Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This week’s story by James Clark is one of the finalists in our competition with the British Academy’s Literature Week to find a new modern fairy tale for London. To explore the Literature Week programme and register visit the British Academy’s website.
Stupid, stupid girl! Fay huddled deeper into her scarf, heels clicking on the pavement. A freezing pre-dawn fog had closed in from nowhere and, ahead of her, the southern end of Waterloo Bridge was lost in a damp haze that did nothing to lift her spirits. Why hadn’t she checked her bag before leaving her friends outside the club? Her Oyster had definitely been in there earlier, but equally definitely there was no sign of it now. And with too little money for a cab and a mysteriously dissipated battery on her phone, her only option was to walk home. It was miles!
Midway across, she paused, gazing in despair into the dirty old river rolling below. The alcohol buzz had ebbed into the beginnings of a hangover and her shoes were hurting her already (although there was no way she was going barefoot in this weather), but she had no choice. Sighing, she steeled herself to set off again.
“Got a ciggy?”
His voice startled her. Heart thumping, Fay quickly assessed her surroundings. Looking back along the deserted bridge she saw that the northern end too had disappeared into the grey fog. She and this young man were completely alone. It seemed safest to give him the cigarette he’d asked for, so she fumbled out the packet and, seeing there were only two left, took one herself before handing it over.
With forced casualness she lit up, studying him as she flicked her lighter on. He was homeless, she assumed, judging by his dirty, worn-thin clothes and gaunt features. His eyes were striking, though; bright blue beneath that lank, fair hair. A shame: with a good wash and some decent attire she readily could picture him as a film star.
He drew on the cigarette with pleasure.
“A chilly old morning, isn’t it?”
He had a soft accent – Irish, she thought, or perhaps Scots.
She nodded. He exhaled loudly.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Without thinking, Fay answered. Even as she spoke she again berated her stupidity. Why hadn’t she given a false name?
Blowing another plume of smoke into the cold air, he nodded, turning away to look out over the river. In the east the sky was lightening, ghostly silhouettes of familiar buildings beginning to shimmer against the mist.
“Tis a beautiful place,” he murmured. “In her own way.”
Cigarette in mouth, he was fiddling with his hands and when he turned back towards her Fay saw he had squeezed the empty packet into a cylinder and was now folding the top in on itself to form a rounded point. That done, he picked a piece of discarded chewing gum from a nearby post and proudly stuck his creation to the metal railing. To Fay, the little cardboard tower looked like a miniature version of the distant Gherkin, just visible behind it through the glowing mist. She wondered briefly why she should be able to see so far when the mist obscuring the ends of the bridge was so opaque. Perhaps it was something to do with the way the wind blew along the river, she thought. For some reason it hardly seemed important…
All the while the young man had been humming a wistful melody. It seemed to stir a distant memory.
“What’s that song?” she asked.
“Oh, just something I heard somewhere. Once upon a time.”
That was hardly a reply. Irritated, Fay was about to press the issue when she realised she was feeling far too comfortable in this stranger’s presence. She hadn’t even asked his name! She lifted her scarf higher over her chin and thrust her hands deep into her pockets.
“I need to get going. My friends will be wondering where I’ve got to.” With her eyes she vaguely indicated the South Bank, as if a crowd of friends stood waiting for her there, just out of sight.
“Indeed.” The young man smiled sadly. “Well, ‘twas nice meeting you, Fay.”
He flicked the half-spent cigarette towards the river, pulled his threadbare jacket tighter around himself, and started to walk north.
Fay headed south, shivering as a gust of icy wind curled into her. Then she paused, and looked back. He was still walking away.
“Wait a moment!” she called.
Quickly, before she could change her mind, she jogged over to him, unwinding her scarf as she went, and finally pressed the warm cloth into his hands.
“I’m practically home,” she lied, spilling out some muddled nonsense about having so many scarves she really didn’t need this one. “It’s cold outside,” she finished unnecessarily.
“Now that’s extremely kind of you, Fay.” The lilt in his voice seemed full of private amusement. “I shall treasure it always!” he called as Fay hurried away, blushing furiously and feeling suddenly foolish.
“I hope you get home safe now. Just follow the shadow!”
What? Fay stopped. She turned, trying to make sense of what she thought he had just said.
Waterloo Bridge was empty. For several seconds she stood confused, hearing a wistful tune fade in the wind that danced around her. Then she began to tremble, feeling a new chill that had nothing to do with the weather.
Beyond the faraway towers of Canary Wharf the sun rose, and a low-angled golden beam pierced the dissipating mist. It fell against the crumpled cardboard tower that not long ago had been a cigarette packet, and a hazy shadow appeared on the pavement beside her aching feet. Fay looked down.
By the kerb, the pointed tip of the shadow just touching it, lay an Oyster card — one that bore a familiar scratch in the top right-hand corner.
Even before she picked it up, Fay knew with utter certainty that it was her own missing card. She also knew — although she could never have explained why — that she had had a narrow escape, that something had changed its mind that morning and allowed her to go home after all.
Londonist is proud to be media partner to the British Academy’s Literature Week.
We’re still after your stories, which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
For children/by children
- The Lion: Something’s up in Trafalgar Square.
- Lyndon The Greatest Thief in London: A light fingered robber meets the Queen.
- Beyond the Central Line: Notting Hill Gate looks different today…
- The Makings of a Killer: A dark encounter in Southwark.
- Places to Hide a T-Rex in London: About time someone tackled this one.
- The Modern Fire of London: A sneezing dragon is a dangerous thing.
- The Let Down Competition: A mango has a fight with a pig.
General London fiction
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
- The Guardian of Travellers: Victoria Coach Station passengers take the advice of a sage.
- Graphic Novels: A celebrated novelist finds inspiration in Shoreditch Library.
- Not Enough: A family struggles to get by.
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
- Keep the Change: Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
- Night Bus Dreams: Michelle Surtees-Myers is picked up by an enchanted night bus.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Routine: The importance of the day-to-day, by Clare Kane.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.