Liverpool 1949

…And I keep on running, down the cobbled street, past the blown out tenements and across the tramway onto Princes Road, where a rag and bone man bellows:


His shire navigates the rails, yoked to a monstrous cart of rusty iron and rotten mattresses. I dash past the Synagogue, my legs still smarting from the strap, then out onto Parliament Street with its many clubs and bars. The pulse of Calypso is everywhere. All the black girls are strutting up and down, singing like exotic birds of paradise, whilst the men play guitars and trumpets. Two waifs dart amid the crowd, picking pockets and poking fun at a drunken chinaman. On the corner of Berkley Street is the Rialto cinema with its Deco façade glowing in the gloom like a Goblin teasmade. The portico gleams with an illuminated sign:

Patricia Roc
The Perfect Woman
Professor Ernst Belman Creates a Woman in His Lab

The poster depicts a beautiful woman reclining in nothing but a red lace slip and high heels. A queue of dirty old men stretch fifty yards down the pavement, hiding behind their evening papers. I skulk up the line, weaving amid the gaberdines, then enter the foyer and duck beneath the ticket booth. But an usher grabs my collar and yaps:

‘Oi! What’s your game lad? Sneaking in? You little guttersnipe! This picture is for adults only!’

He drags me out the door, my feet barely touching the ground:

‘I remember you from last time. You filthy weasel! Try that again, and I’ll fetch the constable!’

He clips me round the ear and throws me down the steps:

‘Now beat it! And don’t come back! Do you here?’

I careen across the road, narrowly missing an oncoming van that swerves and hoots three times. The driver curses out the window:

‘Bloody idiot! You’ll get us both killed!’

I wander on towards the Berkley Arms where raucous laughter rings off the cobbles. The stench of tobacco and beer wafts from the open door. Two thugs loiter in an alley whilst a prostitute necks a man against the wall. She wears a red blouse and skirt, with penciled seams up the back of her fleshy legs. Then the landlord yells from inside:

‘You’re barred! The bloody lot of you!’

A bottle flies out the window and smashes in the gutter. Seconds later, a riot of sailors tumble out the door and sprawl across the road. One by one, they get up and dust themselves down. They stand there for a moment, swaying like skittles. A fat one spots a purse on the curb and cries:

‘Here lads! Look what I found!’

His shipmates gather round:

‘Open it Charlie!’

‘I can’t. The zipper’s stuck.’

His friend grabs it:

‘Let me ’ave a go. Oh, its heavy all right. There’s enough for twenty rounds in here!’

‘Give it back! I found it!’

A fight breaks out. They squabble like clowns, throwing drunken punches as the purse spills into the drain. Two silver coins roll along the curb and stop at my feet. Pennies from Heaven. I slip them in my pocket and slink away.

I leave the sailors to their brawl, drawn by the sound of familiar music. And there is Old Black Joe, standing under a gas light, blowing his harmonica to a blues riff. He’s black as night, dressed in a shabby coat and tattered boots. He taps his feet, cupping his Hohner as his bony fingers waft notes into the dirty air. He bends a high-note then slides down the scale, puffing like a steam-engine. Then he splutters and pulls the harp from his mouth. He bangs his chest with a fist and gasps:

‘Me caan’ get no cure.’

‘Are you sick Joe?’

He turns to face me:

‘Dis place is too cul’ fe ol’ Joe. De winter’s too lon’ an’ de summer too short. Me lungs rattle like an’ ol’ gourd.’

He falls silent and glares at my welts:

‘Who giv yu dem marks? Have yu ben cryin’ bwoy? What yu ben cryin’ for?’

‘I got the strap.’

‘De strap?’ Who giv yu de strap? De teacher?’

‘No, Ma.’

‘Yu ben a bad bwoy?’

‘No Joe.’

‘Then wha’ mek yu so sad?’

‘Ma’s cruel. I hate her.’

‘Don’t say dat.’

‘She wants me dead.’

‘No, she lub you.’

‘She doesn’t. Anyway, she’s not my real mother.’

‘But she brin’ yu up.’

‘My real mother was Irish. A priest got her up the duff. A filthy two-faced priest.’

‘Who told yu dat?’

‘Ma did. Do you know why she took me in? To clean the house and shovel coal.’

‘No Jack. She lub yu. I know she lub yu. She’s your fam’ly.’

‘No she’s not. I don’t have a family.’

‘Well, what yu doin’ now?’

‘I’m running away.’

‘Runnin’ away? What? An’ leave poor Ol’ Joe? An’ I ben takin’ yu fe me frien’. I don’t know whateber I’ll do. Where yu goin’ run?’

‘Far away.’

‘Well, how far de think yu goin’?’

‘I’ll board a ship.’

‘What ship?’

‘The Katha.’

‘Are yu a rich bwoy, Jack?’


‘Well, how yu buy de ticket?’

‘I’ll stow away. The Henderson Line goes to Egypt.’

‘Egyp’? An’ wha’ yu goin’ do dere? Ride camels an’ eat dates?’

I begin to weep:

‘Ma says I’m cursed. I bring bad luck.’

Joe puts his arm round my shoulder:

‘Cursed? Never you bodder wid somet’ing ’tan’ so. Don’t be sad Jack. Dis wul tu’n right upside down. But you shall conquer yet. Yu are where your mind is. If not, den where are you? My mind is in de Ol’ Wul.’

‘The Old World? Where’s that?’

‘Oh, de Ol’ Wul’ is far away, over de sea. I ’member de times past. In de Ol’ Wul’ I was rich. I was free from all de grief an strife. I cud buy me ebryt’ing! I knew a witch dere. She spoke wid spirits who dwell in de land of de dead.’

‘You mean the graveyard?’

‘No, anudder place. Some people think de dead are turned into earth an’ ashes. But de dead are very much alif. Dey have flesh an’ bone, jus’ like us. Can yu see dem Jack? De spirits?’


‘Where d’yu see dem?’

‘The graveyard – behind the hospital.’

‘Tell Ol’ Joe what yu see.’

‘I saw an old woman with her arms laid across her body; she was floating above the grass. She was stuck. She couldn’t get to heaven.’

‘Keep dat secret. Tell nubuddy. Dem fear witches. Dem lock yu up an’ throw away de key. Understan’?’

‘Yes Joe.’

‘Did yu show her the way to heben? Did yu show her the Light?’

‘No. She didn’t believe in heaven. That’s why she was stuck. She was looking for her jewels. She thought she was still alive.’

‘An’ so she is – but in anudder place. Sometime’, you jump from fryin’-pan ’traight in de fire; an’ try as yu might, you caan’ get back in de fryin’-pan again. When I t’ink of de Ol’ Wul’, I wish dat I was dere. I had many frien’s, wid names I don’t ’member now. But dat witch I don’t feget. She was a healer wid hands of fire. She draw de t’ousan’ from far an wide. De sick come fe cure, an’ she heal all deir pain an’ disease. In de Ol’ Wul’ I had anudder body wid anudder name.’

‘What were you called?’

‘Dey called me Joseph. I was very small, wid no arms or legs.’

‘No arms or legs? But how did you get about.’

‘Dey put me in a basket.’

‘A basket?’


‘But weren’t you sad?’

‘No. In de Ol’ Wul I was happy. But dis New Wul’ aint no good. De fact’ry chimneys pourin’ smoke up to de sky. Dey call it de debil’s boon. But look at us: yu an’ me stuck in dis earthly mire. I will pray to de witch to tek us back.’

‘What does she look like?’

‘Dat witch is ugly as sin. De sin she teks upon herself. She teks udder peoples sin. An’ de more sin she teks, de uglier she gets. When I last saw de witch, she had teken so much sin, dat she looked like a debil, wid great big horns an’ hairy flesh. Look now: de darkness comes; yu mus go back to mumma, for it’s gettin’ night.’

‘But I want to live with you.’

He bursts into a hearty laugh:

‘Oh no! Yu can’t lif wid me! Good Lard in heben no!’

‘Why not?’

‘My trubba in dis life is not small. De bailiff come knockin’ at me door. Yu canot lif with wuthless ol’ Joe. I fight de wul as best I can, but me music brin’ more loss than gain. Me nuh have nun. What shall we do? Sing all de day as we wuk along? Fe food dat we no hab at all? We shant be happy. Den what will becomin’ of us? Yu mus’ go bek home.’

‘But I don’t want to go back home.’

‘Yu big bwoy now. Yu brin’ mumma toil an’ worry. Your mumma is sick. But I know her lub fe you is ’trong. You mus mek her Christmas bright. Can yu do dat fe me Jack?’

I put a coin in his hand then run off down the street. He gazes in astonishment at the silver piece which glistens in his palm:

‘Hey wait! Dat’s half a crown yu giv’ ol’ Joe!’

But I don’t care, for there’s another in my pocket – that’s enough to buy a ticket on the Dockers’ Umbrella and plenty more besides…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2019.