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.
I had to make a quick call. The bag strap stuffed in my pocket was a sling but I wasn’t sure I could dig out and arm it with the right payload in time to launch it with useful effect. Instead I reached into my kit bag, dropping it to the floor to reveal the sword now in my right hand. That had their eyes widening, and more than from the foxfire.
I don’t keep it particularly sharp for the same reason I carry a sword rather than a knife: I can pass it off as recreational were I to be searched by the authorities.
(Only happened the once. It went okay except that the damned plod in question took the time to radio it in and used the word ‘larper’ as often as he could despite my solidly expressed and repeated insistence that I was a re-enactor (the misrepresentation of myself I found the more palatable). I was close to calling him a dickhead in order to establish a scale of accuracy for further dialogue but decided against it. That’s me, diplomatic to a fault.)
Anyway the sword was rather longer than their knives and with my human length arms they were going to have a considerably tougher time getting at me, even en masse. And it was made of iron, cold iron, and on this the folklore is spot on. Otherkind really do not like it.
‘Hold it,’ Charlie rasped to the more skittish of his crew. ‘E’s all alone an’ en’t none of that Company goin’ to give a crap if ‘e e’nt comin’ back. And the package s’worth plenty.
‘Spread. Spread round ‘im an’ e’ll be crappin’ it.’
Oh Charlie knew what he was doing. If they could get behind me or press me to the wall I’d be in trouble. Goblins may lack reach but they’re damn quick and damn sneaky…
‘Eel: lefty-sinister. Nik: righty-dex…’
‘AAAARGH!’ I articulated, charging straight at them with sword raised in a high guard before any had taken more than a few steps. Course then they were legging it as fast as bloody possible… most of them anyway. Charlie and Eel (who I gathered was the beanpole) stayed put, at least until the last few seconds when they scarpered as well.
I nearly tripped over Travers.
I got quickly to work on the rope that bound him with the bronze knife one had dropped, keeping my sword up ready in one hand. The goblins began to collect their wits, turning round after their flight. Shortly they’d realise they’d got me surrounded after all. The one plus side was that releasing Travers was a step in the right direction, a step towards ending this one way or another; also that, however scared he was he could at least cover a few of them with the knife I’d acquired. And something told me they wanted him in one piece…
‘What the… what the f…’ Travers began.
‘I’m Marwood. This is a knife. Take the knife Aidan. Take the knife, get up, and stay behind me.’
‘Holy Mary…’ Aidan said taking in the scene.
‘We’re going to get you out of this.’
‘This is fucking mental.’
Nik and Eel and the others were edging round and closer but, of more immediate concern, was the look I saw Charlie give another and what that other was now doing. Maybe Charlie was the brains and some others the brawn, but it seemed this one had a few magics of his own. I could feel he was doing something just as I could hear it, some kind of curse: a befuddlement at least if not some less pleasant kind of enchantment. I was damn grateful right then that I’d been drilled with at least some basic counters with fae magic in mind. I handed Aidan my sword and got to it.
‘Bind ‘im,’ Charlie demanded.
‘Ee’s slippery, Chompin’ Charlie,’ the goblin gurgled, ‘sneak-slippery…’
My fingers curled and straightened, touched tips and came apart as I felt the flow and intuited the most useful retorts to the little bastard’s spell-bindings. Gestures in working magic can certainly help; we tend to use them though they aren’t strictly necessary.
But right then they seemed to be making all the difference. I could feel the contest as an abstract pressure in my hands and fingers and I sensed how to press back rather than just defending myself. My right digits began to lock into something someway to that arrangement that shadowcasts a duck on the wall but I didn’t let that bother me. It felt… appropriate – and I could feel advantage build.
‘Daaaah,’ the goblin scorned, though in a more strained fashion. ‘Yer e’nt gettin’ nowhere with that hedgey… And me pals… me pals’re gettin’ round yer both.’
‘Don’t mark ‘im,’ Charlie urged his goons, doubtless with reference to Travers rather than me (joy). ‘Missis won’t like it if e’s cut.’
Right then I was too busy to think about what Charlie was saying. I was aware of Aidan was waving my sword, inexpertly but effectively – I couldn’t see it but thought I could feel it, iron moving through an air unfamiliar with its presence. But the fact that the encircling goblins were hamstrung rather by Charlie’s edict meant I could focus more on my immediate problem. I pressed the binder again.
‘S’not bad wizard… But y’en’t… getting me like that… Y’ent got me calling, me name…’
‘Well,’ I began, bringing forth that oh-so recent early memory of him waving his stiletto at me. ‘Then I’ll name you. I name you Mack, Mack the Knife. I back-bind you in that name, by oak, by ash and by thorn: Back-bound, broke and beat.’
I hadn’t a clue who Mack the Knife was (only that that bloke from Take That covered it) and the rest of it just came to me. But judging by the expression on Mack’s face it seemed to have done the job. Like I say bluff has its own magic in this place. I held my fingers as they were and (it seemed like the thing to do) sliced my hand thrice through the air, towards him with the last cut. Mack took a step back, astonishment plastered across his face.
‘Wossit… wossit do to I Chompin’ Charlie?’ he faltered, ‘Wossit do?’
‘Get the wizard!’ Charlie demanded as Mack dropped despondently to the floor. ‘Dancer-boy en’t going nowhere!’
‘We prefer magician,’ I retorted grabbing back my sword, ‘as it happens.’
I kicked one of the smaller ones before it could get a stab in. It went a satisfying distance and Aidan took my lead to do the same to the one called Nik. Three-ish down. Better odds. Nowhere near over.
‘What do you reckon Charlie?’ I addressed the brains while swinging a warning stroke back at Eel who I’d caught edging towards us in the corner of my eye. ‘Call it quits?’
Charlie looked unsure. The fight was still in him but he was taking stock.
‘Aidan listen to me,’ I whispered, ‘can you see my kit bag? Okay, we’re going to move over towards it, right? Slowly. Now…’
I had the smallest sense there was a remnant of the way through to Soho-normal, back the way we’d come. If so…
Charlie didn’t look like he’d given up on his prize just yet though and I gave warning flicks of cold iron to any goblin that looked like it might fancy its chances as we moved.
‘Marwood,’ said Travers, ‘Marwood, can you hear… horses?’
Now he mentioned it I could and so could the koboloi. Through those distant half-remembered notes of a good old music hall knees-up grew a freeform clatter of hooves on stone, accompanied perhaps by an afterthought echo of bullshit poetry and whispered jazz.
Through the lingering fog a hansom cab burst.
The horses were reined in noiselessly by the driver on the sprung seat behind, a frozen thin-limbed man-shaped scarecrow in beret and scarf and black roll-neck. He remained unmoving. After moments the door opened and the scent of parks and cut grass, garlic, coffee and car exhaust reached and churned in my mind, perfume against the faint odours of frying onions, and of retched alcohol and alleyway debauchery, of human effluence dried by an absent sun.
This would be the individual to whom the koboloi, now prostrating themselves in varying degrees and styles of fawning, had been bringing Aidan Travers. Maybe the real-world market had influenced the nature of this place, centuries of barrow-barter and exchange seeping through to make it auspicious for deals and trades regardless of how tangible the currency or commodity. The discomfiting warmth seemed to clench and my blood ran cold.
Her attire spoke of mad kings and unexpected queens: a pastel yellow muslin gown over a terracotta skirt, its cut revealing a pressed cleave of bosom. She hoisted her skirts in hands covered by long silk gloves as she stepped out and down (we got a shameless eyeful of ankle beneath, and what I was half-sure were a pair of Nikes). Her hair, scandalously uncovered, was the colour of never-seen corn sung of at the harvest festivals of inner-city schools, crayon golden; her skin was of peaches-and-cream, brick-buff and soiled alabaster.
‘Marwood,’ Aidan gasped, ‘I think I… I think I know her. She’s come to the ballet – three times at least. I can’t… I just… don’t know if I saw her then or… or if I’m just remembering her now. But I can see her there in the audience, clear as now: watching me.’
Oh fuck. Fucking fucking fuck.
Fuck on toast.
It was beginning to make sense, a pretty scary and now rather obvious sense.
This was fae aristocracy, at least I guessed it was – what passed for it round here anyway. With koboloi I mostly knew what I was doing, black shucks and trolls and spirits likewise. But this was totally off-script.
‘Evenin’ missis,’ Chomping Charlie gushed, coming upright and bowing again with a flourish. ‘We brought ‘im, the dancer-boy; just like yer arksed missis.’
‘Do not call me missis Chomping Charlie; not now, not ever.’ Charlie wasn’t looking quite so full of himself under her glare. ‘Moreover, I did not ask you to kidnap a mortal and bring him here.’
‘But… but you sez to brings ‘im mi… milady, and ‘ow gratefuls y’d be to oo would does it…’
She’d taken out a fan to wave which now she snapped shut. She jabbed the end under Charlie’s chin and pulled upwards.
‘I little goblin? I said nothing of the sort.’
‘Marwood,’ Aidan whispered, ‘can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?’
‘She likes you,’ I said after a moment.
‘But… I’m gay.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Maybe a guy – or a girl – is inclined to get freaky with her… maybe they’re not. They can’t change you like that, not if it’s not there already. They wouldn’t want to anyway. What her kind are after is… intensity. I imagine centuries of consciousness can lead to… boredom… ennui. They fall in love with mortals. Can be anyone really, just some random thing about a certain someone that sparks something in their… soul. But they tend to get bored rather easily.
‘Now someone with art, well that’s different. Art is sex to them, a drug. She’s seen you perform. She’s not after your body. She thinks she’s in love with you. But you’re her drug of choice; to her you’re a balletic motherlode of Columbian freebase.’
She strode through the prostrate koboloi (treading only on one) addressing them all in a voice that somehow combined Tara Palmer-Tomkinson with Eliza Doolittle after Henry Higgins had done his bit, all with a bit of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction lurking in the background.
‘We do not kidnap mortals,’ she chastised, possibly for my ‘benefit’ though she’d yet to acknowledge my presence. ‘We do not break the accords. I merely mused on what a happy chance it would be for a mortal of such art and spirit to be encountered; for we could offer them a life of art and pleasure in exchange for the simple pleasure of their company for the duration.’
‘See,’ I whispered to Aidan, ‘If she’d ordered them to kidnap you as she surely wanted she’d be breaking the rules. She wouldn’t do that – maybe can’t. The accords are as binding as chains of iron to their kind. Instead she’s nudged them to do the job so they’re in the firing line if they cock it up.’
‘So… what happens now?’
‘She offers you exactly what she said and the chances are you’d take it. They can’t make you do anything but they can be very convincing.’
‘A… life of pleasure… and art? I could think of worse things…’
‘Yeah, I hear heroin’s quite good fun as well. But even if I could afford the habit it’s hard to believe I’d make the choice to spend the rest of my life befuddled and half-aware and not giving a damn about who I am or anyone I’ve cared for because there may have been a worse option.’
Aidan had been watching her admonish the koboloi up to that point.
Getting it, now he looked at me.
Then she looked at us.
She didn’t move though it was as if she had, like the zooming refocusing of a camera, she shooting forward to fill your field of view, fierce in seeming and wrathful in intent should her will to be thwarted.
So it was a good job I wasn’t here to thwart her.
Wait – no that was exactly what I was here for.
Back in the old days, back when I ran with the old crew, this was the point someone would say something suitably righteous like “we’re going to kick your arse”. Or “your reign of terror is over you complete tosser”. Or – reserved for the most heinous wrongdoers of all and never uttered without good reason: “Brian Blessed does not like you – and he never will.”
But I wasn’t with the old crew, or any crew for that matter. And this was a member of urban fae aristocracy – that was a game-changer and even I know when to put the smart mouth and wise-cracks aside. Yes I do. Mostly. Sometimes. Well then anyway.
What I had by way of training was kicking in and an apotropaic incantation mumbled itself through my lips. I worked it as close to perfect as it could be, laying down some esoteric defences and markers around us; enough for a bluff but not so much as to be an outright challenge. That rushing vision of supernormal beauty became terrible, cruelty and malice writ across a face you could worship, whose retribution you’d welcome as deserved and just, coming ever closer but never arriving…
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.