W&N Fiction

Rivers of London- Chapter Four

Gollancz Author: - July 13th, 2012
Ben Aaronovitch, Extract, Fantasy

To celebrate our long week part serialization of Rivers of London Team Gollancz are sharing their love of London before each chapter. Today, Jon shares his London memories with you .  . .

There’s a great line in Jaws when Ellen Brody, who has moved from New York city, asks a resident of Amity Island when she herself will be thought of as ‘an islander’. “Never,” comes the reply. “You weren’t born here, you’re not an Islander.” Which is how I used to think of myself in regards to London. I know one or two people who are born and bred Londoners, but everyone else, like me, found themselves here chasing a better job, a higher salary or just a dream. I’m originally from ‘Up North’ so London seemed a vast, sprawling, garishly lit nightmare of wonderment and possibility when I first moved here, but I never once thought I’d ever feel like one of its inhabitants. Not really. I was always, I thought, destined to be an outsider, a long-term visitor permitted to live and work in this huge great metropolis which, for good reason is one of the greatest cities in the world. Then I read Rivers of London. And, as I started ticking off the streets, landmarks, roads and places Ben Aaronovitch mentioned in the story, places I knew from my everyday life, I realised that for the first time I felt like I belonged in London. The city came alive for me all over again. So while I’ll always be a Northern boy, and the North will always be home, believe me when I say that  Rivers of London brings this city to life like no other book I think I’ve read. I’ve fallen for this city all over again and I think, if I were to ask it when will I be a Londoner it’d tell me in some small way I always have been.

And don’t forget, we’re giving you a chance daily to win a copy of Rivers of London (London Edition). To enter read the below extract and send the answer to this question: What is the name of the ‘goddess of the river?’ To: competitions@orionbooks.co.uk with the subject line: Rivers 4 by 11.59pm 16th July 2012. Happy Reading!

 

Chapter Four: By the River

There are some things you don’t want to be doing less than ten minutes after waking up, and doing a ton down the Great West Road is one of them.Even at three in the morning with the spinner going and a siren to clear the way and the roads as empty of traffic as London roads ever get.I was hanging onto the door- strap and trying not to think about the fact that the Jag, with its many vintage qualities of style and crafts- manship, was sadly lacking in the airbag and modern crumple-zone department.

‘Have you fixed the radio yet?’ asked Nightingale.

At some point the Jag had been fitted with a modern radio set, which Nightingale cheerfully admitted he didn’t know how to use.I’d managed to get it turned on but got distracted when Nightingale put us around the Hogarth Roundabout fast enough to smack my head against the side window.I took advantage of a relatively straight bit of road to key into Richmond Borough Command, which was where Nightingale said the trouble was.We caught the tail end of a report delivered in the slightly strangulated tone adopted by someone who’s desperately trying to sound like they’re not panicking.It was something about geese.

‘Tango Whiskey Three from Tango Whiskey one: say again?’

TW-1 would be the Richmond Duty Inspector in the local control room, TW -3 would be one of the Borough’s Incident Response Vehicles.

‘Tango Whiskey One from Tango Whiskey Three, we’re down by the White Swan being attacked by the bloody geese.’

‘White Swan?’ I asked.

‘It’s a pub in Twickenham,’ said Nightingale.‘By the bridge to Eel Pie Island.’

Eel Pie Island I knew to be a collection of boatyards and houses on a river islet barely 500 metres long.The Rolling Stones had once played a gig there, and so had my father – that’s where I knew it from.

‘And the geese?’ I asked.

‘Better than watchdogs,’ said Nightingale.‘Ask the Romans.’

TW-1 wasn’t interested in the geese; she wanted to know about the crime.There’d been multiple 999 calls twenty minutes earlier, reporting a breach of the peace and possible fighting between groups of youths, which in my experience could turn out to be anything from a hen night gone wrong to foxes turning over rubbish bins.

TW-3 reported seeing a group of IC1 males dressed in jeans and donkey jackets fighting with an unknown number of IC3 females on Riverside Road.IC1 is the identification code for white people, IC3 is black people and if you’re wondering, I tend to jump between IC3 and IC6 – Arabic or North African.It depends on how much sun I’ve caught recently.Black versus white was unusual but not impossible, but I’d never heard of boys versus girls before, and neither had TW -1, who wanted clarification.

‘Female,’ reported TW -3.‘Definitely female, and one of them is stark naked.’

‘I was afraid of that,’ said Nightingale.

‘Afraid of what?’ I asked.

There was a rush of emptiness outside the Jag as we shot across the Chiswick Bridge.Upstream of Chiswick, the Thames throws a loop northwards around Kew Gardens and we were cutting across the base and aiming for Richmond Bridge.

‘There’s an important shrine nearby,’ said Night ingale.‘I think the boys might have been after that.’

When he said shrine, I guessed he wasn’t talking about the rugby stadium.

‘And the girls are defending the shrine?’

‘Something like that,’ said Nightingale.He was a superb driver, with a level of concentration that I always find a comfort at high speed but even Nightingale had to slow down when the streets narrowed.Like a lot of London, Richmond town centre had been laid out back when town planning was something that happened to other people.

‘Tango Whiskey one from Tango Whiskey four; I’m on Church Lane by the river and I’ve got five or six IC1 males climbing into a boat – in pursuit.’

TW-4 would be Richmond’s second Incident Response Vehicle, meaning that just about every avail- able body was now dealing.

TW-3 reported that there was no sign of the IC3 females, naked or otherwise, but that they could see the boat and it was heading for the opposite bank.

‘Call them and tell them we’re on our way,’ said Nightingale.

‘What’s our call sign? I asked.

‘Zulu One,’ he said.

I keyed the microphone.‘Tango Whiskey One from Zulu One; show us dealing.’

There was a bit of a pause while TW -1 digested this. I wondered if the duty inspector knew who we were.

‘Zulu One from Tango Whiskey One; copy that.’ The Inspector had sounded flat, neutral.She knew who we were, all right.‘Be advised that the suspects seem to have crossed the river and may now be on the south bank.’

I tried to acknowledge but it came out strangulated when Nightingale put us the wrong way down the one- way system on George Street, which you’re not sup- posed to do even with your lights and siren on.Not least because of the risk of coming face to face with something heavy and designed to clean streets in the middle of the night.I braced my legs in the footwell as our headlights lit up a two-metre, cherry-red Valentine’s heart in the window of Boots.

TW-3 called in: ‘Be advised that the suspect boat is now on fire, I can see people jumping off.’
Nightingale put his foot down, but mercifully we turned a corner and were back going the right way down the street.On the right was Richmond Bridge, but Nightingale went straight across the mini- roundabout and down the road that ran beside the Thames.We heard TW -1 calling in the London Fire Brigade fire boat – twenty minutes away at least.

Nightingale threw the Jag into a right-hand turn that I hadn’t even noticed and suddenly we were racing through pitch darkness, jolting along a track with gravel pinging off the bottom of the chassis.A sudden turn to the left and we were running right along the water’s edge, following the river as it curved north again.A line of cabin cruisers was moored close to the opposite bank, and beyond them I could see yellow flames – our burning boat.This was no modern pleasure cruiser, it looked more like a half-length narrowboat, the kind owned by homeopathic entrepreneurs that was sup- posed to have hand-painted gunwales and a cat asleep on the roof.If this boat had a cat, though, I hoped it could swim because it was on fire from stem to stern.

‘There,’ said Nightingale.

I looked ahead and saw figures caught on the fringes of our headlights.I called it into TW -1: ‘Confirm sus- pects on the south bank near … where the hell are we?’

‘Hammerton’s Ferry,’ said Nightingale and I passed it on.

Nightingale braked the Jag and we pulled up opposite the burning boat.There were torches in the glove com- partment, vulcanised monstrosities with old-fashioned filament bulbs.Mine proved reassuringly heavy in the hand when Nightingale and I stepped out into the darkness.

I swept my light along the path but the suspects – assuming that’s what they were – had scarpered.Night- ingale seemed more interested in the river than the path.I used my torch to check the water around the narrow boat which, I saw, was drifting slowly down- stream, but there was nobody in the water.

‘Shouldn’t we check there’s no one left on board ?’ I asked.

‘There had better be no one on that boat,’ said Night- ingale loudly, as if speaking to the river rather than to me.‘And I want that fire put out right now,’ he said.

I heard a giggle out in the darkness.I pointed my torch in the direction it came from but there was nothing to see except the boats moored on the far bank. I turned back to see the burning boat being sucked down into the river as if someone had grabbed hold of the bottom and yanked it under the surface.The last of the flames guttered out and then, like an escaping rubber duck, it bobbed up to the surface, the fire entirely doused.

‘What did that?’ I asked.

‘River spirits,’ said Nightingale.‘Stay here while I check further up the bank.’

I heard another laugh from across the water.Then, very clearly and not three metres from where I was standing, someone, definitely a woman and a Londoner, said, ‘Oh, shit!’ Then came the sound of metal being torn.

I ran over.At that point the bank was a muddy slope held together with tree roots and bits of stone reinforce- ment.As I got close I heard a splash, and got my torch on it just in time to see a sleek curved shape vanish beneath the surface.I might have thought it was an otter, if I was stupid enough to think otters were hairless and grew as big as a man.Just below my feet was a square cage made out of chickenwire, part of an anti- erosion project I learned later, one side of which had been torn open.

Nightingale returned empty-handed and said that we might as well wait for the fire boat to come and take the remains of the narrowboat under tow.I asked him if there was such a thing as mermaids.

‘That wasn’t a mermaid,’ he said.

‘So there are such things as mermaids,’ I said.

‘Focus, Peter,’ he said.‘One thing at a time.’

‘Was that a river spirit?’ I asked.

‘Genii locorum,’ he said.‘The spirit of a place, a goddess of the river, if you like.’ Although not the Goddess of Thames herself, Nightingale explained, because her taking a direct part in any aggro would be a violation of the agreement.I asked whether this was the same agreement as ‘the agreement’, or a different agreement entirely.

‘There are a number of agreements,’ said Night- ingale.‘A great deal of what we do is making sure everyone keeps to them.’

‘There’s a goddess of the river,’ I said.

‘Yes – Mother Thames,’ he said patiently.‘And there’s a god of the river – Father Thames.’

‘Are they related ?’

‘No,’ he said.‘And that’s part of the problem.’

‘Are they really gods?’

‘I never worry about the theological questions,’ said Nightingale.‘They exist, they have power and they can breach the Queen’s peace – that makes them a police matter.’

A searchlight stabbed out of the darkness and swept over the river once, twice, before swinging back to fix on the remains of the narrowboat – the London Fire Brigade had arrived.I smelled diesel exhaust as the fire boat gingerly manoeuvred alongside, figures in yellow helmets waiting with hoses and boathooks.The search- light revealed that the superstructure had been com- pletely gutted by the fire, but I could see that the hull had been painted red with black trim.I could hear the firemen chatting to each other as they boarded and made the narrowboat safe.It was all reassuringly mundane.Which brought me to another thought. Nightingale and I had scrambled out of bed, into the Jag and headed west before there was any indication that this was nothing more than the tail end of an average Friday night.

‘How did you know this was our shout?’ I asked.

‘I have my own sources,’ said Nightingale.

One of the Richmond IRVs arrived with the Duty Inspector onboard and we all indulged in a bit of bur- eaucratic strutting to establish our respective bona fides. Richmond won on points, but only because one of them had a flask full of coffee.Nightingale briefed the locals – it was a gang thing, he said.Some IC1 youths, no doubt drunk, had stolen a boat, sailed down from beyond Teddington Lock and picked a fight with a local group of IC3 youths – some of whom were female.When they tried to escape, the Teddington gang had managed, accidentally , to set their boat on fire, had abandoned ship and escaped on foot down the Thames pathway. Everybody nodded their heads – it sounded like a typical Friday night in the big city.Nightingale said he was sure nobody had drowned, but the Richmond Duty Inspector decided to call in a search-and-rescue team just in case.

Then, our two inspectors having marked their respective trees, we went our separate ways.
We drove back up to Richmond but stopped well short of the bridge.Dawn was at least an hour away, but as I followed Nightingale through an iron gate I could see that the road we were on cut through a municipal gardens that sloped down to the river.There was an orange glow ahead of us, a hurricane lantern hung on the lower branches of a plane tree, and it illuminated a row of red-brick arches built into the revetment that supported the roadway.Inside these artificial caves I glimpsed sleeping bags, cardboard boxes and old newspaper.

‘I’m just going to have a chat with this troll,’ said Nightingale.

‘Sir,’ I said, ‘I think we’re supposed to call them rough sleepers.’

‘Not this one we don’t,’ said Nightingale.‘He’s a troll.’ I saw movement in the shadow of one of the arches, a pale face, ragged hair, layers of old clothes against the winter cold.It looked like a rough sleeper to me.

‘A troll, really?’ I asked.

‘His name is Nathaniel,’ said Nightingale.‘He used to sleep under Hungerford Bridge.’

‘Why did he move?’ I asked.

‘Apparently he wanted to live in the suburbs.’ Suburban troll, I thought, why not?

‘This is your snout, isn’t it,’ I said.‘He tipped you off.’

‘A policeman is only as good as his informants,’ said Nightingale.I didn’t tell him that these days they were supposed to be referred to as Covert Human Intel- ligence Sources.‘Stay back a bit,’ he said.‘He doesn’t know you yet.’

Nathaniel ducked back into his lair as Nightingale approached and crouched politely at the threshold of the troll’s cave.I stamped my feet and blew on my fingers.I’d been sensible enough to grab my uniform jumper, but even with that on under my jacket three hours by the river in February was edging me into brass monkey territory.If I hadn’t been so busy jamming my hands into my armpits I might have noticed much sooner that I was being watched.

Actually, if I hadn’t spent the last couple of weeks trying to separate vestigium from ordinary random paranoia I wouldn’t have noticed at all.

It started as a flush, like embarrassment, like the time at the Year Eight disco when Rona Tang marched across the no man’s land of the dance floor and informed me, in no uncertain terms, that Funme Ajayi wanted me to dance with her, but there was no way I was going to dance with a conspiracy of teenage girls watching me while I did it.It was the same scrutiny – defiant, mocking, curious.I checked behind myself first, as you do, but I could see nothing but sodium streetlights up the road.I thought I felt a puff of warm breath against my cheek, a sensation like sunlight, mown grass and singed hair.I turned and stared out over the river and for a moment I thought I saw movement, a face, something …

‘Seen something?’ asked Nightingale, making me jump.

‘Jesus Christ,’ I said.

‘Not on this river,’ said Nightingale.‘Not even Blake thought that was possible.’

We returned to the Jag and the fickle embrace of its 1960s heating system.As we returned through Rich- mond town centre, the right way round the one-way system this time, I asked Nightingale whether Nathaniel the troll had been helpful.

‘He confirmed what we suspected,’ he said.That the boys in the boat had been followers of Father Thames, had come downstream to raid the shrine at Eel Pie Island and been caught by followers of Mother Thames. They were doubtless well tanked up, and probably did set their own fire while trying to make their escape. Downstream, the Thames was the sovereign domain of Mother Thames, upstream, it belonged to Father Thames.The dividing line was at Teddington Lock, two kilometres upstream from Eel Pie Island.

‘So you think Father Thames is making a grab for turf ?’ I asked.It made these ‘gods’ sound like drug dealers.Traffic was noticeably heavier heading back – London was waking up.
‘It’s hardly surprising that the spirits of a locality would exhibit territoriality,’ said Nightingale.‘In any case, I think you might have a unique insight into this problem.I want you to go and have a word with Mother Thames.’

‘And what do me and my unique insight say to Mrs Thames?’

‘Find out what the problem is and see if you can find an amicable solution,’ said Nightingale.

‘And if I can’t?’

‘Then I want you to remind her that, whatever some people may think, the Queen’s peace extends to the whole Kingdom.’

Nobody got to drive the Jag except Nightingale, which was understandable.If I had a car like that I wouldn’t let anyone else drive it either.However I did have access to a ten-year-old Ford Escort in electric blue which had ex-Panda car written all over it.Nightingale shopped at the same used-car showroom as Lesley.You can always tell an old cop car because however hard you scrub, it always smells of old cop.

Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Wapping – the old and the new East End were mashed up together by money and intransigence.Mother Thames lived East of the White Tower in a converted warehouse just short of the Shadwell Basin.It was just the other side of the slipway from the Prospect of Whitby, an ancient pub that was a legendary jazz venue back in the day.My dad had sat in there with Johnny Keating but had managed, with his finely tuned ability to sabotage his own career, to miss performing with Lita Roza – I think they got Ronnie Hughes to replace him.
To the main road the warehouse showed a blind face of London brick pierced by modern windows, but on the Thames side the old loading wharves had been converted into a car park.I parked up between an orange Citroe¨ n Picasso and a fire-brick red Jaguar XF with an Urban Dance FM sticker in the windscreen.

As I stepped out, I had the clearest sense of vestigia so far.A sudden smell of pepper and seawater as quick and shocking as the scream of a gull.Hardly surprising, since the warehouse had once been part of the Port of London, the busiest port in the world.

A bitterly cold wind was sweeping up the Thames so I hurried for the entrance lobby.Someone somewhere was playing music with the bass turned up to Health and Safety-violating levels.The melody, assuming there was one, wasn’t audible but I could hear the bass line in my chest. Suddenly, above it there was a trill of feminine laughter, wicked and gossipy.The neo- Victorian lobby was guarded by a top-of-the-line entry- phone.I pressed the number Nightingale had given me and waited.I was about to try the number again when I heard the slap of flip-flops on tile approaching the door from the other side.Then it opened to reveal a young black woman with cat-shaped eyes, wearing a black t-shirt that was many sizes too big for her with the words W E R UN T IN GZ printed on the front.

‘Yeah,’ she said.‘What do you want?’

‘I’m Detective Constable Grant,’ I said.‘I’m here to see Mrs Thames.’

The girl looked me up and down and, having judged me against some theoretical standard, folded her arms across her breasts and glared at me.‘So?’ she asked.

‘Nightingale sent me,’ I said.

The girl sighed and turned to yell down the com- munal hallway.‘There’s some geezer here says he’s from the Wizard.’ Printed on the back of her t-shirt was TI NG Z NU H R UN W E .

‘Let him in,’ called a voice from deep inside the build- ing.It had a soft but distinctive Nigerian accent.

‘You’d better come in,’ said the girl, and stood aside.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘My name’s Beverley Brook,’ she said, and cocked her head as I walked past.

‘Pleased to meet you, Beverley,’ I said.

It was hot inside the building, tropical, almost humid, and sweat prickled on my face and back.I saw the front doors in the communal corridor were wide open and the heavy bass beat came floating down the wrought- iron staircase that linked the floors.Either this was the most neighbourly block of flats in English history, or Mother Thames controlled the whole building.
Beverley led me into a ground-floor flat, and I tried to keep my eyes off the long legs that emerged slender and brown below the hem of the t-shirt.It was even hotter inside the flat proper, and I recognised the smell of palm oil and cassava leaf.I knew exactly the style of home I was in from the walls, painted hint of peach, to the kitchen full of rice and chicken and Morrison’s own- brand custard-cream biscuits.

We stopped at the threshold to the living room. Beverley beckoned me down so she could murmur in my ear: ‘You show some respect now.’ I breathed in cooked hair and cocoa butter.It was like being sixteen again.

During the 1990s, when the architect who built this place had been commissioned, he had been told that he was designing luxury apartments for thrusting young professionals.No doubt he envisioned power suits, braces and people who would furnish their home with the bleak minimalist style of a Scandinavian detective novel.In his worst nightmare he probably never con- sidered the idea that the owner would use the generous proportions of the living room as an excuse to cram in at least four World of Leather three-piece suites.Not to mention a plasma television, currently showing football with the mute on, and a huge plant in a pot, which I recognised with a start as being a mangrove tree.An actual mangrove tree, whose knobbly-kneed roots spilled over the edges of the pot and had gone questing through the shagpile carpet.I looked up and saw that the topmost branches had thrust up through the ceiling.I could see where the white plaster had flaked away to reveal the pine joists.

Arrayed on a leather sofa was as fine a collection of middle-aged African women as you’d find in a Pente- costal church, all of whom gave me the same once-over that Beverley had.Seated incongruously among them was a skinny white woman in a pink cashmere twinset and pearls, looking as perfectly at home as if she’d wandered in on her way into town and had never left. I noticed that the heat wasn’t bothering her.She gave me a friendly nod.

But none of this was important because also in the room was the Goddess of the River Thames.
She sat enthroned on the finest of the executive armchairs.Her hair was braided and threaded with black cotton and tipped with gold, so that it stood above her brow like a crown.Her face was round and unlined, her skin as smooth and perfect as a child’s, her lips full and very dark.She had the same black cat-shaped eyes as Beverley.Her blouse and wrap skirt were made from the finest gold Austrian lace, the neckline picked out in silver and scarlet, wide enough to display one smooth plump shoulder and the generous upper slopes of her breasts.

One beautifully manicured hand rested on a side table, at the foot of which stood burlap sacks and little wooden crates.As I stepped closer I could smell salt water and coffee, diesel and bananas, chocolate and fish guts.I didn’t need Nightingale to tell me I was sensing something supernatural, a glamour so strong it was like being washed away by the tide.In her presence I found nothing strange in the fact that the Goddess of the River was Nigerian.

‘So you are the wizard’s boy,’ said Mama Thames.

‘I thought there was an agreement?’

I found my voice.‘I believe it was more of an arrangement.’

I was fighting the urge to fling myself to my knees before her and put my face between her breasts and go blubby, blubby, blubby .When she offered me a seat I was so hard it was painful to sit down.

I caught Beverley snickering behind her hand.So did Mama Thames, who sent the teenager scuttling for the kitchen.This I know for a fact: the reason African women have children is so that there’s someone else to do the housework.

‘Would you like some tea?’ asked Mama Thames.

I declined politely.Nightingale had been very specific: don’t eat or drink anything under her roof.‘Do that,’ he’d said, ‘and she’ll have her hooks in you.’ My mum would have taken such a refusal as an insult, but Mama Thames just inclined her head graciously.Perhaps this too was all part of the arrangement.

‘Your Master,’ she said.‘He is well ?’

‘Yes ma’am,’ I said.

‘He does seem to get better as he gets older, does our Master Nightingale,’ she said.Before I could ask what she meant, she had asked after my parents.‘Your mother is a Fula – yes?’ she asked.

‘From Sierra Leone,’ I said.

‘And your father no longer plays, I believe?’

‘You know my father ?’

‘No,’ she said, and gave me a knowing smile.‘Only in the sense that all the musicians of London belong to me, especially the jazz and bluesmen.It’s a river thing.’

‘Are you on speaking terms with the Mississippi, then?’ I asked.My father always swore that jazz, like the blues, was born in the muddy waters of the Mis- sissippi.My mother swore that it came from the bottle, like all the devil’s best work.I’d been taking the piss a little bit, but it suddenly occurred to me that if there was a Mother Thames, why not a god of the Old Man River, and if that was so, did they talk? Did they have long phone calls about silting, watersheds and the need for flood management in the tidal regions? Or did they email or text or twitter ?

With that reality check, I realised that some of the glamour was wearing off.I think Mama Thames must have sensed it too, because she gave me a shrewd look and nodded.‘Yes,’ she said.‘I see how it is now.How clever of your Master to choose you, and they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’

Two weeks of similarly impenetrable remarks from Nightingale meant that I had developed a sophisticated counter-measure to gnomic utterances – I changed the subject.

‘How did you come to be Goddess of the Thames?’ I asked.

‘Are you sure you want to know?’ she asked, but I could tell that she was flattered by my interest.It’s a truism that everybody loves to talk about themselves. Nine out of ten confessions arise entirely out of a human being’s natural instinct to tell their life story to an atten- tive listener, even if it involves how they came to bludg- eon their golf partner to death.Mama Thames was no different; in fact, I realised, gods had an ever greater need to explain themselves.

‘I came to London in 1957,’ said Mama Thames.‘But I wasn’t a goddess then.I was just some stupid country girl with a name that I have forgotten, come to train as a nurse, but if I am honest I have to say I was not a very good nurse.I never liked to get too close to the sick people, and there were too many Igbo in my class. Because of those stupid patients I failed all my exams and they threw me out.’ Mama Thames kissed her teeth at the barefaced cheek of them.‘Into the street, just like that.And then my beautiful Robert, who had been courting me for three years, says to me, “I can no longer wait for you to make up your mind, and I am going to marry a white bitch Irish woman.” ’

She kissed her teeth again, and it was echoed around the room by all the other women.

‘I was so heartbroken,’ said Mama Thames, ‘that I went to kill myself.Oh, yes, that is how bad the man broke my heart.So I went to Hungerford Bridge to throw myself in the river.But that is a railway bridge, and the old footbridge that ran along the side – very dirty in those days.All sorts of things used to live on that bridge, tramps and trolls and goblins.It is not the sort of place a decent Nigerian girl wants to throw herself off.Who knows what might be watching? So I went to Waterloo Bridge, but by the time I got there it was sunset and everywhere I looked it was so beautiful that I thought I just cannot bring myself to jump.Then it was dark, so I went home for my dinner.The next morning I got up nice and early and caught a bus to Blackfriars Bridge.But there is that damn statue of Queen Victoria at the north end, and even if she is looking the other way, think how embarrassed you would be if she were to turn round and see you standing on the parapet.’

The rest of the room shook their heads in agreement.

‘There was no way on earth that I was going to throw myself off Southwark Bridge,’ said Mama Thames.‘So after another long, long walk, where did I find myself ?’

‘London Bridge?’

Mama Thames reached out and patted me on the knee.‘This was the old bridge, the one that was sold soon afterwards to that nice American gentleman.Now there was a man who knows how to show a river a good time.Two barrels of Guinness and a crate of Rhum Barbancourt, that’s what I call an offering.’

There was a pause while Mama Thames sipped her tea.Beverley entered with a plate of custard creams and placed them within easy reach.I had a biscuit in my hand before I realised what I was doing, and put it back. Beverley snorted.

‘In the middle of the old London Bridge was a chapel, a shrine to St Birinus and I thought, good Sunday Chris- tian that I was, that this would be the right place to jump off.I stood there looking west just as the tide began to turn.London was still a port back then, dying but like an old man with a long, exciting life, full of stories and memories.And terrified that he was going to be old and frail with no one to look after him because there was no life left in the river, no Orisa, no spirit, nothing to care for the old man.I heard the river call me by the name I have forgotten and it said, “We see you are in pain, we see you are weeping like a child because of one man.”

‘And I said, “Oh, River, I have come such a long way, but I have failed as a nurse and I have failed as a woman and this is why my man does not love me.”

‘And then the river said to me, “We can take the pain away, we can make you happy and give you many children and grandchildren.All the world will come to you and lay its gifts at your feet.”

‘Well,’ said Mama Thames, ‘this was a tempting offer so I asked, “What must I do? What do you want from me?” And the river answered, “We want nothing that you were not already willing to give.”

‘So I jumped into the water – splash! And I sank all the way to the bottom, and let me tell you, there are things down there that wouldn’t believe.Let’s just say that it needs to be dredged and let it go at that.’

She waved her arm languidly towards the river.‘I walked out of the river over there on the Wapping Stair where they used to drown pirates.I have been here ever since,’ she said.‘This is the cleanest industrial river in Europe.Do you think that happened by accident? Swinging London, Cool Britannia, the Thames Barrier; do you think that all happened by accident?’

‘The Dome?’ I asked.

‘Now the most popular music venue in Europe,’ she said.‘The Rhine Maidens come to visit me to see how it’s done.’ She gave me a significant look, and I won- dered who the hell the Rhine Maidens were.

‘Perhaps Father Thames sees things differently,’ I said.

‘Baba Thames,’ spat Mama.‘When he was a young man he stood where I stood, on the bridge, and made the same promise I did.But he hasn’t been below Teddington Lock since the Great Stink of 1858.He never came back, not even after Bazalgette put the sewers in. Not even for the Blitz, not even when the city was burning.And now he says this is his river.’

Mama Thames pulled herself upright in her chair as if posing for a formal portrait.

‘I am not greedy,’ she said.‘Let him have Henley, Oxford and Staines.I shall have London, and the gifts of all the world at my feet.’

‘We can’t have your people fighting each other,’ I said.The ‘royal we’ is very important in police work; it reminds the person you’re talking to that behind you stands the mighty institution that is the Metropolitan Police, robed in the full majesty of the law and capable, in manpower terms, of invading a small country.You only hope when you’re using that term that the whole edifice is currently facing in the same direction as you are.

‘It’s Baba Thames who is trespassing below the lock,’ said Mama Thames.‘I am not the one that needs to back off.’

‘We’ll be the ones that talk to Father Thames,’ I said.

‘We expect you to keep your people under control.’ Mama Thames tilted her head to one side and gave me a long, slow look.‘I’ll tell you what,’ she said.‘I’ll give you until the Chelsea Flower Show to bring Baba to his senses; after that, we shall take matters into our own hands.’ Her use of the ‘royal we’ was a great deal less tentative than mine.

The interview was over, we exchanged pleasantries and then Beverley Brook showed me to the door.As we got to the atrium she deliberately let her hip graze mine, and I felt a sudden hot flush that had nothing to do with the central heating.

She gave me an arch little look as she opened the door for me.

‘Bye-bye, Peter,’ she said.‘See you around.’

When I got back to the Folly I found Nightingale in the reading room on the first floor.This was a scattering of upholstered green leather armchairs, footstools and side tables.Glass-fronted mahogany bookcases lined two walls, but Nightingale had admitted to me that in the old days people had generally come here for a nap after lunch.He was doing the Telegraph crossword.

He looked up as I sat down opposite.‘What did you think?’

‘She certainly thinks she’s the Goddess of the Thames,’ I said.‘Is she?’

‘That’s not a terribly useful question,’ said Nightingale.

Molly silently arrived with coffee and a plate of custard creams.I looked at the biscuits and gave her a suspicious glance, but she was as unreadable as ever.

‘In that case,’ I said, ‘where does their power come from?’

‘That’s a much better question,’ said Nightingale.

‘There are several conflicting theories about that; that the power comes from the belief of their followers, from the locality itself or from a divine source beyond the mortal realm.’

‘What did Isaac think?’

‘Sir Isaac,’ said Nightingale, ‘had a bit of a blind spot when it came to divinity – he even questioned whether Jesus Christ was truly divine.Didn’t like the idea of the Trinity.’

‘Why was that?’

‘He had a very tidy mind,’ said Nightingale.

‘Does the power come from the same place as magic?’ I asked.

‘All of this will be much easier to explain once you’ve mastered your first spell,’ he said.‘I believe you could get a good two hours of practice in before afternoon tea.’

I slunk off in the direction of the lab.

I dreamed that I was sharing my bed with Lesley May and Beverley Brook, both lithe and naked on either side of me, but it wasn’t nearly as erotic as it should have been because I didn’t dare embrace one for fear that I’d mortally offend the other.I had just devised a strategy to get my arms around both at the same time when Beverley sank her teeth into my wrist and I woke with a terrible cramp in my right arm.

It was bad enough to make me fall out of bed and thrash around being uselessly stoic for a good two minutes.There’s nothing like excruciating pain for waking you up, so once it was clear I wasn’t going back to sleep I left my room and went looking for a snack. The basement of the Folly was a warren of rooms left over from when it boasted dozens of staff but I knew that the back stairs bottomed out next to the kitchen. Not wanting to disturb Molly, I padded down the steps as quietly as I could but as I reached the basement, I saw that the kitchen lights were on.As I got closer I heard Toby growl, then bark and then there was a strange rhythmic hissing sound.A good copper knows when not to announce his presence, so I crept to the kitchen door and peered in.

Molly, still dressed in her maid’s outfit, was perched on the edge of the scarred oak table that dominated one side of the kitchen.Beside her on the table was a beige ceramic mixing bowl and sitting, some three metres in front of her, was Toby.Since the door was behind her shoulder Molly didn’t see me watching as she dipped her hand into the mixing bowl and lifted out a cube of chopped meat – raw enough to be dripping.

Toby barked with excitement as Molly teased him with the meat for a moment before sending it flying towards him with an expert flick of her wrist.Toby did an impressive jump from a sitting position and caught the meat in mid-air.At the sight of Toby chewing indus- triously while turning tight little circles, Molly began to laugh – the rhythmic hissing sound I’d heard earlier.

Molly picked up another cube of meat and waved it at Toby, who did a little dance of doggy anticipation. This time Molly faked him out, hissing at his confused twirling and then, when she was sure he was watching, popping the bloody piece of meat in her own mouth. Toby barked crossly but Molly stuck out an unnaturally long and prehensile tongue at him.

I must have gasped or shifted my weight because Molly leaped off the table and spun to face me.Eyes wide, mouth open to reveal sharp pointed teeth and blood, bright red against her pale skin, dribbling down her chin.Then she clamped her hand over her mouth and with a look of startled shame ran silently from the kitchen.Toby gave me an irritated growl.

‘It’s not my fault,’ I told him.‘I just wanted a snack.’ I don’t know what he was complaining about; he got the rest of the bowl of meat – I got a glass of water.

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