PESSIMISM IS FOR LIGHTWEIGHTS: A Valentine at Waterloo
Salena Godden’s dystopia set in a flooded Britain and a London that looks more like Venice.
Last week there was an hour feature of my work past and present on ‘Telling Tales’ on BBC Radio 4Extra. The producer Ali Gardiner chose to include a short play ‘A Valentine at Waterloo’ a post-apocalyptic vision of our sexual future. It was originally written as the first in a series of futuristic short stories. Then it was developed into a short seven-minute BBC radio play for the ‘Verse Illustrated’ series.
The work is set in 2058 and in this dystopia the moon is too close to the earth causing chaos, from rising tides and floods to changes in reproduction, sex and gender. London looks more like Venice. Most of Britain is flooded. I am still fascinated by the moon and how our cycles and tides and emotions are effected by it. I have also always been interested in playing with gender roles, and in the power of putting women’s words into men’s mouths, and vice versa, men’s words and actions into what we perceive as women’s roles. I had forgotten this imagined world until now. On the surface, this story is tongue-in-cheek and playful, but it’s also eerie to me how timely it is now.
This week we see the Extinction Rebellion protests, there are iconic boats in the cities of Bristol, Leeds and London. This week we see the XR summer uprising, more rebellion and protests and disruption to demand action and raise awareness for the climate crisis. This week there was a lunar eclipse and it was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing too. And all of this takes me back to this work. Sharing this with solidarity with LGBTQ human rights and the freedom to love and to be free to be who we want to be. Solidarity with everyone fighting and marching for women’s rights and autonomy too. Solidarity with everyone uniting and fighting to save the planet.
I was delighted to hear this piece broadcast on the BBC again, tune in anytime, you’ll find the audio on ‘Telling Tales’ on BBC sounds and BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks.
Short Story: A Valentine At Waterloo
Directly I came into The French House I could see the poor sod had been sitting there crying about it. ‘Hullo’ he said sullenly when I sat down.
‘Alright lovey?’ I said and touched his wrist.
He was hunched over, he looked like he’d been up all night.
‘Here’ I twisted the cap on the bottle and filled our glasses
‘Cheers’ he said woefully.
‘So what do you want to do?’
‘’It’s yours, you know…’ he said biting his bottom lip nervously.
‘So you keep saying!’ I said abruptly then softening my tone I continued
‘So what would you like to do? I mean are you sure you are, I mean it’s…’
‘Yes I’m sure … I am seven weeks late.’
There was a long pause. He sat sulking. I felt like leaving him, walking out right then and there. I hadn’t got a boy into trouble before. I tried to work out the date of when we had collided in the dark corner of that Soho bunker.
‘But I thought we were careful…’
‘Not careful enough.’ He cried bitterly.
Poor William Valentine, he was beautiful, he had long eyelashes framing dark blue eyes and black hair. He paused and looked into my face and then said urgently
‘Will you help me?’
‘Help you? Of course, now there’s no point looking all glum William, let’s have another drink…’
He was crying, his elbows on the table and both hands covering his face, his shoulders jerking up and down, he wept ‘I feel so ashamed.’
‘There there! No need for all that, I said I would help you didn’t I?’
Behind Williams shoulder, I could see the mirror and in its reflection two Dutch pilots I had been sporting with the night before at the Cafe Royale.
‘Sorry this hasn’t happened to me before.’
‘Me neither! There there…’ I said eyeing the Dutch pilots in the mirror as William rubbed his face making it redder and blotchier.
‘Here … Do you have anyone you can go to?’ I offered him my handkerchief.
‘I feel so foolish…sorry…I think I could go to my uncles on the Isle of Bournemouth for a while.
I think I need to think…’ He blew noisily on the handkerchief and offered the gooey thing back to me, I refused it and said
‘Keep it. Now look here, I said I will help and I will, so dry your eyes William there’s a good egg. Have a think, have you got a boyfriend that you can talk to? Someone who’s you know…been to the baby farm…’
‘Baby farm? How could you?’
‘Well you can’t seriously be considering keeping it?’
I was getting impatient, William really bucketed the tears out, he was stammering and shaking
‘I mean, I can hardly expect you to….to marry me. I mean could you imagine marrying me? You said you would help and well, if you took me on, it would all be alright …. do you see?’
He his top lip trembled, his tongue tip licked a teardrop and I managed to choke out the words
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‘I don’t know what else to do…it’s a rotten mess that’s what it is, but if you would just think about marrying me? I mean I wouldn’t be a burden. Maybe you could learn to love me…learn to love the two of us…’ He looked down and patted his belly as he said this and bit his lip.
‘Now stop all that talk.’ I said sternly ‘Don’t be ridiculous you know very well that marriage is out of the question. I think the best thing that you should do is go far away, I mean, go to your uncles like you said. Now listen, this is what we will do. First you will dry your tears, then we’ll head to Waterloo and get you a ticket for the next ferry to the Isle of Bournemouth. Do you have your papers? Good. You’ll go there and just take all the time you need…maybe you can work on your little poems. I’m sure your uncle will know what to do, he’ll see you right. Then as soon as you have your head screwed on straight you can write me, OK?’
‘Oh thank you! Oh yes the Isle of Bournemouth, my uncle always keeps my bunk for me, I could write poems. Oh thank you!’ I tapped his arse and shooed him up to the mens lavatories to wash his snotty face.
We went down what was once Old Compton Street in a flying rickshaw. From up high the shells of the buildings of old Soho were derelict, the purple rain was relentless and black burnt branches fingered the lilac sky. Boat people bustled and queued for rations. From inside the flying cab we saw the Covent Garden slums below. I saw a young boy struggling with a red-faced screaming child, the lad had him by both arms and the urchin was kicking and screaming, hungry and desperate. I looked over at William who saw them too, he squeezed my hand and smiled at me and I played with his fingers and gave them a little absent-minded kiss. At the port of Waterloo I was so glad there was no more drama and no more tears. Cupping my hands around his face, I planted one on his mouth, we kissed and as we held each other I whispered
‘My funny William Valentine.’
‘Love you’ he mumbled.
‘Steady on sweetheart, people will talk.’ I laughed and opened the gate to the ferries.
He stood on the step, waving and calling out
‘I will write! I will write you a poem! I will write you a poem every single day!’
I turned and hurried away through the crowds of Waterloo. I crossed the flooded banks of the Thames and ducked into a speakeasy on Villiers Street for the best black market sherry in town.
‘Alright Georgie” I said ‘Blimey when are you due?’
‘Doctor said in the new year.’
‘What is it?’
‘Think it’s a feman and footballer too!’ George said and panted, patting his balloon-like belly
He was milky, George’s ruddy cheeks bloomed, he waddled off wiping the tables. I sipped the sherry and thought about William and decided I had done the right thing packing him off, his uncle would see him right. Then I thought about the Dutch pilots and that ripeness of Amsterdam’s golden boy. It’s better to be safe than sorry, I said to myself and swallowed a condom.
‘Pessimism Is For Lightweights, 13 pieces of courage and resistance’ is published by Rough Trade Books roughtradebooks.com. ‘Telling Tales’ with Salena Godden, Radio 4Extra, find it on the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds – https://www.bbc.co.uk
Come see Salena as the poet laureate for this summer’s Byline Festival
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