It was rather a mess, to be frank.
Thomas had lived long enough to be sanguine about making mistakes. He’d had plenty of practice at them. He’d probably lived long enough to repeat a few for good measure. But to have been unaware of the existence of a whole… settlement of fae under Notting Hill?
Unprofessional, Seawoll had said. And he was right, damn the man.
Thames Water hadn’t been pleased when Thomas had called, but had agreed to mobilise a man to meet them and give them access to the sewer system. Thomas had then spent half an hour in the mundane library while Peter and Lesley assembled an assortment of protective gear from the growing collection in the locker room Peter had set up in the basement. With a combination of vintage kit – salvaged by Peter, Molly and him one rainy Sunday afternoon from a storage room on the fourth floor – and what Peter referred to as “PPE” (Thomas couldn’t remember what the full name was), the modern trappings of high visibility workwear and hard hats, it was becoming rather well-stocked.
While his apprentices’ efforts had been successful – the Jag now loaded with their spoils – Thomas’s search for any vestige of information relating to the “Quiet People” had been fruitless. If any of his colleagues had known about the subterranean society, they had not seen fit to record it in the literature – or at least, not in any of the literature of which Thomas was aware. But, of course, it was entirely possible that they’d simply not gotten around to writing it down. Like David, who had expected plenty of time to write up all those notes he’d generated. There had always been something more exciting to do right now. Experiments and fruitful collaborations. So close to answers - a year away from cracking it, at most, I reckon. Why not leave the tedious paper-writing for a rainy day? Isn’t that what retirement is for, anyhow, old chap?
Not for the first time, Thomas reflected on just how much knowledge the Folly had lost, that January in 1945.
He felt old, then, and out of his depth. And very shortly he would be leading a number of junior officers, some of them armed, through the sewers to make contact with a people previously unknown to humanity –or at least, to those bits of humanity that liked to think they knew what was what. Thomas had the vague sensation of being part of an expeditionary force, from the days of empire – venturing forth to “extend the hand of friendship” to another unsuspecting group of poor buggers who’d hitherto been minding their own business and quite unaware that they were in need of civilising.
It wasn’t a comforting thought.
As much as he sometimes yearned for what he saw as the simpler days, back when his main concerns had revolved around filing reports, being at the required rendezvous points at the right time, and remembering which language he was supposed to be speaking in his current location – as much as he missed being part of something bigger; a thriving company of friends and peers… Well. There were certain things that belonged firmly in the past, as far as he was concerned.
In an effort to prove – perhaps to himself, as much as anyone – that he wasn’t one such relic, Thomas gave himself a shake and set off up the stairs from the library to his room.
As requested, Molly had ironed his favourite working shirt and it was laid out on his bed. There wasn’t really time to change his suit, but a fresh shirt would make him feel more... himself.
He took off his jacket and shirt and, stripped to the waist, had a quick standing wash before towelling himself dry and putting on the clean shirt. It smelled of wildflowers – honeysuckle, perhaps meadowsweet, he thought. Shirt tucked in, jacket back on, he opened the wardrobe and considered its contents.
Ever since he had been old enough to dress himself, Thomas had always found that he felt at his best when properly turned out for the occasion. There was something comforting in knowing that, whatever else might happen, you had started with your best foot forward, so to speak. It was one of the few constants in his life; one area in which he still felt somewhat in control. Thus, he had over the years amassed a collection of clothing which reflected the full range of “occasions” he had weathered. It was rather a large collection. Molly had taken to hanging his suits and shirts by colour. But this wardrobe was for his coats.
As he surveyed the ranks, Thomas asked himself: who am I this evening? What do I need?
It was cold; the Crombie would be a good choice, and there was something about the weight of it that he found reassuring. It was certainly practical for a night in December. As he reached to take it off the hanger, a sliver of white further along the rail caught Thomas’s eye. The Burberry Westminster trench coat. Clean lines, classic cut. He bloody loved that coat; it never failed to give him a bit of pep, that extra spring in his step which – at nearly 115 years old – he did not take for granted. Totally impractical, of course, given where they were going. And yet…
He smiled as he recalled overhearing a conversation between Peter and Lesley the other day.
He had noticed before Peter’s interest in the sartorial hierarchy of his colleagues, and on this occasion Peter had been wondering aloud, to Lesley, at what rank it would theoretically be appropriate to start wearing handmade shoes. Thomas had been looking for a book nearby in the library; he was fairly certain that his apprentices were unaware of him.
‘I don’t know,’ Lesley had said. ‘Who cares?’
‘Well, you’ve got to dress the part, haven’t you?’ Peter had reasoned. ‘You don’t want to look too eager – like, there’s no way I could get away with what Nightingale wears.’
Behind the library stack, Thomas grinned to himself as he continued to scan the shelf for Cuthbert’s Treatise on Practical Magicianship.
‘On the other hand,’ Peter continued, ‘there’s something to be said for “faking it until you make it”.’
Lesley snorted. ‘You’re a copper, not some city boy,’ she said. ‘But whatever floats your boat. I’ll continue to rely on hard graft, but by all means follow in the footsteps of Captain Fabulous.’
Thomas found it very hard not to laugh out loud.
Peter made a tsk-ing sound, and apparently had made some sort of physical contact with Lesley, as Thomas heard her object with an indignant ‘Oi!’ She was laughing, however.
‘It’s not like that with him, though is it?’ he heard Peter say. ‘I mean, he’s not faking it, is he? He doesn’t have to.’
‘What’s your point?’ said Lesley.
‘I dunno,’ said Peter. ‘I guess maybe for Nightingale it’s a uniform. Or a statement of something – you know, like “I mean business”, or “fuck you, I’m better dressed than all of you bastards”. Something like that.’
‘Whatever,’ Lesley said. ‘Come on, lunch in five. Better get this lot packed up - we’ve got practice afterwards.’
And then they had gone, and Thomas had found the Cuthbert’s and followed them to lunch.
Now, he thought about what Peter had said. A statement of something. Yes, thought Thomas. Why not. What do I want to say?
He thought of the horrid mess, and his failures, and realised that what he really needed to be able to last the night was a bit of confidence. He needed to say that he was in control, and yes – a professional, thank you very much, Alexander Seawoll.
Fuck you, I’m better dressed than all of you bastards, echoed Peter’s voice in his head.
He reached for the Burberry.