Since I began writing here all my posts have in some way been related to poetry.
I am grateful for all the comments and support of followers, and am particularly pleased when readers have found my articles useful.
John Foggin has put his finger on my intentions in his piece over at The Great Fogginzo, and I’m delighted to the company of the other poets he has chosen to write about. Matthew Stewart has also said very nice things about this blog, and has been generous in selecting these pages as one of his Best UK poetry blogs for the second year in a row.
As you will have gathered, I am mainly interested in writing poetry and I spend thousands of hours working at doing so. In fact, I’ve just spent about eighteen hours working on two new poems, regularly breaking off to be a family man and dad.
In addition to my poems, I have also written a couple of short stories; ‘Late’ was selected as a runner-up in last years Bare Fiction Prize and has recently been published in Issue 6 of the magazine, which is available for purchase here.
Tonight, in a change from the advertised programme, and as I hope, a seasonal treat, I’d like to share another story with you, one I found myself writing a year or so ago when I read an article about how the frozen river Thames was used to stage fairs in days gone by. It’s sort of a children’s story, I think. Normal poetry service will resume soon. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy
The Frost Fair
He would secure the loan of an elephant and in front of a hushed and attentive crowd the animal would cross the frozen river at Blackfriars. This demonstration would prove, as he had continued to assert during these last two weeks, that the surface was safe. Even the Lord Mayor could not object in the face of such evidence.
Haddon dropped the circus flyer on his desk and sat back in satisfaction. Crowds would flock down to the white and silent river, and the better quality customers would pay a toll of one penny at Haddon’s entrance booth. There would be a cordoned area staked into the ice for these paying customers, and inside would be attractions and amusements to suit every taste, including sleigh rides and races, puppet plays and interludes, chestnut stalls and at least one printing press providing souvenir cards. He walked to the window, wiped a roundel on the breath-misted glass and peered out at the ice, imagining a throng around a row of stalls and red-striped tents. There would be a carnival, reminiscent of those held in the time of Queen Elizabeth and all this would begin when the ponderous beast stepped out to cast its shadow on the solid surface of the Thames.
Sirrus, the Elephant, beat his knees with straw and kept one pale-lashed eye on the man in the stovepipe hat and swallow-tailed coat who was talking to the master. The men smoked their pipes in front of a cage where two Bengal tigers were pacing. Sirrus had no idea what was being communicated, since he only knew a few sounds in human, these being either soothing noises or commands. After a while he turned away and flicked straw onto his back.
The last few days had been bitterly cold. The walls ceased to ripple and flap, becoming instead as stiff as planks, and the boy, Thomas, had to break the surface of the water barrel with an axe. Thomas had brought a large sheet and fixed it around Sirrus’ middle with rope. In these conditions Sirrus became inclined to drift into dreams where he could feel the sun on his skin and hear bird calls and the scampering feet of monkeys.
The two men moved closer until he smelt human salt under the drifts of smoke.
“And you can guarantee the safety of the public Mr. Blythe? I don’t want the broadsheets reporting a rampage.”
“I can assure you, Mr. Haddon that this elephant has developed an uncommon trust in the lad, and, as a result, it is as docile as a well-trained carriage poodle. Although of course he travels at a rather slower pace. ”
If this last comment had been intended as a joke, Haddon showed no sign of recognizing it as such.
“Very well. You shall receive two guineas when the animal sets foot on the south bank. I will invest in the printing of handbills and look to its appearance at the base of the bridge on the morning of the seventh. I bid you good-day.”
Thomas led Sirrus over the glittering snow, their breath streaming out behind them, the elephant curling his trunk against the cold. The journey from the heath had been eventful, with men and boys standing open-mouthed or worse, shouting as they passed. An urchin prized a stone from the ice and cast it in their direction, but his arm was weak and when Thomas yelled he slithered off without looking back. One woman screamed, another fainted and as they approached Westminster a soldier shouted ‘Halt!’ and leveled a gun between Sirrus’ eyes. Thomas stood between the two to explain, in a high and undulating voice, the purpose of their journey. To an onlooker, the soldier, lowering his aim, might have appeared embarrassed by the boy’s bravery. He tugged uneasily at his tobacco stained mustaches and joked that a regiment of such animals would soon see old Boney and his army on their way.
At first sight the river seemed a stretch of white rock, but the pearly glow cast by the winter sun revealed its true nature. Men stood by fires along the bank and stamped. There were hand carts, stacks of trestles, poles and fabric, and all manner of heaped stuff: trinkets and children’s toys, cracked pots, bottles and rags. These had been raked up to be sold, Thomas supposed, at double or treble original cost, once the river had been deemed fit to carry the weight of men and their wares. There was a hot pudding pie stall and one selling spiced buns, but Thomas’ pocket was empty except for an apple he had saved for Sirrus.
A murmur accompanied their approach and Thomas felt eyes upon them as they creaked down the frost crusted bank towards the arch of the bridge where Haddon was sitting on a high-backed chair. Haddon was alone but for a footman who stood stiffly to his left. A few feet beyond them an ice bound boat bedecked with colourful flags denoted the boundary between land and river, and above that a line of be-hatted heads stood out above the parapet of the bridge.
Until this moment Thomas had given little thought to the task ahead. Instead, he had been concerned with keeping the elephant warm during their trek. In addition to the boat sail he had fastened around Sirrus’ middle, Thomas had tied sacks on each of the large oval feet. Blythe had mocked him for this, inquiring if Hannibal would have pampered his beasts in this manner. Thomas had not heard of Hannibal, but respectfully suggested that the canvas might provide extra purchase on the snow and ice.
Thomas felt his heart quicken as white expanse stretched uninterrupted to the camp fires on the opposite bank. Haddon got up from the chair and Thomas removed his cap.
‘You are twenty-five minutes late boy. But this is of no import. You will begin the crossing at the stroke of eleven.’
He pulled out his watch. Nothing else was said as Thomas stood shivering and holding the halter. He avoided the elephant’s eye, suspecting that the animal might sense his trepidation and instead looked more closely at the ice. It was not smooth as it had first appeared, but rucked and furrowed, and around the base of the stone pillars were piled great slabs, giving the appearance of luggage that had tumbled from a coach.
“Go now boy, on your way.” Thomas didn’t look behind. He wrapped the strap tightly round his rag-clad fist and stepped onto the ice.
In the preceding months, Sirrus had often heard the rumble of the Thomas’ stomach as he gathered an apple from the boy’s palm. The fruit had been offered at their first meeting, and the elephant did not hesitate, reaching out and slipping it into his mouth. The boy’s deep blue eyes rested on the scars upon the elephant’s flank and rump. When he looked into the elephants eyes something profound passed between the two of them. That same evening Thomas took down the flayed cane that hung outside the stall. Later, he removed the leg iron, and soon after, Jonas, the strong man, came to take away the anvil and chains. These were replaced with a harness such as a carthorse might wear.
Now a drawn out groan came from the river. In this moment, and for the first time, the elephant knew that the boy was truly afraid. It was this that caused him to hesitate when the halter tightened so that he placed one foot in front whilst the other three remained rooted. He heard the swell of voices as Thomas, surprised at the resistance, slipped and staggered on his heels, seeming to hang in the air before landing heavily on the bank. There was laughter from above and behind them. Thomas struggled to his feet, rubbing the base of his spine. He glanced back and saw that Haddon, who had risen from his chair, did not appear to be amused.
Thomas met the eye of the elephant for the first time since they had arrived. It was holding his gaze with what seemed a questioning look. He reached his hand to the elephant’s bristled chin and whispered in his ear.
‘All will be well. We shall cross together, and you shall be the first elephant, the very first, to walk on the water.”
As they stood silhouetted against the expanse of white, the elephant reached into Thomas’ pocket and felt the apple. This would not have been the first time he had picked Thomas’ pocket, and the boy was expecting the apple to be whisked away and into the elephant’s mouth. Instead, Sirrus caressed and turned the fruit before withdrawing his trunk, leaving the apple lodged there.
The jeering crowd had gone quiet, and at that moment the ice sheet gave another almighty groan. Thomas wound the halter around his hand and once more stepped from the bank. The elephant followed, crunching over the wind-whipped margin of snow that had been funneled by the arch of the bridge. The crowd cheered and then fell silent as the diminutive figure lead the animal out towards the middle of the river, its thin tail swinging slightly on the enormous wrinkled rump. After ten or so steps Thomas began to breathe, gulping in cold air that burnt his chest. Another huge groan rose from the surface as if the ice were adjusting to the hidden tons of water that swelled and stretched underneath. The boy stopped and looked down as he heard a crack like a large plank being snapped. The noise echoed from the stonework of the bridge, and then, from somewhere up-river, there came a booming like a barrel being rolled into a cellar. A tremor ran under his boots.
To Haddon, now above them on the bridge, the boy appeared to be frozen mid-river. A wisp of blonde hair protruded from his cap, twitching in the wind. Haddon cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled down
“Keep going boy, nothing is lost. The ice is merely shifting. Keep on!”
But Thomas did not hear him. It was as if his earlier fear, having come to nothing, had resurfaced twice as strongly. For several minutes he tried to lift his limbs, but found himself unable to move. He had once woken from a dream in just such a state, and had lain for a long time before breaking free with a jolt. No such jolt seemed forthcoming as the shouts from the bridge and bank began to grow louder.
Sirrus had been enjoying his walk with the boy, the two of them surrounded by nothing but whiteness. The tremors under his feet did not worry him, since the elephant had once crossed an ocean on a ship, and these movements were as nothing compared to the continual undulation he had experienced then. But now they had been standing for some time and he began to grow restless as the cold seeped through to his canvas- clad feet. He nudged the back of the boy’s legs with his trunk, and when Thomas remained rooted, gently rested his chin on the boy’s head. This too, had no effect. Then, reaching in and plucking the apple from the pocket, he held it to before the young man’s face. Thomas, seeing the apple pass before his eyes as if it were floating, came to with a start. He set off again towards the opposite bank, the elephant rolling the apple around in his trunk as if performing a conjuring trick.
They were once more into their stride, only deviating from their course to round a frost furred log which jutted from the surface. All the while the elephant toyed with the apple, swinging it up to the boy’s face and away again. Smoke drifted from the bank and the voices of the men grew louder. The pair were three quarters of the way across the river when a sound like a volley of musket fire rang out. From the bridge it was possible to observe cracks radiate from the elephant’s foot as if the tap of a hammer had crazed the glaze of a porcelain dish.
A prayer tumbled from the boy’s violet lips. The men on the shore were beckoning and calling, and he could hear Haddon shouting from the bridge. Then he noticed that the elephant had drawn up close beside him, and to his surprise, had lifted its front leg. The animal had been taught to offer his limb in this manner, so that, when performing, a rider wearing sequined britches and a plumed headdress could use the leg as a step, reaching up to pull on a pink mottled ear to hoist himself onto the elephant’s back. Thomas had never ridden Sirrus. He was not employed to perform with the animal, but to attend to its cleaning and feeding. He had only seen the elephant perform this gesture under a command which would be emphasized with a tap to the knee with a bamboo stick.
At that moment there was a huge wrenching and splitting sound, and a spume of water shot along the crack behind them, lifting chunks of ice that clattered down and broke into smaller fragments that spun around them. With haste and dexterity born of terror, Thomas stepped onto the proffered leg and hauled himself up, landing with his legs splayed, hands gripping the halter. The elephant moved off towards the yelling crowd, now some thirty yards away, his ears flapping. After twenty or so steps the ice gave way beneath them, two large sheets folding inward and upward like the wings of a great sea bird before slipping under. The boy felt the breath leave him as the ice water enveloped his body, and then hands plunged in and hauled him over shattered ice and mud splattered snow, up the bank to where a blanket had been set by a fire where a black pot was throwing off steam. Another blanket was wrapped around him and he sat quaking with cold and pain. Then Thomas found himself stumbling back towards the river. He pushed through the crowd to where his cap was floating in a hole of choppy water. At its rim there was a flash of yellow where an apple bobbed under the ice for a moment before being whipped away on a current and carried towards the sea.