Curiouser and curiouser…
Peering across to where she thought the voice had come from Laura saw a man, head ducked slightly because of the low roof. His arms were folded and he was looking at her with an amused expression on his face. Between them stood the others, the people she’d seen before, or at least they looked like people, but not quite right somehow –too pale and slight. They were all simply dressed in plain dark clothes, most with hoods covering their heads. Laura tried not to stare, but she could see from the few without hoods that they were completely bald.
“Are you alright?” asked one who stood slightly apart. He seemed older than the rest and spoke with authority, and she could tell when he spoke that it was he who had seemingly recognised her, he who’d known she was awake.
“Yes thank you, I just fainted. It happens sometimes, low blood pressure apparently. Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on here?”
“Come with me please.”
He turned and walked away and the rest began to follow. She looked over questioningly at the man who simply smiled and shrugged, and then a small stranger held out a hand to her with a shy glance. Laura took the hand, it was soft and cool, and she allowed herself to be led away.
Together they walked along a narrow passageway in almost complete darkness. Laura stumbled on the uneven ground, but gentle hands stopped her falling and guided her onwards. Soon they emerged into a larger room, lit once again by the glowing blue torches and still permeated by the strange smell. The walls and roof were curved and made of neat brickwork, giving Laura the impression of being in some sort of tunnel. The room was furnished with what initially looked like a load of rubbish, but as her eyes adjusted she could make out seats, shelves and tables, weird creations of made twisted metal and carved wood. Her guide led her to a low bench near the centre of the room and she sat down and waited. It was all now so unreal that she could not begin to imagine what was going to happen next.
Everyone who had come in with her gathered around, and then more joined them. She got the feeling that they were all trying their best not to stare, and she could hear them murmuring to each other. The man stood behind her. He put one hand on her shoulder but she didn’t know if that was to reassure or restrain her. Eventually a voice came from the far end of the room and all eyes turned in that direction.
“Thank you all for coming so quickly. You can see why we’re here.”
It was the older one again, standing on some sort of platform or stage to address the room. She was right – he was in charge.
There was soon a chorus of other voices “Who is she? Where did she come from? Why did you bring her inside? What do we do with her now?”
“Excuse me?” Laura heard her own voice echoing, and it silenced the room.
“That was not a rabbit hole, I am not Alice and this is quite clearly not Wonderland. Would someone please tell me where I am, who you are, and what the hell is going on here?”
He responded by speaking to the man who still stood behind her, “Joseph, perhaps it would sound better coming from you.”
Laura turned and gave him what she hoped was a hard stare worthy of Paddington himself.
“I’m waiting,” she said.
“Okay,” he hesitated for a moment and then stepped over the bench and sat down beside her.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Joseph Singer. I’m afraid you do appear to have fallen down a hole, probably an access shaft of some kind. We are under London at the northern edge of the Riverways. This room is part of an abandoned branch of the big tunnel system created when the Victorian engineers were sending the rivers underground and building the drainage for the city. That’s why the brickwork is so beautiful.”
“But,” she interrupted, “who are this lot, and what are they doing down here?”
He glanced across the room, and got a nod of assent before continuing. “This lot, are the people who live in the Riverways.”
“The Riverways, it’s the network of culverted rivers and tunnels that runs beneath the city. Have you heard of Bazalgette?”
“Yes of course. But what sort of people live underground in rivers and drains, don’t they get wet?”
“It’s not all under water, but yes they do get wet sometimes, but that’s how they live.”
“I don’t understand.” Laura looked at the crowd gathered around her and remembered the cool touch of the one who’d held her hand, the smooth skin, the lack of hair. “Are you telling me they’re some lost tribe of Lizard Men?” She meant it as a joke but Joseph’s response stunned her.
“No, they’re Mer.”
At that Laura stood up and started to back away from him, shaking her head.
“Are you expecting me to believe that I am at some party in a sewer under London with a load of bloody Mermaids? Just get me out of here, before I lose it completely.”
“We wanted to tell you because you saw, and you can listen.” It was the voice from the end of the room again.
“And the hell who are you, Neptune?” she snapped before turning back to Joseph.
“I don’t know what this is, and I don’t want to know. Get me out of here I said. Right now.”
Joseph could see Laura’s blazing eyes and clenched fists, one hand still gripping the little chopper. Now was not the time to continue this discussion, he would have to sort it all out later, as usual. He rubbed one hand over his face and round the back of his neck which was stiff with tension.
“Come on then, let’s go.”