"Hullo there, your first time in the UK?" he asked brightly.
"My mother told me not to talk to strangers."
"Are you on a holiday, or do you think you might look for a bit of work?"
"My mother told me never to talk to strangers."
"So, you're not on a holiday?"
"My mother told me that strangers might be terrorists or drug trafficers."
"I'm an immigration official!" he suddenly snapped indignantly.
"Oh really? And do you get a bonus for successful entrapments?"
"You can't talk to me like that!"
"Can I have your name and see your ID please?" I asked, taking out a pen and notepad.
"Up yours, smartarse!" he muttered, then turned and strode off into the crowd.
I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I watched London passing from the top deck of the bus, yet I was still thinking about work. Somehow giving lectures about medieval literature did not seem like work, even though I was paid to do it. For most of my life I had been a computer engineer, then somehow my recreational reading earned me a PhD and I had a new career. Most of the time I felt vaguely guilty about accepting money for lecturing. My subconscious kept telling me that only engineering was real work.
I had met John Clute at a conference in America, where he had invited me to stay in his London house for a couple of days. My other friends in London lived a lot further out than his house in Camden, and the visit would include his sixtieth birthday party, so I had accepted. I made several attempts to call his number from the bus, but nobody was picking up. The bus took me to Paddington, where I had a cup of coffee and a toasted cheese sandwich that was meant to be breakfast. My body clock was not to be bribed so easily, however, and I was still feeling rather out of it as I took the Underground to Euston Square, then began walking to Camden High Street. I did not want to arrive too early. Apparently Judith Clute conducted ghost-walk tours of London in the evenings, so she probably retired and rose late - and if John's body clock was in the same condition as mine, he would still be in bed too.
It was a little before noon when I reached the Clutes' house. My impression of the neighbourhood was that I had wandered into the set from the opening shots of Notting Hill: it was all street stalls and cosmopolitan crowds, looking slightly less regulated and orderly than Australian markets, but definitely more interesting and exotic. The house was on a corner, and the Clutes lived on the two floors above a shoe shop. I had instructions to enter from a door on the side street, and here I stopped to try their phone one more time. There was still no answer. By now I had concluded that they had forgotten me and gone out for the day. I knocked. To my surprise, I heard footsteps descending stairs, then the door was opened by a woman who introduced herself as Judith Clute.
"John was delayed in America," she explained as we ascended the stairs. "He will not be back until tomorrow, but he told me about you when I phoned him yesterday. Here's the spare room. Is that backpack all your luggage?"
"Yes, I travel light. Look, I hope I'm not imposing, what with John's birthday party tomorrow."
"Oh not at all."
"I rang a dozen time since I left Heathrow, but nobody answered."
"Yes, yes, I know. There's a problem with our telephone, it began a week before John left for America. We can call out, but no calls come in. It's making the party harder to organise."
"Have you reported the fault?" I asked as she took me to the kitchen.
"No, John said not to, there was some legal problem with our account that he's going to fix when he gets back. Would you like a coffee?"
"Yes please." I held up my Nokia with their number displayed on the screen. "Is this your number?"
"Ah ... yes."
I pressed the CALL key. The Nokia insisted that the Clute's number was ringing, yet the house remained silent, except for the sounds from the market outside.
"Would you mind picking up the phone?" I asked.
Judith walked across the room and lifted the handset. The ring tone stopped in the Nokia.
"Hullo, Sean?" she ventured.
"I hear you," I replied, waving at her from my chair in the kitchen. "You can put the phone down now."
I picked up my coffee and joined her at the phone.
"So, people can call in after all," she said.
"Apparently. The problem is with the bell."
"Well, that's nice to know," she sighed, "but if I don't know people are calling, then how can I know to pick up?"
"Maybe it's something easily fixed." I said, picking up the telephone. "Do you have a fine-point screwdriver set?"
A search produced one rather chunky screwdriver.
I thought carefully. For the cost of two nights in a London hotel I could buy all the tools needed to fix their phone about a dozen times over. Fixing the phone would certainly be far more appreciated as a gesture of thanks than a bottle of wine, given their circumstances with the party.
"Look, could you give me a tour of the neighbourhood shops?" I asked. "I could get your phone going within an hour, and what I need will not cost much."
"But what about the legal business?"
"Nobody from your telco need ever know."
Twenty minutes amid the street stalls of Camden got me a precision screwdriver set, a pair of long-nose pliers, and a matchbox-sized multimeter that the vendor thought was a radio, along with some batteries. A hardware store provided a soldering iron, solder, and insulation tape. All up, I had spent less than twenty pounds.
Back at the Clutes' house, I took the telephone apart but found that there was no apparent damage inside. Next I wired up the batteries into a simple power supply. The bell worked perfectly.
"This looks bad," I announced as Judith brought me a sandwich and yet another coffee. "The phone itself seems in perfect working order."
"So that's bad?" she asked, puzzled.
"In a sense. I thought there might be some simple damage inside, like from someone dropping it by accident. That means the problem is either in the house's wiring or the external telephone circuits. If the former, well, maybe I can trace it. If the latter, it's right out of my hands."
Judith had to go out again, and I began a very strange tour of John Clute's library via the telephone wiring. One problem was that their telephone system appeared to have been replaced, upgraded, and repaired several times since the 1940s. In every case, most of the original wiring had been bypassed and left in place, forcing me to do a sort of electronic archeological dig. I also had to move several book cases and hundreds of books to get at the wires, and had to fight a constant temptation to stop and read a page or two from some quite fascinating titles. The torch from my travel pack helped in the particularly dark corners.
Annoyed by the complex mess of largely dead circuitry, I began to remove some of the wiring. A lot of it was partly buried under thick layers of paint, and a couple of the junction boxes had been reduced to pathetic little piles of corrosion by the passing of years. John's wastebasket started to fill up with tangles of wire and odd bits of telephone circuitry that were probably old when Doctor Who was being premiered. By now I had realised that the house itself was a bit like the Tardis, somehow dimensionally wrong, with more space inside than outside. I tested a circuit that seemed roughly contemporary with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and found it to be dead. Its wires went into the kitchen wastebin, where there was still room. The next cable looked the age of the first-season X-Files season, but although it registered a faint current, it appeared to have nothing to do with the current phone.
Finally, after moving yet another bookcase, I found a junction box that seemed lateish Nineties, probably contemporary with the Neverwhere series. It was one of those nasty little labour-saving things, where you jam the wire into a bracket which cuts through the insulation and completes the circuit. It was guaranteed to get the wiring done in seconds, and guaranteed to eventually go open-circuit in damp climates that promote corrosion. This was London, after all, so it was already growing whiteish powder and blue crystals.
I tested the circuit. There was a current, so at least the circuit was live. That was enough for me. I sketched the circuit, then cut the wires, unscrewed the junction box, and dropped it into the bin. This was the moment of triumph that I loved about electrical work, this was the part where I was transformed from a mere houseguest into a sorcerer, able to use electronic cabalistic knowledge to save the day by getting impossibly arcane devices working. I cleaned, joined and soldered the wires, covered the joins with insulation tape, and was just about to do a test call from my Nokia when the phone rang. I snatched up the handset, feeling very pleased with myself.
"Clute's house," I said briskly.
"Who the devil are you, sir?" cried an outraged voice from the earpiece.
"Sean McMullen, I'm staying with the Clutes -"
"Baron and Lady Clute, sir! Show some respect! What is your title? What are you doing there?"
"Er, title? Technically I'm Dr McMullen, but -"
"Doctor, eh? I would have thought a master electrasian would know better manners. What is your university?"
"The University of Melbourne -"
"A damn colonial?" thundered my inquisitor. "Why has Baron Clute let a bloody colonial into his town house -"
Suddenly I got over my sense of shock at the caller's histrionics, and hung up. Clearly the guy knew John, yet he had referred to him a baron. I knew that Londoners called each other squire from time to time, but baron? I thumbed the CALL key on my Nokia. The Clute's phone did not ring, but at that moment Judith returned from her shopping.
"I've made progress," I announced as she stood staring at the wastebasket overflowing with discarded cables.
"But, but all that wire! I mean, it looks ... important."
"Oh, it's all dead, left over from earlier installations. I may have reduced the value of the house as an archeological artefact, but I've simplified the task of anyone working on your telephone from now on. Oh, and I've made some progress - sort of."
"Well, my Nokia still won't ring your phone's bell, but another caller from outside got through."
"Really? Who was it?"
"Oh, some guy wanting to talk to John. He didn't leave a name."
"Oh, well, that sounds hopeful at least. Would you like another coffee?"
I helped her unpack the shopping while the water boiled, then we went outside to their quite luxuriant rooftop garden. Judith explained that a locations scout had spotted their place from a helicopter. The BBC had then contacted them, landscaped the roof balcony, and shot an episode of Ground Force there. In return, the Clutes got to keep the plants and pots.
"I have a slightly odd question," I said as we sat relaxing in the late summer sunlight. "Does John have a title?"
"Well, like Baron Clute or something?"
What Judith said was "No, and I'm married to him so I should know." What Judith's expression said was "I'm going to have to sleep in the same house as this nutter tonight, and we're going to be alone."
"Well, I thought as much," I laughed, trying to sound casual. "Some folk back in Australia say that John was secretly some sort of peer."
"Oh, I see!" she exclaimed, suddenly sounding very relieved. "Yes, well, people do like to gossip."
"And when there's no real gossip they make it up," I concluded. "Okay then, I ought to get back to the wiring," I said as I stood up.
"And I'll be in and out with the shopping for the rest of the afternoon."
"Why not take your car and do it all at once?"
"Don't be silly, nobody in London owns a car. Nobody sensible, anyway. Besides, most of what I need can be bought close by."
I pulled another bookcase aside. Down in one corner I found a panel with four screws holding it in place, and mounted on it was an old-fashioned phone socket. The panel had been painted over a dozen times or more over the years, and so was sealed to the wall. I cleaned the screw heads, removed the screws, then scored around the panel with a knife to free it from the wall. Behind it, my torch revealed unpainted wood, cobwebs, wires, and a mass of red, blue, green and white corrosion that might have once been a junction box. Wires were going into it. I sketched the layout into my circuit diagram, worked out what was meant to be going where, then cut and re-joined several wires to bypass the mess. Finally I rang the Clutes' number from my Nokia - and this time there was a loud, clear ring from their telephone. Victory!
I lay back against a book case for a while, puzzling over some anomalies that remained. The severed wires went nowhere, apart from into the corrosion, yet someone had rung in. The phone was now working, and in time to be useful for the party ... yet who was that self-righteous clown who had rung up for Baron Clute? I decided to try a little experiment.
Using two wine corks, several used matches, some wire, and a rubber band, I constructed a toggle switch. Twist the corks one way, and I had the normal circuit. Twist them backwards, and I had someone very peculiar. This time I put a tape into my dictaphone and set it running, then put the phone on speaker. There was no dial tone, yet I could hear footsteps. Someone walking about on a wooden floor. Presently he began to speak.
"Hajin, mayiey. Ilshitm paracelintia sorreiel avswendt, morissval," came over the phone's speaker. The voice was that of the earlier caller. He was not so much speaking as chanting, and the chant went on for over a minute. For a while there was silence, then the voice declared "Hajin mayiev."He began a new chant. By now it was getting towards evening. Soon Judith would be back, and she would want the phone switched back to the normal circuit. Suddenly I realised that this was obviously someone playing a birthday joke on John Clute. John was to get a call from an alternate universe for a birthday present, and whoever was behind it all had decided to practise on me. I decided to play along.
"Hullo there, still feeling bitter and twisted about a damn colonial in the Baron's town house?" I asked, with the phone still on speaker.
"You again!" exclaimed the voice at the other end.
"Yes, and I'm damn curious to know just who you think you are!"
"Why I am Elim Magustius, Electrisarian to the Baron by appointment!"
"Indeed! And what was that gibberish you were speaking just now."
"Gibberish! How dare you, sir! I was casting template glamours to determine just why the gong on the Baron's phonarial does not strike when a caller engages his herald code."
"Funny thing, I'm in John Clute's London house too. I'm a guest from overseas."
"A guest? From Australia?"
"Never heard such a thing. What is your estate?"
"Estate? I have a house in Elwood."
"A mere house? That's all?"
"But even I have my own a house."
"How could you be a doctor? I mean, you're artisan class! The fees and levies for a doctorate are over half a million pounds."
Not in my universe, they're not, I thought.
"Well, that's why I only have a small house in Elwood," I improvised.
"You - you bootstrapped?" he gasped. "Above your class?"
"Preposterous! That means you don't fit anywhere! Neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. I mean, why? You don't have the wealth to move in courtly circles, and probably no connections, family ties, nothing."
"I know Baron Clute."
"Well, yes, so it seems. But his lordship is a little different to other nobles. He moves in circles that surprise people for the most part. He knows strange, literary people, and he has thirty thousand books in this town house alone. Can't abide by books, myself. If it can't be memorised, it's not worth knowing."
"And what are your circles, Elim?"
"Why the Esteemed Bretheren of Electrisarians, at whose lodge I am Inspector of Robes."
"Robes? So you have a trade lodge where you meet, wear dresses, and talk -"
"Now just you listen here -"
"Well, that might make you happy, but I think there's more to life than fawning about in front of nobles by day, then dressing up to talk about soldering circuits at night."
"Soldering circuits, sir? How dare you! Women's work! Men speak the secret and arcane control glamours of electrisaria. Besides, men of manners do not discuss their trades at gatherings of the Brethern. I suppose the men in your circle wire up amusing little circuits to pass the evenings?"
"Most of them do."
"Well anyone is free to design a circuit here, man or woman."
"Preposterous! Tradition alone determines circuit design."
"What about new circuits?"
"There are none. Only the gods ordain curcuits, and give them to us by divine revelation."
"What? Bullshit-free zone, please. Even I've designed circuits."
Oh that's nice, coming from someone who relaxes with men who wear dresses -"
"Well what do you do to relax?"
"I like to read in my spare time. That's how I came to do my PhD in literature."
"You studied outside your trade?" he hissed, with all the accusatory menace of a palace guardsman who had just caught me mooning someone with 'Royal Highness' in front of their name.
"Well it started as a hobby," I began, but now I could hear someone walking into the room where Magustius was working.
"Have you not finished in here as yet?" demanded a man in the curiously self-important tone that only the servants of the important and powerful seem to adopt.
"The phonarial's gong is working again, but -"
"But nothing. Lady Mendelson has just arrived, and the Baroness wishes to receive her in here. You have one minute to get out. I shall not have them set eyes on a common electrisarian."
"Could I at least close down the glamour from the reception point in the parlour?"
"No, no, no! Not another word! Come back in the morning if you have work to finish."
I heard footsteps pattering away into the distance, followed by the voice of the electisarian muttering "Slimy little ponce!" before the line went silent.
It did not take me long to tidy up the wiring, reset the toggle switch to normal London, move the bookcases and furniture back, and hide my improvised switch behind an armchair. Finally I collapsed into that same armchair. I let my eyes scan across vast ranks of book spines announcing thousands of titles. There were many, many realities written about here, and most of them were illusion: fictions constructed to entertain, teach or model alternative pasts, presents and futures. All those other realities. Did the sheer number of books about them induce a weakness in the fabric of reality? I knew it was a party joke, yet .... Perhaps it was a very sophisticated party joke. I picked up my dictaphone. The light was flashing, so it was still recording. As I pressed the STOP button I heard Judith opening the door downstairs,
Judith was delighted to have the phone working again, but over a rather early dinner she announced that she had to leave early for her ghost-walk tour that night, and would probably not be back until after midnight. Suspecting that she still had severe doubts about me after the Baron Clute business, I said that jetlag had finally caught up with me, and that I was going to go to bed early anyway. The meal became a little more relaxed after that. I had established myself in the 'peculiar but well behaved' category.
Later, lying in the guest room, I played Magustius' first chant through on my dictaphone several times. The words were vaguely familiar, and seemed on the very edge of making sense without actually locking into a meaning. On a whim, I decided to try to recite it myself, from memory.
"Hajin, mayiey. Ilshitm paracelintia sorreiel avswendt, morissval," I began, and to my surprise I was able to continue on to the end, word-perfect. The words had reassuring solidity, similar to 'circuit diagram' or 'solid state component', and somehow lent themselves readily to being remembered by someone with my background in electronics. Unable to quite grasp what was behind them, I finally lay back and closed my eyes - and was plunged into a snowstorm of lights. It was some time before I thought to open my eyes, such was my astonishment. The guest room was back, everything was normal.
The combination of fatigue, jetlag, coffee overdose, a disrupted routine, and an unfamiliar environment somehow made me more amenable to accepting the surreal. Had the chant ... done something to me? Reset my brain to perceive differently, perhaps?
"My apologies, Elim Magustius, you may be real," I whispered.
Taking a deep breath, I again closed my eyes. It took a while for me to work it out, but all around me were meanings, powers, switches, controls and paths. I was seeing electronic London. Reaching out a hand caused me to produce languid whipcords of light that merged into the surrounding brightness. Trying to get up and walk merely had me flashing down those electronic paths. I noticed that some knots of electrical organisation were moving. Cars, perhaps? Two in particular were moving faster than the others, and both had phones embedded. I activated the phone in the lead car.
"- Benny, please, please stop!" wailed the voice of a teenage girl.
"You just see, I'll lose the pigs!"
"You'll get us killed."
"They're not allowed to push us too hard."
"But you've sideswiped three other cars already. The next one could be a head-on! I don't want to die!"
"And I don't want jail. This is a stolen car, remember?"
All that it took was a tendril of control to reach out from the phone in her bag and caress the car's electronic ignition system. The engine died.
"Pigshit! I've lost power!"
"Oh thank god, we're slowing down."
"Get out, run!"
More streamers of control locked the driver's side electronic door catch and window circuit. I detected the passenger-side door re-engage as the girl slammed it behind her. I locked that door as well. Switching to the radios in the pursuing police car, I allowed myself a little amusement at Benny's expense as I eavesdropped on his arrest.
Over the hours that followed I realised that "Hajin, mayiey" cancels the glamour state as well as heralding it. I did a great deal of electronic exploring, seeing London as nobody else has ever done. My feeling was that in some real yet unreal, parallel London, electronics was a hedgerow art, while electronic witchcraft was the basis of industry. I did not sleep at all, even though I was very tired. I heard Judith arrive home around 1am, then quietly climb the stairs to what was apparently the master bedroom on the floor above.
At around 7am I got up, washed, made myself a coffee, then went to the toggle switch. After some hesitation I slid it across to the phone network of that other place and picked up the handset of the phone.
"You're there at last!" cried a familiar, yet now animated and enthusiastic voice.
"Yes, Magustius, it's me," I said wearily.
"I could hardly sleep, in fact I didn't sleep at all. I made up a circuit! Myself! It was a strange feeling, almost ..." He paused, then dropped his voice to a whisper. "Arousing."
"We must have a serious talk -" I began.
"Oh yes indeed, there is so much to discuss. I tailored my circuit to a control glamour, and do you know what? I was able to trap the logic of my commands within the tailored circuit. Can you imagine that? An ability to construct infinite numbers of subsets of yourself. Why this single idea will change the world, all by itself."
"About our talk -"
"Yes, we must tell each other everything! No holding back! But do be careful, because our link is very, very fragile."
"I've thought about it, and done some subtle test glamours. There's a mass of corrosion around part of a circuit in the Baron's house. I imagine you have a similar one at your end."
"By sheer chance the combination of corrosion, copper wire, insulation, junction box, and screws has set up a sort of semiconductor device. It allows modulated electropotential to leak across between our two existences, and so links our phones. We are from different realities!"
"My tests also confirm that," I replied.
"We can be hailed as the greatest inventors of all time if we keep this circuit secret," continued Magustius. "We can exchange revolutionary ideas from out two quite different technologies, but pretend we are brilliant inventors and take credit for them. What do you say?"
I always try to earn my keep as a house guest, whether that involves fixing a phone or saving the world. All that day I helped Judith to tidy the place, rearrange the furniture, set out the glasses and food, and carry chairs out to the roof garden. John's flight was delayed, so that most of the guests were already there before he got home that evening. By then I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. For a Londoner, there is probably nothing shatteringly significant about a literary party in London, but for an outsider like me it was a chance to join Shakespeare, Chaucer, and even Marie de France in a grand yet casual tradition: standing about at a gathering of creative people with drink in hand and chatting about interesting things.
And that, my dear, is why I need an excuse to leave this party and not return. How can I accept a person's hospitality when I have robbed him of so much? His expression is dripping with reproach whenever he catches my eye, and I could not face a private conversation with him. John Clute and Baron Clute probably discussed only literary matters, they never touched on dangerous things like the electrisarian' glamours. How could I explain to him why I destroyed their link? He has just lost the entire literary history of an alternate Britain. Look, I just want an excuse to leave, no funny business. No, I didn't mean it that way. Yes, I do respect you as a human being. Yes I do find you attractive as a woman. Very attractive. Look, can we leave first, and discuss tonight's sleeping arrangements at some bar? No, I will not run away once we're outside. Yes, of course it will have to be your place, mine is in Australia!