Sean Gill’s short story, “Dignity and Urgency in Edinburgh and London,” appears in the Michigan Quarterly Review’s Fall 2019 issue.
On a disappointing patch of concrete, just south of a bridge that is itself in many respects disappointing (“I know it’s called London Bridge, young lady, but trust me, the one you fancy for your photo is Tower Bridge, and you can see it from here . . .”), stands a disappointed man in a cut-rate Beefeater costume, his face smeared in ghoulish white pancake. At this moment he’s plying his trade, passing out flyers for a spooky history tour. At his advanced age, it was the only position for which the firm would consider him: a job that is stale and silly beyond words. His parade gloves fumble with the tex- ture of the card stock and his face paint conceals a steady scarlet flush. The makeup is doing him a great favor––it masks the bottomless shame of a broken old man beneath a harmless grotesque. I don’t believe I’m being too hard on this fellow, for I ought to know him better than anyone: he’s me.
Behind me flows the tumult of the Thames, an ocean that makes its living impersonating a river. The thick brown water churns and crashes in waves, throwing up spray and exhaling its brackish breath onto the streets of London: great, invisible puffs of sea salt with a dark, peaty finish.
This entire neighborhood is a masquerade, a historical caricature. An enormous prop shaped like the old Globe Theatre stands in the middle dis- tance, and half the tourists don’t know it’s a counterfeit. A Greek with bushy eyebrows fingers an oboe alongside a nimble Lithuanian playing Zydeco on a busted harmonium. I’d wager that neither has paid a visit to the American bayou.
I remove the hand mirror from my bum bag and, with a cotton bud, reapply the bloody scar that’s meant to split my nose. The man in the mirror is no longer Anthony Nibley (who, in my opinion, ought to be long-retired and frittering away his afternoons at the local pub), but Beefeater Bill, a kind of historical zombie-man who, according to my backstory, was killed by axe-wielding ruffians outside the Tower of London. It’s simpler, if not preferable, to imagine that certain events happen to Beefeater Bill and not to myself.
On his lunch break, Beefeater Bill wanders the Borough Market. He buys a warm pint of Speckled Hen, a Bramley apple, and a packet of sau- sage-and-mustard-flavored crisps. “Ten bob,” says the man at the counter. Too much, thinks Beefeater Bill. It’s what he makes in an hour.
After lunch, it’s back to crying, “See spooky London, see the bloody Tower. See the dark and winding alleys where Jack the Ripper stalked his helpless victims. See the Banqueting House where Charles the First lost his head. Only £28.50.” This fee includes a Jack the Ripper-branded top hat, free of charge, VAT included. Some of the passersby accept his flyers. Most ignore him. Others ask for directions. After three months on the job, he’s stopped giving out street names entirely. Now, he says, “Follow this road for three H&M’s and bend left when you reach the second Pizza Express.”
Beefeater Bill has no dignity. It’s been bled from him, teaspoon by tea- spoon, pooling on the ground for the distracted lot who have come to see the famous London Bridge (“No, sir, I believe it’s the Tower Bridge you’re thinking of ”). They receive a proper sideshow, free of charge, the spectacle of an old clown in a puffy pom-pom cap, debasing himself for a hair beyond the minimum wage (“What do you think you know, old man? The song doesn’t go, ‘Tower Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down,’ now, does it?”). Neither his wife, nor his son, nor anyone, really, knows how he earns his keep.
The worst bit is that it may not even be necessary. Beefeater Bill’s been breaking his back to pay for Lilly’s stay in the care home, but the laws have been blowing lightly in and out and suddenly sucking back, like curtains billowing in an open window. One year they’re declaring you pay nothing if you’ve less than a certain amount in savings, and the next they’re claiming you must pay for everything, no matter who you are, until you’ve met their excessive deductible. The government keeps changing hands and shelving old promises; Beefeater Bill doesn’t know if it’s a better strategy to stay poor and slide under the radar, or if he ought to earn as much as he can until he reaches a magic number. When he’s at his post, Beefeater Bill must use a pay toilet (thirty pence, but it could be much worse), and in these moments he often reckons with the fabric of his limitless ignorance and regret.
When he was a young man, he was certain he’d eventually learn how to live life properly. Surely, when you turned thirty, they handed you a little leather-bound book that explained these arcane procedures, investments, and responsibilities. No? Forty, then. Fifty? Is it when you’ve reached sixty? He is sixty-eight years old and hoping to weather a crisis through sheer, dumb luck. Did he miss the train already? When did it leave the station?
Beefeater Bill draws his fingers across his cheeks, a gentler vision of Oedipus clawing out his eyes. Flesh-colored lines appear amid the white pancake, and he sees a bit of this man Anthony between them. Under the white, his face is still red, burning bright with shame. She had been dancing with an invisible partner, and he had taken it for an invitation. He slipped his arm round her waist, and . . .
It is better to touch up the white, to continue the day as someone else. Beefeater Bill has much less to lose. He’s already been dead for hundreds of years, after all.
“This way, Mister Nibley.”
The nurse leads me round the corner and into the day room where the EMI patients are gathering. EMI is a rather detached way of saying “elderly mentally ill,” which is a less precise but perhaps kinder way of say- ing “dementia patients,” which is a more diplomatic way of saying “deranged old geezers,” which is what I might have called them in my youth, before I learned about responsibility, reckoned with my ignorance, and built my entire life around visits to the care home that has, by medical necessity, im- prisoned my love.
Canned big band music plays through tinny speakers. Lilly wanders about, wearing an unearthly smile, dancing gently with a partner who does not exist. Her long grey hair lays on her shoulders in wavy locks. Her ex- pression perfectly matches her flowing white dress, a portrait of a woman in purgatory. She is beautiful.
When I venture to join her, she shoos me away, faintly, with a graceful wave of her fingers, as if dispersing a cloud of flies. I place a firm and loving hand between her shoulder blades and escort her to her room. We haven’t spoken privately in three weeks.
I don’t know why I press my luck. I suppose I think intimacy can draw her from her reverie. It has worked before, long ago, and that’s the truth.
“Pardon me, there, pardon!” Lilly is stamping down the hallway in search of a nurse.
“Is something the matter, Missus Nibley?” “This old bastard back there . . . why, he tried a bit of the slap and tickle with me just now. Aren’t you going to do something about it?”
The old bastard in question, who at this moment would prefer to an- swer to Beefeater Bill, is nowhere to be found. He’s still sitting in his wife’s room, cradling his head in his hands. The skin of his face is red, verging on purple. His cheeks look like old rotten turnips. His eyes are watery, the color of butternut squash.
“Your husband, Missus Nibley?” “Him? I’ve never seen him before. I would appreciate it if you would kindly accompany me to the music room. There seems to be an unsavory element in attendance.”
Beefeater Bill pokes his head into the hallway. He sees her floating off toward the day room, ethereal, like a bride in a ghost story. The care home nurses purposefully scatter, allowing him to abscond in peace. Though they neither endorse his behavior nor forgive it, they understand his shame. They are seldom particularly critical of anyone.
He wishes his beastly hands had not acted in such a familiar way. Perhaps it was accidental sense-memory. If he had not been so forward, he could now be resting those gentle hands on her shoulders and sweetly kissing at the crown of her head, where the soft grey hairs spiral into a silken curl. Stifling tears, he staggers down the hallway like a lumbering monster from a Hammer horror show. He blunders through the withered garden and onto an unremarkable street. Though it is empty, he has the urge to cover his face, to bury it from outside scrutiny. He craves now to break free of Hackney, to give London the slip. But once again, he must don the costume and apply his mask. He must do his penance.
My son Max lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. He’s lived there for practically a decade. When he first moved, I used to tease him. I said, “Boy, you don’t want to be a Scotsman. In his blood, he yearns to be free—every Scotsman does. And the Scottish were free, for a time. They spilt blood, sweat, tears, and many a fine spirit to win their free- dom. Then came the Darien scheme.”
“I know what it is,” he’d say, exasperated. “Well, I’ll tell you again, so you don’t forget,” I’d say. “They were a young country, a little cocksure, and they invested in a get-rich-quick venture in The New World.”
“Enough, dad.” “But they lost everything, of course, or nearly. Shortly after, they joined back up with Merry Olde England, for they had nowhere else to turn.”
“I know.” “The entire country’s the rebellious youth who strikes out on his own, only to fall flat and move back in with mum and dad. That how you’re going to play it, son? Hmm?” “Piss off, dad.”
I have no friends anymore, though I have a son.
Still, this fact remains: the one person in this life who I know best does not recognize me. I was her friend, her lover, her suitor, her husband. Yet the final impression I leave behind is that of an old bastard.
There are many ways a coupling can go sour: divorce, force majeure, un- timely death. I often wonder if this the worst of the lot. There’s nothing clean about it. My heart didn’t stop beating. Solicitors didn’t carve out a divorce deal across a walnut table. Then again, in another life, would it be any easier to spot her at the greengrocer’s, wearing another man’s wedding band and chatting with her friends while I pretend to read the Daily Mirror, peeking at her in secret, like a proper buffoon?
And now it comes to me: just who did she think she was dancing with, anyway? The Invisible Man? It surely wasn’t me. Perhaps it never was . . .
Beefeater Bill is engaging in a distinctly human pastime, the Art of Feeling Sorry for Himself. There is a great, tangible sadness welling up within him that cannot be contained. He does not wish to contain it. It is a tributary of stomach fluid and melancholy bile, churning through him like the Thames, ready to lay him low, right here in the center of Borough Market.
“See spooky London,” he says, swallowing back the pain of living. “See the bloody Tower. See—”
“Oh, piss off, ya old bastard,” whispers a teenaged punk headed for a Nando’s. He says it under his breath, half-heartedly, probably a trial run of a longer tirade intended for his own father: the miserable type who sits in a recliner all day and screams at him for wasting so much money on cig- arettes. He doesn’t even turn to gauge Beefeater Bill’s reaction because he doesn’t comprehend that he was heard by anyone.
But, as the boy passes, I presume somehow that he knows what I’ve done and the words strike home. I fall straight on my bum, as surely as if I’d been shot. The air is sucked out my body. Whoosh.
The flyers scatter and flutter in the wind. Beefeater Bill is nowhere to be found––there’s only me. The tourists bob their heads and quicken their pace, hurrying past like fearful birds. On a monitor, deep in the bowels of New Scotland Yard, my shame is being recorded on a closed-circuit televi- sion. I choke and gulp and breathe and make futile attempts to master my emotions. The air is thick and metallic, as viscous as clotted blood.
I leave the papers where they have fallen. I undo my collar and fling my puffy cap to the ground. I ride the Jubilee line to Green Park, and then the Victoria to King’s Cross. In a fifty-pence pay toilet, I wipe away the pancake and shed the costume.
Before the sun has set, I’m aboard the next train to Edinburgh.
The train is quiet. From the window, along the flat, darkening countryside, I see sheep, brick houses, and fields of yellow flowers.
At Darlington, twenty middle-aged women board the train. They are wearing yellow sashes marked “Hen Party.” Each of them is dressed like Patsy from Ab Fab, a series that Lilly and I used to watch together. They chitter and chatter away and wear their sunglasses at night: a mess of pink heels and nail polish, of bespoke jackets and bleached hair. An audacious chorus of champagne corks accompanies their seating. Lilly and I would have had such a laugh. She might have called me “Sweetie darling” in an exaggerated tone, and it would have been a joke, but it would have been warmhearted, as well. And real.
So much has been destroyed by time. A grain of sand becomes a pearl, till one day the pearl dissolves, returning to the sands. Ivory rots from the keys of a Grand Piano. On a chandelier that once sparkled, fallen dust clouds the dangling crystal. The past feels long ago, as if it were a story I once read about instead of a life I once lived.
The Patsies exit en masse at Berwick-upon-Tweed. I smile. There is a wild time in store for that little old town tonight.
I arrive in Edinburgh at half past midnight. Too late to pop by Max’s flat. It wouldn’t be reasonable. I walk up and down Princes Street, taking in the architecture at night. It is sooty-black, ornate, and well-lit. The air is cold and clear, driven by sea and firmament. The city has a Gothic dignity to it. It does not pretend to be anything other than what it is: a gloomy, medieval fortress. Once I’ve drunk my fill, I stumble back to the station and fall asleep on a bench. No one troubles me.
When I wake, I find myself beside a large fellow with a white beard. There seems to be a permanent brown stain in the whiskers surrounding his lips, presumably from a lifetime of stout drinking. He’s a lovable old tosspot, if a little pungent, and I reluctantly decline an invitation to his favorite folk pub. He is, however, kind enough to point me in the direction of Peffermill Road, where my son resides.
My son has lived here for ten years, a mere four hours away, and I have never visited him. I suppose my attitude was, “Come to London if you like,” and he often did, though I see now how this was selfish. I suppose I never listened to him very much. When he’d ring, I would prattle on about my own problems and his mother’s health and before you knew it, we’d be out of time. I know very little about what he does for a living. “Odd jobs,” is my understanding, though I do not know what this means.
It is nearly an hour’s walk to my son’s flat, a winding path round the base of Arthur’s Seat, which indeed looks like a great grassy hill from a fairy story. They say Camelot once stood here. Perhaps it did.
A woman of about forty answers the door. She has a plain, pale oval face and a tangle of ratty black hair. I’ve never seen her before, though I imagine she must be Marcia, Max’s live-in girlfriend. He’s mentioned her by name, but I know next to nothing about her.
“Mister Nibley,” she says. “What are you doing here?” Behind her, I see piles of blankets, stacks of books, and a collection of empty wine bottles. The air is thick with the overwhelming scents of marijuana and patchouli oil.
“I’m Max’s father,” I say. “Is he in?” “I know who you are,” she says. “And he’s at work.” She’s leaning on the frame with one hand and clutching the door with the other. In my mind, she is very slowly, almost imperceptibly, shutting me out. I struggle to think of the proper words.
“Pleasure to meet you, Marcia. I don’t recognize your accent. Whereabouts are you from?”
“It’s Monica. Did Max never tell you where I was from? It’s an unusual place. The sort of place you’d remember.”
“Perhaps he did. But I’m simply an old man, with an old man’s memory.” “I thought it was his mum who—” “Yes, I—well, that is true,” I say. “I apologize. But I ought to know, be- cause I’m also from an unusual place. I grew up in—”
“Gibraltar, I know.” She draws herself back and widens the gap in the door. Feeling superior, probably. And why not?
“Where do you think I’m from?” she asks. “Guess.” “Australia . . . no, that’s not particularly unusual . . . New Zealand?” “No.” “Tasmania?” “Totally off the mark.” “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” “Zimbabwe.” “I ought to have remembered that.” “Why don’t you try Max at work,” she says. She’s making a statement, here: she must know I haven’t a clue where he works. I scrutinize her face for a motive. She must hate me.
“Let’s be honest with each other,” I say. “I don’t know where Max works. For a time, I’ve been very selfish and I didn’t know it.” “Okay,” she says. Hedging her bets, probably. “I’m gutted. I must see him. It’s urgent.”
She sighs. “Urgent for you or for him?” “For me.” “He’s on The Royal Mile.” “Where’s that?” “Near the railway station.” “I came from the station. Where is he, exactly?” “Walk toward the castle and walk the Mile. You’ll see him. But if he tells you to leave, you ought to leave.”
“That’s fair.” “It’s twelve minutes by car.” “I’ll be walking.” “It’s difficult. An hour’s walk, and up the Castle Rock. It’s steep.” “I can make it.” “If you say so.” “What’s he doing up there, then?” “You’ll have to ask him yourself,” she says. Her lips form an unkind smile. She closes the door.
The walk is exhausting (beautiful and exhausting), and there is no respite at journey’s end. The Royal Mile is a farce. Magnificent history blotted with greedy trimmings. A trap for the tourists, as fraudulent as any such place in London. Here and there, I read the signs: “Haggis Adventures,” “MacBackpackers,” “World of Illusions,” and “The Scotch Whisky Experience.” It is then, standing out front of a head shop named “Smokin’ Bagpipes,” that I see my son.
Max’s face is smeared with blue paint and he’s wrapped in a cut-rate tartan. A tacky nylon wig is planted on his crown, off-kilter, and he’s bran- dishing a plastic sword. He is posing for photos with tourists whose only knowledge of William Wallace is from a ridiculous motion picture, decades old. I wait for him to finish. He collects their money in a swill bucket, rat- tling the coins. It is a terrible moment in eternity.
“Max,” I say. He sees me. He hugs the bucket close to his chest. His face contorts into an expression of shame. “Whit are ye daein’ here?” he says. The accent is not his own.
“I’ve come to see you.”
He lowers his voice. “Please, I don’t care for you to see me like this. Stop by the flat later, past six.”
“Max . . . I understand,” I say. “No, you don’t.” I want to say that, little by little, it’s all gone to pot. My ship has been sinking, steadily, in the ocean of the Thames. Then I lost my sea legs in Hackney, in your mother’s spartan room, and I’m desperate for terra firma. Only you can remind me who I really am.
But I say nothing. My voice is cracking and I am buried by emotions I cannot master. The sadness is welling up in my chest, threatening to knock me to my knees. It says, it’s too late, Anthony, it’s too late, and you are on bor- rowed time.
Anthony Nibley looks up from the cobblestone and pleads at his son, whose blue and pensive face appears, almost classically framed, between the dark, imposing castle and the overcast, livid sky. “Remember me,” says Anthony, “as I was, as I was, as we were . . .” but the old man’s words ring empty, incapable of communicating the bottomless feeling behind them.
Max knows that his father expects an answer, that this wild and pitiful display deserves—no, demands—an answer, but he does not know what that answer is.
“Hey, man,” says a backpacker, waving a camera with a long-focus lens. “If you’re all finished with that guy, can I get one?”