Once Upon a Time the Medway Literati by Lawrence John

Once upon a time, a couple of years ago, the Medway literati consisted of myself and Godknows. I feel this should be known. Just in case you hear it different.

Right the way back, right from when I was small and ever since, I’ve been cursed with melancholia. The reasons are mine alone so I’ll spare you the details, but that particular night, the birth of the literati, I’d decided to end it for good. Sitting on a bench down the Riverside I drank at first to combat the nerves. Within the icy, March chill, I went over the slapdash suicide note. Taking in the night view, the settlements and oil refineries, a shimmering lasso around the estuary shore, I psyched myself up for the sleeping pills.

[private]Two hours later I awoke pissed and sprawled upon the frostbitten floor. Cursing to myself that I couldn’t do anything right, I was caught in two minds. Screw the world and down the pills all at once, or scream and toss the pills into the estuary sludge. I was still considering when I caught something upon the horizon. Flashing. Not the usual flashes I knew off by heart, but more a series of flashes, irregular yet patterned, delivered with a burning emergency. With my head still fuggy I watched for a while before I realised it was Morse code. Conjuring flashbacks of my time in the Cub Scouts, I pulled a pad and pen from out my satchel. “Hamilton left the door open,” went the dots and dashes, “and then he thought better of it and closed it halfway.”

And then it stopped. Although I waited a little longer, there was nothing more, just the habitual glittery tints as there had always been. The sound of water trickling through creaks and inlets, the hollers and chuckles of the marsh birds.

Waking in the afternoon, the events of the night consumed the rest of the day. Working it round and round my head I wondered what the message could’ve meant. I couldn’t let it rest. Close to the time when I had seen the lights the night previous, I ventured down to the river. Sitting at the exact same spot, half expectant, half stupid, I looked out across the water and waited.

At midnight, it began. “Fall, by Bill Duncan,” the shimmers went, caught between spasms and lethargy. For the next twenty minutes I furiously decoded and read until, “Young voices then a child drawing,” signalled the end. I got out my torch then and in a beam of fits and spurts, I called out across the river, “Who are you.” “Same time tomorrow,” came the reply. “Bring along a story.”

The following midnight with all the necessary regalia, Godknows sent me Mick McCormack’s The Gospel of Knives. When it was done I asked for a name. “Have you brought along a story,” came the reply in a flashing cortège. And then, “I do not ask for your name as I have no intention of giving you mine. Do you have a story.” “Riding into Day,” I went, “by Beth Nugent.” We arranged to make it regular. Same time every night.

For the following month without fail we swapped stories from adjacent banks of the Medway. Midnight became the sole purpose of my life and I fell headlong into clock-watching. Libraries and bookshops became a mainstay. Half the time was spent browsing, the other half spent wandering into the eye line of the other customers. I was looking for sparks of magic recognition, thinking every he or she could be Godknows.

Poe, Wilde, Sillitoe, Cheever. Gray, Munro and James Joyce. Anthologies via torch beam coerced into the Medway night. The days became subjects of empyrean intrusions. In my imagination I began to conjure images of Godknows and Godknows became a woman. Hemingway, Kafka, Kennedy, Carver. God knows she was beautiful, all my favourite things rolled into one. I gave her starlight skin and night time hair, she was speckled with the estuary lights. Babel, Maupassant, McEwan and Borges. She was Medway aurora polaris.
Six weeks passed and the nights were warming with spring. Godknows had just dot-dashed Kelman and while I’d been attentive for the beginning, my mind had slipped to other plotlines and conclusions. When a lull in the winking signified the end, I beamed from within what I could take no longer. “You are everything. Please. Who are you. What is your name.” The reply was immediate. “I have told you. That is not what I want. Please do not ask again.” Because Godknows was all I wanted, I didn’t care. I sent my yearning skimming across the water. “But what if I want to meet you. What if I want to fall in love with you. I must meet you because you are the one. If I have to I shall swim across.” I was about to discard my clothes when Godknows sent a reply. “You will not meet me. Listen. This is important. As it is now is all I ever wanted. To me you are also everything. But believe me. I am hideous. Devoid entirely of any aesthetic favours. I possess penis and breasts, varicose veins and back hair.” “Not true,” I sent. “Okay,” went Godknows. “But I know that within our minds you and I are the people of each other’s dreams. Please. Let’s not be disappointed. Let’s stay beautiful and forever remain that way. We shall not meet. I shall not say my name. Please do not reveal yours. Please be here tomorrow.”

I like to imagine that we both sat there in silence. That Godknows remained there for another hour or so as I did, willing a proclamation, hoping a benediction would fuel the aching repose. That despite all of what had just been conveyed, Godknows urged a call of surrender across the ripples of the tide change. But nothing came.

For the whole of the next day I was residual in gloom. Come the evening, the emerging wish-wash of night sky, I was ill with indecision. I wanted to go down to the river, to Godknows, to swap literature via torch-winks. But more than that I wanted Godknows to be sorry. To want me. I decided the night would be a no show.

The following day took forever, by nightfall I was a squall of nerves. I was certain of proposals of love.

Midnight on the dot, Godknows flashed across the title and author. The Gift of the Magi by O Henry. Once it was done, I was ready to deliver my own when a new fusion of glows jigged upon the water. “The Mariner’s Tale,” the flashes went. I didn’t take any of it down. Consumed with jealousy, as soon as the impostor was done I flashed to Godknows, “What’s going on. I thought this was meant to be between me and you.” “Where were you last night,” was Godknows’s reply. Then the alien light shone in, apologising, said that his name was Don, that he’d been watching, decoding the stories for a week or two. That he’d always wanted to join in, that when I hadn’t shown the night before, he’d seized upon the moment. I should have just beamed what I wanted to then and there, that I wanted him to piss off, that he was intruding on something beautiful. Instead I sent The Garden Party. As soon as I had finished, I went home.

The following evening, clinging onto you never knows, I ventured once more to the Riverside. I arrived at the spot early, and although it was quiet, no winking lights save for the home sweet home habituals, I sensed I wasn’t alone. On the off-chance that Godknows was there, I signalled. “Hello. Its me. Are you there. We need to talk.” Instantly then, from various spots along the estuary shore, fluttered three sets of lights. From the most easterly point came Blake, the most central, Joyce Carol Oates. From the west came recitals of journal entries. Once it had stopped, no beam flickered from Godknows’s direction. Not a wink or a spark. I fizzed strobe light obscenities that sizzled upon the water. I wished to blind the world.

I can’t help it; I continue to frequent the Riverside night after night, probing the panorama for recognition of her glow. Godknows continues to evade me, evades the Medway literati scene entirely. Week by week word traversing the length and breadth of the towns, and the numbers grew. The estuary at night is now a plethora of fireflies, like fireworks and crown jewels, all with a point to prove. Poets, authors and playwrights sparkle new material. Some people flash personal ads, others quote philosophers and movie scenes, song lyrics and bouts of local gossip. I have given up communicating. Instead, realising it would be impossible to pick out Godknows from the rest, I wander around the perimeter, crossing the bridge at Rochester, sometimes trekking through the tunnel in the hope I might find her. I will never give up. I know she sits there watching. I know every passing second until we meet will be consumed by dreams of Godknows.

The light show runs continuous, from Upchurch down to Cuxton and back up the river to Hoo St. Werburgh. From there it’s on to Grain, Sheerness and Minster complete the circle. Celebrities, movie stars and cultural icons can be seen frequenting the High Streets. The towns are paparazzi heaven. Once upon a time the Medway literati consisted of myself and Godknows. I just feel it should be known. In case someone tells you different.[/private]

Lawrence John is currently studying for an MPhil in Writing, for which he is compiling a collection of short stories. He enjoys taking photographs of houses and hopes one day to capture every street in the Medway towns.

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