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Fin de Siecle

A Victorian London fop hears the call of the wild in the Klondike.

The hatch above me flicked open to reveal the urine coloured whiskers of the cabman. A bone with a weathered skin that stretched transparent thin across his battered skull and gave him a boudin blanc appearance. His newborn's eyes betrayed fragility and pricked in me an urge to nurture as he remained open mouthed and disconnected momentarily as if examining a pickled curio. I was undecided if I was irritated by his intrusion or to hug him when at once our presence registered, and grinning a ventriloquist's grin he peered at us like one of us was weird and wan.    

  “Season's greetings,” he lisped in a hoarse whisper as his frosty breath filled our cramped compartment with tobacco fog. I arranged my scarf as if a veil across my face to mask the reek of shag; and with no more than my eyes exposed I was put in mind of Wilde's Salomé as George directed the funk and decorous nicotinian toward the area of Blackwall, and Brunswick Wharf in particular.

  “Mr Hyde got himself a day job then, eh?” Said William.

  We'd just buried William Fagoter's mother, and wishing to lend a sympathetic ear to the crass young man for his journey home George invited the feral fellow to squeeze in and share our cab on the pretext that Blackwall was on our route. Likely aware it was a ruse, though unwilling or unable to refuse his mentor's kindness, William joined us; and what a treat with the evening's concert pressing. There was little time for diversion, less for an expedition into the cheerless social swamp of London's east end, as I was anxious to be home and making ready for the wonders of a festive fairy tale at the Crystal Palace.

  “The service went well George; I reckon my ol' mum would've loved it.”   

  Mrs Fagoter was buried near the Dogwood and the fading Hollyhock, well away from the trim walks of the first class ground and the monumental masonry. Finding room for the dead is proving troublesome nowadays and the city's graveyards are dug out over and over as a consequence. It hardly seems fitting to consider Fagoter's burial a final resting place as soon enough they'll dig her up and toss her bones aside for those more recently deceased. 

  “Getting us out of there saved her life, George, and I'm grateful to you.”

  “My dear boy,” he ejaculated while clamping onto William's thigh with his stocky fingers, scarred and twisted from punching teeth, and shaking the young man's leg vigorously as he continued. “Mrs Fagoter was precious to be sure; another soul more eager to please I've yet to come across. She was positively infectious with good humour, never without that particular smile of hers and, you know, we can all be satisfied she lived her final years with dignity and joy in her heart. 'Blessed are the pure in heart', William, 'for they will see God', and if it's your mind to be grateful lad, then be grateful she's in good hands now.”

  The obsequios Mrs fagoter, God rest her soul, always gave her best efforts to keep a reasonable house for us on occasion; and while the colourful crone was no Mrs Beeton she was wholly deserving of George's unctuous praise. I regret we never spoke, except in regard to her duties, and I wish she'd known how I admired her eccentricity and confidence to be so. Her dubious indifference to naked flesh, and strands of bright red hair in her freshly baked bread are memories that will stay with me.

  “You did the good deed mate, not 'im upstairs. I'm sure I'd be neither grateful nor comforted knowing His hands protect her now.” 

  “There was no good deed,” he gently said, and still clutching William's leg. “I was never motivated by consideration or a thoughtful mind; you owe me nothing.” 

  “You went out your way to get us out the spike, took us in and everything, an' did a good deed indeed.”  

  “It seems obvious to assume our choices are our own but they're not, they never are, and you're rolling your eyes William.”

  “It makes no sense is all, it don't matter how many times you tell it.”

  “We're compelled to act as we do; resistance is futile even when our behaviour defies logic. I could just as likely done you harm that day.”

  “That's bollocks that is.”

  “Perfect,” burst George, the consonant causing an eruption of spittle that sprayed about the cab. “It's taking time but I feel you're coming round to my view. Perhaps we should put this matter to bed once and for all, do you agree?”

  “Until the next time, yeah?” said William wiping his face with his sleeve.”

  “So, I'm curious why you've made no mention of my visit yet.” 

  “I just reckoned you'd have said something if the news were good.”

  “There's more to life than good news,” said George rather theatrically, “today is testament to that, surely. But I see you're uninterested, and God forbid I might bore you with facts.” With an affected gesture he released his tourniquet grip on William's leg, and gazed through the window while tapping an impatient rhythm on his thighs.

  “Officialdom can be frustrating,” said William fairly resigned after some minutes had passed, and after the circulation had returned to his leg. 

  “Nothing stymies process like officialdom, and nothing frustrates one quite like colliding with it; why, even Job's mighty resolve would be put to the test.”

  “I'm sure it was exasperating,” he said with a mocking tone I thought. 

  “Quite so,” said George; who hadn't respired since Deptford Creek, causing his temple to throb. “Their attitude baffles me, truly it does; they rebuff any conclusion that's not their own, and without civilised discorse we're no better than the beasts and savages of the forest. Prigs ... the ruddy lot of 'em.”

  “You learned that at least.” 

  “I learned that men with ideas aren't highly regarded in government, William, and that's all.”

  “They didn't offer you a cup of tea then?”

  “What they offered me, old boy, was an especially hard chair the government provide for suppliants waiting on dignity, and the bloody thing groaned and creaked like rigging, provoking indignant stares toward me whenever I had cause to adjust myself.” 

  “I could do with a nice cup of tea right now, actually, with pie and mash.”

  “God knows how long I sat there. My armoured knight came by way of an ornate and effulgent flunky with a facial tick and stockings. He led me away with a mincing gait through a warren of darkened passages until we met with a solid looking door with a glowing slit beneath it. I was told to wait, of course, by this time I was quite expert, while my escort twitched and disappeared inside for several minutes before reappearing to invite me through.”  

  “You have to try this place, mate, it's the best liquor you'll ever have,” said william pointing through the window at a crowded eatery; and more likely the best opportunity for botulism you'll ever have.

  “I entered a room full of blinding winter sunshine, a miracle of luminosity which pressed against my eyes like gouging thumbs momentarily; until white gave way to blurry formless shapes becoming blurry formless men, perspiring red faced men in heavy uniform. Magnificent windows let in baulks of light that trapped the dust and smoke from a fire belching out a furnace heat which stole away the moisture from my lungs.” 

  “Damp logs is the secret, not green, just damp.”

  “The venue was a gilded, sumptuous marketplace of gentlemen with braided gold and brushy epaulets and portraits of gentlemen in braided gold with brushy epaulets who may have been anyone or anything; and with ne'er a word I was offered more furniture to torture my fundament and left to wait once more as steadily my insignificance grew.    Everyone wore an air of dominance and authority; and those who glanced my way seemed not to even notice me. Eventually, I was permitted to submit my plans but no one talked to me or asked me questions regarding them as the sole topic for discussion was that old chestnut about Thames Ship and Ironworks acquiring Meriwether Salvage.    I don't mind the wait. I'm a patient man and recognised as such, but, why they make you wait upsets me most. It's a game they play, shenanigans to put one off balance and unsettle the nerves; and it's unpleasant and exhausting.” 

  George drains one of willing attention like the vampire drains one of blood; and as the children of the night howled their strange music he sucked away at William's with all the energy of a ravenous lamb at her mother's teat; until mention of the ironworks pricked the young man and brought him back with a start. 

  “What's that ... about Thames ship? ”

  “Oh, there's suggestion a new offer is imminent,” replied George, looking much better now he was breathing again.

  “Well, it's been a few years since the last one, eh? Don't spose they'll ever learn. Though you have to give 'em credit for trying.”

  “This time they want a partnership, as well as offering us an irresistible financial package.”

  “How exciting. Meriwethers in partnership with the Navy shipbuilder,” said I.

  “They want the water front and the land we sit on,” said William, “nothing else. 

  “Was there an indication how irresistible, or when?” I asked, though I was ignored of course as William chimed in.

  “Was Albion mentioned at all?” 

  “Briefly, there was - some mention.”

  “What'd they say?”

  “Pretty much as you said william, really.” George seemed embarrassed and his tone brusque. “The buggers dismissed Albion as despicable, underhand; un-British even ... and I believe the director of Naval construction might go with Parsons.” 

 “What's Parsons?” I asked.

  “Charles Parsons my dearest Evelyn, he's the chap that made the newspapers for disrupting the review for the Queen's jubilee celebration last year.”

  George stared as if willing me to recall the incident but these days there's always some crank or other ready to exchange dignity for publicity.

  “He developed the turbine engine...” his voice rising in pitch as if stating an obvious fact.”

 “I'm sorry George, a huffy tone does nothing to aid my memory.”

  “Charlie Parsons reinvented the steam engine; for decades it's plodded up and down essentially unchanged, until this fellow incorporated a turbine which made it spin like a whirling Dervish making it infinitely more efficient. The man's a genius... he made his fortune with it generating electricity somewhere up north.    Then he had an idea to power maritime vessels with it, and to garner publicity he installed his new fangled engine to a boat, he called Turbinia, which he used to make a damned nuisance of himself at the Navy review, in front of the Prince of Wales and all the Navy big wigs. He ripped up and down, between lines of ships while evading every navy boat that tried to stop him.    Nobody had seen a boat that fast before and now it seems the Admiralty want to fit his turbine engine to all its ships; every ship in the British Navy.”

  “It's finished then?”

  “What is?”

  “With the Admiralty.”

  “No, not at all. We have to demonstrate our ideas more convincingly is all. Perhaps I might try a similar stunt to Parsons.”

  “Parsons already had the idea, it's gone; besides, the next jubilee is years away. You could always shoot for the old girl's funeral, that won't be long I'm sure.”

  “Not one ally in that room, william, surely they can't all be against me.” 

  “Wasn't your chum Hinkey there?”

  “Commander Hinkey, yes, but surrounded by superiors he was given little opportunity to express an opinion or venture his support.”  

  “Prat.”

  “Commander Hinkey is a gentleman and a good friend of mine William, and as it's the case you've never met the man then your opinion is quite worthless.”

  “Yesterday weren't about Albion, George, you know that right? It was Thames Iron getting their admiralty mates to gauge your opinion. They want our little yard and that's all. It's time to move on.” 

  “Move on to what? Another one of your hair brained schemes no doubt.” 

  “That's right, one of those funny little schemes that settle our accounts.” 

  “There'll be no more grovelling about the seabed searching for coal, William.”

  “That's a good income for us, George, and it's regular. It paid for that fancy timepiece of yours didn't it?

  “It's a Frodsham, actually.”

  “Pacific Cable are certain to sink 8000 ton between Canada and Fanning Island next year; we're on board if we want it, and that'll pay our bills for the next two years. On top of that the French are looking to run another Atlantic line into Newfoundland.”

  “We'll not assist the French, surely?”

  “See this as good news George. Worldwide telegraphy changes everything; it's about co-operation now, building new relationships with old adversaries, and the possibility that a system of free trade might eventually lead to peace. Consider that; these cables might actually mean an end to war; it's a big deal. We don't need the Admiralty, nobody does; their days are done. This is the future mate, and Meriwethers could be there, right there smack bang in the middle of it all.”  

  “Your enthusiasm takes my breath away, William, it's always seductive; but it's naive and not at all practical. France and Russia are chomping at the bit to break the Empire, and I doubt purchasing British matches will change that: of course we need the admiralty. You can't build a business on sentiment and idealism; you'll learn that when you have a company of your own. Until then, I'm in charge at Meriwether's; and would appreciate you giving me the opportunity to manage it occasionally.”

  “Absolutely, sir, but I ask you please consider all our options before going down the Navy route.”

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