Authors: Kate Griffin
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #FIC009000, #Contemporary, #Fiction
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In which there is a meeting on a boat…
I had been in Deptford, hunting vandals.
Not your nice vandals, not the kind who trashed a park bench or burnt out a car.
These were the vandals who painted, on the walls of the houses, signs that sent all who looked on them, quite, quite mad.
They said they did it to show us the truth, and the truth was we were all being tricked. We were all insane, all of us who thought that the world was safe, and ordered, and had a purpose. They knew, they had seen, they were trying to make us understand.
I said, pull the other one, it’s got bells on, you’re just going around screwing up people because you’re screwed up in turn and besides, if the world really is as dark as you think it is, then I’ll take the illusion any day, thank you.
They answered, and who the hell do you think you are, jimbo (or words to that effect), you come swaggering on in here in the middle of the night and you’re all like, Stop being vandals or else—well we know people, you know, we can do you.
I made a few pithy comments, along the following lines:
My name is Matthew Swift. I’m a sorcerer, the only one in the city who survived Robert Bakker’s purge. I was killed by my teacher’s shadow and my body dissolved into telephone static and all they had left to bury was a bit of blood. Then we came back, and I am we and we are me, and we are the blue electric angels, creatures of the phones and the wires, the gods made from the surplus life you miserable excuse for mortals pour into all things electric. I am the Midnight Mayor, the protector of the city, the guardian of the night, the keeper of the gates, the watcher on the walls. We turned back the death of cities, we were there when Lady Neon died, we drove the creature called Blackout into the shadows at the end of the alleys, we are light, we are life, we are fire and, would you believe it, the word that best describes our condition right now is cranky.
Would you like to see what happens when you make us mad?
They seemed to understand.
When they were gone, I walked along the river, heading east with the turning of the tide. Sorcerers in the big city go mad too easily; their hearts race at rush hour, their heads ache when the music plays in the clubs below the city streets, they breathe a mixture of carbon monoxide and lead nitrate fumes, and fresh air, clean, country air, brings on wheezing. I have always been careful to avoid the madness, but the river, on a clean, cold night inclining to winter, was a draw and a power that couldn’t be resisted.
So I walked. Over muddy quays drained down to the bed, past timber warehouses and cement factories, beneath the white bulbous lights of brand new apartment blocks
and over crooked paths between cracked tarmac roads. Past shops with brown-eyed mannequins staring emptily out from reflective window-panes, through the smell of Chinese take-away guarded by a forever-saluting golden Nazi cat, across car parks to shopping estates where the average price of the average good was £14.99 and this month’s material of choice was polyester or plywood, past little chapels wedged in between the building society and the sixth-form college where, If You Believed It, You Could Achieve It. (Classes rated ‘Satisfactory’ by the Schools Inspector.) I kept the river to my left, paused to watch a flight of twin-bladed military helicopters following the curve of the water into the centre of town, leant out over a balustrade to see the silver towers of Canary Wharf catching cloud in their reflective surfaces, watched the train rattle away beneath Greenwich Hill, felt the shock as we crossed the Prime Meridian. Ley lines exist but, like all of magic, they are formed where life is thickest, and where meaning is imposed by man. Life is magic; magic grows where there is most life.
Quite how I ended up at the pier, I don’t know. But my feet were starting to tingle with a dry heat that might at some point become an ache, and even the curry houses and not-quite-Irish pubs were closing for the night. At the Millennium Dome, an exercise in civil engineering somewhere between a white pleasure palace and a blister in a wasteland, the gigs were ending, doors were opening, and people dressed to honour their chosen band were tumbling out towards Tube, bus and boat. Signs were going up at stations announcing the times of the first and last trains, as a warning to all who might linger too long. The footpath under the river to the Isle of Dogs was closed, a sign
politely suggesting that travellers try alternative routes: access only between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Monday–Saturdays, please do not ride your bikes in the tunnel.
I hadn’t realised I’d been waiting for the boat back to the centre of town, but when it came, I boarded it, a catamaran that offered a full 30 per cent off the price of its fare, already 130 per cent higher than I had expected to pay. I paid anyway, and boarded a vessel built for a hundred and fifty tourists, now holding a crew of three and a cargo of twelve. A group of friends at the front wore T-shirts announcing that Life Is Punk, sported haircuts that in previous times would have been used to indicate rank in warrior tribes and were now worn to cause distress to difficult mothers, and talked loudly and with sweeping gestures about the brilliance of this and the horror of that. They seemed to be of that age when things were either one or the other, with no middle ground.
Near the back of the boat, a man was embracing a woman to keep off the cold wind from the river as we churned towards the west, and said nothing, and didn’t need to. In the middle section, two women, carrying guides to Londra, leant out of the window and gleefully claimed to identify the Tower of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye and Hampstead Heath.
I stood alone on the deck and tasted salt and smelt the river and felt the engine beneath my feet and knew that tonight there wasn’t much I couldn’t do, though I didn’t feel like doing much anyway.
Then she said, “Sometimes people come here to get clean.”
At first I hadn’t realised that the voice had been addressed to me, but when I felt an expectation next to
me, I looked round, and there she stood, hands on the railing, hair flicking back and forward around her face, tangling in the wind, her eyes sliding over me like oil across silk. We stammered, “What?”
“Not physically clean,” she added, with a shrug. “More… clean inside. The river, washing away our sins.” I had nothing to say, but this didn’t seem to bother her. She held out one hand and added brightly, “Meera.”
We shook her hand, fingers sticking out of the fingerless gloves that hide the scars on the palm of our own hand. “Matthew,” I said. There was a tingle on our skin as they touched hers, an aching at the back of our teeth. Her eyes locked onto ours, and they were the colour of fresh chestnuts, flecked with yellow, and, for a moment, it could have gone any way.
Her fingers tightened, before releasing their grip, and she looked away, back at the river and the city rolling by. “I could tell,” she explained, casually, as if announcing breakfast. “The street lights dim a little when you pass them.”
“Is that why we’re talking?”
She grinned, and shook her head. “No.”
“We’re the only people at the back of this boat who are alone. I thought maybe we could be lonely together.”
She said that she was a risk analyst, working in the Isle of Dogs. Most nights, the people in her office went out drinking together—champagne, clubs, music. Sometimes they had teamwork evenings—paintballing, rowing, learning to play the ukulele…
“It’s a very easy instrument. Put us all together and get
us playing: teamwork and music. Paintballing didn’t work so well. A lot of very aggressive men in my office.”
Tonight her colleagues had decided to go to a stripper joint and, for the first time, they’d invited her.
“It was loud and dull. It didn’t interest me.”
So did she just leave?
Yes. She’d made sure to be seen first, sat around with the boys, made the right sounds—even paid £50 to a Ukrainian for a dance—and once everyone was too drunk to notice or care, she’d snuck away, down to the river.
“It’s where I’m me,” she’d explained.
I said nothing; confessions of an innermost nature were never our strong point. We passed Rotherhithe, new brick apartments and converted wharves whose names—silver, guns, pepper—told their histories, along with the black cranes still bolted into their walls. She said, “I’ve got an aunt who’s a witch. Or a wise woman. Both, I think. She’s from Chennai, practises there. I got into it through her.”
“Do you do a lot?”
“She taught me petty glamours and enchantments. Beauties, cheap charms, precious dreams—nothing special. That used to be the extent of it. What about you? Why are your eyes so blue?”
I hesitated. “Complicated.”
“Your shyness only makes the story grow in my imagination. How much stranger can the truth be from what I’m imagining?”
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” I suggested.
“I’m seeing dragons,” she retorted. “Dragons and volcanoes and adventures and demi-gods. Am I close?”
“Everything except the tectonic activity.”
“And you’re not shy,” she added, the brightness never leaving her voice. “Sad, maybe? Or is it fear? But not shy.”
We fell silent. Tower Bridge, all blue metal and pale yellow stone, was swinging into view round the bend of the river. To the north the lights in the windows of Wapping were out, apart from the occasional fluorescent kitchen and the blue-grey of a late-night movie.
Finally I said, “Used to?”