The Impossible City – Peter TG

Another extract from Peter’s book.  Hopefully we can all give it a read and make some helpful comments.

This is the next part of chapter 2. Sal Morrow has been abandoned in London broke and alone. Previously in the story a mysterious comet has hit the North Sea, the resulting flood has devastated the East Anglian coast. We join Sal a few days after this event. –Peter

So with a duffel bag and without a penny to his name Sal Morrow, arrived in London the capital of the British Empire. He slowly wound his way along the quayside marvelling at the sheer scale of the docks stretching out in both directions.

Sal wondered what the name of this particular one was; he thought he should at least remember the name of the place where he first arrived in London. It had never occurred to him to ask Captain Boyd. He meandered along gazing at the ships and their crews not recognising any of the flags the ships flew and with no idea where they came from. They all seemed to have exotic sounding crews and formed along with their cargoes a dazzling cross section of the Empire. Their well-rehearsed activity gave the entire dock the impression of a single living organism, its component parts working together without conscious effort in synchronicity.

However mixed in with the cargo ships were other smaller vessels carrying dismal refugees from the East Anglian Comet; dour and broken they sat huddled in large groups while officials attempted to identify who they were and from what town or village they came from.

The dock officials in their navy blue uniforms were marking their paperwork with great care but in their solemn expressions Sal could see that the task was beyond measure. There had to be hundreds of these people in this one corner of the docks alone and he knew from the crew on the Esmeralda that many thousands more had arrived in London over the past few weeks with nothing but the clothes they wore, desperate for food, shelter and above all, hope.

During the previous days at sea the Esmeralda had passed many small boats of every capacity and persuasion making their way to and from the stricken area. When the scale of the disaster had become apparent the British Government had sketched a rescue strategy to move refugees from the afflicted areas to larger cities one of which was London. This plan involved commandeering every seaworthy and some not so seaworthy vessel in the south of England. The idea was to provide a flotilla of volunteers with boats able to navigate the flooded areas. However when the flood waters had settled it was clear that a way of life which had existed for centuries had been lost forever along with a large proportion of the Anglian coast. It had been Captain Boyd’s next task to join the rescue effort.

Sal turned away from the forlorn mass of people thinking of Aunt Rebecca, acutely aware that she could not be among the survivors, the coastal areas had borne the brunt of the wave and those places were now under water. The survivors now reaching London were from areas further inland or down the coast. He tried hard to block the thought of her from his mind and instead concentrate on the aromas that assaulted his nose, fruit and rich spices mixed with the headier scents of animals and fish, all of them bound together by the rich background stench of horse manure.

Wandering along the quayside Sal was at once stunned by the abundance of both ship and humanity but failing to make any headway against the throng he looked around for a quiet place to get out of the way.

Then he saw a tavern set back a little from the dockside. The wooden facade was stained deep nicotine brown, the windows designed to keep light and prying eyes out; being a filthy mottled grey they were patently no use for seeing out of or in through. The sign above the door hung at a lopsided angle, it seemed the Lord Nelson tavern had seen better days. The place looked shut so he could consider his options if not in peace at least he would be out of everyone’s way. He struggled through the crowd and on reaching the tavern placed his bag down taking care not to be underneath any of the windows or near the entrance just in case there was anyone home and flopped down on it.

The Lord Nelson tavern was next to a tea warehouse allowing Sal to inhale the sweet leaf aroma that wafted his way, it helped to mask the heavier smells from his nose and for that he was grateful. After a few minutes the breeze changed direction and as new smells took his senses his belly groaned reminding him how hungry he was. The waft of freshly cooked hot pies; beef and potato, chicken and leek encased in pastry and dripping with gravy, the delicious fragrances hit his senses hard teasing his nostrils and taunting his stomach forcing raw hunger to surge up in his throat making him feel nauseous.

The source of the temptation was not far away; there was a pie cart just visible amongst the men and wagons on the quayside. Sal reasoned that the food was as good as it smelt judging from the knot of dockworkers huddled next to it.

After watching them talk and eat for a while, he decided that something needed to be done; he was not going to get very far on an empty stomach. However what little Sal knew of London was from the crew of the Esmeralda and Aunt Rebecca’s tales of caution which amounted to no more than a bleak certainty this was no place to be physically weak and a dangerous place to be seen as such by others. Somehow he had to get food from that cart.

He got to his feet, slung his duffel bag over his shoulder, pulled his cap low over his face to hide his eyes and approached the cart taking care not to walk too fast but at the same time keeping his eyes to the ground. As he drew near, the pie man looked down at him.

“Yeah?”

His voice sounded like he had snorted the words out through his bulbous nose rather than pronounce them in a conventional way; the heavy Victorian moustache he sported multiplied the effect. Sal cleared his throat.

“One pie please.”

The pie man ignored him and carried on stirring gravy in a large brass cauldron.

Sal pushed his cap back off his forehead letting a couple of twists of blonde hair fall down.

“Please sir, just one pie sir?”  He raised his voice an octave.

“Let’s see your coin first, a penny’ll do.”

The pie man placed his thick hands on the front of the cart to block any attempt Sal might make to grab for anything. The pies themselves were quite safe, snatching one was something Sal had already entertained and then dismissed. With his duffel bag in tow there was no way he was going to be able to run fast enough to escape him, although a generously proportioned fellow the pie man would no doubt prove to be nimbler than he looked.

Instead Sal looked down at the ground and pulled out the lining of his trouser pockets to show that he was broke just in case the pie man had not already guessed that much for himself.

“No penny, no pie that’s the rules, if you expect me to give you something for nothing then I’ll have every little rascal from here to St. Paul’s queuing up for a go and even them that have the money would keep it in their pockets, now be off with you.”

The pie man cracked his steel ladle hard against the side of the cauldron in such a way that Sal imagined how it would feel if his skull was in its place.

“But sir, I haven’t eaten for days, all I want are a crust or two and I‘ll leave you alone, I promise.”

Sal tried to muster a tear.

“Please?”

The pie man hacked a gobbet of phlegm out of his mouth on to the ground, which landed next to Sal’s duffel bag.

“I’ll give you a crust that’s all.”

He scooped a limp hunk of pastry onto the side of the cart.

“There you are, now take it and get out of it, you’ll scare off my customers.”

Sal took the piece of grey pastry wondering if it was better to go hungry than to eat the greasy and tired hunk of lard that he held in his hand. He could see tiny flecks of dirt on the crust where it had clearly been on the ground and the jagged teeth marks of the man who had originally bought the pie the crust had been attached to. With a sigh he placed the morsel in his coat pocket and began to walk away.

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5 thoughts on “The Impossible City – Peter TG

  1. A lovely, vivid picture painted here. And the dialogue with the pie man was good. However, he’s described as having a ‘Victorian’ moustache. Would they refer to something as Victorian in that era. It’s like saying someone had a 60s style, while living in the 60s. And what is a Victorian moustache – handlebar perhaps?

    Other than that, the pie man is good and his reasons for not giving him a free pie are really convincing. It’s not because he’s mean and I like that. As it’s easy to fall into the Dickensian, everyone hates poor people trap in a period piece like this.

    I agree with Martine – you need commas. I recommend buying ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’. It’s a very light book on grammar. It’s funny and informative.

    Your sentences are very long, which might be deliberate, as you’re writing in the style of Verne etc. However, a modern reader may find it meandering. If you choose to stick to that style, I would suggest varying sentence length to bring texture into the prose.

    Also, kill words like ‘then’ and ‘however’. They are puff. That’s an editing issue, but worth keeping an eye on as you go.

    Do we know Aunt thingy? She’s mentioned a few times and I just wonder whether the reader will care.

    And is he in hiding? He’s being a bit shifty. Lowering his hat over his eyes and not wanting anyone from the tavern to see him. Probably me just missing the point.

    Overall, an interesting turn of events and our protag is up against it, which is good. Looking forward to the next installment.

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  2. This is a nice scene with good description. You managed to bring several senses into the mix, along with sight – the docks and its sounds, the smells both pleasant and unpleasant. I liked your description of the squalid, run-down pub and and authorities desperately trying to cope with the sudden influx of refugees. Very nice. It all combined to portray a good sense of place and time.

    The pie-man scene worked really well. I did wonder if Sam was going to try to steal something from him and I’m glad he didn’t. I had visions of him ending up in prison for the rest of the story! The fact that he follows another path instead shows he has intelligence, and that he’s learned from his experience with the coat. It also shows he’s able to (attempt, at least) manipulate and persuade in order to get what he wants. Nice bit of character development.

    The only problem I had was on the technical side. The use of commas (or lack of – I think I only spotted 3 in the whole piece) meant a lot of your sentences were ambiguous or confusing. See example below:

    “He struggled through the crowd and on reaching the tavern placed his bag down taking care not to be underneath any of the windows or near the entrance just in case there was anyone home and flopped down on it.”

    By the end of the sentence it’s not clear whether the person who might be at home would be the one to flop down on the entrance or any of the windows. Presumably it was Sam who flopped down, on his bag. Without commas, you’re relying on your reader to sort out the sentence meaning, which is the opposite of what you want. Suggest the commas might be placed thus:

    “He struggled through the crowd and, on reaching the tavern, placed his bag down, taking care not to be underneath any of the windows or near the entrance, just in case there was anyone home, and flopped down on it.”

    You could even put a couple of dashes in, to isolate the second clause even further: “He struggled through the crowd and, on reaching the tavern, placed his bag down – taking care not to be underneath any of the windows or near the entrance, just in case there was anyone home – and flopped down on it.”

    Presumably you would pick these up on your rewrite, as I know this is an early draft, so at this stage it’s not crucial, but I’m happy to discuss with you in more depth should you wish.

    Martine

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    • Hi Martine, many thanks for that. I have only just seen your comment, I had checked the option for receiving notifications when a comment was posted but that did not work!

      Anyway, I am glad you like the scene setting and the insight into Sal’s character that’s really good.

      I see the point about the use of commas, it still tickles me how a person can edit a piece of writing, print it out, edit again and then type up the changes and fail to spot these problems.

      I might take the approach of rinsing through my draft with a view to looking solely at character, place and atmosphere etc and then have another go through which purely looks at the grammatical structure.

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  3. Peter, I am enjoying this tale immensely. I like the style of writing and am drawn into the story as I read. I wonder if the tea warehouse would smell? Tea was transported in chests that were sealed-perhaps there would be an aroma, I am not sure? What drew me to this point how you skillfully describe the aromas of the dock side. Roll on the next installment!

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    • Thanks Paul, good point about the tea, I might look that up now you mention it. I do like the smell of tea myself and the idea of it’s fresh aroma masking other more unpleasant ones.

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