2 min read

Femme Feral

A sneak peek of the first page of my new WIP novel.

Look: the city at night. It wants you to believe it is powerful, at once modern and timeless, the centre of the world. The lights are still on even at this hour, City workers typing into laptops running companies that span the globe, lured back to the office with the promise of free lunches, climbing walls, the absence of children, to populate these skyscrapers shaped like sculptures, to prop up this edifice of power.

At ground level, workers hurry home or to the pub, to all-night putt putt or underground ping pong discos or five-course multi-sensory blindfolded tasting experiences or any of the other dazzling entertainments the city can offer to the overpaid. Tourists scurry back to the theatres before the end of intermission. Twentysomethings roll towards the nightclubs, ketamine and cocaine secreted in their underwear. Good lads out on the piss.

And the people they don’t think about very much, who live in a different city entirely, albeit one sharing the same space: the pubescent boys who sell them their powders, the tired men who sell them their late-night kebabs, the women who will come in after the workers leave the office to wash the floors.

All of this is the city’s mask. Don’t believe it.

Look below. Under the pavements, though the sedimentary layers of mud and bones, of chalk and clay, 2,000 years of human trash. The network of power lines, gas pipes, fibre broadband cables, threading through the dirt in a snarl of secret tunnels.

Here, in crumbling red brick laid down two-hundred years ago after a boiling stew of faeces closed parliament in the Great Stink.

Here is the real city.

A fragile capillary system of sewers built in the 1800s when this was, in fact, still a centre of power and not just pretending, funded by money syphoned from an empire spanning from Cape Town to Vancouver Island. Joseph Bazalgette’s kingdom of the filthy and taboo. Of the utterly necessary.

Here flows the unmentionable contents formerly of human intestines, here live thriving colonies of E. coli and Covid-19, cockroaches and wet grey rats. Everything lost up there ends down here eventually: credit cards and phones, lost wedding rings, hypodermic needles, tiny skeletons. They swish down the lazy rivers of piss, find their way into the fatbergs — thick plaques of cooking oil and wet wipes and tampons and shit, clogging the pipes like ageing arteries.

And there is something else down here that has no place in the shining city above. A shadow, like something that climbed from the collective nightmares of every sleeper in the city. A memory of something that lived on this island a long time ago, before they were hunted to extinction, five shillings per tongue the reward.

A creature with hulking hunched shoulders, starveling body, a long loping gait. Hideous. Bestial. Its strong back legs kick through putrid sludge, toes webbed, nostrils closed up like a seal’s.

The beast lurches onto a dry ledge. Foetid water drips from bedraggled fur onto the concrete. There is so little light down here that nothing should be able to see. Nonetheless, the beast bounds off with sure steps.

The beast smells something stirring in the air above. A shift in season.