London Bridge Is Falling Down

Copyright © Isabella Dalzell 2017. All RIghts Reserved.

Standing alone on the watersteps, looking down the mossy tread onto the slapping grey-green winter waves of the River Thames, I can see my rippled reflection in the water. A neat-waisted girl with abundant, loose flowing hair frizzing in the light morning fog, dressed in drab grey. I can taste the salt in the air and smell the slightly stale vegetation as I crouch down to dip my inflamed and swollen fingertips in the soothing, icy water. I am greeted by their swaying reflection; white lilies veined with red wheals where the wrapped threads have pulled tight.

 

I plunge my hands further down and hold them there, feeling the heat melt away. Beyond the reflection of my hands I see something deeper in the water, something that intrigues me. It seems to be a face, but it is not my face. I lean further over, balancing carefully so as not to o’er tip and tumble from the steps, scrutinising the image which somehow impels me to look across the river to the far bank. Eventually my laboured, crouching breath demands ease and I withdraw my numbed arms slowly, gently, and wipe the puffy skin under my eyes with the cool fluid. Crying with exhaustion and frustration, I had wandered early from my lodging at the seamstresses’ house, determined to enjoy some free air away from my enslavement, but the passion had subsided during my rapid walk down the steep cobbles of Martin Lane to the water’s edge, and the strange image in the water somehow brought me comfort. I was alone in the great city, come from the country to find work now that my brother had married and with my parents dead and gone, no room for me at home.

 

Gazing across the river, feet stinging with the cold, I watch as the early morning sun rises peachy, burning off the fog from glassy waters dotted with red-sailed wherries, and small boats strong-armed across the river by stalwart watermen, carrying returning carousers to the city. I can see the timbered inns and warehouses, wharfed by planked landing stages, stacked with baskets of fish from Billingsgate and fruit from England’s orchards, which have been ferried along the water to Bankside and the ancient market at Borough. I fancy I can smell the tang of salted fish on the morning air as the mist lifts. To my left, London Bridge spans the waters. On either side, picturesquely wrought stone shops and houses tower to their meeting point across its road forming a tunnel, banishing the emergent, rosy, coppery morning light. I hear, almost as a ghost whisper, children singing on the riverside,

 

"London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady."

 

My reverie is broken by the striking of the large clock tower standing sentry to the bridge. I count each chime until it reaches five. With a start of urgency, I realise that I will be late arriving at my workplace and the stentorian roar of my Mistress’ voice blares in my imagination, impelling me to work before I feel the lash of either her tongue or her belt across my shoulders. My arms are still heavy with fatigue from the previous day’s labour and although the pealing of the clock urges me on, the dread rises at the thought of another day enclosed in the stuffy attic, working for “Madame”.

 

Instead, on a sudden impulse I hasten forward, turning towards the bridge and the strange beckoning call of the phantom of the river. As I run I pull my mob cap from my pocket onto my head, pushing the hanks of hair inside it, and the skirt of my apron flies up into my face temporarily blinding me. I push it away and catch sight of the pink flash of embroidery asserting my name on the corner of the apron: “Lily”. Again, as I move toward the steps leading to the bridge, I hear the echo:


"London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady."

 

I feel in my pocket a hard nub of crumpled paper and pause to read the scribbled note of invitation, offering an alternative to my trade. I take a deep breath and step onto the great bridge, walking swiftly, my cap sliding from my hair and white calico apron swinging in unison with my footfalls, jostled by traffic of every kind. Horses pulling carriages shriek and frisk at the proximity of oncoming wagons and coaches; lone riders brandish whips to slash away those in their path; pedestrians push and shove in both directions; a cacophony of noise and congestion pushing me along to my destination.

 

The gated exit is on the other side of the river, locked at dusk to keep the disreputable and the villains on Bankside out of the city. I can see, dancing from its turrets, the shrunken, mouldering heads of traitors and villains, swaying despondently and I hurry along. My aloneness bites, impelling me forward, but it still seems a long way to the other side of the bridge. Some of the buildings are being cleared away to ease the congestion on the bridge and blocks of stone tumble on either side of me to the turbulent waters below. I dodge the debris, choking dust.

 

The clock strikes nine, and I am handed into a passing carriage by an elegant gentleman who takes me part of the way across and thus I escape for good the imprisonment of the seamstresses’ attic. I shortly quarrel with the gentleman and when the horse shies abruptly, I am ejected onto the paving slabs in a tumble of frothy tulle, showing white silk stockings and my parasol flies off in a gust of wind, sailing over the balustrade and again, I start to make my way by foot. A stone inside my red-heeled shoe impedes my walk and again I hear the ghostly siren chorus,

 

"London Bridge is broken down,
Broken down, broken down.
London Bridge is broken down,
My fair lady."

 

Leaning against the balustrade of the great bridge to catch my breath, something in the shimmering waters below catches my eye and I lean forward to see the image more clearly; it looks like the wavering figure of a man, tall and thin, with a flick of fair hair protruding from his tall hat, thoughtfully looking back at me. Strangely, I’m not frightened, but rather, calmed by this phantom and I feel that this vast city, until now empty of family or friends, contains at least one soul, the projection of which makes me feel less lost. The thin wail of children singing as they pass behind me on the bridge comes to me,


"Namby Pamby is no Clown,"

 

and the odd refrain follows me as my pace increases with new hope. With every light-footed step, I seem to grow into myself, a taller, older version, not the neglected child I had been on the city side of the river, nor the adventurous girl stepping out upon the bridge for the first time, but now a young woman; hair suitably coiled and coiffed, a flat, sprigged straw hat tied atop fluttering with blue ribbands, my shoulders swathed in a mist of muslin drapery, each pointed silver buckled shoe tapping briskly as I speed across, clutching an embroidered silk reticule. Renewed urgency informs my steps in anticipation of a meeting with the Phantom, and I am accompanied by a sense of unknown purpose. The shops and houses crash and tumble into the water, glancing off the wooden piers at the feet of the bridge’s strong archways, piling into the waters as boats shoot through the congested arches, riding the swell, increasing their speed as the waters narrow to fit through the stone casements. And still the bells chime, more distant now. I count twelve. The distant voices urge:

 

"Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady."

 

Halfway across now, a pageant of water boats bearing minstrels, their decks strewn with petals and streaming pennants bear down on the widened archways and enraptured, I watch from the balustrade as they sail on towards St Paul’s. I find I am clutching in my hand a rolled up parchment, thrust deep inside a furred, barrel-shaped muff. My dress has turned to rich velvet, split to reveal a sumptuous brocaded underskirt, sleeves edged with cascades of gossamer lace. I wear a sumptuous cloak trimmed with fur and extravagant hood, bejewelled and filigreed pennants riding in the nested curls of my hair, a string of fat, creamy pearls at my throat. A heavy, jingling purse sits around my middle, suspended from a chain, yet hidden by a deep fold in my skirt. I’m greeted on left and right by prosperous citizens, but still I march on alone.

 

The breeze cools my cheeks; the sun is at its zenith, tilting towards dusk. But still this empty, anxious echo swirling around my heart. My passage has been eased by the reconstruction of the bridge, now denuded of its houses to form a laned highway dividing direction into left and right allowing the massive wagons right-of-way as they crawl across the bridge, loaded with goods from the countryside to feed the rich inside the city. Few travelling coaches now speed across, and when, disconcerted, I stop a fellow passerby to ask why so few people come to the city, I am informed,

 

“But surely you must know, unless you are a stranger here? Most coaches are stabled along the High Street at the great Inns on the other side of the river, at Borough, ready to depart for destinations south.”

 

The passerby gives me a suspicious, querulous look before tipping his hat and departing as if to say again,

 


“Surely you are aware of the congestion of the city and the weakness of the bridge?”

 


Weary now, hot, dusty and footsore, I slow my pace. Glancing to my right the shiny turrets of the Tower, ringed with ravens, burnished by the blaze of the sun wink deceiving friendliness and glamour. I shudder, looking up towards the gated exit of the bridge, the heads long gone, dropped into the waters one inky night never to be replaced; villains and heretics shunted downstream to the sinister Water-Gate leading to the Bloody Tower, hearsay now enough to deter any but the most desperate miscreant, rash thief or scoundrel, desperate debtor or obdurate believer.

 

"Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair lady."

 

Slipping, sliding, the bridge glides upstream, itself streamlined and glowing, sandy yellow in the early afternoon sun. I come to a shuddering halt and hang onto the balustrade for dear life with one hand and hold my hat to my head with the other, marvelling at the moustachioed Sunday strollers with lacquered silver-topped canes sauntering past and carriages rolling by, open-topped and packed with broad-skirted, plump matrons with their smartly suited, stiff, stout husbands and their broods of children and in-laws packed in beside them, looking with condescension at those of us who walk.

 

At the toll of the bell, now striking three, I am astonished at the length of my journey and I hurriedly re-read the note, scrutinising the horizon to re-adjust my bearings. I catch a glimpse of the spiralling towers of Southwark Cathedral on the opposite bank, hemmed in by warehouses and the thatched domes of ancient bear pits and theatres. Surely there is a resting place for me at the end of my journey? I must, must find it. Surely the adventure of crossing is not all there is? I feel lost, disorientated, fearful that I have missed my way, misunderstood the note, begun a journey on a promise that won’t be kept.

 

My skirts are long and narrow, I feel my bustle bouncing with each tiny, constricted, patent-leathered step. A small, tight, plumed black bonnet sits upon my upward-piled, tightly curled hair. Breathless, I struggle surreptitiously to ease the stays crushing my ribs. Looking up at the skies, sooty rain slashes at my headgear, soaking and discolouring its plumes as they sway and snap in the biting wind driving over the stone cold balustrade which alone protects me from the black waters below. Useless now, the bonnet is whisked away and I see it floating, upturned like a small sailing craft a long way below on the dark water, its ribbons wavering. Bespattered, I pull the bell of my woollen, hooded cape over my head to shield it as the sun disappears completely submerged beneath dark, cloudy skies.

 

As the torrent of the river smashes madly through the archways of the bridge, so the traffic around me increases again, pedestrians and vehicles cramming and jostling, horses rearing and shrieking in panic, strange metal horseless carriages taking their place and the bridge is leaning, listing, sinking into the mud of the great Thames Estuary. I panic lest the great gates ahead of me still, close before I complete my crossing, and I too, sink under the waves. I hear the encouraging chant of the children again:

 

"Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair lady."

 

Clouds break open to reveal a patch of blue. Soldiers march in triumphal return. A brass band strikes up its jaunty, crashing tune. I stand flat against the balustrade to watch the great parade. My heart swells with emotion, joy and heartbreak at I know not what. It is Midsummer’s Eve now and the night is light long into the early morning. I’m swept up with the patriotic enthusiasm deluging the crowds to the point of hysteria. Old men, women and children wave flashing flags to welcome back our boys, wearied and disillusioned, dazed, damaged and damned, yet glad, so glad to be back home. The bells chime their warning on the far bank:

 

"Bricks and mortar will not stay,
Will not stay, will not stay,
Bricks and mortar will not stay,
My fair lady."

 

I slow down as the sun moves towards the horizon in the last blaze of glory, patent leather boot softened into slipper, hair sparked with white, waist slightly thicker, tummy rounder, slightly out of breath. I’m nearing the other side now and as the bridge dips to meet the water, the stench of fish and vegetable waste greet me, an oily slick lapping a shoreline scattered with debris. The bells of Southwark Cathedral on the approaching bank chime on to encourage the despairing and the derelict, measuring the darkening evening into hopeful portions. The pale crescent moon, the colour of the parchment roll still clasped in my hand, emerges from behind a carved and twisted redbrick chimney puffing black smoke and the scatter of stars ornament the sky as my night vision adjusts and I step off the bridge onto the pavement.

 

My long, dowager dress is dusty and torn at the hem, my feet muddy and my shoes split from my long journey. All my senses are alert as I make my way with cautious tread, heart beating fast, elation rising at the thought of journey’s end, along this ancient road of coaching inns fronted still by small, glass-windowed, bow-fronted shops. I pass first one dark and narrow alleyway, haunt of grimy prostitutes loitering, rats scattering at the approach of heavy-footed, lust-filled scallywags and then another, both leading to a noisy, boisterous yarded, galleried Inn. I reach my destination, The George at Southwark. I turn to look back at the bridge before ducking down into the entrance, but it has been obscured by monolithic glass and steel towers that pierce the sky. I retrace my steps and shocked, see no trace of the former bridge but instead a huge slab of concrete sits, ugly and utilitarian, like the tongue of the Dragon who used to protect the gateway to the city, slithering smooth across the river.

 

"Build it up with iron and steel,
Iron and steel, iron and steel,
Build it up with iron and steel,
My fair lady."

 

I turn again towards The George and see instead a huge, blackened, metal bridge overhead, rumbling with trains and a circular red O to my left on the High Street, announcing the entrance to the Underground. Borough Market too has been encased in glass; the streets are just as dirty and polluted as before but with different toxins and waste products this time. Sitting still within its leafy garden, contracted and littered with paper cups and cartons, Southwark Cathedral is illuminated as the city has grown around it, boxed in beneath the new bridge.

 

"Iron and steel will bend and bow,
Bend and bow, bend and bow,
Iron and steel will bend and bow,
My fair lady."

 

Determined, I plough on through the shadowed crowds; the alley leading to The Tabard is still there but the yard has gone, flattened into a concrete wasteland, housing massive skips and plastic wheelie bins, and shortly reach the gateway to The George, still there. The blare of a jazz band greets me and a woman in waistcoat and short black skirt welcomes me in. My eyes widen in surprise but I nod and return her greeting with a smile. The yard is full of trestles babbling with beery drinkers. Every nook and cranny of the place is crowded: impossible to find a quiet space until I spy a staircase leading up, familiar somehow. I’ve entered a small bar, stuffed with tables, overfull. Reassuringly, an open door leads still to a galleried balcony crammed with geraniums and I sit on a wooden bench nearby, thankful. The refrain repeats louder now, insistent:

 

"Namby Pamby is no Clown,"

 

Hair chopped and bobbed, I brush the dust from my dress, shorter now at mid-calf skimming knee-high boots and drink with great satisfaction from a refreshing draught of cider, crisp clean and cool. Well, here I am at last. I take the rolled up paper from my shoulder bag, carefully pulling the end of the red ribbon until I feel a haptic tug and it releases in front of me. It is the deed to a building, I have earned the right and I scrutinise the large, red, wax seal. All the time, hurrying across the bridge, a little snapshot from each decade of a lifespan, has accumulated into this. It has taken centuries, it seems, but now I am here and celebrating my arrival in the self-same inn that stood when first I arrived in this great city. Many things have changed but my beginning and end points survive. The refrain fills my senses until I feel dizzy and it’s all I can hear; the world retreats:

 

"Now he courts the gay Ladee
Dancing o'er The Lady-Lee."

 

Finishing my drink, refreshed throughout, I stand. The crowds are fading from the room and once more I am dressed in the garb of centuries before. Firelight glows, red and yellow, against the material sheen, illuminating the room with soft colour. It is my best dress, a beautiful lilac silk, fluid and draping and I am my best self, though not my youngest. My hair still flows, flashed with white. My face is heavier but still I have vitality and intelligence. I look towards the door and there he is. He tips his tall hat and a shock of silky blonde hair falls onto his forehead and his frockcoat swings open as he steps inside, his face breaking into that delicious reminiscent grin. I am home, and so is he.