[Notes: While I’m not aware of it’s having been so in the US, in the UK, “Oranges & Lemons” was not only a rhyme, but a game amongst children and adolescents in the late 19th century and throughout most, if not all of the 20th (at least through my own childhood). It was usually played bu gender-mixed couples. One such couple would form an arch, and the other couples would pass under as everyone recited the rhyme. Things would become frantic during the final stanza, when the couples would pass under quickly to avoid being “caught” by the couple forming the arch. Once caught, they had to retire from the game unless:
(1) they agreed to be a second arch, thereby trapping two couples at once; OR
(2) they agreed to “pay a penalty” and kiss. Obviously, beyond a certain age, the couples started “playing to lose,” hoping to sneak in a kiss under watchful adult eyes.
The rhyme took a more political turn when Welsh poet Idris Davies adapted it for his poem Gwalia Deserta, which folk singer Pete Seeger set to music, calling it The Bells of Rhymney. In 1965, the song became a hit for The Byrds.
“Oranges & Lemons
Say the Bells of St. Clemons”
I looked in the direction of the sound and saw mist rising from a grassy unworn road, perhaps 50 meters away. Up the road, in the near distance, but creepily indistinct, stood a pair of young girls, who might or might nor have been sisters, each about Sparrow Girl’s age. They stood there about 20 seconds, then they and the road vanished in the mist.
There were no churches in Bristol dedicated to St. Clement, but as the patron saint of sailors, it was not entirely inappropriate that he’d summon us from the docks just as we were being guided elsewhere..
In any event, they’s arrived too late — in the far distance stood St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, back before Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square — back when there really was a field within striking distance.
I stood up, and then helped Sparrow Girl steady herself and rise to her feet as well. We walked through the field together, hand in hand. Inside my head I could hear Faure’s Pavanne, as clearly as if I were hearing it with my ears: first as a piano solo, then as a flute with chamber orchestra, then the flute replaced by an oboe, then the oboe by a violin. After that, the violin and orchestra repeated, but with a soprano singing descant over the instruments. I listened carefully, but try as I might, I couldn’t grasp the lyrics in either English or French, or even in my (admittedly limited) Welsh or Dutch. I could hear Sparrow Girl humming along with the descant — whatever this was, she heard it too. We’d just crossed the field and made entrance to St. Martin”s grounds when our musical reverie came to a grinding halt.
“You Owe Me Five Farthins
Say the Bells of St. Martins”
The two girls were back, very tangibly this time, not twins by any means, but possibly close enough in appearance to pass for sisters. But the smaller, younger one had large, long eyes that seemed a bit spooky — my companion seemed transfixed by them. Their skirts seemed a bit short for girls their age, but as with Sparrow Girl when I’s seen her before it seemed to showcase the boots they were wearing.
I smiled Mum’s “reassuring” smile at them. “Off for church just now — no time for games.”
In the next instant, St. Martin-in-the Fields was gone. We all stood before the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court for centuries.
“When Will You Pay Me
Say the Bells of Old Bailey”
I was growing impatient.
“When I Grow Rich
Say the Bells of Shoreditch,”
I replied testily.
I’d no sooner said so than I found myself among the arcades and the music halls of Edwardian Shoreditch. My three companions were nowhere to be seen.
I found myself drawn to a large upstairs room, capable of seating about 70, where the proprietor was showing an “Excursion to Mars” for sixpence a head — a five-minute affair consisting of four minute-long cinematic vignettes with some banter in between.
With more time, ambition or cash, he might well have become a Georges Méliès or a Fritz Lang.
Each vignette was hand-tinted, using trick-photography on models in a way that made them seem real, to depict approaching the Red Planet, the canals of Mars, a sandstorm (including teen-second stop-action shot of what he called a “Sand demon”) and a Martian metropolis.
He wanted me to function as a kind of busking barker, singing a song followed by banter about the show to draw the punters in. He promised me half a penny for each head over the first 50 that I brought in per show.
Outside, I saw the act I’d just replaced — a now woebegone comedy duo, the smaller one resembling a wiry rat, the larger an overgrown baby with a gorilla-like frame. Rat guy eyed me with interest as I began singing a rendition of “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight” joining me for some harmony and a bit of vaudeville comic banter halfway through. Then he buttonholed passersby as I told the crowd (quite truthfully I expected) that they’d never seen anything like it in their lives.
Rat guy and I did work well together, divvying ten pence between us after our first show. I was doing another rendition of “Chewing Gum” when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. By the time I realized what was happening, though, it was too late — Big Baby, in a fit of jealous rage cacked me on the head with what was a prop string bass, but still substantial enough to put out my lights.
I groggily regained consciousness to the smell of smoke, the sight of covered up bodies being carried away on stretchers and the sound of a young Winston Churchill moaning out platitudes for the press.
“Best git y’self scarce now. lad,” someone said to me, though I saw no one around. I rose unsteadily to my feet and staggered down n alley, to a lane to a side street, where I stumbled, fell and lost consciousness again.
I awoke to find Sparrow Girl crouched beside me, stroking my head, trying to gently revive me. We were in a mist, but it was definitely a still street in old Stepney. We were alone, yet I could feel entities all around us, and looking out at us from behind curtains in vacant windows, staring like empty eyes.
“When Will That Be
Say the Bells of Stepney”
The girls were invisible, but their voices lingered in the air.
I reached into my pocket, hoping to find a sixpence — or at this point even a shilling
By now we were in the last of twilight and I barely saw where I was. But anyone who has been to London knows the sound of central London’s St. Mary & Holy Trinity Church, or simply “Bow.” I thought I saw the match factory, but couldn’t be sure. I saw a faint light in the distance and went toward it.
I heard the voices again as I saw candles on a stairwell.
“Here Comes a Candle
To Light You to Bed”
Sparrow Girl grabbed my elbow apprehensively as we climbed. I saw why as we reached to top.
And, Here Comes a Chopper
To Chop Off Your Head”
A large guillotine stood at the top. It was too dark to see, but I could hear a crowd assembled below. The two girls grabbed me. throwing me onto its bed.
“Chop Chop, the
Last Man Is Dead”
But before they could lower the stocks, Sparrow Girl pushed them aside, grabbed me off the guillotine bed, extended her wings and took off into the sky, holding me in her arms. The crowd bellow gave chase on foot, but were limited by the streets, while she could fly faster, in a straight line. But, she lacked the strength to fly for a long time and carry me too. We’d flown just over half a mile when she could bear my weight no longer and landed atop the tallest rooftop she could find. She’d intended to rest, then take off again before the crowd could reach us.
But exhaustion overcame her, and she could fly no more. We’d been easy enough for the crowd to see, and they’d no trouble finding us. She’s tried her best to save me, as I had saved her, but the spirits had not come to her assistance, as they had to mine. All we could do was stand by helplessly, as they caught us again.
Then something strange happened.
“Kiss him,” said a voice in the crrowd.
“Yes, kiss her,” cried another.
Soon, the air was filled with the sound of, “Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss kiss . . . .”
Sparrow Girl’s eyes looked sad. “Forgive me, my dear friend, but this alone can keep you from the guillotine.”
With that, she opened my mouth and stuck her hard, sharp beak down my throat.
I gagged as its tip touched the top of my esophagus, convinced I was going to choke to death painfully any second — and not sure the guillotine would’ve been much worse.
Then things went black. There was nothing in my mouth. Slowly, a dim light rose. Sparrow Girl, annd everyone else was gone. Instead, my shopkeeper/theatre manager/ board member was before me, with a party of similar unassuming-looking older men
“We thought you needed rescuing,” he said.
“Yes. Yes, thank you,” I gasped. “What happened?”
“Unexpected intervening forces,” he replied. “We let down our guard, and you were, you might say, ‘hijacked.’ We aren’t sure by whom, but it took us all to pull you out. ‘Cock Robin’ and ‘Oranges & Lemons’ weren’t supposed to happen. Whoever Sparrow Girl is, she has quite a hold on you.
“We’re going to send you home and to bed now. Don’t venture into the books again until I say so. We’ll be putting our heads together to see this doesn’t happen again.”
The light faded to black again. As a dim light manifested again, I found I was home, in my bed, in my pajamas; my clothes hung on hangers by my bedroom door. I rose and put the book on my desk, not surprised to find myself feeling overwhelmingly drowsy as I returned to bed.
© 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.
The Bluebottle Boys (Volume One) and Walking Backward for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall are each now available from Amazon Books. The Bluebottle Boys (Volume Two) is expected to be available shortly. The next novel of the series, By Good Angels Tenanted, will be available in 2019.