Picture by Jovike: Shunting at Bounds Green
August Stokewell has filled three and a half ledgers with plans and suggestions and amendments, but he has uncovered no solution. The Stokewells do not give up, of course, and his enthusiasm remains unabated; but it’s true that the enthusiasm of his collaborators has declined over the months and then years. Nowadays only young Nate Brabicant (who depends for hat money on his stipend from the Rural Sanitary Authority) is in regular attendance.
Stokewell is still full of ideas. One morning he suggests that they limit the food supply to the area. “I understand,” he says, “that the problem for the most part proceeds from Colney Hatch, where the meals are, after all, under administrative control. Can we not ensure that inmates receive precisely the right amount of food to meet their needs, and therefore issue no waste?”
“The digestive system has subtleties beyond its arithmetical operations, and is perhaps not so easily fooled,” Brabicant says, but for six weeks the inmates of Colney Hatch are served cabbage, potato and broth in very careful measure indeed. The success or otherwise of the operation is clouded by the refusal of the wardens to adhere to the new diet for their own meals, but early indications are not unambiguously promising.
“I hold,” Stokewell says, “that the principle is sound, but admit the execution must wait for a similar problem among a more accommodating populace.”
Brabicant sighs. “It seems to me that all the adroit planning in the world will render less assistance to our cause than a week of simple ditch-digging. We are now three years into this investigation, and yet we have discovered no ingenious solution, any more than we have discovered the Philosophers’ stone.”
Stokewell frowns. “The Philosophers’ stone?” he asks. “I thought the Philosophers’ stone was of use in the transformation of base metals only. If it truly works on waste, then of course we ought to begin testing immediately. From the bowels of our lowest will proceed our new rural wealth!” He writes so quickly in the ledger that the ink smudges.
“No, Mr Stokewell,” Brabicant says, “you mistake me. There is no Philosophers’ stone. I was speaking symbolically—”
Stokewell looks up from his notes, disappointed. He puts the pen down. “Symbols are of little use when it comes to drainage and cleanliness, Mr Brabicant.”
Brabicant rubs his forehead. Outside, rain pours down, the puddles fill, the waters rise; paupers grow sodden in their shallow graves. Annabeth Morton and her brother Edwin try to dodge through the raindrops, hurrying toward the uncertain warmth of home. “I trust,” Stokewell says coldly, “you have suggestions of your own, since you care so little for mine as to resort to mockery and symbols?”
“We have not the finances,” Brabicant says, “to lay pipes as practicality urges, and the pipes that we have managed to lay sit alone in the middle of scattered fields, unconnected to their distant fellows. Perhaps several new earth closets?”
“We have built numerous new earth closets with little effect.” Stokewell indicates the page in his ledger which records the decision.
They sit, silent. The rain pours down. Annabeth and Edwin make it home, Edwin somehow far wetter despite his smaller stature. “Laggard,” Annabeth says, reaching the door first and standing just inside, blocking the entrance while Edwin grows damper still.
“Get out of the way, Annabeth, I want to come in,” he says.
“Well come in then,” Annabeth says, but she doesn’t move.
“Perhaps,” distant Brabicant says, “we could dam Bounds Green brook, whence the contamination proceeds.” He leans back in his chair.
Stokewell’s frown disappears, displaced by enthusiasm. He holds no grudges. “It would,” he says, “be an ingenious undertaking.”
They order maps and adjourn the meeting; next week, they pore over the line of the brook. In the end they plan the dam for a shallow pool that appears naturally, after the water flows through the graveyard and past Colney Hatch but before it joins up with Pymme’s brook. Brabicant doubts the plan’s efficacy—the capacity of a cheap dam is not, after all, infinite—but what else is he going to do?
Edwin coughs in bed; Annabeth, chided daily by the rest of the family, insists that he’s feigning, but she has trouble getting to sleep all the same.
Stokewell summons engineers, and plans his budget.
It’s that Saturday morning—a sunny day, with a fresh pleasant breeze—that cholera breaks out. Brabicant and Stokewell decline to continue their weekly meetings in such perilous surroundings, so their project falls by the wayside. Brabicant’s hats suffer. The Rural Sanitation Authority has taken too long.
Edwin, on the other hand, stops pretending to be sick, at least once one or two of the neighbours have died. Annabeth’s righteous fury fills the small house, dense and silent. It’s a very long time before he dares to be with her alone.