The Bluebottle Boys (Vol. 2), Chapter 32: Oranges & Lemons (Part 8)

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I heard the voice again, long enough to ascertain the direction from which it was coming. I ran toward it, only to stop as I heard a heavy, ominous footfall coming my way. I turned to get out of its way — and possibly hide — when I twisted my ankle and slid down an unseen pile of rubble, falling on my back and hitting my head.

I don’t know if I was knocked unconscious or simply collapsed from exhaustion, but I had no further awareness or recollection until I felt the early morning sun gently caressing my face. My ankle still throbbed, but I could still stand and put my weight on it. What I saw in the early morning light momentarily took my breath away.

The journey from Birmingham to London was neither a short nor easy matter in those days, and I could count the number of times I’d been there on my fingers. But I’d been often enough to know what I was looking at, even in this nearly primeval setting.

It was London Bridge, majestic even in her broken and dilapidated state. The nursery rhyme almost inevitaably followed in my head:

 

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down.

London Bridge is falling down,

My fair lady.

 

How will we build it up,

Build it up, Build it up?

How will we build it up,

My fair lady?

 

Build it up with silver and gold,

Silver and gold, Silver and gold.

Build it up with silver and gold,

My fair lady.

Now, anyone who knew anything about metals knew that silver and gold were both soft metals, and a lousy choice for supporting any kind of structure (to say nothing of their being prohibitively expensive). The verse clearly related to the taxes and tolls needed to finance rebuilding the bridge. And heaven help those who couldn’t contribute. 

Gold and silver I have none,

I have none, I have none.

Gold and silver I have none,

My fair lady.

 

I couldn’t see  the face, but the voice was unmistakably that of the young lady calling for help. Poverty was no excuse. If one couldn’t tender what the government wanted, there were other ways to “contribute.” People were often walled up in these large bridge as a kind of “sacrifice,” to ensure the structure was sturdy. But, London Bridge, and those affiliated with it, made a point of declaring that no one had ever been so sacrificed for the safety of their bridge. But the next verse seemed to state otherwise:

Take a key and lock her up,

Lock her up, Lock her up.

Take a key and lock her up,

My fair lady.

There it was before my mind’s eye — a cell built into the supports. The bastards were going to do it — they were going to wall her up in the bridge for lacking the means to pay.

Build it up with stone so strong,

Stone so strong, Stone so strong.

Build it up with stone so strong,

My fair lady.

 

Stone so strong will last so long,

Last so long, Last so long.

Stone so strong will last so long,

My fair lady.

 Indeed it would, and I’d no doubt they’d soon be walling her up within the cell — maybe even within the hour — leaving her to die and desiccate alone in the dark, unless someone rescued her. I ran — or as close to running as I could still manage  — from piling to piling, looking for a hint about where the cell was.

Perhaps my ankle was a blessing after all. I doubt I’d have seen it if I’d been running and darting about in a panic-stricken state. But moving more slowly, while keeping alert, I did see it — the edge of a gate built into a false outer wall of one of the pilings, set at such an angle away from view that even careful observation only took in the last four to six inches next to the hinge.

It was a gate clearly not meant to be seen.

As I moved in for a closer look, I saw that it  was a narrow entrance with a spiral stair, not dissimilar to the entrance to the hollow tree that Bethany, Stan and I had all accessed in Solihull. And lying next to the foot of the stairs, fast asleep, was an oversized galoot who could’ve taken on King Kong and won. He was no doubt the source of the footfall I’d heard last night, and I could only imagine what could’ve befallen me if he’d caught me. I remembered the final verse:

Set a man to watch all night,

Watch all night, watch all night,

Set a man to watch all night,

My fair lady.

And, he had watched during the night, but now — either from drunkenness, fatigue or both, he was in a stupor. I could easily get by him with a modicum of discretion. This was the place, I was nearly at my goal. But, the gate was locked. It was iron and about eight feet high — I could scale it, putting my feet upon the gate handle, but I’d make enough noise to wake the dead — or the galoot — in the process. But, there was a gap between the hinge of the gate and the stone of the piling — not much, but enough that, if my luck held, I might be able to squeeze through.

I got my left arm and leg through — so far, so good. Then, turning my head to the right, I began to squeeze my body through — only to be stopped halfway through. I was crestfallen, but I’d find another way — I had to. But, when I tried to back out, I discovered I could’t do that either. I was stuck here — maybe forever. A fly landed on my nose. Without thinking I brushed it away — then I saw the onyx cuff-link Gramfer’s ghost had given me, It had got me into this realm, perhaps it had a modicum of control here too.

“Please,” I whispered to it, “don’t leave me stranded; get me through or get me out.”

No sooner had the words left my lips than I heard a creaking of metal. The hinge side of the gate moved — no more than two or three centimeters, but enough that I could squeeze through. I thought the noise would wake the sleeping galoot of a guard. He did seem startled for a moment, but then closed his eyes, slumbering once again.

I tiptoed past and bolted up the stairs. I must’ve completed three full cycles of the spiral before I came to the cell door.

And there she was.

She was shackled, frightened and clearly hadn’t eaten for a while, her clothes were torn and dirty. But she was alive and had her wits about her. She was delighted to see me — to see any rescuer — but how was I to get her out? The lock was large and strong, and our attempts to pick it were useless. I looked at my onyx cuff-links asking again for assistance.

A dull greenish light appeared at the back of the cell. A dull mist appeared, like the one I’d seen at Warstone Lane Cemetery, along with the same smell of rotting flesh. A stairway appeared, and dark forms began to descend the stairs. But these weren’t like the brainless dark spirits from the cemetery — I had a feeling these were ghosts who could assume a human-like shape any time the chose, but had chosen — at least for now — not to do so.

The girl was terrified, but I remained optimistic — perhaps, through the cuff-links, I could make telepathic contact, the way I had with Bevel.

“Hello,” I called out, “who are you, can you help us?”

“Yes,” a resonant voice sounded in my head, “we are spirits of those who were walled up in other bridges; we are here to keep you two innocents from escaping our fate. Enter.”

I told the girl what they’d said, and to stand back as the gate unlocked and I entered. I’d an inkling what they had in mind based on my escape from a gang in Ladywood through another mysterious mist. I told the story to the girl and the ghosts, and asked if this was what they had in mind.

“Yes,” the voice said again, “but here you will travel through time and dimensions, as well as space. You will escape in a way you could not through space alone. Enter into the mist.”

We did so, and walked into the same kind of white light I’d encountered in Ladywood. Again, there were beings around  us — again I could not make out who they were. At one point, I heard the girl say, “Oh how beaut –“

Then nothing more. No one was holding my hand.

The mist lifted.

I found myself alone on a Bristol dock in the 19th century.

 

© 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.

The Bluebottle Boys (Volume One) and Walking Backward for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall are each now available from Amazon Books. The Bluebottle Boys (Volume Two) is expected to be available shortly.  The next novel of the series, By Good Angels Tenanted, will be available in 2019.