Time Past: Text
‘You ask me, sahib, for an account of my life; my relation of it will be understood by you, as you are acquainted with the peculiar habits of my countrymen; and if, as you say, you intend it for the information of your own, I have no hesitation in relating the whole…’
Time Present: Context
This is what I see across time and space. This is what I see from the gloaming of my grandfather’s library, surrounded by Dickens and Collins; this is what I see from a whitewashed house in Phansa. I see a place in London more than a hundred years ago. In… what year is it… in 1837, the year of the coronation of Queen Victoria. I see a room. I see – what is that?
Perhaps it is a tattered shirt hanging from a nail hammered into the cracked windowpane. Or a window curtain, ragged, netting the dregs of the light which, dying a lingering death all day, still manages to creep into the room from the grimy court in a corner of the rookery, at this late hour.
The man reclines across a sagging bedstead. He is dressed in expensive clothes, or clothes that seem expensive in this tawdry room. Also lying (dressed in shabbier clothes of varying cut) are a Chinaman, a lascar with a long, white beard and a haggard woman. The first two are asleep, or only half awake, as if in a stupor, while the woman is blowing at a kind of pipe, trying to kindle it. She shades it with her bony hand, concentrating her breath on its red spark of light that serves as a lamp in the falling night, to show us what we see of her face. It is wizened and wrinkled, an old woman’s face, though her body has the agility of someone younger. Her hair is matted and clumpy, as if under it the bone was uneven and indented. A sweet, sickly smell pervades the room.
‘Another?’ says the woman in a rattling whisper, extending her pipe towards the men. ‘Have ’nother?’
The well-dressed man stirs slightly, and makes a gesture of repugnance.
The woman laughs and lazily retracts the pipe. She pulls at it herself.
‘He’ll come to it,’ she says to the Chinaman and the lascar, who show no sign of hearing her. ‘Always does. I sees his kind coming here, angry-like, and I ses to my poor self, I’ll get ’nother ready for him, for there’s a gentleman. Not like you lot, no better’n me you are, though I’as nothing ’ginst you. A few years in dust and smoke and toil and who can tell yer skin from mine? Ha. But he’s a gentleman. He’ll remember like a good soul, won’t ye, sir, that the market price is dreffl e high just now. And I makes my pipes from old penny ink-bottles, ye see, dearies – with me own two hands – and I fi ts in a mouthpiece, all clean, sir – see, like this – and I takes my mixter out of this thimble with a little silver horn… Not every place is like this, sir. I sets the pipe going myself, with me own breath, like this, see… Here y’are…’
Having prepared a new opium pipe, she tries to pass it to the gentleman, but he pushes it back, so abruptly that the pipe falls to the dirty ground, and embers fan out like fireflies released from a bottle, waking the Chinaman, who starts stomping on them alongside the woman, both of them muttering and cursing.
Our gentleman sits up and watches the spasmodic shoots and darts of the embers on the floor, the unsteady stomping that extinguishes an ember in one place and sends another whirling into the murky air. He does not know who he hates more, himself for being here, or these people. When the Chinaman stumbles into him in his drugged stomping out of the embers, the gentleman pushes him so hard that the wizened old opium-smoker bounces off the opposite wall, knocking down a pan in the dark, and crumbles into a heap, quivering but not getting up again.
This makes the old woman indignant. She protests that she runs a respectable house and not even the ‘lascars, moors and Chinamen who come here with nary a word of English, sir’, take such liberties with each other in her presence.
The gentleman puts one finger to his lips and holds out a coin in the other hand. He beckons to the woman. A crafty light steals into the woman’s eyes and she sidles up to the man, simpering. He holds her at arm’s length and with the other hand, still holding the coin, probes her hair. Perhaps she takes it for a caress. She certainly tries to make the appropriate noises, smiling seductively. But the man is not caressing her. He probes her skull with knowing fingers and if she had been able to look up, she would have been struck by the expression on his face. Then suddenly, the gentleman pushes her away. As she begins to remonstrate again, more loudly this time, he tosses the coin at her and walks out of the room.
The long-bearded lascar continues to sleep on the sagging bedstead.
(I see him. I distinctly hear his hoarse breathing in my grandfather’s half-gagged library in Phansa.)
The man, unusually well-dressed for the neighbourhood but perhaps not really a gentleman in the esteem of politer circles, crosses the grimy court at a brisk, angry pace, and walks into a dirty little street, pushing away an urchin who gets in his way. The urchin shouts at him, but runs away when the man makes as if to stop. The man continues down the street, walking with some care to avoid the horse droppings and muddy tracks left by carriages and carts of all sorts.
Look. Night is descending on the streets of London in the likeness of a steaming darkness, capped by a laggard mist a little way up in the air, which drops fi ne particles of soot that settle on the dirty yellow hair of our bareheaded gentleman and on his clothes. He walks on; the streets here are dark. After some time, he turns into a broader street where the gas has been started up in the shops, and the lamplighter – lighting rod slung across one shoulder like a gun – scampers along the pavement. Another turn and he is on Old Baileys, for long the preferred thoroughfare of sheep, cattle and drovers walking down from the market at Smithfield, and even now occasionally containing more animals than human beings, despite the appropriation of public spaces solely for the use of bipeds and their carriages over the years.
About a hundred metres from the stony grimness of Newgate Prison, near Cock Lane, our man enters a pub under the sign of a gilded wooden cherub: a corpulent, naked boy hanging from the walls, darkened with rain and soot. The sign says Prize of War. Our gentleman is known in the pub – people at two diff erent tables raise their drinks to him, their voiced greetings, if any, drowned in the clatter of crockery and the constant coming in and going out and running about – and the barman-publican, who lacks an arm, nods at him familiarly. The usual, says our man, and he is poured a pint of half-and-half.
Our man does not seem as gentlemanly here as he did in the opium den. Most of the other men are wearing similar clothes, though our man appears to have taken greater care over his appearance: his whiskers are brushed and clipped, his collars tidy, his cuff s clean, his chin closely shaved.
The barman, polishing a glass on a dirty rag, does not look up, but he utters the name our man is known by: ‘John May’. He adds, without once glancing up at John May: ‘He is here. Your mystery Lordship.’...