For my family, for the people of the Boroughs, and for Audrey Vernon, the best piano-accordionist our cracked lanes ever knew.

Based on a “true story.”



Alma Warren, five years old, thought that they’d probably been shopping, her, her brother Michael in his pushchair and their mum, Doreen. Perhaps they’d been to Woolworth’s. Not the one in Gold Street, bottom Woolworth’s, but top Woolworth’s, halfway along Abington Street’s shop-lit incline, with its spearmint green tiled milk-bar, with the giant dial of its weighing machine trimmed a reassuring magnet red where it stood by the wooden staircase at the building’s rear.

The stocky little girl, so solid she seemed almost die-cast, had no memory of holding back the smeary brass and glass weight of the shop’s swing doors so that Doreen could steer the pram into the velvet bustle of the main street glistening outside. She struggled to recall a landmark that she’d noticed somewhere along the much-trodden route, perhaps the lit-up sign that jutted out from Kendall’s rainwear shop on Fish Street corner, where the marching K leaned boldly forward against driving wind, cartoon umbrella open and held somehow by the letter’s handless, out-flung arm, but nothing came to mind. In fact, now that she thought about it, Alma couldn’t honestly remember anything at all about the expedition. Everything before the lamp-lit stretch of paving along which she now found herself walking, with the squeak of Michael’s pram and rhythmic clacking of their mother’s heels, everything prior to this was a mysterious fuzz.

With chin tucked in her mackintosh’s buttoned collar against dusk’s pervasive chill, Alma surveyed the twinkling slabs that steadily unwound beneath the mesmerising back and forth of her blunt, buckled shoes. It seemed to her that the most likely explanation for the blank gap in her recollection was plain absent-mindedness. Most probably she’d daydreamed through the whole dull outing, and had seen all of the usual things but paid them no attention, caught up in the lazy stream of her own thoughts, the private drift of make-believe and muddle going on between her dangling plaits, beneath her butterfly-slides, faded pink and brittle like carbolic soap. Practically every day she’d wake up from a trance, emerge from her cocoon of plans and memories to find herself a terrace or two further on than the last place she’d noticed, so the lack of any memorable details from this current shopping trip was no cause for concern.

Abington Street, she thought, was the best bet for where they’d been, and would explain why they were now making their way along the bottom edge of a deserted Market Square towards the alley next to Osborn’s, where they’d next slog up the Drapery, pushing Michael past the seaside-flavoured brick slab of the Fish Market with its high, dust-veiled windows, then down Silver Street, across the Mayorhold and into the Boroughs, home amongst the tilt and tangle of its narrow passages.

As comforting as Alma found this notion, she still had the nagging feeling there was something not quite right about her explanation. If they’d just left Woolworth’s then it couldn’t be much after five o’clock, with all of the town centre shops still open, so why weren’t there any lights on in the Market? No pale greenish glow crept from the gated mouth of the Emporium Arcade up on the slanted square’s top side, while on the western border Lipton’s window was blacked out, without its usual cheese-rind coloured warmth. Shouldn’t the market traders, for that matter, still be packing up their wares, closing their stalls down for the day, cheerfully shouting to each other as they kicked through the spoiled fruit and tissue paper, folding trestle tables up to load with hoof-beat clang and clatter into bulky, spluttering vans the shape of ambulances, tin frames echoing like gongs with each fresh armful?

But the wide expanse was vacant and its draughty incline swept away uphill to empty darkness. Rising from the gooseflesh of wet cobbles there were only listing posts dividing up the absent stalls, drenched timbers chewed like pencils at one end and jutting from square, rust-rimmed holes between the hunchback stones. One tattered awning had been left behind, too miserable for anyone to steal, the sodden flap of its sole wing slapping at intervals above the low, half-waking murmur of the wind, the sound snapped back by the high buildings framing the enclosure. Looming from its centre, black on sooty grey, the market’s iron monument poked up into the dirty wash-water of night, ornate Victorian stem rising to blossom in a scalloped capital crowned by a copper globe, much like some prehistoric monster flower, alone and petrified. Around its stepped plinth, Alma knew, were small unnoticed bursts of emerald grass, doggedly bristling from the cracks and crevices, perhaps the only living things beside her mother, brother and herself to be about the square that evening, even if she couldn’t see them.

Where were all the other mothers dragging children through the shining and inviting pools outside shop windows, home for tea? Where were the tired, unhappy-looking men slouching along their solitary paths back from the factories, with one hand in a sorry pocket of their navy trousers and the frayed strap of a shouldered kitbag in the other? Over the slate roofs that edged the square there was no pearly aura shading up into black sky, no white electric rays spilled from the Gaumont’s streamlined front, as if Northampton had been suddenly switched off, as if it were the middle of the night. But then, what were they doing in town centre when it was so late, with all the shops shut and the oblong glass eyes of their bolted doors become unfriendly, distant, staring blankly like they didn’t know you, didn’t want you there?

Trotting beside her mum, one hot hand clenched on the cool tubing of the pushchair’s handle, dragging slightly so that Doreen had to tow her, she began to worry. If things were no longer going on the way they should be, didn’t that mean anything could happen? Glancing up towards her mother’s scarf-wrapped profile, Alma could find no sign of concern in the soft, sensible blue eyes fixed on the pavement up ahead, or in the uncomplaining line that sealed the small rose mouth. If there were any reason to be frightened, if they were in danger, surely Mum would know? But what if there was something horrible, a ghost or bear or murderer, and their mother wasn’t told? What if it got them? Chewing on her lower lip, she made another effort to remember where the three of them had been before this haunted cobblestone enclosure.

In the shadows puddled at the market’s bottom flank not far in front, the heavyset child noticed with relief that there was at least one light burning in the otherwise apparently deserted murk, a rectangle of ivory brightness falling from the big front window of the paper-shop on Drum Lane’s corner, angling across the boot-worn yellowed flags outside. As if she had been listening in upon her daughter’s mounting apprehension, Alma’s mother looked down at her now and smiled, nodding towards the shop-front that was barely more than three pram-lengths before them. “The’yar. Ayr’s wun blessid place as ent shut up, ay?”

Alma nodded, pleased and reassured, while in his creaking pushchair Michael kicked against the footboard in approval, with his curly golden head that looked like Bubbles in the painting bouncing up and down. As they drew level with the newsagent’s the little girl peered through its tall clean panes into the dazzle of a stripped interior where it appeared that work was going on, carpenters labouring through the hours of darkness at their renovations, no doubt so as not to intrude on the normal trading times of the establishment. Four or five men were busy over sawhorses there on the bare, new-looking floorboards, hammering and planing under an unshaded light-bulb, and she noticed that their feet were naked in the dust and shavings piled like curls of butter. Wouldn’t they get splinters? All of them were wearing plain white gowns that reached their ankles. All of them had close-trimmed nails, had smooth skin that was radiantly clean as if they’d just come from a proper sit-down bath, still had lavender talcum crusting on damp shoulders into shapes like continents. They all looked serious and strong but not unkind, and most of them had hair that hung down to the collars of their freshly laundered robes, heads bent above robust and rasping toil.

One man amongst the labour detail stood aside from his four colleagues, watching as they worked. Alma supposed he was in charge. She noticed that, unlike those of the other men, his gown rose to a cowl so that none of his face was really visible above the nose. His hair was covered, but she somehow felt sure it was dark and shorter than that of his workmates, the neck shorn to suede below the folds of his dove-coloured hood. He was clean-shaven, like the rest of them, ruggedly handsome from those features she could see beneath the inky cowl-cast shade that filled his sockets and concealed his eyes behind a phantom burglar mask. Seeming to feel the child’s attention through the glass, the man in question turned to smile in her direction, lifting one hand casually in greeting, and with an astounded, disbelieving lurch somewhere inside her Alma understood who he must be.

The measured pram-squeak and the ringing cap-gun detonations of her mother’s heels slowed to a stop as Doreen also paused to stare through the illuminated window, in at the nocturnal labourers and their hooded foreman.

“Well, I’ll goo ter ayr ace. Look ’ere, you two, it’s the Frit Burr un ’iz angles.”

Alma thought that ‘angles’ was most likely an expression from the Boroughs meaning carpenters or joiners, but the other term was foreign to her and she frowned up questioningly into Doreen’s gently mocking gaze, as if her mum thought Alma was just being dense and should have known at her age what a ‘Frit Burr’ was.

Doreen gave a mild tut. “Ooh, yer a sample, you are. ’E’s the Frith Borh. The Third Burrer. All the times you’ve ’eard me gooin’ on abayt ’im, un yuh look ut me gone ayt.”

Alma had heard of the Third Borough, or at least it seemed she had. The words were teasingly familiar, and she knew this was a way the person that she’d understood the hooded man to be the moment that he’d waved was known, something that people called him when they wanted to avoid his other name. ‘Third Borough’, if she’d got it right, meant something like a rent-man or policeman, only much more friendly and respected, more magnificent than even the Red Earl, Earl Spencer, swinging on a pub sign she’d once seen. She looked back from her mother to the tableau of the partly reconstructed paper-shop, the figures at their earnest graft there in a flood of brilliance, the newsagent’s with its glass front like a fish tank where the men worked under water that was warm and luminous. The cowled man, the Third Borough, was still smiling out at Doreen and her children, but he wasn’t so much waving now as beckoning, inviting them to come inside.

Mum scraped the pushchair round in a tight quarter-circle on the pavement bordering the hushed, abandoned market, steering Michael and his pram into the shop’s glass entranceway, set back with grubby beige and turquoise chips in a mosaic ramp between the doorframe and the slippery street. With one plump hand still clenched upon the carriage handle and pulled in her mother’s wake, Alma hung back uncertainly, dragging her feet. She’d heard somewhere, or somehow gathered the impression that you only got an audience like this if you were dead, dead being an idea she hadn’t really taken in as yet but knew she wouldn’t like. One of the men with flowing locks, this one with hair so fair that it was white, was setting down his handsaw now and crossing to the door to hold it open for them, genial creases forming at the corners of his eyes. Sensing the girl’s reluctance, Alma’s mother turned and spoke to her encouragingly.

“Gor, you are a soppy date, ayr Alma. ’E ent gunner urcha, un ’e dun’t see people very orften. Goo on in un say ’ello or else ’e’ll think we’re rude.”

With head tipped forward and her brown roller-provided curls concealed beneath the headscarf’s charcoal check, her winter coat’s line falling from the full bust in a prow-like swoop, Doreen had something in her manner that made Alma think of pigeons and their careless calm, their paint-box mottled necks, the ruffling music of their voices. She remembered having had a dream once in which she’d been sitting with her mother in their living room down Andrew’s Road, on the west boundary of the Boroughs. In the dream Doreen was ironing while her daughter knelt there in the armchair, sucking absently upon the threadbare padding of its rear and gazing through the back-yard window out into the twilight. Over next door’s wall there loomed the disused stable with black holes like crossed-out bits in documents, where slates were missing from its roof. Through these the flickering shapes of pigeons lifted and descended, barely visible, pale twists of smoke against the darkness of the school hill rising up beyond. Mum turned to Alma from her ironing board and solemnly explained about the roosting birds.

“They’re where dead people goo.”

The child had woken before she could ask whether this meant that pigeons were all human ghosts, forms that dead people had gone into and become, or whether they somehow existed simultaneously in Heaven, where dead people go, and up amongst the rafters of the derelict barn in the neighbour’s yard at the same time. She had no idea why the dream should come to mind now as she followed Michael and her mother through the door, still patiently held open by the silver-haired and gown-draped carpenter, out of the night into the light-soaked store.

Having one entrance on the market and another round the corner in Drum Lane, the shop’s inside seemed bigger than she’d thought it would be, although Alma realised this was partly due to there not being any paper racks, cash registers or counters; any customers. Filling the room was the perfume of fresh-shaved wood, somewhere between the scents of tinned peach and tobacco, and beneath her feet the new-laid floorboards were as satisfyingly resilient as longbows, sawdust heaping in the unswept corners. Woman, girl and baby having stepped within, the white-haired workman who’d been holding back the door went to his partially cut plank, grinning at Alma and her brother with a gruff wink that included them in some unspoken and yet wonderful conspiracy, before returning to his interrupted task.

Unsure of what to make her face do in response to this, Alma attempted a half-hearted grimace that came out as neither one thing nor the other, then looked round at Michael. He was sitting up enthusiastically out of the pushchair, tugging forward on the chewed straps of his harness – the same one Alma had worn just a few years ago – made of red leather, with the flaking and much picked-at gold leaf outline of a horse’s head gradually disappearing on its front. Michael was chortling in delight, arms raised with fingers opening and closing, trying to grab onto the milky light, the air, the tingling Christmas atmosphere of that peculiar moment at the corner of the eerie midnight square, as if he wanted to take hold of it all, cram it in his mouth and eat it. His large head tipped back upon the jiggling infant body with a profile like the Fairy Soap child, blinking up at everything and gurgling with such enjoyment that his sister privately suspected he was rather shallow for a two-year-old, far too concerned with having fun to take life seriously. Behind him, out through the shop’s window there was only blackness, with the market gone and nothing but their lantern-slide reflections hanging in the dark, as if the news and magazine store was alone and falling through the emptiness of space. Above her, in the adult chatter closer to the paper shop’s high plaster ceiling, Doreen and the hooded man were talking as her mum thanked him for asking them inside and introduced him to her children.

“This wun in the pram’s ayr Michael, un that’s Alma. She’s ut school now, ent yer, up Spring Lane? You come un say ’ello t’ the Third Burrer.”

Alma looked up bashfully at the Third Borough, managing a weak “Hello”. Seen from close up he was a little older than her mother, and perhaps might have been thirty. Unlike all the other workers who were white as chapel marble, his complexion was much darker, brown from hard work in the sunshine. Or perhaps he was from somewhere hot and far away like Palestine, one of the lands she’d heard the older children sing about in the big school-hall where they went for prayers, up three stone steps from Alma’s first-year infant’s cloakroom, pegs identified by locomotives, kites and cats rather than boys’ and girls’ names. “Quinquereme of Nineveh and distant Ophir …” went the song, places and words that sounded lovely, sad, and gone now.

The Third Borough crouched to Alma’s level, still with the same kindly smile, and she could smell his skin, a bit like toast and nutmeg. She could see the cowboy hero dimple in his chin, as if someone had hit it with a dart, but she still couldn’t see his eyes beneath that band of shadow falling from the cowl’s peaked brim. When he addressed her, she could not remember later if his lips had moved, or what his voice had been like. She was sure it was a man’s voice, deep and honest, that it hadn’t sounded posh, yet neither had it sounded like the pokey fireside-corner accents of the Boroughs. It was more a wireless intonation, and she didn’t seem to hear it with her ears so much as feel it in her stomach, warm and welcome as a Sunday dinner. Hello, little Alma. Do you know who I am?

Alma shivered, thoughts all of a sudden filled with thunder, stars and people weeping with no clothes on. Far too shy to speak his name aloud but wanting him to know she recognised him, she tried singing the first verse of ‘All things bright and beautiful’, which always made her think of daisies, hoping that he’d get her awkward, timid little joke and not be cross. His smile grew very slightly wider and, relieved, she knew he’d understood. Still crouching, the robed figure turned his covered head to study Michael for a moment before reaching out one sun-browned hand to run its fingers through the golden bedsprings of the toddler’s hair. Her brother clapped and laughed, a pleased budgerigar squawk, and the Third Borough straightened from his stoop, resuming his full stature to continue talking with their mum.

Alma half-listened to the adult dialogue going on above her head as she gazed idly round the shop at the four labourers, still busy with their hammers, lathes and saws. Despite identical white gowns and similarly-cut fair hair the men were not alike … one had a large mole in the centre of his forehead, while another one was crew-cut, dark and a bit foreign-looking … yet they looked as though they came from the same family, were brothers or close cousins at the least. She wondered what their robes were made from. The material was plain and strong as cotton but looked soft, with ice-blue shadows hanging in its folds, so probably it cost more. These must be the aprons worn by senior carpenters or ‘angles’, Alma reasoned, and she had the muddy recollection of a word or brand name that she’d heard once which described the fabric. Was it ‘Might’, or ‘Mighty’? Something like that, anyway.

Doreen was making polite conversation with the hooded eminence and venturing at intervals the reassuring coos that Alma recognised from those times when she’d tried explaining one of her more complicated drawings to her mother, sounds which meant that Mum had no real understanding of whatever she was being told but didn’t want to give offence or seem disinterested. She must have casually enquired of the Third Borough how the work was coming on, Alma decided, and was now compelled to stand and cluck with hopefully appropriate surprise, appreciation or concern while he replied. As with much of the talk between her elders, Alma only caught the slender gist of it and wasn’t really sure most of the time if she’d caught even that. Odd phrases and occasional expressions would lodge somewhere in her mind, provide a coat-rack of precarious hooks from which she could drape tentative connecting strings, threads of conjecture and wild guesswork linking up one notion with another until Alma either had a sketchy comprehension of whatever she had eavesdropped, or had burdened herself with a convoluted and ridiculous misunderstanding that she would continue to believe for years thereafter.

In this instance, standing listening to her mother’s varyingly pitched and wordless interjections into the Third Borough’s monologue, she picked her way between the stumbling blocks of grown-up language and tried hard to make a picture of what the discussion was about, one of her crayon dioramas but inside her head, a scene that had its different bits all in one almost-sensible arrangement. She supposed her mother had asked what the men were building, and from the reply it sounded as though they were making ready something called the Porthimoth di Norhan, which were words that Alma knew she’d never heard before and yet which sounded right, as if she’d known them all her life. It was a court of some kind, wasn’t it, the Porthimoth di Norhan, where disputes would all be aired and everyone would get what they were due? Although in this case, Alma thought it sounded more like the Third Borough meant the term another way, relating to his carpentry, with ‘Porthimoth di Norhan’ as the name for an ingeniously complicated type of joint. Some words were said about it being where the rising lines converged, which Alma thought meant something similar to ‘come together’, so she could imagine that it was perhaps an octopus-armed junction such as she supposed you might get up inside a wooden church dome, bringing all the curving, varnished beams into a clever-cornered knot there at the middle. She imagined for some reason that there’d be a rough stone cross inlaid, set back into the polished rosewood at the heart of the arrangement.

Seeming to confirm the child’s interpretation, the Third Borough was now saying it was just as well there were so many oaks here at the centre to support the weight and tension. As he said this, he placed one bronzed hand on Doreen’s shoulder, which to Alma made the comment seem two-sided. Was he talking about all the oak trees studding the town’s grasslands, or paying Doreen a form of compliment, saying their mother was an oak, a timber pillar that would take the strain without complaint? Her mum seemed pleased by the remark, however, pursing her lips diffidently, tutting to deride the thought that she was worthy of such praise.

The hooded man removed his hand from Doreen’s sleeve, continuing his explanation of the labour he was overseeing which required completion by a certain time, demanding that his men work day and night to finish up their contract. There was something contradictory in this, it seemed to Alma. She was sure that the Third Borough’s business must be one of the town’s longest standing, older than the firms who had their premises in Bearward Street, with splintering gateways over which the peeling signs of former owners were still partly visible, leading to queerly-shaped mysterious yards. Some of the pubs, her dad once told her, had been here since Jacobean times, and she sensed that the building of this Porthimoth di Norhan had been going on for just as long, would still be going on a hundred years from now with the Third Borough still checking each detail of its craftsmanship to make sure that they’d got it right. Why did it sound so urgent, then, she asked herself? If there were centuries to go before the job was done, why all this talk of pressing deadlines to be met? Alma expected that the cowl-draped man just had to plan ahead more than most people did, perhaps because of his more serious long-term responsibilities.

She stood there on the tight new boards of the shop’s floor that made her think of a ship’s deck, one from the same song that she’d heard the juniors singing in their hall, a stately Spanish galleon sailing from an isthmus or the like. One hand still clasped around the push-bar of her brother’s pram, she watched the four industrious carpenters hard at their grating, thumping work and thought they seemed a bit like sailors even if their long white aprons made her think of bakers. She was barely listening to their foreman’s conversation with her mother anymore, having belatedly and with a start realised that all the workers’ saw-blades, hammer-heads and drill-bits looked like they were made from actual gold, with diamonds twinkling in their handles where the screw heads ought to be. Bemused as to why she’d not noticed this before, Alma became aware of the Third Borough and her mother only when a name she knew arose from the low mumble of their discourse.

They were talking about something they referred to as a Vernall’s Inquest, which she gathered was a kind of hearing to decide the gutters, corners, walls and edges of the world, where they all were and who they all belonged to. From what Doreen and the hooded governor were saying, it seemed this inquiry was the sole event that the assize under construction there, the Porthimoth di Norhan, was intended to contain – the only reason it was being built at all – but it was more the inquest’s title than its import that had seized the girl’s attention. Vernall was a family name, from Alma’s dad’s side. As she thought it over, Alma realised that she’d picked up quite a bit about her clan’s immediate history from overheard grownup discussions, things she knew but hadn’t previously known she knew. For instance May, Dad’s mum, Alma and Michael’s ironclad and ferocious nan, had been a Vernall before marrying Tom Warren, Alma’s grandfather who’d been already dead some years when she was born. Her other granddad had been dead as well, now that she thought about it, Doreen’s dad Joe Swan, a cheerful, barrel-chested fellow with a walrus-style moustache, dead of TB from working on the barges and known only from a bleaching oval photograph hung in the living room down Andrew’s Road, up in the gloom beneath the picture rail. She’d never known her grandfathers and so their influence was absent from her life and was unmissed. The same could not be said about her grandmothers, not their gran Clara, Doreen’s mother who they lived with, and not May, their nan, in her house at the bottom of the green behind St. Peter’s Church, upon the Boroughs’ weed-bound southwest fringe.

May Warren, formerly May Vernall, was a stout and freckled dreadnaught of a woman, rolling keg-shaped down the tiled lanes of the covered Fish Market most Saturdays, leaving a cleared path in her wake and gathering momentum with each heavy pace like an accumulating snowball of cheery malevolence, the speckled jowls in which her chin lay sunken shuddering at every step, the darting currants of the eyes pressed deep into the heaped blood-pudding of her face glittering with anticipation of whatever awful treat she’d visited the market to procure. It might be tripe, or whelks like muscle-bound and orange slugs, or chopped-up eels in lard. Alma believed her nan would probably eat anything, might be the sort of person who’d eat other people if it came to it, but then May was the deathmonger for Green Street and that general stretch. The deathmongers were women who brought people in and laid them out when they were done, so you could bet they’d seen some things all right. May had been born, so legend went, on Lambeth Walk itself, amidst the spit and sweepings of its gutters. Now she lived alone on Green Street’s corner in a gas-lit, mildewed house with doors halfway up crooked stairs that nobody could fathom, there where Tommy, who was Alma’s dad, and half her aunts and uncles had been raised. Family opinion had it that May had grown mean and ogress-like with age after a disappointed life, but family opinion also had it that there was a streak of madness in the Vernalls.

May’s dad Snowy Vernall, Alma’s great-grandfather, had gone what the family called ‘cornery’ and by the end was eating flowers, which sounded succulent and colourful to Alma, but not really wrong. Snowy had red hair as a baby, people said, but this lost all its hue during his later childhood, at around the same time Snowy’s father Ernest, Alma’s great-great-grandfather, had lost his mind and had his hair go white while he was working on St. Paul’s Cathedral as a painter and restorer down in London in the nineteenth century. Ernest had passed his madness on to Snowy and to Snowy’s sister, Thursa Vernall. Thursa was reputedly a great success on the accordion despite her lunacy, as was Alma’s dad’s pretty cousin Audrey Vernall, daughter of Snowy’s son Johnny. Audrey had been in a dance band managed by her father at the finish of the war, and was now locked up in the madhouse round the turn at Berry Wood.

The turn, the bend, the twist, the corner: there were quite a few in Alma’s family who’d gone round it. She imagined it must be a sudden angle in your thinking that you couldn’t see approaching in the way that you could see a corner of the street in front of you. It was invisible, or nearly so, possibly see-through like a greenhouse or a ghost. This corner’s lines ran a completely different way to all the others, so instead of going forward, down or sideways they went somewhere else, in a direction that you couldn’t draw or even think about, and once you’d turned this hidden corner you were lost forever. You were in a maze you couldn’t see and didn’t even know was there, and everybody would feel sorry for you when they saw you blundering about, but probably they wouldn’t want to still be friends with you the way they were before.

For saying just how many people had gone round this bend, Alma remained convinced that whatever existed past the unseen corner must be lonely, empty, and there’d always be nobody there but you. It wouldn’t be your fault, but it would still be something shameful, something her gran Clara wouldn’t like, a family embarrassment. That’s why nobody talked about the Vernalls, and that’s why Alma was almost startled now to hear her mum and the Third Borough speaking in such reverential tones about this Vernall’s Inquest he had planned, the boundary-hearing all this work was being done for. Was this branch of Alma’s relatives secretly special in some way, or was the inquest’s name just a coincidence? And if it wasn’t Alma’s family that the words referred to, then what was a Vernall?

She thought it might once have been the term for some old-fashioned trade that people used to have, which could across the years become a family’s surname. For example, Alma’s father Tommy Warren, who worked for the brewery, had once told her that a cooper, years ago, was what you called a person who made barrels, so her best friend Janet Cooper’s ancestors were very likely barrel-makers. This still didn’t tell her what a Vernall was, of course, or what the job of being one entailed. Perhaps the name had been connected to an inquest about edges because tending borderlines and corners was a Vernall’s duty? Alma wondered if amongst the corners they looked after was the bend that Ernest, Snowy, Thursa and poor Audrey Vernall had all gone around, but couldn’t work out where that thought was leading and so let it fizzle out.

For no good reason that she could determine, the name Vernall also made her think of grass and how the scruffy little meadow over Andrew’s Road near Spencer Bridge smelled when it had been mowed, of green blades pushing from the darkness underground into the sunlit world above, although how this had anything to do with boundaries and corners was beyond her. In her thoughts she saw her nan’s house at the ragged end of Green Street, weeds and even poppies growing from between bricks, rooted in the railway soot that was the Boroughs’ outdoor wallpaper, black curds that hung in drooping pleats from the burnt orange brickwork like a veil over the widowed neighbourhood. Across the street and a low dry-stone wall the green rose to the back of Peter’s Church, beside the rear gate of the Black Lion’s yard. This was the grassy slope she pictured Jesus walking on when people sang the hymn about the pleasant land, in his long dress with lights all round his head and nothing on his feet, strolling downhill from the pub gate towards the bottom of Narrow Toe Lane and Gotch’s sweetshop, on the other end of Green Street from her nan’s house. Finding herself trying to guess if Jesus had a favourite sweet she realised that her thoughts were wandering away with her and forced her restless cloud of concentration back to what her mum and the man in the white hood were discussing.

The Third Borough was concluding his account to Doreen of how things were going, reassuring Alma’s mother that working with wood had been his family’s business since time immemorial. He was telling her that though the job was long and would break many backs before its finish, all went well and would be done on time. Alma could not explain why this pronouncement filled her with such joy. It was as if nobody had to worry anymore about how things turned out because it would be all right in the end, like when your parents reassured you that the hero wasn’t going to die and would get well before the story finished.

All around her in the glimmer of the shop the carpenters bent conscientiously to their unceasing toil, shouldering planes upslope against the grain, but Alma caught them looking to see if she’d understood what welcome news this was for everyone and smiling with a quiet satisfaction when they saw she had, proud of themselves yet blushing with embarrassment at their own pride. The Porthimoth di Norhan would be built, was in a sense already good as done. She looked around at Michael sitting up alertly in his pram. Even he seemed aware that there was something special going on and eagerly locked gazes with his sister, highlights dancing in his huge blue eyes as he communicated his delight along their private wordless channel, rattling his reins excitedly. Alma could tell that even if her brother wasn’t old enough to give things names yet, he still knew in some way who the hooded foreman really was. You couldn’t meet with him and not know, even if you were a baby. Michael was by nature a contented child but at that moment looked about to burst from all the wonderment inflating him, as if he understood exactly what this grand completion meant to everybody. It occurred to her from nowhere that one day when she and Michael were both old they’d probably sit on a wall together somewhere and have a good laugh about all this.

Doreen was thanking the Third Borough now for having asked them in while at the same time she made ready to depart, checking that Michael was strapped back securely and instructing Alma to do up her mackintosh’s belt. Either the lights inside the shop were getting brighter, Alma thought, or else the darkness of the empty square outside had turned an unknown colour that was worse than black. She wasn’t looking forward to the walk home, not to the vague, muffled dread she sometimes felt in Bath Street nor the night jaws of the entrance to the alleyway, the jitty, where it ran along behind their row of terraced houses down between Spring Lane and Scarletwell Street, but she felt that it would seem ungrateful if she said so. Even if it meant a chilly trudge Alma would not have missed this for the world, although she still wished she could jump through the next twenty windswept minutes of her life to find herself already tucked in bed.

The lights inside the shop were definitely getting brighter, she decided, as she struggled to do up her mac’s all-of-a-sudden awkward belt. In front of her, or possibly above her, there were shiny rectangles of greater whiteness hanging from the air, which Alma realised must be the reflections of the windowpanes behind her as she stood beside the pushchair trying to do up her coat. Except that wasn’t right. You sometimes got a lit-up room reflected in a window, but not windowpanes reflected in the empty spaces of a room, suspended there in nothing, getting whiter and more blinding by the moment. Somewhere near, Doreen was telling her to hurry up with fastening her belt so they could leave the gentlemen to get on with their work. Alma had let go of the buckle-end and lost it down a complicated tuck she hadn’t known was there. The more she tried to extricate the belt the more she found that extra swathes of gabardine unfolded from recesses in her coat that only outfitters would understand and tangled Alma in their shoelace-coloured creases. There above or possibly in front of her the levitating panes of light blazed fiercer. Nearby mum was telling her to get a move on but the situation with her mackintosh was getting worse. Alma was wrestling on her back against endless, engulfing fabric when she noticed that the glowing oblongs floating there before her had a pair of curtains pulled across them. Patterned with grey roses, they were very like the ones in Alma’s bedroom.

That in substance was the dream that Alma Warren, who grew up to be a moderately famous artist, had one February night in 1959 when she was five years old. Within a year her brother Michael choked to death and yet somehow got better and was back from hospital unharmed, at home with them down Andrew’s Road inside a day or two, which neither he nor Alma really mentioned afterwards although it scared them at the time.

Their father Tommy Warren died in 1990, Doreen following a short while later in the sweltering summer heat of 1995. A little under ten years after that Mick Warren had an accident at work, where he was reconditioning steel drums. Rendered unconscious in a slapstick way and only woken by cold jets of water that workmates were using to sluice caustic dust out of his eyes, Mick was returned to life this second time with a variety of troubling thoughts inside his head, strange memories churned up to the surface while he’d been knocked out. Some of the things he thought that he remembered were so odd they couldn’t possibly have happened, and Mick started to become concerned that he was taking on the feared and thus unmentioned trait that simmered in the family blood, that he was going cornery.

When he’d at last worked up the nerve to tell his wife Cath of his fears she’d straight away suggested that he talk to Alma. Cathy’s family, like Mick’s, had been evicted from the grime-fields of the Boroughs, the square mile of dirt down by the railway station, when the council had the final remnants of the area cleared away during the early 1970s. Solid and sensible and yet proud of her eccentricities, Cath had those qualities that Mick recalled the Boroughs women having: the decisiveness and unshakeable faith in intuition, in their own ability to know what it was best to do in any given circumstance, no matter how peculiar.

Cathy and Alma got on like a house on fire despite or possibly because of their vast differences, with Cathy openly regarding Alma as a mad witch who lived in a rubbish tip and Alma scathing in return about her sister-in-law’s fondness for Mick Hucknall out of Simply Red. Nevertheless, the women harboured nothing but respect towards each other in their separate fields of expertise, and when Cath recommended that her husband have a word with Alma if he thought that he was going Radio Rental, Mick knew that this was because his wife believed his older sister to be an authority on having not just lost the plot but having wilfully flushed the entire script down the shitter. Furthermore, he knew that she was more than likely right. He made a date to meet with Alma for a drink the following Saturday and for no reason that he could articulate arranged to see her in the Golden Lion on Castle Street, one of the few surviving pubs out of the dozens that the Boroughs had in its day boasted, and coincidentally where he’d met Cath when she was working there, before he’d lived the dream by marrying the barmaid.

Even on a Saturday these days, he found out when he rendezvoused with Alma, the once packed establishment was all but empty. Evidently the flat-dwelling residents remaining in the gutted neighbourhood who weren’t confined to their front bedrooms by an ASBO usually preferred to head up to the sick- and spunk- and stabbing-friendly zoo of the town centre rather than endure the mortuary still of premises closer to home. His sister sat there at a corner table in her uniformly black ensemble: jeans, vest, boots and leather jacket. Black, Alma had recently explained to Mick, was the new iPod. She was nursing fizzy mineral water whilst trying to balance a round Strongbow beer-mat on its edge, watched with what looked to Mick like clinical depression by the man behind the bar. The only customer that he’d had in all night and it was a teetotal ugly bird.

Other than to her face, Mick would admit that Alma was what you’d call striking more than ugly, even at this late stage in the game. What was she, fifty-one now? Fifty? Striking, definitely, if by that you meant actually frightening. She was five-eleven, one inch shorter than her brother, but in heels was six feet two, her long uncut brown hair that greyed to dusty copper here and there hanging like safety curtains to each side of her high cheek-boned face in a style Mick had heard her once describe as ‘bombsite creeper’. Then of course there were her eyes, spooky and massive when they weren’t myopically screwed shut, with warm slate irises against which an extraterrestrial citrus yellow flared around the pupil like a full eclipse, thick lashes creaking from the weight of her mascara.

She’d had, across the years, at least her fair share of admirers but the truth was that the great majority of men found Alma to be “generally alarming” in the words of one acquaintance, or “a fucking menopausal nightmare” in the blunter phrasing of another, although even this was said in what seemed almost an admiring tone. Mick sometimes thought his sister was just the wrong side of beautiful, but it was funnier if he insisted that she looked like Lou Reed on the cover of Transformer, or “a solarized glam Frankenstein” as Alma had with glee reworked it, saying that she’d use it in the catalogue biography next time she had an exhibition of her paintings. Revelling in the receipt or dishing out of insults with an equal verve, Alma could more than hold her own, maintaining with deadpan sincerity that her angelically good-looking young brother had been simpering and effeminate since birth, had actually been born a girl, was even chosen as Miss Pears at one point, but then underwent a sex-change operation since their mum and dad had wanted one of each. She’d first tried this painfully earnest routine out on Mick himself when he was six and she was nine, reducing him to mortified, bewildered tears. Once when he’d told her, not entirely without accuracy, that she came across to people as a homosexual man trapped in a rough approximation of a woman’s body, she’d said “Yeah, but so do you”, then laughed until she coughed and ultimately retched, inordinately pleased as usual by her own bon mot.

Stopping off at the bar to wrap a fist around the pleasing icicle of his first pint he made his way over a threadbare floral-patterned carpet like a diagram of suicide towards his sister’s chosen table, unsurprisingly located in the empty lounge’s furthest angle from its door, the misanthrope’s retreat of choice. Alma looked up as he scraped back a chair to sit opposite her across the wet veneer with its sparse archipelago of beer mats. She rolled out her usual smile of greeting which he thought was probably intended to give the impression that her face lit up to see him, but since Alma’s tendency to overdo things was extended to her Grand Guignol theatre of expressions the effect was more one of religiously-themed murderess or pyromaniac, that burst of yellow arson in the centre of each eye.

“Well, if it isn’t Warry Warren. How in God’s name are you, Warry?”

Alma’s voice was smoke-cured to an ominous bass organ chord reverberating in a Gothic church, at times even a little deeper than Mick’s own. He grinned despite his current mental health concerns and felt sincerely glad to see his sister, re-establishing all their arcane connections, being with somebody comfortingly further gone than he was. Mick took out his cigarettes and lighter, placing them beside his beaded glass in preparation for the evening as he answered her.

“Just about had it, Warry, if you want the truth.”

Each of the pair had called the other ‘Warry’ since a moment during 1966 of which neither had any clear, reliable memory. Alma, thirteen, may have begun it all by using Warry as a ridiculing term when speaking to her younger brother, and he may have hurled it back at her because, as she had always privately suspected, he was far too frivolous in his essential attitude towards existence to make up an insult of his own, even a stupid one like ‘Warry’. Once the pair had taken up referring to each other in this way it would have all become an idiotic war of wills that neither could remember why they were involved in, but where neither felt that they could be the first to call the other by their given name without conceding an unthinkable defeat. This nominative tennis match had carried on, pathetically, for the remainder of their lives, long after they’d begun to find the cognomen affectionate and had forgotten utterly its half-baked origins. If asked why they both called each other Warry, Mick would usually reply that coming as they did from an insolvent background in the Boroughs, Mum and Dad had been unable to afford a nickname for each child, so that they’d had to make do with just one between them. “Not like posh kids”, as he’d sometimes add with an authentic tone of bitterness. If Alma were around she’d look up at their audience with an accusing veal-calf stare and solemnly instruct them not to laugh. “That name was all we got for Christmas one year.”

Now his sister planted the grazed leather of her elbows in the film of liquid covering their table, cupped her chin between long fingers and leaned forward through the weak-tea atmosphere inquiringly, head to one side so that the longer locks of hair dragged through the table’s wet meniscus, tips becoming sharp as sable brushes.

“Truth? Why would I want the truth? I was just making conversation, Warry. I weren’t asking for the Iliad.”

They both admired her callousness, and then Mick told her how he’d had the accident at work, had been knocked out and had his face burned, had been blinded for an hour or two and had been worried ever since that he was going mad. Alma looked at him pityingly then shook her disproportionately massive head and sighed.

“Oh, Warry. Everything’s about you, isn’t it? I’ve been dog rough, half blind and barking mad for years but you don’t catch me going on about it. Whereas you, you catch one face-full of corrosive chemicals for cleaning battleships, you fall to bits.”

Mick put his fag out in the ashtray’s sea-blue porthole and then lit another.

“It’s not funny, Warry. I’ve been having weird thoughts since I woke up in the yard with everybody trying to hose me down. It’s not so much the stuff that I’d got in me eyes or having banged me head, it’s when I come round. For a minute it was like I’d got no memory of being forty-nine or working down the reconditioning yard. I’d got no memory of Cathy or the lads or anything.”

He paused and sipped his lager. Alma sat across the sopping table, gazing flatly at him, paying genuine attention now she knew that he was serious. Mick carried on.

“The thing is, when I first come round I’d got it in me head that I was three and waking up in hospital, that time I had the cough-sweet when me throat swelled up.”

Alma’s defiantly unplucked brows tightened to a puzzled frown.

“That time you choked, and Doug next door drove you up Grafton Street, over the Mounts to hospital, sat in his vegetable lorry? We all thought that’s probably where you contracted brain damage, or at least I did.”

“I didn’t get brain damage.”

“Oh, come on. You must have done. Three minutes without oxygen and that’s your lot. They all said you weren’t breathing, right from Andrew’s Road to Cheyne Walk, and that has to be ten minutes in a rusty truck like Doug’s. Ten minutes without breathing and you’re talking brain death, mate.”

Mick laughed into his pint and flecked his nose with foam.

“And you’re supposed to be an intellectual, Warry? Try ten minutes without breathing sometime and I think you’ll find that it’s all-over death.”

That silenced both of them and made them think for a few moments without reaching any practical conclusions. At last, Mick resumed his narrative.

“So what I’m saying is, when I woke up in hospital when I was three, I’d no idea of how I’d got there. I’d no memory of choking or of being in Doug’s truck although he said me eyes were open all the way. This time when I woke, it was different. Like I say, just for a minute I thought I was three again and coming round in hospital, but this time I remembered where I’d been.”

“What, in the back yard with the cough-sweet, or Doug’s truck?”

“Nothing like that. No, I remembered I’d been in the ceiling. I’d been up there for about a fortnight, eating fairies. I suppose it was a sort of dream I had while I was out, although it wasn’t like a dream. It was more real, but it was more bizarre as well and it was all about the Boroughs.”

Alma was by this point trying to interrupt and asking him if he knew he’d just said that he remembered being in the ceiling eating fairies for a fortnight, or did he assume he’d only thought it? Mick ignored her, and went on to tell her his entire adventure, the recaptured memory of which had so disturbed him. By its end, Alma sat slack jawed and unspeaking, staring in amazement at her brother with those medicated panda eyes. At last she ventured her first serious comment of the night.

“That’s not a dream, mate. That’s a vision.”

Earnestly for once the pair resumed their talk, there in the gloom of the bereft pub lounge, replenishing their drinks at intervals with Alma sticking to the mineral water, her preferred drug being the half-dozen Bounty Bar-sized slabs of hashish strewn around her monstrous flat up on East Park Parade. About them as they sat the Golden Lion was steeping in the opposite of hubbub, anti-clamour dominated by the wall-clock’s mortal thud. The brightness of the bar-shine fluctuated subtly at times, as if the absences of all the missing customers were milling through the room, brown and translucent like old celluloid, occasionally overlapping with enough of their fly-specked non-bodies to occlude the light, if only imperceptibly. For hours Mick and his sister spoke about the Boroughs and about their dreams, with Alma telling Mick the one she’d had about the lit-up shop in the deserted market, where the carpenters were hammering through the night. She even told him how within the dream she’d thought about another dream she’d previously had, the one where Doreen had said pigeons were where people went when they were dead, although Alma admitted that upon awakening she’d not been sure if this were something that she’d really dreamed, or only dreamed she’d dreamed.

Eventually, when some while later they stepped out into the gusty shock of Castle Street, Alma was thrumming with excited energy and Mick was luminously pissed. Things were much better after talking to his sister and enduring her enthusiastic ranting. As they walked down Castle Street to Fitzroy Street through the ghost-neighbourhood, Alma was talking about how she planned to do a whole new run of paintings based on Mick’s near-death experience (which she’d by now convinced herself that his recovered memory really was) and her own dreams. She mocked her brother’s fears for his own sanity as just one more example of his girlishness, his terror-stricken unfamiliarity with anything resembling creative thought. “Your problem, Warry, is you have an idea and you think it’s a cerebral haemorrhage.” Listening to her spooling out impractical and transcendental picture-concepts like a hyperventilating tickertape he felt the weight lift from him, floating in a sweet and putrid lager fart to dissipate beneath the starry, vast obsidian pudding bowl of closing time, inverted and set down upon the Boroughs as though keeping flies away.

Down from the Golden Lion’s front doorway and its carious sage-green tiles they stumbled, with – across the vehicle-forsaken street upon their right – the fading 1930s Chinese puzzle of scab-textured brick that was the rear of Bath Street flats, Saint Peter’s house, breaks in the waist-high border wall allowing access to triangular stone stairways shaped like ziggurats, steps dropping from the apex to the base at either side. Past that there were the flats themselves with chiselled slots of Bauhaus shadow, double doors recessed beneath their porticos; gauze-cataracted windows, most of them unlit. Police car sirens skirled like radiophonic workshop banshees from the floodplains of St. James’s End, west of the river, and Mick thought about his recent revelation, realising that despite the uplift of his sister’s fervid, near fanatical response there was still a hard kernel of unease residing in the pit of him, albeit sunk beneath a lake of numbing amber slosh. Seeming to catch his shift of mood, Alma broke off her rapturous description of exquisite landscapes she had yet to capture and looked past him in the same direction he was looking, at the backside of the silent and benighted flats.

“Yeah. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Not ‘What if Warry’s going round the corner?’ but ‘What if he’s not?’ If what you saw means what I think it does, then that thing over there is what we’ve really got to deal with.” Alma nodded to the dark flats and by implication Bath Street, running unseen down their furthest side.

“The business that you saw when you were with the gang of dead kids, the Destructor and all that. That’s what we’re up against. That’s why I’d better make these paintings great, to change the world before it’s all completely fucked.”

Mick glanced at Alma dubiously.

“It’s too late, sis, don’t you think? Look at all this.”

He gestured drunkenly around them as they reached the bottom of the rough trapezium of hunched-up ground called Castle Hill, where it joined what was left of Fitzroy Street. This last was now a broadened driveway leading down into the shoebox stack of ’Sixties housing where the feudal corridors of Moat Street, Fort Street and the rest once stood. It terminated in a claustrophobic dead-end car park, block accommodation closing in on two sides while the black untidy hedges, representing a last desperate stand of Boroughs wilderness, spilled over on a third.

When this meagre estate had first gone up in Mick and Alma’s early teenage years the cul-de-sac had been a bruising mockery of a children’s playground with a scaled-down maze of blue brick in its centre, built apparently for feeble-minded leprechauns, and the autistic cubist’s notion of a concrete horse that grazed eternally nearby, too hard-edged and uncomfortable for any child to straddle, with its eyes an empty hole bored through its temples. Even that, more like the abstract statue of a playground than an actual place, had been less awful than this date-rape opportunity and likely dogging hotspot, with its hasty skim of tarmac spread like cheap, stale caviar across the pink pedestrian tiles beneath, the bumpy lanes and flagstone closes under that. Only the gutter margins where the strata peeled back into sunburn tatters gave away the layers of human time compressed below, ring markings on the long-felled cement tree-stump of the Boroughs. From downhill beyond the car park and the no-frills tombstones of its sheltering apartment blocks there came the mournful shunt and grumble of a goods train with its yelp and mutter rolling up the valley’s sides from the criss-cross self-harm scars of the rail tracks at its bottom.

Alma looked towards the vista Mick had indicated, tightening her thick-caked lashes into a contemptuous spaghetti western squint so that her eyes were jumping-spiders tensing for the fatal pounce.

“Of course it’s not too late, you girl. There’s no point sending you a vision if there’s nothing to be done about it, is there? And, look, I’m a genius. They said so in the NME. I’ll do these paintings and we’ll get this sorted. Trust me.”

And he did, implicitly. While it was obvious to a blind man that Mick’s sister was both self-infatuated and delusional, in his experience Alma also often turned out to be right. If she said that she could repair a cataclysm with some tubes of paint, Mick was inclined to put the money on his sister rather than the meteor strike or whatever it was had happened to the Boroughs. All her life she’d made perverse decisions that had worked out for her against all the odds and nobody could say their Alma hadn’t done well for a Boroughs kid. Mick had got faith in her, though not the wide-eyed faith of her devoted audience, many of whom appeared to think of her as having origins within the region of the supernatural or else the field of clandestine genetic research, a god-sent mutation who could talk to stones and raise the unborn, let alone the dead.

“I can’t believe you’re Alma Warren’s brother”, he’d had more than one fan of his sister’s paintings tell him, mostly female workmates of his wife’s whom Alma was convinced only responded to her as “a badly misjudged lesbian icon” rather than an artist. Sometimes, if they knew Mick’s background, they’d sit looking thoughtful before asking him how anyone like Alma Warren could have possibly emerged from a notorious urban soul-trap like the Boroughs. He considered this a stupid question, as if there were any other place she could have come from, Hell or Narnia or somewhere. How long was it since there’d been even a trace of the authentic working class, if its conspicuous products were today unrecognisable as dodos? What had happened to that culture? Other than those parts of it which had been tempted up into the low boughs of the middle classes or drained off into the cardboard jungle, how had it all vanished so that these days if they saw it, no one had a clue what they were looking at? Where had it gone? Why hadn’t somebody complained?

They’d turned left and were walking down the lowest edge of Castle Hill, towards the wall of Doddridge Church, heading for Chalk Lane, Marefair and the cab rank of the station at the bottom, on the end of their beloved Andrew’s Road. Alma was back to conjuring another as yet non-existent masterpiece, eyes staring fixedly into the ink-wash empty space before her as if she already saw it framed and hanging there.

“I had this idea, right, when we were talking. I could do my dream, the one about the carpenters down at the corner of the market in the middle of the night. I could do something really big, a bit like Stanley Spencer with enormous figures bent over their lathes, facing away from us. I’ll do some bits in loving detail but I’ll leave the rest unfinished with, like, dangling pencil lines. I’ll call it ‘Work in Progress’ …”

Alma trailed off, stopping in her tracks to gaze up at the eighteenth-century Nonconformist church that they were passing. Set into the toffee-coloured stonework of its upper storey was a closed pitch-painted doorway that led into empty air, clearly a loading bay of some sort, except why would anybody need one halfway up a church? It looked as if it was intended to lead to an unseen upper floor of the impoverished district, one long since demolished without trace, or possibly a planned extension yet to be constructed. She looked from the senseless angel-door to Mick and when she spoke her train-wreck voice was small and marvelling, more like that of a little girl than when she’d been one.

“That’s one of the places, Warry, isn’t it? From in your seizure or whatever?”

Alma’s brother nodded and then indicated the turfed-over wasteland up beyond another car park, on Chalk Lane approaching to their right as they resumed their walk.

“Yeah. That’s another, but that’s like an earthworks. It’s much bigger though, and older, and the puddles have unfolded, sort of, into a lagoon.”

His sister nodded slowly, taking it all in as she surveyed the tuft of land rising behind the car-crèche, its surveillance camera babysitter monitoring her charges from a litter-pocket corner. One forked tree or maybe a close-planted pair stretched up out of the mound in silhouette against the sodium lamp bleed above the nearby station. Trees were the enduring features of a landscape, its true face beneath the pantomime dame crust of leisure centre and dual carriageway, cosmetic affectations wiped away at intervals. The oak and elm defined the view across great tracks of time, were vital structural elements, constant as clouds and like the clouds mostly unnoticed.

As they reached the top of Chalk Lane, to the east past Doddridge Church on its grass hillock were the flats and houses of St. Mary’s Street where the great fire was started, and past that the traffic rush of Horsemarket, running uphill to void into the dead monoxide junction where the Mayorhold used to be. Ahead of them the crack of Chalk Lane dipped through darkness, south and down to Marefair’s headlight ribbon with the devil-decorated eaves of Peter’s Church across the way, an ibis hotel and attendant entertainment complex up towards town on the left. A neon tumour styled by Fabergé, this had been raised upon the site of the demolished Barclaycard headquarters, previously an endearing tangle of small businesses and hairline alleyways, Pike Lane, Quart Pot Lane, Doddridge Street and long before that a royal residence that governed Mercia and with it most of grunting Saxon England. There weren’t ghosts here; there were fossil seams of ghosts, one stacked upon another and compressing down to an emotive coal or oil, black and combustible.

Alma tried to imagine the whole listing quarter right from Peter’s Way to Regent Square, from Andrew’s Road to Sheep Street and Saint Sepulchre’s, a petrifying side of boar still with the jutting tower-block arrows that impaled and brought it down, still with its street lamp bristles and its alehouse crackling; tried imagining it all in context of Mick’s vision as if the distressed topography and broken skyline still plugged into something humming and impalpable, some legendary machinery long disappeared but still perhaps in working order. It was awesome and it made her need a joint. Campaigners said it wasn’t possible to get addicted to old-fashioned hashish, but to Alma’s way of thinking they just couldn’t have been trying.

They stepped out of Chalk Lane onto Black Lion Hill, a million years of gradient presided over by four hundred years of public house at the arse-end of Marefair. By the alley-mouth there’d been another paper-shop where Alma from the age of seven had bought comics for their pictures, garish flotsam shipped here from America as ballast with skyscraper-scented pages and electrifying banners: Journey into Mystery, Forbidden Worlds and My Greatest Adventure. Over the resurfaced lane had stood a melancholy guesthouse hanging back behind a screen of elders, with existing photos from a date still earlier showing a mill-like structure dominated by a lantern cupola that previously ruled the corner. There was a short row of faceless 1960s houses perched there now, behind the high wall overlooking the main road, with tenants hanging on until the area was one day gentrified, part of a ‘Cultural Mile’ that council wonks had blue-skied and attempted to talk up, before they sold high and bailed out for somewhere less accusing, somewhere without all the bad dreams trapped like astral rising damp in the foundations. Alma had from somewhere the impression that a local councillor had occupied one of the buildings once, but whether he still lived there she had no idea. Rounding the corner to their right, they walked down to the lights and crossed St. Andrew’s Road, continuing to the approach of Castle Station.

This was where the sex-commuters pulled in at the weekends, prostitute away-teams hot from Milton Keynes or Rugby riding in upon a Silverlink express to the well-publicised red-light zone of the Boroughs, the rich pickings of the all night truck-stop on its northwest corner, where the hump of Spencer Bridge met Crane Hill at the foot of Grafton Street, the area’s northern boundary. Walking AIDS vectors and their managers routinely filtered through the station forecourt, through the former medieval castle where Shakespeare’s King John commences, where reputedly they held the world’s first parliament during the thirteenth century and raised the poll tax that sparked off Wat Tyler’s uprising of 1381, where various Crusades were planned, where Becket was condemned, here at the end of the soot-blasted road where Mick and Alma had grown up, their derelict arcadia. As they descended to the hackney cabs unwinding round the station’s yard from its front entrance, Alma was reflecting on the grave enormity of what she’d promised she’d see through. She wasn’t going to have to simply do these pictures. She was going to have to do the fuck out of them.

And she did. Fourteen months later on a cold Spring Saturday in 2006 Mick had lunch with his wife and boys up at their house in Whitehills, then walked down through Kingsthorpe to the Barrack Road, coming upon the Boroughs from its northeast corner and the crater that had formerly been Regent Square. He’d passed his driving test but still preferred to go by foot, sharing his family’s antipathy to motor vehicles. Neither his sister and their parents nor all save one of their various aunts and uncles had ever possessed a car, and Mick still felt uneasy on the rare occasions that his designated driver Cathy was away, obliging him to climb behind the wheel.

Alma had called him weeks ago to say she’d finished with the paintings she’d commenced after their meeting at the Golden Lion the year before. She planned to kick the exhibition off with a small viewing that she’d set up at the playgroup where Pitt-Draffen’s dance school used to be, up on one sawn-off corner edge of Castle Hill. His sister had invited him to see the images his vision had inspired, including ‘Work in Progress’ with its midnight carpenters, a piece that she particularly wanted him to see called ‘Chain of Office’, and another work that Alma said was ‘three dimensional’ and which might only be available for viewing at this opening event.

In slacks and loafers and a plain tan sports shirt underneath a jacket he still wasn’t sure if he was going to need he strolled facing the breeze down Grafton Street, a fit and handsome forty-nine-year-old who still maintained a gleam of infant animation in his pale blue eyes, which were at least one normal colour and weren’t something out of Village of the Damned like Alma’s. She of course would counter that she’d kept her hair while his had made the dignified retreat into a cloud of golden fuzz high on his suntanned brow, not wholly different from the burnished, lonely ringlets of his babyhood. If he was feeling rash or lucky he might point out in riposte that he’d kept all his teeth, a literal sore point with the munchie-prone and periodontinitis-stricken Alma who would probably then glare at him, go dangerously quiet and that would be the end of that. He realised that rehearsing these encounters with his sister and stage-managing their banter that might never happen was a mark of insecurity, but in Mick’s previous experience with Alma it was always best to be prepared.

The plunge of Grafton Street gushed with a growling steel and rubber torrent, vehicle flow swollen by a rain of lunchtime drinkers, weekend shopping trips and booming penis publicizers, threatening to overspill its banks. An anaconda laminate of molten tyre that snaked across the pavement just ahead of Mick bore testament that such a breach had happened only recently, most probably during the Friday night just gone. White-water driving by some Netto Fabulous crash-dummy who bled Burberry, shooting the traffic island rapids in his hotwired kayak, home to Jimmy’s End across the river in the west, head full of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas and horse tranquilliser, pinprick pupils, squinting in the spindrift of oncoming headlights.

Ambling down the draughty slope beneath a panoramic sky, Mick passed the Sunlight building that was on the road’s far side, a Chinese laundry once that breathed out lonely bachelor steam, become an oily car-repair shop still, with the incongruous solar trademark of the previous establishment raised in relief from its white Art Deco façade. A little further down on the same side there stood the dismal shell of the old Labour Exchange where both Mick and Alma and the great majority of their associates had at one point or other stood amongst the shuffling and obscurely guilty abattoir processions, lining up to be inspected by a merciless nineteen-year-old with bolt-gun phrasing. Mick was grimly satisfied to note that the dour arbiter of worker’s fortunes was itself these days redundant, the indifferent prison-warder gaze its windows used to have replaced now by the look of tremulous, disoriented dread that comes with growing old in a declining neighbourhood. They never like it when it’s them, Mick thought, as he passed by St. Andrew’s Street there on his left and carried on downhill into the wind.

St. Andrew’s Street, receding now behind him, had once led to the raised bump where stood St. Andrew’s Church, long since torn down, itself built on the site of the St. Andrew’s Priory that had been there hundreds of years before and which accounted for the great preponderance of phantom Cluniac monks amongst the district’s roster of reported ghosts. At one time, Mick remembered, almost all the half-a-square-mile’s multitude of pubs – what was it, eighty-something? – were alleged to have a chanting apparition seeking absolution in the snug, or drawing painstaking illuminated pricks with gilded scrollwork on the lavvy wall. Mick wondered where the spectres had all gone in 1970 or so, when the last fag ends of the area were swept away. The Boroughs’ mortal residents were siphoned off to flats in King’s Heath like the one that his nan May had died in, or to the genetic sumps of Abington like Norman Road, where his and Alma’s gran upon their mum’s side, Clara, had dropped off the twig, both grandmas passing within weeks of their uprooting from the Boroughs where they’d buried husbands, where they’d buried kids. What struck Mick was that clearly it had never been a big priority to suitably relocate Boroughs dregs like him and Alma and their family, who, although possibly dishevelled, were at least alive. How much less effort had gone into the rehousing of the region’s wraiths, who’d all been dead, gruesomely so, for years? Did spooks from pulled-down pubs now shiver and clutch tight their glowing bed-sheets under the shop doorways of Northampton’s centre, like its other dispossessed? Did they have shelters for the bodiless as well as for the homeless; magazine street-vendor schemes for revenants, like The Dead Issue, maybe?

It had been along St. Andrew’s Street that he and Alma had once known a barber, forty years ago, with the unlikely name Bill Badger. They’d pretended, just between themselves, that he was one of Rupert Bear’s accomplices grown up, shaved by his own hand to appear more human, forced by circumstance to get a proper job. His shop had been an odditorium, its crowding walls filled to the ceiling with unfathomable, strangely charismatic products like Bay Rum and styptic pencils that would seal up cuts and which, during his childhood, Mick had thought might be a handy thing to carry round with you so that there was at least a chance that you could stick your head back on if you’d been guillotined. Of course, the shop was gone now, both it and the church replaced by the same blocks of flats with which the district had been steadily and surely tiled since 1921 or thereabouts. Last year there’d been a young, mentally ill Somali under armed police siege up St. Andrew’s Street, threatening to kill himself, while still more recently a cousin of Mick’s lovely and formidable wife Cathy, herself a benignant outgrowth of the town’s notorious and hydra-headed Devlin clan, had put St. Andrew’s Street into the news again by strangling his spouse. She’d been “doing his head in”, so he claimed.

The place was cursed. Only that lunchtime Mick had seen a hoarding for the local Chronicle & Echo that reported yet another hooker raped and beaten in the small hours of the night before and left for dead down at the base of Scarletwell Street, only saved by intervention from a resident, such incidents reported every month although occurring every week. Nothing good happened in the Boroughs anymore but once, down Grafton Street towards Crane Hill there lived a woman that Miss Starmer who had run the post office would speak of, who’d been standing on her step one morning when a passing stranger thrust a newborn child into her arms and ran away; was never seen again. The child was taken in and raised, brought up as though the woman’s own, and fought in World War One. “You can tell what a lovely family they were to bring him up”, Miss Starmer used to say, “but they were in the Boroughs. That’s the kind of families that we had in the Boroughs then.” And it was true. Even confronted by the stark reality of how the neighbourhood had ended up, as an environmental head-butt where the woman’s stunning act of altruism was today unthinkable, Mick knew that it was true. There’d been a different sort of people then that seemed another race, had different ways, a different language, and were now improbable as centaurs.

He turned left from Grafton Street and into Lower Harding Street, a long straight track that would deliver him to Alma’s exhibition on the Boroughs’ far side by the most direct route. This was where his sister’s lefty activist mate Roman Thompson lived, another bloody-minded kamikaze from the ’Sixties just like Alma was. ‘Thompson the Leveller’ she called him fondly, probably one of her know-all references, and he lived with his slinky, stroppy boyfriend here in Lower Harding Street. Roman had been a firebrand since the UCS ship-workers’ strike four decades earlier, had broken through police lines to punch out one of the leaders in a National Front march through Brick Lane and had once wreaked terrible revenge upon a unit of drunk squaddies who’d made the mistake of thinking that this wizened terrier posed less of an immediate threat alone than they, en masse and army-trained, could muster. Rome was in his early sixties now, some ten years older than Mick’s sister, but still closed his jaws upon the arse of an oppressor with undimmed ferocity. At present he was on the militant arm of the local Boroughs action group, campaigning to prevent the sale and demolition of the area’s few remaining council dwellings. Alma had consulted with her old friend once or twice while she was working on this current run of paintings, she had told her brother, who would not have been surprised if Thompson and his chap should turn up at the exhibition Mick was making for.

Over a narrow road the yard of a car salesroom had replaced the wasteland on which he and Alma had amused themselves as children, scrabbling urgently across ‘The Bricks’ as they had called their improvised apocalyptic theme-park, clambering oblivious through spaces where once men and women had their rows and sex and children. Further on were business premises formerly owned by Cleaver’s Glass, the national interest where their great-grandfather, barmy Snowy Vernall, had refused a co-director’s job back at the company’s inception, spurning millionaire life for no reason anyone could fathom and returning to his family’s slum accommodation at the end of Green Street, where some decades later he would end his days hallucinating, sat between parallel mirrors in an endless alley of reflections, eating flowers.

Beyond the factory’s southern boundary Spring Lane went trickling down to Andrew’s Road past the rear side of Spring Lane School and its unmodified caretaker’s house, on past the factory yard down near the bottom where a baffling and precarious spike of brick rose up that had a single office shed just slightly larger than the tower itself balanced on top, the overhang held up by bulky wooden struts. This made Mick think about his unearthed memories from the year before and of the pointless loft halfway up Doddridge Church, subjects that had a feathered whisper of uncertainty about them, so that he directed his attention to the hillside school itself, its fenced top edge now passing slowly on his right.

It was a sorry sight, but didn’t have the morbid overtones stirred by that inexplicable brick spar. Alma and he had both been pupils here, when all was said and done, as had their mum Doreen before them. They’d all loved the huddled red brick building that had somehow shouldered the responsibility for educating several generations in that surely unrewarding province, had all been upset when the original establishment was finally dismantled and replaced by a prefabricated substitute. The school was still a good one, though, still with some of those qualities that Mick remembered from his boyhood. Both of Mick and Cathy’s children, Jack and Joseph, had attended Spring Lane Primary and had enjoyed it, but Mick missed the steep slate roofs, the bull’s-eye windows keeping watch from underneath a sharply angled ridge, the smooth gunmetal crossing-barriers outside stone-posted gates.

Down at the bottom of the hill, beyond the schoolhouse and its playing fields there stretched the strip of grass on Andrew’s Road where Mick and Alma’s house had been, a startlingly narrow patch, barely a verge, where by one estimate upwards of one hundred and thirty people had existed, there between Spring Lane and Scarletwell Street. There was only turf now underneath which the brick stump of someone’s garden wall could still be found, and a few trees that stood in the approximate location of their former home. The size and sturdiness of these always surprised Mick, but then, when you thought about it, they’d been growing there for over thirty years now.

Puzzlingly, towards the plot of ill-kept ground’s south end, two houses from the Warren’s block still stood unharmed, knocked into one and facing onto Scarletwell Street, all alone with everything about them levelled, taken back eight hundred years to featureless green Priory pasture. Mick thought that the dwellings might have been built after all the others in the row, possibly where the filled-in space of an old yard had been, owned by some other landlord who’d resisted when all the surrounding properties had been sold out from under their inhabitants and then knocked down. He’d heard that the anomalous surviving home had at one time been used as sheltered housing, possibly by those in care of the community, but didn’t know if this was true. The solitary structure that still hulked from the grassed-over reach where he’d been born had always struck Mick as in some way indefinably uncanny, but since his experience that nebulous unease had gained a new dimension. Now, he found, the place reminded him of Doddridge Church’s pointless aerial door or else the unbelievable brick growth protruding from the factory in Spring Lane; things from the interred past that poked up inconveniently into the present, halfway houses with their portals that went nowhere, that led only into a suggestive nothing.

Lower Harding Street had turned to Crispin Street just past its juncture with Spring Lane. Up on the left ahead two hulking monoliths rose up, the tall Kray-brother forms of Beaumont Court and Claremont Court, bird-soiled and lime-streaked headstones slowly decomposing over the community that had been cleared to raise them. Easily impressed, the soon to be dispersed folk of the Boroughs had all oohed and ahhed about what they mistook for the space-age pizzazz of the twelve-storey heaps, failing to understand the high-rise blocks for what they were: two upended and piss-perfumed sarcophagi that would replace the tenant’s back-wall badinage and summer doorstep idylls with more vertical arrangements, thin-air isolation and the tension rising with each number lit up in the climbing after-curfew lift, a suicide’s-eye view of what had been done to the territory around them that was inescapable.

In what might have been taken for a moment of lucidity two or three years ago, the town belatedly deplored the squalid stack-a-prole insensitivity of the constructions and proposed to bring them down, which had made Mick’s heart soar, if only briefly, at the thought that he and Alma might outlive the monster breeze blocks that were used to smash their home ground into crack dens, knocking shops and a despairing dust that settled everywhere on people’s heartstrings. His unreasonable optimism proved short lived, and elements within the council had instead decided on the option of offloading the dual eyesores to a private housing firm for sums that Mick had heard amounted to a penny each. His sister’s activist mate Roman Thompson had made dark insinuations about backroom deals and former members of the council now ensconced upon the housing company’s board, but Mick had heard no more about this for a while and guessed that it had come to nothing. Bedford Housing had refurbished the two cheaply-purchased buildings and they now stood waiting for a promised influx of key workers, cops and nurses and the like, to be imported to the town and take up occupancy. If you had a population that were miserable and restless because they had nowhere bearable to live, then the preferred solution seemed not to be spending money on improving their condition but on hiring more police in case things should turn ugly, housing these new myrmidons in properties from which the itchy and disgruntled man-herds were already serendipitously purged.

Off from behind the reappointed and Viagra-fuelled atrocities of the two rearing giants, from the more humanly-proportioned residences spread between them and the constant rumble of the Mayorhold at their rear, Mick caught what sounded like a garbled shriek immediately followed by a door-slam, the report slurred by the distance and the dead acoustic of the concrete flat-fronts. Running or more properly careening over the bleached lawn extending round the high rise edifices came a gangling, panic-stricken figure, looking to Mick’s slightly narrowed eye to be a teenager around nineteen, brown-haired and pale-complexioned, just a few years older than Mick’s eldest son. The flailing boy was barefoot, clad in jeans that seemed intent on merging crotch and ankles, and a FCUK top that looked too large and likely borrowed, fitting the distraught young man like an Edwardian nightshirt. He was gurgling and gasping, making a repeated sound of horrified denial that came out as ‘nnung’ and taking frantic looks behind him as he ran.

Whether this clump of gibbering tumbleweed had spotted Mick and veered towards him or whether their separate trajectories had simply happened to converge he couldn’t later say. The youth’s flight from whatever frights pursued him ended in a wheezing halt some feet in front of Mick, compelling him in turn to stop dead in his tracks and take stock of this sudden and as yet inscrutable arrival. The scared boy stood doubled over with hands planted on his knees, staring with red eyes at the earth beneath his feet while trying to draw breath and whimper simultaneously with neither effort an unqualified success. Mick felt obliged to say something.

“Are you all right, mate?”

Gazing startled up at Mick as if he hadn’t realised there was anybody there until he heard a voice, the lad’s face was a bag lady of physiognomy, trying to wear all its expressions at the same time. Pasty white skin at the corners of the eyes and lips twitched and convulsed through a succession of attempts at an emotional display, embarrassment, amazement, blanked-out disassociation, each without conviction, each immediately abandoned as the trembling individual sorted frantically among his clearly ransacked wardrobe of responses. Drugs of some sort, Mick decided, and most likely something synthesized last Tuesday rather than the limited array of substances that he himself was very distantly familiar with, mostly through Alma who had tripped for England in her schoolgirl years. This wasn’t acid, though, where people burned all their evaporating sweat away into an incandescent peacock shine, nor was this like the knowing grin of magic mushrooms. This was something different. Random winds stroked the half-hearted grass, funnelled by tower-block baffles until they were lost, bewildered, disappearing in frustrated eddies, turning on themselves. The kid’s voice, when he found it, was a piping yelp that Mick seemed to recall from somewhere, just as he had similarly started to detect a nagging shadow of familiarity in the teenager’s dough-toned features with that shake of cinnamon across the nose.

“Yes. No. Fuck me. Oh, fuck me, I was up the pub. The pub’s still up there. I was in it. It’s still up there, and they’re all still there. Me mate’s still there. That’s where I’ve been all night, up in the pub. They wouldn’t let us go. Fuck me. Fuck me, mate, help us out. It was a pub. It was a pub, still up there. I was up the pub.”

All this was said with wild-eyed urgency, apparently unconscious of its tics or its obsessive repetitions, its conspicuous lack of any point. Mick found himself with nothing he could read in the by now disturbingly familiar youngster’s fractured body language or his babbling conversation. On the street’s far side a gnome-like woman in a headscarf walked along beside the Upper Cross Street maisonettes with circulation-dodging fingers hooked about the handles of her plastic shopping bag. She stared at Mick and his unasked-for company, a glowering disapproval that went without saying, so that he wished there were some convenient semaphore by which he could convey that he had simply been accosted by this raving stranger in the street. Other than pointing to his temple and then to the auburn-haired kid he could think of nothing, so he switched his gaze from the old lady back to his incomprehensible assailant with the pleading eyes. Mick tried to tease a thread of sense out from the tumbling rubble of the young man’s opening speech.

“Hang on, you’ve lost me, mate. Was this a lock-in, then, this pub they kept you at all night? Which was it, anyway? Up where?”

The boy, no more than eighteen, Mick decided, stared imploringly from out behind the glass of his own failure to communicate. He waved one skinny forearm and its baggy, flapping sleeve in the direction of the Mayorhold, up behind them. There’d been no pubs on the Mayorhold for some decades now.

“Up there. Up in the roof. I mean the pub. The roof’s a pub. The pub’s still up there, in the roof. They’re all still there. Me mate’s still there. That’s where I was all night. They wouldn’t let us go. Oh fuck me, I’ve been up the pub, the pub up in the roof. Oh, fuck, what’s happened? Something’s happened.”

Mick was startled and could feel his scalp crawl at the nape, but made an effort not to let it show. No point in getting jumpy when you’re trying to talk somebody back into their skin, although that bit about the roof had gotten to him. It was too much like the way that he’d described his recalled memories to Alma as adventures in the ceiling. Obviously, it had to be just happenstance, a space-case turn of phrase that by some fluke chimed ominously with his own childhood experience, but combined with the still-gnawing sense that he’d met with this lad before somewhere, it bothered him. Of course, it also loaned him an at least imaginary commonality with the young man, a way he could respond compassionately to the poor kid’s helpless gibberish.

“Up in the roof? Yeah, I’ve had that. Like when there’s people in the corners trying to pull you up?”

The youth looked dumbstruck, with his pink-rimmed eyes wide and his mouth hung open. All the panic and confusion fell away from him, replaced by something that was almost disbelieving awe as he stared, suddenly transfixed, at Mick.

“Yeah. Up the corners. They were reaching down.”

Mick nodded, fumbling in his jacket for the brand new pack of fags he’d picked up half an hour back on the way down Barrack Road. He peeled the cuticle of cellophane that held the packet’s plastic wrap in place down to its quick, shucked off the wrapper’s top and tugged the foil away that hid the tight-pressed and cork-Busbied ranks beneath, the crinkled see-through wrapping and unwanted silver paper crushed to an amalgam and shoved carelessly into Mick’s trouser pocket. Taking one himself he aimed the flip-top package at the grateful teenager in offer and lit up for both of them using his punch-drunk Zippo with the stutter in its flame. As they both blew writhing, translucent Gila monsters made of blue-brown vapour up into the Boroughs air the boy relaxed a little, letting Mick resume his pep-talk.

“You don’t want to let it get you down, mate. I’ve been up where you’ve been, so I know how it can be. You can’t believe it’s happened and you think you’re going mental, but you’re not, mate. You’re all right. It’s just when you come back from one of them it takes a while before this all feels real and solid like it did. Don’t worry. It comes back. Just take it easy, have a think about it all, and gradually the bits all fall back into place. It might take you a month or two, but this will all get better. Here.”

Mick pulled a clump of cigarettes out from the pack, approximately half a dozen thick, and gave them to the barefoot psychotropic casualty.

“If I were you, mate, I’d go off and find yourself a quiet place to sit down where you can sort your head out, somewhere out of doors without the ceilings and the corners and all that. I’ll tell you what, down at the other end of Scarletwell Street over there, there’s a nice bit of grass with trees for shade. They’ll be in blossom around now. Go on, mate. It’ll do you good.”

Incredulous with gratitude, the youngster stared adoringly at Mike, as if at something mythical he’d never seen before, a sphinx or Pegasus.

“Thanks, mate. Thanks. Thanks. You’re a good bloke. You’re a good bloke. I’ll do that, what you said. I’ll do it. You’re a good bloke. Thanks.”

He turned away and stumbled barefoot off across the grit and shattered headlight glass of Scarletwell Street corner, where it joined with Crispin Street and Upper Cross Street, as the former had by that point technically become. Mick watched him go, tenderly picking his way over the rough paving by the chain-link fence of Spring Lane School like a concussed flamingo, stuffing the donated cigarettes into a misplaced pocket of his low-slung pants. As he began to head off down the hill towards Mick’s recommended quiet spot, he stopped by the school gates and glanced back. Mick was surprised to see that there appeared to be tears streaming down the youngster’s cheeks. He looked towards Mick gratefully and with some difficulty worked his face into a kind of smile. He gave a helpless shrug.

“I was just up the pub.”

Resignedly, he carried on away from Mick and was soon out of sight. Mick shook his head. Fuck knew what that was all about. As he resumed his own walk along Upper Cross Street, taking tight drags on his cigarette at intervals, it struck him that he felt in some way oddly lifted by the lunatic encounter. Not just by the dubious warm glow of having lent a modest hand to somebody in need, but by the hard-to-explain reassurance that the mad boy offered. An authentic Boroughs nutcase, just like he’d run into when he was a child, when the insane were that much easier to spot and someone walking down an empty street towards you yelling angrily into the air was certain to have paranoid psychosis rather than a Bluetooth earpiece. Mick just wished he could remember where he’d met the lad before.

The stuff about him being in the roof had knocked Mick back a bit, but that had got to be coincidence, or ‘synchronicity’ as Alma had attempted to explain it to him back when she was in her twenties and still had a crush on Arthur Koestler, before finding out he’d been a wife-beating bipolar rapist, which had rather shut her up. As far as Mick could understand the concept, it defined coincidences as events that had some similarity or seemed to be connected, but which weren’t linked up in any rational way, with one causing the other for example. But the people who’d come up with the word ‘synchronicity’ still thought that there might be some kind of bond between these intriguing occurrences, something we couldn’t see or understand from our perspective and yet obvious and logical in its own terms. Mick had an image in his mind of koi carp gazing upward from the bottom of their pool to see a bunch of waggling human fingers dipping through the ceiling of their universe. The fish would think that it was several separate and unusually meaty bait-worms, could have no idea these unconnected wrigglers were all part of the same unimaginable entity. He didn’t know how this related to his meeting with the barefoot boy, or to coincidence in general, but it seemed in some way muddily appropriate. Taking a last pull on his cigarette he flicked the smouldering butt-end to the ground ahead of him, its arc like space junk burning up upon re-entry, then extinguished the crash-landed ember underneath his shoe-sole without breaking step. Still thinking foggily about coincidence and carp he looked up with a start to find he was in Bath Street.

He’d been wrong. He’d been quite wrong to think that he was over his unsettling dream, his sojourn in the ceiling. He’d been wrong to tell the freaked-out teenager that it would all get better, because actually it didn’t. It just faded to a deep held chord, a pedal-organ drone behind the normal noise of life, a thing that you forgot about and thought you’d put away forever, but it was still there. It was still here.

He looked across the street at Bath Street flats, their front and not the rear he’d seen by dark a year ago with Alma. Since he’d had no call to venture through the Boroughs since that night, he realised that this must be the first time he’d been confronted by the bad side of his vision since he blinded himself, knocked himself out and recalled it, all those months ago. The sickening punch he felt, a bunch of fives impacting in his gut and driving all the air out of him was much worse than he’d expected. Leadenly, as if toward a scaffold, Michael Warren walked across the road.

Of course, he didn’t have to cut across the flats, up the wide central avenue with lawns to either edge, concluding in the broad brick-sided stairs that would deliver Mick practically to the doorstep of his sister’s exhibition. He could turn right and walk down to Little Cross Street, which would take him by the lowest edge of the shunned living units into Castle Street, thus circumventing the whole business, except that would prove Alma’s contention that she’d always been more of a man than he was, and he wouldn’t suffer that. Besides, this was all rubbish and Mick didn’t even know for sure if all that stuff that he’d remembered really was what happened when he’d choked that time, or whether it was all a dream he’d dreamed he dreamed, a spastic rush of images that had come to him only when he lay there flat out on the tarmac of the reconditioning yard with fireballs in his eyes. Even Mick’s youngest, Joseph, had long since ceased to let bad dreams colour waking life, had learned that the two realms were separate, that night-things couldn’t get you in clear daylight when your eyes weren’t shut, and Joe had just turned twelve. Attempting an indifferent air, Mick sauntered through the central gap in the low bounding fence and up the spacious walkway, heading for the steps just sixty or so feet ahead, just twenty paces off. What was it, anyway? For fuck’s sake, it was just a block of flats, in many ways more pleasant than the others that he’d passed that day.

He’d gone a step or two before the dreadful stench of burning garbage made him flinch and snap his head back, scanning the surrounding terra cotta chimneys for a source and finding none. Alma had told him once that to smell burning was a symptom schizophrenics suffered from, adding “but then they probably set fire to things quite often, so it’s bound to be a tricky judgement call.” Strangely enough, he found himself preferring the idea of schizophrenia and its olfactory hallucinations to the worse alternative that had occurred to him. As he remembered Alma pointing out during their meeting of the previous year, it wasn’t that he might have gone insane that was the prime cause for concern, but rather the alarming possibility that he might not have done. Clenching his nostrils against the pervasive charnel reek he carried on towards the stairs that, as he neared them, turned out to have been replaced during the last few years by a more wheelchair-friendly ramp.

A clot of blackness on the gravel path ahead of him fragmented into whirring charcoal specks like the precursor to a migraine, with a looping ochre turd briefly revealed, a footprint breaking its mid-section into ridge and trough, before the cloud of blowflies regrouped and resettled. Coming this way had been a mistake. The verdant swathes to either side of him were bounded at their far rims by long walls that ran along in parallel beside the central footpath and its bordering tracks of grass. The walls, built in the same dark red brick mottle as the rest of the accommodation, were alleviated by faux-Bauhaus half-moon windows that allowed an interrupted view of the wide, empty stretches of split-level concrete, the flats’ gardens, sulking birdless there beyond. When he’d first heard of Limbo he had visualised these courtyards, somewhere dismal where the dead might spend eternity, sat on a flight of granite steps below a featureless white sky. The semi-circles had been recently adorned by fans of iron spokes that made them look like cartoon eyes, the black rails forming radii across a negative-space iris. Seen in pairs they looked like the top halves of Easter Island faces buried to their ears in soil but still alive with begging, suffocating gazes. Young trees on the verges, more contemporary additions, threw their gloss-black shadows on the stifling masks, liquid and spider-like, ink droplets blown to form runny mascara patterns by an infant’s straw.

Despite the speed with which the wave of smothering depression was upon him, Mick was not aware of its arrival, and was instantly convinced that what was now roiling like toxic fumes inside his mind had always been his point of view, his usual optimism nothing but a fraud, a flimsy tissue behind which he hid from what he knew was the inevitable truth. There was no point. There was no point and there had never been a point to all this grief and graft and grovelling, to being alive. When the heart failed or the brain died, he’d always really known inside, we just stopped thinking. Everyone knew that within their sinking, secret heart, whatever they might say. We all stopped being who we were, we just shut down and there was nowhere that we got beamed up to after that, no Heaven, Hell or reincarnation as a better person. There was only nothing after death, and nothing else but nothing, and for everyone the universe would all be gone the moment they exhaled their final breath, just as though they and it were never there. He didn’t really sometimes feel the warmth and presence of his parents still around him, he just kidded himself now and then that this was what he felt. Tom and Doreen were gone, dad from a heart attack and mum from cancer of the bowel that must have hurt so much. He wasn’t ever going to see them anymore.

Mick had by this point reached the bottom of the ramp, and the incinerator odour was now everywhere. He tried to raise a flutter of resistance to the irrefutable awareness that pressed down upon him, tried to summon all the arguments that he was sure that he’d once had against this hopeless blackness. Love. His love for Cathy and the kids. That had been one of his protective mantras, he was certain, except love just made things crueller, gave you so much more to lose. One partner dies first and the other spends their final years alone and crushed. You love your kids and watch them grow to something wonderful and then you have to leave them and not meet with them again. And all so short, seventy years or so, with him near fifty now. That’s twenty years, assuming that you’re lucky, less than half of what had already slipped by, and Mick felt certain that these final decades would flash past with grim rapidity.

Everyone went away. Everything vanished. People, places, turned to painful shadows of their former selves and then were put to sleep, just like the Boroughs had been. It was always a half-witted district anyway, even its name. The Boroughs. One place with a plural word describing it. What was that all about? Nobody even knew why it was called that, some suggesting that the name should be spelled ‘Burrows’ for its nest of streets seen from the air, for its inhabitants who bred like rabbits. What a load of bollocks. People like his grandparents may have had six or seven kids but that was only so that they had some who reached adulthood. It was always a bad sign when better-off types drew comparisons between unsightly ghetto populations and some animal or other, most especially those species that we had, reluctantly, to poison periodically. Why didn’t people keep their lame excuses to themselves?

Mick realised that he was no longer thinking about death at the same moment that he realised he had reached the ramp’s top and was stepping onto Castle Street. He stopped, astounded by the sudden on/off light-switch change within him, and gazed back at Bath Street, looking down the sunlit path between the two halves of the flats that he’d just walked along. The lawns were luscious and inviting and the saplings hissed and whispered in the lulling breeze. Mick stood dumbfounded, staring at it.

Fucking hell.

Blinking his eyes exaggeratedly as if to banish sleep, Mick turned his back upon the flats and made his way down Castle Street towards the base of Castle Hill, the rectangle of turf there on its corner, much reduced since Mick’s day, where that man and woman had once tried to drag his sister into their black car when she was seven, only letting her go when she screamed. He hoped her paintings would be good enough to do whatever she intended, because what just happened to him was a demonstration of the force that threatened to eat everything they cared about, and other than his sister and her doubtful counter-strategy Mick couldn’t think of anyone who had a plan.

Rounding the bend of Castle Hill to Fitzroy Street he saw that the small exhibition was already in full swing. His sister, in a big turquoise angora sweater leaned upon the wood frame of the open nursery door, anxiously looking out to see if he was really going to show, beaming and waving like a pastel-coloured children’s TV muppet when she spotted him. Standing with Alma was a grizzled stickman that Mick recognised as Roman Thompson, and beside him lounged a lavishly disreputable-looking feline thirty-something with a cream vest and an opened beer can, evidently Roman’s boyfriend, Dean. Sat on the step next to Mick’s sister was Benedict Perrit, the itinerant poet with the sozzled grin and tragic eyes who’d been in the same class as Alma at Spring Lane, two years above Mick’s own. There were some others there he knew, as well. He thought that the good-looking black guy with the greying hair was probably Alma’s old friend Dave Daniels, with whom she had shared her longstanding enthusiasm for science-fiction, and he saw his sister’s tough and sunburnt former 1960s co-conspirator Bert Reagan standing near an elderly yet strong-looking old woman that Mick thought might be Bert’s mother, or perhaps an aunt. There were two other women of about the same age, although these were genuine old gargoyles, hanging back on the group’s fringes, more than likely friends of the old dear stood by Bert Reagan there. He raised a hand to all of them and smiled, returning Alma’s greeting as he walked towards the exhibition’s entrance. Oh, our sis, Mick thought. Oh, Warry.

This had better be much more than good.


He [Ludwig Wittgenstein] once greeted me with the question: “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?” I replied: “I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.” “Well,” he asked, “what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?”

—Elizabeth Anscombe,
An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus


It was the morning of October 7th, 1865. The rain and its accompanying light were foul against the squinty attic window as Ern Vernall woke to his last day of sanity.

Downstairs the latest baby wailed and he heard his wife Anne already up and shouting at their John, the two-year-old. The blankets and the bolster, both inherited from Anne’s dead parents, were a rank entanglement with Ernest’s foot snagged in a hole through the top sheet. The bedding smelled of sweat, infrequent spendings, farts, of him and of his life there in the shacks of Lambeth, and its odour rose about him like resigned and dismal music as he knuckled gum from barely-open eyes and roused himself, already bracing to receive the boulder of the world.

Feeling a pang beneath his left breast that he hoped was his digestion, he sat up and, after extricating one from the torn bedclothes, placed both naked feet upon the homemade rug beside his cot. For just a moment Ern luxuriated in the tufted scraps of knitting wool between his toes then stood up, with a groan of protest from the bedstead. Blearily he turned himself about to face the mess of charcoal army blanket and slipped counterpane below which he had until recently been snoring, and then kneeled upon the variegated bedside mat as if to say his prayers, the way he’d last done as a seven-year-old child a quarter-century ago.

He reached both hands into the darkness underneath the bed and carefully slid out a slopping jerry over the bare floorboards, setting it before him like a pauper’s font. He fumbled for his old man in the itchy vent of the grey flannel long johns, staring dully into the sienna and blood-orange pool already stewing in its chip-toothed china pot, and made an effort to recall if he’d had any dreams. As he unleashed a stair-rod rigid jet of piss at the half-full receptacle he thought that he remembered something about working as an actor, lurking backstage at a melodrama or a ghost-tale of some kind. The drama, as it now came back to him, had been about a haunted chapel, and the rogue that he was playing had to hide behind one of those portraits with the eyes cut out, such as you often found in that sort of affair. He wasn’t spying, though, but rather talking through the picture in a jokey frightening voice, to scare the fellow on the other side that he was looking at, and make him think it was a magic painting. This chap that he’d played the trick on in the dream had been so rattled that Ern found himself still chuckling at it in mid-stream as he knelt by the bed.

Now he’d thought more on it, he wasn’t sure if it was a theatrical performance that he’d dreamed about or a real prank played on a real man. He had the sense, still, that he’d been behind the scenery of a pantomime, delivering lines as the employee of a repertory company of sorts, but didn’t think now that the victim of the gag had also been an actor. A white-haired old pensioner but still young-looking in his face, he’d seemed so truly terrified by the enchanted daubing that Ern had felt sorry for him and had whispered an aside from there behind the canvas, telling the poor beggar that he sympathised, and that Ern knew this would be very hard for him. Ern had then gone on to recite the lines out of the play that he apparently had learned by heart, bloodcurdling stuff he hadn’t really understood and was unable now to bring to mind, except that part of it, he thought, was about lightning, and there was another bit concerning sums and masonry. He’d either woken at this point, or else could not now recollect the story’s end. It wasn’t like he placed a lot of stock in dreams as others did, as his dad John had done, but more that they were often smashing entertainment that cost nothing and there wasn’t much you could say that about.

Shaking the last few drops from off the end he looked down in surprise at the great head of steam that brimmed above the po, belatedly apprised of just how icy the October garret was.

Pushing the now-warmed vessel back under the bed-boards he rose to his feet and made his creaking way across the attic to an heirloom washstand by the far wall opposite the window. Bending to accommodate the sharp decline in headroom at the loft-room’s edges, Ern poured some cold water from his mam’s jug with the picture of a milkmaid on into the rusty-rimmed enamel washbowl, splashing it with cupped hands on his face, ruffling his lips and blowing like a horse at the astringent bite of it. The brisk rinse turned his mutton-chops from arid, fiery scrub to freshly-watered ringlet fronds, dripping below his jutting ears. He rubbed his face dry with a linen towel, then for a while looked on its faint reflection that gazed from the shallow puddle in the bowl. Craggy and lean with straggling wisps of pepper at the brow, he could see in its early comic lines the doleful cracks and seams of how Ern thought he might appear in later life, a scrawny tabby in a thunderstorm.

He dressed, the fraying clothes chilled so that they felt damp when first he put them on, and then climbed from the attic to the lower reaches of his mother’s house, clambering backward down pinched steps that were so steep that they required one’s hands to mount or to descend, as with a ladder or a quarry face. He tried to creep across the landing past the doorway of his mum’s room and downstairs before she heard him, but his luck was out. A cowering, curtain-twitching tenant when the rent-man called, his luck was always out.


His mum’s voice, like a grand industrial engine that had fallen into disrepair stopped Ern dead with one hand on the round knob of the top banister. He turned to face his mother through the open door that led into her bedroom with its smell of shit and rosewater more sickly than the smell of shit alone. Still in a nightgown with her thinning hair in pins, Mum stooped beside her nightstand emptying her own room’s chamber pot in a zinc bucket, after which she would go on to make the rounds of both the nippers’ room and his and Annie’s quarters, emptying theirs as well and then later depositing the whole lot in the privy at the bottom of their yard. Ernest John Vernall was a man of thirty-two, a wiry man with a fierce temper whom you wouldn’t seek as an opponent in a fight, with wife and children, with a trade where he was quietly respected, but he scuffed his boots against the varnished skirting like a boy beneath his mother’s scornful, disappointed frown.

“Are you in work today, ’cause I shall ’ave to be along the pawn shop if you’re not. That little girl won’t feed ’erself and your Anne’s like a sleeve-board. She can’t feed ’em, baby Thursa or your John.”

Ern bobbed his head and glanced away, down to the worn, flypaper-coloured carpet covering the landing from its stair-head to his attic door.

“I’ve got work all this week up at St. Paul’s but shan’t be paid ’til Friday. If there’s anything you’ve hocked I’ll get it back then, when I’ve ’ad me earnings.”

She looked to one side and shook her head dismissively, then went back to decanting the stale golden liquid noisily into her bucket. Feeling scolded, Ern hunched down the stairs into the peeling umber of the passageway, then left and through a door into the cramped fug of the living room, where Annie had a fire lit in the grate. Crouching beside the baby’s chair and trying to get her to take warmed-up cow’s milk from a bottle meant for ginger ale that they’d adapted, Annie barely raised her head as Ern entered the room behind her. Only their lad John looked up from where he sat making a pig’s ear of his porridge by the hearth, acknowledging his father’s presence without smiling.

“There’s some fried bread doing in the kitchen you can ’ave for breakfast, but I don’t know what there’ll be when you get ’ome. Come on, just take a spot o’ milk to please your mam.”

This last remark Anne had directed at their daughter, Thursa, who was still red-faced and roaring, turning with determination from the weathered rubber teat as Ern’s wife tried to steer it in between the baby’s yowling lips. It was a little after seven in the morning, so that the dark-papered cuddle of the room was mostly still in shadow, with the burnished bronze glow from its fireplace turning young John’s hair to smelted metal, gleaming on the baby’s tear-tracked cheek and painting half his wife’s drawn face with light like dripping.

Ern went through and down two steps into the narrow-shouldered kitchen, its uneven whitewashed walls crowding and spectral in the daybreak gloom, a memory of onions and boiled handkerchiefs still hanging in the bluish air, cloudy as though with soap scum. The wood-burning stove was going, with two end-cuts of a loaf frying upon its hob. Clarified fat was sizzling in a pan black as a meteor that fell out of the stars, and spat on Ernie’s fingers as he carefully retrieved the noggins with a fork. In the next room his baby daughter wearily allowed her furious weeping to trail off into accusing hiccup-breaths at sulking intervals. Finding a crack-glazed saucer that had lost its cup to accident he used it as a plate, then perched upon a stool beside the knife-scarred kitchen table while he ate, chewing upon his mouth’s right side to spare the bad teeth on its left. The taste of singed grease flooded from the sponge-pores of a brittle crust as he bit down, scalding and savoury across his tongue, bringing the phantom flavours of their last week’s fry-ups in its wake: the bubble ’n’ squeak’s cabbage tang, the pig cheek’s subtle sweetness, a crisped epitaph for Tuesday’s memorable beef sausage. When he’d swallowed the last morsel Ern was pleased to find his spittle thickened to a salty aspic where the resurrected zest of each meal still enjoyed its culinary afterlife.

Re-crossing the now subdued living room he said goodbye to everyone and told Anne he’d be back by eight that night. He knew that some blokes kissed their wives goodbye when they went off to work, but like the great majority he thought that kind of thing was soppy and so did his Anne. Fastidiously scraping a last smear of porridge from the bowl their two-year-old son John, their little carrot-top, watched stoically as Ern ducked from the fire-lit room into the dingy passageway beyond, to fish his hat and jacket down from off the wooden coat-hooks and then be about his business in the city, somewhere John had dimly heard of but had thus far never been. There was the sound of Ernie’s shouted farewell to his mum, still on her night-soil rounds upstairs, followed by the expectant pause that was his mother’s failure to reply. A short while after that Anne and the children heard the front door close, its juddering resistance when shoved into its ill-fitting jamb, and that turned out to be the last time that his family could honestly say they’d seen Ginger Vernall.

Ern walked out through Lambeth to the north, the sky above a stygian forest canopy swaying upon the million tar-black sapling stems of fume that sprang from every chimney, with the sooty blackness of the heavens only starting to dilute there at its eastern edge, above the dives of Walworth. Exiting his mother’s house in East Street he turned right down at the terrace end and into Lambeth Walk, onto the Lambeth Road and up towards St. George’s Circus. On his left he passed Hercules Road where he had heard the poet Blake lived once, a funny sort by all accounts, though obviously Ern had never read his work or for that matter anybody else’s, having failed to really get the trick of books. The rain was hammering in the buckled gutters of the street outside an uncharacteristically quiet Bedlam, where the fairy-painter Mr. Dadd had been until a year or so before, and where they’d been afraid Ern’s father John would have to go, although the old man died before it had been necessary. That was getting on ten years ago, when he’d yet to meet Anne and wasn’t long back from Crimea. Dad had gradually stopped talking, saying that their conversations were all being overheard by “them up in the eaves”. Ern had enquired if Dad meant all the pigeons, or did he still think there might be Russian spies, but John had snorted and asked Ern just where he thought that the expression ‘eavesdropping’ had come from, after which he’d say no more.

Ern passed by the rainswept asylum on the far side of the street, and speculated distantly if there might be some antic spirit bred in Bedlam, squatted over Lambeth with eyes rolling, that infused the district’s atmosphere with its own crackpot vapours and sent people mad, like Ernest’s dad or Mr. Blake, though he supposed that there was not, and that in general people’s lives would be sufficient to explain them going silly. Down St. George’s Road heading for Elephant and Castle swarmed, already, a great number of horse buses, pushcarts, coal wagons and baked potato sellers dragging stoves like hot tin chests-of-drawers piled on their trolleys, a vast multitude of figures in black hats and coats like Ern, marching with downcast eyes beneath a murderous sky. Turning his collar up he joined the shuffling throng of madhouse-fodder and went on towards St. George’s Circus where he would begin his long hike up the Blackfriars Road. He’d heard that they had train-lines running underground now, out from Paddington, and idly speculated that a thing like that might get him to St. Paul’s much quicker, but he hadn’t got the money and besides, the thought gave him the willies. Being underground like that, how would it ever be a thing that you got used to? Ern was well-known as a steeplejack who’d work on rooftops without thinking twice, sure-footed and quite unconcerned, but being underneath the ground, that was a different matter. That was only natural for the dead, and anyway, what if something should happen down there, like a fire or something? Ernest didn’t like to think about it and decided that he’d stop the way he was, as a pedestrian.

People and vehicles eddied there at the convergence of a half-a-dozen streets like suds about a drain. Making his way around the circus clockwise, dodging in between the rumbling wheels and glistening horseflesh as he crossed Waterloo Road, Ern gave a wide berth to a broadsheet vendor and the gawping, whispering gaggle he’d attracted. From the burrs of chat that Ern picked up passing this pipe-smoke shrouded mob on its periphery he gathered it was old news from America about the blackies having been set free, and all about how the American Prime Minister had been shot dead, just like they’d done to poor old Spencer Perceval, back when Ern’s dad had been a boy. As Ern recalled it, Perceval was from the little boot and shoe town of Northampton, sixty miles from London to the north, where Ern had family upon his father’s side still living, cousins and the like. His cousin Robert Vernall had passed through last June on his way down to Kent for picking hops, and had told Ernest that much of the cobbling work that he’d relied on in the Midlands had dried up because the greycoats in America, for whom Northampton had supplied the army boots, had lost their civil war. Ernest could see it was a shame for Bob, but as he understood things, it was all the greycoats as what kept the slaves, the blackies, which Ern didn’t hold with. That was wrong. They were poor people just like anybody else. He walked across the awkward corner with its little spike of waste-ground where the angle was too sharp to fit another house, then turned left and up Blackfriars Road, making across the smouldering rows of Southwark for the river and the bridge.

It took Ern some three-quarters of an hour, bowling along at a fair pace, before he came on Ludgate Street over the Thames’ far side and the approach to the West Front of the cathedral. In this time he’d thought about all sorts of things, about the slaves set free out in America, some of them branded by their masters as though cattle, he’d been told, and of black men and poor people in general. Marx the socialist and his First International had been about more than a year already, but the workers still weren’t any better off as far as anyone could tell. Perhaps things would be better now that Palmerston was dying, as it was Lord Palmerston who’d held back the reforms, but to be frank Ern wasn’t holding out much hope on that one. For a while he’d cheered himself with thoughts of Anne and how she’d let him have her on the blade-grooved kitchen table while his mam was out, sat on its edge without her drawers on and her feet around his back, so that the memory put him on the bone under his trousers and his flannels, hurrying through the downpour over Blackfriars Bridge. He’d thought about Crimea and his luck at coming home without a scratch, and then of Mother Seacole who he’d heard about when he was out there, which returned him to the matter of the blacks.

It was the children that concerned him, born as slaves on a plantation and not brought there as grown men or women, some of them being set free just now across the sea, young lads of ten or twelve who’d never known another life and would be flummoxed as for what to do. Did they brand kids as well, Ern wondered, and at what age if they did? Wishing he hadn’t thought of this and banishing the awful and unwanted picture of young John or Thursa brought beneath the glowing iron he mounted Ludgate Street with the majestic hymn-made-solid of St. Paul’s inflating as he neared it, swelling up beyond the slope’s low brow.

As often as he’d seen it, Ern had never ceased to be amazed that such a beautiful and perfect thing could ever come to be amongst the sprawl of dirty closes, inns and tapering corridors, amongst the prostitutes and the pornographers. Across the puddle-silvered slabs it rose with its two towers like hands flung up in a Hosanna to the churning heavens, grimmer than when Ern had left for work despite the way the day had lightened naturally as it wore on since then. The broad cathedral steps with raindrops dancing on them swept down in two flights calling to mind the tucks around a trailing surplice hem, where over that the six pairs of white Doric columns holding up the portico dropped down in billowed folds, unlaundered in the city’s bonfire pall. The spires that flanked the wide façade to either side, two hundred feet or more in height, had what seemed all of London’s pigeons crowded on their ledges under dripping overhangs of stonework, sheltering against the weather.

Huddling amongst the birds as if they had themselves just flown down from unfriendly skies to roost in the cathedral eaves were stone apostles, with St. Paul himself perched on the portico’s high ridge and gathering his sculpted robes up round him to prevent them trailing in the grime and wet. At the far right of the most southern tower sat a disciple, Ern had no idea which one, who had his head tipped back and seemed to watch the tower’s clock intently, waiting for his shift to finish so that he could flap off home down Cheapside through the drizzle, back to Aldgate and the East. Climbing the soaked and slippery steps with fresh spots drumming on his hat-brim, Ernest had to chuckle at the irreligious notion of the statues intermittently producing liquid marble stools, Saints’-droppings that embittered parish workers would be paid to scrape away. Taking a last peer at the boiling mass of bruised cloud overhead before he slipped between the leftmost pillars and towards the north aisle entrance, he concluded that the rain was getting worse if anything, and that today he would undoubtedly be better off indoors. Stamping his boots and shaking off his sodden jacket as he crossed the threshold into the cathedral he heard the first muffled drum-roll of approaching thunder off at the horizon’s rim, confirming his suspicion.

In comparison to the October torrent pouring down outside, St. Paul’s was warm and Ern felt briefly guilty at the thought of Anne and their two children drawn up shivering to the deficient fire back home in East Street. Ernest walked along the North Aisle under the suspicious frowns of passing clergy towards the construction and activity at its far end, only remembering to snatch his sopping bonnet off at the last minute and to carry it before him humbly in both hands. With every ringing step he felt the vistas and the hidden volumes of the stupefying edifice unfolding up above him and upon all sides, as he veered from the north aisle’s curved recesses on his left and passed between the building’s great supporting columns to the nave.

Framed by St. Paul’s huge piers there in the central transept space beneath the dome milled labourers like Ern himself, their scruffy coats and britches a dull autumn palette of dust greys and browns, shabby against the richness of the paintings hung around them, the composure of the monuments and statues. Some of them were lads Ern knew of old, which was the way he’d come by this appreciated stint of paid work in the first place, with a word put in to them as were contracted for the cleaning and restoring. Men were scrubbing with soft cloths at lavishly-carved choir-stalls bossed with grapes and roses at the far end of the quire, while in the spandrels between arches underneath the railed hoop of the Whispering Gallery above were other fellows, giving the mosaic prophets and four Gospel-makers something of a wash and brush-up. Most of the endeavour though, it seemed to Ern, was centred on the mechanism overshadowing the nearly hundred-foot-wide area immediately below the yawning dome. It was perhaps the most ingenious thing that Ern had ever seen.

Hanging from the top centre of the dome, fixed to the crowning lantern’s underside at what Ern guessed must be the strongest point of the vast structure, itself with a tonnage in the tens of thousands, was a plumb-straight central spindle more then twenty storeys high that had on one side an assemblage nearly as tall made of poles and planks, while on the other side what had to have been London’s largest sandbag hung from a gigantic crossbeam as a counterweight. The sack sagged from a hawser on the left, while to Ern’s right the heavy rope-hung framework that it balanced out was shaped like an enormous pie-slice with its narrow end towards the centre where it joined securely with the upright central axis. This impressive scaffolding contained a roughly quarter-circle wedge of flooring that could be winched up and down by pulleys at its corners, so as to reach surfaces that needed work at any level of the dome. The mast-like central pivot was hung almost to the decorative solar compass in the middle of the transept floor, with what looked like a smaller version of a horizontal mill-wheel at its bottom by which means the whole creaking arrangement could be manually rotated to attend each vaulted quadrant in its turn. The pulley-hoisted platform in the midst of its supporting struts and girders was where Ern would be employed for the remainder of the day, all being well.

A fat pearl cylinder of failing daylight coloured by the worsening storm outside dropped from the windows of the Whispering Gallery to the cathedral’s flooring down below, dust lifted by the bustling industry caught up as a suspension in its filmy shaft. The soft illumination filtering from overhead rendered the workmen with a Conté crayon warmth and grain as they bent diligently to their various enterprises. Ern stood almost mesmerised admiring this effect when to the right ahead of him, out of the south aisle and its stairs from the triforium gallery above there came a striding, rotund figure that he recognised, who called to him by name.

“Oi, Ginger. Ginger Vernall. Over here, you silly beggar.”

It was Billy Mabbutt, who Ern knew from different pubs in Kennington and Lambeth and who’d landed him this opportunity to earn a bit of money, like a good ’un. His complexion florid to the point of looking lately cooked, Bill Mabbutt was a heartening sight with his remaining sandy hair a half-mast curtain draped behind his ears around the rear of that bald cherry pate, the braces of his trousers stretched across a button-collared shirt with sleeves rolled boldly back to show his ham-hock forearms. These were pumping energetically beside him like the pistons of a locomotive as he barrelled towards Ern, weaving between the other labourers who drifted back and forth through rustling, echoing acoustics on their disparate errands. Smiling at the pleasure that he always felt on meeting Billy mingled with relief that this much-needed job had not turned out to be a false alarm, Ernest began to walk in the direction of his old acquaintance, meeting him halfway. The high lilt of Bill’s voice always surprised Ern, coming as it did from those boiled bacon features, lined with sixty years and two campaigns – in Burma and Crimea – with this last being the place the two had met. The older man, who’d been a quartermaster, had adopted what appeared to be the shot-and-shell repellent Ernie as his red-haired lucky charm.

“Gor, blow me, Ginger, you’re a sight for sore eyes. I was upstairs in the Whispering Gallery just now, looking at all the work there is to do and getting in a right commotion ’cause I swore blind as you’d not show up, but now you’ve come and made me out a liar.”

“Hello, Bill. I’ve not got ’ere too late, then?”

Mabbutt shook his head and gestured in between the hulking piers to where a gang of men were struggling as they adjusted the immense contraption there at the cathedral’s heart, dependent from its dome.

“No, you’re all right, boy. It’s the mobile gantry what’s been messing us about. All over everywhere, she was, so if you’d got ’ere sooner you’d have only been sat on your ’ands. I reckon as we’ve got ’er settled now, though, by the looks of things, so if you want to come across we’ll get you started.”

One fat and the other thin, one with a pale complexion and red hair, the other with its opposite, the two men sauntered down the nave, over the resonant and gleaming tiles, and passed between its final columns to where all the work was going on. As they drew nearer to the dangling monster that Bill had referred to as the mobile gantry, Ern revised with each fresh pace his estimate regarding the thing’s size. Close to, that twenty floors of scaffolding was more like thirty, from which he inferred that he’d be at his job two or three hundred feet above the ground, a disconcerting prospect even given Ernest’s celebrated head for heights.

Two labourers, one of whom Ernest knew was brawling Albert Pickles from up Centaur Street, were stripped down to their singlets as they pushed the cog-like mill wheel in the middle round a final notch or two, rotating the whole feat of engineering on its axis while they trudged their orbit-path round the mosaic sun at the dead centre of the transept, its rays flaring to the cardinal directions. With their efforts, the men brought about the groaning framework on the spindle’s right until it was aligned exactly with one of the eight great orange-segment sections into which the overarching bowl had been divided up. As the huge scaffold moved, so too did its enormous sandbag counterweight off to the left side of the axial pole, suspended from the crossbeam far above. Four or five navvies stood about it, walking round beside the hanging sackcloth boulder, steadying it as it wobbled with a foot or two of clearance over the church floor.

Ern noticed that the bag had sprung a leak, a small hole in the fabric of its underside with an apprentice of fourteen or so scuffing about there on his knees beside the sack, sweating and swearing as he tried to darn the rend with thread and needle. The boy was disfigured by what people called a strawberry mark staining his skin across one eye from cheek to forehead in a mongrel puppy patch, whether from birth or from a scald Ern couldn’t say. The milky, stormcloud-filtered radiance dropped down upon the youth from overhead like in Greek dramas as he grovelled at his mending, with the hourglass grains spilling across his darting fingers, falling in a thin stream on the lustrous slabs below. As Ern gazed idly on this scene, thinking inevitably of the sands of time, the picture’s lighting jumped and lurched, followed not several seconds later by a cannon fusillade of thunder. The squall’s eye was evidently drawing nearer.

Billy Mabbutt led Ern past where men were fastening the gantry’s trailing guy-ropes down to anchor it now it had been positioned properly, over to a trestle that had been set up between the statues of Lord Nelson and the late Viceroy of Ireland Lord Cornwallis, who’d surrendered in the Yankee independence war to General Washington if Ern remembered all his history right. Lord knows why they should want to give him such a grand memorial. The kit that Ern would need to make his restorations was set out upon the makeshift table where another young apprentice, this one slightly older, was already separating eggs by pouring them from one cracked china teacup to another. Workmen stood about the trestle waiting to begin their tasks and Billy loudly introduced Ern as the pair rolled up to join the crew.

“It’s all right, chaps, the decorator’s come. This ’ere is me old ’oppo Ginger Vernall. A right Rembrandt on the quiet, is Ginger.”

Ern shook hands with all the men and hoped they didn’t grudge the fact that he was the skilled labour on this job and would be getting more than they did. Probably they understood that he might not have any work like this again for months, while brawny labourers were always needed, and at any rate the money was so poor that neither party had a cause for envy. Him and Billy Mabbutt conferred briefly on the ins and outs of what he was to do, and then Ern went about transferring his required materials and tools from off the tabletop onto the quarter-cheese shaped wooden flooring slung inside the framework of the moveable arrangement.

He selected an array of squirrel brushes from the tin-full that the St. Paul’s clergy had provided and, as well, the cardboard lid off an old shoebox serving as a tray for all the cleaned-out varnish tubs containing the cathedral’s range of powder-paints. Of these, the purple and the emerald green had caught the damp and clotted into crumbly gems, but Ern didn’t expect that he would need these colours and the other pigments seemed to have been kept in a much better state. The surly youngster who’d been put in charge of separating out the eggs was finishing the last of half a dozen when Ern asked if he could have his yolks. These were unbroken in one basin while another pot held the unwanted whites, a viscous slop that looked obscenely like collected drool which would no doubt be put to other use and not go wasted. Carefully transporting his receptacle with the six yellow globs sliding around each other at its bottom, Ern set it upon the pulley-mounted platform with the brushes and the colours then fetched mixing bowls, a two-pound sack of gypsum and half-gallon cider flagon washed and filled with water. Adding glass paper and three or four clean cloths, Ern climbed onto the swaying wedge of deck beside the trappings of his craft and with a tight grip on one of its corner-ropes, he gave the signal for Bill Mabbutt’s men to winch him up.

The first jolt of his footing when it lifted had another momentary splash of silver from outside for its accompaniment, the subsequent protracted boom coming just instants later as the storm-head neared. One of the burly fellows hauling down upon his rope with a bell-ringer’s grip made some crack about God moving his furniture around upstairs at which another of the gang protested, saying the remark was disrespectful in that great Mother of Churches, although Ern had heard the saying since his boyhood and saw nothing wrong with it. There was a practicality behind the phrase that tickled him, for while within his heart of hearts Ern wasn’t altogether sure if he believed in God, he liked the notion of the Lord as someone down-to-earth who might occasionally, as did we all, have call to rearrange things so that they were better suited to His purposes. The pulleys shrieked as Ern made his ascent in measured stages, eighteen inches at a time, and when the lightning flashed again to outline everything in sudden chalk the deafening explosion in its wake was near immediate.

The broad curve of his platform’s outmost edge eclipsed more of the ground below with every squealing half-yard that it gained in height. The greater part of Ernest’s gang of workmates was already gone from sight beneath the swaying raft of planks he stood upon, with Billy Mabbutt at the group’s rear lifting up one ruddy palm in a farewell before he too was out of view. Now Ern took stock of the wood floor beneath his feet he realised that it was much larger than he’d first supposed, almost as big as a theatre stage with his small heap of jugs and pots and brushes looking lonely and inadequate there at its centre. Fully raised, he thought, and a full quadrant of the transept would be made invisible to Ern, and he to it. The heads of first Cornwallis then Lord Nelson vanished, swallowed by the elevating podium’s perimeter, and Ernest was alone. Tilting his head he gazed at Sir James Thornhill’s eight vast frescoes on the dome’s interior as he rose by instalments up into their company.

Back when he’d been a small boy in the early 1840s Ern had learned to draw a bit when he’d risked piles by sitting on a cold stone step and watching Jackie Thimbles recreate in chalk the death of Nelson at Trafalgar on the flagstones by the corner of the Kennington and Lambeth Roads, day after fascinated day. Jackie was in his sixties then, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who’d lost two fingertips on his left hand to gangrene and concealed the stumps beneath a pair of silver thimbles. Making now a threadbare living as a pavement artist, the old man had seemed quite glad of young Ern’s daily company, and was a mine of information about painting. He’d regale the boy with long accounts, shot through with yearning, of the marvellous new oil paints that were then available to them as had the money, bright laburnum yellows and rich mauves or violets like a copse at dusk. Jackie had taught Ern how to mix a realistic flesh tone from a range of hues you’d never think were in pink skin, and how the fingers could be useful when it came to blending, smoothly smudging a white highlight cast by burning warships down the dying admiral’s cheek or on the polished timbers of the Victory. Ernest had thought his mentor the most talented of men, but looking up at Thornhill’s masterpieces now he understood them to be from a realm as far above the blood and fire washed decks of Jackie Thimbles as the halls of Heaven surely were above the streets of Lambeth.

Episodes from Saint Paul’s life surrounded Ern as he rode his ramshackle elevator up amongst them, from the Damascene conversion to a vividly depicted shipwreck, with the various disciples under-lighted as though by a forge or opened treasure chest while ray-pierced cloudscapes roiled behind. The fresco that Ern planned to clean up and retouch today, over upon the echoing concavity’s southwestern side, was one that he was not familiar with from sermons. In its background was a place of warm, rough stones that might have been a gaol, with stood before this a wide-eyed and wretched man whose awe seemed to be at the very brink of terror, gazing at the haloed saints or angels who looked back with lowered eyes and small, secretive smiles.

Ern’s wooden dais climbed now past the Whispering Gallery where one could fancy that the walls still crept with century-old prayers and where the windows allowed Ern his final glimpse out over a drenched London to Southwark Cathedral’s tower in the south-east before he was moved higher, up into the dome itself. Around the lowest rim of this, on the encircling tambour just above the gallery, he was dismayed to note that a whole swathe of border detail at the bottom of each fresco had been covered over in stone-coloured paint, no doubt to easily and inexpensively mask water-damage that had been discovered during earlier renovations. Ern was muttering beneath his breath about the shameful lack of pride in one’s endeavours showing in this shoddy workmanship when blinding brilliance and tumultuous din so close they were a single thing exploded all about him and his platform dropped a sickening inch or two as startled bruisers far below lost then regained their grips upon the pulley-ropes. Ern’s heart was thudding while his suddenly precarious stand resumed its screeching progress upwards and he cautiously approached its right rear crook thinking he’d risk a peek down just to see if all was well.

As he wrapped one tight round the rope, Ern found his hands were wringing wet with perspiration, so that he supposed he must be frightened of heights after all, despite what everyone had always said. He peered down past the planking’s rough-cut ends and, though he could not see his fellow workers, was astounded to find how far up he was. The St. Paul’s clergy looked like earwigs inching over the white, distant floor and Ernest watched with some amusement as two of the clerics waddled unaware towards each other along the adjacent sides of a giant pier, colliding at the corner in a flurry of black skirts. It wasn’t the mere sight of a downed clergyman that made Ern chuckle, but his realisation that he’d known the two priests would bump into one another before they themselves did, just by virtue of his lofty vantage point. To an extent he had been able to perceive the destinies of land-bound people moving back and forth on their flat plane from the superior perspective of a third dimension up above theirs that they seldom thought about or paid attention to. Ernest imagined this was why the Romans had got on so well, seizing the tallest peaks as lookout posts and watchtowers in their conquests, their perceptions and their strategies both wonderfully advantaged by the higher ground.

His perch had by now reached the level he’d agreed with Billy Mabbutt, where it came to rest and was tied off, securely Ernest hoped, more than two hundred feet below. He was around the upper reaches of his first appointed fresco with the cloudburst’s flickering, percussive heart an almost constant presence right above him now. Once his expanse of floor space had stopped moving, Ern decided to begin his restorations with a halo-sporting figure in the picture’s upper left, angel or saint he couldn’t tell, the face of which had been somewhat discoloured by decades of censer-fume and candle smoke. He started gently with his cloths, stood there upon the platform’s brim wiping the smuts and layered dust from a visage he was surprised to find measured at least four feet from crown to chin when seen from right up next to it, the almost girlish features turned halfway towards the right and looking down demurely with the small lips pursed in that same smugly knowing smile. An angel, Ern decided, on the basis that those saints he could remember all had beards.

Ern was all on his own in what seemed the bare-boarded attic of the world, much more elaborately decorated and more spacious than the one at his mum’s house in East Street. Once he’d cleaned off as much superficial grime as he could manage from a quarter-profile near as long as he was, Ernest settled to the serious affair of mixing up a shade that would exactly match the holy being’s weathered peach complexion. Using the least mucky-looking handle of a brush that he could find he whipped the six yolks in their basin, then allowed a miserly amount of the resulting copper cream to pour into one of his mixing bowls. Another brush-handle served as a slender spoon with which Ern measured minute servings of what he believed to be the necessary colours from their varnish-tubs, wiping the brush-stem after every measure with a rag and stirring different quantities of lurid powder in his mixing bowl amongst the beaten egg.

He started with an earthy, rich Burnt Ochre, adding Naples Yellow for its touch of summer afternoon then followed this with a restrained pinch of Rose Madder. Next the bloody and translucent drizzle of rich crimson was mixed vigorously with the combination, tiny beads of yolk frosted with colour crushed into each other by the stirring squirrel hairs. He supplemented the already-satisfying mixture with his secret touch, the trick he’d learned from Jackie Thimbles, which was to employ a sprinkling of Cobalt Blue, this simulating the depleted veinal blood that circulated just below the human epidermis. If the blue and reds should prove too much Ern would offset them with a drop of white, but for the moment he was pleased with how the blending had turned out and set about preparing his light skim of gesso, shaking the blanched gypsum from its bag into a little water and then pouring his flesh tempera to colour the thin plaster once it had been mixed. Taking a useful range of brushes in his trouser pocket Ernest walked across the aerial theatre’s boards, holding his bowl containing the painstakingly assembled medium between both hands, back to the platform’s southwest point where he commenced to work on the gigantic countenance, his head tipped back as he reached upward slightly to the image on the concave wall directly over him.

Applying first a shallow coating of the fleshy-coloured gesso down the long sweep of the angel’s side-lit jaw line, Ernest waited until it was dry before he rubbed it down to a fine finish with his glass paper and then got ready to lay on a second coat. He’d barely started slapping this with hurried, practiced motions on the yard-wide face before he noticed to his consternation that the tints upon its far side, which he hadn’t touched yet, had begun to run. The storm outside had mounted to its zenith with a staggering barrage of thunders as Ern squinted up, bewildered and alarmed through an incessant lantern-Morse of lightning, at the dribbling colours moving on the angel’s flat and slightly in-bowed head and shoulders.

Squirming droplets, each a different shade, were running up and down and sideways on the inner surface of the dome round the angelic face, with their trajectories in shocking contravention of all reason’s laws. Moreover, the fast-swarming rivulets did not appear to Ern to have the glisten that they would if they’d been wet. It was instead as if dry streams of grains, infinitesimal and rushing, poured across the brushwork features following their inward curve like bright-dyed filings swimming over a weak magnet. This was an impossibility and, worse, would almost certainly be stopped out of his wages. He took an involuntary, faltering step back, and as he did so widened his appreciation if not comprehension of the frantic, trickling activity and motion going on before him.

Neutral greys and umbers from the shadows on the far right of the giant face where it was turned away were crawling on a steep diagonal towards its upper left, where they pooled to a blot of shading such as you might get to one side of a nose if whomever it might belong to looked straight at you. Radiant Chrome Yellow and Lead White bled from the halo, forming an irregular bright patch with contours roughly like the angel’s rightmost cheek if it were slightly moved so that it was illuminated. With a bleak, numb horror moving up his spine Ern realised that without its modelling disturbing the almost-flat plane on which it was described or breaking from the confines of its two-dimensional domain, the angel’s massive face was turning slowly, still within the surface of the fresco, to regard him with a gaze that was head-on. New creases of Payne’s Grey coagulated at the corners of its eyes as loaf-sized lids, formerly downcast shyly, fluttered open with small flakes of paint falling from fresh-created wrinkles into Ernest’s mouth as he stood there beneath the spectacle with jaw hung wide. His circumstances were so wholly unbelievable he didn’t even have the wits to scream but took another step back with one hand clapped tight across his gaping maw. At the far edges of the figure’s epic mouth, also migrated up and to the left now, dimpled cracks of mingled Ivory Black and crimson crinkled into being as the pale, foot-long lips parted and the painted angel spoke.

“Theis whille beye veery haerdt foure yew” it said, sounding concerned.

The ‘is’ or the essential being of this coming while as, from your viewpoint, it apparently goes by will be a sudden and extreme veer in the pathway of your heart with things that you have heard concerning a fourth angle of existence causing difficulties to arise within your mortal life, that is concluded in a graveyard where the yew trees flourish, and this will be very hard for you. Ern understood this complicated message, understood that it was somehow all squeezed down into just seven mostly unfamiliar words that had unfolded and unpacked themselves inside his thoughts, like the unwrapping of a children’s paper puzzle or a Chinese poem. Even as he struggled to absorb the content bound in this exploded sentence, the mere noise of it unravelled him. It had a fullness and dimension to its sound, compared to a whole orchestra performing in a concert hall, such as the latter might have in comparison with a tin whistle blown inside an insulated cupboard. Every note of it seemed to be spiralling away in countless fainter and more distant repetitions, the same tones at an increasingly diminished scale until these split into a myriad still smaller echoes, eddying minuscule whirlwinds made of sound that spun off into the persistent background thunderclaps and disappeared.

Now that it had completed that first startling quarter turn the table-sized face seemed almost to settle down into its new configuration. Only at its edges and around the mobile mouth and eyes were particles still creeping, dots of pigment skittering in little sand-slides round the fresco’s curvature and making small adjustments to accommodate the slight and natural movements of the figure’s head, the shift of gleam and shadow on its opening and closing lips.

In the few moments that had actually elapsed since the commencement of the episode Ernest had clutched at and as soon discarded several desperate rationalizations of his situation. It was all a dream, he thought, but then knew instantly that it was not, that he was wide awake, that those teeth on the left side of his mouth still ached, with those upon the right retaining fragments of fried bread from breakfast. He decided that it was a prank, perhaps accomplished with a Magic Lantern, but was instantly reminded that the pictures cast by such devices do not move. A Pepper’s Ghost, then, like they had at Highbury Barn so that the shade of Hamlet’s father seemed to walk upon the stage, but no, no, the effect required a sheet of angled glass and there was nothing in Ern’s working-space save Ern himself and his materials.

As each fresh explanation turned to shreds of flimsy tissue in his hands he felt the panic terror welling in him until he could take no more of it. His tightening throat choked out a sob that sounded womanly in his own ears and turning from the apparition he began to run, but as the footing shuddered under his first step the dreadful fact of where he was, alone and at great altitude, returned to him with overwhelming force. Above, the thunderstorm had clambered to its flashing, crashing peak and even if Ern could have overcome the clenched paralysis that gripped his vocal cords for long enough to scream, nobody down below would ever hear him.

He’d just jump, then, get the whole thing over with and better that, the flailing fall, the pulverising impact, better that than this, this thing, but he had hesitated far too long already, knew he couldn’t really do it, knew he was and always had been in the last analysis a coward when it came to death and pain. He shuffled back around to face the angel, hoping against hope that when he did the trick of light or hearing would have been corrected, but the mammoth physiognomy was looking straight towards him, its peripheral lines still squirming faintly and the highlights on its lids slithering quickly to change places with the eye-whites as it blinked, then blinked again. The roseate tones in which its lips had been depicted swirled and curdled as it tried what seemed intended as a reassuring smile. At this, Ern started quietly weeping in the way he’d wept when he had been a boy and there was simply nothing else save crying to be done. He sat down on the planks and sank his face into his hands as that transfixing voice again began to speak, with its unwinding depths and curlicued reverberations scurrying away to shimmering nothing.

“Justiiyes abdoveer thier straeelthe.”

Just I, yes, I, just my affirming presence and my just eyes watching from above, around a veer or corner in the heavens where the doves and pigeons fly, among the hierarchies and the hierophants of this higher Hierusalem, over the straight and honest straitened trails which are the aether of the poor that I have made my great tribunal whereby do I now announce that Justice be above the Street.

Ern had his stinging eyes closed and his palms pressed to his face, but found he could still see the angel anyway, not through his finger-cracks or eyelids as with a bright light but more as if the rays had swerved around these obstacles by some route Ern could not determine. His attempts to block the sight out proving useless he next clasped his hands across his ears instead, but had no more success. Rather than being muffled by the intervening pads of gristle, bone and fat, the entity’s cascading voice seemed to be circumventing these impediments to sound with crystal clarity, almost as if its source were inside Ernest’s skull. Remembering his father’s madness, Ern was coming rapidly to the conclusion that in fact this might well be the case. The talking fresco was just a delusion and Ern had gone round the bend like his old man. Or, on the other hand, he was still sane and this uncanny intervention was a real event, was genuinely taking place there in the dangling loft above St. Paul’s, there in Ern’s world, there in his life. Neither of these alternatives was bearable.

The sparkling music of each angel-word, its shivering harmonic fronds and its disintegrating arabesques, was crafted so the sounds were subdivided endlessly in ever-smaller copies of themselves, just as each branch is like its tree in miniature, each individual twig a scaled-down reproduction of its branch. A river that fragmented into streams and at last rivulets upon its delta, every syllable would trickle through a thousand fissures and capillaries into Ern’s core, into the very fabric of him, all its meaning saturating him in such a way that its least nuance could not be misheard, misunderstood or missed.

“Justice above the Street”, the vast, flat face had said, or that at least had been a part of it, and in his thoughts he found a strong and sudden visual image to accompany the phrase. In his mind’s eye he saw what was, in short, a set of scales hung up above a winding band of road, but the stark crudeness of the imagery bewildered Ern, who’d always thought he had a fair imagination for such things. These were no gleaming balances suspended in the glorious streaming sky above a rustic lane as in some Bible illustration, but the rough marks of a child or imbecile. The hanging pans and their supporting chains were no more than uneven triangles, joined near and not exactly at their apex by an oblong drawn in an unpracticed hand. Below this was a wavering and elongated rectangle that may have been a street or may as well have been a strip of curling ribbon.

With as few lines to its making as the angel’s utterance had words, the simple sketch unloaded all its diverse implications into Ern by much the same means that the being’s voice had utilised, implanting modest parcels of awareness that unwrapped themselves into a thing much bigger and more complicated. Studying the slipshod mental picture, Ernest comprehended that it was related in a mystifying way to every idle thought he’d had while on his walk to work that day, as though those notions had been foggy and inverted memories of this immediate revelation, memories that in some puzzling fashion one might have before their subject had occurred. The image in his head, he understood, had a connection to his earlier musings on the difficulties of the poor, to his consideration of the shoe-trade in Northampton and seemed even relevant to the rude, loving thoughts he’d had about his wife. It also called to mind his ponderings upon his offspring, John and little Thursa, and what would become of them, as well as his brief conjuring of Heaven as located at great height above the streets of Lambeth. Chiefly, though, Ern was reminded of the black men that he’d thought of in America, the freed slaves and his horrid visualisation of the branded children. He still wept, sat helpless there upon the filthy floorboards, but his tears were not now wholly for himself.

Having succeeded in attracting Ern’s attention, the big painting of a face proceeded to impart its lesson, there amidst the crackling wrath and rage that seemed locked in a course which circled the cathedral’s spire. From the continual and subtle shifts of its demeanour, it seemed anxious to convey instruction of profound importance on a staggering range of topics, many of them seeming to be matters of mathematics and geometry for which Ern, though illiterate, had always had a flair. The knowledge, anyway, decanted into him so that he had no choice as to whether he took it in or not.

The vision first explained, using its mangled and compacted bouillon-words, that the surrounding storm was a result of something, in this instance the angel itself, moving from one world to another. In with this Ern heard an inference that storms themselves had a geometry that was to human senses unperceivable, that bolts of lightning that might strike in different places and on different days were yet the selfsame discharge, though refracted, with reflections even scattering through time, into the past and future. The phrase by which it expressed this wisdom was “Foure lerlaytoernings maarcke iyuour entreanxsists …” For lightnings mark our transits

Ernest lifted up his shining flash-lit cheeks to stare despairingly at the quartet of archangels picked out in blue and gold upon the skullcap of the dome above the frescoes. Tranquil and expressionless they offered no assistance, were no consolation, but at least weren’t moving. As he let his gaze sink back to the expanse of slowly writhing specks that was the face of his interlocutor, Ern distantly realised that this was the only area of the fresco, or of any of the frescoes, which was thus afflicted. In a sense, this made things worse because if he were mad then wouldn’t he be seeing visions bubbling everywhere and not just in one place? He wished he could pass out or even have his heart pack in and die, so this insufferable horror would be over, done with, but instead it just went on and on and on. Looking towards him patiently across the boards that cut it off at chest-height, the huge head appeared to shrug its robe-draped shoulders sympathetically, an energetic ripple of displaced mauves and burnt umbers moving through the garment’s folds and then resettling as the glimmering impossibility resumed Ern Vernall’s education, much of it related to the field of architecture.

“ … aeond thier cfhourvnegres orfflidt Heerturnowstry awre haopended.”

And there at the higher convergence of the aeons that is fourfold on the dim benighted verges of our Heaven, at the ‘or’ of things, the golden-lighted hinge of possibility that in this hour when are black people freed hove off the lid of an eternal here and now of history that is already happened, has turned out, has ended happily with hope and awe or is in your awareness unresolved and open-ended, yet rejoice that Justice be above the Street, for lightnings mark our transit and the corners of Eternity are opened.

This continued for two and three-quarter hours.

The lecture was expansive, introducing Ern to points of view he’d never really thought about before. He was invited to consider time with every moment of its passing in the terms of plane geometry, and had it pointed out that human beings’ grasp of space was incomplete. An emphasis was placed on corners having unseen structural significance, being located at the same points on an object whether realised in plan or elevation, constant though they be expressed in two or three or more dimensions. Next there was a discourse on topography, albeit one in which that subject was projected to a metaphysical extreme. It was made clear to him that Lambeth was adjacent to far-off Northampton if both were upon a map that should be folded in a certain way, that the locations although distant could be in a sense conceived as being in the same place.

Still on matters topographic, Ern was introduced to a new understanding of the torus, or ‘the life-belt shape’ as he inwardly called it, an inflated round pierced by a hole. It was remarked upon that both the human body with its alimentary canal and humble chimney with its central bore were variations on this basic form, and that a person might be seen as an inverted smokestack, shovelling fuel into its top end with brown clouds of solid smoke erupting from the other to disperse in either earth or sea, in anything save sky. It was this point, despite the tears still coursing down his cheeks, despite the fact that he felt he was drowning, at which Ern began to laugh. The idea of a man or woman as a chimneypot turned upside down was just so comical he couldn’t help it, with the picture that it called up of long streaming turds unfurling over London from the city’s foundry towers.

Ern laughed, and as he did so did the angel, and its every scintillating intonation was brim-full with Joy, with Joy, with Joy, with Joy, with Joy.

Bill Mabbutt noticed that the storm had finished when the nearby churches chimed for noon and he first realised that he could hear them. Setting down his mortarboard with the last scrapes of grout that he’d been using to fill in between some problematic tiles, he turned and clapped his raw-beef hands so that the men would heed him. His light tenor voice reverberated in the galleries, careening in the aisles like a lost gull as he announced a stoppage for some tea and bread.

“All right, lads, that’s your lot for ’alf an ’our. Let’s ’ave our bit o’ bup and get the kettle on.”

Remembering the decorator, Mabbutt nodded his pink, glistening head towards the scaffolding.

“We’d better wind old Ginger down, and all. I’ve seen ’im lose his rag and you can trust me that it’s not a pretty sight.”

Big Albert Pickles, lumbering across the polished checkers with his filmy, incomplete reflection swimming in the sheen beneath his boots, looked up at Bill and grinned as he took his position by one of the cage’s corner winches.

“Aye. ’E’s ginger and ’e’s barmy and ’is dad’s still in the army.”

Several of the other fellows smirked at this old ragamuffin taunt as they prepared to man the scaffolding’s remaining ropes, but Bill was having none of it. A tubby bloke who had a piping voice he may have been, but Bill had won a medal fighting the Burmese and all the men, including Albert Pickles, knew they’d best not go upsetting him.

“ ’Is dad’s passed on, Bert, so we’ll ’ave no more of that, eh? ’E’s a decent chap who’s ’ad ’ard luck and just got a new baby. Now, let’s ’aul ’im down, then all of you can ’ave your break.”

The men accepted the reproof good-naturedly, then took the strain upon their cables as Bill ventured a shout up into the glorious well above them, telling Ginger to be ready so he shouldn’t spill his pots or knock them over when the platform started to descend. There was no answer, but with the suspended planking up at such an altitude Mabbutt had not really expected his announcement to be heard. He bobbed his ruddy chin in the direction of the labourers, whence they began to let sink the broad arc of wood down from the murmuring, gilded firmament of the cathedral to the brawny back-or-forth and subdued hubbub of its thronging floor.

The pulleys overhead struck up their measured, intermittent squealing like a horde of women lowering themselves by inches into the cold waters of a public bath. Pulling a hanky from his trouser pocket, Billy Mabbutt mopped the liquid glaze of perspiration from his rosy crown and thought of Ginger Vernall as he’d been out in Crimea, battering one of his fellow squadders bloody in their barracks when this other chap made some remark about the sort of background Ginger came from. Bill felt sorry for the man, that was the truth of it, to see how proud he’d been back in the war and see him now brought low by everything. No sooner was he back from fighting Russians when old John, his dad, went potty and then died not many years thereafter. Still shook up from all of that, Bill shouldn’t wonder, Ginger had took up with his young girl then married her, and right away she’d had first one kid then another. Billy never had a lot of truck with women, being more at ease with other men, but he’d seen such a lot of fellows get through muck and musket balls only to have their legs cut out from under them by wife and family. Ginger was stuck with hungry mouths to feed and no place of his own where they could live, still at his mam’s out Lambeth and a miserable old biddy she was too, from Mabbutt’s one encounter with her.

Ninety or a hundred feet above, the underside of Ginger’s podium came closer to a rhythmical accompaniment of groaning hawsers, grunting workers and shrill pulley-wheels. Stuffing the handkerchief back where it came from Bill turned round to face the trestle table where he’d put his mortarboard so he could give it a wipe down before he had a cup of tea. The clergy of St. Paul’s had been persuaded after an unseemly bout of haggling to boil up a big tub of water over the cathedral’s stove so that the two capacious teapots made of earthenware and brought along by the contracted labour could be filled. These steamed there at the table’s far end now, alongside a collection of the dirtiest tin mugs that Bill had ever seen, another loan from the begrudging clerics. Dented and dilapidated, these had blotchier complexions than poor Strawberry Sam, Bill’s young apprentice at St. Paul’s. Shit-coloured rust was crusted at their rims, and one was gnawed through by a bum-wipe of corrosion so you could see daylight. Rubbing the last scabs of grout from off his board, Bill made a mental note to see as neither him nor Ginger got the cup that had a hole, unless they wanted hot tea pissing in their laps.

He was made gradually aware of a commencing ruction somewhere to his rear and so looked back towards the scaffold just in time to see the platform winched down below head-height, now a yard or two at most above the ground. Old Danny Riley with his beard like Mr. Darwin’s and that same gent’s monkey mouth was saying “Who’s that? Blessed Mary, now, who’s that?” over and over like the village fool, so that Bill glanced about to see if some Archbishop or important man like that had stepped out from behind a post and come amongst them. Finding no one he looked back towards the wedge of boards that skimmed now only inches from the tiling and which with another scream from its four pulleys would be landed.

Coming from the figure squatting there at the construction’s centre was a stammering “hoo-hoo-hoo” noise, only audible once all the winches were at rest, and even then you couldn’t tell if it were laughter or the sound of weeping you were hearing. Tears rolled, certainly, across the figure’s grubby cheeks, but ran into the crevices of what might have appeared a blissful smile were not the eyes filled with confusion and with pain. Upon the boards in front of it, writ by a fingertip dipped in Venetian Yellow and with wobbling characters such as a young child might attempt was the word TORUS, that Bill knew to be a term come from astrology by virtue of the fact that he himself was born in May. What Mabbutt couldn’t fathom, though, was how the word came to be written on the planks at all, when he knew full well as the man that he’d sent up there to retouch the frescoes couldn’t write his name, perhaps might copy out a letter’s shape if he were so instructed, although obviously that had not been the case alone there in the upper dome.

Billy walked leadenly as in those nightmares of pursuit towards the heaping cage of scaffolding, pushing aside the navvies stood stock still and gawping in his way. Amidst the susurrus of gasps surrounding him he heard Bert Pickles saying, “Fuck me! Fuck my arse!” and heard the clattering footfalls of the priests come running to see what the noise was all about. Someone beside the figure shipwrecked there upon his raft had started crying. From the sound, Bill thought it was young Sam.

Looking up from the scattered pots and brushes that he sat amongst and from the inexplicable bright scrawl, the person who’d come down from the high gantry’s pinnacle stared back at Mabbutt and his other workmates, and then giggled in a sobbing sort of fashion. It was not as though there was no recognition there in his expression, but more as if he had been away so long that he had come to think his former occupation and companions all a dream, and was surprised to find they were still there. Billy could feel hot tears well in his own eyes now, returning that destroyed, uncomprehending gaze. His voice twisted an octave higher than it’s normal pitch when Billy tried to speak. He couldn’t help it.

“Oh, you poor lad. Oh, my poor old mate, whatever ’as become of you?”

One thing was sure. For the remainder of his life no one would ever, when they spoke of Ernest Vernall, call him Ginger.

Billy walked his broken friend home over Blackfriars Bridge and stayed a while with Ernie’s wailing family once they’d recognised the stranger brought home early from his work. Even Ern’s mam was weeping, which Bill was surprised by, having never thought she had an ounce of pity in her, though her son’s condition would have made a stone cry. Not so much the way Ern looked now as the things he talked about – trees, pigeons, lightning, corners, chimneypots – a tumult of plain, ordinary things that he would mention in the same hushed tones with which one might discuss a mermaid. The one person not in tears amongst the household was the two-year-old, young John, who sat there staring at his transformed father with those big dark eyes whilst mother, grandmother and baby sister wept, and all that time he never made a sound.

Ernest refused to speak about what had occurred up in the storm clouds over London, save to John and Thursa some years later, when his son was ten years old and Thursa only eight. For their part, Ernest’s children never would reveal what they’d been told, not even to their mother or to John’s own offspring when he married and had kids a decade later, at the tail end of the 1880s.

On the morning after and in fact on every day that week Ern Vernall, having by that point regained at least some of his senses, made a brave attempt to take up his employment in St. Paul’s again, insisting there was nothing wrong with him. Each morning he would reach the foot of Ludgate Street and stand there for a time, unable to go any further, before turning round in his despondent tracks and making back for Lambeth. He had some work for a while, just on and off, though not in churches anymore and not at any height. Anne had two further children by him, first a girl named Appelina, then a boy that Ernest was insistent should be christened Messenger. In 1868 Ern’s wife and mother for the first time in their lives agreed on something and allowed him to be placed in Bedlam, where Thursa and John and sometimes the two younger kids would make first monthly and then yearly visits until the July of 1882 when, in his sleep and aged just forty-nine, Ern perished from a heart attack. Except his eldest children, no one ever found out what he’d meant by the word TORUS.


What Marla thought was, it had all gone wrong when the royal family had killed Diana. All of it was bad things what had happened after that. You knew they’d killed her, ’cause there was that letter what she wrote, how she’d thought, like, they’d do it with a car crash. That was proof. Diana was expecting it, what happened to her. Marla wondered if she’d had a whatsit, premonition, a prediction thing that night it happened. That bit what you always see with her and Dodie and the driver coming out the Ritz where it’s like on the hotel cameras and they go through the revolving doors. She must have known in some way, Marla thought, but it was like Diana’s destiny what couldn’t be avoided. Marla thought she must have known when she was walking towards the car.

She’d been, what, ten? Ten when they’d had the car crash. She remembered it, just being on the settee with a blanket all that Sunday crying, in her fucking mum’s house up on Maidencastle. She remembered it, but then she’d thought she could remember watching telly when she was a baby, when Prince Charles and Princess Di got married in St. Paul’s. She could remember it as clear as anything and she’d go on about it to her mates but then, like, Gemma Clark had said how that was 1981 and Marla was nineteen now, what meant she’d been born in 1987 or whatever, so she can’t have done and must have seen it on a video. Or it was, like, Edward and Sophie and she’d got mixed up, but Marla wasn’t having it. They could do all this stuff now, where they faked things? Like September the Eleventh or the Moon landing and that, or like – who was it? – Kennedy. Who was to say they’d not got married after 1987, but it was all covered up and all the pictures changed with CSI effects? Nobody didn’t know nothing for sure, and they were fucking liars if they said they did.

What made her think of Di was she’d just popped back in her flat from where she’d been up Sheep Street, that way, just popped back ’cause she’d remembered where she thought she might have left some, and when she was looking down beside the sofa she’d found all her scrapbooks with Diana in instead. There was her Jack the Ripper books and all her Di stuff, where she thought she’d lost it or she’d lent it out to somebody. Other than that, what she’d been looking for weren’t down there, but she’d jumped on what turned out to be a bit of cellophane from off a fag-pack thinking it was something else, how everybody must have done one time or other, when you see that glint down in the carpet and you think you might have dropped some, or somebody might. But there was nothing in the flat except for Jack the Ripper and Diana. If she wanted it that bad she’d have to earn it, wouldn’t she?

She had a king-size Snickers, then she made herself boil up a kettle for Pot Noodle so as she could say she’d had a healthy meal, although who would she say it to, now Keith and them had cut her out? Oh, fucking hell. She only had to think about it and it made her stomach do that sort of drop thing and she’d go right into one, start thinking about everything there was might happen and what would she do and all of that, all of the usual, and it really made her need a smoke. She sat there in her armchair with its straps all busted under the foam cushion, spooning worms and gristle in hot dishwater into her mouth and staring at the wallpaper where it was starting to peel back up in the corner, looking like a book was opening. Whatever else she did, she wasn’t going out tonight, not on the Beat, not down the Boroughs. She’d go out and get the homeward traffic later on this afternoon, but not tonight. She promised herself that. She’d sooner go without it altogether than risk that.

To give her brain something to gnaw on until she could sort things out, she thought back to when she’d last had some and it had been good. Not just this Thursday, yesterday, which was the actual last time, obviously, ’cause that was shit. Not any time before that in the last five months, when she’d been getting fuck all out of it, no matter how much she was doing, but the last time it was good. That had been January, just after Christmas when her mate Samantha, who’d worked further up the Andrew’s Road in Semilong, had come to put her hair in rows. She was still in with Keith then – both of them were in with Keith – and things were still all right.

After they’d seen to Marla’s hair, which had took ages but looked great, they done a pipe and give each other half-and-half. She weren’t a les and neither was Samantha but it gave a boost to it, it was well known. It pushed it up another level, you’d be sucking on the pipe while they kneeled down and sucked you off, then you’d change round. Down on the fucking old Jamaican flag rug what her mum had given her when she moved out, still there six inches from her toe where she was sitting now, eating her noodles. It was January, so they’d had both bars on of the fire and had their knickers off, in just their T-shirts. Marla let Samantha have first go because she’d come and done her hair, so she could hear the whistling noise like blowing down an empty biro when Samantha sucked the smoke in and when Marla got down on the floor and licked her out. It tasted like the lemon from a gin and tonic, and Franz Ferdinand were on the radio, cassette, whatever, doing ‘Walk Away’. When it was her turn next, Samantha was well off her face and gobbled at her like a dog with chips while Marla stood and took it back and it was fucking perfect, not quite how it was the first time but still magic.

What it was, when it was good, it felt like that was you, that was how you were meant to feel, that was the life that you deserved and not all this, this walking round like you’re asleep and feeling like you’re dead. Up there it was so good you thought you were on fire and could do anything, even in just a T-shirt by a two-bar fire with red spots on your legs and someone’s pubes gone down your throat. You felt like fucking Halle Berry, somebody like that. You felt like fucking God.

This wasn’t helping anything, it was just making Marla want some even worse. Putting the empty plastic pot down on the coffee table that she’d covered with some gift-wrap paper under glass after she’d seen it done on a makeover show, she picked up her Diana book instead, from where she’d placed it on the sofa with her Ripper paperbacks. A great big thing with coloured sugar-paper pages, Marla had begun collecting articles to put in it when she was ten and when Diana died. The cover had a picture that she’d done stuck over it with Pritt Stick so there were all bumps and creases in it. It was an old photo Marla had cut from a Sunday magazine, showing a place in Africa at sunset with the clouds all lit up gold, but what Marla had done was cut a face of Princess Di out from another page and glued it over where the sun was, so it looked like Di was up in Heaven lighting everything. It was so beautiful she hardly could believe, now, that she’d done it, specially not when she’d been ten, and she’d not seen anywhere else since then where anyone had come up with a picture that was half as clever an idea as hers. She’d probably been like a genius or something back then, before everybody started going on at her.

She had another look beside the sofa, just in case, and underneath as well, then sat back in the armchair, sighing, running one hand back over her head, over the rows where they were coming all to frizzy bits. That was because Samantha wasn’t round there anymore. Marla had heard she’d gone back to her parents up in Birmingham when she’d come out of hospital, so there’d been nobody to see to Marla’s rows. It wasn’t like she had the money to have them done properly, so she was letting them unravel until some time when she could afford to have them seen to. Marla knew they made her look a state and they were bad for business, but what could she do? She’d had a tooth fall out three weeks ago from all the sweets and that weren’t helping neither, but at least with that she could still practice smiling with her mouth shut.

That was bad, what happened to Samantha. She’d got in the wrong car, or been dragged in. Marla hadn’t seen her since to ask her. These two blokes had took her over Spencer Bridge to do it, round the back of Vicky Park, and left her half dead in the bushes, pair of fucking cunts. There was a girl got done like that it must be every week, but it weren’t one in four of them that got reported. Not unless it was a big event, like that last August when there was the rape gang in the BMW took women off from Doddridge Street and Horsemarket, and that girl what got dragged from near the poolroom down in Horseshoe Street then took up Marefair round the green behind St. Peter’s Church. Five rapes in ten days that had been, got on the television news and everything, everybody saying something would get done about it. That had been a good six months before what happened to Samantha. Marla sat there in her busted armchair thinking about how Samantha had got up from off the floor wiping her chin when Marla finished coming, then they’d had a little kiss, still rushing, tasting all the smoke and love-juice in each other’s mouths. Later that night they’d had another go because it was just after Christmas, but it wasn’t such a hit and neither of them had got off that second time, they’d just kept at it ’til their jaws hurt and they’d got fed up.

Thinking about it – and it was one of the only things that didn’t frighten her to think about – Marla would bet there wasn’t a room anywhere inside these flats what hadn’t had somebody fucking in it. Not a kitchen or a lavatory or anything where someone hadn’t stood there with their pants off doing something or else having something done to them. She could still sort of see her and Samantha gobbling each other down on the Jamaican flag, and if she thought about it she could picture other people too, in the same room as she was but perhaps from long ago like 1950 or whenever. What if there’d been someone like her mum, some slag who’s in her forties and when the old man’s out, bang, she’s got some tramp in off the streets and giving her one up against the wall? Marla could see them, with the woman old and fat and wobbling standing with her hands up on the wall just over Marla’s mantelpiece above the two-bar fire, her great big bum out and her skirt up, while this comical old tramp with an old trilby covering his bald patch gives it to her from the back, still with his hat on. Marla laughed and was dead tickled at how she’d imagined it in such a lot of detail when she never normally called pictures to her mind like that, or even managed any dreams. What little sleep she got was empty darkness like a big black fag burn that you fell in and climbed out of later not remembering a single thing. She was still looking at the fat lass and the tramp that she imagined, doing it against the wall above the fireplace, when the doorbell rang and made her jump.

She crept along the passageway to the front door, past where the bathroom and her messy bedroom both led off, and wondered who it was. She thought it might be Keith come back to say he’d take her on again, but then she thought it might be Keith come back to say she owed him still and smack her round the room. She was relieved and disappointed both at once when she opened the door up on its chain and it was only that bloke Thompson from up Andrew’s Street, the ferrety old queer bloke who banged on about the politics and that. He was all right, and always sounded kind when he was talking to you, never talking down at you like most of the political ones did, the black ones and the whites. He’d called round once or twice in the past year or eighteen months, just going round from door to door and getting signatures for some petition or else telling people about meetings there were going to be, to stop the high-ups selling off the council houses and all that, and Marla always said she’d go along but never did, ’cause she’d be either working or else smoking.

This time he was going on about some painting exhibition that this artist woman what he knew was doing, in the little nursery up on Castle Hill five minutes’ walk away. She wasn’t really listening much while he explained, but it was all to do with how this artist was supporting one of his political campaigns that he was doing in the Boroughs, and how she’d come from that area herself, like that meant anything. The Boroughs was a shit-heap that was full of rotten cunts like them next door who’d had the ASBO put on her, and if it weren’t that it was where they’d given her a flat and where she worked, for all she cared they could tear the whole fucking place down and then bury it. The Thompson bloke was telling her this exhibition thing was in the afternoon on the next day, the Saturday, and Marla said she’d definitely go though they both knew she wouldn’t, just so she could shut the door without offending him. Tomorrow afternoon, Marla would either be all right, in which case she’d be round here in her flat and getting out of it, or else she wouldn’t be all right, and either way she wasn’t going to want to look at paintings. They were all a fucking con and people just said they could see all deep things in them when they wanted to look clever.

Shutting her front door on the old guy, Marla was hoping that come the next afternoon she’d definitely be all right, rather than not all right, whatever that might mean. Probably nothing worse that slogging round by Grafton Street and Sheep Street like she had today, in hope of lunchtime trade. That was as bad off as she’d be, she told herself. She knew she definitely wasn’t going out down Scarletwell tonight, no matter how bad it might get, no way, so that was one alternative she didn’t have to worry over.

After she’d got rid of Thompson or he’d gone on to the next house or whatever, she went back into the living room and sat back down where she’d been sitting, but she found she couldn’t now imagine the two people fucking by the fireplace like she had before. They’d gone. She checked again beside the sofa and beneath it, then sat down again and thought about how it was all her fucking mum, Rose, was to blame for this. A little skinny white slag always chasing after niggers with her hair in dreadlocks, doing all the talk like Ali G and fucking giving it Bob Marley this, Bob Marley that. She’d even named her brown kid fucking Marla with Roberta as a middle name. Marla Roberta Stiles, and Stiles was just what Marla’s mum’s last name was, and not Marla’s dad’s. He’d been long gone and Marla didn’t blame him, not one fucking bit. No fucking woman, no cry.

All the time while Marla had been growing up, her mum had been there making fucking curry with her headphones on and bellowing to lively up yourself or one of them. Or she was sitting by the telly spliffing up from little deals of ropey weed and saying it was fucking ganja. Then there was her boyfriends, every one some fucking nigger who’d be gone in six weeks or six minutes when they found out that she’d got a kid. When Marla was fifteen she’d fucked one of them, one of Rose’s boyfriends, Carlton with the funny eye, just to get back at Rose for all the … just for everything. Just all of it. Marla still didn’t know whether her mum had ever found out about her and Carlton, but he’d been kicked out the Maidencastle house within the month and there was such an atmosphere that Marla hadn’t stuck it for much longer and fucked off herself soon as she turned sixteen. It was around then that she’d met Samantha and all Gemma Clark and them, and Keith.

Her mum had only been round once since Marla had got fixed up with the flat. She’d sat on the settee there with a skinny little spliff, Marla could see her now, and told her daughter what, in Rose’s own opinion, she was doing wrong, how she was messing up her life. “It’s all these drugs. It’s not just like a lickle bit of ’erb. You’ll end up like a slave to it.” Yeah, like you’re not a slave to cider and black cock, you fucking hypocrite. But Rose would have just said something like “At least I’m not out and selling it down Grafton Street.” You couldn’t, mum. You couldn’t fucking sell it and you couldn’t fucking give it away free, you just, you fucking couldn’t. “There’s no love in what you do.” Oh, fucking hell. You stupid fucking … what, you think there’s any in what you do? In what anybody does? It’s all just FUCKING SONGS and FUCKING BIRTHDAY CARDS, you cunt, you old cunt. DON’T YOU FUCKING TELL ME, RIGHT, don’t you fucking tell me because YOU, you’ve got NO fucking right, no fucking right. You sit there with your fucking SPLIFF, your fucking GAN-JAH, fucking smiling ’cause you’re monged and saying to chill out. YOU WHAT? You fucking WHAT? I’ll fucking chill YOU out, you old cunt. Fucking leave YOU with your face in stitches and your ribs all kicked in, see how YOU like it, you fucking, FUCKING …

There was no one there. She was all on her own. I tell you, man, you’ve seriously got to watch that. Seriously. She’d been shouting, not just in her head but out loud. It was getting a bit regular with Marla, that was, shouting. Shouting at Miss Pierce, her form teacher from Lings. Shouting at Sharon Mawsley when they were in first year, shouting at her mum, shouting at Keith. Yeah, right. As if. At least it was all people what were real and what she knew, or at least mostly. At least so far. There’d been only once, no, twice, when Marla had been shouting at the Devil, and a lot of people got that all the time. Samantha used to get that. She’d said that for her he was a red cartoon one with a pitchfork, but that’s not the way that Marla saw him.

It had been the middle of the night about three months back, after what had happened to Samantha. She’d not had a proper smoke, ’cause there’d been none about but somebody – who was it? – somebody had given her some pills, fuck knows what, just to get her through. She’d been here in the flat, the same place where she always was, sat up in bed there in the dark having a fag just so that she’d be smoking something. She was staring at her fag end, like you do, and in the dark there it looked like a little face, a little old man’s face with pink cheeks and pink mouth and two black flecks for eyes. The bits of grey and white ash were his hair and eyebrows and his beard. There were two glowing sparks up at the top, bright red so that they looked like horns, a little devil man there on her fag end and it looked like he was grinning. Where the hot coal at the end was burning through the paper from the other side to make his mouth it sort of went up at one side, and Marla had been all, like, Yeah? What are you laughing at, you ugly cunt? And he was like, Who do you think I’m laughing at? I’m laughing at you, ain’t I? Because when you die you’re going to go to hell if you’re not careful.

That had been when Marla laughed at him instead, or snorted at him anyway. Well, what the fuck is hell supposed to be, you ash-faced twat? I’ll tell you, hell for me would just be being stuck in Bath Street here forever, and he’d said, Precisely, and that really fucking freaked her out. Where had she got a word like that? When she was talking to her people in her head they talked like she did, and she’d never said “Precisely” in her life. She’d stubbed him out, she’d squashed his little burning brains out in the ashtray by the bed and then she lay there until morning with it running round her head, the thing he’d said. She didn’t understand it and she didn’t understand why she was letting it get to her like it had. For fuck’s sake, what did he know? He was just a fucking fag end.

When Marla saw him the other time, that had been just a week or two ago, when Keith had told her he was having nothing more to do with her. She’d been here afterwards, been in the bathroom sorting out her mouth, which had looked much worse than it really was. She’d felt that low, though, that she’d thought about the fag-faced little devil and the things he’d said, fucking “Precisely”, all that, and she’d thought about it so much he was in her head like a real person, like Miss Pierce or Sharon Mawsley, and like all her people in her head he had a go at her. It was like he was sitting on the edge there of her little bathtub while she stood above the basin to one side of him and swabbed her chin with Dettol. He weren’t like the little red end off a fag though, this time, even if he sort of had the same face. He was a whole person like her mum or like the shagging tramp she’d thought about. He was all sort of dressed in what was like a monk’s robes or it might have been old rags, and it was either red, or green, or both. He had the curly hair and horns and beard and eyebrows like he’d had when he was made of ashes and, as Marla saw him in her head, he was still grinning at her, laughing when the Dettol stung and made her cry again when she’d only just stopped, only just got herself together.

He was pissing himself, this old Devil, and she’d lost it. She’d completely fucking lost it and she shouted Why don’t you leave me alone? He’d just looked back at her and done a face, taking the piss like, and he’d said it back to her, the same words, in a nasty whiny voice she knew was meant to sound like hers. He’d just said Why don’t you leave me alone, and then she’d just been crying after that and when she’d stopped he’d gone. She hadn’t seen him since, and didn’t want to see him but the other people who’d had demons said they got more regular, not less. He was her nasty fag-end devil prophet and she’d even got a name for him. Ash Moses, that was what she called him. Sometimes when she got that burning smell she often had when she was in the flat, the smell she thought was just her nerves all frying up, she’d laugh and say Ash Moses was about. But that was when she’d got some and was in a good mood and it all seemed funnier.

Marla was searching down beside the couch again when she looked at the carriage-clock there on the mantel and saw that she’d been here for more than an hour and half when she’d just meant to pop in on the off chance of some little lick she might have lost. Fuck. If she didn’t get a move on she’d have no chance of the knocking-off time trade, the blokes home for the weekend from the places that they worked in Milton Keynes or London or wherever. It had better be a bigger turn out than she’d seen at dinner time up Regent Square and Sheep Street and round there, ’cause if she didn’t get some money soon she’d, well, she’d stay in. Stay in, read her Di book and her Ripper books and just put up with it, that’s what she’d do. She definitely, definitely wasn’t going out tonight, no way. No way.

She sorted out her make-up best she could but there weren’t much that she could do about her hair. She put the scrapbook and the murder paperbacks inside the bedroom chest of drawers in the clean clothes space, so that she’d remember where they were, then went out through her little kitchen and her back door, into the big concrete gardens of the flats. It wasn’t a bad day, but just the sight of all the gravel paths and shrubs and steps stretching away towards the backs of all the flats there on the far side, or towards the big brick arches near the middle avenue, it always got her down and almost always kicked off the Ash Moses smell, though not today. This was a fucking awful place. She bet there hadn’t ever been a time when everything what happened here weren’t horrible.

One of the girls round there was thirteen and for this last month she’d been the rage with the Somalis, the poor lucky little fucker. Still, that wouldn’t last. She wouldn’t last. Then there was that old spastic bloke what used to live across the middle path on the next block somewhere, mentally handicapped whatever, what had been put out in the community. Next thing, he’s met some geezer in the pub, right, bloke asks himself back, says what a nice place that the mental feller’s got and how he’ll bring some mates of his round, it’ll be a bit of company, yeah? Next thing there’s all these fuckers moving in and taking over, telling this poor cunt they’ll kill him if they’re fucked about and he’s too mental to know any different and besides they might do. Doing gear and putting girls out round there and the handicapped bloke, he’s out living on the street. This was a place, these Bath Street flats, where any rubbish, anybody that the council wanted rid of, nutters, Kosovans, Albanians all that, they could put all the shit here and just wait for it to disappear, go up in smoke like everybody round here seemed to, like Samantha and the other girls, Sue Bennett and Sue Packer and the one what had a gap between her teeth, banjo string cleaner what they called her. Kerry? Kelly? Her what had been found up round Monk’s Pond Street anyway, the blonde one with the teeth. There weren’t nobody killed yet, but some of them had been fucking close. Samantha had been close by all accounts. There weren’t no way what she was going out tonight.

There was her ASBO. That was one good reason what she had for staying home, even without the other stuff, Samantha and all that. The fucking Robertses next door, that’s who she had to blame for that. It was like, three, four months ago when Keith was seeing to it that she got more work. There’d been, what, two or three nights, five nights at the very most when she’d brought punters round the flat. Not even late, only like two o’clock or that, and fucking Wayne and Linda Roberts on their fucking doorstep every fucking time and banging on at her about the noise, giving it this about their fucking baby, all this with her punters looking on and listening while she got called every cunt under the sun and is it any wonder she’d had a go back? Five fucking times. Six times at most, and then they’d had them put the ASBO on her.

Fucking ASBOs. What that was, it was so they could keep control of places like the Boroughs without wasting any cash on extra coppers. Just stick every fucker under ASBOs and then let the fucking cameras keep an eye on things. The cameras, that was what you call it, zero fucking tolerance. If anyone shows up on film what’s breaking their conditions, then that’s it, you can just lock them up. Don’t matter if what they’ve done is a proper criminal offence or not. Marla had heard about some woman got an ASBO for sunbathing, right, in her own back yard. What the fuck was that about? Some fucking neighbour cunt, some old cunt who can’t stand to see somebody having a good time, see someone with her baps out, so they fucking, what they do, they fucking get a fucking ASBO took out on you and then they …

Fat Kenny. That was who she’d had the pills off that night when she’d seen Ash Moses the first time, the big bald kid who lived in the flats up on the Mayorhold at the back of Claremont, Beaumont Court there, what they called the Twin Towers. She’d gone round his flat and wanked him off and he’d give her the pills. It was a funny thing, how when there was some little detail what you wanted to remember, if you just stopped trying and forgot about it, it would come to you. She walked across the courtyard to the gateway at one end of the brick arches where she could see it was open and she wouldn’t need a key, because she’d lost hers or she’d put it somewhere and forgotten where. Wearing her little sexy mac what she’d not took off all the while when she was in the house, she walked up by the middle path towards the ramp and told the dog halfway along to fuck off what was laying a big cable.

Stepping off the top end of the ramp and out the little half-walled exit into Castle Street she got a sort of lift from nowhere when the sun come out just for a minute, from behind a cloud. She felt more sort of positive whatever, and she thought that was a good sign, that was like a lucky whatsit. Not charm, but the same thing. It would be all right. She’d find somebody down Horsemarket or in Marefair and then after that, who knows, perhaps things might start looking up in general. If she could get sorted out a bit then Keith might say she could come back with him or, fuck him, there might be somebody else, one of the Kosovans or that, she didn’t care. It was about half four when she walked out from the no-entry at the end of Castle Street and onto Horsemarket. Right then. Let’s see who was about.

There was a lot of traffic, but all going fast and in a hurry to get home, nobody idling along at twenty with an eye out on the curb. Across the busy road she could see the arse-end of Katherine’s Gardens, what the wrinklies round there called ‘Gardens of Rest’, around the back of College Street and that dark-looking church. There were some old girls lived in Bath Street flats, ones who’d been on the batter in the old times and were all, like, in their sixties and that. Marla couldn’t even think what it would be like to be in her thirties. These old dears said as St. Katherine’s Gardens and the top of College Street was where all of the trade got done back in the 1950s and the 1960s, back then during wartime or whenever. Up where College Street met King Street there’d been this one pub called the Criterion and just across the road another called the Mitre. That was where the girls all used to knock about, back then. They’d either do the business in the bushes round in Katherine’s Gardens, or they had this taxi company next to the Mitre what would run them and the punters back down Bath Street, wait outside the flat five minutes for the bloke to finish and then run them both back up the pub. It sounded really nice to Marla, sort of cosy and all friendly. There’d be people round to keep an eye on you.

Of course, in them days the Old Bill were different. What their plan was then, it was to keep all of the different sorts of trouble to a different pub. So all the hippies and the druggies were all off in one pub, all the bikers in another, queers and lezzers up the Wellingborough Road somewhere and all the girls down here, up the top end of College Street. By all accounts it worked quite well, then you got all new coppers coming in with new ideas who probably just wanted to be seen as doing something, and to look good in the papers. They went in and busted all these pubs and scattered everybody everywhere, so now you’d got all of the different sorts of trouble spread through nearly every pub in town. Marla supposed it was a bit like with Afghanistan, when all the terrorists whatever were all in one place until they sent the soldiers in and now they’re fucking everywhere. Fucking result. Marla thought how it must have been when Elsie Boxer and the other old girls from her flats were on the game, back in the 1960s when it was all whatsit, all Dickensian and that. It must have been like really nice.

Elsie had said there used to be a statue just along from the Criterion on the edge of Katherine’s Gardens, that was like this woman with bare tits, holding a fish, but people all the time were fucking with it, putting paint all on its tits and that, then someone broke its head off. After that they probably thought like the people round here shouldn’t have a statue so they moved it off down Delapre, Delapre Abbey where it was all posh and old, over the back of Beckett’s Park what Elsie said they used to call Cow Meadow. Marla thought that was a shame, about the statue. It was fucking typical. Something that’s sexy, yeah? Some woman, or like statue, with the tits and that, there’s always going to be some cunt, some bloke who wants to smash it up. Anything lovely, like Princess Diana or Samantha. Fucking kill it. Fucking knock its head off. That was just the way things were, and it had always been like that. Some fucking people, they’d got no respect for fucking anything.

She stood there for a minute, sizing up her prospects. Looking uphill to her left there was the Mayorhold, somewhere else that Elsie said had used to be all right, a sort of village square thing, where there was just like this junction now. That could be a good patch for trade, or had been in the past at any rate, but only after it got dark and not around this time of day. Her best bet was downhill towards the traffic lights down at the bottom, on the corner there where Gold Street and Horsemarket joined with Horseshoe Street and Marefair. She’d get any trade coming up Marefair from the station, then there was whatever business might be passing by the other way, down Horsemarket and Horseshoe Street to Peter’s Way and out of town. Plus, right, there was the ibis, where they pulled the Barclaycard place down in Marefair. People off from home in a hotel, you never knew. Shoving her hands into the pockets of her little PVC mac, she walked down the hill.

Down at the bottom Marla went over Horsemarket to the Gold Street side there where the pizza place is, then crossed Gold Street to the corner where it joined with Horseshoe Street, then stood there while she lit a fag. That was the only good thing with all these no smoking laws. You got so many women worked in offices whatever who got made to go outside for fag breaks that if you were standing smoking on a corner these days, looking dodgy, no one automatically assumed that you was on the game or none of that. She watched the crowd, the people filing to and fro over the zebra crossings, coming back from work or home to make their kids’ teas. Marla wondered what was in their heads and bet it was like really fucking boring stuff like fucking football fucking telly shit, not like all what she thought about, all fucking wonderful and all imagination and all that, like anybody else would think of gluing Princess Di down on the sun. Watching her crowd for any possibles she let herself go off onto a daydream, thinking about who she’d like to have come up to her if she could have like anybody, any man.

He wouldn’t be a big bloke, and he wouldn’t be all blokey. Not a gay, but pretty. A bit girly, how he looked not how he acted. Nice eyes. Nice eyelashes and all that and really fucking fit, wiry and like he’d be dead good at dancing and dead good in bed. Black curly hair and he’s like got this little beard … no, no, this little moustache … and he’d be GSOH like in the adverts, a good sense of humour what could make her laugh a bit ’cause she’d not had a laugh in fucking months. He’d be GSOH but not N/S. And he’d be white. No special reason, he just would be. He’d be standing here, right on this corner with her and he’d chat her up, he’d flirt a bit, he wouldn’t just ask how much for a blowjob. He’d be fluttering his eyes and making little jokes and looking at her like they both knew where all this was going, looking really dirty in a real way, not like on a DVD. Oh, fucking hell. Marla was giving herself fizzy knickers. She pulled harder on her fag and stared down at the ground. This bloke, this bloke so fucking fit you wouldn’t even charge him, right? You’d fucking pay for it. This bloke, she’d take him up her flat and on the way there he’d be kissing her, he’d kiss her on the neck and maybe he’d feel round her bum and she’d say not to but he’d just look up at her, right? He’d look up from under his eyelashes like a little boy and he’d say something really fucking funny and she’d let him just do anything, man. Anything. When they got round the flats he’d probably steer her up against her flat’s door, right there in the hallway, and he’d have his hand down on her pubes and they’d be kissing, she’d be saying no, oh fucking hell, just let me open the front door.

And then the Robertses would have her put in prison.

She heard All Saints’ clock up at the top of Gold Street strike for the three-quarter hour, quarter to five, and ground her fag out underneath her shoe. She gave the passing crowd another once-over, but there was fuck all there. Some really pretty white girl with red hair who had this fucking gorgeous baby in one of them slings goes round the front. Yeah, nice one, darling. Nice tits. Fucking good for you, yeah? Probably you don’t even deserve that baby, probably you’ll fuck her up and she’ll grow up wishing you’d never had her, that she’d died when she was little and still happy, ’cause that’s what you feel like. That’s what fucking happens. That’s what fucking happens all the time.

There was a nice old black guy on a bike, white-haired with a white beard, clocked off and going home, stopped on his bike there with one leg down, waiting for the lights, and some fifteen-year-olds with skateboards underneath their arms, but nothing what had any prospects. Marla glanced down Horseshoe Street there on her left and wondered if it might be worth a visit to the pool hall that was halfway down towards the pub, the Jolly Wanker or whatever it was called, what Elsie Boxer said had been the biker pub, the Harborough something. Harbour Lights. That was a nice name, cosy sounding, better than the fucking Jolly Wanker. There might be the odd bloke in the pool hall, maybe won a bit of money, feeling lucky.

On the other hand, she didn’t like the pool hall much. Not because it was dark or sleazy, but … oh, look, this was completely fucking mental, right, but the one time she’d been in there it was like in the afternoon? And there was hardly anybody there, and it was dark with the big lamps above the tables shining down these big blocks of just light, white light and Marla had got creeped out so she’d just, like, left. She couldn’t even say ’til later what it was had got to her, the spooky feeling what she knew she’d had before and then she realised it was like when she’d been little and had gone inside a church. She’d told Keith that, one night in bed, and he’d said she was fucking mad, said it was rocks. “It’s rocks, gal. All them rocks inside your head.” She hated churches. God and all that, all that thinking about dying, or how you were living, all that bollocks, it was fucking morbid. If she wanted the religious thing she’d think of Princess Di. Any trade waiting down the holy pool hall could fuck off, Marla decided, and she stuck her hands down in her pockets, tucked her chin in and then waited for the lights to go back green so she could cross the top of Horseshoe Street to Marefair. She’d have better luck down at the station.

Marla took it easy as she made her way down Marefair, on the far side of the street from the hotel and all the leisure place whatever. No point being in a hurry, that was all off-putting, looking like you’d mind somebody stopping you to have a word. She walked by all the fed-up looking little restaurants and all that, and when she got along towards that bit what runs down off from Marefair, Freeschool Street, she passed this couple looked like they were married, in their forties, and the fucking faces they had on them. Miserable as sin, like the whole world had fallen in, heading up Marefair out of Freeschool Street, uphill towards town centre. They weren’t holding hands or talking, looking at each other, nothing. Marla didn’t even know why she thought they were married but they had that look, walking along both staring into space like something fucking horrible just happened. She was wondering what it was, thinking about them, when she almost walked into the bloke stood in the road there at the top of Freeschool Street, just staring down it like he’d lost something, his dog or something.

He was quite a tall bloke, white bloke, getting on but in good shape with curly black hair what hadn’t gone grey yet, but that was as close to Marla’s dream-bloke as he got. No pretty lashes and no little moustache but a great big nose instead, with sad eyes where the eyebrows went up in the middle and looked stuck like that, and with a big sad smile across his face. He was dressed funny too, with this all sort of orange yellow red whatever waistcoat on over a real old-looking shirt with rolled up sleeves and one of them things, not cravat, not tie, like coloured handkerchief thing round his neck like farmers had in books. With the big nose and curly hair he had a sort of pikey look, standing and staring off down Freeschool Street after his dog or his old woman or whatever else it was he’d lost. He was no fucking painting and was older than what Marla liked, but she’d done older and she knew full well as she’d done uglier. As she stepped back from nearly running into him she looked at him and smiled and then remembered where the tooth was gone so sort of turned it to a pout, a little kiss thing with her lips pushed forward when she spoke.

“Ooh, sorry, mate. Not looking where I’m going.”

He looked round at her, with his sad eyes and brave-face-on-it smile. She realised that he’d had a drink or two, but then so much the better. When he answered he’d got this high funny voice what had a sort of twang to it. It wasn’t even high all of the time, but sometimes went down in a kind of Farmer Giles ‘Arrrr’, same as with the scarf what he had round his neck, all countrified or something, Marla didn’t know, but then it would go up in this weird laugh, this giggle, sort of nervous laugh thing. He was definitely pissed.

“Aa, that’s all right, love. You’re all right. Ah ha ha ha.”

Oh fucking hell. It was all she could do to keep from cracking up, like when she’d be getting a lecture from some teacher back up Lings and trying not to laugh, that noise you make up in your nose and cover up with coughing. This bloke was a fucking one-off. There was something really mental to him, not like dangerous or like the wombles what they put out into the community, but just like he weren’t on the same world everybody else was on, or like he might be the next Doctor Who. Whatever it was up with him he wasn’t biting, so she went for the direct approach.

“Fancy a bit of business?”

How he acted, she’d never seen anything quite like it. It weren’t like he was all shocked by what she’d said, but more like he was acting shocked and being all exaggerated, making it into a sort of funny turn. He jerked his head back on his neck and made his eyes go wide like he was startled, so his big black eyebrows lifted up. It was like he was being someone in a film what she’d not seen, or more old fashioned, like somebody from a pantomime or what you call it, music hall whatever. No. No, that weren’t it, what he was doing. It was more like films before they had the words in, when it was just music and all black and white and that. The way they made all their expressions right over the top so you’d know what they meant when they weren’t saying anything. He started wobbling his head a bit while he was doing this surprised face, just to make it look more shocked. It was like they were acting out a play at school together, or at least he thought they were, with all the different things you had to say writ out and learned beforehand. How he acted, though, it was like there were telly cameras on them, doing some new comedy. He acted as though she were in on it as well. He broke off the surprised look and his eyes went sad and kind again, all sort of sympathetic, then he turned his head away round to one side like he was looking at this audience or these cameras what she couldn’t see, and did his laugh again like this was just about the funniest fucking thing what ever happened. In a weird way, probably because it had been so long since she’d had some, Marla thought he might be right. This was all pretty fucking funny when you had it pointed out.

“Ah ha ha ha. No, no, no, you’re all right, love, thanks. No, bless your heart, you’re all right. I’m all right. Ah ha ha ha.”

The giggle at the end went really high. It sounded like it might just be he was embarrassed, but he was so fucking freaky that she couldn’t tell. She was out of her depth here. This was just, like, whoosh. She tried again, in case she’d read him wrong or something.

“Are you sure?”

He tipped his head back, showing this great whopping Adam’s apple, and then twisted it about from side to side, doing his giggle. She’d heard all the “he threw back his head and laughed” and that, but just in books. She’d not seen anybody try and do it. It looked really fucking loony.

“Ah ha ha ha. No, love, I’m all right, ta. You’re all right. I’ll have you know that I’m a published poet. Ah ha ha.”

And he was like, that said it all. That was, like, everything explained, right there. She sort of nodded at him with this fixed grin that was, Yeah, all right, mate, nice one, see you, and then Marla carried on along the Peter’s Church side, past them places made from all brown stones with criss-cross windows, Hazel-fucking-whatsit house and all of them. She looked back once and he was still there on the corner, staring down the little side-street waiting for his dog to come back up the hill, or whatever it was had run away from him. He looked up, saw her looking and he did the head thing. Even from this far away she could see that he’d done the giggle too. She turned away and walked on past St. Peter’s Church towards the station, where you could already see the people coming home, crowds of them pushing up towards town on Marefair’s far side, none of them looking at each other, or at Marla.

On her left, past its black railings and the grass all round it, Peter’s Church looked really fucking old, yeah? Really fucking Tudor or Edwardian or one of them. She looked to see if there was anybody sleeping underneath the cover of its doorway, but there wasn’t anybody there. Marla supposed the time was getting on now, five o’clock or round there, and they didn’t let you sleep in doorways over night, just in the day. At night they moved you on which, actually, was fucking stupid. She’d been by St. Peter’s yesterday round lunchtime and there’d been two fellers sleeping underneath the front bit then. Oh, no, hang on, there hadn’t been two, had there? There’d been one. That had been sort of funny, now she thought.

She’d seen two people lying in the doorway, or at least she’d seen the bottoms of their feet, where they stuck out from under all the sleeping bag and stuff. Their toes pointed together, inwards, so she’d thought that they were lying facing one another and thought no more of it. Then she’d looked again when she drew level with the gate, and there was only one pair of soles showing she could see. The other one had disappeared. She’d done a great big complicated working out inside her head, trying to figure out, like, where the other feet had gone. Perhaps, like, what it was, when she’d first seen them there’d been one pair of bare feet and this bloke had just took his shoes off, with them down beside his feet there, toe to toe. Then in between the first and second time she’s looked, he’d put them on, so she could only see one pair of feet the second time and thought someone had disappeared or was a ghost, whatever. Not that Marla thought that there was ghosts, but if there was then Peter’s Church would be like the big hangout, innit? Somewhere from their own times, all the Tudors and the Edwards, all of that lot.

Walking past its gate now, Marla couldn’t help but have a little peep in, just to see, but the space underneath the arch outside the closed black door was empty, except where they had the posters up for some other religion that was renting out the place, Greek Cypriots or Pakis, one of them. She went on, past the front of the Black Lion, where she stopped and looked towards the great big spread-out crossroads with the rush hour traffic, down there near the station. There were tons of people pouring out still, heading off up Black Lion Hill and Marefair into town, and there were all the black cabs in all different colours coming out the station entrance on this side of the West Bridge to wait there at the lights with all the vans and lorries. This was, like, well pointless. What the fuck was she down here for? She could no more walk down in that station forecourt just across the road than she could fly there.

It was Friday night. The girls would all be coming in from Bletchley, Leighton Buzzard, fucking London for all Marla knew, them and their fucking daddies, looking better than what she did ’cause they were looked after and like, looking at her, knowing what she was, how she was one of them but not even as good. That fucking look, yeah? And then there was Keith. Keith might be down there, scouting out new talent. He’d done that on Fridays sometimes and she knew she couldn’t handle that, not having Keith see she was desperate. For fuck’s sake, nobody did their business in the station anyway, not with the cameras. What the fuck had she been thinking? I mean, like, hello? Earth calling Marla. She weren’t going down there, but then she’d have nothing for tonight, but, like, she didn’t care, she still weren’t going down there. But then she’d have nothing for tonight. Oh fuck.

What she could do, she’d see Fat Kenny. He’d have nothing proper, but he just liked drugs so he’d have something. He could sort her out, then she could get through ’til tomorrow, even if she sat up all night talking to herself again. There’s worse ways she could spend the night than that. She waited for the lights to change so they were in her favour, then she tottered in between the waiting traffic and across Black Lion Hill to Marefair’s other side, where there was Chalk Lane running up to Castle Street and where she lived in Bath Street flats.

Chalk Lane always made Marla think of Jack the Ripper, at least since she’d read a bit some years back in the Chronicle & Echo, where some local bloke said how he thought the Ripper might have come from round there. Mallard, this bloke’s name was, both the one who’d writ the thing about it and the bloke he thought had done the killings. He’d been looking up his family tree and found this other family called Mallard what were the same name but not related and who lived down Doddridge Church, Chalk Lane, round that way. They’d had madness in the family, the dad had topped himself and one son had gone down to London, working as a slaughterer in the East End the time the murders happened. Marla had read all the theories and she didn’t reckon there was much in that one. It was just a laugh, that there was her all mad on Jack the Ripper and somebody thought he’d come from down her street.

Some of the other girls were all, like, what d’you want to read all that for, specially with the line you’re in, but Marla was, like … well, she didn’t know what she was like. She didn’t know why she was into Jack the Ripper nearly the same way that she was into Princess Di. Perhaps it was because it had all happened back in history, like with Lord of the Rings and that. Perhaps it didn’t feel like it had much to do with 2006 and what it was like being on the batter now. It was like an escape thing, the Victorian times, Tipping the Velvet and all them. It wasn’t real. That’s why she liked it. And the ins and outs of it were really, really interesting once you knew it all, how the Royal Family had ordered all them women murdered which was just the same as with Diana. Not like cutting her all up, but the same thing.

Now that she thought about it, there’d been other suspect Rippers passing through Northampton, not just this bloke Mallard from the local paper. Duke of Clarence, he’d come here and opened the old church, St. Matthews up in Kinsgley. Then there was the bent bloke, the bent poet bloke what hated women. J.K. something. J.K. Stephen. He’d died in the nuthouse up the Billing Road, the posh one where they said like Dusty Springfield, Michael Jackson and all them had been. This Stephen bloke, he was the one who wrote the poems dissing women. Had he written the Kaphoozelum one? It went, like, all hail Kaphoozelum, the harlot of Jerusalem. It had stuck with her ’cause the name was funny. Fuck, she’d rather she was called Kaphoozelum than Marla.

She walked up the entry of Chalk Lane from Black Lion Hill and thought for, like, two seconds about going round the front doors of the houses off the Chalk Lane entry to her left. Sometimes the girls she’d knew, they’d had to do that, if there weren’t no trade about or if the truckers down the Super Sausage car park showed no interest. They’d go round, like, door to door, houses they knew had single blokes in, widowers whatever, or they’d take pot luck, just knock on any door and ask if anybody wants a bit of business, just like pikeys selling pegs. Samantha once, right, she’d said how she’d knocked round Black Lion Hill, nowhere she knew, just on the off-chance, and it was that Cockie bloke, the councillor whose wife’s a councillor too. The wife was in, and everybody was all fucking outraged, saying as they’d have Samantha and all them looked into, so she’d took her shoes off and she’d legged it.

No, Marla was fucked if she’d go round Black Lion Hill. She’d wank Fat Kenny off. Perhaps he’d have an E to spare or something.

She was passing by the car park on her left there when she heard a noise, a voice or voices over its far side, what made her look up and take notice. Over the far corner, where there was a way up to that bit of grass around the back of the high wall on Andrew’s Road, what they said was where the old castle was, there were some kids just climbing up out of the car park to the grassy bit. She couldn’t see how many, ’cause the last one was just climbing up when Marla looked across, but she’d done business on the grass up there and felt a bit bad that it was where kids were playing. They were only fucking eight or something, younger than you’d think their mums and dads would let them play out in the street how things are now with fucking perverts everywhere. It would be dark inside another hour, and when she’d been in Marefair she’d thought it already looked sunsetty, up behind the station.

The last kid to climb up to the grass, the one what Marla saw, she was this little girl who’d got a dirty face but really pretty, like a little fucking elf whatever with the messy fringe and clever little eyes where she was looking back over her shoulder and across the car park straight at Marla. It was more than likely ’cause she was so far away and because Marla only saw her for a minute and had been mistaken like with the two pairs of feet in Peter’s doorway, but it looked like she was wearing a fur coat. Not coat, just that bit round the collar like a mink stole. Stole. The little kid looked like she’d got a stole on, something furry round her little shoulders, but Marla just saw her for a second and then she was gone and Marla carried on, to up by Doddridge Church. It must have been a fluffy top, Marla concluded.

Doddridge Church was all right, not so fucking miserable as all the other churches ’cause it hadn’t got a steeple, it was just this decent-looking building. Mind you, there was that door halfway up the wall what did her head in. What was that about? She’d seen doors halfway up old factories so they could make deliveries, but what would anybody need delivered in a church? Hymn books and that you could just take in through the door.

She went up Castle Street and round the top by the no-entry, how she’d gone out to Horsemarket earlier, but this time though she went the other way, up to the Mayorhold past the subway entrances and then along there by the Kingdom Life Church place, round to the flats behind the Twin Towers where Fat Kenny lived. He was at home, and had a plate of beans on toast in one hand when at last he come to see who it was at the door. He’d got his brand name sweatshirt on over his great fat belly, where it looked at least a size too small. So did his little face, a size too small for his shaved head, his big ears with the rings in one of them. He went, Oh, hello … and then sort of trailed off so she knew he’d got no idea what her name was and hardly remembered her, well thanks a fucking lot. Spend twenty minutes getting cramp over his little prick and that was all the thanks you got. But still, she smiled and sort of flirted with him, butting in when he trailed off, just to remind him who she was and what she’d done for him that time.

She asked him if he’d anything would take the edge off things, but he just shook his big bald head and said he’d only got this legal high stuff, stuff what you could order out the back of like Bizarre and them, and other stuff he’d grew himself. He’d got a mate of his round later. They were going to try these legal high things out. Marla said she was really desperate and if he’d give her a bit of whatever it was to see her through, then she’d see him all right, better than last time. She’d meant giving him a nosh, but he like thought about it for a minute then said that he might if it was anal and she’d said to fuck off, fuck right off and die you fat cunt. Have your fucking mate round and bum him instead, she’d sooner fucking go without. He’d done a shrug and gone back in his house to eat his beans on toast and she’d turned round and marched round by the front of the Twin Towers, up Upper Cross Street and along to Bath Street.

Fuck. She went in by the entrance in the half-fence, up the middle walkway in between the bits of grass. Fuck. Fuck, what was she going to fucking do? All fucking night with nothing, not even Ash Moses in her fag end she could talk to. Fuck. The black iron gate what she’d come out by was still open under the brick archway. She went through and down three steps into the courtyard and she got the smell, Ash Moses smell like someone burning shit, like someone burning shitty nappies, probably it was the FUCKING ROBERTSES. Fuck. Past the shrubs all fucking grey and up some steps under the little sheltered bit where the back doors ran off from. Marla saw the back of Linda cunt-face Roberts’s head when she was passing by their kitchen window, but got through her own back door and in the flat before the fucking bitch turned round and saw her too. Fuck. This was fucking shit. All fucking night. All fucking night and even the next morning, who said she was going to get some then?

The way it worked, when you were starting out with it, was that first time it felt like you were taken up, inside your body and your head, up somewhere you were meant to be where you could feel how you were meant to feel, a fucking angel or whatever, what they feel like. After that it wasn’t quite as good again, and it got worse ’til by the end, the way you’d felt before you took it that first time, well, that’s the level that you dream of getting back to now. Not feeling like a fucking angel all on fire, forget that, that’s not going to happen for you anymore, no, no, just feeling like a fucking person like you was again for just ten fucking minutes, that’s your fucking big ambition these days. Heaven, where you went the first time, that’s all shut. The ordinary world you used to be in, that’s shut too, most of the time, and you’re stuck somewhere else, somewhere that’s under all of that, like being under fucking ground.

Marla supposed that it was hell, like what she’d said when she was talking to Ash Moses. Being stuck here doing this in Bath Street, but forever.

The smell inside her flat, the smell of her all bottled up inside there, it was fucking minging coming back indoors to it like that. She knew she didn’t wash much, this last while, and always thought her clothes would do another day, but it was fucking bad in there. It was like she could hardly tell the smell of her from the Ash Moses smell, the burning shit smell. It was her and she was it. What was she going to do in here all night? Because this was where she was going to fucking be, that much was fucking certain. She was not YOU ARE NOT going out, you FUCKING TWAT. She would be staying in. All night. With fucking nothing.

She’d do like she said. She’d read her Ripper books, read her Diana book … she’d had an idea. The Diana book, the picture what she’d done there on its front, best fucking picture what she’d ever seen. That was, like, fucking art. People give money all the time for art and some of it was fucking shit, just pickled things and beds what they’d not made. Marla’s Diana picture had to be at least as good as that, had to be worth at least as much as that was. Just ’cause she was living down in Bath Street didn’t mean she couldn’t be an artist. That bloke Thompson who’d been round, the bender with the politics, he’d said that artist he knew, her was going to be on Castle Hill having her exhibition the next day, he’d said she was a woman had come from the Boroughs, fucking just like Marla. That was fucking destiny whatever, like coincidences, with him coming round putting the idea in her head like that. This was all going to happen. Fucking hell, you sometimes heard where people had give fucking thousands for some picture. Fucking millions.

Think what you could buy if you had that. She’d never have to go out anymore, never go begging round Fat Kenny’s, Keith could just fuck off. Yeah, you. You heard. Just fuck off. What are you to me, you little cunt, now I’ve got all this money? All the fucking bling-bling. I could have you fucking killed, mate. Just like that, a fucking hit man, bang and then I’ll go out on the piss with Lisa Mafia. She’ll be all like “You’re Marla, yeah, the fucking artist done that picture of Diana on the sun and all that? Fucking wicked. Fucking sorted, yeah? You fucking go, girl.” This was going to be so fucking good. She went to get the scrapbook with the picture on from where she’d left it on the coffee table and that’s when she realised she’d been fucking burgled.

What the fuck? Someone had been in, though there weren’t like nothing broken. Had she locked the back door, had she locked it when she went out? Had she needed to unlock it when she come back in? For fuck’s sake. Someone had been in while she was out. They’d been in and they’d taken not the telly, not the beatbox thing, not even took the carriage clock. No, now she looked around they hadn’t taken nothing except Marla’s scrapbook. And her Ripper books. She’d left them there as well, there on the coffee table so that she’d know where they were. Oh, fuck. Someone had been in, had her scrapbook with her picture of Diana on and the worst of it was that she’d been right. Been right about the picture. Why would someone nick it if it wasn’t valuable? Oh fucking hell, the millions that she could have got for that. Now look. Now look at her, she’s fucking crying. Fucking crying. Keith thinks she’s a cunt and Lisa Mafia thinks she’s a cunt as well. Princess Diana thinks that she’s a cunt.

Cry all you want. Cry all you want you stupid, stupid fucking cunt. Cry all you want ’cause you’re not going out.

It was a new moon like when they’re all sharp and pointed, over Scarletwell what run downhill to Andrew’s Road. That was the only place, where there were customers but where there were no cameras what could see you, although they kept saying they were going to put some there. On Marla’s left across the road there were the maisonettes what had their front round Upper Cross Street. Most of them were dark where you could see over the balconies but some with lights on, shining through all coloured curtains. On her right across the criss-cross wires that made the fence she had the grass bit at the top of Spring Lane School. Marla thought schools always looked haunted when it was at night and there weren’t kids there. She supposed it was because a school had such a lot of noise and kids all running round during the day, it made you notice more when it was dark and quiet and there weren’t nothing moving.

She went down past the school gates and carried on down by the bottom playing fields. Over the road now there were other flats, Greyfriars flats had she heard them called? They looked sort of the same as Marla’s flats, about as old, perhaps in better nick, you couldn’t really tell at night. Some of the balconies down here had rounded corners, though, and that looked sort of better than round hers. She carried on, down past where Greyfriars ended on the road’s far side and Bath Street’s bottom end curved round to join with Scarletwell. She went on past the empty playing fields, where they were fenced off at their bottom on her right and other than the traffic in the distance over Spencer Bridge all she could hear were her own footsteps on the bumpy path what had all weeds come up between its stones.

There was that little house all on its own there, little red-brick house at one end of this strip of grass by Andrew’s Road, just where it met with Scarletwell Street. It weren’t big, but looked as if it might have been two really little houses once what had been knocked together. It shit Marla up, shit her up every time she saw it and she’d no idea why. Perhaps it was because she couldn’t work it out, why it was standing there when what looked like the terrace it had been on had been pulled down years ago. It had a light on through thick curtains, so there must be someone living there. She pulled the collar of her mac tight and went clacking past the funny house and round the corner to its right, along the pavement by St. Andrew’s Road, between the road and that long strip of grass that ran towards Spring Lane, the bit where all the other houses must have used to be. Up in the sky, just here and there between the brown bits from the street lights, she could see all stars.

She knew. She knew exactly what was going to happen, in her guts she knew. There’d be a car along now, any minute. That would be the one. There wasn’t anything what she could do to stop it, nothing she could do so she was somewhere else. It was as if it had already happened, was already in the script of that bloke with the waistcoat’s comedy and there weren’t nothing she could do except just go along with it, go through the moves that she was meant to make, take one step then another up along beside the grass towards Spring Lane, then at the end turn back and walk along the other way, to Scarletwell Street, with the house all dark there on the corner and no windows lit from this side.

Walking back to Scarletwell, there were the noises from the station yards, behind the wall across St. Andrew’s Road, just shunting noises, but she could hear kids as well, kids’ voices giggling. They were coming from the big dark row of bushes on the far side of the strip of grass, that ran along the bottom there of the school playing fields to Marla’s left. It must be them what she’d seen earlier, the little girl with the fur stole from up Chalk Lane. What were they doing, all still out this late? She listened but the voices didn’t come again from up behind the hedge. She’d probably imagined them.

The little house was black against the grey sky up the hill behind it, up towards the railway station and up Peter’s Way. The car was coming down St. Andrew’s Road from up the station end towards her, moving slow, its headlights getting slowly nearer. She knew what would happen but it was like it would happen anyway. It was all set, the minute that she’d left the flat, all set in stone like with a church or something where it was already built and nobody could change it. The car stopped, pulled in across the road and stopped there at the corner on the other side of Scarletwell, across from where the house was. Marla couldn’t hear the kids now. There was nobody about.

She walked towards the car.


It had been in one sense forty years since Freddy Allen left the life. One day he might go back to it, there was always that possibility. That door was always open, as it had turned out, but for the moment he was comfortable the way he was. Not happy, but amongst familiar faces and familiar circumstances in a place that he was used to. Comfortable. Somewhere that you could always get a bite to eat if you knew where to look, where you could sort of have a drink and sort of have some of the other, now and then, although the now and then of it could be a pain. But there was always billiards, up the billiard hall, and there was nothing Freddy loved more than he loved to watch a cracking game of billiards.

He could remember how he’d got out of the life, the business, the proverbial ‘Twenty-five Thousand Nights’, as he’d heard it referred to. Far as Freddy was concerned, it might have happened yesterday. He’d been under the arches down Foot Meadow, sleeping out the way he did back then, when he’d been woke up sudden. It was like he’d heard a bang that woke him up, or like he’d just remembered there was something that was happening that morning that he’d better be alert for. He’d just come awake with such a start that he’d got to his feet and he was walking out from underneath the railway arches and across the grass towards the riverside before he knew what he was doing. Halfway to the river it was like he’d woken properly enough to think, hang on, what am I jumping up like this for? He’d stopped in his tracks and turned around to look back at the arches where he saw another tramp, an old boy, had already nicked his place where he’d been kipping, on the earth below the curve of brickwork up against one wall, had even nicked the plastic carrier bag of grass that had been Freddy’s pillow. It was bloody typical. He’d walked back a few steps towards the archway so that he could see just who the bugger was, so that he’d know him later. It had taken Fred a minute before he could recognise the nasty-looking piece of work, but once he had he knew he’d never get his spot back now. There was no point in even trying. He’d been moved on, and he’d have to just get used to it.

And Freddy had got used to it, after a time or in no time at all, depending how you saw it. How things were now, it weren’t such a bad existence, whatever his friend might try and tell him who lived in the bottom corner house on Scarletwell Street. They meant well, he knew that, telling him he should move up to somewhere better, but they didn’t understand that he was comfortable the way he was. He hadn’t got the worries that he’d had when he was in the life, but Freddy didn’t think they’d understand that, given what their situation was at present. You didn’t have the same perspective, living down there, as what Freddy had got now.

Now was a Friday, May the 26th, 2006, according to the calendar behind the bar in the Black Lion where he’d called in just to see if there was anyone about. He’d just been up a bit in the twenty-fives or twenty-sixes, up round there, in the St. Peter’s Annexe where that coloured woman with the bad scar who was famous up the way worked with the prostitutes and them on drugs, and all the refugees come from the east. He liked it up that way, the people all seemed more constructive and just getting on with things, but there was never anybody there that Freddy knew and so he’d come down to this bit where he was sitting now, with Mary Jane across the table from him. Both of them were sat there with their chins propped in their hands and looking down, a bit glum, at the empty glasses on the laminated tabletop between them, wishing there was some way they could have a proper drink but knowing as they couldn’t, knowing that instead they’d have to have a proper conversation. Mary Jane lifted her always-narrowed and suspicious eyes to look at him across the empty glasses.

“So you were saying you’d been up there in the twenty-fives, then? I’ve not been up there meself, now, ’cause I’ve heard as there’s no pub up there. Is that right?”

Mary Jane had got a gruff voice like a man, though Fred had known her long enough to tell it was put on. She’d quite a light voice underneath but made it deeper so no one would think she was a push-over, though why she thought they’d think that, Freddy hadn’t got a clue. One look at Mary Jane with that face and them scabs all on her knuckles, most folk would know well enough to keep away. Besides, her opportunities to get into a scrap had all been over ages back. There wasn’t any need for her to keep on scaring people off. Freddy supposed it was the habit of a lifetime and that Mary Jane was never going to change if she’d not changed by that point.

“No, no pub. Just the St. Peter’s Annexe what they call it, where they’re looking after people. Tell the truth, I shouldn’t think you’d like it much. You know how there’s some areas where the weather’s always bad? It’s one of them. The people up there are all nice enough, some real good sorts like in the old times, but there’s never anybody that you know goes up there. Well, except the gangs of kids and that, but they get everywhere, the little buggers. I expect that everyone’s like us, stick in the muds what never leave their own bit of the Boroughs and don’t go much higher than the fourteens or fifteens.”

She listened to what Freddy had to say and then she screwed up her expression, like a face a kid had drawn upon a boxing glove, and glared at him. That was just how she was with everyone. You couldn’t take it personal with Mary Jane.

“Fifteens be fucked. I’m not even that fond of how they’ve got it here.”

She waved one scabby-knuckled hand around to indicate the pleasant little bar-room with its other bit down a short flight of steps from where they sat. There were two men stood talking to the girl behind the bar, just while she served them, and a couple in their twenties sitting chopsing in one corner, but nobody Mary Jane or Freddy knew. The Black Lion, this bit of it, was a decent little place still, but there was no arguing with Mary Jane when she was in a mood like this, and she was always in a mood like this so there was never any arguing.

“If you want my opinion, these new places are a waste of fucking time. You’re better off down in the forty-eights and forty-nines where there’s a better class of individual, with more go in them. Or if that’s not what’s to your liking, why don’t you come up the Smokers of a night, above the Mayorhold? There’s the old crowd in there still, them as would know you, so you’d not go short of company.”

Freddy just shook his head.

“It’s not my kind of place that, Mary Jane. They’re a bit rough for me, the crowd up there with Mick Malone and that lot. I’m not being funny, but I’m just more used to keeping to meself. Sometimes I go down Scarletwell to see a chum I’ve got down there, but I keep off the Mayorhold, mostly, as it is now.”

“I’m not talking about now, I’m saying in the night-time. We have a good laugh, up in the Jolly Smokers. ’Course, I’ve always got the Dragon just across the way there, if I’m feeling in the mood.”

A dirty and lascivious grin broke out across Mary Jane’s face while she was saying this, and Freddy felt relieved to have the woman from behind the bar come out and interrupt by clearing off the dirty glasses, so they wouldn’t have to follow up that line of thought. The barmaid moved that fast that she was like a blur, just whipped the glasses from their table then shot back behind the bar, not paying them the least bit of attention. That was how it was for ones like him and Mary Jane, for the rough sleepers. People hardly knew that you were there. They just looked through you.

Mary Jane, when she picked up the thread of talk again, had moved on from the subject of the Dragon and her love life, which was just as well, but in the absence of a drink to shut her up was reminiscing, still within the general subject of the Mayorhold, on the fights she’d had there.

“God, do you remember Lizzie Fawkes, how me and her went at it outside the Green Dragon in the street, right on the Mayorhold there? We had a set-to over Jean Dove what was so bad that the coppers daredn’t bust us up. I’ll say this for old Lizzie, she was tough all right. She’d got one eyelid hanging off and couldn’t talk for where I’d knocked her jaw out, but she wouldn’t let it lie. Meself, I weren’t much better, got me head split open and it turned out later that I’d broke a thumb but it was such a great fight neither of us wanted it to end. We went up to the Mayorhold the next morning and we carried on with it a while, but then she’d got a bolt hid in her hand so when she clouted me around the head I went out like a light. That was a fucking beauty, all right. Makes me want to go back down there so I can relive it. Should you like to come along now, Freddy? I can promise you, it was a fucking treat.”

There’d been a time when Freddy would have gone along with Mary Jane for fear of how she’d take it if he should refuse, but those days were long gone. She was all bark now and no bite, no harm to anyone. None of them were, not these days. It had been a long time since the coppers took an interest in any of them, Freddy, Mary Jane, old Georgie Bumble, any of that lot. Mind you, the coppers had no jurisdiction in the areas where Fred and Mary Jane spent all their time these days, and it was very, very rare you’d see a bobby round there, not one who’d got any interest in the likes of them. The only one who Freddy knew to say hello to was Joe Ball, Superintendent Ball, and he was all right. An old-fashioned copper out the olden days what had long since retired, though when you saw him he still had his uniform. He’d spend a lot of time talking to villains of the sort he’d once have locked up in the jail, including Freddy, who’d once asked Joe why he wasn’t spending his retirement somewhere nicer, somewhere like where Freddy’s pal down Scarletwell Street said that Freddy should have gone. The old Superintendent had just smiled and said he’d always liked the Boroughs. It would do him, and you sometimes got the chance to do a bit of good. That was enough for old Joe Ball. He wasn’t after anyone, not Freddy and not even Mary Jane. She’d been a holy terror but she’d had the fight go out of her when her old way of life ended abruptly after she’d been struck down by a heart attack. She’d had to reassess things after that and change her ways, so Freddy wasn’t worried now as he declined, politely, her kind invitation to revisit scenes of former glories.

“I’d as soon not, Mary Jane, if it’s the same to you. That’s more your cup of tea than mine, and I’ve got old affairs meself I should be getting back to. Tell you what, if you’ll keep old Malone and all his bloody animals away from me, I’ll break the habit of a … well, of a long while it seems to me … and I’ll perhaps come by the Smokers when I’ve been to watch me billiards tonight, how’s that?”

This seemed to please her. She stood up and stuck one callused hand out so that Fred could shake it.

“That’ll do me. You mind how you go now, Freddy, though I s’pose the worst has all already happened for the likes of us. I’ll tell you how I got on in the fight if I should see you up the Smokers. You make sure you’re there, now.”

She released his hand, then she was gone. He sat there on his own a while eyeing the barmaid. It was hopeless, Freddy knew that. He was older with his hair gone now, and though he still had what he could retain of the good looks he’d had when he was young, as far as the blonde barmaid was concerned he might as well not be there. He picked up his hat from where it rested on the seat beside him, crammed it on his bald spot and got up to leave himself. As he went through the door and onto Black Lion Hill, just from politeness and from habit he called to the barmaid, wishing her a good day, but she took no notice, as he’d known she wouldn’t. She just kept on drying glasses with her back to him, acting as if she hadn’t heard. He stepped out of the pub and turned right, up to Peter’s Church, where all the clouds were moving by so fast above that light was flickering on the old stonework as though from a monster candle.

As he passed the church he glanced in at its doorway, just to see if any young chap or young woman … they were always young ones these days, with as many girls as there were boys … was sleeping underneath the portico, but there was no one there. Sometimes, if he felt lonely or just needed human company he’d sneak in with them while they slept, which didn’t do no harm, just lying there beside them face to face and listening to them breathe, pretending he could feel their warmth. They were all drunk or too pie-eyed to know that there was anybody there, and he’d be up and gone before they were awake in any case, just on the off chance one might open up their eyes and see him. The last thing he’d want to do was frighten them. He wasn’t doing any harm, and he would never touch them or pinch nothing from them, not a one of them. He couldn’t. He weren’t like that anymore.

From Marefair, Freddy drifted up Horsemarket. As he crossed St. Mary’s Street that ran off to his left he glanced along it. You could sometimes see the sisters still up there, a proper pair of dragons who’d been widely-known and talked about when in their prime: wild, shocking and exciting. Famously, they’d once raced naked through the town, leaping and twirling, spitting, running along rooftops, all the way from here to Derngate in about ten minutes, both so dangerous and beautiful that people wept to see them. Freddy sometimes spotted them in Mary’s Street, just moping wistfully around the piles of dried-out leaves and litter drifted up against the sunken car park’s wall, drawn back here to the place where they had once commenced their memorable dance. The glitter in their eyes, you knew that if they had the chance, even at their age, they’d still do it all again. They’d do it in a minute. Blimey, that would be a sight.

Today, St. Mary’s Street was empty save a scroungey-looking dog. Freddy passed on, not for the first time he reflected, to the top of Castle Street where he turned left and headed down to where the flats were now.

It was when Mary Jane made that remark about what she got up to at the Dragon – the Green Dragon on the Mayorhold – which was where the lesbians gathered. As unwelcome as the thought of it had been, it had set Freddy off, set him off thinking about sex again. That’s why he’d eyed the barmaid down at the Black Lion. To be quite honest sex was a frustration and a nuisance now as much as anything, but once it came into his head it rattled round until he’d satisfied its nagging voice and all its wearying demands. Now that he thought about it, though, it had been much the same for him while he was in the life. It wasn’t fair of him to blame his circumstances now for all the things that made him feel fed up. He’d had a fair shake, Freddy thought, all things considered. No one was to blame but him for how he’d handled his affairs, and he could see that there was justice in the way he’d ended up. Justice above the streets.

He was just thinking that he’d not seen any of that area’s clergymen around as yet today, the brothers or whatever they preferred to call themselves, when who should there be struggling up the street towards him than one of that very lot: a stout chap looking hot under his robes and all of that lark, making hard work of an old sack what he’d got across his shoulder. Freddy had a little chuckle to himself, thinking that it was more than likely nicked church candle-sticks or the collection plates or else the lead from off the roof inside the sack, it looked that heavy.

As they neared each other, the old priest chap lifted his flushed, sweating face and noticed Freddy, giving him a big warm smile of greeting so that from the offset Freddy liked the man. He looked like that young actor off the telly who played Fancy Smith in Z-Cars, only older, how he’d look if he were in his fifties or his sixties, with a beard and all grey hair. Their paths met halfway down the bit between Horsemarket and the path or ramp or stairs, whatever it was called, that led into the houses there, the flats. Both of them stopped and said hello politely to each other, with this ruddy-faced old Friar Tuck chap having a great rumbling voice and something of an accent Freddy couldn’t place. It sounded a bit backwards, like a country accent could if you weren’t used to them, and Freddy thought the bloke might be from Towcester or out that way, with his thees and thys.

“It is a hot day to be out, I was this moment saying to myself. How goes the world with thee now, my fine, honest fellow?”

Freddy wondered if this chap had heard of him, his nicking all the loaves and pints of milk back in the old times, and if all this ‘honest fellow’ stuff was just a parson’s manner when he took the mickey out of someone. By and large, though, he seemed a straightforward sort and Freddy thought that he should take him at face value.

“Oh, it looks like a hot day, all right, and I suppose the world goes well enough. What of yourself? That bag of yours looks like a burden.”

Setting his rough sack down on the ground with a small groan of gratitude at the relief, the parson shook his wooly head and grinned.

“God bless thee, no … or if it is it’s not a burden I begrudge. I have been told I am to bring it to the centre. Dost thou know where that might be?”

Freddy was stumped just for a moment, thinking that one through. The only centre that he knew of was the sports and recreation centre, where they played the billiards there halfway down Horseshoe Street, where Freddy would be going later on if all were well. Deciding that must be the place that the old feller meant, Freddy proceeded to give him the right directions.

“If it’s where I’m thinking of, then you must turn right by that tree along the end there.” Freddy gestured to the end of Castle Street. “Go down that way until you reach the crossroads at the bottom. If you go straight over and you carry on downhill, it’s on your left across the road, just halfway down.”

The old boy’s face, already bright with sweat, lit up to hear this news. He must have walked a long way, Freddy thought, dragging that sack. The Holy Joe thanked Freddy thoroughly, he was that grateful to hear that the billiard hall was only down the street, then asked where Fred himself was bound. “I trust that your own journey is towards some pure and godly ending” was the way he put it. Freddy had been thinking that he’d go down in the dwellings just off Bath Street and give Patsy Clarke a poke for old times’ sake, but it weren’t right to say that to a man of God. Instead, Freddy made out that he’d been off to see an old mate, an old pensioner who’d not got any family, down at the bottom end of Scarletwell Street. This was true enough, though Freddy had originally intended to go down there after his regular rendezvous with Patsy Clarke. Ah, well. It wouldn’t hurt to have a change from the routine. He wished the stout priest well, then set off at a jaunty pace, straight past the opening of Bath Street flats and down to Little Cross Street. On the way down, Freddy paused and looked back at the clergyman. He’d lifted up his sack again and had it back across one shoulder, staggering off up Castle Street towards Horsemarket, leaving quite a trail behind him. Everybody left a trail, Freddy supposed. When he’d been in the life, that’s what the rozzers always told him when they caught him, anyway.

He could have doubled back to Bath Street flats once the old chap was gone from sight, but that would make him feel dishonest after what he’d said. No, he’d go on down Scarletwell, where they’d be glad to see him. Truth be told, they were the only ones still living down there, when it came to seeing Freddy, who would make the effort. Realising that you couldn’t get down Bristol Street without a lot of difficulty these days, Freddy went instead up Little Cross Street to where it joined Bath Street on the flats’ far side, then turned left and went on down Bath Street to its bottom as it veered round to the right and into Scarletwell Street.

He was in a sort of fog as he rolled round the corner to his right, and passed the place where Bath Row had run down to Andrew’s Road once, years back. There was just the opening to the garages, near where Fort Street and Moat Street had once been. As he passed by it, Fred peered down the tarmac slope that led to the enclosure, a rough oblong that only the closed grey garage doors looked onto. Something of an oddity for blokes of his sort, Freddy didn’t hold with premonitions and the likes of that, but there was something down there, down them garages where Bath Row’s terraces once were. Either there had been something happen there a long time back, or there was something going to happen there. Suppressing the first faint ghost of a shiver he’d felt in a long time, Freddy carried on to Scarletwell Street, crossing to its other side there at the bottom, down below Spring Lane School’s playing fields. You could still see some of the cobbles of the jitty mouth, where it had run behind the terrace down on Andrew’s Road, but it was pretty much all gone. It looked to Freddy as if the thick shrubs down at the bottom border of the field had pushed into the space where once the jitty was, with their black foliage covering its smooth grey stones. At least, Fred thought they were still grey, but almost everything down here was grey or black or white to Fred, like an old photo where its all clear and the light’s just right but there’s no colours. Freddy hadn’t seen a normal worldly colour now in forty-something years, as people who still made a living judged such things. The colour-blindness was just part of his condition. Freddy didn’t mind it much, except with flowers.

He walked down a few steps to where the house was, standing all alone there on the corner by the main road, nothing but a patch of grass behind it running off towards Spring Lane, where once had stood the terrace where a lot of them that Freddy knew had lived, Joe Swan and them. He stepped up on the doorstep and went in. The doors were never closed down there to Freddy, and he knew he’d always got an open invitation, so he just went through and down the passage to the door what led into the living room, in which the corner house’s tenant was sat at the table by one wall and browsing through a picture-album, full of seaside snaps and everything, looking up with surprise as Freddy came in unannounced, but then relaxing upon realising it was only him.

“Hello, Fred. Blimey, you give me a turn. A right old jumping Jack I’m turning into, no mistake. I thought it was the old man. Not that he’s a trouble to me, just a bloody nuisance. Every week he’s round here saying sorry this and sorry that. It’s getting on me nerves. Here, let me put the kettle on.”

Fred occupied the empty chair across the table from the photo album, and called to the kitchen while his pal went out to make a cup of tea.

“Well, he’s a rogue, old Johnny. I expect he feels he needs forgiving.”

His friend’s voice came from the kitchen, talking loud above the boiling of the kettle, one of the electric ones that’s bubbling in a minute.

“Well, I’ve told him, like I’ve told you over other matters, it’s himself he should be asking the forgiveness of. It’s no good coming round to me. I bear him no hard feelings and I’ve told him that. For me it was all a long time ago, although I know for him it must seem like just yesterday. Ah well.”

The steely-eyed septuagenarian came back out of the kitchen with a steaming mug of tea in one bony-but-steady hand, and sat down opposite to Freddy by the open photo-album, setting down the teacup on the faded tablecloth.

“I’m sorry I can’t offer you one, Freddy, but I know it’s no good even asking.”

Freddy shrugged disconsolately in agreement.

“Well, my innards in the state they are these days, it goes right through me. But I’m very grateful for the offer. How are things with you, mate, anyway? Have you had anybody call by other than old Johnny since I saw you last?”

The answer was preceded by a noisy slurp of tea.

“Well, let me see. I had them bloody kids break in here, ooh, some months ago it must have been. They were most likely trying to cut through into Spring Lane Terrace as was up the back there years ago. The little beggars. It’s like all the kids these days, they think that they can get away with anything because they know that you can’t touch them.”

Freddy thought about the last tea he’d enjoyed, not too much milk, two sugars, wait until the first flush of the boiling heat has gone off of it, then it’s right for gulping. Not a drink for sipping, tea. Just gulp it down and feel the warmth spread through your belly. Ah, those were the days. He sighed as he replied.

“I saw ’em earlier, when I was up the twenty-fives in Peter’s Annexe, where they’ve got this darky woman with a scar over her eye who’s treating all the prostitutes and them, amongst the refugees. It was that gang of little devils Phyllis Painter’s got. They’d broke in through the old Black Lion when it was opposite the cherry orchards, back round there in Doddridge’s rough area, then climbed up to the twenty-fives just like a pack of little monkeys. Honestly, you should have heard their language. Phyllis Painter called me an old bugger and her little pals all laughed.”

“Well, I expect you’ve been called worse. What’s all this about refugees, then, in the twenty-fives? Have they come from some war? That’s a bit close for comfort, that is. That’s just up the road.”

Freddy agreed, then said how it weren’t war but flooding, and how from their accents all the refugees came from the east. His old friend nodded, understanding.

“Well, we can’t make out we weren’t expecting it, though like I say, we all thought as it would be further off. The twenty-fives, eh? Well, now. There’s a thing.”

There was a pause to take another swig of tea before the subject changed.

“So tell me, Freddy, have you seen old Georgie Bumble lately? He used to call in here for a chat so I could tell him that he should move somewhere better off, and so that he could take no notice, like all you old ruffians do from time to time. It’s just I haven’t seen him for a year or more. Is he still in his office on the Mayorhold?”

Freddy had to think about it. Could it really be a year, or even years, since he’d seen Georgie? Freddy tended to lose track of time, he knew, but surely it weren’t that long since he’d looked in on the poor old blighter?

“Do you know, I really couldn’t tell you. I suppose he’s still there, though I don’t go up that way much. To be honest, it’s a dirty hole up there now, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll look in on old Georgie when I leave here and see how he’s getting on.”

Fred could have kicked himself, although not literally. Now as he’d said he’d do it, he would feel obliged to see it through, which meant he’d not be getting round to Patsy Clarke’s until much later than he’d planned, sometime around the middle of the afternoon. Oh well. She’d wait. It weren’t like she was going to run off anywhere.

Their conversation turned, as Freddy knew it would, to his own stubbornness in staying down here in the lower reaches of the Boroughs.

“Freddy, if you lot only thought better of yourselves you could move up a bit. Or if you did what my great-grand-dad did you could move up a lot. The sky’s the limit.”

“We’ve been through all this before, pal, and I know my place. They don’t want me up there. I’d only have the milk and bread away from off the doorsteps or be getting up to trouble with the women. And besides, the likes of me, I couldn’t stand with hand on heart and say I’d earned it, could I? Never earned a thing in all me life. What have I ever done to prove me worth, or where I could at least say as I’d made a difference? Nothing. If I had, if I could hold me head up with the better folk, perhaps I’d think again, but I don’t reckon as that’s very likely now. I should have had a go at acting decent back when I still had a chance, because it’s hard to see how I shall have the opportunity again.”

His host went to the kitchen for more tea, continuing their conversation in a loud voice so that Fred could hear, which wasn’t really necessary. Freddy noticed that no trail was left behind between the living room and kitchen, contrary to what the coppers had once told him. Obviously, for people like Fred’s mate that’s what one would expect, but Freddy sometimes found himself so caught up in their conversations that he would forget the one big difference that there was between them: Freddy was no longer living there in Scarletwell Street. That’s why he’d leave scruffy traces in his wake, and why they wouldn’t. Several moments passed, and then Fred’s chum came back out of the kitchen to sit down again, across the table from him.

“Freddy, you can never tell what twists and turns affairs will take, one minute to another, one day to the next. It’s like the houses that there used to be down here, with unexpected bends and doors that led off Lord knows where. But all the pokey little nooks and stairways had their purpose in the builders’ plan. I sound like Fiery Phil giving a sermon, don’t I? What I’m saying is, you never knew what’s going to turn up. There’s only one chap knows all that. If ever you get tired of your rough sleeping, Freddy, you know you can always come round here and just go straight upstairs. In the meantime, try not to be so hard upon yourself. There were far worse than you, Fred. The old man, for one. The things that you did, in the final reckoning, none of them look so bad. Everyone played their parts the way they had to, Freddy. Even if they were a crooked stair-rail, it might be that they were leading somewhere. Oh. I’ve just thought!” This was said springing up from the chair as though in startlement. “I can’t make you a tea, but we can go out back and you can look to see if there’s new sprouts since last time, so that you could have a bite to eat.”

This was more like it. Talking about past crimes always got him down, but that was nothing that a bit of grub wouldn’t put right. He followed his long-time companion through the kitchen and into the small bricked-in back yard outside, where he was pointed to the juncture of the north and west walls.

“I caught something moving from the corner of my eye when I was out here putting rubbish in the ashbox just the other night. I know what that’s a sign of, and so you might want to take a gander in between the bricks, see if there’s any roots there.”

Freddy took a close look at the spot to which he’d been directed. It was very promising. Poking up onto Freddy’s level from a crevice in the mortar was a stiff and spidery protuberance he knew to be the root bulb of a Puck’s Hat, though of what variety he couldn’t tell as yet. It wasn’t one of the dark grey kinds, he at least knew that much. From behind him came his mate’s voice, high and quivery with age but still with backbone to it.

“Can you see one? You’ve got better eyes for it than me.”

“Aye, there’s one here. It was its blossoms what you saw the other night. Hang on a minute and I’ll prise it out.”

Fred reached into the crack with grubby fingertips and pinched the bulb off at its thick white stem, where it led down into the brickwork. One of a Puck’s Hat’s peculiarities was that it had the root bulb up above, and then the individual shoots grew down into whatever spaces they could find. There was that faint squeal as he plucked it, more a tinny hum that swelled up for a moment then was gone. He fished it out so he could take a closer look at it.

Big as a person’s hand, it was a mostly white variety, with the stiff radiating outgrowths, each a different length, all sprung like spokes out from the centre. Cupping it beneath his nose he was delighted to discover that it was a type that had a scent, both delicate and sweet, one of the only things that he could really smell these days. Up close like that, he even saw its colours.

What it looked like from above was about thirteen naked women, all two inches tall with all their crowns joined up together in the vegetable’s centre, where there was a tuft of orange hair, a small bright spot to mark the middle with the tiny heads grown out of it like petals. The small females sort of overlapped, so that there were three eyes, two noses and two little mouths for every pair of faces. How it worked, around the centre orange spot there was a ring of minuscule blue eyes, like flecks of glass. Spaced out beyond these were the gooseflesh bumps that were the rings of noses, then the dark pink slits, almost too small to see, that were the mouths. The individual necks branched out, then grew into the shoulders of the next girl-shape in line, leaving a little hole between their fused-together shoulders and their fused-together ears. Again, there were three arms for each two bodies, these again arranged to form an outlying concentric ring, each slender limb dividing into tiny fingers at its tip. The women’s bodies from the neck down were the longest sections of the plant, with one per head, forming the outmost band of petals, each one bifurcated into tiny wavering legs, small dots of red fluff at their junctions forming yet another decorative circle in the exquisite symmetrical design.

He turned it over so that he could see the ring of buttocks and the cluster of transparent petals like the wings of dragonflies arranged around the pinched-off stalk there in the centre. From behind, his friend enquired again.

“I know that you can’t show it to me, but if you could let me know what sort of Puck’s Hat that it was I’d be obliged. Is it a spaceman one, a fairy one or something else?”

“It’s fairies, this one. It’s a beauty, too, a good eight incher, one side to the other. This will keep me going for a while, and you won’t have to worry about boiling a four-minute egg then finding half a day has gone. You know what these can be like when it comes to missing out a lump of time. It’s all because of how they grow.”

He took a bite. It had the texture he remembered pears as having, but its taste was wonderful, a perfumed flavour much like rosehips but with more dimension to it, waking taste buds that he hadn’t known were there before. He felt the energy, the sort of uplift that they gave you, running into him with the delicious juice. Thank heavens it had been a fairy Puck’s Hat, nice and ripe, and not the ashy-coloured spaceman ones that were all hard and bitter, and that should be left to sweeten into fairies, which were more mature. It was a lovely meal, assuming that you didn’t mind spitting a couple dozen of the hard and tasteless little eye-pips out. Given a bit of luck and if the pips should lodge in the right place you could have a whole ring of Puck’s Hats here in six months’ time, although he thought he’d best not tell his friend that.

They went back inside together, one to make another cup of tea, the other one to finish wolfing down his Puck’s Hat. They went on with chatting about this and that, and Fred was shown the photo album. Some of the old snapshots with their small black corner hinges were in colour, but Fred couldn’t tell which ones. There was a nice one of a young girl in her twenties standing on a lawn looking a bit depressed with buildings in the background like a hospital or school. They talked until the wall-clock in the hallway struck the hour for two, when Freddy thanked his host for sparing him the time and for the bite to eat, then went through the front door again, back into Scarletwell Street.

Feeling much the better for a bit of lunch, Fred fairly shot up Scarletwell Street, past the unbelievably tall flats up at the top there and towards the Mayorhold. A Puck’s Hat the size that one had been would keep Fred feeling perky and invigorated for a fortnight. With a certain swagger he ignored the crossing barrier surrounding the wide traffic junction and strode out across it, through the hurtling cars. Motors be blowed, he thought. He was too old to stand there hesitating at the curbside like a little kid, although he stepped back when Jem Perrit’s horse and cart went by towards Horsemarket, because that was leaving trails behind like Fred himself was, fading pictures of itself in different stages of its motion as it trotted heedlessly amongst the trucks and four-wheel drives. The horse and cart was part of Freddy’s world, and though collision with it could not possibly cause a fatality, there might be other complications that were best avoided. Freddy stood there in the middle of the vehicle-flow and watched the carthorse saunter off downhill towards Marefair, Jem Perrit drunk and fast asleep there at its reins, trusting his horse to get him home to Freeschool Street before he woke. Shaking his head in admiration and amusement at how long Jem Perrit’s horse had been performing that trick now, Fred carried on towards the corner where the widened sweep of Silver Street ran down to form part of the junction.

Where the Mayorhold’s major shops and stores had been, the Co-op and the butcher’s, Botterill’s newsagent’s and all of those, was one of those new car parks that had all the layers, with its concrete painted ugly yellow, or so Fred had heard. Around the place’s bottom down the Mayorhold side was a great bank of thorn-hedge, just there on the corner where poor Georgie Bumble’s office was once visible. There was a lot of overgrowth built up since Georgie’s time, and Fred would have to roll his sleeves up if he wanted to get stuck in and dig back to it. Stepping out of the busy road into the thicket with the wedding-cake tiers of the car park looming up above him Freddy started pushing all the present stuff to one side so he could get through. First there was hedgerow which you could just shove away like smoke, and then machinery, compressors and cement mixers and diggers you could squash and bend to one side as though made of coloured modelling clay. At last, after he’d dug through all of this Freddy uncovered the big open granite doorway leading into Georgie’s office, with the name of the establishment carved elegantly in the stone above the entrance: GENTLEMEN. Brushing away the smears of stale time from his coat-sleeves that he’d picked up unavoidably while rooting through the stuff, Fred wandered in over the chessboard of the cracked wet floor tiles, calling out into the smelly echo.

“Georgie? Anybody home? You’ve got a visitor.”

There were two cubicles that ran off from the main urinal area with its trickling walls and peeling V.D. warning poster that portrayed a man, a woman and those feared initials in black silhouette against what Fred remembered was a sore red background. One of the two cubicles had its door closed, the other open to reveal an overflowing bowl with turds and toilet paper on the floor. That was the way that people dreamed these sorts of places, Freddy knew. He’d dreamed of awful brimming lavatories like this himself when he’d been back there in the life, on one of his Twenty-five Thousand Nights, looking for somewhere he could have a wee and finding only horror-holes like this. It was the way that people’s dream-ideas built up like sediment across the years that made the place the mess it was, as far as Freddy was concerned. It wasn’t Georgie’s fault. From behind the closed door there came the sound of someone spitting, then that of the toilet flushing, then the rattling of the sliding lock on the zinc door as it was opened from inside.

A monk emerged, gaunt, mournful and clean-shaven with the bald patch on the top, the tonsure. From where Fred was standing he looked like one of the Clooneys or whatever they were called from up St. Andrew’s. He marched straight past Fred without acknowledging his presence and out through the public toilet’s entrance into all the tangled years and instants blocking off the opening like briars. The monk had gone, leaving still pictures of himself in black and white behind that faded into nothing within moments. Fred glanced back at the now-open cubicle the man had just vacated, to see Georgie Bumble shuffling out in the monk’s wake with an apologetic half-a-smile, trailing his own plume of self-portraits.

“Hello, Freddy. Long time no see. Sorry about all that, by the way. You caught me just when I was doing business. Well, if you can call it business. Have you seen this, what he give me? Tight-fisted old bugger.”

Georgie held his hand out, opening the stubby fingers with their chewed-down nails to show Fred a small Puck’s Hat, three inches across at most. It was nowhere near ripe yet, with the circle made from blue-grey foetus shapes that folk said looked like spacemen from another planet barely formed. The large black beads that were the eyes were an inedible and glittering ring around the central dimple, where no tuft of coloured hair as yet had grown, a bad sign when it came to judging higher plants of this type. It was how you knew if they were ready to be eaten yet. If Georgie had done that old monk a favour for a morsel this size, he’d been had more ways than one.

“You’re dead right, Georgie. It’s a titchy little thing. Still, they’re all Frenchies, that St. Andrew’s crowd, so what can you expect? If they were half as godly as they made out then they wouldn’t still be down here with all us lot, would they?”

Georgie looked down mournfully with his big watery eyes at the unappetizing delicacy in his palm. There was the plaintive dripping of a cistern, amplified by the unusual acoustics with the echo racing off in more directions or else bouncing back from greater distances than were apparent in the dank, restricted space.

“Yes. That’s a good point, Freddy. That’s a very good point. On the other hand, they’re all the trade I get these days, the monks.”

Dressed in his shiny suit with rope run through its loops to make a belt, the shabby little moocher bit a stringy gobbet from the sour grey higher vegetable and made a face. He chewed for a few moments, with his rubbery and doleful features working comically around the bitter mouthful, then spat out a hard black glassy eye big as an apple seed into the trough of the urinal. Lazily, it drifted down the foaming channel to bring up against the round white cakes of disinfectant nestling beside the drain, where it gazed up indifferently at Fred and Georgie.

“But you’re right, though. Bleeding hypocrites, they are. This is the vilest Hag’s Tit as I’ve ever tasted.” Georgie took another bite and chewed it, made another face and spat another bead of jet into the glazed white gutter. Hag’s Tit was a different name by which Puck’s Hats were sometimes known, along with Bedlam Jenny, Whispers-in-the-Wood or Devil Fingers. They were all the same thing, and however bad it tasted Freddy knew that Georgie Bumble would make sure to eat the whole affair and not waste any, just because the things were such a pick-me-up. Why that should be, Fred didn’t know. He had a notion that it was connected to the way the bulb’s shoots seemed to interfere with time, so people would miss out whole hours or days while they were dancing with the fairies or whatever they imagined they were doing. Just as lower vegetables sucked up goodness from the substance of whatever they were growing in, perhaps the Puck’s Hat also sucked up time, or at least time as people knew it? And if that were true, perhaps that was what gave rough sleepers like Freddy himself or Georgie such a boost. Perhaps to their sort, human time was like a vitamin they didn’t get enough of these days, since they left the life. Perhaps that was why they were all so bloody pale. Fred thought about these things during spare, idle moments, of which he had clearly known more than a few.

Georgie had chewed and swallowed his last bite, expectorated his last spaceman’s eyeball and was now wiping his rosebud lips, already looking livelier. Freddy was starting to feel cooped up in the twilight lavatories, and could see faint blurred images of modern cars in rows beneath tube-lighting through the V.D. poster. He decided to bring up the reason why he’d called at Georgie’s office, so he could discharge his duties and get out of there the sooner.

“Why I dropped by, Georgie, was I’d just been round to visit them on Scarletwell Street corner, and they mentioned they’d not seen you in a while and were concerned, so I said I’d pop in and make sure everything was hunky-dory.”

Georgie pursed his lips into a little smile, a twinkle in his liquid eyes as he began to feel the mild effect of the unripe Puck’s Hat that he’d ingested.

“Well now, bless the both of you for thinking after me, but I’m all right, same as I ever was. I don’t get out much anymore, because of all the traffic on the Mayorhold these days. It’s a nightmare to me now, out there, but with a bit of luck in a few hundred years or so the lot of it will be a wasteland or a bombsite. You’ll get Rose Bay Willow Herb and that come up where it’s all bollards and keep-left signs now, and then perhaps I’ll get out a bit more. It’s good of you to look in, Freddy, and send my regards to them what keeps the corner, but I’m fine. Still sucking off me monks, but other than that I’ve got no complaints.”

There didn’t seem much Fred could say to that, so he told Georgie that he’d not leave it so long next time before he paid a visit, and they both shook hands as best they could. Fred pushed his way out of the toilet’s entrance through the pliable machines and dump-trucks, through the bramble months and years with thorns made out of painful moments, out into the fuming thunder of the Mayorhold and the shadow of the multi-storey car park at his back. With the remembered reek of Georgie’s office still about him, and despite the fug of vehicle exhaust that hung above the junction, Freddy wished that he could draw a good deep breath. It got you down, seeing the way some of them muddled through these days, just sticking in their little dens or in the shadow-places where their dens once were. Still, that was Freddy’s duties finished with, so now he could keep his appointment down in Bath Street. He’d see Patsy, and put Georgie Bumble and the day as it had thus far been behind him. But you couldn’t, he reflected, could you? No one could put anything behind them, draw a line beneath it and pretend that it had gone away. No deed, no word, no thought. It was still there back down the way, still there forever. Fred considered this as he strode out into the stream of motorcars, dragging grey snapshots of his previous several seconds like a tail behind him, off to get his how’s-your-father.

On the Mayorhold’s far side, at its southwest corner, he went through the barrier and straight down Bath Street, feeling stirrings in the phantom remnants of his trousers that were brought on either by the Puck’s Hat or the thought of Patsy. As he reached the entrance to the gardens he slowed down, knowing that if he were to get back to the place where she was waiting for him, further digging was required. He glanced up the deserted avenue between the two halves of the flats, with its grass verges and brick walls with half-moon openings to either side, towards the path or steps or ramp or whatever it was at present, up there at the top. The scroungey-looking stray that he’d seen in St. Mary’s Street a little earlier that day was still around, sniffing the curbing bordering the grass. Fred steeled himself in preparation, then began to shoulder his way into all the rubbish piled up right back to the fifties. He pushed through the glory days of Mary Jane and further still, back through the blackout and the sirens, folding pre-war washing lines and cockle-sellers to one side like reeds until the sudden stench and lack of visibility told Freddy that he’d reached his destination, back in the high twenties where somebody else’s wife was waiting for him.

What the smell was, just as with the veil of smoke so you could barely see your hand before your face, all that was the Destructor, just downhill to Freddy’s right and towering up above him so he couldn’t bear to look at it. Keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead, Freddy began to walk across the patch of designated recreation area with its swings, its slide and maypole, that extended where the central avenue of Bath Street flats had been moments before, or where it would be nearly eighty years from now, depending how you saw things. This grim playground had been called ‘The Orchard’, Freddy knew, but always with a certain irony and bitterness. Off to each side of him the blocks of flats in dark red brick had disappeared, and where the border walls with half-moon holes had been were now two scatterings of terraced houses facing one another from across the intervening scrub-ground with its choking pall of smoke.

Approaching him through this, along the beaten path that ran across the middle of the hard, bare ground from Castle Street to Bath Street was the vague shape of a figure walking, pushing a perambulator. Freddy knew that when this had come closer to him through the sooty air it would turn out to be young Clara, Joe Swan’s missus, lucky bugger. Fred knew that it would be Clara because she was always here, pushing her baby carriage down between the swings and wooden roundabout, when he came to see Patsy. She was always here because she’d been here on that afternoon the first time when this happened between him and Patsy Clarke. The only time it happened, come to think of it. As she stepped from the acrid fogbank with her baby carriage, pushing it along the packed dirt path towards him, Clara Swan and Clara’s baby daughter in the pushchair left no images behind them. No one did down here. This was where everyone was still alive.

Clara was beautiful, a lovely woman in her thirties, slender as a rake and with long auburn hair that Joe Swan had once said his wife could sit on when it wasn’t wound up in a bun as it was now, topped with a small black bonnet that had artificial flowers on the band. She brought the carriage to a halt when she saw Fred and recognised her husband’s pal, dropping her chin and looking up at him from underneath her lowered brow, eyes disapproving and yet still compassionate. Fred knew that this was only partly something she put on for his and her amusement. Clara was a very upright woman and would have no nonsense or tomfoolery. Before she’d married Joe she’d worked in service, like a lot of them lived down the Boroughs had before they were let go, at Althorp House for the Red Earl or somewhere of that sort, and she’d picked up the manners and the bearing that the better-off expected of her. Not that she was snooty, but that she was fair and honest and sometimes looked down a bit on those who weren’t, though not unkindly. She knew that most people had a reason for the way they were, and when it came to it she didn’t judge.

“Why, Freddy Allen, you young rogue. What are you up to round here? No good, I’ll be bound.”

This was what Clara always said when they met here, towards the Bath Street end of the dirt path from Castle Street, upon this smoky afternoon.

“Ooh, you know me. Trying me luck as always. Who’s that in the pram you’ve got there? Is that young Doreen?”

Clara was smiling now despite herself. She liked Fred really and he knew she did beneath all that Victorian disapproval. With a bird-like nod of her head to one side she summoned Freddy over to the pram so he could take a look within, where Doreen, Joe and Clara’s year-old daughter, lay asleep, her mouth plugged by her thumb. She was a lovely little thing, and you could tell Clara was proud of her, the way she’d called him over for a look. He complimented her upon the baby, as he always did, and then they chatted for a while, as ever. Finally they reached the part where Clara said that some folk had got jobs at home that needed to be done, and that she’d wish him a good afternoon and let him get on with whatever shady business he was up to.

Freddy watched her push the pram away from him into the smoke that, naturally, was thickest over Bath Street where the tower of the Destructor stood, and then he turned and carried on along the path to Castle Street, waiting for Patsy to call out to him the way she had that first time, how she called out to him every time.

“Fred! Freddy Allen! Over here!”

Patsy stood at the entrance to the little alley that ran down by one side of the right-hand houses near the Bath Street end, and led through to the back yards of the buildings, all in a big square there to the rear of the Destructor. In so far as Fred could see her through the rolling billows, Patsy looked a treat, a curvy little blonde lass with a bit of meat on her, the way Fred liked them. She was older than what Freddy was, not that it put him off at all, and had a sort of knowing look as she stood smiling in the alley mouth. Perhaps because it was so smoky or because the further back you went the harder it was keeping it all straight, but Freddy could see a faint flicker around Patsy, where the alley would change for a second to a railed brick archway, its black iron railings passing down through Patsy’s head and torso, then change back again to the rear garden walls of houses, with their bricks a brighter orange yet far dirtier than those comprising Bath Street flats had been. He waited for his view of her to properly solidify, then walked towards her jauntily, his hands deep in his raggedy-arsed trouser pockets and his hat jammed on his head to hide his bald patch. Here in 1928 some of his other flaws had been alleviated … he’d no beer belly down here for instance … but his hair had started going during Fred’s mid-twenties, which is why he’d worn the hat since then.

When he got near enough to Patsy so that they could see each other properly he stopped and grinned at her, the way he had that first time, only now it had more meanings to it. That first time, it had just meant “I know you fancy me”, whereas it now meant something like “I know you fancy me because I’ve lived this through a thousand times and we’re both dead now, and it’s actually quite funny how the pair of us keeping coming back down here, here to this moment.” That was how it was with every part of the exchange between them, always just the same and word for word, yet with new ironies behind the phrases and the gestures that had come with their new situation. Take what he was just about to say, for one example:

“Hello, Patsy. We’ll have to stop meeting like this.”

That had been a bit of fun, first time he’d said it. Truthfully, they’d seen each other once or twice across a pub lounge or a market stall, but putting it like that and saying that they must stop meeting, as if they were having an affair already, that had been a way of joking with the subject while at least bringing the idea up into their conversation. Now, though, the remark had other connotations. Patsy beamed at him and played with one dishwater lock as she replied.

“Well, suit yourself. I’ll tell you this much though, if you sail past me one more time then you’ll have missed your chance. I shan’t be waiting here forever.”

There it was again, another double meaning that they’d both been unaware of the first time they’d said these words. Fred grinned at Patsy through the smoke.

“Why, Patsy Clarke, you ought to be ashamed. And you a married woman, with your ’til death do us part and all of that.”

She didn’t drop her smile or take her eyes from his.

“Oh, him. He’s out of town, working away. It’s getting so I can’t remember the last time I saw him.”

This had been exaggeration when she’d told Fred that originally, but it wasn’t anymore. Frank Clarke, her husband, was no longer drifting round the lower levels of the Boroughs in the way both Fred and Patsy were. He’d moved on to a better life, had Frank. Climbed up the ladder, so to speak. It was all right for him. He’d nothing troubling his conscience that was keeping him down here, whereas Fred had all sorts of things holding him back, as he’d explained down Scarletwell Street. As for Patsy, she had Fred, along with several others from those parts. She’d been a generous woman with that generous body, and her countless sticky afternoons with all their guilty pleasures were like millstones that had weighed her down, preventing her departure. Looking up at Freddy now she wiped her smile away, replacing it with a more serious expression that was almost challenging.

“I’ve not been eating right, with him not here. I’ve not had a hot meal for ages.”

This, with its unwitting irony, was possibly a reference to the Puck’s Hats, staple diet for lower Boroughs residents like Fred and Patsy. She went on.

“I was just thinking how long it had been since I’d had something warm inside me. Knowing you, you’re probably feeling peckish around now yourself. Why don’t you come through to me kitchen, just up here? We’ll see if we find anything to satisfy our cravings.”

Fred was on the bone now, good and proper. Hearing steps on the dirt path behind him he craned round his head in time to see young Phyllis Painter, all of eight years old, skip past across the recreation ground towards its Bath Street end. She glanced at him and Patsy and smirked knowingly then carried on along the pathway and was gone into the rolling sepia clouds, off to her house down Scarletwell Street, just beside the school. Fred couldn’t tell if the girl’s smile had been because she knew what him and Patsy would be getting up to, or if little Phyllis was a revenant revisiting the scene like he was, and was smiling because she knew how this was a loop that Fred and Patsy Clarke were trapped within, however willingly. Phyll Painter and her gang ran wild across the Boroughs’ length and breadth and depth and whenth. They scampered round the twenty-fives where that black woman with the golly hairdo and the nasty scar above her eye did all her work, the one they called a saint, or else her and her hooligans cut through his mate’s house up to Spring Lane Terrace in the dead of night on their adventures. They might well be scrumping Puck’s Hats all the way down here around the twenty-eights, but on the other hand Phyll Painter would be eight years old in normal living time around this year and hadn’t had her gang with her when she went skipping past just then. It was most likely Phyllis Painter as a living child, or at least as his memory of her upon that bygone afternoon, rather than as the little troublemaker she’d turned into since she got out of the life.

He turned back towards Patsy, his face pointing now the same way as his cock was. He delivered his last unintentionally slanted line … “I never say no, you know me” … before she dragged him up the alleyway, both laughing now, and through into the back yard of the third house to their right, with next to it the slaughter-yard behind the butcher’s, Mr. Bullock, his shop situated down by the Destructor. From the sound of it, some pigs were being hung and bled next door which would, as ever, cover up the noises he and Patsy made. She flung the back door open and pulled Fred into the kitchen, reaching down and tugging him along by his stiff prick through his rough pants and trousers once they’d got inside, away from prying eyes. They went through like this to the cramped-up, lightless living room, where Patsy had a coal fire burning in the fireplace. It had been a brisk March day as Fred remembered it.

He went to kiss her, knowing that she’d say his bad breath smelled like something died. It wasn’t just that some things that they’d said that afternoon turned out to have another meaning. It was all of them. At any rate, Patsy was firm about the kissing, as she had been all the other times.

“Don’t take it personal. I never can be doing with a lot of soppy stuff like that. Just get it out and stick it in, that’s what I always say.”

They were both breathing harder, or at least appearing to be doing so. Fred had known Patsy since they’d both been grey-kneed kids at Spring Lane School together. Lifting her skirts up around her waist she turned to face the fireplace, looking back at Fred across her shoulder, her face flushed. She wasn’t wearing any knickers underneath the skirt.

“Go on, Fred. Be a devil.”

Fred supposed he must be. Look at where he was. She turned her face away from him again and placed her hands flat on the wall to each side of the mirror that was hung above the mantelpiece. He could see both her face and his, both in the glass and both of them excited. Freddy fumbled with his fly-buttons a moment, then released his straining member. Spitting a grey substance out into his grubby palm he rubbed it on the gleaming, bulbous tip then pushed the length of it up Patsy’s pouting fanny, drenched already with ghost-fluids of its own. He clutched her roughly by her waist for leverage then started slamming himself into her, as forcefully as he could manage. This was just as wonderful as Fred remembered it. No more, no less. It’s just that the experience had faded with each repetition until almost all the joy was gone from it, like an old tea towel that had been wrung out time after time until the pattern on it disappeared. It was better than nothing, just. At the same moment that he always did he took his right hand off of Patsy’s hip and sucked the thumb to make it wet before he shoved it up her bumhole to the knuckle. She was shouting now, above the squealing from the yard next door.

“Oh, God. Oh, fuck me, I’m in heaven. Fuck me, Freddy. Fuck the life out of me. Oh. Oh, fuck.”

Freddy glanced down from Patsy’s straining, labouring face caught in the mirror to where his thick bristling organ … these had been the days … was glistening grey like wet sand in a seaside photo, thrusting in and out of Patsy’s slurping, fur-fringed hole. He didn’t know which sight he liked the best, not even after all these years, and so kept looking back and forth between them. He was glad that from this angle he could never see his own face in the mirror, since he knew that he’d look daffy with his hat still on, and that he’d laugh and that would put him off his stroke.

It was just then that Freddy noticed something from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t turn his head to look straight on because he hadn’t done so on that first occasion. Whatever this was, it hadn’t happened then. This was some novelty that might spice up the old routine.

He soon determined that it was the flickering effect he’d noticed back when Patsy had first greeted him, stood in the alley that kept turning to an arch with railings. It was something that would happen sometimes when you’d dug your way back to the past. It was as if the present had you on elastic and kept trying to pull you back, so that you’d see bits of it breaking in to interrupt whichever time it was you’d burrowed back to. In this instance, out the corner of his eye, Freddy could see a pretty, skinny little brown girl sitting in an armchair where the straps had busted underneath. She had her hair in ridges that had bald stripes in between, and had a shiny sort of raincoat on although she was indoors. What was the strangest thing was that she sat there staring straight at him and Patsy with a little smile and one hand resting casually down in her lap, turned inwards, so it looked as if she could not only see them, but as if she was enjoying it. The thought that they were being watched by a young girl gave Freddy a mild extra thrill, although he knew it wouldn’t bring him off too soon, before they’d got to the appointed time. Besides, a guilty feeling that related to her age offset the slight jolt of excitement that the coloured lass had given him. She looked about sixteen or seventeen, despite her rough condition, and was barely yet out of her childhood. Luckily, the next time Fred had rocked back far enough in fucking Patsy so that he could catch a glimpse out of the corner of his eye, the girl had gone and he could concentrate on doing the job properly.

Where had he seen her recently, that girl? He’d known her face from somewhere, he was sure. Had he bumped into her earlier today? No. No, he knew now where it was. It had been yesterday, round dinnertime. He’d been under the portico at Peter’s Church. There’d been a boy in there, a living one, asleep and drunk, so Freddy had crept in and got down next to him. It was a young lad, mousy-haired, with a big baggy woollen jumper and those shoes what they called bumpers on his feet, and Freddy thought the sleeper wouldn’t mind if he lay down beside him just to listen to him breathe, a sound Fred missed. He’d been there for an hour or two when he heard the high heels approaching down Marefair and past the church-front, getting closer. He’d sat up and seen her walking past, the girl he’d just seen sitting in her phantom armchair, watching him and Patsy. She weren’t looking at him as she walked along, her bare brown legs just swinging back and forth, but something told him that she might have been, and he decided he’d best leave before she looked again. That’s where he’d seen her. Yesterday, and not today.

His moment was approaching. Patsy started screaming as she had her climax.

“Yes! Oh yes! Oh, fuck, I’m dying! Fuck, I’m going to die! Oh God!”

Freddy was thinking of the brown girl with her long legs and her scandalously tiny skirt as he shot three or four cold jets of ectoplasm into Patsy. For the life of him, or at least so to speak, he was unable to remember what he had been thinking about when he’d shot his load that first time, when his juice had still been warm. He took his thumb out of her arse and slid his dripping and deflating penis out of her, reflecting as he did so that while what he squirted from his cock these days was a much cooler liquid than his seed had been, it looked about the same. He tucked the gleaming, sagging weapon back inside his pants and trousers, buttoning the fly, while Patsy pulled her skirts down and composed herself. She turned towards him from the mantelpiece and mirror. There were only one or two more lines of dialogue to be said.

“God, that was nice … although you needn’t think that you can come round every afternoon. That was a one-off opportunity. Now, come along, you’d best be getting off before the neighbours start their nosing everywhere. Most likely I’ll be seeing you round and about.”

“See you around, then, Patsy.”

That was that. Fred went out through the kitchen and the back yard, where the noise of all the slaughter from across the high brick wall had ended. Opening the back yard’s gate he stepped into the alleyway, then walked along it to the smoke-screened recreation area, the Orchard. This was where he always stepped out of his memories and into his existence in the present, standing here outside the alley-mouth and looking at the hazy children’s playground with its slide and maypole looming dimly through the churning smog. Freddy’s own maypole wasn’t as impressive now as it had been just a few minutes back, when he’d been out here last. When he looked down he noticed that his beer belly was coming back. With a resigned tut, Freddy let the scenery around him snap back to the way it was upon May 26th, 2006. There was a giddy rush of melting walls and swings, of sooty brick that foamed up out of nothing to construct the flats, then Freddy stood once more beside the gated archway, looking out across the grass and empty central avenue to where the scruffy dog that he’d seen earlier was still about. To Freddy it looked agitated, trotting back and forth, as if it hadn’t moved its bowels in quite a time.

Fred sympathised. That was, surprisingly, one of the things he missed the most, that blessed feeling of relief when all the smelly poisons and the badness in a person just fell out in a great rush and could be flushed away. What Fred had, he supposed, was like a constipation of the spirit. That’s what kept him down here and prevented him from moving on, the fact he couldn’t let it go like that and just be rid of the whole stinking lot of it. The fact that Freddy carried it around inside him, all his shit, and with each decade that went by it made him feel more sluggish and more irritable. In another century, he doubted he’d feel like himself at all.

He moved across the grass and floated up the avenue towards the ramp, passing the scabby dog, which jumped back and barked twice at him before deciding that he was no danger and resuming its uneasy trotting back and forth. Entering Castle Street up at the ramp’s top, Freddy went along towards where the no-entry joined it with Horsemarket, then turned right. He might have promised Mary Jane he’d call by at the Jolly Smokers later on, but that could wait. He’d go and watch his billiards first, along the centre down in Horseshoe Street where he’d sent that old chaplain earlier.

He glided down Horsemarket and remembered, with a pang of shame, how once before the present dual carriageway was here it had been fancy houses, owned by doctors and solicitors and all the like. The shame he felt now was occasioned by the lovely daughters that some of the gentlemen who lived down there had raised. One in particular, a doctor’s girl called Julia that Freddy had developed quite a thing for, never talking to her, only watching from a distance. He’d known that she’d never talk to him, not in a million years. That’s why he’d thought of raping her.

He burned, to think about it now, although he’d never seen it through. Just the idea that he’d considered it, had gone as far as planning how he’d wait until she’d crossed Horsemarket on her way to her job in the Drapery one morning, then would grab her as she took her customary route up by St. Katherine’s Gardens. He had even risen at the crack of dawn one day and gone up there to wait, but when he saw her he’d come to his senses and had run off, crying to himself. He’d been eighteen. That was one of the hard and heavy stools he kept inside him that he couldn’t pass, the heaviest and hardest.

He crossed over Marefair at the bottom, waiting for the lights to change from grey to grey so he could walk across with all the other people, though he didn’t need to. He went over Horseshoe Street’s continuation of the growling metal waterfall that ran down from Horsemarket, then turned right and headed for the centre and its billiard hall. As Freddy did so he passed by and partly through a tubby chap with curly white hair and a little beard, with eyes that seemed to shift continually from arrogance to furtiveness and back behind his spectacles. This was another one that Freddy recognised and had call to remember. It had been some nights ago, about four in the morning. Freddy had been swirling lazily along a pre-dawn Marefair, just enjoying the desertion when he’d heard a man’s voice calling out to him, afraid and trembling.

“Hello? Hello there? Can you hear me? Am I dead?”

Freddy had turned to find out who was interrupting his night’s wanderings and seen the little fat man, the same one he’d just this moment brushed through in broad daylight up on Gold Street corner. The bespectacled and bearded fifty-something had been standing, in the small hours, on the traffic-free deserted hump of Black Lion Hill, dressed only in his vest, his wristwatch and his underpants. He’d stood there staring anxiously at Freddy, looking lost and frightened. Fred had thought, just for a moment, that the man had only lately got out of the life and that’s why he seemed so confused, stood there amongst the lamplight and the shadows with the street and buildings curdling in and out of different centuries around him. Then, when he’d took note of how the little berk was dressed, in just his under-things, Fred knew that this was someone dreaming. The rough sleepers that you got down here were all dressed how they best remembered themselves dressing, and even the ones who’d not been dead ten minutes wouldn’t waddle round in old stained underpants. If they were in the nude or in their pants or their pyjamas then it was a safe bet they were folk still in the life, who’d stumbled accidentally on these parts in their dreams.

Fred, at the time, had took a dislike to the bloke who’d interrupted his nice solitary stroll, and thought he’d put the wind up him. You didn’t often get the chance to make a real impression on the ones still down there in the strangles of existence and, besides, the self-important little pisspot had been asking for it. Giving this consideration as he trickled down the slope of Horseshoe Street towards the billiard hall, he knew it had been mean, the prank he’d pulled upon the dreaming man that night, rushing towards the fellow in a flailing, terrifying cloud of after-images, though it still made him chuckle when he thought about it. That was life, he finally concluded. People shouldn’t just go launching into it if they can’t take a joke.

He slipped into the billiard hall unnoticed and then found his way out back and went upstairs to the top floor. From here he went upstairs again, went properly upstairs, using what types like him referred to as a crook-door which in this case, unbeknownst to the establishment’s living proprietors, was hidden in the corner of an upstairs lumber room. Just past the crook-door’s four-way hinge there was a Jacob Flight with tired old wooden steps that Fred knew, ultimately, led up to the landings. He began to mount it anyway, knowing the place he wanted would be only halfway up. He wouldn’t have to venture within shouting distance of the higher balconies, the Attics of the Breath. He wouldn’t have to feel he’d got above himself.

The Jacob Flight, a seemingly deliberately inconvenient construction somewhere in between a boxed-in staircase and a roofer’s ladder, was as awkward and exhausting to ascend as ever. All the treads were no more than three inches deep while all the risers were a good foot-and-a-half. This meant you had to climb the stairs just as you would a ladder, sort of upright on all fours, using your hands and feet. But on the other hand you were enclosed by rough white plaster walls to either side, the stairway being no more than four feet across, with just above your head a steeply sloping ceiling, also in white plaster. The ridiculous impracticality of such an angle to the stairway made it seem like something from a dream, which Fred supposed it was. Someone’s dream, somewhere, sometime. On the ledge-thin wooden steps beneath his toes and fingertips, again a dream-like detail, an old stair-carpet was fitted, brown with the dark writhing of its floral patterns faded nearly to invisibility and held in place by worn brass stair-rods. Puffing from what he assumed was spiritual exertion, Fred climbed up and on.

At last he reached the enterprise’s true top deck, the upper billiard hall, and clambered through a trapdoor up into the cluttered, dusty little office room that was to one side of the main floor with its single giant snooker table, extra wide and extra long. From all the footprints through the faintly phosphorescent moon-dust on the dirty floorboards, and the hubbub that he heard beyond in the main hall while opening the creaky office door, it sounded as though he was late. Tonight’s game had already started. Freddy tiptoed round the edges of the huge dark games room, trying to put no one off their shot, and joined the small crowd of spectators standing at the room’s top end in their allotted area, watching the professionals at play.

That was the way it worked. Those were the house rules. The rough sleepers such as Freddy were quite welcome to come there and be supporters, but not play. Quite frankly, none of them would want to, not with stakes like that. It was sufficiently nerve-wracking just to gaze between your fingers at the contest going on at the vast table over there, in the bright pillar of white light that fell from overhead. Around the baize, the builders who were taking part strode back and forth with confidence, chalking their alabaster cues and warily inspecting tricky angles, pacing up and down along the borders of the table, twenty-five feet long and twelve feet wide. Only the builders were allowed their game of snooker, or whatever the queer version that they played was called. Riff-raff like Freddy simply stood there in a quietly shuffling mob at the far end and made an effort not to gasp or groan too loudly.

There were several in the crowd of onlookers tonight that Freddy recognised. Three-fingered Tunk who’d had his stall up in the Fish Market for one, and Nobby Clark, all got up in the ‘Dirty Dick’ gear that he’d worn when he was in the bicycle parade, and holding his old placard with the Pears Soap advert on: “Ten years ago I used your soap, and since then I have used no other”. How had Nobby ever got that up the Jacob Flight, Fred wondered? He could see Jem Perrit standing at the crowd’s perimeter and looking on with relish at the snooker. Freddy thought he’d slide across and join him.

“Hello, Jem. I saw you on the Mayorhold just this dinnertime. Your Bessie was just taking you off home, and you were snoring.” Bessie was Jem’s spectral horse.

“Aa. I’d bin up the Smokers for me Puck’s ’At Punch. I ’spect it was the work as I’d bin doin’ as ’ad wore me ayt. That’s when yuh seen me on the Merruld.”

Jem spoke with the real Northampton twang, the proper Boroughs accent that you didn’t really hear no more. Wood-merchant had been how Jem made his living back when he still had a living to be made, a wiry tinker-looking chap with a hook nose, his dark and doleful shape perched up there on his horse and cart behind the reins. These days, Jem’s line of work, if not his living, was as an unusually enterprising and phantasmal junkman. Him and Bessie would roam round the county’s less substantial territories, with Jem picking up such apparition-artefacts as he should find along his way. These might be old discarded wraith-clothes, or a vivid memory of a tea-chest out of someone’s childhood, or they might be things that made no sense at all and were left over from a dream somebody had. Freddy remembered once when Jem had found a sort of curling alpine horn fashioned to look like an elongated and intricately detailed fish, but with a trunk much like an elephant’s and things that looked like glass eyes in a stripe down either side. They’d tried to play it, but its bore was stuffed with tight-packed sawdust that had funny plastic trinkets buried in it. It had no doubt joined the other curios there in the front room of the ghost of Jem’s house, halfway down the ghost of Freeschool Street. Right now, whenever that might be, because you never really knew up here, the fish-horn was most probably displayed in Jem’s front window with the phantom Grenadier’s dress jacket and the reminiscences of chairs.

The Puck’s Hat Punch that Jem had mentioned was just what it sounded like: a kind of moonshine that could be distilled out of the higher vegetables and ingested. Fred had never fancied it and had heard tales of how it had sent some ex-lifers barmy, so he left it well alone. The thought of being all in bits and barely able to hold any real identity together for the rest of your near-infinite existence sent a shudder up the spine that Fred no longer had. Jem seemed all right, though. Possibly, if Fred was in the mood, then later on when he went up the Jolly Smokers as he’d promised Mary Jane he would when leaving here, he’d give the punch a sniff, see what he thought. One glass would do no harm, and until then he could relax and watch the game.

He stood there in the shadows next to Jem and all the others, sharing in the ragged congregation’s reverent silence. Freddy squinted at the house-wide table in its shaft of brilliance and could see immediately why the spectators seemed unusually rapt this evening. The four players gathered round the table weren’t just ordinary builders, as if there could be such things as builders that were ordinary. These lads were the four top men, the Master Builders, and that meant tonight’s match was important. This was championship stuff.

As they progressed around the massive billiard tale in their bare feet and their long white smocks, the senior builders all left trails behind, though not as Freddy and his friends did. Fred and them had faint grey photos of themselves in an evaporating string they dragged behind them, while the builders left these burned-through white bits in the air where they’d been standing, blazing after-shapes like when you glimpse the sun or stare up at a light-bulb filament, then close your eyes. That was the way that ‘ordinary’ builders were, but this quartet tonight were ten times worse, especially around their heads where the effect was more pronounced. To tell the truth it hurt to look at them.

The outsized table they were playing on had just four pockets, one up in each corner. Since the table was aligned so it was parallel with the club’s walls, Fred knew the corners lined up with what might be seen, approximately, as the corners of the Boroughs. Set into the heavy varnished woodwork of the table just above each pocket was a separate symbol. These were roughly carved into the centre of the wooden discs that decorated the four corners of the table, gouged in a crude style that looked like tramp-marks, yet inlaid with gold as though it were the most adored and cherished holy manuscript. The symbol at the southwest corner was the childish outline of a castle-turret, while there was a big prick such as you might find drawn on a toilet wall up to the northwest end. A loose depiction of a skull marked the northeast, and Fred could see a wonky cross inscribed at the southeast, the corner nearest to where he and Jem were standing. Since it was a bigger table, there were lots more balls in play, and it was lucky that the builders would call out the colour of the ball that they were going for, since all of them were grey or black or white to Freddy and his friends.

If he were honest, Fred had never really understood the game the builders played, not intellectually so that he could explain the rules or anything, although he knew emotionally, down in his stomach so to speak, what it entailed. You had four players taking part at once, and each had their own corner pocket, with the idea being to knock all the balls you could in your own hole while trying to make it difficult for your opponents to pot all the ones they wanted to. Part of the thrill of watching it was all the trails the balls would leave behind them as they rolled across the baize or else collided with each other, ricocheting from the table edge in sharply pointed pentagrams of overlapped trajectory. The other, more anxiety-provoking part of the enjoyment was the way each ball had its own aura, so you knew it stood for someone, or something. It would just come to you inside your thoughts, what each ball meant, while you stood watching as they bounced and skittered round the table. Freddy focussed on the game in hand.

Most of the action seemed to be down to the east side of the table which, as luck would have it, was the side that Freddy and his fellow audience members were all standing on. The western builders, standing near the cock and castle pockets didn’t seem like they had much to do just at the moment and were leaning on their cues watching intently as their colleagues at the eastern corners fought it out between them. As Fred watched with permanently bated breath, the builder playing to the southeast pocket, with the cross on, was about to take his shot. Of the four Master Builders that were playing there tonight (and in so far as Freddy knew there were just four in that league anywhere), this one to the southeast was the most popular with all the locals, since the other three apparently came more from out of town and usually weren’t seen much hereabouts. The local favourite was a solid, powerful-looking chap who had white hair, although his face was young. His name was Mighty Mike, or so Fred thought he’d heard the fellow called. He was so famous for the way he played a game of snooker that even the lads below down in the life had heard of him, had even put a statue of him on their Guildhall’s gable roof.

He leaned across the baize now, low above his cue and squinting down its length towards what even Fred could see was a white ball. This white ball represented, Freddy understood, somebody white, somebody that Fred didn’t know who more than likely wasn’t from round here. The white-haired builder known as Mighty Mike now called out “Black into cross corner”, and then punched his cue once, hard, into the white ball, sending it at high velocity across the breadth of the tremendous table with its trail behind it like a tight-packed string of bright white pearls. It hit the west side of the table … Freddy thought that it might represent all them what left here for America after the Civil War with Cromwell … then rebounded into a collision with the black ball that the white-haired artisan had actually been aiming for, a sharp smack ringing round the dimly-lit hall as they hit. The black ball, Freddy understood with sudden clarity, was Charley George, Black Charley, and he felt a great relief that he could not explain when it shot neatly to drop into the south-eastern pocket, where the sloppy, gold-etched cross was carved into the round boss on the table’s edge.

The local hero with the chalk-white hair did that thing all the builders did whenever any of them pulled off a successful shot, throwing both fists up in the air above his head, the cue still clutched in one of them, and shouting an exultant “Yes!” before he let them drop once more down to his sides. Since both arms left their hot white trails as they ascended and descended through the space to either side of him, the end effect was that of burning pinions fanning up to form the shapes of brilliant full-spread wings. The odd thing was that all the builders did this every time one of them pulled off a successful shot, as though the nature of their game did not involve them being in a competition with each other. All of them, at all four corners of the table, threw their hands up and cried “Yes!” in jubilation as the black ball dropped into the southeast corner pocket. Now it was apparently the builder at the northeast pocket’s turn to take his shot, into the corner decorated with a skull.

This builder was a foreigner, and nowhere near so well liked by the home crowd as what Mighty Mike had been. His name was Yuri-something, Fred had heard, and in his face there was a hardness and determination that Fred thought might very well be Russian. He was dark, with shorter hair than the home favourite as he took the long walk round the table’s edge to the most favourable position, bent above his cue and sighted down it at the white ball. As with all the builders’ voices, when he spoke it had that funny echo on it that broke into little bits and shivered into ringing nothing.

“Grey into skull corner” was a fair approximation of what he’d said.

This was getting interesting. Freddy didn’t know quite who the grey ball made him think of. It was someone bald, balder than Freddy, even, and was also someone grey, grey in a moral sense, perhaps even more grey than Freddy was as well. The grim-faced Russian-looking builder took his shot. The white ball streaked with its pale comet-tail across the table to clap loudly up against another ball that Freddy couldn’t tell the colour of. Was it the grey one Yuri-something meant to hit, or something else? Whatever colour it might be, this second ball shot off towards the skull-marked corner.

Oh no, Fred thought suddenly. It came into his head just who the hurtling ball was meant to represent. It was the little brown girl with the lovely legs and the hard face who he’d seen by St. Peter’s Church the other afternoon and then again today, sat watching him and Patsy at their Bath Street assignation. She was going into the skull pocket, and Fred knew that this meant nothing good for the poor child.

A hand’s breadth from the death’s-head drop, the hurtling ball impacted with another. This one, Freddy thought, must be the grey ball that the Russian-looking player had declared to be his target. It was knocked into the pocket Yuri-something had intended, whereupon he and the other Master Builders all threw up their arms into a dazzling spread of feathered rays and shouted out in unison their “Yes!” with all its splintering, diminishing reverberations. Just as suddenly, however, all the uproar died away when everybody noticed that the ball Yuri had used to knock the grey into the hole was now itself perched at the northeast pocket’s rim. This was the ball that Freddy had associated with the brown girl he’d seen earlier. This wasn’t looking good. The grim-faced player who’d just made the shot looked down towards the ball now teetering upon the brink of the skull-pocket that he’d chosen as his own, then looked across the table and at Mighty Mike, the white-haired local champion. The Russian-looking fellow flashed a chilly little smile and then began to pointedly chalk up his cue. Fred hated him. So did the crowd. He was like Mick McManus or a wrestling villain of that nature, someone who the crowd would hiss, except of course they wouldn’t in this case, however they might feel. Nobody hissed at builders.

It was now the sturdy white-haired favourite’s turn to take his shot, but he looked worried. His opponent clearly planned to knock the threatened ball into his own skull corner pocket with his next go, unless Mighty Mike could somehow move it out of danger. It was so close to the hole, though, that the slightest touch might send it tumbling in. It was a bugger. Fred was so wound up he almost fancied he could feel his heart pound in his chest. The local hero slowly and deliberately walked round the monstrous snooker table to a spot on its far side, where he crouched down to make his fraught and crucial play. Just as he did so he looked straight across the baize and into Freddy’s eyes, so that it made him jump. The look was sober, hard and obviously intentional, so that even Jem Perrit, stood beside Fred, turned and whispered to him.

“Watch ayt, Fred. The big man’s lookin’ at yuh. What are yuh done now?”

Fred numbly shook his head and said that he’d done nothing, at which Jem had cocked his head back and regarded Fred suspiciously and cannily.

“Well, then, what are yer gunner do?”

When Fred did not know how to answer this, both men turned back to watch the builder take his shot. He wasn’t looking now at Freddy, with his eyes instead fixed firmly on the white ball he was lining up. Amongst the crowd of onlookers you could have heard a pin drop. This is all to do with me, Fred thought. The way he looked at me just now. This is to do with me.

“Brown in cross pocket,” said the white-haired Master Builder, although what he really said was a fair bit more complicated.

Straight away his cue shot out – a boxer’s jab – and sent the white ball slamming up the table with its after-images a stream of bursting bubbles in its wake. It whacked explosively into a ball whose grey seemed slightly warm so Freddy thought it might be red, and sent it like a rocket so it struck between the brown ball and the death-trap pocket with a noise that sounded like it hurt, so all the rough-shod audience winced at the same time. The brown ball shot into the southeast pocket at the cross-marked corner of the table like a thunderbolt, and everybody in the room, not just the robe-draped foursome that were playing, threw their arms above their heads and shouted “Yes!” all with one voice. The only difference that there was between the players and spectators was that the fanned shapes the former made when they threw up their arms were blinding white, while those the audience made were grey and looked more like the wings of pigeons. Having pulled off this spectacular accomplishment, the white-haired builder looked once more across the table and directly into Freddy’s eyes. This time he smiled before he looked away, and an exhilarating shiver ran through Fred from one end to the other.

With the possibilities for play apparently exhausted on the east side of the table, it was now the turn of the two Master Builders on the west side to pick up the game. Freddy had no idea what had just passed between him and the frost-haired player, but he felt excited anyway. He’d watch to see how the remainder of this championship event turned out and then head up the Jolly Smokers on the Mayorhold so that he could keep his word to Mary Jane. Fred grinned and looked around him at the other down-at-heel departed, who were grinning too and nudging one another as they whispered their amazement at the stunning trick shot they’d just seen performed.

This looked like it was going to turn out to be quite a night.


On his return, from the white cliffs he’d walked the Roman road or bumped along on carts where he should be so fortunate. He’d seen a row of hanging-trees like fishing poles set out beside a river, heavy with their catch. He’d seen a great red horse of straw on fire across a murky field, and an agreeable amount of naked teats when herlots mocked him from an inn near London. At another inn a dragon was exhibited, caught in a mud-hole where it sulked, a kind of armoured snake that had been flattened, having dreadful teeth and eyes but legs no longer than a footstool’s. He had seen a narrow river dammed by skeletons. He’d seen a parliament of rooks a hundred strong fall on and kill one of their number in amongst the nodding barley rows, and had been shown a yew that had the face of Jesus in its bark. His name was Peter but before that had been Aegburth and in France they’d called him Le Canal, which in their tongue meant channel, for the way he sweated. This was in the year of our Lord eight hundred and ten, about the Vernal Equinox.

He’d ventured half a world and back, stepped on the skirt’s edge of Byzantium and walked in the dazed wake of Charlemagne, had sought the shade of heathen domes in Spain with their insides a myriad blue stars and not a cross in sight. Now he was come again to these close and encircling horizons, to this black earth and grey sky, this rough-made land. He was returned to Mercia and to the Spelhoe hundreds, though not yet to Medeshamstede, to his meadow home there in the bogs of Peterboro, where they must by this time think him dead and would already have allowed his cell to pass on to another. He’d get back there soon enough, but in his travels he had taken on an obligation that must first be properly discharged. The content of the jute-cloth bag slung over his right shoulder, where there was a callus grown he had been bearing it so long, must be delivered unto its precise and rightful destination. These were his instructions, given to him by the friend he’d met when in another place, and it was his resolve to see them now fulfilled that led him up this dry mud path, with spear-sharp grass and weeds on every side, towards a distant bridge.

The morning’s dew was cold upon his toes, lifting the smell of wool fat from his habit’s damp and dragging hem. He went on uncomplaining up the track, amongst the busy hum and flutter, through the green stink of the chest-high vegetation that surrounded him. Ahead, the wooden crosswalk that would bring him to the settlement at Hamtun by its southern end grew slowly closer, slowly bigger, and he spurred his blistered feet, clad in their coarse rope sandals, onward with the notion that their journey was so near its finish, his ten little soldiers with their faces red and raw on this forced march, advancing by one ordered phalanx at a time, step after step, mile after mile. Beneath low cloud the day was close so that inside his robes he streamed, a salty glaze that covered all his back and belly, lukewarm ribbons trickling in the creases of his groin and spooling down the inside of each meaty thigh. A roasted-looking man basting in his own juice he slowly rolled towards the river’s edge, grey as a stone against the greens surrounding him.

Not far before the bridge there was a raised-up square of ground with the remains of a square ditch about it, all its lines and edges softened by some centuries of turf and overgrowth. The banked earth seemed a comfy bed where he might rest a while, but he denied himself this idleness. It was, thought Peter, thereabouts of five and twenty paces on each side, and looked to him as though it had once been the footings of a river fort, perhaps as long ago as Roman times when strongholds of that like were strung like pendant charms along the necklace of this River Nenn. Collected in the bottom of the trench was a variety of rubbishes all in a winding seam, such as a ram’s skull and a small split leather shoe, some pieces from a broken barrel and a cheap brooch with its clasp gone, here and there amongst the tares, the stagnant pools. Thus passed away the glories of this world, Peter observed, but doubted in his heart that the new Holy Roman Empire would, despite its aspirations, last so long as its more earthly counterpart had managed. One day, it was his opinion, there’d be gilt-worked manuscripts and princely vestments down there with the splintered staves and beaded rabbit shits, when time had worked the world down to its mulch of sameness.

Passing in between its tall oak end-posts he stepped out onto the bridge’s hanging logs, one hand clasped tight about the thick rope rail to make him steady and the other clutched as ever on the neck of his jute bag. Out on the sway and creak of the construction’s middle span he stood a moment looking off along the slow brown river to the west, where it curled round a stand of drooping willows at a bend and out of sight. What seemed like several boys were playing on the bank there at the river’s elbow, the first people that he’d sighted in two days of walking, but were too far off to hail and so he raised a hand to them instead and they waved back, encouragingly as it seemed to Peter. He went on with mygge-flies gathered in a spiteful halo at his brow that only scattered when he’d passed the far end of the bridge and was some way off from the water’s edge, upon a path that led between a scattering of homes towards the settlement’s south gate.

Dug down into the earth, each with its wattle roof heaped to a point above the cosy trench, these were submerged in dirty clouds that billowed from their chimney holes so that they seemed more built from smoke than sticks and clay. Come out into the world above from one such nest of fume was an old woman, grinning round the few teeth that were left her when she saw him, climbing painfully the three or four flat stones on hard dirt steps that led up from the covered hole. Her skin was cracked as pond-bed mud in drought, and ashen plaits that hung down to her waist recalled the sagging willows, so that she appeared to him a very river-thing, more like to live beneath the bridge itself than in her dwelling up this dusty path. The voice too, when she spoke, was thick with phlegm and had the sound of water dragging over stones. Her eyes were wicked little snail-husks, wet and glinting.

“Eyyer brung et?”

Here she nodded, twice for emphasis, towards the sack he carried slung across his shoulder. Something jumped in the pale tangles of her hair. He was perplexed and thought she knew by some means of his mission; then he thought again that she’d mistaken him for one appointed to bring something to her lowly hut, or else that she be mad. Not knowing what to make of her he merely stared and shook his head in puzzlement, at which she showed her awful toothless smile again, finding amusement here where he found none.

“What thing there is by all four corners as yet marks the middle. Eyyer brung et?”

He could make no sense of what she said, could only summon a vague picture that meant nothing to him, of a page of manuscript where all the corners had been folded in towards the centre. Peter shrugged uneasily, and thought he must seem dull.

“Good woman, I know not the thing of which you speak. I am come here across thy bridge from far away. I have not been about these parts before.”

It was the crone’s turn now to shake her head, the rank plaits swinging like a beaded Moorish curtain and her ruined grin still fixed in place.

“You are not come across my bridge, not yet. You are not even past my fort. And I know thee of old.” With this she reached one hand out like a brittle claw and slapped him hard about his rosy, glistening cheek.

He sat up.

He was resting on the banked verge of the ditch that ran around the relic river fort, the bridge’s southern end some distance off upon his left. A beetle or a spider in the grass had bitten him on one side of his face where he had dozed with it pressed to the turf, and he could feel a swollen lump beneath his finger when he raised it to inspect the source of the insistent throbbing. He was frightened for a moment when he realised he no longer held the jute cloth bag but finding it upon the slope beside him he was reassured, though still bewildered by what had occurred. He struggled to his feet, his robes all sodden down the back from the damp grass, frowning at first the fort’s remains and then the nearby bridge, until at length he laughed.

So this was Hamtun, then. This was its character, its notion of a jest with travellers who thought they had the place’s measure. In the country’s ancient heart this curious essential nature hid and made itself a secret, slyly marvellous and dangerous in its caprice as if it did not realise its frightening strength or else pretended it did not. Behind the madman glitter of its eye, behind its rotted smile, he thought, there was a knowledge it had chosen to conceal with mischiefs, frights and phantoms. At once monstrous and playful, antic even in its horrors, there was something in its nature Peter found he might admire or fear, yet all the while still chuckling in wonderment at its defiant queerness. Shaking now his curly, greying head in good-natured acknowledgement of how amusingly he had been tricked he shouldered once again his sack and made towards the bridge, his second try at it, or so it seemed to him.

This time the structure was all made of wood, a sturdy hump that curved above the muddy flow, supported by stout beams beneath rather than hung from ropes as in his dream. He could console himself, however, that there were still mygge-flies all around him in a droning cloud, and when he paused out on the middle section and looked west there were yet willows stooping at the water’s bend, although no children played beneath them. Overhead the great disc of the heavens turned, a grubby fleece that frayed to streaming rags at the horizon, and he carried on across the river with his trailing beard of gnats plumed out behind him.

At the edges of the trodden path that stretched between the bridge and the south gate there were no sunken homes, but only turnip fields to either side, with elms and birches in a fringe beyond them. These were interrupted here and there by rotted stumps so that the tree-line called to mind a ghostly likeness of his dream-hag’s smile, her knowing ridicule insinuated now within the landscape that encircled him, or at the least such was his fancy. Peter thought it better he did not indulge this inward shadow play and so turned his attentions from it, noticing instead the true substantial meadow, plain and without mystery, through which he passed. On trembling sprigs there nodded cowslips, green-gold as the cattle-slimes from which they took their name, and he heard skylarks trilling in the grasses bordering the planted crops. It was a fine day to conclude his journey, and there were no apparitions here save those that he himself had dragged along for company.

This patch of earth was where the west-east river made a sudden bend towards the south, leaving a hanging bulge of land before its proper course was once again resumed, a swelling like that on his bitten cheek. Four narrow ditches had been cut through the promontory, perhaps for irrigation, forded by stout logs that he was forced to teeter over awkwardly, one hand clutching his precious burden to his bosom with the other stretched out at the side and waving up and down to balance him, before he came to Hamtun’s southern gate. This stood a little open from the fence of tall and sturdy posts that made the settlement’s south wall, and had a single thin and gloomy-looking man who held a spear stood by it for a guard. There was perhaps but one day’s growth of beard in a grey blot about his mouth, so that he had in some ways the appearance of a threadbare and indifferent dog. He did not call a greeting, but leaned idly there against the gate and watched the monk’s approach with listless gaze, obliging Peter to announce himself.

“Hail, fellow, and good day to thee. I am a brother of the blessed Benedict whose order is at Medeshamstede near to Peterboro, not far off from here. I have gone many leagues over the sea and am now sent to Hamtun, where I bring a token …”

He was fumbling within the sack, about to take the thing inside out into daylight as an illustration, when the watchman turned his head to one side, spitting out a gob of bright green jelly in the paler straws beside the gate, then looked again at Peter, bluntly interrupting him.

“Es et un axe?”

The guard’s voice was at once flat and without real interest, spoken partly down his long beak of a nose. Peter looked up from the jute bag’s dark mouth at his interrogator, puzzled and surprised.

“An axe?”

The gateman sighed elaborately, as though one wearily explaining to an infant.

“Aye. Un axe. Un ef I let yer en, shell yer go smashen people’s eds wuth et, un fucken boys un wimmen fore yer sets us all on fire?”

Here Peter merely blinked uncomprehendingly, then noticed for the first time how the wall and nearer gatepost both had wavering tongues of soot extending raggedly from near their base to almost at the top. He looked back to the languid guardian and shook his head in vehement denial, reaching once again into his sack to bring his treasure forth, this time as reassurance.

“Oh, no. No, it’s not an axe. I am a man of God and all I seek to fetch here is – ”

The sentry, with a pained expression, closed his doleful eyes and held the palm not wrapped about his spear towards the pilgrim, waving it dismissively from side to side as he declined to view what was contained in Peter’s bundle.

“I em not minded ef et be the left leg o’ John Baptist for so long uz et’s not put about the smashen o’ men’s eds, nor that ets ragged end be lit un made a torch fer burnen. Not last month were one like thee uz ad the skull-bone of the Lord, un when I asked em ow et were so small, e sed et were the skull o’ Christ from when e were a babe. I erd uz the good folk as dwell beside Saint Peter’s Church ad depped ez cods en tar un sent em cryen ome.”

His eyes were open now to stare unblinking at the monk as though his words were no more than plain fact, requiring no response of Peter save that he pass on and leave the sentinel to his bored watch over the turnip patch.

“Then am I thankfully advised. I shall be sure to sell no relics here, whilst in the same wise making certain that I smash no heads, nor yet put anyone to rape or fire until I am past Hamtun, e’en in genuine mistake. I bid thee well.”

The guardsman pointedly stared off towards the distant elms and muttered something indistinct that ended with the words “away und melk a bull”, so Peter hung his bag once more across his callused shoulder and went on, in where the gate was open, to the hill-path that climbed from the bridge towards the settlement’s high reaches. Here he could see thatch-topped homes dug into rows beside the slanting street not very different from the witch’s burrow in his dream, though not he thought so palled with smoke. Nor did those several people that he spied who were the huts’ inhabitants appear to have a strangeness to them in the way that she had, with instead the semblance of ordinary men and maids, in cap or shawl, that pulled their children, carts and hounds behind them through the lanes, else travelled on shit-spraying mares. He was yet mindful of the sleeping vision gifted him, however, and resolved he would not judge the gentles here as common until he was safely come among and through them all. He plodded on and up along the track, skirting a sump close to its bottom where both recent rain and passing horses had conspired to make a filthy slurry there. Off to his right not very far, beyond some huts, the posts that made the settlement’s east wall climbed up the hill abreast with him towards the high ground in the north.

Beside the sunken houses further up the unmown slope were taller dwellings also, though not many, and not far inside the gated wall he passed some ground that had a pox-barn set aside where there lay ones who moaned and worse ones who did not, betwixt small fires that had been set to clean the poison humours from the air. Some of the figures were made incomplete by parts decayed or some of them perhaps hewn off in accident, and back and forth between their mats crept old wives tending them, with faces marked by ailments they had in their time survived and now were proof to. He was grateful that the wind today came from the west, but turned his face off in precaution from the pest field when he passed it by and carried on uphill, where there thronged fellow beings in their dozens such as he’d not known in a great while. The slow climb made him puff, on this close day with all its warmth held in beneath the sky’s low quilting, raising sweat upon the sweat already there, yet was he joyous to be once more in the company of men and went amongst them gladly in good spirit, marvelling as though one unaccustomed at their great diversity.

Old men whose parsnip noses almost met their jutting chins pulled sleds with cords of oak-bark piled upon them that were dark red and alive with pismires on their undersides. Peter was made to wait idly upon the corner with a cross-path, by an ale-yard that had high stone walls, until a horse-pulled cart weighed down with troughs of new-worked chalk had rumbled past and aged those in the billowing suspensions of its wake by ten years in as many instants. As at last he made his way across the side street to continue up the hill, he ventured to look down it after the departing horse and wagon. There were not a few mean dwellings at its borders and then black briar hedgerow further down, where Peter saw a mother and her flock of children picking diligently at the brambles, with their findings stuffed into a bag the woman carried. He supposed they were wool-gathering, and that it might be they were family to a woolmonger living hereabouts, so busy and so enterprising did the hill town seem to him.

Indeed, he was surprised to find it so, as he strode up the incline to a crossroads at its top. When he had been a lad named Aegburth growing up at Helpstun near to Peterboro and then later been a monk named Peter cloistered in that place itself, he had heard tell of Hamtun, but not often. It had always been there, he had the impression, though not very much there, and remarkable only in that it never was remarked upon. It was apparent there had been some Roman presence in these parts and he thought savage settlements perhaps before those times, but there was never more to Hamtun than the airy rumour of a place where no one ever went. To see it now with all its barter and its bustle one might, with good reason, ask whence it had come. It was as if, when finally the night and winter after Rome’s demise was lifted from the land, Hamtun was simply found here, thriving in its present form, come out of nothingness to occupy this prosperous vantage ever since. And still no person spoke of it.

He knew King Offa, when not building his great ditch at Mercia’s edge with Wales, had planted new towns in these territories that were doing well, though Hamtun was not one of them, and had the markings of some earlier vintage. Offa kept a Thorpe as well, a country dwelling off the town’s north end, with Hamtun as the nearest port of trade, though Peter was of the opinion Hamtun’s prominence had come before the time of Offa. He recalled his grandfather at Helpstun making mention of the place as though of some importance when it had been Offa’s predecessor Aethebald who’d reigned, and further still, back in the mists of lost antiquity there’d been a place here that men knew of, yet did not know what it was they knew. Perhaps it was as with a circle, drafted by a knob of chalk upon a string, where only the perimeter was noticed with the centre that the shape depended on not seen at all, or thought to be a hole, like through a ring-loaf. How, though, in an empty hole, was there such furious activity?

When he had lately passed through Woolwych to the east of London he had met a drover of those parts who said he’d heard of Hamtun, once he had been told that it was Peter’s destination. This man mostly knew it for the sheep flocks herded down from there, but said that one of Offa’s kin was at a manor in the settlement, which had a fine church of its own built near to it. If this were true, Peter supposed it to be in some far part of the town that he was yet to see, although it might be that the dwellings all about him were in lease to such a place, that they would likely pay some small part of their keep unto the manor through the agency of what was called a Frith Borh, who was like a tithing-man. His intuition had been well, he thought, to bring him to this spot, when all he had been given for direction were instructions in a foreign tongue he was not certain that he’d understood, urgent and vague entreaties that the object in his bag should be delivered “to the centre of your land”. He knew that Mercia surely was the heart of England and, to see the crowds at work and leisure now about him, was convinced that he had come to Mercia’s heart in turn. Yet where, he wondered, was the heart of Hamtun?

He’d by now achieved the crossroads of his path that led up from the bridge, an area where the slope was somewhat levelled out before continuing to climb straight on and to the north. He set his baggage down and looked about him here, that he might get his breath and bearings both, and wiped the drench from off his forehead with one woollen sleeve. Ahead of him, after a mostly flat expanse, the track that he was on resumed its steep ascent past huts and yards where there were mainly tanners from the smell, while at his left and down the hill that was the crossroads’ other leg were sheds with smoking forges from where came the clamour of hot metals being wrought. Upon his right, past houses that had fields of pigs and hens and goats attached there stood the open east gate of the settlement, with off beyond its timbered yawn a church of sorts, outside of Hamtun’s limit, built from wood. He smiled to greet a woman who was passing and, when she smiled back, asked if she knew about the church and if it was the one that had the manor near. He saw about her throat a pendant stone, this with a rune on that he recognised as sacred to the demon Thor, although he thought there to be no more in this than a peasant charm to ward off thunderstorms. She shook her head.

“Yer wud be thenken o’ Sunt Peter’s, dayn away there.”

Here she gestured back the way that she had come, along the crossing’s other path up by the sparking, belching forges, then looked back towards the building just beyond the eastern gates that Peter had enquired of.

“Thet one there’s All Hallows what wur only belt when my mam was a child. Ef et’s a church yer arfter we’ve Sunt Gregory’s near by Sunt Peter’s, or else the old temple ayt upon the sheep trail, not far up ahead und en the way as yer be gooen.”

Peter thanked the wife and let her pass on by, while he stood at the corner there considering if this might be the centre he was seeking, thinking that a crossroads or its like might suit the crucial item carried in his sack. He asked, below his breath that those about him did not think him lunatic, “Is this the place?” When there came no response he tried again yet louder, so that idle boys across the street from him all laughed.

“Is this the centre?”

Nothing happened. Peter was not sure by what signs he expected the location that he sought would be made known to him, if signs there were to be, only that nothing in his instinct found such signals here. With people looking at him in bemusement now he felt his cheek made redder yet, and so picked up his bundle and went on, over the crossroads in a hurry that he might avoid its rumbling carts and next straight up the hill, where did the tanners and drape-makers of the town conduct a goodly trade.

Here was a fantasy of things to be remarked on following those long legs of his pilgrimage where novelty was scarce or not at all. Beside the noisome tanning-pits he’d caught the reek of from downhill were boards set out that were all over shoes and gloves and boots and leather leggings, of more styles and hues and sizes than he’d previously thought were in the world entire. The brothy scent of them alone was an intoxication as he struggled up the gradient between the trading posts and stalls, bearing the weighted bag that bumped on his stooped-over backbone now and then. His eyes and ears alike were near to overwhelmed by all the sights and noises that there were, the chatter and the conversation. People gathered in a breathless huddle at a stand where garments were displayed, having the items that were meaner and more easily afforded set about a show-piece, black-tanned leather armour in a full dress outfit decorated by a trim of bird skulls worked with silver. Peter doubted that this suit should ever find a buyer or be worn, yet estimated from the crowd about it that it must already have repaid its workmanship in countless smaller purchases. Having this opportunity to look upon the locals whilst they were distracted so that he might not offend, he saw more plain or ugly faces in the throng than he saw fair, and was surprised to find how many of the men had wild designs of pigment dug into the skin upon their arms, where had they stripped their clothes off on this humid day and these were visible. Not only patterns were there, drawn this way on flesh, but likewise images in crude, of herlots or the saviour or else both at once, together there on the same shoulder, wearing but a single loin-cloth ’twixt the two of them. He chuckled to himself at this and went on up the path where men with dye-stained hands were selling cloth, a richer red than any he had glimpsed in Palestine.

After a time he passed beyond the market street to higher ground, though not the highest, with superior rises still in the southeast. The settlement’s east wall, that had breaks in it now and then, continued to climb up the slope beside him, not far off and to his right, while on his left side there were many lanes and passages run off downhill. While he would own that there was little aim to his meander, Peter thought perhaps that if he walked the town’s wall in this way then he would have a sense of its extent and its dimension, so that he might more exactly plot its middle being thus informed. His plan, then, was so vague and slight as hardly to be there at all, and now he felt a pressure in his bladder and a hunger in his belly both, distracting him still further from it. He was still on the same northward path that he’d been walking since he crossed the bridge, but had again reached meadows where the ground was flattened out, atop the slope that had the drapery. Here was a fleecy multitude steered into pens by silent and stem-chewing men with noisy dogs, so that he was reminded of the dame who wore the Thor-stone who had counselled him, and what she’d said of an old temple on a sheep-trail, further up along his way. Though he was still to see a church up here, he was yet certain this must be the trail of which she’d told him, as judged by its traffic.

Bleating beasts were everywhere about him as he walked now down into a gentle hollow, creatures driven here in great hordes beggaring imagination with the land made white, horizon to horizon, this in summer and not winter-time, come from the west of Mercia and Wales beyond. Now that he reckoned it, Peter had known since boyhood that the western cattle-trail was ended somewhere not far off from Helpstun or else Peterboro, in the middling hamlets of the country, though he had not thought its ending was in Hamtun. Out of here the drovers would take on the herds to other parts, along the Roman road that brought him hence from London and the high white coast, or else out past the district of Saint Neot on to Norwych and the east, delivering the mutton in this way throughout the land. Were all of England’s tangling lines met here, he wondered, tied into a knot at Hamtun by some giant midwife as it were the country’s umbilicus? Peter waded in a wool-tide, on and down the broad street pebbled with black turds, still headed north, his bag now hanging in one hand there at his side so that his aching shoulder might be rested.

When he had come almost through the great stupidity of animals, he saw up on a mound towards the right of him a kind of mean church, built from stones, that Peter hoped to be the temple that the woman had informed him of, although it seemed unused and no one was about it. Thinking to have pause there for a pissing-while and eat the cheese and bread hid with some coins in a tuck-pocket of his smock, he turned east from the foul mires of the sheep-path and went up a brief walk overhung by boughs that blossoms fell from in a pretty pepper, to the church-house as he thought it, at the slant’s top end.

Some of the flat-faced and incurious woollen-backs were grazing here in shelter of the spreading trees, where Peter set his baggage down and drew aside his habit to unleash less of a stream than he’d expected in the puddled rain that was between a beech’s knuckled roots. His water had a strong and orange look about the little that there was of it, and he supposed the greater measure of its fluids had been lost already through his gushing pores. He shook the meagre trickle’s last few droplets from his prick-end and arranged his dress, looking about for somewhere he could eat his food. At last he was decided on the green, luxuriant sod about an aged oak that he would sit and lean his back against, but a few paces from the temple’s weathered pile.

Now that he looked at this, sat rested on the sward with sack at rest alike beside him, chewing on the crust he had retrieved from its compartment in his robe, he was less certain of the low construction’s Christian provenance and was made more alert to its peculiarity. He settled back against his oaken throne and slowly worked the bread and goat-cheese to a sodden, undistinguished lump between his teeth as he considered what the lonely building was or once before had been. The old stone posts to each side of its door had winding round them graven dragon-wyrms, much longer than the poor thing he had seen caught in its muck-hole out near London. If it were indeed a home of Christian worship, Peter knew it for a Christianity more old than his and come from the traditions of three hundred years before, when the forebears of Peter’s order had been forced to seek appeasement with the followers of peasant gods by mixing in Christ’s teachings with their rude and superstitious lore, preached from the mounds where shrines to devils were once raised. The carvings snaking down the pillars were a likeness of the serpent wound about the world’s girth in the old religions where our mortal realm was held to be the middle one of three, with Hel below it and the Nordic heaven built across a bridge from it above.

Leaving the detail of the bridge aside, this was not so unlike his own faith in a life that was beyond this brief span and in some means over it, at a superior height from which the traps and snares of this world were more clearly seen and understood. Though he had never said this while about the monastery of Saint Benedict, he did not think it much a matter if it were a bridge or flight of steps that led to paradise, or by what names the personages dwelling there were known, or even if the gods were made with different histories. It was, he thought, a failing of the Christianity that was in England now that people were so taken with the truth or otherwise of writings that in other lands should be admired as only parables, and nothing held amiss. From what he knew of the Mohammedans, their bible was a book of tales meant only to illuminate and teach by an example, and was not to be confused with an historical account of things. This too was Peter’s understanding of the Christian Bible, which he had read all there was of, just as he had likewise read Bede’s history and so too, secretly, had heard a telling of the Daneland monster yarn then being talked about by all, yet when he tried to teach the Christian doctrine he would find himself confronted by a narrow-mindedness, by dull demands to know if truly all Creation was accomplished in six days.

The faith that Peter had was in the value of a radiant ideal, with this ideal embodied in the Christ, who was a figure of instruction. Faith, to his mind, was a willed asserting of the sacred. If it were made more or less than this then it was mere belief, as children will believe the goblin tale they hear for just so long as it is being told. To hold belief in a material fact was only vanity, easily shattered, where the ideal was a truth eternal in whatever form expressed. Belief, in Peter’s private view of things, counted for little. The eternal, insubstantial ideal was the thing, the light that orders like his own had shielded in the night and sought now to extend across the fallen, overshadowed world. He did not have belief in angels as substantial forms, and as ideals had no need to believe in them: he knew them. He had met with them upon his travels and had seen them, though if this were with his mortal eyes or with the ideal gaze of vision he cared not at all. He’d met with angels. He did not believe. He knew, and hoped his creed would in a hundred years from that time not be foundered in a quagmire of believers. Was this what befell the old gods, near whose temple he was squatted now to eat his bread and cheese?

His ruminations done, he brushed the crumbs from out his beard, where they would do for all the pigeons that there were about the ruin. Standing up and shouldering his bag once more, he made off down the little hill that led back to the sheep-track, with his drab rope sandals kicking through a fallen frost of blossoms from the trees that reached above. The cattle path by now was emptied saving for its carpet made with dung, and for the patterning of hoof-print everywhere upon it like a pricked pot. He went on along it but a trifling distance until he was come upon the town’s north wall and the pitch-painted timbers of its northern gate, which stood a little open as its counter-part down by the river in the south had done.

There was a different air about this quarter of the settlement that had a quality of harm and malice, and to which he thought those several severed heads set onto spikes above the gate may have contributed. With such fair hair as yet remained upon the melting skulls worn in the long style, he supposed them to be butchers come from Denmark or nearby, that looked surprised to have discovered there were butchers here in Hamtun just the same. One of the heads was blurred, that made him think his eyes were wrong, though it were only meat flies in a swarm about the remnant, hatched from out its hanging mouth.

He’d walked, then, from the settlement’s south end up to its north. It was not very far. Confronted by the barrier of posts he turned towards the west there at his left and started off downhill, to find an edge of Hamtun he had not yet seen. Descending on the valley’s side, once more towards the river as he found, he saw the glorious spread of land that stretched away towards where twirls of smoke rose up to mark a district reaching out on Hamtun’s west and to the far side of the Nenn. This was a grey and silver braid that wound through lime or yellow fields beneath the distant trees, and had a bridge across it in a wooden arch that by his reckoning would be where all the sheep came in from Wales. He saw a high wall too, not far off from the river on its nearer bank, built out of posts like the town’s wall. It mayhap was a cloister or a lord’s land, where its east wall served to mark the western limit of the town.

The thought, however slender, that there may be monks near brought to mind his monastery in the quiet fields by Peterboro, which he had not visited now in three years or more. Remembering his cell and cot at Medeshamstede brought a pang, as too did his recall of those among the brotherhood that were his friends, so that he was resolved to travel back there when his work in Hamtun here was over and his obligation was discharged. That would not be, he told himself, until the centre of the settlement was found and Peter’s jute-wrapped talisman had been delivered there. This longing to be once more in his meadow home should bring that thing no nearer, and served only to delay its quick accomplishment.

Upon the left of him there were now narrow entries running off in strings of close-together houses, twisting round their turns and out of sight to tangle in a knot that Peter now suspected was the guts of Hamtun, rank and of surprising colour, where upon his walk around its walls he had seen nothing more than Hamtun’s patterned and pigmented outer hide. He was sore tempted by an urge to venture deep amongst the labyrinth of lanes, trusting that he could find the spot he searched for by no more than instinct, yet his wiser self prevailed. He here recalled the drover he had met at Woolwych who had known of Hamtun, and another thing that man had said to him: “It is all paths and cross-tracks like a nest of rabbits. It may be that you will find it not so easy getting in, though I can tell thee that it is more hard than murder getting out again.” Peter might lose his way among the narrow lanes, and would be better first to tread the limits of the settlement as he had planned, that he should have its measure. He continued therefore down the hill until he had come almost to the wall that he had seen while at its summit, noting to himself that Hamtun did not seem a half so far from east to west as it were south to north, so that he thought its shape was like a narrow piece of bark or parchment. If there were a message writ on this, or if he yet would have the wits to make it out, these things he could not say.

The wall of posts, which ran along the near side of the river, ended by the bridge that led out from the settlement to Wales. Once underneath the wooden span the Nenn bent into this direction also, and the wall between him and the river’s edge that wound off likewise westward was replaced by great black hedges serving as fortifications. Having thus come to another one of Hamtun’s corners, Peter turned again and set off down what he now knew to be the longer walk before he’d reach its southern boundary where he’d arrived some hours ago. Up to the right of him there was the silvery quarter of the low grey sky where hid the sun, that was about to start its long fall into night. It was a while by noon as he conceived it.

Trudging south he saw there were not many houses here down on the settlement’s low flank, but only crofts, each with its humble cottage. Off and up the easy slopes ahead, thin yarns of smoke were raised and knit into a pall, so that he thought these higher pastures were more densely settled. Down towards the riverside where Peter walked, though, he could only see a single dwelling in his way that seemed built near the corner of a track, the further one of two that led up from his route and eastward, side by side with empty cattle fields between them.

He approached the nearer of lanes, to pause and peer along it. As it rose away from him it was well-walked and had an ancient look, as did the ditch beside it where a small stream gurgled, come as he supposed out of a fount or spring up near the top. He crossed the bottom of the path, bag dangling at his back, and carried on in way of the stone croft-hut by the corner where the second side-track met his road. The lowly building seemed as though deserted, all alone here on the west hem of the settlement, without the sign of any fires burned in its hearth. Across the muddy thoroughfare from this, to Peter’s right, there was a goodly mound of stone made up, with built above it out of wood a winding-shaft that had a rope and bucket hanging down. He’d had no drink since a freshwater pond he’d passed round daybreak, some leagues south of Hamtun, and so veered from his straight line towards the wellhead, whistling an air he part-recalled from somewhere as he went.

When he was come upon this it was bigger than he’d thought, high to the middle of him where the stones were built up in their ring, which was perhaps two paces over it from side to side. He turned the hand-hold on the winder so that more rope was unrolled, at which the brightly painted wooden bucket dropped away from him down its unfathomable hole. After some moments doing this there came a faint splash from below, and soon thereafter he was hauling up a cup far heavier than was the one that he’d let down. The wetted cable squeaked, and he could hear and feel the slosh against the swaying vessel’s sides as it was pulled up from the dark bore, into daylight. Tying off the rope he drew the bucket to him and looked in, thirsty and eager.

It was blood.

The shock of it was like a blow and set the world to spin, so that he knew not his own thoughts. It felt as if a very cavalry of different understandings were stampeding through him, trampling reason with their dizzy, frightful rush. It was his own blood, where his throat was cut that he’d not known. It was the blood of Hamtun come from generations of its people, poured downhill to drain into this buried reservoir. It was the blood of saints that Saint John the Divine said should be quaffed at the world’s end, when in two hundred years from now it did occur. It was the Saviour’s blood, and by this sign it was announced to Peter that the land and soil itself were Jesu’s flesh, for like the barley and the things of earth was he not cut down to grow up again? It was the heart-sap of a fearsome Mystery and richer red than holly-fruit, a marvel of such magnitude that Christians of an era not yet come should know of it, and know of him, and say that truly in God’s sight he had been favoured, that he had been shown this miracle, this vision …

It was dye.

How was he so complete a fool? He’d seen the vivid cloths that were for sale upon the street of drapers, yet had minded not from where they must have come. He’d let the bright red bucket down the well, yet thought that it was painted for a seal and not that it was stained with its unceasing use. These signs had been as plain as daylight, saving to an idiot, yet in his fervour he was blinded to them and had almost thought himself to be already sainted. He resolved he should not tell his brethren back in Medeshamstede of this shameful error, even as a jest against himself, his puffed-up folly and his vanity, lest they should know him for a prick-head.

Laughing now at how he had been tricked by Hamtun for this second time, he poured the contents of the pail back down the black and gargling throat whence they had been retrieved. Reminded of his brother Matthew back near Peterboro, who had made illuminations onto manuscripts and spoken of his craft with Peter, Peter thought it likely that the water’s colour was achieved with iron rust from out the soil. While this would not have harmed him greatly, he was still uncommon glad that he had not quaffed deep without he looked. Red ochre, after all, was not the only thing that might produce red colouring. There was, for instance, rust of Mercury, and at the Benedictine brothers’ meadow homestead he had heard of monks who’d sucked the bristles of a brush where was red pigment still, to make them wet and form them to a point. Day after day, unwittingly, the monks had done this until they were poisoned by it. It was said of one his bones were made so brittle that when he lay dying and the merest blanket was put onto him for comfort, every part of him was broken by its weight, that he was crushed and killed. If this were a true story, Peter did not know, nor did he think it likely that the water in this present well would be thus tainted, but he was yet happy that he had not put it to the test, lest his half-wit mistake had proved instead a deadly one.

Now that the startlement of the event was passed and he reflected, Peter did not judge himself so foolish as he had done. Though the holy blood as he’d supposed had turned out naught but dye in its material truth, was there not an ideal truth to be considered also, where the earthly stain was but a figure made to stand for that which was unearthly, and so without worldly form? Could not a thing have aspects more than one, in that it might be rust of iron when reckoned with the stick of reason, and yet be the very wine of Christ according to the measures of the heart? A well of dye this shade he’d never heard about before, so that it was not much less of a wonder than it were the liquid he had thought at first. Whatever may have been its source it was a sign, to be made out.

As once again he hefted up his sack, it came to him that he had been too plodding and too careful in his thoughts and in his search alike. In walking cautiously about its edge, Peter had but considered Hamtun as a shape or like a flat sketch mapped on parchment, where he now saw it was more like to a living thing that had its humours and its mortal juices, less a territory to be paced than like a stranger he had joined in conversation. Might it warm to him if he were not so rigid and constrained in his approaches to it? Headed back towards his southbound rut he thought of this and so instead decided to go east, up past the solitary dwelling by its hill-path and into the proper settlement, that maze of crouching homes above and on the right of him whose open hearths had made the grubby hanging clouds more grubby yet.

He passed the stone shed on one side as he began the climb, and when he did there came upon him the sensation that he’d heard once called “newly familiar”, as when some novel circumstance should bring the outlandish conviction that it had been lived before. It was not, he observed, merely that he had somewhere known a moment that was of a kind with this, passing a single hut alone while making up the grade and in an unaccustomed site. It was instead this instant in its finest detail that he felt he passed through not for the first time: the pale and little shadows that were on the grass thrown by a shrouded sun not far beyond its zenith, and the moss grown to the shape of a man’s hand beside the door frame of the silent croft-house; birdsong ringing out from the dark hedgerows in the west just now that was three sharp sounds and a plaintive fall; the souring pork smell that his sweat had where its vapour was escaped from in his robes; his aching feet, the unseen distant river’s perfumes and the hard knobs of the sack that jolted on his bended spine.

He shrugged the feeling from him and went by the piled up limestone of the place and up the hill. He could see nothing in the darkened cavities that were its window-holes, but so uncanny was the sense it gave him that he yet half-thought that he was overlooked. A wicked part within his mind that meant to scare him said it was the snail-eyed hag from out his dream, resided by herself there in the shadow of the silent hut and watching what he did. For all he knew this to be no more than a phantom he had conjured whereby to torment himself, he shuddered still and made good haste to put the stead far at his back. Breaking now from the eastward lane that he was climbing, Peter struck out at an angle up a lesser path to the southeast that was a mere discolouration in the thigh-deep weeds.

What had unnerved him mostly at the croft-house was the notion that his passing of it was no sole event, but only one within a line of repetitions, so that there was called unto his mind an image that was like an endless row of him, his separate selves all passing by the same forsaken nook but many times repeated, all of them within that instant made aware of one another and the queer affair of their recurrence, that the world and times about them were recurring also. It was like a ghostly sentiment he had about him, as though he were one already dead who was reviewing the adventures of his life, yet had forgot that this were naught save for a second or indeed a hundredth reading, until he should stumble on a passage that he recognised by its description of a hovel stood alone, a blackbird’s song, or else a clot of lichen like a hand. These thoughts were new to him, so that he was not yet convinced he had their full entirety. As though a blind man he groped at their edges and their strange protrusions, though he knew the whole shape was beyond his grasp.

Labouring up the slope, his path bending again towards the east, it seemed to Peter as if the peculiar notions come upon him were an air or a miasma that was risen up in this locality, with its effects become more strong as he went deeper in. It brought a colour to his mood he could not name, as it were like a shade that had been mixed from several such, from fear and also wonderment, from hopeful joy, but sadness too and a foreboding that was difficult to place or to describe. The duty represented in his jute-cloth bag seemed both at once to make his soul all jubilant take flight, and be a matter of such heaviness he should be broke and flattened quite beneath it. In these contradictions did the feeling in him seem all human feelings rolled to one, and he was filled with it so that he thought to burst. This thrilling yet uncomfortable sensation, he concluded, must be that encountered by all creatures when they act the works of God.

He’d waded through the long grass and was on another dirt path now that rose straight up the hillside in the same way that the lane up from the dyer’s well had done, but further off from it. This new track had ahead of him a sprawl of dwellings that were covered holes to either side, where dogs with matted coats were sniffing in the midst of laughing men or scolding women that trailed babies. At its top end he could see raised up the roofs of higher buildings and below a traffic made of many carts, and so presumed this place to be a kind of main square to the settlement. Not so far off uphill and on his lane’s right side where were the lower houses and their populations, Peter saw that a great fire was builded up, there on a plot of bare and blackened land. Here people came with things that were too many or too vile to burn about their homes, on sledges and in bags. He saw dull piles of cloth, plague-rags as he supposed, unloaded from their barrow with a harvest-fork. There was a midden-wagon that its driver backed with many cries and halts toward the flames, so that the dung was shovelled from it to the furnace with a greater ease by the old men who made their work about this burning-ground. The stench and haze boiled in a filthy tower up from the blaze, for there was little wind, though Peter knew that different weather would see all the dwellings clustered here lost to a stinking fog.

Thinking to skirt the worst part of this foulness he turned off his eastbound way, along a little cross-street when he came to it. There were some huts built on each side of this, yet not so many people and not fires. Some distance down the sloping path ahead of him he saw a broad thatched roof that he supposed was that of a great hall, which had the walled grounds on its rear side turned to him. The lighted region of the sky was once more to his right, that meant he was gone south again, although not far before he had another hindrance blocking him. A distance on along in his direction was a yard that had a great cloud risen up about, as had the yard where wastes were burned, yet as those billows had been black, these were all white. He saw a carriage from behind which loads of chalk were put down on a little hill within the fenced-out patch, and thought how such a cart had crossed his path up from the southern bridge that morn, its dusts and its deposits on his hair and in the creases of his garment still. It was his preference that he remain the colour he had been when first he came to Hamtun and be not turned red by dyes else smoked to black or white, so that he now stood still and took a stock of things to better know where he might turn.

He was once more about a sort of corner, with a path run up from it and to the east again off from the lane where he at present trod. To mark the joining of the tracks there was a mound like to a square that had one of its sides squeezed shorter than the rest. Around this was a trench, dug out so long before it was grassed all across it now, as with the Roman river-fort that he had seen. The tufted hillock kept a sense about it that it was of import or had once been so, although it had no buildings on and only golden clumps of piss-the-bed that were not yet gone into misty balls of seed.

While he stood gazing at the hump, Peter became aware of an alarm enacted at its lower boundary, upon the side where Peter was and so between him and the chalk-yard. Pulled up by the trackside were a horse and drag that had an ugly man sat at its reins. His face was wide with eyes set far apart, and he looked strong yet squat, as though he were compressed. Perched on the low seat of his cart he was in converse with a child, a girl of no more than a dozen years who hesitated on the turf beside the circling ditch and looked up at the fellow all uncertain. She seemed fearful of the man as if she did not know him, shaking now her head and making as though she would move away, whereat the stocky carter made a lunge and caught her fast about a plump wrist that she might not flee.

Peter had but a moment wherein to decide what he should do. If this were a dispute ’twixt a vexed father and his wilful child then he was loath to interfere in it, although he did not think that it were so, and on his travels he had seen enough of rapes that he could not in conscience turn aside and merely hope that all were well.

When he were wont to use it Peter had a voice that boomed, so that his brothers off in Medeshamstede, though they liked him, did not like him making chant with them. This was the bellow that he now employed as he called to the man who held the maiden, with it rolling like a thunder off across the fallow grass between them.

“You there! Stop a moment! Fellow, I would talk with thee!”

He struck towards the cart at a long pace and had his sack now swinging heavy in his hand down by one side of him, so that one could not look upon it without thinking what a fearsome club could be made out of it were it whirled round at any speed. He was a peaceful man, yet knew how he could seem with his thick limbs and his red face when he’d a mind to: he had not come safely half across the world and back without using that baleful semblance knowingly and to his own advantage. On the wagon now the man whose body seemed squashed-down turned his head sharply round to stare at Peter, barrelling straight for him through the sedge with a skull-smasher hanging in one ruddy fist. Releasing the young girl, the rogue was startled and looked eager to escape. Giving a cry to rouse his mare he raced her off, his transport rattling down the raised ground’s short side and away around its bend, where at the corner he glanced back in fear towards the monk, then carried on and out from sight.

The maid he had released stood at the edge of the ringed trough and watched as her tormentor made away, then turned instead to Peter who was stopped halfway towards her, bent in two and puffing loud with his exertion, holding up one hand in her direction as he thought to reassure the frightened child. She was an instant while she took the measure of her rescuer, his dripping face like beetroot and the monstrous noise his wheezing made, before she made her mind up to run off another way from the direction her attacker had just taken, scampering away downhill as though to the south road that had the lonely hut and bloody well. He saw her go while he was there recovering among the drowsing stems, and thought it not a slight that she should be afraid at her deliverer. Not all monks were as he, and though he knew the bawdy songs of rutting friars to be a falsehood in the main, he likewise had met brothers of unpleasant appetite who would contrive to make such slanders true. The child was wise to be away with her and trust to no one in these worrisome new times, so that he found in her departure no offence and was but glad that by God’s grace he’d happened here in good time to prevent a wrong.

He was in some fine humour, then, when he determined to take once again the eastward path he’d left to skirt around the waste-fire and its vapours. With his breath returned to him he started on the lane that went up by the north side of the lifted mound, and while he walked he dwelled upon what had just then occurred. Had he not come by his decision at the well that he would take a different way into the settlement, then it might be that before long the girl would have been victim of a murder and found ghastly in a hedge. Who knew, now, of the children and grandchildren she might sire, or all the changes in the circumstances of the world that might be wrought from this result? If all else he had come here for should prove but his delusion, brought by too much foreign sun, then there was this to say that he had yet worked to the purpose of the Lord. Though it were beating like to a loud drum, his heart had joy in it as he strove onward up the stony climb, his sack across his shoulder and the sweat in a cascade upon his brow.

He was remarking inwardly upon how even closer the day had become when he looked up and saw another rough-shod pilgrim coming down the way towards him, one not quite so old as Peter was, who made a comic sight where he was dressed so queer. He had a cap atop his head sat like an upturned pudding bag that had a spreading rim, and all his garments were an oddment as though cast away by others, yet what others Peter could not tell, the bits and pieces were so strange. There was a little coat and some loose britches fashioned from light cloth, while on the stranger’s feet there were small leather boots made in a way that Peter had not seen, not even at the tanners’ stalls set out near Hamtun’s eastern gate. So antic was the aspect of this sorry wayfarer, the monk could not but smile when they came closer to each other. Though the man possessed an air about him that was pale and grey, he did not have the look of one with harm in him, as did the rider of the drag that made to carry off the child some moments since. This was a poor man who mayhap had his small mischiefs but seemed good at heart, and when their paths met and they stopped both were already grinning at each other, although if this were through amity or else because each found the other one’s appearance humorous, neither could say. Peter was first to make his hellos and to speak.

“ ’Tis a hot day to be out, I was just this moment saying to myself. How goes the world with thee now, my fine, honest fellow?”

Here the other man cocked back his head and squinted up his eyes to peer at Peter, as it were he thought that Peter mocked him, but at last decided he did not and answered in a cheery manner.

“Oh, it looks like a hot day, all right, and I suppose the world goes well enough. What of yourself? That bag of yours looks like a burden.”

This was spoken with a roguish wink and nod at the jute sack that Peter had upon his shoulder, just as though it might be stolen valuables concealed within. Smiling at this, the monk put down his baggage on the rough track at their feet. He gave a great sigh of relief and shook his head.

“God bless thee, no … or if it is it’s not a burden I begrudge.”

The fellow lifted up one brow as though with interest, or as if he invited still more comment, at which Peter thought that here there might be opportunity for guidance to the place he sought. It seemed that his chance meetings thus far on this afternoon were as directed by a higher power, and so perhaps was this one also. Much emboldened after these considerations, he came out and asked the question that he’d thought none but himself might answer, gesturing towards his set-down bundle as he did.

“I have been told I am to bring it to the centre. Dost thou know where that might be?”

There was much thoughtful humming and lip-tugging brought about by Peter’s query, where his new-met comrade tipped back the outlandish cap to show a balded pate and looked up to the skies this way and that as though the place he had been asked for were somewhere aloft. At length, just when the monk thought that he should be disappointed, he was given his reply. The other man turned off from Peter and made indication down the lane that was behind him, in the way that Peter was already headed. Here the hill he’d climbed was flattened off, so that his track now led between some dug-in homes and pastures to a broader street ahead, that cut across to run downhill from north to south and was alive with distant carts and animals. A thick elm stood there at the join where met the pathways, and it was to this the monk’s attentions were now called.

“If it’s where I’m thinking of, then you must turn right by that tree along the end there.” Sniffing back some snot the man here spat, in place of punctuation, as it seemed. “Go down that way until you reach the crossroads at the bottom. If you go straight over and you carry on downhill, it’s on your left across the road, just halfway down.”

Peter was overcome with joy and was likewise amazed at the great providence of God, that his riddle had found so swiftly and so simply its solution. All that had been in the end required of him, so things turned out, was that he ask. He gazed with gratitude upon the ragged pauper who had given him deliverance, and it was then that he first truly saw what was not usual in the man. He was not merely grey or pale as Peter had upon the outset thought him, but was rather without colouring of any kind, more like an image made with charcoal than a living and warm-blooded thing. He was also not only pale, but like to cloudy water so that when the monk made closer study he discovered he could see dark blurs moving across the figure that were traffics on the downhill path that cut across behind it, as if the poor man was made so that he could be seen through, though not clearly. With a tingling that was like an icy brook that trickled down his aching backbone, Peter knew he chattered to a spectre.

He was careful that the sudden fright he felt not show upon his face, lest he affront one who until then had been kindly and most helpfully disposed. Besides, the monk was yet uncertain what the being was he had the conversation of, although he thought it not an evil thing. Perhaps it was a lost soul, neither blessed nor else condemned and so residing in another state, here in its haunts of old. He wondered if it were eternally required to wander thus, or if the spirit knew some further destination, be it heaven or a different place, and to this end he asked where it was bound.

“I trust that your own journey is toward some pure and godly ending?”

Now the ghost looked guilty first, then sly, and in the end composed. Peter made private observation that the wraith’s expressions were as easy seen through as its form. The creature hesitated somewhat as it made reply.

“I’m … well, I’m off to see a friend now, if you want the honest truth. A poor old soul it is, lives all alone on Scarletwell Street corner and without a family to visit ’em. I’ll bid you a good day now, Father, or whatever you’d prefer I call you. Good luck carrying your swag-bag to the centre, now.”

With that the apparition went by Peter and on down the hill, towards where Peter had just intervened between the knave upon his cart and the young girl. The monk stood on the spot and watched him leave, and while he did so wondered what strange chance had made it so the tattered spirit should be gone about the lonely croft-man’s shed near to the dye well, for from how he’d spoken it could be no other place. Since Peter had come here to Hamtun, nothing had occurred that was to his eye only aimless fortune. Rather, it seemed that events had been already set into their place and time, with all their joints and decorations long ordained. While he had felt, upon the corner near the well, that he but viewed again a narrative read many times before, he now thought it more like a plan on parchment that a carpenter had made. His every footstep traced the lines by which he was made part to a design he could not guess. The wandering phantom that had helped him was now some way off and made more difficult to see, so Peter lifted once again his load and hung it on his back, then went along the lane to where the elm tree was. There he turned south and headed down beside the wide street where were many horses led, towards the crossroads that lay near its low end, as he had been told.

About him in their pens that bordered on the path or else come trotting out to join its filthy downhill skid were colts and mares and foals of every kind, so that he thought this must be where the horseflesh dealers made their truck. The smell of all the dung was sweet or like a fruited mash, although it was not pleasant in its sweetness and black flies were everywhere about in whispering thunderheads. The rank air here and the increasing closeness of the day brought out salt floods upon his legs and arms and made his heart fast and his breathing hard, or such was his conclusion. Looking up, he saw the blanketing of cloud above seemed nearer and, more than this, that it was now darker. Peter hoped his quest might soon be done, so that he could the sooner find some lodgings and be indoors if it rained.

The crossroads, when he came to it, had once again the sense that it was seen before, and Peter’s head felt light now with a kind of ringing echo in his ears. For all he’d pissed or sweated, there’d not been a drop of water past his lips since dawn. He stood there on the crossing’s northwest corner, and looked up along the new street he stood on the brink of, to its east. Here he beheld a scene he recognised that was all smokes and lights, and on the instant understood where he must be. This was the far end of the street where were the forges, that he’d seen the top of on that morning when he’d just arrived and come up from the bridge. If near the place where he stood now were truly England’s centre, then how many hours ago had he been just a little walk from it? But then, had he come straight here he should not have seen the relic temple on the sheep track, nor the bloody well, nor should he have been there to save the child from harm. He stared as though made dumb along the sparking, smouldering lane and marvelled at where fate had brought him.

Peter saw there sooty men who worked in melted gold and old men, almost blinded by their years, stooped over silver filigrees. A man that seemed a dwarf stood with his straining cheeks puffed out and lips pursed tight upon the stem of a long pipe or trumpet, from the end of which there came a swelling bubble that was like one made of soap but all on fire, so Peter knew it for a ball blown in hot glass. He saw the smiling traders who had eyes more bright than all the gems kept in their purses, which they’d spill as glinting droplet-streams into an upturned, spidery palm. He saw the riches of the world fresh from their foundry and knew that, among these splendours, what he carried in his jute bag was a pearl without compare.

He turned the other way and looked instead off to the west, along a street where many of the horses from uphill behind him were now being led. Some fair way further down it on the side where Peter stood, he saw there was a mighty thatched roof risen up, and thought that this was the great hall he’d seen the back of when he was up near the smothering chalk-merchant’s yard. Across from this and on the way’s far side there was a church tower he could see above the building-tops. It might be that the thatched hall was the manor he had heard of, where a prince that was the kin to Offa lived and had a church built for him there upon his land. The good wife he had talked to up the far end of the metal-workers’ street had said there was a church here called Saint Peter’s, that he thought might be the building he saw now.

Go down until you reach the crossroads, so the ghost had said, then pass straight over, where if he continued down the place he sought should be across the street and on his left. Heart hammering still and in a failing light thrown from the rain-clouds gathering above, he went across the hectic byway haltingly, so that he might avoid its trundling wagons until he was safely on its further side. From this new vantage he gazed anxiously across the downhill road towards the east, to see if he might make out by some sign where was the centre that the pauper soul had told him of. Nothing was there saving more pasture and a fenced-out yard that from its din he thought to be a smith’s, although not even this was halfway down the tilt, as he’d been made to think the centre should be. With a sinking worry in his gut he went on down the hill, his tired eyes darting back and forth expectantly about the grounds that were across the way.

The smith’s yard, as he thought, was near the bottom, while up by the crossroads at its other end, there on the corner with the street of metal workers was a smith’s yard also. Nothing was between them and their blackened forges saving only empty and untended mede, and on his cheek now Peter felt an early rain-spot, fat and cold.

He came upon what seemed to him the middle of the sloping way, and stopped to stand upon its edge and gaze across it, to where there was only wilderness. The thudding in his chest was louder, and he knew that he had once or many times before arrived here to find nothing. He was ever in the action of arriving here and finding nothing. Naught but all the drivers and their mounts gone up and down the broad path through a rain that now was spitting heavier. Naught save the idle man who stood outside the smith’s yard, up about the corner this lane had with the gold-workers’ street. Nothing but thistles and a tree and some bare ground, where he had thought to find the soul of all his land enthroned. He did not know if it were tears or sweat or rain that poured now down his face as he inclined it hopelessly toward the gravid sky and asked again what he had asked when at the other cross-path, only now his voice was angry and was tired, as if he did not care who heard.

“Is this the centre?”

All was in that moment stopped to him. Inside his ears the echo had become what was a humming of a kind, as if the halted instant were itself reverberant and rang with all the jewels of circumstance that made for its components. Rain hung motionless or else fell only slowly, with its liquids like to countless studs of opal that were everywhere fixed on the air, and in the coats of horses each hair was a blazing filament of brass. A shine was on the very dung that made it seem the prize of all the earth, and of the fields their bounty, that the flies set there about it were raised up on wings like to the windows of fine churches. On the waste-field there across the halted treasure-slide that was the street, midst weeds become like emerald flame, a man was standing all in white and in one hand he held a polished rod made from fair wood. His hair was like to milk, as was his robe, so that he stood as if a beacon in the scene and was the source of all its light, which painted an exquisite glint on every creature’s eye. His kindly gaze met with the monk’s, and Peter knew it was the friend who had appeared to him in Palestine, who’d charged him with his task and set him on his way. His journey’s alpha was become its omega and in his hearing now there was a roar, as though the pounding of great wings, that Peter thought but his own pulse made amplified. The answer of his question was announced.

Across the stilled enchantment that was on the street, the burning figure threw aloft its arms for joy, whereupon there were bright and blinding pinions opened out to either side. Exultant it called out as in a mighty voice amid tall mountains, that the sounds of it whirled off a thousand ways all at one time. It was the foreign speech that Peter had once heard before, with words that burst as though they were puff-toadstools on his thoughts, to scatter new ideas like drifting spores.


Yes! Yes! Yes, it is I! Yes, I exist! Yes, it is here in this place of excess that with a cross the centre shall be marked. Yes, it is here where is the exit of your journey, where both ye and I are come together. Yes, yes, yes, unto the very limits of existence, yes!

The being now held out his rounded rod as if he pointed it at Peter. Long and pale as though made out of pine, he saw its closer end had been worked to a point, where at the tip for decoration was a blue like cornflowers. Here the monk was puzzled and knew not why he was indicated thus, then saw that it was not at him the staff was aimed, but at a place that was behind him. Now he turned, and as he did it was as though his motion made the spell undone. The rushing sound he heard was not abated, yet the world was moved again, and rain dropped swiftly all about where it had only crawled before.

Behind him, set between what was a horse-shed and the premise of yet one more smith, he saw a wall of stone that had some violets grown out from its cracks, and let in to it was a wooden gate with iron trims that was a little open. Through this Peter saw a glade with swollen graves and tomb-stones raised up from its sods, and past it was a humble building made from dun and craggy stones by which two monks stood talking to each other. He was come upon a church. The dame who wore the Thor-stone and advised him earlier had said there was another church close by that of Saint Peter, which was called Saint Gregory’s. His arm upon the left that held the sack was aching now and so he changed the weighted baggage to his right, although this did not make the aching cease. As though struck dumb he stumbled through what had become a downpour and went in the church-yard’s gate, a little way along its path. The clerics broke off with their discourse and had seen him now, whereon they came towards him, slowly first then quickly, wearing faces of concern. Peter was fallen on his knees, though it were not in grateful prayer at his deliverance but more he found he could not longer stand.

The two friars, who soon came upon him, did their best to help him up and out of the deluge, but they were young and slender men who found he was too heavy. All they could accomplish was to set him on his back for comfort, with his head propped up against the bulged-out siding of a grave. They crouched above him with their habits spread out as they thought to keep the rain from off him, though it made them seem like crows and did not shield him much. Above them Peter saw the underbelly of the brewing storm, like darkened pearls that seethed and boiled and were become a changing and fantastic swim of wrinkles.

Everything was in that moment made alight, and then a frightful thunder boomed so that the monks who nursed him cried out and became more urgent in their questions, asking him where he was from and what it was that brought him here. The lightnings came again to drench the whole sky with their flash and Peter lifted up his arm, though not the left one that was numb, and made a gesture to his bag upon the soaking grass beside him.

When they understood him they pulled wide the jute-cloth neck and took what was inside out in the wind and wet. It was the hand-span of a man and half again across in both directions, roughly hewn from brownish stone so that it was too heavy to be lifted easy in one hand. The silvering rain dripped from its angles and its corners and the priests were now made mystified, as too were they amazed.

“What is it, brother? Can you tell us where you found it?”

Peter spoke, though it was hard, and from their faces had the sound of a delirium. From how they heard it, this was one who’d travelled far across the sea and had been near a place of skulls when he had found his treasure buried there. Unearthed, it was as though an angel had appeared to tell him he must take the relic and deliver it unto the centre of his land. It seemed to them as though he said he had a moment since met with this angel yet again, who had confirmed their small church as the pilgrim’s destination. Much of what the poor man said was lost amongst the rumble of the heavens, and at last they begged that he should tell them where the land was he had been, that had this place of skulls, and where were holy tokens jutted up from out the soil.

Their voices had become a part of the almighty fluttering that filled him, as though come from far away so that he barely heard them. He was dying. He would not again see Medeshamstede, and he knew it now. Above, the rolling banks of sodden sky were a black silk of Orient that had been crushed into some fissured complication full of crease and shifting crack. He saw now what he had not seen before, that clouds were of a grotesque shape by reason that they were tucked in and had been cunningly compressed. He saw that were they but unfolded they should have a form at once more regular and yet more difficult to be encompassed by the gaze. He did not have the slightest understanding what this odd idea might mean, nor why the feeling was upon him that his years of journey had been naught except a single, briefly-taken step that was now done.

He thought that he had in the last few moments closed his eyes and yet it seemed still that he saw, perhaps mere dreams or memories of sight that were inside the flickering lids. He looked upon the worried brethren squatting over him and at the little church behind them. Just as with his new-found comprehension of the churning, pelting firmament above, so too he noticed for a first time how the corners of a building were made cleverly, that they could be unfolded in a manner whereby the inside of them was out. What he had earlier mistook for carvings over ledges on the church he saw now to be people small like unto mygge-flies, yet then knew that they were large as he but somehow far away. They waved and reached at him, the little men. It seemed to him that he had always known of them. The two monks by his side he could no longer see, although he heard them speaking with him yet, and asking him again whence he had come, his perfect sign to bring.

The last word that he said, it was Jerusalem.


Sir Francis Drake leaned up against a wall of printed bills outside the Palace of Varieties and let his oiled bonce settle back against the giant names in black and red. According to his pocket watch there was a good half-hour before he had to draw his face on with burnt cork for the Inebriate. He could afford to kick his boots here on the corner until then and watch the horse-carts and the bicycles and all the pretty girls go by, with possibly another Woodbine for a bit of company.

He’d been a six-year-old at school in Lambeth when the other boys called him Sir Francis Drake. That had been at the outset of his mother’s slide to poverty, when he’d been forced to wear a pair of her red stage-tights that had been cut down to look like stockings, although being pleated and bright crimson hadn’t looked like that at all, accounting for the name. In many ways, he thought, he’d got off lightly. Sydney, his big brother … or his ‘young ’un’ as they’d called big brothers at the Hanwell School for Destitutes … had been obliged to wear a blazer, previously a velvet jacket of their mother’s, which had red and black striped sleeves. Aged ten and therefore more self-conscious than his younger sibling, Sydney had been known as ‘Joseph and his coat of many colours’.

Standing at the junction of the high-street now he found that he was sniggering at the nicknames, or at least at Sydney’s, though they hadn’t seemed so funny at the time. Still grinning, he consoled himself that Francis Drake had cut a famously good-looking and heroic dash, while Joseph had been dropped down a deep hole and left to die by brothers outraged at his dress-sense. Anyway, Sir Francis Drake was better than the other names he’d had across the years, which had endured far longer. Oatsie, that was one of them, just rhyming slang from oats and barley. He put up with it, but didn’t like it much. He always thought it made him sound as though he was a yokel, and that wasn’t quite the picture of himself that he was trying to present to people.

Up the hill towards his corner came a brewer’s dray in the Phipps livery, a snorting dappled shire horse with its mop-head hooves as big as dinner plates, dragging its clinking, rattling cartload to a halt in front of him when it came to the crossing where he was. A weathered, chained-off tailboard kept its load in place: old ale-crates that had been stacked empty outside pubs come rain or shine, their damp wood dusted lime with mould, now filled again by brown and glinting cargo headed for some other hostelry, some other windswept corner of a beery cobbled yard. The cart was pulled up at the crossroads, waiting for a moving van and young lad on a bike to go across the other way, before it carried on uphill. He stood there leaning up against the posters, staring at it while it idled, and just for a laugh he thought he’d slip into his character as the Inebriate.

He screwed his eyes up, lowering the lids so he looked half asleep, and made his cake-hole into a lopsided smirk. Even without the cork this creased his face so he appeared some ten years older than his real age, which was twenty. Gurgling deep down in his throat with incoherent lust, he fixed his bleary gaze upon the brewer’s wagon and began a veering but determined drunkard’s walk in its direction, as though he were trying desperately to affect a normal swagger but with legs that barely functioned. He made three steps sideways off downhill but then recovered and took squinting aim again toward his prize, staggering off the curb and out into the mostly empty cobbled road as he approached the booze-truck standing on its far side. Reaching out his hands as if for all the chiming bottles, he slurred “I must be in Heaven”, whereupon the startled driver looked round at him once then geed the horse on, swerving her around the rear end of the moving van that hadn’t yet got quite across the street, and went on jingling up the hill as quickly as the vehicle could manage. Walking casually back across the highway to resume his place propped up against its corner wall he watched the cart go and felt half proud at his act’s success and half ashamed for the exact same reason. He was far too good at doing drunks.

Of course, the drunks were all his father, Charles, who he’d been named after and who had died from dropsy just a decade earlier, in 1899. Four gallons. That was how much liquid had been drained out of his father’s knee, and that was why the better the Inebriate went down, the guiltier he felt. He watched as the September sun fell slanting on the dirty old Northampton buildings hunched around the crossroad’s corners, turning brickwork flocked with soot to orange fire, and thought about the last time that he’d spoken to his dad. It had been in a pub, he noted without much surprise. The Three Stags, hadn’t it been, down Kennington Road? The Stags, the Horns, the Tankard, one of those at any rate. It had been round about this time of day, late afternoon or early evening, on his way back home to where he lived with Sydney and his mother along Pownall Terrace. Passing by the pub he’d had the strangest impulse he should push the swing-door open and look in.

His father had been sitting up one corner on his own, and through the two-inch crack by which he’d opened up the barroom door he’d had a rare chance to observe the man who’d sired him without being seen in turn. It was an awful sight. Charles Senior sat there in his drab upholstered nook and nursed a short glass of port wine. He’d one hand resting in his waistcoat as if to control his ragged breathing, so he’d still looked like Napoleon as mother always said, but bloated as though puffed up with a cycle-pump. He’d previously had a rather sleek, well-fed look, but had turned to an enormous, sloshing bag of water with his former handsomeness submerged and lost somewhere within it. The appearance he’d had once was smoothly oval-faced like Sydney’s, although Sydney’s father had been someone else entirely, some displaced Lord out in Africa, at least according to their mother. Even so, his brother still looked like Charles Senior much more than Charles Junior ever had, the latter favouring their mother more, with her dark curls and beautiful expressive eyes. His father’s eyes had been sunk in the risen dough that was his face that afternoon in the Three Stags, but they’d lit up with what he’d realised with a start was joy when they’d alighted on the small boy peering in towards him through the partly open doorway and the lapping tides of smoke that hung suspended in the air between them.

Even now, stood at the bottom end of what was it called, Gold Street, in the dead-end venue of Northampton, halfway through another disappointing tour with Karno’s Mumming Birds, even today he couldn’t quite get over just how pleased his dad had been to see him on that last occasion. Lord alone knew he’d not shown much interest in his son before then, and Charles Junior had been four years old already when he’d realised for the first time that he had a father. In the Stags that evening, though, the once-arresting vaudevillian had been all smiles and fond words, asking about Sydney and their mother, even taking his ten-year-old offspring in his arms and, for the first and last time, kissing him. Within a few weeks his old man was dying in the hospital, St. Thomas’s, where that bloody Evangelist McNeil had offered only “as ye sow, so shall ye also reap” as consolation, heartless dog-faced bastard that he was. ‘Old man’. Charles Junior chuckled ruefully and shook his head. His father had been thirty-seven, out at Tooting Cemetery in that white satin box, pale face framed by the daisies that Louise, his fancy woman, had arranged around the coffin’s edge.

Perhaps his father knew, there in the fug and mumble of the Three Stags, that he held his son for the last time. Perhaps in some way everybody had a sense before it came, as if it were already all set out, of how their end was going to be. He glanced up at a speckled cloud of birds that dipped and swung and flattened out like a grey flame against the sunset, as they flocked above the local inns and hardware shops before returning home to roost, and thought it was a pity that you couldn’t tell beforehand how your life was going to be, and never mind about your death. Things could go either way for him at present, and it was as unpredictable and random as the movements of those roosting pigeons, how events would finally fall out. Without a break of some sort he’d be spiralling around these northern towns until his dreams had all leaked out of him, had proven to be nothing but hot air from the beginning. Then there would be nothing for it but to live up to his mother’s bleak prediction, every time he’d come home with a whiff of drink upon his breath: “You’ll end up in the gutter like your father.” He knew he was standing at a crossroads in a lot more ways than one, put it like that.

There were more carts and vans about now and a few more people crossing back and forth over the intersection as the town made its way home from work to have its tea. Women with prams and men with knapsacks, loud boys playing vicious, agonizing games of knuckles with each other while they waited for the conker season to commence, all jostling along the streets that led to the four compass points and crossing over where they joined, doing a hurried trot between the coal trucks and the atolls made of horse muck and, just at that moment, a red tram with an advertisement for Adnitt’s gloves across its front. This came up from the west, along the road that he stood facing down with the inflated, sagging sun behind it, and continued on its iron rail past him on his right to hum away up Gold Street. He was living in a modern world all right, but didn’t always feel like he belonged here, in the first years of this new and daunting century. He thought most people felt as jittery and out of place as he did, and that all the optimistic new Edwardians you heard about were only in the papers. Looking round him at the passing people, from their faces and the way they dressed you wouldn’t know the Queen was dead eight years, but then when everyone was poor they tended to look much the same from one reign or one era to another. Poverty was timeless and you could depend upon it. It was never out of fashion.

And it never would be, not in England. Look at all the business with the People’s Budget as they called it, where they’d made provisions for some money to be taken from the income tax and spent upon improvements in society, but then the House of Lords had thrown it out. Somebody ought to throw them out, he thought, and fumbled in his jacket for his pack of snouts. England was going down the plughole and he didn’t reckon that this twentieth century was going to be as kindly to the country as the nineteenth had been. There were all the Germans, for a start, making their ugly noises and their ugly ships. Last year they’d bragged about how much ammonia they’d managed to produce, while now they bragged about how many bombs. Then there was India kicking up a fuss and wanting their reforms. Not that he blamed them, but he thought it was a sign there might not be so many pink bits to school atlases in years to come. The British Empire looked as if it was decaying, inconceivable as that might seem. It had most likely died, to his mind, with Victoria, and now was in the long slow process of accepting its demise and falling quietly to bits.

Thinking about the old days, watching while a junkman cursed a grocer’s lad whose bike had shot across before his horse and cart, he was reminded of the first time that he’d come here to Northampton. He’d been nine, so it had been, what, 1898? Taking the box of ten Wills’s Woodbines from his pocket, he extracted one of the remaining six and balanced it upon his lower lip while he returned the narrow packet to his coat. It was this very same theatre that he’d been appearing at, that first time more than ten years back, with Mr. Jackson’s troupe of child clog dancers, the Eight Lancashire Lads. He’d stood on this corner with his best friend from the outfit, Boysie Bristol, and they’d talked about the double act that they were going to make it big with, as the Millionaire Tramps, decked out in fake whiskers and big diamond rings. This place had been the Grand Variety Hall back then, and Gus Levaine had still been running it, but otherwise it didn’t seem so different. There they’d been, Boysie and Oatsie, cutting off from their rehearsals to waste time here on this spot and think about the fame and fortune they could see stretched out before them, much the same as he was doing still today, all these years later. Contrary to what he’d thought about his father knowing he was soon to die, it seemed more likely to him now that people just made mostly hopeless guesses at how things would work out. While he couldn’t speak for Boysie Bristol, who he’d not seen in five years, for his part he was fairly certain that whatever roles the future held in store for him, Millionaire Tramp would not be one of them. He took a box of matches from his other pocket, turning to one side and pulling his lapel up as a wind-shield while he lit his fag.

Exhaling a blue plume, the west wind he was facing caught the smoke and dragged it back across his shoulder, off up Gold Street. He was looking at a little patch of wasteland halfway down the hill across the road from him and thinking vaguely of the Eight Lancashire Lads – four of them were from outside Lancashire and one of them had been a short-haired girl, but it was true that there were eight of them – when out of nowhere he remembered. This was where they’d met the black man, the first one he’d ever really seen except for pictures in encyclopaedias.

Him and Boysie had been skulking here, debating the logistics of their double act, deciding that their diamond rings should be made out of paste until their turn had made them into actual millionaires, when down the hill he’d come upon his funny bike, over the crossroads and towards them. The chap’s skin was black as coal and not a shade of brown, with salt-and-pepper showing up already in his hair and beard so that the boys had thought he must be getting on for fifty. He was riding a peculiar contraption of a sort that neither lad had previously come across. It was a bicycle that had a two-wheeled cart fixed on the back, but what made it an oddment were its tyres, the two on the machine itself and those upon the trolley that was dragged behind it. They’d been made of rope. Fitted around the bare iron rims were lengths of the same formerly-white hawser that had been employed to tie the trailer to the bike, now ridden through so many sooty puddles that their colour wasn’t noticeably lighter than that of the cyclist himself.

The Negro, seeing that the boys were gaping at him as he came over the crossroads, smiled and pulled his bicycle-and-cart up to the curb a little past them down the hill. He did this with small wooden blocks that he had strapped beneath his shoes for brakes, taking his feet from off the pedals so that they hung down and scraped over the cobbles of the road until the wagon was brought in this manner to a halt. Its rider had looked back across his shoulder, grinning at the two boys who had been regarding him so rudely, and called out a friendly greeting to them.

“Ah hope you two youngsters ain’t bin gittin’ up tuh any trouble, now.”

The man’s voice had been marvellous, like nothing that they’d ever heard before. They’d trotted down the hill to where he was and told him they were waiting their turn to perform as clog dancers, which almost was the truth, then asked him where he’d come from. He’d be too self-conscious now, he thought, to just come out and say that to a black man, but when you’re a kiddie you just speak what’s on your mind. The fellow had black skin and had a foreign accent. It was only natural that they should ask where he was from, and naturally was how he’d taken it, without offence or anything. He’d told them he was from America.

Of course, that had set both boys off on a great stream of questions about Indians and cowboys, and if all the buildings in the cities were as tall as they’d been told. He’d laughed and said New York was “purty big”, though looking back he hadn’t seemed half so impressed about his origins as the two boys had been. He’d told them how he’d lived here in Northampton for about a year now, “down on Scarlut Well”, wherever that was, and then after some more chat had said he ought to be about his work. He’d winked at them and told them to keep out of trouble, then he’d lifted up his wood-blocks and careered away downhill, towards where the ornate grey drum of a gas-holder reared against the sky. After the man had gone, the two of them had enthused for a time about America, and then had imitated how the black bloke talked, his own impression knocking Boysie’s into a cocked hat. Then they’d gone back to all their Millionaire Tramp pipedreams, and he’d never thought about the curious encounter from that day to this.

He took a drag that was more like a sip off of his Woody and then blew the smoke out down his nose, the way that he’d seen others do and thought it looked quite stylish. There was now a fair old bunch of people heading back and forth over the crossroads, either riding or on foot, and he stood wondering what else there might have been from those times that he’d just forgot about. Not skull-faced Mrs. Jackson, wife of the Lancastrian former teacher who’d set up the company, sat suckling her baby son while overseeing the clog dancing troupe’s rehearsals. He’d remember that sight if he lived to be a hundred. Now he thought about it, there were more than likely very few things like that Negro chap, things he’d forgot about by accident, although he knew there were a multitude of things that he’d forgot about on purpose, as it were.

It wasn’t that he was ashamed of where he’d come from, but a lot of what this business was about was how things looked. He had an eye to how he wanted things to be reported if he ever managed to make something of himself. It didn’t hurt to come from a poor background: ‘rags to riches’ was a story everybody loved. The rags part of it, though, that had to be depicted in a certain way, touched up and made more picturesque with all the nasty little details painted out. Nobody would have shed a tear for Little Nell if she’d expired in childbirth or from syphilis. The public had an appetite for sadness and for sentiment, and what they saw as all the colour of the worse-off classes, but nobody liked the taste of squalor. The Inebriate went down a treat for just so long as he was hanging round a lamppost, talking to it like a pal. The skit was cut off long before he shit his trousers or went home and put his wife in the infirmary by belting her until she couldn’t walk.

That was another element that needed getting rid of if you wanted to present your tale of poverty in the right light, all of the fights and beatings. If at some uncertain point in the uncertain future he was asked to reminisce, say for some little magazine on the theatre, why, then he’d talk about Mumming Birds, he’d talk about The Football Match where he’d appeared with Harry Weldon, and he’d even talk about the Eight Lancashire Lads. The years that him and Sydney spent as the performing mascots of the Elephant Boys, though, they wouldn’t get a mention. Not a dicky bird.

A sudden gust along the west arm of the crossroads blew the cigarette smoke back into his eyes so that they watered for a second and he couldn’t see. He waited for a bit then wiped them with his cuff, hoping that all the people passing wouldn’t think that he was crying; that a girl had stood him up or anything like that.

There had been nothing else but gangs all over London back when he was growing up. You didn’t strictly have to be in one of them, and if you wanted to stay out of trouble it was better if you weren’t, but there was something to be said for being friendly with a gang and sort of on its edges. If you picked a mob to hang around who’d got a reputation that was terrible enough, then with a bit of luck the other gangs would see that you were left alone. There hadn’t been a crew in all the city or its boroughs half as frightening as the boys from Elephant and Castle, which was how come him and Sydney pallied up to them.

Him and his elder brother could both sing and dance by that age and had often done turns on the street to earn a penny when their mother’s luck was going badly, as it often was. The Elephant Boys, who’d think nothing of disfiguring or robbing adult men, had been impressed by him and Sydney, shrewdly noticing the brothers’ obvious entertainment value. They’d be called on as the gang’s performing monkeys, either as a means of bringing in some coppers when the funds were low or else to lift morale before and after some hair-raising punch-up with a rival bunch of lads, perhaps the Bricklayer’s Boys from Walworth, somebody like that. His speciality had been to jam his dainty feet into the handles on a pair of dustbin lids, then tap-dance on a metal grating just for all the deafening racket it would make. They’d called it Oatsie’s Stamp. In fact, the Elephant Boys were the first to call him Oatsie, now he thought about it.

It had been a horror. He’d be doing Oatsie’s Stamp with Sydney joining in on spoons or comb and paper, just whatever was about, and there the biggest thugs from out the gang would be, sat by the roadside, studiously sharpening their market-worker’s hooks up on the curb-stones, sometimes looking up and whistling or clapping if they thought that him and Stakey were performing well. Stakey was what they’d called his brother in those days, from steak and kidney. There they were, Stakey and Oatsie, hiding round the corner, watching while the scrap or massacre was taking place, then afterwards they’d both be called back on so he could do the victory dance with a white face at all the business he’d just seen – boys running home with one ear hanging from their head, a lad of fourteen screaming with the blood all down his legs from where a hook had caught him up the arse – and he’d be thinking about all of this while he was stamping on an iron grid, the dustbin tops wedged on his plates of meat making a noise like Judgement Day, with hot sparks shearing from the clattering metal up round his bare knees. He’d been what, seven, eight years old?

If he’d learned anything from all of that it had been that he couldn’t bear the thought of being hurt, of having something permanent done to his body or especially his face. They were the things he hoped would lift him out of all this grubbing round to make a crust. If anything should happen to them, that should be the end of it. Of him. He’d stood and watched once, sick with shame, while Sydney got a thumping from an older member of the gang who’d taken umbrage over something Syd had said. He’d known, and Sydney had assured him later, that there wasn’t anything he could have done to help, but all the same he’d felt a coward over the affair. He could have said something, at least, but then that might have meant that he was next, so he’d just stood there and watched Stakey have his cheek split open. If, unlikely as it seemed, he ever wrote a memoir, none of this would be included.

Arguments or shouting matches, those he was all right with, but a fight was something he’d try anything he could do to avoid. Some of the older entertainers that he knocked about with on the circuit reckoned things were looking bad between England and Germany and thought sooner or later there might be a war. He’d be just twenty-one next April and then he’d have the key of the door, never been twenty-one before and all of that, but he’d still be of army age if anything should start. He didn’t fancy that idea at all, and still hoped there was some way he could be safe in another country, if and when it happened. He’d been booked in for a month to play at the Folies Bergère for Karno earlier that year and he’d enjoyed it so much that he hadn’t wanted to come home. He’d seen more lovely women than he’d ever dreamed of, which was saying something with his dreams. He’d met Mr. Debussy, the composer, and he’d had the only real brawl of his life with the prize-fighter Ernie Stone in Stone’s hotel room after too much absinthe. Stone had won, of course, but he’d not done too bad considering and had surrendered only when the lightweight boxer hit him in the mouth so that he’d thought that he might lose his teeth. Returning to the old routines of Mumming Birds and touring gloomy northern towns after all that had been a disappointment, and he hoped it wouldn’t be too long before he got to go abroad again, preferably not in a tin hat as a conscript of the army. Karno had been going on about America, but then Fred Karno talked about a lot of things and only some of them would ever come to fruit. He’d keep his fingers crossed and see what happened.

Oatsie took a few more quick puffs on his fag, then dropped it on the floor and ground it out beneath a swivelling boot before he kicked it off the curb. The crossroads’ gutters brimmed with empty cigarette packs, Woodbines, Passing Clouds, and an unappetising salad of dead leaves. He had to squint about a bit before he caught sight of the trees that these had evidently fallen from, some way along the crossroads’ westward route so that he only saw the tops of them, gold in the setting sun. Now that he looked he saw that there were also saplings sprouting from a couple of the chimneys closer to him, rooted in the dirty brickwork, like the one he could see growing up above the roofline of the public house across the street, the Crow and Horseshoe. Noticing a street-sign bolted up on the far corner and made near unreadable by soot and rust, he saw the slope he stood on was called Horseshoe Street, which helped explain at least the second part of the pub’s name. And if those further trees whose tops he could just glimpse were standing in a graveyard then that might explain the first part, he supposed. He pictured chubby carrion birds all perched there screeching on their tombstones where the names had been erased by moss, and then he wished he hadn’t.

He was only twenty after all. He didn’t need to think of all that morbid business for a long time yet, although there’d been lads killed in the Boer War a good sight younger than what he was now. For that matter, there had been kids in Lambeth who’d not got to their tenth birthdays. He wished he could still believe in God the way he had that night in Oakley Street, down in the basement where he was recovering from fever, when his mother had performed the most dramatic scenes from the New Testament to keep him occupied. She’d put all of the talents from a stage career she’d only recently abandoned into the performance and had almost done too good a job, with him left hoping that he’d have a relapse in his fever so that he could die that night and meet this Jesus who he’d heard so much about. She’d been that passionate, he’d never doubted any of the stories for an instant. Mind you, that had been before him and his brother were dragged through the workhouse with her, and before she had been put in the asylum for a spell. He wasn’t quite so sure today about the heaven that he’d heard described that night, so vividly he couldn’t wait to touch it.

These days, though, he’d lowered his sights and if he thought about what might be after death at all it was in terms of how he’d be remembered, or else how he’d be forgotten. What he wanted was his name to live on after him, and not just as a character from pubs around Walworth and Lambeth, how his father had been posthumously labelled. What he wanted was to be well thought of and well spoken of when he was dead, the way that someone like Fred Karno would be. Well, perhaps that was a bit ambitious, given Karno’s stature in the business, but at least he’d like to be recalled as someone in the same division, even if he was a fair sight lower down in people’s estimation than what Fred would be. Considering the future, when there’d be more people everywhere, he could see how the Music Hall would be much bigger and much more important than it was today, and Oatsie thought there was a chance that he’d get written up somewhere as a contributor to the tradition’s early days, at least if he could manage not to get killed in a war before he’d got his break.

The ideas he was entertaining had begun to get him down. He swept his long-lashed girlish eyes across the passing throng in hope of spotting a big bust or pretty face that might distract him from his own mortality, but he was out of luck. There were some women who looked nice enough, but not what you’d call notable. As for their bosoms it was much the same tale. There was nothing that stood out, and so he drifted back to his uneasy contemplations.

What it was with death that worried him was that it made him feel like he was trapped upon a tramline that was only going to one place, that the iron rail was set already in the road in front of him, that it was all inevitable, although actually that was the thing that worried him with life as well, upon consideration. It was how life seemed sometimes like a skit that had been written out beforehand, with a punch line that was set up in advance. All you could do was try and keep up with its twists and turns while the momentum of the story dragged you through it, one scene following another. You were born, your father ran away, you sang and danced on stage to keep your family out the workhouse but they went there anyway, your brother got you a position with Fred Karno, you went off to Paris, came back home, missed out on Harry Weldon’s former star role in The Football Match because of laryngitis, you got stuck with Mumming Birds instead and ended up back in Northampton, and then some time after that, a long time hopefully, you died.

It was all the “and then and then and then” of it that scared him, one scene following another, its events determining how all the acts thereafter would unfold, just like a great long line of dominoes all falling, and it didn’t seem you could do anything to change the way they fell, the prearranged precision of it, regular as clockwork. It was as if life were some great big impersonal piece of machinery, like all the things they had in factories that would keep rolling on whatever happened. Getting born was just the same as getting your coat lining caught up in its wheels. Life pulled you in and that was that, you were enmeshed in all its circumstances, all its gears, until you reached the other end and got spat out, into a fancy box if you were lucky. There seemed very little choice in any of it. Half his life had been dictated by his family’s financial situation, and the other half dictated by his own compulsions, by his need to be adored the way his mother had adored him, by his frantic scrabble to get somewhere and to be somebody.

But that wasn’t the whole story, was it? Oatsie knew that was what everybody thought about him privately, all of his so-called pals from in the business, how they saw him as a climber, always chasing something – chasing women, chasing any scrap of work he had a sniff at, chasing fame and fortune – but he knew they’d got him wrong. Of course he wanted all those things, wanted them desperately, but so did everybody else, and it was never really the pursuit of recognition that propelled him through his life so much as the great black explosion of his background rumbling behind him. Mother starving her way into madness, father swelling up into a stinking, sloshing water-bomb, all of the pictures flickering past to a percussion made by fists on flesh and dustbin lids on gratings, hammering and clanging in the rising sparks. What kept him on the move, he knew, was not the destiny that he was chasing but the fate that he was running from. What people saw as climbing was no more than him attempting to arrest his fall.

The flow of vehicles and people at the crossroads moved like shuttles on a loom, first shunting back and forth from north to south, up and downhill in front of him, then rattling from west to east along the road that had the Crow and Horseshoe in and Gold Street. All the day’s smells mingled there upon his corner, cooked by the unseasonably sunny afternoon and now condensed with sunset to a dog-blanket that hung above the junction. Horse manure was the most prevalent among the mixed aromas, giving the perfume its base, but there were other essences stirred into the bouquet: coal dust that faintly smelled of electricity and pepper, stale beer wafted from the ale-yards and another sweet yet noxious fragrance somewhere between death and pear drops that at first he couldn’t place but finally decided that Northampton’s many tanneries, most probably, were where the odour came from. Anyway, he put all this out of his mind because just then, ascending Horseshoe Street on his side, there was something that he definitely wouldn’t turn his nose up at.

She’d never be mistaken for a classic beauty, not the type he’d witnessed on the Champs-Élysées, he could see that even at this distance, yet there seemed to be a radiance she carried with her. Strolling up the slope towards him from down near its bottom he could note a plumpness in the girl that might be more pronounced when she grew older, but which at that moment manifested in an irresistible arrangement of well-balanced and voluptuous curves. Her contours were as generous and as inviting to the eye as a lush garden, with a little of the garden or the orchard also in the sway her walk had underneath the cheap, thin fabric of a flapping summer skirt, her thick thighs tapering to sturdy calves and tiny china feet, which lazily swung back and forth below the fluttering hem as in her own good time she climbed the hill.

Her clothes were drab and mainly brown but complementary to the palette of the landscape she was sauntering through: the leaves that choked the gutters with a fire and chocolate medley and the faded sepia handbills peeling torn from the façade of an antique rival theatre, down there at the foot of Horseshoe Street. Setting the composition off, though, was the woman’s hair. Deep auburn as a bowl of polished chestnuts and like lava where they caught the early evening light her curls fell round her rose cheeks in a jiggling spill of brandy snaps. A little more than five feet tall, a pocket goddess, she burned like a lamp flame that was low yet still illuminated the smoke-cured enclosures that it passed amongst.

As this young bit of stuff came closer, he could make out that she carried something up near her left shoulder, one hand underneath it as she leaned whatever it was on the slope of her full breast, the other wrapped around the lump to hold it to her, as you would a shopping bag if both the handles had come off. Still only halfway up the steep climb to where Oatsie stood, she stopped now to adjust her grip upon the bundle, shifting it up higher in her arms before she carried on. A fluffy outcrop on the top end of the item seemed to suddenly come loose and swivel round to point straight at him, whereupon he realised that it was a baby girl.

To be more accurate, despite its size and age it was perhaps … no, not perhaps … it was most certainly the loveliest human creature he had ever seen. She seemed to be not much more than a year old, with her white-gold locks that dropped down in a shower of wedding rings and her enormous eyes the reassuring blue of police lanterns on a risky night. The infant girl was like a cygnet angel as she met his gaze unblinkingly, perched there in the embrace of the approaching woman. If he’d ever thought that his own beauty might one day lift him above the quagmire of his origins, here was a glory that they’d surely come to talk about the way they spoke of Helen. Nothing would prevent this child from growing to a diamond of her age, a face that stared out of a poster at you once and haunted you forever. She would never in her life go unappreciated or unloved and you could see it in the level, unassuming look that she already had, the inviolable confidence of a celestial orchid grown amidst the clovers and the weeds. If he knew anything, he knew the tot would end up as a bigger name than him and Karno put together. It was unavoidable.

The fact that the small girl was being carried by the shapely little woman didn’t necessarily mean they were child and mother, he reflected, looking on the bright side, although even from this far away you couldn’t help but notice a resemblance. Still, there was a chance this chickabiddy was the tiny vision’s aunt, minding the baby while its parents were at work, and that therefore she might be unattached, despite appearances. It didn’t really matter in the long run in that all he wanted was to while away ten minutes with some pleasant and flirtatious talk, not scarper off to Gretna with her, but it somehow always made him feel uncomfortable if he was chatting up a married girl.

Climbing the hill, the woman gazed towards its far side and the patch of wasteland that he’d noticed earlier, dreamily contemplating the gone-over buddleia erupting from between its tumbles of collapsed old brick, seemingly unaware of his existence. He already had the baby’s eye, however, so he thought he’d work with that and see how far he got. He dipped his chin until it touched his collar and the fat knot of his tie, then looked up at the toddler from beneath his curling ostrich lashes and the jet-black hyphens of his brows. He gave the gravely staring little beauty what he knew was his most impish grin, accompanied by a brief, bashful flutter of his eyelids. Suddenly he broke out with a clattering burst of expert tap dance on the worn buff flagstones, lasting no more than three seconds before it was over, at which juncture he stopped dead and looked away uphill, pretending to disown his terpsichorean interlude as if it hadn’t happened.

Next, at intervals, he darted shy and furtive glances back across his shoulder as though to establish whether the cherubic child was looking at him, though he knew she would be. Every time he met her look, which now seemed slightly more delighted and amused, he ducked his face away as though embarrassed and stared pointedly towards the opposite direction for a moment before letting his gaze creep, as though reluctantly, back round across his shoulder for another glimpse of her, like in a game of peek-a-boo. On the third time he did this, he saw that the pretty woman carrying the waif had been alerted by her charge’s gurglings and was looking at him too, wearing a knowing smile that seemed one of appraisal yet was at the same time somehow challenging, as if she weighed him up according to a measure he was unfamiliar with. The breeze was lifting more now as the day cooled off, smashing the dandelion clocks that grew upon the scrap-ground and then scattering their drifting cogs along the street. It shook the woman’s curls like burnished catkins as she studied him, deciding whether she approved of what she saw.

It seemed she did, although perhaps not without reservations. Only several paces from him now she called out cheerfully to Oatsie over the remaining distance.

“You’ve got an admirer.” Obviously, she meant the baby.

In a funny way her voice was like blackcurrant jam, which he was passing through a fad for at the time. Both hearteningly commonplace and fruity with suggestive undertones, its sweetness had a quality of darkly dripping plenty and, as well, the hint of a sharp bite. Her accent, though, was not the strange Northampton intonation he’d expected. If he’d not known better, he’d have sworn that she was from South London.

By then, she’d got to the corner where she stopped, a foot or so away from him. Up closer, now that he could see the woman and her baby in more detail, they were certainly no let-down. If the child had been more beautiful or perfect he’d have wept, while the adult companion, who he’d got his eye on, had a glow and warmth about her that if anything enhanced the first impression that she’d made on him from further down the hill. She looked to be about his age, and the hot summer that was drawing to its close had raised a crop of freckles on her face and arms that were like smaller versions of the specks on lilies. He became aware that he was staring at her and decided that he’d better say something.

“Well, just as long as my admirer knows that I was standing here admiring her before she was admiring me.” This wasn’t quite so obviously about the baby, necessarily, but he was happy with the ambiguity. The woman laughed and it was music, more that of a pub piano on a Friday night than of Debussy, but still music just the same. The western sky was being daubed in other colours now, in melancholy piles of gold like lost exchequers over the gas-holder, pastel smudges of pale violet and bruise mauve on its peripheries as she replied.

“Ooh, get away with yer. You’ll give ’er a big ’ed, then she’ll be spoilt and no one’ll want anything to do with ’er.” She changed her hold upon the infant here, switching its weight onto her other arm so that he now saw her left hand and the plain ring on its third finger. Oh well. He found that he quite enjoyed the bit of company, and didn’t mind much that it wouldn’t lead to anything. He changed his line of complimentary spiel so it was now directed solely at the baby and, freed from the need to make a good impression on the woman, Oatsie was surprised to find that he meant every word of it for once.

“I don’t believe it. She looks like it’d take more than flattery to spoil her, and I’d bet five bob that she’ll have people flocking round her everywhere she goes. What do you call her?”

Here the brunette turned her face towards that of the small girl in her arms, to smile fondly and proudly as she let their foreheads gently touch together. There were geese above the gasworks.

“ ’Er name’s May, like mine. May Warren. What’s yours, anyway, stood out ’ere on Vint’s Palace corner with yer pimpy eyes?”

Oatsie was so shocked that his mouth fell open. No one had described what he still thought of as his smouldering gaze in quite that way before. After an instant of stunned silence, though, he laughed with genuine admiration at the woman’s insight and her brutal honesty. What served to make the slur much funnier was that at just the moment it was said, the woman’s baby turned her head and gazed straight at him with a puzzled, sympathetic look, as if the child echoed her mother’s query, also wondering what he was doing out here on the corner with his pimpy eyes. This made him laugh longer and harder, with the woman chuckling deliciously along and finally her tiny daughter joining in as well, not wishing to appear as if she didn’t understand.

When they’d eventually stopped, he realised with a certain wonderment how good it felt after the months and years of scripted comedy to have a real, spontaneous laugh, particularly at a joke against himself. A joke that told him he was getting too big for his boots, and that the serious career concerns that were upsetting him not five minutes before were likely to be just as puffed up and inflated. It had put things in perspective. He supposed that was what laughs were for.

He nodded, with as little smugness as he could, towards his name up on the poster he was leaning on, but told her she should call him Oatsie. All his friends did, anyway, and he thought Charles would sound too stuck-up to a girl like this. When him and Sydney had been small their mother had been doing well at first, and would parade her boys along Kennington Road in outfits that she knew nobody else around there could have possibly afforded in their wildest dreams. That had made the collapse to poverty and pleated crimson tights for stockings more unbearable, of course, and ever since he’d had a fear of people thinking that he was above himself, so that they’d be less cruel if he should fall. Oatsie would do, he thought. Their two names even had a sort of harvest supper ring to them. Oatsie and May.

The woman looked at him, eyes narrowed quizzically, miniature fans of decorative wrinkles opening and closing at their corners.

“Oatsie. Oats and barley. Yer a Londoner.”

She cocked her head a little back and to one side, regarding him with what seemed like a frown of deep suspicion, so that for a minute he was worried. Had the girl got something against London? Then her face relaxed into a smile again, except that now the grin had something of a knowing, cat-like quality.

“From Lambeth. West Square, off St. George’s Road in Lambeth. Am I right?”

The baby had lost interest in Oatsie now, and entertained herself by bunching her small fists, painfully from the look of it, within the copper tangles of her mother’s hair. He felt his jaw drop open for the second time in just about as many minutes, although this time was no prelude to hilarity. Frankly, it rather put the wind up him. Who was this woman, who knew things she couldn’t know? Was she a Gypsy? Was all this a dream that he was having at the age of six, about the funny world there’d be when he was older, sleeping fitfully, his shaved head rasping on the rough cloth of a workhouse pillow? There and then he felt as if he’d let his hold on what was real slip from his fingers, and a momentary vertigo came over him so that the crossroads’ arms seemed almost to be spinning like the needle of a broken compass, chimney smoke and gilded clouds whirled into streaming mile-wide hoops, caught by the centrifugal tug of the horizon. He did not know, any longer, where he was or what was going on between him and this startling young mother. Even at a distance he’d known that she’d turn out to be lively, but the actuality of her went far beyond what he’d foreseen. She was a shocker, her and her unearthly daughter both.

Seeing the panic and confusion in his eyes she laughed again, a throaty bubbling that was shrewd and faintly lewd as well. He had a sense that she enjoyed putting a scare in people now and then, both for her own amusement and to show her power. While his respect for her was mounting by the second, the desire he’d felt when he first saw her was evaporating in direct proportion. This was someone who despite her modest stature was a bigger person than he knew himself to be. This girl, he thought, could eat him, then burp raucously and be upon her way without a second thought.

At last, though, she took pity on him. Disentangling her ringlets from the baby’s fingers while the younger May was suitably distracted by another gliding, jingling tram, she proved that she was no professional magician by explaining just how her mind-reading turn had been accomplished.

“I’m from Lambeth, just off Lambeth Walk in Regent Street, that little terrace. Vernall. That’s me maiden name. I can remember ’ow our mam and dad would take me out around there when I was a little girl. There was a pub they went to, up the London Road, and when we come ’ome we’d cut back across West Square. I see yer there a time or two. You had a brother what were older, didn’t yer?”

He was relieved, though hardly less amazed. The woman’s feat of memory, although far past his own capacity, was not untypical amongst those who’d grown up in crowded little neighbourhoods, where everyone appeared to know the names of everybody else within a two-mile radius, along with all their children’s and their parents’ names and all the mystifying quirks and threads of happenstance that linked the generations. Having never learned the trick of it himself, perhaps because he’d always hoped he wouldn’t be stuck in those places very long, he’d been thrown off his guard when it was played upon him, here in this improbable location, in this far-flung town. Unlike the woman, he could not remember any childhood meetings for the life of him.

“Yes. You’re right, I had a brother Sydney. Still have, for that matter. When were you around there, then? How old are you?”

She raised, at this point, a reproachful eyebrow at his lack of manners, asking her about her age, but finally replied.

“Old as me tongue but older than me teeth. I’m twenty, if you must know. I was born the tenth of March in 1889.”

The more she reassured him that there was a natural explanation for her knowing his childhood address, the eerier the incident of their chance meeting struck him. This surprisingly imposing woman had been born within a month of him and lived perhaps two hundred yards from him while he was growing up. Now here they both were, sixty miles and twenty years away from where they’d started out, stood at one of a hundred corners in one of a hundred towns. It made him think again about his previously held opinions as regards predestination, and if people ever really had an inkling of the path ahead of them. He could see now that it was actually two separate questions that required two different answers. Yes, he thought that probably there was a pattern in how things occurred that had been drafted out beforehand, or at least it sometimes seemed there was, but then again he also thought that if there were such a design it would be far too big and too outlandish to be read or understood, so no one could predict how all its curlicues were going to be resolved, except by accident. You might as well attempt to forecast all the shapes a purple sunset-cloud would make before it burned away, or which cart would give way to which when they met at the crossroads’ corners. It was all too complicated to make sense of it, whatever all the prophets and the tea-leaf readers might pretend. He shook his head, replying to her, muttering something inadequate about it being a small world.

The lovely baby was now squirming restlessly, and Oatsie was afraid her mother would use this excuse to take her home and end their conversation, but she asked instead what he was he was doing at the Palace of Varieties, or the Vint Palace as she seemingly insisted upon calling it. He told her how he generally did a bit of this, a bit of that, but how tonight he was appearing with Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds as the Inebriate. She said it sounded proper funny, and said how she’d always thought it would be nice to be someone who worked in entertainment.

“Mind you, it’s our kid, our Johnny. ’E’s the one who’s always going on about the stage. This is me youngest brother. Reckons that ’e’s gunna end up in theatre or else playin’ music in a band, but ’e’s all talk. ’E wunt ’ave lessons, wouldn’t even if we could afford ’em. Too much like ’ard work.”

He nodded in response, watching a milk cart headed back towards its depot at the bottom of the street, downhill behind her. From where he was standing it appeared about an inch high, dragged by its disconsolate and shrunken mare along the girl’s right shoulder, losing itself in the autumn forest of her hair for quite some time before it re-emerged upon her left and then slunk wearily from sight.

“Well, if your brother doesn’t want to put the hours in, he won’t get too far as a performer. Mind you, he could still make money as a manager or impresario, and then he could be as bone idle as he liked.”

She laughed at this, and said she’d pass on the advice. He took advantage of the pause to ask her why she’d called the venue the Vint Palace.

“Oh, it’s ’ad lots of names over the years. Our dad’s ’ad family in Northampton ever since I can remember, always going back and forth from here to Lambeth, so ’e’s kept up with the changes. It began as the Alhambra Music Hall, from what ’e said, and then they changed it to the Grand Variety around the time what I was born. Accordin’ to our dad there was a bad patch sometime after then, when it weren’t even a theatre for a while. For getting on five years it weren’t the same place one month to the next. It was a greengrocer’s and then it was a place where they sold bikes. It was a pub they called the Crow before that moved across the street to be the Crow and Horseshoe, and I can remember when I was a little girl ten years back and it was a coffee house. All the free-thinkers as they called ’em used to go in there, and they were some right ’Erberts, I can tell yer. Anyway, the year the Queen died, that was when they done it up and christened it the Palace of Varieties. Old Mr. Vint, he bought the place a year ago, but still ain’t ’ad the sign changed.”

Oatsie nodded, looking at the old establishment in a new light. Because he’d come here as a Lancashire Lad all those years ago and it was a variety hall then, he had assumed that it had been one ever since, that it had always been one and, in every likelihood, it always would be. The young woman’s casual listing of the purposes to which the premises had been put in the meantime made him feel uncomfortable, although he couldn’t put his finger on the reason why. Oatsie supposed it was because the world he’d been brought up in, horrible and suffocating as he’d reckoned it, at least stayed where it was from one year, often from one century, unto the next. Even this shabby corner of Northampton here, a place about as run down as the Lambeth he’d been born to, you could see most of the buildings standing round you were still housing the same businesses they’d housed a hundred years before, even if names and management were different now. That’s why the girl’s account of the hall’s changing fortunes had unsettled him, because the story was a relatively rare one still, although you heard more like it every week. What should it all be like, he wondered, if these here-today-and-gone-tomorrow fleapits came to be the rule, not the exception? If he were to come back here in, say, forty years time and found it was a place that sold, he didn’t know, electric guns or something like that, and no longer a variety hall? Perhaps by then there wouldn’t even be variety halls. Well, that was an exaggeration, obviously, but it was how May’s off-hand narrative had made him feel, uneasy with the way that things were going these days, in the modern world. He changed the subject, asking her about herself instead.

“You sound as if you know the place, gal, anyway. How long is it you’ve lived here now?”

She cast her eyes up thoughtfully at scraps of lilac cirrus on a field of deepening blue, while her astonishingly well-behaved and patient offspring sucked a gleaming thumb and stared, it seemed indifferently, at Oatsie.

“Ninety-five, I think it was, when I was six we come up ’ere, although our dad, ’e’s always goin’ back and forth, to get the work. ’E walks it, the old bugger, all the way to London and then back. Many’s the time when we’ve not seen ’im for six weeks, not ’ide nor ’air, then ’e comes waltzing in ’alf-cut with presents, little bits and bobs for everybody. No, it’s not a bad old place. This bit round ’ere’s a lot like Lambeth, ’ow the people are. Sometimes I ’ardly feel as if we’ve moved.”

Some of the narrow shops across the other side of Horseshoe Street were putting lights on now, a dim glow tinged with green around its edges that crept out between the sparse and shadowy displays in their front windows. Lowering her gaze from up among the chimneybreasts, the elder May looked proudly down now at the younger, cradled in her sturdy, tiger-lily arms.

“I think I’m ’ere for good. I ’ope I am, at any rate, and ’ope the little ’un shall be, too. They’re a straightforward lot round these parts, in the main, and there’s some real old characters. It’s where I met me chap, my Tom, and we got wed up at the Guildhall. All ’is people, they’re all local, all the Warrens, and we’ve lots of family up ’ere on the Vernall side as well. No, it’s all right, Northampton is. They do a good pork pie, and there’s some lovely parks, Victoria, Abington, and Beckett’s. That’s where I’ve just took this one, down by the river there. We saw the swans and went out on the island, didn’t we, me duck?”

This was directed at the baby, who was finally beginning to show signs of restlessness. Her mother stuck out her own lower lip and turned her brows up at a tragic angle, mimicking her daughter’s glum expression.

“I expect she’s ’ungry. Goin’ down the park I stopped at Gotcher Johnson’s for two ounce o’ rainbow drops, but I ’ad one or two as well, so they were finished up some time ago. I’d better get ’er ’ome up Fort Street for ’er tea. It’s potted meat, ’er favourite. It’s been nice to meet yer, Oatsie. ’Ope yer skit goes well.”

At that, he bade goodbye to both the Mays, and said it had been similarly nice to meet the pair of them. He shook the baby’s damp, minuscule hand and told her that he hoped to see her name on a big hoarding one day. To her mother he just said “Take care of her”, then as the woman chuckled and assured him that she would, he wondered why he’d come out with it. What a stupid thing to say, as if suggesting that she wouldn’t look after a child like that. The babe and parent waited until there was nothing coming, then they crossed the foot of Gold Street and went up the hill towards the north. He stood there on his corner and admired the woman’s bum, moving beneath her swinging skirt as she mounted the slope, with her imagined buttocks like two faces pressed together as their owners acted out a vigorous two-step. Or perhaps two wrestlers full of muscles in a crush, each one in turn gaining an inch on their opponent who immediately takes it back, deadlocked so that they merely seem to heave from side to side. He noticed at this point the baby, staring soberly across the woman’s shoulder at him as she was borne off into the distance. Feeling oddly mortified to think the child had caught him looking at her mother’s bottom he glanced rapidly away towards the plot of scrubland halfway down the hill, and when he looked back just a minute later they were gone.

He looked to see what time it was, then fished another Woody from his dwindling pack and lit it. That had been a funny conversation, now he thought about it. It had made an impact on him that was only just now starting to sink in. That woman, May, born just a few weeks after he was, raised not half a dozen streets away, and somehow they’d both met up on a corner in another town twenty years later. Who’d believe it? It was one of those occurrences that he supposed were bound to happen now and then, despite the odds, yet when they did it always felt uncanny. There was always the suggestion of a pattern in the way things worked that you could almost understand, but when you tried to pin down what the meaning or significance might be it all just fizzled out and you were left no clearer than you were before.

Perhaps the only meaning that events had was the meaning that we brought to them, but even knowing this was probably the case, it frankly wasn’t that much help. It didn’t stop us chasing after meaning, scrabbling like ferrets for it through a maze of burrows in our thoughts and sometimes getting lost down in the dark. He couldn’t help but think about the woman he’d just met, how the encounter had stirred twenty-year-old sediments up from the bed of him, and how that made him feel. The root of it, he thought, was how the similarities between his background and the woman’s had made all their differences stand out in just as sharp relief.

For one thing he was on the verge, or so he hoped, of an escape from the soot-smothered prison of his and the woman’s common origins, from poverty, obscurity and streets like this, where now the sky was cut to rich blue diamonds by the iron struts of the gas-holder. Escape from England, even, if he could. In the event of a forthcoming scrap with Germany, Sir Francis Drake hoped to be in his hammock and a thousand miles away. As for the spirited young mother, May, she didn’t have those opportunities. Without the talents he’d inherited or learned from both his entertainer parents, she had lived a life more limited in terms of both its expectations and its possibilities, and its horizons, which she did not feel compelled to cross, were that much closer than the boundaries around his own. She’d said herself she thought she’d live here in this district all her life, and that her gorgeous little daughter would as well. There were no hopes or dreams that she was chasing, Oatsie knew. In neighbourhoods like this, such things weren’t practical, were only ever burdensome and painful liabilities. That lively young girl was resigned to live and die, it would appear, within the small cage of her circumstances; didn’t even seem to know it was a cage or see its grimy bars. He thanked whatever guardian angel he might have for giving him at least the slim chance to avoid a lifelong penal sentence like the one that she existed under. Every woman, man or baby passing by him through the tannery-infused slum twilight was to all intents and purposes a convict, serving out their time in harsh conditions without any likely prospect of reprieve or pardon. Everyone was safe in lavender.

But May had seemed content, and not resigned at all. May had seemed more content than Oatsie felt himself.

He thought about it, blowing out a wavering slate-and-sepia fern of smoke through pretty, puckered lips. Some of the carriages that moved across the junction had by now fired up their lanterns, as the lapis of the skies above grew gradually more profound. Chandelier snails, they crawled uphill and sparkled in the dead-end dusk.

He saw there were two sides to being poor, to having nothing, not even ambitions. It was true that May and all the others like her didn’t have his drive, his talents or his opportunities for betterment, but then they didn’t have his doubts, his fears of failing or his nagging guilt to deal with, either. These were people, heads down, crunching through the pavement’s autumn garnish, who weren’t on the run from anything, especially the streets they’d come from, so they didn’t have to feel as if they were deserters all the time. They knew their place, the worst-off, in more ways than one. They knew exactly where they were in so far as society should be concerned, but more than that they knew their place; they knew the bricks and mortar that surrounded them so intimately that it was like love. Most of the poor souls sluicing through this crossroad’s floodgates hailed from families, he knew, that would have lived around these parts for generations, just because the distance you could travel was more limited before there had been railway trains. They trudged these byways in the knowledge that their grandparents and great-grandparents had done just the same a hundred years before, had let their troubles soak in the same pubs, then poured them out in the same churches. Every mean and lowly detail of the neighbourhood was in their blood. These knotted lanes and listing pie-shops were the sprawling body they’d emerged from. They knew all the mildewed alleys, all the rain-butts where tin waterspouts had rusted paper-thin. All of the area’s smells and blemishes were as familiar to them as their mothers’ moles, and even if her face were lined and dirty they could never go away and leave her. Even if she lost her mind, they …

Tears were standing in his eyes. He blinked them back and then took three quick puffs upon his cigarette before he wiped away the excess moisture with his fingertips, pretending that the smoke had blinded him. None of the passers-by were looking at him, anyway. He felt abruptly angry with himself for all the sloppy sentiment that he still harboured and for just how easily the waterworks came welling up. He was a man now, he was twenty though he felt like thirty sometimes, and he shouldn’t still be blubbing like a little kid. He wasn’t six. He wasn’t weeping over his cropped curls in Lambeth Workhouse and it wasn’t 1895. Although he knew he hadn’t yet completely taken in the fact, this was the twentieth century. It needed people who were bright and up-to-date and forward-looking in the way they thought, not people who got tearful dwelling on the past. If he were to make anything out of his life he’d better pull himself together, sharpish. Drawing deep upon his fag he held it in and looked around him at the slowly darkening intersection, trying to regard it from a modern, realistic viewpoint rather than a maudlin and nostalgic one.

Yes, you could come to look upon this haphazard array of weather-beaten hulks as like a mother, he could see that. At the same time, like a mother, it was not a thing that would eternally endure. Old age had ravaged it with change, and wasn’t done yet by a long chalk. Just as he’d been thinking a few moments back about how previous generations were restricted in their chances to go travelling, he understood that things should be much different in this new, enlightened age. The steam engine had altered everything, and on the streets of London now you could see motor-carriages, of which he thought there should be more in time to come. Communities of countless decades’ standing like the one around him would perhaps not seem as well-knit if the inmates stood a chance of easily and cheaply getting out, of going where the work was better without walking sixty miles like that girl’s dad had done. Even without a war to decimate its young, he doubted that the bonds connecting people to a place like this would last another hundred years. Districts like this were dying. It was no betrayal, wanting to leap out of them to somewhere safe before they finally went under. Anyone who’d seen the world, who felt that they were free to come and go just as they pleased, why would they want to be stuck in a dump, a town, a country even, that was like this? Anyone with any sense who had the means would be off like a shot, soon as they could. There wasn’t anything to keep them here, and …

Coming through the settled gloaming up the hill was an old black man, on a bicycle that had ropes fastened to its rims instead of tyres, pulling a cart with the same kind of wheels behind it, juddering like a ghost-tale skeleton across the cobbles.

Oatsie wondered, for the second time within a half an hour, if he were dreaming. It was the same man, riding the same outlandish boneshaker, as on the afternoon twelve years before when he’d stood here with Boysie Bristol, here on this same corner, saying “Yes, but if they’re millionaires why do they act like tramps?”

The Negro paused his strange contraption at the top of Horseshoe Street, there on the corner opposite to Oatsie’s, waiting for a horse-bus to go by the other way. Of course, he’d aged across the intervening years so that his hair and beard were now a shock of white, but it was without question the same man. He didn’t, upon this occasion, notice Oatsie but sat there astride his saddle waiting for the bus to pass so that he could continue up the hill. He had a faraway and faintly troubled look upon his strong, broad features and did not seem in the same expansive mood as when they’d last met, back when the old queen was still alive and it had been a different world. Even if Oatsie had still been an eager, gawping lad of eight he doubted that the black man would have noticed him, as pensive and distracted as he now appeared to be.

The omnibus having by this time rumbled past, the man lifted his feet, which still had wood blocks strapped beneath the shoes. He set them on the pedals, standing up and leaning forward as he pushed down strenuously, gradually acquiring the momentum that would take him and his trailer past the crossroads and away uphill through the descending gloom, in which he was soon lost from sight.

Watching the black chap disappear, he sucked upon his cigarette without account of how low it had burned, so that it scorched his fingertips and made him yelp as he threw the offending ember to the ground, stamping it out in angry retribution. Even as he stood there cursing, waggling his fingers so the breeze would soothe the burn, he had a sense of wonderment at what had just occurred, at the whole atmosphere of this peculiar place where it would seem that such things happened all the time. To think that in the dozen years since he’d last been here, while he’d roamed the length and breadth of England and had his Parisian adventure, all those different nights he’d spent in all those towns and cities, all that time the black man had been still here, going back and forth along the same route every day. He didn’t know why he found this so marvellous. What, had he thought that people disappeared because he didn’t happen to be looking at them?

Then again, a fellow such as that, who’d already seen the America that Oatsie longed for and despite that had decided to stay here … it might not be a marvel, but it was a puzzle, certainly. Raising his eyebrows and his shoulders at the same time in a theatrical shrug of overemphasised bewilderment aimed at nobody in particular, he took a last glance at the crossroads as it drowned in indigo then walked the few steps to the Palace of Varieties’ diminutive front door. He pushed it open and went in, where it was slightly warmer, walking past the ticket office with a nod and grunt to the uninterested portly type inside. He wondered if it would get busy, if they’d get much of a crowd tonight, but you could never tell. Things didn’t rest so much in the gods’ laps as in how many laps they could entice into the Gods.

The whitewashed storage shed that was his dressing room was down a short but complicated series of bare-boarded corridors and then across a cramped and ancient-looking yard that had a water closet running off from it and stagnant puddles, which had taken up a permanent position in the sinks of the subsiding flagstones. He’d popped in the changing room a little earlier to stow some of his props and gear, but hadn’t really had a good look round yet. Much to his surprise the uninhabitable-looking quarters had a gas mantle set halfway down one flaking wall, which he was quick to put a match to so that he could shed some light upon the subject.

He’d seen worse. There was a yellow stone sink in the corner, with its brass tap bent to one side all skew-whiff, and dribbling spinach-coloured verdigris in veins shot through the metal so it looked like putrid cheese. He found a cracked and book-sized mirror in a wooden frame hung by a bent nail from the inside of the door and stood himself before it while he groped in the inside breast pocket of his jacket for a piece of cork. With this produced he struck another match and held the stopper’s end that was already blackened in the flame so that it would be freshly charred and not too faint to see from the back row. Waving away the smoke and waiting just a mo for his impromptu stick of makeup to cool down, he gazed into the broken looking glass. Ignoring the black fissure that ran in a steep diagonal across the face of his reflection, he allowed his features to relax into the bleary bloodhound sag of the Inebriate, his sozzled and lopsided grin, with rheumy eyes that he could just about keep open.

First he crushed some of the greasy cork-ash to a dust between his fingers and began applying it beneath his jaw-line, working the black powder in around his tightly compressed mouth and up across his jowls to just below the cheekbones, where it was the shadowy grey stubble of a chap out on a binge who’d been without a wash and shave for some few days. Using the stub of cork itself he emphasised the creases underneath his tucked-in jaw until he had the onset of a double chin, then went to work around the sockets of his eyes to get the wastrel’s haggard look before progressing to the heavy, rakishly-arched brows. He daubed a drooping and fatigued moustache on his top lip where there was none, letting the ends trail down beside the corners of his mouth in straggling lines. Just about satisfied with how he had the face he wiped the charcoal from his fingers straight into his greasy hair, messing it all around on purpose so that bits of it stuck up and curls went everywhere like oily breakers on a choppy sea.

He checked his image in the fractured mirror, holding his own gaze. He thought that it was almost there. He started in on the fine detail, deepening the wrinkles at the corners of his mouth and eyes, his whole face starting to take on a greyish pallor from the liberal application of the cork. It could be eerie sometimes, sitting in a silent, empty, unfamiliar room and staring into your own eyes while you changed into someone else. It made you realise that what you thought of as yourself, your personality, the biggest part of that was only in your face.

He watched as the persona that he’d carefully constructed for himself sank out of sight. The animated gaze that he used to get women’s sympathy or to communicate his eagerness and his intelligence, all that was gone into the drunk’s befuddled squint. The careful way he held his features to convey the breezy confidence of a young fellow of today, in a young century, this was rubbed out, smudged by a sooty thumb into the slack leer of Victorian Lambeth. All the hallmarks of his cultivation and the progress he had made in bettering himself, in struggling up from the ancestral mire, were wiped away. In the divided countenance that stared back at him from the split glass, his restricted present and big future had subsided to the sucking, clutching sludge that was his past. His father and the thousand barroom-doors he’d popped his head round as a child when sent to find him. Small blood vessels ruptured in the cheeks of lushingtons, pressed on the chilly pillow of a curb. Gore rinsed from hooks in horse-troughs. All of it, still waiting there if he were to relax that cheeky, cheery smile for just an instant, just a fraction of an inch.

There was a scent of damp and dereliction draped about the room. Beneath the smeared and ground-in ash he had no colour to his face at all now in the wan, uneven light. Black hair and eyes stood out from a complexion that was silver-grey. Contained within the mirror frame, it was the fading photograph of someone trapped forever in a certain time, a certain place, in an identity that could not be escaped. The portrait of a relative or a theatre idol from a lost time when your parents had been young, frozen eternally within the pale emulsions.

He put on the outsized, wrinkled jacket that he wore as the Inebriate, and filled his green glass ‘San Diego’ bottle from the tap. Somewhere not far away, he hoped, an audience was waiting. The gas mantle hissed a dismal premonition.


The mark of a great man, way Henry figured it, was in the way he’d gone about things while he was still living, and the reputation that he left behind when he was gone. That’s why he weren’t surprised to find out that Bill Cody would be represented to Eternity as a roof-ornament made out of grubby stone that birds had done their business on.

When he’d glanced up and seen the face raised from the orange brickwork on the last house in the row, carved on some sort of plaque up near its roof, at first he’d took it for the Lord. There was the long hair and the beard and what he’d thought to be a halo, then he’d seen it was a cowboy hat if you was looking up from underneath the brim, and if the feller had his head tipped back. That’s when he’d cottoned on that it was Buffalo Bill.

The row of houses, what they called a terrace, had the street out front and then in back you had a lot of acres of green meadow where they held the races and what have you. There was this short little alley running from the front to back what led out on the racetrack grounds, and it was up on one of the slate rooftops overlooking this cut-through you had the face carved on the wall up there. Henry had heard how Cody’s Wild West Show had come here to these race grounds in Northampton, maybe five or ten year earlier than he’d arrived here in the town himself, which was in ninety-seven. Annie Oakley had been doing her performance, and some Indian braves was there by all accounts. He guessed one of the well-off people living in these houses must have took a shine to Cody and decided how he’d look good stuck up on they roof. Weren’t nothing wrong with that. Way Henry saw it, people could like what they wanted to, so long as it weren’t nothing bad.

That said, the carving weren’t that much like Cody, not as Henry recollected from the once or twice he’d met the man. That was a long time back, admitted, up in Marshall, Kansas, out the back room of Elvira Conely’s laundry what she had. That would have been seventy-five, seventy-six, something like that, when Henry was a handsome young man in his middle twenties, even though he said it all himself. Thing was, he hadn’t paid that much attention at the time to Buffalo Bill, since it had been Elvira he’d been mostly there to look at. All the same, he didn’t think the William Cody what he’d knowed could be mistook for Jesus Christ Our Lord, no matter how much you was looking up at him from underneath or how much he was standing with his hat tipped back. He’d been a vain man, or at least that had been Henry’s own impression, if the truth were to be told. He doubted that Elvira would have hung around with Cody if it hadn’t been important to the way how she was seen in Marshall. Coloured women couldn’t have too many well-known white friends.

Henry pushed his bicycle and cart along the cobbled alley from the racetrack, with the ropes he had around the wheel-rims crunching through the leaves what was all heaped up in the gutters. He took one last glance at Colonel Cody, where the smoke from out a nearby chimney made it look as if he’d got his hat on fire, then climbed up on the saddle with his brake-blocks on his feet and started back through all the side-streets for the big main road what went way out to Kettering, and what would take him back to the town centre of Northampton.

He’d not wanted to come up this way today, since he was planning for to ride around the villages out on the south-east side of town. There was a man he’d met, though, said there was good slate tiles in an iron-railed back yard off the racetrack where a shed was all fell in, but he’d turned out to be a fool and all the tiles were broke and weren’t worth nothing. Henry sighed, pedalling out of Hood Street and downhill towards the town, then thought that he’d do well to buck his ideas up and quit complaining. It weren’t like the day was wasted. In the east the sun was big and scarlet, hung low in a milky fog that would burn off once the September morning woke itself up properly and went about its business. He’d still got the time to strike out where he wanted and be back down Scarletwell before the evening settled in.

He didn’t need to do no pedalling, hardly, heading into town along the Kettering Road. All Henry needed do was roll downhill and touch his brake blocks on the street once in a while, so that he didn’t get up too much speed and shake his trolley what he pulled behind him all to bits upon the cobble stones. The houses and the shops with all they signs and windows flowed by on each side of him like river-drift as he went rattling down into the centre. Pretty much he had the whole road to himself, it being early like it was. A little further on there was a streetcar headed into town the same way he was going, just a couple people on its upstairs there, and coming up the hill towards him was a feller had a cart as he was pushing got all chimney brushes on. Besides that, one or two folks was around, out with they errands on the sidewalk. There was an old lady looked surprised when Henry cycled past her, and two fellers wearing caps seemed like they on they way to work stared at him hard, but he’d been round these parts too long to pay it any mind. He liked it better, though, down where he was in Scarletwell. The folks there, plenty of them, was worse off than he was so he’d got nobody looking down on him, and when they seen him riding round they’d all just shout out, “Hey, Black Charley. How’s your luck?” and that was that.

There was a little breeze now, strumming on the streetcar lines strung overhead while he went under them. He rolled round by the church there on the Grove Road corner to his right and swerved to miss some horse-shit what was lying in the street as he come in towards the square. He made another bend when he went by the Unitarian chapel on the other side, and then it was all shops and public houses and the big old leather warehouse what they had in back of Mr. Bradlaugh’s statue. Leather was important to the trade round here and always had been, but it still made Henry shake his head how otherwise the town was mostly bars and churches. Could be it was all that stitching shoes had folks so that they spent they private time in getting liquored up or praying.

Somebody was even drunk asleep in the railed-off ground that was round the block the statue stood on when he pedalled past it on the left of him. He didn’t think Mr. Charles Bradlaugh would approve of that if he was looking down from Heaven, what with him being so forthright in his views on alcohol, but then since Mr. Bradlaugh hadn’t had no faith in the Almighty it was likely that he’d not approve of Heaven neither. Bradlaugh was somebody Henry couldn’t get to grips with or make up his mind about. Man was an atheist there on the one hand, and to Henry’s mind an atheist was just another way of saying fool. Then on the other hand you had the way he was against strong drink, which Henry could admire, and how he’d stood up for the coloured folks in India when he weren’t standing up for all the poor folks here at home. He’d spoke his mind and done what he considered the right thing, Henry supposed. Bradlaugh had been a good man and the Lord would possibly forgive the atheism when all that was took into account, so Henry figured how he ought to let it go by too. The man deserved his fine white statue with its finger pointing west to Wales and the Atlantic Sea and to America beyond, while in the same sense you could say that Buffalo Bill deserved his shabby piece of stone. Just ’cause a feller said he weren’t no Christian didn’t stop him acting like one, and although he didn’t like to think it, he could see how sometimes the reverse of that was true as well.

He went on past the shop what had the Cadbury’s chocolate and the sign for Storton’s Lungwort painted on the wall up top. He’d had some trouble coughing lately and he thought it could be he should maybe try a little of that stuff, if it weren’t too expensive. Next you’d got the store what had the ladies’ things, then Mr. Brugger’s place with all the clocks and pocket-watches in its window. Up ahead of him he’d nearly caught up to the streetcar, which he saw now was the number six what went down to St. James’s End, what they called Jimmy’s End. There was a paid advertisement up on the rear of it for some enlarging spectacles, with two big round eyes underneath the business name what made it look as though the backside of the streetcar had a face. It reached the crossroads they were nearing and went straight across with its bell clanging, staring back towards him like it was surprised or scared as it went on down Abington Street there, while he turned left and coasted down York Road in the direction of the hospital, touching his wood blocks on the cobbles every now and then to slow him down.

There was another crossroads by the hospital down halfway, with the route what went on out towards Great Billing. He went over it and carried on downhill the way what he was going. On the corner of the hospital’s front yard as he went past it, near the statue of the King’s head what they had there, some young boys was laughing at his wheels with all the rope on. One of them yelled out that he should have a bath, but Henry made out like he didn’t hear and went on down to Beckett’s Park, as used to be Cow Meadow. Ignorant was what they were, brung up by ignorant folk. Paid no attention they’d move on and find some other fool thing they could laugh at. They weren’t going to string him up or shoot him, and in that case far as Henry was concerned about it, they could shout out what the heck they liked. So long as he weren’t bothered none then all they did was make they own selves look like halfwits, far as he could see.

He took a left turn at the bottom, curving round by the old yellow stone wall and into the Bedford Road just over from the park, where he touched down his wooden blocks and fetched his bicycle and cart up at the drinking fountain what was set back in a recess there. He climbed down off his saddle and he leaned the whole affair against the weather-beat old stones, with all the dandelions growed out from in between, while he stepped to the well and took a drink. It weren’t that he was thirsty, but if he was down here then he liked to take a few sips of the water, just for luck. This was the place they said Saint Thomas Becket quenched his thirst when he come through Northampton ages since, and that was good enough for Henry.

Ducking down into the alcove, Henry pressed one pale palm on the worn brass spigot, with his other cupped to catch the twisted silver stream and scoop it to his lips, an action he repeated three or four times ’til he’d got a proper mouthful. It was good, and had the taste of stone and brass and his own fingers. Henry reckoned that amounted to a saintly flavour. Wiping a wet hand on one leg of his shiny pants he straightened up and climbed back on the bicycle, stood in his seat to get the thing in motion. He sailed south-east on the Bedford Road, with first the park and all its trees across from him and then the empty fields stretched to the abbey out at Delapre. The walls and corners of Northampton fell away behind like weights from off his back, and all he had was flat grass between him and the toy villages off in the haze of the horizon. Clouds was piled like mashed potato in blue gravy, and Black Charley found that he was whistling some Sousa while he went along.

The marching music made him think of Buffalo Bill again, sounding all puffed up like it did, which led him back to thoughts of Kansas and Elvira Conely. Great Lord, that woman had some spirit in her, setting up her laundry there in Marshall way ahead of the great exodus and doing as well as she did. She’d knowed Bill Hickok too, but Hickok had been in his grave by the late eighteen-seventies when Henry and his parents got to the Midwest. From how Elvira spoke about the feller, you got the impression that Wild Bill had had a lot of good in him, and that his reputation was deserved. Mind you, in private and among her own kind, she’d admit that Britton Johnson, who she’d also knowed and who was also dead by that time, could have shot the pants off Wild Bill Hickok. It had took a bunch of twenty-five Comanche warriors to bring Britton Johnson down, you never mind about no lone drunk and no lucky shot in some saloon. Yet even little children over here, they knew of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok but nobody ever heard of Johnson and you didn’t have to think about it long to figure why that was. Looked like a Pharaoh, how Elvira spoke of him. Looked fine without his shirt on was her exact words.

Uphill and on the left of him, across the fenced-off grass and the black spreads of woodland, Henry could about make out the rooftops of the fancy hospital they’d got up there for people who was troubled in they minds and could afford the rent. For them what couldn’t, there was what you called a workhouse in the old Saint Edmund’s parish, out the Wellingborough Road, or else the Berry Wood asylum round the turn there on the way through Duston. Leaving it behind him, Henry pedalled harder where a bridge bulged up above a river tributary, and had a tickle in his belly like he’d got no weight when he shot down the other side and on towards Great Houghton. He was thinking of Elvira still, admiring her in a more understanding and respectful fashion than the way what he’d admired her in his younger days.

’Course, she’d been only one of the outstanding gals they had in those parts round that time, but she’d been first, upping to Kansas on her own in sixty-eight, and Henry thought a lot of them good women was just following Elvira’s lead, not that it took away from what they did. There was Miss St. Pierre Ruffin helping folks with cash from her Relief Association. There was Mrs. Carter, Henry Carter’s missus, talked her husband into walking with her all the way from Tennessee, him carrying the tools and her the blankets. Thinking of it, it had mostly been the women was behind the whole migration, even when their men-folk shrugged it off and made out they was just fine where they was. Henry could see now what he hadn’t seen back then, how that was ’cause the women had the worst of it down in the South, what with the rapes and having to bring up they children with all that. Henry’s own momma had told Henry’s poppa how if he weren’t man enough to get his wife and son to some place safe and decent, then she’d just take Henry and light out for Kansas on her own. Said how she’d walk there like the Carters if needs be, although when Henry’s pa had finally relented they’d gone in a wagon same as everybody else. Considering those times made Henry’s shoulder itch the way it always did, so that he took one hand from off the handlebar to scratch it through his jacket and his shirt the best he could.

A watermill went by him on his right, ducks honking as they took up from a close-by pond where all the morning light from off it was too bright to look at. Sheridan near Marshall had been where Elvira Conely had made her home after she broke up with the soldier feller she was married to out in St. Louis. Back in them days Sheridan had been considered worse than Dodge for all its gambling and murders and loose women, but Elvira carried herself like a queen, straight-backed and tall and black as ebony. When later on she took up as the governess for rich old Mr. Bullard and his family, Bullard’s children put it all about how she was kin to royalty from Africa or some such, and Elvira never said or did a thing what could be held to contradict that. Last he’d heard she was in Illinois, and Henry hoped that she was doing fine.

He went on with the climbing sun before him and the roadside puddles flashing in his eyes. The shadows from the moving cloud-banks slipped across the shaggy fields a little at a time as though the summer was on its last legs, unshaved and staggering like a bum. Weeds in the ditches had boiled up and spilled into the road or swallowed fence-posts whole, where dying bees was stumbling in the dying honeysuckle, trying to drag the season out a little longer and not let it slip away. Upon his right he passed the narrow lane what would have took him down to Hardingstone and pedalled on along the top side of Great Houghton, where he met a couple farm carts going by the other way all loaded up with straw. The feller on the box of the first wagon looked away from Henry like he didn’t want to let on he could even see him, but the second cart was driven by a red-faced farmer what knew Henry from his previous visits to those parts and reined his horse up, grinning as he stopped to say hello.

“Why, Charley, you black bugger. Are youm come round here to steal us valuables again? Ah, it’s a wonder we’m got two sticks to us name, with all that plunder what youm ’ad already.”

Henry laughed. He liked the man, whose name was Bob, and knew as Bob liked him. The making fun of people, it was just a way they had round here of saying you was close enough to have a joke together, and so he came back in kind.

“Well, now, you know I got my eye on that gold throne o’ your’n, that big one what you sit in when you got the servants bringing in the venison and that.”

Bob roared so loud he scared his mare. Once she was settled down again, the two men asked each other how they wives and families was keeping and such things as that, then shook each other by the hand and carried on they individual ways. In Henry’s case, it wasn’t far before he made a right turn down Great Houghton’s high street, past the schoolhouse with blackberry hedges hanging over its front wall. He went along beside the village church then steered his bicycle into the purse-bag close what had the rectory, where the old lady who kept house would sometime give him things she didn’t want no more. Climbing down off his saddle, Henry thought the rectory looked grand, the way the light caught on its rough brown stones and on the ivy fanned out in a green wing up above its entranceway. The close was shaded by an oak tree so that sun fell through the leaves like burning jigsaw pieces scattered on the cobbles and the paths. Birds hopping round up in the branches didn’t act concerned or stop they singing when he lifted up the iron knocker with a lion’s head on and let it fall on the big black-painted door.

The woman, who he knew as Mrs. Bruce, answered his knock and seemed like she was pleased to see him. She asked Henry in, so long as he could leave his boots on the front step, and made him take a cup of weak tea and a plate of little sandwiches there with her in the parlour while she looked out all the bits and pieces what she’d put aside. He didn’t know why when he thought of Mrs. Bruce he thought of her as an old lady, for the truth was that she couldn’t be much older than what Henry was himself, that being near on sixty years of age. Her hair was white as snow, but so was his, and he believed it might be how she acted with him made him think of her as old, with something in her manner like to that of Henry’s mother. She was smiling while she poured him out his tea and asked him things about religion like she always did. She was a churchgoer like him, except that Mrs. Bruce was in the choir. She told him all the favourite hymns she’d got as she went back and forth about the room and gathered up the worn-out clothes there were what he could have.

“ ‘The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended’. There’s another one I like. Did they sing hymns back where you come from, Mr. George?”

Lowering the doll-house china from his lips, Henry agreed they did.

“Yes, ma’am. We didn’t have no church, though, so my folks would sing while they was working or else round the fireside of an evening. I sure loved them songs. They used to send me off to sleep at night.”

Smoothing the doilies or whatever they was on her chair-arms, Mrs. Bruce peered at him with a sorry look upon her face.

“You poor soul. Was there one that you liked better than the others?”

Henry chuckled as he nodded, setting down his empty cup in its white saucer.

“Ma’am, for me there ain’t but one tune in the running. It was that ‘Amazing Grace’ I liked the best, I don’t know if you heard it?”

The old lady beamed, delighted.

“Ooh, yes, that’s a lovely song. ‘How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.’ Ooh, yes, I know that. Lovely.”

She looked up towards the picture rail a little down below the ceiling there and frowned like she was trying to think of something.

“Do you know, I think the chap who wrote it lived not far from here, unless I’ve mixed him up with someone else. John Newton, now was that his name? Or was it Newton who chopped down the apple tree and said he couldn’t tell a lie?”

After he’d let that one sink in a while and puzzled it all through he told her that to his best understanding, it had been a man named Newton who sat underneath an apple tree and figured out from that why things fell down instead of up. The feller who’d said how he couldn’t tell a lie, that was George Washington the president, and far as Henry knew it was a cherry tree what he’d cut down. She listened, nodding.

“Ah. That’s where I’d got it wrong. His people came from round here somewhere, too, that General Washington. The one who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’, that would be Mr. Newton. As I heard it told, he used to be the parson up the road at Olney, though I shouldn’t swear to it.”

Henry felt stirred up by this in a manner what surprised him. He’d been sincere when he’d said it was his favourite song, and not just trying to sweeten the old lady. He recalled the women singing it out in the fields, his momma there amongst them, and it seemed like half his life had been caught up in its refrain. He’d heard it sung since he’d been in his cradle, and he’d thought it must have been a black man’s tune from long ago, like it had always been there. Finding out about this Pastor Newton fair made Henry’s head spin, just to think how far he’d come since he first heard that song, only to wind up quite by accident upon the doorstep of the man what wrote it.

He’d never been exactly sure why him and his Selina had felt such an urge to settle in Northampton and raise children, after they’d come here on that big sheep-drive out from Wales, working their way in a grey sea of animals more vast than anything what Henry ever heard of in the land where he was born. His life had taken him all over, and he’d never thought no more than it was the Almighty’s plan, and that it weren’t for him to know the purpose of it. All the same, the feeling him and his Selina had when they’d first seen the Boroughs, what was down from Sheep Street where the two of them arrived and reached right to the place in Scarletwell Street where they’d finally make their home, when they’d seen all the little rooftops it had seemed to them as though there was just something in the place, some kind of heart under the chimney smoke. It made a certain sense to Henry now, with learning about Mr. Newton and “Amazing Grace” and all. Perhaps this was some sort of holy place, what had such holy people come from it? He felt sure he was making too much out of things as usual, like a darned fool, but the news made Henry feel excited in a way he hadn’t known since he was small, and he’d be lying if he said it didn’t.

Him and Mrs. Bruce talked over this and that there in the parlour while they finished up they tea and bread, with dust-specks twinkling in the light through the net drapes and a grandfather clock making its graveyard tick from up one corner. When they’d done she gave him the unwanted woollens what she’d sorted out and then walked with him to the front door, where he put them in the trailer box he towed behind his bicycle. He thanked her kindly for the clothes, and for the tea and conversation, and said he’d be sure to call again when he was coming through that area. They waved and wished each other well, then Henry rattled back along the high street on his rope-rimmed wheels, “Amazing Grace” sung out of tune trailing behind him through the tumbling leaves and bright rays of the afternoon.

When he’d come out the high street and was back once more upon the Bedford Road he rode on down it to the east. The sun was pretty much above him now so that he barely cast a shadow as he went along, puffing while he was pedalling and singing while he coasted. On his right as he departed from Great Houghton he could see the village cemetery with the white markers lit up bright like pillowcases, there against a blanket made from sleeping green. A little after that he passed upon the left of him the lane what would have took him up to Little Houghton, but he didn’t have no business there and so went on a distance, following the south-east bend the road made out to Brafield. There was hedgerows rearing up beside his route, sometimes so high that he was riding through they shade when he went down a hollow, holes low in the walls of bracken here and there what led most probably to dens, them made by animals or village boys or something wild like that. Blood on its snout and black dirt on its paws, whichever one it was.

The land out here was mostly farming property and pretty flat, too, so you’d think it would look more like Kansas, but that weren’t the way of it. For one thing, England was a whole lot greener and it seemed there was more flowers of different kinds, maybe because of all the gardening what folks here liked to do, even the kind as lived down Scarletwell Street with they little bricked-in yards. Another thing was how they’d had a lot of time here to get fussy and ingenious about the simplest matters, such as how they built they hay-stacks, how they lay down straw to make a roof, or how they fitted chunks of rock without cement to raise a wall would stand three hundred year. Across the whole sweep of the county he could see, there was these details, things what someone’s great-great-great-grandpappy figured out how they could do when Queen Elizabeth was on the throne or somebody like that. Bridges and wells and the canals with lock gates, where men wearing boots up round they thighs trod down the clay to mend the waterways if they was split. There was a fair amount of learning evident, even out here where you might think there weren’t a man-made thing in sight. The lonely trees he passed what looked like they was struggled up from nothing else but blind, wild nature had been planted by somebody years back for a well-considered reason, Henry knew. Maybe a windbreak to protect a crop weren’t there no more, or little hard green apples for to make the pigs they mash. A quilt of fields was spread about him, and each ragged line of it was there on purpose.

He passed through Brafield when the bell in the St. Lawrence Church struck once for one o’clock, and he was held up for some minutes just outside of there by sheep what filled the road, so that he’d got to wait while they was herded up the lane and in they field before he could go by. The man who walked along with all these bleating critters didn’t speak to Henry, not as such, but gave a kind of nod and raised the peak up of his cap a touch, to show how he appreciated Henry being patient. Henry smiled and nodded back, as though to say it weren’t no inconvenience, which was the truth. The feller had an English collie helping him control the animals, and Henry thought they was a joy to watch. He couldn’t help it, he’d been soft about them hounds since he’d first seen ’em when he got to Wales in ninety-six. That one blue eye they’d got and how they understood what you was saying had amazed him. They’d not had no dogs like that where Henry come from, which was New York and before that Kansas, and before that Tennessee. He scratched his shoulder while he stood and watched the last few sheep hauling they shitty asses out his way and through the pasture gate where they belonged, and then he carried on. There weren’t nobody living there in Brafield he could say he knowed, and he was keen besides to ride down the long road to Yardley, a much better prospect to his mind, before the day wore on.

The clouds went by above like ships would if you steered your bicycle and cart across the bed of a clear ocean and somehow you was immune from drowning. Henry had the zinging rhythm of his wheels beneath him and the regular, reassuring click of that stray spoke. The road was pretty much straight on past Denton so he didn’t have to think about his riding none and could just listen to the gossip of the trees when he went past, or to a crow some distance off, laughing at something nasty with a voice like rifle-shots.

He hadn’t liked his spell upon them ocean waves, aboard the Pride of Bethlehem set out from Newark, bound for Cardiff. Henry was a man in his late forties even then, and that weren’t no age to go running off to sea. It was the way things had worked out, was all. He’d stayed in Marshall with his momma and his poppa while they was alive, used up what some would say was Henry’s best years looking after them and not begrudged one day of it. After they’d gone, though, there weren’t nothing keeping him in Kansas, when he’d got no family and nobody he had feelings for. Elvira Conely, by that time she was working for the Bullards, on vacation with them half the time so Henry didn’t see her round no more. He’d drifted east in screeching, shuddering railroad cars out to the coast, and when he’d had the opportunity to work his passage on the dirty old steel-freighter what was headed out for Britain, he’d jumped at it. Hadn’t given it no second thought, though that weren’t on account of bravery so much as it was on account of him not understanding how far off this Britain place would prove to be.

He didn’t know how many actual weeks it was he’d been afloat, it may have been no more then just a couple, but it seemed like it went on forever, and at times he’d felt so sick he thought he’d die there without ever seeing land again. He’d stayed below the decks as best he could to keep the endless iron breakers out of sight, shovelling coal down in the boiler room where his white shipmates asked how come he didn’t take his shirt off like they’d done and weren’t he hot and all? And Henry had just grinned and said no sir, he weren’t too hot and he was used to places plenty warmer, although obviously that weren’t in truth the reason why he wouldn’t work in his bare chest. Somebody put the rumour round he had an extra nipple what he was ashamed of, and he’d thought it better that he let it go at that, since that had put an end to all the questions.

On the Pride of Bethlehem you had sheet steel, with anything from candy-bars to chapbooks and dime novels making up the ballast. By then, the United States was turning out more steel than Britain was, so that it meant as they could sell it cheaper, even with the cost of shipping it across. Besides, on the way back what they’d be bringing home was wool from Wales, so that the owners saw a handsome profit both ways on the journey. When he’d not been either hard at work or sicking up, Henry had passed his time in reading Wild West tales on the already-yellowed pages of pamphlets intended for the five-and-ten. Buffalo Bill had been the hero in a number of the stories, shooting outlaws and protecting wagon trains from renegades, when all he ever did was play the big clown in his travelling circus. William Cody. If there’d ever been a man more fit to be a stone face with just chimneys blowing hot air for companionship, then Henry didn’t know of him.

Black fields what had but lately had they stubble burned was on his right now, as he knew belonged to Grange Farm, just ahead. The white birds hopping from one scorched rut to another Henry thought was gulls, although these parts was just about as distant from the sea as you could get in England. Up ahead of him the road forked into two, where what they called Northampton Road branched off towards the village square of Denton. Denton was a nice place, but there weren’t much in the way of pickings. It was best if Henry only went there once or maybe twice a year, to make it worth his while, and he stuck on the right-hand track now so that he could skirt the village to its south and carry on for Yardley – Yardley Hastings what they called it. He was just past Denton when he cycled through a rain shower was so small that he was in one side of it and out the other without feeling more than one or two spots on his brow. The clouds above him had a couple towers of smooth grey marble floating in amongst the white now, but the sky was mostly a clear blue and Henry doubted if the downpour would amount to anything.

Way off on Henry’s left he could make out the darker patchwork of the woods round Castle Ashby. He’d been out there one time when he’d met a local feller couldn’t wait to tell him all about the place, how back in ancient London when they’d wanted two wood giants to stand outside they city gates, what was called Gog and Magog, it was Castle Ashby where they’d got the trees. The man was proud of where he lived and all its history, how a lot of folks round here was. He’d told Henry how he thought this county was a holy place, and that’s how come that London wanted trees from here. Henry weren’t sure about Northampton’s holiness, not back then and not now, not even after hearing what he had about the Reverend Newton and “Amazing Grace”. It seemed like it was someway special sure enough, though holy weren’t a word what Henry would have used. For one thing, holiness, as Henry saw it, it was a mite cleaner than what Scarletwell Street was. But on the other hand, he’d thought the feller had been right, too, in a way: if there was anything about this place was holy, then it likely was the trees.

Henry remembered when he’d first arrived with his new wife in these parts and the tree what they’d seen then, after he’d been in Britain no more than six months. When he’d come off the ship in Cardiff and decided there weren’t no way he could face another sea voyage home, he’d got himself a lodging at a place called Tiger Bay what had some coloured people living there. That hadn’t been what Henry wanted, though. That was too much like it had ended up in Kansas, with the coloured folks all in one district what was let to fall in pieces until Kansas was too much like Tennessee. Yes, he liked his own people good enough, but not when they was kept away from other folks like they was in a gosh-darned zoo. Henry had struck out for mid-Wales on foot, and it was on the way there that he’d met Selina in a place, Abergavenny, what was on the River Usk. The way they’d fell in love and then got married was that quick it made his head spin, thinking of it. That, and how they’d right away gone up to Builth Wells, for the droving. First thing Henry knowed he’d been wed to a pretty white girl half his age, lying beside her underneath a stretched out piece of canvas while the hundred thousand sheep what they was helping herd to England cried and shuffled in the night outside. They’d been upon the road for near as long as it had took the Pride of Bethlehem to get to Britain, but then at the end of it they’d come across what he knew now was Spencer Bridge, then up Crane Hill and Grafton Street to Sheep Street, which was where they’d seen the tree.

Henry had waded through the herd that milled about there in the wide street, meeting the head drover at the gates of what they called Saint Sepulchre’s, which was the oldest and the darnedest church he’d ever seen. The boss had given him his ticket and told Henry he should take it to a place they called the Welsh House in the market square, where Henry would be give his wages. Him and his Selina had set off up Sheep Street for the centre of the town, and it was in an open yard off on they right there that the tree was standing: a giant beech so big and old that they could only stop and marvel at it, even with the ticket for his pay burning a hole in Henry’s pants like it was doing. It was that far round, the tree, it would have taken four or five men easy to link up they hands about it, and he’d later heard how it was seven hundred year or more in age. You thought about a tree as old as that one looked, you couldn’t help but think of all what it had seen, all what had happened round it in its time. The horseback knights they used to have, and all them battles like in England’s Civil War, which had took place a powerful while before America’s. You couldn’t stand there staring like him and Selina had without you started wondering where every mark and scar had come from, whether it was from a pike or maybe from a musket ball. They’d only looked at it a while, and then they’d picked up Henry’s pay before they poked around the town and found they place in Scarletwell, what had its own amazing sights, but he believed that tree had played as big a part in Henry and Selina thinking they should settle here as any practical consideration. There was something in it made the town seem solid and deep-rooted. And there weren’t nobody hanging from it.

It was coming on for some while after two he got to Yardley. He went up the first turn on his left, called the Northampton Road just like in Denton, up into the village square, there where they had the school. It was a pretty building what had butter-colour stones and a nice archway leading to its play-yard, and he could see children through a downstairs window busy with they lessons, painting onto sheets of butcher’s paper at a long wood table. Henry’s business what he had was with the caretaker, so he pulled up his bicycle across the street from the main schoolhouse, near where this caretaker lived. It was a feller Henry had a good few years on, although he’d had the misfortune to lose nearly all his hair so he looked older than what Henry was. He answered Henry’s knock but didn’t ask him in, although he’d got a bag of things he’d saved what he brung through out on the step and said as they was Henry’s if he wanted them. There was two empty picture frames made Henry wonder what was in them once, a pair of old shoes and some pants made out of corduroy ripped down they backside so that they was near in half. He thanked the caretaker politely, putting it all in his cart alongside what he’d picked up from Great Houghton, and was just about to shake hands and be back upon his way when it occurred to him that he should ask how far it was to Olney.

“Olney? Well, you’re nearly there.”

The caretaker wiped dust from off the picture-frames onto his overall, then pointed back across the village square towards they left.

“See Little Street there? What you want to do is go down that onto the High Street where it takes you back onto the Bedford Road. Keep on it out of Yardley, and you’ll not go far before you reach a lane that drops off from the main road to your right. You get on that, what’s called the Yardley Road, it’s all downhill to Olney. I should say it’s three mile there and five mile back, considering how steep it is.”

That didn’t sound too far at all, not seeing how he’d made such good time getting out here. Henry was appreciative of the directions and said how he’d see the caretaker again ’fore Christmas while he climbed back on his bicycle. The two of them said they goodbyes and then he stood hard on his pedals and was sailing off down Little Street between the women stood outside its shops and such, dark bundles topped by bonnets, rustling across gold sidewalks through the afternoon.

He turned right onto High Street and it took him back down on the Bedford Road, just like the caretaker had said. He went out of the village past the Red Lion public house what they had near the turn there, where farm workers who was coming in already off the fields with mighty thirsts looked at him silently as he went by. That could have been his rope tyres what he had, though, and not nothing was related to his skin at all. It tickled Henry how folks here with all they clever ways of building walls and tying hedges and all that, how they all acted like rope on a feller’s wheel-rims was the most outlandish thing they ever seen. He might as well have had trained rattlesnakes instead of tyres, to hear folks going on about it. All it was, it was a trick he’d seen some other coloured fellers use in Kansas. Rope was cheaper, didn’t wear like rubber did or else get punctured, and it suited Henry fine. Weren’t any more to it than that.

Across the Bedford Road right opposite the High Street turn, the land all dropped away, and where the river tributary did too there was a waterfall. The spray what got flung up from this caught in the slanted light and made a rainbow, just a little one hung in the air, whose colours was so pale that they kept fading in and out of sight. He turned left on the main road and rode on about a quarter mile from Yardley, where he found the steep lane running down upon his right what had a sign said Olney, only saying it was steep weren’t doing it no justice. He flew down it like the wind, sending up glassy sheets of water where he couldn’t help but splash through puddles, such as on the soft ground near a third of the way down where there was ponds with gnats in a mean vapour hanging over ’em. Speed he was going at, it didn’t seem five minutes before he could see the village rooftops down the way ahead of him. He let his brake-blocks skim the dirt road, slowing down a little at a time so that he didn’t have no accidents before he’d gotten where he wanted. Back of Henry’s mind there was the thought that it was going to be an effort getting up this hill again, but he put that aside in favour of the great adventure he was shooting into like a bottle rocket, with his rope tyres sizzling in the dried-out cowpats.

Olney, when he got to it, was bigger than he’d thought it would be. Only thing he saw looked likely it might be a church spire was off down the other end of town, so that’s what Henry headed for. All of the people what he passed by on the street was staring at him, since he hadn’t come this way before and was no doubt to they mind a ferocious novelty. He kept his head down, looking at the cobbles what he pedalled over, being careful not to give offence. The streets was quiet, without much horse-traffic that afternoon as he could see, so that he was embarrassed by the noise his cart was making when it thundered on the stones in back of him. He looked up once and caught a glimpse of his reflection, racing by across the window of an ironmonger’s shop, a black man with white hair and beard upon a strange machine who passed through all the pots and pans hung on display like he was no more solid than a ghost.

When in the end he reached the church, though, it was worth it. Way down on the bottom edge of Olney, with the Great Ouse River and its lakes spread to the south it was a towering and inspiring sight. It being Friday it weren’t open, naturally, so Henry propped his bicycle against a tree and walked around the building once or twice, admiring its high windows with they old stained glass and squinting up towards that spire, what was so high he’d seen it from the village’s far end. The clock that was up on the tower there said as it was getting on for half-past three, or ‘five-and-twenny arter’ like they said on Scarletwell. He reckoned he could look around here for a while and still be home before it got too dark out and Selina started worrying.

He guessed that he was kind of disappointed there weren’t nothing on the church what told of Pastor Newton or “Amazing Grace”. It was just Henry’s foolish notion of how folks in England done things, he was sure, but he’d expected they might have a statue of the man or something, maybe standing with his quill pen in his hand. Instead, there wasn’t nothing. There weren’t even a bad likeness hung up near a chimney. Right across the street, though, Henry saw there was a graveyard. While he didn’t know if Pastor Newton had been buried here as well, he thought there was at least a chance and so he crossed the road and went into the cemetery by its top gate, off from a little path ran down beside a green. Things jumped and scuffled in the long grass near his feet, and just like in the Boroughs he weren’t sure if it was rats or rabbits, but he didn’t care much for it either way.

Excepting Henry and the village dead the churchyard seemed about deserted. It surprised him, then, when he turned round a corner in the paths what led between the headstones, right by where there was an angel what had half its nose and jaw gone like a veteran from some war, and kneeling there beside a grave to pull the weeds up from it was a stout man in his waistcoat and his shirtsleeves, got a flat cap on his silver head. He looked up, more surprised by seeing Henry than what Henry was by seeing him. He was an old man, Henry realised, older than himself and maybe close to seventy. He was still sturdy, though, with great white mutton chops to each side of a face sent red by sun. Below his cap’s brim he had small wire spectacles perched on his nose-end, what he pushed up so that he could take a better look at Henry.

“Good Lord, boy, you made me jump. I thought it was Old Nick who’d come to get me. I’ve not seen you round these parts before, now, have I? Let me get a look at yer.”

The man climbed to his feet with difficulty from the graveside, Henry offering a hand what the old feller gratefully accepted. When he was stood up he was around five and a half feet, and a little shorter than what Henry was. He’d got blue eyes what twinkled through the lenses of his spectacles when he looked Henry over, beaming like he was delighted.

“Well, now, you look like a decent chap. What’s brought you here to Olney, then, if you don’t mind me asking? Were you looking for somebody buried here?”

Henry admitted that he was.

“I come from Scarletwell Street in Northampton, sir, where mostly I am called Black Charley. I was hearing just today about a reverend what once preached here in Olney, name of Newton. It seems like he was the man what wrote ‘Amazing Grace’, which is a song as I admire. I was just looking round the church across the way there, hoping for some sign of him, when it occurred to me as he might be at rest someplace nearby. If you’re acquainted with this cemetery, sir, I’d be obliged you could direct me to his grave.”

The older feller set his lips into a pushed-out frown and shook his head.

“No, bless your heart, he’s not here. I believe the Reverend Newton is in London at St. Mary Woolnoth’s, which is where he went when he left Olney. Here, I’ll tell you what, though. As it happens, I’m churchwarden here. Dan Tite, that’s me. I was just tidying the plots to give myself something to do, but I’d be happy to come back across the church with you and let you in so you could have a look. I’ve got the key here in my waistcoat pocket.”

He produced a big black iron key and held it up so Henry could inspect it. Sure enough, it was a key. Weren’t no disputing that. Out the same pocket, the churchwarden took a clay pipe and his pouch what had tobacco in. He filled the pipe and lit it with a match while they was walking back towards the gates, so a sweet coconut and wood smell drifted out behind them through the yew trees and the tombs. Dan Tite puffed hard on its clay stem ’til he was sure the pipe was going good enough, and then resumed his talk with Henry.

“What’s that accent that you’ve got, then? Can’t say as I’ve heard its like before.”

He nodded while Dan closed the gate behind them and they started up the footpath back to Church Street. He could see the movements in the grass was rabbits now, they noses poking in and out of all the holes was dug into the green and all they ears like babies’ slippers left out in the dew.

“No, sir, I don’t expect you would have done. I come here from America just twelve or thirteen years back now. It was in Tennessee where I was born, then after that I lived in Kansas for a time. To me, it sounds like I talk pretty much the same as folks around Northampton now, although my wife and childrens, they say as I don’t.”

The old churchwarden laughed. They were just walking back across the cobbled lane towards the church, where Henry’s bike and cart was propped against a tree.

“You want to listen to ’em, then. They’re right. That voice you’ve got, that don’t sound nothing like Northampton, and to my mind it’s the better for it. They’re some blessed lazy talkers, them round there. Don’t bother with the letters on the ends of words or even most of ’em what’s in the middle, so it all comes out like mush.”

The warden took a pause here, halfway up the path towards the big church door, and pushed his glasses back where they’d slipped down again so’s he could study Henry’s bicycle and barrow what it drug behind it, leaned up on that poplar there. He looked from the machine to Henry and then back again, then he just shook his head and went on to unlock the door so they could go inside.

First thing you noticed was the chill come up off the stone floor, and how there was the slightest echo after everything. There in the room out front the church they called the vestibule, they’d got a big display of flowers and sheaves of wheat and pots of jam and such, what Henry figured as the children had brung for they Harvest Festival. It put a kind of morning smell about the air there, even though the place was cold and grey with shadows. Hung up in a frame above the spread there was a painting, and soon as he saw it Henry knew who it was of, it didn’t matter that the picture was a dark one hanging in a darker room.

Man had a head looked near to square and too big for his body, although Henry owned that could have been the painter’s fault. He’d got his parson’s robes on and a wig like what they had in eighteenth-century times, all short on top and with grey plaits of wool wound round like ram’s horns down to either side. One of his eyes looked sort of worried and yet full of what you might call cautious hope, while on the side of his face what was turned away out from the light the eye seemed flat and dead, and had the look of someone carrying a mournful weight they know they can’t put down. It might have been his parson’s collar was too tight so that the fat under his jaw was plumped out over it a little in a roll, and up above that was a mouth looked like it didn’t know to laugh or cry. John Newton, born seventeen hundred twenty-five, died eighteen hundred seven. Henry stared up at the portrait with his eyes he knowed was the same colour as piano ivories, wide and near luminous there in the gloom.

“Ah, yes, that’s him. You’ve spotted him, the Reverend Newton. Always thought meself he looked a tired old soul, a bit like a poor sheep put out to grass.”

Dan Tite was up one corner getting something out a stack of hymnals what was there while Henry stood and gazed at Newton’s murky image. The churchwarden turned and waddled back across the ringing, whispering slabs to Henry, dusting off the cover on some old book as he come.

“Here, have a look at this. This is the Olney Hymns, that they first printed up ’fore eighteen hundred. This is all the ones he wrote with his great friend the poet Mr. Cowper, who perhaps you’ve heard of?”

Henry confessed as he hadn’t. Though he saw no need to say it there and then, it was a fact his reading weren’t so good saving for street signs and for hymns in church what he already knowed the words to, and he’d never learned to write none for the life of him. Dan weren’t concerned, though, that he weren’t acquainted with this Cooper feller, and just went on flipping through the yellow-smelling pages ’til he’d found what he was looking for.

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter, except Mr. Cowper was another one from Olney and they wrote all these together, although Mr. Newton did by far the greater part. This one, the one that you like, we’re almost completely certain that it’s Newton’s work alone.”

The warden gave the book of hymns to Henry, who reached out and took it careful with both hands like it were some religious relic, which he guessed it was. The page what it was open at had got a heading took him some time to make sense from, where it didn’t say “Amazing Grace” like he’d expected. What it said instead, he finally figured out, was “Faith’s Review and Expectation”, and then under that there was some lines from out the Bible in the first book of the Chronicles, what had King David ask the Lord ‘What is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?’ At last, below where it said that, there was the words all printed from “Amazing Grace”. He looked them over, kind of singing them inside his head so’s he could make ’em out more easy. He was doing fine until he got down to the last verse, which weren’t like the one he was familiar with. That one, the one he knew, said about how when we’d been here ten thousand years in the bright shining sun, singing God’s praise, we’d not have hardly started. This one in the book here didn’t sound like it expected no ten thousand years, and weren’t anticipating anything was shining or was bright.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,

The sun forbear to shine;

But God, who called me here below,

Will be forever mine.

Upon consideration, Henry thought the last verse what he knew was best, although he understood it weren’t one what the Reverend Newton writ himself. Most likely, he supposed, the one with the ten thousand years and shining sun was writ out in America, which was a country what was younger than what England was, and with a brighter view of everything. Here where the land was older and they’d seen all manner of great kingdoms come and go, this was a country where World’s End looked close by, where the ground below your feet might crumble all to dust with age, the sun above your head burn out at any minute. Henry liked the song how he’d been taught it better, with the sense it give how everything was going to be all right, but in his heart he felt the way that Mr. Newton had it here was possibly more true. He stood there for some minutes while he finished up the reading of it all, and then he give the book back to Dan Tite, mumbling how Mr. Newton was a great man, a great man.

The warden took the Olney Hymns off Henry and then put it back where it had been before. He looked at Henry quizzically a moment, as though he were trying to figure something out, and when he spoke it had a softer tone what was more intimate, like they was really talking about things what was important now.

“He was. He was a great man, and I think it’s very Christian you should say so.”

Henry nodded, though he weren’t sure why he did. He didn’t rightly understand how paying simple compliments was seen to be a Christian act, but didn’t want Dan Tite should think of him as an uneducated black man, so he didn’t say a word. He just stood shuffling while the warden weighed him up through them round little spectacles. Dan looked in Henry’s shifting and uncertain eyes and give kind of a sigh.

“Charley … it was Charley, wasn’t it? Well, Charley, let me ask you something. Did you hear much about Mr. Newton where you came from, of his life and that?”

Henry admitted, to his shame, that he’d not heard of Newton’s name before that afternoon, nor that he’d writ “Amazing Grace.” The churchwarden assured him as it didn’t matter, and then carried on what he was saying.

“What you have to understand with Mr. Newton is he didn’t come to his religious calling until he was nearly forty, so he’d knocked about a bit by that age, if you take my meaning.”

Henry weren’t sure that he did, but Dan Tite went on anyway.

“You see, his father was commander of a merchant ship, always at sea, and young John Newton was a lad of just eleven when he went there with him. Made a few trips with his dad, as you might say, before his dad retired. I think he wasn’t twenty yet when he got press-ganged into service on a man-o’-war, where he deserted and was flogged.”

Henry scratched at his arm and winced. He’d seen men whipped. Dan Tite went right on with his tale, its echo muttering up the corner of the vestibule like some old relative touched in they mind.

“He asked if he could be exchanged to service on another ship. It was a slave ship, sailing for Sierra Leone on the western coast of Africa. He became the trader’s servant and was treated in a brutal fashion, as you can imagine would be likely with a lad of that age. He was lucky, though, and a sea captain who had known his father came along and saved him.”

Henry understood now, why Dan Tite was telling him all this, as painful as it was. He’d been surprised when he found out it was a white man wrote “Amazing Grace”. He’d always thought only a black man could have knowed the sorrow what was in that song, but this made sense out of it. Mr. Newton had been captive on a slave boat, just like Henry’s momma and his poppa was. He’d suffered at the hands of fiends and devils, just like they’d done. That was how he’d come to write them words, about how sweet it was to have relief within the Lord from all that suffering. The churchwarden had wanted he should know how the convictions in “Amazing Grace” was come of Mr. Newton’s hard experience, that much was plain. Henry was grateful. It just give him all the more respect for the good man behind the writing. When he sung “Amazing Grace” now he could think of Pastor Newton and the trials he’d overcome. He grinned and stuck his hand out to Dan Tite.

“Sir, I’m real grateful for that information, and for letting me take up your time in telling it. It sounds like Mr. Newton had some troubles, right enough, but praise the Lord that he lived through ’em all and wrote a song that beautiful. It only makes me think the better of him, hearing what you said.”

The warden didn’t take his hand. He just held up his own, the palm turned out to Henry like it was a warning. The old man had got a look on his pink face now was real serious. He shook his head, so that his white side-whiskers flapped like sails.

“You haven’t heard it all.”

A church clock somewhere struck for half-past four, either in Yardley up ahead of him or Olney back behind him, when he’d finally walked his bicycle and wagon all the way back up the steep slope of the Yardley Road, now trudging through the puddles what he’d skimmed on his way down.

Henry was all in pieces, didn’t know what he should think. He’d walk a little then he’d stop and rub the fat part of his hand across his eyes, wiping the tears off down his cheeks so’s he could see where he was going and it weren’t all just a fog of brown and green. Up at the top there of the lane, just when the clock was striking, he climbed back onto his saddle and begun the long ride back to Scarletwell.

John Newton had become a slave-trader. That’s what Dan Tite had told him. Even when he’d just got rescued from a slaver, even when he knowed what it was like aboard they ships, he’d gone and got a vessel so as he could ply that trade himself. He’d got rich off it, he’d got rich off of slaving and then later on he’d made his big repentance and become a minister and done “Amazing Grace”. Dear Lord, dear sweet Lord on the cross it was a slaver wrote “Amazing Grace”. He had to put his wood blocks down upon the ground so’s he could wipe his eyes again.

How could that be? How could you get flogged as a boy nineteen years old, have Lord knows what done with you as a slaver’s servant, how could you go through all that, then see it done to someone else for gain? He knew now what that look had been, what he’d saw in the portrait’s eyes. John Newton was a guilty man, a man with blood and tar and feathers on his hands. John Newton was a man most likely damned.

He’d got his feelings under some control now, so he started up his bicycle and carried on, back up the Bedford Road and past the Red Lion what he’d seen before, saving that it was on his right this time. It sounded full, the public house, with all the noise was coming from it, fellers laughing, singing bits from songs what floated out across the empty fields. Upon his left, the rainbow what had been above the clattering waterfall weren’t there no more. The sun was getting low down in the west ahead of him as he went by the second Yardley bend and made for Denton with all manner of considerations turning over in his heart.

Henry could see, after he’d chewed upon it for a time, that it weren’t just a matter of how Newton could have gone from one side of the whipping-post straight to the other. Now he’d thought about it, Henry would allow that there most likely had been plenty other folks had done the same. Why, he himself knowed people what was treated bad, then took it out on others in they turn. That weren’t the thing what was exceptional about John Newton, how he’d started out no better than a slave and then took up that business for himself. That weren’t no puzzle, or at least not much of one. The thing what seized on Henry’s mind was more how Newton could have been in work so evil and then writ “Amazing Grace”. Was it all sham, them lines what had moved Henry and his people so? Was it no more than Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, ’cept for it was in a church and had fine sentiments where Cody had his redskins?

Right of him and way off to the north a spray of roosting birds was rose in black specks over the dark woods by Castle Ashby, looked like ashes blowed up from the burnt patch where a fire had been. He carried on along the Bedford Road, hunched like a crow over his handlebars. From up above he figured how he must bear a resemblance to one on them tin novelties he’d seen, them where you cranked the handle and a little feller sitting on a bicycle rode inch by inch on a straight wire with only his knees moving, going up and down there on the pedals.

Even knowing what he knowed now about Newton, Henry couldn’t see how words what was so heartfelt could have been pretence entire. Dan Tite had said how most folks figured as the song was writ about a dreadful storm what Newton and his slaving-boat had come through on a homeward journey what he made in May, seventeen hundred forty-eight. Called it his great deliverance and said it was the day God’s grace had come upon him, though it weren’t ’til near on seven years had passed afore he give up slaving. Treated his slaves decent from what the churchwarden said, though Henry didn’t rightly know how you could use a word like decent up against a word like slaves. It was about the same as saying spiders was considerate to they flies, how Henry seen it. All the same, he would concede how just because a feller weren’t converted all at once or overnight the way he said he was, that didn’t mean how his conversion couldn’t come to be sincere. Could be how by the time what Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” he was regretful of a lot of things he’d done. Could be that’s what he meant when he said how he’d been a wretch. Henry had previously supposed as how the song had meant a poor wretch just like anybody was, but he could see now how John Newton might have possibly intended for the words to have a stronger meaning, what was personal to him. A wretch like me. A fornicating, drinking, whoring, cussing, slaving wretch like me. Henry had never thought about the song like that before, had only heard the bright things what was in it and heard nothing what was savage or was painful. Previous to this day he’d never heard the shame.

He was approaching Denton now, his shadow getting longer on the track behind of him. The road was forked here, like it was upon the village’s far side, and Henry took the route most to his left so as he could pass by the place. He went on by the side path what run down to Horton and then passed the thatched humps of Grange Farm what was just slightly further on. The ploughed black ruts what filled the fields was powdered gold along they tops where the low sun’s rays touched them. All the little springs and fiddles in his back was acting up so that he felt his age now as he pedalled on for Brafield, horses watching him across the hedgerows, unconcerned.

According to Dan Tite, John Newton had give up his seafaring and slaving some years after he got married, which was in seventeen hundred fifty. Even then, it sounded as though it was illness made him mend his ways, and not conviction. Then, seventeen sixty or near to, he got ordained as a church minister at Olney where he met up with the poet feller Mr. Cooper what was spelled as Cow-per, who’d come to the village some years after he’d done. From the little what Dan Tite had said of Cowper it had seemed to Henry that the poet was a troubled man within his heart and mind, and he could see how that was maybe why John Newton had took such a shine to him. They’d writ songs for they services and prayer meetings and such, with Newton putting in the best part of the labour, writing four for every one of Cowper’s. Seems how Pastor Newton was a great one for his writing, not just with his hymns but also in his diaries and his letter-writing. The churchwarden said how if it weren’t for Newton’s writings, nobody would know a thing today about how slaving was in eighteenth-century times. Henry expected as he meant nobody white.

Newton had writ “Amazing Grace”, they reckoned, maybe late as eighteen seventy when he was forty-five or thereabouts. Some ten year after that he’d gone from Olney up to London, where he was the rector at a place they called Saint Mary Woolnoth. Here he’d give some sermons what was well regarded, then went blind afore he died when he was eighty-two. Maybe he thought as he’d atoned, but Henry didn’t know a crime was worse then selling others into slavery. Even the Lord in all his mercy had sent plagues on Egypt when the Hebrews was they slaves, and Henry weren’t sure what it took to make atonement for a sin that grievous.

He was so caught up in all his thoughts he’d gone by Brafield ’fore he knew it and was riding on due west towards the Houghtons with the red sun lowered like a firebrand, just about to set light to the trees on the horizon up ahead of him. Henry was thinking about Newton and of how peculiar it was he should go blind when in “Amazing Grace” he wrote of just the opposite. He was also turning over something else Dan Tite had said about when Newton was in London at Saint Mary Woolnoth, giving all his sermons. The old churchwarden had said how in the congregation there was Mr. William Wilberforce, who’d gone on as an abolitionist and done a lot to put an end to slavery for good. It seemed in this regard as he’d found Pastor Newton’s sermons generally inspiring. Maybe if it weren’t for Newton and his great repentance, never mind if it were genuine or not, then slavery might not have gotten overturned as early as it did, or maybe even not at all. The rights and wrongs of it went back and forth as Henry pedalled by the turns for Little Houghton on his right and then, about a mile past that, the one down to Great Houghton on his left. The sky above Northampton was like treasure in a bed of roses.

Henry knew it was the Christian thing, forgiving Mr. Newton what he’d done, but slavery weren’t just a word, out from them history books he couldn’t read. He scratched his arm and thought about what he remembered from them days. He’d been around thirteen years old, he thought, when Mr. Lincoln won the Civil War and set the slaves all free. Henry was marked up as a slave six year by then, although from that event, when he was seven, he recalled not one thing save his momma crying, saying hush. What come back most to him was how scared everybody was, the day they heard they was emancipated. It was like within they hearts they knowed it was the coloured folk would be in trouble about getting freed, and that was how it proved to be. The old plantation bosses liked to say how all the slaves was happier before they got set loose, and it was the plantation bosses and they friends made sure as that was true. The ten year Henry and his folks had spent in Tennessee before they went to Kansas, they was nothing else but rapes and beatings, hangings, killings, burnings; it made Henry sick to think of it. They was all being punished ’cause they’d been let go, that was the honest truth.

The flames was dying down upon the cloud-banks in the west and darker blues staining the heavens up behind him when he come along beside Midsummer Meadow in the way of Beckett’s Park. Cow Meadow, that was what the folks down Scarletwell still called the fields round here, though they said Medder ’stead of Meadow. Henry had been told how it was here another of the English Wars got settled. This one weren’t they Civil War, although that had its last big battle pretty close to here. This was a war they had before that what they called the Rose War, although Henry couldn’t say what it had been about or rightly when it was. He couldn’t help but think if England was America, and if you had a place where both the War of Independence and the Civil War had finished up, then there’d have been a bigger thing made out of it. Perhaps that was just more the way here, talking things down, although it had always seemed to Henry how the English liked to puff they past times up as much as anybody, and considerably more than most. It was as if the folks what writ them history books just couldn’t see Northampton somehow, like it had a veil across it or like they was horses wearing blinkers with the whole town on they blind side.

When he reached the crossroads, with the hospital upon his right and what they called the Dern Gate up ahead of him, he stopped there by the drinking fountain at Saint Thomas Becket’s well and set his bicycle against the rugged wall while he stooped down and took a drink, the way what he’d done earlier. The water didn’t seem to taste as sweet as how it had that morning, although Henry owned as his own feelings may have had an influence on that. It had a bitter tang now after it was swallowed. You could taste the metal in it.

He got on his bike again and at the crossroads he turned left, along Victoria Promenade what went down by the north side of the park there. He rode in amongst the carts and trolley cars and such, where everyone was making they way home under a sky near purple, skimming through the leaves fell in the gutters as he left the meadowlands behind him and went on through the good-natured stink beside the cattle yards. The pens what held the animals was off on Henry’s left, where now and then you heard some lowing or some bleating coming through the gloom. As he rolled by he thought about how when he’d viewed it in the daylight you could see how all the sheep, cows and what have you was all marked with dye, got little splashes of it on they backs, both red and blue. He’d never seen one branded, now he thought about it, not in all the time what he’d been over here. He let that notion settle in while he continued past the Plough Hotel, what was there at the Bridge Street crossroads on his right, and carried on towards where the gas-holder’s iron frame rose up against the grey light over Gas Street. Here he stuck out his right hand to signal he was going to turn, and then went north up Horseshoe Street, heart heavy in his chest.

It was still Pastor Newton was upsetting Henry. He weren’t certain as he could enjoy “Amazing Grace” quite the same way again, not knowing what he knowed. Why, he weren’t even sure if he could bring himself to worship in a church again, not if them churchmen could have made they money doing Lord knows what. It weren’t that Henry had been made to doubt his faith, for that could never be, but more like he had come to doubt the ministers proclaiming it. Could be that in future Henry might go back to saying prayers in sheds and barns, wherever it was quiet, the way him and his folks had back in Tennessee. When you was kneeling in a barn you knew as God was there, the same like you was in a church. The difference was that in a barn you could be sure you didn’t have a devil in the pulpit.

Henry knew as it weren’t fair to judge all reverends by the sins of one, but it was just his trust in that profession had got shook. He wasn’t even rightly sure as he could fairly judge John Newton, what with all the contradictions as there was about his story, but he felt as all the same he had a right to be real disappointed in the man. The standard by which Henry weighed such things was that of ordinary folks, and he knew neither he nor anybody as he knowed had ever sold another living person into slavery.

’Course, nobody he knowed had ever writ “Amazing Grace” or been no influence on Mr. William Wilberforce and all that neither. There was that to think of. Rattling on the cobbles as he made hard work of climbing Horseshoe Street, the arguments swung to and fro inside of him without they come to any real conclusion you might call. Up at the top there where his route crossed over Gold Street was a big old horse-bus coming out of Marefair so’s he had to put his wood blocks down upon the street and stop while it went by.

Out one side of his eye while he stood waiting there he could see this young skinny feller, idling on the corner where they had the Palace of Varieties. The man was staring hard at Henry who, seeing as he was of a downcast turn of mind, decided that this was most likely on account of Henry being black or having rope around his wheels or some fool thing like that. He made out as he didn’t notice the young feller gawping at him, and then when the horse-bus had drug itself by and on up Gold Street, Henry stood upon his pedals and continued past the crossroads and uphill, by what they called Horsemarket. Dark was settling on the Boroughs like fine soot as Henry cycled up along its eastward edge, and there was gaslights burning in some windows now. The wagons was all firing up they lanterns, so that he was glad at least his hair and beard was white, and folks would see him so he didn’t get run down.

Horsemarket seemed to him more steep than usual, got all the doctors’ houses looking cosy to his left there and across the road it was all overhung with trees grew out the gardens of Saint Katherine’s. When he got up to Mary’s Street he turned along it. Clattering and creaking he made off into the greying tangle of the real old neighbourhood, what used to be all of the town there was.

As much as Henry liked the district where he lived, he couldn’t say as he much cared to see it in the twilight. That’s when things all lost they edges and they shapes, and what you knew weren’t real by daylight seemed a lot more possible. Hobgoblins, fiends and such as that, this was the time you seen ’em, when the paint peeled off a wood gate made a shape like someone standing there, or all the shadow-patches in a clump of nettles was a big face shifting in the wind, eyes narrowing with poison. Dusk played tricks like that all over, Henry knew, though sometimes it would seem to him as if the Boroughs was built crooked specially so’s it could harbour all the gloom and haunts up in its corners: nests where poor and ragged ghosts was bred. His rope tyres juddered on the stones as he squeaked through the evening lanes, where there was ugly fairies squirming in the water butts and ghouls crouched in the guttering for all what Henry knew. The bent-backed shops and houses leaned all round him, pale against the dusk like they was spikes of limestone growed up in a cave. Sweet in the mornings, lazy in the afternoons, come dark this was another place entire.

It wasn’t on account of this was somewhere you might get attacked and robbed, like Henry knew was the opinion of the Boroughs held by folks in better parts of town. To Henry’s mind there weren’t no safer place than here, where nobody robbed nobody ’cause everybody knew they was the same, without a penny to they names. As for attacks and beatings, there weren’t no denying they went on, but it weren’t nothing like it was in Tennessee. For one thing, what you had around the Boroughs was a lot of people who was all so angry on they insides, what they liked to do was just get drunk and fight each other so as they could let it out. That weren’t a pleasant thing to watch and it was hard to sit by while young men, and women too, they just destroyed themselves like that, but it weren’t Tennessee. It weren’t one bunch of folks got all the power taking they vengeance on a lot of helpless people what got nothing. This was poor folks who weren’t going to hurt nobody ’cept they own selves, although Henry owned as they could hurt they own selves something awful.

No, it wasn’t like the Boroughs was all full of cut-throats. It weren’t that what made it kind of frightening after nightfall, it weren’t nothing near as reasonable as that. Unearthly, that was what it was after the daylight went, the daylight what was holding back another world where anything might just about be possible. Children, of course, they loved it and you’d always have big squealing gangs of ’em run up and down the dim streets in the gaslight doing hide and seek or some such. Henry didn’t doubt the little boys and girls knew that this place was haunted, just like all the growed-ups did. The thing was, children was all at a time of life when ghosts was just about as natural as was anything in they experience. Ghosts was just part of the excitement, to a child. When you was older though, was nearer to the grave yourself and you’d had time to think on life and death a little, well, then ghosts and what they signified, that was all different somehow. That, to Henry’s mind, was why no one went out much in the Boroughs after it got dark, ’cept they was drinking men or little kids, or else police. The older people got, then the more phantoms what there was around, the shades of places and of people what weren’t here no more. These lanes run back to ancient times, as Henry was aware, so that he shouldn’t be surprised if all the spooks was built up pretty thick by now, like some variety of sediment.

He cycled up Saint Mary’s Street, where the Great Fire broke out a couple hundred year ago, past Pike Street on to Doddridge Street, where he dismounted his contraption so it could be pushed across the lumpy burial ground what run downhill from Doddridge Church. He manhandled his bicycle over the weedy mounds and wet black hollows of the wasteland, wondering not for the first time why it was they called this stretch a burial ground, and not a graveyard or a cemetery. He could see how possibly it was because there weren’t no headstones or no markers, although why that should itself be so when far as he knew it was human people what was buried here, that was what puzzled him. Best he could figure it, it was to do with Mr. Doddridge who had been the minister on Castle Hill, and was what people called a Nonconformist. Henry had heard tell of Nonconformist graveyards was elsewhere in England, where they also put they mass graves for the poor folk, them as was unable to afford a proper burying or tombstone. Could be that was just what happened here. Could be he wheeled his pedal-cart right now above bones was all jumbled up from people didn’t even got they names no more. Mindful of ghosts as he was feeling in the wasting light, he muttered some apologies to any skeletons he might be disrespecting, so’s they knew as it weren’t nothing personal.

When Henry was across the rough ground and in Chalk Lane, near the houses set back from the street they called Long Gardens, he climbed back up on his saddle and rode up the slope in way of Castle Terrace and of Doddridge Church itself, on his right hand there. Passing by the chapel, noticing that funny door set halfway up its old stone wall and leading nowhere, he considered what he knew of Mr. Doddridge, which of course made him in turn consider Mr. Newton.

Mr. Philip Doddridge, now, how people round here told it, was a man in poor health who was wanting that the worse-off folks could feel they had a Christian faith what was they own. When he come here to Castle Hill and started up his ministry, it seems like he took on the English Church by saying folks should have a right to worship as they pleased, and not just how they Bishops and that wanted it. He’d come here to Northampton when he was a young man in his twenties, this was round seventeen hundred thirty, and he’d stayed just over twenty years before his health took him away. He hadn’t lived long after that, but in his time he’d changed the whole way how folks thought about religion in this country, maybe in the Christian world all over. All of it done on the little raised-up mound of dirt what Henry was now riding past. Doddridge had writ hymns, too, just not so famous as “Amazing Grace”, and in the one old drawing of the man what Henry had once seed his eyes was clear and bright and honest as a child. There weren’t no shame, there weren’t no guilt. There weren’t no anything like that, save for a kindliness and great determination.

Henry could imagine Mr. Doddridge out here strolling of an evening, taking in the same air, looking up at the same early stars, most probably wondering just the same what that fool door was doing halfway up the wall. He’d probably felt, like all men do, as he’d been living for a long time, and like all men he most likely found it hard imagining things any other way than how they was, with him alive so as he could appreciate it all. Yet here we was, with Mr. Doddridge dead more’n a hundred-fifty years, and with the church what they named after him still stood here, and still doing good for all the poor folks what there was. John Newton never got no church commemorating what he done, and William Cody only got his plaque up by the chimneypots. Henry considered this, and thought it might be that things worked out fairly after all. It was most probably better to assume as the Almighty knew what He was doing in such matters, that was Henry’s general conclusion.

He propelled himself up Castle Terrace, over where was Castle Street and Fitzroy Street and Little Cross Street knotted up together, rolling straight across and on down Bristol Street, what was his most direct route home. Ahead and on the left of him he saw what was a woman in a long skirt, walking on her own as Henry thought until he see the baby she was carrying. In the gaslight, all the curls around the child’s head was just shining like a goldmine got blowed up, so that he knowed it was May Warren and her momma, who was called May Warren also. He put down one foot to drag his block across the cobbles, slowing down as he drawed up ’longside of ’em.

“Why, Mrs. May and Missy May! You ladies been off gallivanting all around the town, I bet, you only just now coming home!”

The elder May stopped and turned round, surprised, then laughed when she seen it was Henry. Was a deep laugh, rumbling down there in what Henry would admit was sure some big old chest that girl had got.

“Black Charley! Blummin’ ’eck, you made me jump, you silly bugger. They should ’ave a law made you lot carry sparklers after it got dark. Look, May. Look who it is, come frightening your Mam. It’s Uncle Charley.”

Here the little girl, who was without a doubt a child more beautiful than any white child Henry ever saw, looked up towards him and said “Char” a couple times. He grinned down at the baby’s mother.

“It’s an angel what you got there, May. An angel what’s fell down from Heaven.”

Young May Warren shook her head, dismissive like, as if she’d heard the compliment that many times it had begun to trouble her.

“Don’t say that. Everybody always says that.”

They went on to talk a while, then Henry told May as she’d best get her small daughter home and in the warm. They all said they goodbyes, then the two Mays went off down Fort Street, where they lived next door to big May’s father, who was Snowy Vernall. Story was, as Henry had been told it, how May’s grand-pappy whose name was Ernest had his hair turn white from shock one time, and that had been enough to do the same thing for his young son. Snowy’s hair was whiter than what Henry’s was, and there were them said he was touched besides, though Henry only knowed him as man liked drinking and who’d got some talent in his hands for making drawings and the like. The momma and the baby, they went off down Fort Street, where there weren’t no proper road but only paving, and where it was generally held there’d been a fort in ancient times. The street had got a kind of dungeon look, at least to Henry’s eye. It always seemed like a dead end, no matter that you was aware it had an alley running down the back.

Henry continued on where Mr. Beery, who was what they called the lighter-man down in the Boroughs, he was just then reaching up on his long pole to light the gas-lamps what they had in Bristol Street. He called to Henry, cheery like, and Henry he called back. He hoped the children round there wouldn’t shin right up that post and blow the flame out soon as Mr. Beery was gone by, although there was most definitely a chance as that might happen. Henry pedalled past and on down Bristol Street where it run into Bath Street. He went left around the bend that took him past Bath Row and onto Scarletwell Street, where he lived. The dark was pretty thick here, on account of Mr. Beery hadn’t worked his way down this far yet. It was like all the night was trickled down the hill to make a big black puddle at the bottom. Lamps what you could see was shining through the pulled-to curtains, could be they was all glow-in-the-dark bulbs hanging off the heads of them great ugly fish what people seen, brung up by deep sea trawling boats and similar.

Henry had come out from Bath Street onto Scarletwell just opposite the alleyway what folks here called a jitty, as run down behind Scarletwell Terrace there. The big Saint Andrew’s Road was on his left side a short distance, but he got down off his bike and wheeled it up the hill the other way. The house he lived in with Selina and they children was a little way up, opposite the public house was called the Friendly Arms they had across the way. He recollected how when him and his Selina was first come from Wales, after collecting Henry’s pay up at the Welsh House in the market, how they’d come down here and took a look around. They wasn’t sure how folks round here would take to having a black feller married to a white girl, not if they was living hereabouts. Could be as there weren’t no place would accept two different colours, side by side. That was when they’d first come on Scarletwell Street and the Friendly Arms, where they’d been give a sign. Tied up outside the pub and drinking beer from out a glass was what they’d later learned was Newt Pratt’s animal. The sight had so amazed them both, unlikely as it was, that they’d determined there and then as this was someplace they could set up home. No matter how unusual they was, two races wed to live as man and wife, nobody down in Scarletwell Street would look twice at ’em, not with Newt Pratt’s astounding creature roped up getting drunk across the street like that.

He smiled to think of it, pushing his bicycle and cart on up the slope, his wood blocks slipped off from his feet and in his jacket pockets, where they always was when he weren’t wearing ’em. He reached what was a little alley run off on his right there, what would take him round directly to his own back yard. He thumbed the iron latch on his gate, then made an awful racket getting his contraption in the yard, the way he always did. Selina come out on the step, with they first daughter, Mary, who’d got white skin, hanging round her skirts. His wife weren’t tall, and she’d got all her hair brushed down so that it reached near to her knees as she stood there on they back doorstep, smiling at him with the gaslight warm behind her.

“Hello, Henry, love. Come on inside, and you can tell us all how you’ve got on.”

He kissed her cheek, then fished all of the stuff what folks had give him from inside his cart, which would be safe out in the yard there.

“Heck, I been all over. Got me some old clothing and some picture frames. I reckon if you got some water boiled up I could use a wash, though, ’fore we has our supper. Been a tiring day, all kinds of ways.”

Selina cocked her head on one side, studying him while he went by her, taking all the things what he’d collected in the house.

“You’ve been all right, though, have you? Not had any trouble, like?”

He shook his head and give her a big reassuring grin. He didn’t want to talk just yet with her about what he’d found out in Olney, with regard to Pastor Newton and “Amazing Grace”. He weren’t sure in his own mind just what his opinions on the matter was, and figured as he’d tell Selina later, when he’d had a chance to think on it some more. He took the picture frames and that through to they front room what looked out on Scarletwell, and put them with the other items what he’d got there, then went back into the living room where Mary and Selina was. They baby boy, what was called Henry after him and was black like his daddy was, he was asleep upstairs and in his crib by now, though Henry would look in on him afore they went to bed. He left Selina brewing up a pot of tea there on they dining table and went back through to they little kitchen so as he could have himself a wash.

There was still water in the copper boiler what was warmish, and he run himself some in a white enamel bowl what he set down into they deep stone sink. The sink was stood below they kitchen window, looking out on the back yard where everything was black now so’s you couldn’t see. He took his jacket off and draped it on the laundry basket what was by the door, and then commenced unbuttoning his shirt.

It was still Pastor Newton he was thinking of. The man had done tremendous good, to Henry’s mind, and had committed likewise a tremendous sin. Henry weren’t sure as he was big enough to judge a man whose vices and whose virtues was of such a size. But then, who was it would call men like that to they account, if it weren’t Henry and his kin and all them others what was treated so unfairly? All the men what was important, with they hymns and statues and they churches living after them and telling folks for years to come how good they was. It seemed to Henry as these monuments was all like Colonel Cody’s rooftop plaque what he’d seen early in the day. Just ’cause a feller was remembered well, that didn’t mean as he’d done something to deserve it. Henry wondered where the justice was in all of this. He wondered who decided in the end what was the mark of a great man, and how they knew as it weren’t just the mark of Cain? His shirt and vest was off by now, hung with his jacket on the basket down beside the kitchen door. Out in the black night, through the steam rose up from his enamel bowl and past the window panes, he seen his own reflection standing in the dark of they back yard, stripped to its waist and looking in at him.

His own mark was just there on his left shoulder, where they’d branded him when he was seven. Both his momma and his poppa had one just the same. He’d got no proper memory of the night the iron was put on him, and even after all these years he’d still got no idea the reason why they done it. Weren’t like there was nigger-rustling going on, as he could recollect.

It was a funny thing, the mark, no better than a drawing what some little child had done. There was two hills, looked like they got a bridge between ’em, else like they was pans hung on a scale for weighing gold. Down under this you’d got a scroll, or could be that it was a winding road. The lines was pale and violet, smooth like wax there on the purple flesh of Henry’s arm. He lifted up his other hand and run his fingers over the design. He waited for the wisdom and the understanding what would answer all the questions in his heart, about John Newton, about everything. He waited for the grace so he could put aside all his hard feelings, though he owned as it would truly have to be amazing.

Outside in the royal blue heaven over Doddridge Chapel, stars was coming out and night birds sang. His wife and child was in the next room, pouring out his tea. He cupped warm water with a little soap there in his palms, dashing it up into his face and eyes so everything was washed away into the grey, forgiving blur.


Foul fanthoms five his farter lies, and office bones are cobbles made. Ah ha ha ha. Oh, bugger, let him stay down here and underwater in the warm, the sweaty linen currents drefting him away, aweigh in anchor chains and scrabble crabs and mermaids mermering to their slowmile phones, their fishbone combs, don’t make him swim up to the light just yet, not yet. Five minutes, just five minutes more because down here it isn’t any time at all, it could be nineteen fifty-eight and him a five-year-old with all his life uncoiled unspoiled before him, down here in the warm and weeds and winkles, with his thoughts bright-coloured tetras streaming in amongst the tumbled busts, the dead men’s chests, but it’s too late, already it’s too late. A mattress-spring is poking through the ocean bed-sands, up into his back, and he can feel his jellyfish-limp arms and legs trailing around him in a salty sprawl as he reluctantly floats up through dream-silts in suspension, back towards the dappled dazzle of the surface, where his mother’s got the wireless on down in the kitchen. Bugger. Bugger it.

Benedict Perrit half-opened his eyes into their first wince of the day. It wasn’t 1958. He wasn’t five. It was May 26th, 2006. He was a coughing, farting wreck of fifty-two, a piece of nineteen-hundreds royalty in exile, traipsing back and forth along the shores of an unfriendly foreign century. Ah ha ha ha. Wreck was a bit strong, actually. He was in better shape than most his age, to look at. It was more that he’d just woken up, and he’d been on the ale the night before. He’d pick up later on, he knew, but morning always came as something of a shock to Benedict. You hadn’t had a chance yet to get your defences up, this time of day. The thoughts that later on you could avoid or brush aside, they were all on you like a pack of dogs when you were just woke up and hadn’t had your breakfast yet. The cold unvarnished facts of his own life, by morning’s light, were always like a straight punch in the face: his lovely sister Alison was dead, a bike smash more than forty years ago. His dad, old Jem, was dead. Their house they’d lived in, their old street, their neighbourhood, those were all dead as well. The family he’d started for himself with Lily and the boys, he’d messed that up, that was all finished now. He was back living with his mam in Tower Street, what had been the top of Scarletwell Street, up behind the high-rise blocks. His life, in his opinion, hadn’t really worked out how he might have hoped, and yet the thought that in another thirty years it would be over horrified him. Or at least it did when he’d just woken up. Everything horrified him when he’d just woke up.

He let his demons chew on him a minute or two more, then threw them off along with the top sheet and blankets, swinging down his knobbly, hairy legs onto the bedside floor as he sat up. He ran his hands over the mountainous relief-map of his face and back into the still-black tangles of his hair. He coughed and farted, feeling vaguely disrespectful to be doing so while in the presence of his bookshelves, up against the room’s end wall. He could feel Dylan Thomas, H.E. Bates, John Clare and Thomas Hardy staring at him pointedly, waiting for him to own up and apologize. He mumbled a “beg pardon” reaching for his dressing gown, hung on a chair beside the ancient writing desk, then stood and padded barefoot out onto the landing, farting once more to assert his independence just before he closed the bedroom door and left the pastoral poets to discern the romance in his flatulence. Ah ha ha ha.

Once in the bathroom he took care of his evacuations, which, thanks to the drink the night before, were wretchedly distressing but concluded fairly quickly. Next he took his dressing gown off while he had a wash and shave, stood at the sink. The central heating, that was one thing from the modern world that he was glad of. Down in Freeschool Street where he’d grown up it had been much too cold to wash more than your face and hands each day. Perhaps you’d have a proper scrub in a zinc bath on Friday nights if you were lucky.

Benedict ran some hot water in the basin – he would grudgingly admit hot water could be seen as an improvement, too – then splashed himself all over before lathering up with his mum’s Camay, utilising his abundant pubic hair as an impromptu soap-pad. For the rinse he dragged a towel down from the rail to stand upon, so that he wouldn’t soak the bathroom carpet, leaning forward so his genitals hung down into the white enamel basin while he scooped the water up and let it pour across his chest and belly, sluicing off the suds. He used a sponge to wash away the foam beneath his arms, then gave his legs and feet a mostly-soapless rubdown before drying off upon another, larger towel. He put his dressing gown back on, then took his dad’s old shaving brush and straight-edge razor down out of the bathroom cabinet.

The bristles – hog or badger hair, he’d never known for sure – were soft and soothing, slathering the white froth on his cheek. He stared into the bathroom mirror, met his own sad gaze, then drew the open razor in a line across the throat of his reflection, some two inches from the windpipe, gurgling mortally, rolling his eyes and sticking out his long and only slightly furry tongue. Ah ha ha ha.

He shaved, washing the blade clean underneath the cold tap and depositing a scum of tiny hairs around the basin’s tide-line. It was like a tea-leaf residue, but smaller, and he wondered if the future could be seen amongst the random specks. They always used to say down in the Boroughs how if, for example, you had tea-leaves that looked like a boat it meant a sea voyage was in store, only of course it never was. Putting away the shaving kit he patted dry his face and risked a palm-full of Old Spice. He’d thought the fruity smell was girlish when he’d slapped it on the first time as a teenager, but nowadays he liked it. It smelled like the ’Sixties. Looking in the glass at his clean-shaven face he gave a suave, matinee-idol smile and jiggled his thick eyebrows up and down suggestively, a sozzled gigolo attempting to seduce his own reflection. God, who’d want to wake up next to that, next to Ben Perrit and Ben Perrit’s nose? Not him, that was for sure. If Benedict had only got his looks to go on, he presumed that he’d be sunk. It was a stroke of luck, then, that he was a published poet too, on top of all his other charms and virtues.

He went back into his bedroom to get dressed, only remembering the fart when it was too late. Bugger. He pulled on his shirt and trousers breathing through his mouth, then grabbed his waistcoat and his shoes and bolted for the landing, finishing adjusting his apparel once he was outside the room and back in a terrestrial atmosphere. He wiped his watering eyes. By Christ, that was the kind that let you know as you were still alive.

He clopped downstairs. His mam, Eileen, was in the kitchen, hovering by the gas-stove, making sure his breakfast didn’t burn. She’d have begun it, scrambled eggs on toast, when she’d first heard him stumbling to the bathroom overhead. She pulled the grill-pan out an inch or two to check the tan on the sliced white, and poked at the yolk-coloured cumulus congealing in the saucepan with her wooden spoon. She glanced up at her son with old brown eyes that were as loving as they were reproachful, tucking in her jutting little chin, pursing her lips and tutting as if after all these years she was no wiser when it came to Benedict, or what to make of him.

“Good morning, Mother. May I say that you’re particularly radiant this morning? There’s some sons, you know, who wouldn’t be so gallant. Ah ha ha.”

“Yiss, and there’s some mothers as do ’ave ’em. ’Ere, come on and ’ave yer breakfast ’fore it’s cold.” Eileen retrieved the toast, skimmed it with marge and dumped the steaming, scrambled mass upon it, seemingly in one continuous movement. She pushed back a grey strand that had worked loose from her bun as she gave Benedict the plate and cutlery.

“There y’are. Don’t get it dayn yer shirt.”

“Mother, behave! Ah ha ha ha.”

He sat down at the kitchen table and began to wolf his way into what he perceived as necessary stomach-lining. He’d got no idea why everything he said came out as if it were a punchline or a previously unknown comic catchphrase. He’d been that way as far back as anyone remembered. Perhaps it was just that life was easier to get through if you thought of it as an unusually long instalment of The Clitheroe Kid.

He finished breakfast, swilled down with the cup of tea his mam had meanwhile made for him. He gulped the brew … I can’t talk now, I’m drinking … keeping one bright, hedgehog-baking Gypsy eye upon the coat pegs in the passage where his hat and neckerchief were waiting, while he sat there plotting his escape. Escape, though, except into poems or fond memories, was the one thing that Benedict had never been successful with. Before he’d set his empty teacup down into its saucer and commenced his dash for freedom, Eileen shot him down.

“Shall yer be lookin’ out fer work today, then?”

This was yet another aspect of the mornings, quite apart from thinking about death the moment you woke up, that Benedict found problematic. It was two things, actually, that he was largely unsuccessful with. Escape, and finding work. Of course, the biggest stumbling block he had with finding work was that he wasn’t looking, or not very hard, at any rate. It wasn’t all the actual work that put him off, it was the job: all the procedures and the people who came with it. He just didn’t think he had the heart to introduce himself to a collection of new faces, people who knew nothing about poetry or Freeschool Street and wouldn’t have a clue what Benedict was all about. He couldn’t do it, not at his age, not to strangers, not explain himself. To be completely frank, he never had been able to explain himself at any age, to anybody, or at least he’d never managed to explain to anybody’s satisfaction. Three things, then. Escape, and finding work, and then explaining himself adequately. It was just those areas he had trouble with. Everything else, he was all right about.

“I’m always looking. You know me. The eyes that never rest. Ah ha ha ha.”

His mother tipped her head to one side while regarding him, with fondness and bone-tired incomprehension at the same time.

“Ah, well. It’s a pity that yer eyes can’t pass the trick on to yer arse, in that case. ’Ere. ’Ere’s summat fer yer dinner. I expect I’ll see yer when yer get back in, if I’m still up.”

Eileen pressed ten Benson & Hedges and a ten-pound note into his hand. He beamed at her, as if it didn’t happen every morning.

“Woman, I could kiss yer.”

“Yiss, well, you do and you’ll get this.” This was his mam’s fist, thrust upwards like a haunted Aboriginal rock outcrop. Ben laughed, pocketing the tenner and the fags, then went into the hall. He fastened his burnt-orange neckerchief across the swallowed Carlsberg bottle of his Adam’s apple, squinting at the daylight filtered through the frosted panel by the front door and deciding it looked bright enough to leave his coat behind, though not so bright that he need bother taking his straw hat. His waistcoat looked like brothel curtains as it was. He didn’t want to over-do it.

He transferred the ciggies from his trouser pocket to his canvas satchel, where he’d also got some Kleenex tissues and an orange, with a copy of A Northamptonshire Garland edited by Trevor Hold and published by Northampton Libraries. It was just something he was dipping into at the moment, just to keep his hand in. Bag across one shoulder, Benedict called goodbye to his mam, drew in a fortifying breath before the hallway mirror and then, flinging wide the front door, he launched himself valiantly once more into the fray, and the frayed world it was conducted in.

Spit-coloured clouds moved over Tower Street, formerly the upper end of Scarletwell. The street had been renamed after the high-rise, Claremont Court, that blocked out half the western sky upon his right, one of two brick stakes hammered through the district’s undead heart. On recently refurbished crab-paste brickwork were the words or possibly the single word NEWLIFE, a sideways silver logo, more a label for a mobile phone or for an everlasting battery than for a tower block, he’d have thought. Benedict winced, attempting not to look at it. For the most part, he found it comforting to still reside in the beloved neighbourhood, except for those occasions when you noticed that the loved one had been dead for thirty years and was now decomposing. Then you felt a bit like someone from an item out of Fortean Times, one of those lovelorn and demented widowers still plumping up the pillows for a bride who’s long since mummified. Newlife: urban regeneration that they’d had to literally spell out because of its conspicuous absence otherwise. As if just bolting up the mirror-finish letters made it so. What had been wrong with all the old life, anyway?

He checked to see the door had locked behind him, with his mam now being on her own in there, and as he did he saw the big fat druggy with the bald head, Kenny something, lumbering down Simons Walk that ran along the end of Tower Street, at the back of Claremont Court. He had grey slacks and a grey sports-top on, which from a distance looked all of a piece, like one big romper suit, as if the dealer were an outsized baby who’d exceeded the safe dose of Calpol. Benedict pretended he’d not seen him, turning left and walking briskly up towards the street’s far end, a confluence of sunken walkways tucked away behind the traffic vortex of the Mayorhold. How could anybody get that fat on drugs, unless they ate them in a fried bread sandwich? Ah ha ha ha.

Yellow leaves were plastered in a partial lino on the wet macadam at his feet as he passed the Salvation Army building, a prefabricated barracks that he didn’t think he’d ever been inside. He doubted they went in for tambourines these days, much less free cups of tea and buns. The twentieth century had been a better time to be a washout. Back then poverty had come with a brass band accompaniment and a cheek full of scone dissolving in hot Brooke Bond; kindly bosoms heaving under navy blue serge and big golden buttons. Now it came with flint-eyed teenage death-camp supervisors in the no-hiding-place glare of the Job Centre, and whatever soundtrack happened to be playing in the shopping precinct outside, usually “I’m Not In Love”. The short street ended as it met the footpath to the underpass, where a high wall reared up to bound the robot shark tank of the Mayorhold. Patterned with a bar-code stripe of ochre, tangerine and umber, it was probably intended to provide a Latin atmosphere, whereas instead it looked like an attack of vomiting restaged in Lego. Benedict stopped walking for a moment so that he could take it in, the ground where he was standing, with its full historical enormity.

For one thing, it was near here that one of his father’s favourite pubs had been, the Jolly Smokers, although this was by no means the full extent of the locale’s historic pedigree. This spot was where Northampton’s first ‘Gilhalda’ or Town Hall had stood back in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, at least according to historian Henry Lee. Richard the Second had declared it in his charter as the place where all the bailiffs and the mayor were situated. Bailiffs were still seen down here from time to time, though mayors less often these days. Late on in the thirteen-hundreds all the wealth and power had shifted to the east side of the town, and a new Guildhall had been raised down at the foot of Abington Street, near where Caffè Nero stood today. That was the point from which you could most likely date the area’s decline: for more than seven hundred years the Boroughs had been going steadily downhill. It was a long hill, evidently, though as he stood there regarding the emetic tile-work Benedict believed the bottom was at last in sight.

Although the first Town Hall had been located here, that wasn’t why the former town square had been named the Mayorhold, or not as Ben understood things, anyway. His theory was that this had happened later, in the 1490s, at a time when Parliament had placed Northampton under the control of an all-powerful mayor and council made up of four dozen wealthy buggers, sorry matron, wealthy burghers that they called the Forty-Eight. Benedict thought that this was when the people of the Boroughs, like the folk of nearby Leicester, had begun their grand tradition of electing a joke mayor, to take the piss out of the processes of government from which they’d been excluded. They’d hold mock elections in the square here, hence the name, and would award a literal tin-pot chain of office made from a pot lid to whoever they’d randomly appointed, often somebody half cut, half sharp, half missing from a war wound, or, in extreme cases, all of the above. Benedict had a notion that his own paternal grandfather, Bill Perrit, had been one such appointee, but that was based on no more than the old man’s nickname, which had been “the Sheriff”, and the fact that he’d sit there all day blind drunk outside the Mayorhold Mission in an old wheelbarrow that he treated like a throne. Benedict wondered briefly if he could claim office based upon being descended from the Sheriff and on living where the first Town Hall had stood? He fancied himself as a Titchbourne Claimant, as a Great Pretender, one of those who’d put more forethought into getting crowns on heads than keeping heads on shoulders. Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck and Benedict Perrit. Names to conjure with. Ah ha ha ha.

He turned along the sunken footpath, with ahead of him the steps that led up to the corner where the upper end of Bath Street met the top of Horsemarket. Even from this low vantage he could see the higher storeys of both tower-blocks, Claremont Court and Beaumont Court, where they poked up above the Spanish-omelette tiling of the dyke wall hulking on his right. The towers, for Benedict, had always marked the real end of the Boroughs, that rich, thousand-year-long saga that had been concluded with these overly-emphatic double exclamation marks. Newlife. It made you want to spew. Two or three years back there’d been calls to tear the barely-habitable monsters down, acknowledgements that they should never have been put up in the first place. Benedict had briefly thought he might outlive the bullying, oppressive oblongs, but then Bedford Housing had made some deal with the Council – still four dozen of the wealthy buggers, still the Forty-Eight after five centuries – and purchased both blocks for what was reputedly a penny each. The urine-scented ugly sisters had been tarted up and then turned out, supposedly, as fit accommodation for “Key Workers” that it seemed Northampton needed, mostly siren-jockeys: nurses, firemen, policemen and the like. Newlife. New life that had been parachuted in, in order to contain the previous inhabitants when they got sick or stabbed or set themselves on fire. As things worked out, though, what the tower blocks had been filled with was a stream of human leftovers … outpatients, crack-heads, refugees … not obviously different to the people who’d been living there before.

The leftie Roman Thompson from St. Andrew’s Street had once shown him a list of Bedford Housing’s board, which had included former Labour councillor James Cockie in the roster. This might possibly explain the penny price tags. Benedict turned left before he reached the steps to Bath Street corner, taking the pedestrian tunnel under Horsemarket that was sign-posted for town centre. Here the bilious orange-brown mosaic was all round him, rising to the arched roof of the tunnel where dim sodium lights at intervals emitted their unhelpful amber glow.

Ben’s gangling, insufficiently-lit shape sloped through the queasy catacomb that seemed to rustle with the ghosts of future murders. An abandoned shopping trolley rolled towards him menacingly for perhaps a foot, but then thought better of it, creaking to a sullen standstill. Only when he passed beneath a ceiling-lamp did his heroically-proportioned features or his tired, resigned smile flare into existence, like a head-and-shoulders sketch by Boz that somebody had put a match to. The unwelcome thought of Councillor Jim Cockie, possibly in combination with these subterranean surroundings, would appear to have unlocked a previously forgotten dream in which the councillor had featured, which Ben suddenly remembered from the night before, if only as a fuzzy string of cryptic fragments.

He’d been wandering through the generic terraces of elderly red brick and railway-arch-bound wastelands that appeared to be the default setting for his dreams. Somewhere within this eerie and familiar landscape there had been a house, a teetering old Boroughs house with stairs and passageways that never quite made sense. The streets were dark. It was the middle of the night. He’d known that family or friends were waiting for him in the building’s cellar, but he’d suffered all the usual dream-frustrations finding his way in, picking his way apologetically through other people’s flats and bathrooms, navigating laundry-chutes that were part-blocked by antique wooden desks he recognised from Spring Lane School. At last he’d reached a kind of boiler-room or basement that had blood and straw and sawdust on the floor, as if the space had been used as a slaughterhouse just recently. There was an atmosphere of squalid horror, yet this was somehow connected to his childhood and was almost comforting. He’d then become aware that Councillor Jim Cockie, someone that he barely knew, was standing in the gory cellar next to him, a corpulent, bespectacled and white-haired form dressed only in his underpants, his face a mask of dread. He’d said “This place is all I dream about. Do you know the way out?” Ben had felt disinclined to help the frightened man, one of that Forty-Eight who had historically destroyed the Boroughs, and had answered only “Ah ha ha. I’m trying to get further in.” At this point, Benedict had woken from what still seemed like somebody else’s nightmare. He emerged out of the tunnel, shaking off the bad dreams with the darkness of the underpass, and puffed up the steep gradient to Silver Street.

Across the other side of the dual carriageway that Silver Street now was, there rose the five-floor municipal car park, red and mustard yellow like spilled condiments. Somewhere beneath its stale Battenberg mass, Benedict knew, were all the shops and yards that had once backed onto the Mayorhold. There’d be Botterill’s the newsagent’s, the butcher’s, Phyllis Malin’s barbershop, the green and white façade of the Co-operative Society, Built 1919, Branch Number 11. There’d be the grim public toilets on the corner that his mam and dad had for some reason known as Georgie Bumble’s Office, and there’d be the fish and chip shop and Electric Light Working Men’s Club in Bearward Street and fifty other sites of interest ground to an undifferentiated dust beneath the weight of four-by-fours and Chavercrafts now piled above. The backside of the old Fish Market stood upon his right, itself erected on the synagogue attended by the silversmiths who’d lent the street its name. He added stars of David in a glittering filigree to the imaginary landfill languishing beneath the multi-storey motor show. Ford Transit Gloria Mundi. Ah ha ha ha.

Growing from the brick wall near the Chinese restaurant where Silver Street joined Sheep Street was a solitary wildflower, mauve and flimsy like a mallow though he didn’t think it could be. From the pallid institution green of its limp stem stood gooseberry hairs, almost too fine to be distinguished by the adult eye. Whatever its variety, it was of humble, prehistoric stock, like Benedict himself. However delicate and dangling it seemed, it had pushed through the mortar of the modern world, asserted itself ineradicably in the face of a deflowered and drab MacCentury. He knew it wasn’t much of a poetic insight, not if you compared it to “The force that through the green fuse drives …”, but then these days he’d take his inspirations where he found them, like his wildflowers. Turning into Sheep Street he made for the Bear, where he intended to take up once more the burden of his daily challenge, which was trying to get hammered for a tenner.

Loud despite the relatively small number of customers that time of day, the Bear was simmering in sound from its own fruit machines: electric fairy-wand glissandos and the squelch of crazy frogs. Luminous tessellations rearranged themselves in the blurred corners of his vision, golds and reds and purples, an Arabian Nights palette. He remembered when a morning bar-room was a place of careful hush and milky light decanted through net curtains, not so much as a triumphal click out of the dominos.

The barman was a young chap half Ben’s age, a lad he vaguely recognised but whom he nonetheless addressed as “Ah ha ha. Hello, me old pal, me old beauty”, this delivered in a fair approximation of the voice associated once with now-forgotten Archers mainstay Walter Gabriel, neatly camouflaging, as he thought, the fact that he’d forgotten the bloke’s name.

“Hello there, Benedict. What can I get you?”

Ben looked round appraisingly at the establishment’s half-dozen other clients, motionless upon their stools like ugly novelty-set chessmen, sidelined and morose.

He cleared his throat theatrically before he spoke.

“Who’ll buy a pint of bitter for a published poet and a national treasure? Ah ha ha.”

Nobody looked up. One or two half-smiled but they were a distinct minority. Oh well. Sometimes it worked, if there was someone in who knew him, say Dave Turvey hunched up gentlemanly in one corner with his feathered hat on, looking like an autumn day in the bohemian quarter of Dodge City, somebody like that. On this particular Bad Friday morning, though, Dave’s usual seat was empty, and with great reluctance Ben dredged up the ten-pound note out of his pocket to deposit on the bar, as a down payment on the pint of John Smith’s that he one day hoped to call his own. Farewell, then, sepia Darwin. Farewell green and crimson 3D hummingbird transfixed by swirling patterns in the Hypnoscope. Farewell, my crumpled little friend of this half-hour now gone for good. I hardly knew ye. Ah ha ha.

Once served, he let himself be drawn into the plush curve of the side-seats, taking with him in one hand his filmy, frosted fistful, getting on eight quid in change balled in the other. Hello to slate-blue Elizth. Fry and what looked like a nineteenth-century battered woman’s refuge except for the disapproving spectre of John Lennon, sneering from the left of frame. This was quite possibly a fancy-dress campaigner representing Dads For Justice. With the fiver were two pound coins and some shrapnel. Grimacing, he shook his head. It wasn’t just that Benedict missed the old money, all the farthings, half-crowns, florins, tanners, though of course he did. But what he missed more, though, was being able to refer to pre-decimal coinage without sounding like an old dear who’d confused her bus pass with her kidney donor card. He was surprisingly self-conscious on the subject of self-parody.

He swigged the first half of his pint, plunging indulgently in the olfactory swim of memory and association, cheese and pickled onions, Park Drive packs of five pink in a green pub ashtray, standing next to his old man at the Black Lion’s diseased and possibly Precambrian urinal trough with a six-year-old’s sense of privilege. The rapidly successive mouthfuls were diluted gulps of vanished fields, the high-tech recreation of fondly imagined but extinct rusticity. He put down the half-empty glass, trying to kid himself that it was still half full, and wiped almost four decades of oral tradition from his smacking lips onto his pinstripe cuff.

He lifted up the canvas satchel’s flap, where it was set on the warm cushioning beside him, and pulled out A Northamptonshire Garland from within. Lacking Dave Turvey and a poetry discussion with the living, Benedict thought that he might as well strike up a conversation with the dead. The cheap and chunky hardback came out of the bag with its rear cover uppermost. In an ornate gold frame against a deep red background rubbed with cobblers’ wax was Thomas Grimshaw’s 1840s portrait of John Clare. The picture never looked quite right to Benedict, especially the outsized moonrise of the brow. If not for the brown topiary of hair and whisker fringing the great oval, it might be a man’s face painted on an Easter egg. A Humpty Dumpty with his mess of yolk and shell spread on the lawns of Andrew’s Hospital, and no one there to put him back together.

Clare stood posed uncomfortably before a non-specific rural blur, a leafy lane at Helpston, Glinton, anywhere, just after sunset or conceivably just prior to dawn, one thumb hooked statesmanlike upon his coat’s lapel. He looked off to the right, turning towards the shadows with a faintly worried smile, the corners of the mouth twitched up in an uncertain greeting, with the slightest wince of apprehension already apparent in those disappointed eyes. Was that, Benedict wondered, where he’d got it from, his own characteristically amused, forlorn expression? There were similarities, he fancied, between him and his enduring lifelong hero. John Clare had a fair old beak on him, not wholly different from Ben’s own, at least to judge from Grimshaw’s portrait. There were the sad eyes, the faltering smile, even the neckerchief. If someone were only to shave Ben’s head and feed him up a bit, he could be stepping out of the dry ice fumes on Stars In Their Eyes, one thumb snagged in his jacket, madhouse burrs caught in his sideburns. Tonight, Matthew, I will be the peasant poet. Ah ha ha.

Beneath the owlish likeness in the cover’s lower right was pasted a discoloured slug, fired from a price-gun fifteen years ago: VOLUME1 BOOKSHOPS, £6.00. To his consternation, for a moment Benedict could not even remember quite where VOLUME1 had been located. Had that been where Waterstone’s was now? There’d been that many bookshops in Northampton once, you’d be hard pressed to get around them all within a single day; mostly become estate agents and wine-bars. In Ben’s youth, even big stores like Adnitt’s had their book departments. There’d been trays of one-and-thrupenny paperbacks in both the upper and the lower branch of Woolworth’s, and there’d been a rash of second-hand dives shading into junkshops with invariably consumptive elderly proprietors, with yellow-covered 1960s pornographic classics glimpsed through dusty glass in unlit windows. Jaundiced Aubrey Beardsley nudes enrobed with Technicolor slapped Hank Janson sluts, a bit of sauce to liven up the casserole of Dennis Wheatley, Simenon and Alistair MacLean. Those grubby, spittle-lacquered archives, where had they all gone?

He raised his glass for a commemorative sip, a sip being approximately half a gill with eight sips to the pint. Taking the pack of Bensons and a street-bought three-for-a-quid lighter from his shoulder bag he gripped one of the cigarettes between eternally-wry lips, lighting it with the stick of liquid-centred amethyst. Ben squinted through the first blue puffs of smoke across the lounge bar. This had filled up, although not with anyone he recognised. Off somewhere to his left, a burbling audial cascade of virtual coins was punctuated with stabs from a science-fiction zither. Sighing non-specifically, he opened the anthology of local poets to its John Clare section, where he hoped that “Clock-a-Clay”, written from the perspective of a ladybird, might prove an antidote to the contemporary flash and jangle that he felt so alienated from. The miniaturist imagery was certainly transporting, though disastrously he couldn’t help but read on to the poem that was reproduced immediately after, which was Clare’s asylum-penned “I Am”.

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

Even the dearest that I loved the best

Are strange – nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

That was entirely too close to the nerve, instantly sinking Benedict’s half-decent mood, already holed below its waterline. He shoved the book back in his satchel, downing the three sips remaining in his pint and purchasing another one before he knew he’d done it. This relieved him of his small-change buffer and exposed his queen, Elizth. Fry, precariously. Her rainy turquoise eyes stared out of the remaining note into his own, with something of his mother’s look of worried resignation when she gazed appraisingly on Ben and Ben’s unjustly punished liver.

The next thing he knew, it was mid-day. He was emerging from the narrow barroom of the Shipman’s, basically a passageway that had a pub where most people have coatpegs, into Drum Lane. Down the alley on his right he could see All Saints’ Church across the road, with on his left the waning bustle of the Market Square. Elizth. Fry, apparently, had left him for another man, most probably a landlord. He lugubriously noted that he still had custody of several little ones, silver and copper orphans to the sum of eighty-seven pence. A bubbling protest from his long-drowned instincts for self-preservation told him he should probably invest this in a pasty. Turning right he made his way down the perpetual shadow-channel of Drum Lane, towards the bakery opposite All Saints’ in Mercer’s Row.

Ten minutes later he was swallowing the last of what he thought was more than likely lunch, tongue probing optimistically in the mysterious ditches of his mouth for any lingering mince, tenacious pastry or recalcitrant potato. Blotting his lips in what he thought might well be the manner of a nineteenth-century dandy on the serviette the snack had come with, Benedict screwed up the tissue with its gravy kiss-print, dropping it into one of the litter bins in Abington Street, which he’d by now reached and was ascending. He was roughly level with the photographic shop close to the mouth of the most recent shopping arcade, Peacock Place. This crystal palace had taken the place of Peacock Way, an open precinct leading to the Market that had cake-shops and cafés where he’d munch gloomily through teenage comfort teacakes, mooning over whichever heart-stopping Notre Dame or Derngate schoolgirl had just told Ben that she liked him as a friend. Originally, this had been the Peacock Hotel, inn or coach-house for five hundred years. People still talked about the lovely stained-glass peacock, one of the establishment’s interior decorations, which had more than likely fallen prey to salvage men during the hotel’s senseless demolition in November 1959. Up on the glasswork of the arcade’s entrance these days was a pallid stick-on imitation, stylised craft-kit product from an overpaid design team.

Passing Jessop’s, the photography equipment shop, he wondered if they still had Pete Corr’s photograph of Benedict, framed and for sale up on their wall. Corr was a local shutterbug now married, living somewhere out in Canada by all accounts, under the mock-Dutch moniker of Piet de Snapp. Formerly just plain Pete the Snap, he’d specialised in portraits of the town’s outlandish fauna: Ben’s old Spring Lane schoolmate Alma Warren, posing moodily in sunglasses and leather jacket, mutton dressed up as Olivia Newton-John; the Jovian mass and gravity of much-missed local minstrel-god Tom Hall in customary daywear, individually-engineered playschool pyjamas and a tasselled hat swiped from the Ottomans; Benedict Perrit sat in state amongst the snaking roots of the eight-hundred-year-old beech in Sheep Street, smiling ruefully. As if there were another way to smile. Ah ha ha ha.

He carried on through Abington Street’s pink, pedestrianised meander. Without curbs to bound and shape all the frenetic motion that had poured along this main drag for at least five hundred years, it seemed as if these days the street mainly attracted those who were themselves similarly unfocussed and directionless. As Benedict himself was, come to think of it. He’d no idea where he thought he was going, not with only twenty-seven pence remaining in the wake of his impulsive pasty, gone now save for the occasional flavour-haunted burp. Perhaps a long walk up the Wellingborough Road to Abington would do him good, or would at any rate not cost him anything.

Continuing uphill, pleasantly numbed against existence in a warm cocooning fog, the entrance to the Grosvenor Centre crawled past on his left. He tried to conjure the thin mouth of Wood Street, which had occupied the spot some thirty years before, but found his powers of evocation blunted by the beer. The half-forgotten terraced aperture was too feeble a spectre to prevail against the glass wall of swing doors, the sparkling covered boulevard beyond where the somnambulists somnambled, lit like ornamental crystal animals by the commercial aura-fields they passed through. Everyone looked decorative in the all-round illumination. Everyone looked brittle.

Twenty-seven pence. He wasn’t even sure that would still buy a Mars Bar, though he could still savour the self-pity. Benedict picked up his pace a little passing by top Woolworth’s, these days more precisely only Woolworth’s, hoping the increased velocity would straighten out his veer. He gave this up for lack of a result after approximately thirty seconds, lapsing to a melancholy trudge. What was the point in walking faster when he wasn’t going anywhere? More speed would only bring him to his problems quicker, and in his state might lead inadvertently to crossing the blurred line between a drunken stumble and a drunken rampage. The unbidden vision of Ben gone berserk in Marks & Spencer’s, running nude and screaming through a hail of melting-middle chocolate puddings, should have been a sobering one but only made him giggle to himself. The giggling didn’t help, he realised, with his tactic of not looking pissed. This still made only four things he was useless at, namely escape, finding a job, explaining himself adequately and not looking pissed. Four trivial deficiencies, Ben reassured himself, and as naught in the sweep of a man’s life.

He tacked against the east wind, chortling only intermittently as he traversed the wide-angle Art Deco front of the Co-op Arcade, abandoned and deserted, windows emptied of displays that stared unseeing, still stunned by the news of their redundancy. The retail parks outside the town had drained the commerce from Northampton’s centre, which had been an increasingly ugly proposition for some years now, anyway. Rather than try to stop the rot, the council had allowed the town’s main veins to atrophy and wither. Spinadisc, the long-established independent record shop that Benedict was now approaching on the street’s far side, had been closed down to make way for a rehab centre, something of that kind. Predictably, there were considerably less substance-users on the premises now that the music and ephemera were gone.

Around the public seating outside the dead jukebox of the former pop emporium, small crowds of black-clad teenagers still congregated in school holidays and at weekends. Ben thought they might be skate-goths or gangsta-romantics. Happy-stabbers or whatever. He had difficulty keeping up. Shifting his doleful gaze from the murder of hoodies flocked on Abington Street’s further edge, he looked back to the side along which he was walking. A vague drift of people flowed towards him past the still-magnificent façade of the town library, and there came a synaptic jolt, a minor judder and resettling of reality as Benedict realised that one of them was Alma Warren. Ah ha ha.

Alma. She always took him back, a walking memory-prompt of all the years they’d known each other, since they’d been together in Miss Corrier’s class at Spring Lane School when they were four. Even back then, you’d never have confused her with a girl. Or with a boy, for that matter. She was too big, too single minded, too alarming to be anything but Alma, in a gender of her own. Both of them sideshow novelties in their own ways, they’d been inseparable throughout long stretches of childhood and adolescence. Winter evenings shivering in the attic up above the barn in his dad’s wood-yard down in Freeschool Street, Ben’s telescope poking into the starlight through an absent windowpane when they were both on flying saucer watch. The tricky post-pubertal stretch when he began his poetry and she her painting, and when Alma would get furiously angry and stop speaking to him every other fortnight, over their artistic differences as she insisted, but most probably when she’d just fallen to the communists. They’d both made idiots of themselves in the same pubs, in the same stencil-duplicated arts-group magazines, but then she’d somehow managed to talk up her monomania into a prosperous career and reputation, while Ben hadn’t. Now he didn’t run into her much, nobody did, except upon occasions such as this when she came flouncing into town dressed like a biker or, if she were wearing her pretentious cloak, a fifteenth-century nun who’d been defrocked for masturbation, more rings underneath her eyes than on her ostentatiously embellished fingers.

These were currently raised up in an arterial spatter of nail gloss and gemstones, pulling the distressed fire-curtain of her hair back from the pantomime that was her face. Her kohl-ringed and apparently disdainful gaze described a measured arc across the precinct as if Alma were pretending to be a surveillance camera, dredging Abington Street’s fast-deteriorating stock of imagery in search of inspiration for some future monsterpiece. When the slow swivel of her so-unblinking-they-seemed-lidless fog lamps got to Benedict, there was an anthracite glint suddenly alight deep in the makeup-crusted sockets. Carmine lips drew taut into a smile most probably intended to look fond rather than predatory. Ah ha ha ha. Good old Alma.

Benedict went into a routine the moment that their eyes met, first adopting an expression of appalled dismay then turning sharply in his tracks to walk away down Abington Street, as if frantically pretending that he hadn’t seen her. He turned this into a circular trajectory that took him back towards her, this time doubling up with silent laughter so she’d know his terrified attempt at flight had been a gag. He wouldn’t want her thinking he was really trying to run away, not least in case she went for him and brought him down before he’d got five paces.

Their paths met outside the library portico. He stuck his hand out, but Alma surprised him with a sudden lunge, planting a bloody pucker on his cheek, spraining his neck with her brief one-armed hug. This was some affectation, he concluded, that she’d picked up from Americans with galleries who put on exhibitions. Exhibitionists. She hadn’t learned it in the Boroughs, of that Benedict was certain. In the district where they’d both grown up, affectionate displays were never physical. Or verbal, or in any way apparent to the five traditional senses. Love and friendship in the Boroughs were subliminal. He flinched back from her, wiping at his stained cheek with the back of one long-fingered hand like an embarrassed cat.

“Get off! Ah ha ha ha ha ha!”

Alma grinned, apparently pleased at just how easily she had unsettled him. She ducked her head and leaned a little forward when she spoke, as if to best facilitate their conversation, although really she was just reminding him how tall she was, the way she did with everyone. It was one of what only Alma thought of as her range of subtly intimidating mannerisms.

“Benedict, you suave Lothario. This is an unexpected treat. How’s things? Are you still writing?”

Alma’s voice wasn’t just deep brown, it was infra-brown. Ben laughed at her query on his output, at the sheer preposterousness of her even asking.

“Always, Alma. You know me. Ah ha ha. Always scribbling away.”

He’d not written a line in years. He was a published poet in the transitive and not the current sense. He wasn’t sure that he was any sort of poet in the current sense, that was his secret dread. Alma was nodding amiably now, pleased with his answer.

“Good. That’s good to hear. I was just reading ‘Clearance Area’ the other day and thinking what a smashing poem it was.”

Hum. “Clearance Area”. He’d been quite pleased with that himself. “Who can say now/ That anything was here/ Other than open land/ Used only by stray dogs/ And children breaking bottles on stones?” With a start he realised that had been almost two decades back, those writings. “Weeds, stray dogs and children/ Waited patiently/ For them to leave./ The weed beneath;/ The dog and child/ Unborn inside.” He tipped his head back, unsure how he should receive the compliment except with an uncertain smile, as if expecting her at any moment to retract her praise, expose it for the cruel post-modern joke it doubtless was. Eventually, he risked a tentative response.

“I weren’t bad, was I? Ah ha ha.”

He’d meant to say It weren’t bad, as a reference to the poem, but it had come out wrong. Now it sounded as though Benedict thought of himself in the past tense, which wasn’t what he’d meant at all. At least, he didn’t think that it was what he’d meant. Alma was frowning now, it seemed reproachfully.

“Ben, you were always a considerable way beyond ‘not bad’. You know you were. You’re a good writer, mate. I’m serious.”

This last was offered in reply to Benedict’s plainly embarrassed giggling. He really didn’t know what he should say. Alma was at least Z-list famous and successful, and Ben couldn’t help but feel as though in some way he were being patronised. It was as if she thought that a kind word from her could mend him, could inspire him, raise him from the dead and make him whole with just the least brush of her hem. She acted as though all his problems could be solved if he were just to write, which only showed, in Benedict’s opinion, just how shallow Alma’s understanding of his problems really was. Did she have any idea, standing there with all her money and her write-ups in The Independent, what it was like having only twenty-seven pence? Well, actually, of course she did. She’d come from the same background he had, so that wasn’t fair, but even so. The troubling notion of his present finances, or at least relative to Alma’s, had bobbed up from the beer sediments currently settled at the bottom of Ben’s mind, and wouldn’t bob back down again. Before he even knew that he was going to do it, he’d broken the habit of a lifetime and tapped Alma up for cash.

“ ’Ere, you ain’t got a couple o’ quid spare, ’ave yer?”

It felt wrong as soon as the words left his mouth, a terrible transgression. He immediately wished that he could take it back, but it was too late. Now it was in Alma’s hands, and she would almost certainly find some way she could make it worse. Surprised, her flue-brush lashes widened almost imperceptibly, but she recovered with a deadpan look of generalised concern.

“Of course I have. I’m fucking loaded. Here.”

She pulled a note … a note … out of her drainpipe jeans and, pointedly not looking to determine its denomination, pressed it hard into Ben’s open palm. See, this was what he’d meant, about how Alma always made things more uncomfortable, but in a manner that obliged you to be grateful to her. Since she hadn’t looked to see how much cash she was giving him, Ben felt that it would be déclassé for him to do otherwise, slipping the crumpled note without a glance into his trouser pocket. He was feeling genuinely guilty now. The centres of his beetling eyebrows had crept up involuntarily towards his widow’s peak as he protested her undue beneficence.

“Are you sure, Alma? Are you sure?”

She grinned, dismissing the uneasy moment.

“ ’Course I’m sure. Forget it. How are you, mate, anyway? What are you doing these days?”

Benedict was grateful for the change of subject, though it left him grasping hopelessly for something that he could legitimately claim he’d done.

“Oh, this and that. Went for an interview the other day.”

Alma looked interested, although only politely so.

“Oh yeah? How did it go?”

“I don’t know. I’ve not heard yet. When they interviewed me, I kept wanting to come out and tell them ‘I’m a published poet’, but I held it in.”

Alma was trying to nod sagely, but was also clearly trying not to laugh, with the result that neither effort was what you’d call an unqualified success.

“You did the right thing. There’s a time and place for everything.” She cocked her head on one side, narrowing her black bird-eating eyes as if she’d just remembered something.

“Listen, Ben, I’ve just thought. There’s these paintings I’ve been doing, all about the Boroughs, and I’m having a preliminary viewing of them down at Castle Hill tomorrow lunchtime, in the nursery that used to be Pitt-Draffen’s dance school. Why don’t you come down? It’d be great to see you.”

“Perhaps I will. Perhaps I will. Ah ha ha ha.” Deep in his bitter-sodden heart, he knew he almost definitely wouldn’t. To be honest he was barely listening to her, still trying to think of things he’d done, beside the interview, that he could mention. Suddenly he thought about his visits to the cyber café and perked up. Alma was widely known to never venture near the Internet, which meant, astoundingly, that here was someone who, at least in this one area, was less adapted to the present day than Benedict. He beamed at her, triumphantly.

“Do you know, I’ve been going on the Internet?” He ran one preening hand back over his dark curls, while with the other he adjusted an imaginary bow tie.

Alma was now laughing openly. By mutual consent they seemed to both be disengaging from the conversation, starting to move slowly off, him uphill, Alma down. It was as if they’d come to the predestined end of their encounter and must both now walk away, whether they’d finished talking yet or not. They had to hurry if they wanted to remain on schedule, occupying all the empty spaces in their futures they had yet to fill, all at the proper predetermined times. Still visibly amused, she called back to him over the increasing gap between them.

“You’re a twenty-first-century boy, Ben.”

Laughter tipped his head back like a well-slapped punch-bag. Several paces off, he was half turned away from her, towards the upper end of Abington Street.

“I’m a Cyberman. Ah ha ha ha.”

Their brief knot of hilarity and mutual incomprehension was unravelled into two loose, snickering ends that trailed away in opposite directions. Benedict had reached the precinct’s topmost limit and was crossing York Road at the lights before he thought to reach into his pocket and retrieve the screwed-up currency that Alma had bequeathed him. Pink and plum and violet, the note sported a blue angel from whose trumpet fell a radiating shower of notes. Worcester Cathedral was bombarded by them in a joyous cosmic ray-storm, St. Cecilia reclining in the foreground as she soaked up the UV. A twenty. Welcome to my humble pants, Sir Edward Elgar. We’ve been only fleetingly acquainted previously, and you wouldn’t remember, but can I just say that The Dream of Gerontius is an outstanding work of pastoral vision? Ah ha ha.

This was a gift from God. Thanks, God, and do pass on my thanks to Alma who you’ve clearly made your representative on Earth. I hope to God that … well, I hope to You that you know what you’re doing there on that one, so be warned. But still, this was fantastic. He resolved he’d take his healthy walk up Wellingborough Road to Abington Park anyway, despite the fact that he no longer needed to, having sufficient funds to dally where he wanted. Benedict could dally with a vengeance when the mood was on him, but for now he stuffed the note back in his pocket and began to whistle as he walked towards Abington Square, only relenting when he realised he was giving a rendition of the theme music from Emmerdale. Luckily, nobody seemed to have noticed.

This had once been the east gate of the town, the strip that Benedict was pacing now, what they’d called Edmund’s End back in the eighteen-hundreds, named after St. Edmund’s Church, which had been slightly further out along the Wellingborough Road until it was pulled down a quarter century ago. Ben liked the buildings here, on the approach to the main square itself, if one ignored the tawdry transformations of their lower storeys. Just across the road there was the gorgeous 1930s cinema, at different times the ABC or the Savoy. He’d been himself a dead shot with a flicked ice-lolly stick at matinees, although he’d never once had someone’s eye out despite all the warnings to the contrary. These days, like getting on a quarter or a third of the town’s major properties, the place was owned by a commune of Evangelicals known as the Jesus Army, who had started out as a small nest of rescued derelicts in nearby Bugbrooke and then spread like happy clappy bindweed, until you could find their rainbow-liveried buses organising tramp-grabs almost anywhere in middle England. Still, it wasn’t like Northampton and religious mania had been strangers to each other in the past. Benedict sauntered on towards Abington Square, reflecting that the last time that these parts had seen a Jesus Army it was Cromwell’s, and instead of pamphlets they’d been waving pikes. It was a kind of progress, Ben supposed.

The square looked almost handsome in the light of early afternoon, unless you’d known it in its youth and could make the painful comparison. The slipper factory had gone in favour of a Jaguar showroom called Guy Salmon. The old Irish Centre had been turned into the Urban Tiger. Benedict had never been inside the venue since the name change. He pictured the clientele as ranks of angry Tamils learning martial arts.

Charles Bradlaugh stood there dazzling white upon his plinth, directing traffic. It had never looked to Benedict as though the great teetotal atheist and equal rights campaigner was just pointing westwards, more as if he was in a saloon bar trying to start a fight. Yeah, that’s right. You. Fuck features. Who’d you think I’m pointing at? Ah ha ha ha. Ben passed the statue on his left, with on his right an uninviting new pub named the Workhouse. Ben saw what they’d done there: further up the Wellingborough Road, across from the wall-bounded space where Edmund’s Church once stood was what remained of Edmund’s Hospital, which in Victorian times had been Northampton’s workhouse. It was like putting a theme pub called the Whipping Post in a black neighbourhood, or Eichmann’s in a Jewish one. A touch insensitive.

Ben found that he was travelling at quite a pace, even against the wuthering headwind. In what seemed like only moments the abandoned hulk of Edmund’s Hospital itself loomed up on his left side, a haunted palace smothered in a creep of weeds, its smashed eyes filled with ghosts. Ghosts, and if rumours were to be believed, with failed asylum seekers, refugees who’d been denied that status and had chosen to camp out in former terminal wards rather than risk being sent home to whatever despot or electrode-happy strongman they were fleeing in the first place. Home is where the hurt is, that was very true. It struck him that the workhouse, though dilapidated, must feel blessed in its old age. It had its huddled, frightened outcasts back, could take a secret comfort from their secret fires.

There on the other side, across the wall he was now walking past, was the palpable absence of St. Edmund’s Church, an empty yawn of green with intermittent tombstones jutting, carious, discoloured, suffering from built-up birdshit plaque, the green and grassy gums beginning to recede. Upon the plus side, Benedict could make out lark song underneath the grumble of the main road’s traffic, bubbling notes erupting in a brilliant effervescence to distract cats from the fledglings hidden low down in the graveyard grass. It was a nice day. The eternal was still there, a promising suggestive bulge concealed behind the present’s threadbare drapes.

Heading on eastwards out of town along the strip of pubs and shops, he thought of Alma. At the age of seventeen she’d been a glaring giant schoolgirl up at the Girl’s Grammar, giving the impression her resentment was occasioned by the fact that she was really twenty-nine and couldn’t find a uniform that fit her. She’d been involved in an arty student magazine called Androgyne, providing wonky stencil illustrations for a curate’s egg of fifth-form verses. Benedict had been at the Boy’s Grammar School by that time, and despite the distance that there was between the two establishments, fraternization did occur. The two had seen each other now and then, and Alma, who’d been going through a period of lofty futurist disdain for Ben’s romanticism, had asked grudgingly if he might submit something to their alternately simpering and foul-mouthed rag.

Encouraged by this half-hearted solicitation, Benedict had written several movements of what had turned out to be an epic piece of juvenilia, only the shortest parts accepted by a clearly disappointed Alma, who dismissed the rest as being, in her critically mature opinion “fucking sentimental girly rubbish”. He was mortified to think that he could still remember the rejection, word for word, some thirty-five years later. At the time, with even less sense of proportion than he currently possessed, he’d been incensed and had resolved to patiently exact a terrible revenge. He’d take the off-cuts Alma had discarded from his poem cycle and he’d build them into a new edifice, a work to shudder the foundations of the ages. Then, when he was welcomed up to literary Olympus, he’d reveal that she had lacked the insight to appreciate his magnum opus and her reputation would be shot. She’d be a laughingstock and a pariah. That would learn her, her and all her Andy Warhol Bridget Riley migraine art. This grand endeavour would be a heartbroken hymn to conjure the departed world, the rustic landscape of John Clare, the golden-lighted lanes that Benedict was born too late to walk outside of reverie. He’d strung it out almost two years before he’d realised it was going nowhere and abandoned it. It had been called “Atlantis”.

Benedict glanced up to find that he was some way out along the Wellingborough Road from the last place he’d noticed, which had been the peeling shell of the Spread Eagle, on the corner past St. Edmund’s Hospital. Now he was getting on for Stimpson Avenue and that end, starting to think twice about his planned walk in the park, already feeling footsore. Clare, who’d hobbled eighty miles from Essex back home to Northamptonshire, would probably have laughed at him. They’d built their lyric nutters sturdier in his day. Ben thought he might wander round Abington Park some other time, contenting himself for the moment with a visit to the Crown & Cushion, a short distance further up the busy street. He’d only taken to the notion of a leafy stroll when there was nothing else to do, before he’d met with Alma, but now things were different. Now he had a business plan.

He’d not been in the Crown & Cushion for a while, although at one time, just after he’d broken up with Lily, it had been his regular dive. He supposed that his relationship with the pub’s clientele was at its best ambivalent, but then the place itself was somewhere he felt comfortable. Largely unchanged, the hostelry at least still traded under its historically appointed name, hadn’t become the Jolly Wanker or the Workhouse or the Vole & Astrolabe. Benedict could remember, with a twinge of mixed embarrassment and pride, how he’d once stormed into the bar demanding satisfaction when he’d felt his fellow drinkers weren’t taking his claim to be a published poet seriously. A poem of Ben’s had just been printed in the local Chronicle & Echo, and when he’d burst through the Crown & Cushion’s swing door like a piano-stopping gunfighter he’d thrown the thirty copies of the paper that he happened to be carrying into the air with a victorious cry of “There! Ah ha ha ha!” They’d naturally barred him on the spot, but that was years ago, and with a bit of luck that era’s staff and customers would all be dead or memory-impaired by now.

Even if not, traditionally the pub had always shown tremendous tolerance and even fondness for the various eccentrics passing through its portals. That was another reason why Ben liked the place, he thought as he pushed open its lounge door and stepped into the welcome gloom from the bright, squinting dazzle of the day outside. They’d had far worse than him in here. There was a story from back in the very early 1980s which insisted that the great Sir Malcolm Arnold, trumpeter and orchestral arranger of such hits as “Colonel Bogey”, had been living in the room above the Crown & Cushion’s bar, mentally ill and alcoholic, guest in some accounts, virtual prisoner in others, dragged down almost nightly for the entertainment of a drunken and abusive crowd. This was the man who’d written Tam O’ Shanter, that delirious accompaniment to Burns’ inebriated night-sweat, the carousing highland hero chased by a Wild Hunt of fairies through the brass and woodwind dark. This was Sir Malcolm Arnold, who Ben thought had once been the Director of the Queen’s Music, a musical equivalent to Poet Laureate, banging out tunes on the joanna for a herd of braying and pugnacious goons. Old and tormented, ambisextrous, in his early sixties then, who knew what imps and demons, djinns and tonics, might have been stampeding through his fevered skull, glistening with perspiration and tipped forward over pounding yellow ivories?

Benedict stood there just inside the door until his pupils had sufficiently dilated to locate the bar. The staff and decor, he observed, were new since his last visit. This was just as well, especially about the bar staff, since as far as Ben knew he’d done nothing to offend the decor. Some, of course, might not agree. Ah ha ha ha. Benedict stepped up to the rail and bought a pint of bitter, slapping down his twenty on the freshly wiped and moisture-beaded bar-top with a certain swagger. This was undercut, though, by his deep regret at having said goodbye to Elgar. Some of this regret was purely on Ben’s own account, but mixed with this there was a genuine concern about Sir Edward, an uneasiness at leaving the composer in the Crown & Cushion. Look at what they’d done to Malcolm Arnold.

Taking his glass to an empty table, of which there were an unseasonable number, Ben fleetingly entertained a morbid fantasy in which, as punishment for the newspaper incident, he was incarcerated here in the same way that Arnold had reputedly been held. Each night intoxicated thugs would burst into his room and herd him down to the saloon, where he’d be plied with spirits and made to recite his earnest and wept-over sonnets to a room of jeering philistines. It didn’t sound that bad, if he was honest. He’d had Friday nights like that, without even the benefit of being plied with drink. Now that he came to think about it, he’d had entire years like that. The stretch just after Lily told him he should find another billet, when he’d lived in a house broken into flats along Victoria Road, had been like Tam O’ Shanter playing on a loop for months. Arriving home at 3.00am without a key, demanding as a published poet that he be let in, then playing Dylan Thomas reading Under Milkwood at top volume on his Dansette until all the other residents were threatening to kill him. What had that been all about? Creeping downstairs to the communal kitchen one night and devouring four whole chicken dinners that the surly and abusive tattooed couple in the flat above had made for the next day, then waking up another of the building’s tenants so that he could tell them. “Ah ha ha! I’ve ate the bastards’ dinner!” Looking back, Ben realised he was lucky to have come through those dire days unlynched, and never mind unscathed.

He sipped his bitter and, taking advantage of the sunlight falling through the window that he sat beneath, removed A Northamptonshire Garland from his satchel and began to read. The first piece his eyes fell on was “The Angler’s Song”, a work by William Basse, seventeenth-century pastoral poet with disputed although likely origins here in the town.

As inward love breeds outward talk,

The hound some praise, and some the hawk,

Some, better pleased with private sport,

Use tennis, some a mistress court:

But these delights I neither wish,

Nor envy, while I freely fish.

Ben liked the poem, though he’d never really done much fishing since his first youthful attempts, which had involved the accidental hooking of another child during the back-swing when he’d cast off. He recalled the blood, the screams, and worst of all his total inability to keep from giggling inappropriately with shame during the subsequent first aid. That had been it for Benedict and fishing, pretty much, though he approved of it as an idea. Along with fauns and shepherdesses it was part of his Arcadian mythology, the angler drowsing by the stream, the riverine crawl of the afternoon, but like the shepherdesses it was something he’d had little practical experience of.

On reflection, that was probably why Ben had let “Atlantis” go unfinished all those years ago, the sense that it was inauthentic, that he had been barking up the wrong tree. When he’d started it, he’d been a schoolboy from a dark house down in Freeschool Street, deploring all the grimy factory yards the way that he thought John Clare would have done; lamenting the bucolic idyll that, in his imagination, the contemporary mean streets of the Boroughs had displaced. Only when those slate rooftops and tree-punctured chimney breasts had been themselves removed had come belated recognition that the narrow lanes were the endangered habitat he should have been commemorating. Bottle-caps, not bluebells. He’d thrown out his central metaphor, the droning, drowning hedgerows of a continent that he’d reported lost but in all truth had never really owned, and written “Clearance Area” instead. After the neighbourhood as Benedict had known it was no more, at last he’d found a voice that had been genuine and of the Boroughs. Looking back, he thought that later poem had been more about the bulldozed flats of his own disillusion than the demolition site his district had become, although perhaps the two were ultimately the same thing.

He lit a cigarette, noting that this left six still rattling loose in the depleted pack, and flipped on through the alphabetically arranged compendium, skipping past Clare this time to light on the inarguably authentic Boroughs voice of Philip Doddridge. Though the piece was called “Christ’s Message” and based on a passage from the Book of Luke it was essentially the text of Doddridge’s most celebrated hymn: “Hark the glad sound! The Saviour comes!/ The Saviour promised long!” Benedict liked the exclamation marks, which seemed to couch the second coming as a gravel-throated trailer for a movie sequel. In his heart, Ben couldn’t say that he was confident concerning Christianity … the ton-up accident that took his sister back when he’d been ten put paid to that … but he could still hear and respect the strong Boroughs inflection in Doddridge’s verses, his concern for the impoverished and wretched no doubt sharpened by his time at Castle Hill. “He comes the broken heart to bind, The bleeding soul to cure,/ And with the treasures of his grace T’ enrich the humble poor.”

He’d drink to that. Lifting his glass he noticed that its ebbing tide-line foam was at half-mast. Just four sips left. Oh well. That was enough. He’d make it last. He wouldn’t have another one in here, despite the seventeen-odd pounds he still had left. He thumbed his way on through the book until he reached the Fanes of Apethorpe: Mildmay Fane, the second Earl of Westmorland, and his descendant Julian. He’d only really settled on the pair through being taken with the names ‘Mildmay’ and ‘Apethorpe’, but soon found himself immersed in Julian’s description of the family pile, as admired by Northampton fan John Betjeman. “The moss-grey mansion of my father stands/ Park’d in an English pasturage as fair/ As any that the grass-green isle can show./ Above it rise deep-wooded lawns; below/ A brook runs riot thro’ the pleasant lands …” The brook went babbling on as he sipped dry his pint and bought another without thinking.

Suddenly it was ten minutes after three and he was half a mile away, emerging out of Lutterworth Road onto Billing Road, just down from what had once been the Boy’s Grammar School. What was he doing here? He had the vaguest memory of standing in the toilets at the Crown & Cushion, of a ghostly moment staring at his own face in the mirror bolted up above the washbasin, but for the life of him could not remember leaving the pub premises, much less the fairish walk he’d evidently taken down here from the Wellingborough Road. Perhaps he’d wanted to head back to the town centre but had chosen this admittedly more scenic route? Chosen was probably too strong a word. Ben’s path through life was governed not so much by choice as by the powerful undertow of his own whimsy, which would on occasion wash him up to unexpected beachheads like this present one.

Across the street and some way off upon his left was the red brick front of the former grammar school, set back from the main road by flat lawns and a gravel forecourt where a naked flagpole stood, no ensign showing which side the establishment was on. Benedict understood the reticence. These days, targets were what schools aimed at, not what they aspired to be. Stretching away behind the calm façade and the aloof gaze of the tall white windows there were classrooms, art rooms, physics blocks and playing fields, a spinney and a swimming pool, all trying to ignore the gallows shadow that league tables cast across them. Not that there was any cause here for immediate concern. Though relegated from a snooty grammar to a red-eared comprehensive in the middle 1970s, the place had used its dwindling aura and residual reputation as brand markers in the competition-focussed marketplace that teaching had become. Invoking the school’s previous elitist status and the ghost of poshness past would seem to have succeeded, making it a big hit with the choice-dazed well-off parent of today. Apparently, from what Ben heard, they even made a selling point of the monastic single-sex approach to education. Anyone applying for their son to be accepted had to first compose a modest essay stating why, precisely, at the most profound ideological and moral level, they believed their child would benefit from being tutored in an atmosphere of strict gender apartheid. What did they expect people to say? That what they hoped for little Giles was that at best he’d grow into somebody awkward and uncomprehending in all his relationships with women, while at worst he’d end up a gay serial murderer? Ah ha ha ha.

Benedict crossed the road and turned right, heading into town, putting the school behind him. He’d once been a pupil there and hadn’t liked it much. For one thing, having squandered his first decade on the planet in what his mam called “acting the goat”, he’d not passed his eleven-plus exams that first go-round. When all the clever kids like Alma went off to their grammars, Benedict attended Spencer School, on the now-feared Spencer estate, with all the divs and bruisers. He’d been every bit as smart as Alma and the rest, just not inclined to take things like examinations seriously. Once he’d been at Spencer for a year or two, however, his intelligence began to shine from the surrounding dross and only then had he been transferred to the grammar school.

Here he’d felt stigmatised, even among the vanishingly small minority of other working-class boys, who’d at least been bright enough to put the ticks in the right boxes when they’d been eleven. With the middle-class majority, especially the teachers, Ben had never felt he stood a chance. The other boys had in the main been nice enough, acting and talking much the same as him, but they’d still snigger if somebody stuck their hand up during class to ask the master if they could go to the lav and not the toilet. On reflection, Benedict supposed, such prejudice as he’d experienced had been relatively minimal. At least he’d not been black like David Daniels in the year above, a serene and good natured lad that Ben had mainly known through Alma, who’d shared Daniels’s fondness for American science-fiction paperbacks and comics. Ben recalled one maths teacher who’d always send the only non-white at the school into the quadrangle outside the classroom window, so that in the full view of his classmates he could clean the board erasers, pounding them together until his black skin was pale with chalk dust. It was shameful.

He remembered how unfairly the whole learning process had been handled then, with kids’ lives and careers decided by an exam that they’d sat at age eleven. Mind you, wasn’t it just this last year that Tony Blair had set out his performance targets for the under-fives? There’d be established foetal standards soon, so that you could feel pressurized and backwards if your fingers hadn’t separated fully by the third trimester. Academic stress-related pre-birth suicides would become commonplace, the depressed embryos hanging themselves with their umbilical cords, farewell notes scratched onto the placenta.

Benedict became aware of railings passing in a strobe on his left side to vanish at his back, dark conifers beyond them, and remembered he was walking past St. Andrew’s Hospital. Could that have been the reason why he’d taken this route home, as an impulsive pilgrimage to where they’d kept John Clare for more than twenty years? Perhaps he’d muddily imagined that the thought of Clare, his hero, having been more of a hopeless circus-turn than Ben himself, would somehow be uplifting?

Instead, the reverse was true. As with his earlier envy of pub-prisoner Sir Malcolm Arnold – who had also been a former grammar school boy and a former inmate of St. Andrew’s, now he thought about it – Benedict found himself visualising the extensive institution grounds beyond the rail and envying John Clare. Admittedly, St. Andrew’s hadn’t been so lush back in the 1850s when it was Northampton General Asylum, but it had still been a gentler haven, in all likelihood, for lost and bruised poetic souls than somewhere like, say, Tower Street. What Ben wouldn’t give to trade his current circumstances for those of a nineteenth-century madhouse. If somebody asked why you weren’t seeking work, you could explain that you were already employed as an archaic mental. You could wander all day through Elysian meadows, or else take a stroll downtown to sit beneath the portico of All Saints’ Church. With your expenses paid for by a literary benefactor, you’d have time to write as much verse as you liked, much of it on how badly you felt you were being treated. And when even the exertion of poetics proved too much (for surely times like that afflicted everyone, Ben thought), you could abandon your exhausting personality and be somebody else, be Queen Victoria’s dad, or Byron. Frankly, if you’d lost your mind, there were worse places to go looking for it than beneath the bushes at St. Andrew’s.

Clearly, Ben was not alone in this opinion. In the years since Clare’s day, the asylum’s tittering and weeping dayroom had become a hall of damaged fame. Misogynist and poet J.K. Stephen. Malcolm Arnold. Dusty Springfield. Lucia Joyce, a child of the more famous James, whose delicate psychology had first become apparent when she worked as chief assistant on her father’s unreadable masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, then titled Work in Progress. Joyce’s daughter had arrived here at the pricey but quite justly celebrated Billing Road retreat in the late 1940s, and had evidently liked the place so much she’d stayed for over thirty years until her death in 1982. Even mortality had not soured Lucia on Northampton. She’d requested she be buried here, at Kingsthorpe Cemetery, where she was currently at rest a few feet from the gravestone of a Mr. Finnegan. It was still strange to think that Lucia Joyce had been here all the time Ben was a pupil at the grammar school next door. He wondered idly if she’d ever met with Dusty or Sir Malcolm, picturing abruptly all three on stage as a trio, possibly for therapeutic reasons, looking melancholic, belting out “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. Ah ha ha ha.

Benedict had heard that Samuel Beckett was one of Lucia Joyce’s visitors, here at St. Andrew’s and then, later, at the cemetery in Kingsthorpe. Part of Lucia’s madness had been the belief that Beckett, who’d replaced her as assistant on the Work in Progress, was in love with her. Disastrous as this misunderstanding must have been for all concerned, the two had evidently remained friends, at least to judge from all the visits. Ben’s good chum Dave Turvey, cricketing enthusiast companion to the late Tom Hall, had informed Benedict of Beckett’s sole entry in Wisden’s Almanac, playing against Northampton at the County Ground. Amongst the visiting team, Beckett had distinguished himself not so much upon the pitch as in his choice of entertainment afterwards. He’d spent that evening in a solitary trawl around Northampton’s churches while his colleagues had contented themselves with the other things the town was famous for, these being pubs and whores. Benedict found this conduct admirable, at least in theory, though he’d never cared for Beckett as an author much. All those long silences and haunted monologues. It was too much like life.

He was by now beyond St. Andrew’s, crossing over at the top of Cliftonville as he continued his fastidiously measured stumble, onward down the Billing Road to town. This was the route he’d take each weeknight as a schoolboy, home to Freeschool Street astride his bike, riding into the sunset as if every day had been a feature film, which, very often in Ben’s case, it had been. Duck Soup, usually, with Benedict as both Zeppo and Harpo, playing them, innovatively, as two sides of the same troubled personality. A drift of generally pleasant and only occasionally horrifying recollection, like a fairground ride through Toyland but with horse intestines draped at intervals, conveyed him on into the centre. Where the Billing Road concluded at the crossroads with Cheyne Walk and York Road, near the General Hospital, Ben waltzed over the zebra crossing and along Spencer Parade.

Boughs from St. Giles churchyard overhung the pavement, off-cut scraps of light and shadow rustling across the cracked slabs in a mobile stipple. Past the low wall on Ben’s right was soft grass and hard marble markers, peeling benches scored with the initials of a hundred brief relationships and then the caramel stones of the church itself, probably one of those inspected on Sam Beckett’s lone nocturnal tour. St. Giles was old, not ancient like St. Peter’s or the Holy Sepulchre, but old enough, and here as long as anybody could remember. It was clearly well-established by the time that John Speed drafted the town map for 1610, which Benedict owned a facsimile edition of, rolled up somewhere behind his bookshelves back in Tower Street. Though state-of-the-art technical drawing in its day, to modern eyes its slightly wonky isomorphic house-rows looked like the endeavour of a talented though possibly autistic child. The image of Northampton poised there at the start of the seventeenth century, a crudely drawn cross-section of a heart with extra ventricles, was nonetheless delightful. When the modern urban landscape was too much for Benedict to bear, say one day out of every five, then he’d imagine he was walking through the simple and depopulated flatland of Speed’s diagram, the vanished landmarks dark with quill pen hatch-work scribbling themselves into existence all around him. White streets bounded by ink curbs, devoid of human complication.

Benedict continued down into St. Giles Street, passing the still-open lower end of the half-destitute, half-empty Co-op Arcade, its redundant upper reaches gazing bleakly onto Abington Street which ran parallel, a short way up the gentle slope of the town’s southern flank. Some distance further on, past Fish Street’s gaping cod’s mouth, was the Wig & Pen, the disinfected and rebranded shell of what had once been called the new Black Lion, as distinct from the much older pub of that name down on Castle Hill. Back in the 1920s, the St. Giles Street Black Lion had been haven for the town’s bohemians, a reputation that the place had suffered or enjoyed till the late ’Eighties when the current renovations were afoot. Another reputation that the dive endured, according to authorities including Elliot O’Donnell, was as one of the most haunted spots in England. When Dave Turvey had been landlord here, around the time when Tom Hall, Alma Warren and indeed the greater part of Piet de Snapp’s outlandish portrait gallery had been the Black Lion’s customers, there had been footsteps on the stairs and items moved or rearranged. There had been presences and scared pets throughout Turvey’s tenure, just as there had been with all the previous proprietors. Ben wondered idly if the apparitions had been made to undergo a makeover, been themed along with the surrounding pub so that if rattling chains or mournful shrieks were heard one of the spectres would put down his ploughman’s lunch and reach inside his jacket, muttering “Sorry, guys. That’s mine. Hello? Oh, hi. Yeah. Yeah, I’m on the astral plane.” Ah ha ha ha.

Upon Ben’s right now, broad imperial steps swept up towards the soaring crystal palace that resembled a Dan Dare cathedral but was where you had to go to pay your council tax. Because of this, the place would always have the feeling of a place of execution, like the old Labour Exchange in Grafton Street, no matter how refined and stately its design. Bills and assessments and adult responsibilities. Places like this were faces of the whetstone that ground people down, that shaved a whole dimension off of them. Benedict moved on hurriedly, past the adjoining Guildhall where he wasn’t certain if the building had been lately cleaned or if its stones were simply bleached by countless flashgun fusillades from countless civic weddings. Geologic strata of confetti, matrimonial dandruff, had accumulated in the corners of its grand stone stairs.

This was the third and very possibly the final place that the town hall would find itself located, after the forgotten Mayorhold and the intermediary position at the foot of Abington Street. Ben looked up, past all the saints and regents decorating the elaborate façade, to where on his high ridge between two spires stood the town’s patron saint, rod in one hand, shield in the other, wings folded behind him. Benedict had never been entirely sure how the Archangel Michael had been made one of the saints, who, unless Ben had got it wrong, were human beings who’d aspired to sainthood through hard work and piety and pulling off some tricky miracles. Wouldn’t an archangel have an unfair advantage, what with being quite miraculous already? Anyway, archangels outranked saints in the celestial hierarchy, as any schoolchild knew. How had Northampton managed to recruit one of God’s four lieutenants as its patron saint? What possible incitements could the town have offered to perk up a posting so much lower down on the celestial scale of reimbursement?

He went on across Wood Hill and down the north side of All Saints, where John Clare once habitually sat within a recess underneath the portico, a Delphic Oracle on day release. Ben crossed before the church, continuing down Gold Street in a soar of shop fronts as if he were still sixteen and riding on his bike. Down at the bottom, while he waited at the lights to cross Horsemarket, he glanced to his left where Horseshoe Street ran down towards St. Peter’s Way and what had previously been the Gas Board yards. Local mythology suggested that it was around where the old billiard hall stood, a few yards from the corner Benedict now occupied, that some time previous to the Norman conquest there had come a pilgrim from Golgotha, from the ground where Christ supposedly was crucified, off in Jerusalem. Apparently the monk had found an ancient stone cross buried at the crucifixion site, whereon a passing angel had instructed him to take the relic “to the centre of his land”, which had presumably been England. Halfway up what was now Horseshoe Street, the angel had turned up again, confirming to the traveller that he had indeed lucked onto the right place. The cross he’d born so far was set into the stonework of St. Gregory’s Church which had been just across the road in Saxon times, the monk’s remains interred beneath it, to become itself a site of pilgrimage. They’d called it the rood in the wall. Here in this grimy offshoot of the Boroughs there resided England’s mystic centre, and it wasn’t only Benedict who thought that. It was God who thought that too. Ah ha ha ha.

The lights changed, with the luminous green man now signifying it was safe for workers in the nuclear industry to cross. He wandered over into Marefair, heading down what had for Benedict always been the town’s main street, westward in a bee-line for St. Peter’s Church. He was still thinking vaguely about angels, after the archangel perched up on the Guildhall and the one who’d shown the monk where he should plant his cross in Horseshoe Street, and Ben recalled at least one other story of seraphic intervention that involved the thoroughfare along which he was walking. At St. Peter’s Church, just up ahead, there’d been a miracle in the eleventh century when angels had directed a young peasant lad named Ivalde to retrieve the lost bones of St. Ragener, concealed beneath the flagstones in the nave, unearthed in blinding light to an accompaniment of holy water sprinkled by the holy spirit who had manifested as a bird. A crippled beggar woman witnessing the incident had risen to her feet and walked, or so the story went. It all tended to foster Ben’s distinct impression that in the Dark Ages one could barely move for angels telling you to go to Marefair.

Benedict had reached the top of Freeschool Street, running off Marefair on the left, before he realised what he’d done. It had been his excursion to the Billing Road, no doubt, that had inclined him to take his old cycle route from school back to a home here that had been demolished ages since. Blithely propelling a leak-shot canoe along his algae-smothered stream of consciousness, he’d somehow managed to blank out the previous thirty-seven years of his existence, adult feet reverting effortlessly to the trails worn in the pavement by their former, smaller selves. What was he like? Ah ha ha ha. No, seriously, what was he like? Was this the onset of damp pantalooned senility and trying to recall which was his ward? Frankly, for all that it was taking place upon a sunlit afternoon this was quite frightening, like finding that you’d sleepwalked to your dad’s grave in the middle of the night.

He stood there staring at the narrow lane, Marefair’s foot traffic bifurcating to flow round him like a stream with Benedict as its abandoned shopping trolley, utterly oblivious to all the babbling movement he was in the midst of. Freeschool Street was, mercifully, barely recognisable. Only the tiny splinters that you could identify still snagged upon the heart. The paving stones that had gone unreplaced, their moss-filled fractures subdividing to an achingly familiar delta. The surviving lower reaches of a factory wall that dribbled down as far as Gregory Street, ferns and young branches shoving past the rotted frames of what had once been windows, now not even holes. He felt a certain gratitude for the street’s bend that blocked his view of where the Perrit family once lived, the company forecourt stretching where they’d laughed and argued and peed in the sink if it was cold outside, together in that single room with the front parlour used entirely as a showcase for the family’s more presentable possessions. This, he thought, this was the real Atlantis.

Teenaged and pretentious, he’d bemoaned the loss of byres and furrows that he’d never known, that were John Clare’s to mourn. Benedict had composed laments to vanished rural England while ignoring the fecund brick wilderness he lived in, but as things turned out there was still grass, there were still flowers and meadows if you looked for them. The Boroughs, on the other hand, a unique undergrowth of people’s lives, you could search for it all you wanted, but that one particular endangered habitat was gone for good. That half-a-square-mile continent had sunk under a deluge of bad social policy. First there had been a mounting Santorini rumble of awareness that the Boroughs’ land would be more valuable without its people, then came bulldozers in a McAlpine tidal wave. A yellow foam of hard hats surged across the neighbourhood to break against the shores of Jimmy’s End and Semilong, the human debris washed up in a scum-line of old people’s flats at King’s Heath and at Abington. When the construction tide receded there’d been only high-rise barnacles, the hulks of sunken businesses and the occasional beached former resident, flopping and gasping there in some resurfaced underpass. Benedict, an antediluvian castaway, became the disappeared world’s Ancient Mariner, its Ishmael and its Plato, cataloguing deeds and creatures so fantastic as to be implausible, increasingly even to Ben himself. The bricked up entrance to the medieval tunnel system in his cellar, could that truly have been there? The horse that brought his dad home every night when Jem was passed out at the reins, could that have possibly existed? Had there been real deathmongers and cows on people’s upstairs landings and a fever cart?

Somebody narrowly avoided bumping into Benedict, apologising even though it was quite clearly Ben’s fault, stood there staring into nowhere and obstructing half the street.

“Ooh, sorry, mate. Not looking where I’m going.”

It was a young half-caste girl, what they called nowadays mixed race, a pinched but pretty thing who looked to be in her mid or late twenties. Interrupting as she was Ben’s daydream of a submerged Eden she took on an Undine gloss, at least in his imagination. The faint pallor that her skin retained despite her parentage seemed a deep-water phosphorescence, hair brushed into stripes with twigs of coral and the wet sheen on her plastic coat all adding to the submarine illusion. Frail and exotic as a sea horse, Ben recast her in the role of a Lemurian sultaness, her earrings dubloons spilled from foundered galleons. That this rock-tanned siren should be saying sorry to the weathered, ugly reef where she’d fetched up through no fault of her own made Benedict feel doubly guilty, doubly embarrassed. He replied with a high, strangled laugh, to put her at her ease.

“Aa, that’s all right, love. You’re all right. Ah ha ha ha.”

Her eyes grew slightly wider and her painted liquid lips, like two sucked pear-drops, went through some suppressed contortions. She was staring at him quizzically, a rhyme scheme and a metre in her look that Ben was unfamiliar with. What did she want? The fact that their chance meeting was occurring on the street where Ben was born, and where he found himself this afternoon through no more than a drunken accident, began now to smack dangerously of kismet. Could it be … ah ha ha ha … could it be that she recognised him, saw by some means all the poetry that he had in him? Had she glimpsed his wisdom underneath the nervousness and beer breath? Was this the predestined moment, loitering across from Marefair’s ibis hotel, caught in shafts of timeless sunshine with pale stars of ground-in bubblegum around the Dr. Martens, when he was to meet his Sheba? Tiny muscles at the corners of her mouth were working now as she prepared to speak, to say something, to ask him if he was an artist or musician of some kind, or even if he was Benedict Perrit, whom she’d heard so much about. The glistening Maybelline-drenched petals finally unstuck themselves, peeling apart.

“Fancy a bit of business?”


Belatedly, Ben understood. They weren’t two kindred spirits pulled together inexorably by fate. She was a prostitute and he was a drunk idiot, simple as that. Now that he knew her trade he saw the drawn look that her face had and the dark around the eyes, the missing tooth, the twitchy desperation. He revised his estimate from mid/late twenties down to mid/late teens. Poor kid. He should have known when she first spoke to him, but Ben had grown up in a Boroughs that was something other than Northampton’s red light district; had to consciously remind himself that this was its main function now. He’d never used a pro himself, had never even thought about it, not through any notion of superiority but more because he’d always thought of street girls as a middle-class concern, predominantly. Why would a working-class man, other than through incapacity or unrelenting loneliness, pay to have sex with a working-class woman of the kind that he’d grown up amongst and had to some degree therefore been de-eroticised towards? Ben thought it was more probably the Hugh Grants of this world who treated adjectives like “rough” or “dirty” as arousing concepts, whereas he’d grown up in a community that generally reserved such terms for nightmare clans like the O’Rourkes or Presleys.

He felt awkward, having never previously experienced this situation, with his awkwardness yet further complicated by his lingering disappointment. For a moment there he’d been upon the brink of a romance, of an epiphany, an inspiration. No, he hadn’t really thought that she was a Lemurian sultaness, but he’d still entertained the notion that she might be someone sensitive and sympathetic, somebody who’d glimpsed the bard in him, had seen the villanelles and throwaway sestinas in his bearing. But instead, the opposite was true. She’s taken him for just another needy punter whose romantic yearnings stretched no further than a quick one off the wrist in a back entry. How could she have got him so completely wrong? He felt he had to let her know how badly she’d misread him, how absurd it was for her to have considered him of all people as a potential client. However, since he still felt sorry for the girl and didn’t want her thinking he was genuinely offended, he elected to communicate his feelings in the manner of an Ealing comedy. He’d found this was the best approach for almost any delicate or sticky social circumstances.

Benedict contorted his sponge-rubber features into an expression of Victorian moral shock, like Mr. Pickwick startled by a mudlark selling dildos, then affected an affronted shudder so vociferous that his fillings rattled, forcing him to stop. The girl by this point was beginning to look slightly frightened, so Ben thought he’d better underline that his behaviour was intended as comic exaggeration. Swivelling his head, he glanced away from her to where the television audience would be if life were actually the hidden camera prank show he’d occasionally suspected, and supplied his own canned laughter.

“Ah ha ha ha. No, no, you’re all right, love, thanks. No, bless your heart, you’re all right. I’m all right. Ah ha ha ha.”

It seemed that his performance had at least removed her certainty that Ben was a potential customer. The girl was staring at him now as if she genuinely didn’t have the first idea what Benedict might be. Apparently disoriented, forehead corrugated into an uncomprehending frown, she tried again to get his measure.

“Are you sure?”

What would it take before this woman got the message? Was he going to have a do a full routine with plank, paste-bucket and banana skin to make her understand that he was too poetic to want sex behind a rubbish skip? One thing was certain: subtlety and understatement hadn’t worked. He’d have to spell it out for her with broader gestures.

He tipped back his head in a derisive guffaw that he fancied was in the John Falstaff mode, or would have been if Falstaff had been best known as a gangly tenor.

“Ah ha ha ha. No, love, I’m all right, ta. You’re all right. I’ll have you know that I’m a published poet. Ah ha ha.”

That did the trick. From the expression on her face, the girl no longer harboured any doubts concerning what Ben Perrit was. Wearing a fixed grin she began to take her leave, keeping her wary eyes upon him as she backed away down Marefair, clearly scared to turn her back on him until she was some distance off, in case he pounced. She tottered off past Cromwell House in the direction of the railway station, pausing when she reached St. Peter’s Church to risk a glance across her shoulder back at Benedict. She evidently thought he was a psychopath, so he let out a carefree high-pitched cackle to assure her that he wasn’t, whereupon she took off past the church front, disappearing into the homecoming crowds on Black Lion Hill. His muse, his mermaid, vanished in a tail-flip and a shimmer of viridian scales.

Five things, then. Just five things that Ben was unsuccessful with. Escape, finding a job, explaining himself properly, not looking pissed, and talking to a woman if you didn’t count his mum or Alma. Lily, she’d been an exception, been the one who’d genuinely seen his spirit and his poetry. He’d always felt that he could talk to Lily, although looking back it pained him to admit that most of what he’d talked was drunken rubbish. That was largely what had finished it between the two of them. It was the drink and, if he were entirely honest, it was Ben’s insistence that the rules in his relationship with Lily be those that had suited his own parents, Jem and Eileen, thirty years before, particularly those that suited Jem. Back then Ben hadn’t really taken in that everything was changing, not just streets and neighbourhoods but people’s attitudes; what people would put up with. He’d thought that at least in his own home he could preserve a fragment of the life he’d known right here in Freeschool Street, where wives would tolerate constant inebriation in their husbands and consider themselves blessed if they’d a man who didn’t hit them. He’d pretended that the world was still that way, and he’d been stunned right to the core of him when Lily took the kids and demonstrated that it wasn’t.

Ben’s uncomfortable meeting with the prostitute had faded now to a faint, wistful pang. His gaze had drifted back to Freeschool Street, his boyhood paradise drowning in its own future with the water level rising day by day, moment by moment. He wished he could dive into the cladding of the mostly vacant office buildings and apartments, red brick droplets splashing up from where he’d pierced the surface. He’d dog-paddle down through forty years on one lungful of air. He’d swim through his dad’s woodyard gathering up whatever souvenirs he could retrieve to take back to the surface and the present day. He’d tap upon the window of the living room and tell his sister “Don’t go out tonight”. At last he’d emerge gasping, up from the meniscus of contemporary Marefair, his arms full of sunken treasure, startling the passers-by and shaking beads of history from his sopping hair.

He was beginning to feel distantly in need of food. He thought he might walk back up Horsemarket to home, perhaps visit the chippy in St. Andrew’s Street. He suddenly remembered he had slightly more than fifteen pounds left, Darwin and Elizth Fry entangled in a crumpled ball of passion somewhere in the deep recesses of his trousers. That would be enough to get some fish and chips and also go out for a drink tonight if he should want to, though he didn’t think he would. The best thing he could do would be to get some food and then go back to Tower Street for an inexpensive evening in. That way he’d still have nearly all the money left tomorrow and he wouldn’t have to go through the humiliating pantomime of taking charity from Eileen in the morning. That was settled, then. That’s what he’d do. Preparing to vacate the spot and head off up Horsemarket, Benedict attempted to rein in his wandering attention, which was off somewhere at play amongst the gutted ruins of Gregory Street. Stranded dandelions were perched on the remains of ledges twenty-five feet up, hesitant suicides with golden hair like Chatterton …

It was eleven thirty-five. He was emerging from the Bird In Hand on Regent’s Square into the grunting, shouting dark of Friday night. Arterial spills of traffic light reflected from the paving slabs of Sheep Street, where there had apparently at some point in the evening been a shower of rain.

Girls in short skirts in gangs of four or five leaned on each other for support, a multitude of 15-denier legs all holding up one structure, turning inadvertently into components of a single giant giggling insect or a piece of mobile furniture as beautifully upholstered as it was impractical. Boys moved like chess knights with concussion, waltzing mice with Tourette’s, wandering clusters of them suddenly erupting into murderous bonhomie or well-intentioned bottlings and it wasn’t even closing time. There was no closing time. Licensing hours had been extended to infinity by government decree, ostensibly to somehow cut down on binge drinking but in fact so that disoriented visiting Americans would not be inconvenienced by funny English customs. Drunken binges hadn’t been eradicated, obviously. They’d simply had their lucid intervals removed.

Ben could remember having plaice and chips a few hours earlier and a few dimly lighted pub interior moments in between – had he been talking to someone? – but otherwise it was as if he had been newly born this instant, squatted out onto this windy street, into these gutters, wholly ignorant of how he came to be here. At least this time, Ben observed with gratitude, he wasn’t sobbing and he wasn’t naked. Underdressed, perhaps, with evening’s chill beginning now to permeate the riotous sunset of his waistcoat, striking through the insulating beery numbness to raise goose-bumps, but at least not nude. Ah ha ha ha.

A rubber-fingered fumble in his pocket reassured him that the treacherous whore Elizth Fry at least this time had not left Benedict for some ill-mannered publican who’d simply use her, wouldn’t love or need her the way Ben did. That said, finding her immediately raised the tempting possibility of popping back into the pub to get a carry-out, a few cans, but no. No, he mustn’t. Go home, Benedict. Go home, son, if you know what’s good for you.

He turned right, shuffling up Sheep Street to the lights where it met Regent Square, the ugly cross-hatching of carriageways that centuries ago had been the north gate of the town. This was where traitors’ skulls were placed on spikes like trolls on pencils, as a decoration. This was where the heretics and witches had been burned. These days the junction at the end of Sheep Street was marked only by a nightclub painted lurid lavender from when it had been a goth hangout called Macbeth’s a year or two ago, attempting to create a gothic atmosphere upon a corner deep in severed heads and shrieking crones already. Coals to Newcastle, wolfbane to Transylvania. Ben lurched over the various crossings that were needed to convey him safely to the top of Grafton Street, which he proceeded to descend unsteadily. A short way further down blue lights were circling, sapphire flashes battering like moths on the surrounding buildings, but he was too dulled by drink to lend them any great significance.

He glanced up to the higher reaches of the car repair place just across the road, where you could see the solar logo of the Sunlight Laundry still raised in relief, even through the piss-yellow sodium light that everything was bathing in. Fixed in its place, it shone down happily upon a day of 24-hour drinking finally arrived, when it need never sink again below the yard arm. Benedict turned his attention back to the uneven paving slabs immediately in front of him, and focussed for the first time on the lone police car pulled up on the curb ahead, the source of all the dancing disco lights. There was a wreck recovery going on, with a smashed vehicle of uncertain make being winched up on its surviving rear wheels by a tow truck. Grim men in fluorescent vests were sweeping shattered windscreen fragments from the busy road, with the police car evidently flashing there behind them to alert the other motorists to what was going on. A baffling spray of random items such as children’s toys and gardening gloves were spread across the tarmac where presumably they had been flung from a burst-open boot. Plant-misters, shower caps and a single flip-flop. Standing by his car and strobe-lit by its beacon, the attending officer was staring down morosely at a melted tyre-print where the now-disintegrated automobile had apparently swerved up onto the pavement, possibly avoiding something in its path, before it crashed into the wall or lamppost or whatever it had been. At Benedict’s approach the plump young copper looked up from his contemplation of the burned-in tread mark, and to Ben’s surprise he realised that he knew him from around the neighbourhood.

“Hello, Ben. Look at all this fucking mess.” The officer, pink choirboy cheeks now red with aggravation, gestured to the pulverised glass and assorted oddments that were carpeting the street. “You should have seen it half an hour ago, before the medics pulled the poor cunt off his steering column. Worse thing is, it’s not even supposed to be my shift tonight.”

Benedict squinted at the workers sweeping up the debris. There was no blood he could see, but then perhaps the gore was all inside the mangled wreck.

“I see. A fatal accident. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, eh? Ah ha ha ha. Joy rider, was it?” Bugger. He’d not meant to laugh, not at a tragic death, nor had he meant to ask for whom the bell tolled right after delivering Donne’s admonition not to. Luckily, the copper’s mind appeared to be on other things, or else he was accustomed to and tolerant of Ben’s eccentric manner. In a way he’d have to be, with his own sherbet lemon police-issue waistcoat more flamboyant than Ben’s own.

“Joy rider? No. No, it was just some bloke in his late thirties. He was in his own car, far as we could see. A family car.” He nodded glumly to the bright, trans-generational litter, strewn across the road from the sprung-open trunk.

“He didn’t smell like he’d been drinking when they cut him free. He must have swerved to miss something and gone up on the path.” The young policeman’s downcast air briefly appeared to lift a little. “Least I wasn’t sent to tell his missus. Honestly, I fucking hate that. All the screaming and the blubbering and that’s just me. I’ll tell you, the last time I went to one of them I nearly – hang on – ”

He was interrupted by a burst of static from his radio, which he unclipped from his coat to answer.

“Yeah? Yeah, I’m still down the top of Grafton Street. They’re finishing the cleanup now, so I’ll be done here in a minute. Why?” There was a pause during which the cherubic officer stared into space expressionlessly, then he said “All right. I’ll be there soon as I get finished with the crash. Yeah. Yeah, okay.”

He reattached his radio receiver, looked at Benedict and pulled a face that signified resigned contempt for his own woeful luck.

“There’s been another tart done over down on Andrew’s Road. Somebody living down there’s took her in, but they want me to get a statement from her before she gets taken up the hospital. Why is it always me this happens to?”

Benedict was going to ask if he meant getting raped and beaten up, but then thought better of it. Leaving the embittered constable to supervise the tail-end of his clean-up duties, Ben continued downhill, curiously sobered by the whole offhand exchange. He turned along St. Andrew’s Street, thinking about the prostitute who’d been attacked, about the man who’d been alive and driving home to see his family an hour ago with no suspicion of his imminent mortality. That was the whole appalling crux of things, Ben thought, that death or horror might be waiting just ahead and nobody had any way of knowing until those last, dreadful seconds. He began to think about his sister Alison, the motorcycle accident, but that was painful and so Ben steered his attentions elsewhere. Doing so, he inadvertently arrived at a blurred memory of the young working girl who had approached Ben earlier, the one who’d had her hair in rows. He knew it wasn’t her specifically who’d been the latest girl to be assaulted at the foot of Scarletwell Street, but he also knew that in a sense it might as well have been. It would be one just like her.

How could this have happened to the Boroughs? How could it have turned into a place where somebody who could have grown up beautiful, who could have grown to be a poet’s muse, is raped and half-killed every other week? The spate of sexual abductions and attacks over a single weekend during that last August, the majority of them had happened in this district. At the time they’d thought a single ‘rape gang’ was responsible for all the crimes, but ominously it had turned out that at least one serious assault was wholly unconnected to the others. Benedict supposed that when events like that occurred with the alarming frequency that they appeared to do round here, it would be natural to assume concerted action by some gang or some conspiracy. Although a menacing idea it was more comforting than the alternative, which was that such things happened randomly and happened often.

Still disconsolately dwelling on the probably doomed girl he’d met in Marefair and the fatal accident whose aftermath he’d witnessed just five minutes back, Ben turned right into Herbert Street, deserted on the slope of midnight. Silhouetted on the Lucozade-toned darkness of the sky behind them, Claremont Court and Beaumont Court were black as Stanley Kubrick monoliths, beamed down by an unfathomable alien intelligence to spark ideas amongst the shaggy, louse-bound primitives. Ideas like “Jump”. You couldn’t even see what little there was left of Spring Lane School from this specific viewpoint how you once could, not for all the NEWLIFE standing in the way. Ben shambled down as far as Simons Walk beneath a night made tangerine and starless. Turning left along the strip of turf-edged paving that would lead him to his mam’s house he felt irritated, as he always did, by Simons Walk and its absent apostrophe. Unless there was some benefactor to the area named Simons that Ben hadn’t heard of, he assumed the street’s name was a reference to church-and-castle-building Norman knight Simon de Senlis, in which case there should be a possessive … oh, what was the point? Nobody cared. Nothing meant anything that couldn’t be turned instantly into its opposite by any competent spin-doctor or spoon-bender. History and language had become so flexible, wrenched back and forth to suit each new agenda, that it seemed as if they might just simply snap in half and leave us floundering in a sea of mad Creationist revisions and greengrocers’ punctuation.

Staggering along past Althorpe Street he could hear screams of laughter and discordant weirdo music made still more distorted by its volume, issuing from slaphead Kenny Something’s drug den down at the walk’s end. Off in the ochre gloom car engines vented jungle snarls across the darkening cement savannah. Turning into Tower Street he walked up as far as Eileen’s house, then spent five minutes giggling at himself while he attempted to unlock the front door without making any noise by trying to fit his key into the doorbell. Ah ha ha.

The house was quiet with everything switched off, his mam having already gone to bed. He passed by the closed door to the front room, still filled with heirlooms and for show rather than use, the way things used to be in Freeschool Street, and went through to the kitchen for a glass of milk before he went upstairs.

His room, the one space on the planet that he felt was his, awaited him forgivingly, prepared to take him in once more for all that he’d neglected it. There was his single bed, there was what he still laughingly referred to as his writing desk, there were the ranks of poets that he’d earlier tried to gas. He sat down on the bed’s edge to untie his shoes but left the action uncompleted, trailing off across the carpet with the unpicked laces. He was thinking of the accident in Grafton Street, which meant that he was thinking about Alison, her ton-up boyfriend trying to overtake that lorry that had no wide-load lights. He was thinking about dying, how he did each morning soon as he woke up, but now there was no hope the morbid thoughts would vanish with the day’s first drink, not when its last drink was just then expiring horribly beneath Ben’s tongue. He was alone there in his room with death, his room, his death, its inevitability, and there was nothing to defend him.

One day soon he would be dead, reduced to ashes or else feeding worms. His entertaining funny mind, his self, that would just simply stop. That wouldn’t be there anymore. Life would be going on, with all its romance and its thrills, but not for him. He would know nothing of it, like a splendid party at which he’d been made to feel he was no longer welcome. He’d have been crossed off the guest list, he’d have been erased, as if he’d never been there. All that would be left of him would be a few exaggerated anecdotes, some mildewed poems in surviving copies of small-circulation magazines, and then not even that. It would have all been wasted, and …

It hit him suddenly, the bleak epiphany, and knocked the wind out of him: thinking about death was something he habitually did as an alternative to thinking about life. Death wasn’t what the problem was. Death wasn’t asking anything of anyone, except for effortless decomposition. Death wasn’t the thing with all the expectations and the disappointments and the constant fear that anything could happen. That was life. Death, fearsome from life’s frightened point of view, was actually itself beyond all fear and hurt. Death, like a kindly mother, took the worrisome responsibilities and the decisions off your hands, kissed you goodnight and tucked you underneath the warm green counterpane. Life was the trial, the test, the thing you had to figure out what you should do with before it was over.

But then, Benedict had done that. He’d decided, rashly, back in his romantic youth, that he’d be nothing if he couldn’t be a poet. At the time, he hadn’t really thought about the lesser of those two alternatives, the possibility that he might well end up as nothing. It had never happened for him, the success he’d thought he might achieve when he was younger, and he’d gradually lost heart. He’d pretty much abandoned writing, but it was so much a part of his identity that he could not admit, not even to himself, that he had given up. He would pretend his inactivity was only a sabbatical, that he was lying fallow, gathering material, when he knew deep inside that he was only gathering dust.

He saw, as through a fog, the grave mistake he’d made. He’d been so anxious for success and validation that he’d come to think you weren’t really a writer unless you were a successful one. He knew, in this unprecedented patch of clarity, that the idea was nonsense. Look at William Blake, ignored and without recognition until years after his death, regarded as a lunatic or fool by his contemporaries. Yet Benedict felt sure that Blake, in his three-score-and-ten, had never had a moment’s doubt that he was a true artist. Ben’s own problem, looked at in this new and brutal light, was simple failure of nerve. If he had somehow found the courage to continue writing, even if each page had been rejected by each publisher it was submitted to, he’d still be able to look himself in the eye and know he was a poet. There was nothing stopping him from picking up his pen again except Earth’s easily-resisted field of gravity.

This could be the night that Ben turned it all around. All that he had to do was walk across and sit down at his writing desk and actually produce something. Who knows? It might turn out to be the piece that would secure Ben’s reputation. Or if not, if his abilities with verse seemed flat and clumsy with disuse, it might be his first faltering step back to the path he’d wandered from, into this bitter-sodden and immobilising bog. Tonight might be his chance to mend himself. The stark thought struck him that tonight might be his last chance.

If he didn’t do it now, if he came up with some excuse about it being better to approach it in the morning when his head was fresher, then it seemed quite likely that he’d never do it. He’d keep finding reasons to put all his poetry aside until it was too late and life called time on him, until he ended up as a statistic at the top of Grafton Street with an indifferent police constable complaining that Ben’s death had messed up his night off. Benedict had to do it right now, right this moment.

He got up and stumbled over to the writing desk, tripping upon his dangling laces on the way. He sat down and pulled out his notebook from a rear shelf of the bureau, pausing to ashamedly wipe thick dust from the cover with his palm before he opened it to a clean sheet. He picked the ballpoint pen that looked most viable out of the jam jar standing on the desk’s top ledge, removed its cap and poised the sticky, furry ball of indigo above the naked vellum. He sat there like that a good ten minutes, coming to the agonizing realisation that he couldn’t think of anything to say.

Six things, then, that Ben Perrit was completely useless at: escape, finding a job, explaining himself properly, not looking pissed, talking to girls and writing poetry.

No. No, that wasn’t true. That was just giving up again, maybe for good. He was determined to write something, even if it was a haiku, even if it was a line or just a phrase. He searched his cloudy memory of the uneventful day that he’d just had for inspiration and was startled by how many images and idle notions drifted back to him. The workhouse, Clare’s asylum, Malcolm Arnold and the mermaid girl, clover motifs worked artfully into the head of foam upon Ben’s dark and swirling consciousness. He thought about the aching crack of Freeschool Street and the drowned continent, the landscape that was gone. He thought about just packing all this drunken nonsense in and getting into bed.

Off in the blackness there were sirens, techno thumps, bear-baiting cheers. His right hand trembled, inches from the snow-blind, empty page.


Inside him, underneath the white cake-icing of his hair, there were bordello churches where through one door surged the wide Atlantic and in through another came a tumbling circus funfair burst of clowns and tigers, girls with plumes and lovely lettering on the rides, a shimmering flood of sounds and images, of lightning chalk impressions dashed off by a feverish saloon caricaturist, melodrama vignettes fierce with meaning acted out beyond his eyelids’ plush pink safety curtain, all the world with all its shining marble hours, its lichen centuries and fanny-sucking moments all at once, his every waking second constantly exploded to a thousand years of incident and fanfare, an eternal conflagration of the senses where stood Snowy Vernall, wide-eyed and unflinching at the bright carnival heart of his own endless fire.

Within the much pored-over, fondly re-examined picture book that was his life, the narrative had reached a page, an instant, an absorbing incident which, even as he was experiencing it, he knew he had experienced before. When other people spoke about their rare, unsettling spells of déjà vu he’d frown and feel that he was missing something, not because he’d never known such feelings, but because he’d never known anything else. He’d not cried over cut knees as a child because he’d been almost expecting them. He hadn’t wept the day his father Ernest was brought home from where he worked with all his hair turned white. Though it had been a shocking scene, it had been one out of a favourite story, heard so many times that its power to surprise was gone. Existence was for Snowy an arcade carved from a single frozen jewel, a thrilling ghost-train wander past beloved dioramas and familiar sideshow frights, the glitter of the distant exit door’s lamps clearly visible from his first step across the threshold.

The specific episode that he was now involved in was the famous sequence that found Snowy standing on a roof high over Lambeth Walk on a loud, radiant morning in the March of 1889 while his Louisa gave birth to their first child in the gutters far below. They’d been out walking in St. James’s Park in an attempt to hurry up the big event with exercise, the baby being some days late and his wife tearful and exhausted from the weight that she’d been carrying so long. The ploy had worked too well, Louisa’s waters breaking by the lakeside with the sudden spatter startling the ducks into a momentary sculpture, a fanned blur of brown and grey and white that spiralled up to make a shape half helter-skelter, half pagoda, beaded diamond droplets paused about it in a fleeting constellation. They’d attempted to get back to East Street with a hurried hobble down the length of Millbank, over Lambeth Bridge and into Paradise Street, but they’d only got as far as Lambeth Walk before there were contractions every other step and it became clear that they wouldn’t make it. Well, of course they wouldn’t make it. The chaotic childbirth onto the South London cobbles couldn’t be avoided; was embedded in the future. Getting home to East Street without incident was not a verse in his already-carven legend. Shinning up the nearest sheer wall when the baby’s crown engaged, leaving Louisa screaming at the centre of a gathering clot of gawpers, on the other hand, that was amongst the saga’s many memorable highlights and was bound to happen. Snowy could no more prevent himself from climbing up an unseen ladder made of cracks and tiny ledges to the blue slate rooftops than he could prevent the sun from rising in the east tomorrow morning.

He stood straddling the ridge now like a chiselled Atlas with the double chimney breast behind him, balancing the huge glass globe of luminous and milky sky upon his shoulders. His black jacket with its worn sheen hung plumb-straight around him even in the March breeze, weighted by the heavy crystal doorknobs that he had in either pocket, picked up earlier that morning as requirements for a decorating job the Tuesday following. Down in the street below the dark-clad passers-by clustered into an anxious, bustling circle round his splayed and howling wife, moving in sudden and erratic bursts, like houseflies. She sprawled there upon the chilly pavement with her crimson face tipped back, staring up angry and incredulous into her husband’s eyes as he looked down at her from three storeys above, indifferent as a roosting eagle.

Even with Louisa’s features shrunken by the distance to a flake of pink confetti, Snowy thought that he could still read all the various conflicting feelings written there, with one impassioned outburst scribbled over quickly and eradicated by the next. There was incomprehension, wrath, betrayal, loathing, disbelief, and underlying these there was a love that stood and shivered at the brink of awe. She’d never leave him, not through all the ruinous whims, the terrifying rages, the unfathomable stunts and other women that he knew were waiting down the way. He knew that he would frighten her, bewilder her and hurt her feelings many, many times across the decades still to come, although he didn’t want to. It was just that certain things were going to happen and there was no getting out of them, not for Louisa, not for Snowy, not for anyone. Louisa didn’t know exactly what her husband was, though nor did he himself, but she had seen enough to know whatever he might be, he was a curiosity that didn’t happen very often in the normal human run of things, and that she’d never in her lifetime see another like him. She had married a heraldic beast, a chimera drawn from no recognisable mythology, a creature without limits that could run up walls, could draw and paint and was regarded as one of the finest craftsmen in his trade. Despite the fact that there’d be times when Snowy’s monstrous aspect made it so that she could not bear to set eyes on him, she’d never break the spell and look away.

John Vernall lifted up his head, the milk locks that had given him his nickname stirring in the third floor winds, and stared with pale grey eyes out over Lambeth, over London. Snowy’s dad had once explained to him and his young sister Thursa how by altering one’s altitude, one’s level on the upright axis of this seemingly three-planed existence, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the elusive fourth plane, the fourth axis, which was time. Or was at any rate, at least in Snowy’s understanding of their father’s Bedlam lectures, what most people saw as time from the perspective of a world impermanent and fragile, vanished into nothingness and made anew from nothing with each passing instant, all its substance disappeared into a past that was invisible from their new angle and which thus appeared no longer to be there. For the majority of people, Snowy realised, the previous hour was gone forever and the next did not exist yet. They were trapped in their thin, moving pane of Now: a filmy membrane that might fatally disintegrate at any moment, stretched between two dreadful absences. This view of life and being as frail, flimsy things that were soon ended did not match in any way with Snowy Vernall’s own, especially not from a glorious vantage like his current one, mucky nativity below and only reefs of hurtling cloud above.

His increased elevation had proportionately shrunken and reduced the landscape, squashing down the buildings so that if he were by some means to rise higher still, he knew that all the houses, churches and hotels would be eventually compressed in only two dimensions, flattened to a street map or a plan, a smouldering mosaic where the roads and lanes were cobbled silver lines binding factory-black ceramic chips in a Miltonic tableau. From the roof-ridge where he perched, soles angled inwards gripping the damp tiles, the rolling Thames was motionless, a seam of iron amongst the city’s dusty strata. He could see from here a river, not just shifting liquid in a stupefying volume. He could see the watercourse’s history bound in its form, its snaking path of least resistance through a valley made by the collapse of a great chalk fault somewhere to the south behind him, white scarps crashing in white billows a few hundred feet uphill and a few million years ago. The bulge of Waterloo, off to his north, was simply where the slide of rock and mud had stopped and hardened, mammoth-trodden to a pasture where a thousand chimneys had eventually blossomed, tarry-throated tubeworms gathering around the warm miasma of the railway station. Snowy saw the thumbprint of a giant mathematic power, untold generations caught up in the magnet-pattern of its loops and whorls.

On the loose-shoelace stream’s far side was banked the scorched metropolis, its edifices rising floor by floor into a different kind of time, the more enduring continuity of architecture, markedly distinct from the clock-governed scurry of humanity occurring on the ground. In London’s variously styled and weathered spires or bridges there were interrupted conversations with the dead, with Trinovantes, Romans, Saxons, Normans, their forgotten and obscure agendas told in stone. In celebrated landmarks Snowy heard the lonely, self-infatuated monologues of kings and queens, fraught with anxieties concerning their significance, lives squandered in pursuit of legacy, an optical illusion of the temporary world which they inhabited. The avenues and monuments he overlooked were barricades against oblivion, ornate breastwork flung up to defer a future in which both the glorious structures and the memories of those who’d founded them did not exist.

It made him laugh, although not literally. Where did they think that everything, including them, was going to go? Snowy was only twenty-six at this point in the span of him, and he supposed that there were those who’d say he hadn’t yet seen much of life, but even so he knew that life was a spectacular construction, more secure than people generally thought, and that it would be harder getting out of their existence than they probably imagined. Human beings ended up arranging their priorities without being aware of the whole story, the whole picture. Cenotaphs would turn out to be less important than the sunny days missed in their making. Things of beauty, Snowy knew, should be wrought purely for their own sake and not made into elaborate headstones stating only that somebody was once here. Not when no one was going anywhere.

Across a tugboat-hooter’s reach of river the unblinking birdman smiled at his miraculous domain, while from below Louisa’s shrieks were punctuated intermittently with snatched-breath cries of “Snowy Vernall, you’re a cunt, a little fucking cunt!” He looked out over Westminster, Victoria and Knightsbridge to the sprawl of blurring burr-green that he knew to be Hyde Park, where there was represented still another aspect of unfolding time, embodied in the shapes of trees. The planes and poplars barely moved at all in their relationship to those three axes of the world that were immediately apparent, but the record of their progress in relation to the hidden fourth was frozen in their form. The height and thickness of their boughs were to be measured not in inches but in years. Moss-stippled forks were moments of unreached decision that had been made solid, twigs were but protracted whims, and deep within some of the thick trunks Snowy knew that there were arrowheads and musket-balls concealed, fired through the bark into the past, lodged in an earlier period, an earlier ring, entombed forever in the wood-grain of eternity as all things ultimately were.

If Mr. Darwin were to be believed, then it was from the timeless dapple of the forest’s canopy that men had first descended, and it was the forest’s roots that drank men’s bodies when they died, returned their vital salts back to the prehistoric treetops in gold elevator cages made of sap. The parks, their Eden swathes of olive drab amongst the tweedy tooth of residential rows, were outposts of an emerald aeon, pools of wilderness left stranded by a swaying ocean now receded that would one day foam again across the urban beachhead, silencing its trams and barrel-organs under rustling hush. He flared his nostrils, trying to catch the scent of half a million years from now above the present’s foundry reek. With all of London’s people gone, erased by some as-yet-unborn Napoleon, Snowy imagined that the buddleia would swiftly prove itself to be the city’s most enduring conqueror. From whispering marble banks and ruptured middens perfumed bushes would burst forth with friable white tongues of flower, where Julius Agricola had raised but a few fluttering standards, and Queen Boadicea naught but flames.

The heavy brothel sweetness would lure butterflies in watercolour blizzards, parakeets escaped from zoos to eat the butterflies and jaguars to eat the parakeets. The rarities and gorgeous monsters of Kew Gardens would break loose and overrun the abdicated town to its horizons, eucalyptus pillars railing off the shattered boulevards and palaces surrendered to colossal ferns. The world would end as it began, as beatific arbour, and if any family crests or luminary busts or graven names of institutions were yet visible between the droning hives and honeysuckle, they would be by then wiped clean of any meaning. Meaning was a candlelight in everything that lurched and shifted in the circumstantial breezes of each instant, never twice the same. Significance was a phenomenon of Now that could not be contained inside an urn or monolith. It was a hurricane entirely of the present, an unending swirl of boiling change, and as he stood there gazing out towards the city’s rim, across the granite fields of time towards the calendar’s far tattered edges, Snowy Vernall was a storm-rod, crackling and exultant, at the cyclone’s dangerous and brilliant eye.

From fifty feet beneath, Louisa’s gush of alternating anguished bellows and incensed tirade came floating up to him, a commonplace but awesome human music, where the full brass notes of torment seemed now more insistent and more frequent, dominating the arrangement, drowning out the piccolo abuse, the effing and the blinding. Looking down he noticed an impromptu band convened about his wife, providing an accompaniment of soft and sympathetic strings for her, a rumbling kettle drum of disapproval for her husband straddling the roof above them as they cooed and booed the pair in strict rotation. None of them appeared to be of any more practical use to the distressed and labouring woman than Snowy himself would be, even if he were still down there on the pavement at her side. The milling bystanders were an unpractised orchestra in a continual state of tuning up, their muttered scorn and soothing ululations striving painfully to reach some sort of harmony, their wheezing discords drifting off down Paradise Street, off down Union Street to join the background cymbal-roll of Lambeth, building gradually across the ages as if to some clarion announcement, rattling hooves and drunkards’ songs and rag-and-bone men’s lilting calls combined into a swell of everlasting prelude.

Like a hurried stage-assistant, the brisk wind wound on the painted cumulus above, and from the angle of the daylight’s sudden downpour Snowy judged it to be not far off midday, the sun high overhead and climbing with increasing confidence up the last few blue steps to noon. He let his leisurely crow’s-nest attentions wander from the well-attended birth throes of his child below and out into the intestinal tangle of surrounding alleyways, where dogs and people wrapped up in their own experience went back and forth, threads of event that shuttled on the district’s loom, either unravelling from one knot of potential circumstance or else unwittingly converging on the next. Across the Lambeth Road, just visible above some low-roofed buildings to his right, a pretty, well-dressed pregnant woman was emerging from Hercules Road to cross the street between the plodding drays and weaving bicycles. A little nearer to him several boys of twelve or so were batting at each other with their caps, play-fighting as they made their way unhurriedly along the grimy seam of a rear-entry passage, cutting through between the smoking housetops and the nappy-flagged back yards from Newport Street. Snowy’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded. All the clockwork of the minute was in order.

Judging from the light and from Louisa’s escalating uproar he appeared to have another thirty minutes of just standing here, and so allowed his senses to resume once more their phosphorous evaluation of the city. London spun about him like a fairground novelty with Snowy as the ride’s attendant, standing balanced there amongst the painted thunderbolts and comets of its central pivot. Turning his head to the northeast, Snowy looked out over Lambeth, Southwark and the river to St. Paul’s, its bald white dome that of a slumbering divinity professor, all unmindful of its misbehaving charges, sinning everywhere about it as it drowsed and nodded. It was while employed restoring frescoes on the dome’s interior that Snowy’s father Ernest Vernall had been bleached by madness, near two dozen years before.

Snowy and sister Thursa went to Bethlehem Asylum when they visited their dad, which wasn’t often. Snowy didn’t like to think of it as Bedlam. Sometimes they’d take Ernest’s other children with them, Appelina and young Mess, but with their father being put away when those two were still small, they’d never really got to know him. Not that anyone, even their mother Anne, had ever known Ern Vernall through and through, but John and Thursa were still somehow close to him, particularly after he’d become insane. With little Messenger and Appelina there was never that communication, and their visits to the stranger in the madhouse only frightened them. When they’d grown older and were more robust sometimes they would accompany Snowy and Thursa, although only from a sense of duty. Snowy didn’t blame his brother or his youngest sister. The asylum was a horror, full of piss and shit and screams and laughter; men who’d been disfigured with a spoon during their dinners by the person sitting next to them. If he and Thursa hadn’t been so caught up in the rambling lectures that their father saved exclusively for them, they’d never have gone near the place themselves.

Their dad had talked to them about religion and geometry, acoustics and the true shape of the universe, about the multitude of things that he had learned while touching up the frescoes of St. Paul’s during a thunderstorm, one morning long ago in 1865. He told them what had happened to him on that day, as well as he was able, with admonishments that they should never tell their mother or another living soul about Ern Vernall’s holy vision, that had cost his mind and all the hot bronze colour in his hair. He told them he’d been by himself up on his platform a great distance over the cathedral floor, mixing his tempera and getting ready to begin his work when he’d become aware that there was now an angle in the wall. That was the way he’d said it, and his children had eventually come to understand that the expression had at least two meanings, an example of the word games and invented terms that peppered Ernest’s conversation since his mental breakdown. Firstly it meant just what it appeared to mean, that Ernest had discovered a new angle that was somehow in the wall and not in the relationship between its surfaces. A second, more obscure interpretation of the term related it specifically to England and its ancient past, when “Angles” were the people of a tribe that had invaded England, giving it its name, after the Romans left. This second meaning had connected to it by association a quote from Pope Gregory … “Non Angli, sed Angeli” … uttered while inspecting English prisoners in Rome, a punning play on words that led Ern’s eldest children to a gradual realisation of just what their father had encountered in the upper reaches of St. Paul’s on that eventful day.

His father’s lunatic account, even the memory of it now as Snowy stood there over Lambeth Walk and his poor wailing wife, conjured the smell of cold cathedral stone, of powder paint, of pinion feathers singed by lightning and Saint Elmo’s Fire. The marvellous thing had slipped and slid around the dome’s interior, as Ernest told the story to his offspring in the bowels of Lambeth’s infamous asylum. It had spoken to their dad in phrases more astonishing than even the extraordinary countenance that was intoning them, its voice reverberating endlessly, resounding in a type of space or at a kind of distance that their father was not able to describe. This, Snowy thought, had been the detail that had most impressed his sister Thursa, who was musically inclined and whose imagination had seized instantly on the idea of resonance and echo with an extra fold, with new heights and unfathomable depths. John Vernall, with his own red hair already turning white by his tenth birthday, had been more intrigued by Ernest’s new conception of mathematics, with its wonderful and terrifying implications.

In the street below the clutch of boys had now emerged out of their alley in a shunting, shouting shove and flooded onto Lambeth Walk. Attracted by the furiously inactive crowd around Louisa they had wandered over to stand goggling and jeering at its margins, clearly desperate for a glimpse of quim and never mind the bloody grey corpse-football that was threatening to burst out of it. The twelve-year-olds catcalled excitedly and tried to get a better view by capering this way and that behind the adult bystanders, who were all studiously pretending that they couldn’t hear the ignorant and vulgar banter.

“Gor, look at the split on that! It looks like Jack the Ripper’s done another one.”

“Gor, so ’e ’as! Right in the cunt! It must ’ave been a lucky blow!”

“You dirty, worthless little beggars. Why, what sort of parents must you have, to bring you up like this? Would they think it was brave of you to bray and swear like sons of whores, around a woman in more pain than you have ever known or ever will do? Answer me!”

This last remark, delivered in authoritative cut-glass tones, came from the well turned-out and heavily expectant woman Snowy had seen coming from Hercules Road, crossing the Lambeth Road and, by an indirect route along alleys, entering Lambeth Walk only a pace or two behind the group of rowdy lads. Strikingly pretty, with a bound-up bundle of black hair and a dark, flashing gaze, everything from her costly-looking clothing to her bearing and enunciation marked her as a gal from the theatrical professions, her arresting manner that of one who brooked no hecklers in the audience. Shuffling round to face her both bewildered and surprised, the boys seemed daunted, looking sidelong at each other as if trying to establish without speaking what gang policy might be in novel situations such as this. Their stickleback eyes darted back and forth around the nibbled edges of the moment without lighting on a resolution. From his high perspective, Snowy thought they might be Elephant Boys from up Elephant and Castle, who, between them, were quite capable of meting out a thumping or a knifing, even to a constable or sailor.

This diminutive and therefore even more conspicuously pregnant woman, though, appeared to represent a challenge against which the louts could muster no defence, or at least not without an unrecoverable loss of face. They looked aside, disowned themselves and their own presence there on Lambeth Walk, beginning to drift silently away down various side-streets, separate strands of a dispersing fog. Louisa’s saviour, actress or variety performer or whomever she might be, stood watching them depart with deadpan satisfaction, head cocked to one side and slim arms folded on the insurmountable defensive barricade of her distended belly, thrusting out before her like a backwards bustle. Reassured that the young miscreants would not be coming back, she next turned her attentions on the loose assortment of spectators gathered round the pavement birth, who’d witnessed all of the foregoing whilst stood in a shamed and ineffectual silence.

“As for you lot, why on Earth are you all standing round that poor girl if there’s none of you prepared to help her? Hasn’t anybody knocked upon a door to ask for blankets and hot water? Here, come on and let me through.”

Abashed, the gathering parted and allowed her to approach Louisa, gasping and spread-eagled there amongst the cigarette-ends and the sweepings. One of the admonished onlookers elected to take up the newcomer’s suggestion of appealing for hot water, towels and other birth accoutrements at doorsteps up and down the street, while she herself stooped by Louisa’s side as best as she was able given her own cumbersome condition. Wincing with discomfort, she reached out and brushed sweat-varnished strands of lank hair from the panting woman’s forehead as she spoke to her.

“Let’s hope this doesn’t set me off as well, or we shall have a right to-do. Now, what’s your name, dear, and however have you come to be in this predicament?”

Between gasps, Snowy’s wife responded that she was Louisa Vernall and had been attempting to get home to Lollard Street when the birth process had begun. The rescuer made two or three tight little nods as a response, her fine-boned features thoughtful.

“And where is your husband?”

Since this question coincided with her next contraction, poor Louisa was unable to reply except by lifting one damp, trembling hand to point accusingly towards the sky directly overhead. At first interpreting the gesture as a signal that Louisa was a widow with a husband now in heaven, the expectant Good Samaritan eventually cottoned on and raised her own dark, long-lashed eyes in the direction that the moaning girl was indicating. Standing straddling the roof-ridge, statue-still above the scene save for the blizzard flurry of his hair, even his jacket hanging oddly motionless in a stiff breeze, John Vernall might have been a whitewashed weathervane to judge from the expression that was in his face as he returned the woman’s startled gaze with one that was unflinching and incurious. She stared him out for only a few moments before giving up and turning back to speak to his distressed young wife, thrashing and breathing like a landed fish there on the paving stones beside the crouching would-be midwife.

“I see. Is he mad?”

This was delivered as a straightforward enquiry, without condemnation. Snowy’s wife, then resting in a too-brief trough between the waves of pain, nodded despairingly while mumbling her affirmation.

“Yes, ma’am. I fear very much he is.”

The woman sniffed.

“Poor man. The same could happen, I suppose, to any one of us. However, I propose that for the moment we forget him and attend to you instead. Now, let’s see how we’re getting on.”

With this she shifted to a kneeling posture so that she might minister with greater comfort to her more immediately needy sister in maternity. By now the fellow who’d gone door-to-door in search of blankets and warm water had returned bearing between both hands a steaming wide enamel bowl, towels draped across one arm as if he were a waiter at a posh hotel. Despite the greater frequency of poor Louisa’s screams the situation seemed to be under control, although of course in actuality it never had been any other. Just as John had known it would do, everything was happening in time. Smiling at his own unintended wordplay, no doubt picked up from his father, Snowy tilted back his head and reappraised the sky. More threadbare bed-sheet clouds had been snatched up in haste and dragged halfway across the naked sun, which, judging from such flinching and contracted shadows as remained, was now precisely at its zenith. There was a good twenty minutes left before his daughter would be born. They’d name her May, after Louisa’s mum.

He was the snow-capped pole of Lambeth and the borough whirled beneath his feet. Up to the north, beyond the chimneypots, was sooty Waterloo. Down on his left and to the south, he thought, was Mary’s Church, or St. Mary’s-in-Lambeth as it was more properly called, where Captain William Bligh and both the flora-cataloguing Tradescants were buried, while due west in front of him stood Lambeth Palace. Not far to the east, of course, not far enough for him at any rate, was Bedlam.

He’d not seen the place in seven years, not since he was a lad of nineteen with their Thursa two years younger, which was when his father Ern had finally passed away. There’d been a notifying letter come from the asylum, at which he and Thursa had made the short journey up the road to see their parent prior to burial. A trip of at the most ten minutes’ walk, it had become apparently more lengthy and more difficult to make with every passing year, dwindling from a monthly to an annual occurrence, usually at Christmas, which for Snowy ever since had seemed a dreadful season.

That wet afternoon in the July of 1882 had been the first time Snowy or his sister had seen someone dead, this being some few years before their father’s mum, their grandmother, had gone as well. The two unusually quiet and dry-eyed youngsters had been shown through to a rear shed where the corpses were laid out, a cold and overcast place in which Ernie Vernall’s alabaster body seemed almost the only source of light. Face upward on a slab of pale fishmonger’s marble with his eyes still open, John and Thursa’s dad had the expression of a military recruit stood to attention on some ultimate parade ground: carefully neutral, focussed resolutely on the distance, trying hard not to attract the scrutiny of an inspecting officer. His blanched skin, now a hard and chill veneer beneath John’s cautiously exploring fingertips, had turned the colour of his hair, had turned the colour of the sheet with sculpted, dropping folds that covered the nude form to just above its navel. They could no longer determine, quite, the point at which their father’s whiteness finished and that of the mortuary plinth supporting him began. His death had chiselled, sanded down and polished him, transformed him to a stark and beautiful relief.

This was their father’s end. Both of them understood that, though not in the same sense that most other people would have done, with ‘end’ as a mere synonym for death. To John and Thursa, tutored by the late Ern Vernall, it was no more than a geometric term, as when one talked about the ends of lines or streets or tables. Side by side they’d looked in awe on his arresting stillness, knowing that, for the first time, they saw the structure of a human life end-on. It had been wholly different from the side-on view one usually had of people while they were alive, while they were still caught up in the extension and apparent movement of their selves through time, along Creation’s hidden axis. Snowy and his sister stood regarding their dead father, both aware that they were gazing down the marvellous and fearful bore of the eternal. Thursa had begun to hum, a fragile little air of her own slapdash and impromptu composition, rising strings of notes left hanging with unnaturally long intervals, during which Snowy knew his sister heard an intricate cascade of subdivided echo filling in the gaps. He’d cocked his head and concentrated until he could hear the same thing she did and then taken Thursa’s warm, damp hand, the two of them together in the morgue-hut’s whispery pall and thrilling to an implied music that was both magnificent and bottomless.

As Snowy thought about it now, high in the eaves of Lambeth, he and Thursa always had been differently disposed towards the worldview that their father had impressed upon them. For his own part, Snowy had elected to immerse himself entirely in the storm of the experience, to plunge into this new exploded life the way that, as a child, he’d plunged unhesitatingly into the iron-green wall of each oncoming wave upon the yellow shore at Margate. Every moment of him was a roaring gold infinity with Snowy spinning giddy and resplendent at its whirlpool heart, beyond death and past reason.

Thursa on the other hand, as she’d confessed to him not long after their dad’s demise, saw in her brother’s glorious tempest a devouring force that could mean only the disintegration of her more frail personality. Instead she’d chosen to block out the broader implications of Ern Vernall’s madhouse lessons and to fix all her attention on one narrow strand, this being how her father’s new conception of geometry applied to sound and its transmission. She had trained herself to hear a single voice in the arrangement rather than risk being swallowed by the fugue of being in which Snowy was consumed. She hung on to herself for dear life, clinging tightly to the mooring of her piano accordion, a scuff-marked veteran beast of fawn and tan which Thursa carried with her everywhere. At present both she and her skirling instrument were lodged with relatives at Fort Street in Northampton, while her eldest brother wore a pendulum track between there and Lambeth, hiking three score miles and back from one location to the other.

Down below the woman with the stagy accent urged Louisa to push harder. Snowy’s wife, her thick limbs and broad features glistening with perspiration, only bellowed.

“I am fucking pushing, don’t tell me to fucking push! Oh no, I’m sorry. Please, I’m sorry. I don’t mean it. I don’t mean it.”

He adored Louisa, loved her with his every fibre, with each strange and convoluted thought that passed, like party streamers in a gale, through Snowy’s frost-crowned head. He loved her kindness, loved the thick-set look of her, at once as plain and pleasing to the eye as fresh-baked bread. Her mass of personality ensured that his wife was a creature of the earth, one grounded in the solid world of streets and bills and childbirth, of her body and biology. She did not care at all for spires or sky or the precarious, preferring hearth and walls and ceiling to her husband’s altitudes, the steeplejack obsessions he’d inherited from his late father. She cleaved to the gravity that Snowy knew he’d spend the whole of his unusual existence trying to overcome, and doing so became his counterweight, a vital anchor that prevented him from bowling off into the heavens like a lost kite.

In return, Louisa could enjoy the more remote and somewhat safer thrills of the kite-handler, watching heart in mouth or cheering with delight as he negotiated each fresh updraft, shivering and squinting sympathetically in the imagined gust and glare. He knew that fifty years from now, after his death, she’d hardly venture out of doors again, shunning a firmament into which, by that time, her painted paper dragon would have long since blown away and left her only with a memory of the wind that tugged with such insistence on his string, an elemental force that would at last have won its battle and pulled Snowy Vernall from her empty, reaching fingers.

That, of course, was all in the now-then, while down beneath him in the now-now he could hear, behind Louisa’s screams and the bystanders’ muffled mutter, the low storm-front rumble of his daughter’s coming life as it approached this worldly station. Snowy thought about the cross of whispered rumours that his child would always carry with her, all the talk of madness in the family like something from a gothic novel. First her great-grandfather John, who Snowy had been named for, then poor Ern, the grandfather that she would never know, both locked away in Bedlam. Snowy knew that such was not to be his fate, but that his reputation as a madman would be none the less for this, and neither would the heavy legacy his soon-born daughter should be made to carry. Looking down towards the square of paving where his and Louisa’s baby would be shortly making her appearance, he recalled the eerie splendour that had spoken to his father in St. Paul’s Cathedral all those years ago; the words with which, according to Ern Vernall, that extraordinary conversation had commenced. Snowy was smiling with amusement and yet felt the hot tears pricking in his eyes as he repeated the phrase softly to himself, while overlooking all the furious activity in Lambeth Walk below.

“This will be very hard for you.”

He meant his child, his wife, himself, meant everyone who’d ever struggled from the womb to somewhere that was brighter, colder, dirtier and not so loving in its ways. This, THIS, this place, this eddy in the soup of history, this would be very hard for all of them. You didn’t need an angel to come down and tell you that. It would be hard for everybody else because they lived within a moving world of death, bereavement and impermanence, a world of constant seeming change that bubbled with machine-guns, with the motor-driven carriages that he’d heard talk of, with smudged paintings, smutty books, new things of all kinds all the time. It would be hard for Snowy because he lived in a world where everything was there forever, never ended, never altered. He lived in the world as the world truly was, as his late father had explained it to him. As a consequence of this he had become, despite his various acknowledged skills, both lunatic and unemployable. He had become the kind of man who stands about on rooftops with glass doorknobs in his pockets.

Even given this, on balance Snowy felt that he was blessed rather than blighted. There was no point feeling differently, not in a world where every instant, every feeling carried on forever. He would sooner live a life of endless blessing than one of undying curse, and after all, it was in how you chose to see things that the narrow border between Hell and Paradise was traced. Though his condition, part inherited and part acquired, had many drawbacks in material terms these were outnumbered by the almost unimaginable benefits. He was entirely without fear, able to scale sheer walls without regard for life or limb, simply because he knew that he was not destined to perish in a fall. His death would come in a long corridor of rooms, like the compartments on a railway train, and Snowy’s mouth would be crammed full of colours. He had no idea yet why this would be so, but only that it would be. Until then, he could take risks without anxiety. He could do anything he pleased.

This freedom was at once the aspect of his state that he valued most highly, and its greatest contradiction. He was free to do the most outrageous things only because these actions were already fixed in what to others was the future, and because he had to. When he looked at it objectively, he saw that the real measure of his freedom was that he was free of the illusion of free will. He was unburdened by the comforting mirage that other men took faith in, the delusion that allowed them to take walks or beat their wives or tie their shoes, apparently whenever they should wish, as if they had a choice. As if they and their lives were not the smallest and most abstract brushstroke, a pointillist dab fixed and unmoving in time’s varnish, there eternally on an immeasurable canvas, part of a design too vast for its component marks to ever glimpse or comprehend. The terror and the glory of John Vernall’s situation was that of a pigment smear made suddenly aware of its position at the corner of a masterpiece, a dot that knows that it is held in place forever on the painted surface, that it’s never going anywhere, and yet exults: “How dreadful and how fabulous!” He knew himself, knew what he was and knew that this advantaged him in certain ways above his fellow squiggles in the picture, who were not so conscious of their true predicament, its majesty, nor of its many possibilities.

Magical powers were his, besides the fearlessness that lifted him amongst the slate slopes of the skyline. He could easily accomplish an unbearably long walk, or any other lengthy undertaking for that matter, by the application of techniques learned from his father. Ernest had explained to him and Thursa how there was a way of folding our experience of space as easily as we might fold a map to join two distant points together, say the Boroughs of Northampton and the streets of Lambeth. These two places were in fact unusually easy to bring into close proximity, due to the numerous others who had made the trip before and, doing so, had worked the fold into a worn and whitened crease. Snowy exploited it whenever he was called upon to travel between Thursa in the Boroughs and his mum’s in Lambeth with young Messenger and Appelina. All he had to do was set off on his journey and then, as his dad had taught him, lift into a different sort of thinking that moved like the passage of events in dreams, outside the realm of minutes, hours and days. Time then would settle easily into this old, familiar wrinkle and the next thing Snowy knew he’d be arriving at his destination, having sore feet but without fatigue, without the memory of a moment’s boredom and, indeed, without a memory of any kind at all. As Ernest had expressed it to his children, it was easier when travelling to move one’s consciousness along the axis of duration rather than the one of distance, though your boot-heels would wear down as quickly either way.

Nor was this all of Snowy’s learned abilities. He knew the future, cloudily, not in a sense of prophecy but more in that he recognised the future when he saw it, knew how things would work out in the instant that he came upon them, as with scenes found written in a book embarked upon without recalling that it has been read before, in some forgotten summer, where there comes a tantalizing premonition of what waits beyond the next turned page.

He also had the trick of seeing ghosts. He saw the ordinary sort that were the spirits of past buildings and events embedded in the unseen temporal axis, spectral structures and scenarios which other people thought of as their memories. He furthermore had been a witness to the rarer but more famous kind of wraiths that were the restless dead: pained souls who shirked the repetition of their painful lives and yet who felt unready or unwilling to move on to any further state of being. He would sometimes apprehend them in the corner of his eye, smoke-coloured shapes endlessly circling their old neighbourhoods in search of ghostly conversations, ghostly ruts, in search of ghost-food. Just a year ago he’d seen the shade of Mr. Dadd, the fairy-painter who’d gone mad and murdered his own father. Dadd had died himself early in 1886 at Broadmoor Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane. On the occasion Snowy saw the artist’s phantom form it stood, looking regretful, at the gates of Bedlam wherein Dadd had previously been incarcerated. Snowy had observed the faint peripheral blur while it plucked something similarly indistinct from the asylum’s worn stone gatepost and proceeded, seemingly, to eat it. The dead painter, from the vague suggestion of his posture and demeanour, had appeared to be not so possessed nor so maniacal as when in life, but rather now clear-sighted and suffused by a profound remorse. The doleful apparition had persisted for some several seconds, glumly chewing its mysterious findings while it stared at the bleak edifice, then melted to a patch of damp discoloured brickwork on the madhouse wall.

The artist William Blake, who’d lived up Hercules Road getting on a century ago, had also seen and spoken with the creatures of the other world, with the deceased, with angels, devils, with the poet Milton who had entered like a current through the sole of Blake’s left foot. The Lambeth visionary’s notions of a fourfold and eternal city seemed at times so close to Snowy’s own view, right down to the exact number of its folds, that he had wondered if there were some quality in Lambeth that encouraged such perceptions. There may be, he’d often thought, some aspect of the district’s shape or placement when considered on more planes than three that made it most especially conducive to a certain attitude, to a unique perspective, though he knew that in his own case there had also been heredity as a prevailing influence. He was a Vernall, and his father Ern had taken pains that Snowy and his eldest sister should both know precisely what that meant.

“Nomen est omen”, that was how their dad had put it, an illiterate somehow quoting Latin proverbs. This had been the stated rationale, if such it might be called, behind the naming of his youngest children Messenger and Appelina, with one moniker suggestive of a herald angel and the other of our fallen mother Eve. Nomen est omen. The name is a sign. Ern had explained to John and Thursa that there was a place “upstairs” where what we thought of down here as our names turned out in many instances to be our job descriptions. Vernalls, as their father had defined the term, were those responsible for tending to the boundaries and corners, to the edges and the gutters. Though a lowly post in the ethereal hierarchies it was a necessary one that carried its own numinous authority. In Snowy’s understanding, by the odd linguistic laws of the superior plane that Ernest had referred to, Vernall was a word with connotations similar to “verger”, both in the old sense of one who tended verges and of one who bore the verge, or rod of office, as in the ecclesiastical tradition. But the language of “upstairs”, according to Ern Vernall, was a form of speech that were as though exploded, every phrase uncrumpling itself into a beautiful and complicated lacework of associations. Rods were wands of government and yet were also rulers made for measurement, which was presumably how rods of land beside a property were first called verges: grassy strips erupting into life with Spring, the vernal equinox, which also led back to the family name. This aspect of fertility was echoed in Old English, wherein the expression “verge” or “rod” was slang for what men kept inside their trousers, or at least thus was the etymology as passed on by their father, who could neither read nor write. In sum, a Vernall ministered to borderlines and limits, to the margins of the world and the unmowed peripheries of worldly reason. This, Ern had insisted, was why Vernalls tended to be raving mad and penniless.

As he looked down on the arrival of the latest baby to be thus afflicted, he allowed his consciousness of time to crystallise around the quarter-inch of the duration axis that the moment represented so that things slowed to a crawl, the progress of events barely perceptible. It was another talent or disease that he and Thursa had inherited, the means to charm the universe unto a standstill. “Pigeon eyes”, their dad had called this gift, without explaining why. The clouds were stopped and curdled in the sky’s blue juice, masking a sun that had moved on a little past its peak and was just fractionally behind him, its scant warmth upon his shoulders and the rear top of his head.

Below his parapet in Lambeth Walk the thoroughfare was now become a sculpture garden, all its mid-day rush and bustle rendered motionless. Litter and dust snatched up by the March breeze was frozen in its blustering ascent, suspended in the air at distinct intervals, so that the unseen currents of the wind were speckled with debris and thus made visible, a grand glass staircase sweeping up above the street. A pissing horse produced a necklace-string of weightless topaz, tiny golden crowns formed where the droplets were caught in the process of disintegrating on the slimy cobbles. The pedestrians who had been captured halfway through an action were now posed like dancers in outlandish ballets, balancing impossibly on one foot with their weight thrown forward in an uncompleted stride. Impatient children floated inches over hopscotch squares and waited for their interrupted jumps to finish. Young men’s neckerchiefs and women’s unpinned hair flew sideways in a sudden gust and stayed there, sticking out as stiff as wooden flags from railway signal-boxes.

Noise was also slowed, the chorus-voice of Lambeth Walk now born by sluggish waves as though through a more viscous medium, become a dark bass slur, an aural bog. The seamless clattering of hooves was turned to endlessly reverberating single anvil beats sounded at lengthy intervals by a fatigued and unenthusiastic blacksmith, while the rapid trills of indecipherable birdsong had a cadence reminiscent now of trivial and pleasant conversation between old boys playing dominoes. Street vendors’ cries from down on Prince’s Road creaked like ghost story doors that opened with excruciating languor on some fettered horror. Two dogs fighting down in Union Street mimicked a background rumble of industrial machinery, their barks extended to the snarl of buried engines, to a humming undertone of violence, a continuous vibration in the pavements that was seldom noticed, always there. Amidst it all there swelled the wavering soprano counterpoint of poor Louisa’s latest scream, drawn out into an aria. The pregnant midwife kneeling on the filthy street beside her had been halted halfway through a further exhortation for his wife to push, and was emitting a protracted minotaur-like bellowing that Snowy took to be a vowel inflated to the point of bursting.

Snowy’s wife seemed similarly puffed up and upon the brink of an explosion. Almost half the baby’s head was out, a bluish rupture greased with blood emerging from the stretched lips of Louisa’s privates, now impossibly distended to a painful circle, a pullover neck. A torus.

In the dreadful halls of Bedlam, Ernest Vernall had leaned in towards his children, his remaining clumps of hair unkempt and white as hedgerows on a drovers’ path. His voice descending into a dramatic whisper both conspiratorial and urgent, he’d impressed upon them the supreme importance of this previously unheard word, a term most usually employed in either architecture or solid geometry. A torus, as their father had explained it to them, was the rubber-tyre shape generated by the revolution of a conic disc around a circle drawn on an adjacent plane, or else the volume that would be contained by such a spatial movement. Tori, at least as their dad defined them, were the single most important forms in all the cosmos. All Earth’s living creatures that had more than one cell to their names essentially were tori, or at least they were when looked at from a topographical perspective; irregular tori with their mass arranged around the central holes provided by their alimentary canals. In its fixed orbit round the sun, if this should be considered without the illusion of progressing time, their world described a torus. So did all the other planets and their moons. The stars themselves, rotating with the swirling vortex of the galaxy, were tori of stupendous magnitude that had diameters one hundred million years across from side to side. Ernest had intimated that the glittering universe in its entirety revolved about a point in uncreated nothingness (although there were no means by which we might detect this motion, being relative to literally nothing), and that should both space and time be seen as one undifferentiated substance then the whole of God’s creation might be held to be toroidal.

This, apparently, was why the humble chimneypot was such a potent and unsettling configuration. This was at least partly why Ern Vernall’s eldest son spent so much of his time on rooftops, in amongst the reeking stacks: you had to keep your eye on them.

The chimneypot … essentially a stretched-out torus when considered topographically … was a materialisation of the form in its most dreadful and destructive aspect, was the great annihilating void that it contained made manifest, its central hole become a crematorium pipe up which things deemed no longer necessary to requirements might be easily disposed of; corpses, broken bedsteads and outdated newspapers belched as a foul miasma from these stone or terracotta death-mouths into an insulted sky. The blackened smokestacks thus served also as a social oubliette, as vents that whole swathes of the lower classes had been stuffed up, children first. They smouldered with the awful breath of nothing. The banked chimneypots that Snowy knew stood four abreast behind him on the ridge were fragile shells surrounding empty pits of that same non-existence men came out of and eventually went into, were a grim inversion of that other torus gaping currently between Louisa’s thighs that spilled out life where they spilled out its opposite.

Below, although the woman helping to deliver Snowy’s child had not yet reached the end of her command to push, being at present caught up in a windy rush of sibilants, the baby’s head was now emerged completely. Snowy’s wife had the appearance of those peg dolls you could buy that were reversible and had a head on each end at the junction of the limbs. As he stared down through the resplendent treacle of the moment at the half-born infant’s gory scalp, he understood that this perspective was a converse to the end-on view of their dead father that he and his sister had once shared in an asylum mortuary. This was life seen, for the first time in his own experience, from its other terminus. It was, if anything, an even lovelier and more terrible thing when looked at through this end of its breathtaking telescope.

He gazed along the long jewelled tube that was his daughter’s enviable mortal span, and saw how bright and beautiful the near roots of the coral structure were compared to the gnarled darkness at its distant further tip. He saw the furling sub-growths that were her own children, half a dozen of them budding forth and branching from her mother-stem about a quarter of the way along its length. All six of the gem-crusted offshoots had a handsome lustre that would make her proud of them, but when he saw the closest and thus first-born sprout, both its exquisite burnish and its brevity, he felt the heartbreak aching in his throat, saltwater burning in his eyes. So precious and so small. Now Snowy noticed that a later branch, the next to last, was also cut short some few decades sooner than his girl-child’s own demise, and wondered if these losses might account for the deep melancholic colouration he could make out at the human tunnel’s furthest end.

His daughter’s life reached more than eighty years into what most would call the future, but which he thought of as ‘over there’. The murky and discoloured far extremity of her lay in an England that to Snowy was unrecognisable, a place of blocks and cubes and glaring lights. She’d die alone upon the outskirts of Northampton in a monstrous house that seemed to be the whole street pressed into one building. He could see her face down in a too-bright hallway, jowly, liver spotted, features blackening with settled blood. She would be struggling to get to the front door and the fresh air, but the determined heart attack would get there before she did and would have her legs away from under her. His and Louisa’s gorgeous little girl. A bundle of old rags, that’s what she’d look like, dumped there in the passage inches from a doormat that was bare of letters, undiscovered for two days.

He couldn’t bear this. This was too much. Snowy had assumed that by surrendering to the mad splendour of his father’s theories he would be in some way made divine, made wise and strong enough to cope with his perceptions, would become immune to the assaults of ordinary feeling. It appeared that this was not the case. He now seemed to remember, as if from before, that this experience, standing on a roof and witnessing May’s gutter birth-throes with her lonely death already there, embedded, would turn out to be the first occasion where he’d truly understand the weighty rigours of a Vernall’s occupation. This appalling vista of a life foreshortened was simply the viewpoint from the corner, and he’d best become accustomed to it. After all, he was not in reality more gifted nor more cursed than any other man. Did people not speak often of how time would seem to slow for them when in a dangerous situation? Were there not accounts of premonitions, lucky guesses, the uncanny sense that things have happened just this way before? Wasn’t it true that everybody had these feelings but elected for the most part to ignore them, perhaps sensing where such notions might eventually lead? Everyone knows the way there, hey there, hey there! Surely all parents knew that in their child’s birth was its death also contained, but made inside themselves, perhaps unwitting, a decision not to look too deep into the marvellous and tragic well that Snowy was now gazing down.

He didn’t blame them. From the customary standpoint, birth must seem a capital offence with an unvaried sentence. It was only natural that people should attempt to dull their comprehension of so terrible a circumstance, if not with drink then with a comfortingly warm and woollen vagueness. Only enflamed souls like Snowy Vernall could be reasonably expected to endure the blizzard of existence without shielding wraps and without merely peeping at its brilliance through smoked glass, stood naked in the stark immortal roar of everything. He there and then resolved he should not pass the Vernalls’ rarefied awareness to his daughter in the way that their own dad had handed it to him and Thursa once. The almost-born child had some two decades of happiness and carefree beauty before life would start to load her with its burdens. He would let her have the good years that were due to her without the fore-cast shadow of their ultimate result. Though his condition came with limitations and constraints so that he could not change what was in store for either of them, he at least could give his first-born this, the blessed balm of ignorance.

He now allowed his own unflinching focus to relax, loosening his grip on the lapels of time so that the instant might move on, the horse conclude its piss, the boys continue with their hopscotch. All the frozen clamour of the instant was now of a sudden thawed so that the vulgar bawl of Lambeth Walk accelerated from its droning torpor much like a wax cylinder recording that has slowed and stopped then been rewound, its din spiralling drunkenly back to its usual tumult and crescendo.

“… sh!” the midwife cried. “Push hard! It’s coming now!”

Louisa’s final wail climbed to a jagged pinnacle then swooned exhausted into its relieved fall. Slippery and silver as a fish, the baby girl was effortlessly poured into the world, the makeshift midwife’s arms, the waiting towels and blankets. A warm murmur of appreciation moved across the bystanders like rippling breeze on a still reservoir, and then his child announced her own arrival with a rising, hiccoughing lament. Louisa wept in sympathy and asked the woman kneeling by her was it all right, was it normal, reassured in soft tones that it was a lovely little girl, that she had all her fingers and her toes. The sun parted its curtain cloud-bank and was on his neck now, some degrees behind him, with a wide stripe of cool shadow thrown down on the slabs of Lambeth Walk below, a flattened triangle with the black cut-out shape of a perspective-stunted Snowy Vernall at its apex. Casually, as if the action were not timed to its last fraction of a second, Snowy reached into both weighted, hanging pockets of his jacket and took out the heavy cut-glass doorknobs, one held by a chill brass stalk in either fist.

He raised his arms on each side, in the way his dad had told him that the angels did when they wished to affirm or else rejoice, a motion like a pigeon lifting up its wings to take off on the downbeat. Sunbeams plummeted from overhead and were cut into ribbons on the edges of the crystal globes. Shavings of varicoloured brilliance, rays sliced thin enough to see their tinsel strata, blue and blood and emerald, fell in paint-box drips on Lambeth Walk, feathers of dye-dipped light that trembled on its curbs and cobbles, brightest in the band of shade now covering his wife and child. Passing the wiped and swaddled newborn to her anxious mother, the still-crouching woman who’d assisted with the birth frowned with bewilderment at one such iridescent jaguar-blotch that was then gliding down over the baby’s wrappings and across the midwife’s dainty fingers. Stained with jewel she tipped her head back, peering to identify the source of the phenomenon and gasping with amazement once she had, whereon Louisa and those gathered round the birth-slabs followed her example, turning up their faces in the peacock rain.

John Vernall, mad John Vernall was a faceless silhouette stood on the roof-ridge with the sun behind his head and white hair like St. Elmo’s Fire or phosphorus, his arms flung up to heaven, a gaunt storm-bird come after the flood with rainbows shredded in its lifted claws, radiant streamers leaking from the cracks between clenched fireball talons. Spectra splashed over the silenced throng in luminous and vivid moth-wings, shed and yet still fluttering on drainpipes, doorsteps, people’s cheeks and drooping chins. The fresh-delivered child stopped crying, squinting mystified up into her first glimpse of being, and his wife, released from her ordeal and giddy with reprieve, began to laugh. Others amongst the gathered crowd joined in, one man even beginning to applaud but trailing off embarrassed and alone into the general hilarity.

At length he let his arms sink to his sides, returning the glass doorknobs to his jacket pockets. From the street below he heard Louisa tell him to stop buggering about, to come and see their daughter. Fishing from behind one jutting ear a stub of yellowed chalk secreted there, he turned his back upon the rooftop’s edge and took three careful steps along its ridge towards the tall brick chimney breast that now loomed up before him. In a generous and looping hand he scribbled “Snowy Vernall springs eternal” on the brickwork, standing back a moment to admire his work. It would not be washed off by the next rain, which would come from the east, but by the shower immediately thereafter.

Snowy sighed, and smiled, and shook his head, and then went down to face the endless music.


The Fort Street deathmonger was Mrs. Gibbs, and on that first occasion when she called her pinafore was starched and spotless white with butterflies embroidered on its hem. May Warren was then just nineteen years old, scared stiff in her confinement’s final stage, but even through the unexpected pain and scalding tears she was aware that she had never known this woman’s like before.

It was still freezing and the outside lav was blocked with ice, which meant these last two days they’d had to burn their business on the fire. The living room still stank but Mrs. Gibbs made nothing of it, taking off her coat to show the splendid apron underneath, white as a lantern in the downstairs gloom, with summer moths in pink and orange thread ascending her stout thighs and winter paunch.

“Now then, my dear, let’s see what we’re about.” Her voice was like bake pudden, thick and warm, and while May’s mam Louisa made fresh tea the deathmonger produced a tin of snuff, small as a matchbox, with upon its lid the late Queen in enamel miniature. Thumb curled back so a hollow was produced between the bones where they met with her wrist, next Mrs. Gibbs, with great precision, tipped a measure of the pungent russet dust into the shallow cavity thus formed. Hand lifted and head lowered she swept up the heaped gunpowder in two fruity snorts, half in each barrel, which she then discharged explosively into a handkerchief, something of a brown study in itself. Beaming at May she put the tin away and got down to her work between May’s knees.

The young mother-to-be had never seen a woman taking snuff before and was just going to ask about the habit when contractions drove the question from her mind. May growled and moaned and at the kitchen door her mam appeared with tea for Mrs. Gibbs. She eyed her daughter sympathetically yet could not keep herself from pointing out that May’s own birth had been a worse ordeal.

“You think that’s bad, gal, you’ve got no idea, all of the trouble that I had with you. You’re not abed because we’ve got no fire upstairs, so you’re down here on the settee, but you be glad you’re not on Lambeth Walk, like I was, with your dad up on that roof.”

May huffed and glared and turned her face away towards the wallpaper behind the couch, smoke cured so that its pimply rose designs had each turned with the faltering indoor light into a sad-faced tawny lioness. She’d heard it told that many times before – the tale of how she’d come into the world on cobbles flecked with phlegm and orange peel, her dad perched like a gargoyle up above – as if it somehow made her mother proud to start a family tree that had its roots sunk in the poorhouse and the madhouse both.

She heard a muffled bump from the front room: her brothers or her sister playing up, most probably because they were all vexed to be shut in the parlour out the way. May’s sister Cora, lately turned sixteen, was keen to know what pregnancy entailed, while their Jim was as keen that he should not. Young Johnny, having reached the dirty age, just wanted to look up a woman’s frock.

Her mother, who had heard the noise as well, went tutting from the room to find its source, which left May on her own with Mrs. Gibbs. The deathmonger explored May’s private parts as though a fragile ledger of accounts, careful as a solicitor or judge. She seemed to be above the meat and mess the way May thought a druid might have been, unmoved while cutting a lamb’s throat at dawn. The hearth flames, greenish when they’d burned the shit, did not so much illuminate the scene as lend it a dull torture-chamber scowl and startle shadows from beneath its chairs. Fire-lit down one already florid cheek the older woman glanced up now at May. Ceasing her intimate inspection she next rinsed her hands and dried them on a rag, a tight smile signifying all was well.

“Let’s have some light in here, shall we, my dear? It wouldn’t do to have a baby born into a world without a bit of cheer.”

Taking an oil lamp from the mantelpiece and lifting off its milky covering, the deathmonger produced and struck a match. Touched to the limp black caterpillar wick it yielded a small flame of mystic blue, an engineer smell, safe and workmanlike. The lamp’s tall chimney, tiger-striped with soot around its base, flawed by a ghostly crack, was set back into place so that the room was steeped now in a pale, warm yellow glow. The worn-out curtains looked like velvet wine. The room’s glass surfaces shone like doubloons, a splendid glitter everywhere upon the mirror and barometer, the face of the slow-thudding Roman-numbered clock. May’s dark red hair burned bright as gorse at dusk, even where it was plastered to her brow or slicked down on her damp and gleaming mound. The dismal birthing-pit was quite transformed into a painting done by Joseph Wright of Derby, like his air-pump or his forge. May started to make comment on the change but halfway through was interrupted by her next contraction, the most wrenching yet.

When finally her scream broke like a wave into a shingle hiss of trickling sobs the frightened girl slowly became aware of Mrs. Gibbs close by, holding her hand, hushing and humming sympathetically, as natural and comforting as bees. Her fingers had a dry and papery feel, cool at least in comparison with May’s. Her voice took May back to the nursery.

“My goodness, dear, that sounded like it hurt. You’ve not long now, though, if I’m any judge. Just try to rest while I nip out the room and have a little conference with your mam. I think it’s better if she stays through there and keeps your sister and your brothers quiet, then we can manage things between ourselves without nobody sticking in their nose. Unless of course you’d rather she be here?”

It was like Mrs. Gibbs had read May’s mind. May loved her mam in the fierce, angry way that she loved all her family and friends, but just that minute she could do without Louisa’s tales of greater suffering, of waters broken far more copiously, as if pain and embarrassment were just a competition her and May were in. May looked up eagerly at Mrs. Gibbs.

“Ooh, no, keep her through there, if you don’t mind. If I hear her tell anybody else about how I popped out on Lambeth Walk with our dad watching from the bloody roof, I swear to God I’ll wring her bloody neck.”

Mrs. Gibbs chuckled, a most pleasant sound, like several apples rolling down the stairs.

“Well, now, we shouldn’t want that, should we, dear? You just sit tight and I won’t be two shakes.”

With that the deathmonger slipped from the room, removing with her a faint pepper scent of snuff, unnoticed until it was gone. May lay there on the settee, breathing hard, and heard the muffled chat from the front room. A single yelp of protest that May thought was probably their Johnny sounded, then the voice of Mrs. Gibbs raised sharp and clear despite the bricks and plaster in the way.

“If I was you, my dear, I’d learn my place. If a deathmonger says to do a thing, then you be sure that you do what she says. We shoulder life. We know its ins and outs. We’ve felt the draft at either end of it. What you’re most frit of, that’s our bread and jam, and none of us ain’t got no time to spare on ignorant, bad-mannered little boys. Don’t you dare leave that spot while I’m at work.”

There was a subdued mumble of assent, footsteps and doors closed in the passageway, then Mrs. Gibbs came back into the room, all crinkling smiles with Punch and Judy cheeks as if she hadn’t just that moment scared a cheeky twelve-year-old out of his skin. Her voice, severe with frost a minute back, was sweet and oak-matured as a liqueur.

“There, now. I think we’ve got things straightened out. Your youngest brother didn’t like it much and started on at me, but I was firm.”

May nodded. “That’s our Johnny acting up. He’s always full of talk and big ideas of him on stage or in the music hall, though doing what, he hasn’t got a clue.”

Mrs. Gibbs laughed. “He knows already how to make a show of himself, right enough.”

It was just then the pain-tide came back in, smashing her bones like driftwood, she felt sure, before receding with an undertow May knew could drag her off, out of this world. One in five mothers died in childbirth still, and May grew faint to think how many times these agonising straits had been the last of life that countless women ever knew. To pass from this delirium to death, knowing the babe you’d carried for so long would in all likelihood be joining you, knowing your family’s lineage was crushed to nothing in the hard gears of the world, that bloody millstone grinding till time’s end. She clenched her teeth upon the dread of it. She whined and strained until her face went red, the freckles almost bursting from her cheeks, which earned a stern rebuke from Mrs. Gibbs.

“You’re pushing! You don’t want to push just yet. You’ll hurt the baby and you’ll hurt yourself. You breathe, girl. You just breathe. Breathe like a dog.”

May tried to pant but then burst into tears as the contraction drew back from its edge, subsiding to a mere residual ache. She knew that she would die here in this room, pretty May Warren, not turned twenty yet, breathing incinerated excrement. She had a terrible presentiment of some awesome occurrence bearing down – of the uncanny, hovering close by – and took it for her own mortality. She only gradually became aware that she was holding the deathmonger’s hand as Mrs. Gibbs crouched there beside the couch, wiping away the dew of May’s ordeal, crooning and whispering to her soothingly.

“Don’t fret. You’re doing well. You’ll be all right. My mam was a deathmonger before me, and her mam and grandmother before her. I wouldn’t like to swear in all that time we’ve never lost a mother or a child, but we haven’t lost many. I’ve lost none. You’re in safe hands, my dear, safe as they come. Besides, you’re from old-fashioned healthy stock. I understand you’re Snowy Vernall’s girl.”

May winced and shrugged. Her dad embarrassed her. He was half-barmy, everyone knew that, at least since he’d been took to court last year, had up for standing on the Guildhall roof after he’d spent all morning in the pub, drunk as a lord with one of his arms round the waist of that stone angel what’s up there, declaiming rubbish to the puzzled crowd that had collected down in Giles Street. What he’d been thinking of nobody knew. He’d worked at the town hall not long before, up by its ceiling on a scaffolding retouching the old frescos round the edge, but since his escapade up on the roof had been in all the papers it was clear he’d never have employment there again. Folk loved his high jinks, but it wasn’t them that his behaviour kept in poverty.

The stunts ensured he seldom had a job, but that was not what May resented most. The pranks weren’t half the obstacle to wealth that her dad’s principles had proved to be, principles nobody could understand except her father and her barmy aunt. Two years before, in nineteen hundred six, a fellow who’d admired her father’s skills had offered him a business partnership, a glazier’s firm that he was starting up. He’d gone on to make thousands, but back then he’d promised May’s dad half-shares in it all, with one condition he insisted on: if Snowy could just keep out of the pub for two weeks the directorship was his. Dad hadn’t given it a moment’s thought. He’d said “I won’t be told what I should do. You’ll have to find your partner somewhere else.” The bloody fool. It made May want to spit, to think that she was lying giving birth in Fort Street, while the glazier had a house stood three floors high up on the Billing Road. If ever Dad walked past it with May’s mam he’d get an earful over what he’d done, cursing his family with impoverishment for generations after, more than like. May muttered some of this to Mrs. Gibbs.

Still smiling, the deathmonger shook her head.

“He’s thought of very well around these parts, though I can see he might get on your nerves if you were living with him all the time. The thing is, he’s a Vernall. So are you. Like deathmonger, that’s not a term you hear nowhere ’cept in the Boroughs. Even then, half them as says it don’t know what it means. They’re old names, and they’ll soon be gone, my dear, with all us what gets called them gone as well. Respect your father, and respect your aunt, her what you see with her accordion. They’re of a type I doubt we’ll know again, especially turning all that money down. Yes, you could be a rich girl now, but think. You’d have been too well off to wed your Tom, and then where should this little baby be? Things are for reasons, or they are round here.”

The mention of May’s husband got to her. Tom Warren treated May with more respect than any other man she’d ever known. He’d courted her like she were royalty, as if she were the daughter of a king and not that of a village idiot. The deathmonger was right. If May was rich she’d have thought Tom was after all her cash. If she’d been living up the Billing Road he’d not have got within ten yards of her. This child, that May wanted so desperately, would be one more unwritten human page.

Not that these facts let Snowy off the hook. He hadn’t acted for May’s benefit, but simply out of bloody-mindedness. He couldn’t have known that she’d marry Tom unless he was a fortune-teller too. As always, he had pleased his bloody self with not a thought for anybody else. It was like when he’d vanish up the Smoke, walk all the way to Lambeth, gone for weeks, and what he’d done was anybody’s guess. Oh, certainly he’d been doing his work and always had a pay-packet to show, but May knew that her mam Louisa thought that he had other women there as well. May thought her mam was very likely right. He was a lecherous old so-and-so who could be stood hobnobbing with his pals while looking goats and monkeys at their wives. May hoped none of it rubbed off on her Tom, who got on great shakes with his dad-in-law. That morning, as it happened, they were both off up the pub together, out the way. It had been May insisted that they go. She didn’t want Tom seeing her like this.

The light was sweet as butter on the hearth, spread thick on the brass knobs that topped the grate. The hunching shadow cast by Mrs. Gibbs across the rose-papered end wall seemed vast, that of a giantess or of a Fate. Made dreamy with exhaustion May could sense some great approach, some presence drawing near, but then the brute fist clenching in her womb tore out each flimsy thread of thought like hair.

This time, although the agony was worse, May did at least remember to breathe out, panting and gasping the way she recalled she had when this pain-bundle was conceived. The thought was comical and she began to laugh, then settled for another scream. Mrs. Gibbs murmured soft encouragements. She told May she was brave and doing well, and squeezed her hand until the flood had passed.

The upset jigsaw pieces of May’s thoughts were strewn across her mental carpeting, a thousand coloured, slightly different shapes she was compelled to sort and pick among, establishing each corner, then each edge, distinguishing the blue bits that were sky from those that were the Easter-speckled ground. She patiently restored her picture of herself, of who and where she was and what was going on, but the rhinoceros of childbirth came stampeding through the place again when she’d not been expecting it so soon after its previous foray, and with a rough toss of its horn undid all of her efforts to compose herself. The deathmonger released her hand and moved down to the sofa’s end, between May’s knees. Mrs. Gibbs’s voice was firm and military, conveying urgency without alarm.

“Now you can strain and push. It’s almost here. Bear up, dear, and bear down. We shan’t be long.”

May sealed her lips upon her bubbling shriek and forced it down instead into her loins. She felt like she was trying to shit the world. She pushed and shoved although she was convinced that all of her insides were coming out. The hurt swelled up, inflating to a rim far wider than May knew she was down there. She’d burst, she’d rupture, she’d be split in two, need stitches from her gizzard to her arse. The howl she caged behind her gritted teeth was singing like a kettle in her ears, released to fill the cramped and golden room as she boiled over in a foaming rush.

There was a stifled gasp from Mrs. Gibbs. The baby’s head was out and if May looked down over the horizon of her waist she could just make out slicked-down ginger curls that were like flames, much brighter than her own. Mrs. Gibbs stared wide-eyed, as if she’d been briefly transformed to stone. Recovering, the deathmonger snatched up a folded towel and leaned in ready to receive the birth. Why did she look so pale? What could be wrong?

The moment seemed to shimmer in and out of focus, slide from real to dream and back. Did strong wind at one point blow through the house, though all the doors and windows were shut fast? What stirred the curtains and the tablecloth and the embroidered butterflies that swarmed on the deathmonger’s flapping apron hem? Mrs. Gibbs’s voice, heard as if through a storm, was saying one last grunt should do the trick, then the discomforts of the last nine months just melted out of May into the couch, into relief more blissful and complete than any she’d imagined in this world. Mrs. Gibbs took the sharp knife that she’d stuck blade-down into the fresh brown garden soil around the roots of a geranium, wilting and potted on the window sill. With one determined slice, she cut the cord.

May struggled to sit up, remembering the look that was on Mrs. Gibbs’s face when just the baby’s head was sticking out.

“Is it all right? What’s wrong? Is something wrong?”

May’s voice was ragged, an enfeebled squawk. The deathmonger looked sombre and held up the towel-wrapped shape she cradled in her arms.

“I’m very much afraid there is, my dear. You have an awful beauty in this child.”

As she reached for her baby May daren’t look, squinting against the lamp and firelight both, the infant edge-lit copper down one side, the other cream. What had the woman meant? She realised with a sudden panicked lurch the baby hadn’t cried, then heard it mew. She felt the swaddled weight move in her hands and, flinchingly, risked opening her eyes, as on a furnace or the glare of noon.

Its head was like a rosebud: though scrunched tight May knew it would be glorious unfurled. Its eyes, the ghostly blue of robins’ eggs, were big as brooches, focussed on May’s own. Their colour was a perfect complement to the new-born child’s blazing orange hair, clear summer sky down at the terrace end, framed by Northampton brickwork set alight in the last rays of a descending sun. The baby’s skin was dove white, glistening as if beneath a talcum of ground pearl, dusted with highlight on the thighs, the toes, a canvas primed awaiting the soft brush of time and circumstance and character. The wonderstruck young mother’s drifting gaze lighted on her first-born’s extremities, always returning as though mesmerised to those eyes, that extraordinary face. It was as though the universe had shrunk down to the tube of a kaleidoscope, a gleaming well along the length of which, from each end, child and mother’s glances locked, adoring, mirrored and suspended in the amber of the moment for all time. May watched the pink purse of the hatchling’s lips work round the shapes of its first burbling sounds, quicksilver spittle in a glinting bead spilt from one corner, lowered on a thread. An aura seemed to hang round the event, lending a burnish, a renaissance glaze. She kissed the russet crown that had a scent like warm milk drunk in bed last thing at night, and knew that she possessed a treasure here. She realised that somehow she’d brought forth a vision of unearthly loveliness so exquisite it unnerved Mrs. Gibbs.

Belatedly, as though an afterthought, May also realised it was a girl.

“What shall you call her, dear?” asked Mrs. Gibbs. May looked round blankly, having quite forgot that there was anybody in the room save for her tiny daughter and herself.

She had agreed with Tom that, if a boy, their offspring should be Thomas, after him, whereas a girl would be named after her.

“We thought we’d call her May, like me” she said. The child’s ears seemed to prick up at her name, her round head rolling, shifting restlessly on the lamp-yellowed halo of the towel. Mrs. Gibbs gave a nod, a subdued smile, seeming to be not quite recovered yet from the new baby’s petrifying charm, its beautiful Medusa radiance. Was she afraid? May pushed the thought away. What, in a precious blossom such as this, was there to be afraid for? It was daft, just May’s imagination running wild, all of the superstitious tommyrot surrounding birth she’d picked up off her mam. It hadn’t been that many hundred years since them like Mrs. Gibbs were made to swear an oath they’d not do magic on the child, say any words while it was being born, or swap it for a fairy in its crib. That was before they’d called them deathmongers, back when such women were called other names. But that was then. This was 1908. Mrs. May Warren was a modern girl, who’d just produced a wonder of the world. She’d feed it, keep it clean, look after it, and that would do more good than paying mind to old wives’ tales and reading omens in a teacup or a midwife’s tone of voice.

The baby, cradled at May’s ample bust, was half asleep. May turned to Mrs. Gibbs.

“She’s quite a sight, my daughter, don’t you think?”

Mrs. Gibbs chuckled, tidying up her things.

“She is at that, my dear. She is at that. A sight I shall remember all my life. Now, cover yourself up before they all come trooping in to see her for themselves.”

The deathmonger reached down between May’s thighs where with a single move, deft and discreet, she pulled the afterbirth out with a tug of the cut cord, whisking it off before May even realised that it was there. While Mrs. Gibbs got rid of it somewhere May sorted herself out as best she could. Then, just as Mrs. Gibbs had said they would, the family crowded in to take a look.

May was surprised how well-behaved they were, tiptoeing in and talking in a hush. Her mam Louisa cooed and fussed about while Jim was bright red with embarrassment or joy, beaming and nodding in delight. Cora was dumbstruck by the baby’s looks, her face much like the deathmonger’s had been. Even their John was at a loss for words.

“She’s lovely, sis. She’s grand” was all he said.

Louisa made another cup of tea for everyone, and May had one as well. It was hot nectar, strong, with sugar in, and while her mam and sister carefully passed the baby round, May sipped it gratefully. The atmosphere, the low and murmuring talk with baby May’s infrequent drowsing cries, was like a church event, not even jarred when her Tom and her father came back home.

Dad smelled of beer, but Tom had nursed a half all morning long, which meant his breath was clean. May put her tea down so that they could kiss and cuddle before Tom picked up their child. He seemed amazed, kept looking back and forth between his two Mays. His expression said that he could not believe his and May’s luck at turning out this painting of a child. He gave her back, then went to buy May flowers.

Her dad, half cut, declined to hold the babe, which saved the trouble of forbidding him. He’d had six pints before noon, two for lunch, bought with caricatures and rude cartoons, the funny-looking drawings Snowy did of folk, insults for which they paid in ale. Even with a prolific morning’s work, May thought it odd her father had been sent on such a bender by his grandchild’s birth. Just as rare for her dad, the booze appeared to have brought on a melancholy mood. He couldn’t take his eyes from little May, although he viewed her through a quivering lens of tears, the soppy bugger. She’d not known her dad had got a sentimental bone in all his wide-eyed, staring, scrawny frame. She found she liked him a bit more for it. If only he were like it all the time.

Snowy now looked toward the elder May. By this time both creased lids had overflowed and wet was running down her father’s cheeks.

“I didn’t know, m’love. I never dreamed. I knew she’d be a smasher like your mam and you, but not a precious thing like this. Oh, this is hard, gal. She’s that beautiful.”

Snowy reached out and placed one hand upon May’s arm, a poorly-hid crack in his voice.

“You love her, May. Love her with all you’ve got.”

With that her father bolted from the room. They heard him clump upstairs, most probably to sleep off all the beer he’d put away. Throughout all this Mrs. Gibbs had sat quiet, drinking her tea, speaking when spoken to. May’s mam Louisa slipped the deathmonger two shillings, twice the usual going rate. Firmly, Mrs. Gibbs gave one of them back.

“Now, Mrs. Vernall, with all due respect, if she’d been ugly I’d not charge half price.”

Stooped by the couch she said farewell to May, who thanked the deathmonger for all she’d done.

“You’ve been a godsend. When I have me next I’ll make sure that they send for you again. I’ve made me mind up that I want two girls, then after that I’ll stop, so I suppose you’ll be back when me second daughter’s due.”

May got a wan smile in response to this.

“We’ll see, my dear. We’ll see” said Mrs. Gibbs.

She said her goodbyes to the family, the lengthiest her one to baby May, then said no one need show her from the room. She put her hat and coat on. They could hear her as she stamped along the passageway and, after fumbling briefly with the catch, went out, leaving the front door on the latch.

The tuneless wail of an accordion moved on the river’s surface with the light and rippled the September afternoon. From where May stood upon the wrought-iron bridge between the river island and the park, her eighteen-month-old daughter in her arms, she could make out Aunt Thursa, far away, a small brown dot that walked the green’s far edge towards the cattle market further up.

Although too distant to be clearly seen May could imagine all too vividly every distressing detail of her aunt, who, next to her dad Snowy, May believed to be their family’s worst embarrassment. She could just picture Thursa’s bird-like head with its proud beak, its pale and staring eyes, its grey hair that erupted up in tufts and looked as though her brains were smouldering. She’d have her brown coat on and her brown shoes, bloody accordion slung around her neck, an ancient mariner with albatross. Both night and day she’d wander through the streets extemporising, fingers fluttering on the grey keys of her weighty instrument. May’s sense of shame would not have been so great if Thursa had displayed the faintest sign of any musical ability. Instead, her aunt made an unholy row, short stabs of falling or ascending chords all smudged into a skirling banshee wheeze, which stopped dead at the sudden precipice of Thursa’s frequent random silences. From noon till midnight seven days a week you’d hear her frightening cacophony, winding amongst the yards and chimneypots, that scared cats and woke babies in their cribs, that scattered birds and showed the Vernalls up. Stood there upon the bridge, May watched the speck of noisy sepia that was her aunt as, like a heron, the madwoman picked her way along the shore of Beckett’s Park, where leaves frothed up against Victoria Prom. When Thursa and her grim accompaniment both faded in the distance, May turned back to the blonde infant cradled in her arms.

The red hair that May’s daughter had at birth had fallen out and come back as white-gold, luminous catkins in a halo blaze that looked, if anything, more glorious than the hot copper with which she’d been born. Looked even more unearthly, certainly. The younger May grew lovelier each day, to May and Tom’s uneasy wonderment. She’d hurt to look at if it carried on. Both parents had at first merely assumed their child was only marvellous to them, that friends were being complimentary, but gradually had come to realise from the reaction everywhere she went that this was beauty without precedent, beauty that startled up a flock of gasps, a nervous awe, as if onlookers saw a Ming vase or the first of a new race.

May purred and drew her baby close to her so that their foreheads touched, pebble to rock, and so that their eyelashes almost beat against each other’s like two courting moths. The child gurgled with unrestrained delight, her sole response to nearly everything. She seemed that pleased to simply be alive and evidently found the world at large just as astonishing as it found her.

“There. All that nasty racket’s gone away. That was your auntie Thursa who’s half sharp, out with her squeeze-box kicking up a fuss. But she’s cleared off now, so that me and you can get on with our visit to the park. Out on the island there might be some swans. Swans. Should you like that? Here, I’ll tell you what, let your mam get into her pocket here, and you can have another rainbow drop.”

Fumbling in a side vent of her skirt her fingers found the small brown paper cone, top twisted, that she’d bought at Gotch’s shop in Green Street on their way down to the park. One-handed, with her other full of child, May unscrewed and then opened up the bag, reaching in to retrieve three chocolate drops, hundreds-and-thousands speckling their tops, one for her infant daughter, two for her. She held the first sweet to her baby’s lips, which opened with a comic eagerness to let May place it on the minute tongue, then pressed the two remaining chocolate discs together into one, shaped like a lens, the coloured flecks now beading the outside in little dots like the French painters used. She popped it in her mouth and sucked it smooth, her favourite way of eating rainbow drops.

With little May against one shoulder like a set of bagpipes not in current use she sauntered from the slight hump of the bridge onto the island’s sparse and yellowed grass. The isle, two or three acres all in all, had the Nene forked around it to its north, continuing as two streams that re-joined to form one river at the land’s south tip. A foot-worn path ran round the island’s edge, enclosing at the centre marshy ground that was sometimes a pond, but not today. Once off the railed bridge May turned to her right, starting an anticlockwise circuit of the riverside, breeze in her dark red hair, her daughter slobbering chocolate on her neck. Some clouds slid through the azure overhead so that May’s shadow faded then sprang back, but otherwise it was a perfect day.

She walked now with the water on her right and the broad swathe of Beckett’s Park beyond, its old pavilion tinted lime by moss, its benches, bushes, and its public lavs, trees scorched by autumn starting to catch fire. The river’s mirror-ribbon ran below the dark reach of the overhanging boughs, reflecting shattered umber, cloudy sage, torn scraps of sky in peacock blue beneath the medalled shimmer of its rippled breast.

If today was a Sunday, there’d have been chaps renting boats out from the peeling hut propped up between the crowding elms there on the bank towards its cattle-market end. Most weekends, if the weather was all right, you’d find half of the Boroughs down the park in their best bonnets, walking arm in arm, shrieking and laughing as they rowed upstream through trailing willow fingers for a lark. The chimney-sweep from Green Street, Mr. Paine, who’d got one of them wind-up gramophones, would take it out with him on his hired boat. It was nice, hearing music out of doors; nice seeing Mr. Paine play sweet old songs while he cruised down the river in amongst the lovebirds and the splashing families. It made it seem as if times weren’t so bad.

May got on well with Mr. Paine. He’d once shown her the flowers he’d grown in his back yard, which was just down from Gotcher Johnson’s shop. Crammed into the brick rectangle there’d been more colours than she’d ever seen before, sprouting from a bewildering array of makeshift flowerpots. Pinks bloomed from tins. Apothecary jars spilled marigolds. Cracked piss-pots brimmed with fragrant jasmine sprays. May liked the Green Street crowd in general. She’d often thought that one day her and Tom might find a decent house to rent down there, away from Fort Street and her mam and dad, perhaps not far off from the chimney-sweep who’d got Eden in saucepans out the back, whose murmuring Victrola charmed the crowds out strolling on the Sunday riverbanks. And he loved little May. Who didn’t, though?

The riverside path curved round to the left, its grass a threadbare carpet, pile rubbed flat by strolling old men, lovers, truant boys. May followed it towards the isle’s far side, her pace unhurried and her skirt’s thin hem billowing at her ankles in the breeze. Head on her mother’s shoulder, little May was chattering fluently, unhindered by irrelevant concerns like sense or words.

Of course, May understood that while her child was almost universally admired, some people’s admiration might be shown in ways that were intolerably cruel. There’d been that afternoon some months before when her and Tom were walking in this park, having a Sunday outing with young May. They’d carried her or let her trot a while between them, holding one of her hands each, lifting her up for slow suspended leaps to skim the puddles and the buttercups. There’d been a well-dressed couple marching by, keeping their distance from the Boroughs types, keeping at nose’s length, the way they do. The woman with her gloves and parasol stared at the Warrens and their little girl, remarking to her husband as they passed, “You know, it does upset me when I see a tiny child as beautiful as that being brought up by people of their sort.”

The bloody cheek. The bloody, bloody cheek that woman had, to say a thing like that. Tom yelled “You what?” at their retreating backs but they just walked on like they hadn’t heard. May could remember how she’d cried herself to sleep that night, face hot and red with shame. You’d think that her and Tom were animals, not to be trusted with a baby girl. May knew, just from the woman’s tone of voice, that if the couple could have found some means to have May’s daughter took away from her, then they’d have done it without thinking twice. The incident had sparked a fierce resolve, a fire that scorched her throat and stung her eyes. She’d show them. She’d look after little May better than some posh woman could have done.

Mother and child had by now wandered round the island’s northern, cattle-market end, dawdling along beside the river’s edge towards Midsummer Meadow and the south. The baby’s eyes, clear blue like winter sky, gazed fascinated at the central bog where ducks with heads beer-bottle emerald still pecked and fussed near almost emptied nests. Far off, a factory horn made brief complaint.

Around May’s snub-nosed shoes were ghost-green leaves with queer pods bulging from their fallen stems. Split with a thumbnail they’d have grubs inside, the offspring (or so May’s dad had once said) of small black flies who’d lay eggs in the bud, deforming it to what was called a gall. It was a nasty thought, but better than the first conclusion she had drawn, which was that worms and maggots somehow grew on trees, signs of death blossoming unnaturally from leafy boughs that represented life. The bank was strewn, beside the blighted leaves, with other bits of litter here and there: dog muck blanched by a diet of well-gnawed bones, an empty packet of ten Craven ‘A’ that had the black cat mascot on its box in sodden cardboard and a half-inch tall, now at the mercy of the island’s birds.

Apart from this there was a pair of pants, a set of ladies’ bloomers in the grass between the tree roots, white and crumpled up. Some couple had come here to have it off far from the gaslights on Victoria Prom, the river’s tinkle lost beneath their groans, then not cleared up behind them when they’d done. May tutted, though she’d done the same herself with Tom before they’d married, here at night beside the river, him on top of her, then afterwards they’d sit here and they’d talk, propped up together underneath a tree. Head resting on Tom’s breast she’d heard his heart, both gazing off towards the stream’s far side, the scrublands and the railway tracks that stretched off to the abbey out at Delapre. She’d listened to him, quiet and wonderstruck, while he told her his tales from history, the subject that had been Tom’s best at school. The whole Wars of the Roses, he’d explained, the wars between the Lancasters and Yorks, had been decided on the soil across the river from where May was walking now. The King was captured on the waste-ground that the Boroughs thought of still as its back yard. She’d sprawled there, half asleep and marvelling at the important things these fields had seen, at the low voice of her husband-to-be, whose spunk hung cooling from the dandelions. The memory made May warm between her thighs so that she had to stop and shake her head to clear it before she could concentrate on her and young May’s Friday afternoon. She went on, curving round the isle’s south end and back in the direction of the bridge.

Re-entering the main grounds of the park she peeped to see if Thursa was nearby. Her aunt, however, was by then long gone, as were the other sorts who’d been about. Perhaps her aunt had led them dancing off Pied Piper fashion with a cockeyed tune on her accordion, brown coat a-flap, her grey hair streaming like a chimney fire. May laughed and so did young May, joining in.

The only other people she could see were up near Derngate and the hospital, mothers or governesses pushing prams by Becket’s Well at the park corner there. Snobs. Why, even their servants put May off, looked at her like they thought she’d steal their purse, despite being no better born than her … although that wasn’t strictly speaking true. Being hatched in a gutter full of shit, near everyone was better born than May.

That didn’t make her a bad mother, though. It didn’t mean that woman had been right. She took more care of her own little girl than all the la-di-da types did of theirs. May looked after her daughter to a fault, at least if what the doctor said was right. What that had been, young May kept getting colds, just coughs and sniffles how most babies do. The doctor came to see her, Dr. Forbes, annoyed he’d been called out so many times, and they’d had words, him and the older May. He’d led her out onto her own front step and pointed further off down Fort Street’s length to where the simple girl from down the way was sitting on the cold, uneven flags with a toy tea-set spread out all around, sharing black puddle-water with her dolls.

“You see? That child is healthier than yours, because her mother lets her play outside. Your baby, Mrs. Warren, keeps too clean to build up a resistance to disease. Let her get dirty! Don’t they say you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before you die?”

It was all very well for him to talk, him up Horsemarket in his doctor’s house. Nobody would accuse him or his wife of being unfit to bring up a child, the way that old cow had with her and Tom. His children, May knew, could have mucky knees and nobody would think the worse of him. It wouldn’t be him that got talked about, or be his wife what cried herself to sleep with the humiliation of it all. Having some money spared you all of that. The Doctor didn’t know what it was like.

Here young May shifted in her mother’s arms and pulled a face. It was her ugliest one, although it would have shamed a work of art. If the wind changed and she’d been stuck like that, May’s baby would still knock spots off Miss Pears. The reason for her daughter’s restlessness was more than likely want of rainbow drops. She reached in her skirt’s pocket for the bag, discovering they’d only got three left. Giving May one she pressed the other two into another sandwich for herself. With her miniature vision in the crook of one arm, so May senior went on beside the railings and the lavatories towards the dung-chute of Victoria Prom. The sun was lower. Time was getting on. She didn’t want to keep her little girl outdoors too long, despite old Forbes’s advice. With little May not long rid of one cough some fresh park air had seemed a good idea, but there was no sense overdoing things. They’d best get home and in the warm while there was still some bright, and it was quite a walk. Stepping from under tea-leaf coloured trees they turned left on the curving promenade and carried on through cattle market musk towards the iron gas-holder’s rotund bulk.

May passed the Plough Hotel across the road at Bridge Street’s mouth, continuing until the pair had reached the foot of Horseshoe Street where they turned right, beginning the long trudge uphill along this eastern boundary line into the Boroughs’ grubby, glad embrace, into its welcoming and soot-streaked arms. The sun was a Montgolfier balloon descending on the railway station yards. Breeze stirred the pale curds of her daughter’s hair and May was pleased she’d brought her out today. There was a feeling in the air, perhaps brought on by sunset or the autumn’s cool, as if these hours were a last precious glimpse of something, of the summer or the day, which made them twice as flawless and as fair. Even the Boroughs, with its bricks rubbed raw, seemed to be trying to look its very best. A wealth of newly-smelted golden light slicked its slate rooftops and its guttering, spread blinding scum on the rainwater tubs. The scraps of lilac cloud over Bellbarn were handbill fragments, torn, left pasted up on the great awning’s deepening blue above. The world seemed so rich, so significant, like an oil painting May was walking through with her Gainsborough baby on her hip.

Across the trot and creak of Horseshoe Street, its cobbles greased with fibrous olive smears, was wasteland where St. Gregory’s once stood, or so May’s dad had told his daughter once. There’d been some tale about an old stone cross a monk had brought here from Jerusalem, so as to mark the centre of his land. They’d set it in an alcove at the church, and for some centuries it was a shrine where folk made pilgrimages and all that. “Rood in the Wall” they called it. ‘Rood’ meant cross, though in May’s mind she mixed it up with ‘rude’ and thought of the stone cross as plain or coarse, chipped ruggedly with rudimentary tools from hard grey rock, rough-cut and biblical. The monk was sent by angels, so he’d said. Angels were common in the Boroughs then, gone now unless you counted little May. The church itself was also long since gone, with only nearby Gregory’s Street to mark the fact that it was ever there at all. Now buddleia and nettle ruled the plot, the first with fallen petals thick as meat, the latter thrusting white and senile heads up into the last spare rays of the sun, lit with a burning citrine at their tips. To think it was the centre of the land.

The baby chuckled, clutched against May’s side, so that her mother turned to see what for. Some way uphill, where Gold Street and Marefair cut across Horsemarket and Horseshoe Street to form a crossroads, on the corner there outside Vint’s Palace of Varieties a slim young fellow leaned against the wall, looking away then slyly looking back as he played peek-a-boo with little May.

Her daughter seemed enchanted by the man, and an inspection forced May to admit that there was much to be enchanted by. He wasn’t tall but had a slenderness, a litheness, not a wiriness like Tom. The fellow’s hair was blacker than his shoes, a springy nest of unwound liquorice whips. His girlish, long-lashed eyes were darker still, batting flirtatiously to tease the child. Fancied himself, May thought. And fancied her.

She knew the type, their baby strategy: strike up a conversation through the tot, so your advances won’t seem obvious. She’d had that quite a bit when she’d been out with little May in this last year-and-half. With such a lovely offspring, it was nice to sometimes get attention of her own. May didn’t mind a whistle and a wink, so long as it weren’t from a lush or thug. Or if it was, she could soon brush them off, was tough enough to look after herself. But if the lad should be presentable, like this one was, she didn’t think it hurt to flirt a bit, or pass five minutes’ chat. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her Tom nor had her eye on anyone but him, but she’d been quite a smasher as a girl, and sometimes missed the looks and compliments. Besides, as they drew closer to this bloke May had a feeling that she knew his face, though for the life of her she couldn’t think where it was that she recognised him from. If it weren’t that, then it was déjà vu, that feeling like something’s happened before. Also, May’s daughter seemed to like the chap, who had the knack for making children laugh.

The next time that he turned, mock-shyly, round to sneak a peek at little May he found her mother gazing back at him as well. May spoke first, taking the initiative, saying he’d an admirer in her child, and he came back with something daft about how he’d just been admiring little May. He knew as well as she did this was tosh, and that he’d had his eye on big May too, but they both played along with the pretence. Besides, he could see now that she were wed.

He made an awful fuss of little May, but seemed for the most part to be sincere, saying as how she’d end up on the stage and be a famous beauty of her time and all that. He was on the stage himself, appearing at Vint’s Palace later on and only idling on the corner while he had a fag or two to calm his nerves. And look at women, May thought to herself, but let it pass since she enjoyed his talk. She introduced herself and baby May. He said to call him “Oatsie” in return, which was a nickname she’d not heard for years, not since she’d lived down Lambeth as a girl. This set wheels turning in May’s mind until she worked out where she’d seen Oatsie before.

He’d been a small boy of about May’s age who’d lived in West Square off St. George’s Road. She’d seen him, when out with her mam and dad, and recognised him by the pretty eyes. He’d had a brother, older than himself as she recalled, but when she told him this he looked at her as if he’d seen a ghost, out of a past he’d thought behind him now. He looked at her as if he’d been found out. The man’s confusion and pop-eyed surprise made May laugh. He’d not been expecting that. He’d bit off more than he could chew with her. She played him on in this way for a while, then, taking pity, let him off the hook, confessing that she too was Lambeth born. He looked relieved. He’d evidently thought she was a Sybil or an oracle, not just an escaped cockney like himself.

Put in his place like this it was as if he didn’t need to go through such an act, and their street-corner chat grew more relaxed and warm, without the need for any show. They nattered on discussing this and that, her brother John’s ambitions on the stage, the history of Vint’s Palace where they stood, and so on, him and her and little May in cheery conference while the Boroughs sky turned from brocade to sapphire overhead. At last, her daughter squirming in her arms, and mindful there were no more rainbow drops, May knew she’d better get the baby home to have her meat-paste sandwiches for tea. She said her farewells to the handsome clown and wished him good luck with his show that night. He told her to take care of little May. She didn’t think it odd, not at the time.

The climb up Horsemarket didn’t take long although, after some hours of walking round, the child seemed heavier in May’s tired arms. Ascending past the lofty houses there, the doctors’ residences, lit up warm, she wondered which belonged to Dr. Forbes. Past open curtains children home from school sat on plump sofas next to roaring fires, ate muffins, or else read improving books. She felt briefly resentful at her dad. If he’d not sniffed at that director’s job, if just once her old man had spared a thought for someone other than his wilful self, that could be her and little May in there, well-fed and snug, May’s daughter on her knee and being read to from a picture book with embossed covers and bright tipped-in plates. She snorted, and turned up St. Mary’s Street.

The heavens in the west ahead of her showed bruises from the roughhouse of the day, purpling into dark above the roofs of Pike Lane and Quart Pot Lane further on. It startled May, the way the nights fell in when you got close to this end of the year. St. Mary’s Street looked haunted in the gloom. Its alcove doorsteps sucked the shadows in, and splintered work-yard gates clanked on their chains. May strode on with her child held up in front like a blonde candle through the crowding dusk.

She’d have to say she weren’t at all surprised that this was where the great fire had broke out, back two hundred and something years ago. There was a simmering feel about the place, as if it could boil over into harm at any time, quick as you could say ‘knife’. No doubt it went back to the Civil War with all the Roundheads bivouacked near here, Cromwell and Fairfax kipping overnight in Marefair, parallel to Mary’s Street, before they went to Naseby the next day and sealed King Charlie’s and the country’s fate. Wasn’t it Pike Lane where they’d made the pikes? That’s what May’s dad had said, at any rate. She carried on and over Doddridge Street, continuing across the burial ground that ran from Doddridge Church down to Chalk Place. The Reverend Doddridge, who had preached down here, while not a terrible destructive force like old Oliver Cromwell or the fire was as incendiary in his own way, fighting for Nonconformists and the poor, and suited the spot’s troublemaker air. May pressed on through the bone-yard’s overgrowth and hoped her daughter wasn’t getting cold.

In Chalk Lane, by the chapel’s western wall, little May started kicking up a fuss and pointing to that queer door halfway up, as if wanting to know what it was for.

“Don’t ask me, love, I haven’t got a clue. Come on, let’s get you home and lay the fire for when your dear old dad comes back from work.”

Except a burp, young May made no reply as Castle Terrace led to Bristol Street. The lamps were going on at the far end which meant that Mr. Beery was about, walking from post to post with his long pole, angling it up towards the gaslight’s top, flame held beside the jet until it caught. He looked like he was fishing for the dark, using his little glow-worm light as bait. May’s child cooed at the distant, greenish gleams as though they were a Roman candle show.

They went on, heading for the Fort Street turn, when from the unlit terrace at May’s heels there came a washboard clatter drawing near, a rattling sound as someone dragged a plank across the bumping cobbles to their rear. A voice as rich as broth called out “Why, Mrs. May and Missy May! You ladies been off gallivanting all around the town, I bet, you only just now coming home!”

It was Black Charley, him from Scarletwell who had the rag-and-bone cart and the bike with ropes all round their wheels instead of tyres. The sound she’d heard had been the blocks of wood he had strapped on his feet to use as brakes. May laughed to see him, but then told him off for scaring them, although in truth he’d not. He was a local marvel, who she liked. He brought a touch of magic to the place.

“Black Charley! Blummin ’eck, you made me jump!” She told him there should be a law that forced black men to carry sparklers after dark, so you could see them creeping up on you, then thought it was a silly thing to say. For one thing, there weren’t black men round these parts. There was just him, Black Charley, Henry George. Also, she knew her quip made no more sense than if he’d said white people should black up so he could see them coming at midday. He didn’t take offence though. He just laughed and made the usual fuss of baby May, saying she was an angel and all that, a compliment May briskly swept aside. Angels were mostly a sore point with her, part of the madness in the Vernall clan. Her dad and granddad and her barmy aunt had all insisted that such things were real, which, in May’s own opinion, said it all. Nobody took stuff like that seriously, or at least nobody who was all there. They hadn’t since the times of that old monk who’d brought the cross here from Jerusalem. The only angel, little May aside, was that white stone one on the Guildhall roof her dad had cuddled with when he’d been drunk. Besides, May found thoughts like that frightening, great winged chaps watching over people’s lives and knowing what would happen ’fore it did. It was like ghosts or anything like that, it made you think of death, or else that life was a big, foggy, overwhelming place you knew would kill you going in the door. She didn’t dwell upon unearthly things. Anyway, angels would be snobs, May knew, judging her like that pair in Beckett’s Park.

She chatted to Black Charley for a while, and little May, God bless her, tried her best, calling him Char-Char and grabbing the beard that grew in a white frizz around his chin. Eventually, they let him cycle on, shouting goodbye in his deep Yankee voice, down Bristol Street back home to Scarletwell, which was a street May didn’t like to go. It just gave her the willies, that was all, although there was no reason why it should. There was that funny creature of Newt Pratt’s, on Sundays, drunk outside the Friendly Arms, but that weren’t what frit May about the street. Perhaps it was the bloody-sounding name, or else that up round Scarletwell they kept the fever cart, high windows, leaded glass, that let in light but wouldn’t let you see the poor buggers inside that it took off, with scarlet fever or that other one whose name May wasn’t sure how to pronounce, to camps out on the edges of the town. Whatever it was that got on her nerves about the old hill, you could safely say as Scarletwell Street weren’t May’s favourite place. That might change, she supposed, in a few years when she was traipsing up there every day and taking little May to Spring Lane School, but until then she’d give it a wide berth.

May turned left into Fort Street where there was no cobbled road, just flagstones wall to wall. Although she knew it bent round to the right at its far point and ran along the back of Moat Street, sloping down into Bath Row, her home street always looked like a dead end where vehicles couldn’t go, that led nowhere of very much importance anyway. Her daughter was now bouncing up and down with shrill excitement in May’s freckled arms, the child having by this point recognised the dear, familiar row down which they walked. May clacked on over the rough tilting slabs and past her mam and dad’s house, number ten. Gaslight was shining from their passageway out through cracks round the poorly hung front door; the parlour dark, empty save ornaments.

Johnny and Cora and her mam and dad would at this time of night most likely be round the tea-table in the living room, having their bread and jam and bit of cake. She went on to her own house, number twelve, and opened its unlocked door with one hand, not putting May down ’til she was inside. She lit the mantle first, then lit a fire, sticking her daughter into the high chair while she went to retrieve the potted meat from the tin safe atop the cellar stairs. She made the baby’s tea and served it up after she’d carefully trimmed off all the crusts. Little May slowly ate her sandwiches, taking her time, making a lot of mess, while her mam took the opportunity to do a nice liver and onion roll, then put it in the stove for her and Tom.

The evening nigh on flew by after that. Tom got home from the brewery where he worked, his Friday night pay-packet in his hand, in time to say goodnight to little May before she got took off upstairs to bed, up the apples and pears to Uncle Ned. Next her and Tom had dinner by themselves, then chatted until they retired as well. They cuddled once the candle was blown out, then May asked Tom to pull her nightgown up and get on top so he could put it in. It was their favourite time, a Friday night. No need to get up early the next day, when with a bit of luck their little girl would sleep in long enough for May and Tom to have another fuck when they woke up. Beneath her man, May hardly spared a thought for that chap by Vint’s Palace earlier on.

By Saturday, their daughter’s cough was back and it seemed like she had a job to breathe. They called old Forbes out, Sunday afternoon, when they’d meant to be walking in the park. The doctor turned up, as he always did, moaning about them spoiling his weekend, then shut up after he’d seen little May. The child’s skin had took on a yellow cast which they’d both hoped they were imagining.

He said their baby had diphtheria.

The wagon from the top of Scarletwell was summoned. Little May was placed aboard and off it went, windows of leaded glass placed too high up its sides to see in through. The hooves and coach-wheels hardly made a sound, rolling away down the uncobbled lane as the one ray of light that lit May’s heart was taken off inside the fever cart.

The second time that Mrs. Gibbs called round she had a different coloured apron on, black where the previous one was pristine white. When May recalled it afterwards she thought that it had had a decorated hem, Egyptian beetles in viridian embroidered there instead of butterflies. That was just her imagination, though. The apron was an unadorned plain black.

May was sat by herself in the front room. The half-sized coffin, resting on two chairs like a mesmerist’s audience volunteer, was by the window at the room’s far end. Her baby’s sleeping face looked grey, suffused by dusty light decanted through the nets. She’d no doubt look all right when she woke up. Oh, stop it, May thought to herself. Just stop. Then she began to shake and cry again.

The cruellest thing was that they’d brought her home. After a week May’s child had been sent back to Fort Street from the remote fever camp, so May and Tom had thought she’d be all right. But what did they know of diphtheria? They couldn’t even say it properly and called it ‘Dip’ like everybody else. They didn’t know that it came in two parts, or that most people got over the first only to have the next stage take them off. Weakened by the onset of the disease, they’d got no fight left when it stopped their hearts. Especially young children, so they said. Especially, May thought, the ones whose mams had kept their little boys and girls too clean. Whose mams had been concerned lest people say that they weren’t fit to take care of a child, and then gone on to prove those people right.

It was her fault. She knew it was her fault. She’d been too proud. Pride came before a fall, that’s what they said, and sure enough it did. May felt as if she’d fell out of her life, the lovely life she’d had two weeks before. She’d fell out of her dreams, her hopes. She’d fell out of the woman that she thought she was into this dreadful moment and this room, the coffin and that bloody noisy clock.

“Oh, my poor little darling. My poor lamb. I’m here, my love. Mam’s here. You’ll be all right. I shan’t let anything bad …” May trailed off. She didn’t know what she’d been going to say, hated the sound of her own useless voice making a promise she’d already broke. All of the times she’d comforted her child and told her she’d always look after her, sworn sacred oaths like every mother does then let her daughter down so wretchedly. Said she’d always be there for little May but didn’t even know, now, where ‘there’ was. Just eighteen months, that’s all they’d had with her; that was as long as they’d kept her alive. They’d joined that tragic and exclusive club folk whispered sympathetically about and yet preferred to keep their distance from, as though May were in quarantine for grief.

She wasn’t even thinking, sitting there. Thoughts wouldn’t stick together anymore, led nowhere that she was prepared to go. What filled her was a wordless, shapeless hurt, and the enormity of that small box.

There were black holes burnt in the hearthside rug that she’d not noticed, prior to today. The wicker footstool was unravelling. Why was it such hard work to keep things new?

The door being as usual on the latch, May didn’t hear the deathmonger come in. She just glanced up from studying the rug and Mrs. Gibbs was stood beside the chair, her apron showing up the dust flecks like the powdered, folded wings of a black moth. It was as if the previous eighteen months had never happened, as though Mrs. Gibbs had never even truly left the house that first time. There’d just been a change of light, a change of apron, butterflies all gone, embroidered summer’s day replaced by night. It was a ‘spot the difference’ picture game. The baby had been switched on May as well. Her lovely copper cub had disappeared and in its place was just this hard blonde doll. And May herself, that was another change. She wasn’t who she’d been when she gave birth.

In fact, upon closer inspection May realised that the whole picture was now wrong, with nothing else but differences to spot. Only the deathmonger remained the same, although she’d put on a new pinafore. Her cheeks, like Christmas stocking tangerines, weren’t changed a bit, nor her expression which could mean whatever you supposed it meant.

“Hello again, my dear,” said Mrs. Gibbs.

May’s “hello” in reply was made from lead. It left her lips and thudded on the mat, a lump of language, blunt and colourless, from which no conversation could be built. The deathmonger stepped round it and went on.

“If you don’t feel like talking, dear, then don’t. Not lest you need to but you don’t know how, in which case you can tell me all you want. I’m not your family, and I’m not your judge.”

May’s sole reaction was to look away though she conceded, at least inwardly, that Mrs. Gibbs had hit on something there. She’d had no one to talk to properly these last two days, she thought, except herself. She couldn’t speak above two words to Tom without she’d weep. They set each other off, and they both hated crying. It was weak. Besides, Tom wasn’t there. He was at work. May’s mam, Louisa, that was useless, too, not just because her mam wept easily. It was more May had let her mother down. She’d not been a good mother in her turn, not kept up the maternal tapestry. She’d dropped a stitch and failed the family. She couldn’t face them, and they couldn’t help. Her aunt’s attempt had been an awful scene that May was keeping shut out of her mind.

As a result, May had been left cut off. It was her fault, along with all the rest, but she was stuck with nobody to tell about all that was going on inside, the frightening thoughts and ideas what she had, too bad to say out loud to anyone. Yet here she was, and here was Mrs. Gibbs, a stranger, outside May’s immediate clan or any clan as far as May could see, except that of the deathmongers themselves. Mrs. Gibbs seemed outside of everything, as carefully impartial as the sky. Her apron, deep and private like a night, or like a well, was a receptacle that May could empty all this horror in without it ringing round her brood for years. May raised her sore red eyes only to find the other woman’s grey ones gazing back.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I shall do. I don’t know how I shall get over it. They’re burying her tomorrow afternoon and then I shan’t have nothing left at all.”

May’s voice was rusty, cracking with disuse, a crone’s voice, not a twenty-year-old girl’s. The deathmonger pulled up the fraying stool, then sat down at May’s feet and took her hand.

“Now, Mrs. Warren, you listen to me. You’re not to tell me you’ve got nothing left. You’re not to even think it of yourself. If nothing’s left, what was your child’s life worth? Or any of our lifetimes, come to that? It’s all got value, else none of it has. Or do you wish you’d not had her at all? Should you prefer that you’d not seen me once if you were going to have to see me twice?”

She took it in and found it was all true. Put like that, asked in such straightforward terms if little May were better never born then she could only dumbly shake her head. The lank red strands, uncombed, fell on her face. She’d not got nothing, she’d got eighteen months of feeding, burping, going down the park, laughing and crying, changing tiny clothes. The fact remained, though, that she’d not got May. She’d got her memories of her little girl, favourite expressions, gestures, favourite sounds, but they were painful in the knowledge that there’d be no new ones added to the list. And that was just her sorrow’s selfish part, her pitying herself for what she’d lost. It was her baby should be pitied more, who’d gone into the dark all on her own. May looked up hopelessly at Mrs. Gibbs.

“But what about her? What about my May? I want to think she’s up in Heaven but she’s not, is she? That’s just what you tell kids about their cat or dog when all the time you’ve found it with its back broke in the street.”

At this she wept again despite herself and Mrs. Gibbs gave her a handkerchief, then squeezed May’s hand between her papery palms, a bible closing on May’s fingertips.

“I don’t hold much in Heaven, personally, nor in the other place. It sounds like tosh. All I know is, your daughter’s upstairs now, and whether you believe me or you don’t is none of my concern and none of hers. That’s where she is, my dear. That’s what I know, and I’d not say it if I wasn’t sure. She’s upstairs, where we all are by and by. Your dad’s told you already, I dare say.”

The mention of May’s father made her start. He had said that. He’d used that very word. “She’s upstairs, May. Don’t fret. She’s upstairs now.” In fact, now that she thought, she’d never heard him speak of death in any other way. Not him, her kin, nor anyone round here. They never said “in Heaven” or “with God”, nor even “up above”. They said “upstairs”. It made the afterlife sound carpeted.

“You’re right, he did say that, but what’s it mean? You say it’s not like heaven in the clouds. Where is it, this upstairs, then? What’s it like?”

In May’s own ears her voice was sounding cross, angry that Mrs. Gibbs was so cocksure about a thing as terrible as this. She hadn’t meant it to come out that way and thought the deathmonger would take offence. To her surprise, Mrs. Gibbs only laughed.

“Frankly, it’s very much like this, my dear.” She gestured, at the armchair, at the room. “What else should you expect it to be like? It’s much like this, only it’s up a step.”

May wasn’t angry now. She just felt strange. Had someone said those words to her before? “It’s much like this, only it’s up a step.” It sounded so familiar and so right, although she’d got no idea what it meant. It felt like those occasions, as a girl, when she’d been let in on some mystery, like when Anne Burk told May the facts of life. “The man puts spunk on the end of his prick, then puts it in your crack.” Though May had thought spunk would be soap-flakes in a little pile, spooned on a flat-topped cock-end into her, she’d somehow known that the idea was true; made sense of things she’d previously not grasped. Or when her mam had took her to one side and gravely told her what jamrags were for. This was like that, sat here with Mrs. Gibbs. One of those moments in a human life when you found out what everybody else already knew but never talked about.

May glimpsed the coffin at the room’s far end and knew immediately it was all junk. Upstairs was heaven with a different name, the same old story trotted out again to console the bereaved and shut them up. It was just Mrs. Gibbs’s atmosphere, the way she had, that made it sound half-true. What did she know about the hereafter? She was a Boroughs woman, same as May. Except, of course, she was a deathmonger, which gave the rot she talked that much more weight. Mrs. Gibbs spoke again, squeezing May’s hand.

“As I say, dear, it doesn’t matter much if we believe these things or if we don’t. The world’s round, even if we think it’s flat. The only difference it makes is to us. If we know it’s a globe, we needn’t be frit all the time of falling off its edge. But let’s not talk about your daughter, dear. What’s happened can’t be helped, but you still can. Are you all right? What’s all this done to you?”

Again, May found she had to stop and think. No one had asked her that, these last two days. It wasn’t something that she’d asked herself, nor dared to in the wailing, echoing well her private thoughts had recently become. Was she all right? What had this done to her? She blew her nose on the clean handkerchief that she’d been given, noticing it had no butterflies, just one embroidered bee. When she was done, she screwed the hanky up and shoved it in one jumper-sleeve, a move that meant Mrs. Gibbs letting go May’s hand, although once the manoeuvre was complete May slid her fingers voluntarily between the digits of the deathmonger. She liked the woman’s touch; warm, dry, and safe in the wallpapered whirlpool of the room. Still sniffing, May attempted a reply.

“I feel like everything’s fell through the floor and dropping down a tunnel like a stone. It doesn’t even feel like I’m meself. I sit and cry and can’t do anything. I can’t see any point in doing things, brushing me hair or eating, anything, and I don’t know where all of it shall end. I wish that I was dead, and that’s the truth. Then we’d be put together in one box.”

Mrs. Gibbs shook her head.

“Don’t say that, dear. It’s both a cheap and silly thing to say, you know it is. And anyway, unless I’m wrong, you don’t wish you were dead at all. It’s just that you don’t want to be alive because life’s rough and don’t make any sense. Those are two very different things, my dear. You’d do well to be sure which one you mean. One can be put right and the other can’t.”

The clock ticked and the tumbling dust motes stirred in sunbeams that fell slanting on the floor while May considered. Mrs. Gibbs was right. It wasn’t that she truly wanted death, but that she’d lost the reason for her life. Worse than this, she had started to suspect that life, all life that walked upon the earth, had never had a reason from the start. This was a world of accident and mess without a divine plan that guided things. It weren’t that God moved in mysterious ways, more that you never saw him move at all. What was the point of going on with it, the human race? Why did everyone keep on having babies, when they knew they’d die? Giving them life then snatching it away, just so you’d have some company. It was cruel. How had she ever seen things differently?

She tried conveying this to Mrs. Gibbs, the senselessness that was in everything.

“Life don’t make sense. It’s not made sense to me since Dr. Forbes said May had got the Dip. The fever horse come trotting up the street over the paving slabs where there’s no road, when generally carts wait along the end. Just like that, she was gone. They took her off in that dark wagon, off and down Bath Row, and that was that. I stood there in the road, roaring, and chewing on me handkerchief. I shan’t ever forget it, standing there …”

Cocking her bun-crowned head upon one side, Mrs. Gibbs silently renewed her grip on May’s hot hand, bidding her to go on. May hadn’t realised until now how much she’d needed to recount this to someone, get it all into words and off her chest.

“Tom was there. Tom had got me in his arms to stop me running off after the cart. Me mam, at number ten, she stayed inside to keep our Cora and our Johnny quiet, so that they’d not come out and join the fuss.”

Mrs. Gibbs pursed her lips enquiringly and then chimed in with what was on her mind.

“Where was your father, dear, if I might ask?”

May seemed to ponder this, and then went on.

“He was just standing out on his front step and … no. No, he were sitting. Sitting down. I hardly noticed him, not at the time, but thinking now, he was sat on that step as if it were a Sunday in July. As if there wasn’t an emergency. He looked glum, but not upset or surprised like everybody else. To tell the truth, he seemed more rattled back when she were born.”

She paused. She squinted hard at Mrs. Gibbs.

“And come to think about it, you did, too. You went white as a sheet when she came out. I had to ask if anything was wrong, and you said that you were afraid there was. You said it was her beauty, said she’d got an awful beauty, I remember it. Then later on, when you were leaving you took ages over your goodbyes to her.”

The penny dropped. May stared in disbelief. The deathmonger, impassively, stared back.

“You knew.”

Mrs. Gibbs didn’t even blink.

“You’re right, my dear. I did. And so did you.”

May gasped and tried to pull her hand away, but the deathmonger wouldn’t let it go. What? What was this? What did the woman mean? May hadn’t known her child was going to die. The idea hadn’t crossed her mind. Although …

Although she knew it had, a thousand times, scaring her in a score of different ways. The worst was feeling it was a mistake, this gorgeous child being given to her when it was clearly meant for royalty. There’d been some error, been some oversight. Sooner or later, it would get found out, like a large postal-order that had been delivered to an incorrect address. Somebody would be round to take it back. She’d known she wouldn’t get away with it, not with a child what shone like hers had done. Somewhere inside her, May had always known. That was the real reason, she now saw, why she’d took that woman’s remark so bad, that time in Beckett’s Park. It was because it told her something she already knew and yet was keeping from acknowledging: her daughter would be took away from her. They’d hear a knock upon the door one day, someone come from the council or police, or a Barnardo’s woman, looking sad. She’d just not thought it would be Dr. Forbes.

The clock ticked, and May wondered fleetingly how much time had gone by since its last beat. Mrs. Gibbs watched until she was convinced that May had took her point, then carried on.

“We know a lot more than we tell ourselves, my dear. Some of us do, at any rate. And if I’d said back when your May were born what I’d foreseen, then should I have been thanked? There’s no point served in saying things like that. If you yourself had taken notice of such premonitions as you might have had, it wouldn’t have prevented anything except for eighteen months of happiness.”

The deathmonger sat forward on the stool, her crisp black apron almost crackling.

“Now, you’ll forgive me saying this, my dear, but it appears you’ve took this on yourself. You think you’re a bad mother, and you’re not. Diphtheria don’t pick and choose like that or come to people ’cause of how they live, although the poor are very vulnerable. It’s a disease, dear, not a punishment. It’s no reflection on you or your bab, nor a result of how you brought her up. You’ll be a better mam for this, not worse. You’ll have learned things not every mother learns, and you’ll have learned them hard, and early on. You lost this child, but you shan’t lose the next, nor them that likely follow after that. Look at you! You’re a mam by nature, dear. You’ve got a lot of babies in you yet.”

May glanced away, towards the skirting board, at which the deathmonger narrowed her eyes.

“I’m sorry if I’ve spoken out of turn, or said something I shouldn’t ought have done.”

May blushed and looked back up at Mrs. Gibbs.

“You’ve not done nothing. You’ve just hit upon one of the things been going through me mind. Them babies in me, like you said. It’s daft, but I keep thinking one’s already there. There’s nothing what I’ve got to base it on, and half the ruddy time I think it’s just something I’ve dreamed up, to make up for May. I’ve had no signs, but then I wouldn’t do. If I’m right in this feeling what I’ve got, then I fell pregnant just two weeks ago. It’s all a lot of nonsense, I’m quite sure, just something I’ve come up with that it’s nice to think of, ’stead of crying all the while.”

The deathmonger began to stroke May’s hand, between caress and therapeutic rub.

“What is it, if it’s not too personal, that makes you think you’re in the family way?”

May blushed again.

“It’s nonsense, like I say. It’s just that … well, it was that Friday night, before they sent the fever cart for May. I’d been out round the park with her all day and she was wore out, the poor little thing. We put her to bed early, then we thought, it being Friday, we’d go up ourselves. So then we … well, you know. We had it off. But it was special, I can’t say just how. I’d had a lovely day, and I loved Tom. I knew how much I loved him on that night, when we were in bed getting up to it, and knew as well how much he loved me back. We lay there afterwards, and it were bliss, talking and whispering like when we first met. Upon my life, afore the sweat were dry I thought “there’ll be a baby come from this”. Oh, Mrs. Gibbs, whatever must you think? I never should have told you all of that. It’s nothing I’ve told anybody else. You only come round here to do your job, and here I’m dragging all me laundry out. You must think I’m a proper dirty cat.”

Mrs. Gibbs patted May’s hand, and she smiled.

“I’ve heard worse, let me tell you. Anyway, it’s all included in my shilling, dear. Listening and talking, that’s the biggest part. It’s not the birthing or the laying out. And as for if you’re pregnant or you’re not, you trust your instincts. They’re most likely right. Didn’t you say to me you’d have two girls, and then you’d stop and not have any more?”

May nodded.

“Yes, I did. And laying there that night I thought ‘here’s daughter number two’. Although it’s not, now, is it? It’s still one.”

She thought about this briefly, then went on.

“Well, it don’t make no difference. I still want two little girls, same as I said before. If it turns out I’ve got one on the way, I’ll have one more and then that shall be it.”

May marvelled, hearing herself saying this. Her darling girl was cold and lying in a half-pint box down at the parlour’s end, not six foot from where May was sat herself. How could she even be considering a baby, let alone one after that? Why wasn’t she just sitting here in tears and trying to get herself under control, the way she had done for these past two days? As though she’d found some stopcock in her heart, the waterworks had been at last shut off. She felt like she weren’t falling anymore, May realised with surprise. It wasn’t like she was filled up with happiness and hope, but at least she weren’t plunging down a hole that had no bottom, or light at the top. She’d hit some bedrock where she’d come to rest, a floor that didn’t give beneath her grief. There was a faint chance she’d get out of this.

She knew she owed it to the deathmonger. They handled death and birth and everything that come as part of that. It was their job. These women – always women, obviously – had got some place to stand outside it all. They weren’t rocked by the mortal ebb and flow. Their lives weren’t those arrivals would upend, nor would departures leave them all in bits. They stood unmoved, unchanged, through all life’s quakes, invulnerable to joy and tragedy. May was still young. Her daughter’s birth and death had been her first exposure to these things, her first instructions in life’s proper stuff, its gravity and frightening suddenness, and frankly it had all knocked her for six. How would she get through life, if life did this? She looked at Mrs. Gibbs and saw a way, a woman’s way, of anchoring herself, but the deathmonger had begun to speak again before May could pursue the thought.

“Anyway, dear, I’d interrupted you. You were just telling me about the day the fever cart took off your little girl. I butted in and asked about your dad …”

For just a mo, May looked at her gone out, and then remembered her unfinished tale.

“Ooh, yes. Yes, I remember now. Our dad, sat on the step while it were going on, like he already were resigned to it, while I stood roaring in the street with Tom. I barely noticed him, not at the time, and can’t hold it against him even now. I know that I go on about our dad, how he’s an old fool and he shows us up with all his climbing round the chimneypots, but he’s been good to me since our May died. Me mam, the others, I can’t talk to them without the whole lot ending up in tears, but our dad, it turns out, he’s been a brick. He’s not been down the pub or on his jaunts. He’s been next door in earshot the whole time. He don’t intrude. He pops in now and then to find out if there’s anything I want, and for once in me life I’m glad he’s there. But on that day, he just sat on the step.”

May frowned. She tried to go back in her mind to Fort Street on that Sat’day dinnertime, shuddering in her husband’s arms while they watched little May go trundling off inside the fever cart, across the listing flags. She tried to conjure all the sounds and smells that single moment had been made up from, sausages burning somewhere on a stove, the railway shunts and squeals come from the west.

“I stood and watched the fever cart roll off, and it come welling up inside of me, just losing her, losing my little May. It all come welling up and I just howled, howled as I haven’t done in all me life. The row I made, you’ve never heard the like. It was a noise I hadn’t made before, fit to break bottles and curdle the milk. Then, from behind me, I heard the same sound, but changed, an echo with a different pitch, and just as loud as my own screech had been.

“I broke off from me wailing and turned round, and standing there, down at the street’s far end, there was my aunt and her accordion. She was stood there like … well, I don’t know what, her hair like wool from hedgerows round her head, and playing the same note as what I’d screamed. Well, not the same note, it were lower down. The same but in a lower register. A thunder roll, that’s what it sounded like, spreading down Fort Street. Smokey, like, and slow. And there was Thursa, holding down the keys, her bony fingers and her great big eyes, just staring at me, and her face were blank like she were sleepwalking and didn’t know what she were doing, much less where she was.

“She didn’t care what I were going through, or that my child was being took away. She was just off in one of her mad dreams, and I hated her for it at the time. I thought she was a callous, useless lump, and all the anger what I felt inside for what had happened to my little girl, I took it out on Thursa, there and then. I drew a breath and yelled but it weren’t grief like it had been the first time. This were rage. I hollered like I meant to eat her up, all bellowed out in one long snarling rush.

“My aunt just stood there. Didn’t turn a hair. She waited until I were done and then she changed her fingers’ placement on the keys, holding them down to strike a lower chord. It was like when I’d first screamed, done again: she hit the same note lower down the scale as though she thought she was accompanying me. Again, it was a rumble like a storm, but one that sounded nearer, nastier. I give up then. I just give up and cried, and blow me if that silly ruddy mare weren’t trying to play along with that as well, with little trills of notes like snuffling and sounds like that noise you make in your throat. I’m not sure quite what happened after that. I think old Snowy got up off the step and went along to quiet his sister down. I only know when I turned and looked back the other way down Fort Street, May were gone.

“That was the worst, Thursa’s accordion. It made me feel like none of it made sense, like all the world was barmy as my aunt. It was all pointless. None of it were fair, had no more scheme or reason than her tunes. I still don’t know. I don’t know why May died.”

She lapsed here into silence. Mrs. Gibbs released May’s hand and raised her own to place them on May’s shoulders with a soft, firm grip.

“Neither do I, dear. Nor does anyone know what the purpose is in anything, or why things happen in the way they do. It don’t seem fair when you see some of them mean buggers living to a ripe old age and here’s your lovely daughter took so soon. All I can tell you is what I believe. There’s justice up above the street, my dear.”

Where had May heard those same words said before? Or had she? Was that a false memory? Whether the phrase was ever spoke or not, it seemed familiar. May knew what it meant, or sort of understood it, any road. It had the same ring to it as “upstairs”, the ring of somewhere that was higher up and yet was down to earth at the same time, without all the religious how-d’you-do and finery, what just put people off. It was one of those truths, May briefly thought, that most folk knew but didn’t know they knew. It hovered in the background of their minds and they might feel it flutter once or twice but mostly they forgot that it was there, as May herself was doing even then. Just an impression of the warm idea remained, the bum-dent left in an armchair, a fleeting sense of high authority that was summed up somehow in Mrs. Gibbs. May’s earlier notion now came back to her, of the deathmongers as a breed apart who’d gained their ledge within society where they could stand above the churning flood of life and death that was their stock in trade, unmoved by the fierce currents of the world that, these last days, had nearly done for May. They’d found the still point in a life that seemed, alarmingly, to have no point at all. They’d found a rock round which the chaos dashed. Barely afloat upon a sea of tears, in Mrs. Gibbs May caught sight of dry land. She knew what she must do to save herself, blurted it out before she changed her mind.

“I want to know what you know, Mrs. Gibbs. I want to be a deathmonger like you. I want to be stuck into birth and death so I’m not frit by both of them no more. I’ve got to have a purpose now May’s gone, whether I have another child or not. If kids are all the purpose what you’ve got, you’re left with nothing when they’re took away by death, policemen, or just growing up. I want to learn to do a useful task, so’s I should be somebody for meself and not just someone’s wife or someone’s mam. I want to be outside of all of that, to be someone who can’t be hurt by it. Could I be taught? Could I be one of you?”

Mrs. Gibbs let May’s shoulders go so she could sit back on the stool and study her. She didn’t look surprised by May’s request, but then she’d never looked surprised at all, except perhaps when little May was born. She breathed in deep and exhaled down her nose, a thoughtful yet exasperated sound.

“Well, I don’t know, my dear. You’re very young. Young shoulders, though you might have an old head. You will have after this, at any rate. What you must understand, though, is you’re wrong. There isn’t any place away from life where you can go and not be touched by it. There’s no place where you can’t be hurt, my dear. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way things are. All you can do is find yourself a spot that you can look at all life’s turmoil from, the babies born and old men passed away. Take a position close to death and birth, but far enough away to have a view, so you can better understand them both. By understanding, you can lose your fear, and without fear the hurt’s not half so bad. That’s all deathmongers do. That’s what we are.”

She paused, to be sure May had took her point.

“Now, bearing all of that in mind, my dear, if you think you’ve a calling to my craft, there’s no harm in me showing you a bit. If you’re in earnest, then perhaps you’d like to be the one what brushed your daughter’s hair?”

May hadn’t been expecting that at all. It had been all conjecture up to then. She’d not thought she’d be called upon so soon to put her new ambition to the test, and not like this. Not with her own dead child. To pull a comb through those pale, matted locks. To brush her daughter’s hair for the last time. She choked, even upon the thought of it, and glanced towards the box at the room’s end.

A cloud had pulled back from the sun outside and strong light toppled at a steep incline into the parlour, strained through greying nets, diffused into a milky spindrift fog above the coffin and the child within. From here, she could just see her baby’s curls, but could she stand it? Could she brush them out, knowing that she’d not do it anymore? But then equally daunting was the thought of giving someone else that sacred job. May’s child was going away, and should look nice, and if she could have asked she’d want her mam to get her ready for it, May was sure. What was she scared of? It was only hair. She looked back from the box to Mrs. Gibbs and nodded until she could find her voice.

“Yes. Yes, I think as I can manage that, if you’ll bear with me while I find her comb.”

May stood up, and the deathmonger did too, patiently waiting while May sorted through the bric-a-brac heaped on the mantelpiece until she’d found the wooden baby-comb with painted flowers on she’d been searching for. She gripped it, drew in a determined breath and made to walk towards the parlour’s end where the small coffin waited. Mrs. Gibbs placed a restraining hand upon May’s arm.

“Now then, dear, I can see you’re very keen, but first perhaps you’ll join me in some snuff?”

Out of an apron pocket she produced her tin with Queen Victoria on its lid. May gaped at it and blanched, and shook her head.

“Ooh no. No, thank you, Mrs. Gibbs, I shan’t. Excepting for yourself I’ve always thought it was a dirty habit, not for me.”

The deathmonger smiled fondly, knowingly, continuing to hold the snuffbox out towards May, its enamel lid flipped back.

“Believe me, dear, you can’t work with the dead, not lest you take a little pinch of snuff.”

May let this sink in, then held out her hand so Mrs. Gibbs could tip a measure of the fiery russet powder on its back. The deathmonger advised that May should try to sniff half up each nostril if she could. Gingerly dipping her face forward May snorted raw lightning halfway down her throat. It was the most startling experience she’d ever had. She thought that she might die. Mrs. Gibbs reassured her on this point.

“Don’t fret. You’ve got my hanky up your sleeve. Use that if you’ve a need to. I don’t mind.”

May yanked the crumpled square of linen from the bulge it had made in her jumper’s cuff and clutched it to her detonating nose. Down at one corner the embroidered bee was smothered by royal jelly in result. There were some minor tremors after this, but finally May could control herself. She cleaned herself up with a dainty wipe, then stuffed the ruined rag back up her sleeve. Mrs. Gibbs had been right about the snuff. May couldn’t now smell anything at all, and doubted that she ever would again. Upon the spot she made a firm resolve that if she took up this deathmonger lark she’d find another way to mask the scent. Perhaps a eucalyptus sweet might work.

Unhurriedly, and walking side by side, the women went down to the room’s far end and stood a moment there beside the box just gazing at the luminous, still child. The clock ticked, then they both got down to work.

Mrs. Gibbs first took off the baby’s clothes. May was surprised how supple the child was, and said as how she thought it would be stiff.

“No, dear. They have the rigor for a time, but after that it all goes out of them. That’s how you know when they’re best in the ground.”

Next they dressed little May in her best things, what were laid out already on a chair, and the deathmonger did her hands and face with some white powder and a bit of rouge.

“Not too much. You should hardly know it’s there.”

At last, May was allowed to brush the hair. She was surprised how long it took to do, although it might be as she dragged it out and didn’t want it to be finished with. She did it gently, as she always did, so that she didn’t tug her daughter’s scalp. It looked like spun flax by the time she’d done.

The funeral next day went off all right. For saying, there were a big crowd turned up. Then everyone got back on with their lives and May discovered she’d been right about the second child she’d thought was on the way. They had another girl, 1909, little Louisa, named after May’s mam. May was determined, still, to have two girls, but rested after having baby Lou just for a year or two, to get her breath. The next child was put off for longer than intended when an Austrian Duke got shot so everybody had to go to war. May and a five-year-old Lou waved Tom off at Castle Station, praying he’d come back. He did. That First World War, May got off light, and afterwards the sex was better, too. She had four babies, straight off, on the trot.

Though May thought one more girl and then she’d stop, their second child, in 1917, turned out to be a boy. They named him Tom, after his dad, the way that little May, their firstborn girl, was named after her mam. In 1919, trying for a girl to go with Lou, she had another boy. This one was Walter, and the next was Jack, then after that was Frank, then she give up. By that point her and Tom and their five kids had moved to Green Street, down along the end, and all this time May was a deathmonger, a queen of afterbirth and of demise who took both of life’s extremes in her stride. She was thick limbed by then, and dour, and stout and all her youthful prettiness was gone. Her father died in 1926 and then her mother ten years after that, in 1936, after a score of years where she’d not come outside her house. May’s mam had trouble walking by that time, but that weren’t really why she stayed indoors. The truth of it was, she’d gone cornery. May’s brother Jim got her a wheelchair once, but they’d not reached the end of Bristol Street before she’d screamed and pleaded to go home. It was the cars, which were the first she’d seen.

Her husband Tom died two years after that, and that took all the wind out of May’s sails. Their daughter Lou was grown and married now, and May had grandchildren, two little girls. May wasn’t a deathmonger anymore. All that she asked for was a peaceful life, after the upsets and the scares she’d had. It didn’t seem much, though that was before they started talking of another war.


Aspidery piano music picked its way in cold mist from the Abington Street library to the workhouse in the Wellingborough Road. His feet like ice inside his work boots, Tommy Warren took a last pull on his Kensitas then flicked the glowing dog-end to the ground, a tiny fireball tumbling away in marbled dark, smashed into sparks on frosted paving stones.

The distant, tinkling notes were creeping from Carnegie Hall above the library and out through this November night, their sound a string of icicles. Its source was Mad Marie, marathon concert pianist, booked at the hall that evening, giving one of her recitals which might last for hours. Days. Tom was surprised that he could hear her right up here outside St. Edmund’s Hospital, the former workhouse, where he stood while waiting for his wife Doreen, somewhere inside the institution, to give birth to their first child. Though faint and unidentifiable, the veering tune was audible despite the distance and the muffling fog.

There wasn’t much traffic to speak of in the Wellingborough Road that time of night … it was about one in the morning as he reckoned it … so it was very quiet, but Tommy still couldn’t make out which number Mad Marie was at that moment grinding through. It might have been “Roll Out The Barrel” or conceivably “Men Of The North, Rejoice”. Considering how late it was, Tommy supposed that Mad Marie could well be suffering from lack of sleep, swinging from one piece to the other without any real idea what she was playing, or of which town she was in.

It all reminded him of something, standing here in swirling blackness listening to an old song come from far away, but he was too preoccupied just now to think what it might be. All that was on his mind was Doreen, back there in the hospital behind him, halfway through a labour that looked set to carry on for ages yet, like Mad Marie and whatever the racket was that she was bashing out. Tom doubted that it had been music swelling his wife’s belly for these last few months, though from the bagpipe skirl that Doreen had been making when he heard her some ten minutes back, it might as well have been. The row Doreen had made was probably more tuneful than the swerving jangle Mad Marie was currently accomplishing, but it made Tommy wonder what kind of a melody had been composed inside his wife during her pregnancy, a soppy ballad or a stirring march: “We’ll Gather Lilacs” or “The British Grenadiers”? A girl or boy? He didn’t mind as long as it weren’t one of Mad Marie’s bizarre improvisations, where nobody had the first idea what it was meant to be. As long as it weren’t the men of the north rolling out barrels, or the British Grenadiers gathering lilacs. Just as long as it weren’t a conundrum. There’d been far too many of them in the Warrens and the Vernalls as it was, across the years, a great deal more than their fair share. Just this once, couldn’t him and Doreen have a normal kid who wasn’t mad or talented or both? And if there were a certain number of such problem children to be divvied out by fate, couldn’t some other family somewhere take their turn at shouldering the burden? People who had ordinary relatives just weren’t pulling their weight, as far as Tommy was concerned.

A solitary big grey car shoving piss-puddle headlight beams before it surfaced briefly from the big grey cloud beneath which all Northampton seemed to be submerged, and then was gone again. Tom thought it might have been a Humber Hawk, but wasn’t sure. He didn’t really know much about motors, except to his way of mind there were too many of the things about these days, and he could only see it getting worse. The horse and cart was on its way out, and it wasn’t coming back. Where Tommy worked in Phipps’s brewery at Earl’s Barton they still kept the old drays, all the great big shire mares steaming, snorting – more like sweaty railway engines than they were like animals. But then you’d got the bigger companies like Watney’s, they’d got lorries now and were delivering right across the country, whereas Phipps’s was still local. Tom could see them getting squeezed out given ten more years of it, if they weren’t careful. There might not be much of work or horseflesh by then to be found around Earl’s Barton. Tom supposed it wasn’t what you’d call the best or most secure of times for him and Doreen to have brought a kid into the world.

He screwed his Brylcreemed head round to regard the workhouse forecourt he was standing in and thought that, to be fair, it was a long shot from the worst of times as well. The war was finished, even if there was still rationing, and in the eight years since VE Day there’d been hopeful signs that England was back on the up again. They’d voted Winnie Churchill out, almost before the bombs had finished dropping, so Clem Atlee could get on with putting everything to rights. Granted, at present they’d got Churchill back again, saying as how he wanted to de-nationalise the steelworks and the railways and all that, but in them years after the war there’d been a lot of good work done for once, so things could never be rolled back the way they’d been. They’d got the National Health now, National Insurance, all of that, and kids could go to school for nothing until they were, what, seventeen or eighteen? Or longer, if they passed exams.

It wasn’t like when Tommy had won his mathematics scholarship and could have theoretically gone to the Grammar School, except that Tommy’s mam and dad, old Tom and May, could never have afforded it. Not with the books, the uniform, the kit, and most especially the big gap in the family income that Tom’s staying on at school would have entailed. He’d had to leave at thirteen, get a job, start bringing a pay packet home with him on Friday night. Not that he’d ever for a minute been resentful, or had even idly wondered what life might have been like if he’d taken up the scholarship. Tommy’s first duty had been to his family, so he’d done what he had to and got on with it. No, he weren’t brooding over his lost chances. He was just glad that things would be better for his little lad. Or lass. You never knew, although if he were honest Tom was hoping it would be a boy.

He paced a little, up and down outside the hospital, and stamped his feet to make sure that the blood was circulating. Every breath became an Indian smoke-signal on meeting the chill air, and just across the street the black bulk of St. Edmund’s Church thrust up like a ghost story from the fog. The tilting headstones in its walled yard poked above the mist, stone bed-boards in an outdoor dormitory, with damp and silvery eiderdowns of vapour spread between them. The tall midnight yews were line-posts where the wringing grey sheets of cold haze had been hung out to dry. No moon, no stars. From the direction of town centre came a faltering refrain that sounded like a Varsity Rag waved at an Old Bull and Bush.

The reason he’d prefer a boy was that his brothers and his sister all had boys already that would carry on the name. His older little sister Lou, six years his senior and nearly a foot his junior, had got two girls as well, but her and her chap Albert had produced a youngest boy, it must be getting on twelve year ago. Their Walt, Tom’s younger brother and the pride of the black market, he’d got married not long after the war’s end and had two lads already. Even young Frank, he’d beat Tommy to the altar and had had a son only the year before. If Tommy, who was after all the eldest brother, hadn’t had a kid of some kind by the age of forty, then he’d never hear the last of it from May, his mam. May Minnie Warren, leathery old so-and-so who’d got a voice like a dockworker’s fist, with which she’d no doubt pummel Tom to death if him and Doreen didn’t get a shift on and extend the Warren line. Tommy was frightened of his mam, but so was everyone.

He could remember, on Walt’s wedding night in 1947 or round then, the way their mam had cornered him and Frank out in the corridor at the reception, which was at the dance hall up in Gold Street. She’d stood there by the swing door, with people going in and out so that she’d had to shout over the music that kept blasting forth – it was the band May’s youngest brother managed, Tommy’s uncle Johnny – and his mam had read the riot act to him and Frank. She’d got half a pork pie held in one hand what she’d had off the buffet table and the other half of it was in her mouth part-chewed while she was talking, flakes of lardy pastry, ground pink pig-bits and yellowy jelly mashed together by her few remaining teeth or in a meat spume, spraying over Tom and his young brother as they stood there quaking in their boots before this strychnine Christmas pudding of a woman.

“Right, that’s Walter and our Lou both married off and out from underneath me feet, so you two better buck your ideas up and find yourselves a gal who’ll have yer, toot sweet. I’ll not have everybody thinking I’ve brought up a pair of idiots who need their mother to take care of ’em. You’re thirty, Tommy, and you, Frank, you’re nearly twenty-five. People are going to ask what’s up with you.”

That had been getting on six years ago. Tommy was thirty-six now, and until he’d met Doreen two or three years back, he’d been starting to ask what was up with him himself. It wasn’t like he’d never had a girlfriend, there’d been one or two, but there’d been nothing that had come to much. Part of it was that Tom was shy. He wasn’t impish or adventurous like Lou, his sis. He couldn’t charm the birds down out the trees then sell them shares in cloud-apartments like their Walter did, nor could he manage all the easy, near-the-knuckle sauciness that Frank would dish out to the girls. Tom was, in his own private estimation, the most knowledgeable of his siblings. He weren’t wise like Lou, ingenious like Walt or even crafty like their Frank, but Tommy knew a lot. About the only thing he didn’t know was how to set that learning to his own advantage, and when it had come to women he’d been lost and couldn’t put a foot right for the life of him.

Another car swam from the fogbank, possibly a snub-nosed Morris Minor, this one headed west and travelling in the opposite direction from the previous vehicle. Its watery headlights splashed across the rough, dark limestone of St. Edmund’s bounding wall when it went spluttering past him, and then there were only the bright rat-eyes of its rear reflectors as it seemed to back away from Tom into the shrouded corner represented by Northampton’s centre. Mad Marie struck up a bold rendition of “O Little Town of Burlington”, or possibly “Bethlehem Bertie”, as if welcoming the new arrival.

Tommy was still thinking of his previous luck with girls, or lack of it. When Tom had been a lad back in the ’Thirties, not that long before his dad died, he’d been briefly smitten by the daughter of Ron Bayliss, who was at the time Tom’s captain in the Boy’s Brigade. It was the 18th Company, who’d met up for drill practice once a week in the big upstairs hall of the old church in College Street. Since Tom had always been not just the shyest but the most quietly religious member of his family, the regular attendance at the church and the band marches once a month suited him fine, and when he’d first clapped eyes upon Liz Bayliss it was just one more incentive. She’d been very pretty and a cut above Tom socially, but he knew he was a good-looking chap himself, and round where he came from in Green Street he’d been thought of as a snappy dresser, too. So he’d worked up the nerve and, after church one Sunday morning, asked her if she’d come to the theatre with him.

Lord knows why he’d said “theatre”. Tom had never been to a theatre in his life, had simply thought it sounded cultured and impressive. Anyway, he’d not expected her to say she’d be delighted, and had only stuttered, “Oh, good. Then I’ll see you there on Thursday”, without any idea what was on the bill that night. As it turned out, it had been Maxie Miller, and it hadn’t been his white book the comedian had been performing from on that particular occasion.

Bloody hell. It had been both the funniest and most embarrassing half-hour of Tommy’s life. As soon as he’d seen Miller’s name up on the posters, Tommy had been horrified, had known that this was the last place on earth that he should take a fervent Baptist like Liz Bayliss, but by then he’d bought the tickets and there wasn’t any way he could back out. Besides, he’d heard Max Miller did a clean night now and then, so thought there was a chance he’d get away with it. At least, he’d thought that until Max had come out on the stage in his white suit with big red roses in brocade all over it, his wicked cherub face grinning up at the audience from underneath the brim of his white bowler hat.

“D’you like the seaside, ladies? Yes, I’ll bet you do. I love it, me. I was down Kent the other week, ladies and gents, lovely down there it was. I took a stroll, I took a stroll along the cliff-tops it were such a smashing day. Walking along this narrow little path, I was, with a sheer drop down to one side of me and ooh, it was a height, ladies and gents, the waves all crashing round the rocks hundreds of feet below. This path, well, it weren’t very broad, just wide enough to have one person on it but without the room for two people to pass, so just imagine, gents and ladies, just imagine my alarm when who should I see coming down the path the other way but a young lady in her summer frock and what a lovely thing she was, ladies and gents, I don’t mind telling you. Well, now, you can see my dilemma. I stopped in me tracks, I looked at her, I looked down at the rocks below and didn’t know what I should do. I’ll tell you, I weren’t sure if I should block her passage or just toss meself off and be done with it.”

In her seat next to Tom, Liz Bayliss had turned white as Miller’s hat. As the theatre all around them had erupted into laughter, Tom had struggled to compose his face into a look as mortified as that of his companion while preventing himself rattling like a boiler with suppressed hilarity. After a further twenty minutes, when the tears were running down Tom’s cheeks into the corners of his desperate rictus grimace, Liz had asked him in a voice like graveyard marble if he would escort her out and take her home. That had been more or less the last he’d seen of her, since he’d felt far too awkward to keep up his Boy’s Brigade or church appearances much after that.

The Wellingborough Road stretched out to either side of him, its weak electric lamps suspended in the churning dark at lengthy intervals, like lanterns hung from masts on quayside fishing boats. They weren’t much use for lighting up a stretch of road like this, not on a foggy night, but they were better than the gas lamps that were still in use in some parts of the Boroughs, such as Green Street where his mam lived on her own with no electric. Tommy pictured her, a scowling boulder in her groaning armchair by the fireside shelling peas, with her cat Jim down at her still-small but carbuncled feet, the hissing gaslight dyeing the room’s shadows to a deep dead-nettle-green. Next time he saw his mother, Tom was hoping he’d be able to hold up a grandson like a shield in front of him to stave off her attack. Or a granddaughter, obviously, although a son would probably be bigger and thus slow Tom’s mother down for longer.

From across an empty main road the St. Edmund’s bell chimed once, although if it were for one or half past he wasn’t sure. He squinted at the church tower through the intervening billows and reflected how he wasn’t sorry that he hadn’t been to church so much since the Liz Bayliss incident. Tom still believed in God and in the afterlife and all of that, but in the war he’d come to the conclusion that it wasn’t the same God and afterlife they talked about in church. That sounded too stuck up and fancy in the way that everybody dressed, behaved and talked. What Tom had first liked, as a kid, about the Bible was how Jesus was a carpenter, who would have had big callused hands and smelled of sawdust and said “bugger” just like anybody if the hammer caught his thumb. If Jesus was God’s son, it made you think his dad had very likely acted much the same when he was knocking up the planets and the stars. A working bloke; the hardest working bloke of all, who favoured working men and paupers throughout all the best loved stories in the Bible. The same rough and ready God that Philip Doddridge used to preach about on Castle Hill all of them years back. Tommy didn’t hear that cheery gruffness in the pious tones of vicars, didn’t feel that coarse warmth striking from the polished pews. These days, though Tom’s faith hadn’t budged an inch in its conviction, he preferred to worship privately and at a ruder altarpiece, alone inside his thoughts. He didn’t go to church except for funerals, weddings, and, if this went well tonight, for christenings. He didn’t let his lips move when he prayed.

That was the war, of course, a lot of that. Four brothers setting out, three coming home. It still upset him when he thought of Jack, and at the time he hadn’t seen quite how the Warren family would get over it, although you did, of course. You had to. It was like the war itself. It had been inconceivable to everybody while they were still getting through it that there’d ever be another way of living, that they could recover from it, all the bombs, all the dead relatives. Nobody could imagine much beyond more of what they were suffering already, only worse. The future, back then, it had been something that Tommy couldn’t think about, a place he’d never honestly expected he should see.

Yet eight years later here he was, a married man stood waiting for the birth of his first child. As for the future, Tommy thought of nothing but. Things weren’t the way they’d been before the war. Nothing meant quite the same as what you’d thought it did, and England was a different country now. They’d got a pretty young queen that the papers likened to the previous Good Queen Bess, and even ordinary working people had got televisions so as they could watch the coronation. It was all like something out of Journey into Space, how quick the onslaught of this modern world had been, as though the war’s end had removed a great impediment and finally let the twentieth century catch up with itself. Tom and Doreen’s first child – and they’d talked already of another one – would be one of these New Elizabethans everyone was going on about. They might grow up to live a life that Tom could never dream of, all the things that scientists would have discovered and found out about by then. They might have all the chances that Tom hadn’t had, or else had been compelled by circumstances to forgo.

Off in the curdling greyness, Mad Marie still serenaded him with “My Old Man Said Onward Christian Soldiers”, her piano sounding small and far away, a broken music-box that had been set off accidentally in another room. Tom thought of his maths scholarship again, the one that he’d passed up to take the brewery job instead. While it was true he’d not resented missing out on education if it meant that he could help his family, he still missed all the fun he used to have with sums and numbers, when it was all new to him.

It was his granddad, Snowy, who he’d got the skill with figures from. Although the old boy had passed on in 1926 when Tom was nine (gone mad and eating flowers out of a vase according to Tom’s mam), the pair had got on well and in those last two years of his grandfather’s life Tom had spent most Saturday afternoons at his grandparents’ house in the grim, narrow crack of Fort Street. While Tom’s granny Lou had fussed around in the dark kitchen, Snowy and young Tom had chanted their way through all the multiplication tables, sitting in the living room. Geometry, that was another thing that Tommy’s granddad had instructed him upon: rough circles drawn around milk-bottle bases with a titchy stub of pencil, sheets of butcher’s paper covering the tea-table until you couldn’t see the wine-red tablecloth. Snowy had told his grandson that most of the know-how came from his own father, Tom’s great-granddad Ernest Vernall, who had once worked touching up the frescoes of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Victorian times. Snowy said him and his sister, Tommy’s great-aunt Thursa, had been given lessons by their dad while he was at a rest home. Only some years later, after badgering his mam, had Tommy found out that the rest home had been Bedlam, the original asylum what they’d had in Lambeth.

He recalled the afternoon, fumbling now in his mac pocket for the pack of Kensitas, when they’d been working on the eight- and nine-times-tables. His granddad had pointed out how all the multiples of nine, if you just totalled up their digits, always added up to nine: one plus eight, two plus seven, three plus six and so on, for as high as you could go. The memory smelled of fruitcake, from which Tom assumed his gran had been out in the kitchen baking, that particular occasion. It had tickled him, the thing about the number nine, and for a lark he’d added up the digits in the answers to his eight-times-table, too. The first was just eight, obviously, while the next, sixteen, was one plus six and therefore added up to seven. The next, twenty-four, was two plus four and added up to six, while thirty-two reduced in the same way to five. Tommy had realised with a growing sense of intrigue that his column of additions counted down from eight to one (eight eights were sixty-four, in which the six and four thus added up to ten, the one and nought of which totalled just one), and then began the countdown all again commencing with the number nine this time (nine eights, seventy-two, the seven and the two of which made nine). This run of numbers, nine to one, was then repeated, on and on, presumably unto infinity. That had been when Tom’s grandfather had pointed out that this was the same sequence as the one-times-table, only in reverse, and that had set both of them thinking.

Taking one short untipped cigarette out of the pack, with its sleek, smarmy butler mascot in red, black and white, Tom lit it with a Captain Webb’s and threw the spent match in the vague direction of an unseen gutter, lost somewhere in the cold smoulder down around his feet. The fag-pack with its butler and the matchbox with its bold, moustachioed channel swimmer both went back into his raincoat pocket. He’d a Fry’s Five Boys bar in there, too, with a quintet of lads at various emotional extremes upon its wrapper. All this advertising and this packaging that you got nowadays, it meant that he was carrying seven tiny people in his pocket, just so he could have a smoke and possibly a square of chocolate if he should feel peckish later on.

Upon that memorable afternoon getting on thirty years before, Tom and his grandfather had swiftly reckoned up the digits in the answers to the rest of the multiplication tables. He remembered the excitement that he’d felt, the giddy, sheer thrill of discovery now come back to him in a fruitcake rush of allspice, candied peel and Snowy Vernall’s rubbing liniment. The two-times-table, if you added up the figures of the products, it transpired, resulted in a number-pattern that first ran through all the even numbers, two, four, six, eight, then all of the odd ones, one (one plus nought), three (one plus two), five, and so on up to nine (eighteen, or one plus eight). Remembering the way the one- and eight-times-tables had both yielded up numerical progressions that were backwards mirror-versions of each other, Snowy and young Tom had looked at the seven-times-table, where they’d learned that first the added answers counted down through the odd numbers, seven, five (one plus four), three (two plus one), one (two plus eight, which made the ten, the digits of which added up to one), and then went on to run down through the even numbers. Eight (three plus five), six (four plus two) and so on until the countdown of odd numbers started up again. The number seven seemed to work exactly like the number two, but with the sequence running back to front.

The number three, which just went three, six, nine, three, six, nine, unendingly if you made sums out of its multiples, appeared to be twinned with the number six, which went six, three, nine, six, three, nine, if you did the same thing. The number four produced a pattern that seemed complicated at first sight, in that it counted down from two numbers in parallel, and alternated in between the two. Thus, what you got was four, then eight, then three (or one plus two), then seven (one plus six), then two (two plus nought), six (two plus four), one (two plus eight, adding up to ten, or one plus nought), five (thirty-two, or three plus two), et cetera, et cetera. The five-times-table, unsurprisingly by now, did just the same thing in reverse. It alternated in the same way between two progressions, this time counting up instead of down, so that the sequence in this case was five, one, six, two, seven (two plus five), three (three plus nought), eight (three plus five) and so forth. Tommy and his grandfather had looked at one another and just burst out laughing so that Tom’s grandma Louisa had come out the kitchen to see what was up.

What had been up was that there seemed to be a hidden pattern in the sums that could be generated by the answers of the one- to eight-times-tables. They were all symmetrical, one mirrored eight, two mirrored seven, three worked just the same as six, four was like five. Only the number that had sparked off their investigations, nine, remained alone out of the single figures in that it did not possess a twin, a number that no matter how much it was multiplied would yield the same unvarying result.

Tom, eight years old, had been attempting to explain all this to his uncomprehending gran, when out of nowhere his granddad had yelped with glee, snatched up the midget pencil and, in faint lines on the thin and shiny butcher’s paper littering the table, had inscribed two circles, one inside the other. With one Capstan-yellowed index finger, Snowy had jabbed meaningfully at the drawing, looking up at Tommy from beneath the winter hedgerow of his brow to ascertain whether his grandson understood or not. The old man’s eyes were shining in a way that had reminded Tommy, there amidst the fruited oven-fug and camaraderie of the maths game which they’d been working out together, that his grandfather was said by many to be mad, including Tommy’s mam. And everybody else, now that he’d thought of it. His granddad had just grinned and once again poked at his mystifying scribble with an urgent finger. All that there had been to Snowy’s drawing was just two concentric circles, like a car tyre, or an angel’s halo standing on its side. Tommy had squinted at the simple shape for what seemed minutes before he’d become aware that he was looking at the figure nought.

It had been just as if the lights had been switched on. Nought was the only number, other than the number nine, that didn’t change if it were multiplied. All of the single digit figures between nought and nine made sequences by adding up their multiples that had a perfect symmetry. As if to underline this, Tom’s granddad had once more taken up his pencil, and had written those ten numbers in, all in a ring between the zero’s innermost and outer circles, like the numbers round the edges of a clock. The number nought was roughly where the one would be upon a normal timepiece, with the numerals proceeding clockwise round the dial and leaving spaces where the six and twelve were usually positioned. The effect of this was that each number was now set at the same horizontal level as its mirror-twin, the nine up at the top left face now lined up with the nought at the top right. The eight and one were opposite each other at both ten-to and ten-past, the seven and the two were diametrically opposed, each at the quarter-hour mark, with the six and three below that, and the five and four facing each other down the bottom, one at five-and-twenty-to, the other one at five-and-twenty after. It was lovely. In one simple flash a hidden pattern that had been there all the time, concealed beneath the surface, was revealed.

Neither Tom nor his grandfather had had the first idea what their discovery might mean, or could conceive of any useful application for it. Indeed, it was so blindingly obvious once you’d first seen it that they’d both assumed that someone, or more likely a great many people, had stumbled across the notion previously. It didn’t matter. In that moment Tom had felt a sense of triumph and sultana-scented revelation that he’d never known before or since. His grandfather had smiled a cracked smile that looked rueful rather than elated, and had stabbed once more with one black fingernail at the blank space enclosed by the big number nought’s interior ring.

“The nought’s a torus. That means, like, a lifebelt shape what’s got a hole in. Or it’s like a chimneypot, looked down on from above. And at the middle of the nought here, down the barrel of the chimney, that’s where all the nothing’s kept. You’ve got to keep your eye on nothing, lad, or else it gets all over everything. Then there’s no chimneypot, there’s just the hole. Then there’s no lifebelt, there’s no torus. There’s no nothing.”

With this, Snowy Vernall had seemed to get angry or unhappy, just like that. He’d screwed the piece of paper with the altered clock face drawn upon it up into a ball and thrown it on the fire. Tom hadn’t comprehended any of what his granddad had just been going on about, and must have looked scared by the old boy’s sudden change of disposition. Tommy’s gran Louisa, who looked like she’d seen these swings of mood before, had said “Right, that’s enough sums for today. Young Tommy, you run off back home before your mam gets worried. You can see your granddad Snowy on another Sat’day afternoon.” She hadn’t even shown Tom out, perhaps because she’d known that there was an explosion imminent. Tommy had barely shut the worn front door behind him and stepped outside into Fort Street when he heard the furious bellowing and, shortly after, breaking glass. Most probably it would have been a window or a mirror, mirrors being something that Tom’s grandfather was known to have become suspicious of. Tommy had scarpered off down Fort Street which, although it had been barely the mid-afternoon, Tom pictured now as having then been ominously dark. However, he recalled that this had happened in the ’Twenties, long before the Borough Waste Destructor had been pulled down to make way for flats in Bath Street, so that was one mystery solved.

Tom pulled upon his Kensitas and blew an unintended smoke-ring, almost instantly made indistinguishable from the chilly, writhing fumes surrounding him there in the Wellingborough Road. He wished he could blow one like that when somebody was watching. When Doreen was watching.

Drifting up from the town centre, to the west and on Tom’s right, the jingling and meandering performance of the marathon concert recitalist was still continuing, notes hung on the infrequent threads of breeze like the glass lozenges that dripped from chandeliers. It still reminded him of something, of some other night like this, perhaps, some other music drifting from some other fog? The memory, much like fog, was elusive, and he let it go and instead wondered how Doreen was getting on. She probably would have been in no mood to have appreciated Tommy’s smoke-ring, even if she’d seen it. She’d most likely other things upon her mind right now.

He’d go back in. Another fag or two, he’d go back in and sit there in the small beige waiting room close to the front doors of the decommissioned workhouse, where at least it would be warm. He’d sit and drum one foot upon the varnished floorboards, in his mac and his demob suit, just like both the other blokes whose wives were having babies this same night, the seventeenth, who were already sat expectantly inside. Tommy had waited in there with them for a while, just after he’d brought Doreen to the hospital and she’d been took to the delivery room, but he’d not been there very long before the silence had begun to get upon his nerves and he’d made some excuse to quietly slip outside. Nothing against the other chaps, it was just that they hadn’t much in common past the fact that nine months earlier they’d had a lucky night. It weren’t like they were going to sit and talk about their hopes and fears and dreams, like actors might do in a film. In real life, you just didn’t. In real life, you didn’t really have much in the way of hopes and fears and dreams, not like a character who’s in a film or book had got. Things like that, in real life, they weren’t important to the general story in the way they had to be in literature. Dreams, hopes, they weren’t important, and if someone were to bring them up then everyone would say he thought that he was Ronald Colman, looking sensitive with his long eyelashes in black and silver through the cigarette smoke at a matinee.

The Wellingborough Road felt like a riverbed, with grubby lamb’s-wool vapour rushing down it in a flood of murk, eastwards to Abington, the park, and Weston Favell. The benighted shops and pubs were vole-holes dug into its banks below the waterline, hiding dark merchandise. As Tommy watched, a lone Ford Anglia came darting like a pike out from the grounded cloud then swam away in the direction of town centre, battling upstream against the current of the mist and in the face of Mad Marie’s continuing recital. The Ford Anglia was one car Tommy recognised by what he thought of as its sharp italic tilt, a term he’d picked up from his penmanship at school and which had stuck with him. Its cream and cornflower paintwork vanished in the oyster drifts beneath which Abington Square and Charles Bradlaugh’s statue were submerged, and Tommy was alone again, scuffing his boots against the rolling torrent’s stone and tarmac bed-sands, sucking in the fog through the last half-inch of his Kensitas and blowing it out suavely down his nose.

He knew that thirty-six was late, comparatively, to be starting off a family, but it weren’t too late. Tom had known blokes a good sight older than what he was, siring a first child. But then, with both his younger brothers having kids already, he’d not felt that he could leave it any later. If he wasn’t a grown man and fit to raise a son by now, after the things he’d been through, then he’d never be one. While the war had took their Jack away from him, the whole affair had given Tom a sort of confidence he hadn’t felt before, a sense that if he’d managed to survive all that then Tommy Warren was as good as anybody else. He’d come back home from France with a new twinkle in his eye, a different swagger there in every well-dressed step. Not flashy or expensive, mind you. Just well-dressed.

He could remember his homecoming, pulling into Castle Station on a train packed full of children, matrons, business people, and scores of returning men in uniform like him and Walt and Frank. Standing room only, it had been, all of the way from Euston Station, Tom and his two brothers stuck out in the corridor with getting on two dozen other people, swaying and complaining straight through Leighton Buzzard, Bletchley, Wolverton. As far as Tommy could recall, he’d been stood trading stories with their Walter, which as always was a contest that you couldn’t hope to win. He’d been halfway through telling Walt about the night when all the idiot British officers got pissed and drove a tank over the front gate of the ammo dump that Tom was guarding, so he couldn’t even shoot the overpaid guffawing twits for fear of setting off the shells. It was at that point in his story, just past Wolverton, that a big Yank, a GI who’d got on the train at Watford and was going on to Coventry, had joined them in the crowded, lurching corridor.

Sometimes, the Yanks, they were all right, and you could have a laugh with them, but by and large they got right up Tom’s nose, the way they did with most people he knew. On the front line they’d always used to say that when the Luftwaffe went over, all the English ran, and when the RAF went over, all the Germans ran. When the Americans went over, everybody ran. The cocky buggers had backed Hitler until 1942, then come into the war late and took all the credit, even after they’d walked slap into a Jerry trap and probably delayed the war’s end with their ‘Battle of the Bulge’, or Operation Autumn Mist as Fritz proudly referred to it. The soldiers over here, though, were the worst, or anyway the white ones were. The darkies were as good as gold, you couldn’t meet a nicer bunch of chaps, and Tommy could remember being home on leave and seeing the Black Lion’s landlord slinging out some white GIs when they’d complained about the black ones they were forced to share a ‘barroom’ with. “Them niggers in the back there,” as they’d called them. Some Americans could be right Herberts, and this fellow who’d come up to Tommy and his brothers on the train was one of them.

Right from the get go, he’d been mouthing off about how much more pay the Yanks got than the English, how they’d give them bigger rations, all of that. Walter had nodded sagely and said “Well, that’s only fair, you’ve bigger mouths to feed”, but the GI went on as though he hadn’t noticed that their Walt had made a dig. He’d started telling them, in a low whisper on account of all the ladies that were in the corridor, about how many rubber johnnies his lot had been issued by the US army. Seeing as this chap was stationed over here in England this was just as good as saying they’d been given them to use with English girls, which wasn’t something British chaps were likely to take kindly to. Tommy had seen the look come in his brothers’ eyes, the same as he supposed had been there in his own. Walter had smiled a great big smile, eyes sparkling, which wasn’t usually a reassuring sign, and Frank had just gone quiet with a tight little grin on his lean face, which meant the Yank, big as he was, was looking for a swift punch up the bracket if he didn’t watch himself. It was the Warren boys that he was talking to, who’d made a decent name for themselves liberating their small piece of France, who’d lost their brother, the best-looking out the lot of them, and who’d been given in return a lot of medals that they didn’t want. Taking their dangerous silence for respect or awe, the GI had elected to back up his brag by fishing out the US army-issue tin he kept his condoms in, prising its lid up to reveal perhaps two dozen prophylactics. Tom had wondered idly if Americans wrote chirpy slogans on the sides of rubbers, like they did with bombs. “Here’s looking at ya, Princess Liz!” or something of that nature. Walter had peered down into the open tin and said “I see you’ve a lot left, then.” Frank had ground his teeth and bunched one fist up, ready to kick off, and it was just then that the train had gone over a bump, so that their carriage clanked and rocked.

The johnnies had all shot into the air like sparks out of a Roman candle, falling in a rubber rain on bankers’ shoulders, into schoolboys’ satchels and on ladies’ hats. The Yank had gone as red as Russia, crawling round on all fours gathering them up, apologising to the women while he fished the little packets from between their heels and stuffed them back into his tin. Walter had started singing “When johnnies come marching home again, hurrah” and everybody in the carriage but the Yank had had the best laugh that they’d had since 1939.

Tom risked a burned lip with a last drag on his fag then flipped the ember end of it away into the invisible gutter with its predecessor. That had been a rare old time, back then when they were fresh home from the war. Out every Friday night they’d been, the famous Warren lads all in their suits, but only eldest brother Tommy with the matching handkerchief in his breast pocket. Sauntering from pub to pub, the shunt and jingle of the one-armed bandits strewing fruit and bells before them as they went, the busty landladies’ admiring smirks, war heroes, such a shame about your handsome brother. Free shots from the optics, Walter telling jokes and selling knocked-off nylons, only used once previously, miss, and that were by a nun. Frank leering, Tommy going red and trying not to laugh when they were stepping over brawling lezzies on the Mayorhold, and a head-of-Guinness moon cut free to sail above the Boroughs like a pantomime effect.

That snowy Christmas Eve when Walt had found an apple crate up on the market, harnessed Frank and Tommy to it with some string then jammed his tubby arse inside so they could pull him round town centre like two reindeer towing Father Christmas. “Ho ho ho, you buggers! Mush!” They’d gone into the Grand Hotel and bought a round of drinks, just for the three of them, and they’d been charged more than a pound. With Walt directing, Frank and Tom had gone to either side of the big hotel lounge and started rolling up the huge expensive carpet, asking people to lift up their chairs and tables so that they could roll it under them. The manager or someone had come storming out and asked Walt what the devil they thought they were playing at, to which Walt had replied that they were going to take the carpet, since they’d paid for it. They’d had to make a quick escape, without the rug, but luckily their apple crate was still roped to a lamppost outside the hotel. They’d jingled all the way down Gold Street, faces flushing blue and yellow in the fairy lights, along Marefair, back home to Green Street and their waiting mam. Hitler was dead and everything was ruddy marvellous.

Except for Jack, of course. Tommy recalled, with a queer shudder of appalled nostalgia, how the Warren family’s Christmas ritual had been that first year after Jack was gone. The family had gathered in the front room, just as they’d done for as long as anybody could remember. Tommy’s mam had leadenly retrieved the fancy China piss-pot – easily a foot across, having been manufactured in a time of bigger arses – from its perch atop that old glass-fronted cabinet they used to have. While Frank and Walt and Lou and Tommy had looked on, their mam had filled the guzunder up to its rim with a grotesque and undiscriminating mix of spirits; drainings from the staggeringly varied complement of bottles to be found around their heavy-drinking household. Brimming with a shimmering pale-gold aggregate of whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, brandy and possibly turpentine for all that anybody knew, the glazed white chalice, hopefully unused, had been solemnly passed around the family circle, this accomplished only with both hands and some degree of difficulty. It was obviously impossible to drink from a receptacle that had quite clearly never been designed with that function in mind, at least without a certain drenching of the shirtfront, and this spillage had been worse with every circuit of the front room and of the increasingly incapable and uncoordinated individuals gathered there. On all the previous occasions when this ritual had been enacted there had been a kind of glory in its wretchedness: it had been somehow comical, and brave, and as if they were proud of being the uproarious and filthy monsters that their betters saw them as. There’d been a kind of horrid grandeur to it, but not after Jack was gone. That had been proof that they weren’t mighty and immortal ogres after all, invincible in their inebriation. They’d just been a crew of vomiting and tearful drunks who’d lost their brother; lost their son. Tom couldn’t now remember if they’d bothered with the Christmas ritual after that unhappy year of victory.

Across the Wellingborough Road, St. Edmund’s clock struck twice for two and must have scared a roosting bird awake and into some state of activity, at least to judge from the plump tear of pigeon muck that silently dropped from the mists above him, splattering his mac’s lapel with liquid chalk and caviar in its descent. Tom growled and swore and fished out his clean hanky from the pocket with no matches, fags or chocolate bars, wiping the white smear hurriedly away until only a faint damp stain remained. Making a mental note that he must have it washed before he blew his nose on it again, he shoved the used rag back into his coat.

Of course, all that post-war exhilaration hadn’t lasted. Not that things had gone bad, not at all. Times had just changed, the way they always did. First Walt had met a little beauty and got married, which had prompted their mam’s laying down the law to Tom and Frank at the reception, shouting at them over all the noise that Uncle Johnny’s band were making at the dancehall there in Gold Street, telling them they’d better find themselves a pair of girls or else. Frank, wry and wiry with his line of saucy banter, had been quicker off the mark than Tommy in responding to their mother’s ultimatum. He’d gone out and found a ginger lass as near the knuckle as what he was and they’d wed in 1950, which had just left Tom to bear the brunt of their mam’s grunted disapproval.

Tommy could remember seeking refuge and advice during that period with his big little sister, popping up to see Lou and her husband Albert and their children out in Duston at the least excuse. As always Lou had been a darling, bringing him a cup of tea in her nice, airy little front room, listening to his troubles with her head on one side like a soft toy of an owl. “Your trouble is, bruv, that you’re backward coming forward. I’m not saying as you should be a smooth talker like our Walt, or else a dirty little bugger like our Frank, but you should put yourself about, or else the girls won’t know you’re there. It’s no good waiting for them to find you, that’s not what girls are like. I mean, you’re a good-looking chap, you’re always dressed a treat. You’re even a good dancer. I can’t see as anything’s the matter with you.” Lou’s voice, low and chuckling, had a lovely croak to it, almost a buzz or hum that, with his sister’s compact shape, made Tommy think of beehives, honey, and, continuing with the association, Sunday teatime. She could always be relied upon to set you straight and have a laugh while she were doing it. Tom sometimes saw in Lou a glimpse of what their mam must have been like when she were young, before she lost her first child to diphtheria and started getting bitter, back before she were a deathmonger.

The only incident Tom could recall relating to his mother’s trade in birth and death concerned an isolated morning in his childhood which had nonetheless left an impression. Mr. Partridge, a big, portly chap who’d lived only a few doors from their house in Green Street, had passed on but was too fat to get out through the door of the front bedroom where he’d died. Tommy had watched from down the Elephant Lane end of Green Street while his mam had stood there in the road directing the removal of the house’s upstairs window and the lowering of an immense and almost purple Mr. Partridge, with a winch and trestle, down into the horse-drawn hearse that waited patiently below. Of course, with all the Co-op funeral schemes they had these days there weren’t much work for deathmongers about. Tom’s mam had packed it in, the end of 1945. With Jack gone, he supposed she’d had enough of death by then, and with the National Health on the horizon, then perhaps she’d reckoned that the birth end of the racket would be gone too, before long.

These days, most women having a first child would come and have it here, in hospital. There were still midwives, naturally, for later children or for people stuck out in the country, but these were all midwives working for the National Health. They weren’t freelancers like his mam, and no one called them deathmongers these days. Tom thought it was a good thing, by and large. He was a modern bloke, and he for one was glad that his wife was just now having her child delivered in a modern ward, with proper doctors gathered round, not in a dark back bedroom with some cackling old horror like his mam bent over her. Doreen had enough reservations about Tommy’s mam as things stood, and if May had stuck her nose into the birth of their first child then that would have put the tin hat on the occasion good and proper. Tommy shivered, even thinking of it, though that might have just been the November night.

It was Doreen who’d rescued Tommy from his bachelor state and his mam’s approbation. That had been a bit of luck, his finding her. It was just like his Lou had said, he was too reticent with girls and couldn’t turn the charm on like their Walt or Frank. Tom’s only hope had been to find somebody even shyer than what he was, and in Doreen that’s just what he’d found, his perfect complement. His other half. Like Tom, she wasn’t shy as in the sense of cowardly or weak. There was a backbone under her reserve; she just preferred a quiet life without a lot of fuss, the same as he did. She, like him and every other bloke who’d seen the inside of a trench, preferred to keep her head down and get on with things, to not attract attention. It was something of a marvel that he’d spotted her at all, stood shrinking back behind her louder, gigglier mates from work, as if for fear that anyone should see how beautiful she was, with her big watery blue eyes, her slightly long face and her bark-brown hair curled up into a wave. With her theatre glow, that mistiness she had about her like a lobby card. He’d told her, soon after they’d met, that she looked like a film star. She’d just pursed her lips into a little smile and tutted, telling him he shouldn’t be so soft.

They’d wed in 1952 and though it would have made more sense, in terms of room, for them to go and live in Green Street with his mam, no one had wanted that. Not Tommy’s mam, not Tommy, and particularly not Doreen. She was the only person Tom had ever met who, even though she had a timid and retiring nature, wouldn’t put up with May Warren’s bullying or her intimidating manner. Tom and Doreen had instead decided to reside down in St. Andrew’s Road with Doreen’s mother Clara and the other members of her family that lived there, or at least had lived there until recently. Though the idea of him and Doreen living with Tom’s mam had been like something from a nightmare, these last two years living down the bottom of Spring Lane and Scarletwell Street hadn’t been much better.

Now, this hadn’t been because of Doreen’s mam, the way it would have been with Tommy’s, round in Green Street. Clara Swan had worked in service and remained a very proper and religious woman in her own quiet fashion, and though she could be both strict and stern if things should warrant it, she was in almost every way completely different to May Warren, thin and upright where his mam was short and stout. No, Tommy got on fine with Doreen’s mam, just like he did with both her brothers and her sister, their respective spouses and their children. It was just that there had been so many of them, until recently, and it was such a little house.

Admittedly, the eldest brother, James, he’d married and moved out before Tom got there, but it had still been a tight fit, packing everybody in. First there was Doreen’s mam herself, whose house it was, or at least it were her name on the rent book. Next was Doreen’s sister, Emma, and her husband Ted, with their two children, John and little Eileen. Emma, older than Doreen, was the first woman railway guard in England, and it had been on the railway that she’d met her dashing engine driver husband, Ted, who cleaned his teeth with chimney soot. Then there was Doreen’s younger brother Alf, the bus-driver, his wife Queen and their toddler, baby Jim. With Tommy and Doreen as well that had made getting on ten people crammed in a three-bedroom terraced house.

Doreen and Tom had started out with a few months of sleeping best they could upon the couch in the front room. Emma and Ted and their two kids had the front bedroom, Clara had the smaller bedroom next to that, which was above the living room, then Alf and Queen were in the smallest room, right at the back above the kitchen. Baby Jim slept in the wardrobe drawer. The nights, then, had been cramped-up and embarrassing, but early evenings had been worse, just after tea with everybody home from work and gathered in the living room to listen to the wireless. Ted and Emma would have hostile silences between them that could last for days, just glaring at each other over the tinned salmon sandwiches and ITMA catchphrases: “Dis iss Funf speaking”. “Mind my bike”, and, “Don’t forget the diver”. Alf would come home every night exhausted after being up so early with the buses, and would flake out snoring on the mat before the fire, just like a cat big as a man and dressed in a bus driver’s uniform. His wife Queen, who was also by coincidence the sister of Ted, Emma’s husband, would, on most nights, just sit by the fire and weep. You couldn’t blame her. Upstairs, baby Jim would have climbed from his wardrobe drawer and started banging on the bedroom door, sometimes for hours on end. You couldn’t blame him, either, the poor little sod, not living in a wardrobe. If that wouldn’t send you cornery, Tom didn’t know what would. Baby Jim’s difficulty was, he was too clever. No one in the Swan or Warren families was what you’d call a dim bulb, but baby Jim was the next generation and you could see from the outset that they’d be as sharp as knives, particularly baby Jim. By three years old he’d managed to escape twice from the house and get four blocks away before the police apprehended him and brought him back. Mind you, given how hazardous a child’s life could be down St. Andrew’s Road, he’d probably have been a good sight safer if they’d left him where he was.

Again, it wasn’t that the adults in the house were negligent, it was just there were seven of them and three children, getting on each other’s wicks and underneath each other’s feet, so accidents were bound to happen. Ted and Emma’s eldest, John, had liked to sit up on the back of the armchair before the day he lost his balance and tipped over, falling backwards out the window of the living room into the back yard in a shower of broken glass. Then Ted and Emma’s youngest, pretty Eileen, had fell face down in the fire with all the red hot coals, necessitating an immediate race up to the family doctor, Dr. Grey in Broad Street, his Doreen and her big sister Emma running frantically across a darkened Mayorhold holding the miraculously unscarred child wrapped in a blanket.

Mercifully, this last year things had fallen right. First Ted and Em had moved out, to a house further along St. Andrew’s Road, in Semilong. Then Alf and Queen had gone as well, up to the Birchfield Road in Abington. They’d taken baby Jim with them, of course, but for some reason, at the age of five, he’d broken out of his new home as well and managed to negotiate about two miles of busy roads, finding his way back to the Boroughs and his gran’s house unescorted. Tom supposed it might have been that Jim, in the same way that new-hatched ducklings sometimes got confused, had mixed up his attachment to his mum with an attachment to the wardrobe. Anyway, the upshot of it was that there were only Clara, Tom and Doreen living down St. Andrew’s Road at present. Tom and Doreen had the big front bedroom Ted and Emma had vacated, and with fewer people milling round, this baby that the two of them were having would be born into a safer house. Into a safer world, or at least that’s what everybody hoped.

Tom tucked his bristly chin in, squinting down at his lapel. He could still see the stain left by the bird-muck and glumly resigned himself to scrubbing it with Borax after he got home.

He thought that by and large it was a safer world, although not when it came to bird-muck, obviously. The war was finished, this time, and he didn’t think even the Jerries would be keen to kick it off again, especially not after losing half their country to the communists. There’d been Korea, obviously, but his lad, if it was a lad, wouldn’t be growing up to be conscripted off like Tommy, or to spend nights shivering beneath the table in the living room when there were air raids, which was how Doreen had spent the war, her being ten years Tommy’s junior. And anyway, after the A-bomb what the Yanks had dropped onto Hiroshima, didn’t they say that if there was a third world war, then it would all be over in about five minutes? Not that this was a cheering thought, admittedly. Tom felt the craving for another Kensitas, but since he’d only got five left and didn’t know how long he’d have to stretch them out, he thought he’d better wait.

Churchill had seen to it that Britain let off its first bomb last year, and France was keen to have one too. The Russians and the Yanks had both got hundreds, but Tom couldn’t say it worried him that much. To his mind, it would turn out to be like the gas that everybody was so scared of in the war, poor little Doreen having to run back home to St. Andrew’s Road from Spencer School when she’d forgot her gas mask. In the end, nobody had been mad enough to use it, even Hitler, and these atom bombs would turn out just the same. Nobody would be mad enough. Although, of course, the Yanks already had, but Tom was standing waiting on the birth of his first child with quite enough to fret about already, and so he decided that he’d let that idea go.

The faint wind from the west at this point made an unexpected push and briefly rattled Tommy’s mac. It shoved the fog to one side for a second from the shuttered pub, the Spread Eagle, just past the workhouse front on Tommy’s left. The toucan’s orange bill on the tin Guinness advert what were bolted up outside poked from the mist and then was gone again. The breeze brought also a renewed burst of cascading notes from Mad Marie down at Carnegie Hall, her mongrel melodies sliding about like nutcase furniture on casters, juddering off along the Wellingborough Road. The music was the usual mishmash; don’t sit under the old rugged cross with anybody else but me, no no no, and then suddenly she was just playing one tune, clearly and distinctly, even if she only held it for a few bars before it collapsed into the general piano soup.

The tune was “Whispering Grass”.

That did it. Tommy knew at once what the peculiar music in the swirling dark had been reminding him of all along: five, nearly six years back now, in the early months of 1948 not long after their Walter had got married, that time Tommy had gone drinking in the old Blue Anchor up Chalk Lane. It all came back to him in a great sepia wash of beer-blurred snapshot pictures, captured moments from his drunken stumble to the wild accompaniment of a fogbound piano and accordion, and Tommy marvelled that he hadn’t thought of it before. How had he forgotten that strange, startling occasion, all the fears and questions it had thrown up in the face of Tommy and his family? He supposed in his defence he’d been preoccupied, what with the thought of Doreen and the bab, but even so he’d not have thought a night like that would slip so easy from his mind.

Tom lit another fag before remembering he’d planned to stretch them out, then turned his collar up as if he was a crook or haunted lover in a film, which was the ambiguous mood the mist and memories had put him in. The collar’s stiff edge rubbed on the ear-level stubble of Tom’s once-a-week short, back & sides, the haircut that he’d stuck with since his army days. Tommy could take the silver paper from a fag pack, wrap it round a plain brown penny and then burnish it against the bristles there behind his skull until it looked just like florin, which was something Walt had showed him how to do. Unlike their Walt, though, Tom had never had the nerve to pass off his nape-minted two bob bits as the real thing. He’d never had the nerve or was too honest, one or other.

On that evening several years before Tom and his youngest brother Frank had been to the Blue Anchor, which had stood just up past Doddridge Church there on Chalk Lane, almost in Bristol Street. The pub was something of a family favourite as its previous landlord and landlady had been Tommy and Frank’s great-grandparents on their mother’s side. Their gran Louisa who’d died back in the late thirties, as a girl she’d been the busty landlord’s daughter serving drinks at the Blue Anchor in the 1880s when young Snowy Vernall had called in on one of his long walks from Lambeth. If Tom’s grandfather had been less thirsty or had strolled the extra twenty yards up to the Golden Lion then there’d have been no May, no Tommy and no baby struggling towards existence right now in the hospital behind him. This explained his family’s fondness for the place before it had been torn down a few years ago. Anyway, him and Frank had been in there putting the pints away, and while it had been all right it had all felt a bit lifeless and subdued, to Tom at any rate. Part of it, obviously, was they were missing Walt who’d gone and married six months earlier, which meant that their three musketeers act had been whittled down to two. And without Walter’s inexhaustible supply of gags, there was more time to sit and mourn for their fourth musketeer, their Jack, their dead D’Artagnan with his grave in France and with his name down on the monument at Peter’s Church.

Whatever the real reason, Tommy had been out of sorts with things that night in the Blue Anchor. Him and Frank had run into some chaps Frank knew from work but who Tom weren’t so chummy with, so he’d begun to feel a bit left out and thought perhaps he’d try another pub. Tom had made his apologies to Frank then left him chatting with his mates while he’d put on his coat and stepped out through the pub’s front door into Chalk Lane. It had been very like tonight, with all the fog and everything, but being down there in the Boroughs as opposed to up here on the prosperous Wellingborough Road, it had been a lot eerier. Even St. Edmund’s Church with all its looming tombstones just across the street didn’t give you the shivers, at the stroke of midnight, how some places in the Boroughs could do even by the light of day.

Cut loose and on his own, Tom had decided to head for the nearest hostelry where he’d be sure to know someone, which was the Black Lion down on Castle Hill. Although the place had no direct familial associations such as was the case with the Blue Anchor, in a way it had been a more constant focus of the Warren clan’s attentions down the years. Or anyway, it had since Tommy’s mam and dad had moved to Green Street, with their house just downhill and across the green from the back gates of the Black Lion’s cobbled yard. Being stood since time immemorial there beside St. Peter’s Church, it had provided a convenient venue to retire to after family funerals and christenings, and, being just two minutes’ walk away, was ideal for a swift half almost any time of day or night. In summer the old gates were opened to the buttercups-and-grass slope at the ale-yard’s rear behind St. Peter’s, where Tom’s mam would often sit out on a creaking bench dusted with emerald mould to have a drink with her surviving friends: old women with black bonnets, coats and dispositions like herself. His mother’s best pal, Elsie Sharp, had died before May’s eyes on one such sweet, long-shadowed evening after she’d knocked back a swig of stout straight from the bottle and had in the process swallowed a live bumblebee, which was just then crawling about within the brown glass neck. Stung from the inside Elsie’s throat had swollen up and closed, and after an unpleasant minute she’d been dead there in the birdsong and the lemon cordial light diffusing up above the railway station.

Once outside of the Blue Anchor, Tommy had turned left and headed down Chalk Lane to Castle Hill. There’d been a window lit in Doddridge Church, perhaps some group that met up in its rooms, and glancing up across the high stone wall Tom had been able to make out the set of loading doors, positioned halfway up the church’s side. As well as an abiding love of mathematics, one of the things Tom had picked up from his barmy grandfather was a deep fascination for the facts of history, especially that subject’s local aspect. Even so, he’d never had a proper answer for what those impractically high doors were doing there. The nearest he could get was that before the Reverend Philip Doddridge had arrived at Castle Hill and made the building there into a Nonconformist meeting-house, it had perhaps been used for something else, some business that required off-loading and delivery of goods by winch and pulley up to the first floor. Something about that explanation, though, had never rung quite true to Tom, which left the doors as an enduring question mark on his internal map of the location and its cloudy past.

Doddridge himself, Tommy had thought as he’d gone down beside the chapel and its burying ground, had been as big a puzzle as his church. Not in the sense that anything about him was unknown, but more that he’d been able to achieve such a long-lasting change in how the country thought about itself religiously, and that he’d done it from this tiny plot of land deep in the rat-runs of the Boroughs.

It had been Queen Anne’s death during 1714 that had prepared the ground for Philip Doddridge, then a lad of twenty-seven, to come here to Castle Hill one Christmas Eve fifteen years later to take up his ministry. Anne Stuart had, during her reign, attempted to stamp out the Nonconformists. When she’d died the minister who had announced it had said, quoting from the Psalms, “Go, see now this cursed woman, and bury her; for she is a king’s daughter.” That was a signal for all the Dissenters and the Nonconformists to start celebrating as it meant that George the First, who was a Hanoverian and had vowed to support their cause, would soon be on the throne. All of them little groups – hangovers from the Independents, the Moravian Brethren, that tradition come down from John Wycliffe’s Lollards in the thirteen-hundreds – they must have been popping wine corks at the thought of all that they’d be able to do now to shake things up, and Doddridge coming to Northampton had been part of that. Looked back on from the present day, you could say it had been the biggest part.

Sauntering past the unkempt burial ground that evening, Tommy had supposed the town would have been an attractive proposition to a young dissenting minister back then, what with its long tradition as a haven for religious firebrands, insurrectionists and the plain mad. Old Robert Browne who formed the Separatists in the late sixteenth century was buried in St. Giles churchyard, and the town was filled by Nation of Saints puritans and Ranters with their fiery flying rolls during the century that followed. There’d been fierce radical Christians shouting heresies from every rooftop, saying there was no life other than this present one, that Hell and Heaven were nowhere save here on earth and, worst of all, suggesting that the Bible showed God as a shepherd of the poor and not the wealthy. By the time that Philip Doddridge stepped out of the snow that Christmas Eve, 1729, rubbing his hands with frostbite and with glee, Northampton’s reputation as a hotbed simmering with spiritual unrest would have been well established.

Doddridge’s Evangelism, nine years earlier than that of the more widely-sung John Wesley, was the force that by Victoria’s reign had transformed almost all of the Dissenting sects and the whole ruddy Church of England in the bargain. He’d accomplished this from what was even then one of the humblest places in the land, and done it in a little over twenty years before the TB took him when he hadn’t yet turned fifty; done it all with words, his teachings and his writings and his hymns. To Tom’s mind, “Hark! The Glad Sound!” was about the best of them. “The Saviour comes, the Saviour promised long.” Tommy had always thought of Doddridge writing that sat looking out from Castle Hill, perhaps imagining the last trump sounding in the heavens up above St. Peter’s Church just down the way, or picturing a ragged, resurrected Jesus walking up Chalk Lane towards the little meeting house, his bloodied palms spread wide in universal absolution. During the more-than-a-thousand years this district had existed it had seen its fair share of extraordinary men, what with Richard the Lionheart, Cromwell, Thomas Becket, all of them, but in Tom Warren’s estimation Philip Doddridge could be counted with the worthiest. He was the Boroughs’ most heroic son. He was its soul.

St. Edmund’s clock struck once for half-past two and snatched Tom back to where he was, stood outside the converted workhouse with his Kensitas burning away forgotten there between his nicotine-stained fingers. That had been a waste. He flung the smouldering end into the broader smoulder that surrounded him and let his mind return to February 1948 and to a night just as opaque and grey.

He’d come out of Chalk Lane past the newsagent’s where he sometimes bought his paper of a Sunday morning; that had once been part of Propert’s Commercial Hotel, and crossed the tarmac-smothered cobbles and disused iron tramlines of Black Lion Hill towards the pub the hill was named after. Pushing inside through its front door Tommy had been hit by a near solid wall of chatter, scent and warmth, the captured body heat of everyone who was crammed into the Black Lion on that chilly night. Before he’d took his coat off and stepped through the press of people to the bar, Tom had been feeling glad already that he’d chosen to come here tonight, rather than to have stayed with Frank at the Blue Anchor. There were always more familiar faces at the Lion.

Jem Perrit had been there, whose dad The Sheriff had run a horse-butcher’s business in Horsemarket, and who lived himself with his wife Eileen and their baby daughter by the wood-yard that Jem kept in Freeschool Street, just round the corner from the Black Lion and off Marefair. As Tom now recalled the scene, Jem had been playing ninepins at the skittle table up one corner with Three-Fingered Tunk – who had a stall in the Fish Market up on Bradshaw Street – and Freddy Allen. Fred had been a moocher who you sometimes saw around the Boroughs still, who slept beneath the railway arches in Foot Meadow and who got along by pinching pints of milk and loaves of bread off people’s doorsteps. The tramp had been narrowing his bleary eyes as he took aim and threw the wooden cheese, but it had looked to Tom as though Jem Perrit or Three-Fingered Tunk would probably be trouncing him. Propped up against the heaving bar there had been Podger Someo, locally famous former organ grinder, now retired, and everywhere that Tommy looked there had been grimy area legends nursing mythic grudges, a run-down Olympus full of sozzled titans spluttering filthy jokes through mouthfuls of foam-topped ambrosia, fishing clumsily as minotaurs inside their crisp bags for the blue wax paper twist of salt.

Tommy’s own family, at least the Vernall side of it, had been well represented in the pub that night. Tom’s uncle Johnny – his mam’s younger brother – had been there with Tom’s aunt Celia, and sat up one corner by herself with a half pint of Double Diamond and her battered old accordion across her lap there had been Tommy’s great-aunt Thursa, in her eighties by that point and even harder to get any sense from than she’d previously been. Tommy had said hello to her and asked if he could get her a fresh drink, at which she’d looked alarmed as if she weren’t sure who he was, but then had nodded in acceptance anyway. Thursa had always liked to play on her accordion al fresco, trudging round the Boroughs, although some years earlier during the war she’d taken to performances that were exclusively nocturnal. More specifically, she’d only gone out in the street to play her instrument during the blackouts, with the German bombers droning overhead and the ARP wardens threatening to arrest her if she didn’t stay indoors and stop that bloody racket. Tom had never heard, at first hand, his great-aunt’s Luftwaffe sing-alongs, having been stationed overseas. His older sister Lou, however, had described them to him with the tears of laughter running down her cheeks. “They sent me out to fetch her in, and honestly, I swear that she was standing there in Bath Row, looking up at all the big dark planes against the sky and playing little tootles and long drones on her accordion, as if the bombing raid was like a silent film and she was its accompanist. It was that awful engine noise, the way it echoed right across the sky, and there was Thursa doing little bits that fitted in with it, these little bits that sounded like somebody whistling or skipping. I can’t properly describe it, but her little tra-la-las sounding above the frightening thunder of the aeroplanes, it made you want to laugh and cry at the same time. Laugh, mostly.” Tom had pictured it, the skinny old madwoman with her mushroom cloud of white hair standing caterwauling in the blacked out street, the vast might of the German air force overhead. It had made Tommy laugh too.

With the drinks arrived and Tommy’s dotty great-aunt taken care of, he’d sat down with his quiet auntie Celia and his lively uncle Johnny, who he got on well with and could be relied upon to keep Tom company till closing time. Tom could remember, back before the war, being with Walt and Jack and Frank one night in the Criterion up King Street when their uncle Johnny Vernall had come in and had a drink with them. He’d kept them all enthralled with tales of what the almost empty pub had been like in its heyday, with a loaf of bread, a ham, a jar of pickles and a wedge of cheese provided free on every table. The increase in custom, Uncle Johnny said, had more than paid for the comestibles, and you’d had no one getting drunk or rowdy since they’d all got something in their stomachs to soak up the booze. To the four brothers it had sounded like an Eden, a lost golden age.

Sitting down with his aunt and uncle in the Black Lion’s snug, Tommy had asked them how they were and also asked after his cousin Audrey, who just about everybody in the family had a soft spot for, and who played piano accordion in the dance band that her father, Uncle Johnny, managed. This was the same band that had performed so well at Walt’s wedding reception up in Gold Street just a few months previously, when Tom and Frank had both been lectured by their mam and where, in Tom’s opinion, his young cousin Audrey hadn’t ever played so well or looked so lovely as she did upon that night, belting out swing and standards to the lurching celebrants who packed the dance-floor. Audrey was a little smasher, all the family thought so, but on that particular night in the Black Lion, Tom’s uncle had just shook his head when Tom enquired about her, and said Audrey was at home and going through a lot of young girl’s sulks and moods at present. Tom had been surprised, since Audrey had always seemed such a sunny little thing, but he’d supposed that this reported tantrum was to do with women and the changes that they went through, which at that point, mercifully, Tommy had known almost nothing of. He’d nodded and commiserated with his aunt and uncle, and had told them he was sure their daughter would get over it and be back to her old self in a day or two. On that count he’d been wrong, as it turned out.

Hobnobbing with his relatives, Tom had reflected on how much he liked his uncle Johnny, who he thought added a touch of colour to the family with his loud ties and his jacket’s mustard check, his showbiz flair. There was just something up-to-date about the bloke, the way he ran a band and talked of dates and bookings, as if he were rising to the challenge of the world and future we’d got now, after the war, bursting with energy and eager to get on with a new life. According to Tom’s mam, her younger brother Johnny had since childhood talked of nothing except going on the stage, of being part of all that sequinned razzmatazz, although he’d got no talent of his own to speak of. That was no doubt why he’d hit on managing a dance band if he couldn’t play or sing in one. When his young Audrey had turned out so talented with the accordion, a taste for which she’d evidently picked up from her great-aunt Thursa, Johnny must have been as pleased as Punch. Tommy had often thought that when his uncle Johnny hovered in the wings and watched adoringly while Audrey played, it must have been like he was seeing his young self out there, all of his hopes and dreams at last parading in the footlights. Well, good luck to him. Perhaps the baby boy that Tom was waiting on now in the Wellingborough Road would end up good at something Tom himself had always had a hankering for, like, let’s say, football. Tommy couldn’t swear that if that happened he’d not be stood on the touchlines cheering, just like Uncle Johnny beaming proudly in the dark and tangled wires offstage.

Tom’s auntie Celia was a different matter in that she was quiet where Johnny made a noise, and didn’t fuss over their Audrey quite so much as Johnny did. Aunt Celia was always friendly, even cheerful in her way, but never seemed to have a lot to say for herself about anything. She weren’t stuck up or toffee-nosed, but if Tom’s uncle Johnny should crack one of his blue jokes she’d only smile and look away into her bitter lemon. Tommy’s mother didn’t care much for her sister-in-law, and said that she thought Aunt Celia had got no gumption, but then Tommy’s mam didn’t care much for anyone.

He’d kept his aunt and uncle company, that February night five or six years ago, until the landlord called out for last orders and they’d said that they’d not have another one. They’d finished up their drinks while Tommy was just starting his last pint, then got their coats on ready to go home. They hadn’t far to go. Johnny and Celia lived with Audrey down in Freeschool Street, just uphill of Jem Perrit and his family, so it was only round the corner past the church. Tommy remembered Uncle Johnny standing up from his chair in the snug and settling his titfer on his head, what made him look as if he were a bookie. Helping Auntie Celia to her feet, Johnny had sighed and said, “Ah, well. I ’spect we’d better goo back ’ome and face the music”, meaning Audrey and her bad mood, which was no more at the time than just an innocent remark.

They’d said ta-ta, and Tom had watched their exit from the smoky pub, with its interior as clouded as the foggy street revealed outside when Celia and Johnny had shoved open the Black Lion’s door and stepped into the night. Tommy had taken his time finishing the half of bitter what were left out of his pint, eyes roaming idly round the bar on the off chance there might be a half-decent-looking woman in there. He was out of luck. The only female still remaining in the Black Lion other than the landlord’s dog was Mary Jane, the brawler who was found more often up the Mayorhold at the Jolly Smokers or Green Dragon, one of them. One of her eyes was closed and violet, puffed up to a slit, and her whole face looked like it had once been a very different shape. She sat there staring into space, shaking her head occasionally as if to clear it, though you couldn’t tell if that was because she were punchy, or if it were from the drink she’d put away. Even Tom’s great-aunt Thursa had slipped out the pub while he weren’t looking. Tommy was alone in an entirely masculine, predominantly broken-nosed domain, even including Mary Jane in that appraisal. While he was used to having mostly men around him from his work, and while he found that much less nerve-wracking than an extended company of women, it was much duller in the bargain. Tommy had knocked back the thin dregs of his pint, said goodnight to the people that he knew, and headed for the door himself while fastening his coat.

Outside the Black Lion, with the cold burning his throat, he’d been in two minds as to which way was the quickest home, back to his mam’s in Green Street. Finally he’d opted to walk up by Peter’s Church and cut along the alley there to Peter’s Street, that marked the top edge of the green. It was just slightly longer than if he’d gone down around Elephant Lane, but being drunk and sentimental Tom had thought he’d like to head up by the churchyard so that he could say goodnight to Jack, or to the monument at any rate. What had been left of Jack was still out there somewhere in France.

Leaving the pub behind, Tommy had gone up Black Lion Hill and onto Marefair, with the mist now snagging on the iron churchyard railings to his right. He’d nodded, half-embarrassed, to the war memorial that poked up from the bed of drifting cotton wool around its base, and wondered who’d struck up the tune that he could hear, come from the inn that he’d just left. It had took Tommy several moments, beer-befuddled as he was, to work out that there wasn’t a piano to be found at the Black Lion, and anyway, the noise hadn’t been coming from behind him but instead was faint and shimmering, emerging from the Marefair shadows that were curdling up ahead.

Intrigued, Tom had walked past the narrow alley that ran down between the church and Orme’s, the gent’s outfitters, where he’d been intending to cut through to Peter’s Street. He’d wanted to know who it was, making a row at this hour of night, and to make sure that there was nothing untoward transpiring in the neighbourhood. Besides, as he went on past Cromwell House, Tommy could hear the slightly frantic-sounding tune more clearly, and could almost make out through his middling stupor what it was. It had appeared to be emerging from the neck of Freeschool Street just up ahead of him, the tumbling refrain flowing across the pavement with the fog and tangling round Tom’s half-cut feet to trip him up.

He’d paused, outside the brown stone building where the Lord Protector had been billeted the night before he’d gone to fight at Naseby field, and steadied himself with one hand on the rough wall to check his wavering balance. That was when he’d seen his uncle Johnny and his auntie Celia come reeling out of Freeschool Street into Marefair, clutching their mouths, holding their hands across their faces as though they were weeping, hanging on each other’s sleeves like two survivors of a train wreck clambering up the embankment. What on earth had happened?

What he should have done, he thought now, blowing in his hands to warm them up outside the hospital, was simply to have called out to his aunt and uncle, asking what was wrong. He hadn’t done that, though. He’d stood there hidden in the mist and watched the couple, looking like they’d aged ten years within the last ten minutes, as they’d stumbled off into the damp miasma clinging to each other, lowing like maimed animals. They’d headed off in the direction of Horsemarket, the wet noises of their misery becoming fainter. Tom had watched them go from his place of concealment and had burned with shame to think that he’d seen family in distress and simply stood there doing bugger all, not even offering to help.

It had just seemed so private, Uncle Johnny and Aunt Celia’s grief. That was all Tom could say now in his own defence. He’d been brought up to help people when things were going rough for them, but then he’d also been taught not to poke his nose in others’ private business, and it sometimes felt like a fine line between the two. That was the way that it had been with Uncle Johnny and Aunt Celia that night. It looked as though their lives had just that moment fell to bits, as though they’d fallen in upon themselves, as though whatever had upset them was so personal and so humiliating that to have someone intrude upon it would have only made it worse. Thinking about it now, perhaps what he’d picked up on was that Celia and Johnny weren’t seeking assistance with whatever had occurred. They weren’t out banging on the neighbours’ doors and asking somebody to fetch a fire engine or ambulance. They hadn’t gone just down and round the corner to Tom’s mam’s in Green Street, Johnny’s own big sister. They’d not sought help in the Boroughs, but had made for Gold Street and town centre. Tom had later learned that Uncle Johnny and Aunt Celia had sat till dawn both huddling devastated on the steps of All Saints, underneath its portico.

Upon the night itself, he’d watched his aunt and uncle until they were gone, then wandered into Freeschool Street to find out what was going on. He’d stumbled haltingly down the black crevice, where the Free School had been situated in the fifteen-hundreds, walking in the face of all the mournful, stirring music that rang from the haze more loudly with Tom’s every cautious step. All the low notes had resonated in the lightless window-glass of the soot-dusted manufacturing concerns to Tommy’s right and left, making the panes buzz like trapped flies. It had been round about then that he’d first caught on what tune was being played over and over, being banged out on an old joanna somewhere in the gloom towards what used to be Green Lane. He’d started singing it, inside his head, familiar words all coming back to him before he’d even hit upon its title, though he’d recognised it as a song that he knew well. How did it go? “Why tell them all your secrets …”

Tommy had progressed hesitantly down the unlit street, as much for fear of tripping over something in the fog and knackering himself as of what he might find when he got further down towards the bottom end. He’d known already that it would be Uncle Johnny’s house the tune was coming from, that it would be their Audrey playing it. Who else down Freeschool Street could trot out such a lovely piece as that? “They’re buried under the snow …” Ever so well he knew it, he just hadn’t at that time been able to remember what the thing was called. The missing title nagging at his mind, Tommy had staggered further down into the invisible harmony.

In twenty paces, by the time he’d reached the junction with St. Peter’s Street, it had become clear that the old song was indeed emerging from his cousin’s house across the road, down near the Gregory Street corner. He had also realised that Freeschool Street was utterly deserted save for he himself and for one other: standing rooted in the crawling vapour that was boiling over Uncle Johnny’s doorstep, rigid and stick-thin with her wild head tipped back to gaze up at the lit-but-curtained parlour window that the music came from, had been Tommy’s great-aunt Thursa. In her arms she’d cradled the accordion like a mute and monstrous child, the waxy and translucent fingers of one hand stroking distractedly across the keyboard, back and forth as if to calm the silent instrument and to allay its fears at this alarming situation. Thursa hadn’t make a sound herself, but she’d been listening so intently to the music leaking from inside the house that you could almost hear her doing it. It carried on, the tune, stitching its thread of half-remembered lyrics on the blanket of the mist. “Whispering grass, don’t tell the trees …”

Of course, by that point Tommy had recalled the title he’d been grasping for. “Whispering Grass”. That had been an old favourite for years by then, had even worked its way into the language as the slang for an informer, or at least that’s where Tom thought that the expression “grass” had come from. Prior to that point it had been Tom’s opinion that the song, though haunting, was too soppy and too whimsical, with its idea of grass and bushes talking to each other, just like something that Walt Disney might have done. Hearing it from the creeping fog in Freeschool Street though, on that February night, it hadn’t sounded whimsical at all. To Tom’s ear, it had sounded terrible. Not terrible as in the sense of bad or badly played, but more as if it spoke of something terrible, of some great hurt too terrible to mend, or of some terrible betrayal. It had sounded angry in the way its chords crashed out, notes almost splintering beneath the impact of the unseen fingers. It had sounded like an accusation and, as well, like an unburdening, an agonized confession that could never be retracted, after which things couldn’t be the same again. It had been music for the end of something.

“… ’cause the trees don’t need to know.” Ashamed. That had been, Tom thought now, another quality apart from hurt and anger that the tune had brought to the dank evening air: an overpowering sense of shame. Even the awful jollity into which the refrain would sometimes break sounded sardonic, sounded vengeful, sounded wrong. Tommy had been disturbed, mostly because he hadn’t for the life of him been able to imagine such an unexpected torrent of confused emotions pouring from so self-effacing and demure a vessel as his cousin Audrey. What can have been going through her mind for it to have emerged in the spine-tingling, feverish way it had? What had she been feeling that produced a reeling, stomach-dropping noise like that?

God knows how many times she’d played the tune already before Tom or anybody else had ventured into Freeschool Street to hear it, but as he and his great-aunt had stood there separately listening in the fog he’d heard the song repeated at least four more times, all the way through, before it had eventually ended in a sudden yawning silence that had been in some way even more upsetting than the row preceding it.

A tense few moments had elapsed, perhaps to make sure the recital was completely over, and then great-aunt Thursa had, from nowhere, pressed just four notes from the squeeze-box slung on its worn leather strap around her stringy neck, four grave and trudging tones that Tom had recognised with a mild tingle of alarm as the beginning of “The Funeral March”, or at the time he’d thought that’s what it was, at any rate. But with only that mournful opening completed his great-aunt had fallen silent and allowed her parchment fingers to drop from the keys. Abruptly, Thursa had turned round and marched away down Freeschool Street as if, aside from her own brief musical contribution, there was no more to be done. Within a moment her gaunt figure had dissolved into the cold seethe of the night.

Tom realised now, stood shuffling in the forecourt of St. Edmund’s Hospital, that it had been the last time he’d encountered great-aunt Thursa, who’d took ill with bronchial troubles and had died some two months afterwards. The mental picture of her walking off into the fog, into the roiling mystery, was the last image of her he could call to mind. Perhaps her short rendition of “The Funeral March” had been a prophecy, though as he thought about it now he saw that those four notes could just as well have been “Oh Mine Papa”, or probably a dozen other tunes.

After his great-aunt had departed, Tom had stood there for perhaps five minutes more, just staring at the now-hushed house across the way with the soft gaslight filtered through drawn curtains from its parlour window. Then he’d stumbled off down Freeschool Street, along Green Lane to his mam’s house in Green Street. May had been abed already by the time that he got in, and Frank hadn’t come home yet from the Anchor. Tom had lit the mantle, lit a fag from the same match, then had a sit in the armchair for a few minutes, just before he went to bed.

Across a small room shrunken further by the gaslight, up against one wall had stood the family piano, black and polished like a coffin. Perched on top of it had been an empty vase and a big, glossy eight-by-ten inside a prop-up frame. The photo had been taken for the purpose of publicity, clearly by a professional, and was a group shot of the outfit Uncle Johnny managed. Standing front and centre of the picture, no doubt with an eye to showing off the dance band’s most attractive asset, there had been Tom’s cousin Audrey with her piano accordion almost bigger than what she was. Resting on its keys her slender hands were placed so elegantly you could tell that it was artificial; she’d been told to hold the pose and the accordion in just that way by the photographer. Tom could imagine it, the chat and patter while he’d took the shot, with the flirtatious manner blokes like that seemed generally to have about them. “Right, that’s lovely, let’s have a big smile now from the ravishing young lady.” And then Audrey would have cast her eyes up, just as she was doing in the picture, looking comically exasperated as she laughed away the compliment – “Oh, honestly!” – but flattered, pleased he’d said it even if he’d done so just to make her smile. Her head was tipped back slightly as if she were making an appeal to heaven, asking for deliverance from men and their smooth, silly talk, and you could see the strong line of her chin, the straight slope of her nose, the finely sculpted head with her dark hair cascading down onto the shoulders of her ironed white blouse. His cousin at that time had been around eighteen years old, and Tommy had thought that the photo looked as if it had been taken two or three years earlier, when Audrey had been fifteen or sixteen. She’d looked so lively and so wry that Tom had sat there in the gas-lit living room a good half hour just trying to fit together the young woman in the picture and the frightening performance he’d just heard in Freeschool Street.

Of course, over the next two or three days, Tom had learned more of what had happened on that night. According to his mam, who by that time had heard her younger brother’s full account of things, Tom’s uncle Johnny and his auntie Celia had got back home to Freeschool Street from the Black Lion to find their only child had locked them out the house while she sat there inside and played the same lament repeatedly on the piano, pointedly ignoring all their poundings on the door and their demands to be let in. As the demands had swiftly turned to worried pleas, his cousin Audrey had apparently made vocal interjections of her own, shouting above the avalanche of her own playing: “When the grass is whispering over me, then you’ll remember.” Finally her parents had just given up and slunk away into the mist, away up Gold Street where they’d sheltered under All Saints’ portico all night, crushed by the realization of the dreadful thing that had just happened. Their one daughter, their bright, pretty, talented young daughter who they’d hoped would carry all their dreams into the future had gone off her head, gone round the corner. That next morning doctors had been called and Audrey Vernall had been taken up the Berry Wood turn to St. Crispin’s mental home, struggling and kicking, screaming out all manner of fantastical delusions as Tom’s uncle Johnny had recounted it. She’d been in the asylum ever since, would very likely be there all her life, a shame and a disgrace upon the family. Her name was only mentioned rarely now.

The general consensus, naturally, had been that Audrey’s problems were inherited, part of the curse passed down amongst the Vernalls, as displayed in both Tom’s granddad Snowy and his great-aunt Thursa.

There it was. The madness in the family. That was a cheery thing to think about while you were waiting for your first child to arrive, but Tom supposed there was no hiding from it. It was just a fact, part of the complicated lottery of birth that would decide whether the baby had brown hair like Doreen or black hair like Tom, whether its eyes were blue or green, if it was to be tall or short, well-built or skinny, sane or insane. Nobody had a say in how their children would be born, but then nobody had a say with most of the important things in life. All you could do was make the best of what you had. All you could do was play your cards as they’d been dealt.

He glanced around at his surroundings, at the gauze fog bandaging the blackness, at the crumbling church across the street, its weight and presence felt rather than seen. On Tommy’s left a necklace of dim streetlamps wound away through the dark miles to Wellingborough. To his right the mongrel rhapsodies of Mad Marie were tangled round town centre in haphazard strands of flimsy tinsel and behind him loomed the rehabilitated workhouse, like a thuggish bailiff who’d been given a new job and uniform and swore he was a reformed character. Tom realised with a start that they were more than halfway through the twentieth century already.

Tom also began to see that it weren’t just the blood and the heredity that would determine how a child developed. It was everything. It was the aggregate of all the planet’s parts and all its history, of every fact and incident that made the world, that fashioned the child’s parents, all of these components leading up to that specific baby floating there in that specific womb. With his own offspring brewing now inside Doreen’s distended belly waiting to be poured out, Tommy understood that there would be no element of his or his wife’s lives that would not influence their baby, just as every circumstance of their own parents’ lives in turn had made its mark on them.

The job as a director Snowy Vernall had turned down, for an example, played its part as to what kind of family and upbringing their newborn could expect. Tom’s mother’s first child dying of diphtheria had meant that she’d not stopped with just two girls but had gone on to have four boys as well. Had it been otherwise, then neither Tommy nor his own forthcoming child would have existed in the first place.

Then there was the war, of course, and all the politics that had come both before and after it. All those things that decided how this coming generation should be educated, what the streets and houses would be like where they grew up and whether there’d be any jobs about once they were grown. And these were just the obvious things that anyone could see would have effects upon a kiddie’s chance in life. What about all the other things, events so small they were invisible and yet which added up to someone choosing one path rather than the other, added up to something that might have an impact on the world, upon his child, for better or for worse?

Tom wondered at the whirlpool of occurrences, of lives and deaths and memories that were at present being funnelled into Doreen’s each contraction, pressing out an imprint on their baby as it writhed towards the light: the air raid nights, the dole queue days, the wireless programmes and the demolition sites. Glimpse of a woman’s legs with fake seams drawn in eyebrow pencil down the calf, of rubber johnnies raining on commuter’s hats. Grave of a fifteen-year-old German sniper by the road in France. Tom’s granddad crumpling up his careful ring of numbers in a rage to throw it on the fire, the black hole spreading from the centre of the paper as it burned. The photograph of Audrey standing framed on the piano, with her posed hands and her blithe smile and the grinning band members behind her in their bow ties, holding their guitars and clarinets. The fog, the pigeon-shit and Mad Marie all somehow filtering into the new arrival who’d be drawing its first breath and making its first wail within an hour or two, all being well.

St. Edmund’s clock struck three times from the higher storeys of the mist. His toes were so cold in his boots he couldn’t feel them anymore. Bugger this for a game of soldiers. With his hands thrust deep in his mac’s pockets, Tommy Warren turned round on his heel and started walking back along the hospital’s long drive towards the blurred and distant lights of its maternity wards, twinkling faintly in the gloom. Doreen couldn’t have had it yet, or someone would have been sent out to fetch him. Walking up the path he noticed that the wavering piano was no longer audible, though Tommy didn’t know if that meant Mad Marie had stopped at last, or if it merely meant the wind had changed directions. Humming absently to fill the sudden silence, breaking off when he became aware that he was humming “Whispering Grass”, Tom changed his tune to “Hark! The Glad Sound!” and then carried on. The bulb-lit porch outside the waiting room was drawing gradually nearer. Picking up his pace and perking up his ideas, Tommy went to welcome in his first-born baby boy.

Or girl.


Whatever his big sister had implied across the years, or had indeed at one point written on his forehead using magic marker while he was asleep, Mick Warren wasn’t stupid. If there’d been a hazard label on the drum, perhaps a yellow death’s-head or a screaming stick-man with his face burned off, then Mick would almost certainly have realised that hitting it quite hard with an enormous fuckoff sledgehammer was not the best idea he’d ever had.

But for some reason there’d been no fluorescent stickers, no white government advisory, not even the insipid kind that warned against skin ageing or low birth weight. Mick had blithely hefted the great hammer back just over his right shoulder and then swung it down through its familiar and exhilarating arc. The satisfying clang when it connected, ringing off into the windswept corners of St. Martin’s Yard, was only marred by his own startled bellow as the whole front of Mick’s head, which he had always thought of as his better side, was sandblasted by poison dust.

His cheeks and brow had instantly been blistered into bubble-wrap. Dropping the weighty hammer, Mick had tried to run off from the toxic cloud his mystery drum had just exhaled as if it were a swarm of bees, swatting his hands around his face and roaring angrily, not “squealing like a girl” as one close relative had later claimed. The relative in question, anyway, had got no cause to talk. At least he’d only looked the way he had for several days as a result of an industrial accident, whereas she’d looked that way since birth and had no such excuse.

Blinded and howling, this according to the subsequent colourful witness statements of fellow employees, Mick had charged round in a semicircle and, with all the slapstick timing of a radiation-scarred post-nuclear Harold Lloyd, had run head first into a bar of steel protruding from the outsize scales on which the flattened drums were weighed. He’d knocked himself out cold, and looking back congratulated himself on the speed with which, in trying circumstances, he had improvised a painkiller that was both total and immediate in its effect. Hardly the actions of a stupid man, he’d smugly reassured himself after a day or two, by which time the worst bruises weren’t so bad.

He must have only lay sprawled on his back there in the dirt unconscious for a second before Howard, his best mate down at the reconditioning yard, caught on to what was happening and had rushed to Mick’s assistance. He’d turned on the tap that fed the business’s one hosepipe, training the resultant jet into Mick’s comatose and upturned face, sluicing away the caustic orange powder covering the blistered features like a minstrel make-up meant only for radio. From what Howard reported afterwards, Mick had come round at once, his bloodshot eyes opening on a look of absolute confusion. He’d apparently been mumbling something with great urgency as he recovered consciousness, but far too softly for his concerned workmate to make out more than a word or two of what he’d said. Something about a chimney or perhaps a chimp that was in some way getting bigger, but then Mick had seemed to suddenly remember where he was and also that his blistered and rust-dusted face was now an agonising bowl of Coco Pops. He’d started hollering again, and after Howard had washed off the worst of the contamination with his hose he’d got permission from the anxious management to drive Mick over Spencer Bridge, up Crane Hill, Grafton Street and Regent Square, across the Mounts, then take a complicated set of turns to Billing Road to Cliftonville, this being where the casualty department of the hospital was now. Despite the fact that Mick had spent the whole duration of this journey swearing forcefully into the wet towel that he’d held pressed to his face, something about the route they’d taken had felt queasily familiar.

He’d been lucky, happening to hit a quiet patch at the hospital, and had been treated straight away, not that there was a lot that they could do. They’d cleaned him up and put drops in his eyes, told him his eyesight should be back to normal the next day, his face within a week, then Howard ran him home. All the way there Mick had gazed silently from the car window at the blur of Barrack Road and Kingsthorpe through his swollen, leaking eyelids and had wondered why he felt a sense of creeping and insidious dread. They’d given him the all-clear down at casualty. It wasn’t like he had to fret about the accident’s long-term effects, and with the few days of paid sick leave that he’d get off work from this you could say he’d come out on top. Why did he feel, then, as if some great cloud of doom was hanging over him? It must have been the shock, he’d finally concluded. Shock could do some funny things. It was a well-known fact.

Howard had dropped him off in the pull-over spot down at the foot of Chalcombe Road, barely a minute’s walk from Mick and Cathy’s house. Mick said goodbye and thanked his colleague for the ride then mounted the short lane that led to his back gate. The rear yard, with its patio and decking and the shed he’d built himself was reassuring in its tidiness after the chaos and confusion of his day thus far, even seen through the bleary filter of his current puddle-vision. The interior with its gleaming kitchen and neat living room was every bit as orderly and comforting, and with Cath off at work and both the boys at school he had it to himself. Mick made himself a cup of tea and sank into the sofa, lighting up a fag, uneasily aware of the precarious normality of everything.

Although Mick did his fair share of the work, the driving force behind the pristine smartness of their home was Cathy. This was not to say that Mick’s wife was obsessed with cleanliness and order. It was more that Cathy had a deep aversion to untidiness and grime and what they represented to her, a conditioning instilled by having grown up in the Devlin family den. He understood that what to him might seem a barely-noticeable minor carpet stain, to Cathy was a crack in the high wall she’d built between her present and her past, between their current comfortable domestic life and Cathy’s not particularly happy childhood. Children’s toys left scattered on the rug, if not picked up at once, could mean that the next time she looked there’d be her late dad and a gang of drunken uncles sprawled about the place, what looked like a scrap metal business opening in the back yard, and more policemen coming to the door than milkmen. This fear wasn’t rational, they both knew that, but Mick could see how growing up a Devlin could impress it on a person.

Mick got on with all his in-laws, very well with some of them, and thought that by and large they were a lovely crowd, at least the ones he knew. Cath’s sister Dawn, for instance, was a social worker down in Devon, where Mick and the family had taken lots of holidays as a result. Dawn’s youngest daughter Harriet, at the tender age of four, had said about the funniest thing that Mick had ever heard from any child or adult when her dad had asked her if she knew why crabs walked sideways and she’d moodily replied, “Because they’re arseholes.” Perhaps because there were a lot of similarities in background with the Warren family, Mick had always felt very comfortable about being related to the Devlins.

Mind you, they were still the Devlins. Bulletins through Cathy from the wilder reaches of the massively extended clan still had the power to startle or alarm. There’d been a funeral some weeks before that Mick had not been able to attend thanks to his work. Cathy had gone, and it had been by all accounts the spirited affair that Devlin funerals usually turned out to be. At one point in the service, Cathy’s sister Dawn had nudged her and said, “Have you seen our Chris?” This was a distant cousin Cathy had already spotted, standing in the crowd towards the chapel’s rear, and so she said that, yes, she’d seen him. Dawn, though, had persisted. “No, but have you seen him? Have you seen the chap that he’s got with him?” Cathy had glanced back across her shoulder and there stood her cousin, next to someone just as tall as he was who seemed to be struggling to control his feelings at the sad occasion. It was only later, at the wake, that Cath had realised why he’d been standing so close to Cousin Chris. The two of them were handcuffed to each other. The emotionally overwrought man, who’d embarrassed everybody at the do by going on about how wonderful the Devlin family were and just how much he’d been moved by the ceremony, was the plain-clothes prison officer responsible for supervising Chris’s day release. Armed robbery, apparently.

Mick’s wife’s kin were a colourful and various bunch grown from the same black, soot-fed Boroughs earth as were the Warrens. No doubt this was why Cath wouldn’t tolerate that self-same native soil if it got tracked across her fitted carpets. The pastel walls and polished dining table were a barrier against the mud that hung in clumps round Cathy’s roots, but Mick enjoyed the neatness, the predictable serenity. The only problem with it at the moment came when Mick caught sight of his reflection in the glass doors of the cabinet. Sat there with his erupting face sipping his tea amongst the decorous furnishings he looked like something from a George Romero film, a wistful zombie trying to remember how the living did things.

This stray thought brought with it the return of Mick’s unfocussed, inexplicable anxieties from earlier. He still didn’t know where they were coming from. Had something happened in his head while he was out? A stroke or something, or perhaps he’d had one of those dreams that you can’t quite remember but which leave a nasty atmosphere all day. What had been going through his mind in those first seconds when he came round flat out in St. Martin’s Yard, babbling nonsense with volcanoes in his eyes? What had his first thought been upon awakening?

With a lurch he realised that it had been, simply, ‘Mum’.

His mother, Doreen Warren who’d been Doreen Swan, had died ten years before in 1995 and Mick still thought about her fondly almost every day, still missed her. But he missed her as an adult misses people, and he didn’t think about her with the tone of mental voice he’d heard in his first thought upon recovering consciousness. That had been like a lost child calling for its mother, and he hadn’t felt like that since …

Since he’d woken up in hospital when he was three.

Oh God. Mick stood up from the sofa, then sat down again, unsure of why he’d risen in the first place. Was that what this simmering unease was all about, a chance event of no lasting importance that had happened more than forty years ago? He stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray that he’d brought through from the kitchen then stood up again, this time to crack a window open and allow the smoke time to disperse before the kids and Cathy came home from their days at school and work. This task accomplished he sat down and then stood up again, and then sat down. Shit. What was wrong with him?

He could remember what it had been like when he was three, opening up his eyes to grey ward walls and the pervasive smell of disinfectant, having no idea of where he was or how he’d got there. He’d been forced to put the missing incident together one piece at a time from scraps of information that he’d wormed out of his mum over the next few days, how they’d been sitting in the back yard when a sweet had got itself stuck in Mick’s throat so that he couldn’t breathe, and how the man who lived next door to them along St. Andrew’s Road had driven Mick all limp and lifeless to the hospital, where they’d unblocked his windpipe, taken out his swollen tonsils for good measure and returned him to his family as good as new by the weekend. He knew, then, what had happened to him but he only knew it second hand. When he’d first woken up with a strange nurse and doctor looming in above him he’d had no recall of anything from earlier that day at all, not sitting in the garden on his mother’s knee, not choking and not being rushed to hospital. For all he’d known, the bleak and pungent ward with all the Mabel Lucie Attwell posters tin-tacked to its walls might have been his first moment of existence.

That, though, had been then. This time, on waking from his accident at work, there’d been a moment when Mick’s mind was far from blank; a moment in which Mick had suddenly remembered quite a lot. The problem was that in those first few panicked seconds of recovered consciousness, his sudden rush of memories had not been those belonging to a forty-nine-year-old. He hadn’t even known that was his age, had not straight away understood what he was doing in this open yard with steel drums everywhere. He hadn’t thought immediately of Cathy, or the kids, or of the many other reference points to which, in normal circumstances, he had anchored his identity. It was, in those befuddled instants, just as if the last four-decades-plus-change of his life had never happened. It was as though he were once again a three-year-old awakening in 1959 down at the General Hospital, except this time he’d been a three-year-old who could remember what had happened to him.

All the details of the incident in the back garden that had been wiped from his memory as a child had, after more than forty years, been given back. Granted, they’d been returned in a compressed and jumbled form that mainly manifested as a vague uneasy feeling, but if Mick just sat and thought it through he felt convinced that he’d be able to untangle it, to pick this sense of being haunted that he had apart like so much yarn. He closed his eyes, as much to stop them stinging as to aid his reverie. He saw the yard, saw the old stable that was visible across a five-foot-high back wall, its roof with the black gaps where slates were missing like a crossword puzzle blank. The sofa’s cushions underneath him were Doreen’s lap, and its hard and bony wooden edge her knees. He sank into the warm ancestral dough without the slightest difficulty or resistance as the spacious living room surrounding him contracted to a narrow brick enclosure, with the backsides of the terraced houses rising up to right and left, a ragged patch of washed-out blue sky overhead.

The Boroughs had been an entirely different place back then, that smelled and looked and sounded nothing like the abattoir of hope and joy it was today. Admittedly, the odour of the neighbourhood had been much worse in those days, or at least in the most literal and obvious sense. There’d been a tannery just north along St. Andrew’s Road, with great mounds of mysterious turquoise shavings piled up in its yard and a sharp chemical aroma like carcinogenic pear drops. This came from the noxious blue substance painted on the sheepskins to burn out all the hair follicles and make the wool coats that much easier to pull, and wasn’t half as bad as the smell coming from the south, which issued from a rendering plant, a glue factory on St. Peter’s Way. The west wind brought a perfume of scorched engine oil blown from the railway with an iron aftertaste of anthracite from the coal merchants, Wiggins, just across the road, while from the opposite direction when the dawn sun rose above the stable’s leaking rooftop it would lift the rich scents from the Boroughs’ streets themselves, wafting them downhill from the east in an olfactory avalanche: the steamy human essence piping from a hundred copper boilers, good food, bad food, dog food and dog carcasses, brick dust and wild flowers, rancid drains and someone’s chimneypot on fire. Hot tar in summer, the astringent smell of frosty grass in winter, all of this and then the River Nene on top, its cold and green bouquet drifting from Paddy’s Meadow just along the way. These days the Boroughs had no distinct fragrance that the nose could ascertain, and yet in the imagined cilia of the heart it reeked.

As for St. Andrew’s Road itself, or at least as far as their little strip of it had been concerned, that was just gone, replaced by a grass verge that harboured a few trees and the odd ornamental shopping trolley, stretched between the foot of Spring Lane and the foot of Scarletwell. There’d been twelve houses there, two or three businesses, God knows how many people on a plot that now seemed to be the sole province of the upturned mobile birdcages, the cold and hard providers of three generations’ packaged sustenance sprawling there in the weeds like obsolete wire mummies that the lab chimps had at last lost interest in.

Sitting there on the sofa in his Kingsthorpe living room he let his mind trickle away down vanished conduits and lost lanes to soak into the past. He saw the narrow jitty that ran parallel with Andrew’s Road, up past the back yards of the row, a solitary disused gas lamp halfway down its length. For some years after all the houses were demolished you could still make out the cobbles of the obsolete back alley as they bulged up through the turf; the sawn-through base of the old lamp standard, a ragged-edged iron ring inside which the cross-section bores of smaller wires and pipes had still been visible, the neck-stump of a buried and decapitated robot. This was gone now, swallowed by the grass, or by the bulging fence that ran along the bottom of Spring Lane School’s playing field, this boundary having crawled a little to the west within the thirty years or so since his home street had been pulled down and its inhabitants strewn to the wind. There was nobody left who could object or halt the playing field’s encroachment. In another twenty years Mick thought the wandering chain link barrier might have got down to Andrew’s Road itself, where it would have to wait beside the curb for a few centuries before it crossed.

The road, named after the St. Andrew’s Priory that had stood along its northern, Semilong end long before, had once been the town’s western boundary. This was in the twelve-hundreds, when the area called the Boroughs now was then Northampton, all there was of it. The locals and the Bachelerie di Northampton – the notoriously radical and monarch-baiting student population of the town – had sided with Simon de Montfort and his rebel barons against King Henry the Third and the four dozen wealthy burgesses who had been governing the place for fifty years since Magna Carta, creaming off its profits, and were forerunners of the still forty-eight-strong council that was running things today, in 2005. Back then in the 1260s, an irate King Henry had sent out a force of soldiers to quell the revolt with extreme prejudice. The prior of St. Andrew’s, being of the Cluniac order and thus being French, had sided with the Norman royal family and let the King’s men enter through a gap within the priory wall, probably more or less across the street from where the Warrens’ house had later stood. The troops had sacked and burned the previously prosperous and pleasant town, while in reaction to the rabble-rousing students it had been decided that it would be Cambridge that became a seat of learning, rather than Northampton. As Mick saw things, that was where the punishment and disenfranchisement of his home turf had started, kicking off a process that continued to the present day. Refuse just once to eat the shit that you’ve been served up and the powers that be will make sure there’s a double helping steaming on your plate at every supper for the next eight hundred years.

That day in 1959 the district had been spread out like a musty blanket on the summer, stalks of bleaching grass poked through its threadbare weave. The factories clanged at intervals or sprayed acetylene sparks in brief, shearing arcs behind smoked Perspex windows. Martins chattered in the baking eaves to either side of tilting streets where women in checked headscarves trotted stoically along beneath their panniers of shopping; where old men at ten past three were still attempting to get home, dizzy with dominoes, from their quick lunchtime half down at the Sportsman’s Arms. The school uphill across the yellowed playing field, deserted for the holidays, was deafeningly silent with the non-shrieks of two hundred absent children. It had been a harmless, pleasant afternoon. The tower blocks hadn’t been erected yet. The sand-blonde film of demolition dust coating the neighbourhood evoked only the season and the beach.

The whole front of the terraced house had been deserted, Mick’s dad Tommy being off at work over the brewery in Earl’s Barton and the other family members out in the back yard taking advantage of the weather. From the smooth-worn pavement of St. Andrew’s Road, three steps led up into the alcove cowling the tired red of their front door, a black iron boot-scrape, which Mick hadn’t fathomed the intended function of until he was approximately ten, set back into the wall beside the bottom doorstep. To the door’s right, as seen by a visitor, there was the framed wire grid at pavement level ventilating the pitch-dark coal cellar, and above that was the front room window with the china swan gazing disconsolately out at Wiggins’s yard, the rust-and-bindweed railway sidings stretched beyond and the occasional passing car. Left of the front door was a mutual drainpipe and then the front door and windows of Mrs. McGeary’s house, which had a frayed and peeling wooden gate beside it giving access to the cobbled yard and the dilapidated stables at the rear.

Once up the steps and inside number seventeen, there was the plain coconut doormat and the passageway, with ghostly ochre flowers fading into oblivion on its wallpaper and a flypaper-coloured light falling upon its worsted-burdened coat pegs. The first door upon the right led to the then-evacuated front room with its ponderous grandfather clock, its horsehair settee and its easy chair, its paraffin stove and its polished cabinet of fancy crockery that no one ever used, its table mat-sized rented television with a cabinet-style set of doors that closed across the screen. The second offshoot from the passage led into the similarly empty living room, while straight in front of you the stairs rose to the upper floor, carpeted with a writhing brown design that looked like catkins made from Christmas pudding. The top storey of the old house had got his and Alma’s room towards the rear up at the stairway’s top, then up one sideways step onto the landing where their gran’s room likewise overlooked the narrow L-shape of the semi-tiled back yard, with Tom and Doreen’s room, the biggest in the house, being along the landing’s end, its windows overlooking Andrew’s Road above the ones downstairs with the resigned white china swan. This upper level, being mostly uninhabited by day, he’d thought of as his home’s night-storey, lending it a slightly sinister and creepy air. Whenever he’d had childhood nightmares that had used his own house as their set, the scariest bits had always taken place upstairs.

The ground floor was too cosy to be frightening, despite the shadows in the generally sunless kitchen and those in the living room, just off the gloomy hall. Here space was at a premium, occupied by the drop-wing dining table with two matching seats, a stool and rugged wood chair making up the set. Two comfy armchairs (one of which Mick’s cousin John had fallen back out through the window from years earlier) flanked the meteoric-looking iron fireplace (into which John’s sister Eileen had plunged face first at around the same time), with the tiny room also accommodating the large junk-sarcophagus that was the sideboard. A stepped plaster beading, once presumably intended to be decorative, ran round the edges of the ceiling and conspired to make the roof seem even lower than it did already. Hanging from the picture rail of the wall opposite the hearth were washed-out portrait photographs in heavy frames, beige and white images depicting men with knowing grins and bright eyes gazing from beneath the thickets of their brows: Mick’s great-grandfather William Mallard, and his gran’s late husband, Mick’s maternal grandfather Joe Swan with the moustache that appeared wider than his shoulders. There was a third picture also, of another man, but Mick had never bothered asking who it was and nobody had ever bothered telling him. Instead, he called to mind the face of the anonymous chap in the picture as a stand-in if somebody mentioned a dead relative he hadn’t known. One week the man might be Gran’s brother, Uncle Cecil, and the next he could be Cousin Bernard, drowned during the war whilst trying to rescue others from a sinking battleship. For a bewildering fortnight he’d been Neville Chamberlain before Mick had worked out that the Hitler-appeasing former premier wasn’t a close relative.

Cut into the dividing wall between the front and living rooms there was a recess which contained a si