The day doesn’t really start till 6, so I usually get up at 5 to have a look around before anyone else is about. That hour is my time, when the world belongs to me because no one else is up. Except Geoff. Geoff works at the dock. I know he’s called Geoff because it says so on the door of his shack. During the day, Geoff paces alongside the dock like a linesman, talking to the people on their swanky yachts. Or else he stands in the hut beside the lock, pressing buttons as if he’s controlling a time machine. But it seems that Geoff never leaves because he’s always here first thing too, when the dock is at its quietest. The boats clink together but otherwise it’s silent.
Recently, Geoff’s started to nod at me if I pass him in the morning. Well, it’s more of a twitch than a nod, as if he’s been clipped by his mam’s hand. It’s taken Geoff six weeks to start nodding like that. I can’t believe I’ve been here for six weeks – basically doing nothing. Mam said I should stay for as long as it takes. I don’t think my brother knows that, but he seems content putting me up for now. As long as he thinks I’m looking for a job then I’m fine.
I circuit the dock, looking at the yachts and wondering where they’ve come from. Some of them have American place names painted on their hulls, but they can’t have sailed all the way from there. I reckon people just give them American names because it’s cool. This one says it’s from Point Indigo, Florida, which sounds much more appealing than Grimsby. I don’t think I ever saw a single yacht up there – it’s just big ships offloading fish or shiny cars.
Once I’ve completed my first lap, I do another. This time I look up at the apartment buildings that fence in the dock. The balconies on the flats have fiddly metal tables. Behind each is a full-length window, but curtains or thick wooden blinds prevent me seeing further inside. Except for my brother, I don’t know anyone in the flats. But I see them when they emerge around six, or at weekends when they dash out to get to the shops or to their boats down here. After my second circuit I sit on a bench and wait. The first time I see someone march along the dock to get to the Tube or a bus, I retreat to my brother’s flat.
Today he’s up. He must be running early because he has already shaved. My brother shaves every single day. He’s downing a bowl of cereal, slurping away. I can smell the sugary stuff they put in the cereal. When he sees me come back in, his head flicks up a little to save him saying morning. I do the same then withdraw to the bathroom so I don’t have to stick around while he slops milk. As usual, I come back into the main room and stand at his long window looking down at the still dock. It’s peculiar living this high off the ground. My brother says his office is on the fifth floor of his building. I think it’s odd that he spends most of his time high up. I like street level best, but not here. The buildings soar – not just skyscrapers but those on a normal street. Even the houses have four floors.
My brother is concentrating on tying his tie. When I first came down here, I used to talk to him in the morning, but then he said he has to have this time to get his head in order. I don’t know what that means. So I watch: one of his scrawny hands tosses the end of the tie over; the other one pulls it through. I can see it’s too short. He breathes out fast then tries again. I tried to put on one of his ties yesterday for a laugh but I couldn’t tie it. It’s funny seeing my brother in a suit and tie. He didn’t wear it last Christmas, which was the last time he visited me and our mam and dad. We had everyone round at ours on Christmas. It was a nightmare. All everyone wanted to do was speak to my brother about London. It must be so fast all the time, they said. Do you get the Tube everyday? I suppose it’s second nature to you now.
He’s tied his tie and is drinking juice from the carton. His eyes are fixed on the ceiling, so they don’t accidentally catch mine. I think about all the other people around us in all the other flats. They’re all doing the same. They even look the same, with their suits and earphones. Like my brother, they’ll all be back at seven or eight ready to sleep again. Unless they’re having Drinks. In one night he spends the same amount that mam spends on food for a week. If my brother has Drinks he comes back later.
I don’t know exactly what my brother does all day. He likes it. He says sometimes he can’t sleep because he’s thinking about it. Before he leaves, he checks his reflection then says he’ll see me later. Have a good one, yeah? I say. The door clicks behind him. I imagine him at work, talking on the phone and watching numbers on a screen. He basically buys and sells bits of money, I think. The people back home don’t really get it either. But they like him. I wonder if all the other people in the flats around us are the prides of their families too. Or if my brother is different.
I go back to bed for a couple of hours. When I wake up I’m starving so I make some toast and peanut butter and I eat one of the softening bananas that I think my brother buys for me. I’ve never seen him eat a banana in the flat. But he gets them delivered every week with all the other shopping anyway. He never asked me if I wanted them. I sit on the couch with his laptop and check my e-mails to see if the guy with the flat has replied. I saw the ad on Spare Room. My brother said I shouldn’t use Gumtree because it’s full of fucking weirdos. Maybe I’m a fucking weirdo, I said. Will, the guy with the room, says that he’ll be in this afternoon if I want to look around. I’d better get a move on. The laptop is frying my balls.
It takes ages to find the flat. I end up being late but it doesn’t seem to bother Will. He sounds like he’s off TV. The flat is dark, and not as nice as my brother’s. It’s a lot smaller, too. I know that I won’t be moving in. Will tells me that he has to move back home. He can’t get another job since he was made redundant, he says. That’s why he needs someone to take his room. I didn’t even ask. Do you want to buy the flatscreen too? he says.
I tell Will that I’ll be in touch but we both know that I won’t. I take the stairs down to the street. Towards the bottom, the stairwell is dark and grim. When I get back on the main street, I know that I’m never going to see Will again because already there are a hundred faces coming towards me. I feel like I have to pretend I know where I’m going. I walk and walk for ages and ages. It’s a long main road with scruffy cafés and some pretty funny shops. There are hair and nail places just for black people and little booths covered in posters for mobile phones and money transfers. When I pass a Tube entrance the warm, musty smell smacks into me. Further down there’s what my mam would call a shit shop. Outside, the guy’s offering wicker baskets, an old-fashioned TV cabinet, a suitcase filled with tangly coat hangers and – this is what gets me – a giant, bright blue, plastic canoe.
It’s got a few scratches on it but otherwise it’s pretty shiny and newlooking. There’s a little seat inside. The bloke’s propped it up against the shop front on one end. It’s standing to attention like a soldier. It looks very cool. It intrigues me. I must have stood still too long because now the guy’s breathing on me. He’s standing on top of me. Out the corner of my eye I can see his grubby T-shirt tucked into his black jeans. How much do you want for the canoe? I ask. We haggle over London prices. Then we agree and soon I’m walking down the street with the canoe on my shoulder. People have to dodge me. It’s probably funny. There’s an old woman with a shrivelled mouth who eyes me like I’m Hitler.
The canoe is heavy after a while. It digs into my shoulder. It’s awkward when I go through a market near a sprawling junction. Women with carrier bags stare at me. I just keep walking and walking. Gradually the buildings grow taller. Now I’m in between fancy offices. People are rushing to cross the roads around here, carrying folders or little paper bags with pictures of lettuce leaves on them. One bloke who passes me is concentrating so much on the text he’s typing that he doesn’t notice I’m carrying a canoe until the last minute. Whoa, he says, then hurries on. A community support officer blows his whistle at me but can’t cross the road in time to get to me because he has to wait for the lights to change.
It’s taken me ages but I’m back at the dock now. The flats around the sides are empty. Everyone’s at work. There’s a few tourists walking around, talking foreign. They giggle when they see me with my canoe. The jetties are supposed to be private but I find one where the gate’s been left open. I privately commend Geoff’s incompetence. I step down onto the jetty and plonk the canoe flat on the wood. I can hear the water sloshing underneath me. When I sit inside the canoe I can feel the water moving the jetty up and down a little. I’ve gazed at the water from the dockside so many times that it’s strange finally being close enough to smell the algae.
I can’t see sideways because of the yachts next to the jetty. But I can see straight ahead, over the other side of the dock. I think Geoff’s spotted me because he’s coming out of his little hut.
I’m sitting in my canoe on the wooden jetty. I’m leaning back and thinking it’s cool. Geoff’s behind me now, plodding his heavy feet down the steps and saying hey. Hey, he says, you can’t –
I push myself off. There’s a splash and I can feel the pressure of the water surface under the boat. I wobble a bit but I am floating. Geoff’s saying something but I’m paddling away fast with my hands. My arms are doing something Olympic. It’s brilliant being breathless. There’s the offices and flats and restaurants and yachts all around me now. I stop right in the middle of the dock. Tourists are snapping away. Some people come out of their flats and stand on the balconies to take a look at the weirdo in the canoe. I thought all the flats were empty during the day. A lady on one of the yachts takes a photo on her mobile phone. It’s like the whole city is watching me.
I paddle around a bit, in between some posh yachts and a big old wooden boat that I’ve never seen move. Geoff’s still on the jetty trying to talk to me. I just wave back at him stupidly, laughing out loud. I wave a bit too vigorously and the canoe rocks. I use my other hand to try to steady the boat. But the water isn’t solid; my hand slips beneath the surface and now the boat rocks over to that side. In a second, I’ve toppled over. I’m upside down and the water is flooding into the boat and wetting my legs.
I hang upside down until the boat is entirely full and the water pushes me out.