THE OLD ANARCHIST – a short story

I will be busy for a couple of weeks, and the next post will be on or before Friday, February 15th

THE OLD ANARCHIST – a short story

It was in the early summer of 1975 when I was 24 years old, that I found myself suddenly stranded en route from London to my home in the unusual and certainly the only Irish Cumbrian town in existence, known as Cleator Moor. I was still the perpetual student and I actually preferred hitchhiking to orthodox travel, but I had been fool enough to take a lift to the remotest reaches of South Cumbria, which is about as handy for Cleator Moor as Strathpeffer or the Isle of Muck. The consolation was that the littoral landscape in early June was astonishing, a gigantic sandy estuary burnished to purest, wildest gold in the evening sun, reaching up all the way from Barrow in Furness, an ugly and saturnine town if ever there was, to as far as and then beyond Millom, an obscure little community that once had a busy ironworks, but these days has nothing, albeit it can boast of being the home town of the gifted poet Norman Nicholson, who TS Eliot himself once published with Faber and Faber.

I was dropped off at a Millom suburb known as Green Road, full of pristine bungalows and tidy semis, and which happened to have an unmanned railway station, and where a train up to Whitehaven departed in some two and a half hours. From Whitehaven I would either catch the last bus or leg it all the way to Cleator Moor, and then walk uphill in the pitch dark along what had once been an ancient Roman burial route, to the rented room I had in a terraced house out in the open countryside. I could have kept on hitchhiking from Green Road, but there was no traffic worth the name in this quaint and characterless cul de sac, so I decided to sit on the sun-soaked platform and read and wallow in the warmth. The view across to the open sea was infinitely mesmerising, an enormous ocean of molten and purest gold, yet far more valuable than any real gold could ever be. No precious metal would ever look like this tranquil yet surpassingly potent hallucination of an estuary, even if the stark sociology that winged it on either side was impressive in its sheer unflinching crudity. Where it started, Barrow in Furness, was where Vickers shipbuilding constructed nuclear submarines, and where it terminated subtended British Nuclear Fuels, Sellafield, which thanks to its periodic unscheduled leakages of radioactive plutonium 238 was frequently referred to as ‘Land of the Leaks’, a fortuitous parody of an innocuous coffee table book by the local author Melvyn Bragg, entitled Land of the Lakes

Suddenly a busy little man of about sixty, the kind who is always bent at an angle as he is always in such a rush, walked by me and immediately halted to talk. He was short, wiry, had brilliantined hair, an open and friendly face, and was obviously instinctively sympathetic to the young, including the long haired and bearded variety that was mine. Belatedly, I took in that he was wearing a species of uniform that belonged to British Rail.

“The Whitehaven train? Two and a half hours to kill? Would you like a coffee over in my signal box?”

I looked at him gratefully, as I was indeed dying for some coffee, to which I have been long addicted. Though believe it or not, it wouldn’t be the first time I would enter a signal box, as my warm and kindly Uncle Joe had been a signalman all his life, alleviating any incidental boredom with the Light Programme blaring out much of the day on his battered old transistor radio. Crossing the track, the little man asked me where I lived and when I mentioned Cleator Moor his eyes at once lit up. He was a Millom man himself, and was also an accordionist and folk singer, who had often performed up in the West, the Moor included. He was called Ted, and in a couple of minutes Ted wormed out of me that I was a writer, who had had nothing published but was dedicated to the task. I had a wall decorated with countless rejection slips, I wryly informed him, but I would never give up until I had one of my books between covers.

“It’ll happen,” he said wisely, and with total assurance. “It doesn’t happen to everyone but it’ll happen to you…”

His face was too homely for him to be a clairvoyant, or to have any occult or prophetic powers, but the same thing might not be true of the extraordinary person who was sat there motionless inside the signal box. Ted hadn’t told me he had a guest, and at my first glance the strange visitor was rather like a huge and pensive owl or possibly Dodo or even a Great Auk rooted there on an old-fashioned armchair, whose dilating avine eyes were glinting away in the beautifully refracted sunlight…

That hallucinatory vision was what I observed in a rapid instant, but then I noticed that the huge owl was wearing glasses, one of whose lenses were very thick, which owls might well have in children’s books, but not in a signal box in suburban South Cumbria in 1975. In fact, what I was looking at was a very old bespectacled lady, who was present in some kind of rare and rarefied condition, barely corporeal, and more as if she were half way between mortal and immortal. At the sight of me, she suddenly cleared her throat, but it was the gentlest sound imaginable, as if it had been the mildest chirp of a sparrow or a lark…

“My mother,” Ted announced with a nod, and you could discern the pride in his voice, for it was clear she wasn’t just any old South Cumbrian mother, but instead an impressively timeless and ineffable Presence.

The old lady turned to me very slowly. “I’m eighty-nine years old. How do you do?”

After a pause, I said respectfully, “That means you were born in either 1885 or 1886. I was born in 1950 and I’m twenty-four years old . How do you do ?” 

She blinked her old bird’s blink through the very magnified lens, and it looked to me as if she might have cataracts and might even be half blind. Then she said she was called Euphemia, which was an august and impossible name, though she added that everyone always addressed her as Phemie. In the same breath and with a quaint curiosity, she inquired whether I were a married man or just courting. I smiled at her as did Ted, and told her that neither was the case, though it wasn’t for want of looking. Then as if she were my natural and chosen confessor, I said I had broken with my teenage sweetheart Marjorie nearly five years ago, and had pursued an up and down and very unsatisfactory course since…

Euphemia answered calmly, “Aha. I see. Well you might as well listen to me, if you wish. Try being bold is my advice. Boldness is everything. It really is. If you like someone, no matter how shy you feel, you go and walk right up to her, and ask her out, don’t hesitate. If she says no, it might be disappointing, but keep asking other girls you like until eventually one says yes. Sooner or later, one of them is bound to say yes, even if you are a leper, which of course you’re not. That is how things happen, and that is how they work. It’s no use hanging back and making a meal out of everything, is what I’m saying.”

Ted was grinning and shaking his head by her side, and it was obvious that his confidence in my success as a writer, was simply a variation on his mother’s prophetic confidence about my romantic future…

Euphemia then murmured in an ironic tone, “Can you guess how it is I know so much about human nature?”

I looked at her for quite some time. “You might have been a hospital nurse, I suppose. And if that’s the case, you know all about people at their limits of life and death and fear and mortal terror and…”

She snorted. “Like hell. I’d never have put up with wiping all the shit and snot and whatnot, and especially with adults. I had enough of that with all my kids.  I’d had two children by your age, and I was twenty-seven when I had Ted who was the third. My husband Ronnie died when he was thirty-five of what they call haemoconiosis. He worked twenty years in the iron mines at Beckermet, choking and spitting every night with the dust, and there I was a widow with six kids and no means of support. I braced myself and took out the license on a very rough pub called The Castle in a side street in Millom, the only way that I could make an income… and I ran it till 1955 when I was seventy and the brewery pensioned me off. I learnt everything about human nature from the public house, where believe me nothing is a secret, but everything is a secret, as most people never say what they really think. And those secrets are completely unbelievable, but also they are believable, and you could write a book about them…”

What could I possibly say to that? An ancient owl or auk irradiated by pure gold shafts of ancient light was instructing me in the ways of men. And, for that matter, possibly a few brave or reckless women who had nerve enough to drink in that same rough Millom pub between 1920 and 1955.

I asked her, meaning I demanded, “What did you learn?”

 “What exactly did I learn? Oh, I learnt that there are a lot of shivering cowards in this world, especially amongst men. Courage isn’t that hard to come by you know, you just flex your muscles and you do whatever you have to do, whatever that might be. And because of that unusual attitude of mine, I was never out of trouble with the law…”

I looked at her in bafflement, “You mean fights breaking out in the pub…?”

She snorted. “I could quell any riot with a single blink of my eye. This eye here in fact, that has these bloody cataracts on it. The hardest boys from the ironworks would soon shit themselves and start grovelling if I stared them straight in the eye. No, the problem was, I had a lot of trouble with my pub’s closing hours, on account of the fact I didn’t believe in them…”

Ted interrupted, “She never closed the pub is what she means. She would go to bed many a night and tell them to help themselves, and to leave the money in the tea caddy behind the bar. They never cheated her, because if anyone tried to, they would get a hell of a pestling from the rest.”

Euphemia sniffed as she explained, “I was brought up in front of the magistrates more times than I can remember. They always said the same thing. Why do you persist in breaking the licensing laws and staying open half the night? So, I looked at them all quivering away, frightened little bank managers and mousy little shopkeepers, and I said to them, because they happen to have the money, and I happen to have the beer. If they can pay me for the beer, I don’t see why I shouldn’t give them what they want. And they gasped out loud and said, but that is preposterous, that is pure anarchy, you can’t just make up your own laws! I said I can’t see why I can’t make them up, if I’m not actually harming anyone. They glared at me then, and snapped that the men could be at home with their families, instead of frittering money away in my public house. I said sorry, but no, they wouldn’t be at home if they weren’t with me. There are plenty of single men among them, and they would be in one of the bachelor’s houses drinking whisky, not beer, from an off license, and playing cards and losing money all night, and I mean a lot of money, all of their wages many a time. As for me, I exercise control on their behalf in my public house. I don’t let them spend more than a few shillings if they play three card brag in The Castle, and I turf the whole bloody lot out if they try…”

I said to her, “You were obviously providing a public service to half the town.  But magistrates aren’t allowed to think beyond their written guidelines, or beyond their recommended tariffs.  They have to play things by the book, or else. Though I’m still a bit puzzled. I don’t see why you didn’t lose your license …”

The Dodo blinked and just then a gleaming shower of refracted gold from the blazing Duddon Estuary fell upon her cataracts and transformed her for a long moment into a brilliant golden eagle. She laughed or rather she exploded with sarcasm:

“I turned on the womanly tears, of course. I broke down and I wept in the dock! I was a widow with six children, three of them still at school. I had no other means of support, I told them. They sniffed and shuffled and one or two wiped their eyes and cleared their old men’s throats. No amount of my handkerchief-wringing was too much for them. That’s because I worked in a pub for thirty-five years, and I knew all about human nature and especially the nature of men. I knew that even a tight-arsed bank manager turned magistrate couldn’t bear the thought of an old widow becoming penniless just because of him and his heartless judgement…”

I looked at both her and her son, “And it worked every time? Anybody but you would have been frightened that it might not work the next time…”

Euphemia surveyed me in a decidedly magisterial way herself.

“Always be bold and fearless, is my advice. In fact, be good and reckless if you need be. It’s amazing what you can achieve if you have plenty of nerve, and don’t give a damn.  Six kids and no husband can be a good teacher, if you’re only thirty-five years old. You only live the once, you see, though most folk I know decide not to look that in the face. I happen to be near the end of my time, while you’ve just started off on yours, but the same applies to both. You can hide behind your shadow for year after year as the safest bet , and manage to make yourself a kind of life. But guess what happens in the end, if you do?”

I shuffled in my chair. “Death is what happens?”

Euphemia smiled and as the estuary light outside began to glow and burn and cascade through impossible whirls of evanescent cloud, as if indeed this June evening were to be the very beginning of Time, she said to me:

“No. Not death, or at least not real death. What happens if you hide behind your shadow for too long, is that you yourself turn into a shadow. You are not really alive, you’re certainly not dead, but you’ve become exactly like a shadow. And unless a miracle happens, that marks the end for you believe you me…”

A long and heavy silence followed, until Ted, her third child, asked me if I wanted another coffee.

I said to him, “Oh yes. I certainly do.”

And then old half blind Euphemia rose from her armchair and slowly left, and Ted and I started to swap anecdotes about Cleator Moor and everyone we knew there, the wild cards as well as all the rest.

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