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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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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The Cathedral of Sewage

LeaEstuarySThey 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.