‘Fleet Lane’

The first chapter from a novel set in 18th-century London: blood, sex, gin, science, surgery, bodysnatching, pox and poetry. It’s provided the basis for two short stories: ‘Paternoster‘ and ‘The Work Is Not God’s‘. Comments very much appreciated.
 

 

London, 1764.

Tall, naked, paunched, pale-skinned, heavy-shouldered, red-haired and bleary-eyed in the morning light, Michael Crucius stooped to pick up the twice-folded note that someone had tucked beneath the door to his bedroom.

‘A note!’

‘What excitement! Read it to me.’

Rubbing the paper of the note between the fingers and thumb of his left hand and scratching his arse absentmindedly with the fingernails of his right Michael returned to the bed.

‘It’s cheap paper,’ he murmured. He slumped on to the mattress. ‘And – ’ he sniffed – ‘I smell, I think, Indian ink.’

‘And if you unfold the good paper and regard the Indian ink,’ said Grace Grief patiently, ‘you will find, I’ll bet, words scrivened within.’

Michael, chuckling, teased apart the four folds.

‘Scrivening indeed!’ he confirmed, scanning the single sheet. ‘But scrivened by what scrivener?’         

Grace shifted closer in the big bed.

‘Brewer?’

‘Abroad, this summer – Dalmatia, for his little pox.’

‘Then McHugh.’

‘No. McHugh, too, for the good of his health holidays in strange parts.’

‘Greece,’ Grace guessed.

‘Bedlam,’ Michael sighed.

Impatient Grace Grief plucked the note from Michael’s fingers. While she pored, squinting, over the few lines of smudged black handwriting, Michael lay back in his pillows and linked his hands comfortably behind his head.

‘The correspondent,’ he said, ‘is known to you, dear Miss Grief.’

‘In person or by reputation?’

‘The correspondent’s name, face, voice and blood are known to you.’

‘His penmanship is rascally.’

‘The correspondent will have risen today at daybreak.’ Michael’s idle blue eyes drifted across the ceiling. ‘He may have breakfasted on boiled jackdaw. He may have drunk a good gill of bad gin. The correspondent – ’

Oh.’ Grace Grief dropped the note. Her right hand gathered to her bare breasts a handful of bedsheet.

Michael looked at her.

‘Miss Grief is fastidious,’ he half-smiled.

‘Miss Grief – ’ she shuffled her wide hips down the bed and drew the sheet to her shoulders – ‘does not care to read that correspondent’s correspondence.’

Michael smiled and lay silent. He watched the ceiling and considered correspondence. He unlinked his right hand from his left; with this free hand he gently handled his own bristled jaw, and thought: it corresponds, this bone of mine, to the hairless jawbone of my brother. He lowered his hand and let its fingertips rest on his breastbone – he circled the tip of his index finger in the loose red curls that sprouted there. Here, too, we correspond, he thought, though my breast is broader, his bonier, mine hairer and my hairs russet, his balder and his hairs black.

Then he dropped his hand further and ran thumb and forefinger up the limp length of his cock, and then formed his four fingers into a shallow cup and, with a soft satisfied grunt, rubbed at an itch partway along his damp perineum. Here too, it must be admitted, we correspond, he thought. Although I know not how.

‘Miss Grief, I am that correspondent’s correspondence,’ he said.

Grace rolled sideways towards him. He felt her soft, heavy breasts loll against his ribcage and then her hand, walking, as his had, upon its fingertips, in his dense pubic hair. She kissed his shoulder and he turned his head. Her tobacco-brown eyes were intent upon him.

‘But you are not him,’ she said.

‘No,’ Michael agreed, amiably. ‘I am not him. I am me. He – and only he – is, for his sins, which must have been grevious indeed, him.’

‘You are you,’ Grace Grief reiterated. Michael smiled. It was in the girl’s nature, he knew, always to demand reassurance to the point of tautology, to insist that facts be dead-bolted, double-locked, closed as clams. The second King George is as dead as dead, he had told her. Also: you are too beautiful, Miss Grief, for words – there are no words for what a beauty you are. Also: there is no-one under the bed – under the bed, there is no-one.

So he said, again: ‘I am me.’

She smiled and breathed out through her nose against his neck and her hand half-turned and closed around his cock, which had already lost its limpness.

The letter she had discarded fell from the folds of the bedsheet to the bare-planked floor.

 

Omnipotentem factorem rerum iure laudari, qui tribuit iudicamus una in omnibus dentibus ossa insignis facultas sentiendi.’

Flagg paused in lifting a part-eaten pear to his wet mouth. He swallowed a chewed bolus of the fruit and said: ‘That’s Latin, is it?’

‘Vesalius. I find it – emollient.’

Paternoster, glancing across, noted with displeasure the pool of pearjuice forming on the floor between Flagg’s booted feet.

‘And what would it be in English?’

Sighing and straightening, the surgeon rubbed with one hand at his lower back.

‘The almighty Maker of things is justly to be praised,’ he said, ‘who we judge bestowed on teeth alone among all the bones a noteworthy faculty of sensation.’

‘Ah!’ Flagg nodded and munched more pear. ‘Toothache again, is it?’

‘Yes.’

‘An affliction the old almighty Maker has spared me.’

‘You are spared dentis poena because you have no dentibus.’ Paternoster reached out and as if presenting a curiosity to the lecture-hall drew his forefinger in a careful line from the right corner of Flagg’s mouth – pause – to the left – pause. Flagg beamed obligingly. His heavy, long and loutish top lip still concealed the upper gum but the smile disclosed the lower: a derelict semi-ellipse of rough red gingiva from which teeth had twice sprouted and which teeth had twice forsaken. The first time through usurpation and the next through rot. ‘Edentulous,’ said Paternoster, poking with a fingertip at the unwholesomely glistening pink. His womanly lips quivered with suppressed amusement. ‘As the sloth of the Americas.’

Unfazed Flagg closed his mouth, shrugged , and replied: ‘It’s a blessing. I wish I’d never had any.’

Insolitus misericordia, but ours is not to question.’

‘How’s that?’

‘A strange mercy.’ The surgeon dropped his gaze. ‘Ah.’ He had folded his forefinger away into his fist but now it again uncurled. Flagg, chewing openmouthed and noisily, followed its tip as it descended with the lowering of Paternoster’s arm to point at the polished boards at Flagg’s feet, and the puddle of clouded moisture that had formed there.

Flagg met Paternoster’s displeased and accusatory eye.

‘It ain’t piss, if you’re saying that it is.’

‘I know that it is not.’

‘It’s juice. Off of the fruit. The pear, you see.’ Flagg had by now toothlessly whittled the pear into emaciation. Its deep-dimpled bottom swung on a fibrous string of core and pip. Flagg, daintily holding the stem between finger and thumb, lowered the pear-bottom into his mouth and bit it away. Pulpy juice spilled over his lower lip as he explained indistinctly: ‘That’s why I go for pears, you understand. Over apples. Pears is easier in the eating.’

Paternoster’s hands were now on his broad hips. He winced: his upper foremolar had bucked suddenly in his gum. Omnipotentem factorem rerum iure laudari

‘I know,’ he said, with difficulty, ‘that it is the juice of the pear.’

‘Well, then.’ Flagg turned away. Then he turned back. ‘And even if it were piss – ’

‘It is not.’

‘ – but if it were, there’s been piss and worse on this floor before now, so how about that.’ Flagg drew the pear-stem between his puckered lips, loudly slurping away the remaining flesh. ‘Blood,’ he said, having swallowed. ‘Bile.’ A fastidious face. ‘Humours.’

‘Squeamishness ill-becomes you,’ said Paternoster.

‘I could puke up my tripes when I think of what you people get up to in here.’

‘In much wisdom there is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’ Paternoster bent again to his preparation.

‘Mm. What’s that you’re pickling, anyway?’

‘The tunica conjunctiva palpebralis.’

‘Well, I knew it weren’t a herring in sherry.’

‘The inner membrane of the human eyelid.’ Paternoster tremorlessly tweezered the membrane into position. ‘No, not sherry, Flagg. Whisky may be used, however, in extremis.’ The membrane, pegged with a horsehair bristle, found its equipoise within the clear spirit. ‘Gin, also.’

‘Bit of a waste.’

‘Precisely so.’

‘So you’re using – ’

‘Spirits of wine.’ With two strokes of his white right thumb Paternoster smoothed an inked label into place on the glass. An apprentice would apply the pigbladder hymen and lead sealant. Carefully he set the preparation aside.

Flagg was squinting at him.

‘Brandy, you mean?’

There was a pail of cold water at the end of the bench. Paternoster stooped briefly to rinse his hands, and then stood again to shake them dry.

‘Thrice distilled. But cast the idea from your mind, Flagg. A droplet would render you drunk. A teaspoonful would render you dead. It would not,’ he added, raising cautionary eyebrows, ‘be a festive death.’

‘Yeah, but – ’

There were more than three hundred bottled preparations on the shelves of the long room.

‘Three hundred and fifty-three preparations, each requiring (let us say) one liquid pint of spirituous matter, viz thrice distilled brandy, in total three hundred and fifty-three pints or a little short of forty-five gallons, watered to a tenth dilution, eighty-four gallons to the puncheon, five puncheons at (let us suppose) nine guineas per puncheon – ’ Paternoster’s damp hand lightly pressed against Flagg’s cheek. The surgeon was smiling. ‘And there are many in this sorrowing city,’ he said, the smile deepening, the lips growing fuller, ‘who would not scruple to sup a grog in which a boy child’s testis, or a grandmother’s ovula Nabothi, had once swum.’

The hand was wet from the water pail. A droplet of cold water trickled through the bristles of Flagg’s brown beard. Flagg looked to the ceiling.

‘Oh, I’ve had worse than that in my grog,’ he said, nervousness imparting a sing-song tone to his Cockney. ‘At Harry Hayle’s he once served me a small beer with a rat’s bottom half afloat on it. I’d sooner a boy’s ballock, Mr Paternoster.’

Doctor.’

‘That’s right. A boy’s ballock, Doctor Paternoster, I’d sooner have.’

Paternoster laughed. He clapped his right hand on to Flagg’s shoulder and turned him towards the door. When he bent to put his face in confidentiality close beside Flagg’s he smelt the sweetness of pear and the sourness of the young man’s saliva.

‘And what news,’ he urged huskily, ‘of our friend?’

‘Mendel?’

‘The same.’

‘I seen him,’ Flagg nodded. They had reached the door. Paternoster took his hand from Flagg’s shoulder and unfastened a purse from his belt.

‘Proceed.’

‘I seen him walking to Covent Garden in a hurry, though from where he’d come I couldn’t rightly say.’ Flagg was watching Paternoster’s fingertips ease open the ruched neck of the purse. ‘Always in a hurry, that one. Like a devil’s coach horse.’

‘A beetle,’ Paternoster put in with distaste.

‘Yeah. So he goes to Covent Garden and a house on Odham’s Walk.’

‘Whose house?’

‘The poet, Dr Paternoster, sir.’ Flagg licked his lips. There was a halfcrown now in the open palm of Paternoster’s hand. ‘Only I forgot his name, sir.’ He sank momentarily at the knees. ‘Oh, give me a moment, sir, it’ll come, it’ll come.’

Paternoster waited a moment. Flagg again performed his agitated bob.

‘Goldsmith?’

‘Nah.’

‘Smart?’

‘The lunatic? Nah, not him.’

‘Warton?’

‘No.’

‘Crucius?’

Flagg’s eyes widened.

That’s the bastard,’ he smiled. ‘Michael Crucius. Our boy went in, but he wasn’t there long, and then he went off into the rookery again. At a trot.’

Paternoster sighed.

Thank-you, Flagg.’ He took Flagg’s left wrist in his left hand, pressed the halfcrown into Flagg’s half-open palm, and with his right hand folded closed Flagg’s filthy fingers.

In his happy gratitude Flagg showed both upper and lower gums.

 

Michael sluiced his arms and armpits with water from an oak bucket. In sunlit Ravenna when he had done this he had been happy, afterwards, to stand in the sunlight at the unshuttered window and drink the deep-coloured albana wine of the town and let the water bead and dry on his pink skin. He remembered a cleanly smell of cedar and seasalt. Even the stewed air of muggy northern Padua had provoked a briskening exusion of sweat. Here, in his Covent Garden rooms, the stifling fug of cokesmoke and horsehit straightaway slathered his skin like a hot poultice. Again he sloshed the water from the bucket: he shivered, and felt the London air congeal.

Porca Madonna!’ he sang out hoarsely. ‘Porco dio!’

Slinging his wet cotton towel over one shoulder he bent to his discarded clothes.

‘Translate!’ ordered Grace Grief from the bed.

‘I fear I cannot. It was what the apprentices of Padua used to shout in the piazza when they struck their thumbs with mallets or slipped in the middens.’ Michael rummaged on the floor for his shirt. ‘Something to do with pigs, something to do with the mother of God, I know not what.’

The scrivened notepaper fell from the folds of the shirt as he lifted and shook it.

‘Oho. I had forgotten him.’

‘It would be best if he were forgotten.’

Grace,’ Michael reproved. He pulled on the loose linen shirt and shrugged his damp shoulders. ‘Let me see what he says, this fearful fellow.’ He smiled sidelong at Grace. ‘Should I read aloud?’

‘In the secrecy of your own soul, please,’ said Grace’s voice, muffled by blankets.

Michael nodded wordlessly. Then he read.

 

Dear Michael,

I called at your rooms with urgent news, viz. that the London gentleman Wm. Hewson has disproven the assertions or conclusions of the Dutch van Leeuwenhoek and ascertained by Experiment and Microscopy that the red Cells of the Blood are not spherical – ! – but discoid. In the view of Wm. Hewson the dark region at the Heart of the Cell is a nucleus but this (I think, Michael) remains in Question.

You will understand now the Urgency of my Visitation. However on arrival at your rooms I found you to be engaged in Vilenesses with a rufous Bawd and withdrew. I hope that you will pardon the Intrusion of

Your faithful

H. Mendel

 

Michael smilingly folded the paper into four.

‘He will be upset,’ he said. He tucked the letter into his belt and cinched it tight. He glanced over at the bed. Grace lay still and silent beneath the blanket.

‘No sympathy? No kindly word for poor Henry?’ he called, teasingly.

Grace’s tangled head appeared.

‘Has he been beaten again?’

‘Worse. It transpires that the cells – that certain cells – that there are certain cells that, that – bugger the swines.’ He snatched the letter again from his belt, unfolded, re-read. ‘Ah: the red cells of the blood, yes, those bastards – ’ he struck the paper irritably with the reverse of his forefinger – ‘the red cells, it transpires, are not, as van Leeuwenkoek thought, spherical.’

He lifted his eyebrows and cast a meaningful look at Grace Grief, who frowned.

‘Oh? Then they must be – ’

Michael nodded seriously.

‘Discoid.’

Grace matched the nod.

‘Discoid,’ she echoed in a low and hollow voice. Her face was grave for a moment. ‘Poor van Leeuwenkoek. Whoever he may be.’ Then she laughed, and threw off the blanket, and slipped from the bed to stand naked on the boards, and stretched both her arms above her head, linking her fingers until the cavitations of her knuckles cracked.

Michael, as he re-folded the letter, guilelessly admired her nudity: the beards of flame-red hair in her hollow armpits, her round white shoulders, her high breasts, the dimpled concavity of the small of her back (which she flexed, now, breathing noisily out through her nose, rising on to the balls of her feet until her fingertips brushed the ceiling).

She turned her head, her eyes half-open, and her gaze met Michael’s. Each, unabashed, smiled.

Then Grace dropped to her heels with a thump. Her breasts bounced and the dimples of her arse winked twice.

‘By cells,’ she said, lifting a cream-coloured dress from the bedpost and running its length through her fingers, ‘he means constituent parts.’

‘So I suppose.’

‘And so why red cells? It is blood. All blood is red.’

‘Indeed it is. Except proverbially in the veins of our kings.’

‘Proverbially, but not actually?’

‘Actually, experimentally, empirically, alas, no.’ Michael sat down on the edge of the bed to pull on his boots. ‘King Charles’s chopping-block was stained as red as carmine, the attending physicians observed.’

‘But the present king’s blood may be blue.’

‘It may indeed. I hear that his piss is blue so why not, I say, his blood.’

‘And we have not inspected the blood of a king of France.’

‘We have not indeed,’ Michael agreed. ‘Although – ’ he snatched tight the laces of his right boot, and deftly knotted – ‘we may yet.’ Booted, he stood, and, stepping forward, took hold of the dress Grace held in her hand, and with it drew her towards him. She tilted her head to kiss his throat. He took a breast in his right hand and Grace quivered as he passed his flat thumb in a quarter-circle across her hardening pap.

‘Why,’ she said, into the collar of his shirt, ‘will the shape of the cells of the blood upset the ghastly fellow?’ Her left hand moved to his groin and curled into a loosely made fist.

Michael sighed, haltingly.

‘He loathes this surgeon Hewson.’

‘Why?’ Grace straightened and threw the dress on to the unmade bed.

‘Because he is a surgeon.’

‘Oh.’ She frowned. Michael was distractedly unlatching his belt. The letter fell again to the floor. ‘Will you go and see him?’

With a sigh, Michael pulled open his trousers. ‘I suppose I must,’ he said, as Grace lifted one thick unankled leg on to the bottom of the bed. ‘But I shan’t just yet.’    

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