A hot Saturday in Muswell Hill…
Laura awoke on Saturday morning feeling groggy. It was stifling in her bedroom, all the heat of the house seemed to collect under the eaves where she slept. She reached over and switched on the radio, and was surprised to see it was nine fifteen – no wonder she felt strange after sleeping for eleven hours. Throwing on an old t-shirt and pair of shorts she made herself a big mug of tea, carried it carefully down the stairs and knocked on Mrs Patterson’s door.
When she tried the handle the door swung open and she found her landlady sitting on her patio with her own tea in a rather more delicate bone china cup and saucer.
“Come and sit down Laura, I haven’t seen you for days,” smiled Mrs Patterson.
So they sat together, sipping their tea and listening to the sounds of birds and insects busying themselves in the garden. It was already hot, and only going to get hotter as the day wore on. Laura felt herself starting to perspire and was reminded of long, hot afternoons in stuffy classrooms when clammy legs stuck to wooden chairs. At least it wasn’t quite as unbearable up here on the hill as it would be down in the middle of the city, the garden had shade from the sycamore trees and there was grass underfoot not melting tarmac.
“There’s a packet of crumpets on the side,” Mrs Patterson pointed back towards the kitchen, “I know perhaps it’s not really crumpet weather, but would you like to toast them for us?”
“Of course I would!”
Whatever the weather, Laura loved anything that involved thickly spread butter and she went straight back inside. The crumpets toasted quickly under the grill and she could almost pour on the butter it was so soft. She took them outside on a couple of gold rimmed plates and sat down with sticky fingers.
“Do you need me to do shopping or anything for you today Mrs P?”
“No shopping thank you dear, Mr Angelou will be round later, but if you’ve time you could help with the roses.”
When the crumpets were finished and Laura had resisted the urge to lick her buttery plate she spent a warm but pleasant hour tending to her landlady’s beloved roses. She often helped in the garden – it was very therapeutic to focus on the shrubs and flowers, taking time to consider every clip of the secateurs. Today she could hear children in neighbouring gardens playing in paddling pools, the rumble of traffic and the clatter of the police helicopter overhead. It was all comfortingly normal, unlike the rest of her life at the moment.
She declined Mrs Patterson’s invitation to stay for lunch and instead wandered down to Muswell Hill Broadway. The heat radiated from the pavement and reflected back at her from the parked cars. People sat at tables outside cafes and music spilled from open shop doorways. It felt almost continental, and so Laura treated herself to an almost continental lunch from the Friendly Falafel van and ate it in the park. It was arguably too hot for the second hand bookshop, but despite the weather she couldn’t resist popping in for look, as she did most Saturdays, and she spent a pleasant if slightly sultry half an hour rummaging through the new stock. Her mind was elsewhere though, and unable to decide on a purchase she went home empty handed.
By five o’clock a heat induced torpor overcame her and she flopped down onto her bed for an hour, managing to stir herself before she went properly to sleep and missed the evening altogether. She stood under the shower for a while, turning the temperature down and down until she actually felt cold. Refreshed, it didn’t take long for her to get ready: put on dress, find shoes and bag, tame hair – that was pretty much it. Then she sat on the edge of her bed waiting for Joseph, feeling like an awkward fifteen year old. At least her parents weren’t here to check him over before she was allowed outside the front door. No wonder she had so few dates as a teenager, word had probably got round about the inspections.
Eventually Laura heard the rattle of the red van’s old engine, and then the hoot of its horn – clearly Joseph wasn’t even going to ring the bell. She gently closed the door of the flat and made her way down the stairs hoping that Mrs Patterson’s own door stayed shut – without really knowing why, Laura had said nothing about her plans for the evening and didn’t want to face any questions now.
As she crossed the pavement to the van Joseph leaned over and opened the passenger door from the inside. He had the good grace to look slightly embarrassed about the state of the interior and made an attempt to brush down the seat with his hand. Laura climbed in, and held her bag on her knee rather than put it down in the dubious clutter of the footwell.
“Where exactly are we going?” she asked as they pulled away.
“There’s a Gathering, and the Margrave wanted me to bring you.”
“The Margrave? Is that what they call the old man? He’s their leader isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is.”
“He thinks a lot of you.”
Joseph smiled, but Laura didn’t miss the hint of concern that crossed his face.
They parked in a quiet residential turning at the top of a hill between Highgate Wood and Hampstead Heath. Laura had a sudden thought as they got out of the van and she spotted the plastic bag Joseph was holding in his hand.
“Should I have brought a gift, or a bottle or something? It is a party isn’t it?”
“This is just a bag of books I promised the Margrave. Don’t worry, I’ve got the present covered. Open the back doors and grab those two boxes please, they don’t weigh a lot.”
Laura did as he asked and raised her eyebrows. “Forty eight packets of salt and vinegar crisps? This is our party offering?”
“Yup. Believe me we’ll be the most popular people there when we turn up with these. Come on, it’s not far.”
Joseph led the way, down some narrow steps sandwiched between high walls which linked two streets at the top and the bottom. Halfway down he stopped, and cut into the wall on one side was an old wooden door. Nondescript, with peeling black paint and a covering of ivy, it went unnoticed by the few people who used the steep steps as a cut-through.
Making sure no one else was in sight, Joseph reached up beneath the curtain of ivy to the top of the door and found the latch. It was stiff but he pushed with his shoulder and it opened just enough to allow Laura to squeeze through carrying the boxes of crisps. Joseph followed and shut the door behind him. They appeared to be underground and Laura was puzzled until Joseph explained.
“We are under a garden – the ground level on this side of the wall is at least 10 feet higher than out there where the steps are. Not much further.”
A narrow passageway stretched downhill away from the door, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness Laura could see a faint blue glow in the distance. They were back in the Riverways.