:: Article

Fleet

By Paul Holman.

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[Photo: Steve Duncan]

S P R I N G S

1

Malis follows the course of the stream that once ran along Flask Walk, casting a troubled glance at the Wells and Campden Baths and Wash-Houses to her left, before continuing past Burgh House, to move through a street plan defined by the imprint of vanished spas. Tall, with heavy dreads hanging down over a dress sewn with fragments of broken mirror, she crosses the road at the intersection of Christchurch Hill and Well Walk, to enter the pub she still thinks of as the Green Man.

There she sits in the western corner as if placed in an alcove, in an area of shadow intensified by the bright daylight showing through the windows set a little further along the walls on either side; a large photograph of one of Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon statues to her left; two pale lights, with fleshy leads and upturned bowls that illuminate only the blank space above them, positioned in the angle over her head.

She drinks one pint of Blindside after another, paying for them with an assortment of mostly small coins, which she produces from a drawstring bag. At first the barman thinks that this has been stencilled with a design of a snake with its tongue extended, but then realises that it holds a key in its mouth.

When at last she rises to leave, Malis takes a step away from her table, only to hesitate and turn back to collect her empty glass: she carries this to the bar, where she asks for a refill of water, and gulps that down too before walking a little further along the street to pause in front of the houses numbered 42 and 44 – once the site of a fountain that issued from two lions’ heads – then crosses to the left side of the road to inspect the Victorian structure that replaced it, set between two shortflights of steps that rise to meet the pavement.

She stands on the narrow area before the well in order to lay her hands upon the mismatched panels that flank the inscription to the Honorable Susanna Noel and her son Baptist: one of these depicts a plant of some kind, now too worn to make out, the other bulrushes. Green leaves push through the dry outlet, its lip incongruously carved into the shape of a scallop shell: despite the promise of refreshment given in the verse above it, even in its best days this merely released a slow drip of water, gathered in the early morning to treat failing eyes.

She ascends the steps to the other side, where a drinking fountain faces the narrow passage that climbs to Well Road. Here the mains water jet proves as dead as the chalybeate spring. Malis leans forward, and spews beer and rust coloured water into its half octagonal basin.

2

In the Breakfast Room of Kenwood House, Eunica gazes at Reynolds’ painting of the Gipsy Fortune Teller. Her interest is engaged by its setting, which her eye reads as simultaneously a room and a wooded landscape: perhaps it is the fortune teller’s hut. Whatever, it strikes her as analogous to the zone which she herself inhabits.

A girl and boy, both richly dressed, occupy a wooden chair set in front of a table: the girl, whose cloak is thrown over the back of the chair, sprawls upon the lap of the other in a way that seems both childish and sexualised. While this pair is firmly located indoors, the fortune teller gives the impression of having stepped straight in from the woods, or perhaps to have carried them into the room along with her.Now Eunica turns her attention to the pattern formed by these figures’ hands, tracing it in a notebook which she produces from her slim shoulderbag: the character which she draws begins with the raised right hand of the fortune teller, its first finger extended in playful warning. The downward curve of her left arm leads the viewer to the focus of the picture – the extended right palm of the girl, whose hand is grasped around the fingers by the dark left hand of the fortune teller, and around the wrist by her companion’s right. The right arm of the girl gently rises towards the large blue bow on her breast: the boy’s left hand is laid upon her side, just beneath it. Her left arm tilts very slightly outwards to the elbow, and then in again to the wrist, where her hand twists loosely back: its curled fingers close the flow of movement across the canvas.

The matter of the artwork itself seems trivial and sly. The fortune teller delivers her oracle with an arch expression: the boy’s face is attentive and strained; the girl, who is evidently amused by the revelation, stares laughing out of the picture.

As Eunica turns away from the painting, she closes her hand upon the soft pouch of knucklebones in her pocket. In divination, she casts them five at a time, drawing responses from a list of fifty-six proverbs she has assembled. These are mostly adapted from overheard remarks, graffiti, and snippets of prose from the free newspapers: she updates the entries as new material arises.

Neat and greyclad, she leaves the house, descending the wide shallow steps to the pasture ground, and then walks alongside the stream that runs from the narrow outcrop of trees on her right across the lawn to the Wood Pond, feeding the Highgate Brook.

[Film]
3

The Knight of Labour treads Millfield Lane in his waterlogged shoes. The trailing ends of the orange cord tied round his neck are tucked inside his badly buttoned jacket, its upper pocket still distended with a half brick: other items of builders’ rubble have long since dropped through his clothes.

He watches Eunica from across the South Meadow, as she exits the Kenwood Estate to stand motionless at a point where the outflow of two streams meets in a V. He first encountered her, along with her two sisters, at the scene of his transfiguration: they have become a familiar sight to him since, as he also has found himself bound by the course of the Fleet.

He leans against the parapet of the Bird Bridge, and studies its wide ledge, incised with symbols and initials: his eye wanders over it, seeking coded messages and the acronyms for secret organisations which might be attempting to re-establish contact with him. He desires nothing so much as to be given access to some vent in the earth through which he may descend to guard forgotten hoards.

At the outer edge of the East Heath, he exchanges glances with a figure carrying an uprooted tree stump. It is really too unwieldly for the bearer to manage, and he holds it upside down in front of him, with each hand clutching a projecting root: others fan out around the edge, so that it resembles nothing so much as the severed head of some monstrous king, still firmly wedged into its crown.

The Knight nods to that too, and proceeds towards the Vale of Health Pond. He settles on a bench there, but is disturbed by two men out walking an American bulldog, who pause to discuss their opinion of foreigners who lurk around, plotting to steal the cormorants.

Although he cannot stray far from the water, their tone makes him uncomfortable enough to push on a little distance towards the fairground caravan park. Just in front of the falafel stand, he notices a shopping bag, printed with an image of a mermaid, jammed upside down over a parking cone. In the open space to his right he can see the giant teacups of a dismantled roundabout: the area to his left is screened by tarpaulin.

Malis strides down the road between them, singing fragments of scrapbook ballads.

B R OO K S

4

More or less as soon as Eunica sets foot on Swain’s Lane, having taken the zebra crossing from Parliament Hill Fields, she becomes aware of two people who have just turned the corner onto the opposite side of the road to her. These are a woman with a gaunt, wary face and a younger, shambling man: they have come from the direction of the church of St. Anne, holy grandmother and patroness of many English wells, and they are engaged in a loud ongoing argument.

It becomes evident that a second man, who hurries some way ahead, carrying a plastic bag stretched thin over the outline of aluminium cans, is also of their party, but he is doing his utmost not to be drawn into the dispute, although the woman calls out to him for support as she passes between the images of tethered bulls’ heads – one upright, one curiously askew – that decorate the window of Elite Meats. Opposite the convex traffic mirrors that reflect the entrance to the Holly Lodge Estate and Hillway, her companion shouts: “I never brought stolen food home to cook!” And Eunica stands aligned with the narrow edge of the sign reading ANCIENT LIGHTS on the east wall of no. 20 to copy down his words into the notebook in which she records oracles. Not long after, she turns right into Brookfield Park, while these messengers continue towards Highgate Cemetery: it is characteristic of her that she should accept people as the bearers of signs, just as Malis would consider them utterly irrelevant, and her third sister Nychea, who she last saw joined in merry marriage with a cat skin clad barbarian in Kentish Town, would attempt to lose herself among them altogether.

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5

Malis, who had once taken the grotto at Bagnigge Wells for her court, splendid among sea-shells, fossils and broken glass, enters the glitter of the mosaic at the Fleet Community Centre, gaining access to it by means of the spiral located beneath the red right shoe of the small girl who, with her lips drawn back from her teeth and her face set in the expression of one determined to reveal the workings of creation, holds up a white tile bearing the artist’s name.

From here, the intruder slips past the black cat and the newspaper reader in his hammock, to lean her back against a tree, her lower legs blocked from an onlooker’s sight by the bull terrier that strains at its leash in the foreground, while her own gaze follows the magpie that ascends towards a second spiral on the upper border of the design: then it shifts outward, to take in a bicycle parked behind the crazed glass of a balcony at Palgrave House, the black wall of the Stag, and the opening of Cressy Road.

When she tires of this game, she picks her way out past the cluster of people engaged in conversation or dispute and the old lady clad in black, her head topped by a white cone of hair that supplies a visual echo to the paper wrapped around the stems of the flowers she carries. Malis leaves her own startled mask beside the Greek key at the lower right hand corner of the mosaic, and walks on between the wan murals of the Gospel Oak Estate, to rest upon a broken slab in the woodland garden established by Mary Barnes and Ayla Larke at Lismore Circus, where a beehive composter stands across the road from the Goddess Hair Salon.

6

The Knight of Labour notices a home made sign in front of no 14 Inkerman Road: it is a corrugated plastic board, such as estate agents use, set on a pole, with white sheets of paper pasted to its surface. The message on the side visible to him reads: YOU CAN’T PLAN. As he draws closer, it becomes evident that the sheet has become folded over on itself, so he has to straighten it to view the full inscription: YOU CAN’T PLAN AN EPIPHANY. The text on the reverse of the board is briefer: THE TRUANT SKY. He walks around it a couple of times, to read it in one order and then the other, but feels that the red lettered notice on the door of the next house but one carries a more pertinent motto: NO FREE POST.

As he walks north up Kentish Town Road from Angler’s Lane, he glimpses Nychea, who has risen at last from where she has sat in contemplation in a corner sealed by a semicircle of broom heads and dismantled light fittings, beneath the iron staircase that leads halfway up the back wall of the Christ Apostolic Church on Greenwood Place. She is poised to go into the Oxford and, although the Knight feels no desire to drink anything, he follows her into the pub out of curiosity: he knows that these creatures of the springs suffer torments of thirst as they move further from their source, and has come to appreciate that she differs from her sisters, in that it bothers her that she can only mirror the external world, lacking an inner self to reflect.

He steps past a man in a hat with a dogtooth pattern, engaged in making arrangements with the bartender about the Thursday comedy club, and looks around for somewhere to sit unobserved. He takes note of a party of students that occupies the large table near the side door that opens onto Islip Street: they overlap onto the nearest corner of the adjoining table, which is set at an angle to their own, so he places himself at the furthest point away from them, with a clutter of glasses in between. Nobody pays him any attention except for one girl who, detached from the chatter going on around her, stares fixedly at him out of pale eyes. In response, he drags his papery lips away from his long teeth in the anxious, placatory smile of an ugly dead man.

Then he turns his attention to Nychea. Plump and grubby in her sky blue tracksuit, she has settled at a low round table opposite the ladies’ toilets. Two men, dressed in clothes smeared with paint and dust, lean over her chair to view some fine pencil sketches executed on old paper: these are all of male faces, some bestial or divine. At one point she remarks in her flat voice: “He did this to me”, and lifts her hair away from the side of her head furthest from the Knight to show them what he supposes to be a wound.

She stacks the papers together. As her companions step up to the bar to buy her a drink, the door is pushed abruptly open and a grim bearded face looks in, the horns that curl closely to either side of the skull scarcely hidden by a baggy hat. Nychea rises and steps outside. While she is absent, the younger of the two men talks vaguely of what it might be possible to do with her, but the other shakes his head and says: “She could weep a man to death.” So they leave a glass of Camden Hells Lager beside her drawings on the table, and stroll off with their own drinks in hand to stare at the TV screen at the far end of the empty dining area.

Now the girl who has been studying the Knight rises unsteadily and sits beside him. When she leans in close to his ear and breathes: “Who does it should expect it”, he gives her an anguished look and rises jerkily to his feet. As he passes the tables set outside, Nychea, standing in furious argument with the interloper, recognises him for the first time, and turns towards him a face perfectly white and indistinct, its features ever changing.

7

In the course of her drift down Clarence Way towards Castlehaven Park, Malis pauses to gaze at the wiry simulacrum of an elemental scaling the wall of Harmood Grove. Another four figures rise in the gated courtyard at the end of the cul de sac: the topmost is abstract, attenuated; the lowest is still emerging from a bed of smooth white stones. Malis knows better than most that the seas and rivers are inhabited by such beings, as well as the air; that the earth is filled almost to the centre with the guardians of treasures; and that the dwellers in fire tolerate the company of philosophers: it bothers her that the sculptor may have conflated these undines, sylphs, gnomes and salamanders with the human dead.

She lifts herself upon tiptoe before the curved railings, throws back her head, and fans out her arms with the palms of her hands turned back, long fingers outstretched. This action is interrupted by the occupant of one of the properties, who comes bustling up to the fence to challenge her presence there: as she turns her dragonish, heavy lidded eyes to him, he photographs her with his iPhone. She shakes back her dreads and bares her teeth in a smile for a second picture and, as he taps the button with his index finger, curls back her tongue to reveal the gleam of a golden key lodged underneath it.

8

On Hawley Road, where the Hampstead and Highgate Brooks meet, the Knight sees Malis and Eunica descending the steps of one of the parade of condemned houses that stands across the road from him. Its wall is painted with the head of a black cat, steampunk goggles pushed up on its brow, but the sisters look back towards the front door as they reach the pavement. Malis is laughing as By the time he has struggled past the traffic, they have moved on towards Kentish Town Road. He raises his eyes to the door of no. 15, taking in an image of three 746 type telephones, respectively coloured red, blue and orange, positioned side by side in an unsteady line. Higher up, a photograph of Bettie Page is superimposed over the notice plate on a yellow postbox: two more pictures of her mirror each other on either side of the crown and Royal Cipher. In the space between this pair of triads, the words SWIM DEEPER have been stencilled.

He stands beside the public drinking fountain, set within five circles of upended bricks, in front of the north gates of Camden Gardens, and looks around for any further trace of Malis and Eunica. After some thought, he wanders back in the direction of Angler’s Lane, to find a message he had not seen before, sprayed in silver ink upon the boarded up window of the former Pizza Express at the corner of Prince of Wales Road: WE NEVER LAND. Satisfied with this communication, he reverses his path beneath a darkening sky, and strolls past Water Lane, descending to Kentish Town Lock, where he turns left along the towpath. A sudden hailstorm forces him to take shelter beneath Camden Road Bridge: while he waits for the sky to clear, he studies the childrens’ painting of boats and arches, a horse, a fish and a butterfly, affixed to the brickwork opposite.

The sisters hear the rattle overhead as they sit together, sipping blackcurrant squash in one of the steam rooms in Rio’s Health Spa. They wrap their damp white towels around themselves – Malis just beneath her breasts, Eunica above hers – and walk past another steam room and a sauna, to join the other more or less undressed figures assembled at the entrance to the garden, watching the hailstones clatter down on the statuary, the little galvanised steel buckets that serve as ash trays, the plastic chairs set out upon the low banks of artificial turf on either side of the central path.

WELLS

9

Eunica tips a little water, collected from the springs at Kenwood, into the palm of her left hand, and uses the index finger of the right to trace a pattern between the thirty-six apertures in the circular manhole cover at her feet. When she stares down through the vents, she can see the river itself, sleek and fast. She tries to coax the Fleet back into distinct speech, but it has become intractable, withdrawn in darkness and enclosure.

Eunica straightens as a car turns from Lyme Street onto Royal College Street, and takes a step back into the cycle lane, knocking her heels against the low zigzagged wall of a triangular planter. She glances across the road at the southwest wall of the Prince Albert, much of its green tiled lower storey blocked from sight by the laurel hedge that rises behind the fence which encloses the beer garden: even more is obscured by the canopy of a large span parasol.

A figure that pauses by the bollard at the opposite corner catches her attention: it is that of a girl, dressed in a loose approximation of Wonder Woman’s outfit: a yellow band marked with a red star about her forehead, a red lycra top clinging to her heavy breasts and belly. She carries a candy bar phone in her hand, and there is a 375ml bottle of vodka tucked into the waistband of her blue shorts.
This newcomer looks northeast up Georgiana Street, and then walks to the end of Lyme Street. When she finds nothing of interest there, she turns towards Eunica, who is once more leaning over the drain.

“Excuse me,” she asks. “Have you seen any other people in costume?”
Eunica shakes her head. The girl gazes round once more, and then comes to stand beside her.

“What are you looking at?” she enquires curiously.
“See for yourself,” Eunica replies in a mild tone, and stands aside.
The girl peers down into the shaft with a puzzled expression which turns into one of absorbed interest: suddenly she lifts her gaze and draws back, startled.
“What the fuck is that?” she asks.

“Tell me how it showed itself to you.”
The girl draws a breath, and then says: “At first I thought it was some kind of snake, or an eel perhaps, but then it lifted its head to look up at me, and it had horns and a man’s eyes.”

Eunica rests her hand upon the girl’s forearm, just above one of her Bracelets of Submission: “You saw the River Fleet. It moves between forms: sometimes a rambling bull, sometimes a writhing snake, sometimes a man with water streaming from his beard.”
“But it spoke to me.”
“What did it have to say?”
“‘Truth lies at the bottom of a well.'”

Now it is Eunica’s turn to give the other a surprised look. She is about to ask something more, when the girl’s phone buzzes: even as she flexes her thumb to answer it, a shout comes from across Royal College Street, where her friends have at last come into view.

She glances down and, as if registering Eunica’s touch for the first time, disengages herself from it, then goes to join her companions as they move on down Lyme Street.

Eunica turns back to the Fleet, but her concentration is disturbed by Malis, who stands just inside the open gate of the beer garden. She is holding up an almost full glass of Foundation Bitter in one hand and an almost empty one in the other.
“I’ll drink yours in a minute!”

“Help yourself – I’ve got this,” Eunica replies, holding up a clear plastic bottle containing the spring water she had used to draw her sign.
“Water is for nixies!” Malis calls back, and retreats behind the hedge again.

St_Pancras_(Old_Church),_London_NW1_-_Shrine_of_Our_Lady_of_Walsingham_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1507269

10

In St Pancras Old Church, Eunica stands before the carved wooden figure of Our Lady of Walsingham, set within the desecrated Sacrament House. Her eye glides down, past the virgin’s crown and the halo behind it, the threefold lily sceptre balanced upon the fingers of her right hand, the raised cross on the cover of the book clasped in the left hand of the prophetic child upon her knee, to settle upon the smooth rounded base on which her gold tipped slippers rest. Eunica studies this for some time, then, dissatisfied, speaks her thought aloud: “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.”

She finds Malis in the southernmost corner of the churchyard, in a place screened from view by buddleia and midland hawthorn: she is gazing down at an improvised altar – a pile of stones and half bricks, laid with a cloth of silver and blue, upon which wooden bowls containing honey and beer have been left among offerings of greenery. Dolls of plastic, wood and cloth are heaped up against it. Eunica picks up a Barbie with a faint turquoise bloom to its skin: its neck and limbs glitter, and its spangled crop top appears to have been painted directly on; a skirt of ragged strips of gauze is secured around its waist by a crinkled belt of dull bronze material. When she turns it around, she sees two empty slots upon its shoulders: the sockets of cast off wings, she supposes.

Malis looks at her through bewildered eyes: “Is this meant for us?”
Eunica puts the model down again, and slowly rotates her head to summon back a view of the demolished West Tower, the full extent of the churchyard, and the lost Wells to the south: she remembers their House of Entertainment and Ladies’ Hall and, behind these, the Pump Houses and Long Room, the Old Walk and New Plantation. Then she shrugs, and reaches into her shoulderbag to enclose the shrine within a scatter of knucklebones.

11

On Gray’s Inn Road, Malis and Eunica pause in front of Willing House, now a Travelodge, to lift their gaze past the winged lions that guard the archway over the entrance; the frieze depicting figures clustered about a globe; the massive bow window and the dormer projecting from the slate roof above it; all the way up to Mercury, his feet planted upon the finial, his right arm raised, the left folded about a golden caduceus. The god, of elm clad in bronze, stands as if ready to guide all those images maimed and cast into wells back from the underworld to which they had been committed.

As the sisters walk down St Chad’s Place, they check the recessed openings of fire escapes and other shadowy spaces for any indication that an offering may have been made here, although neither of them refers to their earlier find. Once they reach the end of the passage opening onto Kings Cross Road, they double back, turning left onto Wicklow Street, where they spot a pink haired doll propped up in the sharp corner bounded by the Margaret Pyke Centre and the wall over the railway: it is impossible to tell whether this object is a stray or has been set there on purpose. Next they make a perfunctory sweep of Leeke Street and Britannia Street, but discover nothing of interest there, and move on towards Bagnigge Wells.

12

Eunica stands within the passenger shelter at the Gwynne Place bus stop, and gazes up through the left hand perspex panel at the carved head of some woodland god, crudely set into the wall between nos. 61 and 63 Kings Cross Rd. Beneath it, an inscription reads:

+
ST
THIS IS BAGNIGGE
HOUSE NEARE
THE PINDERE A W
AKEFEILDE

While the stone bearing this text has been transferred between various locations, it has now come to rest more or less above the lost outline of the east gate that opened onto the gardens of Bagnigge House: the head itself has been detached from a full length figure that once stood against the north wall of the Long Room, looking across at the Grotto. Over time, its identity has merged with that of George a’ Green, the Pinder who took his blue blade in hand, and plodded to the greenwood to join Robin Hood and his company.

Not wishing to crowd her sister, Malis has positioned herself to the right of the shelter: from here she can observe the head at an angle, noting the cracks that run along the join of its chin and whiskers, the shallow flake of stone scooped out of one cheek – she also catches the gesture with which Eunica opens her notebook, before marking the page with a slow continuous line. At last, her hand falters, she blinks, and takes a step back onto the pavement. Malis comes to stand beside her as she studies her pencilwork with a dubious expression.
A spiky crawl of letters can be made out beneath the erect, bestial figure that emerges from the tangle of graphite on the paper.

“Chucky?” Malis asks.
“I don’t know,” replies Eunica in a tired voice. “I suppose it’s what he calls himself.”
Her thoughts stray to the half bound leather volume, its cover papers shimmering, scaled, from which she had extracted their own names.

13

The Knight of Labour walks along Gray’s Inn Road, passing the Water Rats, formerly known as the Pindar of Wakefield, although it was not the first property to carry that name. He takes the northern branch of the inverted Y shaped crossing at Acton Street to stand in front of the block between Harrison Street and Cromer Street, now occupied by a solicitor’s office and the old King’s Cross Telephone Exchange: it is here that the original inn stood, among brickfields and a cluster of cottages. This is the site where Thomas and Rebecca Vaughan carried out alchemical operations together in the time before a flame of whitish fire broke from the toes of his left foot, or the stone horse came to bear them away, one after the other.

Vaughan wrote:

I employed myself all her life time in the acquisition of some natural secrets, to which I had been disposed from my youth up; and what I now write, and know of them practically, I attained to in her days, not before in very truth, nor after, but during the time we lived together at the Pinner of Wakefield; and though I brought them not to perfection in those dear days, yet were the gates opened to me then and what I have done since is but the effect of those principles.

The front wall of the Exchange is decorated with a repeated motif of a candlestick telephone set within a laurel wreath. The Knight stares into the mirror glass windows, his refection obscured by the spiked barrier set above the sill. Inside the building, a jaded security guard views the onlooker’s grey face on a monitor, and decides that he cannot rouse himself to shoo this apparition on.

As the Knight crosses back to Acton Street, Nychea and her latest pick-up scramble down the artificial boulders at the Calthorpe Project, to tread the mosaic path that runs past the Walter Segal building towards the foot of the bridge: she bears a bird’s nest in her right hand, a rake in her left; an unlit pipe is jammed between his teeth, the snaith of a scythe rests upon his shoulder.

They approach the open gates, only to retreat to the sunken garden as they glimpse the Knight of Labour walking southeast down Gray’s Inn Road. When they are sure that he has passed, they climb back up and turn right, to walk down Ampton Street towards the New Calthorpe Estate. They parade slowly along Cubitt Street, pausing to clatter the tools they carry against the gated entrances of Wells Square and Fleet Square.

When they reach King’s Cross Road, Nychea catches sight of her sisters at the bus stop, and heads away to join them. Abandoned, her boyfriend shoots them a look of dislike, hangs his scythe off the scaffolding that extends from no. 45 to the front door of no. 49, and crosses the road, to pass beneath the second most northerly arch of the Travelodge at Gwynne Place, and ascend the steps leading to Granville Square.

14

The Knight continues past the old Royal Free Hospital and then follows the northeastern wall of Trinity Court into St Andrew’s Gardens, where he takes the outer path, its perimeter marked with upright gravestones. As he approaches the gate that opens onto Wren Street, he notices two figures hunched over a model theatre set up on a tomb to his right: a plastic crate, with a rucksack stowed inside it, rests upon the grass beside them. He wonders if they are putting on a show, but there is no audience apart from themselves, and their voices are pitched too quietly to reach any of the people eating sandwiches on the benches around the edge of the gardens or the party of drinkers sitting among a cluster of monuments further off. Whatever drama is being enacted seems more akin to a private game than a performance. It is this air of ritual absorption which draws him in, until he is almost standing over them.

Only then do they raise their heads from the stage to look back at him. To his eyes, the woman’s face is damaged by bridge and dimple piercings. Her hair is mostly blue where it flows over the right side of her head, grey where it has been shaved and regrown on the left, exposing an earlobe stretched wide over a flesh tunnel. While she is faux uncanny, the Knight, who had maintained an extraordinary belief in mysterious things even before his translation, suspects the man beside her of having been the vessel of a brutal power, now almost exhausted. He is feral, heavyset, with a beard growing out in rusty spikes beneath massive cheekbones. He wears threadbare jeans, turned up a long way at the hem, and a scuffed leather jacket with a fur collar, despite the heat. This flaps open as he turns towards the Knight, to reveal a bare torso. A faded blue baseball cap is pulled over his brow. A sigil has been inscribed upon the brim, which he wears forwards, with a thick marker pen.

The theatre is made of cardboard, meticulously cut and folded, and supported by a wooden frame. A sphinx is perched at the top of its proscenium arch, and two wildmen clad in leaves stand guard on either side, brandishing clubs. The wing to the left of the onlooker shows a castellated hexagonal grotto, separated into two floors by a band decorated with lozenges, which are outlined in shells. The lower storey is further divided into two open compartments in which figures in Georgian costume stand, drinking and chatting. This arrangement is echoed on the floor above, where each opening is surmounted by a lunette patterned with shells, fossils and ceramic fragments. Each of these arches is extended into the form of a wishbone, that on the left ending in a crescent moon and that on the right in a star.

The other wing shows a circular temple, its dome topped by a weathervane, raised upon a double ring of columns: two jets of liquid rise in the centre. These have been coloured red and white, to symbolise sulphur and mercury. A few trees are positioned across the stage, and two female figures stand just before the steps that lead to the entrance of the single storey building pictured upon the backdrop, the long room of a spa.

When she sees the Knight’s hesitation, the woman makes eye contact with him, and says: “You can come and watch if you like. We’ve nearly reached the end.”
“These are the mud-nymphs Nigrina, Merdamante and Lutetia,” says the man, indicating a trio of characters affixed to metal slides at the front of the stage. One of these is attired in a mantua and high plumed hat; a second is bare breasted and garlanded with vines; the last is a boyish figure, clad in a tricorne hat, knee length coat and breeches. All three maintain a defensive posture, holding up a scythe, a rake and a whip as weapons. They face a hulking figure in rustic clothing, bearing a quarterstaff.

“Those are their names in a different book,” the other interrupts, “not what they’re called here”. She taps the grubby screen of a tablet that rests on the tomb between them, before turning her attention back to the stage. “And that one is George a’ Green – his castle was an earthwork at Mount Pleasant.”

“Not an ancient hill fort, but a defence raised in the Civil War. All past history comes down to this: a great city has been besieged by little kings.” He indicates the standing figures at either side of the arch: “These wildmen off the Calthorpe Arms are his homies.”

“And she’s the genius of Sphinx House, over there,” she says, pointing past the drinkers towards a brick building to the left of Trinity Court.

By now, the Knight is quite entranced by them both. He suspects that the names they have given apply to themselves, rather than the features towards which they have directed his attention, and entertains little doubt of the identity of the three characters upon the stage. As he settles into their company, he catches sight of the rucksack he had noticed earlier. This has been casually slung into a plastic crate, which has evidently been used to carry the theatre into the garden. The straps have been left unfastened, and dolls spill out over the edge and onto the grass.

“We play games with those too,” Wildman remarks. “But never mind them – why don’t you take a part in our drama?”
“I’ve just read this,” adds Sphinx, profferring the tablet to him. He makes out words beneath the patina of fingerprints upon the screen:
EUNICA: Let us stand in some corner for to heare What braving tearmes the pinner will breathe.
He shakes his head, and draws back from the device.

“Well, do you mind if we finish off?”
“There’s not much background to explain,” puts in Wildman. “George is utterly pissed at these nymphs because they have been toying with his emotions, and playing various weird tricks on him. In the scene we’re performing now, they’re trying to get into the gardens of Bagnigge House, where he stands guard over the two springs that rise in the temple.”

The Knight relaxes, and leans in towards the stage, while Sphinx and Wildman take up their positions again. She stands to the left of the theatre, and he to the right. The tablet, which appears to serve as the merest prompt, rests in front of the stage between them. Wildman infuses the figure of the Pinder with nervous movement, and delivers the following lines:

GEORGE A’ GREEN: Backe againe, you foolish travellers,
For you are wrong, and may not wend this way.

Sphinx tilts the gowned character with the scythe towards him:

MALIS: Peace, saucie mate, prate not to us.

GEORGE: I am the pinner, and before you passe You shall make goode the trespasse you have done.

At this, the cross-dressed figure glides to the side of Malis.

EUNICA: Come, we will forward in despite of him.

GEORGE: Ile prove it goode upon your carcases,
A wiser wisard never met you yet,
Nor one that better could foredoome your fall:
Now I have singled you here alone,
I care not though you be three to one.

MALIS: Why, art thou mad? dar’st thou incounter three?
We are no babes, man, look upon our limmes.

GEORGE: Marry, come, let us even have a bout –
Ile draw thee on with sharpe and deepe extremes.

The Bacchante frantically weaves between the opponents.

NYCHEA: Sirra, downe with your staffe, downe with your staffe,
Least you be torne in peeces with shee devils.

But the Pinder makes for her in a threatening manner, and all three sisters engage in combat with him, driving him back across the stage.

GEORGE: Ha, stay a little; hold thy hands, I pray thee.

MALIS: Now, sirra, Ile lay thy head before thy feete.

Malis sweeps forward with her scythe. The Pinder is tipped to the ground, and the other two sisters advance to stand over him. They sing a ballad about ladybirds and stinging nettles and April in a green jerkin with a rook on one fist and a horn on the other. All this time, the Knight has kept his gaze fixed upon the prone body, expectant. Then, when their song ends and nothing further occurs, he lifts his gaze to the players.

“That’s all, folks!” says Wildman, in a put-on accent, bringing down the curtain.

Sphinx looks at him kindly. “It’s not a mummer’s play. There’s no resurrection scene.”

Wildman extricates the figure of the Pinder from the stage. He detaches it from its metal slide, and passes it to the Knight. As his hand closes upon it, the Knight receives a vision of the Pinder, his faun head set upon a lumbering body, following Nychea across dewy fields. She leads him to a riverside hut, but when he crosses the threshold, he finds Malis awaiting him in her place. He accepts the change of partner, and settles upon a joined stool so that she may mount him, only to struggle from beneath her as she slips some burning object into his mouth. As he pushes past her to leave, he observes a golden key protruding from between her teeth. Back outside the hut, he encounters Eunica, lounging beside the doorway. She looks him up and down and says: “The time is come, but not the man.”

phoenix pl

15

The Knight pauses on the broad area of pavement set between two closed gates of the Royal Mail car park, and looks down towards Blessed Mary’s Well, later known as Black Mary’s Hole: the impiety of the shift makes him tremble, though it is scarcely surprising – in the green language in which he has been instructed, his ears can detect the heretical name of Oldcastle hidden within Coldbath Fields.
Hotel staff stand smoking in front of the goods entrance of the Holiday Inn across the road from him. Postal workers move along the edges of Mount Pleasant: he eyes these with distrust – his contacts at the Bird Bridge have long since brought the writings of the so-called Monsieur Dupont to his notice, and he suspects them all of nihilist communism.

As he walks on towards the end of Calthorpe Street, he sees Malis, Eunica and Nychea nearing the end of King’s Cross Road: to his alarm, Malis is swinging a scythe in front of her. She and Nychea settle down at a table outside the Union Tavern, while their sister steps into the bar, to return with three pints on a round plastic tray.

Once they have all taken their glasses, Eunica slowly pours water into the tray from a plastic bottle which she produces from her satchel. Now they gather with lowered heads to gaze into the surface of the liquid, forming three points of a triangle around a black circle.

His attention is distracted from this scene by the approach of a postman along Farringdon Road. Dressed in a summer cap, high-visibility waistcoat over a short-sleeved shirt, and combat shorts, the newcomer stops, and hands the Knight an item drawn, not from his shoulder bag, but from a pocket.

“I’ve been trying to deliver this for a long time,” he says.
The postcard is worn and creased. It shows Blackfriars Bridge, with Saint Paul’s in the background. A dangling figure has been roughly sketched under one of the arches of the bridge. On the reverse of the card, the Knight finds an inscription, written in red ink: “IL GIOCO DEL PONTE.” His own doubly accursed name is marked on the right, with his old address at Chelsea Cloisters crossed through beneath it.

A twelve and a half pence stamp is positioned in the upper corner. Although this is of a date to be conventionally gummed, rather than self adhesive, the sender has chosen not to lick the back, but has attached it to the card with a paperclip. The Knight detaches this and holds it out upon the flat of his hand towards the envoy, who shrugs off the implied question.
“No free post,” he says, stepping out along Calthorpe Street. As he walks off, the Knight notices that he has an armillary sphere tattooed on each of his calves.

16

When the Knight looks back towards the Union Tavern, he sees that Malis, Eunica and Nychea have just moved off along Lloyd Baker Street. Their empty glasses and the black plastic tray remain where they have left them; the rake and scythe are propped against the wall of the pub, and the bird’s nest is balanced upon a windowsill. After a moment’s indecision, he crosses the road, to settle at their table before it is cleared.

Eunica has not bothered to tip out the layer of spring water that covers the surface of the tray and, as he lets his eyes shift focus, the reflected sky is displaced by the image of a figure occupying the paved central area of a narrow sunken garden, enclosed between a series of blind walls and a council block. She is seated upright in what appears to be an armchair, a blanket printed with a recurring design of sphinxes thrown over it. A sheet of cloth hangs in iridescent folds behind her, from a line supported by poles set in the earth of the borders, painted red and blue.

The sisters are stretched out upon their bellies on the black and white checked sheet of linoleum laid over the ground before her. At first, he thinks that they have prostrated themselves in her worship, but then realises that their adoration is directed towards the object on which her feet rest: this is no cushion, but the Toadstone, its grey-green surface studded with bumps, slick with bitter liquid.

In disgust, the Knight rises to his feet, and lifts the tray from the table, as if to empty its contents onto the pavement, but then he hesitates, and holds it level before him as he walks on down Farringdon Road, past the overgrown garden in front of Charles Simmons House, the balconies that look down upon it bright with drying laundry.

17

The Knight sits on the seventeenth step down, the eighteenth up, of the enclosed staircase that twists from Rosebery Avenue down to Warner Street. The tray from the Union Tavern is balanced on his knees, his right arm curled around it. In the spring water, he has watched the sisters rise as a single being, triple headed, six breasted, rearing up on three serpentine tails – glittering white, grey and sky blue. The image breaks from time to time as passers-by let coins fall into the tray.

“Do I make a wish?” asks his latest benefactor, dropping in a handful of coppers with a splash.

The Knight, whose pockets are stuffed with useless currency, makes no acknowledgement, but inclines his face towards the wrought iron tracery to his left. He sees the wit exit the staircase and steer right onto the street, and a man in overalls slide open the concertina door of Viaduct House in order to enjoy a cigarette outside.

When he looks back into the water, he finds that the sisters have vanished: in their place, there appear figures who dismount from their scooters and leave their weapons of shaped flint in a stack before entering the garden. As they raise the fox and cat masks from their faces, he sees that they are little more than children. Not too long afterwards, he hears footsteps approaching from the direction of Mount Pleasant. Malis, Eunica and Nychea clatter up the stairs, and stand in an arc around him.

“Those are ours by rights,” says Eunica, indicating the coins in the water.
“We have drinks to buy,” Nychea adds, dredging the tray with her hand. “Not that this will even cover the next round.”

“And I think you’ve had that long enough too,” puts in Malis, knocking the tray so that his trouser leg is soaked. The water runs off along the narrow drainage channel behind him. He makes no reponse to the insult, and they go back down the steps. Through the tracery, he views the crowns of their heads as they emerge onto the pavement and turn in the direction of Ray Street.

18

After a while, the Knight rises, leaving the tray propped upright in the corner he had occupied. He follows the direction taken by the sisters and feels no surprise when he catches sight of Malis and Nychea sitting outside the Coach and Horses, drinking pints of Portobello Star. Eunica, who has been standing about a quarter of the way across the road, darts back towards them as a delivery motorbike approaches from Warner Street.

A peep board has been set up opposite the pub, at the foot of Back Hill. Made for Clerkenwell Design Week, this commemorates the death of Christopher Preston, the proprietor of the Bear Garden once located here. The board, rendered in mosaic by Designworks Tiles, shows a baited bear, rearing up on its hind legs, with a human figure dangling from between its jaws. The latter’s face is a void: any passer-by may choose to fill the space with their own, and so meld their identity with his, both tormentor and victim.

Although the incident took place in 1709, Preston is turned out in the fashion of a still earlier era. Nattily dressed in jerkin, doublet and trunk-hose, he maintains a nonchalant posture even while the bear’s teeth crunch down on his skull, his right hand resting on his hip, his left still clutching one end of the chain attached to the animal’s collar. The effect is as worryingly incongruous as Dalí’s appropriation of the courtier portrayed in a Hilliard miniature: relocated from a rose garden to the greenwood, he is tethered to the ground even as he floats upwards in the guise of the Prince of Love, or is suspended by one foot among weird smears of foliage as the Hanged Man.

19

The Knight observes a burly figure, clad in a leopard skin edged with scarlet, walking towards Saint Peter’s Italian Church on Clerkenwell Road. A bass drum harness swings from his right hand; a pair of mallets is clutched in his left. A further three members of the marching band, all dressed in the dark tartan of the Sutherland Highlanders, have been waiting outside Terroni’s delicatessen. As this stretch of pavement becomes more busy, they regroup beside the bus shelter at the eastern corner of Herbal Hill.

The drummer strides past the taped off entrance to Back Hill, where floats are being made ready for the procession; the shop on the corner, its balcony painted with the tricolore, stocked with religious artefacts; the women positioned in the doorway of the church, medals suspended from red ribbons about their necks. While he keeps pressing onwards between the holy images on the north side of the road and the waiting crowd on its south, the Knight takes his time, pausing to gaze at the figures at the feet of the Madonna of the Miracles of Mussomeli: the man who has just received healing from her, flexing his left arm and leg, and a cherub who regards him from a little outcrop of rock, holding up a shield bearing the town’s coat of arms – three towers, each surmounted by a large golden bee.

Other statues occupy the pavement in front of the Bryson Hotel: Our Lady of Fatima; Saint Anthony of Padua, bearing white lilies and a blond infant Jesus; Saint Lucy, who carries a palm branch in one hand and holds out a goblet containing her eyes with the other; Saint Franca of Piacenza, in Cistercian habit, positioned in front of a painting of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, whose right cheek is marked by a double scar; the Archangel Michael standing in triumph over the dragon; Saint Francis of Paola and Saint Rita of Cascia, the patron of impossible causes, who clutches a bunch of roses to her breast: the imprint of a thorn is visible upon her forehead. A second image of Saint Anthony is placed beside her, his head surmounted by a nimbus: in this variant, the child he lifts is portrayed with dark hair. While these figures stand ready to be carried in the procession upon wooden litters decorated with flowers – the fercula of pagan Rome – Saint Calogero, the black hermit of Sicily, remains parked in a trailer on the road alongside them, as he is to be conveyed by car.

The Knight looks on as a pilgrim’s staff tied with white ribbons is placed in Calogero’s left hand, and an ornate silver box – a copy of his reliquary – is hung from his other wrist. As he does so, he catches sight of Nychea among the onlookers moving along the pavement towards him. She pauses to stare at Saint Michael, trampling upon his fallen adversary, and the Knight’s mind turns to the vision of the sisters prostrated before the Toadstone. Before he has time to consider his actions, he has moved forward to confront her, and he is astonished to hear his own voice speak out: “In the end you will be a serpent and dragon, like Melusine and others of her kind.”

She opens her eyes wide at this, and pushes past him. In an unfamiliar state of fury and elation, he pursues her as she dives down the pathway left open for pedestrian access on the western side of Back Hill, scarcely registering the floats lined up, ready to depart, alongside the Parish Office and Herbal House, or the costumed figures assembled behind the high white Cross of Peace. All at once, he feels the power drain from him as he encounters Malis, who has left her place outside the Coach and Horses to come to the aid of her sister: even as the queue descends towards Ray Street, she steadily forces him back to the corner, until he is standing outside Ngon Ngon. There is a note of glee in her voice as she says: “You’re right in the wolf’s mouth now, where a prince who recognises you is sure to pass.”

He turns from her at a sudden intensification of noise from Clerkenwell Road, to see three white doves ascend into the sky amidst a cloudburst of tinsel. As the procession sets off from outside the church, he hurries to join the crowd on the opposite pavement, anxious to leave Malis behind. Even so, her words continue to distract his attention, so that he can only take in the spectacle as fragments.

a group of women dressed
in regional costume / who
carry baskets of produce
and a jug of wine / one
has transferred her burden
to the crook of her arm
/the better to cool herself
with a lace edged fan
/while her companions wear
bonnets in keeping with
their aprons and shawls
/her face is obscured by a
bright pink sun hat / the
area from her eyes to
her lower lip is patterned
by sunlight falling through
its brim of mesh / her
chin and throat swathed
in shadow

a blonde nun
/ clad in a white veil and
pale grey habit / drawn on
a long red ribbon behind
the float dedicated to
Saint Vincent Pallotti / the
Knight registers the glint
of a wristwatch above
her left hand / the silvery
toe strap of her sandal

a pair of helium foil
balloons in the form of
winged blue unicorns that
hover for an instant between
Christ and John the Baptist
as they pass the entrance
to White Bear Yard
/ the Baptist is a feral
presence / grizzled hair
straggling over his shoulders
/ his sackcloth outer
garment partly covers a
robe streaked with varying
shades of green / the wooden
bowl he holds upraised

is carved with a recurring
pattern of leaves
/ reminiscent of that which
borders a foliate head

the burly / full bearded
legionary who strides in front
of Christ along the Via
Dolorosa / in leonine middle
age / he seems both
wily and strong / apparently
left-handed / he carries
his spear on the side
closest to the Knight / his
helmet / topped with a plume
of red bristles / cradled
beneath the opposite
arm

the bare chested
youth led captive between
four guards / his hands tethered
by a leash of rope / his
evident self-consciousness
intensifies the impression
that the figures

which surround him are
moving in a trance

the white
traces of glue visible
in the space that would have
been occupied by a stone
representing one of
the tribes of Israel
/ fallen from the breastplate
of judgment worn by Caiaphas

the ghostly outline
of the head of Jesus upon
the veil borne by Veronica
/ its features smudges

As the Knight regains his composure, he steadies his gaze upon a one legged man, a pale blue sash with a white border and gold tassel around his torso, who follows Our Lady of the Snows. A zebra striped bag dangles from the left handgrip of his wheelchair, while his attendant, elegant in sunglasses, a blazer and high-waisted dress, steers him forward with the other.

An angel, whose raiment appears to be of the same substance as the silver plumage of her wings, sits before a background of unbroken blue above a float patterned in gold. She briefly lowers the shroud she holds, upon which the image of Christ is imprinted as if in blood, in order to sweep aside the hair that persistently drifts across her face. Further down, just beneath the semi-transparent panel that conceals the driver of the vehicle, the Knight reads the legend, displayed upon the simulacrum of a scroll: ON THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE AGAIN.

Christ himself stands with one foot upon the lid of his opened sarcophagus, the other upon its rim, a pennant suspended from the Triumphal Cross in his hand. On the ground before him, a guard props himself up by his right elbow, his left arm raised before his face, while another legionary, positioned towards the back of the tableau, shields his eyes with a hunting knife: a child, dressed in the same uniform, is huddled against him.

Mary is raised among pillars, their bases hidden by clouds of gauze. She supports a porcelain doll, a rosary stretched between the first two fingers of its right hand and the thumb of its left. An attendant with downy wings, clothed in some material that resembles shimmering fur, holds a chaplet of roses over her head. A second angel is perched further down the white slope of steps upon which the Queen of Heaven is enthroned in victory, and a third stands at its foot: each of these clasps a lily. In front of them, a nun and monk, one robed in white, the other in brown, are seated upon concealed chairs in a zone divided by shimmering ribbons, beams that emanate from the figure above them. At the further end of the float, the Knight sees two girls in tabards of purple cloth, embroidered in gold with a pattern incorporating crosslets, crowns, leaves, flowers and a fruit which he thinks might be a pomegranate. One extends a trumpet before her, facing in the direction of the church; the other is turned towards the virgin and her child, a censer swinging from her hand.

All the while that the procession has been slowly moving on towards Rosebery Avenue, the Knight has drifted back through the crowd until at last he reaches Saint Peter’s. The participants in the tableaux, kept in position by hidden supports, make him think of the figures manipulated by Wildman and Sphinx, while the statues carried in between them seem quick with the energy they have accumulated through worship. As he encounters each of the multiple incarnations of Jesus, he strains forward to receive that acknowledgement Malis had foretold, but one after another goes by without paying any heed to his presence.

Now, as a second flight of doves is released to mark the outset of the statue of Our Lady of Carmel, the Knight looks across to the steps in front of the church, only to meet the calm, benevolent gaze of one who knew secrets he could not dream of, who had been admitted to the presence of Aldo Moro in some safehouse of the Red Brigades, perhaps in a palace, beneath a frieze of lions attacking horses, or in that very flat in the Via Gradoli identified by another ghost from the years of lead by means of a talking board. It is this same man whose father had expelled the Knight from a meeting of priests and bankers on the last day of May in 1982, whose brother the Knight himself had threatened, in the misery of his imprisonment, with a name that should never be spoken, even in confession.

In panic, he plunges down to Warner Street, to lose himself in the hubbub of the Sagra taking place there. Once he has regained his sense of security among the throng, he idles before a table upon which gigantic playing cards are laid out, and examines the stalls offering honey and home made wine. He picks up a book commemorating the Italian immigrants sent to their deaths on the Arandora Star, victims of an old panic about the enemy within. As he reads through the names of the drowned, a couple of boys approach him. The smaller of the two is turned out in a suit and tie, and the Knight wonders if he has slipped away from the group of First Communicants who took part in the procession. His face is concealed by a plastic carnival mask, striped with the colours of the Italian flag – white for faith, green for hope, and red for charity. Mutely, he holds out a duplicate by the strip of black ribbon attached to its back. His companion regards the Knight with a bold expression, and says: “He thinks you should wear this.”

The Knight reaches forward to hook the mask from the boy’s hand in the fervent belief that this encounter has been brought about for his protection. It does not occur to him that the child may merely have wished him to cover up his death’s head.

Confident that his identity is shielded behind the mask, he returns to Back Hill. The procession has followed its course around Rosebery Avenue and Farringdon Road during the time that he has lingered at the Sagra, and the foremost floats have now returned to their starting point. As soon as they turn off Clerkenwell Road, the characters in the tableaux drop their fixed postures and become fluid and uncanny: other figures appear, to dismantle the scenery and tidy away the props – to the Knight, these appear to be scavengers, making off with the everyday relics of the divine.

Outside the church, he finds no trace of that apparition, more disturbing than himself in its vitality and power, which caused him to flee. He bends stiffly to gather a handful of silver strips from the pavement, then looks up again to catch sight of the larger statue of Saint Anthony being conveyed by its bearers, uniformly dressed in white shirts and black trousers, southwards along Hatton Garden.

o

20

As the Sagra disperses, the Knight returns to the Coach and Horses. Malis and Nychea must have drunk up and left long before, and the space once occupied by the peep board has been taken by a fiddle player for her pitch. She is clad in a bear suit, her own face exposed through its gaping mouth. The Knight steps into the road to approach her, but comes to a halt above the square drain cover where Eunica had stood. As the tune shifts from “Black Mary’s Hornpipe” to “Hockley in the Hole”, he becomes aware of how the music is accompanied by the voice of the river deep beneath his feet.

He wanders on down Ray Street Bridge to Farringdon Lane, where he pauses before the plate glass window of number 16, to see Eunica kneeling upon the opened trapdoor of the Clerks’ Well and staring down into its depth. The water that reflects her image is no longer that of the Fleet, but leakage from the mains pipes. She stretches her hands over the well and various coins, broken pieces of jewellery, and a mobile phone stir upon its tiled floor, disturbing the sediment that covers it, and sluggishly begin to rise. As she becomes aware of the presence of an onlooker, she lets her hands fall back to her side, and these trophies gently sink down again.

She emerges onto the pavement to confront him, but whatever anger she feels at his intrusion is dispelled by the manner in which he briefly lifts the mask from his face, as if there was some possibility that she might not have recognised him: the gesture carries an implication of trust, of rendering their exposure mutual. He tugs a stringy mass of tinsel from his jacket pocket, and offers it to her in imitation of the gift he received, as if it might be a contribution to her hoard.

Solemnly, she tucks the offering into her bag. In return, she produces her notebook, flicks through its pages, and carefully detaches one upon which a picture has been pasted. She hands this to the Knight, who holds it close to the eye slits of his mask in order to study it. The illustration shows a naked woman rising from a well: her left leg is crooked over its stone lip, the toes of her tilted foot about to make contact with the step beneath. Her left hand is flexed to support her weight; the right merely rests upon the lip, grasping the handle of a scourge: its thongs trail upon the paved floor of the courtyard. Despite the beauty of this apparition in the dawn light, her face is baleful, her eyes set deep in her skull, her mouth a chasm.

“Truth coming out of her well to shame mankind,” states Eunica in a flat voice.

16224214069_84e2923c3f_z

R IVE R

21

Nychea pauses before a constellation of discs set into the pavement at the back of Sixty London on Snow Hill. Four of these are crosshatched water meter covers: the fifth, more worn than the others, is patterned with a design of triangles and arrows, and has a large “W”, its British Standard number, and the words “Thames Water” raised upon its surface. She lets her gaze slide up the window of the building in front of her, until it comes to rest upon the phrase “My name is BEAR” marked in black on the side of a unit of Amazon lockers that faces onto the street. Beneath the inscription, an orange arrow points in the direction of Saint Sepulchre’s.

She turns her head as she hears her name called aloud. Malis and Eunica stand just to the right of the sign reading “Gate 1: Snow Hill Basement” on West Smithfield, posing with the cut-out figures of two of the contractors working on the Museum of London development there. One holds up his green-gloved left hand, indicating that cyclists should dismount; the other strides away from him, as if about to descend into what was once the ticket hall of the low level station. Dressed in hard hats and hi vis clothing, both are scaled down far enough from life size for the sisters to loom over them.

These giantesses appear to diminish as they move out of the path of a mechanical street sweeper, crossing to the narrow end of the disused Annexe Market. Nychea joins them as they follow the wall of the Red House, shrouded in netting, onto Smithfield Street. From here, they stroll along Hosier Lane: as the south side of the pavement is blocked by wheelie bins filled with broken sections of plasterboard, they transfer to the other, where a young woman, her hair dyed grey, sits on her haunches among bicycle racks. She raises her eyes from her phone as the sisters go by but, although Eunica hesitates as she meets her gaze, they continue onwards, tracing the outline of the Horse Pool along Giltspur Street and Cock Lane.

Not so far from the old haunt of the scratching ghost, they pause in front of a blind brick wall. Malis holds her hand out flat, to reveal three sticks of chalk resting in its palm.

“Blue for the Fleet, green for the Elms, and white for all Kings.”
Nychea laughs: “I got that one blessed on Twelfth Night.”
A UPS delivery man, wheeling an empty sack truck, slows as he approaches them, then elaborately looks away. A security guard stirs in the doorway of a building across the street.

Malis says: “I know another spot further on, where we might find less eyes on us”, and leads them to a parking space, set back from the road on the left.
They take a colour each: Eunica draws the river, Nychea a grove of trees alongside it, while Malis adds skeletal bodies dangling from their branches. After a while, Nychea stops to flex her fingers.
“I’m so bloody cold,” she remarks in a high plaintive voice.
Eunica pulls a sad face: “Poor little reptile!”

22

On the south west staircase leading down from Holborn Viaduct, the Knight sets his foot upon a ripped sweet packet, decorated with the image of a snake coiled about a bough. He pauses at the landing, where four dragons keep guard, facing outwards, around the base of a cast iron cross, the decapitated stem of a lamp post. Somebody has left graffiti there, scratched in red ballpoint: the Seal of Solomon bordered by two lines of Hebrew. The Knight traces the outline of a double Bet followed by a Tsadi, then breaks off as he hears movement upon the steps above him. He lifts his head, to find a Bartholomew-pig, strayed from one of the high places, leaning forward to regard him, its weight borne upon a pair of hands gauntleted in filth, the fingers curled beneath themselves. This apparition does not stir as the Knight plunges down to the Fleet Ditch, exiting beneath the keystone carved with the gaunt features of a god, vines tangled among its hair. Others are set above the adjacent windows of Dado54: two Atlantean torsos strain from the wall above them.

From Farringdon Street, the Knight turns and gazes towards the viaduct, taking in the coat of arms of the City of London, the backs of the allegorical figures of Agriculture and Commerce, and the winged lions poised at either end of its span: he fails to detect any trace of the theriomorph which had caused his flight. As he waits to be signalled past the cavity once occupied by the Fleet Building, now being developed into the London HQ of Goldman Sachs, he notices the fiddle player standing at the temporary traffic lights at the foot of Bear Alley. Freshly disguised by a white pelt, she crosses to his side of the road and walks a short distance ahead of him, past the Italian Consulate, and onto Fleet Street.

When the Knight reaches the corner, his attention shifts onto a figure lounging in front of the bronze memorial plaque to Edgar Wallace. He is dressed in jeans, a black Harrington jacket and a beige newsboy cap, his features blocked from view by a racing journal. The headlines “Course lover Cloudy has clear chance” and “Set sights on Three Faces” are printed upon the page folded away from him. The twist of a bracelet, just clear of his right cuff, briefly captures the onlooker’s gaze, before it reverts to the musician, who strikes up a tune as she proceeds along the opposite pavement. Nychea emerges from the tiled corridor that leads to the bar of the Punch Tavern, and stands for a moment beneath the gilded silhouette of the puppet before following her summoner towards Saint Bride’s Avenue.

A voice behind the Knight intones:

Her name is BEAR. Her name is DRAGON.

Startled, he wheels about. The individual who engaged his curiosity earlier has lowered the paper he was studying, to display the uneven stump of a nose, his lips extended by a trench ripped across one cheek. He gestures towards Ludgate Circus and cries out: “I stand beside Wells embraced by Angels,” and then brings his mutilated face up close to the Knight in order to speak at a confidential pitch: “I am the porter that was barbarously slain in Fleet Street: by the Mohocks and Hawcubites was I slain, when they laid violent hands upon me. They put their hook into my mouth, they divided my nostrils asunder, they sent me, as they thought, to my long home – but now I am returned again to foretell their destruction.”

The Knight pulls free of him as he begins to rant of Gog and Magog, and picks his way across the road in between the stalled traffic. Even as he advances into Bride Lane, he can hear the porter bellow something about Druids worshipping in the crypts beneath the church, but he puts their encounter out of mind as he sees the white bear descend the short flight of steps to his right. Nychea walks behind her, carrying two full pint glasses, which somebody has passed to her from the back of the Old Bell: she sips from each in turn until they reach Saint Bride’s Passage. They halt in front of the padlocked gate of the Press House Wine Bar, where the fiddler starts up once more as Nychea breaks into song:

In Fleet Street it was reported
Where a young damsel there did dwell,
Who by her own servant man was courted,
And he loved her exceeding well.

Two people in business dress venture down from Salisbury Square, and attempt to sidle past the performers, keeping close to the fire exit of the Bridewell Theatre. Even so, one of them knocks over the not altogether empty glass which Nychea has rested upon the paving slab beside her feet. Nychea breaks off in mid-verse, and swings round to push the woman hard on the chest, so that she topples against the quoin stone surround of the doorway. As she falls sprawling in front of her assailant, her workmate effaces himself, retreating to the corner. He stands there indecisively, while the local smokers, bunched around the “No Entry” sign at the bend of the courtyard wall, record this free show on their phones. Nychea’s accompanist walks away, still playing, and selects a new pitch in front of the mirrored windows of the Saint Bride Foundation, separated from the main area of the street by bollards. As the excitement subsides, Nychea joins her, and takes up her part again:

Then to destroy his own true lover,
He gave her poison in a glass of wine.
As they went walking home together
These words unto her he did say:
“The glass of wine that I just gave you,
Soon it will take your sweet life away.”

He said “My dear, I’ve drunk another … ”

The lyric jars upon the Knight, and he moves along to New Bridge Street. As he steps out from the enclosed path, he casually glances back down the main road, only to catch sight of the creature he had encountered at the viaduct, now standing in an oddly slumped posture at the entrance to Bride Court. Even while he takes in the import of its reappearance, it drops onto all fours and comes scuttling towards him. He hurries on towards the crossing at the corner of Bridewell Place, then mounts the zigzagged stairs that lead over the railway from Apothecary Street.

Once he has cleared the tracks, he flees along Black Friars Lane, turning left through Playhouse Yard, but gets no further than Ireland Yard before he feels himself overcome with exhaustion and a sense of fatality. He folds himself onto a bench, poorly concealed from view by a bare tree, and regards the window across from him. This is packed with kitchen supplies: he fantasises that a glass saucepan lid with an aluminium handle, resting on its edge among paper towels and yellow sponge scourers, might be a shield for his protection. The image of that borne by the Archangel Michael during the War in Heaven, inscribed with the motto “Quis ut Deus?”, brings him comfort. Strengthened, he rises to inspect his one evident route to safety. The Bartholomew-pig and the porter are seated companionably together upon a bench to the right of the exit: they do not display any interest in him, but continue to face in the opposite direction, towards the detached side of a chest tomb bracketed to the outer wall, capped with a line of slates.

A more threatening presence waits in front of the stump of rubble enclosed by iron railings, a fragment of the thirteenth century priory that once stood on this site. The face of this spectre is hidden within a black cowl: the Knight runs his eyes down the sash which diagonally bisects its torso, decoding the significance of a cross potent, the double headed eagle of Lagash, a second crutch cross, and a memento mori. As it advances towards him, he notices that the hem of its robe is speckled with the golden dust of leaves. It reaches out a hand sheathed in a white linen glove to clutch the dangling end of the noose looped around the Knight’s throat. As the latter bows his head in resignation, he thinks back to a penalty he had willingly accepted, not believing at the time that he might have to undergo it himself: “My throat cut across, my tongue torn out by the root and buried in the sand of the sea at low water mark, or a cable’s length from the shore, where the tide regularly ebbs and flows twice in twenty-four hours.”

Now the porter leaves off rubbing the bristly creases of flesh on top of the theriomorph’s skull, and they both get up onto their feet at last, to escort the Knight beyond the Cockpit, and around the back of Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe. When they come to the second flight of steps down Wardrobe Terrace, the porter grasps the back of their charge’s neck and forces him to take a prolonged look at the countenance of senility and death at the top of the sculpture that rises from the courtyard of Baynard House. It brings little consolation to the Knight that his eye also catches the decayed face of a cherub on an urn at the nearest corner of the church wall.

He is led across the road to Mermaid House, and into the subway beneath Puddle Dock. As they return to Queen Victoria Street, the Knight’s attention is drawn to a gangling man dressed in a grubby orange puffer jacket, a tuft of grey beard projecting from his chin, who strides out into the road to flag down a Shadwell bus. He enters into an argument with the driver as soon as the door slides open, then attempts to tug a younger woman, who has been waiting beside him, apparently without protest, onto the vehicle, but she braces her toes against the footboard, and turns upon him with scathing words, refusing to travel in his company. The Knight feels the rope cut into his neck, and is hauled away by his captors as the scene continues to play out behind him. Even though its occasion was most likely trivial, this incident symbolises mysteries to him: he is fascinated by whatever he does not understand, and desires nothing so much as to be privy to secrets while remaining opaque himself.

They trace the curve of Blackfriars Station, and approach the site occupied until recently by the Wills Brothers fountain. A statue of Temperance long stood here, posed as if to pour water from a vase balanced against her right hip into a chalice set upon raised ground between her feet. She is in storage now, and both the sandwich bar that formed her backdrop and the K2 telephone kiosk located just to the south of her are enclosed behind bright yellow hoardings. Somebody has evoked this virtue in her absence by marking a set of emblems in sharpie upon a couple of otherwise blank panels in between the City of London coat of arms and a banner promoting the Considerate Constructors Scheme: an upright triangle; the sun emitting a dozen rays; a serpentine path descending from the cleft peak of a mountain; a stream of blue liquid in apparently endless motion between two goblets. The Knight’s hooded captor gives three smart raps to a door recessed into the barrier, and it is opened a crack, only to swing wide to admit him once he pronounces the formula: BONNY PRINCE – ROSENKREUTZ – CHARON. He disappears within, followed by the Knight, who is trembling now, and the porter, while the Bartholomew-pig settles heavily upon the pavement outside.

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23

Eunica gazes at the relief, of copper upon marble, depicting monks cultivating their garden, which is positioned above the bar of the Black Friar. She is seated at the narrowest point of the wedge shaped building, in front of a locked door, beneath a TV screen partly obscured by folding panels. Five knucklebones lay scattered upon the oval table before her. These are made of metal: one is painted red, a distinction that holds no significance in her use of them. Her notebook is propped open between two beer glasses.

Malis sprawls upon the bench tucked into an alcove to the left of the table, while Nychea has just settled into a chair opposite her, pushing it back in order to get as close as possible to the heater concealed behind a grille on the wall.

“The two of us were down among the skeletons while you were having your cat fight,” Malis remarks to her.
Eunica adds: “We had to lift the carpet to get to Saint Bride’s Well.”
Nettled by the reproach implied in their words, Nychea deflects the conversation towards the oracle: “Oh, never mind about that. I’m more interested in what those bones had to say.”

Eunica supplies the answer without bothering to refer to the text: “Everything lives in chaos, that is: everything has its abode in chaos, walks and stands therein.”
“Water is our chaos,” Malis concedes, taking a draught from her glass.
Nychea jerks her chair forward, and makes a sudden grab for the notebook: “Honestly, sometimes I think you say the first thing that pops into your head.”
Eunica fails to hide her distress as her sister studies the page at which the book has been left open, and then flicks through a few more.
“44444: the Inexorable Fates,” she reads aloud. “Who are Bonny Prince, Rosenkreutz and Charon?”
“Not who, but what. A secret that we touched upon.”
Nychea attempts to replace the book in its former position, but it slithers down onto the table. Eunica picks it up, wipes spilled beer off its cover, and stows it away in her bag.

She waits for the others to polish off their drinks before speaking again.
“Perhaps we should take a stroll to the Thames,” she suggests in a brisk, forced tone: “It’ll be low tide now.”
“I’m perfectly comfortable here, thanks,” Nychea replies.
“But the Fleet Outfall will be exposed. We can greet our river as it emerges from under London.”
Nychea shakes her head. “Stuff that. There’s no reason for us to stand looking cheesy in front of a gushing sewer.”
As Eunica draws breath to respond, Malis rises from the table. “I’ll just go and get another round in then, shall I?” she says.
She can hear Eunica and Nychea arguing while she waits at the bar. She orders White Witch for herself and Nychea and, after some thought, selects a bottle of Siren Undercurrent for Eunica. The latter has got to her feet by the time Malis returns, but accepts the opened bottle, plugs its mouth with a rolled-up strip of napkin, then slips it into her jacket pocket and stalks out through the door.

24

The theriomorph is crouched in front of the Ludgate Cellars Substation. Naked despite the cold, each shoulder imprinted with a slap mark of two letters and four digits, he shuffles up to Eunica on his knuckles.

“I am the real learned pig who, with twenty handkerchiefs over my eyes, can tell the hour to a minute, and pick out a card from a pack.”
She cuts him short: “I’m really not in the mood for this.”
Instead of being rebuffed, he darts a sly look at her, and begins again: “There is more bliss in describing the nymphs than in describing medals. There is more bliss in describing Melusine than in describing cavalry and artillery.”
“Oh, if you’re going to flatter a girl … ”

She laughs, and looks around to see if a dog bowl has been placed among the benches outside the pub. When she fails to find one, she takes a black melamine ashtray off the nearest table, rinses it out with a swirl of beer, then sets it on the ground and fills it to the brim. She leaves him gulping the drink down with relish, and enters the subway. It is a token of her current state of mind that she should jump when she comes upon an empty sleeping bag, lying in a tortuous position upon the orange and black checkerboard floor of the tunnel: a convex mirror relays her startled reaction.

25

Eunica takes the stairs from Exit 5 of the subway onto Paul’s Walk. She glances back towards the bridge, now painted in the colours of mercury and sulphur, situated at the point in the river where salt and fresh waters meet. A robed figure stands, his arms outstretched, in a stone pulpit set above the pier of red granite nearest to her, its edge decorated with a row of blank shields, each placed within a sunken quatrefoil. She catches a fragment of his curse: “Every fortress and every cherished city of theirs you must overthrow, cut down every fruit-tree, stop up every well, strew all their best plough-land with boulders.”
Upstream, a woman dressed in a white bear suit plays a fiddle upon the Millennium Pier. The sound of “The Black Friar’s Reel” drifts over to Eunica as she halts before a ladder affixed to the wall at the edge of the path. She does not descend immediately, but gazes down upon the exposed shore of the Thames. A couple of pigeons and a black-headed gull, which have been pecking among the rubble, are disturbed by somebody who steps out from beneath the shadow of the bridge, the legs of his jeans soaked to the knee, his fingers caked with mud. As he approaches the ladder, he pushes back his cap and tilts a ruined face towards her: it is not his slashed nose, or the teeth exposed through a torn cheek, that cause her to recoil, but the air of playful violence that emanates from him.

Back at the opening of the subway, Eunica hesitates, but cannot bring herself to return to her sisters, so she climbs up to street level instead, dodging a pair of teenaged lovers acting out a scene from some supernatural romance. By the time she reaches the pulpit, it is empty: its former occupant has shifted to the edge of the pavement, where he leans upon an Avalon safety barrier in order to supervise a group of engineers. A crane rises from a jack-up barge on the river beyond him: others bristle in between the buildings that dominate the skyline – the Heron Tower, Tower 42, 30 Saint Mary Axe, the Leadenhall Building, 20 Fenchurch Street and the Shard.

Eunica moves into the place he has vacated, and steps up onto the bench that runs all the way around the inside of the shelter, forming five sides of an octagon. The Fleet Outfall is blocked from her sight, but if she closes her eyes, she can visualise its dark arch hung with chains. She gazes further west, towards the pier, where the musician has just brought her performance to an end: the latter props her instrument against the railing at the edge of the deck, and peels the animal mask back over her scalp, to release a blaze of hair.

26

Eunica feels the hidden river drag at her as she leaves her station and begins to walk south, but keeps her attention fixed across the Thames, where she can discern people strolling upon the wider, smoother shore in front of Sea Containers House. As she passes the second pulpit, she falters. She leans against the parapet for a while to regain her strength, and watches a cormorant fly west beneath the bridge. When she presses onwards again, she notices that swans are carved upon the Portland stone capital of the pier in front of her.

She has managed to force herself about three quarters of the way towards the next, sculpted with herons, before she staggers and comes to a halt. A runner swerves aside as she crumples onto the pavement. She begins to gag, then vomits up a couple of mouthfuls of brown water, followed by lumps of slippery mud studded with small change, glass marbles, pearl buttons, trinkets, and fragments of clay tobacco pipes. She feels something rip inside her throat, and slides a thumb and forefinger into the cavity behind her teeth in order to extract, with some difficulty, a Roman brooch in the shape of a dolphin.

She closes her hand upon this, and concentrates upon the rust spattered railings to her right. A long coil of white flex is secured to them with weathered strips of elephant tape. A speedboat disrupts the surface of the Thames below. She tilts her head towards it, to spit out nothing but her own blood, then gingerly rises to her feet. She can see Doggett’s Riverside Bar only a short distance ahead, with One Blackfriars, partly clad in reflective glass, soaring behind it, but she knows that she cannot advance any further.

27

Even as Eunica trudges off towards the Black Friar, Sphinx places the knucklebones which she had let fall in Saint Pancras Old Churchyard onto the shrine, stacked high with dolls, set up by Wildman and herself beneath the cover of trees. They stand on either side of the narrow line of water which emerges from the ground immediately in front of it, and take it in turn to speak the epilogue:

Nymphs of the streams at Highgate and Hampstead
who rise with the rainfall in winter and early spring,
who signal your presence with the yellow iris and buttercup,
the heath, once white with linen put out to dry,
is crossed by your secret paths, the lawn at Kenwood is your dancing floor.

Nymphs of the River of Wells,
who shapeshift and tell the future,
we have brought knucklebones for divination,
we have set up an array of dolls at your shrine,
and placed offerings of greenery there
along with good ale and honey in wooden bowls,
your altar a block of stone.

author
[Photograph by Paul Lambert]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Holman has been engaged for some twenty years upon The Memory of the Drift, a shifting but ultimately circular work which is both a record of operations and a process in itself.

Four previously issued sections were gathered in paperback by Shearsman Books in 2007: much of the writing he made for the project in the 2000s was first published on the Great Works website, and is still archived there.
His new book, Tara Morgana, is now available from Scarlet Imprint.

He is currently working on a modern emblem book, and a gallery project, in collaboration with the photographer Rich Cutler, on the lost River Fleet, of which this is the text.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 1st, 2016.