So I know you’re wondering how a respectable working-class Londoner like me got mixed up with magic. Being as magic - the formal Newtonian style, that is - is, as a good friend once told me, all toffs and monsters, and me not being the Oxbridge type. Although I have my degrees - both of them - from perfectly respectable universities, thank you very much.
It goes something like this.
At the time this story starts, I was living in a block of ex-council flats in what passed for a leafy suburb if you were a real Londoner like me, two bus stops from the District line. They were built around a courtyard that had been divided up into small gardens for the ground-floor flats when the building was sold off in the nineties, private owners not believing in things like common space, with the first and second story places making do with balconies that you could just about fit two people and a table onto if you were both skinny. I shared a second-story two-bedroom place with Jaget Kumar, who was a civil engineer I’d first met just over a decade ago when we were both at Coventry University, doing a bunch of the same physics and maths courses. Now we were both back in London, and the architectural firm I worked for often contracted his engineering company, so we’d re-connected. I’d been looking to move flats at the same time he’d been looking for someone to split the rent. Although we were both doing okay for guys who’d been trying to start professional careers in the midst of the Great Recession, it made London rent a little more affordable, if not so by the standards of the rest of the country. But there was one thing we both considered worse than paying London rents, and that was commuting. Besides, he was a good flatmate, always did his share of the chores and made himself absent if I had company, not that that had been happening much recently.
Next door to us were Lesley May and Beverley Thames, both managers. Lesley was a perky blonde white girl who ran the local chemist with the sort of steely determination that made it hard to get out of there without buying something, even if you’d just popped in to get out of the rain. Beverley had some indeterminate job for BMW that involved her jaunting out to the Mini plant at Cowley every other week. When I’d moved in I’d had a hard time deciding which one of them I fancied more, but Lesley had solved that problem for me by showing up to our housewarming party with a boyfriend before I’d had the chance to say more than hello. I wasn’t really sure what she saw in Zach Palmer, but he still showed up now and then so apparently it was something. I’d say it was a reliable source of weed, but as far as I could tell Lesley didn’t partake. (I didn’t, either, because in a block like this I can tell you who the cops were going to arrest first if someone called them about the smell of cannabis emanating from an upstairs apartment, and it was me and Jaget, the both of us being suspiciously young, brown, and male.) Beverley, Nigerian and curvy, had remained tantalisingly boyfriend- and girlfriend-free to date, but there was something about her I couldn’t figure out; we flirted a lot and meeting her on my morning run was pretty damn distracting, her in her exercise gear and all, but something was just – off, the reaction a little too intense. I figured that until I knew exactly what I’d be in for it was best to keep it low-key. And it wasn’t like she was pressing the issue herself.
On the ground floor garden flat below us – the intervening first-story flat had changed hands three times since we’d been there and I couldn’t keep track of the residents – were Miriam and her wife Rebecca. Rebecca kept chickens, which was technically against the tenancy agreement, as I’d been informed angrily by Richard Folsom three doors down, but they were very generous with the eggs and the general agreement was that Folsom was too much of a dick to give him the satisfaction of seeing them dobbed in. Why he’d never laid the complaint himself I wasn’t sure, but it might have been Alexander Seawoll. Alex was an enormous shouty northerner who ran the Residents’ Association and had an irksome habit of simultaneously making implicitly homophobic remarks about people he didn’t like while maintaining what appeared to be a pleasant relationship with Miriam and Rebecca. Although most of the people he said that stuff to were men, and there’s a certain type of guy who doesn’t mind lesbians but thinks gay men are responsible for the downfall of civilisation or at least the bits of it they live in. Anyway, Alex made it clear that he would look with extreme disfavour on anyone who interfered with the whole chicken thing, which probably kept Folsom quiet, and the rest of us collectively mum. Besides, like I said, they really were very good about bribing us with fresh eggs.
The main target of Alexander’s ire in this block of flats was the gentleman – and I use the word intentionally – who lived next door to Miriam and Rebecca, Thomas Nightingale. He was a tall white guy, a little shorter than me, brown hair, grey eyes, a long-boned face, good looking in a sort of forties film-star way, and an astonishing collection of beautifully tailored suits that just didn’t go with the ex-council flat bit. As far as I could tell he didn’t have a regular job, either, at least not a nine-to-five one. His accent was posh, his manners impeccable, and the first time I’d met him at our bus stop I’d been half-certain he was coming on to me. Sadly, I’d never quite figured out if he had been, or it was just his good manners combined with my wishful thinking, in that first flush of attraction when you see someone you fancy. It was the kind of thing you could get in very hot water assuming anything about, with guys, so the moment had passed.
Anyway, neither men nor women appeared to figure in his life in a romantic context, although he got on with everyone and seemed to be particularly good friends with Molly, the extremely quiet and disturbing woman on the ground floor. She did something online, no-one was sure what, and communicated with her neighbours via text message and notes in exquisite copperplate. Sahra two doors down from her said she wasn’t even sure Molly had a surname, and Sahra was a copper with some obscure economic crime branch of the Met – yeah, they have those – so she should know if anyone did. For a long time I thought Sahra lived with David, who sort of floated around the place, but apparently he was both her co-worker and dating her flatmate; all three of them were police. It figured, since I didn’t think a live-in boyfriend would fit with Sahra’s whole Muslim ninja vibe, although it’s not really my business how other people do their religion. It’s always a bit weird living with the filth in the building, but Sahra and Jessie were cheerful enough and didn’t give anyone crap about anything they weren’t being paid to pay attention to, so no-one minded. I suppose even the police have to live somewhere.
It was Thomas I really couldn’t figure out, though, even more than the suspiciously tempting Beverley. I saw him down the local sometimes, especially if there was a rugby match on. He’d said he didn’t have a television and that he hadn’t grown up with one, which was just weird – he couldn’t have been more than forty, not that much older than me, so how he’d avoided it as a child I couldn’t fathom. He also didn’t own a computer, which, these days – who doesn’t own a computer? He read the Daily Telegraph and a surprising amount of science fiction, about which we’d had several good conversations and lent each other a book or two, and was weirdly vague about his past, apart from saying he’d downsized into this flat a few years ago when he realised he didn’t need the space. Divorced, or separated, or something, maybe. Alex Seawoll really didn’t like him, but wouldn’t talk about why, sticking to obscene disapproval of his standard of dress (unfailingly high – once we had a pipe burst and he’d come out of his place on a Sunday afternoon wearing a polo shirt, and that was the most casual piece of clothing I’d ever seen him in) and general existence. I’d almost wonder if they were exes if I didn’t know for a fact that Alex was divorced, and recently – his kids were there every other week. Besides, he really didn’t seem like Thomas’ type. Not that I had any real idea what that type was.
The other weird thing about Thomas Nightingale was that Miriam down below said he’d been there for as long as she and Rebecca had, and that was pushing fifteen years. He would have had to be young when he’d moved in, and according to her he hadn’t changed much at all, except maybe to look younger, she’d said with a baffled frown. And Miriam really didn’t do baffled – she was a tough-faced white woman who worked for the local council and was generally unimpressed by everything. Maybe he wasn’t forty; maybe he was a terrifyingly well-preserved sixty. It would explain the suits, sort of. But I had encountered plenty of Daily Telegraph-reading well-preserved sixty-year-olds – they represented a large part of the clientele of the architectural firm I worked for, having their houses renovated now they finally had the money to do what they wanted – and Thomas Nightingale wasn’t that type at all. Too posh, for starters.
“Maybe he’s, like, a wizard, and he doesn’t age,” suggested my cousin Abigail. She was eighteen and spent more time at me and Jaget’s place than she did at home, or it seemed like that some days. She’d been getting in more and more fights with her dad and I figured at least if she was taking up space on my couch she was somewhere safe, so I’d given her a key a few months ago, after Jaget had given his okay. Lesley and Beverley had given me the dirtiest looks when they’d found out and whipped her off for tea and at my best guess a seminar on how to fight off sexual predators. Lesley told me later Abigail had laughed so hard at that she’d choked on a piece of biscuit, which was on the whole a compliment. I always made sure to run her back to her dad’s in time for bed, though, in my trusty Ford Asbo. Once it had been in the shop and Thomas had given her a lift in his silver ’67 Jag, which is the envy and terror of everyone in the building (envy for the obvious reasons, terror in case they ever dent it). That had impressed her no end.
“He’s not a wizard,” Jaget told her scornfully. It was a rainy, windy, generally disgusting Sunday afternoon in January and he’d taken up the table to de-construct one of his beloved working steam train models. Abigail found this fascinating, but was too cool to ask about it, so she was just lurking on the couch, watching. “If you want to be a wizard you have to go to Oxford and then be an apprentice, or whatever, and they all belong to the Folly. You don’t live in a poky little flat in the suburbs and have a yappy little dog.”
It was true that Thomas’ dog, Toby, was a pesky little thing, but Thomas was pretty good about keeping him quiet and I liked the little bugger – I’d even done the dog-walking thing a few times when Thomas had been out of town. But it wasn’t very wizardly, that was true.
“He’s posh enough, though,” Abigail argued. “And he’s got all these books in Latin and stuff. And a cane. It could be a wizard’s staff. How would you know?”
“Jaget’s right though,” I said. “The only people who are wizards are part of the Folly.”
“They can retire, though, right? What do they call it – breaking their staffs? I read about it somewhere.”
“He’s not old enough to be retired,” I told her. “And, hang on – when were you in his flat?” She was right about the books, as it happened, because I’d been in there feeding Toby and I’m easily distracted and there was a whole wall of text to look at through the half-open study door, okay (because studies are what posh people do with their spare bedroom, if they have one.)
The only Latin I knew was from when our RPG club at university had gotten a bit carried away one-upping each other and we’d very nearly scripted entire fights in the language before coming to our senses - the DM and two of the players were classics and modern language majors, and the rest of us were hard sciences and engineering types trying to prove we could hack it with the humanities crowd. It had lent a nice air of authenticity the next time I played a cleric, though. Though obviously it had been some rather specific vocabulary. Anyway, even I could tell there was some esoteric stuff in Thomas’ collection. It was a bit weird. But Abigail had never been in his flat, as far as I knew.
Jaget looked sharply up and frowned at that too. He was almost as protective of Abigail as I was. He had older siblings but no younger ones, and I was an only kid, so I guess we’d both sort of adopted her that way.
Abigail rolled her eyes with magnificent disdain. “When he dropped me off in the Jag that time – he left his coat in his study, I just saw in the door. He’s totally nice, you like him. And I’m not thirteen anymore, you’re worse than my dad.”
This was true, as far as it went. But if anything happened to Abigail there was an entire list of people who’d kill me and her dad, traditional West African patriarch though he was, wasn’t even at the top of it: after all, he didn’t live next door to me. Or in the same flat as me. “Just checking, okay?”
“Fine, whatever,” said Abigail, but I think she was a bit touched.
Like I said, by this point I knew Thomas Nightingale as well as anyone in the flats, other than the mysterious Molly – what with the science fiction and the occasional dog walking and the mutual despair at Alex Seawoll’s existence in our vicinity – so when I ran into him the next Saturday manoeuvring a large box out of the Jag, containing an actual television, I offered to help him set it up, like the helpful neighbour I am. (I am - ask anyone. Anyone except Richard Folsom.) Besides, maybe then I could take another good look at the books, and figure out if Abigail had a point. I mean, she didn’t, but it would be nice to know.
It took about half an hour of fussing to get the thing set up – he’d organized to have cable put in before he’d bought the actual television, which displayed a truly terrifying degree of foresight – and after we had it on and it mysteriously and entirely accidentally was tuned to Arsenal v. Tottenham (there weren’t any rugby matches on, okay, I did check) he invited me to stay for a cuppa, which I said yes to, only partially with the intention of staring at his books while he made tea.
The problem with this was that the study door, while partially open, wasn’t really visible from where I was seated at his small table. Because apparently he was also too posh to let visitors sit on his couch, not that any of his furniture looked like it should be sat on, compared to mine and Jaget’s. So I was trying not to look sideways suspiciously and also trying to pay attention to questions like whether I took milk and generally letting my mind wander (what if they are magic books? Does that mean they’re books about magic, or books that are magic? Is this going to be a sort of Unseen University library situation? Could they be dangerous?) when my fingers brushed across the wide earthenware fruit bowl in the middle of the table.
Now, as many people will tell you, I’m pretty easily distracted. It was particularly bad during my last two years of secondary school and very nearly scuttled my A-levels entirely until the school counsellor referred me for an ADHD assessment. My mum was deeply unimpressed. It’s a tenet of hers that there are very few mental conditions in children, and probably adults, that can’t be cured by strict discipline and hard work. But she took me anyway, on one of her days off. I didn’t end up getting diagnosed, but we did work through a few ways to keep myself on task when I really needed to be, and it probably saved me from some awful fate. I was halfway through my last year when I found out that to apply for architecture programs, which was what I wanted to do, I needed a portfolio of drawings. I wasn’t much of an artist. This turned out to not be an insurmountable problem, but the surmounting was pretty bloody tedious. If I hadn’t got the help with focusing – it usually involved bribing myself with unfocused time at a later date, or making a note about my latest thought and then putting it aside so I could try drawing that curve yet again - I probably would have given up entirely.
My point being, letting my mind wander is very nearly a talent of mine, and it was wandering all over the place when I touched that bowl. That wasn’t unusual. What was weird was what I felt when I touched it. There was a sudden sense of – things I hadn’t been thinking about, things I had no reason to think about; a flash of heat against my fingertips, the smell of charcoal and steam and, of all things, pig shit. The last one seemed particularly out of place in this immaculately tidy flat – I mean, me and Jaget are well past the late-adolescence stage of living in a metaphorical pigsty, but we do leave stuff about, forget to clean coffee mugs out as soon as we’re done with them, the usual. Thomas’s place was painfully tidy. He’d even returned the various polystyrene debris from unpacking the television back into the box it had come in, what he hadn’t just put straight in the bin. So a smell like that, it caught my attention. I wondered if it was manure in Thomas’s garden, outside the French door retrofitted into the living room when the flats had been sold off and renovated - but the glass doors were closed and so were the curtains; it was winter, after all.
The smell was gone now, and Thomas was coming over with tea – he even had a tray for the teapot and cups and everything. I supposed it was about priorities. Again, I’m an architect, Jaget’s an engineer, we can afford to get semi-decent things for the flat if we want, it’s just that we both tend to rate, say, games consoles above household items. So we drink our tea out of mismatching mugs and shamefully fail to own an actual teapot, but a significant fraction of our minimal bench space was given over to a small-form espresso machine and we had a seriously nice gaming set-up. If Jaget ever moved out it was quite possible I was going to miss that espresso machine more than him. Thomas had only just arrived in the mid-twentieth-century vis-a-vis television ownership, but he had a proper tea set made of what I could tell was some very nice china. I was almost afraid to touch the stuff.
“Admiring the fruit bowl?” he asked, nodding at it. To be honest it wasn’t much to look at, broad and plain and holding a few apples and oranges. But it sort of – held the eye, like it was really...well formed. I don’t know; I’m an architect, I describe buildings.
“It’s very...well-made,” I said, because I’m hopeless with ceramics that aren’t brick-shaped. “Where’d you get it?” My fingers drifted along the curve of the edge again, just as Thomas was pouring the tea, and there it was again, more distinct now I was testing for it; heat and charcoal and that awful not-manure smell. But the heat wasn’t real, because when I curled my fingers into my palm, there was no temperature difference. It was like a hallucination. An olfactory hallucination. Or a...what was a hallucination of temperature called? Was there a word for it? Was I just going crazy? It was totally possible.
But Thomas was staring at me, eyes narrowed, and that was off too, because it wasn’t the look of bafflement from someone wondering why I was touching his fruit bowl. It was the look of someone who had some idea what I was thinking but didn’t want to say it.
“One of the stalls at Portobello Market,” he said, instead of whatever it was he was thinking.
“Really,” I said, picking up my teacup delicately. I’m not a very delicate person, either. The words does it normally cause people to hallucinate the smell of pig shit somehow failed to pass the tip of my tongue. “Did you know my cousin Abigail thinks you’re a wizard?”
This earned me an actual start from him – not that it would count as such from anyone else, but the tiniest jerk of his head – and that was wrong too; Thomas Nightingale definitely wasn’t the most expressive man I’d ever met, but that sort of outrageous accusation usually gets a reaction from people, even if it’s just “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Not that I ever expected to hear him use the word “fucking”. He was way too refined for that.
“I can’t imagine where she got that idea from,” he said instead, with what was clearly intended to be a ruefully deprecating smile, and took a sip of tea.
“So is this a magical fruit bowl, then?” I asked, because, yeah, it was rude, but I figured he owed me for helping set up the television and I suddenly wanted to know. And you know what he hadn’t said? “I’m not a wizard.” Or any words to that effect.
“No,” was all he said.
“Was it made with magic?” I asked, because, see, after David Mellenby and some of the other more scientifically-minded wizards published their work integrating the practice of magic into scientific theory in the fifties, some information about how it actually worked had made it into the public sphere – along with the fact that magic was an actual observable phenomenon at all. I had no more idea of how to do magic than how to fly, with or without magic. But the physics of magic had been the topic of an all-too-brief section of one of my second-year physics courses at university. I’d liked it enough at the time to pay attention and even do the suggested but not required reading, though, and one thing I did remember was that magic left - imprints on things. The degree of imprint was dependent upon the substance – stone and concrete held it well, wood and metal poorly, living things barely at all. Ceramics were pretty good, as I understood it. Now, the nature of the imprint hadn’t been explained at all, because of course that would have been way too close to letting the hoi polloi know when magic was being done, or had been. But gives you mysterious hallucinations was sounding pretty plausible.
Thomas narrowed his eyes at me again. “It...I believe it may have been. What on earth brought all this up?”
“Abigail, I told you. And I can sort of see her point - you’ve got a wall full of books in Latin and I don’t know what else, you carry a cane, you...wait, is that why the Jag? And the weird attachment to pre-microchip electronics? Because magic blows out microchips, I remember that, it’s one of the reasons it hasn’t really caught on. Well, that and the fact you have to get into Oxford just to study it, and that it went ‘into decline’ after World War II, whatever that means, and - holy shit, she was right, you are a wizard.”
I hadn’t meant it to come out like that all at once but the way he was looking at me as I rambled had just said I was right. I was right.
“Are you sure you’re an architect?” he said. “You seem to have missed your calling as a detective.”
This was, I noted, an admission that I was in fact correct without actually using any words like Yes or You’re right or I am a wizard. And thus beautifully deniable.
I laughed. “Not really. I’m pretty easily distracted. I don’t think that’s the kind of life skill they look for in police officers.”
“What made you ask about the fruit bowl?”
Since we’d got to the part where my downstairs neighbour was apparently, you know, a wizard, I didn’t feel quite so stupid about telling him what it felt like when I touched it, so I did. He frowned at me the entire time, the frown of someone thinking.
“Vestigium,” he said when I’d finished, after taking a few moments to frown some more and sip his tea. “You sensed the vestigium associated with the creation of the bowl.”
“Is that what you call it? When magic leaves traces on things?”
“Then how come everyone doesn’t notice it?”
“They do – a dozen times a day. They just dismiss it as a flight of fancy. It takes a particular sort of mind to pay attention to it.”
I touched the fruit bowl again, and, yeah, there it was, that same set of sensations. Not my imagination. Magic.
“Are you even supposed to be telling me this stuff? I thought it was all about trade secrets.”
Thomas smiled. “None of this is particularly secret, just not widely discussed. Besides, I’m retired, mostly.”
I scoffed. “Retired? Come on, you’re not that old.” But I remembered what Miriam had said – maybe sixty was underestimating it.
He hesitated. Oh, shit, it was underestimating it. “I’m a little older than I look.”
“What, like you’re really three hundred?”
“No,” he said quellingly.
“Two hundred? A hundred and fifty?”
“Didn’t your mother teach you it’s rude to speculate about someone’s age?”
“Nope, that’s just for ladies,” I said cheerfully.
“I assure you it holds for gentlemen as well,” he said, with a raised eyebrow, but he was smiling again, so I figured I hadn’t upset him too much. I did like his smile.
The funny thing was, though, I’d been expecting to find out he was actually fifty or something, because people can be weird about their age, but - the normal reaction to someone suggesting you were three hundred was to laugh. I’m just saying. That was - interesting. I’d certainly never heard anyone suggest magic could extend your lifespan. Then again, I’d never heard anyone confirm it didn’t, although you’d think someone would have noticed.
“Can you do any magic spells, then?” I asked instead, because, c’mon, wouldn’t you? And Abigail would be furious when she found out. I’d seen photos and video, of course, of the real thing and replicated for TV shows and films, but apparently most magic wasn’t very interesting to watch; there was less footage out there than you’d expect. Also, you had to film it at a distance or use old-school microprocessor-free equipment, and who had that around anymore?
This did seem to be pushing it, but after a long moment he shrugged. “Oh - very well, but we need to turn off the television. And you’ll want to take the battery out of your mobile phone.”
The microchip problem, right. I turned off the television and, at his instruction, unplugged it as well, and pulled the battery out of my Galaxy. Not a lot of phones you could do that with these days. I noticed that Thomas just pulled out his slimline Nokia – so boring it was nearly an antique, phone-wise – and flipped a nonstandard switch on the side. Maybe if you were a wizard you bought your phone with a battery interrupt, just in case. It’d make sense.
I sat down again, folded my arms and looked at him. Not that I was experiencing a sudden wave of scepticism, you understand. I just didn’t want to seem too easily impressed. He raised an elegant eyebrow, opened his right hand, and said “Lux.”
A ball of light sprang into existence above his hand, and I felt it, in my head, like a, a...shape, just out of sight; but it was gone before I could grasp it. But it was magic, all right; real magic.
I was trying to be cool about it but I was grinning like an idiot, I knew. It winked out of existence.
“So that’s a magic spell, then? Lux?” Light, I thought, in the Latin; one of the bits and bobs I’d retained from that bout of Dungeons-and-Dragons-related study. As I said it, I opened my hand, but of course nothing happened, because I wasn’t a wizard, and probably couldn’t be - they didn’t publicise how people got picked for the Folly, apart from going to Oxford, but presumably it was some sort of thing you had to be born with. I did know a lot of them - guys, mostly - came from the same families. Not that I’d ever have gone to Oxford, even if I’d had the grades. You couldn’t study architecture.
“Not exactly,” Thomas said, and he did it again, just like that, but without the word. The feeling of it was still the same, though. “It’s more of a...placeholder.”
“The magic is in your mind,” I said.
“Well – thanks. For showing me. I know I’m being awfully nosy. I’m guessing you’d rather this didn’t get around?”
He nodded. “I am trusting in your discretion, in this. Consider it a fair exchange for the help with the television.” He gestured in that direction. “And – when Abigail visits you next – would you bring her around? I think I should speak with her myself about it.”
“Sounds reasonable.” I rose. “Anyway - thanks again, and thanks for the tea. Let me know if you can’t figure out the remote or something, yeah?”
“I’m not entirely at odds with modern technology, Peter, thank you,” he told me as he walked me to the door, but he was still smiling.
“Fuck off,” I told him, but not in a serious way. “I was helping him set up his new TV.”
“And that took an hour and a half?”
“We had a cuppa. He’s, like...” I wondered, again, how old he really was. I’m a little older than I look. “Old. Must be pushing forty, easy.”
“Good-looking, though,” Jaget pointed out unhelpfully. “Dresses really well. Drives an amazing car. Definitely got money, although why he bothers living here I don’t know. You could do worse.”
“Oh, shut up.” Jaget, in the two years we’d been flatmates, had had plenty of opportunity to observe that the one or two goes I’d had at dating guys had flamed out even more spectacularly than when I dated women. They’d only got started in the first place because I was thoroughly shit at asking people out, and they’d asked me, and I’d figured why not give it a go. Mostly all I’d learned was that while sex with men was just fine, I wasn’t any more successful at maintaining those relationships than I was with women. In fact, Jaget himself was the person not related to me I’d had the longest relationship with, in a totally platonic way; he was strictly heterosexual and I was strictly uninterested in screwing up my living situation. “We were just chatting.”
“You’re getting very defensive about this,” said Jaget, so I threw a teatowel at him. That’s the mature and responsible way we settle our disagreements in this household.
Somehow, I resisted the urge to tell him about the magic thing. I’d promised, after all, and meant it. And it wasn’t – I didn’t know. It felt more real if I kept it to myself.
I kept my other promise, too, and dropped Thomas a text the next time Abigail set up camp on my couch, which was the following Wednesday. Jaget wasn’t home yet, so the timing worked. He came up and had a quiet conversation with her while I pointedly tidied the kitchen. I didn’t actually eavesdrop – I couldn’t without going suspiciously quiet, dishes are noisy things – but whatever he said left her wide-eyed and at least half-serious.
“Wow,” she said, once he was gone. “Did you know about that?”
“We had a chat,” I said. “Are you sticking around to eat? Because it’s pasta sauce from a jar or nothing, just so we’re clear on that. I hear they feed you at home occasionally.”
“Ugh, fine.” She wrinkled her nose. “You should learn to cook more interesting things.”
“Some of us have better things to do.” Also I’m not that fussy an eater, or too proud to live on takeaways more than I should. I just try not to do that when Abigail’s around. Didn’t want her getting the wrong impression about adulthood, I mean, more than she already was spending time around me. “Don’t you have homework or something?”
“Oh, come on, what are you, my father?” she grumbled, but she pulled her laptop out of her backpack and proceeded to shut up for at least half an hour, so she was doing something. I hoped it was her homework. She seemed pretty confident about her A-levels, and had got her letter from Oxford two weeks ago - if she was my sister I would have been so proud I’d burst, but she was just my something-removed cousin, so I was just generally proud. Maybe she could go and learn magic, if she wanted. I didn’t suggest it though, because if there was something more terrifying than Abigail as she was, it was an Abigail who could do actual fucking magic. I’m not sure the Peckwater Estate would survive.
“So, like, did he show you any magic?” she asked as I was dishing out the food. It vanished suspiciously quickly for the disdain she’d shown.
“Maybe,” I said. “But we’re not supposed to talk about it, right?”
“Why d’you think he’s here? Wizards live in the Folly, right? If they’re in London. Or they’re, like, important people. They don’t live somewhere like...” She gestured around at the admittedly minimalist dimensions of the flat. “Like this.”
Fair point; this place was better than the one I’d grown up in, and had been renovated more than once in the twenty-odd years since the council had flogged it off, but we were talking shoebox versus matchbox here. Currently they marketed flats in this building with the whole microhousing thing. I had colleagues who were really into it, but it drove me bonkers. Microhousing, sure - as long as you were single and not planning on taking up any hobbies. The only reason it worked for me was that I was single and didn’t have any hobbies, at least not hobbies that took up space. Jaget’s models were bad enough.
“Said he was retired.”
“Retired?” She made a face. “He’s old, but he’s not, like, old old.”
I shrugged. “Look, I don’t know. I don’t see him around that much, really. He’s just the weird posh guy downstairs.”
“You mean the weird posh wizard downstairs.” She gave me a sly look. “He’s probably not too old for you, you know.”
I gave her my flattest stare. It was Abigail, so it didn’t have much effect. “Remind me again why I let you come over here and bother me?”
She shrugged awkwardly, and traced a pattern in the leftover pasta sauce with her fork. She was already eyeing up the leftovers. Good thing I’d put Jaget’s half in the fridge already. “I dunno.”
“Yeah, me neither.” She shrank into her chair a little at that, so I pointed at the kitchen. “You want any more? I’m done.”
She was out of the chair before I’d finished talking, so she couldn’t have been that downtrodden.
I only saw Thomas a couple of times over the next two weeks – running into each other in the carpark or at the main entrance, when he was out walking Toby, once at the pub, that sort of thing. I’d thought he only went for the rugby so I hadn’t reckoned on seeing him there now he’d learned about the miracle of television in your home, but he was meeting a friend, which was also a surprise. He didn’t seem to have many of those. At least not to be close to. I wondered if it was a boyfriend, it being the week of Valentine’s Day and all, but it didn’t seem like it; the mystery endured. Abdul Haqq Walid was a tall red-headed Scot in his fifties or sixties who must get more double-takes than Sahra downstairs did when she told people she was a copper. Apparently he was a doctor at UCH - known to me only because it was where I’d been born.
“Gastroenterology, mostly,” he said.
“Among other things,” added Thomas. I made a note to ask about that later. See – I can manage my distraction.
“How d’you know Thomas, then?” Abdul asked.
“He’s my downstairs neighbour,” I explained. “We check each other’s mail when we’re out of town and I admire his car from afar.”
“Peter helped me with the television set,” Thomas added.
“Haven’t broken it yet?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s not the most complicated piece of equipment.”
“We’ll work you up to computers eventually,” I said.
“I can’t imagine what for. As far as I can tell from Abdul and everyone else they’re mostly useful for allowing you to be bombarded with communication you didn’t want in the first place.”
“That’s...not entirely inaccurate,” I conceded. “On the other hand, you can also have the accumulated knowledge of mankind at your fingertips. So there are some small benefits.”
“Not quite all the accumulated knowledge, I think,” Thomas said with a small smile, and I wondered how many of his magic books (books about magic? I still hadn’t sorted that one out) had made it online. Not many, if any, I was guessing, judging by his smile.
Abdul was giving me a narrow-eyed glance. “What did you say you did?”
“I’m an architect,” I said blandly. “Mostly renovating the interiors of older buildings – somewhere like London, you’re never going to run out of those.” It was astonishing, actually, how many buildings in this city preserved the façades of one era and the interiors of another entirely, or several others; your perspective changing as you stepped inside, history circling around you. I liked doing that, merging the old and new. It led to spending more time around wankers with more money than sense than I really liked, but beggars can’t be choosers and neither can architects graduating into the worst recession of the past fifty years.
“Oh, I see,” he said, and looked sideways at Thomas; I sensed that I was going to be a topic of conversation later, too. All this you-know-I-know-he-knows stuff was a bit tiring, really.
“Like this pub,” I said instead, and gave my one-minute spiel on how they’d redone the place from its original Georgian construction; it redirected the conversation like a charm, and also proved I was exactly who I said I was. I’m really not that interesting, after all.
“So your friend Abdul,” I asked Thomas a day or so later. “Mostly gastroenterology?”
“Also cryptopathology,” he said. “And medical monitoring – the greatest hazard of wizardry is actually giving yourself a brain haemorrhage. Until they invented the MRI, the first sign of danger was when you had a brain haemorrhage, which was rather concerning. Nowadays we all have to get regular checkups.”
I vaguely recalled hearing that, too – another reason magic had never really taken off, apart from the “decline” and “Oxford degree” things – and noted that Thomas was getting more comfortable making references he shouldn’t be making; if he really was fortyish, the MRI would have been invented after he was born, and well before he’d become a wizard. “Yeah, but cryptopathology?”
“There’s more to magic than its mere existence,” Thomas said, and, okay, that was new; magic’s functionality was something everyone knew, the Folly, wizards, sure, but...what else was out there?
“Huh. Good to know.” I’d also noticed that I actually got more out of him by not asking questions, because if I got persistent he clammed up. This was demonstrated in action when he almost looked disappointed that I hadn’t said anything else. Maybe it was tiring, I thought, being a mostly retired wizard who apparently didn’t socialize much with the non-retired ones. Maybe he wanted to talk about this stuff with someone. And I was pretty damn curious myself; a perfect match, really.
The funny thing was, after the fruit bowl, I’d started looking for vestigia in other places – especially ones like older buildings or houses I was scouting for work. Just taking a moment to touch the stone, or concrete, or even metalwork, and see what came to mind. And I found them. Sometimes it was probably just my imagination; a lot of the time, actually. But some were so vivid I could taste them. When I could, I tried to verify stuff – one place we were preparing a quote for I laid a hand on the stone cladding of the outer wall and tried to think of nothing in particular and got a wash of heat and light and the smell of smoke and, weirdly, roast pork. When I checked, the place had burned in a fire in the eighteen-seventies, really bad; five deaths, which explained, queasily, the pork smell. And I know what you’re thinking, but this wasn’t a well-known incident and I’d deliberately not looked up its history before we did the site visit, so I couldn’t have known. Besides, the more I tried, the easier it got – well, that, or I was going mad. Also a definite possibility.
What got really weird was that it started happening with people, too. Like Thomas; not that I’m trying to imply I was touching him a lot or anything, but I met him coming back from a run and Toby got over-excited (the little git associated me with food, that was all, from the times I’d watched him) and wrapped the lead around my legs; I went straight over, legs still a bit wobbly from the run. Thomas charitably did not laugh, admonished Toby, and offered me a hand up. I took it, and got a shivery tingle that reminded me my interest in him wasn’t purely intellectual, especially not high on post-exercise endorphins. But behind that was something else altogether, the scent of wood smoke and pine needles and wet canvas, which was notable given that we were standing in a concrete carpark.
“Do people have vestigia?” I blurted out, and he blinked at me. “That depends. Magically...associated...people can, yes. It’s not common.”
“You do,” I went on, before I could stop myself. “Like...smoke and canvas and pine needles.”
This seemed to really disconcert him for some reason, but, I mean, I didn’t think I was being inappropriate about it, just – describing what I’d felt.
“I’ve been told that,” he said eventually. So it wasn’t just my imagination, then. “If you’ll excuse me – I really must get him inside,” and he pointed at Toby. I watched them go and tried to figure out what the hell that had been about.
The next person I noticed that way was Beverley next door; we were chatting in the corridor one day, just casual-like, and her arm brushed against mine. There was a surge of want, which was just my body reminding me that my brain might not be sure about Beverley but it fancied the pants off her, literally, and something else – running water, and the smell of green things, and...it was gone, but she was looking at me funny. Rats, I’d done it again; I needed to stop drifting off.
“What?” she said. “Do I smell funny?”
“No,” I said, and “not at all,” because I could recognized a straight line when I was handed one and in this case it was more of a hot potato.
“Hmph,” she said, and made her excuses right quick. I was sorry to see her go, but more curious about what it was I’d sensed.
See, I knew that she knew Thomas; I’d seen them chat occasionally and Lesley had mentioned that he was friends with her mother, not that I’d ever met her mother, although she had a succession of sisters, from the downright terrifying older ones to a rather sweet ten-year-old she babysat occasionally, as well as a pack of country cousins who for some reason were all white guys. Beverley didn’t look mixed race but it doesn’t always work the way it had for me and Abigail, as I’ve had cause to observe among my own extended family. All her family had been suspiciously uninteresting while, if I thought about it, actually being pretty weird – there was the one sister who worked for the radio, another who I thought was in politics, the not-twins I hadn’t seen often enough to tell apart...and I didn’t even remember any of their names.
“Magically...associated...people,” I asked Thomas. He seemed to have forgotten the carpark thing with Toby, if there’d been anything to forget. “Can they muck with your brain?”
He wanted to know exactly what I meant by that, so I clarified. “Be persuasive, I guess. Persuade you to do things, or forget things, or -”
“Is this about Miss Thames, next door to you?” he interrupted with a frown.
“Yeah. I mean, no, Bev’s always been nice, but her family’s a bit weird, aren’t they? And I never noticed that till now, and I’ve lived next door to her for years, I should have. And I -” okay, this was going to be embarrassing, but I’d live, “I fancied her, when I first got here, but sometimes I’m not sure why. And she definitely has some vestigia about her. It’s just – there’s something going on.”
Thomas regarded me for a few seconds, then sighed. “There are a number of...the term you would understand best is local deities, in the London region, associated with the Thames watershed.”
“Like, actual deities?”
“They are commonly termed genii locorum,” he said, and I thought about that for a second. I’d dug out my Latin dictionary (yes, we’d been that serious about one-upping each other, and I’d found it cheap in a second-hand bookshop) a few weeks ago, just for, you know, reference purposes, and definitely not in case I got another chance to browse Thomas’s bookshelves. “Spirits of the...nope. Something plural?”
“Spirits of places, yes. The Folly’s official position is that they are not, in point of fact, deities.”
“What’s yours, then?”
“That what we call them really isn’t relevant compared to what they can do.”
“And this relates to Beverley how?”
He smiled mysteriously. “Do you know her full name?”
“Beverley Thames?” I thought about it. We weren’t that far from...oh, shit. “Let me guess – Beverley Brook Thames?” Beverley was the goddess of our local river? Christ. A thought occurred. “Wait, what about her flatmate? Lesley May. She’s from Essex.”
Thomas shrugged. “As far as I know, Miss May is quite unmagical, although she does seem integrated into the demi-monde. The, ah, magical community, as it were.” I wondered if Zach-the-boyfriend had anything to do with that, too. He was definitely weird, but that could have just been the weed.
“When you say magical community,” I said suspiciously, “You’re not talking about wizards, or the Folly.”
“You enjoy making me ask about this stuff, don’t you?”
The bastard actually grinned. “It is rather entertaining watching you try to hold back from asking yet another question.”
Great. So my next-door neighbour was a local deity and my downstairs neighbour had taken up breaking my brain with carefully-chosen pieces of information as his own personal form of entertainment. I needed better neighbours. Or at least ones who could decide whether or not they were flirting with me.
This probably would have gone on for months, or just trailed off into nothing, or I would have decided to give it all up and ask Thomas out, because, okay, screw it, I was a bit interested and we were both single adults even if one of us was of deeply indeterminate age – but he didn’t look that much older than me and yes I am that shallow – until I accidentally did magic.
Or, okay, not accidentally, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to work, except that if that were true I wouldn’t have had the battery out of my phone or been in the bathroom safely away from the rest of our electronics, although apparently I fried the other next-door neighbour’s microwave, which I didn’t find out about until months later. It was just a habit I’d got into when I was in the shower, or out running, or that sort of mindless thing – trying to replicate what I’d seen that day in Thomas’s flat, the feeling in my head when he’d said lux and that light had appeared above his hand. And the weird thing was the more I did it the closer it felt, like I was honing in on what it should actually be. So I kept doing it, you know, as you do. Because that would be a bit neat, right, if I could do a magic spell? I mean, just as a party trick, sort of thing. The one thing I did know about becoming a wizard was that apart from having to get into Oxford and then the program and the risk of giving yourself a stroke it took about ten years to learn all there was to know, which was why it was particularly ridiculous for Thomas to expect people to think he’d retired from wizarding age forty – he couldn’t have been much under thirty when he’d, what did they call it, got his staff. (I’d never worked out if that was why the cane, but I had my suspicions.) Although apparently back in the day they’d started them even younger, at ten or eleven - good old Victorian predestination through segregation - so maybe he had, too. If he really was that old.
So it wasn’t like I was going to learn it – quite aside from having no-one to teach me. The other thing I knew was that you couldn’t do it from books, you had to be taught directly. It was why the Folly didn’t have any trouble keeping magic to themselves; they just cracked down on anyone who taught it outside their bounds, and they cracked down hard. Which, now I thought about it, was a bit suspicious if magic really had been ‘declining’ for fifty years or more. Not that I ever would have stood a chance even if I’d made Oxford, because the Folly hadn’t even admitted women until the nineties and I didn’t think I’d ever seen, or heard of, a wizard who didn’t look a hell of a lot more like Thomas than me. And I didn’t want to get him in that sort of hot water, as he doubtless would be; he was a decent bloke. And there was absolutely no way I’d ever have a shot with him if I got him in trouble with the magic police, so there was that, too. I mean, not that I was thinking about that. Much.
But I kept working at it, you know, now and then, in my spare moments, and so it wasn’t as surprising as it might have seemed when, about eight weeks after I’d seen my first real piece of magic, I opened my hand and said “Lux” and there was light.
Only it wasn’t the round, perfect sphere Thomas had shown me, it was a flaming ball that washed my hand with heat, and I yelped and it disappeared almost immediately. I’d just got out of the shower, so I filled the sink, held my hand above it, and did it again, concentrating on the image of Thomas’s light, white and pearlescent.
It appeared again, less flame-related this time, and vanished nearly as quickly, and I had to run my hand under the tap because it was definitely a bit pink.
Jaget banged on the door. “All right in there?”
“Cut myself shaving,” I yelled back, and then had to nick my chin, biting my lip to keep quiet, to make it so. By the time I was out Jaget was impatient to get in and wasn’t looking at my hand, so I got away with it.
I spent all day at work thinking about it, mostly because my hand was still bloody sore. Most of what I had to do that day was just answering emails and working on a couple of quotes, so I had room for my mind to wander. So. Okay. I could sort of do a spell.
What the hell was I going to do with that?
In the end – and by that I mean ‘four days later, after I’d practiced making light a lot more and killed my mobile once like the idiot I was’ - I decided that confession was the best course of action, if only because if I did something stupid and someone found out Thomas was going to be in for it no matter what, so it was only fair to give him warning. Worst case he yelled at me and never spoke to me again, which was certainly not my preferred state of affairs but was probably fair enough on his part. Okay, no, worst case was that I ended up arrested, if that was what they did with people who did unauthorised magic, but I didn’t actually think that was going to happen.
So I knocked on his door that evening after dinner. He opened it quite quickly; I could hear the nine o’clock news on the telly. Apparently he was getting used to the accoutrements of the mid-twentieth century.
“Peter,” he said, sounding surprised but pleased. Well, he wasn’t going to be so pleased in a few minutes. “What is it?”
“Hi, Thomas. Can I have a word?” I asked, and his eyebrows rose. “Of course. Do come in.”
I’d thought really hard about how to say this, because I didn’t want him to get the wrong impression, and I was pretty sure there was a chance he would, and this was absolutely not the moment to confess my feelings. If I’d had feelings. I’m not saying there were feelings. I’m just saying that I wasn’t there to talk about my feelings, or his feelings, or indeed anyone’s. I was there to talk about magic.
“I guess I have an apology to make,” I said once the door was closed, and Toby had satisfied himself that I wasn’t there to entertain or feed him. “Only I kind of – I kind of have to show you. Could we, um, go into the garden?” It definitely wasn’t going to go over well if I blew up his new telly, but I wasn’t quite ready to announce it out loud.
He narrowed his eyes, but nodded, and strode over to open the French doors.
It was March and still cold, but not below freezing. I was too nervous to feel the cold much anyway. I didn’t have my mobile on me; I saw him take his out and leave it on the table inside, so I think he knew what was going to happen. Thinking about it much later, there were actually several other things I could have been about to confess to him, all of which involved magic, so leaving the phone behind made sense.
“I know I’m really not supposed to do this, but, well,” I said, and spoke the word and made a light. I still didn’t even know what the proper name for it was.
Like I said, it had been four days, and I had practiced a little bit, so this one lasted for maybe ten seconds. In the pearly glow Thomas’s face was totally still, his arms folded. Then the shape slipped from my mind, and it went out. The only light was from inside the flat, the television and the main overhead bulb, and half his face was in shadow; it was impossible to tell what he thought.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I know I’m not supposed to do it and you definitely didn’t mean to show me how and I absolutely haven’t told a soul, but if someone found out you’d probably be in trouble, so I thought you should know. Um. So.”
“How on earth,” he said, in tones of absolute astonishment, “did you learn how to do that?”
“Well, you showed me it,” I said, sounding a little surprised myself. “Twice. And I remembered what it felt like. And, honestly, I wasn’t trying to...okay, that’s not true. I was trying to replicate it, but I figured I’d get bored long before it worked. Or that it wouldn’t work at all. I mean, maybe I couldn’t do magic.”
“A common misconception, which the Folly has – sadly, in many ways – encouraged,” Thomas said, his arms still folded across his chest. “The average person may be more or less inclined to sense magic, at least without instruction, but performing it is merely a matter of demonstration and repetition. As you appear to have independently discovered.” He shook his head, slowly. “But it generally takes rather more teaching than being shown it. Good god.”
I wondered if the Folly encouraged that misconception because it stopped them being subject to things like, e.g., anti-discrimination laws; after all, it wasn’t their fault if upper-class white men were just naturally gifted at doing magic, and how was anyone who didn’t do magic going to prove otherwise?
“Honestly,” I said, “I was just too stupid to know when to stop.”
He sighed, and unfolded his arms. “Well, there’s no point standing out here. Come inside. We need to talk.”
“That’s quite intentional,” replied Thomas, who was making tea, because there are some things you have to do when you’re English and you’ve had a shock and that’s one of them. I would have preferred a stiff drink but that didn’t seem to be on offer. Except then he got down a bottle from one of the top shelves and added an amber slug to his own cup, raising an eyebrow at me; I nodded hastily. Good to know I’d rattled him as much as myself. Or maybe not. I wasn’t sure.
“It’s not, technically, illegal to perform magic outside the auspices of the Folly,” he went on, carrying both mugs over – apparently this was not a matter for the good china. “But it is illegal to use magic to disturb the peace. This statute tends to be applied in much the same manner as the more mundane version.”
To arrest anyone who someone in authority needed a reason to arrest, check. “Got it. Are you going to dob me in, then?”
“As you have so accurately surmised,” Thomas said dryly, “no-one at the Folly would be terribly pleased with me, either, and they would be highly unlikely to believe I’d had so little to do with it. My relationship with the current leadership at the Folly is - complicated.”
“Will you please stop apologizing for something you’re clearly not sorry for,” he snapped, and I felt my cheeks heat.
“You were right,” he went on, sipping his drink; I was too nervous to do so. “It was stupid. Firstly, you could have killed yourself. You still could. Secondly, you could have hurt someone else. You still could. Magic is a tool. It has many uses, but it can be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands – or the right ones. Thirdly, you are not as unobserved as you appear to believe – there are a number of people in this building with various ties to the magical community, although I’m the only member of the Folly. And fourthly –” he stopped, glancing at my untouched mug. “Oh, I do apologise. Drink freely, without any obligation.”
I blinked – I had no idea what he meant by that. “I – what?”
“When you eat or drink at someone’s table,” Thomas explained patiently, “unless otherwise excused, you incur an obligation to them.”
“You’re not talking about having to have them round at yours or something, are you,” I said, and took a swig, because it seemed rude not to at this point, although also suddenly dangerous. The corner of his mouth twitched, and I knew he knew what I was thinking.
“When magic is involved, it’s a much more serious thing. There is a man – I’ve met him – who was sent to Beverley’s mother’s house to do some task, I forget what, thirty years ago. He ate a biscuit. He’s never left.”
“What, so if I’d drunk your tea without you saying that, I’d...owe you?”
“It rather depends on whose table you’re at, this is true. Although....”
I could finish that thought. “But I’ve been over to Beverley and Lesley’s a million times! We had that Christmas party there last year - I saw you, you came by!”
“I didn’t eat or drink anything,” Thomas noted. “But Beverley is a nice young lady, on the whole, and not terribly interested in inflicting obligations upon her casual houseguests. I would wager you’ve heard her say something about this before – were you paying attention?”
Now I thought about it, Beverley did usually mutter something like “eat freely,” when I was around, or Jaget and I were, but I’d thought that was more about not worrying about eating the last biscuit. “And Lesley?”
“As the flat is Miss May’s home, too, she can’t be under obligation by eating there.”
“God, that’s complicated. Okay. Always check before eating and drinking. Why is this suddenly such a problem? It didn’t come up last time I was here.”
“Because you did magic. And forgive me for saying this, Peter, but no matter what else happens you don’t seem likely to stop.”
And, okay, that was fair. “I will if you tell me to.”
He nodded. “I’m going to have to think about it. The other thing that must be addressed urgently – how long, precisely, have you spent doing this? In terms of, say, hours per day? It must have been that much for you to have managed the thing at all.”
I thought about it. “I don’t know. An hour? Two at most? You don’t mean – when you said I could kill myself, did you mean the whole brain haemorrhage thing? With just this?”
“I do mean that. You would have to work quite hard to give yourself a stroke by making a werelight, but if you did it for long enough, it’s possible.”
“Well. Shit.” I’d figured the stroke risk was if you were doing something seriously magical, not just a...length of time thing. “Is that what it’s called? A werelight?”
“Are they fire, then? Do they burn oxygen? The first one burned me, but then I-”
He coughed. “Peter.”
“Sorry. Safety tips. Go on.”
“You should never do this for more than two hours at a time, and if you do, there should be a six-hour gap in between. At some point I’ll run you down to Abdul’s office at UCH. He has an extensive collection of specimens demonstrating what happens to the human brain when it overuses magic. The Folly use it to terrify all the apprentices – he’s not on the official medical team but no-one else has been quite so interested.”
“I...look forward to it?”
“Don’t worry. He always gets a kick out of showing off his brain collection to someone new, so at least one of us will be enjoying himself.”
An afternoon of pickled brain slices, oh, lovely. Plus then I got to go home and fend off Jaget’s questions about what I’d been doing with Thomas. “Everyone has to have a hobby, I suppose. But about the oxygen thing -”
He gave me a really inscrutable look, and this was from a man who was often inscrutable. “Did you ever consider science as a career?”
“I thought about it,” I said. “You have to do a lot of physics courses for architecture, some chemistry – I could have switched – but it was the statistics that killed me; I’m no good at probability.”
Calculus is one thing, I can handle that. Or the applied stuff, mechanics, it makes sense to me when it’s about more than numbers, when the question is what it does to the structures I’m designing. Statistics is too theoretical; I can understand it when someone else does it, but if I try to do it myself I muck it up every time.
“Doesn’t architecture involve some of that?”
“Sometimes - when we can’t dump it on the civil engineers, Jaget and his lot.”
I wondered if anyone else had studied whether the werelights – well, they had to have had, but it was probably locked up somewhere in the Folly. Publish or perish was not a dictum of magical research, as far as I could tell. And, like I said, I had done that extra reading when it had come up in that physics course; it had been interesting enough that I’d even dug into the available literature. Not just for added verisimilitude for RPG sessions, either[J6] . There was so little out there that I’d hit bottom relatively quickly, even with interlibrary loan.
“I need to think about this,” Thomas said. “How about this, for the moment: you are not to do any more magic until we’ve spoken again – and I mean any more – and I’ll see if I can dig out David’s original paper on werelight energy consumption, and you can see if you can make anything of it. It’s around here somewhere.”
I didn’t like the “you are not to”, I won’t lie, but that did sound pretty fascinating. “Who’s David?”
“David Mellenby,” he said, and my jaw just about dropped, because almost all the available research there was on the science of magic – how it interacted with the known laws of physics – had Mellenby’s name on it; he’d worked on it throughout the fifties and sixties, and presumably died in the seventies. Wizards were not terribly public figures and I didn’t actually know what had happened to him. I’d have to check Wikipedia. “An – old friend of mine; I still have a lot of his notes and so on. They may be in storage – really I should have sent them on to the Folly when I moved into this place, although...anyway, it’s time to check what I’ve got in there. I haven’t looked at a lot of it in years.”
“Are you serious? You knew him?”
“We were apprentices around the same time,” he said, and that was as good a clue as I was apparently going to get to his real age; I did remember that Mellenby had been born around the turn of the century – the twentieth century, that was. Making this man sitting in front of me, looking like your average healthy forty-year-old – maybe a very fit fifty, if you included a rigorous moisturizing regimen – well over a hundred. But I worked that out later; right then I was still hung up on the fact that he knew, or had known, David Mellenby. “I’m honestly surprised you know who he is.”
“Are you kidding,” I said, “I told you, I did that reading on the physics of magic back at uni, I think I read everything he wrote, everything that was publicly available, the man was a genius, oh my god – um, that is, I know I sound like a sixteen-year-old girl right now but, seriously. Yeah, I know who he is.”
“And you’re neither a physicist nor a wizard,” said Thomas, sounding almost suspicious, but also weirdly – touched.
“I have obscure interests,” I replied defensively. “So?”
“I have no idea what to make of you,” he said, unexpectedly.
“Well, there you go. That makes two of us.” I held out my hand. “So, deal? I stop doing possibly illegal magic and you find that paper.”
“Deal,” Thomas said, and we shook on it. I got that vestigium again; I wondered if I always would, when I touched him skin-to-skin. I wondered whether it would be more intense if –
That was a line of thought I really couldn’t afford to go down right now.
“Peter,” Jaget said when I got back upstairs, “look, I know I’ve been giving you crap about this, but I just want you to know that it really doesn’t bother me. Just give me a heads-up if you’re thinking about moving out.”
“We were talking,” I said. “It’s not like that.”
“Really.” I headed for my bedroom; it was later than I’d planned to be down there, and while I didn’t have a nine-to-five job exactly, I couldn’t slope in whenever I pleased. “And in the unlikely event it ever is, I promise you that you will be the first to know.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t - but I’d screwed it up now, more than likely, because I was too stupid to know when to stop poking at something. Although it occurred that if Jaget thought I was spending time with Thomas because we had a thing, he wasn’t going to be asking any inconvenient questions about it. Just embarrassing ones. Those I could cope with.
Thomas didn’t speak to me for ten days – not avoiding me, just not making time for any sort of serious conversation. Not that I was counting or anything. He was talking to other people, though, because Lesley cornered me in the corridor outside our flats one day and asked why Thomas and Beverley had been talking about me.
“They’ve been talking about me?” I said, displaying my astonishing grasp of the situation.
“For, like, an hour.” Lesley was fair glaring at me. “What did you do?”
“You know, I’m a bit insulted you think I did anything.”
“Well, not to comment on your aspirations to laziness, but I can’t think of any other reason they would be.”
“What were they saying?”
She made a face. “Dunno. They obviously didn’t want me listening in and I couldn’t make it out from the kitchen.” All the flats in this building, even the larger ground-level ones, had kitchenettes that linked to the main living area; Lesley had evidently been lurking in hers trying to eavesdrop, unsuccessfully. She had good instincts, that girl. Should have been a copper, like Sahra and Jessie downstairs. I told her so.
She gave me a funny look. “I was. Didn’t you know?”
I hadn’t, actually. “When did you fit that in?”
She shrugged. “Right out of school. It didn’t last long. Really, no-one’s told you? I know Miriam and Rebecca know, and James on the first floor.” James was a voluble Glaswegian who played jazz for fun, so I avoided him as much as I could. He’d figured out who my dad was around the time of the funeral and naturally thought I’d want to talk jazz too. I could if I had to but it had been the longest-standing point of contention between my dad and me – he was a jazzman and I, well, wasn’t. I’d noticed Thomas had a decent collection, including some of Dad’s stuff, but he’d never mentioned it except to offer his condolences at the time, for which I had been extremely grateful.
“No, I had no idea. Sorry – didn’t mean to bring any bad memories up.”
“It’s been years.”
“Why’d you get out?”
She tapped her leg. It made a funny hollow noise. “This, and there was some stuff, around that time...I was a bit of an idealist, you know? Enforce the law, defend the public, that sort of thing. And then I found out – long story. So after the rehab and everything I quit, and started at the chemist, and got the flat with Bev not long later...and here I am.”
I must have glanced at her leg, because she followed my gaze down. “Seriously – you didn’t know about this, either? Do you pay attention to anything?”
I knew she always wore long trousers, even in summer, but I’d never asked why. “Is it – artificial?”
“Just below the knee. It was in the Covent Garden riot. Could have been worse – people died. Other coppers died. One of the girls I was at Hendon with, her face...it was almost better that she didn’t make it. I was lucky.”
If that was lucky I didn’t want to know what unlucky might have looked like. “I had absolutely no idea, no. I’ve heard you talk about Essex, and your job, and your family, but not that.”
“It’s not part of my life I try to think about too hard.” She smiled faintly. “I wanted it, very badly, and then it all went horrifically wrong. Never had something like that happen?”
“Can’t say I have.” Architecture had worked out pretty well for me as a career plan – I’d even managed to avoid being unemployed through the Great Recession, like a lot of the people I’d graduated with – and easily the worst thing that had happened to me was Dad dying. And that was the ciggies and the heroin, it was bloody predictable and predictably bloody. It was almost easier now. I thought it was certainly easier on Mum, not that she’d admit it. “For which I’m not ungrateful.”
“You still haven’t said what Bev and Thomas were talking about,” she said, circling shark-like back to her original point. “D’you really not know?”
Maybe they were commiserating over the horrors of having one Peter Grant fancy you, but I found that somewhat unlikely. “I honestly do not know. Tell me if you find out.”
Wanting something, and having it go horrifically wrong – was that what magic had in store for me? Christ. I really hoped not.
I got the actual suspicion that Thomas was checking up on me, because he made time to talk to Jaget – apparently casually, running into him in the hallway, but I was sure it wasn’t – and even my mother, when she was visiting me the next weekend. I’d spotted her car pulling up out my bedroom window and when she didn’t appear after ten minutes, I went downstairs to find her. There the pair of them were, in the main entrance hall, chatting away. I could feel my ears burning from twenty metres.
“Oh, there you are, Mum,” I said as I approached. “I saw your car – I was worried you’d got lost on the way up. Have you been catching up with Thomas?”
“I like to know you have good neighbours,” my mother told me. “Mr. Nightingale says you have helped take care of his dog when he was out of town – you were never that good about helping around the place when you lived at home.”
“We didn’t have a dog for me to walk,” I pointed out, quite reasonably. “You should probably let him get on with things. I’ve got the kettle on upstairs.”
Thomas and my mother exchanged polite goodbyes and lovely-to-meet-yous, and I gave him a hard stare, because he was checking up on me and I couldn’t figure out what he expected to find – he knew a lot more about my past than I did about his, and I didn’t have that much past to know about. It had been pretty straightforward and dull, as pasts went.
“See you around, Peter,” he said as he retreated.
“If you don’t like him, why did you help with his dog?” my mother asked as he was barely out of earshot.
“Who says I don’t like him?”
“You were giving him such a look!”
“I do like him,” I said, exasperated, and then revised it to sound a bit less – intense. “I mean, he’s a good bloke, I’ve known him for a couple of years now, I couldn’t say we were close but I’ve got nothing against him.”
“Oh, is it that way?” said my mother, and I rolled my eyes. “Mum. No. I just – he’s been talking to people about me, okay? Like he’s trying to figure something out. It’s weird. And then he just happens to run into you.”
“Well, maybe it’s that way with him,” my mother suggested, and then frowned – apparently this was less acceptable for some reason. “But isn’t he a little old for you?”
You have no idea, I thought. “I’m pretty sure it’s not that. Anyway, I’ve got a treat for afternoon tea – one of the women at work made us morning tea because she’s leaving next week and I made off with the caramel slice. Want some with your cuppa?”
“At least you look after your poor mother,” she said as we entered my flat, and I hoped that was the end of that.
On Thursday nights, Jaget spent serious time with the climbing wall down at the local gym – he was into caving and urban exploring in a big way and the indoor stuff was his way of keeping fit for it. Once a year or so he’d take all his leave and go off to Scotland or India or America or some other exotic location to wriggle his way into very small, enclosed, pitch-black spaces, because that was his idea of fun. It was that Thursday – the tenth day, again, not that I was counting – when Thomas Nightingale knocked on my door and my life really took a turn for the bizarre.
“Hello, Peter,” he said when I opened it. “Is this a good time?”
“Sure,” I said, stepping aside. “Come on in.” I’d been doing some sketching – for the house with the vestigium of the fire, as it happened – and I was spread out all over our table; the telly was on but it was just a re-run of a Grand Designs episode I’d seen before, the one with the kitset German house, so I turned it off.
“These are very lovely,” Thomas said, reaching out to – but not touching, which I appreciated, because I’d been working in charcoal – the sketches. Of course the plans were done on computer, but there wasn’t anything like pen, or at least writing implement, and paper for getting your ideas out.
“New project,” I said. “First you see the place, then you talk to the client and have the ideas, then you sketch, then you go back and forth about what they want, then it turns into real plans. The back-and-forth is usually the longest part. I like drawing up the actual plans best, though. It’s when it starts to be real.” It was entirely possible I was babbling. “Anyway – have a seat, if you like.” I was halfway through a beer, and offered him one, after washing my hands in the kitchen sink – charcoal, remember? He accepted, which might be a good sign or a bad one – I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know what a good sign would be. Or what it would mean. We sat on the couch, or rather, him on the couch and me on the armchair, since the table was a bit of a mess. He was holding a manila folder; it looked brittle with age.
“Is that the paper?” I asked, nodding at it. I put his beer down on the coffee table, with a coaster, even, because we’re not that uncivilized.
“It is,” he said, handing it to me. “I rather thought I remembered David going through much the same question you were asking back in fifty-six – it was never published but he did write it up.”
Inside the folder was a typewritten sheaf, something between organized lab notes and an actual scientific paper; there was no name written on it but some handwritten notes in ink so faded it was brown. On the nature of the werelight, the title read.
“Wait,” I blurted, “is this the original? Because I really shouldn’t –“
Thomas waved a hand. “It’s been sitting in a box for more than forty years. It was in storage, as it turned out – I’d forgotten quite how much...anyway, given how you’re looking at it, I’m quite certain you’ll take perfectly good care of it.”
“Would it be all right if I scanned it?” I asked. “That way I can give it back to you tomorrow – I have a flatbed here at home, sometimes people have fragile notes and photos and things and the office just has a run-through model.”
Thomas didn’t look like he’d understood much of that, but he nodded nonetheless. “I don’t see why not. It’s not confidential as such - nothing in there will tell anyone how to produce a werelight, just what happens when one is produced. I don’t think many people are that interested.”
“I suppose they have a bunch of copies at the Folly,” I said.
He looked thoughtful. “You know, I’m not sure they do, but you and Abdul are the only people I talk to these days who are at all interested in applying empiricism to magic – there may very well be a whole laboratory full of people there doing this sort of stuff but if so they haven’t asked me for it, and I’m not much inclined to go and offer it to them.”
Well, that was oddly aggressive, in a restrained British gentleman way. Thomas had described himself as “mostly retired”, but still a “member of the Folly” – how exactly did that work?
I went and put it next to the scanner in my bedroom, right away, so I wouldn’t forget. I wanted to get it back to him as soon as possible – I didn’t feel comfortable being responsible for something like that. And maybe Thomas was right and I was the only one who’d care that much anyway, which I couldn’t believe, there were plenty of nerdy Magic-A-Is-Magic-A types out there, but even so.
“I really do appreciate it,” I said, on re-entering the living room. “And I kept my end of the bargain, too – I mean, I guess you can tell?”
“No, not without following you day and night,” he said. “Which I have not been, obviously. That’s not how it works.”
“You have been, sort of, though,” I couldn’t help saying. “Bev next door and Jaget and my mum and Molly on the ground floor for all I know – you’ve been asking people about me and I don’t know why. I really don’t have anything to hide. The closest thing I’ve got to a secret is not telling people about my dad, specially if they’re into jazz, and that’s just because it gets awkward – and you know about that, anyway. What was it you wanted to find out?”
“Whether you were, indeed, who you claimed to be.” He picked up his beer, and I remembered.
“Oh, um, no obligation, drink freely? Is that right?”
“It’s the intention that counts,” he said, and drank, so I supposed it had been right.
“That’s all a bit spy fiction, isn’t it, though?” I went on. “I mean – what on earth would I be lying about, and why? Is this something to do with why you’re retired? Did you not believe me about how I figured out the spell?”
“Oh, I believed you,” said Thomas, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. This evening, I supposed to show willing, he was wearing a creamy Aran jumper over a crisp-necked polo – very nearly casualwear. Only the fact that I hadn’t changed after work aside from shucking my suit jacket saved me from feeling underdressed. “And so I have a question. You managed to work your way into one spell through sheer stubbornness and, may I add, a great deal of ignorance about what you were doing. Would you like to learn in a more formal fashion?”
This was absolutely not anything I had expected, and I must have stared at him for a good ten seconds.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I – did you just offer to teach me magic?”
He nodded. I stared, again, and took a sip of my beer for good measure, to buy time. “But – why? I mean – I’m not saying no!” Definitely not no, because it was maybe stupid and certainly seemed like an offer that came with a catch, but in the simplest, straightforward interpretation – did I want to learn magic? More magic?
“There’s a catch, though, isn’t there,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “That’s not the sort of offer you just make out of hand because I’m too stupid to know when to stop. So – do I want to, yeah, but first – what’s the catch?”
He smiled, thinly. “There are one or two, I suppose.”
“Don’t let me stop you.”
“I believe we’ve been over the part where you can kill yourself,” he began. “That’s actually more avoidable than not, especially if you let Abdul add your brain scans to his growing collection – I haven’t heard of anyone killing themselves that way for, oh, a good twenty or thirty years, and that sort of news would make the rounds. But it remains a risk.”
“Gotcha. What else?”
“Learning magic – really learning it – is difficult. I think you already have some understanding of that, but it doesn’t get easier – or it doesn’t get easier quickly. Before the war, when I was an apprentice – we started boys at ten or eleven, and they were trained by the time they were adults. Besides the actual magic, most of the literature isn’t in English – Latin, largely, some Greek, technical German...the Germans were very advanced in the nineteenth century, I have a friend who argues they may have been ahead of us in many ways. It can be a very consuming thing. That’s why it centres at Oxford; the students entering have much of the background already. I’m not offering to teach you all of it, I want that to be quite clear. I doubt you have the time to become a master and I couldn’t in clear conscience train someone to mastery under these circumstances. But there’s a lot of ground between here and there. ”
“Why even bother trying, then?” I asked, because I’m stupid. “For all you know I’ll get sick of it after a week or a month and then what? You’ve wasted your perfectly valuable time.”
“Will I have?”
I thought about this. “Not if I can avoid it. But that’s not an answer.”
“Perhaps I’m bored,” he said. “I retired – largely – fifty years ago and then instead of getting older and dying like the rest of humanity I turned around and went the other way, and I honestly don’t know why – practising magic usually shortens your lifespan if it does anything. Magic was supposed to be going out of the world, but it’s back, and it’s changing as the world does. The Folly should be changing, too, and it’s not. I can’t change the Folly, not directly – it’s too late for that, I walked away too many years ago. Even the apprentices I trained then are old men now. Newtonian magic, the practice of it – it has been so much of my life and I don’t talk to anyone else who really knows it, these days. And the people who do know it...have as little interest in me as I have in them.”
“Are you, well, allowed to teach me at all, though? If you’re – mostly retired?”
He shrugged. “It’s a technical loophole, under certain conditions. But it’s not illegal for me to take an apprentice, if that’s what you’re asking. Just unprecedented. Generally when Folly members go into retirement they officially give up the practice of magic. I never did.”
“And what – you thought someone was trying to trick you into...what?”
“It seemed rather too convenient, you suddenly showing an interest, when I’d known you for two years as it was. I wasn’t sure I trusted it - or what the motive could be. But you aren’t from the Folly. There’s a taste to how one does magic which is derived from one’s teachers; I couldn’t not know who’d taught you, or at least who’d taught them, and the only echo in your magic is – mine, because I showed you that werelight to begin with. You’re not fae, or demifae, or anything else. You’re perfectly ordinary.”
“Thanks, I think.” Although what the hell were fae? Like, actual fairies? I doubted that, but...yet another question for later. I took a breath. “So if you taught me magic – anyone from the Folly would know, if they saw me do it? You’d be on the hook either way.”
“More or less.”
“And you keep saying apprentice, and mastery – what does that make you? Because I want one thing clear; there’s no fucking way I’m referring to you or anyone as my master. Comes out all wrong.”
“Teacher, if you prefer,” said Thomas, who seemed to find that amusing. “But the former is traditional.”
“So’s child labour and beating your wife. And don’t tell me they do it at the Folly – they’re a bunch of white Oxford graduates, they would.” I took a breath. “So let me get this straight – high risk of brain haemorrhage, really difficult to learn, there’s a good chance I could get in trouble for it if someone doesn’t like your ‘technical loophole’ – they’re the police, after all, technically speaking -”
“Not officers,” Thomas corrected me. “I was, before the war, and after; but once they moved to the university system, with the Met’s insistence on everyone going through Hendon and then probationary training – I understand it happens occasionally but they’re almost all civilian consultants these days, in official terms.”
“Same difference if they bring the hammer down on me.” And I wasn’t a posh possibly immortal wizard, I was a mixed-race kid from the Peckwater Estate who’d made good, sort of, and could easily make bad again – I might have a degree, two degrees as it happened, and a good job, and wear a suit to work most days, but did that stop me getting stopped and searched by the police, entirely randomly, of course? Did it fuck. “That about the size of it, though?”
“Also, there’s an oath,” Thomas added.
“But you just said this was a partial offer, not the whole thing - and no-one’s going to know about it except you and me. Or not to start with, anyway...can I tell Bev and Lesley?”
“The Rivers claim they can smell practitioners and I don’t disbelieve them. You wouldn’t need to tell Beverley, who will doubtless tell Lesley. And so on. The oath – I may not be as much a part of the Folly as I was, Peter, but, yes...I will know. And you will know. You’ll be properly sworn in as an apprentice or you won’t do it at all.”
I gave him the direct stare. “How do you know I’m going to say yes?”
He smirked a little, but only fractionally. “You want to know.”
Fuck. I was ten types of idiot. Maybe if I said no and just asked him to dinner instead and we could –
Fuck. I was going to do it. And odds were then he’d never say yes to dinner, but...
Fuck. All right, then.
“Do we need a Bible or something?” I didn’t own one, and Jaget definitely didn’t (although he had dated a Catholic girl for a while whose family were from Kerala and had been Catholic since the sixteen hundreds, just to show you couldn’t assume anything.)
“Only if it would be meaningful to you.”
“Not really.” I raised my right hand. I was pretty sure that was still how you did these things. “Okay. How does it go?”
Jaget walked in just as I was picking up the beer bottles and Thomas was leaving, and said hi to Thomas in a deceptively casual way. Thomas greeted him politely and told him that I’d been showing off my sketches, then made himself absent. I scowled after him. Jaget had started smirking at “sketches” and hadn’t stopped.
“You know he’s fucking with you, right?” I said plaintively. “I’m actually surprised he didn’t say ‘etchings’.”
“But Peter, you don’t own any etchings,” Jaget said, and darted into the bathroom before I could get my revenge. Fucker.
And so began my entirely unofficial and perhaps dubiously legal apprenticeship in the ancient and noble art of magic. It started with a pile of books, including the book, Isaac Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Artes Magicis. Thomas had pillaged my brain of all the Latin I remembered, frowned severely, and dug out a textbook on that, too. “I don’t know why I still even have this,” he said ruefully, and neither did I; it was from nineteen hundred and twelve. I told him I had a dictionary.
“Do they still teach it at school, then?” he’d asked.
“Not my school,” I’d said.
“You learned at university, then?”
“Er - yes,” I’d told him, because I didn’t really want to get side-tracked into the wonderful world of modern roleplaying games. Fortunately, Thomas seemed to have some vague notion that everybody learned Latin at university - he’d gone straight into the police force, apparently, but had had friends at Oxford and Cambridge (of course he had). Well, it had been true in his day. I hated to disillusion him.
He was slightly more impressed with what I’d retained of German (my modern language GSCE, compounded by a semester studying abroad during my final year of my bachelor’s degree) and muttered something about Greek, but didn’t actually force any texts in it upon me.
The thing was, I really didn’t have anyone to blame for this but myself. If I didn’t want to study, or couldn’t be bothered - I didn’t get to learn any magic. It was as simple as that. There weren’t any grades, any tests, any certificates I was going to earn. It was just me and my downstairs neighbour who maybe was just bored enough to teach me how to affect the natural universe with the power of my mind. Actually, literally the power of my mind, because that was why magic fried your brain if you overdid it.
Somehow, though, the fact that it really was up to me - nobody was judging or weighing me, except maybe for Thomas, and he was pretty polite about it - was what pushed me. If I wanted this I had to make it happen. So I dredged up the grammar I’d toyed with nearly a decade ago, mensa mensa mensam, mensae mensae mensa, and frowned over Newton’s Principia - the magical one - with my dictionary and a pencil. I’d have killed for an e-book edition but I knew better than to ask if that was available. (I wondered if Thomas even knew what an e-book was. Well, he did read the newspaper. On actual paper. I was sure the Telegraph had at least run an editorial on the pernicious nature of the electronic reading device.)
The real kicker, though, was practice. The Folly had never actually issued any official statement saying that you had to have some inborn ability to learn magic, but they certainly implied it like anything. Fiction that incorporated real magic - not fantasy versions - assumed the same. And it wasn’t true at all, Thomas told me; his version was much easier to believe than the idea that I was somehow unknowingly special. Magic was like that pop science thing about it taking ten thousand hours to master anything - in fact it was exactly like it. And unlike golf or the piano, there weren’t any magical child prodigies who had a leg up; it was hard work all the way. Which made magic a great equaliser, really, or it should have if it hadn’t officially been restricted to about ten people a year who were already attending one of the most select universities in the country. But then, here I was.
And the when and where was tricky, too. The radius effect of magic on electronics was something that had both been calculated with some precision back in the seventies - they’d really caught the wave on that one, since microprocessors had barely been invented at that stage and certainly weren’t widespread. So I had a pretty good idea of what I could do without breaking a number of things I owned and/or really pissing off the neighbours. I got a lot of practice in when Jaget was asleep or out, in certain parts of our flat with everything turned off and unplugged, and more in Thomas’s flat or garden. Still more down one of the local parks, which had some nice shady corners, especially if I made strategic use of a backpack. In bright enough sun the werelight was barely visible, and in any darkness people would assume it was an electronic device of some sort. That wasn’t until after I’d stopped burning myself, though. I stuck to places with easily accessible water until then.
So I made werelights until my hand cramped - and apparently I’d already got through the really hard part, which was making one at all - and tackled Latin as hard as I could, hoping it wouldn’t tackle back. Jaget had taken to complaining that I was weirdly preoccupied and antisocial these days, but he was used to me going off on tangents like this, especially if I decided to research a property or a particular idea I’d had. I was very good at starting with “how shall I sketch the countertop for this design” and ending up at the Journal of Materials Science. I think he assumed it was something like that. He did once spot me with the Principia - that was very nearly bad.
“What the hell are you reading?” he’d asked. “Isaac Newton? God, is that the Principia Mathematica? Don’t tell me - you were thinking about curves on a building and decided to go back and derive calculus from first principles, just for fun. The amount of trivia you pile up, it’s disturbing.”
“Says the man who builds miniature steam engines just for fun and once spent half an hour telling me about boiler shapes,” I said. “If you want to have a nerd-off competition we’re both going to lose that one.”
“Don’t you mean win?” Jaget frowned.
“Whichever,” I said, but I discreetly moved some paper around so the Artes Magicis part of the title was covered up.
Jaget was one thing, but my next-door neighbours were another. Thomas had said that Beverley would know I was an apprentice, and he was right. Less than two weeks after he’d offered to teach me magic and I’d said yes, and I’d started supervised practice and wrestling with Latin, Beverley passed me in the hallway, sniffed – actually sniffed, like she was smelling something - and frowned at me. “Peter, have you been doing magic?”
I glanced around involuntarily; there wasn’t anyone in sight, but we were on the ground floor just inside the entranceway and Molly sometimes hung around there just sort of being spooky. “Um...maybe?”
She sniffed again. “You have. Oh my god. Does the - Thomas know about this? Is that why he was asking about you? Who’s teaching you? There’s no way anyone from the Folly would touch you with a bargepole. Oh my god, do you have any idea how much trouble you could be in?”
I didn’t, as it happened, so I concentrated on the bits I could answer. “He’s teaching me. Thomas, I mean. I sort of...figured out the first spell on my own and he offered. Can you really smell when someone does magic?”
“Who told you that?”
“Thomas did,” I said. “He said it was part of the whole river goddess package. Well, he didn’t say that exactly, but it’s what he meant.”
Beverley pursed her lips. “Did he. Wait – Thomas is teaching you magic?”
If her eyebrows climbed any higher they’d disappear into her dreads. “The Nightingale is your master?”
I must have winced at that; she shrugged. “Yeah, I know, but it’s what they call it. I’d get used to it if I were you. Do the Isaacs know about this?”
I was still lost back at “the Nightingale”. “Firstly, I don’t know what an Isaac is, and secondly, why’d you call him the Nightingale? It’s his surname.”
“It is, and he...it’s just what he’s called. He’s been called that since before...for a while. And you don’t even know what - Peter.”
She looked genuinely worried at that, and it started to worry me.
“Yeah, he’s a bit older than he looks, I got the memo. And Isaacs? Who’re they when they’re at home?”
“You know. Them at the Folly.” Because of Isaac Newton, I could only presume. “And the Nightingale is what we call him. Everyone who’s in the know who’s not the Isaacs.”
“Like...” I prompted her. She pursed her lips.
“People. Around. There’s more to magic than spells, you know.”
Well, there had to be, didn’t there? If Beverley was a river. Or whatever. I wondered what else there was. What other - creatures. People. Beings. Whatever. Magic had been known about pretty well since the fifties, but it was definitely the Folly’s line that magic, the way they did it, was as far as the supernatural went. Maybe not in other, less civilised countries, but in the UK? Newton or nothing. But that couldn’t be true, I realised. Not the way Beverley acted - not the way Thomas talked about her. So...what else was I missing? What else wasn’t being said?
“But...they don’t know about you, do they? The Isaacs.” She frowned again. “Remind me to keep you away if Ty ever comes round. Not that she’s done that recently, but you never know.”
“Ty’s your older sister, right?”
“That’s Lady Ty to you. Tyburn.” One of the lost underground rivers of London, that much I knew. “She’s like that with the Folly.” Beverley held up two crossed fingers. “It pisses Mum off something chronic.”
“Well, thanks for the warning,” I said. “Can you really smell magic on me?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. She leaned in again and took a good sniff at my neck; under other circumstances it might have been erotic, but it really wasn’t now. “Wizard, all right.”
“Is that part of the, um, the river thing?”
Beverley shrugged. “Yeah. I guess so. What did he say about that, anyway?”
“You’re a river in south London,” I said promptly. “Which sounded bonkers but he seemed pretty sure about it and you’re not looking at me like it’s wrong, so there we go.”
Beverley narrowed her eyes at me. “Huh.”
“It’s only that I’d have thought you’d live in it,” I went on.
“In the river?” Beverley made a face. “Don’t be daft. Do you have any idea what that’d do to my hair?”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Does Lesley know about this?”
“Obviously,” Beverley replied, with a serious eyeroll. “You know, Peter, I thought better of you, I really did. I thought you had more sense, for starters.”
“What’s wrong with learning magic?” I asked.
“Well...nothing, I guess,” she said dubiously. “If that’s the way you’ve got to do it. But they don’t approve of it, you know - anyone outside their walls. I haven’t even heard of anyone picking it up, not in London, and you just decide to...learn magic. Like it’s a hobby.”
“I’ve never even met anyone from the Folly,” I reminded her. “Just Thomas. They don’t know who I am or that I exist and it is a hobby, for me.”
“Oh, the Nightingale’s all right,” she said. “The rest of them...you’d do best to keep away from the rest of them, if you want my advice. Far, far away.”
“I don’t remember asking for it,” I said, a bit snippily, because she was being all mysterious and condescending and shit and it wasn’t like I’d done anything wrong.
“Consider it a gift,” she said, and disappeared inside her flat.
Well. That had been weird.
Then there was Molly. Now I’d known Molly on the ground floor ever since I’d moved into the building - you couldn’t not know her. I’d go so far as to say she mothered everyone, except it - and she - was way too creepy to use a term like that. Molly watched everyone, lurking in doorways and corridors, her long black hair and black eyes making her look like she’d walked straight out of a Japanese horror movie. Although she didn’t dress like it - it was all seventies-style shift dresses and leggings, very chic, lots of black, and popular before she was born. Or, you know. Maybe not. I had no idea how old she actually was, and apparently it was possible to be much, much older than you looked. See: one Thomas Nightingale.
She walked like she was gliding, and she never spoke a single word. I’d even tried sign language back when I first moved in, the two or three signs I’d picked up, and she’d just looked at me like I was a moron. So not deaf, then. The only person she really seemed to like was Thomas - I saw him chatting to her, or rather at her, occasionally - and she liked Toby the dog, too, and he liked her back, doing the little yippy dance when he saw her that meant he was happy. I got it too, but only until he figured out I wasn’t there to feed him.
Molly also had an awful habit of coming up silently behind you and scaring the shit out of you - she had a particular fascination with doing this to Jaget, for some reason - but I was also pretty sure she was the reason this block of flats hadn’t had a break-in since forever, something I didn’t learn until I moved in and Miriam mentioned it to me. Any burglar who saw Molly was going to run in the opposite direction, I was fairly certain, and I often saw people I didn’t recognise walking briskly away from her with a creeped-out expression. Okay, some of them were probably the innocent friends and family of people who lived here, but I’d bet some of them weren’t.
She would also steal your laundry, but only in a well-meaning way. I’d gone to get mine out of the communal laundry room and found things mysteriously missing, which was par for the course, but it was always the things that needed mending or had particularly stubborn stains. They’d reappear on my doorstep repaired or stain-free, with a note. I’d asked Lesley about it the first time it happened and she said it seemed to make Molly happy. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen Molly happy, but Lesley and Beverley seemed to know her a little so I assumed they knew what they were on about. I know perfectly well women aren’t the Borg and they don’t have some weird intelligence network going on behind our backs, but sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference.
It was only after I started learning magic and found out that there were things in this world beyond wizards that I realised the mysterious Molly might be one of them. I had no idea what, though. When I’d asked Thomas, after that conversation with Beverley in the hall, he’d merely handed me another book; this one was in English, thank god.
“It’s almost totally useless as a practical guide,” he’d said, “but it should give you a fair idea of the kind of phenomena - and persons - you’re likely to encounter.”
“Encounter where?” I asked.
“Almost anywhere, now you’ve the touch of magic on you,” he said. “There are quite a few in this very block of flats. Beverley Brook aside, even.”
And one of them was Molly. I figured this out from subtle clues, like Molly texting me - one of two forms of communication she practiced involving words, the other being elegantly-penned notes - with nothing but the words You’re the Nightingale’s apprentice now?
Ugh, that apprentice word again. And the Nightingale, same as Beverley had said. And now I came to think of it, I still didn’t know how Molly had gotten my number when I’d first moved in although that could have any number of mundane explanations..
Yeah, I texted back. Why do you ask?
No answer was forthcoming, that day or the next. I actually ran into Molly two days later - I was leaving for work, she was mysteriously lurking in the stairwell, the usual - so I asked her myself.
“Oh, hi there,” I said casually. “Why were you asking me about Thomas and the magic thing, the other day? You’re not a wizard or something?”
Molly shrugged and gave me a look which said or something. Don’t ask me how I knew. Not telepathy; Thomas had been firm on that not working, which matched the public statements.
“So?” I asked.
Molly just stared at me, so I gave it up and left for work. I put it to Thomas after werelight practice that evening.
“So, Molly,” I asked, trying for casual. “What’s her deal?”
“Molly is...herself,” Thomas said, in tones that really didn’t invite further discussion.
“But she’s magical, or whatever,” I said. “Which kind of explains the miraculous stain removal. Don’t tell me she’s a brownie or something.”
“To the best of my knowledge brownies are purely mythological,” Thomas replied. “As I said. Molly is - unique unto herself. I don’t know where she came from, originally, and I don’t believe she does either. But she worked at the Folly, for many years, belowstairs.” I knew that was the posh way of saying as a servant. “When I was looking for a flat, Molly recommended this place to me. She’s lived here since the seventies, I believe, when it was still council housing.”
Okay, so, definitely not the age she looked, then. “Why did she leave the Folly?”
“There was some re-organisation at the time - they let a number of staff go.” Thomas looked somewhere between sad and angry. “Molly - should not have been dismissed, but...it wasn’t my decision.”
“Well, downsizing was the name of the game then,” I said, for lack of something better. “She likes to - watch over all of us here, doesn’t she?”
“It makes her feel useful, I believe,” Thomas said. “She also runs a - what are they called again - a food blog. I believe it’s very popular. But she spent most of her life looking after the Folly, and I think she misses it, sometimes.”
“And the, you know, not speaking thing?”
He shrugged. “She never has. It’s not a lack of intelligence, or other faculties, as you have no doubt observed. Whether she can’t, or won’t...it’s not really been my business to ask.”
“Fair enough,” I said, and changed the topic. Apparently there were corners and angles to the wide world of magic that even my new teacher didn’t know about. Wasn’t that something.
“It’s actually making me a better architect,” I told Thomas, a couple of weeks later. “I didn’t expect that.”
“How so?” Thomas asked.
I’d expected that learning magic would be mostly about learning actual spells, but according to Thomas learning to sense vestigia properly was just as important - and just as difficult, since your brain is capable of sending you all sorts of random signals that aren’t magical in the slightest. We’d done a couple of field trips, if you want to call them that, to places with particularly strong vestigia - because the only way to get better at it was to have someone tell you when you were sensing the right thing.
“We do a lot of renovations and reconstruction – old places,” I went on. “I like to work with the history of the building, not against it. You can learn a lot from the vestigium of an old place.”
“Sensus illic,” Thomas said. “That’s what it’s called when referring to the general feel of a building or site. Almost everywhere in London has a sensus illic, unless it’s very new - so much history, so many people, for so long. It’s similar in other very old cities. The countryside tends to be weakest in vestigia. Or perhaps in vestigia we can sense - obviously people like Beverley are products of nature, more than human activity.”
“Sensus illic, then. And the hauntings, don’t get me started – ran into a ghost in this place I was looking at yesterday, being done up for a young couple. They wanted to make that room the nursery. I talked them out of it. Don’t think their two-year-old would appreciate the company.”
“Hmmm.” Thomas looked unexpectedly thoughtful. “You know, it hadn’t occurred to me that it would be useful in that way.”
“Really?” I said, with scepticism. “Because I know not everyone at the Folly is with the Met or whatever - they do other things. You’re really saying none of them ever went into architecture?”
“I’m not aware of a magical architectural tradition, no. Although in other countries - who can say? The Germans were very interested in the industrialisation of magic, before the war.”
“And after?” I asked, like an idiot.
His lips pressed together. “The problem was more - during.”
I thought about asking, and then I thought about what else Germany had industrialised during that period, and about keeping my lunch down. “Right. Gotcha. But getting back to the Folly - most wizards aren’t police, or with the police, or...whatever it is they do exactly. I know there’s a few who teach, one or two MPs, that sort of thing. What about the rest?”
Thomas shrugged. “A variety of careers - work with the Home Office, for example. I started out in the Met myself but I transferred to the Foreign Service later, spent a lot of the thirties running around the Empire.”
“Writing reports, mostly. Or that’s what it felt like.”
“But there were so many more of y- so many more wizards, then.”
“There were. I don’t recall the exact number now, but a little over five thousand, I believe, as of the war.” He never specified which war but I knew which one he meant - the Second World War, of course. “And now it might not be five hundred, and many of those hedge-wizards. Then again, I suppose by many definitions I’m a hedge wizard myself.”
A hedge wizard was apparently a Newtonian practitioner who had broken his (or her) staff, lignum fregit, Thomas said, and left magic behind. Or who had never finished the ten years of training it took to attain mastery - which accounted for more people than you might imagine, and explained why there were still only five hundred or so actual wizards in Britain despite more than that having been through the Oxford programme over the last seventy years. Or someone who had learned a little magic through routes other than the Folly - though that was very rare if not non-existent these days, apart from the example happening right in the room we were sitting in. It wasn’t that they were expected to forget everything they’d ever learned, Thomas explained, but rather that they were expected to practice very little magic and that privately, and in return were not generally called upon by the Folly.
“Except in times of great need,” he said, “which we are pleasantly short on, or have been for the past few decades.”
“Or have been?” I said immediately.
He made a sort of brushing-away hand gesture that I knew meant we weren’t going to talk about that right now. I was a bit suspicious about this, given his sudden decision to go imparting the forms and wisdoms to me, Peter Grant, working architect and man of no particular fame. But I could be patient, too.
“But no architects,” I said. “Really?”
“Not that I’m aware.”
“Well,” I said. “This should be interesting, then.”
Thomas looked at me dryly. “Oh, it already is.”
Later that month we took a trip to University College Hospital to see Dr. Abdul Walid’s impressive collection of pickled brain slices. The only upside was that Thomas took the Jag, and since there wasn’t a chance under the sun I was ever going to get to drive it – not that I had ever worked out elaborate fantasy scenarios where I had to, or anything – getting a ride was the next best thing.
“Why do you have it, though?” I had to ask. “The maintenance must be a pain. And she’s gorgeous, but the congestion charges alone for something this old-”
“It’s not old, it’s classic,” said Thomas, which I agreed with absolutely but the two were just slightly synonymous, especially when the car in question was almost as old as my mum. “And charmingly unburdened with electronics of any sort.”
I considered the number of microprocessors in the average modern automobile. “But you could just...not do magic in it?”
The look I got for that suggested I was exercising more logic than the situation required.
“Do you remember when the M25 came to a halt for nearly a day, when was it...last year? In June?”
I did. There’d been a traffic accident, and then a large number of nearby cars had mysteriously lost power...only two people had died, but it had taken that long just to clear the road. “I thought that was an accidental EMP?”
“It was magic. The Folly doesn’t like to discuss the actual extent of the damage it causes – it makes people nervous.”
“No shit. Surely someone’s quantified the range versus...magical output. Are there units for magical output? There should be units. D’you use werelights? Like candlepower?”
“Quite possibly but if so I’ve never seen the data, and no, no unit - there were a lot of suggestions but according to David they could never agree on one. Though those revolving around lux as a spell were the most popular, I believe. And after....the empirical approach to magic became unpopular in the late nineteen-seventies. Any other experiments like that would have been after my retirement.”
“What’s unpopular about empiricism?” I asked, baffled.
“You and Abdul are going to find yourselves in agreement about a terrifying number of things,” Thomas said. “And I believe the chief objection...among other things...was that if you permitted magic to become a branch of science then just anyone would start doing it.”
Since stopping “just anyone” from doing magic seemed to be the Folly’s raison d’etre, as far as I could tell, I believed it.
Abdul’s collection of brains was just as terrifying as promised, and I nodded dutifully when he pointed out the difference between the unhealthy, cauliflower-looking brain of someone who’d died doing magic – or died due to magic, I wasn’t quite clear – and your average normal brain.
“I get that you don’t want this to happen at all, but do we know how much magic corresponds to lesions?” I asked Abdul.
His eyes positively lit up. “Well now, that is an excellent question, although sadly understudied.” He directed this last at Thomas, who just looked bland. “Of course it’s not like you can get people to do magic and then just see how many lesions they develop. Or do animal studies. Or as if we have some sort of unit for magic in the first place -”
“I know, right?” I said. “That got me when I read the available literature at uni – it’s not like no-one was trying to apply the scientific method but they never successfully quantified it, and you can’t really do science without units -”
Abdul was nodding enthusiastically. “Precisely. I keep trying to explain this to those idiots at the Folly but they seem to think measuring magic is the first step to either getting rid of it or something worse, not that they’ll explain what that is -”
“I hate to break in, but it’s entirely possible that if you stopped referring to the bulk of my colleagues as ’those idiots at the Folly’ you’d have rather more success convincing them,” interrupted Thomas, who now bore the expression of someone whose worst fears about a particular course of action had all come true.
Abdul made a uniquely Scottish noise that indicated what he thought of that. “And Thomas here has been excessively unhelpful in the matter himself, since apparently he has better things to do, but if you’re going to be learning -”
“The basic problem is the unit,” I agreed. “I’m still not sure how they managed to pin down how magic was interacting with the physical world back in the ‘50s without actually doing that, but –“
“This is what happens when you let a bunch of humanities graduates run things. It’s all descriptive. Not that natural history doesn’t have its place, but if you really want to make predictions, and if we can’t make predictions then what is science for-“
About ten minutes later we realized Thomas was nowhere to be seen, having presumably realized we weren’t going to be stopped. There was a text message on my phone – I have gone to get coffee. He never really had got the hang of textspeak. I’d known that for a little while, but it made much more sense now.
“You’d think he’d be more interested in this,” I said. “I mean, he was obviously close to David Mellenby, right? He lent me one of his papers – the werelight one?”
“Oh, yes, I’ve seen that one,” said Abdul. “Not that he really explained the phenomenon to my satisfaction, but given the paltry state of the field you take what you can get. I just wish I’d had a chance to meet the man – it would have been fascinating.”
“You didn’t miss him by much,” I said. “He died sometime in the mid-seventies, didn’t he? Wikipedia was a bit vague. Not that people don’t die in their seventies all the time.”
Abdul gave me a very odd look. “You don’t know what happened?”
I frowned. “Should I?”
He hesitated. “I don’t know all the details myself. There was something around that time...I think it has to do with why the Folly is a bit down on the empirical side of magic. It definitely has to do with why Thomas doesn’t speak to them much anymore. But the only thing I know for sure is what happened to David, and it’s not really my place. You’d have to ask Thomas.”
I wasn’t going to, of course, because you didn’t just come out and ask things like “Murder or suicide?” (or, for that matter, “is ‘close’ approved mid-twentieth-century code for ‘in a long-term relationship’?”) but it was going to nag at me until I found out. Unless Thomas decided to just tell me.
The man in question reappeared at that moment, carrying a paper cup of coffee. “Don’t tell me you two have run out of things to talk about already.”
“Just arrived at a natural pause in the conversation,” Abdul said cheerfully. “Here, Peter, let me give you my email.”
We exchanged business cards and shook hands.
“Abdul seems very interested in studying magic,” I said on the way home. “Any reason you didn’t offer to teach him?”
“He wasn’t interested,” Thomas said. “Not that I offered specifically, but he runs an active medical research programme as well as his clinical work – I think he simply wouldn’t have the time. It’s a demanding field of study.”
That I’d figured out already. And for a lot of people – I’d thought about it. I was nearly thirty. Not that it was on the table, but theoretically speaking if I worked very hard I might learn all there was to know, or all that could be taught about magic by the time I was forty. If I’d been married or had kids, or there’d been any prospect of the same in the near future, it wouldn’t be possible at all. It was as bad as doing a postgraduate degree except at least you got some fancy clothes and doctor in front of your name after that – and that only took three or four years. No wonder so few people learned - you had to have the time for it, and certainly the lack of a serious social life. It was possible I was a bit mad.
But, then again...magic.
We had a Tesco clubcard and kept all the vouchers it spat out when one of us shopped attached to the fridge with a magnet. There were a lot for apples because I’d been exploding apples with impello, recently - very normal according to Thomas but a bit unexpected the first time it happened. But I couldn’t tell Jaget that. I should start throwing out some of the apple vouchers.
“Um, I don’t know,” I said. “Must be profiling us as the sort of healthy types who buy a lot of fruit.”
“Right,” Jaget said, frowning, but I was saved by Lesley showing up with beer as a bribe for hanging out with us; apparently Beverley was out on yet another date - there’d been a few with the same guy recently - and Lesley was looking for company. And we were just boring enough to be home of a Friday night.
Lesley gave me a significant sideways glance when she told me the bit about Beverley and her apparent new boyfriend, but I wasn’t bothered - curious, I’ll cop to, but not bothered. That prospect had come and gone, I felt.
“Who with?” asked Jaget, who also wasn’t bothered but largely because Bev was so not his type. Jaget’s girlfriends were all much geekier than that. Lesley had once pointed out it was like he dated my non-existent twin sisters, which was sort of disturbing to think about, so I tried not to.
“Some guy,” said Lesley. “A solicitor, I think.”
I made a face. “Bev? And a lawyer?”
“He plays the trombone in a band,” Lesley said. “I think one of her sisters went to the show to do a review and she tagged along, and it sort of went from there. She says jazzmen all...” She glanced at Jaget, and finished, “Her mum likes jazz.”
“Could have fooled me,” I said, because Beverley and I had bedrooms that shared a wall - thankfully pretty well insulated - and I had a decent idea of her tastes in music. Jazz generally wasn’t in it. “She’s never woken me up with jazz.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Lesley said. “You broke her radio.”
“I broke her radio?” I frowned. “How’d I do that?”
“She keeps it in her bedroom,” Lesley said meaningfully.
Jaget gave me such a look. “Ohohohoho - when were you in Bev’s bedroom, Peter?”
“I wasn’t!” I said indignantly, and “He wasn’t,” said Lesley at nearly the same time. Jaget frowned at us. “Then how the hell did he break it?”
I thought fast. I was practicing magic and it destroyed the microprocessors was not going to be a useful answer. “Oh, uh, did it get knocked off a table? When I...knocked that chair...against the wall?”
“Ye-es,” said Lesley. “Must have done. Anyway, she’s right grumpy with you. You should really replace it.”
“It was an accident,” I said, but Lesley just looked at me. “Oh, fine. Text me the model or whatever and I’ll see what I can do.”
Lesley did better than that - she brought round the broken radio the next day, with a nice big crack across it for verisimilitude.
“How’d you do that?” I asked.
“Hammer,” she said. “Just in case Jaget looks at it. Were you practicing magic in your bedroom?”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “I didn’t know she had this up against the wall. I’m sorry, really. Anyway - I thought Bev was magic herself? How come she doesn’t blow stuff out?”
Lesley shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I did ask, once, and she said that it was - I dunno. Different. Her power’s all from nature, and her river, and...stuff. Wizards - you get it from things around you.”
This was reasonably close to the reading I had done, which indicated magic was drawn from one’s surroundings. It wasn’t electromagnetic but something about microprocessors mimicked the magic of the human brain - and other creatures. That was why they blew out - they got...drained. Apparently Bev was immune to that.
“Besides,” Lesley added, “it’s not like she’s doing river stuff in the flat - she has a whole house down by her river for that.”
“Why’s she living here, then?”
“Said she couldn’t stand living in the suburbs. And I was looking for a place, after I got out of the Met, and we were mates...she’s a good flatmate, you know.”
“Okay,” I said, because what did I know about the care and feeding of river goddesses, anyway? Especially the type who lived in ex-council flats and worked for BMW. “It’s not weird, though?”
Lesley punched me in the arm, but not hard. “Peter, people like Bev, they’re people. Just like you and me. Except not like you and me - even you now. But - people, you know?”
“I wasn’t saying she wasn’t people. Just...trying to figure out how this whole thing works.”
“Do you ever do anything else?”
“Nope,” I said, “and you love me for it.”
Lesley rolled her eyes as she left, but I like to think she did it in an affectionate way.