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The March of the Black Queen

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Kensington Market, London
Summer 1970

 

Roger set down the box of miscellaneous clothes and rummaged in his pocket for his cigarettes. Leaning against the wall, he lit one and propped it between his lips. It had been a slow day with only a handful of customers stopping by their stall and even less who'd actually bought anything. As he breathed in the first calming mouthful of smoke, he idly watched the people passing by. The air was heavy with the scent of weed, cigarette smoke, and joss sticks, and underneath the chatter of the last few sellers and customers still roaming the market, he could hear the quiet tones of Electric Ladyland on Freddie's record player.

He was just about to return to work when a pair of customers caught his eye, a young man and a woman standing in front of a rack of clothes a few stalls away. The man was dressed in a dark velvet suit, his light brown hair curling just below the tips of his ears. The weather had been overcast all day, threatening a rain that never came, and the man was carrying a large black umbrella. The girl had a long blood-red skirt and black hair fanned around her head as she flitted from one stall to another, touching this thing and that, picking up pieces of jewelry and clothing and then immediately casting them away.

Losing interest, Roger picked up his box again and returned to their stall. Freddie was sprawled on a rickety deck-chair in front of the stall, a cigarette dangling between his fingers as he lazily sketched passers-by on his notebook. Roger set down the clothes and then slapped the back of Freddie's head as he passed him by on his way to get more boxes.

"A little help here, if you don't mind."

Freddie didn't lift his eyes from his drawing. "I'm minding the stall, dear. Someone has to care for the customer service."

"You need customers to come to the stall to serve them," Roger muttered, and grabbed a box of items that were going back home to be "reimagined" as Freddie called it, and would hopefully have better luck at being sold in their next incarnation.

By the time he came back, the strange couple he had noticed earlier had reached his and Freddie's stall.

The man was leaning against a support beam opposite the stall, considering their merchandise with a look of barely contained distaste, while the girl sat cross-legged on the floor, rifling through the stack of Freddie's paintings, making a giddy "oh" sound at every picture she unearthed. When she reached the final painting, she stood up abruptly and took a few dancing steps towards the jewelry hanging on a hook on the wall. Her fingers ghosted a large gilded cross, but the man crossed the floor with few quick strides and pulled her hand away.

"I don't think Darla would appreciate if you bought her a crucifix." He let go of her wrist and ushered her back to the pile paintings. "She's..." He glanced at Freddie and Roger before finishing his thought. "-a Protestant, remember?"

Freddie set down his notebook and stood up, giving the man his best how-may-I-serve-you shop-boy smile. "Looking for a gift?"

The girl daintily ran her hands down her dress to smooth it. "It will be grandmummy's three-hundred-and-seventy-first birthday," she announced, with the enthusiasm of a small child.

The man didn't fail to notice the quick look Roger gave Freddie.

"My Dru, she's special," he said in a voice that dared anyone to contradict him. "And yeah, we're off to see the old bat in the good old US of A, and Dru here decided this morning that we can't go without bringing a present." He turned to speak to the girl again. "Though she's told you a thousand times she doesn't want to celebrate her..."He rolled his eyes." "-birthday, and it's going to be my hide that gets tanned again when you bring her a present anyway."

"Oh, yes," the girl murmurred, twisting the fabric of her dress in her fingers. "Grandmummy is going to be very cross. Put you in the cellar, with the naughty boys."

The man sighed and slumped down on one of the chairs next to Freddie. "And by special, I mean completely fucking insane."

Freddie dug out his pack of cigarettes and offered one to the man. He gave Freddie a curious look, but took the cigarette.

"Ta, mate," he said, absently leaning back to swat the girl's hand away from the crucifix again.

When he returned his attention to Freddie, he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head.

"Didn't you I see you two play at Imperial College the other night?" he said, looking from Freddie to Roger. "The Grand Poof, or something like that."

"Queen, dear," Freddie corrected him, but with a hint of pride in his voice. "How was it then? Did you enjoy the performance?"

"Fast like quicksilver," said the girl as she flitted past them.

The man gave her an exasperated look and then shrugged. "Was alright. I'd ditch the bassist, though, if I were you."

Freddie nodded thoughtfully at his words, and Roger rolled his eyes. Bye bye Doug, it was nice knowing you.

The girl picked up a painting of Hendrix from the stack and carried it to the man, dropping it in his lap.

"I think we should have made him ours when we went to see the dancing flowers." She smiled and looked at Roger. "It's like going up to heaven and then coming back alive."

There was something in her eyes that made Roger feel uncomfortable, and he let out a sigh of relief when she finally turned her piercing gaze away from him.

"I'm hungry, William," she said plaintively, "Can I have a little snack?"

The man's smile made Roger think of sharks and crocodiles. "Anything for my princess."

The woman let out squeal of joy, and turned to Roger again.

"Be in me," she whispered.

He suddenly felt light-headed, almost drunk, a sense of vertigo overtaking him, as if the woman's eyes were a deep chasm, and he was standing on the cusp of it.

"You can be my sugar-baby, you can be my honeychile." She ran her hand through his curls, and Roger had to resist the urge to lean into her touch. "Hair like gold and sunshine." She gave a full-body shudder. "Oh, yes! I think I shall keep him. Make him my golden prince."

"What? No!"

The world snapped back into focus at the sound of the man's voice. Roger had just enough time to wonder what the hell had happened when the man grabbed the girl's arm and pulled her after him, leaving Roger and Freddie behind. Roger blinked, feeling like he'd just woken from a deep sleep.

"What the fuck just happened?"

Freddie said nothing, just stared after the girl.

"Fred?"

Freddie waved his hand dismissively, and hurried behind the counter. "Not now, I need to write this down before I forget." He rummaged the boxes until he found his notebook and a pencil stub, and then hunched down on the floor against the wall, scribbling madly.

Roger rolled his eyes. It was Do-Not-Disturb-Genius-at-Work time again. He turned to look towards where the man and woman had disappeared. The whole thing seemed unreal, almost like a dream, and if Freddie hadn't also been there, he'd have thought that he'd just dozed off for a moment.

Shaking his head to clear it, he grabbed a box of clothes and headed downstairs.

Outside, the air was heavy with the scent of rain, and after tossing the box into the car, Roger leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He stood there for a few minutes, just breathing in the cool night air, until he suddenly sensed a presence next to him.

He opened his eyes to find the strange man standing next to him. Startled, he took a step back, but the man was faster, and boxed him in the corner between the wall and the car. Roger swallowed hard. He doubted the man could be dissuaded by just waving a library card. He was already mentally preparing for the beating he was about to get, when the man suddenly released him from his grip and stood back, letting out an exasperated sigh.

"You wouldn't happen to know where I could buy some peroxide, would you?"