Monday, February 8, 2016

The Great and The Good - Part 1, Chapter 1

                                                                The Parting

                                                                             
Margaret arrived on foot.  She was dressed in plain clothes, a brown shawl, woollen and worn covering her hair; and beneath this, a grey dress, also wool, with a full skirt.  These gave her the appearance of a working woman, a look modelled on her maid.  Added to this appearance, suggesting that the working woman was living out some important personal drama, was the expression on her face; this was strained, flushed from running, out of breath.

The appearance eased as the crowd thickened, Margaret no longer able to run, walk quickly.  Instead she was reduced to a frustrated hurry, just one of many people – apologising, side-stepping and occasionally raising her voice.  Occasionally too she called out: “Philip; Philip; Philip Kingston.”  Philip could not hear this, however.  He had come by cab, a hansom paid with a further charity from Arthur Downing; and he was well advanced, well within sight of the ship he would be boarding.

Philip, younger than his sister, a man or boy of twelve, was prematurely tall for his years, broad as well, and dressed in a suit rescued from the sale of his father’s wardrobe and re-tailored to fit.  The heir to a bankrupt merchant-business Philip had the look of one not reliant upon charity.  This look was supported by the company of his mother.  Mrs Kingston, however mortgaged her town-house was, her last fine furnishings due to be sold, wore widows’ weeds – London fashion – and held a handkerchief, lace, black to her nose, to protect her senses from the offence of people-smell.  Together this couple progressed, slowed only by the clumsy weight of Philip’s bag; they made good progress, those more poverty-obvious moving out of their way, until they reached one of the more extraordinary expressions of the Irish famine, a group of people, mostly men, thrown together, who were playing a lengthy, improvised reel.

The energy, urgency of the music, the rhythms simple, repeating, alive, gave the scene a festive air, as if the thousands gathered, many of them in rags and more soon to be so, was some celebration.  To an educated mind – that of Margaret when she reached the crowd – the music was an offence, an insult to suffering.  The musicians, however, supported by the people they attracted, knew nothing of such insult; they were just enjoying their fun, encouraged to endlessly extend their reel as the audience began to clap, whoop and dance.

By the time Philip reached them the crowd was a hundred strong, maybe more, packed tightly in the rear blocking his route and leaving a space in front for dancers and musicians to perform.  Philip waited at first, long impatient moments that seemed longer still.  Then, choosing some women, a little older than himself, he raised his voice, giving a nervous, slightly whining command: “let us through.”

The young women reacted slowly.  They heard Philip, his command spoken in a high, thin, unbroken voice; but Philip was irrelevant to their fun and he was behind.  Then, they felt the pressure of his hand, politely offered at first, ignored and reasserted with the supportive crush of his bag as Philip tried to force his way through.  This obliged them to look, take in the appearance of the boy/man.  When they did so, Philip’s face young, blushed, weak, offering no threat, they spoke as one:

“Fuck off, will yeh!  We were here first.”

This failure, the young women prepared to defend their spot, with or without the help of the men around them, caused Philip to blush further, his face to tense, shake, display a visible prelude to tears.  If Philip had been a slighter man, less man-like in size, the effect might have provoked sympathy, caused the women to apologise, even let him through; but a man-like figure, one dressed in a suit of importance and reduced so quickly to the verge of tears invited a different response: “yeh fuckin’ baby, yeh.”  Margaret heard this, saw its effects as she caught up, Philip crying freely now, defeated by words.

The anger that Margaret felt was shaped accordingly.  It was directed not at the young women – they had turned away, nor at her mother, though Mrs Kingston, quite typical of her treatment of her son, had taken Philip into a protective embrace as if to strengthen him in that manner.  Margaret’s anger was vented rather directly at her brother.  She did so by turning him around - a forceful movement that caused her mother to drop her hold - and addressing Philip in a cold, forthright manner.

“You are to be a great man, Philip Kingston; so you will stop your crying at once and get on board that ship.  Go on.”

Helping to enforce this instruction was the music’s gradual end.  The captain had appeared, a squad of crew by his side; and there was movement ahead, people starting to board.  Margaret helped further by taking Philip’s bag, a kindness intended to compensate for her words.  Then, whilst Philip drifted on, searching for then making towards the captain, Margaret turned her frustration on her mother.

“Now, Mother, if you stand there like that Philip will be on board and gone, and we won’t even have said good bye.  So, come on, take this bag.”

Mrs Kingston, unused to such service, did so slowly, leaving most of the weight for Margaret to carry.  Margaret, meanwhile, who had hurried down to the docks, hoping to unsay some earlier, harsh words, was trying to force her way forward – catch up with Philip – whilst dragging the bag and her mother with her.  Her failure in this, competing as she was with so many other important personal dramas was inevitable.

By the time she confirmed this Margaret was part of a slow, congested shuffle approaching the passenger ramp.  The ramp was broad, wooden, improvised for the purpose of people transport, and guarded by crew.  These men showed neither delicacy nor welcome.  Their task - made more difficult by the volume of people present, the emotions of a great parting, was to act with a cold efficiency, checking tickets, cross-checking against the number of passengers admitted.  They did so with rough hands, as if counting any inanimate stock.  Margaret’s plea then: “my brother’s on board; he hasn’t brought his bag” – was ignored off-hand, moved aside, forgotten.  Margaret felt the sting of this mistreatment.  Then, not a woman to be so easily dismissed, she took her plea to a man she guessed to be the captain.  He looked down at the sound of her educated voice, took in the plainness of Margaret’s clothes – a working woman – and raised his eyes once more, uninterested.

“I am the widow of Mr Philip Kingston,” Mrs Kingston helped at this point.  The finery of Mrs Kingston’s clothes, as with the name of the captain’s former employer had a better effect; “and this is my daughter, Mrs Downing.  My son, Master Philip.....”

“I’ve seen him.”

“.......is on board, but he hasn’t brought his bag.”

“Joe, take this bag on board.  Upper deck.  Philip Kingston .....Master.”

The interview finished thus, the vigilant captain returning to his former task, and having given too much time already to the two women.  Fruitlessly Mrs Kingston, waking to a reality and spurred to act, continued her plea: “I’d like to see him;” but Margaret had guessed more quickly at the respone, and had moved on, finding a space where the crowd was thinner and adding her voice to the many calling out.

“Philip; Philip; I’m sorry.  I want you to know that.  Philip.........Philip..... you will be a great man in New York.  Arthur said so.”


Margaret was still doing so, repeating, varying her words, and crying now - mourning her loss, just as others were doing – when Mrs Kingston finally joined her.

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