CHAPTER 13 – The mouth of the empire
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside/Oh I do like to be beside the sea
With a bucket and a spade/And a fucking hand grenade
Beside the seaside, beside the sea
Football chant once linked to Southend United Football Club
Feeling bold, God was enjoying a widescreen view of the Thames Estuary, where the exorcism would begin.
A minor breeze ruffled the river, which was England’s mouth. It had feasted heartily on spices, tea, rum, tobacco and sugar, and lustily on diamonds and gold, particularly gold. It had burped out weaponry exports, trading some of these for slaves.
The river was at full tide, covering the Mulberry Harbour off its northern shoreline at Southchurch, and wetting every leg of Southend Pier, the world’s longest. The swell was unable to conceal the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery, which sat in sandbanks off Sheerness, ring-fenced by buoys, after running aground in 1944. At the screen’s periphery, God saw a ship ploughing north-eastwards along the Kent coast. 190,000 cubic metres of Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG) was heading to the Isle of Grain.
Recent myths and legends of super-heroes flitted across the mind of God. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and Wolverine. And now Buddha, Gandhi, Satan and……. Maggie. She hoped Gandhi and Maggie would rub along.
She pondered their track records.
Both fervently admired the Sermon on the Mount, her son’s message of striving towards the Kingdom of God. Both had changed history. In Maggie’s case, the virus of neoliberalism had been unleashed across the globe, with its attendant demons of privatisation and privation. At home, the UK’s homeless and unemployment statistics had soared. “If a man will not work, he shall not eat,” she had once told the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly.
Gandhi had refused food, leading hunger strikes to protest British rule of India. He had lived without possessions in pursuit of social justice. At his death the Indian had perceived, and then seized the “dharmata” opportunity, liberating himself forever from ducking in and out of human bodies.
Karma did not preoccupy 25-year-old Richard Ravenous-Glutton. On Sunday 12 May, 2013, Ricky was lunching on prawn cocktail crisps while emptying his bladder in the brick outhouse beside the Crooked Billet.
He heard the trap door open in the corridor behind him. A nocturnal-looking geezer, wearing gloves, was holding the wall for support. He was well over seven foot tall. “Fuck me”, said Rick.
“What the fuck,” he added, pissing on his shoes and spilling crisps as a second figure emerged. This one had huge ears, an Arsenal shirt stretched over his tummy, and a dazzling smile. Stretching his multi-tasking skills, Ricky whipped out his phone and activated the videocam. “This is mental m8,” he somehow texted his friend Chris, outside in the Leigh-on-Sea sunshine. The Nepalese prince Siddharta Gautama wobbled after Satan towards the bar.
“Arse bandits in loo,” Rick texted again when another Indian-looking male stumbled out, wearing sandals, spectacles and a loose white robe. One thin shoulder was exposed. He placed a walking cane on the slippery floor.
What had the nut-jobs been up to in the khazi? “Facebook evryfin m8,” Rick texted. And again: “OMFG CANT B NO FKN WY GET PICS ON FB”, after a woman’s leg emerged, unsteadily.
Strange things happened in toilets. The previous week a redhead from Basildon had bent over for him, in a nightclub cubicle. But three guys and a woman would need every last inch of confined space. He considered the angles, entertaining the pleasing notion that one of the weirdos had been shafted by another geezer while two of them did the bird. But his carnal calculations were blown to pieces by the woman’s inescapable identity. “Bloody hell,” mumbled Rick. “Impossible.”
Maggie looked resplendent in classic cream jacket and A-line skirt, court shoes and matching handbag. She glanced with deep disdain at Rick’s dripping member, on which a crisp had lodged, as she lurched away. Finally, Bob staggered out, hardly able to place his paws.
The upload to Facebook, which would trigger a real-time avalanche of local interest, was almost complete. Rick and Chris didn’t have a clue that Britain was about to receive a karmic punch in the teeth. The sky gave little away. Its royal blue contained small billows of white.
Micky Gaze stood loyally outside the Billet. Thinking about money. To cover the incomers’ immediate needs, he had ordered double Bowmores for the delegation, who were to meet Dan and Mary, journeying in from Chelmsford, and to familiarise with the locality. £35 for the round. He had to talk to Sal about the mounting expenses.
Walking over the nearby railway bridge, heart in his mouth, Dan looked up, adjusting the camera strap around his neck. Could a sky look messianic? From early that morning, he had been listening incessantly to the Nick Cave track ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. It depicted a world where time had stopped, and a preacher spoke in a new language.
Sal spotted a couple of fishermen. He asked about the tide, its duration and strength. Unfathomably, during the last 24 hours, it seemed that Leigh’s fishing fleet had enjoyed its biggest catch in decades. Buddha took a seat by the sea wall, opposite a woman in her thirties, nursing a half pint. She looked to be in physical discomfort. Mentally, he imprinted three purifying Sanskrit letters into the ale.
Siddharta had reached enlightenment in the sixth century BC, going on to teach a spiritual path followed by untold millions across Asia. It was his first time in England. He gazed with curious pleasure at the eating and drinking houses, craft shops, galleries, wharves and cockle sheds. The woman introduced herself as Claire. Something told her that this relaxed man would understand her illness. A rash had covered her shoulders months ago, and spread, unabashed by GP prescriptions. The urge to scratch ruined her sleep. Oddly, her beer tasted different. Maybe cleaner.
Beneath his breath, Buddha chanted the Great Compassion Mantra for the people of Southend. Om moni bemi hong. Om moni bemi hong. It asked for compassion for all deceased beings, and for those directly or indirectly responsible for their deaths. He looked up. Shades of purple had manifested. Plums and cranberries peeking from clouded white wispiness.
But still hot, which suited Gandhi’s light garb. Sensing familiar scrutiny, from many eyes, Mahatma watched the man and woman arrive. Satan greeted the female, whose husband looked overwhelmed by Satan’s height, and equally shocked to see Maggie.
Traditionally a sherry drinker, Britain’s former PM was gulping the Bowmore to regain her ‘land legs’. It was feisty then sweet to the taste. She now recalled living in Essex after World War Two. Renting in the garrison town of Colchester, she had commuted to a chemical plant near the River Stour. She had visited Southend many years later, in May 1969, speaking to Conservative women at the Grade II listed Kursaal building, on the seafront.
Mahatma was deeply perplexed by Maggie’s inclusion in the team. “British bull in a China shop”, was his description.
God explained little, observing only that this version of her was, at her request, an exactitude of her “space-suit” at the age of 41, back in 1966. Maggie was oddly fixated on that year, when, as a shadow treasury spokesman in Ted Heath’s Conservative party, she had expressed forcible opinions on public expenditure.
In the Billet, Micky Gaze stood at the cliff-face of his overdraft limit. He ordered fish and chips for seven, and more double Bowmores. He grabbed a word with Sal. “I’ve laid out £130 already today. Can’t do it much longer, or me and the wife will go bust,” he said, apologetically.
Satan looked into his friend’s eyes. “Big day today Micky, but I’ll talk to God.” Sal was temptingly handsome, whatever way you swung.
In the virtual world, pictures of Satan and his squad were whizzing through ether. Locals were thronging down hillside paths from Upper Leigh to view the free-of-charge freak show. Chris told Ricky that Paulie and the lads would be along soon, and Johnnie Tattoo’s crew were finishing up drinks at the nearby Peter Boat pub.
Maggie strode across to three women tucking into seafood lunches, sliding into the spare place. Her Asprey brown alligator structured flap front top handle satchel handbag gleamed in the sun. It looked to her new companions to have cost thousands of pounds.
A Bengali woman opposite was enjoying peppered cockles. Sheena was a physiotherapist at Southend hospital, where noises about redundancies were growing. Struck by the newcomer’s uncanny resemblance to a recently-deceased politician, she carried on discussing a 53-year-old woman, Stephanie Bottrill, who had recently walked in front of a lorry in Birmingham. The trigger was a letter stating she would lose £80 of monthly housing benefit under the ‘bedroom tax’. She had posted her keys through a neighbour’s door. And a note, saying “I can’t afford to live”.
Sheena took a slug of pinot grigio. Gazing at Maggie, she paid little attention to the rising south-easterly breeze. “Maybe that’s how it’s going to be, a controlled social demolition,” she pondered aloud.
Maggie sipped more Bowmore. Then spoke confidently. “Any legitimate government should fear the people, not the other way around. And governments can and should, always, be held accountable for their actions.” Sheena spluttered wine across her friend Ruth’s potted crab.
Feeling words flow with new sympathies, Maggie spoke again. “Why let the present bunch off the hook?” She referred, with a look of distaste, to Lord Green, the unelected Minister of State for Trade and Investment. His credentials involved heading HSBC Bank when it was laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels. She spoke of “a graceless corruption” permeating Westminster, where over 200 parliamentarians possessed financial interests in private sector health care.
People were already crowding tightly around the table, manipulating smartphones. God was pleased at how swiftly Maggie had adapted to the mission, after intense briefings. Maggie switched back to Stephanie Bottrill. “According to the Daily Mirror, she was diagnosed with serious auto-immune system deficiency in her childhood, and was told by doctors that she was too ill to work. However, she never registered as disabled, and lived without disability benefit. Like me, and I suspect all of you, she was a proud lady.”
She couldn’t stop: “These ‘austerity’ measures that we keep hearing about do not even save money, because your chancellor is furiously borrowing again in the bond markets, in order to pay debts that keep growing.” On she went, breeze lifting and sunshine fading. “How many more stories like this do any of you need to hear? How much more nonsense about deficits, and ‘we’re all in this together’, while the richest pile up more assets?” No replies.
“Life is pretty crap for many people right now,” said another woman at the table, Jess, whose hair was preternaturally grey. Released from her bus driving job due to a pulled back muscle, which had failed to heal, she was attending a ‘work programme’ where bullying and intimidation from Job Centre staff was rife. Yet, when awakening that morning, she sensed something incredible was brewing. A Sambuca shot accompanied her white wine.
Stephanie Bottrill’s story reminded Jess how a terminally ill man had died of kidney failure and starvation in East Grinstead, Sussex. Hardly able to believe her story, she told her companions that the 63-year-old died following a medical assessment by ATOS, which passed him fit to carry out manual work, and had recommended that his benefits should stop, despite his kidney treatment five days a week in Haywards Heath. ATOS subsequently denied any wrong-doing, reiterating that it was following Department of Work & Pensions imperatives to get one million people into work. Pumping up the bile, the Daily Mail had published a ‘workshy map’ of Britain, based on disability benefit claimants that ATOS had disqualified.
A woman in a smart red hoodie piped up. “I’ve always loved being British. But not so much now.” Ruth ran a dance school in Westcliff. Poorer mums were increasingly unable to pay for the lessons, which integrated physically challenged children. Ruth told the group about remarks by Colin Brewer, a councillor in Cornwall, who had advocated killing the disabled at birth due to the costs in keeping them alive. She pulled up her hood against the breeze. “Two options, I reckon. We all start finding our tribes, and creating our own realities; or we wait for super-heroes to sort out this mess.” She looked in bewilderment at Maggie.
There was no longer room to move in the old town. Having slept under a bench, after lapping at a saucer of whisky, Bob was stirring as food arrived for Satan’s gang. Gandhi looked at the glory of mauve, lilac and lavenders around the sky; felt the breeze chilling his bare shoulder. A staunch vegetarian, he would not eat the fish.
Seldom curious, Ravenous-Glutton was nagged by a question. He approached Buddha. Siddharta looked Rick up and down, enjoying the boy’s outfit: orange tee-shirt, purple jeans, blue shoes and yellow watch. Smiling deeply, he said: “Whatever and however you might think of me, please remember that I never claimed divinity, but merely knew that I possessed the seed of enlightenment. That nature is the birthright of every sentient being, I realised, after sitting under the tree at Bodh Gaya.”
Rick and his mates had drunk enough beer to float a local cockle boat. “Yeah…course mate. Listen we’re all Spurs – where you get that Arsenal shirt?” he asked, spitting crisp fragments.
Buddha replied with graciousness: “From a big but compassionate being. For you, I would say this. Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small. However small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain. What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.”
“What the fuck you on about?” said Rick.
Chris got it. “Geezer’s talkin about karma Ricky. You know, like, what goes around comes around.”
Paulie and Johnnie Tattoo decided to nick Maggie’s handbag for a laugh. Jess was talking about the BBC, whose licence she had stopped buying. “Its journalists seem willing to protect paedophiles and politicians. I’m not paying any money until their programmes start representing my views. The real news is online anyway.”
Maggie saw the arm reach for her bag. She instinctively grabbed Johnnie’s dark wrist and yanked it behind his back, making him grunt with pain. “We are supposed to be responsible adults, yet we get caught with our hands in the cookie-jar, don’t we” she scolded, just like the old Maggie. But with martial artistry.
Buddha was explaining reincarnation to Claire, who had forgotten her skin condition. The sky was howling out strange rainbow colours, dominated by purple. Conversations increased in animation as the streets reached logjam.
“People have ability to create deep in their minds,” grinned a teenager who had smoked some excellent weed. “95% of the endeavour known as work is either destructive to the land, the psyche or both. This goes way beyond the right to work – or to beg for a job.”
One voice piercing the clamour shouted out that financial crashes had taken place in 1907, 1929 and 2008. “The first two were followed by war – so should we be getting ready for a new holocaust?”
Satan told Dan to stop drinking. To write down all he had seen and heard. Then to leave, with Mary. Find a particular vantage point, and prepare to file the story of his life. The light in the sky was almost messianic, almost there. Satan told them the change would begin with a ground-breaking community in eastern Southend, in which they would be intimately involved. Dan remained awestruck.
“Humanity has to become more spiritual and raise its energy, so its benevolent thoughts manifest quicker. You’ve seen Maggie, Gandhi and the Buddha, all of whom will work with you. Dan, you will control PR. Mary, you will be tasked with a range of jobs.” He raised an eyebrow: “You both up for that?” As Satan elaborated, Dan looked at Mary, and thought of how he loved her. In his song Brompton Oratory, Nick Cave sang:
No God up in the sky; No devil beneath the sea
Could do the job that you did, baby; Of bringing me to my knees
Dan and Mary walked back across the railway. They ascended steps to higher ground, while Buddha traced a dome in his mind. It blanketed the old town. He followed Satan, Gandhi and Maggie through the crowd, back to the toilet. Bob scampered and staggered between their feet.
Mary and Dan found a seat at the top of Cliff Gardens. Holding hands in the driving gale, coming from the direction of Southend pier, they tried to make sense of events. The sky was like nothing ever seen. As if a purple column of rapidly spinning electrons was funnelling upwards and outwards, mid-Thames, near the Isle of Grain. Satan said to train the camera towards the estuary mouth and wait, finger on the video facility. Through the sights Dan saw the LNG vessel approach its terminal. Mary was texting their daughter Rose.
He shut his eyes at the flash, felt the air wobble past his ears, and heard windows shatter behind him. Rising, beyond the pier, a wall of water was unfurling in all directions, including the old town. The camera was catching it all, and Dan’s body was vibrating and glowing with the imminence of death.