Read an Excerpt
Six o’clock in the morning. The cold grey light of dawn was spreading its drab luminescence around the scene, keeping at bay any colour that might have intruded into the surroundings; a chill, dank mist swirled around the parapets of the bridge, curled like rising steam over the angled steel girders which spanned the canal as the early trains clanked and groaned their way across. Of human life, nothing was to be seen – the world could as well have been a place of mechanical monsters, of iron beasts breathing smoke and flame as they rose to their day’s enigmatic pursuits.
In truth, the canals of the Black Country were places ignored, even avoided, by the human population. Hidden tracts of still, black water which passed unseen beneath bridges or behind factories, their oily surface gleaming secretly under the perpetual blanket of smoke and soot which gave the region its name, all but unknown to the men, women and children of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Dudley, all the towns of England’s industrial heartland.
Beneath the bridge, a huddled shape stirred, shifted itself into a marginally more comfortable position, and settled again. Another coal train rattled and clattered overhead, the grimy steam engine snorting and straining, and the shape stirred again, annoyance clear in the abruptness of its movement. The train passed, and only the distant rumble and murmur of the wakening town disturbed the relative quiet. But a new sound intruded – faint but clear through the cold morning air: C-lop, C-lop, C-lop, C-lop, C-lop... At first barely heard, but slowly growing more distinct, as slowly getting closer, closer... Bleary eyes peered into the gloom, the brow over them furrowed in curiosity as well as despair. A big dark shadow, head held high; a smaller shadow, walking at its haunches...
The horse gave a sudden snort as the bundle on the towpath moved again, almost under its front hooves, and stepped abruptly sideways.
‘OW! Prince! You stupid ’orse, yeh stood on me foot!’ The smaller shadow was hopping on one foot, holding the other in its hands.