There was a strange car at the end of my road.
I’d only leant out of my window for a quick look around, but as I saw the car I paused. All around me were the sounds and smells of the London morning: fresh air that still carried the chill of the fading winter, the dampness of last night’s rain, birdsong from the rooftops and the trees. Pale grey clouds covered the sky, promising more showers to come. Everything was normal . . . except for the car.
Spring had come early this year, and the cherry tree outside my window had been in bloom long enough for its flowers to turn from white to pink and begin to fall. The car was just visible through the petals, parked at the end of Foxden Road at an angle that gave it a clear line of sight to my front door. It was sleek and ominous, shiny black with tinted windows, and it looked like a minivan. Nobody on our street owns a minivan, especially not one with tinted windows.
A loud “Mraooow” came from my feet.
I looked down to see a grey and black tabby cat watching me with yellow-green eyes. “Oh, fine, Hobbes,” I told him, and shifted. Hobbes sprang up onto the sill, rubbed his head against my shoulder until I gave him a scratch, then jumped down onto the ledge that ran along the front of the building. I gave the car a last sidelong glance, then withdrew and shut the window.
I cleaned my teeth, dressed and had breakfast, and all the time I kept thinking about that car.
Almost three years ago, the day after my dad disappeared, a white Ford started showing up on our road. I might not have noticed it, but a couple of the things my dad had said in that hastily scribbled letter had made me suspicious, and once I started paying attention I noticed that same Ford, with the same number plate, in other places. Near my boxing gym, near my work . . . everywhere.
It kept on for more than a year. I was worrying about my dad and struggling to manage work and rent, and while all that was going on I’d kept seeing that car. Even after I got evicted and had to move in with my aunt, all the way up in Tottenham, I’d still seen it. I started to hate that car after a while – it became a symbol of everything that had gone wrong – and it was only my dad’s warning that stopped me from marching out to confront whoever was inside. Sometimes it would vanish for a few days, but it’d always come back.
But eventually the gaps became longer and longer, and finally it didn’t come back at all. When I moved out of my aunt’s and here to Foxden Road, one of the first things I did was write down the description and number plate of every car on the street, then check back for the next couple of weeks to see who’d get into them. But every car on the road belonged to someone who lived there, and finally I came to accept that whoever it had been, they were gone. That had been six months ago, and ever since then, there’d been nothing to make me think they’d come back.
I filled Hobbes’s water bowl, and then it was time to go to work. I zipped up my fleece and stepped outside, closing the door behind me. The black minivan was still there. I walked away up the road without looking back, then turned the corner.
As soon as I was out of the minivan’s line of sight, I stopped. I could make out its blurry reflection in the ground-floor windows on our street, and I waited to see if it would start moving.
One minute passed, then two. The reflection didn’t move.
If they were following me, they should have driven off by now.
Maybe I was being over-suspicious. After all, the men from two years ago had always used the same car, and it hadn’t been this one. I turned and set off for the station. I kept glancing over my shoulder as I walked along Plaistow Road, watching for the minivan’s black shape in the busy A-road traffic, but it didn’t appear.
My name is Stephen Oakwood, and I’m twenty years old. I was raised by my dad, grew up and went to school here in Plaistow, and apart from one big secret that I’ll get to later, I used to have a pretty normal life. That all changed a few months before my eighteenth birthday, when my dad disappeared.
The next few years were rough. Living alone in London is hard unless you have a lot going for you, which I didn’t. To begin with my plan was to wait for my father to come back, and maybe even go and look for him, but I quickly found out that just making enough money to live on was so all-consuming that it didn’t leave me time for much else. For the first year or so I was able to get a job with an old friend of my dad’s who ran a bar, but when the bar closed, my money ran out. I got evicted and had to move in with my aunt.
Living with my aunt and uncle let me get back on my feet, but it was clear from the beginning that there was a definite limit as to how long they were willing to put me up. I couldn’t afford a flat, but I could just about afford a room in Plaistow, so long as I worked full-time. And so after a stint at a call centre (bad), and a job at a different bar (worse), I found my way last winter to a temp agency that hired office workers for the Civil Service. Which was why, that morning, I took the District Line to Embankment and walked south along the Thames to the Ministry of Defence.
Saying I work at the Ministry of Defence makes my job sound more exciting than it really is. My actual title is Temporary Administrative Assistant, Records Office, Defence Business Services, and my job mostly consists of fetching records from the basement. One wall of the Records Office is taken up by a machine called the Lektriever, a sort of giant vertical conveyor belt carrying shelves of box files up from the level below. The basement is huge, a cold dark cavern with endless rows of metal shelves holding thousands and thousands of files. Every day, orders come down to change the files, at which point someone has to go down, put new files in, and take the old files out. That someone is me. In theory the position’s supposed to be filled by a permanent staff member, but since being an admin in Records is pretty much the least desirable position in the entire MoD, no-one’s willing to take the job, so they hire temps instead. For this, I get paid £10.70 an hour.
I’ve been spending a bit less time in the basement lately, due to Pamela. Pamela’s title is Senior Executive Officer, a mid-level Civil Service rank that puts her well above everyone in Records. She’s in her forties, dresses in neat business suits, and as of the last week or two she seems to have taken an interest in me.
Today Pamela found me after lunch and put me to work sorting applications. It was a long job and by the time I was done it was nearly four o’clock. When I finally finished, instead of sending me back to Records, Pamela tapped the papers on her desk to straighten them, laid them down beside her keyboard, then turned her swivel chair to face me. “You started here in December?”
Pamela was giving me a considering sort of look that made me wary. I nodded.
“You said you were thinking about applying to university,” Pamela said. “Did you?”
“No,” I admitted.
I didn’t answer.
“It’s no good just ignoring these things. You’ve missed the UCAS deadline but you could still get into clearing.”
“Don’t just say, ‘okay’,” Pamela told me. “That Records Office post won’t stay vacant for ever. If you do a three-year course and reapply, you could come in at the same role in a permanent position.”
I tried to figure out how to answer that, but Pamela had already turned back to her computer. “That’s all for today. I’ll have another job for you on Friday.”
I rode the District Line home.
As I stood on the swaying train, the conversation with Pamela kept going around in my head. It was the second time she’d suggested a permanent position, and the second time I’d avoided giving her an answer. Part of me wanted to be honest and tell Pamela that I didn’t want a future in the Records Office. But if I said that, Pamela would either fire me, or ask”‘so what are you going to do instead”’, and the only answer I had for that question was one I couldn’t tell her.
The sad part was that by the standards of my other jobs, the Civil Service wasn’t even all that bad. While I’d been living with my aunt, I’d been working at a call centre where I’d spent eight hours a day selling car insurance renewals. You know how when you ring up a company to cancel your service, you get put through to someone who tries to persuade you not to? Yeah, that was me. I say “persuade”, but all you actually do is follow a script, and if you’ve never worked that kind of job there’s no way you can possibly understand just how mind-shatteringly boring it is. You pick up the phone and recite your lines, then you put the phone back down, and you do that over and over and over again, every single day. Compared to that, the Records Office was easy. At least box files don’t yell at you for leaving them on hold.
But while the Civil Service wasn’t that bad, it also wasn’t good. The hours were steady and the pay was enough to live on, but it was meaningless and dull and I spent every day counting the hours until I could go home.
I stared at the ads on the train. In between posters for vitamin supplements (“Tired Of Feeling Tired?”) and for loan companies (“Discover Your Credit Score Today!”) was one for a London university. “DO SOMETHING YOU LOVE” was written in big white letters, above a photo of three ethnically diverse students staring out at the horizon with blissful expressions. At the bottom right of the ad was a paragraph of small print titled ‘Funding’.
I got off at Plaistow and went to the pub.
My local’s called the Admiral Nelson, and it’s an “old man and his dog” type of place. It’s a square building just off Plaistow Road, with windows on three walls casting patchy light into a wide room with a faded carpet and scattered tables and chairs. The people who come are a mixture of old East End, the new generation who’ve grown up here, a handful of Eastern Europeans, and yes, an old man with a big scruffy Airedale that lies at his feet and twitches his ears at the people who walk up to the bar.
My friends and I have been meeting at the Nelson ever since we got old enough that we could pretend to be old enough, and nowadays we go there every Wednesday and sometimes on Friday or Saturday, too, sometimes to play games but usually just to talk. Our group’s changed over the years, with new people joining and others drifting away, but the core’s stayed pretty much the same. There’s Colin, smart and practical and the one who always did best at school; Felix, tall with a scraggly beard and a cynical streak; Kiran, fat and generous and cheerful; and Gabriel, the youngest by a few months and who always seems to be going through some kind of personal crisis. We met in secondary school and we’ve grown up together. Sometimes Kiran’s or Colin’s girlfriends will come along, but tonight it was just us.
“Ahhhhh,” Gabriel said for at least the fifth time. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Dump her,” Colin said.
“I can’t just dump her.”
“Dump her and tell her she’s a slag,” Felix suggested.
“I can’t do that!”
“Well, if you’re too chicken to dump her yourself,” Colin said, “telling her she’s a slag should do it.”
“Oh, come on, guys,” Gabriel said. “Seriously.”
Gabriel always has some kind of issue; when we were younger it was either school, his parents, or girls, but nowadays it’s always girls. All but one of his relationships have been horrendous trainwrecks, and by this point I think all of us have decided that he just has some sort of talent for it. It always goes the same way – when the relationship starts he’s excited, by a few weeks in he’s looking stressed, then one day I’ll walk into the Nelson and find him explaining to Kiran that the girl’s tried to stab him or set his house on fire or something.
“Isn’t this the same one who broke up with you two weeks ago?” I asked.
“She was waiting in front of my house Friday night,” Gabriel explained.
“Well, you know. If a girl’s waiting outside your house, then . . .”
I waited for Gabriel to finish.
“You know,” Gabriel said.
“I don’t know.”
“It means she wants to nob him,” Felix said.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said.
“It kind of does,” Kiran chipped in.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You’re saying any random girl you meet outside your house—”
“After dark on a Friday night,” Felix added.
“How does that matter?”
“It totally matters,” Kiran said.
“Okay, okay,” Felix said. “There’s an easy way to settle this, all right?” He turned to Gabriel. “Did you or did you not end up nobbing her?”
Gabriel looked embarrassed. “Well . . .”
“See?” Felix told me smugly.
“Just because she’s standing in the street—” I said in annoyance.
“I think the point Felix is making,” Colin said, “is that there’s some context here. She’s not some random girl in the street.”
“And you have to make a move,” Gabriel added. “Or she’ll think you’re a melt.”
“What?” Felix said, grinning at me. “You thought she was just there to talk?”
I rolled my eyes.
Felix tried to ruffle my hair, and I ducked away. “He’s so cute,” Felix said to the rest of the table.
“Oh, piss off.”
“So I had to let her in, right?” Gabriel said.
“I know why you let her in,” Colin said.
“So what should I do?”
The argument went back and forth, split about 50/50 between giving Gabriel serious advice and mocking him. We all like Gabriel, but even Kiran, nice to a fault, has long since figured out that the reason for Gabriel’s problems is Gabriel. Still, he’s our friend.
After a while the group divided, with Felix, Kiran and Gabriel continuing the argument while Colin and I leant back on the bench. The pub was starting to get a few more people in with the evening crowd, though it was a long way from full. I was still on my second pint – I can afford to go to the pub, but only so long as I don’t drink much.
“You all right?” Colin asked. “You’re a bit quiet.”
“Trouble at work,” I said with a sigh.
“My boss’s boss.”
“I thought she liked you.”
“She does,” I admitted. “That’s the problem. She wants me to go to uni and join the Civil Service full time.”
“I mean,” Colin said. “You could.”
“Yeah,” I said, and fell silent.
Out of all our group, Colin is the one I’m closest to. His father’s from Hong Kong – when the Chinese took over in 1997 he saw the way the wind was blowing and got out early, ending up here in London where he married an English girl. The two of them had some issues and Colin’s mum moved out for a couple of years – they fixed things up eventually, but Colin had a hard time of it and for a while he was a regular visitor around our house. We got pretty close, and we’ve stayed that way.
But nowadays, it’s Colin who’s got his life together and I’m the one who’s struggling. Colin’s in his third year doing science at Imperial College, staying in college housing in Whitechapel. Felix did a gap year and is supposed to be at uni, too, though as far as I can see he mostly spends his time trying to hook up with Chinese girls on dating apps. Kiran’s mid-way through an electrician apprenticeship. And Gabriel . . . well, he’s Gabriel. All of us are growing up and finding our paths.
Except me. For a while now I’ve felt as though I’m drifting, being left behind. Colin knows that, and that was the unspoken message behind his words. But he didn’t push, and I didn’t talk. We sat for another ten minutes before I finished my drink and headed home.
I opened my front door to the sound of chatter and the roar of the TV. The noise was coming from the ground-floor bedroom that had once been the house’s lounge – Ignas and Matis must be watching football. I went through into the tiny communal kitchen, grabbed some food and a plate, then went upstairs.
My house is an end-of-terrace two-thirds of the way up Foxden Road, next to an old school that’s been converted into flats, and it’s rented out by the room by a Jamaican landlord with a view to squeezing the maximum number of people in and the maximum amount of money out. The other tenants are a group of Lithuanians who work long shifts at the local garage and grocery store. I had trouble breaking the ice with them at first but got some unexpected help when it turned out that the house had a rodent problem. Once Hobbes realised how good a hunting ground it was, he went on a killing spree, and there were dead mice and rats outside the door every morning and evening for a fortnight. The Lithuanians decided that Hobbes was wonderful, and we’ve been friends ever since.
Right now Hobbes was waiting at the top of the stairs; he meowed until I unlocked my bedroom door, then trotted in to head for his food bowl. I locked the door behind us, poured Hobbes some food, then sat on the bed to eat. My room doesn’t have much space, but then I don’t have much stuff. A bed, a wardrobe, a nightstand, one chair that’s usually piled with clothes. Everything is old and badly maintained – cracked furniture, peeling paint, crooked skirting. Though one of the skirting boards is crooked for a reason.
Once I was done I set the plate aside, then crouched down in the corner and pulled the skirting board free with a practised twist, revealing a dusty cubbyhole that held a faded envelope and a small wooden box. Hobbes watched with bright eyes as I opened the box to reveal two tiny spherical objects, each no bigger than a match head. They would have looked like ball bearings but for their colour – both were light blue, the colour of very pale turquoise. One rolled free in the box, but I’d glued the second into a plastic ring. It looked a bit embarrassing, but it worked.
Those two little spheres were called sigls. Most people would think they looked like toys. The truth was, they were probably worth more than everything else in this room put together.
I slipped the ring onto my finger, sat cross-legged on the floor and closed my eyes with a little sigh. This was the part of the day I looked forward to. Tomorrow I’d have to go back to moving box files around the MoD basement, but right now I had a few precious hours to spend on what I actually cared about.
The first discipline of drucraft is sensing. Sensing is the foundation skill – you have to learn it before you can do anything else, which made my early training really frustrating since to begin with I was pretty bad at it. Back then, when I tried to practise, I’d do it by concentrating, like listening for a sound that’s slightly too high-pitched, or trying to see something that’s a little too far away. But the harder I’d try, the more it would slip out of reach.
It took me a long time to figure out that the trick wasn’t to try harder; it was to get rid of distractions. You have to empty your mind of all the things that are crowding it. That tune that’s been going around in your head, the plans you’re making for tomorrow. Conversations that are bugging you, like the one with Pamela that I still hadn’t quite forgotten. I closed them off one after another, shrinking them to nothingness, leaving an empty circle in my mind where everything was quiet and calm. It used to take me a few minutes; nowadays I can do it almost instantly.
Into that empty circle sprang an awareness. It wasn’t quite a sound or a pressure; more of a presence, something you’d been half aware of but hadn’t been noticing. The strongest presence was the earth below, vast and diffuse and stretching away to the horizon, rising and falling with the curves of the land. That was very distant, though – much easier to sense were the currents within my room, following the lines of the walls and the furniture and swirling in the air. And easiest of all were the flows running through my own body.
This presence, what I was sensing, is called essentia. My dad taught me that it makes up everything, a kind of universal energy. You can’t create it and you can’t destroy it, but with the right art – and the right tools – you can use it.
When I first learned to sense essentia, it felt like a big indistinguishable mass. These days, the essentia in the air feels different from that in the walls or floor, and totally different from the essentia in Hobbes. The essentia flowing through me was the clearest of all – this was my personal essentia, and to me it felt comfortable, familiar, like a pair of old shoes.
But what makes personal essentia really special is that you can control it.
I focused my thoughts and sent a narrow flow down my right arm and into the sigl on my finger.
Light bloomed in the small room. The tiny sigl lit up like a star, casting a pale blue glow over the walls and ceiling. Hobbes watched lazily from the bed, light reflecting from his slitted eyes.
Channelling is the second of the drucraft disciplines. Your personal essentia is attuned to your body and mind, and with practice you can command it the same way you can your own muscles. Having it trickle into a sigl is a weird, slightly disturbing sensation, like feeling your own blood pumping out of your veins, and when I was starting out, I used to have this nagging fear that I’d somehow use too much and bleed myself to death. But as my personal essentia flowed out, ambient essentia from the air around me flowed in. As it seeped into my body, it attuned to me, taking on the resonance of my personal essentia until it was indistinguishable from that which I’d lost. An inward flow and an outward flow, perfectly balanced.
I scaled the essentia flow up and down, dimming the glow until it was almost too faint to see before bringing it to maximum brightness in a flash. Bringing it to full power was easy – the sigl had a maximum capacity that it could handle, and once I went past that point then any more would just overflow, like pouring water into a sink that was already full. But bringing it to exactly full power without going over the limit was actually quite hard, and I spent a while practising, trying to see how quickly I could make the flow snap from full to nothing to full again without letting any of it go to waste.
I did some more exercises to wind down, channelling my personal essentia into various objects and pulling it back again before it could de-attune, and finally sending it flowing into Hobbes, setting up a kind of circuit where my essentia would flow into him while his would be drawn back into me. Hobbes put up with the indignity with a slight sneeze – he can definitely feel that trick, though he seems to tolerate it. Then it was time for shaping.
Shaping is the third, last, and hardest of the disciplines. I’ve been practising drucraft since I was ten, but I didn’t manage to shape a sigl until I was almost nineteen. That had been a year and a half ago, and the sigl I’d created was the one resting in the box on my bed. After that had followed twelve months of waiting. Twelve slow, patient, frustrating months, until last September, when I’d created the sigl that was on my finger now.
I reached out to the ambient essentia around me, trying to gather it. It was much harder than activating the sigl had been – the flows in the air weren’t attuned to me, and wouldn’t respond to my thoughts. I had to shape my personal essentia into a kind of vortex, creating currents that would draw in the free essentia, until it was concentrated enough that I could use my personal essentia to “paint” it into strands, as though the free essentia were ink and my personal essentia a calligraphy brush. Even with all my practice, it was like trying to catch smoke, and it took me several minutes of patient work before I could shape it into a construct that hovered above my palm, like a woven knot of invisible lines.
An essentia construct is the first step towards creating a sigl, like a pencil sketch before a painting. I must have made thousands of constructs by now, but I still get a little glow of satisfaction from doing it well – I’ve come a long way since my father had to lead me through it step by step. If I wanted to turn this one into a sigl, the next step would be to shrink it, pulling in more and more essentia as the construct grew denser and denser to become the sigl’s core. Of course, if I tried that right now, it wouldn’t work. When you shape a sigl for real, you’re creating matter out of pure energy, and that takes an enormous amount of essentia. The only place you find that is at a Well.
This particular construct was a project that I’d been working on since January. The idea was that instead of creating light, this sigl would redirect it, projecting a field that light would bend around. The result should be like a kind of invisibility sphere – as long as the sigl was active, no one outside the sphere’s radius would be able to see in.
Or at least, that was the plan. The truth was, I had absolutely no idea if it was going to work. I had a pretty good understanding of how to make light sigls by now, but this was something totally different and much more complicated. Since I couldn’t actually see the construct, I had to work by feel, which in practice meant dismissing the thing and recreating it from scratch over and over again.
I had the feeling that I was going about this the wrong way. My father had made it sound as though professional shapers could make sigls pretty easily, so there had to be some trick I was missing. But without anyone to learn from, I had to figure it all out from first principles, which meant a whole lot of guesswork. For all I knew, if I went ahead and shaped this sigl, it’d do nothing at all.
That had been what had happened on my first try, three years ago. I’d practised and practised, but even so, when the time came to make the sigl, I failed and the essentia was wasted. I’d been close to tears, but my dad had laughed it off. He told me that everyone screws up their first time, that I’d done better and got closer than most. It had cheered me up, and I’d thrown myself into my practice, determined to get it right next time.
And then, when I’d finally managed it, he wasn’t there . . .
I came out of my thoughts with a start. My room was dark; the sun had set while I’d been practising. Outside, the last traces of light were fading from the sky. Hobbes rose, stretched, and padded to the door, looking at me expectantly.
I let the construct unravel, then changed into my running clothes and went downstairs, slipping outside and closing the door as Hobbes trotted off across the street. I looked around for any sign of that car from this morning, but it was gone. Maybe it really had been nothing.
If you go around the corner of my road and turn left, you come into a little alley. To the left are gardens, honeysuckle and ivy spilling over fences made of wooden slats, while to the right are the back entrances of the shops that front onto Plaistow Road. Gravel crunched under my feet as I weaved around the rubbish bins; red and grey tiled roofs rose up all around, TV aerials and satellite dishes silhouetted against a dusky blue sky. Above and to the right was a block of flats, bikes stored out on the metal balconies. Lights shone from the windows, but it was a cold March evening and no one stepped out onto their balcony to see me go by.
The alley ended in a set of sheds. I climbed onto a recycling bin and pulled myself up, corrugated iron creaking under my feet as I crossed the flat roofs. The clouds and rain from earlier had passed away, and the sky was clear all the way to the horizon, fading from azure to a grey-blue that mixed with the city’s glow. I reached the end of the sheds and dropped down into a little open space, closed off by garden fences and a brick wall on the far side. The ground had once been solid concrete, but dandelions and rye grass had burrowed in and split it with their roots, turning it into a riot of growth. A wild cherry tree rose in one corner, still young but with new leaves pushing towards the sky.
Most people who saw my room on Foxden Road would think I was staying there because it was cheap. They’d be half right, but only half. The main reason I was living here was this Well.
Wells are gathering points, places where essentia collects and pools, and the essentia here was so concentrated that I could sense it without even trying. It did feel like a well, a reservoir of energy and life and potential. It was tempting to use those reserves, to shape them into a new sigl, but I knew better. Three years ago, after I’d messed up my first try at a sigl, my dad had warned me that I should only use Wells that were full; this was a weak one, and it would take a full year to recharge. I’d got impatient and tried to use it early. The shaping had failed, the sigl hadn’t formed, and I’d wasted five months of the Well’s charge. It had been a painful lesson, but it had stuck.
Right now this Well was about a quarter full, and I knew from experience that it charged fastest in the spring and summer. By around September, I’d be able to use it to shape a sigl. And I had a lot of ideas for sigls. There was the invisibility sphere that I’d just practised creating. Or there was that idea I’d had for a darkness effect. From the basic starting point of something that generated light, I could see how you could branch off in a dozen different directions. I still didn’t have a good feel for what was and wasn’t possible, but there might be ways around that. With time and practice, I should have a good chance of getting one of my ideas to work by the autumn, and then . . .
. . . And then what?
I came back to earth with a bump. Yes, I could make another sigl. I might even be able to make one that worked. But what would I do with it? I had a lot of ideas for sigls, but none of them would put food on the table, or pay my rent. Or find my dad.
I thought back to the conversations I’d had with Pamela and Colin. My friends were all going to university and getting jobs, while I was doing . . . what? I’d been practising drucraft for most of my life, and what did I have to show for it?
For a while now I’d felt as though I was being pulled between two worlds. In one world were my friends and my job; in the other were my drucraft and my sigls and this Well. I’d been trying to keep a foot in both, and it was getting harder and harder. Maybe I should do as my teachers at school had said, and what Pamela and Colin were nudging me to do now. Get a degree, start working on a career. It’d be hard and it’d mean going into debt, but I could do it.
But if I followed that path, there’d be a price. Between my job, my drucraft, all the problems that came with living alone, and spending enough time with my friends that I didn’t go crazy, I was already stretched. If I added a uni degree on top of that, something would have to go, and I had a feeling I knew what that something would have to be.
It felt as though the ‘proper’ choice, the one the world wanted me to take, was to give up my drucraft. Back when we’d been given careers advice at school, I’d heard a lot about following your passion, but the older I got, the more it felt to me as though there was another message under that, something harder and colder. As a kid, you’re allowed to do things for fun, but the more you grow up, the more you get pressured to spend your time doing things that’ll make you successful – the right A levels, the right course, the right activities on your CV. Everything to make money, to signal that you’re a good employee.
Drucraft didn’t make me money, and it definitely didn’t make me look like a better employee. If my career was what I cared about, I might as well give it up.
But I didn’t want to. Ever since I’d first pestered my dad into teaching me drucraft, it had been the one big secret I’d shared with him, the one thing we’d always done together. When he’d told me I showed talent, I’d thrown myself into it, practising every day after school without a break. I can still remember that smile of his when I got something right, the way his face would light up. He’d been so proud of me.
In his letter my dad had told me to do three things, and one of them had been to keep practising my drucraft. I’d done as he’d asked, but it had been almost three years. I’d been practising and waiting for a really long time, and it felt as though I was being left behind.
I sighed, then reached for the fence to climb back the way I’d come.
I went for a run, looping north through Forest Gate. Back when I was doing boxing, I’d go running every day. I’m not in proper training any more – between my job and my drucraft I can’t afford it – but I hate feeling unfit, so I try to squeeze in runs when I can.
As I ran, I thought once again about how unfair the whole thing was. As a little kid, I’d dreamed of having magic powers. When I found out that drucraft was real and that I could use it, I’d been so excited. Except, surprise! You get to do magic, but the only thing you can use it for is to make a flashlight.
I knew that there was more to it than that. From what I’d heard, the more powerful sigls could do all kinds of amazing things – turn you invisible, give you superhuman strength, make your body as strong as steel. But to make those sigls, you needed powerful Wells and the knowledge of how to use them. Which meant that right now, my big magical talent amounted to something that comes packaged with your smartphone as a standard feature.
I came out through the backstreets and rounded the north side of West Ham Park. Chestnut trees loomed up on the other side of the fence, the first pale green shoots beginning to sprout from bare branches. A city fox, caught in the middle of crossing the road, flicked his tail at me and vanished between two cars.
I’ve always liked London at night. The noise and bustle of the day fades away, and in the quiet you can feel the presence of the city. It has its own nature, kind of like its own essentia – old, layered and complex, man-made construction on top of millennia-old earth. Generation after generation of people, with the plants and animals of old Britain living with them side by side. It’s neat and chaotic and ancient and sprawling, and it’s my home.
I passed Tanner Point and turned down Lettsom Walk, a little foot passage that runs alongside the railway lines connecting Plaistow to Upton Park. The walk runs straight as an arrow for a few hundred feet before twisting out of sight at the end. Up ahead, the white cranes and half-finished towers of the Plaistow construction site reached up into the night sky, red pinpoints gleaming in the dark. From the other side of the wall, I could hear the rumbling of an approaching train.
A soft footfall sounded behind me.
I twisted, suddenly alert. Plaistow isn’t a dangerous area, but it’s not exactly safe, either, and I’ve had to face down muggers before . . .
But there were no muggers. Or anyone else. The walk stretched away, clearly lit in the streetlights. Empty.
I looked around, frowning.
The Underground train came blaring along on the other side of the wall, its roar echoing around the houses. By the time it had passed by and was fading into the distance, rattle and bang, rattle and bang, any sound of footsteps was long gone. I started walking again, glancing around at the silent buildings.
There’s a footbridge towards the bottom of Lettsom Walk, a cage of metal and brick that links the walks on either side of the railway lines. I climbed the stairs, wondering if I was just jumpy today. Half a mile to the east, the red taillights of the train shone in the darkness as it pulled into Upton Park. The wires above the tracks whickered and clanged, still vibrating from the train’s passage. I reached the top of the bridge and turned to cross.
There was a girl standing at the far end.
I paused, feeling that same echo of strangeness I’d felt this morning. The level part of the bridge is forty feet from end to end, and the girl was at the top of the far steps with one hand on the rail. She wasn’t crossing; she was just standing there.
Most of the lights on the footbridge were burned out, leaving the girl’s face in shadow. I couldn’t make out her features, but she looked young. She didn’t react to my stare, and something about her stillness sent a ripple of unease through me. What was going on?
I didn’t move. Neither did she.
I shook myself and started forward, and as I moved the girl did too. As we drew closer, I could see that she was young, maybe sixteen or so, small and light. She had fair skin and finely boned features, her head was covered with a furry hat, and she wore an elegant-looking long belted coat. But mostly what I noticed was that she was watching me, with a sort of curious, expectant look.
I walked past without slowing. As we passed each other, I heard her murmur in a wry voice, “Better get stronger.”
I stopped dead. Turning, I saw that the girl was still walking away. She didn’t look back, and as I stared after her she reached the other side of the bridge and disappeared down the steps I’d just climbed. Her footsteps rang out, their echoes fading.
I kept staring. What did she mean by . . .?
Oh, screw this. I ran after her.
I reached the end of the bridge and stopped. The girl wasn’t on the stairs. I jogged down a little further and leant out over the railing. From up here, halfway up the bridge, I had a view up and down Lettsom Walk for more than a hundred feet in both directions.
I stared down at the bare concrete. Where had she gone?
There were houses and cars along the other side of the walk, as well as some hedges, all more than big enough to hide a small girl. But she’d been out of my sight for less than ten seconds. She couldn’t have moved that fast.
I kept looking around, but nothing moved. At last I backed away, crossed the bridge a third time, and descended the steps on the far side. The walk beyond led to Plaistow Road, and the way home. I kept checking over my shoulder for the rest of the journey back, but I didn’t see anything more.