The Travelling Philanthropist

amsterdam-031Extract from Novel:

Wednesday 2nd September 2015

Clutching her mobile, Anna was weaving in and out of couples sauntering along the Embankment, her way lit by the multi-coloured fairy lights of the restaurant boats. She could see Westminster Bridge ahead.

She hadn’t even stopped to message Matt. Must be nearly midnight. He’ll wonder where I am.

Reaching the top of the steps, she leaned against the balustrade and read the last few verses from the poetry plaque:

‘Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will:’

It was from the Wordsworth poem on Westminster Bridge – her magazine had featured it in an article, Walking Tours around London.

This is where she’d been when she last saw her birth mother. Anna looked down at the angry black water.  Shoving her mobile into her shoulder bag, she made an appraisal of the people on the bridge: Just a few straggling city workers making their way back for the last train. There was a woman standing alone, looking towards the London Eye, but then the woman was joined by a man – the couple linking arms and making their way towards the City. Anna walked further, surveying the barriers erected across sections of the bridge. Someone could easily stand there undetected before dropping unnoticed into the churning waters below.

Feeling a jolt, she spun around to face a hooded figure jerking at her shoulder strap. The more rational part of her brain knew it was best to let go, but Anna wasn’t prepared to lose anything else. She clutched the bag to her, hanging on for dear life.

‘No!’

The mugger took a quick glance around, checking no-one was close, then snarled: ‘Let go bitch!’

For a moment they were both tugging, equally determined not to give in. Then she gasped as the mugger’s fist caught a glancing blow to her chin. Her grasp momentarily loosened, the attacker legged it towards the south side of the river.

She heard Big Ben strike midnight. Her legs began to shake as shock kicked in. Her body gave up the fight. As she sank, the back of her head collided with the carved stone balustrade.

Wednesday 2nd September 1752

Frederick Tweedie made minute adjustments to the equipment. Beside him, Thomas Pestlemore huffed and puffed.

‘Have patience, sir,’ said Tweedie. ‘These things cannot be hurried.’

He tweaked the aperture by another miniscule amount to ensure the lens was pointing at the darkest space between the stars. Pestlemore leaned in over his shoulder.

‘Damn it, sir. Give me some room.’

‘S…sorry. Yes… sorry.’

Pestlemore stepped back, gazing out across the dark waters of the Thames. He looked up at the sky and, with his fat thumb, traced a line, tracking the projection from the equipment to the horizon.

‘Perhaps a little higher, Tweedie?’

Tweedie glared at him.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ he repeated.

‘Who is doing this, me or you? Who, sir, is the scientist here?’ Tweedie strutted forward, tapping his chest: ‘Oh yes. That would be me.’

Humbled, Pestlemore lowered his head and, as much as his rotund stomach allowed, he examined his feet. Meanwhile Tweedie moved forward to make one final adjustment.

‘There,’ he said at last. ‘That should do it.’

‘Oh well done,’ said Pestlemore, clapping his skinny friend on the shoulder-blade.

Tweedie eyed him with contempt, but Pestlemore’s enthusiasm could not be dampened. He hopped from one foot to the other: ‘Are we ready now for the Prism?’

Tweedie nodded his head.

Pestlemore bent down and lifted the object reverently from its wooden case. As he held it aloft, light from the moon caught the crystal sides, and a rainbow of colour cascaded far out across the rippling black Thames water.

Tweedie reached out to receive it and, with meticulous care, positioned it at the heart of the assembled equipment. Both men stepped back, regarding it with awe. This was the culmination of many months of calculations, design and planning. The moment of truth. For the first time, each component joined to make a whole. If the prism did not begin to spin now, of its own volition, then everything had been in vain. There was a heavy clunk as the prism began to rotate. It was nothing short of miraculous.

As they watched, the equipment vibrated, yet the lens remained steady, fixed on its target.

Pestlemore cast an eye over his shoulder to ensure the bridge men were nowhere in sight. The watchman on the north side of the bridge had been bribed with a jug of gin and it was not yet time for the south side guards to take their hourly patrol. It was important they were not observed. The whole project had been carried out under such secrecy. Their goal was to gain an accolade for their invention from the Royal Society. As they peered into the depths of the blackest spot in the sky, faint light began to appear.

‘Look,’ said Pestlemore. Tweedie nodded. Silenced by the apparition before their eyes, they were mesmerized as the light grew stronger, reflecting a ray back onto the bridge. Tweedie felt Pestlemore clutching at his arm: ‘What is that?’

Straining their eyes, they peered along the bridge, dazzled by the brightness. Slowly, at the very core, an image was appearing.

Tweedie squinted. He heard Pestlemore gasp as the shape became clearer… a figure, slumped against the balustrade.

1752  DAY ONE

Anna opened her eyes to shimmering haze. Although it was still dark, she was bathed in a soft beam of light. Her head was throbbing – she couldn’t make out where she was or what she was looking at. As the bright light diminished, objects around began to take shape. A figure was standing the other side of the bridge, looking out across the river:

‘Debbie?’

Her voice was croaky, unlike her own.

Mercy stood gazing into the dark waters below. Although mist had dampened her woollen clothes, it wasn’t really raining. Would be better if I was soaked to me skin – easier then – to slip down into the water. She shook her head. Not enough courage even for that. Shivering, she felt the last little bit of hope desert her body. Nothing ahead but emptiness, and this dull ache.

A sound invaded her thoughts. Someone calling… Turning her head – something, or someone, on the ground the other side of the bridge. She peered through the gloom. Is it man or woman? Arms reaching out to her… She took a step forward. The cry had sounded female, but difficult to be certain. No. By the attire ’twas a fella. Can’t be too careful… a ploy to get me over there. And yet… She took another couple of steps, then watched as the figure slumped once more. Whoever it was needed her help.

‘Who is there?’ she called.

No reply.

She crossed the road and looked down. Yes, ’twas a woman. As she knelt down, the woman opened her eyes.

Anna looked up at her Samaritan, dressed all in black. She reached out to grasp the proffered hand, but it was too much – she fell back.

‘Take it slowly Miss.’

‘Who are you?’

‘My name be Mercy.’

Anna pulled herself up to sitting:

‘Damn.’ Anger and indignation was returning. ‘He’s taken my bag. My mobile – I need to get to the tube…’ She stopped in mid flow, looking around frantically. Everything was so dark – like someone had turned off all the street lights. It seemed as if she was sitting in the middle of a thick, wet cloud of fog. There was a strange, metallic smell – or was it taste – she couldn’t tell. Her head throbbed, and when she raised a hand to her crown, her fingers met a sticky mass. Involuntarily her body began to shake:

‘Where am I?’

To be continued…

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