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The Midnight MayorOr, the Inauguration of Matthew Swift
By Griffin, Kate
OrbitCopyright © 2010 Griffin, Kate
All right reserved.
Prelude: The Heavy Metal Spectres
In which a sorcerer is surprised to find himself cursed, burnt, branded, chased and condemned without any apparent reason and in the wrong pair of shoes.
The telephone rang.
… it’s complicated.
No room for anything else.
Time went by.
Don’t know how much. Watch fused to wrist; burnt. No clocks. Mobile phone somewhere in my bag, but my bag wasn’t on my shoulder. Wasn’t near at hand. I raised my head. Drying blood crackled like Velcro. I saw my feet. They were wearing someone else’s shoes. It took a minute to remember why.
I raised my head a little higher.
My bag was on the ground. It had fallen some distance away, spilling paint cans and old socks. Above it swung the telephone. A dribble of blood was running down the receiver and splatting droplets onto the ground. The blood was mine. There didn’t seem to be any other candidate.
I put my head back down on the concrete, and closed my eyes.
More time went by.
It started to rain. Proper night-time rain, that sensed the wind chill and wished it was snow. I found that my left arm, the one that hadn’t answered the phone, would obey basic commands. I said twitch, it twitched. I said check for anything broken, and it checked. Nothing was broken. Even the blood running down the back of my neck was melodrama. There’s two kinds of head wounds—the kind that look worse than they are, and the kind that kill you. Not dead; not again.
I let my left hand relax.
The wind was blowing the rain in at a 45-degree angle. In the gloom it was visible only as a sheet across the sodium-coloured streetlamp at the edge of this patch of concrete nothing. There was a drumming on the roofs and a rumbling in the gutters as three weeks of unswept dirt was washed into the grating. The rain was a blessing. We turned our shaking right hand up to the cool water and let it wash the blood off our fingers. Then, as it started to seep through my coat, shivering and the ache of deep-down cold began to replace the burning pain.
The decision to get out of the rain meant getting up.
Hercules didn’t have anything on us; Muhammad Ali would have been impressed.
We got up.
Halfway there, my knee slipped on the wet concrete. My right hand hit the rough grain of the floor, and we nearly screamed.
The Terminator would have given up and gone to bed by now; the Knights Templar would have called it a day.
I got up. My world swam between blood-red and sapphire-blue. A dying streetlamp buzzed like a mosquito. Water had pooled in the plastic bubble that held the bulb, casting rippling shadows over the black-silver street. I staggered to the phone. My bag was a faded satchel made of plastic fibre pretending to be cotton. I picked it up and slung it over my shoulder. The phone swung uselessly on its cord. From the speaker it made the loneliest sound in the world:
Wedged around the telephone itself, in the gap between machine and wall, were cards offering:
**PERKY PLAYFUL BLONDE**
THINKING OF ENDING IT ALL? CALL THE SAMARITANS.
I had a scarf around my neck; I noticed one end was scorched. I pulled it tighter and tucked it inside my coat, an off-beige colour turning off-brown in the rain. Our head hurt. Our everywhere hurt, so many different parts demanding attention that it was hard to identify any single one. In my bag there was a first-aid kit, showing its wear. I found a bandage and wrapped it round my right hand. All I could see was blood, rain, and angry purple flesh puffed up so thick it was hard to tell where my palm ended and my fingers began. To hold the bandage in place, I pulled on a black fingerless glove. Pressure on the pain made it worse; but worse was good. Worse made the agony local, and meant we couldn’t notice all the other parts of us that hurt.
I looked around.
I was in a garage. I knew this because, facing the street, a stained banner the colour of weak tea said: “CAR WASH AND SPARE PARTS”. There were no other clues as to its function. Just a concrete floor exposed to the sky, four walls of corrugated iron, and a chain across the entrance. The telephone and a few discarded buckets were the only equipment I could see. Weeds were coming up between the cracks in the floor, and a sheet of torn plastic that might once have been a roof flapped in the wind.
A truck went by in the street outside. The sound of wheels through water always seems further off than it is. At this time of night, or morning, trucks were almost the only vehicles, delivering tomorrow’s supermarket food to be stacked on the shelves behind yesterday’s leftovers. Trucks; and the night buses, every passenger a suspect simply for being awake, every driver a lunatic who hears the call of fifth gear on every empty street.
Our head throbbed. I could feel each artery pulsing. We felt sick. I looked at the telephone receiver; then reached out, knuckles first, not trusting my fingertips to it. And would have touched it except that a sound—or the absence of a sound—held me back.
The beeeeeeeeeepppp of the dialling tone stopped.
I drew my hand away instinctively. The phone hung limp as a dead squid. I listened. The sound of rain, the buzzing of a neon light about to pop. I stepped back a few paces, nursing my right hand, watching the telephone.
The sound of rain, the buzzing of a neon lamp, the swish of distant tyres…
We half closed our eyes, and listened.
Sound of rain, buzzing of neon, swish of tyres, scuttling of rats beneath the streets, scampering of the urban fox, king of the middle of the road, rustling of a pigeon in its overhead gutter; what else? Hum of mains voltage just on the edge of hearing, smell of rain, that incredible, clean smell that washes the dirt out of the air for just a few minutes, banging of a front door somewhere, crackling of a radio left on in the night, wailing of a car alarm, sing-song soaring of a siren, a long way off, distant tumtetetumtetetumtete of a goods train heading for Willesden Junction, and… and…
And there it was, right there on the edge; there was the strangeness.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi bumph bumph chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi bumph bumph…
I couldn’t immediately work out what it was. Our ignorance frightened us. We wanted a weapon.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi went the sound. Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi. We didn’t even have to close our eyes to hear it. Advancing, getting closer. Chi-chichi chi-chichi…
The buzzing neon light gave up, popped and went out, shrivelling from sodium orange brightness to a blue shimmer in its core before darkness took it. It’s easy to forget, in the city, how dark real darkness can be.
I started to walk. Climbed over the chain. Stepped out into the street.
There was someone at the far end, a few hundred yards off, smothered in shadows.
They were looking at me.
I turned in the other direction. If my shoes had been my own, I would have run.
I was in Willesden.
Willesden is a nowhere-everywhere.
It isn’t close enough to the centre of London to be inner city, nor far enough away to be suburb. It isn’t posh enough to be well tended or have a single class of citizen, nor is it squalid enough to be dubbed “action zone” by a righteous local government bureaucrat. It doesn’t have a unique ethnic character, but instead a mix of all sorts pile in from every corner, from tenth-generation Englishman dreaming of the south of France, to third-generation Afro-Caribbean who has never seen the equatorial sun. It sits astride a maze of transport links, buses, trains and canals, most of which are passing through to somewhere better. No one quite knows where Willesden begins or ends.
You can find anything you want in Willesden, so long as you don’t go looking for it.
I would not have chosen to be in Willesden of my own accord. But we’d made a promise, and our promise had taken us here. Then a phone had rung in a garage and we’d answered it…
… and now there was something else on the streets tonight.
I could feel it.
A sound like an angry bee stuck in a jar, banging its head in regular and rapid rhythm on the glass.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi…
Cynics call it fate, romantics call it destiny, lawyers call it malign intent. No one uses the word “coincidence”. I didn’t. If you see vultures flying overhead and hear the distant sound of cannon, you don’t call it coincidence, and in this city there were plenty of scavengers that could be lured out into the night, by the smell of blood. And our blood was a long way from merely human.
We thought of courage, we thought of fighting, we thought of running. Tonight, we concluded, was not a night for pride. Run.
I tried and couldn’t. The shoes on my feet had been part of the promise too. But they were too big for me, and the two pairs of socks I wore to try and make up for it were soaked with rainwater. My right hand had been used as bait in a shark-fishing competition, my head had been sawn off for the trophy and reattached with a staple gun. And deep down we knew, though we didn’t dare think about it, that these were probably just the superficial consequences of the night’s work. There are more things you can catch from a telephone besides a burnt hand.
So I walked as fast as I could through the rain, head rising like a pigeon’s to look ahead, then down to blink water from my eyes, then up again. Postbox, streetlights, falling rain, terraced houses, zebra crossing, with one of the flashing orange bubbles on its post smashed long ago. The lights were off in all the houses, except for the flickering of a TV to whose comforting nothings an old lady had fallen asleep this night like all the others. In someone’s back garden, a cat shrieked with that unnatural sound that was either sex or death.
At a T-junction ahead a night bus stood; shadows sat in the bright whiteness of its windows. It was a short-route single-decker, the kind associated with old people out to collect their pension books, and empty beer cans rolling with each acceleration and brake. I couldn’t see a number and didn’t care. Four red walls and a set of wheels were all the protection I needed.
I picked up speed, half walking, half falling over the rhythm of my own feet, no longer caring if I was cold or wet, so long as I was somewhere that wasn’t here. The road became lined with council flats, built from grey concrete streaked black in the rain. Lights shone from the communal doorways, and on the low wall separating the ground-floor flats from the street, some wit had written in tall white letters:
GIVE ME BACK MY HAT
I turned to follow the bus, in time to watch its brake lights disappear round a corner. Closer to, I saw the dim white light of a bus shelter, overhung by a plane tree. I went towards it, my shadow playing backwards and forwards like one cast on a sundial as I passed under the streetlamps.
There was someone at the bus shelter. Either I hadn’t noticed him, or he’d just arrived.
There were also other, nastier possibilities. We tried to ignore them.
He sat on the narrow red bench, which was designed to be as uncomfortable as possible. His knees were wide apart as if someone had stuck a frisbee down his pants, his arms were folded across his chest to make it clear he didn’t care about anything. He wore pale grey trousers three sizes too big, passed down by an elder brother moved on to better things, whose crotch began around the knees; a pair of black gloves like a motorbiker’s gauntlets; sporty trainers adorned with rip-off logos; and a hoodie. The grey hood was drawn so low over his face I couldn’t even see a protruding nose. It looked more like a cowl than a fashion accessory or, heaven forbid, protection against the weather. His head bounced gently to the rhythm playing from a pair of headphone cables that vanished into the interior of his tracksuit. The only sound that escaped them was a regular:
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi…
Not an angry bee, but the bass rhythm of a song turned up too loud; tune, if there was one, lost to beat. Madness was no longer talking to yourself; technology had changed all that.
But this was something more.
On the top of the shelter someone had thrown a small plastic screwdriver and what looked like a child’s left shoe, pretty pink turned dirty grey by the rain and the darkness. The single white lamp in the shelter was stained with dirty spots where a hundred insects had crawled inside it, and found it too hot for their wings to bear. A moth was the only survivor, fluttering impotently against the plastic cover.
The hoodie kept on bobbing to that invisible beat.
You don’t ask strangers their business when waiting for the bus. Especially not in the small hours of the morning. I leant against the stop with its list of what was due when, and clutched at my burning hand.
Coincidence is usually mentioned only when something good happens. Whenever it’s something bad, it’s easier to blame someone, something. We don’t like coincidence, though we were newer to this world than I. Inhabiting my flesh, being me as I was now us, we had quickly come to understand why so many sorcerers had died from lack of cynicism. I had been a naive sorcerer, and so I had died. We, who had been reborn in my flesh, were not about to make the same error. Too many people had heard of the blue electric angels for our new-found mortality to ever be safe.
Chi-chichi chi-chichi chi-chichi…
And because I didn’t believe in coincidence, I raised my head from contemplation of the bus timetable, turned to the hoodie on the red plastic bench and said, “Hey, you got the time?”
He didn’t move.
“Hey, mate, you got a light?”
He looked round, taking his time. He didn’t need to rush; his kind never do. I stepped back, reaching instinctively with my bandaged fingers for the nearest light, the nearest whiff of mains power.
It’d have been nice, for once, to be surprised.
And “he” was an “it”, and “it” had no face. It was a sack of clothes sitting on empty air, a pair of white headphones plugged into the floating nothing of his not-ears. The body of his clothes, bulked out so humanly, was held in shape by air, by an ignorance of gravity and a perversion of pressure, by floating shadow and drifting emptiness bundled together into a nothing-something in a tracksuit. He was an it, and it was a spectre.
Once, when I was a kid, I was taken to see a seer. His name was Khan. He read the future in the entrails of old shopping bags and the interweaving of vapour trails in the sky. He told me a lot of things, most of them sounding like they came out of a Christmas cracker; but finally he said “Yeah, man… you’re like… you know… like gonna die.”
I said something along the lines of “Yeah, I kinda figured that”. Sorcerers do not have a long life expectancy, especially urban ones.
“Hey, dude, you totally don’t get it!” he replied. “You’re like… gonna die. It’s after when it gets complicated.”
At the time I thought he was being pretentiously metaphorical.
There are two ways to look at the gift of prophecy. Theory the first goes like this: prophet sees future = there is a predetermined path that the prophet is capable of perceiving = destiny = no free will = almighty God with a really sick sense of fun. Which is bad news if you’re anyone lower than “pope” in the spiritual pecking order of life.
Theory the second: prophet sees future = ability to determine with an almost omnipotent degree of accuracy and skill the one most likely future from a whole host of determining factors, including human free will, random variables and continual and unexpected cock-up, what will happen next = omnipotence = God in mortal flesh. Khan didn’t look like any sort of God to me, but as Mr Bakker always said, sorcerers should keep an open mind. Just in case someone tried to hit it with a sledgehammer.
That was back in the good old days.
Back before Mr Bakker’s stroke. Back before Mr Bakker resolved not to die. Back before his shadow grew a pair of teeth and a taste for blood. Back before the Tower killed the sorcerers of the city in Mr Bakker’s name. Back before his shadow killed me, one gloomy night by the river, in its endless quest for life. Before the blue electric angels, the battles and the vengeance and the life left behind in the telephone wires.
Back before we came back into this mortal world.
No human can survive having their major organs ripped out by the angry manifestation of a dying sorcerer’s incarnated will. Or, for that matter, by any other sharpened implement. And while my continued existence may argue against this medical truth, I was always reminded when I looked in the mirror that once upon a time my eyes had been brown. Not our burning electric blue.
Khan, in his own special, unhelpful way, had been right all along.
Imagine my embarrassment.
See what we were capable of, when the situation called?
Our feet flapped and flopped on the wet pavement, our breath was a puff of cloud lost in the rain. I’d never realised how ridiculous a man can sound when running, all bouncing bag and thumping shoe, graceless and soaked. I crossed the empty street and was inside a council estate in a matter of seconds that took an hour each to pass, rushing past doors behind iron grates, and doors with children’s pictures doodled on them, and windows broken and windows cleaned and doorsteps scrubbed and bicycles locked and bicycles smashed and bins overturned and bins emptied and flowers tended and pots abandoned and council pledges made and council policies forgotten and walls graffitied with all the rambling thoughts of the inhabitants…
Excerpted from The Midnight Mayor by Griffin, Kate Copyright © 2010 by Griffin, Kate. Excerpted by permission.
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