May 122014

A Short Journey Downriver

by Mark Sadler

This story was written in fond memory of Cat Moore:
a girl who loved the cinema.

At first I was unaware of being awake. I stared uncomprehendingly at objects in the room.

It was night-time and the curtains had been drawn across the window. The flimsy greenish-white fabric was patterned with faint grey circles that could have easily been shadows cast by its loosely pleated folds. It occurred to me that I had slept through afternoon visiting. I wondered whether anyone had shown up and, if so, how long they had stayed.

My eyelids felt heavy, as though they were weighted down. It was a struggle to keep them even half open for more than a few seconds. Each ponderous blink presented me with a near-identical snapshot of my surroundings. I imagined my life in those moments as a short loop of film; the same static image going round and round in a projector, getting hotter and hotter. The thought of it made me feel feverish.

Everything seemed to be filtering back to me through a haze of fatigue. A sickly yellow aura saturated the artificial twilight of the room, lending the scene the appearance of an over-exposed photograph. I watched impassively as golden motes of dust rose up from the blanket, stirred into aimless circumvolution by the tiny, exploratory movements of my feet.

The wheeled frame of the over-bed table had been pushed against the far wall. On top, a scuffed plastic jug with grazed sides stood about a third full of a saffron-coloured liquid. In the corner of the room a plastic chair with one of its front legs bent slightly inward was a fuzzy half-silhouette skulking in the incomplete darkness of its own shadow.

A big nurse dressed in a dark blue uniform was standing at the foot of my bed. Her head was bowed. She was writing something down on my chart, which she held at an awkward angle at chest height. It was the perfunctory scratch of her ballpoint pen on the plastic clipboard that had awakened me.

I asked her if it was Christmas yet. My voice, accented by a high-pitched wheeze, sounded frail, like to it belonged to a much older version of myself. Over the course of the afternoon I had gradually slumped from the sitting position that I found most comfortable. The back of my neck was resting halfway down a column of pillows that had been propped upright on their longest sides. Their steep angle was pushing my chin towards my chest. I could feel an uncomfortable prickling sensation in the base of my throat that seemed to be connected, in some way, with a viscous puddle of saliva that was welling up in my mouth.

From the other side of the room the nurse mumbled a belated response:

“It’s just a normal Friday, dear. A few more days then it will be Christmas.”

I asked her if I was dying because it felt like I was. In my semi-conscious dream state I would sometimes find myself overcome by a disorientating combination of weightlessness and nausea that I often mistook for the moment of my death. It was a sensation I had last experienced in my late teens, laughing at the stars and the darkened sky as I stepped off a spinning playground roundabout in the small hours of a Saturday morning, staggering towards what I imagined to be my own misplaced centre of gravity.

I always awoke leaden-limbed, weighted-down by an oppressive feeling of exhaustion that permeated deep into my being and seemed impervious to sleep and bed rest. Enveloped in my own silence I would lie completely still, not wanting to move until I had taken stock and re-accustomed myself to all of my dull aches and sharp pains. These superficial expressions of my illness were pounced upon by a small, revolving team of doctors who quizzed me daily on my symptoms and did their best to bury what I described under layers of medication. Despite their efforts, whenever I slept these scattered morbidities would regroup and creep back to the surface with the steady intent of rising tidal water earnestly reclaiming lost ground.

The nurse had moved to the other end of the bed and was leaning over, adjusting something behind me. I could feel a swampy heat radiating through the man-made fibres of her uniform. She didn’t answer my question but her actions suddenly became more abrupt, as though she was scolding me. I felt a sudden spreading wetness on my arm and the sheet surrounding it.

“Your cannula has come out, dear. I will get someone to help me put it back in.”

She waddled around the bed towards the closed door.

I started to tell her that I missed my cat, but got tired and fell asleep before I could finish my sentence.

I awoke later that night in terrible pain. The on-call doctor gave me a strong sedative. That was when I dreamed lucidly of the Granville – the greatest and most venerable of all the lost rivers that flow beneath the streets of London. A vestige of the biblical flood that had disregarded the heavenly command to drain away from the inundated chalk and clay. Its history stretched across the wide span of millennia. I knew its origin and every inch of its winding course.

The Granville is steeped in the layered archaeology of its patron city; its purpose to dissolve and wash away the burden of the past. There are, still standing in the capital, buildings of a peculiar vintage that depend upon it for their water supply, where a few turns of a four-spoked tap will divert a braid in the stream from its natural course, and send it racing along a copper tributary and juddering out of decrepit, lime-scaled plumbing to fill a waiting sink or kettle. An older generation, now quietly fading into history, still drinks it hot and laced with sugar, like black tea. When asked they will swear that it does them good. You can smell the river on their breath when they talk to you. An archaic odour that they call The London Mouth. “It has the pungent, mouldering air of an opened sarcophagus…” mused the poet Sir John Betjeman during a radio interview conducted at the end of Southend Pier. The buffeting estuary wind caught the remainder of his sentence and carried it out to sea.

I could picture the river at its source: a seasonal spring in Hadley Wood, on the fringes of Barnet, bubbling up from underneath a desiccated carpet of elliptical leaves that overlapped and shoaled together like a raft. Whenever one broke free from the others it would spin around on the thin film of running water; a compass needle in search of an anchorage, becoming momentarily ensnared on crumbs of wet earth, then pulled a few more inches downstream and dragged along in stops and starts until the channel began to deepen and it was swiftly carried away.

From these hesitant beginnings the Granville flows eastward, hemmed in by a spur of granite called the Enfield Spine – not a natural formation, but something man-made from rock that was quarried in Devon during the late Neolithic era. It cradles the channel as if wilfully stalling its inevitable southbound descent into the Thames valley.

For a while the stream skirts along the western perimeter of Tottenham Marshes, dipping above and below ground, eventually disappearing behind a heavy set of rusting iron bars that fence off a narrow, litter-clogged storm drain on Northwold Road.

The remainder of the Granville’s journey is hidden from sight, shrouded in the subterranean gloom of the under city; boxed in; forced to conform to hard angles when it would rather meander. A captive river, seldom seen or acknowledged. It is like one of the loose threads trailing down from the back of the woven map of old London that hangs in the Guildhall. You would think that these hanging strands of cotton were mistakes in the needlework until you pulled on one and watched the whole tapestry – painstakingly hand-stitched over a period of thirty-five years – unravel in front of you.

As the capital grew over the Granville, the foundations of new buildings diverted its underground course and stymied the flow of water in places to a slow drip. I felt like I was one of those obstacles and that, by lying down in the path of the river, I had become a part of it. I could feel it passing through me drop by drop. If I turned my head then sometimes I could see it: a clear liquid dribbling the length of a plastic tube that dangled vertically, like a loose thread, from the metal stand beside my bed, in my dimly lit room.

The Granville sometimes has to pause mid-flow at Colvestone Circus – the main sub-surface junction for underground rivers in east London. Fourteen separate bodies of running water converge upon this point. Like lines on the Tube they intersect, but never come into direct contact with each other. When there is a high risk of flooding, a system of traffic lights holds the water from upstream in small concave reservoirs called pans. The oldest of these was a gift from China, made from toughened porcelain and exquisitely decorated with images of dragons, though few will ever see it. The others are copies cast in a variety of materials depending upon their age.

At Bethnal Green the river passes through Haggerston Sidings – a mass grave of steam locomotives, buried in 1946 during the post-war clean-up of the East End. Here, some of the excess water siphons off from the main channel and becomes isolated in boggy reservoirs. Something in the soil chemistry promotes rapid distillation. Within weeks the standing water metamorphoses into a ground spirit called Hagg Rye that is sold illegally in pubs and behind the counter in small shops up and down the country.

I had the briefest flicker of a mental image: a man striding across common land at dawn. In one hand he carried a spade and a coiled-up, short length of plastic hosepipe. In the other he held a supermarket carrier bag filled with empty two-litre plastic cider bottles. It bounced lightly against the side of his leg as he walked. Bounding ahead of him were the three large mastiff-type dogs that he had trained from a young age to sniff out the underground stills, their tangled silhouettes a chimera rearing up on the horizon, a heraldic crest turned feral.

The corroding rail stock adds a reddish tinge to the Granville which is still present when it reappears a couple of miles further along its course, the water gushing from a grill draped with long strands of green algae embedded in the grainy, rust-stained stone walls of the embankment on the north side of the River Thames; a scattering of rust flakes sprinkled across wavelets, folded into the fast flowing water by the sinews of the current.

Twice a day, when the tide is high, the Thames floods the broad, low-ceilinged underground channel from which the Granville emerges. During the autumn and winter, as the temperature drops, these back surges create localised fogs that linger along Upper and Lower Thames Street. The river that London buried alive rises like a ghost through the porous layers of paving to reassert its claim upon its former overground course. At Tower Bridge and Blackfriars electronic roadside signs, triggered by the diminishing visibility, spell out warnings in a matrix of orange dots, diverting vehicle traffic into neighbouring side streets.

Somewhere above the temporarily abandoned stretch of road, a cinema projector, attached to the wall of one of the low-rise office blocks, will whir noisily into life and beam silent film footage onto the silver curtain of mist: a searchlight picking out hidden details in the fog.

I was staring into a bright, hard, yellow light as if somebody on the far side of the room was shining a small, powerful torch directly in my face. Slowly I became aware of a piece of equipment surrounding it; a dimly backlit digital display in which a trio of numbers changed randomly at a sedate pace. A pair of men were standing in angled profile at the end of my bed. They were deep in conversation and did not notice me looking at them.

I heard the older of the two say: “We can increase the flow on the Colvestone Pump. Hopefully that should move things along in the right direction. Who’s the consultant?”

“Doctor Fisher.”

“I’ll write in the notes now. Are you in tomorrow?”

“No, I’m on nights until January. I think Dagmar and Shabana are on mornings this week.”

“Well, whoever is on can review the situation with Doctor Fisher. Maybe you could leave them a note or an email.”

I closed my eyes. When I opened them again the small room and the two men at the foot of my bed had vanished. I was fully-dressed, slumped on a tatty brown leather couch in a pub that vaguely resembled one that I used to frequent on the corner of Colvestone Crescent and St Mark’s Rise. It was originally called The Wyndham Sail but the new owners changed the name to Charlies. The backrest of the sofa had been pushed against an exposed, low brick wall. Above it a plate glass window, which had the name and logo of the establishment etched into its centre, faced out onto the street.

A hard glint of light was reflecting in repetition off a row of upturned pint glasses that lined a partially enclosed pillared shelf above a bar. Around me I sensed a disorganised hubbub; I felt that I was in the midst of a group of people who were unaware of my presence and immediately occupied any space that I gave up. No matter how small I made myself, or how acutely I angled my legs, there always seemed to be somebody pushing past.

I became aware of a friendly presence sitting in a chair opposite. It was a person whom I had known for a long time but couldn’t place. No matter how we were positioned the sum of their identity never amounted to anything more than an abstract blur of human consciousness, lurking somewhere in the corner of my eye.

As I gradually tuned in to our conversation I realised that I had been talking rapidly and loudly enough to be heard on adjacent tables, accompanying my words with expressive hand gestures, but with no recollection as to what I had been saying. It was as though I had been watching, with disinterest, an understudy playing my role with rather too much enthusiasm and now, having stepped out from the wings and taken over the part, I had missed my cue and stumbled over my lines.

I attempted to conceal my lost train of thought from my companion by staring down at my drink. The pent-up yellow liquid trembled against the thickened sides of the tumbler that contained it, as if longing to escape.

From across the room a rowdy cheer momentarily drowned out the ambient noise of a hundred overlapping conversations. It was followed immediately by a burst of ragged applause that petered out almost as soon as it began. A small section of the crowd parted, revealing the jagged remnant of a broken porcelain beaker, decorated with tiny blue dragons, rolling back and forth on the uneven crazy-paved floor. Around it a pool of liquid was in the process of forming itself into a meandering stream that branched into smaller tributaries as it dogged the imperceptible downward gradient towards the door, disappearing underneath the draft excluder and out onto the pavement.

I immediately felt an immense pressure at my back as if a great surge was pushing against me. As the tension continued to build I instinctively dug my fingers into the leather cushions of the sofa to prevent myself from being pushed onto the floor and swept away.

I stammered to my companion:

“I’m sorry, I can’t remember what I was talking about. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I feel like I should be somewhere else.”

Then there was a rush and the sensation of being carried along at great speed through confined darkness. And then afterwards a feeling of gradually slowing down, like a fairground ride as it coasts to a dead stop.

We emerged into the London night from a long flight of stairs at Monument underground station. The streets were deserted. The offices had turned out for the evening. The small cafes and sandwich bars that served the itinerant population of workers had closed for the day; their bare counters wiped down, their interiors darkened. Blank-faced mannequins dressed immaculately in new suits posed in small artificial groups in dimly lit shop window displays.

A faint mist was creeping along the paved verges of Fish Street Hill. The wet air tasted strangely bitter. I didn’t know where I was going and followed a half-step behind my companion, dawdling over the low kerb and onto the single yellow line that ran parallel to it. A black and white cat, disturbed by the sound of our approach, emerged from behind a red brick pillar that bookended the near side of a betting shop. For a while it padded ahead of us at a brisk pace. I took my eyes off it for a second. When I looked again it had disappeared.

The fog grew more dense as we neared the junction with Lower Thames Street. The apparition of the Granville had risen from its subterranean channel and settled along the length of the dual carriageway. Further back along the road vehicle traffic was already being diverted deeper into the city. The four lanes of tarmac stretched into the mist, silent and empty.

An imposing low-rise office block to our left resembled the curtain wall of an incongruously practical fairy-tale castle, the sweeping curve of its ground floor aligned with the gently up-sloping contour of the road. The building’s pale pink, artificial marble façade, dulled by a silty veneer of grime and traffic pollution, was, at intervals, whitened to a blinding glare by the angled footlights that were cemented evenly along the base of its buttressed foundation.

My companion led me to an enclosed stairwell that occupied the nearest corner of the block. A barred gate, like the door to a cell, had been pushed open as far as it would go. Its bottom edge was wedged into a quarter-circle groove that the metal had etched into the flagstones. A heavy padlock dangled by its own arch from the latch.

The steps smelled faintly of disinfectant. We climbed the two zigzagging flights to the top, joining a walkway that ran the length of the second storey and provided a viewing point overlooking the street. At this height, the moderate curves that defined the building at ground level had surrendered to a more formal, right-angled geometry. Squarish pillars, clad in the same mock stone as the rest of the façade, supported the overhang of the floor above. Waist-high metal railings filled the long gaps in between the columns. At the midway point a footbridge traversed the road, joining up with a similar enclosed walkway that formed an integral part of a building on the opposite side.

Behind a succession of tinted windows, a deserted open-plan office, void of human activity, stretched all the way to the distant opposite wall, silent and composed like a still-life painting. The towering panes of smoky plate glass were separated by narrow frames that divided the scene into sequential panels like a cutting from a film strip – the same barely changing image, repeating itself over and over: spotlights in the ceiling fixing in place the well-defined shadows of the faux-pine furniture; the revolving office chairs upholstered in coarse dark blue fabric; the matt-black flat-screen monitors and keyboards, the bulky desk phones, some with their red message-waiting lights blinking on and off.

We paused beside a section of the guard rail. I jammed my feet underneath so that the tips of my trainers were protruding over the slightly raised lip of the balcony. I wedged as much of the front part of my legs as I could into the narrow gaps between the cold, hard balustrades, and leaned over the side.

When I exhaled my frozen breath added itself to the bank of rising fog that had already obscured the street below. I soon lost sight of the buildings opposite. The footbridge tailed off in mid-air, its far end swallowed up in the mist as if it had been torn from its moorings by the untethered soul of the Granville and carried away on the ghostly current.

Somewhere above our heads, a crippled air-conditioning unit juddered into life. The laboured rattle of its ailing motor, amplified by the vibrations of the loose metal casing that contained it, stirred something in me. I awoke coughing in a small room that was filled with darting silhouettes and blurred light. From somewhere nearby I could hear the low tone of a siren. People were bumping against me. For a moment, I was confused and thought that I had returned to the bar on Colvestone Crescent. I felt hands on me, roughly manoeuvring my upper body into position. Someone tightened their grasp around my wrist, then let go. A palm pressed down firmly on my chest. I closed my eyes.

Above the gallery on Lower Thames Street, the sickening rattle was gradually diminishing, smoothing out to a low drone. I had gained a bearing on its source: an unlovely looking metal box attached to the side of the building another couple of storeys overhead; not an air-conditioning unit as I had thought, but a re-purposed cinema projector, somewhat the worse for wear. Stirred into activity by the darkness and the airborne moisture, it beamed silent, black and white footage from an old movie onto the swirling curtain of water vapour that flooded the canyon between the two rows of office buildings. I saw the words “A Parker J Production” clinging to the silver beads of moisture. A trembling insubstantial image that seemed to inhabit three misaligned spatial dimensions.

“I like to think that this is where the city dreams,” said my companion.

He/she purposefully puffed a white cloud of frozen breath in the direction of the screen.

“What does the city dream about?”

“The same things that we all dream about. A version of its waking life where everything is familiar but different. Maybe it gets lost in its own streets and can’t find its way out. Do you ever have those dreams where it feels like you’re lost in a maze? After a while you realise you’re dreaming but you still can’t wake up…”

Suspended in the wet air before us, a pair of well-dressed, eccentric-looking elderly gentlemen were struggling to operate a gramophone, the efforts of one man undermining those of the other.

I felt the warmth of an invisible hand placed firmly and reassuringly on top of my own. It seemed to me more real than my surroundings; as if, in another reality, there existed a more solid version of myself.

I stared at the back of my bare hands gripping the guard rail and was momentarily overcome by sensations of panic and doubt. When I regained my composure my companion was gone. I was standing at the foot of the enclosed stairwell at the junction with Lower Thames Street.

Once more I climbed the steps. A camera, hidden from sight, was filming sections of the walkway. The projector beamed the footage at odd angles onto the lifting screen of fog, filling the empty space with a disorientating Escheresque caricature of the city.

A dull rheumatic pain bearing an uncomfortable sensation of weight was beginning to creep across my body, the same way that damp will slowly creep across a wall.

Behind me I felt the coercive force of the river that had brought me to this point and continued to urge me onward: the Granville that meandered sullen and unseen beneath the streets of east London like a snagged thread in a tapestry, pulled out of position, searching for its place within the weave. I had been carried along its winding course though pipe and drain, culvert and reservoir. A buckled straight line granted the dimensions of a maze.

I saw myself as a stick that has been plunged partway into water. Something that straddles two unaligned dimensions. The dead weight I carried was something separate from me, accumulated over the passing of years and decades, to be laid down with the alluvium in the mouth of the river. A payment made in return for swift, safe passage.

I started to cross over the footbridge. As I approached the curtain of mist that engulfed the far end I saw, walking towards me, the ghostly image of a woman.

It took a moment for me to identify the figure as my own mirror image, filmed in real time and projected onto the fog. As we drew closer to each other, my body double began to lose definition. Her face, inches from my own, became an incoherent whorl of colour circulating on a swirling haze of water molecules. I passed through the cloud where she had stood. When I looked back from the other side all that I could see was light reflecting on eddies of vapour. The pin pricks of airborne moisture, each one haloed by a small rainbow, drifting beyond the reach of the beam of light, forgetting the identity that had been imposed upon them by the projector.

The fog, having reached its zenith, was now in a gradual downward retreat; the Granville slowly piecing itself back together, returning to its liquid form…

… the delicate vapour settling as a slick sheen on the broad foliage of a plane tree; a slanted trunk that craned outward from the barren graveyard of an old church, compressed into a narrow space between two contemporary office blocks…

… the water funnelling along the shallow guttering of the leaves, splattering onto the pavement below and speckling the bare stone like random tiles in a mosaic…

… the drops merging together, transforming the opaque surface into something that was capable of holding a primitive reflection: a canvas that soaked up the excess light to reveal an abstract image of London as it might be perceived in the slow-moving flow of a river…

… the wet pavement gloss slowly gaining in volume, gathering itself into rivulets that veined the stone slabs, slipping away quietly in the darkness and rejoining the underground river.

From across the bridge I heard the sound of an animal vigorously shaking the moisture out of its fur; the thin jingle of a lightweight bell on a collar.

I turned my back on it and let slip from memory the person I had been.
About the author