Prelude: You Can’t Be Everything to Everyone . . .
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?”
“Used to?” she echoed playfully.
“You said ‘That used to be the extent of it.’ As in, that’s no longer just what you do, with your magics. What’s changed?”
She made no answer. At length she said, “Give me your hand.”
I hesitated, but there was a seriousness in her face that hadn’t been there before, even though the smile remained in place. I put my hand in hers. Through her gloves I could feel her skin cold from the river wind. There was a colour in the whites of her eyes, a yellowish stain that didn’t belong, but which I couldn’t place. She took a deep breath, and when her lungs were full, breathed just a little deeper and I felt the change.
It started with a sound. First a fading, as the chugging of the boat receded, leaving only the lapping of the water against the boat’s hull; then a growing, as new sounds slipped in to take their place, as if they’d always been there, but had been drowned out by the noise of the here and now. A creaking of masts, a rattling of cloth, a flapping of sail. I listened, and heard the sound of voices calling out from the waterside, calling in East End accents for the dockmaster to come quick to the wharf, for that bloody old fool to mind his feet, for the sailors and dolly girls to clear the way, for the ship docked from India to wait her turn because there’s ten tons of meat what will spoil over here unless it’s run quickly down to market. And looking towards the banks, in the converted warehouses that lined the docks lights were springing up behind the windows, flickering candlelight and lamplight, and the water around us teemed with a hundred craft, fishermen guided by a single burning point of light slung over the end of their boat, pilots and watermen with their little vessels stained sewage-sludge green, the silent cranes on the sides of the river now in full motion, wooden wharves running out into the water from a place where stone embankment should be. I opened my mouth to speak, but Meera’s fingers closed tighter around mine in a command for silence and as we passed beneath Tower Bridge, a bare shadow overhead, I could see the craft swarming around the Tower of London and the sky above it was full of a thousand cawing ravens, spiralling like a tornado overhead, unseen by any but her and me, and I looked upriver and London Bridge was sagging under the weight of houses clinging to its sides, half-timbered houses and crooked clinging shacks.
I said, “Meera . . . ” but my voice fell away into nothing, a fog was rising off the river, smothering the boat but somehow through it the sounds kept coming, wooden wheels on cobblestones, dogs barking in the night, the ringing of church bells announcing the hour, a watchman’s rattle, a donkey’s bray of distress, the roar from an inn on the south bank. “Meera!” I begged. “You’ve got to stop!”
She didn’t hear me. Her face was lit up with delight, her eyes bright, flecked with yellow, her fingers so tight in mine they hurt. A glow to the north caught my eye and, as I watched, flames sprang up in the darkness behind a skyline of crooked cramped houses leaning against each other for support, and they spread, and overhead London Bridge was crammed with faceless dark shapes of people pressing against each other and children crying and women screaming and the sky was full of ashes and the stars were blacked out by smoke and I said, “Meera! You have to stop, you’ve gone too far, we’ll . . . ”
Then the boat jumped to one side, bumping against something below and there was a barge with a canopy and a pair of men pulling at the oars, and they wore doublets and stockings and shoes with buckles on and flat caps and looking up onto the bridge there were heads, four heads all in a row, stuck on spikes, tongues hanging loose, eyes rolled upwards, ragged zigzags around the still-dripping necks where the axe had struck a dozen times in an attempt to break the spine, traitors’ heads stuck on spikes and the shallow banks were stained with fresh raw sewage and not so far off at all, the place where the city stopped; and there was a boy on the bridge, and I heard a shout.
And for a moment, just a moment, I looked up, and met a stranger’s eyes. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen years old, in a rough cap, his face smeared with dirt and sawdust, and, God help us, he wore a dagger in his belt and a pouch on his hip and iron buttons and as he leant out across London Bridge and looked down towards the river, he saw me, and I saw him.
I felt the deck beneath my feet grow cold, arctic cold. My breath was slow, too slow, condensing in the air, sensation was going out of my feet and fingertips, there was a weight on my back, a pressure pushing me down and the river below was wide and dark and black, ready to pull us in. We gritted our teeth and with all our strength, with every ounce of power in us, grabbed hold of Meera’s wrist and pulled our fingers free. Her breath was steam on the air, her face was lit up in wonder and delight. I shook her by the shoulders and tried to shout, but my words were lost in the fog. I pushed her against the rail of the boat and, in that moment of confusion, forced her hands together with a sharp clap.
There was a noise too low to be heard, but I felt it. If whales wept, that would be the sound they made; if oceans talked, it would have been their language. It passed straight through our belly and out the other side, a ripple on the air that tore the fog around us to shreds, and for a moment it all ran backwards. The boy on the bridge darted away, the houses stretched out across the night, candles flickering in the windows, rats scurried away beneath horses’ hooves, fires rose and blazed and fell, leaving a cloud of ash, chimneys grew, smoke stained the sky, stone embankments advanced along the muddy banks, searchlights briefly swept the air and, far off, bombs blasted onto the docks of the East End before even that illusion was shattered and, with an unclenching, a letting out of breath, time returned to its normal place. I staggered as the spell broke, bumping into Meera who in turn caught hold of the railing for support. She was breathless, her face shimmering with sweat, but she was grinning, and her shoulders shook with a barely suppressed laugh. Our catamaran was passing beneath Southwark Bridge, towards the silver spike of the footbridge between St Paul’s and the Tate, engines slowing now as it moved in to dock, unperturbed by everything I’d witnessed.
And she was saying, “Did you see? Did you see did you did you see?”
“Meera!” I rasped. “You can’t do that, you can’t, you mustn’t, how did you do that?”
She clapped her hands together like a child, almost bouncing on the spot. “It’s here! It’s all here it’s all here if you just look the city built on layers and layers can you hear it? Can you hear it all the time it’s always there can you see?”
The cold night felt warm in comparison to where we’d just been. My legs were shaking. “Not possible,” I stammered. “No one should be able to do that, no one! How did you do that?”
“Don’t be a misery,” she retorted. “Wasn’t it incredible?” She opened her arms wide and for a moment I thought she was going to do it again. I caught her fingers in mine and pulled them back close.
Somehow the action had put us not a breath apart, her hands in mine. We hesitated, a strange tugging in our belly. She paused too, looking straight into our eyes, unafraid. Very few look into our eyes and are not afraid. What I’d meant to say somehow didn’t happen. Instead I heard myself say, “It was . . . yes. You’re right. It was. Incredible. Promise me – promise me you’ll never, ever do it again.”
“That kind of power – that sort of magic – isn’t meant. You can’t do it. You’ll burn. You’ll go too far and stay too long and you’ll burn. Promise me you won’t.”
She took an instant too long before she answered playfully, “Aw. It’s sweet that you care.”
Perhaps we could have said something else.
But the moment passed.
“I can see it now,” she said. “You’re the kinda guy who stands up when a woman enters the room, and doesn’t like to see ladies walk unescorted back to the bus stop. A regular knight in shiny armour.”
Our fingers were still tangled together, and didn’t show any sign of letting go. Her eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Did I scare you?” she asked softly, as the boat chugged round the bend towards the Oxo Tower. “Back then, were you scared?”
“Do I get points for lying?” I asked.
“You care and you want points? I’m beginning to think you have an ulterior motive.”
“I didn’t mean . . . ”
“Wouldn’t be talking to you if you did.”
“Is this how you talk to every stranger you meet on the back of a boat?” I asked.
“See – that scares me.”
“But you’re the first one I ever did magic for,” she added. “Were you impressed?”
“Honestly, yes. Never do it again.”
“Were you scared?”
“Honestly, yes. And may I add, as we’re standing here, never, ever, do it again.”
Her eyes widened; she stepped half a pace back as if trying to get a better look at me. “Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. “You weren’t scared for yourself, were you?”
“I’d be pretty thick if I wasn’t.”
“Yes, and unfortunately, being pretty thick, you’re not quite smart enough to lie well.”
“I study the art when I can.”
She laughed, and her fingers tightened in mine. “We’re nearly at the end of the line,” she said. “You’re sweet. Some guys try to be sweet because they think it’ll make women go gooey inside. They think ‘Well shit, I ain’t got brains, I ain’t got brawn, I ain’t got nothing worth saying so I’ll try being sweet.’”
“Most people don’t think I’m ‘sweet’,” I said, struggling with the word.
“What do they think?”
“Most people don’t get much past the job description.”
“What’s the job description?”
“Protector of the city,” I answered with a shrug.
“See what I mean? That’s so sweet you could spin it onto a stick and call it candy floss. Don’t try too hard, though. You’ll spoil the effect.”
Our boat was slipping in sideways by the next dock. Above us, directly overhead, the London Eye, built as a temporary Ferris wheel to last forever, was lit up pale violet, its dark capsules turning at a glacier’s crawl through the night. Across the river, the Houses of Parliament were brilliant sodium orange, with flecks of blue and green cast onto its towers. The river was rolling east, washing away the smells of the city, great ridges and swells beneath its surface, like invisible smooth backs of whales.
Meera asked where I was going.
I said I didn’t know.
She said she didn’t live far.
I said I had work to do.
She said, “Yeah, of course you do, work, at this hour.”
I wanted to say, look, it’s not like that, but there are a lot of really good reasons why I should head into town now and find a nice homeless hostel to spend the night in like I usually do, or a doorway out of the wind or something and it’s been lovely meeting you, but seriously, careful with the magic because that’s the kind of shit that you don’t want to screw around with and while it was great, it was deadly, please don’t do that again. So yeah. Bye. See you around, maybe. Perhaps. Sometime.
What I found myself saying was, “Yeah, well.”
After such inspiring prose, she would have been well within her rights to walk away.
And neither did we.