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Natasha Pulley | The Kingdoms | May 2021 | 1516 words (6 minutes)
Londres, 1898 (ninety-three years after Trafalgar)
Most people have trouble recalling their first memory, because they have to stretch for it, like trying to touch their toes; but Joe didn’t. This was because it was a memory formed a week after his forty-third birthday.
He stepped down off the train. That was it, the very first thing he remembered, but the second was something less straightforward. It was the slow, eerie feeling that everything was doing just what it should be, minding its own business, but that at the same time, it was all wrong.
It was early in the morning, and cursedly cold. Vapour hissed on the black engine right above him. Because the platform was only a couple of inches above the tracks, the double pistons of the wheels were level with his waist. He was so close he could hear the water boiling above the furnace. He stepped well away, feeling tight with the certainty it was about to lurch forward.
The train had just come in. The platform was full of people looking slow and stiff from the journey, all moving towards the concourse. The sweet carbon smell of coal smoke was everywhere. Because it was only just light outside, the round lamps of the station gave everything a pale glow, and cast long, hazy shadows; even the steam had a shadow, a shy devil trying to decide whether to be solid or not.
Joe had no idea what he was doing there.
He waited, because railway stations were internationally the same and they were a logical place to get confused, if there was ever a logical place. But nothing came. He couldn’t remember coming here, or going anywhere. He looked down at himself. With a writhe of horror, he found he couldn’t even remember getting dressed. His clothes were unfamiliar. A heavy coat lined with tartan. A plain waistcoat with interesting buttons, stamped with laurel patterns.
A sign on the wall said that this was platform three. Behind him on the train, a conductor was going along the carriages, saying the same thing again and again, quiet and respectful, because he was having to wake people up in first class.
‘Londres Gare du Roi, all change please, Londres Gare du Roi …’
Joe wondered why the hell the train company was giving London station names in French, and then wondered helplessly why he’d wondered. All the London station names were French. Everyone knew that.
Someone touched his arm and asked in English if he was all right. It made him jump so badly that he twanged the nerve in the back of his skull. White pain shot down his neck.
‘Sorry – could you tell me where we are?’ he asked, and heard how ridiculous it sounded.
The man didn’t seem to think it was extraordinary to find an amnesiac at a railway station. ‘London,’ he said. ‘The Gare du Roi.’
Joe wasn’t sure why he’d been hoping for something other than what he’d heard the conductor say. He swallowed and looked away. The steam was clearing. There were signs everywhere; for the Colonial Library, the Musée Britannique, the Métro. There was a board not far away that said the Desmoulins line was closed because of the drilling below, and beyond that, elaborate iron gates that led out into the fog.
London in England?’ he asked eventually.
‘It is,’ the man said.
‘Oh,’ said Joe.
The train breathed steam again and made the man into a ghost. Through all the bubbling panic, Joe thought he must have been a doctor, because he still didn’t seem surprised. ‘What’s your name?’ the man asked. Either he had a young voice, or he looked older than he was.
‘Joe.’ He had to reach for it, but he did know; that was a thump of a relief. ‘Tournier.’
‘Do you know where you live?’
‘No,’ he said, feeling like he might collapse.
‘Let’s get you to a hospital then,’ the man said.
So the man paid for a cab. Joe expected him to leave it at that, but he came too and said there was no reason why not, since he wasn’t busy. A thousand times in the following months, Joe tried to remember what the man had looked like. He couldn’t, even though he spent the whole cab ride opposite him; all he remembered later was that the man had sat without leaning back, and that something about him seemed foreign, even though he spoke English in the hard straight way that old people did, the belligerent ones who’d always refused to learn French and scowled at you if you tried to call them monsieur.
It was maddening, that little but total failure of observation, because he took in everything else perfectly. The cab was a new one, all fresh leather and smelling of polish that was still waxy to touch. Later, he could even remember how steam had risen from the backs of the horses, and the creak of the wheel springs when they moved from the cobbles outside the station to the smoother-paved way down Rue Euston.
But not the man. It was as though the forgetfulness wasn’t so much an absence of memory, but a shroud that clung to him.
The road looked familiar and not. Whenever they came to a corner Joe thought he knew, there was a different shop there to the one he’d expected, or no building at all. Other cabs clopped past. Brown fog pawed at the shop windows. The sky was grey. In the background, he wondered if the man wasn’t being kind at all but taking advantage of things somehow, but he couldn’t think what for.
Not far away, monster towers pumped fumes into that gun-metal sky. They were spidered about with gantries and chutes, and in the flues, tiny flames burned. On the side of an enormous silo, he could just make out BLAST FURNACE 5 stamped in white letters in French. Joe swallowed. He knew exactly what they were – steelworks – but at the same time, they filled him with the dream-sense of wrongness that the Métro signs at the station had done. He shut his eyes and tried to chase down what he knew. Steelworks; yes, London was famous for that, that was what London was for. Seven blast furnaces up around Farringdon and Clerkenwell, hauling steel out to the whole Republic. If you bought a postcard of London, it always looked amazing, because of that towering tangle of pipework and coal chutes and chimneys in the middle of it. It was a square mile that had turned everything black with soot: the ruin of St Paul’s, the leaning old buildings round Chancery Lane, everything. That was why London was the Black City.
But all that might as well have come from an encyclopaedia. He didn’t know how he knew it. He didn’t remember walking in those black streets or around the steelworks, or any of it.
‘Did you get off the same train as me?’ he asked the man, hoping that if he focused on one particular thing, he might feel less sick.
‘Yes. It came from Glasgow. We were in the same carriage.’
The man had a clipped way of talking, but his whole body was full of compassion. He looked like he was stopping himself leaning forward and taking Joe’s hands. Joe was glad about that. He would have burst into tears.
He couldn’t remember being on the train. The man tried to tell him things that had been memorable, like the funny snootiness of the conductor and the way the fold-down beds tried to eat you if you didn’t push them down properly, but none of it was there. He confirmed that Joe hadn’t fallen or bumped anything, just started to look disorientated early this morning. It was nine o’clock now.
Joe had to let his head bow. He’d never been scared like it. He opened the window, just to inhale properly. Everything smelled of soot. That was familiar, at least. On the pavements, droves of men in black coats and black hats poured from the iron gates of the Métro stations. They all looked the same. The cab stopped for a minute or so, waiting at a railway crossing. The train was a coal cargo, chuntering towards the steelworks. The whistle howled as the driver tried to scare off some kids on the line; there were ten or twelve, foraging for the bits of coal that fell off the carriages.
‘You’ll be all right,’ the man said quietly. It was the last thing he said; while Joe was seeing the doctor, he vanished. None of the nurses had seen him go, or seen him at all, and Joe started to think he had got himself to the hospital alone, and that the man had been a benign hallucination.
Excerpted from Natasha Pulley’s novel The Kingdoms, published by Bloomsbury.