'Turn left,' Sal says. 'Down that one.' I doesn't argue with her. I keeps my face out of the light and dives down the alley. She half flies, half hops ahead of me and hides in a doorway. I follow her and stand with my face to the door, hiding, but I'm ready to run for it.
Sal perches on my shoulder. We listens. The footsteps have stopped, but that don't mean nothing. I'm still hanging onto the parcel, but I'm scared the wrapping paper will crackle and give us away so I don't hold it too hard. What a mess. What a bloody stupid mess.
- 0 -
It starts only yesterday afternoon. I'm in the yard, having a wash, when Maggie, the drab who lives on the other side of the yard, comes up and says she's got a proposition for me. I tells her I can't afford what she proposes and she says Arthur, don't be daft, I don't mean that. You'e not one of my customers, are you? Now look, she says, she can't help noticing but that I don't seem to be too flush these days and she's got an idea for something that could help us both. I says I don't know that a silly little tart like her can have any ideas worth the listening to and she gets in a strop about it, and it's walk off or stay and listen, and I ain't got much on right now so I lets her talk.
It seems that she's got a sister that's got a friend what works in a big house up Hampstead way. This friend goes in to do general housework and skivvying. She says the house is packed with valuable stuff. Specially, she says, there's this big silver thing, like a tall lamp, that stands on a table in the study window. She thinks that a likely lad, such as Maggie the drab might know, could maybe slip into the grounds of this big house and relieve the owner of this big lamp thing and give it to Maggie and she could sell it and we could share out the money between us. She says the study window might not always be shut properly.
I has a think. It's true that I am a little short of the readies just now. This is on account of two things. First is, with the way my Sal settled I'm not finding the dipping - that's pickpocketing to you - all that easy. You see a likely lad, such as it might be me, with a magpie for a daemon and you know he's got to be up for it, you know what I mean? "See the daemon, know the man," as they say. I gets tired of being fingered for the petty larceny all the time. Sometimes it ain't even me. Me what done it, I mean. Sorry if I'm not making myself clear. You must have noticed by now how we gets the words mixed up sometimes.
Anyway, back to me story. I'm skint, so I takes to the trade. We isn't proud. It's easy money; even if it's painful at times and not a little humiliating too. The punters does what they do, they gives me the dosh and that's it over and done with, until I needs more money. Two weeks ago, though, this mark goes too far. He says he'd like a little extra and he'll pay lots for it. I perks up. This looks hopeful. Maybe we'll be able to buy something to eat tonight instead of robbing it. But then he tells me what he wants to do with my Sal and I can't help it. I throws up all over his smart suit and his shiny shoes and then I belts him one and then I legs it. So that's the second thing. I can't be seen on the Ratcliffe Highway; not for a month or two. And it's true. Funds is a little short. So I agrees.
- 0 -
We takes the late Cthtonic to Hampstead that night. I don't have to pay the fare, of course. There's ways around that - ways I knows. I walks up the rest of the hill, past the Ponds and onto the Heath. The big house is in the middle of the Heath, so I creeps through the bushes, gets over the wall, which has got stupid great trees standing right next to it so I can climb over easy and into the grounds. It's just like Maggie says. There's a ground-floor sash window with a half-an-inch gap at the bottom just asking for me to lever it up, so I does. Sal's keeping a look out for me. On a table behind this window is this great big ornate silver thing, with a sort of lamp-glass at the top, except it's too small to be a lamp. I lifts it off the table – it weighs a ton – and runs for it. I can't believe it's been so easy. We gets over the wall back onto the Heath and put my cunning plan into action. I wraps it up in brown paper with a delivery label stuck on the front. If anyone wants to know - as it might be the rozzers - I'm a delivery boy, earning an honest living.
By the time we reaches the station the last tube has gone, but that's all right. We gets home without any trouble. I knows all the long, hidden ways round the city better than any cabbie ever will. I hides the lamp thing under my mattress and we has a good long kip. We is knackered.
- 0 -
Next morning all Hell breaks loose. It seems that maybe Maggie's sister's friend's idea wasn't such a good one after all. I've only gone and broken into the Papal Legate's house and nicked his prize reliquary. It's this sort of holy display case. It's solid silver all right and there's gold bits on the side, like decorations. That glass thing at the top is a special vial and fixed in it there's a piece of the True Cross. No messing! We looks at it later and it looks just like a common or garden wood splinter to me. The glass is like a magnifier, to make it look bigger than it really is.
Thing is, not only is this reliquary thing very impossible to sell on the streets of Limehouse, I soon hears that the Church is very keen on getting it back. The 'sheets say there's an Inquisitor out looking for it. When I hears that, we has to go and sit in the privy for a while. There's banging on the door after the first five minutes, but I daren't get up. They'll have to go somewhere else.
Sal and me is cursing ourselves. I doesn't know how we could've been so stupid. Everyone knows the Church don't have to set guards on its relics. You can't sell them and they can always get them back. Then they gets their own back on you, too. We should have known it was too easy.
When I've finished emptying my guts out, we goes back to our room to have a think. We're in it, in it right up to our necks. I've got to dump this reliquary thing, but how? The coppers are crawling all over the place and there's Church agents about too. They're searching all around north London. Sal says to ask Maggie, and she's not working just then, so we do. She says don't keep that thing here, you'll get us all into trouble. Then she says don't involve her, she didn't pinch it, but I says that if we're caught I'll tell the coppers all about her and they'll tell the Church. This soon changes her mind. She and her cat-daemon Jimmy goes into a huddle and they talk to each other and she tells me we've got to go and see Old Bill.
'The Old Bill?' I says. 'You've lost it, girl. It's the coppers we're trying to get away from!'
Nah, she says, it's Old Bill she means. Old Bill the scrap dealer and general-purpose fence. He's the only one who'll help. He don't care, he'll take anything; she goes on, at his price of course. He'll melt the thing down and give us scrap value for it. It won't be much, though.
Look, I says, that's too much hassle. Why don't we just throw it in the river? Oh, that won't do at all, it seems. The Church has an instrument of some sort that can find it, and say who's touched it. It's a truth-teller, or something. The reliquary's got to be melted down, and as soon as possible. That's all there is to it.
And where is this Old Bill? I enquires politely. It turns out he's in Central Finchley, miles out of town. First stop on the Southern Line. I can't go there, I says, we'd have to go up through the High Gate right next to Hampstead and the place'll be stiff with Church police. Right, she says, you'll have to go north and then round to the west.
We think the whole thing smells, but what else can we do? Wait for the Inquisitor? No, I doesn't think that's a good idea. So Sal and me lays low in Maggie's, tries to ignore the horrible noises from the old bloke what lives upstairs, and waits for night to come.
- 0 -
When it gets dark and the lamplighter's done his round and the naphtha's glowing all up and down the street, we gets ready to go. Maggie's come up trumps, for once. Her brother's best mate works for the Penny Post, and he's got a uniform I can borrow. I puts it on and we wrap the parcel up again with brown paper and string and puts some stamps on it and draw a postmark over them with pencil. To make it look realistic, see? Then I sets off. I'm doing the trademark Penny Post whistle and swinging the parcel, but it don't help much and the wrapping's coming loose so I soon stops. It's a quiet night, chilly, with a few clouds and not much of a moon, and we can hears things that are miles and miles away, like the Zepps mooring up at Hownslow Field, miles away to the west.
We hasn't gone more than a couple of miles, by main roads this time 'cos of our effective disguise, when Sal, who's keeping a flying look out for us, darts down to my shoulder and tells me we're being followed. 'Where?' I asks. 'Corner behind us,' she says, 'Don't look!' So we ducks down the alley, like I said and takes cover in the doorway.
We stays there for three or four minutes. It's all quiet and then we hear footsteps again. This time, they're going away from us and we sighs with relief.
Feeling safer, we steps back out into the road; but we've been stupid, we should have waited longer, 'cos a voice shouts out and we hear more footsteps, many footsteps, and they're running towards us. We pelts down the street, past a big parked car, and turns right into what we think is another alley, but it isn't, it's an entrance way and there's a set of tall iron gates ahead of us and they're locked with a chain and a big brass padlock.
Sal flaps over the gates, her white tail feathers showing up yellow in the naphtha light, and I flings myself at them and clambers up and over after her. I don't know how I doesn't drop the reliquary. There's a passageway beyond that and we run and fly down it. It opens out into a wide-open yard made of brick and stone and iron spikes. I stops open-mouthed. I knows this place.
This is the place I grew up in, the place where my Sal got her settled form, the place I lived in for years and years. This is the Tottenham Union Workhouse. I'm standing in the middle of the boys' quad, staring at the main hall.
I bet you doesn't know about Workhouses. You pay your tithes to the Parish every month and you grumbles about how much it costs to keep all those useless people in luxury at the public expense, but I bets you doesn't know what it's really like to live in a place like that.
Would you like to know what it's like in there? 'Course you wouldn't. Why would you? But I'm going to tell you anyway:
It's all enclosed inside this big high wall with broken glass on top. The building itself sits inside a yard, which is chopped up into four quarters – they calls them quads. There's one for men, one for women, one for boys and one for girls. The building is divided up inside as well. There's whole families in there that hasn't seen each other for years. They shouts to each other over the walls, but there's trouble if they're caught doing that. No problem for me - we was found outside the gates when we was just babies. We hasn't got a family.
My part, the boys' part, is split into two big rooms. The other parts is just the same, I suppose. There's a working hall and a sleeping hall. They call that the dorm. The working hall has long tables where you eats (not much), prays (a lot), and sits all day long, doing lessons in the morning and working in the afternoon. It's too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Lessons is dull, but they're better than work which is sewing up Penny Post mailbags or picking oakum. That's where you teases old ropes apart. It rips your fingers to shreds.
If you does something wrong, the Master beats you. If you does something really bad, they've got something worse. See, there's a pulley in the centre of the roof, which is in a kind of bell housing. It's about forty, fifty feet up in the air. There's a rope runs over the pulley with a loop at one end and a box about six inches square tied on the other. It's got a door with a clasp that locks it on the outside. What you has to do is this: You has to put your daemon in the box and then they locks it. If you won't put your daemon in by yourself, they grabs her, yes they really does, and they puts her in for you. Then they pull on the rope and it takes her up and away from you and Christ, it hurts, it's tearing your heart out. They looks at you as they pulls on the rope to make sure it's hurting enough. And you're stuck on the ground and your beautiful one, your precious, your darling is up there, you can't reach her or touch her and if you could fly up to her you would and you both scream and cry and they're glad 'cos they likes to see you suffer.
Twice they did that to me. For an hour the first time, three hours the second.
Then there's the dorm. That's another big room with what they calls coffin beds round the outside. They don't call them that because you dies in them, though many of us has; it's just that they're coffin-shaped and coffin-sized. There are mattresses stuffed with straw in these coffin beds. Yes, that's the stuff you uses to bed down your horses. They're called palliasses.
At one end of the dorm there's a big banner hanging on the wall – GOD IS LOVE, it says. Underneath it there's that picture of the Crucifixion. You know, the one by that Dali bloke. The really real-looking one. Just to rub it in that you has to be grateful for the charity you're getting. There's Jesus bound in agony to the stretcher on the floor, and on the wall above is Magdelena, His dove-daemon, flayed alive, with Her bare wings pinned back to this little wooden cross and Her blood dripping slowly down the plaster. And underneath it, it says "Constans", which is Roman for Unchanging, 'cos Jesus' daemon was only ever a dove from the day He was born until His death, even when He was a kid. But I doesn't have to tell you all that, do I?
In the middle of the dorm is a big cedarwood box. I expect you know how cedarwood makes your daemon a bit dozy-like. Dentists uses it when they pulls your teeth. That box is where your daemon has to go while you're asleep. They locks her up and keeps the key. It's to stop you from trying to escape in the night. It's not so far away from you that it hurts. Not too much, anyways.
I expect you've always slept with your daemon next to your heart. We was Workhouse brats and we couldn't be trusted to do that. They tells me there was a fire in Edgeware Union once and the kids escaped but all the daemons was trapped inside, 'cos they couldn't find the key to the box. I doesn't want to talk about it, thanks.
Every day in this place is the same as the day before, until the day your daemon settles and you has to leave. When my Sal decided to be a magpie, we wondered what they was going to do with me and if we'd have any choice, but I needn't have bothered. All the boys that year got apprenticed to sea captains. I lasted one week and jumped ship at Harwich. I just drifted about for a bit and ended up back in London.
That's been my life. Dull, ain't it?
- 0 -
Sal and I are looking at the Workhouse block and there's something funny going on. One of the office windows upstairs is lit and it's well after lights out. We walks slowly up to the oakum-sheds, which are like lean-tos standing against the main building. Sal flies up to the window, looks in, shakes her head, and comes back in a hurry. 'Climb up and look. It's old Lugg and someone else.'
So I wraps my hand through the string that's holding the parcel together and I shins up one of the posts that holds up the oakum-shed. The roof slopes up to the window and we climbs up it and wedges ourselves up against it so we can see in at the corner.
Inside, it's the Boys' Masters' office. I know that place. Lugg used to beat me in there. Do other things too. Father Lugg himself is sitting on one side of a table. There's a bottle of jenniver on it, half-empty and two glasses; one full, one empty. Lugg looks just the same as we remembers; greasy, ugly and cruel. Lugg the Slug we calls him.
The other person is like nobody I ever sees before.
She's this impossible woman like we never sees and everything about her shines like it's just been polished. She's wearing a glossy fur coat over a sparkly red dress. Her hair is glinting chestnut in the naphtha. Her lips are shiny red and when she talks you can see perfectly white, even teeth. They don't look real at all. She doesn't look real neither. I thinks maybe she's a witch. Her eyes are all sparkly too, like her dress. I puts my ear to the window to hear what they is talking about. They seems to be doing some sort of a deal.
'Enough of the preliminaries, Father Lugg,' says Glossy. She reaches down and strokes her daemon. He's shiny too, a beautiful golden monkey with a black face. Father Lugg's daemon squats on the table. A toad. Serves the bastard right, we all says. Lugg takes a swig of jenniver. It don't look as if the woman is drinking hers.
'There's just one other thing, Madame, before we start,' oozes Lugg. 'I would like to know whom I have the honour of addressing.'
'"Madame",' she says, 'will do. Now; to business. It has come to our attention that there is some small discrepancy in your accounts. A matter of some five hundred sovereigns. The monies were credited to the Union accounts last May, but they seem to have disappeared.' She's got a soft voice, but it's hard inside.
Lugg tries not to look worried, but his toad-daemon puffs up with fear. What a giveaway! He's worried all right.
'I'm sure,' he says, 'that the matter can be resolved to everybody's complete satisfaction at the next Committee meeting in, um, four week's time.'
'We need not wait until then, I think. Father Lugg, I have a proposition to put to you which I would like you to consider very carefully. You receive a quarterly sum from the Parish, which you are expected to put to good use in the day-to-day management of the Boys' Division of the Tottenham Union. Am I correct?'
'It is intended to provide for the housing, clothing and feeding of the inmates, yes?'
Lugg nods again.
'The sum allocated is, I believe, calculated according to humane consideration for the inmates' welfare. And yet, the boys who are in your care seem to be in a rather worse condition than one might expect; given the generous allowance made by the Parish. When I inspected your account books earlier this evening, I noticed that you appear to have underspent your allowance to the tune of five hundred pounds over the last two years. And yet I can find no trace of this money. Can you tell me where it is?
'Madame, there is a contingency fund set aside for—'
'Quite so. And yet I can find no mention of this contingency fund anywhere in the Workhouse books and I must come to the unfortunate conclusion that this fund is not in fact kept under the auspices of the Parish, but somewhere else. Would that be a reasonable conclusion, Father Lugg?'
Lugg splutters. He's sweating now.
'Don't say anything, Father Lugg. You see, I perceive your difficulty. And I am here; not to punish you, although I am an official of the Church and fully empowered to do so, but to offer you a way out of it.'
She leans forward across the table to Lugg and gives him a dazzling smile. Her monkey-daemon leaps onto the table beside her. Sal and I knows that this won't have much effect on him. I don't think he's very interested in grown-ups. Most of us in the boys' division has smelled his gin-breath in our cramped coffin-beds of a night. Some of us more than others. Us, for instance.
The woman can see this too. She shrugs. It doesn't matter to her.
'Here it is, Father Lugg. You have a money difficulty and too many mouths to feed. I have money, and I wish to purchase five of your boys. I will pay you one hundred pounds in gold for each one. They must be between ten and twelve years of age, in good health, and their daemons must not have settled. I have the money here.'
She opens her big shiny leather handbag and tips a load of coins onto the table. One falls to the floor and the monkey-daemon picks it up.
'Of course, if you refuse my generous offer, there is always the Parish Committee.'
Lugg gasps. 'You're a Gob—'
'I am an official of the Consistorial Court of Discipline and I am here on Church business.' Her voice is steel-edged. 'These children are destined for a significant role in Church affairs. You would do well to follow my suggestion.'
He gives in. He ain't got much choice, has he?
'Of course, I will leave it up to you to account for the disappearance of the children entrusted to your care. You have been creative enough with your finances. I am sure that the task of making five boys disappear from your roll will not be beyond your capabilities. There have been a number of unexplained deaths here, have there not?'
Lugg turns pale under the dirt. The effects of the jenniver has worn off, we sees.
'I have a large car waiting by the gate. Wake the boys now and meet me in the quadrangle in ten minutes.'
Lugg glances again at the pile of gold on the table and leaves the room with his toad in his coat pocket. The woman picks up her monkey-daemon and they follows him. You can tell she don't trust him.
Ten minutes passes. It's a long time. There's this big black cloud coming up from the west, making it even darker and colder than before and that uniform's not exactly thick or well made. I'm getting chilly. Then, when I'm starting to shiver a lot, we sees Lugg and the woman coming out into the quad from the main block. There's a line of boys shuffling after them. They looks really dopey.
All this time my left leg has been getting stiffer and colder and as I turns to ease it a bit it cramps up completely. I bites my lip to help with the pain but at the same time my arm slips and the parcel slips too and the silver reliquary slides out of the wrappings and rolls down the sloping roof of the oakum-shed. It makes this trundling sound and it's deafening in the quiet of the night. It balances on the guttering and we thinks it's going to stop there but it doesn't; it tips up on its end and falls ten feet to the ground and lands right next to Lugg. It must hit a stone, because there's a loud cracking noise and the glass vial breaks.
Lugg and the woman turns around. They can see us, up by the window. Lugg opens his mouth to shout at us.
And night turns into day.
From right over us there's a blinding, brilliant light. It's white anbaric light and it makes the shiny woman in her glossy fur coat blaze in the glare. And overhead, this enormous metal voice booms out, 'DO NOT MOVE. STAY EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE.' It's like the voice of God.
And then we realises what it is. A Zeppelin of the Church Police - I can see the crosses on the tailfins - has drifted downwind with its engines off until it's right on top of us, just one hundred feet up. We never got away from the Church at all - they was watching us from Heaven all the time. The light pours down on us from a row of floodlights fixed to the forward gondola of the Zepp. Two of the gas-engines starts up with a grinding splutter; it's keeping station above us now.
At the same time, the iron gates bangs open and a police van crashes into the quad. A whole load of rozzers jumps out. There's a full Inspector there with them. We all freezes; me, Sal, the boys, and Lugg and the woman. There's nowhere to hide.
Now; here's the bit we still doesn't properly understand. The shiny woman has nothing to worry about if she's who she says she is. If she's a high-up in the Court, then nobody can touch her, except maybe an Inquisitor. So all she has to do is turn Sal and me over to the coppers. But she don't. Perhaps she don't want the Church to know she's been in the Tottenham Union at nearly midnight. Perhaps what she's been doing isn't official after all. Not officially, at any rate.
'Inspector Hopkins,' she calls out. 'I think you know me.'
The Inspector replies, 'Yes, I do, Mrs—'
She cuts him off. 'No more need be said, I think. Inspector, arrest this man,' She points at Father Lugg. 'I have good reason to believe that he has stolen the missing Reliquary from the Papal Legation in Hampstead. It lies on the ground at his feet.'
The Slug's face turns a dirty grey with terror. We can't believe our luck. We can guess what the Church'll do to him when they gets him in their clutches.
This Inspector doesn't get to be an Inspector by being stupid. He can tell what side his bread's buttered, even though he can see the shed roof and Sal and me and the parcel wrappings with his own eyes. He also knows who'll get the credit for finding and returning the reliquary. So he takes hold of Lugg, who's looking sort of blank, and puts the cuffs on him and then they pick up the broken reliquary and get in the police van and drive off. We wonders what they'll do about the lost bit of the True Cross. Plenty of spare wood splinters in the police station, I suppose.
Meanwhile, the Zeppelin runs up all its engines with this great roaring noise and heads off back to the west. A minute later it's all dim and quiet again. The Workhouse inmates with their cedarwooded daemons hasn't stirred and the rest of the neighbourhood has hidden its heads under its pillows. They knows what's good for them. The boys and their daemons is standing dazed by the door.
I climbs down off the shed roof and Sal flies to my shoulder. The woman turns to face us. 'Do you know this place?' she asks us.
'Yes,' Sal tells her.
'Then take these boys back inside and put them to bed. I find I have no need for them after all. There are five hundred sovereigns on the office table. Someone will call to collect them shortly. See that they are put somewhere safe in the meantime. And then—,' she flashes us that great big smile, 'Hop it!'
So we does.
I conceived and wrote this story one weekend in June 2001, in under 24 hours. It's nice when it happens like that.
It's even nicer when a story acts as the springboard for so many others. Arthur Shire ("Sheer") and his Sal turned out to be the most enduring of my characters. He's only a boy here and has yet to come into his full powers as an oracle and conjurer of the dark matter we know as Dust. He will meet Mrs Coulter again in a few months and this time the outcome will not be so happy as it was in Tottenham.
But... it will be the key to unlocking his destiny. A destiny that will take him to the Great Parliament in London, where he will encounter Lyra Silvertongue for the first time since Bolvangar and save the King of England from assassination. And from there he will travel to places beyond his world - and ours - and on to the domed city of Geneva where, in the company of a crippled clockmaker and a spoilt schoolgirl, he will bring down the Fire from Heaven in a last-ditch attempt to end the oppressive power of the Magisterium once and for all.
And in the end to disappear from view, living out his last years in happiness, Dust-blessed and free, navigating the canals and rivers of England until the day his journeying in the worlds of Time is all done and "Arthur and Harry set sail in a different boat, and make their landing on another, farther shore."
Ceres, June 2005