Preview The Exhibitionists

 

 

 

THE EXHIBITIONISTS

by

Russell James

A Preview . . .

 

October 1834

 

THE GREAT FIRE

 

On the night Parliament burnt down, a child was conceived out of wedlock, a baby was abandoned, and another thrown into the Thames.  The fire slipped from a basement stove, stuffed with paperwork.  By four o’clock in the afternoon the smoke was obvious, but no one raised an alarm and, because the Houses were locked at five, it was not until after seven that there came twelve horse-drawn tenders from the Fire Engine Establishment.  Half an hour later a body of policemen and soldiers arrived to block crowds from the blaze.

It was an October evening.  The sun had disappeared, murky night was settling in and, as fire ripped through the rickety buildings, the river appeared ablaze.  Flames leapt into the sky.  Above the orange heat swirled billows of choking smoke.  Sparks and flying cinders flickered in the air.  Half of London turned out to see and, from tight-packed warrens north and south, watchers jostled on the river banks.  A few shops closed early but most stayed open for the unexpected trade.

Never, it seemed, had so many boatmen been on the water.  Never had it been so hard to engage a cab – and never easier to buy a drink.  Tap-rooms and ale houses flung wide their doors.  Lemonade and saloop sellers pitched their wares beside hot eel and baked potato merchants.  Buskers were ignored, and the blind bible reader of Essex Stairs shouted prophesies into a stiff unheeding breeze.

 

 

But what of the children, you ask?  Have patience.  First we must meet

 

THE PAINTER OF FIRE AND LIGHT

 

He had forced his way onto Westminster Bridge.  An impossible viewpoint, thick with people, thick with smoke – but the best place to absorb the glory of the blaze.  Blaze, he thought, raze to the ground: he’d make a poem to go with the picture.  Bumped from every side, he held his sketch-block against his stomach and huddled to scratch impressions.  Drawings.  Words.  Effects of smoke.

His eyes watered.

Not too many sketches, Turner decided.  Just the basic shapes of anything he might forget later.  The air was acrid but he breathed it down, and when the sky had darkened he pushed his way off the bridge onto the Surrey side and walked through the crowds, turning frequently to look back and jot things down.

Impressionistic outlines.  Fireworks, he wrote: meteor, ochre, soot, umber on yellow.  Slowly he worked his way towards the next bridge, Waterloo.  Only by using his elbows could he push onto the bridge itself.  But he was a Londoner, short and stocky, a battering ram for a head, and he pushed and squeezed his way over to the Westminster side, where he forced his way to the stone parapet and stared again.  Resting his block against the stone he made a sketch of water and reflected flames.  Reflections from burning buildings and burning torches in the crowd.

Tens of thousands thronged the banks.  Most had come to watch, but among them Turner could see street traders, ballad makers, pickpockets, reporters, and God knows how many artists, he thought.  In every hundred people there’d be one with chalk or charcoal, scraping away, scratching paper in black and white.  They’d add colour later – he would anyway.  His palette of fire.

Despite his fame, Turner stood unrecognized in the crowd, and on his drawing-block, had one glanced, were words and doodles, broken shapes.  Later, when he got back to his studio, he’d discard most of these sheets: first thoughts, reminders, intangible as smoke.  For hours to come this fiery night, he and other artists all over town would work on their drafts, recreating blazing buildings and gleaming water: the Palace of Westminster, in skeletal form.  He blocked out an outline.  Barely glancing at what he drew, he gazed into the fire and let its heat pulse through his arm.

As flames consumed the building, as light changed, he scribbled on.  Drafts and aide-memoirs.   Another light he had not captured.  The throbbing fire.  A blaze greater than any sunset.  Flames leapt above the water and danced among boats and bobbing barges.  Smoke and water.  Darkness repelled by light.

 

 

But the children.  What of them?

 

A CHILD ABANDONED

 

She was nearly six months old, and on this momentous night she snuggled in the rough comfort of a blanket, flitting from wakefulness to sleep and back again as the hansom jolted through the streets – a rocky ride that night, because the driver had to tug his horse about to force his way through the throng.  The child snuffled, squirmed and whimpered.  Her damp face was scratched from where she’d pressed one cheek against the blanket and the other against the man’s stiff jacket.  Within the closed cab he heard the noise of the crowd like a rushing river, as if the Thames itself had burst its banks.  Splashes of shouts and laughter.  When the cab jolted, he knew the crowd outside had rocked it.  But he kept the curtain closed.

The cab moved no faster than at a stroll.  When, rarely, he peered outside he saw other carriages stuck among sightseers.  If anyone looked back at him he closed the curtain.  He heard the driver crack his whip.  ‘Get out of the road,’ the driver called, and although his horse was heavy and shod with iron they took no notice.  When the jolting worsened the passenger glanced out again, and saw that the cab and crowd were crammed together on one of the bridges – Waterloo, he realized, and when he looked to the west and saw the blaze he wondered, could that be Parliament?  Was Westminster Bridge on fire?  The cab didn’t move.  He didn’t know whether it had stopped to let the jarvey watch the fire or whether the man couldn’t force his way through the jabbering crowd.  He rapped on the roof to attract attention.

‘Fantastic sight, sir. Never seen the like.’

‘Yes, yes.  We can’t wait all bloody evening.’

‘The ’ouse of Parliament, sir.  In another hour it’ll all ’ave gone.’

‘Drive on.’

‘Look at that, sir.  You’ll remember this night the rest of your life.’

‘I said drive on.’

*

The cab stopped at the entrance to a narrow street in Southwark, and the driver, seated above and wrapped against the chill, lifted the hatch.  ‘This is as far as I go.  Too narrow.  Can’t turn down there.’

The passenger gathered up his tiny bundle and pulled the shawl tighter to make the baby feel more secure.  It looked dark outside, so dark he couldn’t be certain where he was.  When he opened the door the baby let out a thin high wail.  It must be hungry, he supposed, or frightened of this cold autumnal world.  He’d dosed the child with Godfrey’s Cordial but thought the opium might be wearing off.

He clambered out, keeping the bundled child pulled to his chest and holding a travelling bag in his other hand. ‘Wait here,’ he said abruptly.

‘I’ll ’ave the money now, sir.’

‘I’ve got me ’ands full, can’t you see?’  He had the manner of a gentleman, but his accent let him down.  ‘I’ll come back and pay you in just a moment.’

‘No, sir.  People disappear and I don’t catch sight of ’em again.  Put the baby on the seat while you find your money.’

‘For God’s sake – ’

‘I won’t wait here.’

The night was dark.  The street was darker.  The narrow lane off was darker still.  The cabbie placed the tip of his whip on the passenger’s shoulder – just a touch; he didn’t strike, but he let it lie there.  ‘You’ll pay me now.’

Cursing beneath his breath, the man leant into the cab and eased the bundle onto the leather cushion.  He heard a whimper.  Placing his travelling bag at his feet he fumbled in his pocket for change.  ‘Two and sixpence,’ the cabbie said.

‘Get off.  One and six should do it.’

‘This time of night?  Those crowds?  You’re lucky I only charge you two and six.’

Once again the driver touched him with the whip.  The man felt it against his neck.  ‘Don’t expect a tip.’

‘That little kiddie should be in bed.’

He proffered two shillings and a few brown coins.  ‘Toss you for it?  Double or quits?’

‘Half a crown, I said.’

‘I’m bringing it to its grandma.’  He didn’t know why he said that; he didn’t owe the jarvey an explanation.

It’s grandma?’  The driver counted the coins.  ‘Don’t you know if it’s a boy or girl?’

‘I’m not the father.  I’m helping a friend.’

‘Oh, yeah?  And I suppose the grandma lives down there?’

But the man had tired of him.  He picked up his bag and, as he entered the tiny alley, he heard the driver say, ‘Mrs Cutherberton’s is the last house on the right.’

‘How d’you know – ’

The carriage began to move.  ‘It’s always Mrs Cuthbertson,’ the cabbie called.  ‘When it’s a kiddie this time of night.’

*

 

 

And what of the other children?

 

A CHILD LEFT FOR DROWNED

 

By midnight the Westminster fire was little more than a glow of embers beside the river, and an oily smell.  Invisible in the darkness came soot, slow-falling.  Flakes fell on Waterloo Bridge, beneath which a tearful woman pulled a dirty basket from her shawl.  Inside it, something stirred.  Something that coughed and tried to cry.  She whispered, and placed her fingers on its lips.  The baby sucked and found no sustenance.  It cried again – a shorter, louder cry – and she looked about in case someone might hear.  She could hear people on the bridge above.  But no one else was beneath the arches.

Crowds had been drawn to every bridge and to every viewpoint along the Thames to catch a glimpse of the awful fire.  The Houses of Parliament.  Destroyed.  There had been nothing like it since . . .  People would talk for decades to come.  This night would etch itself into their memories.  They wouldn’t forget.

Those other people.

In the cold damp breeze the baby grizzled.  This time, when she placed her hand across his lips, he spurned her fingers and, when he turned his face, he showed his birthmark.  Poor thing, she thought.  If he lives, that birthmark might fade away.  Perhaps.  His cries were growing louder, and she had to silence him, or someone would hear.  She shook the basket gently but it made the child cry louder.  She pushed her fingers inside his mouth, and for a moment that seemed to work.  He wriggled.  His mouth was wet.  He was innocent and unwanted.  His little head felt so fragile she could have crushed it like an egg.  She felt his soft lips suck her fingers, and something wet splashed on her hand – but it was a splash from her own tears.  She was weeping, and had not realized.  She wept, the baby wept – the little mite hadn’t asked to be born; he’d harmed nobody.  Why did such accidents happen?

In the dark beneath the bridge she could barely see his face.  She could barely see her own hand.   She leant closer to peer at him – a face like any baby’s, she supposed, except for his birthmark – and she could have sworn he looked back into her eyes.  A newborn baby couldn’t focus, people said, yet surely he looked right back at her.  He stared as she did, as if they both wanted to absorb every detail of the other’s face before they parted.

She shuddered.  He’d not remember.  She stifled a gulp, then threw the basket far out onto the cold black river.  She saw it bounce once, and quiver on the surface.  Then, quickly, very quickly, it floated away on the rapid tide.  It didn’t sink – it wouldn’t surely?  No.  Please God, not yet.

*

Hour after hour, crowds had lingered to watch the burning Parliament.  But they’d gone home now, most of them.  One or two, strolling on the bridge, glanced at the glow left from the fire, but why should they pay to look at what they could see from either bank?  An occasional carriage passed by: people returning from the theatre, rich people coming home from dinner – or going to dinner.  She had no idea how rich people lived.  Did they care about the pennies they paid to cross the bridge?  Did they think of pennies at all?  She didn’t know.

At least she wouldn’t be penniless when she died, for having paid the toll to go on the bridge she had a penny ha’penny left.  She could have bought a loaf of bread with that, or a cup of cow’s milk for the baby.  A penny ha’penny.  She stood at the balustrade and stared up-river, the breeze behind her, trying not to think about her baby.  Had the basket floated or had it sunk?

She glanced about her.  The lack of people made the breeze feel chillier.  She might catch a cold, she thought – but she’d catch no more colds.  Never again would she wake up to . . .  Never again would she wake up.  Never.  Nothing would happen to her, ever again.

She reached in her pocket for the penny ha’penny.  Two brown coins, which felt like jewels in the darkness of her hand.  They were worth nothing now; she might as well throw them into the river and make a wish!  For what?  There was nothing left to wish for – except perhaps: God rest and receive my soul.  She didn’t need a penny ha’penny for that – unless God, like the toll-keeper, demanded a fee.  In one jerky movement she threw the coins into the darkness.  She listened, but heard no splash.  No tiny splash no one would hear.  She felt quite calm as she looked round.  No one was watching.  No one was near.  No pedestrians, no carriages.  No witnesses.  She’d have liked a witness – but a witness might have felt duty bound to interfere.  No witnesses, then.  No interference.  No one to tell her what to do.

She breathed in, exhaled, then took another deep, deep breath.  From her canvas bag she pulled a banner made from an old sheet on which she had written in red ink.  Red like blood.  Indelible, she hoped.  MAN’S LUST FORCED ME TO THIS.  She wrapped the banner across her breast, tied it awkwardly, and adjusted the knot to make sure the words would remain visible.  She climbed across the parapet and clung there, leaning out for a moment from the rough stone edge.  Below ran cold dark water.  Around her face she felt the breeze.  When she looked behind she saw an approaching horse-drawn cab.  Could they see her?  As the cab drew level she stared up at the driver – but he didn’t notice her in the dark as he went by.  Did it matter?  Yes.  She should not die unwitnessed.

She heard footsteps.  Peering along the balustrade she saw two men walking side by side.  Two men.  Yes, let them see.  She would have preferred a woman, but on Waterloo Bridge, at night, women seldom came.  These men would have to do.

She waited till they were close.  They couldn’t stop her – the balustrade was in the way.  She let go with one hand and waited till they were only paces away before, with a cry of defiance, she leapt from the bridge, out into the air, to the river below.

The men barely paused.  ‘What was that?’ asked one.  ‘Did you hear a cry?’

‘A gull, I think.’

‘Or someone?’  They looked about them.  ‘No one’s here.’

‘I see the fire’s still smouldering.’

‘An extraordinary night.’

Had they peered down onto the river they might have discerned a smear of unfurling cloth: a home-made banner.  The woman’s body was out of sight.  It would be several minutes before it rose again to the surface.

 

We must not forget the third child . . .

 

OUT OF WEDLOCK

 

To be precise, the child was not conceived until the fire subsided.  By then the Fire Engine Establishment had subdued the blaze and houses nearby had been saved.  But the huge fire smouldered on.  Flying embers blew across the river.  Soot flakes fell in Dulwich.  Some drifted west to Richmond, others floated east to Bow.  Some settled on the roof and gardens of Buckingham Palace, but the Fire Chief was not alarmed: Parliament might be lost, but not the Palace.  No chance of that.  This would not be a Great Fire of London.  It had been contained.

People started wandering home, chattering as they walked.  The fire still glowed, smoke persisted, but in the dingy bedroom no light seeped through the heavy curtains.  The room’s only illumination came from a crooked candle in a saucer beside the bed, and it threw lumpy shadows on the walls.  The lodging house was poor, if not as poor as some, for Lambeth maintained a shabby respectability.  The present young tenant appeared respectable, but he had smuggled his girl inside.  They had needed little subterfuge, because the fire had tempted his landlady outside to watch.  ‘So snuggle up,’ said Cosmo.

Emma gazed at him in the candlelight.  She had come to his room nervously but, knowing they would soon be parted, she’d felt she had to come.  She was right to come.  On Vauxhall Bridge they had watched the fire – everyone in London had watched the fire – but Cosmo had pulled her away and had dragged her through the crowd, most of whom were going the other way, and had brought her here.  To his darkened room.

Now that her eyes had grown accustomed, she lay in his bed and watched the walls fluttering in the candlelight.  She remembered the fire.  She remembered its heat.  They had heat and light and each other, and the gentle dark, in which she lay beside him, thinking.

The loss of her virginity had hurt less than she had feared.  A moment’s pain but oh, the excitement when flesh met flesh.  How she had yearned for him.  She had known his kisses but until tonight they had never lain together.  Carefully she’d prepared her nightwear – scented and newly pressed – and she hadn’t worn them!  Well, she had for a moment, the briefest moment, but when Cosmo had slipped between the sheets he had ruffled the nightgown up and had tugged it over her head.  Her undervest had stuck beneath her chin and she’d laughed out loud.  He’d laughed as well.  She had felt his nakedness and he’d pressed against her and she had felt his rough young flesh – and gasped.  He had throbbed against her belly, and had seized her fingers and dragged her hand down and whispered, ‘Take me.’

Now she lay in the dark and stared at a ceiling she couldn’t see.  Had she enjoyed it?  She couldn’t really say she had, though she’d never tell him that.  He’d said she might not much the first time, but it would get better later, if she granted time.  Well, she thought, he had enjoyed it anyway, and she’d enjoyed lying with him, and touching, and whispering words of love, and making promises which they both knew they must break.

 

****

The Exhibitionists sets the story of these three children and their absent parents against that of the artists and art world in the early, bustling years of Victoria’s reign.  The lives of Turner, Haydon and the Pre-Raphaelites (Hunt, Millais and Rossetti)  intercross those of the growing children, one of whom begins her life in a baby farm run by a deeply religious but hard-headed woman until she escapes to the Victorian stage; another of whom is adopted and finds work as a young newspaper reporter; and the third of whom, a talented artist unable to pursue her dream, is unaware that the man she thinks of as her father is as unaware of the truth as she is herself.  Truth and illusion, art and reality, belief and unbelief underpin the story, which culminates dramatically in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, the year in which the Pre-Raphaelites make their name.

 

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