A Penny for the Guy

To mark Guy Fawke’s night, here’s a short story I wrote in 1995 that jumped into my awareness this morning. I wrote it to honour Antonin Artaud, who inspired me in many ways.

He watched helplessly as the raindrops pulled his already bedraggled reflection rhythmically yet randomly one way, then another. He caught a brief glimpse of those sated, vacant eyes staring through him out of the water, before an unsuspecting drop sent concentric ripples radiating out from between his eyebrows. He breathed a deep sigh and forced his hands deeper into his coat pockets. He knew nothing could really separate him from his watery companion.

The silence was shattered by the splash of a rock landing at his feet, and the delighted laughter of two young boys, scurrying away, as he sought to collect his disintegrated thoughts. He looked up, into the bleary orange glow of the distant street lights, and turned to go. Which way? It didn’t really matter, did it?

Out in the street, people scuttled by, their gaze firmly fixed on the dancing darkness of the wet pavement. The world was lost in the falling rain and rising spray. He joined the flow, holding his head up, as the rain ran down his nose, round his sealed lips and off his chin.

Ahead, he saw a large bundle wrapped in a blanket, slumped in a doorway, the only sign of life, an outstretched hand. Shoulders twitched, shoes scuffed the pavement, people sniffed, their eyes and hands more firmly fixed than ever. He watched them walk past as he approached, that familiar burning welling up just below his ribcage. No-one met his accusing eyes. He reached into his pocket, but found only a tenpence piece. He knew he had a five pound note in his wallet, but… . He walked past. The figure had not looked up. His mind fought fiercely to justify his betrayal. He knew the conflict would continue into the night. As he strode past the Houses of Parliament, his mind and heart united in their venemous outpouring of guilt and accusation.

***

The night sky was torn apart by a series of explosions. Multi-coloured stars fell from the heavens, each one drawing closer to its twin, until the moment of contact, when both disappeared into the hiss of the Thames. London was alive with the sound of young voices, excited laughter mingled with awed exclamations of admiration. Sparklers reflected in gleaming eyes, soon extinguished.

Tony’s excitement was of a different nature. The naïve buzz of pleasure that drifted across the water intensified his sense of secluded conspiracy. He smiled at the stars and the moon, an eternal backdrop.

“Ant! Get a load o’ this!”, cried a voice from the shore. There stood Rob looking like he had just crawled out of a seventeenth century London backstreet.

“What d’you reckon?”

“Magic!”, Tony called back. “What have you got for me?”

“You’re gonna love this. Mary’s got it in the van. Come and get it.” Tony’s pulse picked up as he walked across the barge to the concrete embankment where Rob stood. Rob held out his hand, and Tony sprang ashore.

“Everything okay?”, he asked, “Is everyone here?”

“Yep. Ready to rock.”

“Okay. Let’s go!”

Tony walked quickly over to the white Ford transit, noticing the fortunately concealed number-plates. The front faced the river, and a blanket dangled carelessly out of the back. Mary was obsessively adjusting her baggy cotton skirt. She looked relieved to see Tony appear.

“How does it look?”

“Great.” No time for dress rehearsals this production. “Mine’s in the van, yeah?”

“Yeah. I hope it fits okay. It’s roughly the right measurements. I’ve put a belt in as well, just in case.”

“Fine.”

He stepped up into the back of the van, and pulled the doors to behind him, jamming them against the blanket. He squirmed out of his jeans and quilted shirt, and shook out the thick baggy trousers and poloneck top sitting on the seat opposite. He would need the belt. He grabbed his dark heavy overcoat as he scrambled out, and slipped it on once outside. He felt good, but slightly uneasy at the lack of butterflies that usually filled his stomach before stepping onto the stage.

“Hey! Wicked!”, cried Mary, “Where’s the cap?”

“What cap?”

“There’s a cap there somewhere as well.” She shone her torch around inside the van, and came out with a puffy, peaked, black leather cap. “Try that for size.”

Tony slipped it on, pulling the peak down to his eyebrows. He liked it. It felt secure and protective.

“The perfect revolutionary”, Mary said with a quiet smile. There was a moment’s silence, then she went round to the back, pulled in the blanket and banged the doors shut.

“Francis should be here in a few minutes. He’ll keep the van at his place, in the garage, and drop it back at Budget’s tomorrow morning.”

“Where’s Jon?”, Tony asked.

“He just went to get some ciggies. There he is now.”

Jon was loping across the park, his shoulders stooped against the cold. He was already dressed up, but could easily be mistaken for one of London’s many homeless.

Jon’s cigarette trembled as he approached through the dark shadows of the bare winter trees.

***

It was still raining. The solid oak provided little shelter. Damp from the bench soaked through his light cotton trousers. A large drop fell into his thinning hair.

He saw a solitary figure wander vacantly through the small park, shoulders weighed down with life’s indifference, cigarette glowing. Then it was gone – only the constant rain for company. He could think of nothing. He saw, he heard and he felt, but for no apparent reason. His mind tried again – “So, where do we go from here?” – but the question just fizzled out and was carried away with the rainwater to the nearest drain. He watched it slip through the metal grate.

Someone came out of a pub across the street. Life spilled into the night, only to be ushered back in as the door swung shut again. He suddenly felt the desire to be surrounded by people and stepped out from the drooping branches. He headed across towards the muffled sounds of human voices, and shook himself down before entering. The Royal Oak. He rocked back a second as the wall of warmth swamped his senses. Loud, exuberant voices, vibrant music on the jukebox, the strong fumes of beer, quiet lights and the orange glow of the fake coal fire. The door caught his heel as he recovered himself, and he stepped towards the bar.

The barman was busy pouring a lemonade from one of those portable-phone-like gadgets, and joking with its future consumer, an attractive girl in a black all-in-one, which included the bare minimum of a skirt. “Just how a good novel should be”, one of his teachers had told the class, “Short enough to be exciting, long enough to cover the essentials.”

He gazed at the array of drinks, as if deciding what to have. “Whisky, please”, he heard himself say, as the barman appeared in his line of vision. Guilt fired his adrenlin as he reached for the five pound note in his wallet. He pocketed the change. There was a space at a table in the corner.

“Is this seat free?”

“Yes. Please.”

He let himself sink back and watched once more as life revolved before his eyes. What were these people going to do about anything? His thoughts drifted.

***

Tony smiled as he guided the boat away from the shore. The rhythmic throb of the engine and the chuckle of the water made him feel secure. His world was now completely defined by this small space. That’s what he loved about the stage. Yet there was something different here. It puzzled him.

His eyes rested on the twenty barrels packed neatly in front of him – five rows of four. He was the only one who knew what they really contained. Rob was sitting cross-legged on one, gazing up into the sky, still punctured by the occasional firework. He was smiling too.  “Here we go then, Ant!”, he shouted, “Can’t wait to see people’s faces when we roll up with this lot!”. Mary and Jon walked down to him from the bows, where they’d left the rope neatly coiled up. Tony watched them laughing as they tried to imagine how people would have spoken nearly four hundred years ago. The echo of the engine drowned them out as they passed under Chelsea Bridge. “Grosvenor Bridge coming up, then Vauxhall and Lambeth”, he thought to himself. A glass-roofed boat full of Japanese tourists approached, no doubt slightly bemused by the antics of three strangely dressed characters on the passing barge.

“Keep down!”, Tony yelled, as he saw a flashlight go off. Just part of the night’s celebrations, they were probably thinking. That’s what they were meant to think, but no point in taking any unnecessary risks. Mary joined him .

“A bit uptight tonight, aren’t we? It’s unlike you, normally so calm and collected before performances.”

“Just adding to the atmosphere a bit.”

The costumes gave the situation its bizarre look. In today’s world, if you looked strange enough, people assumed you were involved in some legitimate arty statement and generally left you alone. It was the ones trying to look normal who attracted the attention. With enough noise and bravado you could get away with most things. The video camera waiting for them when they landed would add to the faœade. Besides, it was November the fifth. Who would question four actors in costumes trundling around near the Houses of Parliament with twenty wooden barrels? It was carnival mood tonight.

Battersea power station loomed off to the right. How about that for the new People’s Parliament? Tony grinned and set his sights on Vauxhall Bridge.

The others had calmed down and were all sitting on the barrels smoking.

“Careful where you stub out your ciggies!”, Tony called. Their laughter was carried away by a gust of wind, and he suddenly realised what was wrong. They were still playing. For him, however, there was no imaginary character to play with. This time he was not watching himself. There was no actor any more.

Tony shivered and pulled his cap down to his eyes.

***

He rolled the remaining drop around the bottom of the glass and reflected on its trouble-free existence. He drained the glass once more, only to find the drop back where it had always been. He looked up at his corner-table companions. They too seemed entranced by the contents of their glasses, until one launched some banal comment across the table, only to be met by a vague nod in agreement or a sympathising shake of the head, accompanied by the appropriate sound; “mm” for a nod, or a tut for a shake.

He suddenly felt the urge to stand up and slap these people around the faces; “Wake up! What kind of fucking numbskulls are you? Get a life!”. But it would do no good. He’d just get thrown out and probably end up in a police cell for the night. It was time to leave. He got up and forced his way to the door, grateful for the rush of air as he yanked it open.

Outside, he was happy to feel the rain wash away the sweat from his face, taking with it all traces of those inane people. They weren’t human beings, he felt, they were human beens. What control did they have over their own lives? None. They were being lived. How long would it be before people started to realise?, he asked himself, Or are the enlightened always a minority? Tomorrow belongs to the madmen of today.

He turned up his collar and headed back the way he had come earlier. He stopped opposite the Houses of Parliament and leant against the corner of a sidestreet. “Poet’s Corner”. What kind of a poet would want to live opposite the Houses of Parliament, that bastion of bastardy and bigotry? He felt the weight of Westminster Abbey behind him. Bunch of bloody hypocrits. Shrugging it off angrily, he strode on, heart burning.

He knew where he was going. Soon he got there. Nothing had changed – the empty outstretched hand was in the same position. He paused for a while, then pulled a pound coin from his pocket and placed it in the open palm. The figure did not look up. He walked on.

***

Tony lowered the throttle as they approached Lambeth Bridge. He gazed at the impressive floodlit walls of the Parliament building, reflected in the still waters of the Thames. A starburst firework obliterated the image for a second and Tony snapped to. He steered the boat towards the bare trees on the left bank, just beyond the bridge.

Mary stood at the bows, rope in hand, ready to jump ashore. Rob came to join Tony, and prepared the other rope. Jon lit up and leant back against the barrels. Tony took a deep breath, trying to relax and empty his mind. He thought he could see the cart through the trees. Tom was probably chatting with Francis, who should have come on with the video camera. He had said that he would bring someone else along, with important-looking sound-recording equipment. The more, the merrier.

As they approached Lambeth, Tony slowed right down. They would need a burst in reverse to stop where they had planned. The bridge seemed to shudder with the boat, as the resonance of the engine and churning water filled his ears. He released the power and they drifted in towards the park. Mary jumped onto the bank, and quickly wrapped her rope around the nearest tree. Rob followed and soon they were nestled up against the shore, overshadowed by the size and noise of the bridge, and the naked, overhanging branches of the dark trees.

“Tom and Francis there?”, Tony shouted up.

“Yeah, and Francis’ mate.”

“Okay. Let’s get these barrels into the cart. Tell Francis to get filming. It’s time to be noticed.” Being ignored came later.

Tony and Jon passed the wooden kegs up one by one. Mary rolled them across the grass to the cart, where Rob loaded them up. Tom kept a hold of the horse and Francis bustled around getting shots from different angles. A few people stopped to look and were professionally ushered away from any camera shot by Tom. Transferring the barrels was a monotonous process and not many people stayed long. Tired, whining children tugging at coat sleeves helped to keep people moving.

“Film student’s final year project”, Tom was telling enquirers.

“Okay. That’s it”, said Tony, as they passed barrel number twenty up to Mary. “I’ll lock up here, Jon, you go and help prepare for our little jaunt around town.” He pottered about for a couple of minutes, checking everything was secure, and then, after a quick glance around, picked up the small bundle of fuses he had kept at his feet and strapped them to the small of his back. The overcoat would keep them hidden. He hoped his friends would understand and forgive.

He felt his first tingle of nerves, small but unusually irrepressible. As he clambered up into the park, he knew there would be no chance to make up for first night fallibility.

***

It was still raining. The whisky’s fire had long since been doused. Downing Street, Ministry of Defence, Henry VIII Wine Cellar Museum, Horse Guards, Banqueting House, Old War Office; funny how war and wine seem to go together. Drinking the blood of Christ as they spill the blood of the people.

The Old Admiralty Offices – did the “old” refer to the admirals or the offices? The buildings looked in better nick than most of the old fogeys he’d seen on tv, urging the country to war over some sheep-ridden island the other side of the globe. Kept them in pocket for a bit, anyway.

And there stands Nelson, perched proudly on his column to remind us of all those Frenchmen he slayed. “England expects every man will do his duty.” What duty? Duty to whom? To humanity? Or to the coffers of the aristocracy? “Liberté. Égalité. Fraternité.” Nice idea. Better than anything we ever came up with. Shame that today some seem more equal, free and brotherly than others. Having a different coloured skin is now a good enough reason to harass you for your papers. If you’re unlucky you end up in a Paris jail with a bullet through your head.

Nelson’s indifference to his curses fired his anger, and he fumed at the impregnability of this memorial to myopia. All around, indoctrinated with the glory of war – Admiralty Arch, Guards’ Memorial, Duke of York memorial, Waterloo gardens. Why? We, the species that has the option to live in peace with each other, insist on fighting over abstract beliefs, words, labels.

He wanted to go around asking all these people scuttling along the streets. Surely they’d all agree that killing is a bad thing to do. But then why…? He looked up again at Nelson, and somehow had to forgive him his ignorance. He was only doing his duty. But then who is responsible? Who delegates duty today? He looked back down Whitehall as Big Ben struck midnight.

***

They pulled away from the curb and headed up towards Parliament. Tom, Tony and Francis sat up front, the latter experimenting with various shots. His friend Monty crouched just behind, hanging the long microphone over the three of them to get the sound of the horse’s hooves, trotting on the tarmac.  The others sat on the back, legs dangling, waving and smiling at passing motorists, and chanting various revolutionary slogans.

“Evening, Constable”, shouted Tony, as they passed the gates into Parliament, “Just about to blow you all up.”

“Fine. Just keep that thing moving”, came the reply.

“No problem. We’ll be back in a minute.” The adrenlin had taken over and Tony was enjoying himself.

Tom pulled them straight into the flow of traffic on Parliament square, waving orders and apologetic thanks to the unsuspecting drivers. A black Hansom cab swung past, accompanied by an outpouring of south London vitriol.

Jon, Mary and Rob were in fine voice behind, demanding justice and rights for all, and singing various seventeenth century protest songs they’d dug up from the Folk Library.

Tom had done well in getting an ex-police horse, and she seemed undisturbed by the traffic and noise around her, as they turned off the square back towards Lambeth Bridge. Tony waved to his friendly policeman again, and then turned to the others.

“Okay. Quiet now. Time to disappear.”

Just after Westminster Abbey, they turned right into a short cul-de-sac, and pulled up outside the corner house on the left. “Poets Corner”. Tony liked that. He’d liked it ever since he had discovered the name in one of the old history books he’d looked out.

A year now he’d been staying in the basement flat, having talked his way into a job at the Abbey Gardens next to Westminster School. Gardening had never been a favourite hobby, but he soon learnt. It had taken a lot of time and patience to slime his way into the right people’s confidence. He had enjoyed the part. But which play was he in now? Camus’ The Just or Sartre’s Crime Passionnel? Or was this truly his own creation?

***

 His gaze was lost in the shimmering darkness below. The wind ruffled the water’s surface, the raindrops left it pockmarked. He was drawn into this mesmeric collage of blackness. There was no reflection. Even the illuminated splendour of the Houses of Parliament was just a blur.

The night was quiet, dampened by the steady patter of the rain. Few vehicles crossed the bridge now. He didn’t notice the policecar slow down as it approached him, and then pull away, unconcerned. He seemed far away, yet it was at these moments that he felt closer than ever.

At one stage he sensed the presence of someone standing next to him. They stood in silence for a while, then the person shuffled off. They were alone again. Him and the river. Perfect companionship.

Thunder rumbled in the distance and he withdrew still further into the depths of his raincoat.

***

“Okay, get filming, Francis. Rob and Jon, start unloading the barrels! Mary, act as look-out!

Tony went down into the flat, and through to the back room. A batik cloth covered half of the far wall. He removed it, revealing a wooden panel in the brickwork, about five feet by three feet. He picked a screwdriver off the floor and eased the panel out towards him. It came easily, and he propped it up next to the dark hole it had left behind. A cool breeze ran through the room.

Tony lit two of the candles he had prepared and stepped through the hole, lighting up a short narrowing tunnel that led to a wider passage. He had known that it had to be on about that axis. Two of his sources had talked of a passage linking the Abbey and the Palace, one in quite some detail. Together with an old map of the sewers, he could be fairly certain. And he had hit it first time. He went down to the end, leaving one candle halfway and placing the other at the junction. He fetched two more, and turning right at the junction, set them down further along. Soon the passage was lit right down to the Palace end, the flickering orange light reflecting on the damp, grey walls.

“Tony! Where do you want us to put these?”

“Through here!”

Rob and Jon brought the first barrel into the room and set it down. Jon looked up.

“What…?”

“Tony, what’s this?” Rob came over. “Shit! It’s a bloody tunnel! Where does it go?”

“I thought we might as well finish the job. We could sell the film as a full documentary. I wanted to keep it a secret to avoid any possible leak. This tunnel joins a passage that runs from Westminster Abbey to the Houses of Parliament. It was the Guy Fawkes original.”

“Bloody hell! And you dug this tunnel through to it?!”

“Yeah! Why do you think I’ve been opting out of the beer nights?”

“But… So what are we going to do?”

“Well I thought we could get Francis to film it. I borrowed a spot’ from the studio which should provide enough light.”

“Can we go down?”

“Sure. Bring the barrel!”

They carried it, bent double, and had to crouch down further as they got to the junction. Tony watched as the barrel was eased through the hole into the passage.

“Down to the right! Back there goes to the Abbey.”

There was more space here, and they could roll the barrel. In a hundred metres or so they came to some steps, where the passage ended. The steps led up to a concrete wall.

“Up there’s where they make all those daft decisions”, Tony said.

Jon and Rob looked in silence.

“But how…”, Jon started.

“Prime Minister’s Question Time later. Let’s get those barrels down here. Have Francis and Monty set up the light at the junction and start filming. I’ve got enough lead for them to come down here later. Don’t say anything to Mary yet.”

Jon shook his head in amazement and they headed back to the flat. It took some time to get all the barrels down, but eventually they stood lined up together at the end of the tunnel.

“Francis, bring the spot and camera down here, and let’s get a shot of the revolutionaries about to blow the government to the moon. Where’s Monty?”

“He said he had things to do. We can dub a soundtrack on top. Shall I call Mary?”

“No. There were no women present four hundred years ago.”

The three of them huddled in a conspiratorial group around the barrels, for the camera.

“Okay. I’ll edit that tomorrow”, Tony said, “I thought maybe we could enact an alternative sequel later on. We’ll leave the barrels here. So, do you two want to help Rob take the cart back, and Francis, you can look after the camera? I’ll take the cassette.”

Heads nodded agreement and they went back down the passage, whispering and chuckling to each other.

Tony sat on the steps, looking up the candlelit tunnel towards the darkness which led to the Abbey. The voices died away and he was left in silence. He sat still for some time, then unstrapped the belt from around his waist and removed the packet of fuses.

He unplugged the corks from the top of every barrel and carefully inserted each fuse. Probably just as well they hadn’t known what was really in the barrels. They might have been a bit more nervous about smoking. “Government Health Warning”. He placed the video cassette on top of the first barrel, and taking his lighter, he lit the twenty fuses.

Tony sat back down on the steps and pulled a large joint out from the inside pocket of his overcoat. Rolled especially for the occasion. African grass. He lit it and inhaled deeply.

“Tony!” Mary’s voice echoed in the distance.

His heart started to pound but he could do nothing now.

“Tony! Monty said he thought something strange…” Her head appeared at the junction. “Tony! What’s going on?”

As she approached, he watched the glow of the first fuse disappear inside the barrel. A blinding light filled his senses.

***

 He snapped to.

The rain was falling harder now. He was preparing to head back when a huge explosion and eruption of light filled the night. Everything went dark. He could no longer see the far bank. Caught in a half-world, stunned motionless, he stared; then started to run towards where he had last seen the beaming white face of Big Ben. He ran blindly, stumbling, dazed. As he came off the bridge, someone caught his arm.

“Woah! What’s the rush?”

He looked up into the face of a helmeted policeman.

“What…? What happened?”

“Called lightning, Sir. Power failure.”

Silence.

He turned to look at the heavy shadow of the Houses of Parliament, staring down at him in the dark. Power failure.

“Aye, it’s still there, my friend. No need to worry about that.” The policeman patted him on the shoulder. “What’s your name?”

“Antony.”

“Well, Antony, you’d better be getting home, or you’ll get yourself a chill.” He moved off.

A bedraggled old man shuffled towards Parliament Square. Which way now? Didn’t really matter, did it?

 

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