Joseph knew the Riverways well, where there might be flooding and how to avoid the sewer workers who could be in some of the not so secret tunnels that he sometimes had to cross. Hearing and smell were the senses of most use down here and he was listening all the time for the sound of rushing water – it could come down any tunnel at any time. The more work that went on under the city, in the Tube, the sewers or digging foundations for new buildings, it all changed the rhythms below. And sometimes the rushing water wasn’t water at all, which was why he sniffed the air cautiously as he walked onwards. He made the journey without hesitating, finding his way through the labyrinth of tunnels, passing cavernous chambers long abandoned by those who built them. Soon there was the familiar soft blue glow ahead, and the reassuring smell of the lamps.
The sound of laughter reached him and he poked his head round a corner into a large room piled high with what looked at first glance to be rubbish, but Joseph knew better.
“Hello?” he called, “what have you found that’s so funny?”
In the middle of the room stood two young Mer, proudly surveying the contents of a large sack that they had just emptied onto the floor. Among the rope, wood and other useful items was a grubby and rather battered shop mannequin. They were holding one arm each and trying to make it dance.
“I don’t think your father will think that is a worthwhile scavenge Edgar,” Joseph smiled.
“It was Cara’s idea.” The arm of the dummy came off in Edgar’s hand and he used it to point at his friend. “We were way out west, somewhere under Hammersmith I think, and we found quite a few of them, mostly just heads and bits but this one was almost complete.”
“She’s very thin, but still pretty.” Cara was holding the rest of the body and stroking her painted hair.
Joseph peered closely at the mannequin, under the grime it had dramatic kohl rimmed eyes and sixties hairstyle.
“Probably Adel Rootstein,” he said, “if you were under Hammersmith.”
“Adel, is that her name?” asked Clara.
“No, the maker, the factory’s out that way. It looks like an old one, she could be called Twiggy.”
Cara smiled, happy to have a name for her find, and Joseph turned his attention to the reason for his visit.
“Is your father around Edgar? I need to speak with him.”
“He’s having a meeting I think. I haven’t seen him all morning. Probably in the main chambers.”
“Thanks. I might see you two later, but you’d better tidy this lot up first,” and with that he ducked back out of the store room and continued on to where the main chambers were located and where he hoped to find Edgar’s father, the Margrave, leader of the Mer.
He found the Margrave sitting deep in discussion with four of his Elders and watched for a while from the shadows at the edge of the room. It did not appear that the meeting was going well, voices were raised and fingers were being pointed. The Margrave looked up when Joseph stepped into the light, he looked relieved to be interrupted.
“Joseph my dear fellow, what can we do for you? Is everything alright above?” He turned to the others, “Joseph is here, let’s stop talking for now.”
Joseph noticed immediately that while two of the Elders smiled up at him in welcome, the other two scowled and turned to each other.
He got straight to the point, the story in the newspaper, had they heard anything?
The Margrave shook his head. “We have heard nothing. It has been very quiet, no news at all from the sea lately.”
“Too quiet,” muttered one of the more hostile Elders.
“What do you mean?” asked Joseph.
It was Jorn who had spoken, he never had much time for Joseph. “We’ve got enough to worry about down here without investigating every silly story that appears in your newspapers. It’s probably just the Sirens trying to make a point.”
Only the Margrave noticed Joseph flinch, and he frowned and shook his head at Jorn.
Joseph addressed the Margrave directly this time, “If you do have something to worry about, can I help?”
“There’s nothing you can do Joseph. You know we are always trying to keep on top of things, but two burst mains this morning, it’s very difficult sometimes. They think it’s funny but it’s we who have to pick up the pieces. That’s where the other Elders are now.”
Joseph watched the Margrave stand, moving carefully, pushing himself up using the table for leverage. Only two of the four Elders stood when he did. He’s getting old, he thought, wondering how he hadn’t noticed this before. Perhaps the Margrave was starting to lose his authority, but a power struggle would be the last thing they needed. It had been thirty years since the last succession and things had changed, their position had become so much more precarious.
He moved aside to let the Margrave pass, and then followed him out of the room.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?”
The Margrave patted his arm gently, “No, thank you, just keep watch as always. Come again in a few days and we’ll see what news there is.” He said goodbye to Joseph and walked slowly down the passageway.
There were more convenient gateways, but Joseph needed to retrace his steps to collect his van, so he set off back the way he had come. When he passed the storeroom he peeped in. Everything was quiet, tidy too, and Twiggy stood watch, now wearing a dented hard hat and scruffy jacket. Joseph smiled and walked on.
Getting out of this entrance was easier on the arms than getting in, but he had to take a chance on being seen since there wasn’t a clear view of the alley from behind the grille. Joseph was quick though, and he was soon back in the street, just another workman collecting his van from a building site.
He drove back to his flat, which was just the right side of the traffic chaos. He half thought about ringing Cosmo to meet the guys for football and beer, but he wasn’t sure he’d be much company. The satisfaction of parallel parking perfectly in one hit lifted his spirits slightly though, and by the time he’d let himself in he’d decided there was nothing he could do for the moment, and therefore no point in wasting time worrying. He kicked off his shoes, dropped his keys on the table and picked up the remote control, pointing it towards the stereo in the corner of the room where Leonard Cohen was waiting. But before he could sit down on his battered old sofa and close his eyes he spotted the answering machine blinking at him reproachfully, its messages ignored for days. Marianne would have to wait while the disembodied lady of the answerphone told him in her staccato voice about the “first message – Sunday – seven – thirty six – pm.”