Liverinth is a book which I’ve long promised and as I write this I’m reasonably close to finishing. It ought to be finished by September, providing I get a move on. I’ve also got another book to get done by then AND I’ve got to, got to GOT TO have finished this years Christmas serial. So far I’ve not mentioned a great deal about Liverinth, other than that it is my take on James Joyce’s Ulysees. Hopefully it is a lot more readable, though it is just as ambitious (and uses other aspects of Greek Mythology, not just The Odyssey). Below is the first chapter. Enjoy.
“Is she waiting for you, old man?”
I shall never forget those words. It has been fifty years since I heard them, staring exactly as I do now through the window of a slow moving train, working its way from London to Liverpool. I can still hear them, clear as day, echoing around my head.
“Is she waiting for you, old man?”
I looked away from the window and towards the stranger sat opposite me. He was thin, not an ounce of fat on him as old Granny Seuzs would have said, and he was so gaunt and so sallow that it looked as though his high cheekbones were about to puncture their way through his skin. Everything about him was thin. His nose was thin, ending in a hook so that it bore more than a passing resemblance to a beak. His lips were so thin as to be practically non-existent. His long fingers, which drummed against the knee of his black suit trousers, were as thin as twigs.
From beneath the brim and shadow of a trilby hat his eyes looked into my soul. I would have said that there was a perverted glee in that stare. They were each of a different colour, those eyes. I forget what the medical people call it. Hetero-something I think. Those eyes frightened me. Those were dangerous eyes.
His voice as well…
“Is she waiting for you, old man?”
It was a croak, a husk, but it had volume. It lingered, echoing after every syllable and hanging in my ear and around our otherwise empty compartment. I hated that voice. I hated it then, the moment it first touched my ear, and I hate it all the more now. The thought of it, the sound re-echoing in my ear from the distant past, makes me want to rage, to vent at all the nameless passengers sat around me, all these passengers who have their heads buried deep in the screens of their tablets and smartphones. I wince every time I recall those words, every time they return to the front of my mind.
“Is she waiting for you, old man?”
It was the first time he had spoken. All the way from London we had been here, alone, and not a word had passed between us, but now, as we finally closed on Liverpool, he had decided to speak.
In those days it was unusual to go so long on such a journey without conversation. It wasn’t that people were friendlier then, though I am certain that they were, it was down to the intimacy thrust upon us by such journeys. Those smoky dragons who patrolled the tracks with a chug-a-chug noise and a gentle rocking motion forced us into tiny, cramped compartments where your knees pressed against those of the person opposite. A body was closeted into such a cosy space that it was almost impossible not to talk to one another, not to start a conversation or get to know your traveling companion, to learn about who they were and where they were going and why. Lifelong friendships began in those compartments. Romances too. They were excellent places to meet people and today only your standard budget airline offers similar chance, though they are hardly the same thing and the results nowhere near identical.
Perhaps this is what they call nostalgia and I am romanticising, but looking around me and recalling the ways things were it all does seem more than a bit romantic. Those were the last days of that sort of train travel, the last days before they became the preserve of enthusiasts and a novelty for tourists and day trippers. Spearheaded by the odious Doctor Beeching, the railways were cut and ‘streamlined,’ with various claims made that this form of travel was outmoded and outdated. In the years since successive governments, from Wilson to Cameron, have continued the process and our rails have grown weaker. Over time they have become just as outmoded as Beeching said they were.
The politicians didn’t care. Harold Wilson promised a Britain forged in the white heat of a technological revolution but that revolution didn’t include the railways. Japan already had the Bullet Train by this time, a sleek, stylish and more than worthy successor to those smoky dragons of old. But we did not look to Japan. We did not see what they had done and think it good. Instead we got the intercity pacer, no more than an out of service bus chassis on rails.
Those are awful things, begging to be killed out of mercy, more a monstrosity than a beautiful dragon. The pacers rattle and moan and smell as though someone has died upon every seat. I loathe them and so too, judging by the look on the faces of those I have seen boarding them, does everybody else. There is no joy in them, no glamour, nothing to love. I suppose that unlike the days of old nobody shall have any nostalgia for them. They will be forgotten.
This is not a pacer. It is an express (though the term is laughable given its speed) and in general it is of a superior quality to the aforementioned pacer, but the overall atmosphere is the same. On this and the pacer nobody sits next to each other if they can help it. Nobody talks. They hide away behind those tablets and smartphones, as far from the other passengers as they dare, ears closed inside cheap headphones blasting tuneless beats, hoping to cover up the sounds of other people and the noises of the train and the world around them.
“In my experience,” that thin man sitting opposite me elaborated without being asked, “when a man is staring out of the window of a train carriage like that he’s usually thinking of a girl.” I was thinking of a girl, not that it was any of his business. I thought of Shannon, divine Shannon Demeter with her flowing locks of auburn hair and her smile as bright as all the stars combined. We had been parted two years, myself leaving Liverpool for military service, but we had written every day and we had sent photographs when we could. That, now I think back, had made me miss her more than otherwise. Her words on the page of each letter had been read with the strains of her light, scouse accent in my mind, a sound that made my heart beat faster and my stomach knot with increasing complexity when I thought of it. That I would soon be hearing it again for real… Oh, that was the very ideal of heaven itself. I could ask her to talk with me forever and I would never grow tired of her voice, never grow tired of all that she had to say.
“Or perhaps you’ve left her in London?” A pause. “No… I saw you on the platform. No girl with you there so she must be at the other end. She’s a pretty thing, I’ll bet. What does she smell like?” That last question surprised me.
“Smell like?” They were the only words I spoke in that compartment.
“Everyone has a smell, old man. A distinctive one. You, for instance, smell like Copenhagen. You smell of cobbled streets and bakeries selling… Well, selling Danish pastries I suppose. What do they call Danish pastries in Denmark? Just pastries I suppose.”
I knew what Shannon smelt like, of course I did, but I wasn’t going to tell him. Why was he so interested all of a sudden anyway? He’d had the whole journey to speak to me and he hadn’t even made the effort. Neither had I, to be fair, but from the off I had decided he did not look like the type of man I wanted to associate with, though I had thought that if he decided to converse I would reluctantly return the compliment. As he had not done so until now I was not going to bother giving him the dignity of returning it.
Like those terrible first words, I have never forgotten his comments about everyone having a distinctive smell. Ever since it is as if I have been doomed to notice the scent of every person I meet, no matter how briefly. The ticket inspector aboard this modern train, to use an example, smells of rum and coconut. The smells are often random, little to do with the person in question. I have known men and women who smell of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings, and yet they had nothing to do with any of those things. I sincerely doubt the lady who smelt of sealing wax had ever been near any in her life.
As soon as the man mentioned that everyone has a distinctive smell I caught a whiff of expensive jewellery in my nostrils, a smell of gold and diamond and what nowadays they refer to as bling. He was wearing no jewellery from what I could see, not even a watch.
“I’m David, by the by.” He tried to hold his hand out and only smiled when I ignored him. Then he pointed to the case on the luggage rack above my head. How he could read the label from where he sat is a mystery, but he did.
“Oliver… How do I pronounce it? Say-us? See-us?” Neither. It is pronounced Soys, akin to the sauce.
“Talkative, aren’t you?” David laughed when I didn’t respond. “I’m guessing that you’re from Liverpool… Especially if you have a girl waiting there. I ought to be envious… Best city in England Liverpool is. I’m from a place called Eden myself. Not been back for a long time… Not since my father kicked me out. It’s not a patch on Liverpool of course. There’s nowhere like Liverpool in all the world, especially for women.” I noticed a sinister, lecherous glint in his eye. “I’m sure you know this, but a domineering scouse woman is one of God’s finest creations… Provided they don’t have that high, grating kind of scouse accent. I prefer the gentle, lilting kind. If I met a beautiful woman with the other kind I might just have to sew her mouth up!” He hawed as though what he had said were funny. I was disgusted.
I had spent all of my life amongst such people, people who had that accent which he so detested. Leslie Dashwood, a girl I fell in love with when I was five, had that kind of accent and I could not and cannot picture anything more horrific than her mouth being sewn up. We cannot help the way we talk, it is a part of who we are. Yes, we may hate and find some voices irritating, but it is no use in much complaining. There is no excuse for threatening mutilation because of it.
“I see that you do not agree,” David snorted at me a moment later, his face becoming a scowl of offense. “Well let me tell you something, Oliver Seuzs, (he pronounced it correctly, despite my not informing him), I have travelled the world over and heard every accent imaginable and there is none that is more debase than the grating scouse.”
One eye flashed dangerously and then he turned away from me. I was glad. It meant he would ask no more questions to which he had no business knowing the answer to. I thought the one concerning Shannon’s smell had been of especial impertinence. I mean, I ask you, what kind of a man asks what someone smells like? And his comments regarding accents and sewing mouths shut made me shudder. I was highly ashamed to be seen sharing his compartment. Had we not been so close to Liverpool I would have upped and left, gone to share the remainder of my journey with more pleasant and amiable company.
For what little was left of that journey, as I stared out of the window dreaming of the moment I would see Shannon, waiting for me as the train pulled up to the platform, this awful man hummed a song, occasionally adding a lyric or two to the proceedings. It sounded like it was something about an astronaut. I can’t say that it was a very good song. It was dull and largely tuneless, though it may have been better had he been singing all the lyrics instead of humming half of them. His singing voice was awful too. He was wobbly, unsure of himself. The usual croak of his voice came through in his melody and this made him unclear in his delivery.
I am, and have been ever since my teenage years, an accomplished baritone but even if I had not been, even if I had no musical training whatsoever, I would have known that he needed singing lessons. I might have silenced him had we not been so close to the end of the line but it was not worth causing trouble now. Soon he and his awful singing would be gone from my life and I would never see him again. I would tell Shannon of him, indubitably, and we would laugh about how horrible he was, but that would be all and that would be the last I thought about him.
I was relieved that he made to leave almost as soon as we pulled into Lime Street, making for the door before the train had even come to a standstill. He turned to doff his hat as he opened it, smoke billowing into the compartment.
“Enjoy your sunken dream, old man.” Then he was gone and I was alone, surrounded by smoke and with the compartment door banging gently against the side of the carriage.
The tannoy of the train arouses me, almost as if from a sleep.
“We will shortly be arriving at… Liverpool Lime Street. This train terminates here.” I am filled with a sense of dread. Will it still be the same after all these years? Has it remained as the nightmare it became when last I returned? I realise that I have been playing with a dirty piece of chewing gum under the arm of my seat for the last ten minutes and as I pull my hand away I remember something else he said to me, when we came face to face for the final time, when that nightmare came to an end.
“For you this city shall always be this way. When you return, and you will return, it will all be waiting for you.”
The frightening thing was that he never lied. I never knew him to utter a falsehood. Out there would not be the same city I grew up in, and it will not be the ravages of time that has changed it. I do not know if I am ready for this, ready to relive the nightmare. I could remain on the train I suppose, wait for it to return me to London and the place I have called home for thirty of the last fifty years.
This would not be a brave thing to do. This would be a coward’s option and if there is one thing I have always believed it is that a man must never be a coward.
I follow a man, of precisely the same age as I was then, to the door of the train. He’s on a phone to his girlfriend, telling her the letter of the carriage we are in and which door he is headed for. She is waiting for him and as he steps down from the train they run and hug and kiss, long parted lovers reunited. I am again reminded of David’s first words and as they again ring in my ears I cannot but recall how much more sinister they became the last time I stepped onto the platform of Lime Street station.
“Is she waiting for you, old man?”