They emerged into the mind blowingly awe inspiring Pump Hall of the Cathedral of the Sewers. The great beam engines hissed, nodded and clunked to a slow rhythm, neo-gothic cast-iron pillars, arches and galleries soared in a dazzle of red lead, sky blue and gilt. They were within the Abbey Mills Pumping Station whose architectural wizardry had eclipsed the Taj Mahal, the Brighton Pavilion, and all but rivalled the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station.
A door banged. The great outer double-doors had been flung back and were rebounding. The gang rushed through and out into the blighted wastelands that straddle the margins between middle earth and the world ocean. Ahead of them scrambling and lurching across the marshes ran Slasher, coat tails flapping around his bent form like a wounded bat.
“Come on!” cried Boz between rasping breaths – and they resumed their chase onto the hinterland that is the Lea Delta. Mist clung languidly in the canals and channels between tussocks of coarse grey grasses. A sullen sky loomed, a dense, low cloud mass over the land of doom, pressing fortitude and vigour down into the very boots of the exhausted questers.
Ginsbergbear was winded and beginning to split along his seams; Phoebles was germinating the hint of a possibility that his love of food was in the early stages of compromising his waistline and stamina; Ferdy was failing to understand why evolution had deprived dodos of the more useful parts of their wings without making their legs longer; and the dank, sodden salt-marsh, after so many hours wading through Mr Bazalgette’s slurry, was not helping with Bozzy’s rheumatics. They were thrashing and gasping through the mud and bog plants as Slasher McGoogs struggled onto a long and weather beaten wooden jetty – at its far end the low, rusting form of a battered old Bovril boat, belched oily smoke from its stack. This was the final destination of London’s night soil. Liquid and solids were separated and the purified water, bottled and lightly effervesced by a process known as methanisation, was sold to the Savoy Hotel as a palate freshener for those who had been tempted towards the famed civet poo coffee. The lumpy bits were loaded onto the Bovril boats and taken into the North Sea where an artificial and highly fertile reef was being built up for the benefit of the native marine life.
As his pursuers closed, a rotten plank cracked beneath Slasher and he fell forwards twisting a trapped ankle. He got up, limped a few paces and collapsed again. Phoebles was jubilant and Ferdy managed a merry, “Hussaaar!” They would be able to overhaul him at last.
But then Slasher was on his unsteady feet, splay-legged and swaying. Something cold, black and threatening sat in the hand that he waved towards them. Ferdy and Phoebles, Ginsbergbear and Boz each had the unpleasant and highly personal experience of staring down the dangerous end of a Mauser Red Nine.
“Stand still! Stay where you are! Hands where I can see them!”
No one was arguing.
“This has gone far enough. Now listen. I am going away – something of a cruise. You won’t hear of me for a while. But you lot have work to do. Boz, there’s a battle coming. Let it – you couldn’t stop it anyway. Put up a convincing fight, but no heroics. Don’t let anyone get seriously hurt and when you lose – and you will lose – no fighting to the last man. Disperse – and definitely, DON’T LET ANYONE BE CAPTURED. That last bit’s really important.
“Now, Ferdinand, soon as it’s all done get down to the Isle of Dogs. We’ve got the Dragon Rapide at a temporary airstrip on Mud Chute Farm; the pilot will have a little job for you. All of you… Don’t screw up.” He turned and began a long, slow limp down the jetty.
Several figures appeared on the Bovril boat. They had wrinkled walnut hides, faded, moth-eaten guernseys, bandanas, stubs of clay pipe. Some cast off the mooring lines, some helped Slasher over the rail. The distinctive throb of a Bolinder Semi-Diesel Hot Bulb Engine rumbled above the salt marsh, black funnel-smoke smudged a charcoal scar across the Turner sky, a lone Klaxon blast sent plovers and sandpipers soaring skyward, and the bronze screw churned water beneath the stern. The unassuming vessel left the jetty, rippled the pastel shaded, mirror surface of a Thames at slack water and turned for the open sea.