Wastelander UK, II
It’s a hard, jet-lagged, hot night.
Bad, bad sleep. Not until I talk to our
all-knowing Caroline-of –the-Arran (as opposed
to Caroline-of-the-QMII) do I realize my own dumbth:
there’s a fan in the armoir that I could have turned on
to sleep like a baby. Duh.
Charming breakfast, though—every accent
in Europe seems to be in the basement eating room;
we’re like a human Noah’s ark. Coffee and tea,
and lovely Brit beauties eat eggs with piles of red
baked beans on them. Huh. I have a banger and some rashers
and some coffee and some eggs. Cindy is unconvinced by all this
and settles for oatmeal. Porridge!
“What’s up with the beans?” she complains.

We step out into the Arran’s tiny garden
in back, everything glistening from the evening’s rains,
the little quiet space somehow more silent
for the relentless roar of lorries and buses and
jackhammers out in the street: a wall of sound that encloses
a wall of stillness.
They have slyly laid old mirrors in among the ivy and bushes
to reflect back from the walls of the garden. It feels like
we are peering through holes in the walls at the feet of people having
a garden party next door.

The King of Pigeons comes to join us.
He is the biggest pigeon I have veer seen, and he sits on a wet table
and watches us calmly. The mirrors
throw back reflections of the King, each one
the size of a turkey.


Dear Caroline, bravely plowing through a hangover,
gives us excellent directions, and we step off again and walk.

Antique shops here don’t have Aunt Ida’s 40 year old
plow and wagon wheel: Roman coins, a 2,000 year old
clay pipe, a figurine in clay about six inches tall
of a male torso as handsome as Michelangelo’s David.
Elsewhere, the same turista crap—plastic double-decker buses,
rubber Royal Guards, London t-shirts, tea cups w/ Big Ben
on them—sometimes in fake gold. Of course, I like all this stuff.
We break our embargo on USA chain stores and buy Starbuck’s
as we wander King’s Road until our bus arrives.
How happy can days be?

We take our tour all over again, heads thrown back
to see the amazing rooflines—gargoyles and battlements,
roof gardens and statues everywhere.
More insults directed at Joan Collins, Maggie Thatcher,
and Elton John—though this tour guide also has it in
for Rod Stewart!

“Rod and Elton have spats and sue each other.
Then they kiss and make up.
Really. They kiss.”

He seems outraged that there are no pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
The mayor, apparently, has outlawed pigeons.

We wheel over the Tower Bridge, and I am astounded to see
lines of laundry in the Tower of London, shirts and
sheets coming from high windows on clothes lines,
drying in the wind as if Anne Boleyn
had her servants set out her wash, just
this morning.

“To the Tower!” we cry, sure we’ll be tourists in there for
about an hour or two.
Our attention is caught by a street artist with a series of paintings
of Big Ben in the rain—tall ones, on canvas, stretched
on wooden frames—he adds color on request, putting in wobbly red
or sepia reflections on the sidewalks of his rainy paintings.
He looks like Brendan from Dead Can Dance, and he is rather grim.
“Which is your favorite?” Cindy asks.
“They’re all good,” he says, wincing
as if he’s sucked a lemon. Haggling tourists seem to resent
his prices and walk away; he rushes after them,
crying, “All right! All right! Fifteen pounds, then!”
An American woman sidles up to me and says,
“Are you buying one?” I nod. “I love ‘em,” I say.
“Yeah,” she replies. “How much is he charging?”
Texas accent.
“I don’t know,” I say. “He’s haggling down to fifteen,
though.” She gets a ghastly “sly” look on her face and says,
“Let’s team up on him, and we can get two paintings
for twenty!”
I move away from her silently. I don’t want to use any
hard-line American tactics on this skinny scruffy
street maestro.

We pick a thin tall one with two lovers
under an umbrella, walking away from
the viewer. Big Ben’s looking
ghostly in the drizzle, and there’s a red
UK phone box beside them. The artist
scowls at us and squats with his oil paint
and adds red smears and squiggles, making the
London street seem alive around the lovers’ feet.
He has rain sprinkles on his glasses.
“You’re charging fifteen, right?” Cindy says,
smacking him with some hard-line gringo negotiations
of her own. Aghast, he surrenders to her, his haggle stance
stolen from him. He pockets our pounds looking like
we’ve insulted his mother.
“Keep it covered,” he snarls, “till the paint
dries.” Then he leaps upon
the two-for-twenty Costco shopper from Dallas.
His face is set on Full Grim. Ready for battle.

I hold up our new painting.
“That’s us,” I say,
pointing to the thin young lovers.
“Oh yes,” Cindy replies, “that’s exactly how I see us.”
“What!” I demand. “Look—you have on a hot
little mini skirt, and I
have a tight and muscular
“Us,” she says,
“after a diet.”

A helicopter drifts over the city
towing a vast square banner
that flutters silently, showing us
the gigantic face of
Bruce Willis
scowling down
upon us.
He’s like an angry
Angel Gabriel
on his way to
to smite
the unrighteous.

We queue up to buy Tower tickets.
And the tickies are expensive, but not that expensive.
Only about the cost of a face lift.

We walk to the gate of the Tower
and fall into a stone hallucination.
A fever dream of history—horror and exaltation
caught like blood and dust
in the concentric rings of time.

The ancient Roman walls, and behind them, the ravens in their
wire houses, haunting the Roman encampment like
obsidian ghosts.
The moats and the medieval battlements.
The Traitor’s Gate, cold arch on the Thames, still scary,
still echoing with the footsteps of the condemned on their way
to the whistling axe on Tower Hill.
The White Tower in the center.
The Bloody Tower in the front left corner.
The pamphlets say you can still hear
from the dungeons. The screams, up the hill,
of Guy Fawkes being tortured.
The green where special cases were beheaded, like Anne Boleyn
and sweet lady Jane Grey, the 16 year old
queen whose head rolled on the grass. Betrayed and scared
and chopped…now
everyone’s tragic girlfriend.
They see her, they say, walking
to the chapel.


We don’t hear screams, but we do hear
alarming SHOUTS. Very loud SHOUTS reverberating
off the stone walls. A man’s manly SHOUTS!
We step forward and find ourselves
Before a Yeoman Warder. A Beefeater!
Clearly, this is THE Beefeater! The ur-Warder, master of all
Yeomen! A man with a voice to CRACK STONE!
A man fully in command of trembling tourists!
A man recounting the history of the Tower
red, gold and black regalia! He doffs his hat when he speaks
and holds it out over us, as if we were royal visitors and it’s 1702.
And he SHOUTS the most amazing things I have ever heard.
I must state clearly at this juncture that this Yeoman Warder
becomes my PERSONAL HERO immediately, and I am willing
to enlist in the British army so he can yell at me forever.
I bow to him—
my sensei.

“Yeoman Warders,” he proclaims in the most astounding yawp ever,
“are the oldest serving military unit IN THE WORLD!
Not unlike the Swiss Guards at the Vatican,
He thrusts a finger at us.
“YES!” he screams.
“I am wearing

22 years a Sgt. Major in the British army.
That voice that delights me so, no doubt, made life
a living hell for the unlucky recruits
under his tender care.
He’s so damned funny, he must have forced a hundred
troops to do push-ups when they couldn’t help laughing
at his quips.
He marches us double-time down through history,
bellowing as if the ghosts themselves were in boot camp
and he has to get them to do exercises. And he knows the history
so completely that he spins fable after fable without a single pause
or doubt. “Know it?” he hollers. “I live here!
IN THE TOWER! I don’t know history,
But I’ll tell you a secret
About the Beefeaters’ lives
It’s a hard place
to get
a pizza delivered
after dark!”

We are amazed to realize that our Warder is leaning against
Thomas More’s cell wall as he shouts.

When we make our way up toward the chapel,
we stop at the green where the Queens were decapitated.
We imagine poor “Ann Bullen” getting hacked,
and innocent Lady Jane spilling her blood
on this haunted grass.
He tells us of the terrible death of the good lady
who was guilty of no crime and refused to kneel,
bravely telling the axeman to cut her head off where she stood.
And the axeman swung on her then and there, and she
ran screaming around the execution spot while he
struck at her, blow after blow,
27 axe strokes before she finally fell,
butchered at the feet of the appalled witnesses.

“But,” he intones, “perhaps the most
GRISLY of all was the death
of Queen Anne Boleyn on this spot.
For so SWIFT was the fall of the blade,
so quick was the executioner to
PLUCK her HEAD by its hair from this very GRRROUND
and DISPLAY it
to the gathered ONLOOKERS,
all were horrified to SEE
the Queen’s eyes OPEN and
while her BLUE LIPS
were seen to
continue reciting a

At each booming
someone staggers back in terror,
and the Warder turns to them
and growls,

He asks:
“Are there any Americans present?”
Timidly, a few of us
raise our hands.
He says,
“Welcome home!”
We all beam, feeling peachy in his love,
but then he says:
“If you lot had paid your taxes,
this would all be your history.”

We gather in the chapel and bask in the radiation
of wraiths—Anne Boleyn tucked in the corner.
Beneath us, in the crypt, vaults holding bones
Of 1,500 mysterious dead. Romans?
The church itself sits atop
the old Roman garrison.
The raised step in the entrance to the church
is said to be haunted by a vengeful Lady ghost,
and she raises it to trip single women—so
the Warder says. And he announces: “I shall place myself
at the entrance to catch any falling women
in my arms. You men—you might trip
as well. It’s going to hurt
because I’m not catching
any of you.”

I suffer separation anxiety when we bid him farewell.


We’re not in Illinois Anymore, Item # 199—
uses a toilet
housed in a tower
built in 1240 AD.

Every pebble

We adjourn to the Royal Jewels vault
and join the gold-besotted procession.
There is nothing to say about gold and diamonds that is not
a cliché.

On to the White Tower, the olde central Tower,
the original imposing skyscraper that intimidated
London before the plague and the fire. We climbed to the steps
where the two boy princes were hidden
after being murdered in their sleep.
Saw cells pitch black but scratched with ancient
carved graffiti. I touch the stones in the dark,
half afraid a cold hand will take hold of
my fingers.
Into the armory—great swirls of blunderbusses and
pistols, pikes, spikes, maces and swords. King Henry
VIII’s personal stock of spears. Battle axes not
what I expected, not axes, really, but a kind of hooked
iron hammer, one peen made to crunch a skull
through a helmet, and the hook side designed to snag the meat
in an armpit or neck and drag the enemy off his horse to then
be well-hammered.
King Henry VIII’s personal suit of armor
stands boldly, legs apart, hands out and ready to rumble.
What they didn’t show me in any history books
is the huge metal codpiece poking straight out of his metal pants:
rampant! In excelsis! King Henry had a ham in the can!
No wonder
he had six wives.

From tower to tower, cell to cell.
A royal bedroom with the bed alarmingly mussed,
as if William the Conquerer had just risen
from a nap and walked out to return at any second
and scare us to death.
to put us to death.
The sad room where the slain princes
had slept and been killed in their beds.
Sir Walter Raleigh’s strange room, where he languished for 13 years,
often ill and despondent, hoping for death. They have
his writing desk set up with a quill pen, some books, the chair
pushed back as if he, too, had just left the cell.
Here, where his heart no doubt broke, at the window they say he favored
when he stared outside, we shuffle and cough. The place
he was most miserable now a Kodak moment. How could he
have ever guessed such a thing would happen?
The floor boards squeal as we move, as perhaps they squealed when he
was locked inside.
is not in the past.
is not far away.
It is here now, or at least
it is here now when you stand in the man’s bedroom
and look at his ceiling and look
at the Yeoman Warders’ cars parked
incongruously in the alley deep within the Tower complex,
hidden from the street by the walls and towers,
in front of their pleasant apartments with their little pots
of geraniums on the steps.
If we see ghosts, did he see ghosts of us?
Is he sitting there now, head in hand, staring at a blank page,
and sensing strange shadows passing through his room?
Does he think he imagines it? Is he dreaming? Does he fear
he’s going mad?

Thoroughly shaken, we make our way down and out.
We adjourn to the mess hall, where we are greeted by
sandwiches and a bas relief
taking up one whole wall
of rampant war horses and unicorns.
Even the burger stand is
alive with centuries and art.

To the Bloody Tower.
Too awful in its shadows for me.
I feel uneasy, and when we bend to stare
at the rack and the other torture devices
(The Scavenger’s Daughter, terrible metal frame
that crushed you kneeling into a tight
S shape until you couldn’t breathe and
couldn’t move and slowly died in that awful
posture) I just want to get out of there.

In the beauty and the awe of the medieval castle
on the outside walls by the Thames—the King’s chambers and the
old church—we come into St. Anne’s (Anne Askew) cell,
where she was held awaiting her death for refusing
to surrender her faith.
Killed for God.
Oh, that again.

Tight little room. Rough.
I stare at her ceiling, the stones she counted.
They took her to the rack, and they worked the winches
so hard that they destroyed her arms and legs. Still, they say,
she did not cry out, and she did not renounce her religion.
So they cranked her harder.
Her arms and legs were left limp and ruined, and she could not
stand or raise her hands to help herself rise.
So they kindly helped her onto a chair.
They carried her in this chair because she could not walk.
They carried her out to the pyre, where they
laid kindling all about her and set it alight, burning her to death
as the crowds surged to watch her burn.

I whisper things to St. Anne in there.

When we leave, I say,
“What was wrong with these fucking people?”

And we rush to the gift shop to buy
Beefeater teddy bears and fridge magnets.

I have ghosts in my pockets.
I have eldritch breaths
caught in my hair.

Thought we’d be there an hour.
Find we’ve been there all day long.



END, Part II.

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