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I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Sir Isaac Newton
Outside of London, the Lea Valley is a pleasant park, with walking routes, cycling routes and, notably, a pretty good swimming pool at Broxbourne, which used to have a wave machine that was the highlight of the Kentish Town C of E Primary School Year 5 end of year outing. Inside London, the Lea runs alongside the old route of Ermine Street, now the clogged up A104 and, most relevant to me and Lesley today, the Lea Bridge Road. Once upon a time in the nineteenth century, this whole part of London was full of industry, powered, fed and supported by the river. Nowadays, it's full of big retail shops and red brick post-war housing, where you can add five grand to the value of your property for every hundred metres you get from the main road.
It's the sort of area that, once you've spent twenty minutes sitting stationary on the main road, you turn off into narrow side roads, never meant to have cars parked on both sides, and spend twenty minutes looking for a parking space within a reasonable hike of the house you're visiting.
In our case, we were looking for 34 Dagenham Road, an averagely narrow street with a unisex hairdressers on one corner, and an office furniture shop with stock that probably hadn't fallen off the back of a lorry on the other.
There was just enough room to squeeze the Ford Asbo in behind a battered silver golf, and Lesley and Ih took a moment to look at Number 34. Someone had painted it white, once, but the London rain had turned it a sort of foggy grey. It was larger than the other houses on the street, right on the corner where Dagenham Road met Norton Road, and in the gap above the garage, I could see a row of trees and thick undergrowth.
"That must be Dagenham Brook," I said, and Lesley nodded. Even in densely populated parts of London like this, you can spot the lines of a river from the narrow strip of trees and bushes along its banks.
"You're sure about this tip off?" Lesley ran a finger under the bottom of her mask. It always itched on grey, overcast, humid days like this.
"Beverley seemed pretty sure."
"Except I thought her river was on the other side of London."
It was, of course. In fact, it was pretty much as far away from this part of the city as you could get and still call it London.
"Maybe someone told her to tell us."
"Or someone told someone who told someone else? That's definitely a reliable source, that is."
"So the worst that happens is that we find nothing. Wouldn't be the first time, would it?"
Lesley sighed. "I suppose it's better than Tacitus. Come on."
The door to Number 34 was opened by a short, slim white woman with long brown hair swept back out of her face but loose down her back, and huge pale brown eyes that opened a little wider when she got a proper look at us. The look of surprise is not entirely unusual when people open the door to find the police standing outside. What was weird about this was that the woman reacted before we could even tell her who we were. She glanced from me, to Lesley, and back again, without apparently registering Lesley's mask, and that was definitely odd. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lesley tilt her head, just a little, although whether surprised or suspicious I couldn't tell. Probably both.
When the woman didn't speak, I gave her a friendly smile and held out my warrant card.
"Sorry to bother you, ma'am," I said. "My name's Constable Peter Grant, and this is Constable Lesley May. Would it be alright if we came in?"
Most people don't like having police, even plain clothes ones, standing on their doorstep for all the neighbours to see. They also don't like having police in the house, and you can normally see them weighing up which is the lesser of the two evils.
Not this time, though. The woman hesitated, then glanced over her shoulder. The owner of the house was listed as Mr Harry Turner, forty-four, and with six points on his driving licence but not much else of note. This definitely wasn't him, but maybe a friend? Girlfriend? Cleaner?
"We just want a word with Mr Turner," Lesley said, already shifting forwards a little. If the woman tried to shut the door on us, Lesley's shoulder would be just in the right place to bounce it open again. "And you, if you live here. Do you live here?"
Still looking behind her, the woman nodded, pressing her lips together. From one of the rooms deeper in the house came a man's voice, not shouting exactly, but not far off.
"Who is it, Hazel? What's going on?"
I didn't miss the way the woman flinched at the sound of the shout, and from the stiffening in her shoulders, Lesley hadn't either. When you do enough of these, you get an instinct about them anyway, but from her downcast demeanour and apparent reluctance to speak, it wasn't hard to make a guess. Lesley's police issue notebook had been in her hand already, and she flipped it open, as though consulting it, while writing at the bottom of the page, large enough for me to read, DV.
Great, I thought. Because if this was a domestic violence case, we'd have to pass it to the local nick to deal with, and then try to explain that we were tipped off to look into it by a passing water nymph. Or something. It's not that I didn't care, it was just that not all area police stations were as adjusted to The Folly as Belgravia, and DV cases obviously needed careful handling. No local officer was going to thank us for muddling it before it had even begun.
Then the woman looked back at us, those huge eyes fixing on us properly for the first time. She still showed absolutely no reaction to Lesley's mask, which remained very weird, and when she looked at me, I felt-
Something. Not a glamour, God knows I've had enough of that to know it with my eyes closed, but more like vestigia. A rush of something, like wind in my ears, and I swear that just for a second, I could smell salt water and felt the splash of something shockingly cold on my face. As Mr Turner came stomping out from his back room, grumbling about being interrupted, I put my hand on my own notebook and stepped up to join Lesley.
This was definitely our case.
Fifteen minutes later, we were ensconced in the tiny back room of Number 34, trying to figure out what the hell we were doing here. It was clear from the way the woman - Hazel - crept around, setting down three cups of tea and a plate of biscuits on the tiny coffee table, and retreating to a hard dining chair in the corner, that she was at least wary of Mr Turner, if not downright terrified.
I, meanwhile, was trying not to be eaten by the enormous puffy sofa, and find a position where I could sit, take notes and possibly juggle a cup of tea and jammy dodger as well. The jammy dodgers were interesting. There were digestives on the plate too, but apparently as police, we warranted the next biscuit level up. In my house, there's no way my mum would have served the police anything above a rich tea, and on the one occasion a householder had broken out the chocolate digestives for us, he'd turned out to have a very special kind of hot house in the woods at the bottom of his garden. You could tell a lot about a person by the sort of biscuits they put out for you. It should be in Blackstone's, really.
Lesley, who'd snagged the armchair opposite Mr Turner's, and who hadn't been distracted by the Grant Biscuit Theory, opened her notebook.
"We're sorry to bother you," she said, "but we've had some reports of a disturbance at this address." Her voice was coolly neutral and behind her mask, her eyes were unreadable.
Mr Turner, shaking his head, looked at me to answer. He was a big white man, with the broad shoulders and wide middle that suggested a rugby player who'd swapped the playing field for the bar. He worked for the local council, driving a van for the parks service, and it looked like he didn't get out of it very much. His hair was nearly black and neatly cut, while his little blue eyes were wary as they flicked to Lesley before fixing on me again.
"I can't think why. We don't play loud music, we don't have rows at all hours unlike some people I could name. Sounds like someone's trying to make a nuisance of themselves."
"That could be," Lesley said. "Is there anyone you can think of who'd want to do that to you?"
Turner gave every impression of not having heard the question, still frowning as though turning something over in his head. And he still didn't look at her, not properly. That's fairly normal when we do these things, but generally after a few minutes, people's social politeness kicks in, and they make themselves look at Lesley properly, if only to show how well-adjusted they are and how it doesn't make any difference to them because they're such good people. Or they ask intrusive questions. The impression I was getting wasn't that Turner was particularly bothered by the mask. When I glanced at Lesley, she seemed to be thinking the same thing. Time to test it.
"Anyone from work?" I said, and Turner's gaze snapped to me, suddenly attentive. "Anyone along the street or maybe in your local pub? Sometimes people do these things as a prank that gets out of control."
"I can't believe anyone I know would be so malicious. And we don't have a local. Hazel and I are very much homebodies, aren't we, Hazel?"
The woman's eyes were fixed on the carpet at her feet, and they stayed there as she nodded, just a fraction.
It was hard not to feel that there was something seriously weird about Mr Turner and the 'women should be seen but not heard' vibe he was giving off. Lesley and I had both done our share of domestic visits, and it wasn't normally quite so blatant. Once the police turned up in the house, most abusers did their best to make theirs seem like the happiest home on the street, we're just like every other couple, no trouble here, officer, I swear. Turner, on the other hand, didn't seem to care if we noticed. As though he was sure there would be no consequences, even if we did.
I asked a few more questions, mostly about their social lives, mostly boring, routine stuff. Turner kept his eyes on me, staying civil if obviously impatient for us to be gone. Three questions in, Lesley took over, and I knew that she'd seen it as well. The flash of irritation that came over his face as she asked about his car. He pointedly didn't look at her, giving me his answer instead, and I was even more sure that it had nothing to do with her mask.
Eventually, there wasn't much else we could do. I extracted myself from the sofa, and put the tea mugs onto the tray.
"Thanks for your time, Mr Turner. I'm sure we'll have this cleared up soon enough."
He huffed a little, also getting to his feet. "I hope so. I'm sure you have better things to do than deal with time wasters. Will you let me know if you find out who it was?"
As I was about to answer, he noticed that I'd picked up the tea tray, glanced over his shoulder and snapped - actually snapped - his fingers at Hazel. The gesture was so blatantly dismissive that I forgot I was supposed to be answering a question, and Lesley had to chime in that we couldn't give details, but we'd be sure to let him know when the investigation was concluded.
Hazel came over and took the tray from me, her face still lowered so that she couldn't meet my eyes. As she took the tray, her hand brushed against mine, and I felt that vestigia again, only stronger this time. There was the smell of salt water again, fresh and invigorating, the roar of waves crashing into rocks and the cry of seagulls coming from somewhere distant. It was as strong a vestigia as I'd ever felt, and for a moment, I could have been standing on the coast, watching the sea rush to shore. Underneath it all, though, was something that was more than just a sense impression. A deep sense of longing and loneliness, a pull at my heart towards something bigger and deeper out there. It rang in my ears and my mind, so that I couldn't really hear anything else for a second, until something started to echo, right at the very edge of the audible. Hard to make out at first, I focussed on it and it resolved itself into the shouts of market traders, people's voices raised in the shouts and cadence of stall holders that was pretty much the same around the world. Maybe fisherman trying to flog the day's catch? Then the sea washed in and swept it all away again.
Lesley must have got us out of the house somehow, because the next thing I knew, I was standing next to the Asbo, sucking in lungfuls of dirty London air instead of fresh sea ozone. Through the eye holes, I could see that Lesley was giving me a worried look.
"Back with me, are you?" she said, giving my shoulder a prod. "Want to tell me what happened?"
I could smell the fumes of the buses from the Lea Bridge Road, and the dirty, close feel of London air just before it rains. But my memory was of open water and the freedom of weightlessness.
"Not sure," I said. "But I think we need to talk to an expert."
While Lesley made a couple of calls to get a deeper background on Gerald Taylor, I made one of my own. An hour later, we parked up in a crowded pay and display car park at the back of Walthamstow Market, and made our way to the nearest greasy spoon. Thirty minutes after that, Zachary Palmer finally decided to join us. Although in fairness, he had had to take the 158 bus, which had got stuck in traffic.
We got him settled with a cup of tea and an improbably large plate of the finest English breakfast, and, mostly out of sheer morbid fascination, watched him eat for a few minutes.
After he'd polished off his third sausage, he looked up, winked at Lesley, and frowned at me.
"What was it you wanted, again? Something about a trip to the seaside?"
"Not really," I said, rolling the dregs of my tea around the bottom of my mug, and trying not to be distracted by the swirl of the liquid. "More like I was wondering how much you know about sea creatures. Unusual sea creatures. Who might be able to walk around on land as well."
"And might be mistaken for a human," Lesley added. Her words drew Zach's attention back to her, and he gave her what was probably supposed to be a sexy grin, but was rather spoiled by the sausage herb stuck in his teeth.
"That could be a lot of things," he said. "Got any more than 'sea creature'?"
I described Hazel to him, from her delicate features to her small stature. When I mentioned that she hadn't spoken the whole time we'd been there, Zach's lips pursed in thought, and he nodded.
"Sounds like your Mr Turner's caught himself a selkie," he said, as though it was the sort of thing he heard every day, and turned back to his breakfast to make an attack on the first of his fried eggs.
"Aren't they Scottish?" Lesley asked, and Zach tipped his head from side to side. She held up a hand to stop him talking through the egg, waiting until his mouth was empty to drop her hand and let him go on.
"Sort of." He lifted his eggy knife up, waggling it in the air as he spoke. "There's more of them in Scotland, and Ireland, I think. But you know what it's like. Everyone comes to London eventually, and that doesn't only apply to humans. And the Thames is a pretty big river."
That was true enough. It was cleaner, too, than it had been for centuries. There'd been hundreds of dolphins and porpoises and even a seahorse spotted in the river over the last few years, not to mention the seal who'd spent most of two days on a pier by Billingsgate Market and ended up with its own Twitter and Instagram accounts.
"So let's say," I said slowly, "that a visitor from up north made their way down the coast, up the estuary, through London and all the way to Limehouse Basin, where the Lea meets the Thames. It's busy traffic on the river at that point, so she gets a bit turned around, starts up the Lea maybe to find some peace and quiet, and runs into Gerald Taylor somehow. She doesn't know what a bastard he is at first, she comes ashore, decides to try out human life for a while and gets herself trapped in an abusive relationship."
Zach was already shaking his head. "Nah, it don't work like that. The thing with selkies is that if you want to keep them, you've got to steal their skin. Once you've got that, they're stuck, and they can't go back to the sea until they find it again." Seeing us both staring at him, he bristled a little, poking at what was probably black pudding with his fork. "What? You're not the only one who hangs out with the Rivers, are you?"
That was true enough. I'd caught Zach working the bar at a rave in the secret part of the Tube for Chelsea and Olympia, two of Beverley's younger sisters. Apparently he'd mastered the part of the job where you were supposed to be a good listener, and had picked up a few bits and pieces from them.
"It was probably Lea who asked Beverley to call you," Lesley said, and I nodded. The older white woman in her twinset and pearls who I'd seen at Mama Thames' probably wouldn't have wanted to get mixed up in anything to do with the Folly, even if she actually knew how a telephone worked.
"Sounds plausible," I said. "Hazel and Gerald Turner are living right on the Dagenham Brook. Maybe she got herself all the way there."
"Or he moved them there later," Lesley put in. While she was mostly understandable these days, it could sometimes be tricky still to pick up the nuance of what she was saying, but there was no mistaking the way her voice hardened. "Just to taunt her with it."
Wanting to keep us on track, I asked Zach, "If he nicked her skin, but we could get it back to her, we could set her free, right? She could just, what? Swim away?"
"If she was near enough to water, probably. And if the Rivers know she's around now, and she can get to one of them, she'll probably be okay." Zach polished off the last grilled tomato. "They don't like people messing with their people, if you know what I mean."
"So how do we find her skin?" Lesley asked. "He's not exactly going to keep it in the house, is he?"
I thought back to the vestigia-like sensations I'd had when Hazel touched my hand, some of the pieces falling into place and I suddenly knew why I'd suggested we meet at this cafe, even I hadn't realised it at the time.
"Turner works for the parks, doesn't he?" I said, pulling out my phone and thumbing it on. Amongst the sea gulls and crashing waves, I'd taken the men's shouts for sailors or fishermen selling their stock on shore. But what if the market I'd heard was a lot closer than that?
We all leaned in to squint at the tiny satellite map on my phone. Right at the top of the market was a large park, probably created as a sort of apology for dumping Selbourne Walk shopping centre on top of whatever green space had been there before. Turner would have plenty of reason to be around here, and plenty of opportunity to stash the skin.
"Couldn't he have just given it to a trader?" Lesley asked. "Got them to sell it on for him?"
I shook my head. "Too risky. If someone who knew what it was got their hands on it, they could use it to track her down again." Off Lesley's questioning look, I shrugged. "I think she's still connected to it somehow, and wanted me to know that. She could probably even find it herself if she could get away for long enough. I definitely heard a market along with all the sea stuff, which means it's got to be around here somewhere."
The trouble was that 'around here' covered a whole lot of market. Walthamstow's is the longest street market in Europe, and running for over a kilometer - not a mile, despite the urban legends - and that was a whole lot of shops, stalls and lock ups to look through.
After five minutes of nearly doing our eyes in poring over my phone, Lesley threw her hands in the air and made me ring the local nick. I gave them my warrant card number and explained that I was looking for a quiet lock up somewhere in the Walthamstow Market area. Once they'd done laughing, and explained in words of one syllable exactly how many dodgy warehouses, lock ups and garages there were around the market, they asked if I had anything else to go on.
Feeling a bit stupid, and aware of Lesley and Zach watching me, I rolled my eyes (mostly at myself) and asked if anyone had reported hearing weird noises from buildings.
"Seagulls, maybe," I said, "or rushing water. And it'd be somewhere with parking too. Maybe a council van hanging around places you wouldn't expect to see one."
That got their attention. Not the van bit, because one white van looks much like another to your average witness, but the weird noises. It turns out that, some days, you just need to know the right questions to ask.
That was how, in the end, I ended up smelling of fish for three days, despite scrubbing myself with soap, lemon, baking powder, until finally and in desperation, I begged Molly for help. She gave me a concoction that seemed to be equal parts vinegar, vodka and something that I decided not to ask her about.
Finding the skin itself had been fairly simple once the Walthamstow branch of the Met were involved. It turned out there was an empty building behind Wilkinsons that they'd been called to a few times because people thought it was being flooded. Lots of rushing water noises, and that sort of thing. There was a convenient car park on the other side of a low wall, easy enough for someone like Gerald Turner to climb over, even when dragging a hundred or so kilos of seal skin. He must have used a trolley, because even with Zach and Lesley's help, getting it to the door was too much like hard work, and we ended up turning off all our phones so that I could use impello to lift it into the back of the Asbo.
Of course, as soon as I'd done that, I wished I hadn't, and Lesley and Zack promptly announced that they'd get the bus and meet me on the Lea Bridge Road, to save the car the weight. Even with the windows down, the smell was horrendous. Luckily, we'd planned what we were going to do before I'd actually got in the car, so at least I knew I was going to be able to escape eventually.
Technically, of course, there was nothing to stop us going right up to Gerald Turner's front door, knocking on it and presenting Hazel with her lost property. Practically speaking, though, we'd ruled it out for a few reasons. First, if we did anything officially, Turner could put in an official complaint. Given how much trouble I could get myself into even when I wasn't trying, Lesley had decided that we weren't going to take that chance.
Secondly, if he'd gone to all this trouble to keep Hazel with him, we couldn't see him giving her up all that easily, and neither of us would take the risk that he might hurt her rather than letting her go.
Thirdly, none of us, not even Zach, knew what would happen when Hazel was reunited with her lost skin. Would she turn into a seal straight away? In which case, how would we get her out of the house? Would she even remember who we were any more?
Instead, we decided the best thing was for someone to distract Turner in his house, while getting Hazel out into the back garden where someone else would hand her the skin. And, as Lesley pointed out, I already stank of fish, so there was no reason for me not to be the one hoiking it over fences.
On the other side of Dagenham Brook from Gerald Turner's house was a big playing field, next to them were allotments, and next to them was a modern new build estate. It was almost dark by the time I parked up the Asbo, and climbed out, hoping for some escape from the smell. Sadly, it accompanied me across the road to the fence separating the estate from the allotments, which I leaned against as I waited for Lesley to pick up her phone.
"Nearly there," she said eventually.
"Are you taking Zach with you?" I asked, and heard her snort a laugh, clear even through her mask and the phone.
"Yeah, he's definitely the sort of sidekick I want on official police business," she said. "I rang Sahra. She should be here in ten minutes or so."
"That should unsettle Turner," I said, wondering what exactly he was going to make of the two women, one in a headscarf and the other in a mask. "I'm going to start over the allotments, so I'll have to turn my phone off. I'll look out for Hazel."
"Be careful, Peter. The last thing we need is to have to explain why you're trespassing on someone's runner beans."
She hung up before I could think of a good reply to that. Instead, I flicked my phone off again, and braced myself. The smell clung to my clothes and skin, making the air around me stink just from the half hour I'd spent with the skin in the car. I really wasn't looking forward to getting another faceful.
Fortunately, it was nearly dark as I started my back fence steeplechase, using impello again to lift the skin over into the allotments, and working my way around the boundary to the corner of Dagenham Road. The main gates on the Lea Bridge Road into the allotments had been locked, but that didn't mean some keen allotmenteer with a key and a desperate need to prune his sprouts couldn't turn up at any minute.
The fence was high at the back, so it took me a while to find the right place to climb over, moving the seal skin over first and setting it down gently on the bank of the Dagenham Brook. As I pulled myself over and tried to catch my balance on the sloping ground, I saw that the lights were on to the side of the house, which had to be the living room, but the kitchen, which overlooked the postage stamp garden and the brook, was dark. Even in the open, the smell of the seal skin was seriously overpowering, so I shifted as far away from it as I dared, keeping my eyes on the window.
Without being able to check my phone, I had no way of telling how much time passed before Guleed joined Lesley, and the two of them knocked on the front door. It seemed to take an age, and I whiled it away imagining Turner's face on being forced to talk to two female officers at the same time. I was almost sorry to be missing it.
Just as I was planning to move again to relieve some of the pins and needles in my feet, the kitchen window lit up, and I saw someone moving around inside. It might have been Turner himself, of course, but realistically, you didn't imprison a selkie only to make your own tea, did you?
I'd already thought about what I was going to do and, using impello, which was definitely earning its keep this evening, I picked up some of the stones from the back garden and rattled them gently against the window. At first, I thought I'd been too gentle, and was just getting ready to go again when the blind was pulled back, and Hazel's pale face appeared in the tiny gap. I conjured a werelight, just big enough to light me and the seal skin a few feet away, hoping that the copse was sheltered enough to hide it from the other houses, and make it dark enough for the light to actually be seen.
There was a pause, a frozen moment as Hazel's eyes met mine, and I saw the surprise in them again. Then the blind fell straight again, and I heard the sound of the back door being opened. It must have been audible from inside the house as well, because a moment later, I heard a man shouting. All I could hope was that Lesley and Guleed would be able to keep him back long enough for Hazel to get to me.
Faster than I'd expected, she'd climbed the back fence, splashed through the waist-deep river, and was standing on the bank in front of me, looking from me to the skin and back again. I had just enough time to register her huge smile, full of hope and joy, before she started stripping off her clothes. In my own surprise, I forgot to extinguish the werelight, and it cast a ghostly glow over her nearly-white skin as she shed blouse, sensible shoes, jeans and underwear.
It also meant that, on the other side of the bank, Gerald Turner got a good look her naked back as he emerged from the house. The fence was low, and he started towards us, still yelling something that I couldn't quite make out. As he did so, Hazel glanced over her shoulder, a look of utter contempt on her face as she turned back to me. Smiling, she reached out, grabbed me with a surprisingly strong grip, and pulled me down for a kiss, full on the lips.
I tasted salt water, and had the sensation of jumping into the cool sea on a hot day, refreshing and shocking all at once. My eyes must have closed automatically, and I swear I felt spray wash over my face, and the call of gulls overhead. Hazel released me, and in the second before I opened my eyes again, she'd dived towards the skin.
The werelight had gone out by that time, as I'd lost concentration when she kissed me, so what I saw was shadowy shapes roll down the bank into the river. At the top of the bank, there had been two of them, one pale and one dark, but by the time they hit the water,there was only one, sleek and grey and already moving downstream.
Turner yelled again, and for a moment, I think he meant to head in after her, but a great splash of water came up the bank as she passed, making him retreat back to the safety of the fence, where Lesley and Guleed were standing. We all watched as, wriggling a little to keep momentum in the shallow water, the seal turned the bend in the river and disappeared from sight.
She'll be fine once she reaches the Lea, I thought. And Mama Thames will make sure she gets home safely. I wasn't going to worry about her when I had other things to deal with, like making sure Gerald Turner didn't do anything stupid like file a missing persons report, or complain about us to our bosses. Somehow, I thought Nightingale would take an even dimmer view of holding a Fae creature prisoner than I did.
Three days later, once Molly's infernal cocktail had got the last of the fish smell out of my hair, I drove up to Broxbourne, and bought a bright blue slushie at the swimming pool cafe. Broxbourne had gone upmarket since I was last here, but the cafe apparently realised the clientele had not. It was still overcast, although warm enough to sit outside, where I joined a rather prim-looking lady at a picnic table. She had tea in a proper china cup and saucer, and I didn't bother to ask where that had come from. Lea might not be Mama Thames or Lady Ty, but all the Rivers had ways of getting what they wanted.
"I wanted to say thank you, Constable Grant," she said, once the ritual exchange of acknowledging the weather (still poor) and the London traffic (even worse) was over. "I hope you don't mind that I didn't approach you directly. Beverley is so much better with all these new-fangled technologies than I am."
"It's fine," I said. "Happy to help."
We were sitting beside the river, its banks green with grass and shrubs growing in a much more manicured way than they did along Dagenham Brook. The air was still humid and still, and the growing storm couldn't be far from breaking. I sipped my slushie as a wash of chlorine-scented air swept over us from the swimming pool. From inside, I could hear squeals of delight as the children's afternoon session was in full swing. It wasn't the old, brown tiled hulk of a building that I'd visited as a kid, and while I'm sure the new facilities were much better, I couldn't help a pang of sadness that they hadn't put the wave machine back in.
"It seems that all kinds of things are happening in London's rivers these days," Lea said, hiding her expression behind her tea cup. "Old people like me can scarcely keep up."
"I'm sure you'll still be here when all this is gone," I said, and Lea shrugged, just a little.
"In all honesty, I wasn't expecting to still be here now. What with the locks and the basins and the factories and the brick works, the warehouses and the mills, not to mention the Olympic Park." She shook her head. "Everything changes, and everything stays the same. I'm still here, still watching over my part of London. And still collecting lost souls, it would seem. Rivers do that, you know." She gave me a sharper look than I'd been expecting, and much more like Mama Thames' than I would have expected from a white woman. "All rivers, new and old."
I shifted a little on the bench, swirling the melting remains of my slushie in the bottom of the cup. "At least we got this one back to where it belongs," I said, and Lea smiled.
"That you did. And both she and I are very grateful." She raised her tea cup as though in a toast, and I lifted my slushie cup to join it. "To…" she began, trailing off as though not sure how to phrase it.
"To lost souls," I said. "May they find their way back home."
And we touched cups, and drank.