They hold hands on the Clipper as the tour guide drones on about pirates and the heyday of the East India Company, a soft voice drifting through a hazy sky.
“So many warehouses,” Jamal murmurs, grey buildings hunched over the grey Thames.
“They used to be warehouses,” Agnieszka says, her head resting on his shoulder. “But they’re all converted now.”
“No,” he says with a mischievous grin, “Warehouses still. Designed to keep their wares in the best possible state until they’re ready to be picked up.”
“And their wares are?”
“Why, people of course!”
A game they play, these two. He strokes his stubble, dark eyes staring into the distance. “Young professionals; highly trained, preferably childless.” He shifts on the blue vinyl cushion and she sits up a little straighter, putting her arm round his slim waist. “They can’t pack them in as close as they packed bales of cotton or crates of tea, but these are much more valuable commodities and there are other benefits.”
She smiles. “Such as?”
“These goods pay for their own upkeep. Pay to be kept in their sterile little one or two bed apartments.”
“Like mine.” Jamal kisses her and then kisses her again as he gathers his thoughts. “They–we–queue up to be stored safely. So many of us that merchants rush to build new, fake warehouses along the side of the Thames. You know when they’ve put together another shipment, because there’s a rash of ‘For Sale’ and ‘For Rent’ signs.”
“I’ve seen them,” Agnieszka says. “Doesn’t anybody notice when the people disappear?”
He shrugs. “These people don’t know the names of their neighbours, let alone their business. And it’s no surprise if the most successful young couples move on, even if no-one’s quite sure where they have moved on to.”
“And the people, the cargo; do they put up a fight?” She nestles back into his shoulder as she probes the stray threads of his story. Though this is a rather tame tale, lacking the flights of fantasy that usually result when, story collapsing, they delve into the myths of their respective cultures and conjure up Azdaja or Djinn. This is a lazy, summer afternoon tale, at best.
He reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out a glossy flyer. “No…” Jamal says, slowly turning it over in his hands. “They go willingly, bought and paid for by the offer of free canapés and drugged wine.”
He looks down at the pair of empty plastic tumblers on the bench beside them and at the other dozing couples on the top deck of the boat that has, at some unnoticed moment, left the warehouses behind. Even the blocky shapes of Canary Wharf are shrinking into the distance.
He links his fingers with Agnieszka’s unresisting hand, squeezes his eyes shut and wonders where they’ll be when he opens them again.
Liam Hogan is a London based short story writer, the host of Liars’ League, and a Ministry of Stories mentor. His story “Ana”, appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press) and his twisted fantasy collection, “Happy Ending Not Guaranteed”, is published by Arachne Press.