The morning after…
It was early afternoon when Joseph woke, sprawled across his bed still half dressed. His mouth tasted stale and he felt sticky with sweat and dried pond water. His head was fuzzy with half remembered dreams, of being underwater struggling for breath, of a woman beside him. But the woman was not Laura. He tried to see her face but it faded and he opened his eyes. He sat up slowly and then wandered from room to room, opening windows to let what he optimistically hoped would be fresh air circulate through the flat. They did not fry downstairs on Sunday afternoons so for once there was no smell of fish and chips wafting up towards him, just the rhythmic hum of the shop’s air conditioning unit.
After peeling off his jeans and putting them straight into the washing machine, he stood under the shower and let the water run cold to try and clear his head. He wanted to go back underground, but would he help or hinder? He hadn’t missed the change in the Margrave – there was an uncertainty about him that he hadn’t seen before, and Joseph wondered if this was caused by the visitors or his own Elders.
He hadn’t eaten since the night before, and at the Gathering he had only sampled a small selection of the food on offer. He may have known the Mer for years, but he hadn’t acquired much of a taste for their salty dishes. He checked in his fridge but all he found was some out of date milk and an onion, hardly the makings of a meal, so he threw on some clean clothes and walked down the road to Bill and Jeannie’s. They didn’t open on Sundays, but he knew he’d be able to sweet talk Jeannie into cooking him something.
“You look like you’re carrying a heavy load,” was all Jeannie said as she put down a steaming mug of tea and a Full English in front of Joseph, as he sat at a table in the deserted cafe.
She squeezed herself into the seat opposite and watched him tuck in to the food, wondering when he’d last eaten and what was troubling him. She wouldn’t pry though. Joseph had always had his secrets, and she knew that he would talk if or when he wanted to. Even if nothing more was said today, she knew she would have helped him, as she always did.
Bill emerged from the kitchen but stayed behind the counter, leaning against it as he dried his hands on a tea towel. He could see for himself how tired Joseph looked, and knew that his wife would want to help. She had known Joseph since childhood, when he was a little boy and she just a couple of years older, but Bill was not jealous of their closeness. Bill and Jeannie: their initials had been above the door of the café for almost as long as they’d been married, and that was coming up to twenty years now. He gazed fondly at the back of her head and thought about how lucky he was to have her.
Joseph mopped up the last of the egg with a slice of bread and then pushed the plate away with a sigh.
“Thanks Jeannie, that hit the spot.”
“Bill cooked it,” she tipped her head back towards her husband, guessing he’d been watching them.
“Of course, thanks Bill. Sorry for interrupting your Sunday, I just needed…”
“I know, don’t worry about it,” the big man smiled, “fry-up therapy, it never fails.”
Jeannie patted Joseph on the hand. “Have you made up your mind now? About whatever it was.”
“Yes, well about one thing anyway.”
He wasn’t going to let himself think about Laura, that was too much to deal with right now, but he was going to see the Margrave, as soon as possible.
Joseph drove a short distance from his own neighbourhood and parked in a quiet back street. He preferred not to enter and exit the Riverways too close to home – apart from when you’re showing off to Laura that is, he thought grimly as he scrabbled around in the glove compartment trying to find the torch among all the cassettes. Torch found and van locked, he squeezed under a fence and walked across some scrubland, kicking at the undergrowth until his foot hit the metal of a manhole cover. He eased it open, and with a quick glance round to make sure he was unobserved he climbed down the rusty ladder and replaced the cover above his head.
When he jumped down from the bottom rung of the ladder he landed ankle deep in water. This was both strange, as this entrance was definitely not wet the last time he’d used it, and irritating as he’d been so careful to keep his shoes dry last night. At least the water didn’t get any deeper than a few inches, and soon he was walking on dry flagstones as he made his way towards the Mer. He passed the big storeroom and smiled fleetingly as he spotted Twiggy, propped up against the wall and clothed only in a pink feather boa. Perhaps Edgar and Cara had dressed her for the Gathering the night before.
It was very quiet in the Riverways, and as Joseph he got nearer to the heart of the community and still heard no signs of life he began to wonder what time the festivities had finished. Then he heard low voices coming from a side room. He didn’t bother to knock and when he opened the door he found the six Sea Mer huddled round a small table deep in conversation with Jorn and Arne.