|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.|
Living With the Effects of Involuntary Temporal Slippage -- A Case History
'Here strip my
children! Here at once leap in,
Mind the gap. -- London Underground, recorded announcement
I have heard that time flies and devours, that it heals and steals and is stolen from. I have heard that time is an illusion (and lunchtime doubly so). I've heard that it will not, under any circumstance, wait -- that it's running out, and that we have all the time in the world.
Perhaps time is a river in flood: fast-flowing and inexorable. Then again, perhaps it's a clear, bright stream, something you can step into or out of as the fancy takes you.
Anyway. Time is weird.
Julian's been looking at him, Noel realises. Maybe smiling, too. It's hard to tell. Sometimes he thinks Julian's facial hair is only there to make it easier to hide things like expressions, or the lack of them.
"Nothing," says Julian. "Nothing."
"What's so funny?"
"No, it's just. You were doing that... staring thing again."
"Oh." Gradually, like someone surfacing from sleep, Noel becomes aware of the various small 'now' things: squares of sunlight and shadow on a white wall, the soothing, constant Londony noise filtering in from the street.
"Sorry." He grins. "Miles away."
Russell rings him up from his radio show. "Where are you right now, then, Mr Noel Fielding?" he asks.
"I'm in my flat," says Noel, which is not really true. He's got an idea that his flat will one day be half a mile or so to the north. He wouldn't swear to it, though. His sense of direction (spatial, temporal, whatever) has always been shit.
"We were just talking here, Noel -- me and Matt and Mr Gee -- about where you'd go if you could, as it were, travel through time.... What? Shut up, that's my spooky voice, what I use when I'm talking about travelling through time... So, Noel, what would you do if you could go back in time?"
"Or forward," says Matt.
"Oh yeah, or to the future. I'd go back, though. I'd go back and see Jeff Capes installed as the rightful King of England, and Matt'd go back and kill his maths teacher, because he's a homicidal maniac..."
"Never said that..." Matt, long-suffering, mutters in the background.
"Yeah, so what would you do, Noel?"
"Um..." He crouches lower down behind the hedge. He's probably safe here, but the air is still, and he can hear faint and smoky shreds of battle drifting across to him from the place that isn't yet known as King's Cross. There is blood running in the river water. At least he thinks it's blood. He doesn't look that closely.
He's surprised he can get a signal here, really. He can never get one in the 19th Century.
"I think I'd go back to last weekend," says Noel, "because I ran out of milk Saturday morning. It was quite annoying. So, you know, I'd make sure I had enough milk in."
"Oh, right," says Russell. "Well, anyway, back to me..."
It's as much a fantasy for Noel, really, as it is for them. The idea of having control over it. Over anything, really. He's learnt to go with the flow, to not mind when last Thursday bleeds into the late 1950s, or when you forget the milk because of the Iceni burning London to the ground. He thinks he does pretty well, considering everything.
See, Noel has a slight problem with time. Keeping it, keeping hold of it, making sure it's going in the right direction. That sort of thing. He's often late, and sometimes he's years too early, and sometimes he just gets stuck. It's a kind of... temporal dyslexia. He thought of that himself. Someone had to.
Oh, come on. Don't tell me you haven't travelled in time. You've never had 15 minutes feel like an hour, sitting in the doctor's waiting room, reading old copies of Hello!? What about that one good day that passed in the blink of a eye? Time flies when you're having fun, and a watched pot never boils.
"I'd sort of like to stay here forever," Noel says.
He's lying on the floor in Julian's living room, trying to think of a way of drinking his coffee while remaining horizontal. He beats out a rhythm on the rug with the flats of his hands, whispering nonsense words under his breath.
"Can't do that, my friend." Julian is tuning his guitar, sitting on the sofa with his left ankle resting on his right knee. Noel flashes back to childhood briefly, a moment of clarity: that, he realises, is how men cross their legs -- casual, open. It's like a challenge to the world. Women do it differently, they fold their limbs neatly, tight and close like tulips. He's a little boy, watching the bigger kids and the grown-ups, to learn how he should behave. To find out which rules he's going to break when he's older.
He's older. On the floorboards, the bars of sunlight lengthen and fade, shifting slowly as the world turns, and stops, and starts again, hiccupping like a stuck record.
"Can't do that, my friend," says Julian, and Noel does not know whether he's repeating himself or whether time is. "Got places to do, things to be. Anyway, you'd get bored."
"How d'you know I'd get bored?"
"Because you're you."
Noel yawns and stretches his arms above his head, closing his eyes. The sun is warm and happy on his skin. "I dunno, it's just... Sunday afternoon, innit?"
But even for Noel, Sunday afternoon never lasts forever -- although once or twice it's stretched almost to Tuesday morning.
The past and the future are only muffled echoes of each other, booming like whale noises, or like your own voice when you're in the bath with your ears under the water. Time can disintegrate into fuzzy shapes of red and brown. Did you know that? Close your eyes and press your thumbs against the lids. When you open them again, the light is a shock. Everything jumps back into focus.
Now and again, Noel sees his people, fallen horribly out of time and place, all strange and wrong, like broken bones. His brother, once, reflected briefly in a mirror seen through a shop window. Julian he sees all the time, always from the back, always ahead of him in the street. Walking away. He could be mistaken, of course, but he doesn't think so -- it's the gait, the stance, the slight hunch of the shoulders. He always loses Julian in the fast-flowing London crowd, blinks and then one or both of them is gone.
They're only shadows, he tells himself. Echoes, reflections, repetitions. Time is full of them. It's bound to be, if you think about it.
"I know you."
The man is small and greyish, frail-looking, of indeterminate age. His hair is neatly parted, but his collar is shiny with dirt where it's rubbed against his neck. His mouth is a thin dark line across his pale face; when he speaks it's as though he's been drinking blood, or eating treacle with a spoon, straight out of the tin. It is 1967. They are in a dank one-room flat in Clerkenwell, done out in shades of mould and dust and neglect. On one wall there is a picture of the Virgin Mary, carefully clipped from a magazine or a book and fixed up with drawing pins. The man sits on the single bed, stroking the candlewick bedspread lightly with his fingertips, his legs crossed one over the other (neatly, like a woman). Noel stands against the door, hands in the pockets of a leather jacket he doesn't remember owning.
There is a clock on the mantelpiece. It is incongruous, out of step with its surroundings: delicate workings in a glass case. It chimes the hour in light, silvery tones.
"I know you," the man says again, when the clock has gone silent. "During the war, I met you during an air raid. Farringdon Road Tube, wasn't it?"
"Nah, couldn't have been me," says Noel, and smiles. He doesn't ask himself what he's doing here. A minute ago he was somewhere else, and in a bit he'll be somewhere else again. It's how things work, isn't it? Even when you're not jumping around in time.
"Oh, but it was," says the man, nodding. He leans forward and clasps his knee, his thin hands woven together tightly, like a basket of bones. "That was you, all right. And I've seen you before, you know -- years and years ago. My old dad, he had a little shop in Kentish Town. Sold stamps and things. I saw you there when I was a child... And then again I'm sure I saw you just the other week, down at Blackfriars. I don't suppose you remember."
Noel shakes his head. "Sorry."
"I do like a walk, you see," the man says confidingly. "Does wonders for the constitution, I always say. I like to get up to the Heath when I can, get some fresh air. Well... listen to me, going on." He looks toward the grimy window, where the afternoon light is fading, and exhales gently like a deflating balloon. The clock ticks. Then it chimes the hour again. The man tuts to himself.
"Stupid thing. It's never been right, you know. Pretty, though, don't you think so?" He glances up at Noel briefly -- an odd, pleading look.
"I think it's lovely," says Noel. "It's beautiful."
The man smiles shyly. "I picked it up ever so cheap, in a junk shop just round the corner. It's sort of a hobby of mine, you see. I like old things. Oh, I am sorry -- chatting all this time and I've not introduced myself. My name is Keith."
"Hi, Keith. I'm Noel."
"Very pleased to meet you, I'm sure."
But Noel's at the bar now, and someone's buying him a drink, and there's nothing left of Keith or of his flat -- only a faint, lingering smell of damp.
He sees Julian in a library, turning left at the top of a flight of stairs. (Or perhaps it's a museum -- somewhere like that, somewhere full up with scholars' heavy breath.) Noel hurries after him, running up the steps two at a time, and the rail is smooth wood under his hand. But when he reaches the top, there is no sign of anyone ever having been there. He stares wildly down the long corridor, out of breath, his heart thudding against his ribs. The soft lighting (electric? Gas?) reflects innocently in the polished floor. Noel leans against the wall and looks up. There are patterns in the high ceiling, like weird flowers -- sharp, angular roses inside hexagons inside other hexagons. He quite likes them. But they probably don't mean anything. Nothing really means anything, does it? Things just are. He closes his eyes, and listens to the breath shuddering in and out of his lungs.
"You all right?"
He looks up. The party is in full swing and Julian is here, peering into his face, his hand on Noel's shoulder.
"Yeah," says Noel, and grins. "Course."
"Thought we'd lost you for a minute there. Anyway, look, I'm gonna get going... I want to avoid that woman."
"That one over there, in the, er -- dress thing."
"Oh, her. She's all right, isn't she? I thought she was a laugh."
"You're strange," says Noel.
Julian looks at him. "She's not strange in a good way."
Noel laughs. "What, did she try and chat you up? You look all sort of hunted, you're like a little woodland animal with a moustache."
But Julian's eyes are already straying to the doorway, picking out the route to freedom. He hunches his shoulders, as though trying to shrug something off. "No, worse than that... she's got a script."
"Oh, right. Yeah, fair enough."
"See you tomorrow, all right?"
"Mm?" Julian turns and waits. But Noel can't remember now what he was going to say.
"Nothing. See you tomorrow."
Julian smiles, raises a hand in a half-wave. Then he's gone again.
Noel's in the 24-hour shop, buying a pint of milk, when it occurs to him that he's already bought this particular milk, on this particular day. It's not that it's very different from every other time he's gone down the shop and bought a pint of milk, but there is something in the curve of his wrist when he opens the fridge door, the way his fingers slip in between full-fat and semi-skinned, that is too familiar. Hello, he thinks. We've been here before. On cue, the elderly Jamaican man from over the road nods to him as they pass one another in front of the Cadbury's Mini-rolls. A child in the street shouts, "Mum! Mum!", its voice high and clear in the cold air. Once again, it is the 27th of October. It is a Saturday. The ragged shreds of an old hangover trail behind him as he makes his way to the checkout.
He makes that same random, ill-judged comment about prawn cocktail crisps to the woman behind the counter. He knows she's just going to look at him blankly, and that he's going to grin and say "Nothing, never mind." He could change history, say something different instead, say nothing -- but he doesn't. He's not sure why. Maybe he doesn't care. Maybe he's never cared. And maybe... maybe it's just deja vu, this one.
There is a funeral. He's not sure how to -- he can't even... He wears a dark blue scarf and it's soft and comforting and it looks nice. He wants to vomit and then stab himself in the eyes.
He wakes up in his own bed, feeling ancient, desiccated. Like he's been punched in the face. Like bits of his insides have been ripped out and shoved back with a baseball bat and a spade.
The clock is showing the right time, and that time is 05:46 am, which is very wrong when you're Noel. He goes downstairs and makes himself a cup of coffee, and then he sits and smokes cigarettes until it's almost a reasonable hour to make phone-calls. It felt quite like a dream, and it's already fading -- something far away seen through frosted glass. His memories of the future are always dull and soft.
Just a quick ring. Just to be sure.
He has a day, a Wednesday to begin with, which drifts off into the summer of 1983 around about lunchtime. It doesn't matter. It's a strange day anyway, a day for walking aimlessly, trying to rid himself of things. His brain feels scratchy today and his eyes don't seem to be fitting properly in his head. They just don't, sometimes.
He gets lost fast, but it's all right. If you keep walking for long enough, you always end up somewhere. He takes off his jacket because it's really hot, the summer of 1983. He remembers it from last time -- ice pops, dust, paving stones. The sun shines on them the same way now (warm, blank and friendly) because now is also then. He gives the pavement a private half-smile of recognition.
As he walks north the seasons change, from high summer to autumn, to early spring with a nip in the air, and back to autumn again. The years fall with the leaves from the trees, twirling round and round like sycamore helicopter seeds. Noel puts his jacket back on. It's like he's in a montage in a crap film, and the script says [TIME PASSES]. Any minute now it'll start snowing and white people with red cheeks will be selling chestnuts in the street and there'll be a song by James Blunt and there will be jingle bells and he'll want to punch someone.
Only, no, because it's faster and fiercer than that. The years whirl round him like a mini tornado, and he laughs, because it's brilliant, really. His sense of space, too, is slipping and sliding all over the place. Regent's Canal, long before Camden turned into Camden... A woman who looks like a nun, standing by a stone well, smiling... Fleet Road in 1975, the weird tobacconists that'll be gone soon. The places flick by along with the years and the months, the weeks and minutes and seconds.
And if this were his film, he'd have something punk on the soundtrack, something stupid and mad. It is, it's totally mad, his life. He feels dizzy and drunk on it. And it's early still, really -- only mid-afternoon. He ends up on Hampstead Heath, climbing Parliament Hill for no reason except to get high, to get higher. And here's old Keith, sitting on a bench... Keith on the Heath. So it must be the Sixties.
"All right, Keith?" he tries to say, and immediately starts coughing his lungs up. To be fair, he has walked a long way, and last night... well, he can't remember much of it. Maybe it never happened at all.
"Hello again," says Keith. "Oh dear, you don't sound well at all."
No really, I'm fine, Noel says with hand gestures.
"Sit down, then," says Keith, and pats the seat next to him. Noel collapses. Maybe walking's not the best for scratchy brains, after all.
"Keith, have we met before? Yet?" he asks, when he gets his breath back. He can't tell whether it's earlier or later than the encounter in the flat. Keith looks neither older nor younger, only slightly more cheerful now that he's away from the mould. He's even got a jaunty red silk scarf tied round his neck. It's September-ish on the Heath. The air is soft and faintly gold.
"Oh, you're a card, you are" says Keith fondly. "Can't get rid of you, can we? You're all over the place."
"Yeah, that's true," Noel admits. "People don't really seem to mind, though."
"Course they don't, dear."
"It's just it's a bit hard to keep track," says Noel. "When you're like me."
"Oh?" Keith looks at him out of the corner of one eye. "And what are you like?"
"Me?" Noel grins. "I'm unique, aren't I? One of a kind, me." He pulls a packet of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket and fiddles with them, flipping the lid up and down. "Sorry, do you want one?"
"No, thank you. I've never really liked the taste."
"Good for you, Keith. That's a nice scarf, by the way." Noel lights his own cigarette and shifts to perch cross-legged on the bench. They sit in silence.
"How's your clock?" Noel asks. "Still wrong?"
Keith smiles, but does not reply.
"Cool view, ain' it?" says Noel. "You can see everything."
"That's because it's so high, dear."
"Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yeah." Noel opens his eyes again and the world jumps back into focus. "No, just went a bit dizzy for a minute there. I think the hangover's kicking in."
"Must be difficult," says Keith slowly. "The sort of life you lead."
Noel give him a sharp look, but Keith is gazing wistfully down the hill toward Highgate ponds. Tiny human figures are dotted all round the edge of the model boating pond, looking like little bits of litter somebody dropped without even noticing. Like the stuff that comes out of a pocket when you left a tissue in it and put it in the wash.
"Nothing wrong with my life," Noel says, and he didn't really mean to sound that defensive.
"But --" Keith's voice is soft with sympathy. "But, you must have virtually no control over it at all..."
Noel shrugs. "I don't want any. I just let stuff do its thing. Go with the flow, you know? Seems to have worked out all right so far."
"Well." Keith sniffs and crosses his legs. Folds his bony hands over his bony knees. "I just think you want to be careful, that's all. Can't be good for you, any of it."
"You can talk," says Noel, and laughs. "Your flat's a fuckin' health hazard. You've got stuff growing up the walls! And I'm sort of guessin' it don't end there, Keith. If you really trawl round half of London just for your health, it ain't working, sorry. You look half dead."
Keith looks offended. "Well, there's no call to be personal! I never asked you to start materialising in my private quarters, did I?"
"Neither did I!"
They sit for a while in prickly silence. Noel finishes his cigarette and flicks the dog-end down the hill.
"May I ask you a question?" Keith says, eventually.
"Did you grow up north of the river?"
"No, south. Why?"
"But now you live... I don't know, but not far from here, anyway. Yes?"
"Kind of. Ok, yeah."
"And what made you want to come and live here? What attracted you, to begin with?"
"I dunno... I just like it. My mates live round here. Cool stuff happens. Is this going somewhere? I've got stuff to do, you know. I don't even know why I'm sat here talking to you."
"Oh, don't be like that, dear. In any case, you all but called me a corpse just now. By rights I ought to be the tetchy one."
"Oh, God, I didn't mean..." Noel rolls his eyes. "Look -- yeah, all right. Sorry."
"Never mind, I forgive you." Keith smiles, and relaxes his grip on his knee to wave at the scene below them. "Look down there. Do you know what those ponds are, really?"
Noel does as he's told, and shrugs. "Puddles of giant wee? I dunno, what?"
"Why, they're just bits of the river. They're manmade, you know. They're bits of river that have been fiddled with."
"Yeah?" Noel laughs. "I quite like that. You don't want to fiddle with a river, do you? Anything could happen. What river, anyway?"
"The Fleet. One of the lost rivers. The rest of it's underground."
"Right... How d'you know all this, anyway?"
"I like old things. And I take an interest in local history. Look, you see, the Fleet begins up here, and it flows about five miles down, all the way to the Thames, somewhere near Blackfriars. That's where it goes in. Where I saw you that time, d'you remember?"
"I don't know what you were doing there, you looked ever so suspicious. And you accusing me of all sorts -- cheek! Anyway, it doesn't matter. The thing about that river, is... well, it does rather seem to attract things."
Keith twitches shruggily, or shrugs twitchily, Noel's not sure which. "Badness," he says. "Violence, filth. Disease. Those sorts of things."
"Oh, right," says Noel. "Them."
"They tried to clean it up. But it didn't work -- the filth just kept on coming. All sorts of rubbish seemed to end up in the Fleet. And not just anyone's rubbish, either. Prisons. Slums. Tanners. Butchers. Well, you can imagine, can't you? It stank! So they buried it, bit by bit. Only that didn't work, either, not really. They'd just turned it into a sewer. So all the bad stuff was still there... underneath. They say it comes up into people's basements sometimes." Keith turns and looks at sideways at Noel with his pale grey pebble eyes. He seems suddenly embarrassed at his own enthusiasm, and lowers his voice when he continues. "But, of course, you know all this stuff, don't you? You probably saw it happen."
"Bits," Noel acknowledges. "I suppose. More before and after, really. I don't always take much notice. I've got a lot going on."
"Well. There you are, then. That's it, isn't it? That's why you are... what you are." Keith sits back and smiles into the sun. "I've thought and thought, and it's the only explanation."
Noel sits frowning at the grass, then looks up. "Hang on a minute -- there I am what? What are you saying, exactly? That I'm somehow... part of all this filth and badness and violence? You're saying my life is completely fucked by the inside of a magic sewer that attracts shit? Thanks a lot!"
Keith draws his head back like sharply like a startled pigeon, and clutches protectively at his jacket. "Well, it's just a theory! I'm only trying to help."
"Yeah, whatever..." Noel sighs and bites his thumbnail half-heartedly. Too late, he remembers that the cure for scratchy brains is actually staying in bed until three in the afternoon. Not bloody walking, at all. Where the hell did he get that from?
Keith plucks fussily at his clothing, and speaks without looking at Noel. "All I'm saying is, I think you ought to be careful. You could get -- I don't know, swept along by the current, or something. You might not even realise! It might sweep you to your doom, Noel!"
"Oh, God, you're a cheery bastard, ain't you? I was in quite a good mood till I saw you, Keith."
But Keith's not listening to him. He's staring down the hill, at the pond and the little scrunched up people soaking up the last of the sunshine. "If I were you," he says quietly, "I'd consider finding yourself an anchor."
"Something solid. Something you can hold onto, when the rain comes and the river rises. A fixed point, that's what you need. Otherwise... well, you might get lost."
The sky over the Heath is pale and lazy. The late afternoon light lies softly on the long grass and the tops of the trees, sparkles whitely on the water.
"That river was pretty nice once," Noel says, drawing his knees up and hugging them under his chin. "We messed it up. That's all."
The whole street's out, and the streetlights with it. Julian is only a pale blur in the moonlight, shining weakly through a gap in the curtains.
"Ow! Oh, for fuck's--"
A pale blur tripping over furniture.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm looking for... well, I dunno, haven't you got any candles?"
Noel yawns and settles back into the sofa cushions. "Why would I have candles?"
"In case there's a power cut."
"Oh, right. Like this one, you mean?"
"Yes, like this one. Well, have you?"
The blur emits a heavy sigh.
"Got a lighter." Noel flicks it on and holds the little dancing flame in front of his face, imagining the effect. "Look -- it's Halloween. Mind you, I suppose we should ration this, we might have to use it to cook stuff really slowly."
The blur makes its way back across the room and sits down next to Noel on the sofa. In the absence of light, Noel notices small things like the displacement of air, the intimate sense of weight and mass and heat; the reassuring prickly nearness of another human body in the dark.
"I got stuck on the Tube once," he says, "and all the lights went out. They came back on again straight away, but everyone was panicking. I didn't mind, though. I quite liked it."
"Well, that's fantastic for you, Noel, but what are we supposed to do now, exactly?"
"I dunno. D'you wanna go out?"
"No, I don't want to go out, I want some light, so we can see what we're doing."
"They'll come back on eventually. Anyway, it's not like we were really doing any work, we were talking about... what were we talking about?"
"Yeah, I believe we were talking about Dick Van Dyke. Not the fucking point."
Noel laughs. "Ah, you're getting all tired and emotional."
"No, I'm not."
"You are, you're sitting there throwing a sort of restrained little hissy fit in the dark. I love that..."
"It's not a -- shut up, please. So this is what we're going to do then, is it? We're just going to sit here in the dark?"
"Well, yeah, I think we should just go with it. Go with the flow, you know? Have a kip or something."
"Don't be so grumpy..."
"Well, what is it about a power cut that makes you so cheerful, anyway? Don't argue, I can hear you smiling."
"I just like 'em," says Noel. He thinks. "They're like gaps, aren't they?"
"What d'you mean?"
Noel can feel Julian listening, waiting for him to go on. Deliberately, he allows the wait to spin itself out into something tangible; a thin, spiderwebby line stretching between them. Then he opens his mouth and the thread snaps.
"Because," he says. "Because it's like -- everything stops. Things stop all rushing about, just for a little bit. Nothing's going forwards or backwards or sideways or, you know, repeating itself or jumping ahead or getting stuck. 'Cos, most of the time, stuff always needs pushing along or holding back, or whatever. Me, I suppose. I need that." He stops, sucking air into his lungs, sighing it out again. "God, everything's always so fast..."
"Blink and you'd miss it," says Julian, absently. "Yeah, but see, you like fast. Fast is your thing."
"Yeah. I like it." Noel nods into the void. "It's just... when the lights go out, nothing happens. Nothing at all. It's like it's not even possible. You just have to wait for 'em to come back on. So it's a gap."
He shifts on the cushions, laughs briefly. "I dunno... Do you get it, though?"
"Yeah," says Julian. "Yeah, I get it."
"I thought you would." Noel smiles, ducking his head as though to hide what no one can see anyway.
Julian sighs and shifts. "I am tired, actually," he says. "Pretty tired."
"You're always tired."
Julian laughs briefly, and Noel reaches over to find him, to put his fingers in Julian's hair, to rest his palm against the side of Julian's face. He wants to feel the differences in temperature, in texture. To remind himself.
"Yeah," he says. "You're still there. I was just checking."
"Am I? What about you?"
"Me? Nah, I'm somewhere else. I think I'm in Buenos Aires."
"Yeah? What you doing there?"
"Hunting sloths for money."
"Ah. Pay well?"
Noel places his thumb on Julian's jawline. He can feel bone sliding under skin when Julian yawns, the taut chords of his neck moving, and the heartbeat beneath, a strong current.
"You've got your heart in your throat," he says. And he leans closer, because he can, because this is a gap, and yet he's on solid ground for once.
When their lips meet it's familiar, unintended, almost but not quite unremarkable.
Have you decided about time, then? Is it that clear, bright stream, or the river in flood? What do you think? Maybe it's an ancient spring, a muddy ditch, a pipe buried under the ground.
You see, a river's not something you can just turn off, like a tap. Even now, it flows beneath the feet of the people in rooms, cars, queues, waiting on platforms, doing deals, kissing and arguing. It flows under the chewing gum and the paving stones and concrete and earth, under the buried foundations, under the stained remnants of old lives. Under the choked-up gaps and the new sudden spaces... Under the huge, pressing weight of linear time.
They can't stop the river, or they haven't yet. It's dark and dank and shrunken, and very, very old. After all these years, it still mumbles and leaks and pushes its way strongly to where it wants to be.
People still talk about the Fleet, even though they've forgotten it exists. It's in the names of the streets and the buildings and the firms. It has its own history and poetry, its own art. It flicks off the lips of cabbies and crackles through loudspeakers. It sends its chilly ghosts up through the drains and makes the people shiver.
A lot's been said of that river over the years, and of the others like it. And it's difficult, isn't it, to know how much of anything is true. One thing is certain, though. It's got time on its side.
"They did find an anchor once," Keith says, adjusting a new scarf (paisley this time) in the spotted wardrobe mirror. "A small ship's anchor, they said, buried in the bed of the Fleet at Battle Bridge (King's Cross to you and me, dear)."
Noel, leaning against the door-jamb with his hands in his pockets, shrugs. "So?"
He doesn't wonder how he got here, or any of those things. He'll be off soon, somewhere else, somewhen else. Nothing much lasts and nothing much matters. Pretty much nothing much.
Keith turns and looks him straight in the eye, and Noel thinks that you don't always notice someone not looking you in the eye until they do, and then all of a sudden you want to look away.
"Some of us," Keith says, hesitantly, "know when to stop. We realise we have to be careful, so we take the necessary precautions... you see? So that we don't just get swept away in the current, the next time the river's in flood. When we're 'going with the flow' as you say. Do you understand, Noel? Do you see?"
Noel says nothing. He thinks of the water lapping against the ship's side; of a stagnant ditch, clogged and overflowing; of the flood rushing through the caverns of King's Cross on a Monday morning, trickling round the edges at night.
"You need something, dear," says Keith. He blinks his pale eyes uncertainly, like someone who's stepped suddenly into a bright light. "You need to find your anchor."
Keith is old, Noel realises. He's not ageless or symbolic or anything like that. He's not a guide or a lucky charm. He's just an old man who likes old things.
Time is weird.
He straightens up, reaches out and takes Keith's hand in his own. He presses it gently, the skin papery and fragile under his fingers, the bones too prominent, too close to the surface. On impulse, he presses it briefly to his lips. Keith's hand smells of cough sweets and a hesitant pulse runs through his knobbly thumb. Your heart's in your thumb. Noel thinks he'd like to go home now.
he says out loud. "And stop worrying, all right? It's bad for your
health. Everything's gonna be fine." He smiles quickly, turns his
head, and is gone.