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Prelude and Fugue

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The rain, which had been falling in complex counterpoint to the applause, by the time the slow crawl of noisy people blocking the aisle cleared enough to let him slip through without touching anyone, had settled into a full symphonic ensemble, pounding onto the greasy paving stones with a relentless rhythm. The mass of the audience blocked up the porch of the little hall, filling the air with their off-key bleating.

Henry edged his way around the fringe of the crowd and stepped out without glancing up. Head down, gloveless hands bare to the arrows of rain. His shoulders gradually grew colder and damper as the thin cloth of his coat let the rain through, but he ignored it, his feet tramping in time to the tempo of the music. As he ran up the perfect pattern of the triplets he felt a sharp discordance in his hand and realised he must have been playing to the air again. ‘Oh,’ he said, and sucked briefly at his finger where a trickle of blood was oozing out from the knuckle. He took it from his mouth and watched the dark stain slowly reappear, until it melted into a drop of rain-water and vanished to the faintest pink swirl. Henry frowned.

‘He missed a note. In the F minor. The D in the ritardando.’ He hummed the piece as it should have been played, the high notes falling exactly into place and then cascading through the allargando with the brilliance of a mathematical equation coming to its inevitable conclusion.

‘Watch where you’re bleeding going!’

Henry stepped back onto the curb while he waited for the noisy man to sort out his horses and go away.

‘Stand still, you bloody animal. Now what’s up with yer? Whoa, yer old bugger!’

Henry wondered why the carter did not look at the black shadow that flitted around the horse. He watched the shimmer of darkness that made the animal jerk its head and flick its ears round, the eyes rolling back in its head until with a terrified neigh it lunged forward, clearing the way.

Henry licked thoughtfully at his raw knuckle again.

‘You said something about the F minor.’

Henry turned slowly and peered past the rain spots on his glasses.

The man who had spoken made a short, incomplete sort of smile. ‘Sorry – but I happened to overhear just now.’

‘It was played wrong,’ Henry said.

‘Oh, that’s a shame.’

‘Why do they play it wrong when it is written in the score?’

The man didn’t say anything for a moment. He was looking at Henry with his head tilted slightly to one side.

Henry walked across the road.

‘You know the score very well, then?’

Henry turned to look at the man who was still there and the man suddenly leapt at him, grabbing him in a hard, brutal hug that swept his feet out from under him. His ankle hit something and he fell sideways, pain shooting up his leg. There was a lot of noise. People shouting and a horse screaming great trumpeting neighs that slashed across the air. Hands were pawing at him, people yelling things in his face.

‘Ought to be bloody locked up, he ought.’

Henry got shakily to his feet.

‘I reckon he ain’t all there.’

Henry looked down at himself, frowning. He could see his feet and his legs, his hands and arms, and all the bits of body in between. He put his hands up and carefully felt his face. Why did people say that so often – how could he not be all there?

‘Bleedin’ loony, he is! Ought to be locked up.’

‘I am not a loony,’ Henry said. ‘Mother said I am very special. I must never pay attention when people say I am a loony.’

People were shoving each other, their arms flailing wildly.

‘Bleedin’ loony.’

‘I am not a loony,’ Henry said. ‘Mother said I am very special. I must never pay attention when people say I am a loony.’

‘Not safe to let a loony out like this.’

‘I am not a loony!’ Henry shrieked. ‘Mother says I’m very special! I mustn’t pay attention when people say I’m a loony!’

‘Bloody hell.’

Henry shut his aching eyes and put his hands over his ears. He tried to find the pattern of the music, but they were shaking him roughly and he could not keep the time.

‘Leave him alone.’

Beats clashing and missing, no sense to be found in them. He squeezed his eyes tighter shut.

‘I said, leave him.’

It was dark, and the notes moved steadily through their patterns, each one in perfect relation to the last. A third, a fifth, the tempo sending them forward to their exactly allotted spaces, and when each one was finished the next would be ready. F, E natural, D natural, C; A, F, D flat, C. His feet on the pavement counting out the time with them. G flat, F, G flat, B.

‘You can come out now.’

F, E natural, F, E flat; D—

His hands were moved off his ears and Henry stood still and opened his eyes in surprise.

‘They’ve gone now.’

‘Where did they go?’

‘Them? Nowhere much. But you went quite a long way. Gave me quite a run to catch you, and you with your eyes closed all the time.’ The man tilted his head again, and his forehead puckered. ‘How d’you manage that?’

Henry looked at him.

The man looked back at Henry very steadily. Most people avoided Henry’s eyes after a while; often they stopped looking at or speaking to him at all. He wasn’t sure if he liked being looked at like that.

The man raised his eyebrows, and then said slowly ‘Why don’t you bump into anything when you run with your eyes shut?’

‘I count,’ Henry said. He tried to take a step to show the man and a sudden fire blazed through his leg; it seemed to collapse underneath him so he tumbled forward and fell against the man. ‘Why did I do that?’

‘You’ve hurt your leg – it’s bleeding. Do you want to sit down?’

Henry thought about that. ‘Yes.’

‘Come along then. Put your arm over my shoulder.’ The man made the little sharp breathing noise that Henry had noticed people often made when they talked to him, and then he picked Henry’s arm up and put it across his own shoulder. ‘Lean on me. That’s it. No – don’t put your weight on that leg, you’ll hurt it.’

His leg did hurt, and Henry looked at the man and wondered how he had known.

‘Why does my leg hurt?’

The man smiled again. ‘You tripped on the curb stone. You’ve cut your knee open.’

Henry looked down at his legs. There was a dark patch in the cloth of one trouser leg. Mrs Sharpe would be cross; she always shouted at him if he got his clothes dirty. When he touched the place it felt sticky, and he started as the sharp pain lanced up from where he had pressed.

‘It hurts.’

‘Yes. It’s bleeding quite heavily. And you have quite a way to go still, don’t you.’

Henry looked at him.

The man looked away briefly and then turned back with a wide smile on his face. ‘Where do you live?’

‘I live at number thirty-two, Brook Street.’

‘That’s a long way when you’re hurt.’

‘It is five thousand four hundred and twenty three yards. Always.’

The man had the other expression on his face that people often had when they talked to him. The one where their forehead creased between their eyes. But then this man laughed. ‘You do count, don’t you. You must always like to know just where you are.’

‘I always know.’ How could he not know?

‘And is anyone waiting at number thirty-two Brook Street? Anyone to take care of you? Your mother perhaps?’

Henry felt the little tight place in his chest that always came when he thought about Mother.

‘Is your mother waiting for you, you did mention her just now, didn’t you?’

Henry looked away. Mother had lain so still and silent the last time he had ever seen her; then the men had come and taken her away. It was not a good memory. He tapped out the comforting pattern of the music with his fingers. He had to concentrate to do that. The cold thoughts wouldn’t force their way into his mind if he was busy.

‘Ah.’ The man’s voice grew a little quieter. ‘So who is at home? Your wife maybe… she’ll know what to do about this knee.’

Henry was growing very confused. He didn’t have a wife, so how could she know what to do about his knee? He had lost his place so he began again.

‘Or a friend… Yes? No? Anyone at all? Well someone must care for you. What about your landlady, will she be expecting you?’

‘The key is in the flowerpot.’ Mrs Sharpe had shown it to him very carefully, she had said that if he forgot to let himself in again then he would have no suppers for a month. Henry didn’t want to go without supper any more.

The man seemed to be staring at him hard, he had opened his mouth slightly, as if he were sucking in Henry’s responses. Henry could see the man’s very white teeth.

It seemed important to explain so Henry added, ‘It annoys the neighbours if I stand in the street and then Mrs Sharpe shouts.’

‘Did Mrs Sharpe go out this evening then?’

‘It is Monday.’

‘So she won’t be worrying about you?’

‘It is Monday.’

‘Of course it is.’ The man settled Henry against himself slightly. ‘And on Monday you always go to the concert.’

Of course he did.

‘And afterwards you walk home along the canal.’

The canal was quieter. There were few people to shout at him, or say confusing things.

The rain was still drumming down, hitting his skin with sharp splashes that were cold and painful. He could feel water trickling down his neck where his collar should have been but he must have forgotten to put one on.

The man looked at him with a smile that was not a sneer, and not laughing at him. It was the nicest smile that Henry had seen for as long as he could remember.

‘I think,’ the man said, ‘I should come with you along the canal to your home. The canal is very deep; if you slipped on your bad leg they might never find your body.’

Henry looked into the man’s eyes and there came into his mind the special charm that Mother had so carefully taught him. He didn’t remember it very often, but for this man he was glad that he had.

‘I am very pleased to meet you. My name is Henry.’


The rain, which had been firing opening salvos all through the last half of the recital, seemed to take the applause as something of a challenge and as the clapping spattered away it could be heard building up to a concerted barrage against the high dusty windows. By the time hats and coats had been donned, and the slow crawl of people blocking the aisle cleared enough to let him shove through, it had settled into a steady downpour, pounding onto the greasy paving stones with a relentless violence. It was enough to make the mass of the audience stop in the porch of the little hall, and exclaim loudly whilst umbrellas were raised, hats lowered and gloves drawn on more securely. But the thin man edged his way around the fringe of the crowd and stepped out without glancing up. Head down, shoulders hunched, his gloveless hands dangling at his sides. Will sighed and dodged a fat woman exclaiming about the weather to dart out after him.

He hung back for a while, barely glancing at his quarry beyond what was necessary to assure himself of the way, but inevitably falling into step with him as he matched the man’s pace. Will’s shoulders gradually grew colder and damper as the thin cloth of his coat let the rain through, and he plunged his hands into his pockets for what little warmth they would provide.

The man too seemed to be feeling the cold, because he was flexing his fingers as he walked, dancing and drumming them against the air in a strange slow pattern. Will watched, bemused, as the man started to spread his arms wider and wider, oblivious to the passers-by who had to skirt him with ever louder exclamations of annoyance. Then as they turned the corner into Victoria Road, his hand darted out wide enough to hit the iron railings and he stopped abruptly.

‘Oh.’ The man briefly brought his knuckle up to his mouth and sucked at it, then stared at his hand for a while.

‘He missed a note. In the F minor.’ A woman trying to manage a small girl and a large umbrella looked alarmed at the low mutter and hurried her child away. Will waited, checking his watch as an excuse. Then the man started off again and Will followed.

All around them the rain cascaded, making the street lights shimmer and twinkle with the brilliance of Venetian crystal. The carriages spun by on a sheen of water, fine spray thrown from their wheels in glistening arcs. And through it all the man walked oblivious.

‘Watch where you’re bleeding going!’

The horses shied and skidded, stumbling to a snorting wide-eyed halt, the carter hauling on his reins furiously. People turned to stare.

The man calmly stepped back onto the curb.

The carter turned towards the man, his whip raised menacingly, and Will darted out, too fast for a human to notice him, and ran his hand the wrong way up the rain-slicked coat of the off-side horse’s back.

‘Stand still you bloody animal. Now what’s up with yer? Whoa, yer old bugger!’

Will dodged under the shafts and landed a firm slap on the other horse’s hind quarters, then skipped to safety as with a terrified neigh it lunged forward, clearing the way. The carter yelling blue murder and hauling on the reins uselessly.

Will stood next to the man. There was a faint smell of blood clinging about him, and as Will glanced down the man brought his finger up to his mouth again and licked it clean.

‘You said something about the F minor.’

The man turned slowly and looked at Will with a face devoid of all expression behind his rain smeared glasses.

Will smiled apologetically. ‘Sorry – but I happened to overhear just now.’ He gave a conspiratorial grin.

‘It was played wrong.’

‘Oh, that’s a shame.’

‘Why do they play it wrong when it is written in the score?’

Before Will could respond, the man walked straight out into the road again.

Will quickly kept pace with him. ‘You know the score very well, then?’

The man just stopped. Out of the corner of his eye, Will saw a hansom cab bearing down on them and he grabbed for the man, half throwing him at the opposite pavement.

‘Watch out!’

The man yelped and stumbled. Will was hit a glancing blow across his shoulder. He rolled, spitting curses, and when he was back on his feet the horse was down on its knees and all hell had broken loose.

Bystanders hurried up from every direction, half the traffic was grinding to a halt as people stopped to help or stare. The man was surrounded by a crowd so thick that Will could barely see him.

‘You all right, mate? You look pale as a sheet.’

‘He saved that loony chap’s life – I saw ’im!’

‘Look lively, ’erbert, fetch a constable.’

‘Oh, can’t somebody do something for that poor horse?’

Will brushed them away with murmurs of assurance that he was quite well, and they stood back a few paces, marvelling. Will forced his way over to the other huddle, where the cabby shrieked and threatened with his whip, almost in tears.

‘Bleedin’ loony, he is! Ought to be locked up.’

‘Look at the bleeder – done it twice in as many minutes. I saw him do it. Twice!’

The man kept repeating the same thing again and again, something about his mother. It seemed to enrage the cabby further and he lunged forward; Will grabbed him around the waist just as he raised his fist to smash it against the man’s face.

‘Leave him alone. He’s had a shock, leave him.’

‘He just stopped. Right in the middle of the road! You don’t do that.’

‘Yes. Maybe you don’t. But leave him now. It’s not his fault.’

‘What about Trooper? That bastard’s done for my horse,’ the cabby sobbed, distraught. ‘My poor Trooper. I’m gonna show that loony—’

‘I said, leave him.’

Will grabbed the cabby’s arm, twisting it up and round so the fellow was forced to turn away or have his arm broken. Will could feel the ache in his own shoulder protesting, but he ignored it. The cabby swore and Will pushed him into the arms of the nearest bystander.

‘See to him, he’s upset. I have to—’ he turned back and found his man had vanished. Will looked around helplessly.

‘He went that way, mate,’ someone said. ‘Ran off as if the ’ounds of ’ell were after him.’

Will shot a ‘Thanks’ and skated off. It took him almost the length of the street to catch the man up.

Incredibly he was running with his hands over his ears, not fast, but implacably, feet pounding out an exactly measured pace. And as Will drew level he realised that even more amazingly the man had his eyes tight closed.

Will jogged along beside him.

‘Are you all right?’

The man was humming, a steady stream of notes that Will felt were vaguely familiar, and as the humming slowed so the man did too, until he was barely walking. Will reached up and gently lifted the man’s hands off his ears.

‘You can come out now.’

A pair of sad grey eyes blinked back at Will, and then the gaze wandered away.

‘They’ve gone now.’

‘Where did they go?’

‘Them? Nowhere much. But you went quite a long way.’ Will laughed softly, trying to keep any sting out of it. ‘Gave me quite a run to catch you, and you with your eyes closed all the time. How d’you manage that?’

The man looked at him, again with a blank expression, and Will realised that this man who could spot a single missing note in the morass of all that Bach had somehow not understood. Carefully, he reworded his question. ‘Why don’t you bump into anything when you run with your eyes shut?’

‘I count,’ the man said.

While Will tried to make sense of the answer the man made a sudden dart forward and then seemed to collapse again, falling against Will, who caught him in his arms.

‘Why did I do that?’ the man asked in miserable confusion.

‘You’ve hurt your leg,’ Will said gently. ‘It’s bleeding. Do you want to sit down?’

There was a long pause.

‘Yes.’

‘Come along then. Put your arm over my shoulder.’ There was no response and Will sighed and picked the man’s arm up and put it across his own shoulder. ‘Lean on me. That’s it. No – don’t put your weight on that leg, you’ll hurt it.’

‘Why does my leg hurt?’

Will smiled reassuringly and carefully avoided any note of reproach. ‘You tripped on the curb stone. You’ve cut your knee open.’

Will could smell the blood wafting up from the man’s leg like the steam rising off a hot toddy on a wintry day. He concentrated on helping the man along.

The man touched his knee and flinched. ‘It hurts.’

‘Yes.’ Will did wish the man wouldn’t keep the blood flowing so freely by poking at it. ‘It’s bleeding quite heavily. And you have quite a way to go still, don’t you.’

Will could have sworn, but the man didn’t seem to have noticed the slip. He quickly tried to cover for his clumsiness. ‘Where do you live?’

‘I live at number thirty-two, Brook Street.’

‘That’s a long way when you’re hurt.’

‘It is five thousand four hundred and twenty three yards. Always.’

The thing was so ridiculous that Will laughed out loud. ‘You do count, don’t you. You must always like to know just where you are.’

‘I always know.’

Will took a deep breath. ‘And is anyone waiting at number thirty-two Brook Street? Anyone to take care of you? Your mother perhaps?’

They were walking down quieter streets now, the noise of the crowd fading to a background hum. Soon they would be quite alone

‘Is your mother waiting for you, you did mention her just now, didn’t you?’

Will clenched his fist and watched for the answer, but the man only stared off into space, his inexpressive face so very hard to read.

‘Er…’ Will racked his brains. ‘So who is at home? Your wife maybe – she’ll know what to do about this knee.’

The man only looked confused. No wife, then. Who else could there be to miss this man? Will could smell the blood running down the man’s knee with every step they took. The man was fidgeting again, his eyes glazing over. Will fought the urge to grab his hands and hold them still.

‘Or a friend… Yes?’

Squeezing the fragile wrist until he could hear the bones crack.

‘No?’

Even though it would attract attention, even though it would waste everything he had done to get so close.

‘Anyone at all?’

It was like standing beside a red-hot fire, when the urge to plunge your hand into the flames got so strong that only the thinnest thread of common sense held you back.

‘Well someone must care for you. What about your landlady, will she be expecting you?’

‘The key is in the flowerpot.’

Damn the man! What was he talking about?

‘It annoys the neighbours if I stand in the street and then Mrs Sharpe shouts.’

Will just guessed: ‘Did Mrs Sharpe go out this evening then?’ Mrs Sharpe must be the name of the hawk-nosed woman he had seen almost pushing the man out of the door earlier that evening, and without even noticing he had not so much as a hat against the weather. They had neither of them spotted Will watching from the shadows.

‘It is Monday.’

‘So she won’t be worrying about you?’

‘It is Monday.’

‘Of course it is.’ By and large, it sounded as if the landlady wouldn’t be around for some time yet to notice that anything was amiss. ‘And on Monday you always go to the concert,’ Will said. ‘And afterwards you walk home along the canal.’

It was no good, they were covering the ground too fast and Will needed to know that the man did always follow exactly the same route, that it was not just a whim that had taken him that way on the previous two Mondays when Will had tailed him. That no one should think it odd the man had gone along the canal this night.

The man didn’t respond, but he turned towards the road that led down to the canal, a dank little alley with high sheltering walls on either side that leant in to block out the light.

No wife, no friends, in all likelihood no mother, and from the look of things if the landlady cared for her tenant it was only as a source of as much annoyance as income.

A small stir of something shifted in the hollow of Will’s belly.

A regular appearance in the cheap seats for the Monday concerts, a habit of walking home along the canal. Cobweb strands to tether this wanderer to the human world.

The rain was still knifing down, hitting Will’s skin with sharp splashes that were cold against his colder flesh. He could feel water trickling down his neck where his collar should have been but he must have forgotten to put one on.

Will looked down at the man with a smile.

‘I think,’ he said, ‘I should come with you along the canal to your home. The canal is very deep; if you slipped on your bad leg they might never find your body.’

The man looked up at him, and for the first time met his eyes steadily. He returned Will’s smile.

‘I am very pleased to meet you. My name is Henry.’

Will smiled again, with a warm friendly smile. ‘Hello, Henry.’ He let his eyes glow golden and with a brutal jerk pinned Henry against the wall. Henry’s glasses slipped forlornly askew.

A very little life. Not a thing that anyone would ever think to miss.

Almost a kindness to let this one go.

He let his fangs drop fully and tilted Henry’s face up towards the rain. ‘I am very pleased I met you too, Henry. My name is William.’