Light splashed bars of white on the surface of the black water in the gutter. The pale roots of violets trailed in the moist, smeared layers of soil, city dust, and greenish effluent from the market. Thin threads of blood, clogged and dark, embroidered the thicker currents of mud and slurry. So much to see.
The lowing of the beasts, distinct here, rose up in the London street to disturb the boy. He looked up, shading his eyes. The return of spring had renewed the sun’s vigour. In descent, the fire wheel spilled skeins of bright gold across the shining rooftops. If he did not start back now, his mother would worry.
On a clear day, the angels could have pointed to any one of the London villages. But now, new buildings came sprouting from the soil. Curious suburban fabulations. Complete with Greek columns fashioned in plaster, already soaking up veins of damp. Pretensions, his father said, of the traders. Snatching a piece of land for a scaled-down villa. The gaps in the landscape had filled in, and the random patchwork of the cityscape stretched as far as he could see.
The boy tucked his sketch into his pocket, and set off again. He made good progress along the street. Two old men puffed past, carrying a sedan chair. A thin, white-gloved hand lolled from the window, catching his eye. The curtain was drawn, a tatty brown brocade, and the woman’s fingers tapped restlessly on the faded paintwork. The sedan stopped before a coffee house. A voice. The curtain twitched. Intrigued, the boy stepped closer, keen to catch a glimpse of the woman inside. One of the porters scurried into the coffee house, shoulders stooped. When the door opened, laughter erupted, along with a tide of smoke and snuff and the hot, prickly aroma of stewed coffee.
A body banged against the door. A large man, in a jacket fashioned with burgundy, livid purple, and gold, with a face bright pink through smudged layers of white paint, the mouth soft and red, dribbles on the chin. The man’s heavy torso contracted and convulsed. He pressed his hand to his mouth, an effort to contain some fierce digestive struggle. He bent double. He retched. A stream of hot, meaty vomit burst from his lips, splattering onto the pavement.
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