Pulp.net - This Liquid Fire

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November 2008

Shiromi Pinto
Come, pour another from that juniper-scented phial. My Geneva, sweet, cutting, infinitely better than this filth they call water. Beer? Speak not to me of beer, for it froths so and does not quench this thirst that

harries me now, but unleashes great gales in my belly that billow in a most unladylike fashion from my throat. No, bring to me another dram of my Mother Gin that she may, like faggots bundled and set alight, heat me from within and suffocate the pigeon-cries that stir in my belly.

I can spare the 1d, yes, even 2, for my fortunes have not deserted me entirely, though South-Sea fled, its stock falling like a woman whom virtue deems a stranger. Many were we who, beguiled by South-Sea Company promises, flocked to Exchange Alley to invest and re-invest our wealth in the company’s every venture, real or invented. There were South-Sea properties, South-Sea jewels, South-Sea gold, South-Sea alchemy — and any one of them, however preposterous, was said to lead to certain and manifold treasure.

Three hundred pounds did I lose on that black day in seventeen hundred and twenty — my husband, Edward, much more so — as South-Sea’s bubble burst, and Exchange Alley claimed yet two more lives, leading us down its tributaries into Holborn and St Giles where Mother Geneva waited for us with a warming blanket and the grin of forgetfulness.

We forgot each other, the distance between us measured by the length of the tables we sat by, until these too became so narrow that we sought out separate quarters in which to abase ourselves. They tell me that Edward now sits, with scabby legs, in a Drury Lane brothel, spending his last farthing on the sallow hips of diseased whores and their suckling tongues. Let me toast to his health.

Has my tale sparked your fancy or is it my other tail that ignites? You laugh, for my belly, like my bottom, sags low now, and my face would do the same were it not so sunken. But not long ago you pursued me — did you not? — hotly through Holborn and upon Saffron Hill. You parted my skirts and filled me with your pleasure, later pressing coins into my palm, folding my fingers over them, and kissing the back of my hand to seal your gift.

What language we use to hide our shame, though shame is but a passing gripe, cauterised by our good mother’s strong-water. Yes, I took your coins for the comfort they brought me — into the arms of my mother, Geneva. Your custom I gave to basket-women, chandlers, even apothecaries, for the government did threaten to take our mother away from us, accusing us of living our lives in riot, and so we had to find new ways to reach her. The apothecaries sold her to us painted red to ‘aid our stomach ailments’, while basket-women drew her from the folds of their aprons and poured a dram into our neglected cups.

Mother most benign. They vilify her, rebuke her for every social ill. But she is our mother, after all. And what mother is not blamed in the end?

I, too, have had my perils. My Elizabeth, fated to be born without a father after the South-Sea tragedy (though tragedies can be redeemed as was this one, having delivered to me a beloved child and mother), endured not two months on this earth before drying up like parchment. Daily did I wet her lips with a finger dipped in that most exalted spirit, hoping to still her cries. And still them I did until no cry could be heard again for all eternity — damnable silence.

But my mother did not abandon me. Geneva took my weeping heart and raised it up high. I swooned in her embrace, took the hands of men and womenfolk and flourished my skirts in dance. Round and round we went, laughing, our throats burning, our eyes shining. Freely flowed Geneva, our Dutch courage, our berry-spiced elixir who looked to all and sundry as innocent as a vial of water.

With my mother’s sanction, I preened before young gallants, displaying my slender neck and ample bosom. I invited them to parties of such intimacy — these young men joining my ladyfriends and I — that we might spend the afternoon in one another’s company, liberated of our wares, clothed only in the sheen of one another’s sweat, basking in the perfume of Lady Gin.

What a beautiful game it was. Faces blurred, hands lost ownership, lower lips twitched as one. We played it with glasses in our hands or, when that became inconvenient, at our sides. We would drink the sweet liquor from one another’s mouths, clasping our lovers’ jaws like giant goblets.

For this the government taunted us. They threatened those close to our mother, levying duties and heavy fines. They accused us of apathy and dereliction. They branded our pastime puerile. They called it debauchery; we called it deliverance.

They began spreading rumours, claiming malevolent properties for Madam Geneva. There was the story of Gladys — poor Gladys! — a fishwife who was found by her daughter in a most terrifying state. One night, Gladys bade her daughter go to bed without her, seeking a solitary moment to take her evening tipple and a few puffs of her pipe. But the daughter awoke later to find that her mother had not come to sleep. When she went looking for her, she found the poor woman lying on the hearth, her body burnt to cinders.

Spontaneous combustion, roared the papers, due to over-indulgence in spirituous liquors. But did they not see that she was a pipe-smoker? Did they not think to find evidence there? Tales abounded of the burnt fishwife, and many others besides: a grandmother found charred in her rocking chair, a strumpet effulgent beneath her punter, a basket-woman scorched in her bath bucket.

They passed their Act and drove Geneva underground. But our Punch-shops and market stallholders, our chandlers and apothecaries, even our scabrous dosshouses found a way around them. Our mother would not forsake us, nor we her.

So they sent informers amongst us. Lizzie Beaton with her golden curls and freckled nose. She watched as Mary Johnson of Dean Street sold a dram of gin to one of the lads, then ran down the road to tell the police. She never made it. Two coachmen seized her and brought her back to us, throwing her roughly to the ground. One woman kicked her, another threw stones, then everyone leapt upon her, tearing at her clothes and hair. We dragged her through the middle of the street, through ordure freshly despatched, then stuffed her mouth with dirt and left her in her own waste.

One Richard Cholmondeley, a man who valued money more than friendship, found himself grievously injured for a similar indiscretion. So grave were his wounds that he succumbed to them and was interred shortly thereafter. His funeral procession was not to be left in peace, however, for we, the mob (as they call us), could not permit so pernicious a man to rest without further protest. Thus was his coffin greeted with such a shower of sticks, stones and night-filth that it was buried even before it touched the ground.

They came in disguise, proferring their coins for a dram, collaring the unlucky devil who sold it to them. But their attempts held no currency, for our men and women rallied in defense of those wronged. Such was the case of George Williams, whose face bore the toughened texture of a steadfast devotee of Lady Gin. When they endeavoured to seize him, he let out such a cry that we flew to him as one, brandishing our torches and shouting in the name of our mother. Off ran the imposters, like shots from a musket, terrified of our wrath. And well did they to run, for had we found them, their fate would have equalled, if not bettered (which is to say, fared worse than) that of Lizzie Beaton or even Richard Cholmondely.

Now they seek out the higher born women amongst us, deluging us with pamphlets full of advice on why we should abandon Geneva. They claim it time that we see her for the meretricious madam she really is — a bawd with no concern but to profit from our addiction. As such, they suggest we turn our minds to worthier pursuits, like japanning and painting prints. I see no canvas here nor tin for me to work on. And with what joy would I greet the prospect of colour if my Geneva were not by my side? And what grief would befall me without the warmth of her liquid embrace?

Let them write as many manuals as they like that we may use them as fuel to light our torches. Do they not consider the poor who, were they provided a decent wage to liberate them from their suffering, might then find less need for Geneva’s comforts? Of course not. And why should they? When fingers point, eager are the accused to shift blame elsewhere, lest guilt crowd their minds and drive out sleep. They close their ears to Geneva’s cry, for she spits forth their failures.

But let us leave such talk behind. Join me now — another draught, yes, for all is rendered trivial when dear Geneva is near. She, my closest companion, my confidante, my succour, my grace. She burns within me like prayer and opens my eyes to the truth. For what is truth? Fate, fickle as a young rake, leads one down unexpected paths to ruin or triumph, as easy as the breeze.

Yes, let me draw her sweet breath once again — my constant friend, my Geneva.

© Shiromi Pinto 2006