When he first moved to London he had felt so small and insignificant in the almighty, never-ending mass of people and noise and confusion. Everyone and everything seemed so important, so busy. The city belonged to them, all those other people; suited and booted with a collective sense of self-worth that had been warped by years spent marinating in the arrogance of the richest millionth of people in existence. He had been confused and lost, a stranger, an unwelcome alien clutching an A-Z and trying to hide his bewilderment as he waded through the swamps of unfamiliarity.
Throughout the week, waves of business people streamed in and out, like the tide, surging from the tube stations and flowing through the ancient streets in whirlpools and gullies, lapping at the champagne bars and drowning out everything that did not belong to their own culture. They would rush past him with grim faces, some engrossed in phone calls and others staring blankly ahead, lost in their thoughts, marching on to wherever they needed to be. Some walked in pairs but mostly they were alone. There were no children or mothers with prams to be seen here. The men were generally aged between twenty and fifty, their faces bloated with excess and dressed in only a slight range of variants from the standard city uniform. The women’s attire varied somewhat more, some wore smart but not ostentatious clothes with sensible shoes and a lick of makeup. Others tottered in stilettos, their strides limited by figure hugging pencil skirts and their features cartoonized by heavy makeup.
In the evening the tide would recede and they would all be sucked back, gurgling into the taxis and tube stations where they came from, leaving the city empty in the still neon-orange night.
The commuters were only temporary residents; they only saw what they created, what they wanted to see. They did not notice the secret places; the churches; the hidden rivers; the crumbling stone works. To them it was all ubiquitous glass walled offices and leather chairs and sparkling marble floors, each like the other; characterless and lifeless, neutralising two thousand years of history.
In the night time, in the eerie silence of the deserted roads and empty shops, he was free to claim the city for himself. He wandered the lonely streets of the ghost town, absorbing the history, feeling the echoes of the past and the stories that the buildings and the blood soaked land had to tell.
It was in this way that he got to know the city, he became a part of London and he belonged. He had explored the layout and studied the history, so that very slowly London dropped her defences and let him in. He could picture the Roman temple to Diana where St Paul’s now stood, and the Anglo-Saxon development to the west of Ludgate Circus. When he closed his eyes he could smell the stench of the Victorian slums north of Aldgate and hear the cries of the meat sellers at Smithfield market. He walked the streets with Samuel Pepys, knew where the river Fleet ran into the Thames, imagined buying fish on Friday Street or attending a performance at the amphitheatre where Guildhall now stands. He became acquainted with the griffins that guarded the city and he visited the poets and artists and scientists resting in the graveyards and crypts, while feeding the obese squirrels that resided in the London plane trees. He paid his respects to the brave men who swept the fizzling explosives from the roof of the cathedral on that dreadful night in 1940. He huddled with the homeless masses in the open spaces in September 1666, and marvelled at the glistening temple bar, scrubbed free of its bloody past.
He had started his late night explorations several months earlier, complementing his interest with various history books, which were piled up on the coffee table in his small flat. It was his new hobby, and he was quickly turning into a devoted enthusiast. He felt that he was becoming a small part of the history of the city, a single soul amid the memories of millions forgotten who had once walked this same ground. Individually they were all unimportant and irrelevant, but together they were the essence of London, the sum of all these lives made the city breathe. They were the past, present and future, forever existing alongside generations of pigeons.
It was the pursuit of this hobby that had resulted in his journey on that damp October night. He had planned to investigate the back roads and alleyways between the Bank of England and Upper Thames Street, possibly keeping an eye out for something that had briefly been mentioned in an article he read. It was called the London stone.
And so he had arrived, at half past two in the morning, at the junction of St Swithin’s Lane and Canon Street: the night that he saw the bride.