London tales: 6 The Brotherhood
If the fog had not driven him to seek shelter from the winds on Tower Bridge, the stranger might never have entered the dark recesses of Maggie's Cause, just off Shad Thames' Lane. He found there a coffee shop and a mystery. It was a somewhat dingy quarter of Old London - the Lower East side, and he could imagine what it must have been like when gas lamps were few and far between. The cobblestones were still in place, like the rusted derrick crane clinging to the wall opposite. In the mean time, it was the haunt of a coffee museum and trendy boutique galleries displaying black-and white prints and wire-frame nudes.
They must've completely gutted the warehouse opposite to squeeze in the single-glazed corridor-flats. The shell remained to show what was there no more. As his gaze lifted idly from the cappucino his eye was caught by a chalk-mark about ten feet up on the concrete pillar supporting the roof that now sheltered him. It showed a rectangle with some numbers along the sides. Beneath it was a gradient triangle showing length and height. He took another sip and thought vaguely of ten-foot tall unemployed engineering graduates with a penchant for graffiti, and stirred the chocolate powder into a spiral nebula.
He glanced up out of curiosity and noticed similar chalk diagrams on several other concrete pillars. The drawings grew more complex as he began to crane his neck to see more pillars further up the street. They showed shapes like cups with the handle on the inside and a number. No wonder the engineers were unemployed - a cup like that might make a statement but it could just as easy get your fingers covered in something hot and sticky. Maybe that was the statement. Next to it was a curved shape wrapped over a square object, and held in place with what looked painfully like a thumb-screw.
He had just finished sketching these diagrams into his notebook when he noticed a figure across the street watching him. Their eyes met for an instant before the other looked away. When the stranger looked up the figure was gone. He shivered. Perhaps it was the cold, or an overdose of caffeine, but he put his jacket back on just in case.
He was prepared to dismiss all this as location-marks the builders forgot to erase, or maybe left as a statement to sling off at the trendy galleries. Postmodernism wearing its means of production on the outside. But as he left the warves and crossed into Vine Street he saw a movement behind him. That figure again.
As he headed up Crosswall towards the station the crowds thickened. Jostled, he looked up and saw the eyes again, and the brown fedora merging with the crowdstream. He checked his pocket and the notebook was gone. He pushed against the crowd and broke free in time to see a figure slip into a side passage. By the time he got there the figure was gone. Almost. His eyes caught the flutter of a piece of paper - a fragment from his notebook with the cup diagram, but it was slightly altered and some words had been added in a hasty scrawl: 'Tomorrow, 6pm' and an arrow pointed toward the cup's reversed handle. Slowly he retraced his steps to the coffee shop. There were signs that the chalk marks had been hurredly erased. Too hurredly. He could still make out the half-crescent with the thumb-screw, an arrow and number. He searched his wallet and found an old receipt, and quickly jotted down the drawing.
The next day he pulled out a map of the district to try to locate the place where the page fragment had been. His eyes widened as he saw the crescent shape there at the end of Vine Street - a place called 'The Crescent'. He threw on his overcoat and headed across Town to the spot. AS he entered Vine Street he pulled out the sketch and cautiously made his way down towards 'The Crescent' - still no reversed handle.
The roadway was smooth - no intrusion. Perhaps they were waiting for a vehicle to park in the spot. He examined the doorways, which all opened directly onto the street. They were numbered consecutively, the only curious thing was that the numbers went to 9 in standard Arabic numbers, but number ten had a Roman X on the door. On the pavement was a number and a short line, just like the gradient diagram. 22 along, 1.5 up. Was this a house numbered 22? He glanced along the line. There, about 20 paces from the door was a cup-shaped drain-cover, inset into which was a handle, inboard from the side. Ah 1.5 metres down! 'You found us then,' said a voice nearby. The stranger turned and saw the man with the brown Fedora hat 'welcome to the secret brotherhood of unemployed engineering graduates' he said, 'You're just in time for our annual general meeting.' And reaching down he deftly opened the drain cover and for a few moments the street was bathed in light.
Jerry Everard © 1995
© Jerry Everard