The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

July 2, 2012

THE DROWNING OF JEREMIAH FISHFINGER by Ian Ayris

Ian Ayris has it, whatever "it" is that a writer possesses which draws readers to his work and compels them to unlock their empathy for his characters. Earlier this year Ian floored me with the quality of his first novel, ABIDE WITH ME. He did the same with this tale, taking the familiar story of child abuse and infusing it with a poignant inevitability.

I appreciate Ian's generosity in permitting me to publish his story here, because there is no doubt in my mind that many a zine would like to have claimed this one. This story took 3rd place in this year's WGI, but is, in my opinion, unquestionably a winner.

THE DROWNING OF JEREMIAH FISHFINGER

by Ian Ayris

Jeremiah Fishfinger began life between the wars, the youngest of six, three boys and three girls, a strain on their parents, every one. His father - a boatman and a bully - worked all day on the Royal Victoria Dock. He would come home from work, drunk and loud, and beat the children with a bicycle chain. And as he did so, Jeremiah's mother kept to the kitchen, scrubbing the sink till her hands bled.

When Jeremiah's father would eventually pass out in the armchair, his own tears blinding him to the barbarity of his actions, Jeremiah's mother would gather the children to her breast and salve their pain with buttered crumpets and assurances that their father really loved them very much indeed.

But Jeremiah knew different, and fought back with spiteful words, sneering and snarling, until he felt the back of his mother's hand on more than one occasion. As he lay awake at night, his father's snoring filling the house, his mother's sobs breaking his heart, Jeremiah would dream of what it would be like to be blind, to live in a world of complete darkness. And then, when he felt himself right on the edge of comfort, he would close his eyes, ever so slowly, and dream of colours.

It is a wonder Jeremiah survived to his eighth birthday, but he did. September the seventh, nineteen-forty. And on that day, young Jeremiah looked to the skies, planes like birds, rising and falling, bursting asunder like the colours in his dreams.

Jeremiah's brother Charlie, the eldest Fishfinger, was sent away with the soldiers to fight in North Africa, Ernie, the next along, to Burma. The two eldest girls, Sophie and Mary, turned lathes in a munitions factory on the Commercial Road, and little Annie found herself in a sweet factory in Limehouse making Blackjacks.

Being on the docks, Mr Fishfinger carried on his important work, loading and unloading, moving things here and moving things there. He volunteered as a fireman from the first days of the war, carrying a small child from a burning building in Custom House, and gaining a reputation as a man reckless and brave. He was the last to leave the exploded munitions factory on the Commercial Road where Sophie and Mary worked, his face streaked with grease and black and blood - his daughters lost.

The funeral of Sophie and Mary took place in the drizzling rain at St. Margarets and All Saints Church, on the Barking Road. Mrs Fishfinger sobbed into the shoulder of her husband, and Jeremiah looked on from behind a tree as his sisters were buried, wondering what it would be like to suffocate under so much earth.

Mr Fishfinger had lost a piece of his heart the day the munitions factory went up – he said so – and from that moment on, he ceased to beat little Annie. Indeed, it seemed as if a part of him had softened. He would hold Annie close, open himself to her tentative advances, and whisper into her ear she was his special girl. In his work as a wartime fire-fighter he became ever more fearless. Flames dare not touch him and huge lumps of masonry fell about him as if the grief he suffered shielded him from further pain.

Still he beat Jeremiah with the bicycle chain, but it was with a heavy heart and a stilled tongue.

Jeremiah jumped off the Southwark Bridge just short of his tenth birthday whilst playing with Johnny Cottle from across the street. Johnny jumped in to save Jeremiah, and was drowned. Mr Smithson, the haberdasher, pulled Jeremiah out and pumped the water from his lungs with big iron fists. And Jeremiah hated him for it.

The young Jeremiah continued to spend his days alone, spotting aeroplanes and sifting through the London debris for something he could make sense of.

Mrs Fishfinger was killed in forty-four when the Woolworths on the Bethnal Green Road took a direct hit from a V2. Jeremiah was twelve years old. Mr Fishfinger broke down at the death of his wife, and laid aside his bicycle chain for good. He continued his fire-fighting work until a concrete slab of street ripped his legs apart when a hitherto unexploded bomb went off on the East India Dock Road.

So, with little Annie working in the sweet factory in Limehouse ten hours a day, Jeremiah was left alone with the father he hated, the father he had to care for, to wash, to cook for, to clean.

Day after day.

Day after day.

And the fire burned.

Jeremiah was able to quell his hatred by locking himself into the day to day duties of his life - boiling the potatoes and peeling the carrots for dinner, scrubbing the front step, keeping the windows gleaming and bright. If not for this, Jeremiah would not have been able to block out the disgust that overwhelmed him as he washed his father in the tin bath in the kitchen. Even the occasional incontinence, though he felt his father's shame, could be dealt with, mechanically, without fuss. But by far the worst were the drunken penitent looks from his father, one slurred word of tearful remorse about the beatings and the treatment meted out in days gone by, and Jeremiah would feel his blood begin to rise, the walls that kept him together begin to shudder and shake.

Charlie Fishfinger returned to the family home in March of forty-five, exhilarated by his wartime exploits at El Alamein and Monte Cassino. Ernie arrived back a few months later, a victim of the Japanese prison camps, his body and mind too badly broken ever to recover.

Charlie was a local hero. He had medals, and a mop of hair and a shoulders-back steady gait the girls swooned over. But he couldn't stand to be in this house of misery. Meanwhile, Ernie sat in his mothers old armchair, opposite his broken father, and spent his hours wide-eyed and mumbling.

And so the war ended. A new-found sense of hope filled the streets. A new day had begun.

But not for Jeremiah Fishfinger. Not for him. For him the scars would not heal, his heart was too ravaged, the cracks too deep. Charlie soon left to train the Hottentots in Botswana, whilst Ernie slept safe and sound behind the asylum walls.


It was six years almost to the day since Jeremiah jumped from the Southwark Bridge. Six years of a life shattered beyond hope.

Jeremiah's father faltered and stumbled from the front room – the place he'd bedded down in since the night his legs were ripped off by the flying slab of concrete - his whole weight bearing down on two wooden crutches, pain carved into his face. When he neared the table, he swung himself into his chair, and laid the crutches down, his entire face oozing sweat.

'Morning, Jeremiah,' he said, stern and functional.

Jeremiah continued to stir the porridge on the stove, his back to his father, his knuckles screaming white around the wooden spoon.

'I said, morning, Jeremiah.'

Jeremiah inclined his head slightly to view his father from the corner of his eye, making sure he continued the same rhythmic stirring of the porridge.

'Morning,' Jeremiah said.

Satisfied the order of things had been set for the day, Jeremiah's father settled himself at the table, and fell into a reverie, his head lowered to his chest.

And the porridge steamed and the porridge bubbled.

Jeremiah thought of little Johnny Cottle, all those years ago, struggling for breath in the water. And he remembered his eyes as they remained open, pleading, scared and unseeing, as little Johnny sank to the bottom of the river.

'Don't let that porridge burn, boy,' Jeremiah's father said.

Burn like the streets. Burn like the planes that fell from the sky. Burn like Mary and Sophie. Burn like Mum. 

'Did you hear me, boy? Did you hear me?'

Burn. Like. Mum. 

Johnny Cottle Johnny Cottle Johnny Cottle Johnny Cottle.

Jeremiah scraped the wooden spoon one last time around the inside of the pot, and turned off the gas.

'That's it, boy. Now hurry yourself before it gets cold.'

Hurry? Hurry? There was all the time in the world. For what is time but the passing of days? Days in which your loved ones perish, your heart breaks, and your dreams shatter. Time, time means nothing when you are watching fragments of the world go by through the eyes of a grief-torn child.

Jeremiah poured the porridge into the three bowls set out beside the stove. He watched as the porridge glooped into place, until it glooped no more. He watched as the steam rose from the bowls in dancing pirouettes then disappear forever.

Jeremiah knew the time was not long.

'Boy? Boy?'

Not long, Dad. Father. Oh father of mine.

Little Annie pranced into the room, hair tied back, the same old life-giving smile upon her face. A one of a kind, Annie. A beauty. An angel from on high.

'Morning, Dad,' she said, giving her father a kiss on the top of his head, taking her place at the table next to him.

And the darkness that was upon that man gently lifted in the presence of his only daughter, as if blown by a summer breeze.

'Morning, my darling,' he said.

Jeremiah set the bowls on the table, and sat opposite his father.

Boil and bubble. Toil and trouble.

Jeremiah scooped spoonful after spoonful of porridge into his mouth, not swallowing, not tasting, just filling the empty space.

'Eat your porridge properly boy, or I'll ram it down your throat.'

Jeremiah wanted to laugh. The stupid man. The stupid, evil man.

Jeremiah ate faster, filling his mouth entirely before looking up at his father and slowly swallowing the pain.

'Boy!'

Little Annie jumped, her spoon tumbling onto the table. She picked it up, and carried on eating, her head down, dreading what was to come.

But those days were no more. Her father had no legs. The bicycle chain hung limp in the shed from a rusting nail. Little Annie spooned her porridge mechanically into her little mouth, the delight of the day now in shadowed in fear.

Jeremiah finished first, his face red with pain, his throat burnt.

'Come round here, boy,' his father said.

But Jeremiah did not.

Little Annie took her bowl to the kitchen sink, tears cutting tracks down her cheeks, her heart pounding. And then left the two broken souls to themselves, for she could feel their pain no longer.

Alone in the house, sitting across from the table – a table once filled with loved ones now gone – sat but two.

Son stared at father, father at son, neither one a word left to speak.

Jeremiah's father cried inside for his wife and his two girls, and for not being able to love his youngest son. Jeremiah stared at his father blank, and felt nothing.


The first time Jeremiah Fishfinger had been swallowed up by the dark waters of the Thames, he'd been nine years old. He'd been dragged home by his father, and beaten to within an inch of his life. And now, six years later, he placed a note gently on the kitchen table for little Annie, left the house quietly, and headed for the Southwark Bridge once more, the bicycle chain trailing behind him, scraping red in his wake.

11 comments:

  1. A tough read, but you put music in it and don't languish in the pain, so much as make it sing. Great job, Ian.

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  2. Was definitely a pleasure to read this one. And, as Naomi mentioned, if you've not read Ian's book, ABIDE WITH ME, you need to get on that asap!

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  3. An ugly story, beautifully written. If I were a character in the story, I know what I would have done with that bicycle chain...

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  4. Tone and mood almost like a fairy tale. A fairy tale of the grimmest kind. Instead of breadcrumbs, the markers of the trail were blood red leading down into the cold water of the past with no future in sight. Good to se ya out and about, mate. Cool.

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  5. Amazing writing.Uncomfortable maybe, but every word has to be read.
    You have some future Ian.
    All my best,
    Harry

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