Burton is drunk again and explaining to the barmaid about astral projection.
It’s Friday night and the tiny, one-room pub is half empty. Burton is telling the barmaid about the impossibly thin thread that ties her to this mortal realm, and about the wonders we could all experience if we could only shake ourselves loose of our attachment to this mundane version of reality.
‘Dawn breaks behind the eyes,’ he tells her – he’s quoting now, his hand on hers, leaning across the bar, and, oh, that voice – ‘From pole of skull and toe, the windy blood slides like a sea…’
It’s not the first time he’s used this approach. It may not even be the first time with this particular barmaid. In the three weeks they’ve been filming in this forgotten town in the middle of the marshes, the twenty-five-year-old Burton has managed to seduce two schoolgirls, a postmistress, a fifty five year old widower, a landlord’s wife – and at least four barmaids. He’s also started five fights, crashed two cars, been banned from three pubs and performed Hamlet at four in the morning to a field full of surprised cows.
Burton, it’s obvious to everyone even this far from civilisation, is bound for fame. Bound for something, anyway, thinks Livesey, sitting at the other end of the bar with a pale ale and a two day old copy of the Times crossword. God knows, the country could use some of Burton’s energy, his optimism, his frightening appetites.
The film they’re working on is a sub-Ealing comedy about a town full of Kent smugglers trying to maintain their independence in the face of post-war government bureaucracy. It’s a fairly obvious knock-off of Whisky Galore! via Passport to Pimlico, but it’s work, and most of the cast have large tax bills to pay.
Livesey, forty five, veteran of more productions than he can remember, is the film’s comic relief and accidental moral centre. Livesey does moral centredness, decency, rectitude, self-deprecating uprightness better than just about any Englishman alive. Two days ago three men from the Ministry for the Advancement of the National Character visited the set. Each wearing an identical bowler hat, and carrying an identical umbrella and briefcase. They interviewed Livesey over a cup of twice-stewed tea.
‘And the character you play in the film, this…’
‘Captain Biddle. A smuggler and divorcee. A frequently drunk smuggler and divorcee, in fact. Is he, would you say, representative of the sort of values that England needs at this time?’
‘I suppose that would depend on who you asked.’
‘Well, we’re rather asking you Mister Livesey.’
Livesey knows their sort very well, these shabby, grey men. They’re the same types who tried to stop them filming The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943. ‘Potentially injurious to the national mood at a time of great peril’ was the consensus. Because the film dared to suggest that history was a fractious, troublesome sea, and that a certain strain of backward-looking Englishness was about to be drowned in the surf.
‘It’s 1951, Mr Livesey,’ his interviewers told him, sipping their tea, smoking their pipes, ticking off entries on their lists. ‘We’ve lost an Empire. Our country is in ruins. We’ll be paying off the debt to the Americans for the next fifty years. Never mind the war: this, now, is our true darkest hour. Now more than ever we need performances that fortify the public mood.’
Before they left they asked him to sign their forms in triplicate. They gave him a copy for his records.
Livesey is just about thinking of calling it a night and heading back to the chalet that he and Burton are assigned to for the duration – not that Burton often spends the night there – when the fellow himself pulls up a stool next to him. He looks ready to burst with excitement. He can’t even meet Livesey’s eyes.
‘I’ve found a man who can take us Liv,’ Burton says.
‘Take us where, Rich?’ says Livesey
‘Come on Livesey…’
Livesey knows where. Burton has been talking about it for days.
‘Don’t you want to know the secrets of life and death?’ he says.
‘You know: I’m not sure I do,’ says Livesey. ‘I’m fairly certain there are things we’re not meant to understand.’
Burton lights a cigarette, keeping his eyes on the barmaid. His hand shakes ever so slightly.
‘I need you Roger’ – it’s the first time Livesey can remember him using his first name – ‘I need an anchor. I need a witness. What if I’m unable to get back from the other side?’
And isn’t there something in the lad’s aching wildness, right there, that reminds him of himself, or of how he could have turned out? The Livesey who was born in the back of a travelling theatre, somewhere out in the black Welsh countryside, showbusiness in his blood and bone…
Livesey sighs, puts down his paper. ‘Who is it?’ he asks.
Burton takes a long drag and nods towards the ancient fisherman resting two fingers on top of a glass of gin at the other end of the bar. He’s the oldest living being Livesey has ever seen.
‘Can he even see?’ whispers Livesey.
‘Don’t need to see if you know where you’re going,’ announces the old man before looking up. Then he lifts his head and meets Livesey’s gaze with milky white eyes. ‘Mister Livesey.’
Livesey, the gent, raises his glass to the old man.
Six hundred and fifty years ago this was one of the most important ports on the English Channel. Then half the town was dragged out to sea by a storm that silted up the harbour overnight and shifted the course of the river two miles down the coast. After that people had to find alternative ways to make a living.
They say that as long as you can put a price on it, someone on the marsh can get it for you. Nylons. Napoleon Brandy. Nuclear secrets.
It’s one in the morning and Burton and Livesey are sitting in the back of the ancient mariner’s open boat as he navigates the reed-choked, salt-poisoned waterways. Livesey is trying to work out their position from the stars but the mist keeps obscuring the sky. Wrapped up in his coat he’s wondering, once again, how he got dragged into this, how he’s going to get Burton home in one piece. Burton, most likely, is thinking about one of the wardrobe girls, the script girl, the director’s assistant. Anyone but his wife.
The boatman, hand on the tiller, is inscrutable. He seems to be steering by memory.
Then Burton pipes up.
‘Tell me,’ he says, in the darkness, over the sound of the puttering outboard motor, ‘do you believe in the survival of human personality after death?’
‘That sounds like a familiar line,’ says Livesey.
‘It’s you. A Matter of Life and Death. Kim Hunter says ‘I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it’. And your character says-’
‘My character says ‘I don’t know, I’ve thought about it too much’.’
‘But do you?’ says Burton. ‘Believe?’
‘Do you know what my favourite line from that film is?’ asks Livesey. ‘‘A weak mind isn’t strong enough to hurt itself. Stupidity has saved many a man from going mad.’ I rather think that might be my entire philosophy of life. In a nutshell, as it were.’
Burton goes quiet again. After a few minutes they pass the remains of an old wooden landing stage. ‘Wait,’ he says, ‘Pull up here.’
‘Oh, surely not?’ says Livesey.
‘A candle in the thighs warms youth and seed!’ announces Burton as they steer towards the bank, ‘And burns the seeds of age!’ Then he hops out, scrambling to the raised road. He is momentarily silhouetted against the starry sky. ‘If I’m not back in ten minutes, send reinforcements’ he says. And then he heads off towards the dark shape of a farmhouse some two hundred yards down the road, where a single window is lit up like a beacon.
In the night’s silence Livesey and the ancient boatman consider each other.
‘Smoke?’ says Livesey.
The old man takes a cigarette, breaking off the filter and throwing it away, and leans forward for a light. Livesey catches a whiff of river mud, rotten fish, something indefinable.
‘Cold night,’ says Livesey. His palms are starting to sweat.
The old man stares at him. His skin is the clammy texture of tripe, like he’s been left underwater for a week. Somewhere out on the marshes a bird hoots. Frogs call. A muffled splash.
There are things murdering each other all around us, Livesey thinks.
Then there’s the inevitable, impossibly loud crash of a shotgun blast, and here’s Burton coming hare-ing back along the road, his white shirt bobbing in the darkness.
‘Start the engine!’ he’s shouting. ‘For God’s sake!’
The old boatman doesn’t wait. They’re already a good ten feet away by the time Burton reaches the bank, and he has to throw himself into the water and swim after them. In the darkness his cuckolded pursuer fires off another couple of random shots as the low mist folds in around them. Livesey manages to get hold of Burton’s jacket and pull him aboard, half drowned.
He lies there in the bottom of the boat laughing madly as they steer out into the deeper water.
According to the retired schoolmaster with whom Livesey has been playing chess every Tuesday and Thursday night since they started filming, this has always been an unreliable landscape. Whole villages have been known to disappear overnight – their residents taken by the sea, or the Black Death, vague things that no one wants to talk about.
Now there are rumours of strange government comings and goings out beyond the giant concrete acoustic mirrors on Dungeness headland. Of the night time arcing of mysterious power sources across the salt lagoons. Of submarines and medical experiments and fishermen landing secret cargos.
On the marsh, rumours are currency too.
They hear the stranded barge before they see it. Sitting on its sandbank it creaks and moans against the rush of the incoming tide like something half-alive. Then the midnight black bulk of it looms over them, blocking out the light from the stars.
There’s a figure, leaning out from the deck. Behind him the milky way wheels.
‘Is that Malcolm Barnes?’ the man shouts. The wind is getting up.
‘It is,’ the boatman shouts back.
‘And who’s that with you, Malcolm Barnes?’
‘None but two seekers of the truth,’ shouts Burton, attempting to stand up in the rocking boat. There’s a chop on the water now and the wind is ruffling his hair. ‘In search of esoteric wisdom.’
‘Esoteric, is it?’ shouts the man on deck. ‘Well, you’d better come up then’
He rolls down a rope ladder. Livesey and Burton haul themselves up onto the muddy deck.
As they struggle to their feet their host, dressed in black oilskins, his face obscured by a cowl, holds up a lantern and studies them. Then, he directs them to go below decks.
The cabin is lit by a single oil lamp. The walls are lined with the skeletons and shells of hundreds of unidentifiable sea creatures, as well as faded photographs and paintings of degenerate men and women.
The stench of rotten wood is a wet, living thing. It slithers into Burton and Livesey’s lungs with the first breath, and makes itself at home.
Everything has a sheen of salt. Weirdly coloured mineral stalactites hang from the beams.
Three men sit at a table. They have the same drowned pallor as the ancient boatman. Each is wearing an old, badly shrunk suit and a filthy seaman’s cap to which are pinned a crab, a fish, some sort of frog. The dried, dead things stare at the newcomers with glassy eyes. Livesey watches as a worm wriggles from the fish’s mouth and drops onto the table.
The first man gestures for Burton and Livesey to approach.
‘Time was,’ he says, ‘when half the trade from France used to come through these waters. And men lived like kings. But the sea giveth and the sea taketh away. Wouldn’t you say so, sirs?’
‘Though they go mad they shall be sane,’ says Burton, agreeing. ‘Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.’
‘That’s it exactly,’ says the man. Livesey has the strangest feeling he’s met this fellow before. ‘Empires rise and fall. The waters of commerce roll on. And a pair of young men like yourselves come looking for-’
He stops at squints at Livesey.
‘No,’ he says. ‘Just one of you then?
Livesey can’t help noticing that the other two men have their eyes fixed on the worm winding and unwinding on the table before them. One of them slowly runs a blue tongue across his lips.
‘I have money,’ says Burton.
‘Of course you have,’ says their interrogator. ‘But be aware that getting the information you seek may not necessarily give you what you need.’
‘That’s what I tried to tell him,’ says Livesey.
The man looks at Livesey again, as if trying to place him. Then his eyes slip past him to the cabin door. The man in the oilskins enters, followed by the sound of the rising wind.
‘Our foreign friends have arrived,’ he announces.
Out of the corner of his eye, Livesey sees one of the other two men grab the worm from the table and stuff it into his mouth.
The wind has cleared away the last of the mist and the stars are riding high above the rushing clouds as the little boat makes its way back up the river in the hours before dawn.
Livesey, sitting up front, has never seen a sky so vast, or felt so insignificant. He thinks of the night-time test flights out of Desford Aerodrome during the war, looking out of the bomb doors at ten thousand feet and knowing they were passing over entire blacked-out, dreaming cities.
Burton – who actually smoked the stuff that the Russian sailors brought with them, rather than just breathing in the ambient atmosphere like Livesey – is still catatonic. They had to take him off the barge in the end. He was shouting about drowned villages, ghosts of fishermen, the imminent return of a great, vengeful water god. When he’d claimed to be able to see future and past simultaneously, the Russian submarine captain had started nervously playing with the safety catch on his revolver.
‘Broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads!’ Burton insisted as they bundled him into the boat. ‘The things of light file through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones!’
Finally, he passed out.
It occurs to Livesey that if Burton doesn’t snap out of it soon, he’s going to have a very hard time explaining the evening’s events to the director.
‘I saw my mother,’ murmurs Burton, his eyes still fixed on infinity. ‘She was waiting for me.’
‘I know she was old chap,’ says Livesey, patting the young man’s hand.
Under cover of darkness they coast towards the landing at the edge of town, the boatman cutting the engine and using a pole to punt them the last hundred yards. In the grey light they lift the uncomprehending Burton onto the wooden dock.
‘That’s that then,’ says the boatman.
Livesey reaches for his wallet, realises Burton is wearing his coat. ‘How much do we owe you for the rental?’ he asks
‘Never said it was my boat,’ says old Malcolm Barnes, and then leaps into the water. With a single splash, a kick of his legs, he’s gone.
He doesn’t resurface.
Livesey, exhausted, sits down on the dock and lifts Burton’s wide-eyed, dreaming head into his lap. He reaches past him, inside the coat for his crumpled packet of cigarettes, lights one, and ponders the immensity of the flat landscape as the day starts to wash in around them. Slowly the marsh turns from black and white to technicolour.
He knows what Burton saw.
He can see them himself: hundreds of them out among the rushes, fishermen and farmers and smugglers in ranks going back for centuries. He relives superimposed catastrophes of one storm after another, each reshaping the landscape. He watches towns and villages grow and die, sand and sea reclaiming everything.
It’s an old actor’s tick, this facility for understanding places, tuning into ancient frequencies. On The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, filmed in the middle of the war, it nearly killed him, as he suddenly found himself the channel for the wounded, desperate voices of fifty million people.
He knows what they’re building out on the shingle at Dungeness too; understands, somehow, that it means the death of whatever old gods have been squatting on the marsh for the last few thousand years. From now on the only human sacrifices will be in the name of energy security, economic development, improved transport links.
Livesey finishes his cigarette, and thinks about the poem that Burton keeps quoting. He still can’t make much sense of it.
‘The secret of the soil grows through the eye and blood jumps in the sun,’ he says to the ghosts out on the marsh. ‘Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.’
For a hundred years in either direction nobody hears a thing.
[Originally published in ‘Connecting Nothing with Something – A Coastal Anthology’, Influx Press, 2013]