The Fifer of Moments
by James K. Isaac
Sol played his fife to distract the crowd, pulled notes of melodious history through their minds, knotted personal moments into the present. He gave the gents a gift of happy memories; meanwhile hands cut their purses. Or Sol played sad tunes for the ladies of the teahouse, rich with coins and sympathy. Lucy Lyn, his accomplice number one, would pass by the windows from where they stared. A swaddled baby in her arms, hired for one penny off one of the local dollymops, she would gently pinch the infant’s arm to make it cry. This never failed to make a pretty penny, never failed to keep food in stomachs and gin in souls. It kept the Devil’s Acre persisting for yet another day.
“Listen up! The fifer plays your happy times. My little darling was screaming his little head off, now he’s cooing like a good ’un,” Lucy yelled, pointing over to Sol standing on the corner of Pye Street. Dressed in his distinctive coat, threadbare and coloured a once-red which had long since faded into pink, you’d have missed the short and skinny young man if you weren’t looking for him.
Sol was only dimly aware of Lucy’s touts. Eyes closed, he caressed the pipe and holes of his fife with almost sensuous dexterity. Letting the music consume his senses, he sent it slicing through market square chatter just like the dirty children who sliced between adults and dipped fingers into pockets. So engrossed was Sol, he didn’t clock the bobbies nudging his way, their top hats swaying blue above most of the crowd. When strong hands grabbed him by the scruff of the collar of his over-sized red coat, and pushed him hard against wooden shutters, he didn’t even have a chance to run.
One of the policemen shook his head. Looking down his nose, he spoke to Sol like a teacher to a brat. “Lowering the tone again, are we? Why aren’t you gone yet? Houses are waiting across the river. New house or rope around your neck? I know what I’d prefer.” Another of the bobbies rummaged through Sol’s coat, emptied it of shiny trinkets.
Slotted into that wall of otherwise blue were two more men in top hats. Sol had seen them about with increasing regularity of late, sticking out like sore thumbs in their dapper togs. Lord Compton, with a fine trimmed grey beard and well-tailored suit, and Mr Lynch pale and slim, on the lord’s tail like a groom to a stool. These gents wanted to kick the remaining folk out the rookery.
Well-to-do Lord Compton and money-minded Mr Lynch presented their case as philanthropy. “Clear the Devil’s Acre. Save the souls of the human refuse which congeal under the holy spires of Westminster Abbey.” But it don’t half piss them off when the human refuse refuses to move. Sol liked to flavour life with a bit of riotous and saucy, lived for it. Didn’t want anyone to take it away.
“Live life without fear of consequence,” that was what the motto of the rookery should be. But Sol had felt the pressures of future design threatening to rip apart that small world of his. Everyday more and more people left for the new Lynch Estate, south of the river. Time had abandoned the rookery; an old friend turned enemy.
“This must be the criminal idleness you mentioned, Mr Lynch,” said the lord, voice plummy. Sniffing a pinch of snuff, wriggling his nose, the stench from Pye Street was obviously not to his liking. Mr Lynch watched the lord wide-eyed, nodded to his every word.
“Yes, your Lordship. It’s these people who clog the city, stop us from making it prosperous and clean. Victoria Street’s already years behind,” Lynch said, a contemptuous sneer directed toward Sol.
“But this chap wears a red coat. And has a fife. A soldier?” said Lord Compton, grey beard ruffling.
One of the bobbies chipped in, “Don’t believe it, your Lordship. My mates long ago got wise to the cons of the rookery.”
Police hats blocking out the sun, Sol strained to look through the wall of coppers. Through gaps in elbows he caught glimpses of one of the little dippers, saw the concern on the kid’s dirty face on hearing the fife so suddenly silenced. He’s wise to my situation. Tell Old Morgan…Sol hoped the boy “knew life” enough do more than just have a gander.
“I fought over in… Salamanca, Sir.” replied Sol, remembering the chat of a few ancient gents in the One Tun pub a night back.
Mr Lynch’s eyes glinted; the sneer again enlivened his plain face. He slapped a gloved hand against the side of Sol’s head. “It’s ‘your Lordship.’ Not ‘Sir.’ Cretin.” He turned back to Compton. “Salamanca! That was nigh on forty years ago, your Lordship. He disgraces the uniform with his lies. Likes of him need to be taught some manners.”
For just a moment Compton’s face flickered. His beard puffed around his lips. No doubt an ex-military man. Maybe I’ve come a cropper here. Sol fingered the peculiar hole in the stone charm hanging on a string around his neck; a hag-stone, a druidic totem given to him by Old Morgan.
“Beg pardon. Too much gin. Bad for my memory. I got my life from my mother and my fife and coat from my father, before the both of them died of consumption. Please, let me play you a tune to make up for any offence, your Lordship.” Even though breathing was difficult, since the bobbies pressed him hard against the shutters, Sol put the fife to his lips and played.
It seemed like time itself fell asleep. Then woke up with a hangover, forgetting where it was supposed to be.
Choosing it with care, Sol played a “moment” to Compton. He fifed the marching tune of the Grenadiers. Shrill, yet tuneful, whistles inspiring momentum and rhythm. As always, the listener’s eyes glazed over, the played moment engulfing all senses. The lord got lost in a world of his youth.
Smoke in the nose, cannon in the ears, buckles flashing in the sun. Glory, glory. March forward, up the hill. A bullet to the shoulder. No matter lads, keep marching. Keep marching until there’s not enough blood to prop you up. No matter lads. Glory. Glory. Glory.
Aristocratic eyes blinked watery. Compton mumbled names, perhaps names of the fallen. “Our lads in foreign fields.” Sol left him with the image of Her Majesty’s flag fluttering in the breeze. Then he turned his attention to Mr Lynch, played the money man’s life, honing in on a moment he could use.
Discord entered the tune. The notes grated as Sol played with spite. Lynch sniffed at the air, to a memory of his wife’s perfume on a winter’s stroll. Look at her grace as she walks, her red cheeks against the snow, her breath fogging and sweetening the lucky air. How radiant. Such a lucky man I am that my angel picked me. Then, in a drawing room, Sol played of the eyes Mrs Lynch gave Lord Compton, the brush of his old but strong hand against hers. Her cheeks glowed rosier than before. The fifer almost smirked.
But as Sol played the tune Mr Lynch’s turbulent emotions caused a fray in the invisible strings of the past, unknotting and lashing out with a future outcome born of anger and resentment. It flashed through the money man’s eyes and transported Sol away for an instant. Standing at a safe distance, the air rings with cries and screams. The alleys of Devil’s Acre spill bloody bodies onto the market square. See them run. I’ll tear this place down.
A sudden tug stirred Sol from his fifing; the lord pulled the policeman’s hand from the collar of his red coat. Compton’s voice was scratched with emotion. “Young man, you have a gift there, to make the tune come alive so. Make yourself an honest living. Move out, away from the rotten influences of this place.” Uncomfortable to be exposed so vulnerable, the lord hurried the bobbies away. “We better be going. Come, Mr Lynch.”
Even as the companions started to push a path through the crowd, Lynch lingered. Standing tall, eyes twitching, he stared down into Sol’s face. Brushing his jacket over his hip as if to display a weapon, Lynch spoke, “I don’t know how you did that. Some devil witchery. But I’m cleverer than you, boy.”
Sol saw it, a flash under the money man’s jacket, the chain of a pocket watch looping from Lynch’s waistcoat. But no weapon.
An act almost of instinct, but also born from the jolly of pissing tight-faced Lynch off, compelled Sol to step up dead close, body to body, as if readying for a fight. When the crowd bulged around them, Sol’s unseen hand fanned through Lynch’s fancy jacket. A moment later Sol made to dash with the pocket watch, but the chain pinched Lynch’s waistcoat too hard. Sol ran.
The fifer heard the cry of “Thief!” behind him. Odd, that when he turned back for a peek, seeing the bobbies’ top hats parting the crowd like Moses to seas, Lynch smiled with something like satisfaction.
Sol was quicker than the bobbies. Ducking into Pye Street then turning into an alley, he went into the Devil’s Acre proper. Darkness coated walls, cholera flavoured the air. Sol called out “Morgan,” and rushed past chalk symbols scratched onto doorways. Weaving through black planks which held up buildings slumping like a domino-line of drunks, Sol led the bobbies on a merry dance. Deeper into the rookery, Sol ducked under a shadow-black flap of cloak he knew so very well.
Blindly stumbling into the rush of police, Old Morgan stretched out his hands, eyes shut and coloured vermillion, head hooded. “Cure for your ills. Take the ritual of oak and mistletoe. Does more than prayers to the Christ.” Ignoring the mad old man the coppers piled past on Sol’s trail. And then the signal was given, Morgan’s voice squeaked with excitement “Andraste. Andraste. Andraste!”
The name “Andraste” echoing behind, Sol continued into the narrows as Morgan’s old god fortified the Devil’s Acre against the invasion of new history. Blue uniforms stampeded into a darkness of ill-set second-stories, nodding against their opposite counterparts. Into this maze of gin shops and dollymop hovels the policemen charged. Into a trap.
Painted men, their faces woad-blue and their hair spiked white with lime and grease, sprung from shadow nooks; a confusion of brass knuckles, coshes and axes fell upon the bobbies. Top hats spilled from heads. Boots slipped in the sludge of open sewers. The bobbies got a moment they’d never forget.
In a side room of purest black Sol, never a fighter, gasped for breath. Outside, the thud of coshes and ugly snap of bone couldn’t distract him from his troubles. That image of Lynch’s smile held in his mind, unsettling. They want to get rid of us, but they don’t understand. We own our moments. The rookery wasn’t like the rest of London, nor like the river Thames. Not something you could pass through, something to use and forget; just a place to get on and get off at.
If fifing time had taught Sol anything it had taught him that the only value the present had was the sum of piled moments before it. And then those moments toppled into the future, chaotic. The Devil’s Acre was special; Sol knew this, Old Morgan knew this. All impermeable blind alleys and dead ends, what flowed into that rotten sink of a cul-de-sac was kept and never given back. It became part of the riotous saucy flavour. A forever moment.
Sol fifed in the dark as men fought. He fifed his future, perhaps a year from now, ten years, twenty years, he couldn’t tell. Someplace he didn’t know formed in his mind, a place of red faced dancing people, punctuated by a strange rhythm. And in this place he wore no red coat, and instead of a fife he held a trumpet-like thing, but longer and with a U-bend. Perhaps this was what Old Morgan had taught him, about the old spirits of Britons, the dead being born again in a fresh body. Am I to die and this be my next life?
For a moment Sol felt queasy, his forehead dampened. Fear stopped him playing the song of tomorrow.
Under moonlight and gas lamps, fed, and full of cheap gin from the One Tun pub, a mob swaggered along newly paved roads, heading to places less well kept. Some of the mob wore battered blue top hats, most wore the usual caps with dandy scarves wrapped around their necks. Sol walked with them, Lucy Lyn on his arm. They laughed secretly to each other, watching Old Morgan with his bald head and toothless smile bothering well-to-do passers-by. No longer acting a blind man, but still plying his mistletoe and oak remedies.
The rookery neared, blackness swallowed the light of the moon. All silhouette, Sol and crew blended into the shadow of Westminster Abbey, which stood above the Devil’s Acre like some fat priest in ornate robes, ankles clutched by shabby hovels like dirty children begging for a meal.
In a dark narrow, on the side of the alleys where the river Thames had yet to swamp the sunken pits around doorways, the group of rookery locals found a spot to lounge. They drank gin and lit candles. People smoked by the flames and told jokes. Sol took his fife and played to the dollymops and bludgers, the orphans and beggars. And for the devils, just in case they listened.
The music of the past often rung-cosily, all coated with the golden fuzz of sentimentality. Sol preferred playing the past. But tonight a lingering disquiet urged him to start with a melody which tugged at strings straying into the future. A melancholy song of smoky cities, huge chimneys and yellow skies, repeated over and over for hundreds of years, a hundred Londons in a hundred different places. Just a happening unexplained and without context. The future was always a heartless place of sharp, clear mirages.
Little scamps buzzed around Old Morgan, watched him snap fire from fingertips or magic coins from ears; all the cheap trickery of black powder and sleight-of-hand. When the older folk heard where he played court, they soon ached their way over for more serious matters.
Morgan started to chant old words understood by none but him. His voice croaked in his throat, his eyes wide and lost. Mashing poultices of mistletoe and oak-bark on cracked stone, and scratching symbols with chalk, he prepared. The feeble and sick took sniffs and tastes, or had mixtures slashed into their blood or stuck up their backside. Maladies were purged. Rotten lungs expelled their nastiness into the dirt, swollen joints seeped infections away. And Morgan unceasingly chanted tongues like either the most holy or most blasphemous man in London.
Sol knew the power of Old Morgan first-hand, the man who saved him from consumption as a boy. The closest thing Sol had to a real father, Morgan had lived in the Devil’s Acre for as long as anyone could remember. He certainly didn’t believe in devils, nor popes, nor Anglican Hanoverian queens and far-flung empires.
When the youngest orphans crawled from blankets and doorways, Sol played happy times. For a lad named Dirty Tom he fifed the moment when the kid dug a gold sovereign from the riverbank, fifed of the great smile on his mum’s face just before typhoid snatched her away.
Whistling along, Morgan danced something feral, snarling and jerking like a cornered fox. Calling on his old gods to freeze that moment in the hole of a hag-stone, he gave it to Tom, to let him watch it, smell it and live it anytime he wanted.
When the night chill started, and the gin had worn off, it was time, for those who had them, to go home. Sol and Lucy had their kip to themselves, a whole upstairs room on wooden boards. Even so, in times like this, Sol felt glad of the awful stink of the rookery. Like a mystical shield, it kept the full force of the cold at bay.
The discomforting thought of Lynch’s smile tainted his last waking memory.
Sol was out in the street by midday, fifing a tune for an impromptu, hair-of-the-dog fuelled, ball. Pale figures locked arms, laughing, spinning until they fell; one of those happy times of no consequence. But a rush of cats, dogs and unease caused it all to stop. As Morgan had said a thousand times, animals were always the first to know of a new threat. A jolly fracas was happening somewhere nearby.
Tension infected the air. Everyone felt it, a heavy hush, behind the feet splattering through damp mud. Silence, the rarest of all diseases, was always a prelude to death in the rookery.
Carried away by a tide of human bodies, Sol didn’t resist. The mob weaved through alleys as shopkeepers shut their businesses, some boarded-up windows. Bludgers unrolled cloth and passed out the blackjacks and knives within. There were whispers of “the army.”
Gloom receded as they neared Pye Street, the cold daylight of the market square breaking through. Here the crowd clogged the street preventing progress.
Pulling himself up onto a window ledge, Sol peeked beyond the sea of caps and matted hair. Hard to make out at first, but then, remembering the flashing moment in Lynch’s mind, Sol understood what he saw. Not blue bobby coats but red soldier coats. Two lines of redcoats, perhaps a hundred men, were forming in the market square. Wooden barriers and chains cordoned the entrance to the rookery.
A mass of bright scarves and unshaved faces surged under Sol, bringing Lucy Lyn with them. She whistled up to the ledge and tried to get the fifer’s attention, before pulling up her skirts and clambering next to him.
“Best I get Morgan?” she shouted into Sol’s ear as the noise of the crowd started to pick up. A wave of people lashed against the barriers, testing the limits. Sol only nodded, slapping a hand onto Lucy’s arse and pulling her close.
He shouted back, “Find a place to kip on the swampy side. Don’t come back here until what’s done is done. I’ll see you there, I promise.” Again he tapped her arse before she slipped onto the street.
“Trust a promise from a pagan fifer in the Devil’s Acre? You must think I gone and lost my mind.” Lucy winked, before disappearing into the bodies.
Sol tore through a drape of rags, which covered the glassless window above the ledge, and skipped through into a murky empty room. Bounding up wooden stairs, he headed to the uppermost levels where small kids huddled in corners, older boys picked at floorboards with knives and where girls rocked babies in their arms.
The boys stood when they saw Sol, but he raised his palms to calm them. “It’ll be all right. Just do your job, stop ’em coming up. Any trouble, get out.”
Sol hurried past, to a water stained corner, and climbed a ladder through a hole in the slate above which opened onto the roof. Up here he could see what was what: Devil’s Acre, a grotty island in a sea of rushing modernism and smoggy skies. The buildings around the rookery stood straight and tall, looking to the future, made for a new kind of people. The rookery was a scabby boil in the centre, squeezed until one day it would pop.
Scrambling over slate tiles, Sol kept to the shadows and the dips, ducked behind chimney stacks, kept as flat as he could until he peeked over the edge into the square. The first thing he heard or saw was the voice of Mr Lynch in full orator mode.
“That’s the dirty corner where everything nasty and viscous snags. All the good ones have moved on. Now just Irish Catholics, heathens, murderers and thieves. All fit for the drop. All hating the law, the country and the Queen,” he yelled from behind the lines of soldiers.
By his side stood a woman, Mrs Lynch undoubtedly, beautiful with long brown hair. She posed pale and dainty under an umbrella; protection against the sunlight threatening to tan an aspiring Lady on even a cold day. Sol watched how her eyes fell, not on her husband but somewhere else, to Lord Compton, impressive on horseback. Wanting more privilege than a money man can give. Can’t say I feel sorry for Lynch.
Old Lord Compton paraded back and forth. For a moment Sol’s chest thundered. Perhaps my visions of his youth pushed him over the edge. Is this the doing of my fife? But then the lord defied Sol’s expectations.
“Will you be quiet, Mr Lynch,” he bellowed. The Devil’s Acre mob cheered the reprimand. The lord just wants to scare us. That’s not what Lynch thinks though. I saw the truth.
But the fire had been lit. Lynch’s words stirred the rat’s nest. Men stood on rotten staircases itching for a scrap, shouting abuse at the redcoats. Others spat from looming windows. They pulled caps tight, leaving menacing black belts for eyes. Morgan, where are you?
Then the mob started to throw stones. The red line of soldiers stood firm, Brown Bess muskets by their side, bayonets so sharp as to cut through sunlight and shine it into the blackness of the alleys.
Compton looked troubled. His horse whinnied protest when he trotted to the front of the lines. When slop buckets were emptied from upstairs windows, the fresh stench sawing over the rooftops, the lord had had enough of being a gentleman. Something about shit flecks spoiling fine red uniforms really pissed him off.
“Present arms!” ordered Compton. As one, the front line of redcoats pointed their muskets at the Devil’s Acre. Thumbing the hag stone around his neck, Sol felt the old Druidic totem call at things neither saintly-Jesus nor damned-Lucifer. Note-strings of time pulled at him and then knotted, urged to be played, to be sewn through the eye of the hag stone just as Old Morgan had taught him.
When a grubby urchin ran out from the dense mob, slipping under a barrier and flinging a filth bucket up over the heads of the redcoats into Lynch’s face, Sol knew the future mirage he saw was going to come true. Flailing, all arms and legs, like a fly drowning in a puddle, you’d have thought someone had dealt Lynch a mortal blow. More slop was slung, the crowd cheered and goaded.
Yet Lord Compton found restraint from somewhere, shaking his head at Lynch and bidding him to silence. Lynch wrestled his fine jacket off and wiped a bloody nose on a cuff.
All the soldiers had their disciplined eyes fixed on the mob. Perhaps fearful of the urban legends of dark alleys, of the stories of coppers disappearing, consumed by a hungry living darkness. They looked poised like the hangman, anxious to open the trapdoor.
Then Lynch opened that door. “Fire!” Above the din, the soldiers couldn’t tell who gave the order. The round of gunshot snapped high on the air, powder wafted into the stink of rookery cholera and sewage. Splatters of blood spiralled to upper level windows.
The red line started the awkward process of reloading, tearing paper cartridges with teeth and pouring powder into gun pans. Seeing their chance, the rookery mob charged, hacked at the barrier. Others climbed over. Violence gushed through.
Bright daylight washed through the market square and sharpened Sol’s view of the fight, like the focused images he saw when he played the future. The redcoats all looked the same as the poor sods from the rookery, except for the pomp of uniform; his dad could have been any of them, in his day. What stuck most in Sol’s mind though was the contrast of dirty-white rookery feet against black boots. Wish I got a pair of boots instead of a bleeding coat.
A rustling caused Sol to turn his attention from the fight. A figure stood over him. “This time, even the Paddies have joined the Iceni against Rome. Andraste, help us all.” It was Old Morgan, skeletal and yet brimming with energy. He had somehow managed to climb to the roofs. Animated by a spirit from his past, Sol could sense the knots of time around him. It’s the moment of his life.
“Stay up here, son. Play your tune when the legions are at closest quarter.”
Morgan scratched chalk on slates, preparing some ritual of the ancient Druids. Then, more limber than Sol had ever seen him, jumped down the split stub of a chimney in a puff of soot.
Fighting exploded in the alley, brown caps against redcoats. No more shooting, just bayonets in the narrows. Back, further into the slum the redcoats pushed. Sol tracked from the rooftops. He caught glimpses of the swallowing blackness, reaching from nooks like devil claws. Darker still. Now the rookery clutched the entire first line of soldiers.
Looking past white knuckles on the edge of a roof, Sol saw Morgan’s bald head, heard his voice call to his gods. Blue-faced men appeared, bursting in throng from shutters, doorways and from around corners. Even from shit-bunged open sewers.
Sol put the fife to his lips, breathed deeply to calm the tremble in his fingers, and played. Melodies of time laced through the soldiers’ minds, linked pasts to futures. Like a flame along a fuse, eating until point of explosion, Sol searched for a moment. Then he found it, notes discordant and sharp. An as yet unborn grandson of one of the soldiers was fighting in a future war, a war without context or glory to those living in the present. Just a mess of unexplained bloody death. This time Sol played it for every redcoat to share.
Another foreign field, another march into the fray. But no bright red coats on this battlefield. Guns sounded different, chattering rat-tat-tat as they ripped men apart. Muddy fields. A stink in the air that burns your insides and makes your eyes itch till they bleed. Take the hill…but all that is left are dead men and the rat-tat-tat of guns. No-one left standing. Just rat-tat-tat. Scraps of paper, letters unsent, in trenches of dirt. If only we could read them…. And a question, unanswered. What are we fighting for?
All lost in a waking nightmare, the redcoats slowed their advance. Some screamed, thinking a foul spirit had bewitched them in this evil place. Blue faces coshed hard against their chosen opponents, brass knuckles crunched into noses. Guns were wrenched from soldiers’ hands. The redcoats broke; a hopeless war to the front, anything behind must be better, running into fists, some into knives. Blood mixed into the debris and sewage of squelching earth.
Remaining on the roof, Sol watched the rout. He heard Morgan cheering “Andraste, goddess of victory!” But, unseen to those on the ground behind the front-line, the second line of soldiers back in the square presented their arms. Today is not our day.
“Fire!” This time it was the lord’s orders.
These redcoats were too far away and the screams and gunshots were too loud for them to hear Sol’s fife. His notes blew hard and broke uselessly.
Swinging off a side beam, Sol shimmied across a window ledge and reached Morgan, in a clear space behind his woad warriors. The old man looked up, stretched out a hand.
“Come, son. Live for the moment.”
Another snap of fire. Musket balls blistered into wood, fluid sprayed between alleys. Old Morgan dropped like a stone. Sol let go of the ledge, landing with a splash on churned earth. Not bothering to count the bodies of redcoats, blue faces or brown caps lying dead or dying, Sol only saw one man. There’s no Devil’s Acre without him.
“Come on, you old bastard.” Dragging Morgan, hands under his arms, Sol hurried through an unhinged doorway, to a pile of dirty sheets in a back room obscured by gloom.
Morgan’s chest bubbled when he breathed. Blood stained his lips. Outside, again the sound of gunshot. Everything happened too quickly.
“Tell me the ritual of mistletoe and oak. Tell me,” said the fifer.
A liver-spotted hand grabbed Sol’s, both grimy and black under the nails. A tear from Sol’s eyes spilt onto the old man’s face, leaving a clean stream against grey.
“What a moment, son. Nearly…. It doesn’t matter now.” Voice just breath and heartbeat. “Both our time’s done here. Some things are best forgotten. You got elsewhere to be.”
As he cradled the bald head to his chest, Sol could only listen. Breath turned to low rasp, getting quieter until Morgan’s chest fell for the last time. Old Morgan died with a gleam in his eye.
Sol lay against the old man’s caked shirt, numbed to the lap of history all around. Andraste, or whoever you are, the devil may care but I bloody do.
Outside, boots thundered the proximity of grim reality. Lucy? Sol jumped up, started kicking at the rotten back wall. Weak, it crumbled and splintered easily, revealing another alley.
For the last time Sol looked back at the old man. He fingered his hag stone for a moment and then ran. Through the hole in the wall, into a place where the stink of Thames water made a shallow swamp. Into drowned alleys, empty except for the odd beggar, he called out “Lucy! Where are you? Lucy!” He ran on, calling her name over and over again.
A figure, pale and shaky, ducked from under a hovel. A woman, her footsteps glugging when she moved, mud up to her ankles. She grinned, something cheeky to it. “So, pagan, you kept your promise?”
Before Sol had a time to respond, Lucy grabbed him and pressed in tight. Her heart beat through him, a drum of life compared to Morgan. They kissed, sharing heat, taste and smell, as all around time unknotted and whipped out with violence.
That night, under the shadow of Westminster Abbey, Sol sat with Lucy Lyn on a dry doorstep and mourned. No gin, just silence and thoughts. When Lucy’s head lolled sleepily on Sol’s shoulder he played a lullaby.
Hot tears fell, Sol’s anger speeding his fingers, raging faster and faster. Lullaby turned to battle cry, thoughts of Morgan and Lucy morphed into thoughts of Lynch. Lynch….
Playing the lives of Mr and Mrs Lynch, Sol chose two moments. Around the fifer’s neck the eye of his hag stone blinked and became full.
On the south side of the Thames the Lynch Tenements had been finished and lived in for months now. Cleaner, sturdier, better than the old slum buildings, Sol could see their appeal. Straight-edged red brick, plumbing and the works. Yet, some of the old rookery folk lingered on under the shadow of Westminster Abbey, mostly those who had fought in the battle with the redcoats and lost loved ones. Sometimes Sol prayed for their health. He didn’t know who he prayed to, but he rationalised it probably wasn’t Andraste, certainly not the devil.
Often a beggar or little dipper would make his or her way to the new tenements and ask Sol to play the squares for sympathy and distraction. But Sol had moved on; instead he declined and gave some coin in charity instead.
What made him saddest was Lucy. The past had burrowed deep into her, trapped her with its sentimentality and comforting familiarity. “I don’t like down here, living under the roofs that Lynch built. Life down here’s too plain,” she told Sol, moving out the tenements just a week after moving in. Instead, she still fluttered eyes at fine suited gents, or pinched hired babies for sympathy coin north of the river. Then again, Lucy always liked life flavoured with a bit of riotous and saucy. But those days were numbered. Sol had seen it.
Life became empty routine, a dull plateau on a journey once full of the peaks and troughs of devil-may-care day-to-day survival. All scrubbed and clean, Sol now fifed to the crowds not for the dippers. He gave everyone a smile, made a pretty penny. He even bought a nice suit, only once owned before. Dapper, perhaps more than half a dandy. But lonely.
Strange, how in his memories the grey and browns of the Devil’s Acre appeared vibrant and living next to the redbrick dullness of the Lynch Estate. Old Morgan had it right though, time to move on, to fill that gin-high and hangover-low hole left in his soul. Because Sol didn’t fit into the new London: too many awkward edges.
So neat and clean was Sol that when Mr Lynch came to tour his little empire he didn’t recognise the once red coated fifer. Mr Lynch looked different himself; an important man with contacts, he spoke plummy, his stomach bloated under his shirt, his cheeks glowed rosy from brandy or some other high-class tipple.
With keen eyes, Sol watched. He stood in the front of a group of tenants who came out to cheer their… philanthropic benefactor. A band played, some people even made banners. Wives pushed husbands forward to ask for work. When Lynch passed Sol, the fifer took his chance to speak to the man of the moment.
“Sir, a gift from the residents. A thank you token from rookery days.” Into soft hands Sol dropped a finely polished stone, almost shining like glass. Something shimmered inside the little hole in the middle.
Recoiling for a moment, then relaxing, Mr Lynch said, “Yes, thank you.” He pocketed the curiosity without much thought. After that, Sol packed his meagre possession into a small sack and headed into the streets, to find a thread of time he could knot onto.
While walking along the banks of the Thames, heading toward the noise, masts and cranes in the distance, Sol reflected on the stone he had given Lynch. It contained two moments. The first moment was of Mrs Lynch, her fluttering heart and blushing cheeks when Lord Compton looked into her eyes and pulled her close. Then blackness, leaving unanswered questions and poisonous mistrust. The second moment belonged to an old man sitting in a dingy room, which throbbed a terrible loneliness. On every wall hung a picture of a lady, yet where her face should have been were only rips or holes, burnt patches and rubbed-blank canvas. Mr Lynch could experience these moments as many times as he wished.
With a stomach full of food and a pocketful of coin, Sol entered the bustle of the docks. Ships with high masts, a few with funnels billowing steam, filled the river. Catcalling sailors and the smell of fish and spice gave the area a riotous saucy flavour. Sol knew it wouldn’t last.
On the edge of a pier, observing the many lives weaving their own present, Sol took out his fife and, out of sheer curiosity, decided to play. Here, men of all colours and cloths passed through, motes in the eye of Time rapidly blinked away. But what did their moments feel like? Smell like. Taste like?
Lingering on the sad drawn out notes, which reflected his mood, Sol instantly felt the edges of his perception give way, a slow seep of memories belonging to others filled his mind. Sol let his music latch onto the sensations of the docks and the shock almost caused him to faint. It was as if the tight huddle of London exploded out into a broad and sweeping plain, where the horizon blurred.
A place where time, and lives, had room to whip about as if not certain of their destination. He tried to push into the future of these new sensations, into a world of new rhythms, where rooms full of raucous audiences threw their hats and cheered for musicians on a stage. Of dark men and women playing and singing something which seemed to dig under the skin and into the soul. It called to him, perhaps something which could fill that aching hole.
When Sol stopped playing he found that a crowd had gathered around him, cheering like the image in his mind. A swarthy man, with gold rings in his ears, stepped forward and roughly patted Sol on his shoulder. “Got a gift there, young mate. Captain said that you, playing like that, could charm the wind itself.” Sol shrugged.
“We’re bound for New York, once the Captain sorts a few things. We got room for one more, mate.”
Tucking his fife into a pocket, Sol watched the stinking brown Thames water lapping beneath him. “New York. ‘New’,” he said with a slow smile, testing how the word felt. It felt full of potential. “Coincidence, I’d say. Just so happens, I’m headed to New York, as of now.”
“Right you are. I’ll show you to our Fair Lady of the Sea.”
Stepping back from the edge of the pier, Sol followed the sailor and looked forward to uncertainty.
James K Isaac is an Ancient History post-graduate and has always loved stories of the weird, wonderful and terrifying in futures and presents imagined and pasts re-imagined. Since his studies he has worked in the National Maritime and British museums and spent years as a wondering teacher in China. For the present, he is content to teach in London, England. He has had several stories published in magazines and anthologies, including Analog. Upcoming stories are set to appear in Stupefying Stories, Red Penny Papers, and the anthology That Hoodoo, Voodoo, That You Do.