loves the wrong person or wants something they can never have, or has to face something they simply cannot face.
The reel ends with a clatter, empty white panels flipping up and away. The lights come up and Amelia blinks, staring down the length of the room towards a blank white screen, between the greasy heads in front. The heavy curtains are kept pulled tight, and the electric light glares uncomfortably, and the man in a huckster’s suit, who took the money at the door, walks the length of the cheap seats, spraying the crowds with scent. That she is here, in a place like this, where the audience has to be perfumed—disinfected?—halfway through the show, is testament to her feeling, her resolve. Amelia gets a whiff of the spray—sweet violets but with a sharp tang of ammonia. It makes the kids laugh and jostle, and even the adults down in the cheap seats don’t protest or really seem to recognise the shame of it: one woman raises her face towards the spray, eyes closed as if in enjoyment. But she and William are all right where they are, up in the sixpenny seats. No-one will spray them here.
The lights flick out again, and the clattering wheel of the bio scope starts up, and the huckster slips out of the way, and the scene is of the sea, a fleet of proud grey battleships nosing across an expanse of iron-grey waves.
“Can you see your ship?” She peers in hard at the murky grey-on-grey. “Is the Goliath there?”
He peers. “Those are the new ones. Goliath’s getting on a bit.”
Then there’s a title card: The Gallant Navy Boys. And there’s a clutch of them on deck, three lads in their rig, joking and laughing, eyes bright white against dark weathered skin. She feels again for William’s hand, and squeezes it, and feels a flush of pride. And then from somewhere towards the front, a young woman’s voice breaks out into song.
Tis the Navy, the Fighting Navy,
That will keep them in their place
And other voices join her, and Amelia tries, but the words come out thin and husky.
For they know they have to face
The gallant little lads in Navy Blue.
She reaches up to touch the wet away from her eyes.
“All right?” William asks.
She nods. “I know you have to,” she says. And that’s the only thing that makes it bearable at all.
When the lights go up at the end, he tugs on her hand, and they’re on their feet ahead of the crowds, and they slip past the projectionist who is crouched and fiddling with his machine, and they’re out through the front doors and into the busy evening of York Road, and he’s spinning her round on the pavement like a child, whirling through the warm thick summer air, and making her protest and laugh.
Then he stops her, and holds her waist. She’s smiling dizzily.
“Thank you for coming,” he says.
She inclines her giddy head.
“I know it’s not really your cup of tea.”
She straightens her hat, remembers the handsome Max, bowing to the stinking, roaring, shrieking crowd. “If it wasn’t for that spray—”
He grins, turns her lightly, side to side, at the waist.
“But just think: they can film anything,” he says, “and show it anywhere. It’s amazing. Anything. Japan. America. The whole world—”
“The whole world in a little room.”
He stills her, lets his hands fall from her. “I suppose so.”
She takes his arm, and they walk. William tucks her arm in tight to his side. He doesn’t speak. She wonders if she’s offended him, but can’t work out quite how. An omnibus passes by, the horses dragging along tiredly, lamps glowing, making her realise that the light is fading.
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” she asks.
He clicks his tongue, shakes his head.
And that’s true enough. There’s nowhere else to go. Too late for the park; music halls and pubs are vulgar. So, by rights, is the bioscope, though she’s let that pass for once. And it’s not like you can just go for a stroll along the riverbank; it’s not that kind of river in this part of town.
“He might be in bed by now,” she says.
“You never know.”
They are nearly at the corner of Plough Road; nearly home. They turn down the road, and it’s quiet now. For a moment they are alone, and a sparrow chitters along the length of a back wall, and you can hear the clattering of cabs and drays down the York Road behind them. William stops and pulls Amelia to him, holds her, making the edge of her corset dig into her flesh, so that when she undresses later there are red marks on her skin. She catches her breath, doesn’t protest: she wants him to be happy.
He dips his face into her neck, and almost lifts her off the ground, and says, “Oh my sweetheart, Oh my girl.”
She could have had anyone, her mother always said. Edwin Cheeseman, from the grocer’s. Lionel Travis, who’s doing so well at Price’s. Mr. Bateman, a senior clerk in the city, who’d been casting eyes at her ever since she was fifteen. A whole host of good, sound, solid men who’d’ve been only too happy to have her as their wife. So why on God’s good earth did it have to be him, William Hastings, a scruff from the wrong end of Battersea with little to recommend him but a job on the factory floor at Price’s and a bold manner, who clearly thinks he’s better than he is? And Amelia would dismiss her mother’s objections, dismiss the whole world and all the sound solid men in it with a toss of her head, and turn back to the window, to look out for him, so that she could see him from the moment he turned down Edna Street. Watch him walk all the way to her front door.
The old man’s clinking and clattering in the kitchen; William leads her instead into the cool dimness of the front parlour, propels her gently towards the seats by the window.
She sits. The summer sky is a deep blue strip above the houses opposite; little light reaches into the narrow street. She watches as William goes over to the cabinet and lifts a package from the top. He brings it over to her, puts it in her hands. It is neatly wrapped in the stationer’s striped paper, tied with creamy soft cotton tape. There is substance here, heft. She feels an unaccountable prickle of apprehension. She has to fight an urge to hand it straight back to him.
He sits down on the arm of the chair. His arm pressed against her shoulder. She teases the knot undone, conscious of the brush of her sleeve against his thigh. The paper peels apart.
The book’s cover is a deep inky blue. A flowered plant twines up the left side, curling round the black embossed word Album. She runs her fingers over the skin-cool board, tracing the lines and shapes, the dents and ridges of its patterning. She doesn’t know what to make of it.
“It’s beautiful,” she says.
He shifts eagerly on the arm of her chair, leans in to lift the cover. Inside, the page is cut with little angled slips.
“It’s for postcards,” he says.
He touches the four cuts where you would slide in the corners of the cards. He lifts the page, turns it, shows her the spread of two pages, blank too, the whole book of it waiting to be filled.
“Wherever I go,” he says, “every country, every city; I’ll buy postcards, and send them to you. So that you can see the world, see everything I see.”
She runs her hands over the cool paper, feeling the snag of the corner cuts. She smiles up to him.
“Like a picture book,” she says. “Lovely. Yes.”
The sheets feel damp on her skin. She can see, in the narrow strip of evening sky, a single bright star. It is still not quite dark. The room is humid, hot. She can hear her father-in-law in the next room as he moves around, getting ready for bed. The chink of his collar studs on the washstand, the sucked-in breath as he undoes his belt. The walls are thin. Everything about the house is thin: the rooms, the corridors, the curtains and the floorboards and the brick and mortar and the lath and plaster. Everything is permeable: damp seeps in, and smoke oozes out of the chimney, and the fogs links in from the street and leaves oily dirt on the windowsills. Whenever a door is opened or closed, a step climbed, a curtain drawn, whenever someone sits down, stands up, coughs, the shift is felt throughout the house, by everyone.
She lies still as she can, and breathes, “Hush, love, please.”
He grunts in reply, too occupied in himself, in making the springs jangle, making the bed frame creak and the bedhead tap the wall. His body slithers on hers in a film of sweat. She hears the old man step out of his trousers and the huff as he bends down to pick them up. She can feel the neighbours in the rooms either side, can almost hear them breathe. She misses Edna Street, she often does. Things were more solid there.
William is done. He presses his face into her neck, and kisses her. It’s ticklish. After a moment, he pushes off her, and gets up and pulls on his shirt and goes to the window and lights up a cigarette, and pulls the sash up high. He sits on the windowsill, holding the cigarette outside, out of courtesy.
She tugs the sheet up to her shoulders and watches him, the soft creases of his shirt, the lean muscle of his naked legs. The way he leans down to the gap to blow the smoke out into the night. At moments like this, he seems so foreign to her, almost unknowable. Like a fox met on the turn of a lane—encountered for a moment, and then gone.
He looks round at her. Grins. She swallows down the fear, and smiles back.
HMS Goliath, Grand Harbour, Malta April 14, 1915
The post comes in as William is scrubbing up after the forenoon watch. He’s bone tired, his back burning, his palms raw, and what he really should do is eat something, slump into his hammock, read her letter, sleep. But he has shovelled coal and slept and eaten, turn and turn about, for days, and now there is a whole new island out there. A whole new country. He has dug his way here through mountains of coal.
As he climbs up from the mess, daylight dazzles him; he crosses the deck half blinded, stunned by sun and noise. Coal thunders into the hold, crates swing, ropes creak under the strain, gulls wheel and cry. He reaches the far rail and he leans there, and looks down and down the curving flank of the ship into the giddy depths, coloured flares swimming across his vision, and he breathes in the unfamiliar air, the smell of harbour water, coal, drains, bread and oranges, deal, the dusty smell of hemp. He sucks it in.
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