The Dockers’ Umbrella is now demolished, but at the time in question, it was the nickname for the Liverpool Overhead Railway. It got this name because dockers sheltered under the structure during inclement weather. The LOR was the worlds first electric railway, and built as an elevated line running 16 feet above street level. Its other nickname was the ‘Ovee’. For most its length the Ovee ran directly above the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board railway which had been steam-worked from May 1895, linking factories, cargo bays and goods facilities. The Ovee ran from Dingle in the south, to Seaforth Sands in the north, and the 6 mile trip took about twenty minutes, the cars moving at just 20 miles per hour.
At the end of Park Lane, I reach Dingle station where the clatter of hobnail boots echoes in the tunnel. Dockers, sailors and shoppers pour from entrance and fan into the street, their murmurs rising in the chill November air. Then I spot Franky Lanaghan with his vegetable barrow. He wheels it among the crowd, crying:
‘Satsumas! Raisins! Dates!’
The people rush past, eager to return to their parlour fires. He parks his barrow by the steps, shakes his head in remorse and mutters:
‘Another fine Christmas.’
‘Do you have any mistletoe?’ I ask.
He looks round in surprise:
‘Mistletoe? No lad. That’s poisonous, that is. You can’t eat mistletoe, lad. Did you know that?’
‘Well I only sell vegetables and fruits, see?’
‘Where can I buy mistletoe?’
He scratches his head:
‘Have you tried Saint Martin’s Market? They might ’ave some. But they’ve closed shop now. Try again tomorra.’ He thinks for moment then adds: ‘Shouldn’t you be home with your ma? It’s a bit late to be out shopping, lad.’
‘Ma wants mistletoe.’
‘Ere, you’re Jack Vallis, aren’t you? The midwife’s son?’
‘Well, you’ll be rich one day, lad.’
‘How’s that then?’
‘Didn’t you know? Your ma keeps gold sovereigns up the chimney.’
‘You’re pulling my leg.’
He chuckles again:
‘Well Jack lad, if you ever find a gold coin, don’t forget old Franky, eh?’
‘If ma was rich, we wouldn’t be living in the colonies.’
‘She must have delivered more than half the kids round there.’
‘So they say.’
‘They breed like rabbits round there you know. Like rabbits. What about you? Do you have any brothers or sisters.’
‘I had a twin sister. But she’s dead.’
‘Sorry Jack lad. ’Ere, have a Satsuma.’
He winks and tosses me one.
‘Where you off to then? You out on the tiles?’
‘No, I’m going to Egypt.’
‘Egypt. I’m going to ride camels and eat dates.’
‘The sheik of Araby! Well you’d better be quick lad. The next train leaves in five minutes.’
He blows on his fingers:
‘It’s getting a bit parky. I’d better be off myself. Ta ra Jack lad.’
He pushes his barrow away, his bandy legs buckling as the wheels rut in the cobbles.
Before entering the station, I study the fares board. The coin in my pocket is warm with possibilities. Half a crown. That’s two shillings and six pence. Or thirty pennies. Six pence will buy a return ticket to Seaforth Sands. Which leaves two shillings for Christmas shopping. I’m rich!
It’s rather odd boarding an overhead railway via a subterranean passage. But the track enters Dingle via an underground tunnel, bored from the cliff face at Herculaneum Dock. After buying my ticket, I dash for platform where the train waits in the gloom, its engine knocking like a death watch beetle. A distant guard stands at the tunnel mouth – a shadowy figure with hardly any substance at all. He cries: “All aboard!” then blows his whistle as I shut the carriage door.
The platform glides past. I peer out the window and plan my escape from the world of appearances. A strange man reflects in the glass, his visage lost in pools of blackness. It seems as if the world of matter, space and time might drift away forever. I’m sinking in a fathomless nothingness, exiled by the midwife who delivered me. This wasn’t the first time I’d run away from home, and it wouldn’t be the last. I knew an old shack in the dunes beyond Seaforth. Whenever Ma had one of her spells, I’d stay there and return the following day. I wasn’t bothered about missing supper. Besides, Ma would be drunk by now. She’d hardly miss me at all.
From Herculaneum to the city, the riverside of the line is dominated by the grandeur of the docks, the skies crowded with cranes, cargo liners, giant wharfs, water towers and red-brick warehouses; whilst on the landward side, there are chandlers, workshops, merchants, snack-bars, tobacconists, taverns, and hundreds of smoking chimneys. The forge of industry glows everywhere, with blacksmiths, welders, and riggers attending the many ships whose mighty bows tower above the dock estates. Thick ropes of hemp snake about the quays, soaked in oil and tar. The whole tapestry moves in a constant state of flux, the cranes swinging like compass needles as they hoist bulging nets from hold to wagon. Lorries chug along the wharfs, laden with coal and barrels of palm oil. Steam carts hiss about the cobbles, carrying crates of bananas and Seville oranges, bound for the Hartley’s jam factory at Aintree. A fireless locomotive inches along the tracks below, hauling tanks of petroleum to a distant refinery. But I am sure, that beyond the smoking stacks, on far horizons edge, I will find the Old World waiting, with its majestic hills and wooded ravines, where pigeons coo all day in the lush green glades.
As the sun’s fiery orb sinks upon the Mersey, I seem to slip into another realm. The river sparkles with ephemeral light – a purifying, healing Light, that might wash away all the grime and sins of the world. As if those golden rays could enlighten Man and purify all corruption and death. A seagull glides through the effulgence, its wings dipped in liquid fire. Time itself seems to slow and stop. I sense a presence from beyond, permeating my soul like quicksilver. And I am overcome by an icy cold, followed by a delicious warmth that envelops me from head to toe. Then I become aware of another orb, floating outside the carriage window. It flits through the air like a weightless globe, matching the speed of the train. At first, it looks like the setting sun, reflected in the glass. But then the orb passes through the door and enters the carriage. To my astonishment, it hovers on the opposite seat – a blazing opalescent sphere, no bigger than a basket ball. Then a familiar voice chimes in the air:
‘Hello Jack. Have you missed me?’
I feign to speak yet sense a timeless connection.
‘Who are you?’
‘My name is Grazide. Don’t you remember?’
‘What are you?’
‘I am the Principle of Perfection to those who are being perfected…(i) I pervade all things without mingling with them; I am received by all things yet remain indivisible; and I transform all things unto myself.’
‘You’re a faery. A fallen spirit.’
‘I am of a group of spirits that watch over people like you.’
‘Why are you here?’
‘To lead you to salvation.’
‘You don’t belong here. How shall you dwell in the flesh of the outer man? It is the Spirit that giveth life, the flesh alone profiteth nothing.(ii) Touch my body, and henceforth you shall be composed of the glory, and no more of the flesh.’
‘If you stay here, you will bring great pain upon yourself. Give yourself to me. I am the light of His countenance. Who else shall liberate you from that body of sin? In the flesh dwelleth no good thing.(iii) Touch me.’
‘Why? Am I not beautiful?’
‘Look at the world. There is so much toil and sorrow. The impoverished masses, slaving for their industrial overlords. How shall science convert this wasteland into paradise, when Man cannot even conquer his own nature? He shall pillage Mother Earth of all her boon. This is a fallen world.’
‘What world are you from?’
‘The cosmos swarms with life in every part; there are many hells and many heavens; and each excarnate soul is drawn to the place most suited to their own compulsions. You are from a golden world of Light; but you have fallen into this leaden world of Darkness. You don’t belong here. Would you like to be free, Jill?’
‘…And take any form you please?’
‘Then touch my body.’
‘No. Go away. Leave me alone.’
‘I cannot leave. We are bound as one. Where you go, I follow. There’s higher life that runs above and parallel to this, just as this track runs above the one below.’
She shimmers in iridescent waves:
‘Everything that exists upon the Earth has its ethereal counterpart above, and there is nothing, however insignificant it may appear in the world, which is not depending on something higher; so that if the lower part acts, its presiding higher part reacts upon it.(iv) Touch me.’
‘What are you afraid of.’
‘There is no Death. Touch.’
‘No. I will not.’
‘Seven years hence, you will jump from this train.’
‘Jump? But why?’
‘The reason must remain hidden.’
‘You will not tell?’
‘The outcome is probable but not certain.’
‘You’re not real.’
‘Neither are you. Your earthly existence is but a shadow. What are you waiting for? Touch.’
‘Why are you so ashamed? The carriage is empty. No one will see. There is nothing to fear. Reach out and touch.’
‘Then I will leave you to suffer the pains of your metamorphosis.’
‘What happens to me?’
‘Great powers lie latent within you; but they shall not manifest until you become a man. And this shall bring great disaster.’
‘Man has tamed the physical and chemical forces of nature. Watt layed his yoke upon the beam of the steam engine and Faraday chained electricity to his copper chariot. Men have harnessed kinetic motion and electro-magnetism as slaves of industry. But your powers will advance much further; for you shall enchain the subconscious forces which pervade the soul of the world. Anima Mundi. By the omnipotent powers of the mind you shall condense the formless elementals: the salamanders, undines and sylphs. Your consciousness shall give shape to the invisible forms of cosmic life.’
For some reason her words strike me as ridiculous. I cup my mouth and snigger like a fool. At which she flits across the Mersey in the blink of an eye. Gone. In her place on the seat is a small parcel of newspaper. Intrigued, I open the packet and gasp in wonder: a sprig of mistletoe with pearly berries gleaming like orbs of light.
* * * *
Dusk has fallen when the train pulls into Seaforth. The evening star twinkles above the footbridge and the distant docks flare on the southern horizon. Suddenly I’m in tears, overwhelmed with emotion. When I stand my knees are trembling. The question burns in my breast: who is Grazide? A supernatural illumination? Or a phantom of the mind? The orb has unnerved me and set my heart aflame. I am left with a furious repugnance for the body. My flesh is a lie. I cannot deny it: Grazide was beautiful indeed. But I don’t want to be an orb of Light. I want to be The Perfect Woman. I have been many girls in my time, but tonight I’m Patricia Roc – a perfect female specimen, immaculate, immortal and immutable. I have shed the skin of the God-made man and become a man-made woman, created by the wizardry of Professor Belman in his transsexual laboratory.
As I descend the station steps, I am haunted by visions of my own death: a severed head lying on the rails; a torso torn to pieces further down the line; a foot; an arm; a leg; pink entrails tangled in the wheels. Could I do such a thing? Krew said suicide was pointless, because you just come back and go through the same trouble all over again. The future is too terrible to contemplate. I try putting Grazide out of mind: she was just a mirage, I tell myself – a reflection of the sun. As for the mistletoe, surely it was left by an absent-minded shopper. Yet despite my foolish negation, I sense the orb is watching still, looking down from the other Ovee, where my higher self runs on higher tracks.
Night falls swiftly on the bombed streets of Seaforth. I walk a mile along the sands before reaching Crosby. The beach is deserted but for the sea-defences, which stand like dragon’s teeth against an inky sky. I straggle the dunes with downcast head, buried in my thoughts. Breakers roar beyond the tufts of marram grass that whistle in the wind. But the shack eludes me. I wander up and down, lost in a warren of sandy hillocks and valleys. Then I find a path to the sea where streaks of ghostly foam rush in from a void of utter blackness. I go barefoot along the high tide line, where the sand is strewn with weed and broken shells. This is the edge of the world; the outer limit where others cannot live. A wilderness of dreams, cravings and inarticulate desires. Again the question burns in my breast: who is Grazide? I commend the subject to God Almighty in very earnest prayer.
The wind quickens, stinging my flesh with blasted grains. I run back to the dunes and curl amid the grasses, burying myself in blankets of sand. How easy it would be to vanish from the world. This is the hinterland where the dead find no rest. Time has no meaning in these barren borderlands. I’m eternal as the breaking waves. Yet I am something which no longer exists. Who is Grazide? The grass whispers: she is all that is, and was, and ever shall be. How I yearn to be one with her immaculate sphere.
But when I shut my eyes, it is not Grazide I see, or even Patricia Roc in her sexy slip. No, when I shut my eyes, I see Franky Lanaghan wheeling his barrow on bandy legs. All the riches of the soul are sullied by poverty. The streets are full of desolation, without any promise of spiritual reward. How could Ma be rich? The idea is ludicrous as it is impossible. But as I fall into blackness, I think of all the gold she’s hidden up the chimney. And the Devil whispers:
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2019.
i. Dionysius on The Divine Names: “God is a Principle of Perfection to them that are being perfected; a principle of Deity to them that are being deified”.
ii. John, 6:63.
iii. Romans, 7:18.
iv. Sohar Wajecae, Fol. 156, 6.