The story goes that when Dick Whittington had had enough of London he’d got somewhere into the borough of Islington before the Bow Bells rang out ‘Turn again Whittington, Thrice Lord Mayor of London!’ Me, well I got rather further. But the point is that I couldn’t rightly tell you if that’s actually what happened; only that, compared to some of the weird shit I’ve seen in London, talking bells are pretty damn passé to say the least.
Just like good old Dick W I’d discovered – and had reaffirmed over two stints in the Big City and the years therein – that its streets are not paved with gold. They are, rather, pocked with gum, littered somewhat with the dispossessed, and otherwise busy with discarded fag butts.
I’d actually just contributed to the latter with a reflex press and twist of trainer-sole. This was, I’ll own, hardly civic minded. But in my defence my attention was rather more focused on the geezer I was tailing in the hope I could work out what the hell – or perhaps what from hell – the threat to his life and / or limb was. Nothing pleasant, it was safe to assume. Threats to life and limb generally didn’t carry colourful helium balloons or come with a cherry on top; and even if they did it would hardly endear them further to their intended victim. Beyond that I was pretty sure it was some threat of the supernatural flavour, especially as muggins here had been called up.
It’s what I do, see: blunder in blindly prodding paranormal wasp’s nests to see what came out in the faint hope I could deal with it.
My qualifications relevant to the endeavour? Magician, journeyman (I also gots me a B in GCSE geography).
They call me Marwood. They also call me Tef. They’ve yet to call me Mr Lover-lover or Mr Boombastic for that matter but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
‘Tell me everything you know about Aidan Travers,’ I’d said to Alex after she’d given me the heads up. Alex was a clerk in the Company, London’s secret guild of magicians. She knew I took on the odd pro bono thing off the books, and it was she who’d called me up when word from an unofficial source came of something wicked this way coming in Mr Travers imminent future.
‘He’s Irish. A dancer – an up and coming star of his generation. Just got a spot in the Royal Ballet’s production of…’
I listened, taking note of what Alex knew and the gaps therein that might prove relevant. I was nodding to myself when she’d finished.
‘Is he gay?’ I asked.
‘That’s very presumptuous Marwood,’ she chided: ‘Just because he’s a dancer doesn’t mean he’s gay. Would you ask the same thing if he was a… a banker?’
‘Is he a banker?’
‘No he’s not a banker.’
‘Is he gay?’
‘I think so yes.’
‘All righty then.’
‘And that’s relevant because?’
‘Haven’t the foggiest. Might not be. I just ask things as they occur to me.’
We had a brief exchange in which I made sure to mention that I had seen Billy Elliott, she that Billy wasn’t gay and that it wouldn’t matter if he was, me that I got all that and did we want to get on with the business of making sure nothing bad happened to the chap in question and she relented. I was very articulate.
We’d arranged to meet in the British Museum (where things end up after someone turns up in a foreign land and says ‘Hello, we’re British and we’re here to nick your cultural treasures’, and asks to be pointed in the right direction). Specifically we were in the cafe bit in the Great Court, sunlight beaming down through the great glass ceiling. I hadn’t thought to ask why here but here we were.
‘And where can I find Mr Travers?’ I asked her.
‘Over there,’ she said looking a little smug as if she’d scored some kind of victory, having earlier failed to categorically label me as being prejudiced against ballet or something.
‘Well that’s handy,’ I said. Somehow it didn’t seem to be the response she was after.
I’d tailed Travers around the bustling backstreets of the West End’s Theatreland, dodging chuggers (charity muggers to the uninitiated), and with a few stop-offs before following him back up the main drag of bookshops, bars and cafes. Then we were off into the square mile warren of Soho.
It was denser with people – harder to keep track of someone and less likely for a tail to be spotted – so I stalked closer. I was about five metres away by the time we passed a concentration of Soho’s sex industry, doorways to strip clubs, clip joints and peepshows, retailers of sex toys and erotic apparel, and purveyors of fine porn whatever your persuasion; we emerged in turn to a lively if slightly grubby backstreet avec street-market.
I knew this neck of the urban woods well enough and had hopes Travers might be aiming for the John Snow pub, so named for the physician who traced the cholera outbreak in London to a well hereabouts. I lost sight of him for a moment. The moment grew longer. My deflation at the receding chance for a pint was replaced with concern and I darted around the stalls and barrows in a manner I hoped didn’t look too shady trying to regain sight of him.
But then I apprehended something with what we call second sight.
It’s not vision as you’d imagine; it actually sort of plays on and through all senses in some way though on sight first and foremost. It’s an awareness of those beyond-the-normal things that we magician types deal with, something you cultivate to some degree or other during your apprenticeship.
The thing was that if I’d been out of luck spotting Travers with regular vision, detecting something with the sight meant Travers was out of luck full stop: right then it was provoking a sinking feeling.
See there’s not just other things out there, but other places. In pre-industrial times there was more of an idea of this, places beneath barrows and over the water and out in ancient woods: faerie-land, Otherworld (the demi-aevum if you want to get technical). Because the physical world is a little less defined than most people realise. And in certain liminal places there were – and still are – ways beyond and into what we loosely understand as realms of existence in the spirit of the world, its pervading unconscious; its dream maybe.
That’s how it supposedly was in those wild places, where spirit flows free and genius loci gestate over centuries. But cut down the trees, spread out the tarmac and lay on the bricks and mortar and that kind of goes out the window you’ve just built from the tree you’ve just cut down. It’s all about life, about living matter then – because you don’t get no trods or faerie-land in the weft of brick and stone in town and city.
Except you do.
Oh it takes time; a lot of time. A lot of time and a lot of people and countless layering of heightened emotion, love and hate, a sprinkling of suicide and murder, fear and stress and anger and bliss from every damn thing humans do to themselves and each other. But London’s got a lotta people and London’s had a lotta time. And in more than a few places the threshold, the barrier, is rather soft and rather thin.
It takes a particular sensitivity to be able to perceive these soft areas which, for better or worse, I have. And I’d got a nasty feeling that Mr Travers had just taken an involuntary trip into London’s hidden other world. I stashed my hoodie in my kit bag, leaving the latter open and making sure one of its contents was loose and to hand. I also unclipped the long strap and stuffed it in my pocket and for the same reason. Then I hefted it by the side straps and prepared to try and make my way through.
It’s hard not to speculate when you’re about to enter the demi-aevum: it tends to acquire something of the flavour of its local real-world past. Now Soho only really got going in the 17th century, becoming a French quarter after a big contingent of Huguenots came over and pitched up (I wasn’t entirely sure what Huguenots were, but I kept thinking of them as being called “huge nuts” which I found moderately entertaining). There’d been a smattering of posh English types here too but they buggered off and the area declined into poverty, prostitution, music hall and theatre, and then further to aspiring writers and crap poets and the hopes and dreams, and drunkenness thereof.
What it comes down to is that even the near-Other can be unpleasant at the best of times, and that’s in places with a more salubrious history; I really wasn’t that happy at the idea of going through this close to porn central for one thing.
I mean, okay, it’s not like if you spent all day looking at, I dunno, badgers that you’d end up dreaming about stripe-faced mustelids which is more or less the same principal. Still…
But there was nothing else for it. I focused on my breathing, let those anxieties register and go until my mind was as clear as it was going to be. Then I dredged up and began muttering a few litanies of ancient words I knew to assist the transition, keeping those words coming as I headed to the nearest side street, usefully one I’d never been down before. Between my own sensitivity, the spoken cantrip and my lack of knowledge I was able, with a few twists and turns down the backways, to press through into the near-Other.
The buildings were crooked slum tenements that seemed taller and narrower than even their mundane world counterparts. It was twilight. I was vaguely aware of the moon somewhere above (the Otherworld not giving any particular shit about what time of day the conventional world thought it ought to be). Mind it might have I was more aware of how surprisingly and pleasantly… somehow too pleasantly… warm it was, and the sounds of what might have been a vaudevillian knees-up coming from beyond the down-street wisps of fog.
I was in. I wanted out as soon as possible.
The Other is hazardous by its very nature, but there’s things there, old things that have gathered some kind of presence, physical or otherwise. Call them fae, call them otherkind, call them what you will, they can be pretty damn terminal to body or mind. If any were immediately present they were manifest only as shades amongst the shadows and fog: perhaps the dead, perhaps memories of, perhaps fae-kind, or perhaps echoes of folk in the real world.
But then I passed a doorway with something very definite lounging therein, female shaped, its posture equally soliciting, leering and resigned. I made damn sure not to look directly but saw it wore a shawl round its shoulders and its left hand held a veil across the lower half of its face. Gallows-curiosity burned but I knew in my gut I would never want to see beneath that veil – and I knew what to do which was to damn well keep moving.
Ahead, through a thin curtain of fog, smog or whatever the hell it was, I saw a bustling knot of shorter bodies. Between them they carried aloft a wriggling something half-covered by a sack, but not the legs that tried to kick out of their grip.
‘Ah, excuse me lads,’ I called, ‘I’m looking for a human mortal called Aidan Travers; I don’t s’pose that would be him in that sack you’re carrying?’
They were of different shapes and sizes. The lankier lurker at the back was as tall as me; the rest were rather shorter. Six faces – ugly faces, greeny, grey-ey faces that could perhaps have passed as choleric in earlier times – looked over and up at me.
Well that’s the old school general and technical name for them amongst the otherkind. These were the sods who gave King Lud so much grief back when the Big Smoke was called Caer Lud or Caer Lundain. I wondered if, given the historical presence of the Huguenots, they might be French, in which case they’d be gobelins; and based on that you could have a wild stab in the dark as to what they ended up being called in English (wild stabs in the dark being very much what these buggers were about).
‘Oo’s askin’?’ one hailed me in some kind of guttural kobold mockney, a rat poking its head from inside his jacket (a pet maybe, or a snack – not that to goblins the two were in any respect mutually exclusive).
I cleared my throat. This next bit was important and, while I normally feel a serious degree of disdain for formality, I had to get it right.
‘I am called Marwood, of the Worshipful Company of the Magicians of London, and of the Fellowship of Albion. I am here only to secure the safe return of whichever mortals might be present, and present against their wishes.’
I’d taken in the glances between them and identified their leader, a fat toadish individual with a wide toothy overbite; in the eyes of his fellows he probably looked rather dapper, dressed as he was in swell clobber and sporting a top hat and some kind of Georgian era long coat, the tails of which trailed behind him on the cobbles. But it was another who replied to my address.
He was an inch taller than ‘the brains’ and seemed of a more modern persuasion – a fucking beatnik goblin with beret, goatee and rolled cigarette that may have been a reefer. I didn’t like the look of him, but then he had a pair of bongos slung behind him which I didn’t like the look of either.
‘Ee ain’t no wizard Charlie,’ he said to the leader, ‘Ain’t no smell o’ cantrip or witchin’ on ‘im.’
Well it’s true that many of us, the more powerful, tend to develop a certain aura with repeated use of higher order magics, something that can be noticeable even by regular folk. Luckily I’m crap at that kind of stuff. Yeah, that’s me: lucky.
I held my ground and recited the simple cantrip to conjure a bit of foxfire, magical light (highly useful if the electric goes and you need to find your way to the lav) in my right hand. It manifested as eldritch luminescence running green to blue and, with some verbal tweaking, I turned it yellow-white and brighter. Their eyes widened. It was something of a bluff, a promise of worse things I might be capable of; but bluff can be a kind of magic in the Other and as potent as any other kind… if it works.
Another goblin leaned in and muttered something that sounded like goblin-French to fat Charlie, who passed for the brains of the operation. Meantime a few of the others took out blades, a knuckle knife one, a stiletto another…
‘Piss off wizard,’ Charlie told me, speaking with affectations of imagined gentility, ‘We know’s you just ‘ave a few hedge magics and we en’t impressed.’
The rest gave vicious little grins and there was a thump and ‘oomph!’ as the gift-wrapped form of Aidan Travers was dropped to the cobbles. Those with knives out already waved them in the air, the others now drawing them to brandish in my general direction (with the exception of the myopic little sprog whose otherwise terrifying blade-strokes were directed at an unthreatening gas-lamp across the way).
One took a step forward…