Ventura Highway to the Thames
They made their way south east, slow stop-start progress in the heavy traffic, heading towards the City. After a few minutes Joseph reached across with one hand and banged the glove box with his fist. The little door sprang open and he caught the cassette that fell out. Laura raised her eyebrows, who still had cassettes? He pushed the tape into the hole in front of the ancient stereo and jiggled it until there was a click, and a whirr, and they were transported from the stifling heat of and old van driving across London to the golden sunshine of California:
“’Cause the free wind is blowing through your hair
And the days surround your daylight there…”
Laura smiled, “Well I didn’t expect that.”
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know. I guess I imagined you’d be more for a Town Called Malice than the Ventura Highway.”
“Not at all, it reminds me of my parents. My mum played this kind of stuff all the time, I think they wished they lived in Laurel Canyon. In fact they’re there now.”
“Well America anyway, taking a big road trip and trying to recapture their lost youth.”
“That’s pretty cool, for parents.”
“It is if they’re not your parents. Try being the only kid at school listening to Glenn Campbell when everyone else is into Beyonce.”
“A Country girl? You surprise me.”
“Well it was more Dad’s thing really, but maybe just a little.”
The next song on the cassette was James Taylor, and Laura kept smiling and looked out of the still half open window. Anyone who listened to this couldn’t be all bad.
They were in the heart of the City now, and Joseph steered the van into another big construction site where twin cranes towered over them and huge pile drivers shook the ground. Laura looked questioningly at him, she couldn’t see any scaffolding here.
“This isn’t a tour of my favourite building sites, I promise. We can leave the van here for free, that’s all.”
“Cheapskate,” she muttered under her breath as they climbed out. Joseph walked over to the Portakabin office and threw his van keys into the hand that emerged from the open window.
“Thanks Gus,” he called. The hand clutched the keys and did a thumbs up before disappearing again.
“Right, let’s go to the river, we’ve got a boat to catch.”
Any thoughts of luxury yachts or speedboats were quickly dispelled as Laura saw they were walking down to the public pier where a riverbus was tied up at the jetty. Joseph bought the tickets and took Laura inside the boat, away from the tourists enjoying the sunshine on the open rear deck. He shepherded her to a window seat and sat down beside her. They were alone in the stuffy cabin, apart from a bored steward behind the coffee counter.
The boat pulled away from the pier and moved off downstream. The seats had high backs, airline style, and Laura rested her head and gazed out at the passing riverside through the streaky glass. Joseph leaned in towards her and began to talk. He spoke softly, but Laura was listening closely and she heard every word.
“Tide’s going out, there’s a lot showing,” he said, and Laura could see that the water level was low, running beside narrow beaches with the bottom of the embankments exposed. Some of the buildings seemed almost to be standing on stilts, propped up on mossy wooden columns with dark recesses beneath. It was an old landscape, carved out when the Thames was a crowded thoroughfare, and manual workers toiled beside it shifting real cargoes, rather than men in suits moving virtual money.
“If you look carefully, underneath, you can see the ways in and out”
“I can only see shadows.”
“Look into the shadows – there,” he pointed to where a trickle of water came from below an old wooden jetty to join the river, “that’s where one of the lost rivers joins the Thames.”
“Years ago, as London grew, the rivers and streams that flowed across the city got in the way. Most of them were diverted underground or culverted, and eventually became part of the great drainage and sewage system built by the Victorians. There are one or two famous lost rivers, like the Fleet, but the rest are long forgotten and dried up most of the year. Those tunnels, plus all the other abandoned passages and underground rooms are what make up the Riverways. There’s miles and miles of it, plenty of room to live and stay hidden, and easy to get in and out, if you know where to look.”
“Or fall. That kind of landslip can be a problem, but we look after things pretty carefully.”
“I help, when I can.”
“But who are they, the ones you help? How did they get there? And what’s it got to do with you?”
Laura held her breath, looking resolutely out of the window and not at him. She found that despite herself she was rather warming to Joseph, and this could be the moment when he ruined everything with some crackpot tale about the Little Mermaid.
Joseph was silent for a few minutes, looking down at his hands . The engines throbbed, a party of French schoolchildren ran in then out of the cabin, the steward rattled cups in the still hot air.
“I have never talked about this to anyone outside, but they saw something in you, something that they trust, and times change I guess.” He turned his head towards Laura, but she was staring straight ahead, her expression unreadable. “There have always been others, apart from us, different. All those myths and legends, they didn’t come from nowhere. But the modern world hasn’t been kind, there aren’t many left now, not that I know of anyway. And those that remain are struggling – struggling to survive and to stay hidden. We don’t appreciate difference nowadays do we? Everyone’s rushing around trying to look the same, dress the same, have all the same stuff….”
Joseph fell silent again, wondering if he’d already said too much.
“And the Mer?” Laura prompted. There, she’d said the word without laughing or cringing.
“They were relatively common, mostly living at sea, minding their own business. Sometimes they would come into conflict with humans, the odd shipwreck or storm, but all that was a long time ago. These days there are only a few isolated groups left, trying to survive in the seas which are now busier and more polluted than ever. Over time some ventured into fresh waters, taking the risk of living closer to civilisation for the easy pickings. In London they settled in and around the Thames, finally moving under the city when they realised it was the perfect place to stay hidden. As the rivers ebbed and flowed they started to live with rather than in the water, I think it was the last really hard winter that finally pushed them.”
“When was that?”
“About 200 years ago. The winters were colder then and the Thames used to freeze over completely. They had Frost Fairs on the ice which was great fun for most Londoners but not for the Mer.”
“I think I’ve seen paintings.” Laura paused, in for a penny, she thought, “can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, you must have lots.”
“I thought, well, don’t they have…” she hesitated, feeling extremely foolish.
“Nope, never had. I said that myths came from somewhere, not that they were 100% true. They need water, but not to be underwater all the time, no tails, no walking on nails. Good swimmers though…”