Abbey Mills

Inside they were confronted by a short, portly pensioner in a flat cap, grey flannels and bracers over a grubby singlet. At his heal was an alert French bulldog on a length of thick string.

“You could have just knocked.”

“Ah, sorry.”

“We weren’t expecting anyone to be here.”

“Well, I’m here and I’m the caretaker. The black gang’s down in the boiler room too, and they’re big buggers. You lot look like Chat hunters – except that one.” Both he and the dog glared disparagingly at Phoebles.

“I didn’t want to look aggressive, or edible,” replied Phoebs defensively.

“That door’s going to be a sod to fix. And there’s no Chats in this neck of the woods. So you’re wasting your time.

“Not exactly,” said Slasher, “we’re just after getting into the sewer. Have you got a plan of the system?”

Charley the caretaker, ‘Right Charley’ to his few friends, was still wary and not a little annoyed about his door.

“Bloody adventurers,” he muttered under his breath. “Come on then.”

He led them through the imposing Engine Hall; all cast iron galleries and pillars in dark red, sky blue and gold, the mighty beam engines clunking and chuffing to a slow beat. At the far end of the hall was a small door out into the back yard. Under a lean-to he pointed into an inspection pit next to a foul smelling skip. They could make out a heavy iron grill. The dog found something interesting and wandered off with it.

“This is the Big Strainer. Sifts out dead dogs, discarded limbs, shopping trolleys and the like. You wouldn’t believe what people flush down their loos. Down stream is the Little Strainer.” Charley pointed to a second skip across the yard. “That collects all the condoms, wedding rings and teaspoons. This way.”

They passed several eight-foot diameter corroded cast iron pipes and mounted a flight of rickety wooden stairs to a dilapidated shack with cracked windows.

“The office.” The caretaker opened an old cupboard, sending up a cloud of dust and unrolled a set of blueprints. He rifled through them until he found the one he wanted.

“This should do you.” He jabbed at the diagram. “Best go in just here. I’ll show you.” They meekly followed along a walkway that ran above the pipes and into a brick tunnel. The old man stopped at a steel door.

“There’s a short ladder just the other side. Be careful. Take the left fork and pray it doesn’t rain.”

Slasher distributed headlamps from his knapsack. As the last of the group, Dorje, stepped onto the rusting ladder Charley slammed the door shut without wishing them luck. They heard a bolt slide across.

“Let’s crack on,” said Slasher, splashing into eighteen inches of fast flowing shite, “Look out for any tunnel that’s not on the map.”

“And anything long and scaly,” added Phoebles.

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A Writer Writes

But sometimes a writer takes inspiration from what others have written, like this letter sent by my great uncle to his young wife on May 19th 1940, shortly before the Battle of Dunkirk. I have transcribed a cache of letters written by this young couple in the early years of the war and have never been able to read this particular letter aloud without feeling a lump in my throat.’Tiny’ died in a training exercise two years later, so I never knew him, but I am grateful to him and many others for their courage at that time.So now, with a film coming to our screens, I’d like to share this one short but very poignant testimony to those brave men.

My own darling Nora,
I find it difficult to write this but I know you will understand if it sounds sentimental.
Nora dearest, this may be the last letter you will receive from me. The whole B.E.F. is withdrawing and the H.L.I. have been detailed to cover the withdrawal, in the words of the order “To the last bullet and the last man”.
I find that I am not so courageous after all, in fact at this moment I am trying hard to keep a lump from my throat and a smile on my face.
We have been bombed and machine gunned for the past two days but at the moment it is quiet.
My darling I love you so terribly and that’s what makes it so hard.
Please don’t think I’ve given up darling, I’m not dead yet and something may turn up.
Sweetheart, if the worst happens, think of me sometimes and know that I loved you more than anything in the world and that I am thinking of you to the last.
So I am going to sit down quietly for a while and think of all the little things we used to do, the room at Euston and our flat at Highbury – and that marvellous 10 days leave.
I have 9 men with me, and they are working hard to strengthen the post, so now, my sweetheart and most wonderful wife, good night and good luck,

Your adoring
Tiny
P.S. I love you.

P.P.S. If, by the time you get this, you have received no official news – don’t worry.

Slasher’s Plan (with Crocodiles)

Flo turned towards the piano:

“Sam!” The pianist had been joined by Mouse Jackson on tenor sax and they were murdering Star Man. “Shhhh!”

“But Les Chats… And Mrs King’s engine,” said Ferdy, now that he could be heard, “How on earth can we get to it?”

Slasher leaned forward, “I might have an idea. Remember Bazalgette’s cathedral and my escape on the Bovril Boat? Well no-one’s ever seen Les Chats down that end of the sewer.”

“Why?” asked Boz.

“Well there’s rats the size of Tamworth boars.”

“You’re telling us the Chats Souterrains are afraid of rats? Wooses.”

“…or the crocodiles.”

“Crocs!” squeaked Phoebles, “The idea of going back to Abbey Mills is bad enough. Them marshes are dead spooky.”

“We’re all agreed then,” quickly chipped in Slasher, “The Duesy’s garaged in an old warehouse up the road, but you won’t all fit in. We’ll take the Cord too.” There was joint mumbling and a shrugging of shoulders.

“OK, no time like the present. Off you all go and get kitted up.” Slasher checked the magazine in his Red9. Everyone else, except Aunty Stella, departed without much enthusiasm. She slung her carbine across her back and clipped the sabre to her Sam Brown.

Sam paused his piano playing momentarily. “Don’t worry Mrs S, I’ll get the pot-boy to stable your horse.”

Soon the others began to return, Ferdy first, having added a pair of gumboots to his usual flying gear, then Ginsbergbear in a moss tweed Norfolk jacket, matching trousers, deerstalker and green Hunters. Boz had a goatskin jerkin over his sailor suit and sea boot stockings turned over the top of his black wellies; Augusta King chose close fitting black suede waistcoat and trousers over a Prussian blue silk blouse with Doc Martens and matching eye patch. Her ke-tri was strapped between her shoulder blades and hair pulled back into a tight bun. Zelda had on a black PVC ankle length Dover coat, oilskin sou’wester and shocking pink wellingtons with white polka dots. Phoebles appeared in a white rayon pierrot costume with black pompoms, scull cap and waders. Finally Master Dorje came down in his yak coat and a tall orange hat crested in golden horsehair, leaning on a twisted rowanwood staff. Somehow getting dressed up had raised everyone’s spirits.

“Where’s Flo?”

“Here,” as the street door opened, apparently on its own.”

The soaring blank walls of the warehouse were dark, soot stained London brick, ironwork rusting and windows barred. The huge double-doors had once been painted red, now faded and pealing to reveal an equally weathered grey undercoat. Slasher took a key to a large, new padlock and slid one of the doors back on its runners. Inside he felt along the wall for the light switches and, one at a time, florescent strips pinged on. The cavernous space was filled from floor to ceiling with crates, boxes of flat-screen TVs, laptops and assorted white goods. A pyramid of suspiciously corroding drums were stacked in one corner and nearby several vehicles hid beneath tarpaulins. Slasher pulled off two of the tarps to reveal his Graber Duesenberg in its weird opalescent paint job that was gold or red depending on the viewing angle, and a maroon Cord 812 Phaeton with white-wall tyres.

“There’s bags of hardware and ammo in the boots. Flo and Augusta squeeze in with me. The rest of you into the Cord. Best you drive Ferdy, Phoebles would just bend something and the last respray cost an arm and a leg.”

They tore up the Mile End Road, zig-zagged between the tidal mills at Bow and eventually pulled up outside the wrought iron gates of Abbey Mills pumping station. Beyond the neo-gothic pile stretched a daunting expanse of eerie, featureless salt marsh. They tooled up from the assorted small arms that filled both car boots, mostly choosing AK-47s, bandoleers of 7.62x39mm ammunition and tucking Model 24 stick grenades into their belts. Zelda picked out a Franchi SPAS-15, loaded two spare mags with Remington Express 12 Gauge 2-3/4″ 9 #00 Buckshot cartridges and emptied the rest of the box into her coat pockets. She also pocketed a box of experimental flechette loads.

The gates were locked.

“Over the top,” cried Slasher. With little more than a pause from Ferdy and Master Dorje our heroes swarmed up and over the railings and rushed the pumping station’s front entrance.

“These door’s are locked too,” observed Dark Flo, “Can you pop through the cat flap, Phoebles, and open them from inside?”

“I’m not a cat burglar,” complained Phoebles.

“I know petal. But just this once, it’s in a good cause and we won’t tell anyone.”

“Sod this,” said Zelda, blowing the lock apart with her 12 bore ‘Chiave dell’Incursore’.

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Sailortown

Barrymore dropped Boz and his companions off in Whitechapel. The entrances to Aldgate East station were heavily barricaded and guarded by an armed contingent of Brick Lane Zapatistas who were clustered around a brazier. The gang exchanged pleasantries with the troopers and then walked briskly down Leman Street. Just off Cable Street they could hear Wilton’s Music Hall in full swing. Underneath the Arches was being sung above the accompanying Wurlitzer organ and periodically drowned out by heckling from an enthusiastic, mostly inebriated audience. When they reached Ratcliff Highway it was alive. Sailors and their doxies lurched in huddled groups about the pavements, cursing costermongers wheeled their barrows through the crowds, a dozen different accents and languages sang out. Barrel organs vied with each other in the middle of the thoroughfare, pop music blared from the jukeboxes of every pub and bar, squeals from every brothel. Fast food vendors shouted enticements to passers by and the scent of fish and chips made Phoebles’ mouth water. Pulsating, pastel coloured neon signs directed the unwary to strip joints and tattoo parlours.

“Hullo deary, fancy a quick one? Oh, sorry Mr Boz. I didn’t recognise you straight away. You been in the wars?”

“Hello Mavis. Just singed. Things nearly got on top of me a bit back, but I’m fine now. Thanks for asking.”

There was a good deal of squawking and not a few growls as they passed Jamrach’s Pet Emporium.

“That place always depresses me,” said Ferdy.

“Oh it’s not so bad nowadays,” Ginsbergbear replied, “Jamrach Jnr has abandoned the sale of exotics and runs an endangered species breeding program. He even has a Bornean Orang-utan working the counter.”

“There is a rumour he also runs illicit interspecies porn shows on the side,” added Phoebles.

Narrow Street was quiet, all but deserted, smelling of Stockholm tar and cinnamon, and appearing reassuringly normal at first. Yet, unusually, there was a Palomino pony tethered to the hitching rail outside Bozzy’s Den. Inside, Dark Flo perched on top of the saloon’s upright piano, her bare right foot pressed gently against Sam’s chest. The left dangled, beating time with her big toe. She was wearing a bowler hat and singing The Ballad of Sexual Obsession. Several local girls were standing in, without much enthusiasm, for the absent Kittens and an aging wizard wielded a cocktail shaker behind the bar.

“Aunty Stella!” cried Ferdy.

Aunty Stella sat in the bay window, in the full-dress uniform of a captain of the Hampshire Light Horse, midnight blue knee length top coat trimmed in gold, crimson paisley cummerbund, an ultramarine and mellow yellow striped turban, white jodhpurs and black patent leather cavalry boots complete with spurs. A Persian style sabre and SMLE .762 bush carbine rested on the table and she was smoking a hookah. She beamed at the bird.

Most of the clientele wore grubby raincoats, trilbies and reflector shades. As Boz led the way towards Aunty Stella one of the punters rose. His gabardine trench coat was not grubby and his homburg neatly brushed. He came over.

“Hello Slasher,” said Aunty Stella.

“So,” he asked Boz, “what’s Larry got to say for himself?”

Phoebles and Augusta pulled up a second table so they could all sit in a group. They parked. With her set concluded Dark Flo came over, wrapping a silk Liberty print kimono about her slender body. She retained the bowler. Sam vamped an extended improv on Blue Rondo à la Turk.

“Nothing new,” said Boz in answer to Slasher McGoogs. “The city’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth and I’m beginning to think Mrs King might be right. We need to gain access to her computer thingy.” He looked over at Aunty Stella. “What’s the situation here?”

“We have deliberately allowed Les Chats Souterrains to infiltrate Sailortown. Specialist units of the Autonomous Revolutionary Insurrectionary Limehousesailortown Irregulars, in mufty, have them under close surveillance. At least that way we can keep an eye on what they’re up to. We have thwarted several attempts to gain access to the docks, but so far they seem unaware that they are being exploited.” Aunty Stella turned to Dark Flo, addressing her in a discrete, concerned tone. “I couldn’t help noticing during that last number, you have some nasty bruises, Flo.”

“They’re fading now,” replied the chanteuse barmaid. “Anyway the punters enjoy a subtle suggestion of off stage S&M. We’ve had a few narrow squeaks since I saw you last. I don’t think anyone’s come out of Jersey totally unscathed.”

“Does one ever?” mused Ginsbergbear.

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A Writer Writes

It’s early days in the life of this novel, but there are already four drafts and four working documents from its beginnings. No new words have been written for a while, but I’ve summarised each chapter on an index card and added a page number to record its place in the manuscript. This process has helped me identify gaps in the narrative and lack of progression, so a few cards have moved around. But I’m now tempted to shuffle the whole pack of cards and deal a new hand. Or maybe I’d better try Patience.

Shad Thames

The Anchor Tap nestles between towering warehouses in Shad Thames, a corner pub on a cobbled street criss-crossed by walkways two storeys or more overhead. Inside, the furniture is distressed, the shabby décor predominantly faded blues, and the floor is bare boards. The cockney barmaid welcomed them with practiced bonhomie. Slasher got a round in for the ship’s company by way of thanks to the Kronstadt sailors. Somewhere round about the second pint the sailors began to sing, the gang relaxed into an alcoholic reverie and Barrymore walked into the saloon bar.

“Barrymore! How did you know we were here?” asked Boz.

“She would,” said McGoogs.

“It’s my job to know,” Barrymore replied. She stood, paws on hips. Her bottle-green cap and blazer were causing something of a stir amongst the stevedores and seafaring clientele of the dockside hostelry; mainly on account of their doing nothing to hide her silky, long, bronze and buff with a touch of red legs, her furry buttocks, or elegantly curved tail. Grabbing a bentwood chair she turned it to face her and straddled it. A collective sigh spun round the saloon bar.

“Finish your drinks. Larry wants to see all of you, pronto.”

“All of us?”

“Not the Ruskies, just you reprobates,” Barrymore gave an apologetic nod towards Augusta, “And you and your Tibetan if you’d be so kind, your ladyship.” She picked up the nearest pint and downed it in one, ushered the company out into the street, put her fingers to her lips and gave a long piercing whistle that started low, rose dramatically and ended in a baroque twiddle. With a purring of its vectored thrust Stanley steam-turbine aero-engines Larry’s dirigible runabout manoeuvred overhead, came to a halt and dropped a rope ladder.

“Not another ladder,” exclaimed Ferdy. “Can’t we take the tube?”

Slasher McGoogs melted quietly into the shadows and was gone.

“The underground is not running,” replied Larry’s factotum. “Up you go. One at a time.” She was last up.

“There’s a selection of single malts in the cocktail cabinet,” she said as she made her way to the empty flight deck and took the helm. Boz appeared in the doorway.

“How do you do that?”

“What?”

“Control this airship from the ground.”

“Confidence.”

Before long they were standing in Downing Street.

“Evening all.” The policeman on duty outside the gloss black door with its brass number ten below the Georgian shell fanlight nodded to Barrymore and directed the party inside. Larry was at his imposing mahogany desk in the old Cabinet Room.

“Can you rustle up a pot of Earl Grey for eight, Barrymore? And perhaps some scones?”

Barrymore gave Larry a reproving glance and left. After a few minutes she returned with a tray, perched her bum on a corner of the desk and poured out nine delicate china cups of builders tea, including one for herself.

“It’s PG. Scones are just coming, there’s only raspberry jam I’m afraid.”

“London seems very quiet,” observed Boz.

“Evacuated. Les Chats have overrun the underground. We’ve tried to board up as many stations as possible. Limehousesailortown is so cosmopolitan quelques Chats more or less makes no difference and it’s business as usual on Ratcliff Highway. But much of the city is deserted. Fortnum’s is locked up and the staff have left town.” Larry whimpered. “I don’t feel I’m in control any more.”

“You never were,” said Ginsbergbear.