Featured Prose: The Mill for Grinding Old People Young by Glenn Patterson

by Megan Sexton  ·  January 10, 2012

Glenn Patterson

The Mill For Grinding Old People Young

Friday, 24th December 1897

The telephone rang this morning.

Despite having rehearsed with me how to behave in such an eventuality,Mrs Mawhinney ran through the house, banging doors and calling my name, as though pursued by the hounds of hell. In truth I

was alarmed enough by it myself that I dropped my spectacles on to the carpet as I started from my chair. In another instant I had trodden on them.

Mrs Mawhinney all but collapsed through the library door, collected herself, backed out, and was making to knock as the ringing at last stopped.

I told her, please, to come in, take a seat, calm down. The suddenness of the thing. . . she was saying between breaths . . . it had “put the heart sideways” in her.

I showed her my glasses. The bridge was bent and when I tried to straighten it I heard the faintest of creaks. Mrs Mawhiney would have had me let her go at once to Lizar’s but with Christmas Day upon us there seemed little chance that her haste would be rewarded. Besides, I remembered some years ago having consigned a pair to the back of a bureau drawer.

We waited together another half an hour, going through the drill several more times, before resuming our occupations.

I was right about the bureau, but not about the drawer: the spectacles were in the fourth one I opened. The lenses were a little dulled, my eyes more than a little weaker than when last I put them on,

but so long as I held my book raised to catch the light coming in at the window I could see well enough to read. (I have left them aside as I write this: the hand, I trust, after all these years, does not require such

close scrutiny.) I held the book for two pages then lowered it and allowed my eyelids to close.

Towards luncheon the telephone rang again. I had managed half of the stairs, without the aid of my stick, before Mrs Mawhinney appeared from the kitchens. She looked up at me. I nodded. She dropped a curtsey (unrehearsed) as she spoke my name into the mouthpiece then dropped another as she turned to me and said, “Mr Erskine, sir.”

I negotiated the remainder of the stairs and took the earpiece.

“Well, well, well,” said Erskine, with the pride of an inventor, or at least of a privileged custodian. “What do you make of this?”

“Remarkable,” I said, and meant it. His voice might have been coming from the next room and not the far side of the river.

Mrs Mawhinney was still in attendance. I signalled to her that I was quite all right.

Erskine, meanwhile, was inviting me to dinner at the Reform Club this evening, “Unless you have already made another arrangement.” It was kind of him to allow me the possibility of refusal, even though he knows as well as any man living that I would not otherwise have crossed the doorstep from now until New Year, nor been troubled by anyone approaching it, save possibly Erskine himself.

He was getting up a little party for his nephew who is recently returned from a visit to London in the course of which he made photographs of the places alluded to in Mr Wells’s “scientific romance” The Time Machine, which caused such a sensation when it was first published—what, a year, two years ago, now? These photographs the nephew had had turned into slides, which he intended to project by means of a magic lantern. It was all very short notice, Erkine realized (again the opportunity to refuse if I wished), but he had only heard late last evening that the room had become free at the club. He could send a carriage if I wished it . . .

Mrs Mawhinney was none too pleased when I told her I had accepted. (Mrs Mawhinney, as I have noted, I am sure, many times previously in these pages, is not endowed with a face for dissembling.)

She had a pair of sole fresh delivered.

I told her they would keep to breakfast.

She had a haddock for breakfast.

“It is Christmas, we will have both,” I said.

I will be sorry in the morning that I did. They do not stint on their courses, or their portions, at the Reform Club. The smelts, with which we began, alone would have made a decent dinner for Mrs Mawhinney and me.

An audience of nine gathered in the Antrim Room afterwards, not counting Erskine and his nephew. I knew them all. In the case of most of them I had known their fathers, in the case of some their grandfathers.

A large board with a tablecloth tacked to it had been mounted on two chairs against the back wall. There was some business with the electric lights, which even two years after they were installed are the cause of some confusion and, on occasion, misgiving among staff and members alike; that switching the lights off, for instance, might cause electrocution. Off, though, eventually, they went. (Switch throwers happily unharmed.) The nephew himself oversaw the drawing of the curtains—they had to be “just so”—before declaring that we were ready to proceed with the slides.

We saw the park in Battersea, we saw Lavender Hill; we saw, as an aside, the new Battersea Bridge, the last of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s grand designs. (I knew Bazalgette, too; visited him once in Morden.) We saw the wrought iron entrances to several of the underground railway stations and listened to Erskine’s nephew’s ingenious equation of these with the burrows wherein the Moorlocks dwelt; we saw the South Kensington Museum, the Alexandra Palace at Muswell Hill—Wells’s “Palace of Green Porcelain.”

The final photograph accompanied the passage in which the Time Traveller and his companion Weena proceed over a hillcrest towards Wimbledon as the “hush of evening” creeps over the world. There was an answering silence in the Antrim Room as Erskine’s nephew read of that great pause that comes upon things before dusk, when even the breeze stops in the trees. So vivid were the trees in the photograph— they had been tinted by hand—that I fancied our breath would have set their leaves moving, had any of us been breathing out at that moment. Erskine’s nephew continued to read (his voice had a grating quality, but the words themselves got the better of it, impressing themselves on my memory):

“To me there is always an air of expectation about that evening stillness. The sky was clear, remote, and empty, save for a few horizontal bars”—these too with a tint applied to them—“far down in the sunset. Well, that night the expectation took the colour of my fears.”

For nine people we gave a rousing round of applause. “For eight people they did,” I should say, at least to begin with. For some moments after the lights had been switched on in the room I remained staring at the blank tablecloth, remembering how the story ran on, the loss of Weena, the Time Traveller’s desolation on his return, alone, to his workshop in Richmond.

When all the congratulations had been extended, all the questions asked about the equipment the nephew had used and the chemical processes he had employed—an inquisitiveness in matters of equipment and processes of one form or another being what had brought most of those present into membership of the Reform Club: them and their fathers and grandfathers—the discussion moved on to our own city eight hundred thousand years hence. (Thompson: “Perhaps we will at last have our new City Hall.”) Erskine, whose own career, and fortune, has been founded on the knack of never missing anything, tried to draw me into the conversation. Given the changes I had witnessed in my own lifetime, did I not think it was foolish in the extreme to speculate on even eighty years hence? I replied that I sometimes felt as though it would be presumptuous of me to speculate on even eight weeks hence. “Nonsense, you will outlive us all,” said Erskine. In which case, I said, it would be our mutual misfortune. Rev. Dr Cathcart said, as he was after all bound to say, that we none of us knew the day or the hour—“no, not the angels of heaven,” as the Apostle would have it—and reminded us that there was still a large body of opinion that would robustly contend with Mr Darwin that the world had seen, or would ever in the future see, the multiple thousands of years that had so fired the imagination of this Wells.

The nephew interjected. We were, with the greatest respect, rather straying from the point. He was of the firm opinion that the city was on the brink of a new Golden Age. He spoke of the Cymric and the new Oceanic, construction of which, we would be aware, had already begun on the Queen’s Island, not a mile from where we were talking, and which would, when completed, exceed in length Brunel’s Great Eastern (exceed it too, it was to be hoped, in good fortune). The one-thousand-foot liner was no longer a possibility, it was an inevitability for the Belfast shipyards, and let the competition try and catch them.

Never mind one thousand feet, Thompson said, if the rumour was to be believed the one-million-pound liner was already with us. Someone else said that if ships continued to grow at the rate they had

grown in the last fifty years then by the next century’s end we would be crossing the Atlantic on vessels a mile long . . .

My dinner was sitting heavily in my stomach—I really do, as a rule, eat so little these days—and now that the conversation had become general I thought that Erskine would not take it amiss if I asked to have the carriage brought round for me. It was not quite half past nine o’clock. Erskine himself saw me down the stairs (watched me, I should say, all three flights, his eyes never once leaving my shoes) and out on to the kerb. It was all I could do, after he had handed me up into the carriage, to stop him tucking the blanket around my legs. He thanked me for coming; told me he hoped I had not been too irked by his nephew’s manner. It was a common failing in the young, imagining they were the first ever to think or feel these things. I thought to tell him it was considered a failing when I was young not to have built a church or written a history by the time you were twenty; thought better of it.

He put his hand on the door as the driver gathered the reins for departure.

“You know you would be more than welcome, tomorrow…”

I stopped him. He makes the same offer every year, and every year, I am sure, I make the same reply:

“It is terribly kind of you, Erskine, but Mrs Mawhinney has all the preparations made.”

Mrs Mawhinney in fact is under strict instructions—this year, every year—to take herself off to her cousin’s as soon as we have finished breakfast. (Haddock and sole!)

Erskine lifted his hand from the door, in a gesture of surrender, or farewell, and the driver snapped the reins.

“You can always telephone,” he called after me.

The streets, despite the hour, were as thronged as a summer Saturday afternoon. Before the builder’s hoardings where a year ago the White Linen Hall stood and eight, or eight hundred thousand, years from now will stand the City Hall, fir trees and mistletoe were still being sold, and as the carriage turned down towards the Academical Institution I witnessed a group of boys trying to hoop-la the statue of Rev Henry Cooke with a holly wreath. A stream of pedestrians was coming towards them, loosed on the night by the Grand Opera House, where the pantomime had just ended: Dick Whittington, if memory

served. On an impulse I leaned forward in my seat and asked the driver (worthy citizen) to turn about and take me back the way we had come. He thought by this I meant that I had forgotten something at the club,

but as we came again into Castle Place I told him to carry on, down Royal Avenue, on, at length, to York Street, thence, turning right at Great George’s Street, right again, into the narrower confines of Sailortown.

The driver slowed the horse to a walk. Some of the rooftops here reached to not much higher than the crown of his hat. He glanced at me over his shoulder. I urged him on—please—a little farther and then a little farther again until we had come out at last at a patch of waste ground below Garmoyle street, looking across the Victoria Channel to the Queen’s Island and the Harland and Wolff yard. “Here,” I said.

The driver helped me alight. “You don’t mind if I stay by the carriage?” he asked. The sound of our wheels had drawn several patrons out of the public house on the corner of the street. They gathered

beneath the solitary street lamp, watching with the driver as I made my hesitant way to the water’s edge. Weeds had pushed up between the cobbles, mingling with the coal dross and the rusting iron and the

remains of a thousand crates that had somehow fallen, just here, from ships coming in to dock.

“Sir?” said the driver, a caution dressed up as a question.

(He may have had in mind the story in the papers of late of the woman who ran the length of the Newtownards Road to throw herself off the Queen’s Bridge, her body, despite much searching of the Channel, yet to be found.)

“I can manage, thank you,” I said, gratitude wrapped around rebuke. I steadied myself with both hands on the head of my stick. The fog that has been wreaking such havoc this past week along the Irish facing coast of Scotland had been halted somewhere out in the North Channel by winds blowing across Belfast from the southwest. My view, notwithstanding the paucity of street lighting and the dulling of my

lenses, was tolerably clear.

A voice called out from beneath the lamp, “You down to see the big boat, Mister?”

I waved a hand—“yes”—and peered out as though searching among the masts and the gantries for the Oceanic’s slipway, but hoping instead for a glimpse of something that predated the first ship to bear the Oceanic name, the whole White Star line, Harland’s yard, the Queen’s Island itself.

Behind me the driver cleared his throat; asked if he might smoke a cigarette, “for warmth, like.” I realised that in the time I had been standing there a fine rain had begun to fall.

I told him I had no objection whatever, then, seeing the flare of the match, catching the scent of tobacco on the air, asked if I might have one, too. For companionship, like. He offered the package and I

hesitated seeing there were only two cigarettes left, but he shook his head to say I was not to let it concern me. I pinched the end of the cigarette between my forefinger and thumb while he struck the match so that when I inhaled the shaft was drawn back to rest against the tip of my nose. It had indeed been a very long time since I had done this. The smoke was as sharp as grief, as searing as desire. My thoughts turned liquid and I felt for a moment that I had actually begun to fall. I leaned more heavily on my stick; inhaled again, deeper; inhaled again, deeper still.

When there was nothing left to inhale I let the ember fall to fade between my feet.

“The world is too good,” I murmured and touched my fingers to my lips. The driver was watching still. I plucked at a phantom shred of tobacco. He turned away.

“Thank you for the cigarette,” I said as he helped me back up into my seat.

Our audience beneath the street lamp had dwindled to two women, one of whom asked me was I some sort of Yankee.

“He’s as Belfast as you or me,” the driver surprised me by saying before I had a chance to speak. I pulled the blanket around my chest. The hooves rang, the wheels rattled, and soon we had joined again the general stir.

The boys were gone from in front of the Academical Institution, but, however they had managed it, they had succeeded before they left in crowning Cooke with their holly wreath.

Mrs Mawhinney must have been waiting in the hallway, so quickly did she appear. She came right out to the carriage step. “Look at you, you are chilled to the bone,” she said and asked the driver, as his master’s representative there in her world, what Mr Erskine could have been thinking, calling on that telephone contraption, keeping me out till all hours in the depths of winter. (That was the order of her complaint, telephone before weather.) The driver, to his great credit, held his peace. I gave him ten shillings of a tip, which he was kind enough to say would keep him in “smokes” for some considerable time.

“Smokes!” said Mrs Mawhinney and took hold of my arm, as much to save me from corrupting influence as assist me to the door.

Inside, she warmed a pair of bottles while I undressed for bed then left me here, propped against the bolster with my writing board and my journal. She paused in the doorway to wish me a Happy Christmas.

“A Happy Christmas to you, too, Mrs Mawhinney,” I said.

I listened to her footsteps receding down the landing, as I have listened to them time without number in the years that we have spent alone here together, and for a moment—just for a moment—I

imagined getting out of bed (imagined myself a man for whom the act of getting out of bed was as fleet as the thought), going to the door and calling after her. . . . But what, and to what end?

On down the landing, she plodded, and into her apartment, so that now there is only the hiss of the lamp for company, the scratch of my nib, and, somewhere across this great, perplexing city, bells chiming the midnight hour.

From Five Points Volume 13.2