Gareth Rees is another writer I came across on Twitter (isn’t Twitter bloody marvelous?). He followed Gollancz, we followed him, you should do the same (@hackneymarshman). I don’t remember which came first. But Gareth’s cracked and surreal visions of the edge of London that he put on his blog struck a chord. Here was a writer who took the tired, the scruffy and the seemingly mundane corners of city life and, via fascination and delight, gave them an exciting and fresh gloss. And there was a personal element on this occasion too as, of the weekends, I trudge around the exact same scrubby marshes in North East London as Gareth patrols. And they are an amazing place. But the key to Gareth is that he makes them amazing places for everyone. Read on for a glimpse of Walthamstow marshes in 2073 . . .
Hackney Marshes: AD 2073
Nights like these when mist rose from the canal, we’d huddle under the arch of the ruined railway bridge on Walthy Marsh. The three of us. Pegger, Lool, me.
You couldn’t be too careful. Sometimes the mist could rise as high as your head. Higher even. Step out to flog your merch in a mist like that and instead of a punter you could find yourself screaming into the jaws of a Bull Mastiff, the rider’s crossbow aiming right at your crany. Whop, wham, splash. Game over. That’s you tossed into the canal to sleep with the shit and the bones.
This was steaming up to be one of those nights. We were tetchy, watching the mist snake through the rushes and curl round our dog-hide boots. I tried to chill us down with a new raga hum.
“Mmmbaaa mbaaa, dyayayaya.”
“Pure analogue!” muttered Pegger, the hood of his cowl bobbing.
“Yuh” cooed Lool. She tugged at the string tied round her cormorant’s leg. It hopped awake, wings flapping uselessly and waaaarked at her. “Good cormy.”
“Beach it, Lool,” Pegger said. “This innt the hour for cormy carnage. Just beach it wont yuh? ‘Ck sake.”
“Was only pookin around.”
“Well dint,” Pegger scuffed the ground. “…‘Ckin damn bird. Get my manbits up its recto if you innt careful.”
“Pegger!” I snapped. Sometimes Pegger seemed to forget Lool was only 12. He was a good Lieutenant of mine, Pegger. Moon-scrapingly tall, ferocious quick on the run, and a good stash squirrel. But he was all mouth before mind, and that mouth was filthy.
“Oh most humbly ‘pology, Krypto” said Pegger.
I ignored the whiff of sarcasm. Someone was approaching.
“Set to,” I whispered.
We were tighter than a harmony, the three of us. Within seconds Pegger and I had melted into the marsh. Lool was on the path, cormorant in tow, looking every bit the lost Red Riding Hood with the hood of her cowl down, putting on a teary face.
I peered out from the scrub. The mist was low enough for me to see the punter. I couldn’t recognise him. But he was your usual. White Middly, probably a teacher or a frustrated administrator, out for a bit of wrongness. A walk on the dark side. These doozers risked their necks to slip through Hackney City’s walls and come to the marshes. Even in the gloom you could see white fright in their visage. This one was no different. He looked particularly ghostly.
The punter stopped short of Lool and glanced around him as if suspecting an ambush. Disarmed and confused. Just how we liked them.
“Hello,” he said. You could tell he was wondering whether to ask about the merch, or run in disgust at the sight of her. Lool tugged her string and the cormorant pranced on the path, flapping the mist into whorls and waaark, waark waark-ing. It was comical, like a midget was dressed in a bird suit. The man just stared. I heard the clatter of a million bad thoughts tumbling round his skull.
Enough, I thought. He was definitely alone. I stepped out from my hiding place and joined Lool. He shrank back at my appearance, but held his ground. The deal was on.
“What you seek?” I said. “Book? Mag? Cassette?”
“Uh, book,” said the punter.
I clicked my fingers. “Specify.”
“You want new or classic?”
“You have new?” Shock in his voice.
“I got new, I got classic, I got pamphlet, I got mag…”
“Oh god, I don’t know about new,” he wrung his hands, jittering on the spot. “I’m – I’m not…”
Okay, now I’d clocked him. I knew the type. A fetishist. He missed the feel of real paper. The flicky-rasp of pages ‘neath his thumbs. The stink of ink. The mustiness of an old tome. I’d guess he was born a good five years before the Great Upload. This white middly remembered a library in his home. Maybe a shelf racked with colourful spines near his beddy-boos. Books made him think of Mummy and Daddy and hot milk and walking to school. He’d come here to remember the past, not to read radical rants. He was a light user. A newbie. An average Joe bored of being drip-fed pixels through a screen he couldn’t touch.
“Too much for your blood?” I laughed. “Fair fair, middly man. I can do classics. What you want?”
Ha, that old Irish. Never mind, it was good stuff. The thirsty braniacs couldn’t get enough of it, while muffin-minds like this doozer just wanted something long and complicated so they needn’t come back any time soon. Whatever, it earned us a few kliks.
Gareth Rees is author of The Marshman Chronicles, a blog dedicated to Hackney & Walthamstow Marshes which combines dystopian fiction, music and psychogeography. His short story ‘A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes’ recently appeared in the anthology ‘Acquired for Development By’ (Influx Press) and his essay ‘The Beasts of Hackney Marshes’ will soon appear in The Ashgate Research Companion to Paranormal Culture. He’s a contributor to satirical London magazine Stalking Elk and has featured on a number of local interest podcasts and websites. In his spare time, Gareth is a professional copywriter. He lives in Clapton with his wife, two daughters and a dog called Hendrix.