Guy Fawkes, Everlasting Love, and the Last Rolls Royce Ride
The London and North Eastern Railway, or L.N.E.R. for short, had a domed station two miles from Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding which echoed to the steps of serious post-war commuters to and from London. In the days before November the fifth we would sing a song there to petition for pennies.
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes Guy, ‘twas his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s mercy he was catched
With a dark lantern and lighted match.
Holler boys, Holler boys, let the bells ring
Holler boys, Holler boys. God save the King.
Guy Fawkes Day, November the fifth, in 1945 was an occasion of great wonderment to me. At five I had been immensely relieved and elated to celebrate V.E. Day and, later that same year, V.J. Day. The entire population of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding from the celebrated and heroic soldiers to the children whose entire lives had been spent listening for the last all-clear siren, gathered for parties. The first party was to mark the victory over the empire, or V.E. Day and the second was V.J. Day to honor, if you will, the victory over the Japanese. These were costume parties for children many of whom had no idea of possessing more than one set of clothes or more than one toy for that matter. There was singing, "Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run." There was food, although much of it must have been from the black market to nobody's surprise. There were prizes for most beautiful baby and best costume. And there was an immense sense of relief that life would be easier from then on. Nine years later, food rationing finally ended.
Those first parties in my life were magical. It seemed to me that everyone was happy although there must have been an enormous sadness for those people who could not participate because they were buried on the battlefields, hospitalized with mutilated bodies, or institutionalized with crippled minds. Even those present must have had thoughts for their loved ones who were lost in one way or another. I cannot pretend to you that I lost a member of my family. My father did come back.
It was Harry Crow's mural of the old railway station which taught me later on that the scars of war are not all visible. There are those who never come back, those who come back physically wounded, those who come back mentally wounded, those who waited, and even those of us born during and after the war; and we all felt the mark of the great inhumanity of man to man. Let me tell you now of Harry's mural to illustrate my point.
The huge, gleaming steam locomotive seemed to be rushing out of the wall at the beat policeman as he stood talking to the artist, Harry Crow.
"I remember the old trains, Harry," he said, "It amazes me that you can capture them in such detail. I never could draw like that."
"And I could never do your job either," said the painter.
They had grown to know each other as the weeks of painting progressed although the subject of Harry's night trips into the world of poaching were never discussed. He periodically climbed down from the ladders set against the wall to measure the effect from across the street or to check a detail from the corner, where the mural first revealed itself to the unsuspecting pedestrians. He had visits and critiques from many passersby and from the members of the committee which had hired him. The general public shouted encouragement. People blew their horns and waved. A fire crew blared their truck's klaxon at him. A few hangers-on appeared. One was a boy of four or five.
"What you doing?" he had asked, having climbed undetected fifteen feet up the scaffolding. He seemed parentless until his mother caught him one day. Neither of them was seen again. A sweet young thing also struggled up but had to be discouraged from joining in the party. Harry preferred the company of the young boy, who was not pretending to be an artist, only enjoying the colors for what they were. The boy was not a threat to Harry's drinking money either.
The officer of the law had a regular daytime beat through the parking lot between the mural wall and the old railway station. He had once confided to the painter that he paid a visit everyday to a frail, quite mad, lady standing in a doorway by the old station waiting for her lover to come home from the war. She had been there, off and on, since Dunkirk. Although she sometimes disappeared for days, and even weeks on end, she always came back to the same spot. She had worn the same type of blue dress each day she was there. Her makeup had not changed in style either, becoming pancake-thick as the years etched lines into her face.
"You must paint her picture," the cop had said as they enjoyed a pint or two at the Holly Bush one evening.
"I only do Trompe L'Oeil murals, you see, and I leave the locals to populate them."
"And what on this dear sweet old earth might that mean, trump-whatever-that-was?"
" ' Trompe L'Oeil' literally means 'fooling the eye'. It is a style of painting in such detail that the eye fools the mind into thinking the mural is real. If that makes sense to you." said Harry. He wandered if he had reached the old Irishman at all.
"Aye, then you must paint her picture in that style for sure, because her mind is certainly fooling her eyes!" said the policeman, and off he went, not wanting to spend too much time publicly in the presence of a Whippet Clan member. Harry wandered if his friend was thinking he, Harry, was a failure at portraits.
The conversation had troubled the artist. He had always kept his drawings of people in a separate and very private place. It was not possible to create a perfect likeness of a person. Nor could he depict a soul well. Possibly his life would have been easier as a portrait painter for prominent citizens, but he was content enough with his apartment for shelter, and food seemed to arrive on his plate with enough regularity to keep him going.
He had tried painting nudes, but the effect, although very realistic, was soulless in a way that agitated him, reminding him of his childhood. O'Meara's comment took him back to the time in his teens when he lost his trust in adults. It had been a painful time, full of anger, which was only lately beginning to abate.
He was very pleased with this particular mural of trains rushing from a wall towards the old station which had fallen into disuse with the advent of electrical trains of the London Underground. Behind the trains he had reproduced the old station building as it was in its heyday complete with a row of old gas lampposts diminishing correctly into three point perspective. He steadfastly resisted suggestions from both the committee members and O'Meara, the cop, to paint figures in to "Give it a sense of the size of those great machines."
On one blustery autumn day when the painting was not going well and the policeman made the suggestion for the umpteenth time, Harry had flared up. "You do the policing, O'Meara, and I'll do the painting."
Sensing ruffled feathers, Harry changed the subject.
"How is your girlfriend in the doorway?"
"It's a sad case, Harry. I have to move her away. The old clothiers were liberal enough to allow her to stay there. They had lost people in the holocaust. They understood. People today do not remember. The war is something that involved their fathers and grandfathers. The new proprietors have complained and the next time she turns up I have been told to move her along or bring her in to the police station. I don't like it at all, at all."
"Bring her here," said Harry, without thinking, "She won't know the difference, will she?"
"Maybe not at that. It's worth a go."
She came silently one day and stood by the mural beside the section showing the doorway of the clothiers store at the corner of the old station. She was not a pretty sight. The low-cut blue silk dress covered a soiled, off-white under vest and was in turn covered by a faded green jacket. The shoes, once high heeled and blue, were scuffed and worn down to flats and beyond. She wore soiled, worn, elbow-length gloves which were more a reflection of her attempts to appear youthful than a sign of past gentility. The make-up was that of a demented mime actress, thick and white, with rigidly arched eyebrows over yellowing eyes. Her grey hair was carefully braided in the style of a school girl. She seemed to have recently stepped from a shower, smelling clean and fresh in jarring contrast to her looks.
Harry painted on, putting the finishing touches to a row of electric meters which were disguised as gages for the steam engines. They never spoke. O'Meara checked on her daily while she was there, whether he was on duty or not. She said not a word to him while he rocked gently on his heels telling her of the fine day it was, and the score in a cricket game, and all the other things that pleased him in the world. A negative word never passed his lips as he talked to her.
At last the mural was finished. Harry took down his ladders, removing the scaffolding around the crazy lady as gently as possible. He stood for a long time across the road and took in the whole mural with the one small, frail figure at the far end. She was almost to scale. Perhaps, he thought, she would have fit in her younger days.
O'Meara kept vigil with her at the Trompe L'Oeil haberdasher's doorway in the make-believe station until he passed away in his sleep as the sun rose, on the kind of day he had imagined for the Ireland he had never seen. The old lady, stuck in time, was put away for her own good and killed by kindness administered in the form of valium, stelazine, and thorazine. She died still complaining that, if only she could get to the train station, her sweetheart would return to her and she would live happily ever after. It rained the day she died. She probably would not have been in her artificial doorway anyway, since it gave no protection from the real weather and she was not so crazy that she would get her make-up wet. What if he had come home then and seen her when she was smudged and bedraggled?
Harry moved on to other murals, refining his art and his skill at deception. He filled wall after wall with paint. Some were bulldozed down almost before the commission was paid. Others lingered for years being especially celebrated by young, fun-loving people. He became a cartoonist for the daily newspaper which was less fulfilling but more filling to his stomach. He worked harder on his portraitures and was pleased by one whimsical effort he made of Jane's son Henry. It had as much soul as he could see in the boy himself and was more in the Impressionist style. Perhaps he was maturing, certainly he was less easily angered.
Harry had taken me on a tour of all his murals about the county when I was five. I had loved them for their size and sheer fun. When I was twelve, we repeated the trip to see how many survived. I looked with a more critical eye at the trains now. I had benefited from long discussions of art with Harry and the rest of the Whippet Clan.
"People often told me that it needs a human figure to bring the size of the machines into perspective," Harry said and he told me about O'Meara, the cop, and his care for the crazy old lady. Harry wondered where they were now.
That night, having spent the evening drinking with the rest of the Whippet Clan, Harry lay awake for an hour arranging his two, old acquaintances against the mural's image in his head. As the room slowly spun before his eyes, the colors came to him. He stripped her to her frail bones and covered her with vibrant young flesh. He dressed her in a new, blue silk frock with white ribbons in her hair. O'Meara remained ageless in his neat uniform with the shine of his badge reflected in his eyes.
Sorting through his old paints at two in the morning, Harry held on to the two images and went over the old techniques in his mind. He walked down to the old station parking lot. Seeing nobody about, he began to paint.
As he bent to put the final highlights to the polish on O'Meara's Trompe L'Oeil shoes, he saw the white paint reflected in a pair of official issue real ones.
"Isn't that O'Meara?" said the young policeman. "He was the salt of the earth, that man."
"It is, "said Harry, straightening up and sorting through his weary mind for a plausible explanation for his actions. Instead, he reached up and signed "Harry" below his old signature. He went home to bed and slept till the pubs opened again.
A week later, as Harry looked at his Magnus opus and pondered on the changes he had made, an ancient transient stood still, staring at the girl in blue, silk dress he had sent from Paris. He recognized her through the years of lonely wandering and spoke her name aloud.
He caught sight of O'Meara's knowing look, and hurried away.
Harry was telling Plinge about the incident on the day of the ex-police chief’s funeral. They were sitting on a rustic wooden bench outside the Holly Bush having a mid-day pint or four when the procession passed by. They momentarily postponed their immediate mission and watched in less than reverent silence. Jane rode in the Rolls Royce hearse with her shriveled up titmouse of a mother, and her various sons, William, Timothy, Knobby, and Henry. There followed a column of the men of several of the constabularies of the villages surrounding Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding, all well known to the Whippet Clan in a profession capacity. Behind the coppers came what passed for dignitaries in the village. Bringing up the rear, as always, was Gerald, pushing the empty wheelchair with Geraldine, balanced on the footrests.
The three Biddy's found many ways to feed their imagined indignation at the behavior of Gerald Meek's four sons. Since Geraldine was as good and sweet as honey, and looked just like her father, their tongues were silent, much as it pained them to be so. Jane alone knew that Gerald was the father of all her sons and was upset by his bias towards their daughter. I know this to be indeed, in fact, and indubitably true, because my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge E.P.N.S. told me so himself as we sat with our backs in a hawthorn hedge.