Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Water Street

Evening has come. I have lit my lamp and shut out the night. My Bible lies close at hand on the table by the bed, and in a few moments -- as soon as I finish these lines -- I will set down my pen and close my desk, turn down the covers and retire to bed. I will read a few chapters, beginning at the place I marked when I finished last evening, then I will extinguish the lamp and let my head fall back in the absolute darkness and stillness of my room. Sleep will come swiftly, as it always does, like a silent phantom.

Elsewhere in the city, well away from the harbor, the crowds move through restless streets. Along the broad promenades of the wealthy and in the tubercular quarters of the destitute they spill from houses and workplaces and fan out into cafés and dives, into theatres, brothels, gin mills and social halls. They laugh and they shout, they gorge themselves and drink themselves to stupefaction, they defile their bodies without shame or cosh each other for coin or sport. But not here. On the narrow street that winds below my window every last door is drawn tight and locked, every shutter secured. The shop windows are dark, the displays of haberdashery gloomy and crestfallen. And nothing moves, no hansom rattling through these alleys, no horse's hoof striking against the cobblestones -- not at this hour. A few blocks away, around the mission at the edge of the water district, a handful of stragglers -- inebriates and syphilitic sailors -- still skulk in the shadows, drawn outwards by the magnetic pull of madness or impossible cravings, but that is the limit, the border that nothing marks and that no one will cross once night falls.

As a young man I went to sea but I will never leave this city again. I was married once -- it was far from here -- but the woman died and the child with her. During the day I work quietly at my desk until I am summoned. There is much business to be done here, though you would not suspect it at this hour of the night. On Sundays I sit in a pew in the rear of the church and slip quietly out the door before the rest of the congregation has begun to rise.

My material needs are few and my means commensurate. As for the rest, I know that I am damned. I read my Bible faithfully, but I know that the mark is on me and on this district. One day I will no longer fear it and that is when I will be taken, as in time the city will be taken in its turn, all the gaudy palaces of sin, and there will be nothing left but smoke and darkness.

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