The Aquarium. Part 1. I’m Confessin’
On a cold Spring day in 1931 Francis Sheldon Snr. stood on the station platform in an extraordinarily tall top hat and a pair of squeaky shoes, polished to a high shine by his black servant Wilson.
He was a proud man.
Already a success, he envisaged this moment as the beginning of a new age, a new age filled with gloves.
They would adorn the hands of royalty, of those Hollywood stars now filling the screens of Saltburn-by-the-Sea’s newest movie theatre, of all the ladies who would woo and then marry one of his offspring.
He was creating a dynasty.
“Be safe my son,” he said, “and remember, Sheldons, Sheldons and Sheldons.”
“Sheldons, Sheldons and Sheldons my arse,” mouthed back Francis Sheldon Jnr, his lips largely obscured by the grimy windows of the express that was to take him to London. Then he said it again for good measure, “Sheldon, Sheldon, Sheldon, my arse. My father, you're a prime buffoon.”
Francis Sheldon Jnr, or Njord as he was commonly known due to his striking resemblance to this Norse god of the sea whose statue stood at the entrance to the Poulton-le-Fylde Lido, saw himself as something of an innovator.
The previous summer, eschewing the tight fitting knee-length drawers favoured by all those of his class, had ordered via mail order from the United States of America seven pairs of Everlast trunks. These tight-fitting silky shorts were worn by those pugilists he so admired and listened to on his wireless late into the night.
Jack Dempsey. Gene Tunney. Luis Firpo. Tom Gibbons. Tom Heeney. Jack Sharkey. Max Schmeling.
He loved boxers.
He hated gloves.
When the train was safely out of the station Njord picked up the suitcase lovingly packed by his father himself, the handling of gloves not even to be trusted to Wilson, the servant, and locked himself in the stinking WC.
Sitting on the seat he placed the suitcase on his knees and opened it up.
“Hells bells,” he uttered.
The thing was filled with more gloves than even he had imagined; long chamois suede gloves, gloves made of kid, sealskin, lambskin, hand knit gloves, elbow length Berlin lisle gloves, Nemoskin gauntlets, double silk gloves, white opera gloves and on and on ad nauseam.
Truly they made him sick.
Choosing the star of the line, an Italian silk lady-in-waiting’s glove with exquisite malachite buttons, he dropped his Everlast pants, placed the glove over his willy and pissed through it down into the pan. Then, for good measure, he wiped it on his arse before placing it back in the case.
He heard his father’s words as he took his seat back in the carriage.
Make us proud son. Spread the word of Sheldon, Sheldon and Sheldon gloves. We will take the world of hands by storm.
He allowed himself this expletive, not caring for the stern look he got from the prelate sitting opposite him in the carriage.
He was on his way now.
In charge of his own destiny.
Njord was amazed by the bustle of London, its sights, its smells, its promiscuity.
He spent the night in a palatial hotel in Victoria. The barman had a walrus moustache. On the stage was a jazz quartet, a trombone, a trumpet, a double-bass and a surly singing man with a single drum between his legs which he hit frenetically as he pushed out the words.
After a number of potent beers Njord found himself dancing.
Secretly he had always danced to his mother’s records, W. C. Handy’s Tin Pan Alley, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, James Reece Europe’s Castle House Rag, Louis Armstrong’s Big Butter and Egg Man.
He loved them all.
But exhausted at last he threw himself down at a table with two extremely large men. They had enormous gold rings with serpent’s heads on each of their fingers, both were missing several teeth at least and, most strangely of all, they were wearing lime green leotards which showed off splendidly the immense rolls of fat around their bellies.
Surely this was a brave new world he had entered and, made confident by all the alcohol he had imbibed he gave them a, what ho!, and engaged them in conversation.
It turned out they were German wrestlers, fresh from an exhibition of Bavarian brawn. Two thousand working-class cockneys had squeezed into Alexandra Palace and brayed and whistled while they worked each other over. Njord drank with them until the early hours of the morning and then, when they invited him up to their room, one eye on each of their faces lasciviously winking, he didn’t say no.
It wouldn’t be his first time.
Back home in Saltburn-by-the-Sea he had lost his virginity numerous times to the fishermen. They liked to think they were the first to screw the posh boy, the glove-master’s son, and he liked to lick the sardine skin off their bodies, kiss their trout lips, play with the electric fizzing eels between their wide legs, swallow their spawn, more tasty than fish roe.
He was killing two birds with one stone, pissing on his father’s chips.
And as he was bent over one of the glove factory’s sewing machines, laid on his back in the packing room, his groans deadened by the thick towers of boxes, he knew his father would not be proud.
It was the sun that woke him. He was naked between the Germans, a chipolata between two thick Bratwursts. A small dog with a black eye sat silently watching him from the corner of the room. It was there also, its image at least, on one of the fliers scattered around the floor.
Helmut und Helmut
Und kleiner Peer
Peer was the dog.
That had made him laugh. Peer. One who pees. He liked that too. Anything to do with water. As a child he had been told he could swim before he could walk. Then, when he could walk, he was always running off to the sea.
One of his earliest memories was his mother standing at the water’s edge screaming. His father standing ridiculous farther back. Ridiculous because it was a blazing hot day and he was fully suited, as upright as his ivory cane with its silly glove shaped end planted in the sand.
But still he, Njord, was better than his brother.
His brother was wild.
When you’ve already got a dark sheep in the family it allows you a certain leeway.
On this morning, now, climbing carefully from between the two Germans he examined himself in their full length mirror.
He had bite marks on his buttocks. From the dog? Surely not.
He could remember being held aloft above the wrestlers so that his nose almost touched the ceiling. Then they showed him some moves, tossing him between them like he was a rag doll. But oh how they were gentle, their bellies as soft as beds filled with feathers.
He only just made the train on time. The Pullman carriage was luxurious, gilded. A waiter with a Hungarian moustache brought him a cup of beef broth and a copy of London Illustrated News. The front page was filled with advertisements, Dinneford’s Solution of Magnesia, Seccotine Fish Glue, Yorkshire Relish and there at the bottom, which made him feel queasy in the stomach, Sheldon, Sheldon and Sheldon Gloves, a perfect fit any hand. He took his suitcase to the toilet once more, selected a lace glove with pearl bottoms, urinated through it before wiping it on his behind for good measure. Putting it away he was a little shocked to notice it spotted with blood.
At Dover under rain and a glowering sky, spectacular backlit thunderheads, he boarded Southern Railway’s TSSCanterbury. First class only with a capacity for 1700 she was described in the brochure as a Turbine Steel Steamship with two screws.
Two seemed such a paltry number for 1700. He would have to see what he could do…
His dander was up. Or his pecker.
The Germans had given him a thirst. Named after a god he had a god’s desires.
Didn’t he have power over the wind and the waves? Wasn’t he the person sailors, fishermen, turned to in their hour of need? Sod that dandy of that father of his.
But all that could wait.
There was time enough.
As they pulled out of the harbour he stood alone on the deck, focused on what he was leaving and what might be under him, the seals, whales, dolphins and those thousands other of his friends…, dog fish, electric rays, cookoo rays, spotted rays, small-eyed rays, undulate rays, many millions of herrings, sprats, pilchards, bass, poacher, lumpfish, seabream, pomfret, rock cock, goldskinny, corkwring wrasse, bluefish tuna, frigate mackerel, left-eyed flatfish, brill, truncated sunfish, pufferfish, sand goby, common goby, giant goby as big as whales. It was said these last could eat a baby in one mouthful and that was why young mothers did not let their children into the sea.
Older mothers were wiser.
Knew what a bind a baby could be.
Encouraged them to swim.
Pushed them into the water, these babies.
Although they were screaming.
And then he went to the bar.
The barman was French, a Norman (from Normandy), had a pencil moustache and served his drinks with a certain Gallic flourish. Njord was on the point of ordering his usual beer when he changed his mind and instead asked for a bottle of the best red and a packet of Gitanes to go with it.
The taste of both were a revelation.
When one bottle was gone he ordered another and, quite drunk now, met a pale nervous man called Raymond who, apparently, played the ukulele vigorously and was a Protestant minister.
Raymond, so he was told over the second bottle of red, and a third!, was on his way to the Congo via Paris where he would teach soulless black people about God and hard work.
“In the beginning was God and God was at the beginning.”
Raymond had a creased secondhand cassock, a coffee stained bible and a single cabin they stumbled to and made love.
They did it standing up, Njord’s face pressed roughly against the porthole while all throughout the act Raymond made a noise like a dying seal.
Afterwards, shaking him off, Njord was sick in the cramped toilet.
A dying seal! Blast the man for that…
And coming back out of the toilet Njord was going to punch him, or cause him some other harm, but seeing Raymond still naked, kneeling by the side of the bed his hands clasped in prayer, Njord instead let out a laugh.
God help those young men and women of Africa.
Or not help them.
He didn’t go in for all that colonial nonsense. Those darker skinned people were as good as us, that is what he believed, and more numerous.
Let us all smash down the Old World together.
The train to Paris was named the Flèche d’or. It had golden handles in the shape of arrows and the staff all had the same kind of painter’s brush moustache as if they had been manufactured in a railway staff factory in Toulon.
Njord, reeling, drunk and sore, but exhilarated by his conquests, especially the wrestlers, their unspeakable sacs like something a burly shot putter would heave towards the horizon on a cold winter’s morning, their breath coming out in clouds, went to the dining car and ordered himself more red wine and a new packet of Gitanes.
Puffing out smoke he imagined himself French.
He was nineteen and handsome and had money in his pocket. Moreover, that rat’s arse of a father of his was disappearing ever further into the distance.
“Hello Paris,” he said under his breath. Then louder, “Hello Paris.” Then finally he shouted it out, “Hello Paris!”
He nodded his head towards the startled diners.
He was finding his feet, playing the scales.
He was going to be something.
This was it.
Louis Armstrong - I'm Confessin' - https://youtu.be/So0MnN_6Y3M