He remembered a dismal October night. It had been raining. The autumn air was thick and apprehensive; the pervading dampness seeped into his clothes and hair, penetrating through to his clammy skin. A few soggy leaves had gathered in the gutters of Canon Street, along with other remnants of the working day: cigarette butts, old food wrappers and wet newspapers that festered in the corners, gradually liquefying into the pulp from which they had been created. The dark sky was a murky orange, and a mist had settled on the damp streets around the Thames, swathing the grey buildings in a dull haze and distorting the landmarks into mysterious and unfamiliar shapes.
It was late and the roads of the city were quiet, the offices emptied and the bars closed. Everyone had gone home. The main roads were still as London slept, the calm only broken by the occasional night bus trundling past, its lights reflected in the wet pavements.
That night he had been free to explore, undisturbed by crowd or traffic. He had plodded the shining footpaths, cherishing the opportunity to nourish his curiosity, thoughtfully investigating the shadowy alleyways and ancient churches that he had studied in history books.
It was the narrow back roads and the gloomy passageways that he liked the most, and he would follow them as they wound deep into the heart of the historical city. There was something exciting, and yet almost sinister about these tight spaces, no wider than the arms’ breadth, flanked on either side by towering Georgian brickwork.
On this night he had chosen to follow a passage leading from Wallbrook, his echoing footsteps chasing him as the route twisted and turned and eventually deposited him on St Swithin’s Lane. Here the glow from the few streetlamps was diffused by the thinning mist, transforming them into a row of neon halos, intermittently disrupting the dark like a procession of torches.
He was heading south, back to Canon Street, when he came across the church. He could have walked straight on, but for some reason he didn’t. Looking back, he couldn’t remember whether it was a sinister feeling that had crept into the pit of his belly which seized him, froze him in his tracks, or the fact that he had noticed that there was something peculiar about this church. It was derelict. Now, a derelict church isn’t necessarily an unusual thing, but here, right in the middle of London, surrounded by real estate of phenomenal value, a building untouched, seemingly left to rot? He had never seen the like.
The wide doorways of the church were bricked up and the tall, gracefully arching windows were without glass; the symmetrical stone window frames that should have supported a thousand dancing colours of stained glass were empty, naked and skeletal in the dark. The alabaster walls were pock-marked and almost translucent; his mesmerised eyes followed them upwards to the empty space where the roof should have been. A square, white tower emerged from the back of the church, an ethereal monolith that loomed over the structure, each of the four sides framing a menacingly black window. He noted that this type of tower would usually have converged into a steeple, but this was also conspicuously missing. The church had been decapitated. This building was dead.
He was about to leave when he saw her, a brilliant flash in the corner of his eye. At first he thought that it was a seagull, snared in some unseen net and writhing madly. But this was no bird. She was standing in one of the windows at the top of the derelict tower, her full white dress billowing like a sail in the stagnant night. The mist had thinned sufficiently for him to make out her figure clearly, and he saw a slim young woman standing on the ledge, her face concealed by a white veil, her hands grasping the stone walls on either side of her.
She had not been there a second earlier, of that much he was sure. He staggered backwards as his mind tried to comprehend what was happening. Dread tightened around his chest as he blinked and shook his head in panic, adrenaline coursing through his frightened veins. Yet she was still there, real as anything, a young bride at the top of the tower. Her dress was as white as lilies and she looked incredibly vulnerable as she stood, fragile and pale as bone china.
Betrayed by his legs, he was unable to move or to run. He was rooted to the spot, his spellbound eyes steadfastly fixed upon her. She had not seen him. She was looking straight down, and from where she was standing it was a long way to the ground.
He noticed his fear ebbing away, and in its place an overwhelming feeling of sadness developed. The girl was crying, he had no way of knowing, but he was sure of it. He watched in horror as she leaned forwards. He tried to shout, but no sound came from his throat, and he was forced to look on, immobile and powerless, as she stepped off the edge of the tower.