Agony Column Fiction


Excerpt from:
London Revenant by
Conrad Williams

Forthcoming from
Do-Not Press

I stepped off at St Paul's and took the escalators up to the exit. Outside, I felt the same lurching sense of diminishment I felt whenever I exited the Tube. Down there was all about suffocation, enclosure; the compression of air, time and space. Then suddenly you found yourself thrown into the space of the big city, with the sky jetting off in every direction above you. I also felt slightly sick. I don't like it. I don't like it. The crush. The people breathing on you. The weight on the tunnels. One day it will all pile in. It will all collapse. I can see it. I experience it every time I'm down there. The underground knew about death. And I knew about death on the underground.

In 1999 fifty-four people had been crushed in a stampede into an access tunnel at Nyamiha station in Minsk. Rush hour on a February morning, 1975, at Platform Nine, the southbound terminus at Moorgate station, a train failed to stop and slammed into a dead wall, killing forty-three. Ninety-seven dead at Malbone Street, New York, 1918, when a driver lost control of his train. Line two of the Paris metro, 1903, eighty killed in an electrical fire that started in a driver's cab. This year, last week, fifteen dead when a train was derailed in the tunnel between Hampstead and Belsize Park. Death queued up with everyone else at the ticket booths. It hung around the platforms like a busker without any tunes to play. Sometimes it picked a train to travel on, with no particular destination in mind.

The dark seemed pegged back by the street lights; that enhanced my feelings of disorientation for a few moments, until I gathered myself and climbed the steps of Panyer Alley, which formed the entrance to the ghost complex of St Paul's Shopping Centre. Almost instantly, the sound of traffic behind me was sealed off, as if I'd pierced a bubble and was now protected from the outside world. And I knew something was intrinsically wrong, although I couldn't understand what. The black, chipboard barriers of condemned shops pressed in from the walkway. From the sodium lights that worked, only a thin, grainy relief was offered. Ahead, ravaged shrubs in perishing rubber pots rustled as breaths of wind swept into the open air sections of the complex. A figure wrapped in black clothes stepped out of nowhere, making me flinch. As she passed by, I saw her glance at me and pause as if to say something, but I didn't pay her too much attention, not when her face glistened like that.

I hurried on into a space adjacent to Paternoster Square. Although I felt smothered by the proximity of so much featureless concrete, the sky reared away from me, a paradox that made me feel even more desperate. A pub - The Master Gunner - sat squat and ugly to my right. Smeared shapes moved beyond the windows. I couldn't make out any faces that might have been watching for mine. I could smell piss and stale roast beef. One sign was left on the deserted shop fronts, grimly informing anybody who could be bothered that Stage Door of Drury Lane had once done business here. I was trying to work out if the shop was a hairdresser's or a florist's when I heard footsteps - a woman's footsteps ringing shrilly on the paved expanse beyond this last section of Panyer Alley.

I moved forward, bothered more than I should have been by the bulky swaddles of blankets tucked into the corners of landings on brief flights of stairs that seemed to go nowhere, or wadded beneath benches. To my left, one of the large panelled doors of St Paul's Cathedral was rendered chalky and indistinct by spotlights. Bells in the clock tower pealed the hour. I felt utterly alone and exposed as I stepped into Paternoster Square. The owner of those determined footsteps was nowhere to be seen. The square was host only to a few tired pigeons settling down to roost and one or two couples, too far off for closer inspection, heading towards the main streets, perhaps for a late after-work drink. Because I'd been striding so purposefully since disembarking, the lack of any discernible object to project my attentions upon - the necessity of waiting - made me realise the dislocation of my surroundings. I didn't know what to do. The cathedral was awash with ice-blue light. Though it was a major landmark, it had little influence on my bearings. The square was a no-man's land bleached by arc lights. Beneath my feet, as silence crept through the courtyard, trains rumbled. It proved little comfort. I checked the note in my pocket. Midnight, Paternoster Square. I tried to remember where the note had come from, but my thoughts were too glassy. Every time I thought I was settling on something, it reflected my scrutiny back at me. Something wasn't right.

'Something isn't right,' I confirmed to myself, and started to back away. The empty, black panels of glass that gave Bancroft House a punched-in, drained appearance took up the dead light from the globes scattered around the square. Denuded coppery nets hung limply from their posts on a dismal netball court that didn't seem capable of supporting the fun of fourteen laughing girls. It made me think of gallows. It made me think of bodies in abattoirs being opened up and left to bleed. A blue polythene bag rustled, trapped high in winter branches. 'I don't want to die here,' I whispered to myself, as the top of a head became visible on the steps leading up from the cobbled path of St Paul's Churchyard. For a lunatic split second I thought it must be a clergyman with his rosary beads, reciting the Paternoster Prayer. The head had been turned black by the backdrop of light. Hair created a wild halo that fussed with motes. As the arms cleared the top edge of the steps, I cleared my throat. 'Nuala?' I whispered, hopefully. But of course it wasn't her. Nuala wouldn't mean to visit harm upon me. Nuala wouldn't be naked from the waist up, her breasts gleaming as if they carried their own light source. Nuala wouldn't be carrying a long, thick coil of chain. It couldn't be her.

I ran.