Before the War, by David Rogers

Art: Swing Kids

Big, brass-heavy bands blurt out sizzling swing and jumping jive. Men with Bakelite hair and crisp jawlines sign contracts with fat Mont Blanc pens, offer one another cork-filtered cigarettes from titanium cases engraved with the names of their fiancées. Whistles and fireworks. The fiancées lounge on snow white banquettes and chaises longues. They are ravishing creatures, simply ravishing, with resilient tennis players’ calves and sinusoidal coiffures. The art nouveau dragonflies on their décolleté ball gowns incandesce in the Klieg lights racked over the upper circle.

Shouts and cheers, screams and laughter. Speeches are made, the correct parties are elected; generals-of-the-hussars sabre the corks from methuselahs of champagne. Depraved heiresses with $1,000 orchids in their hair (the face of Satan tattooed on their inner thighs) sniff cocaine through golden cocaine-sniffing straws and freshen the gloss of lipstick the colour of day-old blood. Jewelled falcons are exchanged for Mexican silver mines, Argentine railway shares, new identities. Clandestine shadows breathe together behind alabaster pillars and vine-entwined colonnades. Silhouettes merge behind rice-paper screens. Pretenders to annexed and abolished Balkan kingdoms, guano millionaires and lesbian adventuresses in pith helmets swap military secrets, coup plots and share tips with the unbribable British journalists and alcoholic American novelists who line the casino bar—a nautical mile of volcanic glass looped in the lemniscus of eternal return, where champagne flutes fizz like the fuses of anarchists’ bombs and the drunken sons of Hollywood patriarchs toss £1,000 plaques embossed with crowns and skulls onto cyanide-blue baize.

“Mesdames, Messieurs: faites vos jeux.”

Pistol shots punctuate the screams and the laughter, the whistles and the fireworks, as ruined gamblers, deceived fiancées, alcoholic novelists blow their brains out and tumble over the iron cliff into the freezing water, to be replaced instantly by debutantes and their beaux who appear from nowhere, who stretch their stiffening wings in the dazzling glare, and are one by one sucked into the dance, where now contracts are being torn up and KCs consulted as Mexican silver mines evaporate into Aztec myths and jewel-encrusted falcons are revealed to be thrift store ornaments covered with chewing gum and broken glass.

Under the shadow of the foremost of the ship’s great funnels, Cyril Dalrymple-Champney is holding Georgette Montagu-Smythe in his arms while he thinks vertiginous thoughts of the miles of sky below them, the miles of sea above (he’s head over heels, the poor simp), and if only he could preserve this moment, he thinks, his hair falling with this precise quantity of dishevelled ennui, the dew glistening on the cattleya in her corsage just so, the slippery coolness of her underwear, the barely perceptible rasp of silken gusset against shaven pudenda, the icy kiss of Major Montagu-Smythe’s skeletal service revolver on the back of his neck, the looming white shadow above the ship’s bows that, to begin with, looks like a mountain’s idea of a ghost, and then is nothing but a blank white screen …

On the administration deck, in rank upon rank of tiny desks, obese men with well-tended moustaches and sleeve gaiters sit by osteoporotic women in self-knitted green cardigans and tartan skirts as they fill in transfer forms, redirect invoices, check statements, enter data onto card indexes, write memos and eat the corned beef sandwiches they made the previous evening, washed down with stewed and oversweetened tea.

Raw economic data slooshes through an improvised network of pneumatic tubes to the hoppers under the outfall pipes where bar bills and gambling debts mix with credit ratings, requisition forms for carbolic soap, milk wastage estimates and notices of births, marriages and deaths. This material is systematically combed, filtered and directed into the correct channel; even lost files have their designated zones behind ruptured sofas and moribund aspidistras.

In a glass booth raised on cast-iron piloti, the navigation department labours to determine the course to be followed by interconnecting every item of data. So, here a man with logarithmic tables and a Parker pen spends a day calculating the Spearman rank correlation between phenol output and the granting of decrees absolute (it’s 0.68), then telephones his discovery to an analyst in a three-piece suit, who types “nylon pyjamas (?)” onto a yellow docket, twists the platen, separates paper and carbon, files two, circulates three and, after consulting a dog-eared directory, sends the top copy  to ad hoc working group 30343/2—social trends/organic chemistry (copolymers)—which consists of a single octogenarian Alzheimer’s victim who believes himself on a pleasure boat on the River Cam during a warm June morning 60 years previously.

Statisticians take stochastic samples of this information and confect elaborate pie charts, multicoloured histograms and four-dimensional real-time mathematical models for analysts to turn into monograms, bibliographies, proceedings, prolegomena, overviews, aperçus, sitreps, festschriften, catalogues raisonnés, newspaper columns and teach-yourself books, all of which can then be further synthesised into an accurate overall picture.

Everyone involved in the titanic enterprise of realising the accurate overall picture smokes cigarettes, even the Brylcreemed postboys who shuttle to and from the airship-hanger-sized filing galley on underpowered motorbikes, tossing colour-coded envelopes as they pass. Fires created by imperfectly extinguished cigarettes break out constantly and fire teams in blue dungarees form cross-referential bucket chains.

The metal deck is covered by centuries of pressed papers. In some areas, hundreds of desks have been buried, and new ones placed above them, legs filed to accommodate the gradient. On the slopes of one of these hills, Sir Terrence Digbeth, cad, dasher and archaeological entrepreneur, takes advantage of the smoke to lay a forgetful hand on the superficial inguinal lymph nodes of young Kirsten Birdwhistle as he informs her of his discovery of a bill for moustache wax and three drams of Dr Marinetti’s Inca Tincture that may (who knows?) go back to the founding of the very ship itself. She smiles ingenuously and jumps six feet to the left while making a noise like popping rivets …

The next deck is the ship’s galley, where we find the mighty stock cauldrons of bones and gizzards, the bath-sized bains-marie where classic French butter sauces are heated and whisked. Whole oxen are rotated over troughs of hissing charcoal, their chestnut skins glazed with piquant fruit conserves. Sous-chefs on stilts and stepladders pipe heraldic designs onto the tiers of towering gateaux, and a double-looped electric railway carries bogies of sugar, eggs, garlic, truffles, caviar, fresh vegetables and soiled utensils from station to station.

The air is thick with steam and vapourised grease, the clangour of metal on metal, the smells of roasting flesh, the snap of overheated fat, the banging of knife on block. Every few minutes, sous-chefs and potboys, overcome by the intolerable heat and humidity, pass out among jute sacks of jasmine rice and flageolet beans, or collapse face-first into tureens of lobster bisque and compote. Medical teams dart hither and thither pocketing severed fingers while whisky-glugging priests and sherry-sipping vicars surreptitiously spear devilled kidneys and cheeky slices of tête de veau. Hyperpyrexic cases are dragged to the ship’s ice house, where straining huskies haul sleds laden with lemon sorbet and Whitstable oysters.

At the other end of the galley, where rows of open industrial lifts are in continual motion, dwarves in brass diving helmets and inflatable canvas suits are lowered into pits of congealed fat in the interdeck scuppers, while battalions of filth-encrusted porters bear the mortal remains of birds and beasts, molluscs and fishes, brachiopoda and cnidaria.

In the flood-lit nether deck, the atmosphere is stiff with the stench of blood and excrement; the thudding of hammers, of captive bolts and cleavers, mingle with the bzzzzzzzzzzzzzt of electrical stunners, the schuss of hosepipes, the frantic bellowing of the animals and the shouts and curses of the stockmen. Young Johnny LaBarbe, quail-strangler third-class, is enjoying a well-earned cheroot in a lighting gantry in the company of Juniper Verity, feeder of the Judas goat. From their coign of vantage they can see their faces floating in the viscid black liquid where tessellating armadas of cigarette and cigar butts cruise around archipelagos of hooves, horns, beaks and tails, and he tells her of his plan to pass himself off as the Duke of Derbyshire’s catamite, on an intercrural basis, until he can learn to speak like a proper toff. He gasps in exasperation as she bursts into tears, and then in fear as he sees the waters below them tilt and part…

Before the great sliding doors of the abattoir deck lurks the ship’s complement of dispossessed. These are women and children for the most part, although there is a scattering of cripples, lepers, polio victims, the old, the unemployed, the blind and the insane.

Orts are dumped into the cloth caps of the deserving poor by ortsmen in shabby lounge suits; abattoir hussars with silver skulls and crowns on their shakos hustle the undeserving poor down the hill to the boiler deck, where the mighty turbines live. Each is as big as a three-storey townhouse, and each is pronged with chimneys where the soot smoke billows and the steam whistles shriek.

Between and above them rise ranges of coal and coke, shovelled onto the wagons of funicular railways by blackgangs of stokers, naked but for leather aprons and gloves, studded belts and motorcycle goggles. Fights break out and struggling bodies skid down the anthracite slopes, causing avalanches that bury winner and loser alike. The only illumination is from steel doors where the gigantic furnaces roar, where firelight ignites the scorched air with its freight of coal dust, ash and smoke, and plates the muscles of the men with bronze and smears their faces with day-old blood.

Slow rivers of tapped slag stream away into inky hinterlands. Between the coal ranges and the Bessemer converters, where cranes and winches pivot and steam shovels thunder, rail trucks screech, laden with bauxite, cassiterite, haematite and limestone, rolling on scarred stone viaducts over brick-faced canals of stagnant tar to the distant strains of brass bands, Methodist sermons and the speeches of socialist politicians … through the back-to-backs, Tuesday morning allotments, in the blurred distance behind buddleia rubble and railings, the iron bridge athwart the cobbled road, the thrift shops with their broken ornaments, the workhouses, the potbanks and mills, through dirty air threaded with rain and pungent with the smell of horse dung and pipe smoke, and so to the platform where young Aneurin Hardcastle waits with a finger in the collar of his ill-fitting mud-brown uniform, a hessian kit-bag by his putteed calf.

Our Aneurin. The son of a miner’s widow, off to the fight with a scholarship to Oxford University in his pocket, a plan to change everything in his head and a pregnant girlfriend on his hands—or rather, by his side, at the counter of the station cafe. Alētheia Dobson smiles through her tears as she brushes the scurf from his bony shoulders, and he imagines that this moment, and that gesture, will always be visible through memory’s telescope—after the last ditch defence and the triumphant advance, the 11th-hour armistice and the three-day parade, the debating societies and the selection committees, the hustings and the handshakes, the official inauguration of the municipal bathhouse and the socialisation of the means of production—like a combined benediction, valediction and absolution. Then they watch the rain thicken until it tips down like cats and dogs, or babies and bathwater: a relentless waterfall that washes away what we can still see, that dissolves and fades into

A farm somewhere

The early hours of a late summer morning

Trees in full leaf

Puddles where the sky shivers

Dew condensing on the empty churns

Glistening on the flanks of the waking cattle

The dying sound of a locomotive

Rust itching the wet ploughshares

The silence remaining entirely unremarkable until the last second before

The captain is alone on the bridge, a figure of regal authority at the wheel of the mighty ship; a reassuring presence at the periphery of our vision. He steers with a light parental hand, fragrant smoke rising from his polished walnut pipe. His unblinking eyes are fixed on the horizon, which is finally, if faintly, distinguished by the first signs of dawn. On the chart before him are compasses and geometric instruments, the glass dials of scientific devices, books of tables, maps of the heavens paperweighted by a plate of Wiltshire ham and Coleman’s Norfolk mustard, a ceremonial naval cutlass, a Cox’s Pippin and a mug of Brooke Bond tea.

There is little to distract him from his heavy responsibilities; there is little movement in the room, which resembles nothing so much as an astronomical observatory, ivy climbing the Corinthian pillars by the door and a broad sweep of the heavens visible through the open roof in which we see Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, Rigel and Sirius, Canis and Orion—the hunter and his faithful hound descending summer’s gradient on the curve of the southern sky. Ahead, the inverted V of the prow is bisected at its vertex by the central mullion of the bridge’s fathom-high windows.

We cannot feel the push of the screws. There is no more music. The flute and the kettledrums that accompanied the hemidemisemiquaver triplets of the wireless operator have fallen silent. The musicians have left their trombones and tubas by their deckchairs, the sheet music for Autumn on the stands.

It is strangely quiet.

We can’t hear the engines, and the screams have been subsumed to the susurration of wind through the sacred grove, the skittering of dried leaves on the dusty iron deck plate—although in fact there is no wind, no movement of leaves, so we can surmise that the sound is emerging from hidden speakers, or perhaps from our imagination alone as we, actors without direction or dialogue, babes in Babelsburg, feel free to wander among the Forms and loiter beneath the ship’s single great funnel (the others are merely painted onto a canvas flat), smoke a cork-filtered cigarette, note the crushed blossom of a cattleya, a discarded tin of Kitchener’s Dependable moustache wax, the stump of a half-smoked cheroot and an empty hessian kit-bag, then gaze at the serene expanse of plywood sea, the papier-mâché lifeboats, the litter of our clothes and kicked-off shoes.

It seems that the stroll on deck has done us good. We return to the bridge with a clearer head, and this time we see our captain directly. His forked beard rolls white as foam down the wine-dark serge of his sopping peacoat; between his strong hands, decorated with pornographic tattoos, the 12-times segmented wheel is hubbed at his gnomonic penis. In his belly, the seas slosh and swirl, and in his mouth a corroded lead pipe splashes salt water onto the crowns and craniums of temporary kings … the knife and the grail … the fruit and the swineflesh … the gathered golden sheaths of Army Form B104—82 … and we sit where we may beneath the bough and his blind eyes and wait for our tickets to return.

David Rogers is a freelance writer and journalist living in London. He has had short stories published by Hamish Hamilton, Serpent’s Tail, Iron Magazine and Orbis. He is currently working on his first novel, which deals with the difficulties of producing a play while being besieged by the Prussian Army.

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