The entrance to New Concordia Wharf was via a small blue door, cut flush to the old wooden gates that separated a cobbled courtyard from Mill Street. In the black hole of night, I almost missed it.
Perhaps that wouldn’t have been a bad thing after all.
I shuddered, took a quick look over my shoulder before shimmying my dress up above my knees so I could step through. Damn you, Mother, you could have given me something sensible to wear. My heels click-clacked on the courtyard, then my ankle buckled and I stumbled as my foot came free, leaving the shoe stuck between the cracks. I slipped my other foot out of its shoe and stood barefoot on the cobble stones. If I closed my eyes I could pretend I was at the beach, walking across the pebbles. But then the rank scent of the Thames did nothing to persuade me of that. I had forever left behind that little girl in her seaside town with Mother clutching at memories and the hope of a brighter future.
I looked up at the flat sandstone brick bearing down on the courtyard and wondered why they had kept the oppressive, square, meshed windows. The ironwork, now painted royal blue, reminded me of my childhood nursery where every spare wall was painted in bold colours. A dull ache settled in my chest.
“Only rich people live there,” Mother said. “You can’t buy anything for less than a million. We’ve landed on our feet this time, Rose.” Her eyes glittered with unshed tears and the burden of a single mum.
I retrieved my shoes and made my way across the courtyard. The earthy fresh smell of grain permeated the atmosphere and the shadows moved with pictures of yesteryear; dockers hefting sacks and loading carts. I could almost hear the jovial banter and the whicker of horses. I stood before a number of blue doors and wondered which one led to my future. Perhaps it was a test. Perhaps if I chose the wrong door, it would lead me right back to my past. But I knew I had to do this, to do it for Mother. She had spent every last penny we had on this black Vivienne Westwood taffeta dress and shoes. I looked down at my feet. Suppose I should put the damn things back on, otherwise he might mistake me for the street urchin I was.
The door entry system, although modern, had been disguised in antiquated brass so it seemed as though I was stepping into the past. Through the door and in front of me was a metal helter-skelter that spiralled down from the ceiling to the ground, seeming to go nowhere and serving no purpose. Next to the chute was a chunky old weighing machine, belonging to a century gone. I rode in the lift to the sixth floor and stared at my daunted expression in the mirrors that lined the walls. Pale cheeks, hair piled up on my head with just a spray of bronze curls dangling down to entice the devil. The lift shuddered to a halt; I pursed my lips and stepped out.
Two doors, once choice. Take the door to the left and there may be someone who could help me to escape from this cycle of inequity. Take the door to the right which led to an unknown future. Left door, right door. I had to choose.
I approached the door to the right, fuelled by my mother’s strife. The door flew open and a blast of cool air made my skin tingle. I took one tentative step over the threshold; just the pointed toe of my shoe inside the door, the heel still piercing the plush black carpet in the hallway on the other side.
There was still time to go back.
The carpet ran like a river down a winding hall. The walls were ivory black with compartments that housed an array of figurines; an African carving with red and black striped people, a marble Buddha and a granite sculpture of an angel. The angel’s eyes popped out of its head and looked at me, following my every move. No more murmurs from the past came to pester my ears; only a whisper of anticipation.
I adjusted the bodice of my dress and took another step forward. He must be a freak to live in all this black. And why had I come trussed up like a Christmas turkey? Mother, you have sold my soul to the devil. And now, it was time to ride the devil’s back. I took a deep breath and stepped into the vestibule. The door slammed shut behind me.
I jumped and thought I heard a low growl rumble from inside the apartment. I followed the hallway, which branched out into an open plan living area lined with windows, casting light from surrounding buildings. My eyes were drawn towards a dais at the far end of the apartment, with V-shaped marble steps on its approach. The raised area jutted out over the Thames and a round porthole featured in its centre. A large black wooden table occupied the space, surrounded by tall-backed Mackintosh chairs with red and black embroidered cushion covers. The table was laid with an assortment of joints, bread, pickles and cheese. The smell of roasted meat made me nauseous, but at the same time my stomach grumbled; a lifetime of living on the edge could not tame my body’s response to food. No sign of the man himself.
The skyline outside the window caught my gaze; Tower Bridge nudged the clouds and the Gherkin poked its obscene nose into London’s horizon. To the left, on the opposite side of the dock, lights winked on and off in Butler’s Wharf as people went about their late night routines. When I looked back to the table, he was seated there, his inhuman head blocking the light from the porthole. His face was obscured by shadow, his eyes dropped and a hand curled claw-like around the edge of the table. I took a step closer and he looked up, blasting me with a look of pure hunger. A quiver ran through my body and I resisted the urge to slither to the floor in a puddle of perspiration.
He looked me up and down with unfathomable eyes. Eyes that ate into your soul and hid a thousand untold stories. I looked away, unable to gaze into those deep red pools. He smelt of whiskey, cigarettes and Hugo Boss, which reminded me of the men my mother used to bring home. But Mother had grown too frail in recent years, so this was her idea of making a life for us both. Only problem was, I had to stay here to keep her from the brink of starvation, keep her off the street and able to live a life that resembled normal in her final years. If I ever left this Ivory Tower, then the agreement was revoked. Payments would cease and we both would descend back into a life of poverty, embracing street life once again.
I looked around the apartment. It mightn’t be too bad; the plush sofa and chairs arranged in a ring around a cinema style screen and sound system could keep anyone entertained until eternity. But the thought of never leaving here left a shiver of prescience snaking down my spine. I looked back to him and his gaze was eager, eyes full of deep longing. Feeling self-conscious in my figure-hugging dress, I pulled at the fabric, wishing it to be longer and cover more of my quivering bare skin. His lips curled into a smile and he lifted his nose to smell the air, as though he felt my discomfort and gloried in the scent of it. My heart raced, aching to be free of my chest which cramped under the shackles of my situation.
His hair was a long mane, reaching far below his shoulders and his face was peppered with hair, like a teenager trying to grow a beard. He watched me watching him and narrowed his eyes, so I looked away like a naughty school girl caught having a swift fag in the girls’ loos. A look of reproach clouded his eyes and only made my heart lurch in its express journey to the Outer Hebrides of my soul.
He opened his mouth and I half expected to see a torrent of fire pour forth from his gaping maw. I closed my eyes to shield myself from the impact and wondered if I screamed loud enough whether the occupants of Butler’s Wharf would hear my cries and come to my rescue. And then he spoke; a razor-like voice wrapped in velvet words.
“I asked for a rose… and here you are.”
Frances lives and works in London and has previously been published in magazines: Crossing the Border, Monomyth, Legend and Scriptor-3. Most recently, her short stories have appeared in online magazines: Liquid Imagination, Aurora Wolf, The Lorelei Signal, Bewildering Stories and The WiFiles. She is currently studying for an MA Creative Writing: Writing the City at the University of Westminster and blogs at www.francesgow.co.uk