It is just as I imagined it. Striding confidently over the cobbles, the air relatively refreshing by Babbage standards, it IS a fine evening. Capital!
Crossing Melnik Square, the wide expanse of the ports burst into view. It is quite the flurry of activity. Dozens of workmen, either milling about the piers or suspended high in the air above, are feverishly at work against the fading light. The air is filled with a chorus of bangs and clangs as they hammer home cherry red rivets, building a truly wondrous display of gargantuan engineering marvels.
Preparation for the Oiling Festival is in high gear and the normally industrious workforce have been excited into a frenzied state of constructive energy. What a marvel! The first time I have witnessed such a creative display.
As I pass the first… whatever it is, a workman looks up at me and accidentally drops his spanner. He offers me an embarrassed smile and retrieves his tool. Recovering his dignity, he scampers off to his work and disappears amongst the half-assembled structure.
Well, either my new hat is quite shocking indeed, or I can still turn a man’s head. Frumpy old maid, certainly not! Filled with confidence, I hold my head high and stride along front street, admiring the artful engines and enjoying the admiring glances.
While receiving one friendly smile and hat-doff from one gentleman with an armload of blueprints, I trip over a loose cobblestone and nearly lose my balance. Recovering in a fraction of a second, smile and nod in return. He, politely, pretends not to have noticed my blunder and turns to shout encouraging abuse at his workers.
I really must be mindful of where I tread, lest I become known for my amateur street comedy.
My stroll soon takes me to the end of the ports and the streets narrow sharply, signalling my entry into Clockhaven. The setting sun’s glow is now completely blocked by the tall, closely packed buildings. At an irregular corner of a shop, I spy a minute patch of dirty snow and wonder if that little patch of ground ever sees the sun. It has been above freezing for some weeks now.
The funnelling street has produced quite a bottleneck and smooth navigation becomes quite difficult with all manner of people moving to and fro like busy insects. Going into, or coming out of various shops, parcel-laden gentlemen and ladies pass each other awkwardly with buzz of “pardon me”‘s and “after you”‘s. A small miracle how such a bustle doesn’t degenerate into an orgy of angry shoving. For myself and my small frame, I am grateful for this. I am also thankful crinolines are quite out of fashion or I doubt I would be able to to pass through this maze at all.
I peer into the barber shop window, I spot a gentleman whose face is partially obscured by shaving lather. Though covered may be his face, his suit I do recognize. That same suit, and its contents, visited my shop mere hours earlier making rather pointed enquiries of which I was not fond. Fortunately, his eyes are firmly on the ceiling, awaiting the blade of the barber. With a bit of a chill, I press onwards down the road, melting into the sea of top hats and bowlers.
I approach the Gangplank and note the time on the clock above – a quarter past seven. I hope I will not be interrupting Dr C’s supper hour. The aroma from the Pizzeria is positively mouth-watering. I begin to hope that if I cannot interrupt his supper, perhaps I would have the good fortune to arrive just prior to it.
Climbing the steps, I enter the lovely square – its fountain trickling merrily away. Perhaps I should take a house in Clockhaven. I chew over the idea, admiring the quaint little shops – including my favourite bookstore.
I stride across the square and approach the large octagonal home of my friend. I knock with three quick raps of my gloved hand. Silence. I knock again. No response. All seems still within. I look up, way up, and note the vacant airship mast and let out sigh.
I always keep missing him. Such busy chap.
I turn around to examine my surroundings. My heart drops when I see the now freshly-shaven character enter the square. He is looking about and makes for the book shop. Relief. He hasn’t spotted me yet.
I turn quick and scurry down the steps beside Dr. C.’s shop and into an alley. Grabbing the banister of an iron staircase, I climb the stairs as quickly as my feet can carry me and find myself in Dr C’s breezeway. Though entrance is merely an opening sans-door, I feel secure in its narrow tiled passage. I keep my head low and out of view of its large, though dirty window-panes. Was I being followed? Or am I imagining it?
An idea dawns. I place my carpet bag in the alcove beside the door, hidden from view. I take out my small notebook and scribble down a quick note:
I’m sorry to have missed you today. If you could hold onto this bag for me and keep it – and it’s contents – safe and out of view for a short time, I would be much obliged. I would also like very much to see you upon your return and promise to fill you with tea and crumpets in exchange for your tales and advice.
A thousand thanks.
I affix the torn, hastily scrawled note to my bag with a hat pin and push it into the shadow. My little hiding place proves to command an excellent view of both sides of the building. Finding the coast clear I step briskly down into the alley and turn to run down the street to avoid the square.
I stop cold. Why should I scurry around like a rat in my own city? Surely no one would dare accost me in the middle of a busy square. I’ll wager a dozen good Babbager gentlemen would intervene with a firm “I say! Unhand her, rogue!”. I giggle at the idea of such passionate storybook gallantry – men standing tall with chests puffed out, moustaches bristling with resolve.
A tad dramatic, even for me. After all, I’m not certain this man means me any harm in the first place. No. This is my home now, and I will not sulk in my shop for fear if phantoms. I’ve met the real phantoms after all!
I stride purposefully up the stone steps an back into the square, looking every inch that I belong there, if not own the place. I spy the shady character in front of the bookshop reading a folded newspaper and smoking a cigar. I walk as if he doesn’t exist, making for the arch of the exit.
He looks up, catches my eye and offers a salute, touching the handle of his cane to his bowler brim. I suppress a shudder and deliver a regal nod in acknowledgement, then turn and leave the square. Though no longer afraid, knowing my property is quite safe with Dr. C., I still can’t help but feel apprehensive. Dangerous or not, I do not like the cut of this man’s tweed. Not at all.
Feeling proud of myself, and desperately in need of food and drink, I casually stroll down the narrow road to the Gangplank.