Things have always been this way, says Ana, scratching at her hairline with short, chipped blue fingernails. Her roots are showing, brown beneath shocking pink. We woke up and things were the way they always had been, and if we thought different, we were only dreaming.
The bus changes gear, and it turns onto the road that runs across the river. The Great Ziggurat gleams in the sun, its polished black stones dazzling May. She taps on her sunglasses and they slip down off her forehead over her eyes. She licks her lips, folds her arms, wraps her right hand around the left side of her ribcage.
— You can't say that, she says. It's too close to what she knows. It frightens her. She looks across the bus, through the opposite window, past a man with heavy grey stubble. The man looks at her, and May turns back to Ana. I mean— you just— it's not the time. The place.
Ana looks as if she's going to say something. She doesn't. The bus stops. The man with the heavy grey stubble gets off and an old woman in a blue overcoat that smells of sour milk gets on, takes the man's place. May doesn't know her, doesn't look at her. She knows the woman is watching her. The people they send are always like this: decrepit, foul-smelling, aged. She keeps her silence for the half-hour, until.
— I think this is our stop.
Ana leans across May, her arm brushing her chest, pushes the button.
May tries not to look at the Herms and the Paniscae that frolic around them; they scare her.
She strides past, and soon they are out of sight behind the first of the blocks. She wishes she had a coat or a jacket or a scarf or something, feeling exposed in just a T-shirt, wondering how many of the cracked windows of the estate have behind them pairs of ancient, watery eyes assigned to watch her, gnarled liver-spotted hands on curtains, hairy mouths chewing on toothless gums.
Ana doesn't seem to notice May's discomfort. She says, too loudly,
— God, what a dump.
The sentence echoes across the cracked concrete and asphalt between the flats, and the wind gusts, briefly, as if on cue; ruffling leaves that lie in the gutter across the way between cigarette ends and used condoms. There isn't a tree for miles.
The back of May's head prickles again. The sun withdraws behind a cloud.
The building is smaller than the others, but still, like all the buildings here, the product of nineteen-sixties brutalism, all concrete panels and cracked glass. It catches the shadow of the tower block above it, and the odd light makes it look discoloured, uneven, rickety, as if it were about to fall at any moment.
The door is patched with plywood, a cracked wired pane of glass taking up most of its upper half. May can't see inside. The two women stand in front of it for a moment.
— Are you going to ring or what? says Ana.
May presses the doorbell. A low buzz comes from inside. After a while, a man opens the door. He must be in his early twenties, dressed in grubby jeans and T-shirt. His dark hair is long and falls over a long face, half-covering round bottle-bottom glasses.
May steps forward; squinting, the man retreats a step.
— David Bateson? she says.
He lifts a slender hand, brushes back a lock of hair that immediately falls back into place.
— Peter. David's upstairs.
— Ah. I'm May. May Simon. We, ah spoke on the phone. I spoke with David. About some help you can give me.
— The magician.
— I don't know what you're talking about.
Ana is looking at her quizzically.
It's difficult for May to tell what Peter Bateson's eyes are doing behind those glasses. His face makes a sort of please yourself expression, and then subsides into that curious blankness.
— Oh right. Come in, then.
— We own the whole place, he explains. But we only live in the west wing. There's only the three of us.
It's less a home, more some kind of open-plan multi-storey garage, as vast and rickety and grey inside as it is outside. The door opens onto a flat expanse of concrete, covered with boxes and sundry electrical items, fridges, freezers, washing machines, televisions with their backs hanging off, videos with the pop-up cradle for the tape open, with something moving inside.
Peter negotiates an awkward, winding path around the obsolete devices, to a ladder, and up to the edge of the half-collapsed upstairs floor.
— Careful, he says.
The upstairs is much like downstairs, but the goods are smaller. A Bush radio sits on a coil of wire. Three portable CRT TVs sit, one on top of another. There a stack of microwave ovens; there a heap of desk lamps; there a half-dozen beige PC towers arranged as if in conclave. In the corner of the floor there's a flat, with a frosted, reinforced glass door. The light filters in through high, grubby windows, partially obscured by hanging cables, stacks of boxes.
The flat is cramped and noisy, the brown once-patterned carpet strewn with tools and electronic parts; the shelves full of radios and TVs, Playstations and ZX Spectrums and Sega Megadrives and 1980s boomboxes. Peter leads them into a sort of living room, clears away a couple of heaps of circuit boards and solder reels from the sofa, encourages them to sit down.
In the middle of the floor, a young man who looks exactly like Peter sits with his back to them, tapping on a controller attached to an old SNES, directing the movements of a pixelated girl in a tight space suit on a flickering, snowy cathode-ray television as she leaps and somersaults across platforms, shooting aliens and picking up glowing crystals.
Lucy motions towards him.
— Is that—?
— That's Jonathan. David will be out in a moment.
Ana throws herself down on the sofa, and something under the seat cushion goes plink, a glassy little sound; the sofa cushion doesn't really bounce back up under her.
— Oops, she says.
She leans forward, towards Jonathan, who hasn't removed his attention from the TV.
— Hey. Hey. Hey. What you playing?
— Super Space Girl Commando Zero. He doesn't look away.
There's an explosion on screen, as something big and tentacled and green spits a ball of fire tries at the Space Girl Commando, who leaps back and forth and up and down in time with the man's fingers, shooting steadily at the thing until it explodes with a satisfying pop. Japanese words fly towards the front of the screen in big silver letters and the repetitive music changes in key.
May and Ana both watch over his shoulder. It's hypnotic. May loses track of how long she's been here.
A man comes out. He looks almost exactly like Peter, only he's in a grubby blue T-shirt with a cracked Nike swoosh on it.
— Oh, hey. What have you got for me? he says.
May stands up and drops her bag from her shoulder, opens it, takes out an object the size of a small paperback book, a small box made of plastic in black and discoloured white. Hands it to him.
Ana looks over her shoulder.
David pushes back his thick dark hair the same way that his brother does. He turns the thing over in his hands, draws breath gently through his teeth, lets it out in a sigh.
— Stereo Eight. Nice. You know what this—?
— Yeah. Can you play it? says May.
He pushes his tongue into his cheek, runs it around his lower lip, nods.
— Do you know what's on it?
May half-shakes her head, scratches the back of her scalp, feels a little irregularity under her hair.
— Not really.
David clears a pile of old Sinclairs and Commodores from the scratched formica dining table, and they sit around it.
David hooks up some wire with crocodile clips to a transformer, and then to what looks like an old car radio with a slot the same size as the plastic box. He leaves the room for a second, and comes back in with a couple of speakers, which he connects to the radio with bits of tape and two pairs of spring-loaded pincers.
He inserts the cartridge into the player.
There's a judder, the sound of something whirring, and then over the sound of crackly, far-away cheering crowds, a woman with the kind of refined, precise voice that no one has used since before May and Ana were born, says:
— Here, inside the inner courtyard, is a world in waiting, a little pool of silence in a world of sound. Her Majesty is already in her fairytale golden coach, drawn up under the portico of the grand entrance, and any second now in all her splendour, and gold... and scarlet of her postilion, she will drive away from her home into the world waiting outside. And now, the coach moves. The coach is leaving the Queen's home, on the greatest day of her life...
The recording fades out.
— I don't understand. What Queen? That's not the Queen. What is this?
May smiles a brief, sad smile.
— This is what you were talking about. On the bus.
— I don't understand.
David is staring at May, intently, through those thick glasses, unreadable. The recording fades back in. More cheering; a man this time, again with that thick, affected accent.
— And in Trafalgar Square, the excitement of the vast throngs of people rises to its first great climax of the day, because the leading units of Her Majesty's procession are already threading through the central arc of the Admiralty Arch, under the great Royal Cipher in gold on a crimson field and flanked by two huge gilt anchors, heavily decorated with knotted golden ropes. Now comes the climax, the glittering living necklace of pomp winds past; now we await the richest jewel of all: the golden coach, Her Majesty, His Royal Highness, coming now under the Admiralty Arch, coming into the square, and the crowd receives them as only a British crowd in London could...
And it's gone again. And there's no more on the cartridge. David gets up.
— I think you should leave now, he says. There's a back way.
He leads them out of the flat, up another two flights of stairs and out a door at the end of what seems like a half-mile of corridor. Although they went up three floors, although grubby sunlight has been filtered through all the windows they've passed on the lower floors, May and Ana find themselves on an outside path, laid in gravel, fringed with grass. One side of the path is bordered by a high wall. On the other side, the grass disappears into an opaque white mist, as does the path ahead.
Behind them, David Bateson says,
— Don't come back. Please.
He shuts the door, and they hear it lock. The path stretches ahead.
Ana kicks at a stone. It hurtles off the path and into the mist; it abruptly ceases to make a sound.
— I hate it when this happens, she says.
May puts a hand against the wall.
— Here, she says, Give me a step up, will you?
Ana clasps her hands, crouches; may steps on them, reaches and grabs the top of the wall with both hands, heaves herself up for a second, looks over, bounces back down again.
— So? says Ana.
— Long way down. A really long way. Miles.
— What about the other way?
May bites her lip, rests one hand on the top of her head, hooks the other in one of the pockets in her jeans. She blows through her teeth.
— Best to stick to the path, I think. Look.
She motions back along the path with a casual gesture. it goes on, forever. forward and back, vanishing into the mist.
— Fuck's sake, says Ana. .
— These things happen. She starts walking. Come on, then. No point whinging.
Ana scuffs her feet on the path.
— You gonna tell me what that tape was about, then?
— You know what you were talking about on the bus?
Ana shrugs. May begins anyway.
— Some people think that maybe the Great Black Ziggurat of Old London Town was not always there, or rather that it wasn’t always always there. If you catch my drift.
— Not really. Go on, anyway.
— The story goes that there was supposed to be a great house there, or maybe two houses. And a clock. A massive clock, which had a man’s name.
— A name? What sort of a name?
— Jack. Ben. Tom. Something like that. Something old and informal.
— That’s silly.
— There’s other things. Buckingham Palace was supposed to be made of white stone, rather than brass, and that the Queen was different, that she was a real person, just an old lady with white hair and with only the one body. She was old. She got old. Like a normal person. She’d been there sixty years maybe, and there were others before her. And there weren’t any Herms or Paniscae. And Stonehenge was a clapped-out ruin. And the policemen kept their faces. Things were different.
— You have to imagine, for the sake of argument, that at some point, someone decided that the world would be a better place, or a more interesting place, if it changed, not just in the present, but in the past as well, and that they figured out how. It’s a theory. You don’t have to believe it. But anyway, the point is that because it was done by someone, because someone made it, it’s not perfect. You know how when you tape over something on the video and you get little random bits of old TV at the beginning of the tape, no matter how much you rewound the tape before you hit record? It’s like that. There was something before, and even though most things have been all taped over, tiny bits and pieces get left behind.
— So this tape of yours, says Ana.
— You think it’s-? She cocks her head to one side, as if motioning towards some possibility.
— Where did you-?I
— We found it in— I mean when we went through his. He had it.
Note: I had it. It was in my things. In a wooden box.
— Oh. Ana looks away. They walk some distance in the mist before she speaks again. So what are you going to do with it?
— I’m going to keep it very safe. May stops, wheels around, bars Ana’s way. You Can't tell anyone. Promise.
— Yes. Absolutely, says Ana, hand in hair. Yeah. No question.
May composes herself, looks a little embarrassed. She turns back to the path and starts walking without any further word.
They walk silently through the mist for another few minutes.
— I think we might be getting to the end, says May. She points. Indistinct, something resembling a building appears, not far ahead.
— May, says Ana.
May doesn’t turn around.
— Your tape. Is it important?
— No. No, I don’t think so.
The path ends, abruptly, as if interrupted mid-flow by a building that appears at its end, a concrete box identical to the one they left, only taller, stretching a dozen floors up, and more dilapidated still. The glass in the plywood door has, at some time in the past, been smashed; someone covered the hole, clumsily, with two panels from a cardboard box and a few strips of gaffer tape. The board hangs off now, the cardboard sodden and mouldy, the shards of wired glass still remaining in the ruined window visible, the ends of wire rusty, the edges of the glass dull.
Inside, it’s dark. Ten feet away, and May can smell the decay, the mould and the damp and the rot.
They pause at the door. May looks up, imagines, just for a second, that a tattered half-hanging curtain in a window one floor up twitches; she gets a glimpse of a shaking, liver-spotted hand withdrawing into the dark. No, it was a large moth or something. No, it was a rat. No, she imagined it.
— I don’t like it, May says.
— It’s the exit, innit? she says.
Ana pushes the door open with the tips of her fingers.
Inside, the stink is even worse, like books left in a leaky garage for ten years or more. The carpet, so filthy and blackened that its pattern has changed into something threatening and shadowy, gives lightly under their feet, but doesn’t spring back, and as May looks down, a shoal of silverfish scoot away from her left foot. Artex on the walls carries streaks and markings that in the all-but absent light give the impression that it moves under its own power.
Ana calls out.
— Hello? Anyone here?
May flaps her hands.
— No! No, don’t! She sounds too high-pitched. Her breathing is faster than it should be. She lowers her voice an octave.
— Let’s just find a way out onto the street.
A rat. A cobweb. A bird nesting in the hole left by a dangling light fitting and a smashed-up polystyrene ceiling tile; it flaps around in Ana’s face and she screams and bats it away and May has to grab her arm to stop her belting into the depths of the building.
By the time they make it to the ground floor front of the building, May and Ana are ready to run; they collide with the front door, find it chained and padlocked from the outside. May grabs a broken chair from the lobby floor and swings it against the glass in the door, twice. The first time, it bounces off; the second time, the glass disintegrates, like a downward wave.
Ana takes off her jacket and puts it across the window frame, and May helps her climb through. As May clambers through the hole behind her, she hears a rumbling, like the sound of a dozen pairs of feet running down the building’s stairs.
May falls in a heap on the marble step outside the door, puts her hand in something slimy on the ground. The thundering stops abruptly. No one appears.
May’s cold. Ana’s at the bottom of the steps on the pavement. She’s looking down the street.
— I think I know where we are, she says.
May looks at her hand. Birdshit. Walking down to the pavement, she fumbles in her jacket pocket, finds a tissue, wipes her hand, crumples the tissue, throws it into the gutter among the cigarette ends and the crisp packets.
She looks back at the building, one of three that face a courtyard, all near-derelict. The fragments of sign above the foyer read:
G IMS ADE H SE
— We’d better get going, says Ana.
She nods towards the corner of the courtyard. A policeman and a policewoman have just turned the corner. They stop, and the empty dark spaces beneath their headgear where their faces should be turn towards the two women. May and Ana leave, walking quickly, not looking.
May hears something laugh, something old and muffled and in the building behind them.
Turns out that the building is two corners away from the Bateson brothers’ home, and one more from the square with the Herms and Paniscae, and the bus stop.
The two police officers follow May and Ana for a short while, and then abruptly turn away. As they go, May turns around and catches, in the corner of her eye, a curtain swishing shut in a second-floor window.
At the bus stop, they stand in the gathering mist. It’s already getting dark. The bus arrives, and they get on and Ana hands their tickets to the driver, who does a double-take, stares at them as if appalled by something, and hands them back without a word.
The only other passenger is a wrinkled, dusty man with only a few misbehaving wisps of white hair, who chews on his gums and stares, even when May meets his eye. She looks away, aware of the eyes fixed on the nape of her neck.
She shows May the tickets. The destination now reads:
When the bus arrive at their stop, Ana hands the tickets to May. She looks at them, as if wondering what to do, and then crumples them, puts them in the ticket bin at the front of the bus.
— What now? says Ana as they disembark, the old man still staring.
— Tonight’s still on. I’ll go home and change.
— Ryan coming?
— Oh, I expect so.
— OK. Drop you a text.
The friends part, and May walks home under orange streetlights that dye the wintery mist with a warm, fiery colour, that only makes it feel colder. Her feet ache.
For May, this kind of thing has always been the way, as long as she can remember; the more magic you know, the more things you find. The more things you find, the more they watch you, and the more they watch you, the more you feel the need to run away, the more temptation there is to go join the Paniscae, or to turn up at the doors of the Changing Room and let them change you into something that isn't afraid anymore.
You can’t live with fear; in the end, all there is for May is to ignore it, and to go on living.
And that means the occasional night out, no matter whether she feels like it or not.
Ten o’clock: Ryan Hood and Ana Jones and May in the pub that sits in the shadow of the British Museum, engulfed by that thousand-foot-high structure of brass and black basalt, the repository of all history, the sign that the Queen of England, whose Name must never be spoken, holds sway over the past as well as the future.
Ryan has brought someone that May doesn’t know, a young woman with a translucent heart-shaped face, dressed in a short black coat and heavy knee-high boots. Ryan introduces her to May, and May nods and smiles and flicks a lock of hair out of her eyes and says hello, and neglects to say that she has failed to catch the newcomer’s name.
Still, the mild social quandary raised by this fact no more than adds to the discomfort that May already feels at the stranger’s presence.
She’s watching May. Sure, Ryan’s friend is sitting there between May and Ryan and making conversation, and sure, every time May looks, the girl is not looking at her, but May knows. Those wide green eyes are watching May closely. She’s used to being watched. She knows.
And how does this person know Ryan? She doesn’t fit. She looks young in a way that Ana doesn't, with a studded strap around her neck and the kind of short, shining asymmetrical black hair that takes hours in a hairdressers’ and rings in her ears and eyeliner and well-drawn lips and a ring in her nose and a ring in the middle of her lower lip that distorts it slightly, giving an impression of sweet, smiling serenity, of a kind of innocence.
She doesn’t fit here. And she is watching May. But not in the way the people behind the curtains watch May.
In the way that May is watching her.
Come chucking out time, Ryan and Ana have already agreed to go to a club; of course, it was the plan all along. May had thought they were both looking well-turned out. May has long suspected that something was going on between the two of them, and it surprises her when they beg her to go with them.
She says, yeah, sure. She doesn’t want to be alone tonight.
They walk out into the shadow of the Basalt Museum, on the pavement, bathed in the orange light of a lamp post, surrounded by migrating punters. Ryan’s friend stands herself directly in front of May and says, to her, not Ryan:
— Mind if I tag along? I’m at a bit of a loose end. She smiles, and tucks her shining hair behind one ear with a long, perfect fingernail, a liquid, glossy black.
May turns and looks at Ryan. He shrugs with his face.
— Sure, he says.
Ana is silent. She is staring at the woman, who is staring at May.
On the way to the club, May walks sandwiched between Ana on her left and the dark-haired woman on her right, each intent on holding a conversation with her while excluding the other.
Ryan, above all this, walks a few paces behind. Ana tries to bring in in-jokes and references to people May’s new friend cannot possibly know; the other tries to make the conversation wholly about May.
The effect induces a kind of claustrophobia in May. She wants to tell them both not to be so silly, that they are grown women, that they remind her of schoolgirls jockeying for the attention of the popular girl, but she loves Ana too much not to notice something is very wrong; she does not know the dark-haired woman enough to be so rude.
The newcomer’s soft, cold hand brushes against May’s. May glances down at her, meets her eye, feels a little dizzy for a moment.
They find somewhere where the dress code will accommodate May’s jeans without any trouble at all.
The place plays the kind of techno that people outside of London listen to. Tribes of twentysomethings mingle, without mixing. It’s as hot here as it is cold outside, oppressively so, and May does a bad thing, a thing she really shouldn’t: caressing the half-inch of rough-cut copper pipe on the thong around her neck, she focusses her inner eye on the word YOUTH, and, eyes closed, rearranges the letters to make a sigil. The symbol now she makes her all, her everything, a new letter in an alphabet of desire. The movements of her dance become repetitive, a ritual.
An aura of clean, fresh, cool air gathers around May. It does strange things to the ultraviolet light, and May’s skin gleams. She catches sight of herself in the mirror behind the bar. She looks youthful, and invincible, and not at all thirty-five, and not at all tired. She approves.
May knows that eyes will see, that consequences will accrue, but she doesn’t care.
Tonight, she wants the illusion of power.
She wants to be free.
May leaves Ryan to go buy drinks for the others, declined the offer of her own drink with a wave and a smile, striding to the dance floor.
The beat is cleansing; she closes her eyes and gives herself up. She moves. Everything is in the release. Partly, it’s her spell, keeping her cool and fresh and comfortable, but partly it’s just the music, her need to forget her fear and her grief (and they’re really the same feeling, aren’t they?)
She dances alone in the crowd, blissed out. The warmth of the bodies around her shifts; another body begins to dance close to hers, hands almost touch her. She opens her eyes, and meets those dark eyes, fixed steadily upon her; the spark of recognition comes, too late. A strange feeling of transgression causes her diaphragm to contract.
But May is a magician. She forges the world with her will. Everything she does is transgression.
She goes with it.
The trance breaks. May needs some water. She leaves the dancefloor, taking the dark-haired woman by the hand as if it’s the most natural thing, as if they’re best friends.
She buys two bottles, empties her own in two draughts. May leaves the woman by the bar and looks around for Ryan and Ana. The woman appears at her shoulder.
— Where’d they go?
— Dunno, says May. I’ll text.
She pulls out her phone. One new message. She hadn’t felt it go off. It’s from Ryan.
— ana not well taking her home
May checks the time. Ryan sent her the text an hour ago. She’d been on the floor for a whole hour before that. Suddenly, she feels very tired. The spell wears off a little. Her arms and back ache, and her feet throb. She turns to the dark-haired woman.
— I’m off home, she says.
Ryan's friend nods.
— Where do you live?
The woman leans over and takes May’s hand.
— Tell you what. I’ll split a cab with you.
Standing next to the coat check, waiting for Ryan's friend to get her coat, May orders a cab, and now they're out and waiting. A few people are leaving the club, the trickle before the flood, not enough for them to have to stand too close together, and yet May's companion is standing close enough for the skin on May's arm to tingle slightly with the proximity.
May tries to distract herself, falls into the old ritual of scanning windows, roofs, the corners of alleyways, looking for the tips of palsied fingers, for the reflection of rheumy eyes
— There's no one watching, she says out loud.
The dark-haired woman raises an eyebrow.
— Should there be? she says.
— No, says May.
The dark-haired woman turns, carelessly, brushes her fingers across the back of May's hand, which is the sort of gesture that could be an accident, if May wants it to be.
So in the cab, May asks how the dark-haired woman knows Ryan (they met at work, apparently, although May cannot parse the chronology or circumstance of that meeting in any meaningful way). The conversation dries up. The stranger looks across at May with her hands folded in her lap, her lips pressed together in a small smile. The streetlights glint off the ring in her nose, the ring in her lip, on and off. May tries not to maintain eye contact.
The dark-haired woman looks out of the window.
— Haven't we passed here? she says.
The girl points — they are passing the building where the Westaways live and the courtyard full of the Herms.
May shudders as she always does when she passes by here, as she did five minutes ago, when they passed by here last time.
— Aw, no, says May. Not again.
The dark-haired girl leans across May and taps on the glass partition.
May, sitting with her back to the driver, turns around sees in the corner of her eye the driver half-crumble, half-dissolve into a cloud of dust or mist that dissipates to nothing. The cab slowly comes to a halt.
— Well, says May’s companion. At least we don’t have to pay.
May glances at the woman, and then she turns around and kneels on her seat, opens the communication hatch and checks the meter: it has stopped. She digs in her purse and pulls out three ten-pound notes, making a conscious effort not to look at the picture of the Queen on the front, as you must. She drops them through the window onto the front seat.
The light that shows the doors are locked turns off.
— Better start walking, says May.
May finds herself, as she steps out of the cab, staring into the empty eyes of the Herms: limbless, priapic, blank, bolted to their posts, like the ones she read about once that they had in Ancient Greece, only the ones in Greece were made of stone, not people. She gets that cold feeling in the pit of her gut that she always gets and thinks about what it must be like — and then thinks that no, she must not.
— That way, she says, pointing towards the waste ground.
— Do you know where we are? says the girl, as they pick their way across stony, scrubby ground.
— Kind of. Don't worry. May avoids eye contact.
— What are you scared of? What's wrong?
May stands there for a moment, wondering how she's going to get out of this place alive.
— Oh, sod it, she says at length.
May takes off the little ring of copper and brass that hangs around her neck, and letting the thong dangle, she holds it up between between thumb and forefinger. She blows through it, and closes her eyes. She imagines, engraved behind her eyelids, the sigil for HOME, and forgets herself, becoming only the focus for the sigil. She lets the metal drop, catching it by the thong and letting it swing. She stretches out her arm and holds it out one way, and then another, until the ring gives out a sound — and she is never sure if it is audible objectively or in her imagination — not unlike the ringing of a half-full wineglass with a wet finger running around the rim.
By the time that they have travelled a hundred yards along the street, every building has become a featureless cube of black stone, separated from the street and its neighbours by short stretches of rubble-strewn wasteland.
May points across a stretch of flat, soiled ground.
— We'll be fine if we head this way.
Ryan's friend has her hands folded, almost primly. She looks up at the taller woman, clicks at the ring in her lip with her teeth. You sure?
— No, says May. Better be quick, though. I don't want to stay here.
The fluttering in May's gut returns; it dawns on her that her new friend has made no comment on what she has done. She follows May quietly, and looks at her in that strange way when she thinks May is not looking at her.
Magic in a place like this has its risks.
They pick their way across stones and hunks of broken concrete, blackened kitchenware, rotting magazines, broken powertools, and abandoned, filthy toys. The dark-haired woman's boots, all platforms, straps and heels, aren't designed for walking in a place like this, and May frequently has to stretch out a hand to steady her companion.
After a while, they are holding hands and not letting go.
A light becomes visible a few hundred yards away, flickering, and sometimes obscured by moving shapes in the dark.
— I think it's a campfire, says May.
— Oh, says the dark-haired woman. Is this safe?
— I think this is good. I think we're going to be all right.
Twenty yards or so from the perimeter of the firelight, they stop and hide behind two upturned, skeletal fridge-freezers. May squeezes the woman's hand and lets go, looks more closely at the camp around a rusty white corner.
She sees about ten men and women. They are giants, the smallest of them seven, eight feet tall. Each has shining, faintly iridescent bluish-black skin, a wide, generous mouth, obliquely angled black eyes with pupils so wide they have no whites. They are naked but for strings of dyed seashells, pale leather straps for knives and quivers of arrows, their sexualities potent, present. Full breasts, rings in nipples, vaginas and cocks, pubic hair shaved and braided and beaded, like the rest of the hair on the giants' bodies.
May turns and smiles, finds herself an inch away from the face of the dark-haired woman, who was looking out over her shoulder. The woman's lips part slightly. May pauses a moment, looks into the her eyes. She turns her head.
— Sorry, says May's companion.
May wriggles away, catches her breath.
— It's OK. It's all going to be OK, she says.
— They're Rmoahals. Over there. Rmoahals. It's all going to be fine.
— Sorry? Umrowa—?
— Tell you later. We're going to say hi.
May takes her companion's hand again and they stand up straight and take several steps towards the fire. The men and women look up with no more than mild interest.
May raises her hand. calls something out.
— What do we do? whispers the dark-haired woman.
— Follow my lead, OK.
— But what—?
May, still looking intently towards the campfire, puts her finger to her lip.
One of the women steps to the edge of the circle of firelight. She gives no sign that she is surprised, or even curious. Her stance is, in some strange way, formal.
May steps forward to meet the giant woman.
— Though we have intruded, we will respect your circle, she says. She is apologetic. We are lost.
She offers the giant the palm of her hand, and the giant, squinting, leans forward to inspect it.
— Eat with us. The giant's vowels are distended, the consonants pushed to the front of the palate.
— We're grateful, says May. She glances meaningfully at her companion.
— Oh. Yeah. Thank you. Really..
The woman puts a long-fingered hand on her chest. Chelié.
Chelié turns without any more introduction, and sits in the circle, leaving a space for May and Sarah, and, motioning the dark-haired woman to sit down first, May takes her place.
Some of the men, are toasting bread, roughly cut crusty white bread of the sort you get in the bakery counter from Tesco, over the fire.
One of them hands a couple of slices to May's host, who hands them in turn to May and Sarah.
—I'm not hungry, says Sarah.
—You kind of need to be, says May. She smiles brightly at Chelié and takes a bite.
After having finished her potato, May reaches up and touches Chelié's arm.
— Thank you. We're sisters now. May takes off her watch and offers it to Chelié, who grunts, and holds it up in the firelight, and regards it appreciatively.
May looks expectantly at Sarah. Gift, she says under her breath.
Sarah reaches up and undoes the buckle fastening the spiked collar around her neck. She reaches across May — May can feel Sarah's breath on her cheek, briefly, feels a sense of déja vu, understands a sort of intentionality, a question — and offers it. Chelié takes it, turns it over in her fingers and straps it onto a wrist already laden with bangles and beads.
One of the men whistles, and the women and the giant turn. More toast.
— You hungry? says May, not looking at Sarah.
They sit for a while. The Rmoahal women talk among themselves about their menfolk, their families, their children. They make inexplicable jokes, references to things May and Sarah cannot understand. Their laughs are great bellows of amusement, heads thrown back, mouths full of filed and dyed teeth wide.
May and Sarah have nothing to add, and no leave to add it.
And the men poke the fire and make toast.
May puts a hand gently on Chelié's thigh.
— Thank you for making us so welcome. But we have to get home.
Chelié nods and whistles through those pointed teeth. A man, acquiline, face long and narrow like it's been stretched, looks up.
— Moh. Hey. Moh. They have to get to Acton.
— Wife. The man picks up his jingling spear and stands. He cocks his raw-boned head and looks at May and Sarah.
— Time to go, says May. She gets up, offers Sarah a hand. They stand for a second, facing each other, still holding hands.
May turns around. Standing, she is eye to eye with the seated Chelié.
— Sisters, says May. You are owed.
Chelié bares her teeth.
Chelié's husband takes a few steps out of the ring of firelight, stops, looks back over his shoulder at the two women.
— We need to follow him, says May. Don't talk to him, though. It's not the way.
— They're the survivors of Atlantis. Or the last inhabitants of Eden, the ones who stayed when Adam and Eve were ejected from a state of grace. Or something. It amounts to the same thing, really. The point is, that they never lost their state of grace. They never had much of a fall. They might have tripped a bit. But that's about it.
— All of that stuff is made-up, though.
— Yep. They're wholly fictional. Completely made-up.
— Except they're not.
— We live in an interesting sort of world.
Sarah squeezes May's hand, and smiles.
They turn a corner around a vast block of polished basalt and the waste ground is gone; they're at the end of the back lane next to Acton Town tube station. As May and Sarah walk onto the street, Moh steps to one side, and then vanishes the way he came, without a word.
— How far is it to yours? says May.
— Three miles. Bit more.
— You can crash at mine if you like. I'm just around the corner. Got the time?
— Half past four.
— Crash at mine. Yeah.
It's only a couple hundred yards to May's house. It's only two turns away from the main road and the tube station, but Hillcrest Road is completely different in atmosphere: small, neat houses with paths and gates and front gardens. Parked cars that never seem to go anywhere.
May pauses before she opens her front door.
— Is everything OK? says Sarah.
May looks over her shoulder at the house across the road, wonders if, just for a second, she glimpsed those same aged fingers at the edge of a curtain.
— Fine. I'm fine.
She opens the door and finds the light switch on the third try.
— Get you a drink? says May. Tea? Coffee?
— Tea would be lovely.
— Kitchen's this way.
They make for the kitchen; Sarah leans against the worktop as May empties the kettle, refills it, plugs it in, turns it on, finds a couple of mugs, teabags, the pot.
And then May stops and leans forward, both hands on the counter, stares at the warming kettle. She closes her eyes and sighs.
Sarah is standing behind May; her hand touches the small of May's back. May jumps, breathes in once, hard, turns around. And now Sarah is reaching up, standing on tiptoe, palms against May's shoulders, kissing her.
May finds herself kissing back for a moment, and then she draws back and takes three uneven, ragged breaths in succession.
— I don't — I'm not — I didn't —
Sarah removes her hands from May's shoulders. The taste of her lipstick. The sweetness of bread and alcohol.
— I'm sorry, she says.
She bites her lip, catching the little ball on her lip ring between her teeth, but she continues to look straight in May's eye. The kettle boils, clicks off.
— No, says May, don't be. It's really nice, but —
— Would you like to do it again?
May's diaphragm pulses; the fluttering in her chest. Imaginal giants, changing terrain, all these things she can navigate; this, this is too much.
Alcohol. Lipstick. Toasted bread.
She looks to one side.
— Yes, she says.
I dreamed about May—not by name, she had a different name, but it was her—and she was not in the dream, except in the background, glimpsed from the corner of the eye.
There is a room in the dream, in May's house, in which some photos of and by May were hung. Sarah had seen May, confident, wise, magical, and had developed a crush on her. Sarah knows, too, from simple observation that May, knowing Ana too well, has been unable to make, that Ana is in love with May, but nonetheless Sarah asks Ana if she can get May's attention. She says she is too afraid to talk to May directly, but she does not say that she and May have already spent a night together. Ana shrugs. I don't know, she says.
Sarah does this: the second night she spends in May's house, she takes a picture of herself standing beside one of May's photographs, looking quizzically into the camera. And the third night they spend together, she replaces one of May's own pictures with this one. May does not notice, but she begins for reasons she cannot understand, to obsess over Sarah. It becomes, in the dream, more than a fling borne of fear and exhaustion. A few days later, Ana sees Sarah again, sitting on a park bench in what seems like some kind of cave, or maybe a waxworks museum.
Sarah asks Ana how she can avoid seeing May again. Something has happened between them, she says. Now May is pursuing Sarah, she says to Ana, and Sarah tells Ana she does not want May's attention. She has seen something in May, she tells Ana, knowing full well what this is doing to May's friend, that repels her. Sarah sees May coming, out of the corner of her eye, and asks Ana to make an excuse. She leaves the area. I, the unseen witness, the reason for them being here, leave too, and I move on to another dream, that I do not remember.