Dictes moy ou, n’en quel pays,

Est Flora la belle Rommaine?

Archipiades ne Thais

Qui fut sa cousine germaine?

Echo parlant quant bruyt on maine

Dessus riviere ou sus estan

Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu’humaine?

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?Villon, Le Testament, 42

Behind the cathedral the sky was beginning to pale. Despite the cold, and the snowflakes finding the gap between his collar and his neck, Metis stood still, his eyes drawn from their object as he watched instead the purples dwindle and the light intensify. Dipping into his jacket again, he brought out his lighter (not his exactly but the latest in a sequence of foundlings that somehow kept arriving in his clothes), struck downward with his thumb, tearing the silence softly, and lit.

From where Metis stood he had an unbroken view of the square. The ca- thedral was hemmed in on both sides by terraces of redbrick mansion flats: stone porticoes, marble steps, flowing wrought iron balconies, and deep bay windows with ornate stone dressings. Behind the chancel stood the cheaper, plainer buildings of a charitable trust. The front of the cathedral faced the high street, looking out from the square between a mirror-clad office block and a gaudy fast-food joint.

A corner of the church had begun to glow through the black specks ris- ing and falling against it. Red bricks and white, in horizontal stripes descending from the tower to the square, its polychromy, a piece of Ruskin’sVenice, seemed strangely unmoored amid the glass and steel and concrete, the mansions and council flats, private estates and charitable trusts, here, between the Southern Railway terminus and the buildings of parliament down-river.

His thoughts fixed not upon government or the Church but the coming of the railway: how it had grown from this place in the heart of the city, then sliced its way out through the crescents and garden squares, making with speed for the coast; how it had driven with its coming the elegant white people from their elegant white houses to the villages north and west; how the smuts from the funnels of its engines had turned the white walls grey, the red bricks black, and how, with that new growth, another community had bloomed. The place had become a suitcase town, a magnet for transient encounters, the terraces of family homes around the station transformed into bedsits and cut-price cheap hotels; a district of atomised rooms where the cases arrived and lay open on turned-down sheets for a month, a week, a day, before quietly closing and vanishing again. And it was this, the rail- way, Metis found himself thinking as he raised a hand to stroke his razored chin, that had brought him, this last time, to this spot, too.

Across the blue piazza the restaurant flickered into life; a suited figure came forward, grappled with the doors, then retreated into the back. Metis threw down his cigarette, crossed the edge of the square, and went in under the sign of the golden arches.

Tinsel poptones drifted from the ceiling as he placed his order with a girl wearing a cardboard crown who greeted him with a smile and in an ac- cent – Polish, maybe? – that he couldn’t reliably pin down. He watched her as she put his food together: a blossoming teenager working all hours to scrape next month’s rent and, if she was lucky, the price of a decent night out. He tried to picture her in normal clothes, shopping for the latest gear, or drinking in a pub, or queuing behind the crimson catenaries of a West End club, her hair down or elaborately fixed, her make-up freshly immacu- late. But the leap was just too far.

Taking his change and dropping the shrapnel in the Christmas box on the counter, Metis moved to a table in the back. Another view of the cathedral from here, and the gift shop tucked into its side; and just under the window, down at his right hand, piles of bags and bins against the wall. Some of the bins were lidded, others overflowed; most of the sacks were tied and stacked but others slumped with open throats disgorging their crap into the square. Pigeons scrapped among cartons and cups, red-cheeked Santas, holly sprigs and ribboned bells; and here, too, under the hot-air blowers, the big kitchen ventilators expelling heat and the smell of cooking oil, in the crook of wall and pavement, other shapes lay.

Some squatted with their backs to the window, nodding faintly on the edge of sleep; one rubbed his hands through fingerless gloves, then picked his way through the meagre larder of his nails. Others lay foetal, their dreads tucked in their arms. A privileged few hugged blankets; most relied for insulation on newspapers, yesterday’s rags. All were huddled here for warmth, sharing the spot with the ratlike birds and the packaging of food that was not theirs to eat.

The fallen ones, the dispossessed, the city’s losers, these: people caught be- tween food and God, able at this moment to reach neither. Here, it seemed to Metis, in this inner-city square, the difference between failure and suc- cess – what the modern world tended to look on as ‘failure’ or ‘success’ – was as slender as a single pane of glass.

A sadness touched him; and something else: a familiar, scuttling anxiety. Characters like these belonged in the past – to costume dramas, novels, history books, not the here and now in flesh and blood, freezing to death with nowhere to go in the city that had seemed to him when he was grow- ing up to be a thrilling place, a place of infinite possibility, a place even of greatness. And even as that memory played across his mind, one of the sleepers from among the bins had staggered to his feet and started reeling round the square, swinging a bottle from his outstretched arm and sloshing its contents into the snow while shouting up at the whirling sky like some blind king declaiming his poetry of ruin. The fact that he was wearing a woman’s jacket – pillar-box red with sheepskin collar and cuffs, quite long, tapered at the waist and tied with a thick black belt – and that Metis was seated so close to his display and yet occupied (for now at least) an entirely separate sphere, only strengthened the illusion that the scene was part of some elaborate production. But of course it was all too real.

In the warmth and cheer of the restaurant Metis shivered, and bent his head to the newspaper that lay on the table in front of him, hoping for a moment to distract himself from the reason he had come here.


For a while the square was otherwise deserted. Most of the people from the mansion flats would have finished their Christmas shopping by now and have headed out of town to their second home – the cottage in Suffolk or Dorset or Wiltshire, or further out, on the Celtic fringe. A weak flare in the eastern sky, the snow still falling fast. Christmas Number Ones tinkled through the ceiling: ‘A ray of hope flickers in the sky . . .’

Just then two girls came into the square. They trod with care, digging in their heels, afraid of slipping on the ice and snow. At first they struck out in the direction of the flats, but halfway across they changed tack and came towards the window. An audience with the king, Metis said. For the man in red, hav- ing drained himself of soliloquy, had returned to the rubbish-pile against the wall and plonked himself down on a flattened cardboard box, where he now sat cross-legged, his hands in his lap and his head hung down.

Arriving at his throne, one of the girls brought from her purse a two-pound coin. Metis touched his thigh where the weight of his own coins had chafed the skin, and took a sip of burnt-tasting coffee. The girls hesitated in front of the king. They were almost on top of him, right by the glass, and sensing someone there he cocked his head and met his benefactor eye to eye. For much longer than they needed to, the girls just stood, seeming not to register the quick ex- tension of the sleeve, nor the graze of the old man’s fingers, till long after the contract had been sealed, the coin removed from their life into his.

Not old in years, though, Metis corrected; but old before his time. A bat- tered rucksack lay beside him, the neck of an unstrung guitar poking out. His shoes, if they could be dignified as such, were the remains of a pair of ancient trainers with hanging soles and chewed-out toes. The long, untidy beard, more than streaked with grey, added to the impression of old age. But that gleam in the eye: there was still a spark, a kind of glitter there, a glitter that held – how could he put it – something defiant: some fight. But something lighter, too, amid all the hardship: humour. Amusement. A glimmer of delight. Some savour of a good life, his capacity for pleasure unquenched despite it all.

Slowly, mechanically, as if tipped off centre by the weight of gold in his palm, the man in red leaned forward and delved in his sack. Metis watched as he brought something out – a photograph, it looked like. With the same stiff action he straightened up, his wooden hams fixed below the spine, then just as slowly turned his head, now left, now right, to scan the square, looked up at the cathedral tower, sniffed the air, raised a finger to his lips, in a second withdrew it, and began again to speak.

With leaden fingers Metis groped his pocket for the picture he himself had brought, anxiety darting in his gut.


More seasonal chart-toppers filtered down through the restaurant’s false ceiling: ‘Santaclaus is comin’ to town . . . Last Christmas I gave you my heart . . .’ And suddenly a memory: a scene Metis had revisited often down the years, triggered this time by a coincidence of elements: the cathedral; music; a teenage girl; the colour red; snow. There was a church, and a church hall, south of the river, in the suburbs where he grew up; and next to the hall a presbytery, with the minister’s insignia carved in relief above the door and freshly painted in primary colours, with a motto in Latin under- neath, the raised letters picked out in black. The front garden of the priest’s house was divided from the pavement by a low stone sill which had once held railings, but the iron had long since been sheared away – to make Spitfires during the war, he was told when he was very young. And there they were: he and Samantha, his second ever girlfriend, four o’clock-ish on a winter evening in the week before Christmas, just before school finished for the term. They were trailing home in the near dark hand in hand, talking about the band they were seeing that weekend, or a party at a friend of a friend’s; and as the snow fell faster they hopped into the garden and began to fight, dashing around on its deeply covered lawn, scooping up snow in their gloved and ungloved hands, Samantha in the purple blazer, tunic and beret of the local private school, he in drainpipe black, laughing and shout- ing, charging and skedaddling, now and then crouching to gather ammuni- tion before the next icy shot stung their necks again.

Sitting here now, on the blue cathedral square, he saw Samantha’s freely freckled cheeks, the upturn of her polkadotted nose, the fiery braids whip the air as she dodged and ran and crouched to pack more snow. As they fell together laughing, breathless, squeezed each other tight and kissed, he looked again into those dare-you eyes, smiled himself to come face to face with hers – the hugest, most unbridled smile – and laughed with her again as her great ribald laugh, so out of keeping with her tiny frame, roared her lust for life. He had loved those things about her, and had worshipped her beauty – worshipped, yes – from the moment he laid eyes on her. And he was not the first – no, he was not alone in that, to have felt the danger of extravagant beauty, to know the threat of eyes and lips and breasts – nor would he be the last.

Worship. Love. To Metis words of innocence, belonging to another time. But it had been true: the words were not too strong. And never, he thought, had those feelings been truer than on that winter’s day, a day he knew he would never forget – might die remembering – that weekday evening in the priest’s house garden, on the corner of the road that went uphill to hers, she fifteen, he seventeen, with all of their lives – lives of limitless potential, they felt, great lives maybe – still to come: he and Samantha – who was going to be an actress – in her purple blazer and tunic, a beautiful girl in a garden in the snow, whose father had died at the wheel of his car, in his garage, behind locked doors, one February day when she was nine.

Metis turned back to the scene in the square. The girls had disappeared but the lips of the king still moved. Dark flakes tumbled in the colourless sky, eddied in the angles of the cathedral walls, spouted into the bright gaps between. How toylike they were, how unreal it all seemed: he, Metis, in this plastic restaurant; those two best friends; the group among the bins – toys, yes, toys and actors, players and playthings all. He wanted to believe that they could have their time again; that time and space were infinitely fluid; that you only had to think hard enough and anything could happen. He wanted to imagine they were all involved by some fluke in a game, the tiny figures in a perspex dome that had been lifted, inverted and set back down by some superhuman hand, as he watched the man in red shoulder his sack and trudge towards the road, his lips moving for an audience of no one, under the snow-spangled sky.

Metis lowered his eyes from the window. Swirled the dregs of his coffee in the bottom of his cup, knocked them back and stood up. ‘So this is Christ- mas, and what have you done?’ accused the song. Fingers in one pocket, he went out under the golden arches and walked into the square. Apart from the odd flake, the sky was blank and soft as he passed beneath the inscrip- tion carved above the cathedral doors.



A gritter crawled down Victoria Street, a black cab in its wake. Behind the cathedral, a convoy of mail vans flashed red in front of the charity build- ings, dodged out of sight and emerged for an instant on the west side of the church before losing themselves beyond the mansion flats in the great grey lab of the capital, their rolled-down tailgates clattering into the distance over potholes, manholes, drains.

Metis scanned the pavements up ahead for the figure receding down Victo- ria Street, spied the red coat he was seeking, and followed.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.