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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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8 poets making it new
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smylonnylon
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caveat
generation z
blt
lutwidge finch
rel(ev)ations
the back of beyond
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“Nan?” The Reverend grimaced. Nan’s death, which-- Lutwidge’s handbills and advertisements having so far yielded nothing--he had come to accept as a slightly less painful alternative to a lifetime of wondering, of hoping and pining, had indeed changed him, leaving him a numb and cynical observer of humanity. The corpse in the bed, the petty crook tearing the ring off its swollen knuckle, the imminent arrival of thugs who might well beat him for information he did not possess, all this seemed in harmony with his new, bitter outlook. “No, Tom. No word of Nan.”

“Maybe you had better come with me, Reverend,” the little man suggested.

“Why?”

“They will be asking you questions.” He motioned to the corpse, whose hand, after Tom’s exertions, once again dangled against the rough wood floor. “Asking you who his friends were and such.”

“I have no idea. He was not even a parishioner. I was summoned--”

“Bother that. They will be wanting names. And that collar of yours may not be worth as much as you think.”

“I will take my chances,” the Reverend said.

“Not with my neck, you won’t.”

He took out a knife and held it to Belcher’s throat. The Reverend did not move, merely frowned down at the short, blunt blade, the kind of instrument with which one opened oysters.

“Come along now, Reverend, won’t you?” Old Tom urged. “I don’t want to be doing violence to you.”

They walked downhill, the streets steeper and steeper, narrower too. Belcher had thought he was a slum priest, that his parish held the worst of citizens, the poorest of conditions, but, he had to admit, as Old Tom trooped stolidly behind him, keeping the stubby knife at his belt, giving the occasional order to turn left or right, this was a worse part of the city. The river was near. He could smell it. Puddles kept appearing as the drains backed up. There was an air not just of despair, but otherworldliness, of being beyond the ordinary rule of law and nature. He stepped over debris that seemed to have been strewn deliberately across the road, makeshift barricades, and stooped low as the sign for a pub swung ominously off one remaining hinge.

“Here,” Old Tom indicated, nodding to a stairway Belcher would not have even seen. He cleared away some crates to begin a pitch-black, creaking climb.

“Are you going to rob me, Tom?” he asked, keeping his face forward, straining his eyes, his hands continuing to feel for a bannister that did not exist.

“Rob you?” Tom chuckled. “That’s rich.”

“I have got some money on me,” Belcher said defensively.

“Oh, no doubt. And I will be taking candies from little girls next. Here.”

“Where?”

“Turn right.”

“But there is no--”

A door opened. Belcher put up his hands as if to ward off a blow.

“Who’s this?” a voice asked.

“He was there,” Tom said. Belcher immediately noted a change in his tone. He had gone back to the obsequious, wheedling personality of the little man who kept his trousers up with string, who curled under church pews and prayed only not to be noticed.

“So you brought him here?” the voice asked in disbelief. It was broad and northern. “What is that, man, a head on your shoulders or a ball of suet?”

“He saw me,” Tom whined. “And the men was coming, for the body. They’d be asking questions.”

Belcher’s eyes adjusted to the light. The room before him was surprisingly well-appointed, not at all in keeping with its surroundings. A wine-colored carpet, a low-hanging lamp, its panes of glass clean and unbroken, upholstered furniture and a round table with a beaded fringe. A decanter of whiskey and a bottle of soda water stood with some tumblers on a sideboard. It could be, he imagined, the drawing room of a respectable bordello, if there were such institutions. And there probably are, he smiled. He felt no fear. There were fifteen or twenty men.

“Good Lord, a priest,” one of them said.

“The Reverend Timothy Belcher.” He straightened his collar, wondering if the knife was still at his back. “From the parish of Saint Eustace.”

“Saint Eustace?” another asked. “Up Seven Dials way?”

“Yes.”

“What a dreary spot.”

Unthinkingly he agreed, hoping Tom, his kidnapper and possible murderer, would not convey these sentiments to Mrs. Eblebowle or any other members of the Flower Committee.

“You get it?” the apparent leader asked. He was a huge man with outlandish clothes and yellow whiskers.

Tom reached into his pocket and handed over the dead man’s ring.

“I had to bring him,” he stated again. “I didn’t want--”

“Never mind that now. Get downstairs.”

“But what about--?”

“Leave him here.” The giant looked at Belcher’s collar, amused. “We can’t entertain no man of the cloth without offering him a proper drink, now can we? Make yourself comfortable, sir. Godfrey Egan’s the name.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the Reverend murmured, feeling his hand, suddenly minuscule, taken up and then dropped.

Egan grinned.

“Sit, Father.” Another of the circle vacated his chair.

By comparison, the rest were nondescript, Belcher decided, having time to study the group, as he was handed a glass. Or rather they were too descript, all dressed as types, like members of a repertory company. Some were plain and seedy, some flashy, like male peacocks, while others could pass for bankers or elderly abstemious wine merchants. There was even a plump, effeminate, rosy-cheeked man Belcher could easily imagine celebrating Mass at the church down the road (for this is how Anglican clergymen still referred to their elder brethren.)

“Here it is,” Egan announced, holding up the ring.

He looked across the room to a man in a dark suit with a quiet, intelligent, deferential expression. Like a parliamentary secretary, Belcher thought, amusing himself by assigning each a profession. The smooth type who stood just behind his Minister and passed forward notes containing the answers to Questions.

“Since we got a represent-ta-tive”--Egan pronounced the word carefully--“of God on earth, here in our very rooms, perhaps we should do it proper. You got a bible on you

Reverend?”

“I have a waterproof edition of the Gospel,” Belcher qualified.

“That’ll do. Now Jack, put your hand on the scripture.”

The others turned, still at their ease, but staring intently. The initiate put one hand on the small, leather cover and held up the other.

“Do you swear,” Egan asked, “to knock down the rotten props of society, to destroy all so-called institutions, to raze all class distinctions, so the mighty are brought down level with the poor and helpless? Do you swear to help build in its place a true anarchist paradise?”

“I do,” the other said.

“Very well, then. Steel in your heart, steel in your soul...and now steel on your finger.

Welcome, Brother Pierce!”

Lady Tabitha woke the next day expecting to feel awful, full of remorse, soiled and sick, but discovered instead the sun shining and her mind curiously clear. There was a buoyancy to her step and a sharpness to her gaze as if a storm had passed and blown the fetid atmosphere of the previous night straight out to sea. The floor was freshly waxed, the walls newly painted, the linen crisp. Instead of burying her face in the pillow with shame she splashed cold water on her features and was pleased to see herself looking as pretty as ever.

It was clear to her that she loved Lutwidge Finch.

I will tell him, she resolved. I will go to him now and explain.
This proved less easy than it sounded, since, when she descended the stairs and entered the dining hall, where the breakfast buffet stood arrayed against one wall, there was no sign of Finch and, worse, the only other early riser was Miss Ethyl, with whom Lady Tabitha had scarcely passed five minutes alone. It would be rude now to go off in search of him, rude indeed not to sit and spend some time with her sister guest, though truthfully (and this was the first sign of what had passed the other night affecting her) the very sight of warm eggs, the deep silver tubs of sausage and bacon, the withered sacs of baked tomatoes, nauseated her. She made herself a strong cup of tea and with clattering resolve shepherded it to the table.

“We are going to the fair!” Miss Ethyl announced triumphantly.

Lady Tabitha winced. They were the first words she had heard out loud today. Each syllable struck her ear like a tiny hammer. Did I drink wine last night? she wondered. No. That was the only sin she had not indulged in. Or had not tried indulging in, rather. She raised her trembling reflection to her lips.

“The Earl and I are going,” Miss Ethyl elaborated. “He says there is some competition he wishes to see. You are not eating? You will lose your color, you know.”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever been in love?” Miss Ethyl asked, staring meditatively at a whole sausage speared on the end of her fork.

Lady Tabitha managed to noiselessly return her cup to its saucer.

“Love?” she echoed dully, not wishing to discover her private feelings. “No. I suppose not.”

“I wonder what it is like,” the young woman sighed.

My own age, Tabitha reminded herself, yet somehow she seems still so much a girl.

Does that make me a woman? Or merely caught in some awful inbetween-time that goes on and on?

“I should think you only realize later you are in love,” Tabitha said. “That you look back, from the opposite shore, as it were, and say, Here is where I fell in love. But at the time...” She trailed off, not sure herself what she was saying.

“Are you better?” Miss Ethyl asked.

“Better?”

“You went up early last night. With a headache.”

“Oh yes. Quite better now, thank you. All cured.”

“The thing is,” she resumed, putting the sausage down, as if it had failed some test, “if you do not know what love is, then how do you know you are in love?”

“It is a leap,” Lady Tabitha agreed, and felt for a fleeting instant a kinship with this awkward, rather irritating woman. Not so different from myself, she philosophized, in predicament if not temperament.

The moment was cut short by the arrival of Choir in a Norfolk jacket with worn patches, knee-high boots, and a hacking stick he brandished with a martial air.

“ ’Awake!’ ” he quoted: “ ’For morning, in the bowl of night,
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight.
And lo! The Hunter of the East
Has caught the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light.’

Who’s for the three-legged race?”

“I am!” Miss Ethyl responded, rising too precipitously from her chair. She knocked over a teacup which, fortunately, was empty.

“I have a fiver on a lad from the Hall. Mister MacIntyre doubts his stamina but an old man like that is no judge of boy-flesh.”

“I thought you hated county fairs,” Lady Tabitha said.

“I do. But it is a healthy hatred. And, as you know, I am a man of many moods.”

“Yes.”

“Coming?” he asked.

“Have you seen Mr. Finch?”

“Mr. Finch?” He raised his eyebrow, detecting, in her stiff propriety, an interest hitherto unacknowledged. “Mr. Finch was up at cock-crow, if indeed he ever slept. I saw him from my window, striking out across the lawn, toward town, I suppose. I daresay you will see him at the fair.”

“I daresay,” Lady Tabitha answered.

“You will join us, then?”

“No.” She, in turn, had felt, at the Earl’s suggestion, a stiffening on the part of her neighbor.

“We must let Lady Tabitha eat her breakfast,” Miss Ethyl scolded. “She is quite without color.”

“Ah, she is not as transparent as all that,” the Earl sighed. “Come then, I do not want to miss the first heat.”

“Oh!” she blushed, completely misinterpreting his words, taking his proffered arm as if her very touch inflamed him.

After the two had gone, Lady Tabitha disconsolately regarded the sausage left on Miss Ethyl’s otherwise fastidiously clean plate. It formed, with the broken teacup, a melancholy tableau.

“I shall go mad if I do not speak to him,” she said. “If I do not tell him all, everything that has ever happened to me, bare my soul, throw myself at his feet, and beg him to forgive me.”

First making sure the Earl and Miss Ethyl were a safe distance off, she slipped out herself, before the next breakfaster could come down the stairs and trap her in conversation.
Colonel Carter, on the other hand, was in a jolly mood.

“Rather Kama Sutra, that,” he reflected, going over the previous night’s unexpected conclusion. Got a way with her, Nan had. A familiarity with the male anatomy. Not so common, even in women of her profession. You would be surprised. Had a...a sympathy, that’s it. He was free of her now, having gotten up at the crack of dawn and sauntered off, careful not to disturb her labored sleeping breath. To the village for a freshly laid egg or two. And then? That depended. Have to see if his communication had been answered. If there was a reward, he would cable back, stay here to collect. If not, well there was always the open road. Something about possessing a woman (though he had not, in the strictest sense, done so) that had a strange opposite effect. Want to put as much distance as possible between you and the offending party. Now why was that? He whistled as he walked, hands in the pockets of his still presentable uniform. Wish I had my good boots, though, he thought. These regimentals had lost their shine. Mrs. Griggs was no doubt taking good care of them. Where was he? Ah yes, Woman and Distance and the Morning After. Well, maybe it was simply that she has seen me naked. He tingled at the recollection of her extraordinary mouth. Quite adequate compensation for his services. One was even tempted to re-enlist. He smiled. No, no, Johnny Carter. You are not the settling-down type. “Always a rover,” was the Colonel’s motto. He struck a good pace as the path widened.

An hour later, staggering out of the Town Hall, where mail had indeed been left for him, the Colonel presented quite another aspect. His eyes were wide, his gait unsteady but animated. He wanted to go in many directions at once, chiefly sideways, and, with a jostling bunch of priorities, looked high for a church steeple, low as he pulled out the cloth of his empty pockets, all while reading and rereading the crumpled telegram in his hand, and occasionally smacking his forehead, exclaiming, “By Jove!”

This is how Lutwidge saw him, or would have seen him, had he looked. But the previous night had had the exact opposite effect on our hero. He was walking with his chin sunk to his chest, his hands buried deep in his trousers, seeing no more than the fine, delicate beige dust of the much travelled country road. For the Colonel, however, the appearance of this familiar figure was all in keeping with the strange new world he had just now entered.

“Why it’s Mr. Finch,” he called, surprising even himself by plucking the name, heard once, many months ago, at the chophouse on Porter Street, from the warm morning air.
Finch stared at the Colonel uncomprehendingly. He was not sure if this was a hobo or, with his bizarre dress uniform, a member of some rustic constabulary. The Colonel strode forward, hurriedly stuffing the telegram in his back pocket while extending his other arm in a hearty handshake.

“Carter,” he said, “Jonathan S. Colonel. Her Majesty’s Sixth Halberdiers. Retired.”

“Yes,” Finch said vaguely. “Of course. How do you do, sir?”

“Smashingly,” the Colonel said, slapping him on the back. “I am to be married, you see.”

“That is good news.” Finch smiled. “I congratulate you.”

“It had to happen,” the Colonel said sentimentally, already reviewing his bachelor days in retrospect. He resisted the temptation to drape his arm around the younger man. Bit of a stick, he remembered now. But what was important was that he needed ready cash, and knew no one else in this bumpkin patch. So it was a piece of luck, running into such a ripe, respectable type, and not one he intended to let slip through his fingers. “The ball and chain. Beckons to the best of us. You will see. Some day.”

“No doubt,” Finch said. “Who is the lucky lady? A local girl?”

“Oh, an heiress,” the Colonel said casually. “We could afford the Abbey, with what she brings, but I like things simple. The country touch, you know. None of that glass coach business for me.”

“No,” Finch agreed.

“Problem is,” the Colonel hemmed and hawed, “I find myself without-- Wait a minute.” He stepped back as if to judge Lutwidge anew. “Why, you would do nicely.”

“Nicely, how?”

“To stand with me. Best man and all. Provide some artillery on my side of the aisle.”
“Colonel,” Lutwidge said, “I am extremely flattered, of course, but is there not anyone else who--?”