They speak in low, jumping tones. They love little jingles and rhymes. When they write, it’s tortured and simple, polished in all the places you don’t expect; they have a sense of humor you can’t anticipate, can’t dodge. Few specimens survive, and those that do you find in used bookshops, high-class restaurant menus or the laminates of certain dim pubs, unremoved public announcements in the city’s old towns—and, now, in the letters I want to show you here, addressed to me by one of their representatives or elders. It’s really their English you notice first, the way they use it: not like anyone I know back home, not like anyone I’ve met anywhere else.

Lamech Breese—that’s how he ends his letters—has been writing to me for three months. It started after I put out in the papers a call for attention from any strange, underrepresented, very new, or very old demographics in the city. I wanted to track what was going on below the Home Office’s nose; I was bored house-watching all winter anyways. These days, I’m busy with the work, more so than I have time to talk about here. The letters came in fast from diverse groups and diverse corners, most of them barely literate fragments or grunts or else in obscure languages (sent up north for translation), one of them just a piece of old thick paper soaked in urine and another all passages composed (I learned after long study) of poetical acrostics.

This is what Breese says about his childhood: “I was born in a port-town. From early on, my sense of time divided itself along rubrics. A new ship came in every two hours. Until I was old enough to be embarrassed by it, my mother would bring me down to the docks with the other children. We would watch the ships come in, and each of us had our favourite captains and our favourite flags. Mine were a squat red-faced man with icy pale eyes who flew the green and gold and his town’s dragon walking across the flag. When I saw him drinking in our pub once, my friends Huw and Archy convinced me to tap on his shoulder. ‘Sir,’ I said, hovering my hand over his chainmail seaman’s sweater, ‘sir, I simply would like you to know that you inspire me.’”

Breese was, relatively, a late correspondent. His letters don’t arrive by the regular mail, didn’t start coming for a month after my ad; I suspect he delivers them himself. Once I heard a crash and stuck my head out the window. I saw a rainy, lean figure threatening a fox in the street and then sprinting away. I’ve heard other little noises at all hours of the day and especially at night. In one letter, he tells me, “I do hope your camarade de chambre”—he favors useless foreign insertions—“is doing well enough. She lolls all day like a great (now extinct!) Greek lion.” And it was true: my roommate Cat had leapt somehow in front of a particularly mean Hyundai and had taken to lying spread-eagle-concussive out in our back garden. I was worried about her, but more worried about his snooping. I told Hank to carry our Gurkha knife on him after that.

In another letter, Breese explains his education. When he was a young man, his people still more or less had a handle on the school system. The surprising thing is how by-the-books his memories are: you can read this type of thing anywhere, by anyone. He talks about “the cool echoing forgotten courts, where the arch-walks seemed to bend one more back into time than through and around space.” There are spring and winter traditions, summarily marked with excerpts from neo-classicizing student satires. He mentions friends and acquaintances—all male, and each allotted a few primary traits, like academic prowess or interest, bravery, a liking for a certain cut of coat, notable eye and hair color, wealth or poverty, taste in books and women, and so on. The universities at that time being safely monastic on the gender question, we hear a bit concerning “furtive excursions across the river into those misty zones of joy called in official sarcastic patois ‘women’s colleges’” and a bit more about “our darkest, palest sins with each other—my friend X’s slivery milk-silver thighs, poor rough cripple he, and the fires we lit without words in that bramble. Solve for that X how you will, my curious reader: he has become a minor far-rightist, as impotent now as he was virile then.” In general (a theme that continues in all Breese’s letters) women remain far off, obscure; a widening gap in the anthropological record that I need to fill with more research.

Breese graduated with a middling degree in Modern History (“a case of sloth, understand; for my final exam I wrote merely: ‘They tried to make Elizabeth impound the tonnage, but the splendid creature wouldn’t budge’—not, evidently, First material”). After that, he claims he did what they all used to do and moved to London. “Unapt,” he says, “for honest or dishonest employ, I made my unpractical way through a city of fog and marble. First, I was a newspaper man, fired for reporting against what I thought threatened to prove an incursion into our country—those cheap sushis sprouting under glass in every other shop; then I attempted Parliament, standing, unsuccessfully, for my home district. I found the miners (our town’s main native industry) had all forgotten me and the sailors (heroes of my youth) had all sailed away. Husting at the pub one night, I drank up speculations with a man who claimed he could make my fortune while also assuring me the MP seat. A year later, I found myself out of office, penniless, wandering between flats furnished by friends’ mothers-in-law or potential fiancés.”

The letters after that become evasive on autobiography. As far as I can gather, Breese entered the current state of his tribe earlier than the rest—circling London, tripping over and lying passively in the street, bird-watching or butterfly-catching instead of finding a place to stay. He falls in and out of crowded, hot apartment rooms, each one smaller and more temporary than the last; often he resorts to hovels and encampments. The saddest parts are his notes about contemporary life, always approached from an uncomprehending point of view. On the Tube: “Swirling, loud, the advertisements are brutal and everywhere. Claptrap poetry on the walls. I do not know—nor wish to know—when and why people began to want wires running up around their heads, but I do hope they accustom themselves in future to acting with some manners.” On commerce: “Our merchants have become sleek and domineering. I never realised how many shops there were to have. And why does everything have to be so clean and bright? and when did people demand such grotesque, blaring music?” On the young: “I don’t recognise them and their types (italics his). London itself: “By this point, a mistake.”

He also offers his thoughts on theoretical issues. The other afternoon, I was sitting around our living room trying to read his ideas about Homer (the Iliad and Odyssey evidently took place in the Atlantic) while I was waiting for the thousandth realtor to come kick around our attic. Hank loped in and said, “Big guy, you’re still on that? Let’s clean out the mess in the kitchen, make a good clean lunch.” Cat wandered in and stood speechless before one of our inherited paintings, a goose rearing back its question-mark neck in a rictus of contempt. Maybe Hank was right to be impatient; I keep reading Breese’s ramblings on stuff like ecclesiastical history (“laces and lances, brutish beatitudes”) hoping to stumble across important info.

As far as I can get from the hints I do find in the letters, most of Lamech’s people live in West London, near a bricky confluence of street corners between the Polish and Japanese quarters off Walpole Park. It’s true that some of them look like they could be Polish or Japanese or a mixture of the two, though they’re not. I keep asking both of these groups where they came from; nobody can answer. One man glanced at me and said, “everyone comes here from somewhere, but not them” and then kept walking like he had showed me something lewd. I’m seeing them in other places too: wandering Hampstead Heath, turning up stones in Richmond, sometimes unaccountably far as Greenwich or Isle of Dogs shouting about public gardens and disturbing the peace.

It’s hard to have a conversation with them. They run away if you look like you’re about to talk. The authorities refuse to acknowledge their existence. You don’t see anything about them on the standard curricula; there’s rumors of a special collection in the Bodleian that has some artefacts (a ring displaying behind glass the braided snow-blonde hair of one of their most famous poets, a Bible supposedly translated into a much earlier form of their vernacular). Only the most approved scholars get access. My friends at the university tell me that their archivist, a dark snub-faced man with an unpronounceable last name, gets leery about signing off to new-comers.

I’ve taken to being shameless about asking around for evidence, trying to find out anything I can about Breese’s “little remnant, that race of Cagots without a nook, without anything to comfort us except our name.” A woman (her name was Kabi Kowalska and I bought red bean pastries off her for a month before she trusted me enough to talk) told me that there are still whole villages of them by the cliffs to the south. I trust her; I can’t get down there at the moment, have too much to do in the city, but I promised her I’d investigate as soon as the roads opened up. I want to confirm if they still play what is called the whistling game, if they still eat brown lunches and if their clothes smell like mold and radiators.

He ended his last letter with a lament. His referents become vaguer and vaguer; I can’t tell you what he’s crying about: “77 times, and 77 more, we have lost ourselves. Cane and sugar, oak in the channel. I am a man without a home. My street and cities—they don’t exist; my ports, my ships, my captain. Listen to me: it will visit upon you too, and everyone else on this earth.”

Breese has stopped writing recently, but I’ve found one of his haunts. Hank and I hunt around in the city wherever we see others of his kind; we’re making a catalogue of their whereabouts, mapping out their hasty bivouacs. We’ve disturbed a few camps—under bridges by the river, in warehouses, basements and rotting sheds—where we think Lamech must have been. The last one was hunched along the side of a Pret that used to be a museum. We saw a row of dead magpies leading back around the corner.  When we turned onto the nest we saw it had been abandoned. Their tattered, suppressed flag—blue weeping red—draped across a low line of rain-beaten books. Hank picked one up: “‘Make you a sword of me?,’” he read, mock-heroic in the cold. Rubber boots stood in the corners; chipped porcelain cups, thickly smelling tea bags; unused opened condoms lying like limp snakeskins.

We found a notebook filled with Breese’s tight-fit scrawl. I haven’t begun reading it yet. Soon, when I’ve properly edited and published the letters, I’ll work through it, but every time I think of that book, a sort of sadness fills me—a longing for something I know well but can’t name.

Hank looked at me in the nest and said, “Who are these people? This is an anxious little land; it’s got some anxious little people.” He paused. I looked at the chalk inscription washing half-away in the rain. One of the natives must have written it, a frail remembered saying, ‘…ome Is His Castle.’ “I’m glad we’re moving soon, getting out of that old place and its weird paintings—can’t wait for it to be sold. What’s wrong with them?” I nodded. “Big guy, what’s wrong with them?” Bright foil chairs clatter-hopped in the wind. We walked home, stopping on the way for curry. I wanted some foreign food—fish and chips maybe, a shepherd’s pie—but Hank was feeling traditional.