536. The Bridge of London (1)

These events occur some days later than last post. Balfour has returned to Inner London, where he encountered the assailant who gave him the idea of the nemesis.

It is a story fit for Halloween, and it is continued on Wednesday.

The fog had moved lower. Now the tops of the tenements and deserted warehouses were all lost in quavering masses of shapeless gray. Balfour passed through populated areas to empty stretches, and back again. The ragged men eyed him warily and drew back. The old women did the same. The brash young women chaffed him, and offered him comforts he did not want.

This was the land of the nemesis. Balfour did not expect to see a dead man emerge from the fog, but he hoped to better understand his fictional nemesis by walking where the real man had walked.

A woman in a low cut dress, sour smelling and unwashed, threw herself on him, brushing her face against his shoulder as her hand slipped inside his coat to take his wallet. He pushed her aside; she snarled, cat-like, and called him foul names. A man moved in as if to aid her. He was lean and hard, in stained waistcoat and greasy trousers. Balfour raised his cane and snarled back. The man retreated. Fear had come into his eyes.

As if Balfour were the nemesis.

The fog had come down to the street now. No one accosted him further. He could hear voices in the fog, and the whispers seemed to warn everyone back from him.

It was strange to be feared, and yet familiar.

Balfour continued on his way, now tapping the cobblestones with his stick. He veered from gutter to gutter like a drunken man, but his senses had never been more alert.

He had begun on Cannon Street, but soon he had no idea where he was. None of the streets in Inner London are wide, but for a man picking his way blindly through opaque fog, they were wide enough to leave him stranded in mid-street, with no sense of direction. When he crossed King William’s Street, he lost contact with the gutters, turned about, tapped the ground, turned again, and found himself heading unknowingly southward

There he came for the first time to the ruined Bridge of London.

Of all the dozens of bridges spanning the Thames, only London Bridge had become a household word outside the city. The moment it loomed out of the fog, Balfour recognized it. And yet . . .

The Great Clock had turned time into an Ouroboros worm. The people of London had worked with the Clock to make it so. In fear of death, they had turned their backs on the future and whittled Time down to a single repeating Year.

No one considered that these actions might have jumbled history in the process, yet here was London Bridge, not as it had been in the unmodified 1850 and not as it had been in medieval times, but a scraggly combination of both.

Of all the people in either London, only Balfour would have recognized the discontinuity. He lived in the rolling present of necessity and in the past because his work as a writer took him there, so he was probably the only man in either London who could look at this iteration of the bridge, and know that it was strange.

This was a bridge of steel and stone as it should have been in 1850, but on its margins were medieval houses now gone to rot. It was something that had never existed in reality, but such a bridge as might have been imagined in novels of gothic horror.

Curious.

The fog had thickened even further. Turrets and dormers, and dark gaping eyeholes of absent windows wandered in and out of visibility. It had to be nearly midnight, and that made Balfour smile. It was always midnight in gothic novels, so why not here and now? The cold had deepened. A thin layer of snow crunched under his feet. There was still some light, as if a full moon rode high above the fog.

It was never fully dark in London, and that was another wrong thing that Balfour had never noticed before. In deepest night, every night, whatever the phase of the absent moon, the dome of fog glowed with faint light.

A poor illusion, but good enough for the incurious who lived beneath it.

Balfour was sick of illusions. He had come to Inner London tonight partly to ask about the absence of a world beyond London, and the nemesis that lived in his mind had seduced him into seeking out the dark streets where he made his home. Still, his footsteps had led him to this passage outward toward a world beyond the fog, and he was determined to take it.

Continued Wednesday.

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