Authors: Christopher Fowler
THE WATER ROOM
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A CHANGE IN THE WEATHER
THE FIRST DEATH OF AUTUMN
BUSINESS AS USUAL
TAKING THE PLUNGE
HOME AND DRY
THE UNDERGROUND MAN
THE HEART BENEATH
FOLLOWING THE RIVER
EVERYONE IN THE STREET
THE HOUSE IN BRICK LANE
FEET OF CLAY
SEEING AND BELIEVING
DREAMS OF DROWNING
A NIGHT OUT FOR SERGEANT LONGBRIGHT
BREAKING THE SURFACE
THE MOVEMENT OF WATER
SPOILS OF THE FLEET
THE RIVER FINDS A WAY
BUILDING ON BONES
OIL AND WATER
ALL THE HOUSES
INTO THE UNDERWORLD
ST PANCRAS BASIN BLUES
MR BRYANT EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
WAAF conscript, greyhound-stadium cashier, legal secretary, debt collector, charity worker, critic, mother, friend—because everyone has a story
‘Home is a name, a word, it is a strong
than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever
in the strongest conjuration’
‘A little water clears us of this deed’
The most bizarre facts in this book are the truest, but listing them all here would perhaps arm you with too much knowledge for the story ahead. They can, however, be readily found and substantiated by anyone interested in such arcane matters.
I would especially like to thank my fearless agent Mandy Little for providing so much support, encouragement and enthusiasm. Huge thanks also to my editor Simon Taylor, truly a gentleman and a man of his word, and to the whole Transworld team for ensuring the safe return of Bryant and May.
Thanks, Richard, for a million things, especially being funny and finding time, to Jim for always coming up with brilliant solutions, to Sally for organizing my life and to everyone brave enough to attend the atmospheric but occasionally insalubrious venues where I read, especially Maggie, Simon, Mike, Sarah, Andrew, Martin, Graham, Michelle, Poppy, Amber.
Mr Bryant’s highly unscientific map of the afflicted area.
A CHANGE IN THE WEATHER
Arthur Bryant looked out over London and remembered.
Fierce sunlight swathed Tower Bridge beyond the rockeries of smouldering bomb-sites. A Thames sailing barge was arriving in the Pool of London with a cargo of palm kernels. Its dusty red sails sagged in the afternoon heat as it drifted past Broadway Dock at Limehouse, like a felucca on the Nile. Dairy horses trotted along the deserted Embankment, empty milk cans chiming behind them. Children swam from the wharves below St Paul’s, while carping mothers fanned away stale air from the river steps. He could smell horse dung and tobacco, meadow grass, the river. The world had once moved forward in single paces.
The vision wavered and vanished, displaced by sun-flares from the sealed glass corridors of the new city.
The old man in the unravelling sepia scarf waited for the rest of the party to gather around him. It was a Saturday afternoon at the start of October, and London’s thirteen-week heatwave was about to end with a vengeance. Already, the wind had changed direction, stippling the surface of the river with grey goose-pimples. Above the spire of St Paul’s, patulous white clouds deepened to a shade reminiscent of overwashed socks. The enervating swelter was giving way to a cool breeze, sharp in the shadows. The change had undermined his group’s stamina, reducing their numbers to a handful, although four polite but puzzled Japanese boys had joined thinking they were on the Jack the Ripper tour. Once everyone had settled, the elderly guide began the last section of his talk.
‘Ladies and gentlemen . . .’ He gave them the benefit of the doubt. ‘If you would care to gather a little closer.’ Arthur Bryant raised his voice as a red wall of buses rumbled past. ‘We are now standing on Blackfriars—formerly Pitt—Bridge.’
Remember to use the hands,
he told himself.
Keep their interest
. ‘Bridges are causeways across great divides, in this case the rich city on the north side’—
hand usage to indicate north
—‘and the more impoverished south side. Does anyone have a Euro note in their pocket? Take it out and you’ll find a bridge, the universal symbol for something that unites and strengthens.’ He paused, less for effect than to catch his breath. Bryant really had no need to freelance as a city tour guide. His detective duties at the London Peculiar Crimes Unit would have kept a man half his age working late. But he enjoyed contact with the innocent public; most of the civilians he met in his day job were under criminal suspicion. Explaining the city to strangers calmed him down, even helped him to understand himself.
He pulled his ancient scarf tighter and abandoned his set text. What the hell, they were the last group of the season, and had proven pretty unresponsive. ‘According to Disraeli,’ he announced, ‘ “London is a nation, not a city.” “That great cesspool into which all the loungers of the Empire are irresistibly drained,” said Conan Doyle. “No duller spectacle on earth than London on a rainy Sunday afternoon,” according to De Quincey, so take your pick. One of the planet’s great crossing-points, it has more languages, religions and newspapers than any other place on earth. We divide into tribes according to age, wealth, class, race, religion, taste and personality, and this diversity breeds respect.’ Two members of the group nodded and repeated the word ‘diversity’, like an Oxford Street language class.
God, this lot’s hard work,
I’m gasping for a cup of tea.
‘London’s main characteristic is an absence of form. Its thirty-three boroughs have busy districts running through them like veins, with no visible hierarchy, and neighbourhood ties remain inexplicably close. Because Londoners have a strongly pronounced sense of home, where you live counts more than who you are.’ Bryant mostly lived inside his head.
Remember the facts,
he told himself,
they like facts
‘We have six royal parks, 160 theatres, 8,600 restaurants, 300 museums and around 30,000 shops. Over 3,500 criminal offences are reported every day. Poverty and wealth exist side by side, often in the same street. Bombings caused slum clearance and social housing, rupturing centuries-old barriers of class, turning the concept into something mysterious and ever-shifting. London is truly unknowable.’
Bryant looked past his under-dressed audience to the swirling brown river. The Japanese boys were bored and cold, and had started taking pictures of litter bins. One of them was listening to music. ‘A city of cruelty and kindness, stupidity and excess, extremes and paradoxes,’ he told them, raising his voice. ‘Almost half of all journeys through the metropolis are made on foot. A city of glass, steel, water and flesh that no longer smells of beer and brick, but piss and engines.’
He lifted his silver-capped walking stick to the sky. ‘The arches of London’s Palladian architecture lift and curve in secular harmonies. Walls of glass reflect wet pavements in euphonious cascades of rain.’ He was no longer addressing the group, but voicing his thoughts. ‘We’re heading for winter, when a caul of sluggishness deepens into
the state of being mistaken for death. But the city never dies; it just lies low. Its breath grows shallow in the cold river air while housebound tenants, flu-ridden and fractious with the perpetual motion of indoor activity, recover and grow strong once more. London and its people are parasites trapped in an ever-evolving symbiosis. At night the residents lose their carapace of gentility, bragging and brawling through the streets. The old London emerges, dancing drunk skeletons leaving graveyard suburbs to terrify the faint of heart.’
Now even the hardiest listeners looked confused. They spoke to each other in whispers and shook their heads. Their guide seemed to be straying from his topic: ‘A Historic Thameside Walk’. The Japanese boys gave up and wandered off. Someone said, rather loudly, ‘This tour was much better last time. There was a café.’
Bryant carried on, regardless.
‘London no longer suffers from the weight of its past. Now only the faintest resonance of legendary events remains. Oh, I can show you balustrades, pillars and scrollwork, point out sites of religious and political interest, streets that have witnessed great events, but to be honest there’s bugger all to see. It’s impossible to imagine the lives of those who came before us. Our visible history has been rubbed to a trace, like graffiti scrubbed from Portland stone. London has reinvented itself more completely than ever. And whoever grows up here becomes a part of its human history.’
He had completely lost his listeners. They were complaining to each other in dissatisfaction and disarray. ‘That concludes the tour for today,’ he added hastily. ‘I think we’ll skip question time, you’ve been a truly dreadful audience.’ He decided not to bother with his tip box as the mystified, grumbling group was forced to disperse across the windy bridge.
Bryant looked toward the jumble of outsized apartment buildings being constructed at the edge of the Thames, the yellow steel cranes clustered around them like praying mantises. After so many years in the service, he was quick to sense approaching change. Another wave of executives was colonizing the riverbank, creating a new underclass. He wondered how soon the invasion would provoke fresh forms of violence.
It’s metabolizing quickly,
How long before it becomes unrecognizable? How can I hope to understand it for much longer?
He turned up his collar as he passed the urban surfers of the South Bank car park. The clatter of their skateboards bounced between the concrete arcades like the noise of shunting trains. Kids always found ways to occupy ignored spaces. He emerged into daylight and paced at the river rail, studying the evolving skyline of the Thames.
Hardly anything left of my childhood memories.
The Savoy, St Paul’s, the spire of St Bride’s, a few low monuments palisaded by international banks as anonymous as cigarette boxes. A city in an apostasy of everything but money. Even the river had altered. The ships and barges, no longer commercially viable, had left behind an aorta of bare brown water. Eventually only vast hotels, identical from Chicago to Bangkok, would remain.
As ever, Londoners had found ways of cutting grand new structures down to human size. The ‘Blade of Light’ connecting St Paul’s to Bankside had become known as ‘The Wobbly Bridge’. The Swiss Re building had been rechristened ‘The Erotic Gherkin’ long before its completion. Names were a sign of affection, to be worn like guild colours. The old marks of London, from its financial institutes to its market buildings, were fading from view like vanishing coats of arms.
I’ve been walking this route for over half a century,
Bryant thought, stepping aside for a wave of shrieking children. A Mexican band was playing in the foyer of the Festival Hall. People were queueing for an art event involving tall multi-coloured flags. He remembered walking through the black empty streets after the War, and feeling completely alone. It was hard to feel alone here now. He missed the sensation.
His fingers closed around the keys in his pocket. Sergeant Longbright had mentioned she might go into the unit today in order to get things straight for Monday. He preferred to work out of hours, when the phonelines were closed and he could leave papers all over the floor without complaint. He could join Janice, collect his thoughts, smoke his pipe, prepare himself for a fresh start. For a woman who had recently retired, Longbright showed an alarming enthusiasm for returning.
For the past month, the Peculiar Crimes Unit—or rather, what was left of it—had been shunted into two sloping rooms above Sid Smith’s barbershop in Camden Town, while its old offices were being rebuilt. The relocation had been forced by a disastrous explosion that had destroyed the interior of the building and years of case files. The ensuing chaos had badly affected Bryant, whose office was virtually his home. He had lost his entire collection of rare books and artefacts in the blaze. Worse than that, he had yet to recover his dignity. The sheer embarrassment of being presumed dead! At least they had uncovered a long-dormant murderer, even if their methodology had proven highly abnormal.
But of course, nothing at the PCU had ever been normal. Founded as an experimental unit during the War to handle the cases no one else understood, let alone wanted, the detectives had built a reputation for defusing politically sensitive and socially embarrassing situations, using unorthodox and controversial methods. Some of the more rule-bound Met officers hated their guts, but most of the force’s foot soldiers regarded them as living legends, if only because they had repeatedly refused promotion to keep their status as ordinary detectives.
Bryant climbed the trash-stickered steps to Waterloo Bridge and hailed a taxi. Thirteen weeks of airless summer heat had passed without rain, but now the warmth was fading from the yellow London brick, and there was moisture in the rising breeze. The autumn chill stealing up the river would bring rheumatism and new strains of influenza. Already he could feel his joints starting to ache. The only thing that would take his mind off the problems of old age was hard work.
He dug into a pocket and found his pewter flask, granting himself a small nip of cherry brandy. When he was alone he thought too much. John May was the only person who could bring calm to his sense of escalating panic. Their fifty-year-plus partnership had the familiarity of an old radio show. The bald head gave a little shake within its yards of musty scarf; Bryant told himself he would never consider retiring again. The thought of doing so made him feel ill. When the unit reopened in its rightful office on Monday morning, he would return to his desk beside John and Janice, and stay in harness until the day he died. After all, it was where he was needed most. It would be important to show he could still do the job. And he had nothing else without it.
THE FIRST DEATH OF AUTUMN
‘I came to you, Mr Bryant,’ said Benjamin Singh, ‘because you have such an incredible capacity to be annoying.’
‘I can’t imagine what you mean,’ said Bryant, stuffing his bentwood pipe with a mixture of Old Holborn and eucalyptus leaves.
‘I mean you can get things done by badgering people. I don’t trust the regular police. They’re distracted and complacent. I’m glad you are still here. I thought you would have retired by now. You are so very, very far past retirement age.’
Bryant fixed his visitor with an evil eye. Mr Singh dabbed his cheeks with a paper handkerchief. He hadn’t been crying; it was a gesture of respect for the dead. He paused to take stock of his surroundings. ‘I’m sorry, have you been burgled?’ he asked.
‘Oh, no.’ Bryant fanned out his match and sucked noisily on the pipe. ‘The unit burned down. Well, it blew up and burned down. They’re still rebuilding it and we haven’t had time to unpack anything yet. We don’t officially reopen for business until ten o’clock this morning. It’s only nine, you know. It’ll be a nightmare around here later because we’ve got painters, carpenters and IT bods turning up. There’s no floor in the toilet. Health and Safety said they wouldn’t be responsible if we moved in, but we couldn’t stay above a barbershop. It doesn’t help that I’m also in the middle of moving house, and appear to have mislaid all my socks. Sorry, do please go on.’
‘Perhaps we should go and see Mr Singh’s sister,’ ventured Sergeant Longbright.
‘No one will move her body until I tell them to, Janice.’ Bryant shot her a look.
Longbright knew better than to argue with Arthur’s working methods. The inability of the Peculiar Crimes Unit to conduct its affairs in a conventional manner was embarrassingly well documented. Having abandoned attempts to make it properly accountable, the Home Office had now separated the unit from Metropolitan Police jurisdiction and placed it under the nebulous security services of MI7. There would be certain advantages: the detectives would no longer have to pay exorbitant charges for equipment usage or fight the Met for their annual budget, and the old demarcation lines would finally be resolved, but they would now be accountable to passing governments, where personal resentments ran deep. Bryant and his partner John May had been given six months to make the revised unit successful or train up their own replacements, for they were—as everyone seemed so keen to point out—both far beyond the statutory retirement age. There had been talk of closing the place down altogether, and yet it seemed a guardian angel existed in the labyrinth of Whitehall, because eleventh-hour reprieves continued to appear with the regularity of rainbows.