Chapter 3.2

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Once out of sight of the wharf Snapper signalled to stop. The driver grumbled at first, however his manner brightened when Snapper deposited a gold aur in his hand. Indeed, the coin took such a powerful hold over his attention that he didn't seem to notice the boy who emerged from Snapper's sea chest; nor did he say anything when Snapper propped the boy up on the box seat between them. The aur now stowed away in some recess of his voluminous filthy cloak, the driver gazed off into the distance, across the Fens to the sea, as if the boy didn't exist. Ward, sandwiched between the considerable (and foul-smelling) mass of the driver, and the roundness of Snapper, was barely visible.

They skirted the Wharflands and passed a series of boarded-up shops. The smell of coal soot seemed to permeate everything; the pall never lifted. The sun rose like a glowering eye in the clouds. Alleys vanished off into the gloom, dim orange lights winking in their depths.

There were pedestrians moving like ghosts in the gloom now, carts pulled by spectral horses, big coach-and-fours, stray dogs scuttling about like beetles, women in riding boots and calico dresses stained about the hems with mud, and unshaven men with mad blue eyes whispering to each other and glancing about. Children weaved in ones and twos through the melee, meeting and shying away like moths about a lamp; their movements seemed purposeful and organised, though it was unclear what they were doing.

The road terminated at the river. There was a fish market at the corner, open to the street. It was bustling with hundreds of people, mostly women carrying baskets filled with fish wrapped in butcher's paper. They clucked and worried and turned about and chattered as the fish moved feebly against each other on the boards. The noise was tremendous. Fishmongers roared. Seagulls cried and wheeled about and dove suddenly.

On the other side of the road lay an empty square surrounded by tiers of stone benches. A platform stood opposite the benches, a timber scaffold on the platform, and a row of archons on the scaffold. A dozen rusty cages, suspended from iron arms, stood on the river bank nearby. A chain hung inside each cage. The chains terminated at shapeless black things bound in ropes. Ward smelled tarsene. Even over the roar of the fish market and the clatter of the chaise and the clop of horse hooves he could hear the ominous squeak of the cages swinging back and forth in the breeze. They looked as if they had been there since the dawn of time.

"What's that?" he whispered.

"Derricks," Snapper said.

"Those cages -"

"Look, we're almost here."

They had turned the corner and entered a boggy riverside boulevard which, according to the sign on the corner, was called Flynn Street.

The chaise stopped outside a public house set below the level of the street and accessed by a flight of grimy stairs. An ancient sign hung from the eaves: through a veneer of pigeon droppings Ward could just make out a slough leaping over a puffing bellows. Filthy porters appeared from somewhere and wrestled Snapper's luggage off the chaise.

"Better get inside," Snapper whispered, glancing about.

The interior of the Slough and Bellows was a haze of baccus smoke, but it couldn't conceal the general filth of the place, or mask the odour of carpets that smelled as if they had caught fire and been put out with beer. Crossing the room, Snapper put one in mind of a brightly painted egg rolling through a pigpen. Eyes flashed at Ward as he followed. Men in hats that may once have been fine but were now misshapen watched from the corners of their eyes – nobody seemed to remove their hat here. There was a card game going on in a corner under a dull lamp. The men played in grim silence.


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