Trouble by the river…
How could he sound so casual? It was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard, coming from this otherwise normal seeming guy. It couldn’t be true, and yet she’d been there, seen them. So why him?
“Why me?” Joseph repeated her question.
“Yes, how come you’re involved when they want to stay hidden?”
“They have always needed help. Scavenging to survive down there is not always enough, they need a link to the outside world. So there have always been people like me, the ones who know their secret, acting as intermediaries. They usually have links to the water, and it is often a family thing – my father passed it on to me. He was the last in a long line of lightermen who worked the river, in the days when there was still proper work to be done. They knew the rivers, always did, saw a lot and said little. Of course there are none left now, lighterage died when the new docks and container ships came in.”
“And why me? Why are you telling me everything?”
“Because of what happened, and because they wanted me to. They recognised you from the train, and they saw something in you that they trust. Good thing too really, otherwise I’d have to kill you.”
“You’re joking right?”
“Of course – hang on, what are they doing there?”
Joseph leaned across her to see better through the window and Laura turned to look too. Digging in the mud and shingle under one of the wooden jetties were two slight figures. Bent over with their backs to the river,they were wearing dark trousers, tshirts and some sort of hats, but their forearms and feet were bare.
“Do you know them?” Laura could see that whoever they were, their skin had a smooth, ghostly pallor.
“It’s Edgar, and Cara too I think. They shouldn’t be out at this time of day, not in this sun.”
The riverbus was drawing up to a pier on the opposite bank. Joseph scrambled out of the seat and pulled Laura with him, hurrying out onto the deck. The French school party was disembarking so they had to squeeze through a chattering crowd to get to the rail and look back across the river. Laura tried to be helpful.
“But no one will notice them, they just look like youngsters mucking about, a bit pale maybe but there’s plenty of pasty-faced goths in London.”
That wasn’t the problem though. Joseph could see that the way for them to get back into the Riverways was no longer in shadow. Between the drainage outflow they’d come from and the jetty under which they were digging, there now stretched several metres of exposed, sun drenched and rapidly drying mud. As soon as the mud was warming up, and soon it would scorch their feet. More worryingly, the sun was moving round and before long there would be precious little shade left under that jetty. If the sun reached them and they had nowhere to shelter, they would burn.
Please let them notice, Joseph willed silently as the boat set off again, but when it pulled out into the middle of the river and the jetty slipped out of sight, Edgar and Cara were still digging away, oblivious. He thought quickly: the next pier was on the north bank and not far downstream, they might just make it back in time.
“We need to get off at the next stop. Hurry up.”
Laura could feel the urgency, Joseph was suddenly really concerned. She stood beside him, first in line as the gangplank was lowered, and then followed him down onto the embankment and up to the roadside where he hailed a taxi. The driver muttered that it was hardly worth it but he took the tenner that Joseph thrust into his hand and accelerated away in a cloud of acrid diesel fumes.
While the river’s course meandered, the road was straight, and in barely a minute they were jumping out onto the pavement again.
“Come on, come on,” Joseph muttered, more to himself than to Laura as they turned abruptly down a narrow alleyway with a wrought iron gate at the far end. He pushed his hand between the bars and wrestled awkwardly with a catch on the other side. At last the gate sprang open and he pulled Laura through, almost sending her flying down the steep flight of stone stairs that lay immediately beyond it.
“Close the gate and follow me down.”
It shut it with a clang and Laura was only a couple of strides behind Joseph when he reached the riverside, and they found were the two Mer – safe, but only just. They were crouched down on the mud, pressed against the stone of the embankment in a small strip of shade, trapped by the moving sun and the low tide. Laura stared at them, seeing their dark eyes wide against pale skin. They looked very scared, and very young.
“They’re just kids.”
“Old enough to know better than to take a risk like that. If we hadn’t come…” he shook his head, “the sun could have killed them.”
Joseph waved and called down and they looked up at once. Their terror turned first to relief, and then quickly to a mixture of guilt and embarrassment when they saw the expression on Joseph’s face.
He helped Laura down onto the mud and told her to take off her shirt. She hesitated, but when she saw that he had already pulled off his own and wrapped it around one of the youngsters, she did as he asked, thankful she was wearing a vest underneath. She watched as Joseph picked up the nearest one and carried the slight figure quickly across the open beach to the drainage outflow, the shirt protecting his bare head and chest from the sun. Joseph plonked him down unceremoniously in the shade of the tunnel entrance and gripped him by the shoulders.
“Edgar what on earth were you thinking? What would your father say?”
“We were just-” but before he had a chance to answer, Joseph was hurrying back to where Laura waited with Cara. Following his lead Laura had draped her shirt over Cara’s head and shoulders, but when he carried her to join Joseph she could see the girl’s pale skin turning red before her eyes where the shirt did not quite cover it all.
The two Mer darted away into the tunnel and Joseph looked back at Laura for a second before going after them, calling “get the van” over his shoulder as he went.
The day out was over and Laura would have to make her own way home, without her shirt. She scrambled up the stairs and struggled with the stiff catch on the gate which caught her finger painfully when it finally flew open. She sucked at the cut as she made her way back up the alley to the road, and was quietly fuming by the time she stood on the pavement wondering what to do next. Go and collect the stupid van she supposed, but where on earth was it?
Think, think… it was an office development, what had the sign said, River Tower? She got out her phone, switched it on and once it had finally come to life she found what she needed after a quick search – Tower Riverside, a “stunning new development of luxury offices” apparently, and thankfully not that far away according to the little map on the screen.
It was in fact almost a mile, but Laura passed only offices, coffee shops and sandwich bars – nowhere she could buy a new shirt. When she got to Tower Riverside half a dozen labourers watched her with curiosity as she picked her way across the rubble strewn ground to the site office.
There was a man attached to the hand that had caught the keys earlier that morning, and he grinned when she explained what she wanted. He looked down at her muddy feet and still damp trouser legs.
“Did you drown him?”
“He was called away.”
“Always a man of mystery our Joseph,” the man laughed, and he tipped his chair back reached up to unhook the keys from a nail on the wall behind him.
“Here you go. Clutch is a bit stiff, and the windows-”
“Are broken. I know. Thank you.”
Laura snatched the keys and hurried out of the office to the van.
“Please, please, please,” she muttered to herself as she turned the key in the ignition, knowing that now everyone on the site was watching her with interest. The van started first time and she crunched it noisily into first gear, at least she would be able get through the gates without having to find reverse. The van lurched forwards, and Laura shot out of the gate in an entirely unintentional but extremely pleasing shower of dirt.