The Kingdoms - Natasha Pulley
Londres, 1898 (ninety-three years after Trafalgar)
Most people have trouble recalling their first memory, because they have to stretch for it, like trying to touch their toes; but Joe didn’t. This was because it was a memory formed a week after his forty-third birthday.
He stepped down off the train. That was it, the very first thing he remembered, but the second was something less straightforward. It was the slow, eerie feeling that everything was doing just what it should be, minding its own business, but that at the same time, it was all wrong.
It was early in the morning, and cursedly cold. Vapour hissed on the black engine right above him. Because the platform was only a couple of inches above the tracks, the double pistons of the wheels were level with his waist. He was so close he could hear the water boiling above the furnace. He stepped well away, feeling tight with the certainty it was about to lurch forward.
The train had just come in. The platform was full of people looking slow and stiff from the journey, all moving towards the concourse. The sweet carbon smell of coal smoke was everywhere. Because it was only just light outside, the round lamps of the station gave everything a pale glow, and cast long, hazy shadows; even the steam had a shadow, a shy devil trying to decide whether to be solid or not.
Joe had no idea what he was doing there.
He waited, because railway stations were internationally the same and they were a logical place to get confused, if there was ever a logical place. But nothing came. He couldn’t remember coming here, or going anywhere. He looked down at himself. With a writhe of horror, he found he couldn’t even remember getting dressed. His clothes were unfamiliar. A heavy coat lined with tartan. A plain waistcoat with interesting buttons, stamped with laurel patterns.
A sign on the wall said that this was platform three. Behind him on the train, a conductor was going along the carriages, saying the same thing again and again, quiet and respectful, because he was having to wake people up in first class.
‘Londres Gare du Roi, all change please, Londres Gare du Roi …’
Joe wondered why the hell the train company was giving London station names in French, and then wondered helplessly why he’d wondered. All the London station names were French. Everyone knew that.
Someone touched his arm and asked in English if he was all right. It made him jump so badly that he twanged the nerve in the back of his skull. White pain shot down his neck.
‘Sorry – could you tell me where we are?’ he asked, and heard how ridiculous it sounded.
The man didn’t seem to think it was extraordinary to find an amnesiac at a railway station. ‘London,’ he said. ‘The Gare du Roi.’
Joe wasn’t sure why he’d been hoping for something other than what he’d heard the conductor say. He swallowed and looked away. The steam was clearing. There were signs everywhere; for the Colonial Library, the Musée Britannique, the Métro. There was a board not far away that said the Desmoulins line was closed because of the drilling below, and beyond that, elaborate iron gates that led out into the fog. ‘Definitely … London in England?’ he asked eventually.
‘It is,’ the man said.
‘Oh,’ said Joe.
The train breathed steam again and made the man into a ghost. Through all the bubbling panic, Joe thought he must have been a doctor, because he still didn’t seem surprised. ‘What’s your name?’ the man asked. Either he had a young voice, or he looked older than he was.
‘Joe.’ He had to reach for it, but he did know; that was a thump of a relief. ‘Tournier.’
‘Do you know where you live?’
‘No,’ he said, feeling like he might collapse.
‘Let’s get you to a hospital then,’ the man said.
So the man paid for a cab. Joe expected him to leave it at that, but he came too and said there was no reason why not, since he wasn’t busy. A thousand times in the following months, Joe tried to remember what the man had looked like. He couldn’t, even though he spent the whole cab ride opposite him; all he remembered later was that the man had sat without leaning back, and that something about him seemed foreign, even though he spoke English in the hard straight way that old people did, the belligerent ones who’d always refused to learn French and scowled at