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HACWRITERS FICTION

Seeing Myself
by Joerg Lisgard

LOVE
by Joerg Lisgard

Southern Comfort
by David jester


Life in a Northern Town
by Jayne Sharratt

Living in Penury
Jon Guyver-Cole

 

Living in Penury

Jon Guyver-Cole


Chapter One


The Cornish town of Penury was once described by Wilkie Collins in his classic Victorian travel book 'Rambles Beyond Railways' as "...nestling in the bosom of the dunes to the west and high cliffs to the north, comfortable in a deep river valley." More recently an altogether coarser tongue had translated this, to any one within earshot, as "A'vin a tit fuck." This did not earn him credits towards his GCSE.

Penury was a coarsened place since the unemployment had arrived about one hundred years ago. Before, when it was the thriving hub of industry, Penury had played its full part in the early industrial revolution. At one time you risked life and limb walking the roads due to infernal road engines and risked your lungs breathing the sooty air. When mining went so did thousands of fit, dynamic and skilled people. The remainder just sort of rubbed along without them, going their own way. The denuded population was fuelled by regular injections of 'upcountry' detritus, hippies, hopeful cafe proprietors, and bungalow Bills. Cornwall limped along never quite dying but never quite getting up to speed either. Cornwall has always both suffered and gained from 'visitors'. When the Romans traded tin from St. Michael's Mount who would have suspected that they were eyeing it up for profitable invasion. When fishermen disappeared from their boats while far out to sea who would have suspected that they ended up as slaves in North Africa. When young men vanished from the waterfront pubs who would have thought that they were being pressed against their will into the murder of the wooden fighting ships. Who could have known that the 'Uncle Jacks', shipped out to the hard rock mines in the far corners of the world, would expire from yellow fever before their own gold fever broke. Who could have known that the sudden influx of hippies would grow dope, harvest magic mushrooms and infest the shops with Celtic handicrafts. Who indeed, but Cornwall was starting to suspect.

One approaches Penury down Fore Street by road, over bleak Penury Moor on foot, or with fair wind and nerve, by the Atlantic, hopefully in a boat. Quite a few people started approaching in what they thought was a perfectly good vessel; but ended up at best swimming, at worst washed up like a soggy rag doll on the 'Cornish Riviera'. Their boat having been dashed on to the cruel rocks that jutted out from the centre of the otherwise inviting bay. The houses, like ants shaken to the bottom corner of a box, clamber up the steep sides, growing thinner as they get higher. Only the large Manor house puts its head above the parapet of the horizon. Built on top of the ruins of an ancient monastery and indeed from its very bones. The monastery was enthusiastically dissolved by the locals, who wholeheartedly agreed with Henry The Eighth, especially when it meant they could pillage the ruin for building materials. A flock of Farmer John's pissed off looking sheep hobble round on their rotten hooves on the overlooking moor. Wind torn trees plucked by the fierce winter Atlantic air into leaning lopsided crones adorn the stone hedgerows. The howling wind stunted trees show what happens to those without shelter on this coast. In Cornwall post-industrial Britain has arrived early and stayed late. Every summer the visitors arrive and are welcomed with open hands and open pockets. Providing modest incomes for the traders and prey for the less savoury inhabitants. They take trips round the bay in old Toms decommissioned and decomposing fishing boat. They buy buckets and spades to build sand castles topped with black and white St. Piran's Cross flags from Babs in the post office. They eat vile shrink wrapped pasties filled with pre-digested offal no Cornish man would eat. They come time and again to the little port to gaze at the boats bobbing and sometimes sinking in the tiny inner harbour.

Looking to recharge their suburb addled minds in the ruins of picturesque poverty. Imagining heroic tanned fishermen battling with Mother Nature to bring home the jewelled pearlescent mackerel they buy still flapping on the quay. Some even go out and do battle themselves on the sickmaking swell and return with even more respect. "The secret is on'y see 'ez breakfast once" Tom said in an ever helpful, unhelpful way, and they return to "Upcountry" happy, if slightly thinner. Visitors rarely pause to marvel at the three huge Methodist halls on the way to the beach. Evidence of former prosperity and holiness, now two of the three converted to the, often futile, worship of mammon. One is an 'Art' gallery displaying trite pictures. Local scenes the artist owner and most of their producers despise. Selling enough to keep him there. Doing better than the four times it had been a gallery previously, when high aspirations had sucked the owners dry before, like a body rejecting a heart, it fatally failed them and they returned wiser and debt ridden to their former homes.

The second converted, it must be said with a lot of unnecessary swearing, to a home and workshop for Leo, a carver and maker of fairground trivialities. Bought by fly blokes in large white Mercs' with roof racks, to be taken up to London (or Town as Leo refers to it, being a London Lad himself). Sold to what Leo calls affectionately "Rich bastards 'oh don't want to fuckin' pay for nany'fing." Some of the visitors stay in Peter and Derrick's guesthouse that sits on the fringe of the harbour. Decked out gaily with hanging baskets tended by Peter. They also have a quite unnecessary amount of pink rouched curtains and counterpanes, bought cheap by Derrick at Pool market. All their guests love the attention lavished on them, cocoa at bedtime and a full fry up English breakfast in the morning that makes them curse the Swiss for inventing museli. The ladies love the attention as Derrick fusses about clean sheets and discusses haberdashery with them. Even the husbands warm to being flirted with, children are just confused. In the winter they take in "special" guests booked through an ad in "Time Out". They offer a "Relaxing time in all male surroundings, subs especially welcome" After all the place has to be cleaned from top to err... bottom. Under the stairs they keep the hoover, some extra air fresher, a large tea chest with their 'toys' and hundreds of condoms assiduosly collected by Peter at monthly visits to the family planning clinic in Pennance. The giggling, naive assistant says they must be at it like rabbits. Which they are, but without the overpopulation problem or eating other peoples garden plants.

Just a little past the guesthouse Doctor Trevithic and his wife live surrounded by a relative opulence that they could never achieve in Croydon from whence they came. Secretly they both wish that Margaret Thatcher still ruled from number ten and their already considerable relative wealth might increase. Firm leadership was a taste that Doctor Trevithic had acquired at his minor public school. The good Doctor, a kind man despite his political views, never tired of telling everybody how much his old house in Croydon was worth. Or how much it had devalued or how much his new house needed renovating before he moved in. Like many of the larger more expensive houses in Cornwall, every six years or so a skip would be delivered heralding its sale and re-renovation. The Doctor and his wife have put back in the very Cornish range that old Mrs. Jones had had torn out because it caused soot on her loose covers. Gypo John had kept it under a tarpaulin in his yard for just such an eventuality. They also had a third damp proof course injected, which was equally as futile as the last two. The Doctor was now part of an amalgamated practice based just up the B666 in the neighbouring village of Perdition. Many things had moved to the nearby but infinitely less attractive village (it's inhabitants called it a town). Now all the Penury children went to be brutalised at Perdition comprehensive or frightened at Perdition savage Infants school. Mingling with the rougher inhabitants of a former mining town they are easy meat. When the old Penury school shut they were bussed daily into the bear pit. After a few years the parents that had campaigned so hard for the bus had lost interest and with local government reorganisation money saving efforts, the two villages were deemed to have drifted less than the required three miles apart. Which they are as a hardy crow flies straight as an arrow over the moor. Now the half past eight bus has to be caught by the children and avoided by any civilised citizen. Particularly poor parents send their ragged children on the cross country trek to "education", the odd one or two have never gone to school again. A few drop like angels from four wheel drive jeeps. Usually their parents fight tooth and nail to get them into an establishment with more of a reputation as a seat of learning, than as a training ground for arsonists and car thieves.

Some nights the Doctor's local and visiting patients knocked on this door at all hours and he moaned a bit but always turned out. Slightly more wary since he was called to attend Tom the fisherman, who had chest pains and he had to accompany him to Hospital in the Air Ambulance. In his opinion more calculated to cause a heart attack than to precipitate its treatment. The pilot having been in the Navy for years, freed from the constraints of a commanding officer, loved nothing more than to fly under pylons, skim treetops and scare people half to death. Or so it seemed to the terrified Doc, white knuckles welded to his seat frame. A keen nurse had clapped an oxygen mask on his face before he had time to recover enough to protest. Further up the road to Perdition stands the only pub. A tiny, poky converted fell out with all the local Methodist ministers over sixteen barrels of French brandy, and where he could store them. The Squire had been told from an early age that selling liquor to the working man would bring hell and damnation down on the town. He opened a beer shop and sat back waiting for all hell to break loose. Much to his disgust all that happened was that Penury's workmen were saved a walk to Perdition and a totter back over the treacherous moor. The only hell that was let loose was from three pulpits simultaneously which harmed no one. Except for one old maid, who locked herself away for six weeks in fear. Going so far as to manacle herself to the bed in case a white slave trader, who happened to have the drink upon him, as the Minister said they surely would, tried to carry her off in the night. When her resolve crumbled it was the work of minutes for the blacksmith to free her. They later married, as they were bound, as he had seen her in her night clothes, and been in her bedroom. The match although unconventional in its inception (the blacksmith had to be knocked insensible and carried into the church) proved to be genuinely made in heaven when both the swarthy and fit smith and the inexperienced but imaginative maid discovered sex.

Later they were celebrated as the oldest couple in the village both in public, with a gold clock, and in private, with rampant sex doggy fashion. And the Squire just became even richer, rich enough eventually to almost give up smuggling and devote himself full time to his real passion, the pursuit of 'The Fancy'. The noble art of breeding dogs for ratting. Nowadays it is difficult to think that the killing of rats in a pub sawdust ring could be a 'Sport'. But hey you work with what you have and Victorian Cornwall had rats by the skip load! It was definitely a step up from bull and badger baiting. Besides when the landlord of the 'Honey Pot' did put up a badger for baiting it proved more than a match for every dog in the village and the landlord himself. At that time the mine and village doctor was a progressive type and in this case of suspected rabid infection advised against the usual treatment. Which entailed a disused mine shaft and a long drop. The 'more humane' method was tried successfully, and after some weeks boarded up in his bedroom the patient showed no signs of hydrophobia even when the doctor threw a bucket of water through the window, so was released. Mind you it did raise some questions on whether they had jumped the gun in the past. So all ended well, apart from for the rats. Even that proved profitable for Ben the rat man, previously he had been reduced to exhibiting himself in a coat made from rat skins. Ever the man with an eye for the main chance, he hoped to popularise it as a tough and durable outer coat but with little success. Ben was a true Victorian entrepreneur but a lack of capital and education prevented him from building railways, canals or inventing steam engines. One day he recognised an untapped opportunity, dead in a trap in his cellar. He became a man inspired by the humble rat and it's unrecognised qualities. It seemed to him to be the perfect animal for the industrial age, tenacious and diligent, it fed on worthless rubbish and thrived, providing everything a man could need. In short the rat lived as the working classes were supposed to but often didn't. In his opinion cows, sheep and pigs were too costly to feed and took up too much room. Rats on the other hand lived anywhere. No fields or barn for them. Any house might become self sufficient in weeks with a rat colony.

The Squire commissioned him to provide rats for his weekly spectacle. So he became a man of distinction. A man with a solid business. He converted his terraced house into an efficient rat farm. Ben scoured the surrounding ditches for the best breeding stock. He could supply one hundred rats a week, fighting fit and teezy. By a strange coincidence Ben's house was later condemned by the local council, who then stepped in and bought it cheap. Gutted and re-plastered, sprayed and fumigated it still had the air of rat about it even after all these years. In Cornwall even smells linger. Presently it's the home of Mr. and Mrs. Faro who wouldn't notice if Ben came back from the dead complete with his livestock. Now old and filthy they had started out as young and filthy. They sought all their lives for an escape from the world that treated them as the smelly misfits they undoubtedly were. In the sixties they discovered television. Never pausing to measure the disparity between the clean and exciting world that flickered on their screen and their own grubby world. So in love they were with the television. Never moving far from its glow they watched and took it to their hearts. Often pissing themselves where they sat, not caring. Immune now to the millions of fleas that leap onto the tights of the weekly home help. She claims extra for new ones every week and the environmental health, having visited, pay up and are thankful that anyone will do the job at all.

Down along the road a piece stands the church (yes another one! How holy was this place in former times?) This time the Church of England, Saint Alius and Saint Bernard. A grand old Cornish church made of granite and with a low lichen crusted tower the roof splattered orange with its century old colonies. The church interior is disappointingly plain. It was first gutted by some Roundheads during the civil war. Finding no stables at hand they converted it to this utility by ripping out everything wooden, including the rood screen, made from a Portuguese treasure ship wrecked near the harbour, and all the twelfth century carved pews. It was sacrilege but they had a hot meal that night and in the morning their horses were dry. Even worse than them was the reverend Archibald, in many ways a classic Victorian Cornish clergyman. A dedicated civil servant who had worked abroad. Not eligible for a more conventional pension nor considered enough of a gentleman not to go 'jungly' (Freelance), he was ordained in record time and put where he could be least trouble.

Unfortunately his interest in architecture was typically Victorian. He took off the roof and took down most of the walls. Digging through the tiled floor to put in heating. Rebuilding it in a sort of blocky gothic with twiddly bits. But his piesta resistance was the interior painting the like of which no one had seen this side of the campest Catholic church in a land inhabited by religious 'Carry On' fans on acid. Where he found the money to do all this and why, was one of the small mysteries of the area. More recently it was white washed and scrubbed. "To brighten it up" said the Bishop. Breathing a sigh of relief that at last that ghastly man Prof. Zotter had moved away, and couldn't raise a stink every time it was suggested the decor was unsuited to a modern happy clappy Church of England. Now only the 'Travelling Vicar' calls every Sunday to sermonise to the virtually empty pews, till he's off to one of the other four parishes he ministers to. Trusting that Penury's spiritual needs would be fulfilled by the mere access afforded by the churchwarden unlocking the door every morning.

Which brings us to Professor Zotter's Museum of Curiosities just down from the church in a small building, formally the mortuary. Now transformed by the Prof. into a safe harbour for every manner of fake mermaids, huge snail shells, dried fish that fell from the sky and a ghastly tableau of 'Who Killed Cock Robin' constructed entirely using, strangely unsuitable, stuffed kittens. The Prof. himself had moved to Ireland a few years earlier. Although originally from Manchester the Prof. had effected an Irish accent for the last twenty years, ever since he acquired a taste for prodigious quantities of Guinness. To such an extent that no one could remember seeing him sober. Which led to some interesting performances of his puppet show (A former enterprise). In one case a full re-enactment of his appearance at Pennance Magistrates court on a drunk and disorderly charge. A performance which ended in chaos when several parents objected to Mr. Punch calling the judge puppet an uptight pussy-whipped nazi and assaulting Judy in no uncertain terms with a string of sausages (later cited in divorce proceedings). Just before he left he sold the museum to Mariella, allegedly for a crate of Jameson's and undisclosed but easily imagined favours.

Mariella settled in immediately, at home amongst the Jenny Hanover's and two headed calves in jars, because she was a curiosity on legs herself. She came originally from a little town just outside Watford. She spent ten happy years in the fire service till one day on a quite routine call a wall toppled. Stepping backwards into the road from behind the tender to avoid a falling colleague she was promoted from public service to elaborate grill ornament for Nissan Cabstar. She could remember turning and seeing a startled builder, fat and sweaty in a pale green cardigan and food stained singlet, apparently steering with his elbows and stomach, while he rolled a cigarette. Then an incredibly violent impact and waking up three days later in hospital. Compensation for a back injury amounted to enough to realise a dream.

So off to Charring Cross Hospital for the hoop jumping before Malcolm became Mariella. Four grand well spent in a Brighton clinic and she felt at home in her own body for the first time in her life. The three hundred miles to a new life started early one spring morning. Sailing down a deserted A30 in her aged and rattling car. Every time she stopped for food, to visit the little girl's room (So much cleaner than men's toilets and a whole lot less obscene graffiti) or to pump petrol into its maw, she carefully placed a black bin bag filled with a former life in the litter bin. Until the fifth and last sack was gone, next stop the new life. Staying at the guest house she went out one night and bumped into the Prof. A deal was struck and Mariella moved in the next day, cosy next to the unicorns horn and a stuffed dog (The Squires champion ratter, Spot). Gypo John took the car to its last resting place at his scrap yard in exchange for a dried Anaconda skin he had acquired by some means. Penury was like that, the slightest action formed part of an intricate chain. That fine chain could be traced until it disappeared into the mists of strangeness. Mariella was home at last.

© Jon Guyver-Cole 2001

A Cornish writer


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