The intensity faded. When it had she was stood just across the way from us, her expression all but neutral.
‘Aidan,’ she beamed then, her eyes resting on him. ‘I must apologise for the rudeness of these scullions and lackwits, these patches. I pray no true harm has befallen you by their misconceived and cloddish entreats. But the fault is theirs and theirs alone – and, regardless of how it came about, I am delighted you have come to visit.’
The pretty words were going somewhere however, somewhere where Aidan and I were in the shit. I had to say something before they were all around, binding us in etiquette, observance and obligation.
‘On… ehm, on behalf of us both milady, I thank you for your regrets and concern for wellbeing.’
Her eyes flicked to me (shifting to the regard one reserved for the turd one had just trodden in). ‘And this is?’
‘I am called Marwood,’ I said, shoving down the trepidation and digging up what useful words I could think of. I needed more than those so I dug deeper. ‘Um, I am Marwood of the Worshipful Company of the Magicians of London, and of the Fellowship of Albion.’
I was sure she’d have figured out that I wasn’t here formally, that I had no back-up. But there could be consequences for her regardless, consequences that might give her pause even if I didn’t fuck this up.
‘He broughts lights into ‘ere missis,’ Charlie accused, ‘lights and irons and namin’s.’
‘Also on your account Chomping Charlie,’ she averred, ignoring on this occasion his term of address. ‘But enough of you.
‘Aidan, I have witnessed you, witnessed your movements and grace, your strength, the power of your expression. It has moved me in ways I remember feeling not ever. I see that you might be greater still, the greatest ever, a tower casting shade over your so-called peers. I would be your patron and your Terpsichore; I would make you immortal, set your movements in the stars of human memory. I ask only for your love and devotion in return for mine and the world besides.’
Maybe Travers was tempted but I’d disabused him of the fantasy he’d otherwise be entering. It proved enough and he spoke before I could say something by proxy (which was good because right then I’d got nothing).
‘Aye, well, that sounds deadly,’ he said letting native accent and idiom into the refined tongue he’d cultivated, deadly being a more recent Irishism for ‘great’ rather than terminally dangerous (which in the context would have worked just as well). It was as if he’d dug into his roots, drawing a sense of who he was that was useful to his predicament, of where he was from rather than that what now he did.
‘But I’m grand like,’ he politely affirmed.
‘Again my lady,’ I stepped in, ‘I thank you for your most timely intervention and gracious offer to my… associate here. We seek but peaceful egress to the mortal world without violation of the respected accords between our kinds.’
Malice flashed momentarily across her face but without the theatrics and special effects. Her look saddening, she plucked an apple from nowhere, a rosy red-green apple; gaslight glimmered back from its waxed skin.
‘Is that all you would have of me Aidan Travers?’ she asked, ‘for my aid in your return to the mortal plane?’
Hearing the wounded disappointment in her tone and seeing it in her face gave me hope that we’d got through this, because all that had to happen was for Aidan to say:
And suddenly – too late – I realised what she was doing.
‘Then catch,’ she instructed as she tossed the apple to him.
His hands came up to receive it before mine could use something to knock it or them aside. The smile returned to her face, directed to me first with scorn – given she knew I could probably get us both out unaided if only given time – then without to my charge.
‘That apple will enable you to walk back through whence you came – and back, should you later choose. Now what pray tell of equal measure will you offer in return?’
She’d got us again, if in a smaller way. Under the rules of etiquette she was quite entitled to something of at least equal value to the accepted ‘gift’. Oh it was iffy at best. But ‘iffy’ is the playground these guys and gals have played in since the dawn of fuck-knows (or whatever you call the era before human ‘time’ came about).
‘A… performance?’ Travers suggested before I could say anything.
‘A performance,’ she warmed, clasping her hands together as if in wonderment at the thought. Maybe this had been her plan in the first place, or a happy or at least acceptable alternative, but the delight on her face told me I needed to take control of things.
‘Then it is agreed Aidan Travers, a performance then. Well, in your own time.’
She walked off to take a seat on the back of the prostrate Charlie, taking out her fan to set a summer-nights breeze against her cheek. I breathed and took stock.
‘You’re a dancer right? Well whatever you do,’ I asserted, more on gut feeling than anything else, ‘Don’t dance.’
I rubbed my head, trying to think of something. ‘You got anything else up your sleeve? Can you juggle… unicycle… sing?’
‘I can sing,’ he said with sudden assurance. Maybe, I thought, we’d both still get out of here intact. The confidence drained slightly from his face and he asked: ‘What should I sing?’
I’d come up with the idea, but that was about as much as my brain seemed to want to do. ‘All I can think of is bloody ‘Knees up Mother Brown’,’ I said, and I was damn sure that wouldn’t go down well.
What else? My old man’s a… No. It’s a long way to Tipp… Definitely fucking not. What then? What? Could we get away with something modern? Maybe, but that was a field of traps, a song-list of a half-century, any one of which might be taken as insult. Bohemian Rhapsody? Lucy in the Sky? I Can’t get No…
No: anything that occurred seemed to have some connotation, some of which I couldn’t even articulate, but that either way would make things worse.
‘Well?’ Milady pressed, the gaslight now darkening around us save for a spot in front of Aidan.
Choose the form of your destruction, I heard from Ghostbusters in my memory. The choice was made: Travers inhaled and stepped forward.
I didn’t recognise it to begin with.
I was instantly thankful he’d intuited that my mention of ‘Knees-up Mother Brown’ wasn’t a back-up suggestion, but I was still dreading that moment when realisation came, realisation of which of the many terrible options out there he’d chosen (Knees-up Mr Staypuft maybe). The unreformed small-town ape in me expected some show-tune or George Michael. I was wrong on both counts, and artist or genre besides.
Travers had a good voice, deeper than I’d expected and rich and rough and textured in ways unanticipated. I’d flinched at the sight of Milady’s face contort in fury when she realised she wasn’t going to get what she’d expected, and relaxed now that rage abated as she was lured in to Travers’ performance of Shane McGowan’s Celtic folk-punk lament:
‘I’ve been loving you a long time,’ we’d heard while my head was working it out, ‘Down all the years, down all the days…’ Now we heard how some friends ‘fell into Heaven’ and ‘some of them fell into Hell.’
Milady leaned in, entranced by mortal magic her kind could never learn.
‘On a rainy night in Soho
‘The wind was whistling all its charms
‘I sang you all my sorrows
‘You told me all your joys…’
I realised with mild surprise that a fox had entered the scene. It stopped and sat quietly, not so far from a few rats and a bunch of mice that had popped up to listen (I thought I could make out a party of cockroaches in the shadows as well).
‘I’m not singing for the future
‘I’m not dreaming of the past…’
I didn’t know if koboloi responded to music or if the ugly blighters could even appreciate it. Either way some of them and now the rest, all except Charlie the pew, were taking the opportunity to sneak off.
My eyes went back Milady.
At first I thought it was just my imagination that since ‘the ginger lady by my bed’, her hair had gone from straight and gold to gentle curling auburn, russet, titian, the colour of sunsets and cider and hazel and leaves in early autumn. But the doubt vanished when the twilight darkened to night and a gentle summer rain came down, as if from a broken swelter to cool us and the cobbles of that otherworldly street of Soho…
Seeing her as she was then tugged things I couldn’t put into words. She looked so beautiful and so vulnerable I could have sworn myself to her right then or placed cold iron through her neck and I’d never have known which until the moment before.
I did neither.
‘Now the song is nearly over
‘We may never find out what it means
‘Still there’s a light I hold before me
‘You’re the measure of my dreams
‘The measure of my dreams.’
I led us back through the wisps of fog towards Soho-normal. I doubted the apple would cause further complications, but it was more reassuring to do it my own way and Aidan rightly figured not to interrupt or question what would have otherwise seemed idiot mumbling. The cobbles seemed to change texture as I recited the litanies, and retreat somehow with each blink if not every step. I was pretty sure I caught sight of a Huguenots cross on a wall as the fog dissipated; that good sign was followed by the far-off ring of a rickshaw bell, and then the drumbeats and voices of the local Hare Krishnas having a wander and mantric sing-song.
We turned a corner and found ourselves back at the street market on Berwick Street.
‘Is it… over?’ Travers asked.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘We’re back.’
It was early evening, and while the western sun could not reach between the buildings and into the street it was light still and warm.
‘Best if I look after that,’ I told him and he happily gave up the apple.
He took a breath. ‘That was fierce.’
‘Grand,’ he replied straightway – and he wasn’t, and yet he was.
This kind of thing leaves a mark, but the nature of the Other is such that unless you’re aware that it does actually exist it has a kind of narcotic effect. It’s the minds reaction, and its opportunity to process, an impossible experience. The best thing for Travers was for it to drift entirely from his mind. And that was possible – but it had to happen soon. Fortunately I had something in mind, something brought on by the memory of where I thought and hoped Travers might have been heading in the first place.
Wishful thinking then. But now…
‘Look mate – Marwood… Thanks. Thanks for everything. Is there anything I can do? Free tickets or… that sounds shite I know but…’
‘Fancy a pint?’ I said, the John Snow being handily just round the corner.
‘Does the pope shit in the woods?’
‘I bet he does,’ I said.
‘Me too. All on me right?’
Well I wasn’t going to say no and it was for his benefit anyway. A good session on top of otherworldy narcosis ought to do the trick.
He’d perhaps wake with the faint memory of some bloke who helped him with directions and with whom he’d randomly decided to get hammered. Somewhere in the halls of mind the faint image of all-but impossible beauty, regardless of his preference, would haunt distantly but not large enough to impact on whatever life he had ahead. So we headed past the stalls and round to the replica of the pump that the eminent physician tracked the cholera outbreak to a few hundred years back, and the pub named in his honour (rather ironically as I think he was a teetotaller but there you go).
Even if Travers wouldn’t remember the night I would and we had a great crack, whatever we talked about. I have the vague memory of some later point of him making a mild pass at me which I accepted as a compliment because, the old small town Neanderthal aside, I’m okay with that and, quite frankly, I was long overdue a compliment of some sort. I believe it was a little after that that I was gyrating to my own rendition of Mr Boombastic to an immediate audience of one of the premier dancers of the Royal Ballet Company.
I wonder what milady would have made of it.
Or John Snow. Or Good old Dick Whittington.
They call me Marwood and it’s your round: mine’s a pint.