East End Memories

A FEW COLOURFUL CHARACTERS

THE PHANTOM

The second character that I would like to introduce the reader to is far less grand, but nonetheless equally as compelling to me. He was a figure who, although fascinating, also struck fear into me. I would see him on most evenings when I dared to look out of my bedroom window and would see him ominously making his way through the dark streets. Like the Prince, he too had a catchphrase, however, to this day, I have never been able to determine exactly what it was!

When I was a kid, dog racing was very popular. There were a number of tracks in London and in various other cities. Here greyhounds chased a mechanical hare around a circuit while onlookers wagered bets and hoped to see their choice cross the finish line first. These dogs were sleek and graceful animals and raced at high speed and would either bring great joy or great misery to those who dared wager their hard earned cash on the rapidity of a particular animal. Dog racing, unlike horse racing, was not a sport of kings. It was looked down on and thought of as a somewhat vulgar pursuit and dismissed as the sport of the working man.

In those days, there were no betting shops for folks to while away an afternoon. Officially bets could only be put down at the track and with a licensed bookmaker. However, bets were unofficially placed with wandering runners who were employees of a bookmaker, or bookie. These men could be found in the multitude of public houses, snooker halls, and working men’s clubs and any other place where men gathered to pass their time drinking away their money. Mind you, many women would also enjoy a flutter and always managed to get a bet down whenever they wanted without too much difficulty.

Dog races generally took place in the evening and Eastenders would wait with much anticipation for the results to come out later. The results would somehow get printed on a plain piece of white paper and various sellers would then distribute them to interested parties.

I was sent to bed early when I was a kid as my parents had to be ready to open the Pie ‘n’ Mash shop at 7.30 p.m. Although I was sent to bed, I would be allowed to listen to the radio for a while. However, my mother come up to check on me and when she did the radio was turned off and I was then allowed to read until I fell asleep. My mother would continue to come up to see me periodically during the evening and see that I was all right. When finally I was asleep, she would turn out the light and close my book. I would always do my best to remain awake until at least 10 p.m., as I, like most of the populace of the area, I would be waiting for the seller to come by with the results! It wasn’t that I had secretly got a bet down and wanted to know if I had won or lost. No! It was not only that I wanted to see the seller pass by, but I also wanted to hear him.

The seller was a short somewhat plump man who appeared bent over. He was always dressed in black and wore a large hat pulled down so that I could not make out his face. Naturally, at my young age, my imagination ran riot and I thought of this poor man as some hideously yet fascinating creature that must have been so horribly mutilated and disfigured that he only walked by night.

The Pied PiperThe seller would slowly but stealthily and purposefully move along the street, his footsteps almost silent. He seemed to glide along and I was convinced that he did so while pressing himself up against the buildings lining the streets so as to remain in the shadows while still being able to see who was in front and behind him. I found him to be both frightening and fascinating at the same time. His manner and demeanor were such that I was definitely fearful of him, but I was unable to resist peeping through the smallest gap between the curtains and watching him make his way along the street. I did not dare let him see me, as I believed that if I did, he would return in the night to carry me off to a land where inquisitive children were held captive. His presence and effect on me grew to be that powerful! One needs to remember that I was very, very young at this time and reading books that were suitable for those well beyond my years and which fed an overactive imagination.

I thought of him as a phantom. As a child, I always enjoyed looking at the outside of cinemas. I liked to look at the posters and see what was showing and what was coming in the future. I also liked to look at the still photos that were placed in the variety of holders outside the cinema to advertise what was presently showing. Once, I remember walking past the Essoldo on Bethnal Green where my worst fears seemed to come true. That week, the cinema was showing the film The Phantom of Rue Morgue. The very title sent shivers up my spine. I remember stopping and there in one of the photos was what I took to be the man of the night, as I had taken to call the seller. I must have turned white for my mother quickly moved me on. However, it was too late and for several nights to come, I had the most awful and vivid dreams.

In that quick flash of a second when I caught a glimpse of that photograph, my imagination took off at top speed and I persuaded myself that the poor seller was in fact none other than The Phantom of Rue Morgue! At that time, no one under the age of 16 years was allowed to see this film since the British Board of Film Censors had decreed that it should be given an X certificate. Since I could not see it and so learn the true nature of The Phantom, I was left with my imagination to solve the puzzle and this had led me to deduce that he passed my bedroom window each night. It would seem that The Phantom had obviously escaped the Parisian police and had fled the Rue Morgue and was now holed up in Stepney!

I tried to ask my mother and father about this man, but got no useful information. None of the kids that I knew seemed to know of his existence. I remember asking some of the people of the stalls in the market nearby, but unfortunately none of them were dog fanciers. The lack of information as to the man’s identify only served to fuel the fire and it did not take me long to believe that he was a mystery not only to me, but to everyone. And so, I was left only with my imagination to come up with an explanation as to the true identity as to exactly who The Phantom was!

Although his true identity was unknown, I alone in the whole of the East End understood his purpose. Naturally, I was alone in understanding why he walked by night and why he walked in the shadows and why he made his way along the street pressed against the walls! It was all to obvious to me. He was biding his time and hiding away in the guise of a seller since his true quest in life was in fact to be on the lookout for someone to steal away! Naturally, it did not take me long to realize that this someone that he was looking for was none other than me!

My discoveries were all too clear and their meanings were all too obvious. I soon got myself into a state over them. I was fine during the daylight and in the early evening hours, and was almost brave, but once shadows began to creep across the road before our shop and lights began to be turned on, I became less comfortable and would take to singing whenever I entered an empty room and then looking under beds and behind doors just in case The Phantom had come early in the hope of finding me off guard and less alert and so be able grab me and make off with me! I confessed all to my mother one night soon after making my discovery of his identity, but probably did so in a garbled fashion that might not have been completely understandable. Anyhow, although sympathetic to my plight, she told me that no one could get into our flat and come up the stairs and take me. She would stop them, she said. Sadly, these words of comfort only served to make matters worse. I had assumed that The Phantom would walk up walls and so steal me away through the bedroom window. Now, I had to contend with him coming up the stairs and so grab me in that manner. That night, every creek, every squeak, every noise that I heard while lying in my bed, set my heart pounding. I did not dare listen to the radio. I did not dare read. I lay there, probably in a cold sweat and waited! And eventually, in my place at the window, I saw him coming along the street.

Although I was terrified, I could not simply hide under the sheets and wait for him to pass by. I had to see him pass on the other side of the street, see him turn the corner and see him make his way along the street before I could believe that he was gone. Once I knew this, I could relax and would fall asleep. And so every night at the predicted time, I would sit up on my bed that had been positioned by the window so that I could look out and watch the people and traffic go by. The curtains would have been drawn by my mother and I used to lift one of them up and peep out from under it. I imagined that I would not be seen this way. I would see him moving slowly and steadily along the street. His hat would be pulled down just like The Phantom in the photograph. His overcoat was loose from being too large for him and seemed to billow out, just like a cloak. Naturally The Phantom wore a cloak in that wretched photograph and so I believed that he was transforming before my eyes! It was then that I expected him to swoop up the side of the shop and swing off a canopy and hurl himself onto the window ledge before my window. Luckily he did not, but that was not to say that he would not on some other dark and chilly night!

As creepy as his figure seemed, as he made his way along the street, his form was not the most frightening thing about him. My fear was not peaked until he came to the corner of Cambridge Heath and the Mile End Roads. Here, The Phantom would pause for a second or so and then he would seem to raise himself up to his full height and then give out a loud and blood curdling cry. The sound was like a wolf baying at the moon only even more terrifying. The sound curdled my blood! The chilling cry seemed to come from deep within his bowels and travel far down the street and into every pub and shop that was still open. All at once he would be besieged by a horde of people who came hurrying out of the public houses and from my parents’ shop. He was like a Pied Piper. Quickly, each punter would collect something from him. Each got their copy of the results! Each grabbed their precious sheet of paper and carried it off to whence they came where they would study it in depth. And as quickly as they came, the punters would be gone leaving the empty street to The Phantom.

Try as I might, I was unable to understand exactly what the seller said in his cry. I would look for him each night as if hypnotized and would strain my ears night after night to learn the secret. But try as I might, I would fail miserably to gain the least glimmer of understanding of what he yelled. And so, once again it was left to my imagination to find the answer. I decided that since he was a tortured creature that it was most certainly a cry of hopelessness – a cry of pain from a wounded animal – a cry of a lost life – all very dramatic stuff no doubt!

Unfortunately, I was to be as unlucky in finding out what the seller cried out as I had been in trying to discover his true identity. Once again my parents were to be of no help. My mother being too busy in the shop could not know. I had hoped that I would have better luck with my father for his evening break generally coincided thereabouts with the nightly visit of the seller. My father always took a fifteen minute break from his work to enjoy a drink in the pub across the road around about this time. My father’s break would always stretch into thirty minutes or even longer depending on his mood and so he would invariably be in the pub when the punters flooded out in response to the seller’s cry. Who then, would you think would be in a better position to know what the seller cried out than he? When asked, all my father would say was that I should be asleep at that hour and not straining my ears to hear some man in the street!

Once the last punter was served, the seller would move a little further along towards the Mile End Road and pause at the corner where the streets met at Mile End Gate. Here, he would remain stationary for a few seconds just out of the glare of the street lamp. If I had any doubts as to his true identity, it was always at this moment that they flew away, for here his bent and seemingly broken figure would cast a giant and menacing shadow down Cambridge Heath Road, which only added to his mystery and confirmed my suspicions. Once this was done, the little man would turn on to the Mile End Road and be gone. It was only then that I felt safe and would fall back into my bed and lay there listening. I would only believe that the seller was truly gone once I heard his guttural call once more coming to me from some safe distance far along the Mile End Road. Now that I knew he was gone and I was safe from being carried off and I could finally fall asleep.

Over the years, I have attended universities, heard lectures given by the famous and read many books seeking answers to life’s great questions. However, although I certainly appreciate the importance of these questions and their study, as well as their significance in our lives, I have to admit that, at times, I still occasionally while away a moment or two wondering what it was that that curious little man used to gurgle at me each night. And after a few minutes of thought, yet again I experience the same defeat that I first knew so many years ago. However now, at a place somewhere deep in my heart, I suffer a twinge of regret for I now know, and accept, that I will never know the answer. Sadly, the words used by this little man have become one of life’s great mysteries and the answer is lost and taken its place alongside the many secrets kept from us.

It is certainly amusing now to reflect on the effect that The Phantom had on me at that time. His effect lasted throughout those winter months following the showing of The Phantom of Rue Morgue and did not ease until the spring and finally the summer arrived. Summer evenings in England are long and dusk takes its time in falling. And so the nightly visit from The Phantom began to occur while the streets were still busy with people out for walks or else coming home from other activities. I felt certain that he would not try to make off with me while there were so many witnesses around. I remember that he did not look nearly as frightening as I had seen him during the cold and dark nights of winter.

Years later when my mother was old and had come to live with me, we would often recall the old days and life as we knew it in the East End. Once I remember asking her again about this man. Not expecting her to be in a position to tell me anymore about him than she had in the past, I was a bit miffed to find out that she apparently had known him well. It seems that he was a pensioner and had once worked at the docks, hence his stooped appearance, and who went under the name of Tom! Tom! For some reason, I found this name to be very funny. Accordingly to my mother, he was a family man and was a kind person who used to come into the shop a lot and always asked about me!


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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins