Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 8 - Peter, the Fisherman

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VIII.

PETER, THE FISHERMAN

 "BLESS yer 'eart, sir, I don't call myself a poor man now. I'm goin' ahead like the Flyin' Scotchman, that's what I am. I mean to keep a banker afore I die. Any'ow, I'll 'ave a bird-shop, please the pigs. Precious 'ard up I've been in my time - 'ad to buckle in my belt, as they say, when the chimes began to play, for I couldn't git no dinner; an' now, just you look at my room - ain't it fit for a gen'leman to live in? No, no, I hain't got a missis - if I had, it wouldn't be so tidy. My fish is my family."
    So spoke a cheery-looking, bright-eyed, brown-skinned fellow, lightly attired in checked shirt, moleskin trousers, and "stocking-feet" (to borrow a Scotch phrase), who lolled in an old rocking chair, with his legs on the table, and a pipe in his mouth, in the little chamber which he praised. 
    It was a "first-floor back," in one of the dreariest parts of the great parish of St. Pancras. It looked out on a chaos of squat, grimy houses, and cramped back-yards, tall chimney-stacks, black gasometers - full or half sunk in their tanks - railway arches and metals crossing and converging, and a muddy canal almost blocked [-138-] up by the big, clumsy, dirty, untidy barges, which lay alongside wharfs heaped with bricks, drain-pipes, lime, and dust. Its immediate outlook, however, was on a beautiful little oasis in that hideous desert. The tenant of the little room had turned the flat roof of the projecting kitchen or wash-house beneath into a little garden. In one corner he had piled up slag into a rockery, and planted it with ferns; mignonette, balsams, a bushy, small-blossomed old-fashioned fuchsia, Tom Thumb geraniums, London-pride, and wall-flowers, all throve more or less on the flat roof. A potted arum curved its graceful stalk, and lighted, so to speak, the flowers beneath with its ivory spathe and golden spadix; and in the middle of the garden stood a washing-tub, with canary-plant twined about it, and gold and silver fish, the man's trade stock, noiselessly gliding round and round within. Inside the room were more flowers - a creeping-jenny trained on a fan-frame, and musk-plants cascading in green and gold over pots slung from the ceiling. The furniture had evidently been picked up second-hand, a chair and so on at a time; but, although worn, it had a "natty" look. On the top of the turn-up bedstead, which, when turned up, made a very fair substitute for a chiffonnier, stood a canaries' breeding-cage. Outside on the window-ledge a lark fluttered its wings over a shamrocked sod in its bow-windowed home, [-139-] and on one of the walls hung a framed, coloured engraving (given at Christmas by one of the illustrated papers) of a mottled melon, green and purple grapes - all kinds of bloomy fruit, a massive chased goblet, wine blushing richly in the bulb of a slim-necked flask, and a tropical bird - I forget whether a parrot or macaw - of gorgeous plumage. My luxuriously lolling gentleman in the shirt-sleeves - Peter the Fisherman was the name he went by - had evidently an eye that revelled in colour. 
    "I'd allus a likin' for nice-lookin' thinx an' natur'," he remarked in the course of conversation - "flowers an' birds an' sich. Flowers don't eat nuffink, but birds would come expensive, on'y, yer see, I do a little in the dealin' line with them as well as the fishes. I allus like to 'ave a bird for my own like, though I'm allus a-changin'. Some I sells, an' some I swops, and then, yer see, when I work the country, I'm bound to git rid on them, becos I couldn't trust no one to look arter 'em while I was away. No, my rent ain't runnin' on for nuffink then. I can allus git summun glad enough to take my room, and it ain't everybody I'd let 'ave it. I've made it snug, and I want to keep it snug till I git my bird-shop I've set my mind on. But then, yer see, I couldn't trust strangers like to look arter the birds. Tisn't as if they belonged to 'em. The flowers is different. If it don't rain, tain't [-140-] much trouble to give 'em a jug o' water now and again.
    "I was allus fond o' fishin'. 'Ampstead ponds and 'Ighgate ponds, and the New River, and the Lea, I used to go fishin' in when I was on'y a bit of a boy. I've been so tired I could 'ardly drag my legs along comin' back. Up the river I go mostly now, when I've a chance. Last winter I caught a whoppin' barbel - ketched old on its tail, an' lugged it out with my 'and, I did - it was that numb with cold. Folks don't make much count of 'em to eat, but they ain't bad if you bile 'em with a bit o' bacon. I know when if should ha' been glad enough to git as good a dinner without the bacon.
    "My gold-fish, in course, I buys. Well, I have bought 'em at a pinch in the Dials, but it wouldn't pay if I was allus to buy 'em there. There's the second profit, you understand. Mostly I buys 'em of the 'olesale men. Pretty nigh all we sell is English fish. They breed 'em in the country in warm water. Yes, I've heared that gold-fish come from Chaney. There's only one pond where they'll breed there, I've heared tell. They've bred pretty free helsewheres. Some comes in ships now, but not nigh so many as the English fish. The little uns is pretty nigh black, an' then they turn gold and silver. Sovs and Bobs I calls 'em. Yes, I've heared that they're a sort o' [-141-] carp like, and them stories about carp livin' so long that they got blue-moulded. P'raps it's true, p'raps it ain't - who's to say? Any'ow, gold-fish don't live for 'underds o' years - lucky for us they don't; and I know I shouldn't like to git old like that. What's the good o' yer life when you're past enj'yin' of it? About the blue mould and that, it don't come from age. You'll see warts like on gold-fish sometimes. No, it don't cost me wery much in the way o' feed. The little uns can pretty well shift for theirselves, but the big uns wants bread-crumbs.
    "TaJkin' about carp, do you see that scar in my finger, sir - there, that white pucker like, inside? When I was a boy, father got a job down at Colchester, and we went to live there for a bit. I'd been bathin' in the river at a place they call the Sheafen Farm, and was a-lyin' on the bank dryin' of myself, when up swam a whoppin' carp. Precious sharp-set he must ha' been. I pulled out my boot-lace, and tied a crooked pin on, and stuck a bit o' bread on it, and let it down afore his wery nose, and blest if he didn't gobble it, and I lugged him out. And so when I got 'ome I must clean my fish myself, and cut myself. Mother put some salt in, and stopped the bleedin' arter a bit, but jest didn't it smart!
    "Poor old mother! Now as I'm gittin' on, an' could make her comfor'ble, I wish I'd got [-142-] 'er to live along o' me. She were a good mother to me, and it do seem 'ard that she should ha' 'ad all the downs, and none o' the hups. I'm not a marryin' man - I never cared pertikler for any 'ooman 'cept mother - I never 'ad ne'er a sister; but I should like to see old mother a-settin' waitin' for me when I comes 'ome. I should enj'y my life twice as much. It's lonesome like, 'avin' on'y yer hown self to fend for. Poor old mother! When father died - he'd 'ad a drop too much, poor chap, and slipped as he was a-comin' back'ards down a ladder - the 'od as he was a-carryin' tripped him some 'ow, an' down he come upon is 'ead - that was the hend o' my old dad. He wasn't sich a bad chap when he were sober, but when he'd got the beer aboard, he'd beat poor mother awful. Well, when he died, poor mother was left with a lot o' us boys. Some was big enough to ha' 'elped er, but they didn't. They went off on their own 'ook, an' left 'er and us little uns to git on jest any'ow. She was allus at work, or a-tryin' arter it. She'd never been a big 'ooman, but littler an' littler she got, till she looked as if she'd blow away if she didn't put a brick in her pocket for ballast. I can't downright say she died o' starwation, for she'd 'ad a bit o' bread to eat the day she died, but that's pretty nigh what it come to - 'unger, an' cold, an' 'ard work, an' no work. It was a bitter day, the day she died. I borrowed [-143-] an old broom, an' went out to sweep doorways.
    "Torn,' she says - for Peter's on'y a name folks as give me some'ow - 'Torn,' she says, as I was a.goin' out - 'Tom,' she says, 'give me a kiss.'
    "An' she kissed me jest as she used to when I was a little kid. We 'adn't kissed one another afore for I don't know 'ow long. Bless yer cart, sir, when poor folks is a-starvin', they hain't no time for kissin' - that's on'y put down in the poetry-books.
    "'You've been a good boy, Tom,' she says. 
    "It was a long time afore I could git a job that day, for the snow kep' coming down, an' folks wouldn't 'ave their doorways done jest to be as bad as ever next minute. But at last I got three jobs all alongside o' each other, and as soon as I'd got the money 1 ran back wi' it to mother. We'd have a better feed than ordinary, I thought, if we 'ad to go without next day. But when I got back, she was sittin' stooped over the fireplace - there worn't no fire in it, or her clothes would ha' been alight. It was gittin' darkish, an' I felt skeared  - she sot so still.
    "'Mother,'  I says, but she never took no notice, and when I ketched 'old on 'er, she was cold an' dead as could be. That was 'ow poor mother come by 'er death. She's buried in old St. Pancridge Churchyard. Leastways, she was, [-144-] but when the new railroad come along, she an' a lot more poor folk was dug up and carted away somewhere. I'm uncommon glad she kissed me afore she died, an' said I'd been good to 'er - though I don't rightly know 'ow, 'cept that I 'adn't been quite as owdacious as some o' the t'others.
    "Poor old mother! - but frettin' won't do 'er no good, an' wherever she be, she 'oodn't want to keep me from enj'yin' of my life, poor dear, jest cos 'ers were a 'ard un. I'd allus a likin' for enj'yin' of myself. What else is your life guv ye for, if all thinx was ordered as they ought to?
    "It's queer, but my luck turned a'mos' d'reckly arter mother died. I fell in with a wery decent chap in the Brill - a coster, as took me about wi' him, an' I stayed along o' him till I could start for myself. He worked gold-fish sometimes, and I'd the lookin' arter -em, an' that's what put it into my 'ead - let alone my bein' allus fond o' sich thinx - to work 'em myself when I started on my own 'ook. I goes about wi' a barrer in winter, but the fish an' the bird-fancyin's what I like, an' I hain't done bad at it. I should go in for pigeons if I'd the 'commodation for 'em 'ere; an' now an' then I pick up a tidy dawg, but I hain't 'commodation for them neither. I like to keep my place clean, an' that yer can't do if you've dawgs, an' no run for 'em. Hows'ever, [-145-] I 'ope to 'ave my little shop afore long, an' then if yer want anythink in my line, sir, I'll sarve ye as reas'nable as you'd git 'em anywheres. If it's fish yer want, I've some real 'ansorne fellers in my tub there - the Round Pond in St. Pancridge's Park, I calls it.
    "Who's my customers? Well, I do tidyish all round about London - where there's willars with little tables in the front winders; a glass globe with silver an' gold-fish in it makes a pretty horniment for a parlor winder. Yes, I sells globes as well as fish. In course, I can't cart a lot about wi' me, but I git 'em for them as wants 'em. Some queer customers I come acrost at times. One day I was in the 'Ackney Road, when it was a deal more respectabler than it is now, an' gen'lemen as went to banks an' the like o' that every mornin' in the buses, lived in them two-an'-two 'ouses wi' back gardings and a little bit in front, that's let off in rooms now, or else there's shops built out in front. Well, I was a-goin' along with a globe-ful, and a little boy and gal that was goin' in at the gate o' one o' them 'ouses wanted their mar to buy 'em a couple apiece, but she said as they'd die, an' she couldn't afford it; an' I couldn't prewail upon 'er, though the little uns was so disapp'inted they looked fit to cry. Well, I'd jest got beyond Cambridge 'Eath Gate - there was a pike there then - when up there come peltin' arter me a sea-farin' lookin' gent - [-146-] a jolly chap, that looked as if he'd jest come ashore, in his best togs, to enj'y 'isself.
   "Ah, you're the man,' he says, and blest if be didn't buy the ole bilin' on lem, glass and all. 'They're for my nevvy an' niece,' he says, an' into a cab he whipped wi' em.
    "He might ha' saved the toll, for there was a hempty cab standin' jest on the t'other side o' the gate, but, bless yer 'eart, he didn't stop to think o' that. 
    "Go ahead, cabby,' he sings out, when they were through the gate, an' off they went, with the water an' the fish bobbin' out hover his blue trousis, an' him pickin' the fish out o' the stror by the tails, an' larfin' fit to crack his sides.
    "I met the cab comin' back, an' the cabman a-grinnin'. He chucks up 'is 'and to show me what the sailor gent ad give 'im for that bit of a ride.
    "'He's a good sort,' says he.
    "'An' a good customer,' says I; I wish I'd got some more to sell 'im.'
    "When I went by the 'ouse, there was the fish on the little table in the front winder, an' the little gal hup in her uncle's arms, a-kissin' on 'im as if he'd been sugar-candy. No, he worn' t a mite the wuss for liquor. He was jolly to git ashore, an' 'e'd done a kind haction, an' so he was enj'yin' of 'isself. That's 'ow folks allus talk. They're so grumpy mostly [-147-] theirselves that when they see a cove enj'yin' o' 'isself, they say he's been drinking.
    "II go country rounds as well, an' that's what I like best. The fish go off freer, an' I like walkin' in the country - when it don't rain; an' if it do, you can git under a tree. I like 'earin' the rain comin' down on a tree like a big humbereller. An' everythink smells so sweet in the country, an' there's the birds a-singin', an' the rabbits poppin' out afore yer wery feet, an' the cows, an' the country people. They're jest like the cows, they look so jolly sleepy - they're never in a drive like London folks. An' then there's the flowers - why, bless yer 'eart, there's gardings where they grub up them beautiful white conwolvuluses, as if they was weeds.. All over the edges they grows.
    "Yes, there's queer customers in the country, too. There's one old gent I sarve out Ongar way. A. lot I sells 'im every year, but there's none left next. It's my belief he eats 'em. Any'ow, he axed me once if they was best b'iled or br'iled. That's his way o' enj'yin' isself, I reckon. Seems queer, don't it, sir, when he could buy salmon every day it's in season? But everybody to is likin's' my motter."

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