Manisty Street cut through one of the poorest areas in London's East End, flanked by Victorian tenements which had been irreparably damaged by the air attacks of the Second World War. The street represented failure, while the virtually unattended church standing a few blocks west had become a shining monument to post-war reconstruction. The sterility of its gleaming white exterior and spire and the neat order of the regularly tended gardens spoke volumes of the misplaced priorities of those heeding Her Britannic Majesty's Request to rebuild London's devastated slums.
God had left the building. The was no evidence of his presence at the church nor in the hearts of those imprisoned in the crumbling dwellings of our neighborhood. There were bomb sites overgrown with weeds and destroyed structures which sprouted jaggedly from the earth alongside them. Walls of black soot loomed over railway tracks twisted by war damage. Occasionally an area was roped off where men in incongruously impeccable uniforms worked to defuse an unexploded bomb embedded in the ground. And at night a ragged parade of prostitutes loped toward the Dock House pub to snag a few pennies from any dockworker who'd be blinded enough by alcohol to part with his paltry, hard-won earnings and risk a future descent into syphilitic madness.
This was the world of the achingly poor: the club-footed girls rendered permanently unattractive by accident of impoverished birth; the old men of dubious sexual proclivity preying on young boys who'd gladly part with their feigned innocence for a Mars bar; the women, clutching ration books and heading off to the sparsely-stocked shops on the High Street, hoping to feed their families while still having enough cash left over to buy coal for the fire; and suicidal fathers gazing through cracked windowpanes, watching the world, the hope and the time passing slowly into the fog of unwanted existence.
There was no god here. God was with the out-of-touch upper classes with their palaces, their antiquated rituals and inherited wealth. God was in the leathered luxury of the Bentley back seat, watching the gilded royal carriage's gentle roll through the wide avenues of London's Whitehall. But no, there was no god here.
On Blackwall Stairs the rusting barges listed with the lapping waves. The River Thames, lazy on some days, blustery on others, was polluted with the waste of a city in disintegration; a city where only the poor lived within sniffing distance of its stench. Blackwall Stairs had no stairs, just a cobblestone ramp sloping down toward the tide, a slow and melancholy walk to death which some chose in order to escape the wretchedness of life.
It is there, in the shadows of those barges and with the smell of sewage that I found an odd solace from the trials of poverty. Looking across the Thames I was in awe of the imagined world which stretched out beyond, the world depicted in my small stamp collection. Yes, there were the likenesses of kings, queens and historic leaders on those perforated proofs of postage; but then there were the exotic, often triangular stamps that gave weight to the notion that, yes, there were foreign lands sweltering in heavy, tropical air under a sun that shone with an intensity barely imaginable in this cold and desolate grayness.
But come evening time I would be back at The Buildings, as they were called; a large, crumbling six-story edifice called home. There were courtyards within the Buildings, each centered by an air raid shelter. And facing Manisty Street, that street of unshakeable melancholia, The Buildings overlooked the back of the Queens Theatre where rubble was piled high in the yard and where, by the stage door entrance, the showgirls often smoked, their overcoats drawn tightly against the biting chill. A red glow from behind the slightly open door would suggest rare warmth.
A bomb-damaged section of the Buildings still stood and allowed access to broken stone staircases leading to the sixth floor and, ultimately, to what remained of the roof. From that dystopian heaven the entire expanse of London's Docklands could be experienced with a single, slow movement of the eyes. Beyond was the river, undisturbed suburbs, rolling fields of wheat, the sea, France, then the world—at least a wondrous sand-skirted little part of it; the same tropical paradise fancifully imagined by the young philatelist at Blackwall stairs.
That the young dreamer was myself cannot be questioned; yet to me, decades later, it seems like a childhood lived by another. I see that I am possibly no different now than I was then, except, perhaps, that those wishes for a postage stamp life lived under bright, tropical skies were simply dreams never to be realized. Our dreams died as we became factory workers, car mechanics, seamstresses, priests, prostitutes and drunkards. We are, in that sense, all one and the same, living with the loss of our fundamental hope and innocence.
The mind wanders back to the church, with its white gravestones and marbled tombs and the rectory across the street by the twisted railway tracks. In the basement of that vicar’s dwelling the dust accumulated on ancient furnishings; a simple table with four unmatched chairs, a dresser with an egg-cracked mirror showing only vague and smudged reflections of its surroundings, and a bed with only a mattress.
We local boys were tasked with cleaning and maintaining the room at the direction of our civic-minded parents and at the vicar’s discretion. We knew nothing of that trusted clergyman’s penchant for young girls until, one day, we descended the stairs into the basement and heard the quiet sobbing of one such waif.
I knew her, a local girl from The Buildings who was mostly known for her glass eye and an insatiable desire for undue attention. At prepubescent age she had shown a knack for entrepreneurship by charging snickering, eager-eyed boys a penny to get an all-too-brief look at her unfortunately pungent vulva; but now, at no more than thirteen or fourteen years of age, she had become the mistress of a man of god, a sad reminder of my own lost innocence.
Yes, she sobbed, but remembering my own previous encounter with one whose sexual gratificaton was to be found in those of tender years and equally tender flesh, I could only question why her tears flowed. I held nothing less than profound gratitude to he who had so lasciviously violated my young body. He had offered a single, wonderful revelation: the deep understanding that the entire reason for human existence can be found in a few delicious moments of pulsating ecstasy.
I remember the man vividly. He lived in a dingy flat on the top floor of The Buildings. Everything in there smelled like death, not unlike the odor which had permeated my grandmother’s bedroom as her lifeless body lay in waiting for the funeral procession to begin. The man himself was without doubt the most malodorous creature I had ever encountered, even in that realm of Dickensian Fagins. Yet he had charm and coins enough to coax young boys into that squalid little den of his for libidinous purposes.
He had very little furniture and very little of anything else. A grease-laden kettle to make tea; a single enameled pan on a two burner stove; a large, tattered armchair with a torn tablecloth thrown over it (ostensibly to mask its poor condition); and grime everywhere—on the peeling wallpaper, the cracked ceiling and, of course, on his hands.
His lascivious smile would reveal only several teeth, gapped, stained, broken and sunken into puffy, inflamed gums. I shudder now that it was that mouth which enveloped my developing penis and the coated, stained tongue within that rasped its shaft as I gazed at the red, mottled skin of his scalp through thinning, grey hair. Yet I still hold great admiration for the man who gave relief to my theretofore inexplicable torment, that unavoidable sense that there was something more to an adolescent life than obedience and fear. It was he who so swiftly and expertly brought those very first delicious sensations of orgasmic delight into my young life, sending all fear flying far, far away from my pained existence.
He was found dead one day, shifting lifelessly on the oiled and sewaged tide at Blackwall Stairs. From my naive perspective he was far too jovial a fellow to have committed suicide (a fate that was generally assumed to have befallen the man), and I surmised (as did others in the know) that he had been ‘found out’ and that some extra-judicial punishment had been meted out as vengeance for his misdeeds. The fact that his body was found naked and that his penis was nowhere to be seen would perhaps tend to bear out that theory.
The vicar, on the other hand, was too far above reproach to be suspected of any mortal sin at all. His very presence in the streets and the beatific smile that he wore so convincingly was, in those less suspicious times, enough to allow him to wander among his parishioners with complete ease and with the calm confidence that his every word would be taken as something coming directly from God Himself.
My bedraggled saviour had found no salvation in the murky waters of Blackwall Stairs, but that man of God surely walked on those same waters with not so much as a downward glance as the river’s voracious eels fed on unbodied cocks deep below his holy feet.