Tuesday, November 30, 2010

SMOKEY CRUSADE by R M Fox

Chapter 3

THE HIGH CROSS




From the workshop gate I could see, at the corner of the street, a big stone cross - the High Cross, a relic of the days of chivalry. I thought it marked a stage of the journey taken by the funeral procession of Queen Eleanor in 1290. The story of how she had sucked the poison from a dagger wound inflicted by a Moor upon her husband, King Edward, when he was crusading in the Holy Land was one of the romances of my school­days. Afterwards I learned that this was not one of those famous crosses, yet it held for me the glory and thrill of romantic history.
    Though not so fine as Charing Cross or Waltham Cross it still raised itself to the sky with a proud gesture as if the men who made it said, " We are not so little after all! " My eyes rested gratefully on the delicate stone traceries of the High Cross in those early misty mornings when I hurried by it to work. Almost opposite the High Cross above a shop - which may have been a saddler's - was the skeleton of a horse, propped up with iron supports against the sky. The wind whistled through its unprotected ribs and made play around its knobbly knees. It looked in­credibly mournful and desolate. As a decoration I preferred the medieval cross with its suggestion of beauty and dignity, but as an introduction to an age of realism perhaps the bony skeleton was more fitting. Alas! the age of realism proved too much for its symbol, for the bony skeleton has long since vanished while the High Cross still celebrates the triumph of human hands and minds.
    
In the workshop 1 had no time to dream about such things. Life was too urgent.
One effect of our combined demand for a rise had been to throw Bert, the Cockney, and myself together.
"Where do you go to of an evening?" he asked one Saturday morning, peering at me from behind his greasy forelock.
 "Sometimes I go out, sometimes I stay at home and read," I answered vaguely.
He wrinkled his nose in contempt.
"Why don't you come dahn the Monkeys' Parade?" he asked. "Larf! Me and George uster 'ave lots of fun there. Girls!" - he rolled his eyes - " You wouldn't believe!"
The Monkeys' Parade was that half-mile of High Street about which some magic clung, especially on Saturday and Sunday evenings, when groups of laughing, bright-eyed girls wandered up and down, exchanging glances and greetings with half-grown lads. It was a club of the streets in which the spirit of youth ran riot.
     The starting whistle blew, and one of the men called Bert away. When I saw him later he winked, and put his finger to the side of his nose significantly. "Seven o'clock, Sunday," he whispered. "I'll meet you at West Green Corner! "
     We were working late that Saturday and, when I left, the sky was turning a wonderful shade of violet and the street lamps shone like bright jewels. The world held a mysterious beauty which I felt but could not express. All the grime was left behind for the day, the growing shadows softened every harsh outline and made every­thing fairylike. I was eager for new experience, new life. As I entered the gate and went in to tea I thought I was still undecided about Bert's invitation but, in reality, I had made up my mind.
     On Sunday evening punctually at seven I arrived, and there was Bert,. in a big check cap, sitting on the railings, smoking a woodbine.
"Hallo, thought you was never coming! " he said, jumping off.
     We walked down the pathway, passing the wooden seats scattered at intervals along the Green. Bert had his cap cocked at an acute angle and walked with a swagger. For a hundred yards by West Green Corner the wide pavements were thronged with groups oflads and girls. Some had gathered round the seats in the Green, and from these groups came whisperings and giggles. Others strolled with lofty disdain but turned at the end of the lights and repassed the same spot. Eyes flashed invitation as they passed. These youngsters were stirred by early mysterious promptings and thrills of which they were just becoming conscious. Scuffles, nudges and shrieks of laughter came from every group.
     Bert, as a man of the world, affected to be above all this, but his jaunty step and excited giggles showed that he delighted in the tumult.
"You should see it later on," he gurgled. "This ain't nothing! You'll see 'em all over the bloomin' road, pavement an' all, an' so thick you have to fight your way through! Allo, Molly!" he yelled, grabbing a girl's arm as she passed. " Don't know me now? Gettin' stuck-up, ain't you?"
    He drew Molly out of the crowd into a shop doorway.
    The girl laughed. "I must be going," she announced firmly.
" 'Oo's the lucky one? " asked Bert grinning.
"Well, so long, Moll, see you another night." He squeezed her hand and nudged her with his elbow, but, wriggling free, she ran off.
     Two other girls came along arm-in-arm. In their light-coloured Sunday dresses they looked to me far too elegant and lovely to have any con­tact with the world of oil and grime to which Bert and I belonged. I was amazed when Bert sud­denly leaned forward and gave one of them a loud smack on the shoulder. And I was quite unpre­pared for the squeal of delighted laughter which followed. I had no sisters and was ready to wor­ship at the shrine of girlhood in mute admiration, but to see a potential goddess mauled by Bert's grubby fingers was a shock. Bert gave me a push which sent me staggering into the arms of the other girl. I drew back in confusion. I had been responsive to the glamour of lights and laughter. Life was a grand spectacle and a great adventure. But this jostling on the Monkeys' Parade sud­denly became meaningless and unattractive. The glamour died out. I looked round for a way of escape.
     Bert was getting on well with his companion. I heard him howl with glee and a shrill laugh answered. In his wisdom he took what life offered and was content. I slipped from the footpath and, evading the others, mingled with the crowds that were standing in the open space at the corner. Flowing towards the corner, by the lighted win­dows of West Green Road, came one human stream. It was joined by another which flowed along the quieter and more shadowy pathway by the Green - as the open space was called. At the corner both streams met, eddied and swirled. Here, at about seven o'clock, a Salvation Army band played. Soon they departed, marching off in great style behind the Blood and Fire flag to their citadel, with bonneted girls shaking their tambourines. This left the ground free for ora­tors, agitators, world-shakers and evangelists of various kinds.
     As I went farther from the footpath I found my progress barred by a crowd which stood packed round a wooden platform from which a man was speaking. A row of bushy trees helped to justify the name of the Green, but the one at the end, near the speaker, was quite bare as if unable to survive the weekly torrents of oratory to which it had been exposed. I paused and some quality or cadence in the speaker's voice made me listen.
     Energy was expressed in his thick-set frame, his vibrant voice, and in the defiant way in which he shook back his mane of curly hair. In the moon­light the speaker's head and shoulders were sil­houetted clearly above the crowd. Round him the audience was gathered, a solid mass of white, attentive faces. He had reached that point­known to every artist in words-when the audi­ence and himself had fallen under the spell. In loud clear tones he was voicing the gospel of discontent.
I stood and listened. Here was a man appealing to that youthful blood which, in every generation, is ready to pour itself out in sacrifice to cleanse the world. He was calling to struggle, to adventure, to freedom - to all those impulses which were stirring in me. He rose to his climax and, un­consciously, the audience leaned forward:
"When Pizarro landed in Mexico, he gathered his followers together and drew a line in the sand" - the speaker paused and with a single sweeping gesture drew a line in the air - " then he spoke to them. 'If any man among you fears to come, let him stay with the boats. But those who do not fear, let them step over this line and follow me. Beyond those hills lies the unknown. There may be vast treasure waiting for us there, there may be danger, perhaps suffering and death. But remember that, for whoever steps over that line, there is no turning back'!"
With his arm outstretched, as if pointing to the line, he went on:
"To-night I am asking you to cross the Rubicon. If you want freedom, if you want the lives that men and women should lead, and are prepared to fight all the forces of hell that are leagued to hold you back - step over that line!"
The speaker's head disappeared from the crowd as he clambered down from the platform, and a murmur of applause ran through the audience. They were impressed by his speech, and dispersed reluctantly. Yet though many surrendered themselves to the dream, they knew they were not going to rise in revolt. They had heard it many times before. For me it was new. It seemed that I had actually crossed a clearly defined line and that my life would never be the same again. I snatched eagerly at the mantle of glamour which had been flung over the everyday drabness and meanness of life. Till then I had accepted the world as it was and, though discontented - with the keenly felt wretchedness of youth - I had not dreamed of the possibility ofquestion, let alone of swift and violent change. Discontent came to me now not as a limping, dragging misery, but with a flaming torch, flower-crowned and shining with the beauty of an ideal.
Strange thoughts crowded in on my eager brain when I went to bed that night, and I slept fitfully. It seemed that I was hardly sound asleep when five o'clock came and the alarm clock, with its shrill, urgent clamour, called me back to another week's toil.

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