At this end of the street, beyond the terraces, someone had dumped an old sofa, a dead television and some fractured chairs against a wall, creating an al fresco lounge. The walls of the school had been daubed with luxuriant graffiti and stencilled slander, marked with the initials IDST ('If Destroyed, Still True'). Around the next corner was a van-repair centre, a hostel and a block of spacious loft apartments. Different worlds abutted without touching.
Mr Singh slipped a disability permit on to the dashboard. 'I have to use this,' he explained, 'Camden has zoned all the streets and they'll tow me away otherwise, the greedy cash-grabbing bastards. They've no respect for a decent educated man. What are their qualifications, I'd like to know?'
Bryant smiled to himself. Benjamin was still confusing culture and commerce, even though it was twenty years since they had last met. 'Number 5, you say?' He waved his stick at the littered front garden. Although it appeared relatively prosperous, the street had obviously seen better times. The houses had been amended with white porches, sills and railings, probably Edwardian additions, but these had started to corrode, and were not being replaced. Each house had two floors above the road, one floor below. It was starting to spit with rain, and the front steps looked slippery. At Bryant's age, you noticed things like that.
Mr Singh had trouble with the keys. He seemed understandably nervous about going back into his sister's house. Bryant could detect a sour trace of damp in the dark hall. 'Don't touch anything,' he warned. 'I shouldn't really let you lead the way, butwell, we still do things differently at the PCU.' He tried the lights, but nothing happened.
'They disconnected Ruth after she refused to pay the bill,' Mr Singh explained. 'She was gettingI wouldn't say crazy; difficult, perhaps. Of course, we were raised by oil-light, because our grandmother retained fond memories of her home in India. But the basement here is always dark, and the stairs can be treacherous. Wait, there are candles.' He rattled a box and lit a pair.
Bryant saw Mr Singh's point as they descended. 'You found her down here?' he asked.
'This is the puzzle, as you will see.' Mr Singh entered a shadowed doorway to the left of a small kitchen. The size of the bathroom took Bryant by surprise; it was disproportionately large, taking up more than half of the basement. The old lady was tiny, as dry and skeletal as a long-dead sparrow. She was seated on a large oak chair, her booted feet barely reaching the floor, her head tilted back on a single embroidered cushion draped over the top rail, her hands in her lap, touching with their palms up. The position looked comfortable enough, as though she had simply dropped back her head and died, but Bryant felt this was not a place where one would naturally choose to sit. There was no table or stool, nowhere to place a light, nor were there any proper windows to look out of. The chair was a piece of furniture on to which you would throw your clothes. Ruth Singh was dressed for going outside. She was even wearing a scarf.
'You see, this is all wrong,' said her brother, turning uncomfortably in the doorway. 'It doesn't seem at all natural to me. It's not like her.'
Excerpted from The Water Room by Christopher Fowler Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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