The Fall of Cleveland Street

The Fall of Cleveland Street By Tod Crouch

It was a beautiful day in London in 1889.  The afternoon air was crisp in young Charles Thickbroom’s lungs, now void of soot.  The sun shined so clearly it seemed to cut shadows from buildings with a razor.  A year passed since his indoctrination into the unconventional boys’ club and the post office was a pleasant enough cover.  Though his hands smelled like man parts and telegraph ink, the sixteen pounds jangling in his shoes made him happy.  He turned the crooked corner to Cleveland Street, where a ruckus outside the brothel drew a small crowd.

Little Georgie Wright, the freckled boy about Charlie’s age, stood watch as Henry kicked a small boy violently.  “You lousy snitch!  You terrible bloody snitch!” Henry yelled.  It was one of the part time punks, little fifteen-year-old Tommy Winscow.  Little Tommy screamed for help as Henry drew long punches and bloodied the child’s nose.

“Henry!  Stop!  What are you doing?” Charlie said from across the street.  Georgie, whose shoulders had broadened over the past year, pulled him aside.

“Party’s over, mate,” Georgie said, “He snitched us out is what he did.  He forgot to separate his money from the telegraph till and came in with three weeks’ earnings.  When the boss asked him about it, Tommy spilled all over the place and told him about Hammond…and this place…And us.”

Charlie’s stomach dropped into his oversized shoes.  “No,” Charlie squealed, “that can’t be!”  Denial was not a luxury he could afford.  “What about Hammond?”  As annoying as Hammond Rye was, he was a decent stable hand who buffered the teenagers from the world of adults.

“I saw the whole thing go down at the telly office and ran to tell Henry, who told Hammond.  Hammond took what he could and ran.” Georgie said with a shrug, “He’s probably in Spain by now.  We still haven’t heard from Adolf Brand,” Adolf Brand ran several male brothels in England and Germany, and Charlie always liked his presence.

Winscow still lived with his parents and didn’t understand completely what was at stake.  Georgie worked the streets before as an ‘independent contractor’, though he knew no one would notice if he went missing.

Several rubberneckers advanced to the scuffle.

Henry’s rage temporarily abated as his short black hair swung across his pained gaze.

One of the adults, knowing nothing worth knowing, swiped Henry strongly by the arm and pulled Henry away.  Only then did Henry see Charlie and cursed himself for so rashly drawing attention.  Henry opened his mouth as if to say one last thing to Charlie and stopped before incriminating his love.  Henry went peacefully and never looked back.

Winscow stumbled into the arms of a proper woman.  Georgie ran, soon apprehended as an accomplice.  As a sudden crowd swarmed around the three teenagers, Charlie Thickbroom stared dumbly at his entire world, gone in seconds.  Seconds.

Two rough hands grabbed Charlie from behind, forcing him down the Alfred Mews.  “Come along, son.  There’s nothing to see here.”  With his stomach in his oversized shoes and his heart in his throat, Charlie faced the oddly familiar stranger.  It was Adolf Brand again, but without his notorious moustache.  Brand wore his disguise so naturally that when he took it off to be himself, he was a complete stranger.

“Adolf!” Charlie pleaded.

“Sh!  Let’s cut through Tottenham before we discuss anything further.” Adolf said, nudging the boy a few paces ahead.  Charlie shoved his hands in his pockets.

On Charlie’s right sat a park bench.  Adolf coughed from behind.  Charlie sat.  Adolf sat. The gentleman opened up a newspaper and faced Charlie behind it.  “Are you all right, son?”  Adolf said.

“I’m fine.” Charlie said, feeling conspicuous.  Brand tossed him a little magazine.

“Here.  Read this.”

“But it’s in German!”

“I’m not asking for a goddamned book report,” Brand rasped, “Did they catch on at the post office?”

“No.”

“Good.  Our little community has to take a different turn.  That shitface Labouchere passed some anti-buggery acts here in England and the Germans pretend as if they’re the ones getting fucked up the ass.  It’s a ghastly read, that Paragraph 175.” Brand said.

Charlie flipped through the German magazine and was immediately shocked at the sight of some of the illustrations, which showed half-nude men lounging in the sun.  He turned bright red in embarrassment.  “For God’s sake, son, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.  You’ve done worse,” Brand said, “Those pansies Ulrichs and Kertbeny are trying to make this ‘homosexuality’ appealing to bourgeois society.  It’s a shitstorm, I tell you.  Goddam near raining feces all over fucking Europe.  Just keep your head down for now at the post office and brush up on your German.  Then, when you are ready, I’ll find you work in Berlin.  Though I always prefer an open life for us, your broke ass might have to stay straight-laced until you get out from under the man.  You understand?”

Hesitantly, Charlie piped up, “But…But what about Henry?  What about Alfie and Shelley?”

Adolf let out a long sigh, “Sometimes kid, you walk away.  It’s the only way to stay intact.”  And with the slightest of nods, Adolf did just that.

Charlie wanted to follow, but knew he couldn’t.  Brand walked with his paper under his arm like a prop, turned onto Alfred Mews, and disappeared into anonymity.

Ten minutes passed since Charlie’s life abruptly ended.  He waited for something to think.  The sun crawled slowly up the sides of buildings.  His clothes, the love letters and drawings, and that big bed he shared with Henry were gone forever.

Fearing police, Charlie tried to recall some of the safer rooftops he used to sleep on.  He looked down to where Brand sat hours ago and noticed a carpetbag winking in the glint of evening’s gaslight.  He opened it and shut it immediately.  There were valuable photographs and Daguerreotypes of naked men, strange German magazines, dirty pamphlets—and money.  At least a hundred pounds!  He could live quite comfortably for quite awhile.  Brand was right.  He always took care of his boys.

In hindsight, Charlie realized the money was most likely to be split among everyone, which would have been tragically insufficient.  Charlie would have traded it all, just to see Henry’s cocksure smirk, hear him snap his suspenders.

Charlie checked into a flophouse, pulled the rough wool blanket over his body, placed his carpetbag under his head, and felt safe enough to cry himself to sleep.

One day at a time, weeks passed.  Charlie rented painfully modest lodgings.  He bought a pair of nice shoes, since he knew he would be spending more time on his feet than on his back.  He pretended to be an adult.  He made his own dinner and darned his socks.  He didn’t trust himself to drink, but on the lonely nights, a glass of wine was all it took to put him to sleep.  He bought the daily paper from a cute paperboy just outside the post office.  Though they looked to each other with desire in one eye, the other eye was cautious.  The paperboy’s name was Henry, which sent a pang coursing through Charlie’s body.  But Paperboy Henry looked nothing like One True Love Henry.  It didn’t matter.  Charlie could barely read.

Charlie knew his letters and how they were supposed to sounded togethers.  He reads fairly gooder so the mails got to the right places, but is worser for writing in the good way that the orders of words was hardest–so the gossipy landlady read him all the details of the Cleveland street scandal, unaware of whom she spoke with.

Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline was on the case of the Fall of the House of Homo.  Abberline asked the boys if any other teens frequented the establishment.  Henry, whose name was now in the paper quite often, said no.  Little Tommy Winscow agreed out of fear.  Georgie Wright agreed there were no other boys involved.  Charlie was cleared, though he felt like a coward, hiding behind a lie.  He wanted to be with Henry.  After a few bleeding heart journalists admonished the abuse of child prostitutes (and then frequented them at night) several prominent names popped into place.  “Fitzy” was actually Henry Fitzroy, the Earl of Euston, for one.  Charlie already knew Rodney Jervois, the army colonel.  Hammond Rye was mentioned, but never found.  Henry Labouchere used the incident to get himself re-elected to English Parliament.  Charlie took pride in being a pervert, if Labouchere was the alternative.

Eight months had passed since the fateful day it all fell apart, and Charlie thought about Henry every day.  The intensity of Henry’s absence was just as powerful as his presence, and the sensation gripped Charlie with obsessive resolve.  He led the life of a lower class prisoner, existing for existence’s sake and without joy or sorrow.  His long eyelashes were nothing but bars over the windows of his soul.  It had been a very strange year.

Charlie set aside the newspaper on his lunch break, feeling a little melancholy.  “Those faggots deserve what they get, that’s what.”  Alfred Dickering, Charlie’s supervisor, said.  “I’d do a lot more than fire those poofters, soiling the very name of the Postal Services.”  Dickering said, snapping a pencil in two.  “Those fairies are really taking over.  They’re worse than the Jews.”  Charlie merely nodded and began sorting through the afternoon mail.  “You don’t seem too angry about it, Thickbroom.  Any Englishman should be outraged by what these people do behind closed doors.  Why, lord knows what else goes on in the privacy of other people’s homes.”  Dickering sounded jealous that everyone was more exciting than him.

“You’re absolutely right, Mr. Dickering.” Charlie said, cursing his traitorous tongue, “The mere thought of them disgusts me, so I try not to think about them.”  His tone was nearly mocking.

“But you should think about them, Thickbroom!  Why I think all of those fairies should come right out in the open!  At least then, we would know their numbers and put them in camps, accordingly!”

Charlie smiled and said, “You’re absolutely right, Mister Dickering.  It’s bad enough that they could be right underneath our noses.”

As Charlie sifted through the envelopes in the sorting room, a plain, empty envelope appeared with no return address.  Charlie’s hand trembled, seeing his own name over a strange address.  It was Henry Newlove’s unmistakably terrible handwriting.  Very cautiously, Charlie slid the empty envelope into his pocket and could not stand the hours ticking away until he could examine the letter more closely.

The moment Charlie left work he followed to the address; a dilapidated flophouse.  Terrified, Charlie walked through the darkened hallway, hearing the screams of prostitutes and mad derelicts, until he came to the door.  He knocked.  As the door opened, there stood Henry Newlove.  His hair was cut too short for his delicate face.  His eyes were dull and defeated.  Charlie didn’t care.  He jumped into Henry’s arms and held him tight, smelling the acrid perfume of his first love.  With apprehension, Henry slowly placed his lanky arms around Charlie.  Neither had known such happiness since that fateful day.

“Henry!  I’ve missed you so much!” Charlie said, laughing through his tears.  Henry pulled Charlie into the room, which smelled sweetly of dead rats.  Charlie felt as though he, too, escaped prison.  They sat on the bed beside each other.

“I have some news,” Henry said.  The pain of Henry’s absence surged up once again.

“Why?  What’s wrong?  I ran into Adolf on that day.  He said we could go to Berlin and get better jobs.  I’ve been studying German at night.  We could run off tonight and find him!  We could leave this dirty old town and start a new life together!  It’ll be beautiful.”

Henry sighed and said, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as our lord and savior?”

“What?” Charlie said.

“I’ve been converted from my wicked ways in jail.  They brought in priests to talk to us boys.  They lectured us for eight hours a day, telling us how our sinful lives would cause us nothing but ruin.  I don’t want your soul to be ruined, Charlie, because I love you.”

Did they hurt you in that way?” Charlie said.

“Yes.  Every night for a year.  They told it was the only way we could learn to know how wicked we were.”

“Oh, Henry, No.  No.  No no.  No no no no no no…” Charlie whined, his eyes welling up with tears, “What did they do to you!  You don’t actually believe that hogwash, do you?”

“With all my heart.” Henry said, “Please.  Join the church with me.  I’m going into the holy life.”

“No!  You can’t!” Charlie screamed, “What about us? Why would you do this to me?  I love you!”

Henry’s eyes were cold.  “I love you, too.  That is why I want to save your soul.  We were exploited, Charles.  Only Jesus can save us from our past.”  Charlie, devastated, slumped on the bed.

“But all this time…” Charlie said, “You were the only ting keeping me going.”

“Come to the rectory with me tomorrow.  It’s not too late to save your soul.”

“My soul is just fine!” Charlie yelled, his eyes leaking uncontrollably, “And so is yours!  How could you let anyone tell you what’s best for you when you alone know what’s best?”

“If you don’t want to join me in the church, you should leave.  Jesus never associates with sinners.  Neither can I.”

“What are you talking about?  Jesus was always around sinners!” Charlie said, “This can’t be happening!”

“I know it’s hard to admit that you are a bastard of Satan.  It was hard for me.  But now, I understand.  I wish I could show you the error of your ways.” Henry said in a zombie monotone.

“But you know those priests will bugger you and you won’t even get paid!” Charlie screamed.

“Will you keep your voice down?” Henry said tersely.  Charlie stood and paced the tiny room, trying to find an exit that was not the front door.

“God would never want you to break my heart like this.” Charlie said.

“Then why are we here?”

“Because God is love and we made each other holy before.”

“You don’t know the Bible the way I do.  You’re just a dumb whore like I used to be.  I want to help you.  I’m sorry I ever introduced you to that lifestyle.”

Charlie wiped the rivers of rage from his eyes.  “I’m not.” he sniffled, “You’re not sorry you introduced me to that life, you’re just sorry.”  Charlie couldn’t take it anymore.  He moved to leave.

“Wait!” Henry said, taking Charlie’s arm.  In a final act of desperation, Charlie attacked Henry with a final kiss.  Henry’s lips didn’t move.  Henry shoved Charlie away.  Only a sliver of who Henry used to be spiked his concerned eyes.  “I can still save you,” Henry begged weakly.

“You can’t save with one hand and condemn with the other,” Charlie said, grabbing his coat and walking out.  Charlie watched the legs of his body stumble down the stairs.  Charlie heard his body’s ears hear Henry call to him.  He felt his hand shove the door open.  He felt his breath sharpen to the cool twilight air.  Charlie wiped his cheeks contemptuously—how dare he shed tears!

He calmed down by the time he reached his flat.  He packed his bags and left for Berlin that night.  He’d never been to Berlin.  The trip was longer than expected.  Usually, he liked train rides, passing time talking to travelers, passing Europe’s dynamic scenery, passing through odd stations.  Charlie stared out the window, spoke to no one, barely slept or ate.  He wasn’t a traveler; he was a refugee in exile.

In Berlin, Adolf Brand sat behind a desk stacked with submissions to his publication, Der Eigene.  All the money he collected as a pimp went into this financially disastrous venture.  With the crackdowns on brothels, Brand knew if he didn’t lose his earnings to something he believed in, he would lose it to something he didn’t—taxes.  He eyed a poem written by a young man named George Cecil Ives.  The verse was a touch mangled, but Brand wasn’t choosy.  He needed everyone.  And everyone needed him.

The door to Brand’s office opened and a young man stood holding an old familiar suitcase.  The look on the young man’s face was downright pathetic, as if composure itself buckled under and immense weight.  The suitcase fell from the traveler’s hands; shoulders slumped.  “Mister Brand?” Charlie’s bottom lip quivered.

Adolf recognized him immediately.  “Why, little Charlie Thickbroom!  How are you doing?” Brand said, standing to greet the young man.  The façade fell immediately.  Charlie rushed to Brand, sobbing.  It broke the old pimp’s heart.

“Henry’s gone to the monastary,” Thickbroom choked out.  The body in Brand’s arms was fragile, like crushed tissue.  “Why?  Why would he do that to me?  Please Mister Brand!  I…just…don’t know…I don’t know what to do…”

Brand held him close and patted his blonde curly head.  Poor kid had been brave long enough.  Brand sighed and said, “You just have to walk away sometimes.”

“But it’s so hard!” Charlie cried, becoming even more wretched.

“I know, son.  However, we must move forward.  We make our own choices as others do.  We can’t take those who don’t want to go with us.  Bless them and set them free so we can all be free.” Brand said, gently patting child’s back, “We chose this destiny it because it was who we are, not because it was easy.  Shh, now.”

When Charlie’s tears subsided, Brand offered him bourbon, which Charlie slammed quickly.  “I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” Charlie confessed, “I just had to get out of London.  I didn’t even tell my boss I was leaving.”

“Fuck ‘em,” Brand said, “We’ll set you up nice here.  We take care of our own because everyone else wants us dead.  You’ll be fine.  We’ll figure something out for you.”

Charlie sniffled.  Brand gave him a hanky.  Compassionate as Brand was, he silently hoped this reunion would wrap up quickly.  He had a meeting with a ‘sexologist’, as he called himself, Dr. Magnus Hirshfeld.  The good doctor was late.  Charlie blasphemously slammed another snifter of scotch.  Brand continued, “I still have some work to do and you’ve come a long way.  Why don’t you take a rest on the couch for now until I get this done?” Adolf said.  Charlie’s eyelids dipped in agreement.

Charlie’s eyes barely closed when a robust man entered with an even bigger moustache than Brand’s.  Small spectacles rested on his large nose.  In one hand, he carried a thick folio.

“Dr. Magnus Hirshfeld, I presume?” Adolf Brand said.

The doctor said with a heavy breath, “I’m terribly sorry I’m late.  I was held up by the police—and they need our help.”

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