By the time Laura reached Joseph’s street it was definitely lunchtime. When she realised his flat was above a fish and chip shop her mouth began to water – the smells drifting out through the open door were irresistible. He found her at ten to two, sitting at the bus stop outside the shop eating chips with her fingers and drinking tea from a paper cup. She stood up when she spotted him and dripped ketchup and vinegar down her shirt.
“That was classy,” she muttered as she stuffed the remains of her lunch into a litter bin and tried to wipe herself down with an inadequate paper napkin, but Joseph hadn’t noticed her mishap, he was too preoccupied.
“Thanks for coming,” he said, reaching down and handing her the bag of papers she’d propped up against her leg, “it’s this way.”
He led her to a door at the side of the building and pushed it open with his foot, gesturing for her to go in first. He followed her up the narrow staircase that led to a small landing and another door. Laura stood awkwardly as he leaned past her to unlock it. She breathed in his scent, and then clenched her fists, digging her nails into the palms of her hands to distract herself. She was being ridiculous.
“Come in. Sorry it’s a bit of a mess.”
Laura looked around, “It’s no worse than my place,” she said.
And it wasn’t really, just a bit untidy with newspapers strewn across a wooden table and some crammed bookshelves. It was a small flat, the kitchen and living space all in one room – table and chairs, sofa, small television and big hifi in one corner. That was about it, apart from the books which overflowed from the shelves into piles on the floor. Laura always strangely relieved when she went round to someone’s place and found it full of books, all too often there were none on show at all.
Joseph gathered up the newspapers into one pile in the centre of the table and took a laptop and a bulging folder of papers down from a shelf. Laura opened her bag and added her contribution while he put on the kettle and made two mugs of tea.
“No biscuits I’m afraid, but I guess you’re full of chips,” he smiled fleetingly before pulling up a chair.
Laura sat down too and then waited for Joseph to speak. He was blowing on his tea and wondering how to begin. She decided to help.
“It’s the water isn’t it? But they don’t live in the water. Did they used to? Are there others? And what happened in 1953?”
Joseph looked up from his tea, “You know about that?”
Now she was getting somewhere. “No I don’t, not really. I tried to find out but the files were gone and then I was pretty much warned off by some harridan at the Transport Museum. I want to help you – I will help you – but not until you tell me what’s going on down there.”
Joseph put down his tea and looked at her, properly looked at her, into her clear eyes and open, honest face. He closed his mind to the greenness of those eyes and made a decision: he needed her help and so he had to trust her. He began to talk.
He explained how when the Victorians began building in earnest under the city of London, they were expanding a network of tunnels that had begun centuries before. Many of the old caverns and passageways were long flooded, and as he’d told her on their boat trip they had become home to a hidden community of water people, the Mer. By 1928 the riverbanks were crowded with slums and in the big flood of that year many people drowned and so did some Mer, as by then most of them had lost their ability to breathe in water.
There was an investigation at the time and many of the tunnels were explored and then closed, driving those Mer who remained even deeper into hiding. Time passed and it was mostly forgotten. The great flood of 1953 reawakened interest, but in the age of growing Cold War paranoia the records of underground hideaways were classified, and the secret was safe.
“But what about the thirty year rule?” asked Laura, thinking about the annual discussion in the media of previously restricted state papers.
“It didn’t apply. There’s still plenty of information on all sorts of things that’s never been released. They just have to say it’s in the interests of national security and most people don’t question the decision, it makes them feel so important if they think they’re in the know about something.”
“Like the giant at Boston Spa.”
“Never mind, just someone I sort of met. So what’s going on now, and what do we need to do?”
Joseph opened up his laptop and logged on to a local wifi network – most people were still so cavalier with their security that in the crowded city he’d never had to pay for his own internet access. Then he opened the battered leather folder and began to search through the rather chaotic contents. Handwritten letters, computer printouts and yellowing newspaper clippings spilled across the table, and Laura felt a slight onset of librarian’s anxiety at the disorder.
“What are we looking for?” she asked, “And where do you want me to start?”
“I’m not sure exactly, it’s more of a feeling. Does that sound ridiculous?”
“Well we information professionals do usually prefer to base things on evidence – facts, statistics, that kind of thing. But then I suppose we do have some facts don’t we? There’s the water quality and pollution issues to start off with.”
“And I think we need to concentrate on the Med,” Joseph found his way to the Metro’s website and pulled up the story he’d seen about the rip tides.
Laura turned the laptop round so she could take a look. Then she pulled a pad and pen from her bag and began to write.
“You’ve got a theory,” she said, “that something strange is happening in the Mediterranean and possibly to the water quality in the Thames. So what we need to do is dig out all the evidence and prove your theory either right or wrong.”
Joseph listened as she explained how they needed to get all the historical data, background information and anything else they could find to create some statistics and comparisons to test his theory. He’d been right to ask her for help, he could never have done this alone. Even with two of them on the case, it was still a long and involved process.
At six Laura had declared she couldn’t think any more and so he’d taken her down the road for a plate of spaghetti at the local Italian. The place was small, hot and packed as usual and they’d sat at a tiny table, knees touching and leaning close to hear each other speak over the hubbub. He’d taken a breath that filled his head with her, and with a jolt remembered the shirt he’d brought home. This enforced intimacy was not helping his strategy of ignore it and it will go away.
Laura had blushed, startled, when Joseph got up from the table abruptly and said that they needed to get back and get on. He barely said two words on the short walk back to the flat and soon they were at the table again, ploughing through more data.
He made strong coffee in a metal pot on the hob, and they worked on, mostly in silence, until muffled sounds started to permeate the room. Laura looked up, she could definitely hear voices, and was that smashing crockery?
“Don’t look so worried. It’s just next door.” Joseph looked at his watch. “The ten o’clock row, happens at least once a week, no cause for alarm.”
Tipping back his chair he reached on to the shelf behind him for a remote control and pointed it at the stereo. James Taylor again, drowning out the argument.
It was gone midnight when Laura was ready to share her findings. There were definitely some statistical anomalies and unusual patterns in the Med, all very recent, and the water quality and pollution indicators backed up her findings. Something had changed in the sea, but what she’d found on the Thames was inconclusive. Joseph spent half an hour going through it all, his frown deepening as he read on. He would have to take this to the Margrave, he needed to find out why it was happening and what it might mean.
When he glanced up at Laura she had her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands, eyes closed.
“You look exhausted.” She opened one eye and smiled faintly.
“Stay here tonight.” The other eye opened.
“I’ll get you a blanket,” he pointed to the sofa, which at this moment looked like the most inviting bed she’d ever seen. She was too tired to argue.