‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ by N. K. Pulley

N. K. Pulley has just graduated after spending three years wandering around Oxford with a bewildered expression. After that she went to teach for a month or so in China, where people sometimes crossed the street to take a photo of her; this caused her to be even more bewildered, so now she mainly lives behind a laptop, looking up bits of Victorian history and learning Japanese. She likes London enough to write about it and she hopes to live there one day, possibly with a cat. For the moment, she’s got a guppy called Charles.

You can read the first part of the story for free below. If you would like to read more please order the second issue of Alt Hist.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

by N. K. Pulley

Thaniel Steepleton was moving out of his flat. He didn’t know where to yet, but it was something to do. Tomorrow was an important day at work, very important, and rather than worry today about the strong possibility of dying there, he preferred to worry about his tap water, which had lately produced several things that were still growing in a goldfish bowl. So at four o’ clock on the grey afternoon of the twenty ninth of May in the year 1884, his half day off, he consulted the The Times for somewhere else to live.

He liked the noise that a newspaper made when you folded it. It was the only thing he liked about newspapers; he had to read them through spectacles, and spelling mistakes annoyed him because as a clerk he felt that bad spelling was one step away from bad speech, which was within hopping distance of being Welsh. Mr Penderly who lived upstairs thumped on the ceiling and dust trickled down into the crease in the paper. Thaniel turned to the back few pages for the advertisements. The bang came again and he hid under the table. He looked down the page.


For respectable gentlemen;

Must be quiet and like cat’s.

‘Christ,’ he mumbled. He circled the advert anyway in case there was nothing else, but in the next column there was a Mr Holmes who needed to share the cost of his apartment in the unfashionable part of Kensington. That looked much more promising- Mr Holmes was familiar with grammar at least- and then at the very bottom of the crowded page there was a third note.

27 Filigree Street

House to share.

Must not hate children.

Ask for Mr Mori.

Thaniel wondered what kind of name Mori was; it sounded Italian to him, and he tapped his pencil against it uncertainly. He had been to Italy once and he wasn’t sure he wanted to live with an Italian. They were all charming and good-looking and he doubted if his pride would be up to it, being as he was an ordinary Englishman of no great stature and no striking feature, apart perhaps from his serious eyes. The ceiling creaked and he bolted for the door.

Beyond this door was the grimy side of Westminster. All of London was fairly grimy from the combined smoke of the trains, the oil lamps, the steamers on the Thames and the factories, but the east of Westminster was grimy in a fascinating, complicated sort of way that Thaniel much preferred to the rolling countryside of Derbyshire where he had grown up. On the other hand, Derbyshire had fewer suspicious-looking people. Thaniel felt nervous as he went by some men who were leaning against the pedestal of Nelson’s Column, smoking in a watchful way. They were talking to each other with Irish accents, he noticed. He gave them a wide berth. It was racism but the healthy kind, he happened to know. He had often wished this year that he had not been the one to receive the telegram from Scotland Yard: for six months now that telegram had plagued him with the urge to be elsewhere whenever he heard an Irish accent. He tried to put it out of his mind.

In the following hour he learned that Mr Holmes did chemistry experiments with exploding gherkins and that Mrs Evans ran more of a cattery than a boarding house. Shell-shocked and puffy-eyed, he trailed on to Filigree Street, which was the furthest away in Knightsbridge, and knocked on the door of number twenty seven. It was an old house with a birch tree in its garden and a slate roof that framed an arched window. He didn’t let himself like it. There would be an Italian inside.

Slightly before he knocked, the door opened inward and haloed with empty space a delicate man who was not Italian. Instead he had slanted eyes and black roots in his light hair. Thaniel paused, wondering how somebody who needed to share a house could afford an oriental servant.

‘Um, I’m looking for Mr Mori. There was an advert in the newspaper,’ he explained.

‘Yes, come in,’ the man said in an English accent. Thaniel blinked and followed him through a passageway and into the warm parlour. It was bare except for a sunbeam and a piano. The foreigner gave him one of the cups of tea that were steaming on the edge of the hearth.

‘Is he in?’ Thaniel ventured.

‘I’m Keita Mori.’

‘I- oh,’ said Thaniel, flustered. ‘I’m sorry, I thought- well. I’m Thaniel. Thaniel Steepleton.’

Mr Mori sat down on the hearth to cross his legs and rest his forearm over his knee. He seemed to be waiting for something.

Thaniel hesitated. ‘You said in your advertisement that I wasn’t to mind children?’

Mr Mori held up one thin finger. ‘Wait for it.’

‘For … what?’ Thaniel said, beginning to feel unsettled in the silent house and the sparkling dust.

Through the wall there came such a shouting that Thaniel would have been unsurprised to discover a murder on the other side, but then it dissolved into the hysterical laughter of a herd of small children.

‘No, that’s fine,’ he gushed, relieved.

‘I hoped so. Would you like to see upstairs?’

‘If you wouldn’t mind,’ said Thaniel, and was pleased to find a very clean, spacious room with no Mr Penderly and nothing crustaceous in the water from the new tap. ‘Can I ask what you do for a living?’ he said as they went back down the steep stairs.

‘I’m a watchmaker.’ Mori gestured to the open door opposite, where there was a workshop full of clockwork devices that were not watches, but Thaniel was distracted by the man’s wrist. It could have belonged to a child, probably one with consumption. ‘I came from Japan,’ he added, wrongly but usefully interpreting Thaniel’s stare. ‘There’s a war there and I find that London is as good a place to sell watches as Kyoto.’

‘Is it very different?’

‘No, of course it isn’t. People have their families and their factories and their preoccupation with tea.’

Thaniel laughed. Mr Mori smiled too and Thaniel wished he would do it more often. The smile drew faint lines around his eyes like the cracks which appear beneath the varnish of old porcelain. It gave him the look of an expensive doll, made with great care but then abandoned in sunlight for many years longer than its childlike features intimated.

‘May I sign the lease? The sooner I can move in the better, really. Is the day after tomorrow all right?’ Thaniel asked.

‘It’s in the workshop,’ said Mr Mori.

Thaniel followed. He knew that it was selfish to mislead Mr Mori, who must have thought his new tenant was unlikely to explode before paying the month’s rent, but suddenly it was important to have something to look forward to in case he didn’t explode. And he could look forward to living here. It was lovely, and besides, Mr Mori was too tiny to make half as much noise as Mr Penderly, even if he came downstairs every morning on a pogo stick.

Something of a vaguely biomechanical nature waved at them as they came into the workshop, while across the shelves and the worktop, thousands of workings clicked and sussurated.

Thaniel watched, fascinated, while Mori tried to prise the lease papers away from what seemed to be a small but determined clockwork spider. It let go with a huff of hydraulics.

Mori took no notice and instead looked down at Thaniel’s pocket as he handed over the papers. ‘Your watch is broken,’ he concluded, once Thaniel had signed.

‘How on earth did you know that?’

‘It’s a knack.’ Without looking backward, he put his thin hand behind him and picked up one of the five or six watches sitting on the worktop. ‘If you leave it with me you can have this one while I mend yours.’

‘Oh. Thank you very much.’

Thaniel took the watch Mr Mori gave to him. When he opened it he found a watch-paper inside, a little circle of paper cut to fit precisely within the lid. There were patterns on it that must have been drawn under the microscope with pen nibs as fine as a strand of hair, and a complex etching of vines around Mori’s name in copperplate script. He looked up and saw that Mori was watching him.

‘I’ll bring my things here on Friday after work. What do I owe you for the watch?’

‘Nothing.’ He looked up at him for a moment. He had very black eyes, Thaniel thought. It wasn’t often you saw somebody with black eyes rather than brown, black that stayed black even in bright light. He could see small reflections of himself in them. With no change in his expression, Mr Mori seemed to lose interest and Thaniel knew that the strange man had decided the conversation was finished before he said anything. ‘Take the umbrella, you can bring it back tomorrow.’

‘Day after,’ Thaniel reminded him. ‘It will be a busy day tomorrow, I don’t think I shall be away from Whitehall before nine.’ He tried to say it firmly, as though leaving were certain, but he didn’t think he succeeded. He looked at Mori and wished he would smile again. It would help to make the conversation seem inconsequential if he would smile, or at least not look so solemn with his mirror eyes.

‘Well, I shall be here whenever you like.’

‘It doesn’t look cloudy,’ Thaniel observed as he opened the front door.

‘No, it’s for tomorrow, there’s going to be a storm.’

‘But it’s nearly June.’

Mori shrugged: he was only the messenger. Thaniel didn’t ask him how he knew that he, Thaniel, had no umbrella of his own. He had an feeling, a prickling on the back of his neck, that said the man would be able to tell him the number and timetable of the train to Derby he’d left his own umbrella on. Of course it was a silly feeling and he was embarrassed about it, so he rounded things off quickly and said,

‘I’ll see you on the thirty first.’

‘You’re going to be all right tomorrow, Mr Steepleton.’

Thaniel froze. ‘What?’

‘You look very worried. There’s no need.’

‘Oh …’ said Thaniel, who had signed the Secrets Act. He tried to think of an excuse that didn’t have to do with Irish terrorists, but the reason he worked sending and receiving telegrams was that the more interesting professions of authorship and journalism were closed to him, on account of his having the imagination of a cashew nut. ‘I’m not worried, it’s just my face.’

Mori smiled. He stood in the doorway to see Thaniel go, slouching with one shoulder against the frame and his arms crossed as though somebody had cut all his strings. Thaniel hesitated at the garden gate to look at him but then gave himself a shake and took a cab home to try and get some sleep before an early start tomorrow, and what promised to be an exhausting day.

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