The Night-Side of the River
An office party slides into an encounter with Death
On the eastern reaches of the River Thames stands London’s oldest riverside public house: The Prospect of Whitby. A collier-boat of that name, bringing sea-coal from Newcastle to London, used to anchor there. On the return journey, Whitby coming into view on that wild and rocky English coast, was assurance that home was not so far away. Home, it seems, is inside us as well as outside us; an image we hold in our minds. Our minds do not understand death – our own, or the death of those we love. Where are they? Where are we? Lost forever? Or caught in a crack in time?
My story begins on an autumn night, at Westminster Pier, boarding a boat for an office outing to The Prospect of Whitby. Our company had been taken over, and those of us still with a job were promised a bubbly bonding party with our new colleagues.
We are over-friendly, super-smiley. We are the generation brought up to have sex with strangers on TV and still get voted off the show. Our boundaries are for sale.
I am not the most sociable person. I’d rather be at home with my cat than at a party, so it was a relief for a moment to leave the micro-conversations and bad jokes, and stand apart, on a stairway, watching the crowd.
Yet, it was me, drink in hand, aloof, who had the feeling of being watched. I remembered being in a forest once, and this same sense of unseen eyes following me.
Am I having a panic attack? It’s hard to breathe. There’s a sudden smell of salty water. The floor lurches. A ship at sea. It’s too dark.
Deep breath. The moment passes. What was that about? It must be the killer cocktails. I’m not a drinker. There’s no ship. No sea. This is a pleasure-boat on the River Thames.
That’s when I saw him. A young man. Motionless. Staring at me the way an animal stares. He’s pale and thin. Dark hair, loose and long, falling onto the shoulders of a seaman-style coat with brass buttons. He must be one of the crew. He didn’t smile at me. Rather, he gestured towards the prow of the boat, and not knowing why, I followed him.
Set of metal steps. Ten in all, as I count, leading from the covered lower deck to the open top deck. A few people were up there, leaning on the rails, watching the river float by. Another second of panic – I want to leave but I can’t get off the boat.
Rain. Dark drops. Dark night. Cold. Shivering. I should go back inside. To the lights. To the warmth.
The figure of the man was ahead of me, his back to me. As I turned to go, he said, without looking round, ‘My name is Jonathan. They told me you would be here.’
‘We’re all here,’ I said.
He turned to face me now. He looked at me, or through me, so it felt. His watery-blue eyes had a glance of malevolence in them. I saw that he was soaking wet. As though he had fallen overboard.
He said, 'Who is here? There is no-one here.’
I looked behind me, my breath tight in my chest. No stars. No sound. No movement. The boat was empty and in darkness.
‘Quickly,' he said, ‘time is short.’
‘Who are you?’
He took a step towards me and grasped my arm. He was wearing black leather gloves bloated with water. Where he held on to me, stinking salty water poured down my arm as though this man were wringing out his body.
I resisted. He was strong. I pushed harder. He gripped me, to drag me with him. I felt as though water was closing over my head.
A clatter on the metal stairs brought me to the surface of my mind. Behind me, I heard a deafening noise, like gunfire. I put my hands over my ears. Then, like a miracle, people I knew were swarming onto the top deck.
‘Hey, Kim! Amazing fireworks!’
The boat was full again and bright again, and my colleagues were pressed around me, happy and half-drunk as the boat sailed under Tower Bridge lit up like a toy fort.
‘What happened to your jacket? It’s soaked!’
Like someone in a daze I poked my dripping arm.
There was no sign of the pale young man.
I read somewhere that when we are frightened our ears can only hear distant and loud noises; we can’t hear close-up conversation. So, I have no idea what anyone said to me, as our boat sailed smoothly towards The Prospect of Whitby.
The inn sits right on the river with steps at the waterside for landing craft. In the past this place had other names: The Pelican. and before that The Devil’s Tavern.
There was a gallows here in the old days.
But tonight, the pub was cheerfully lit, with food on the tables, and I was eating fish and chips with my friends, drying my jacket on a radiator, and deciding not to say anything about what had happened. What had happened? A drunken man. A crazy guy.
I got up to go to the bar for another drink. I was feeling warmer and calmer. As I stood waiting, people ahead of me and behind me, I felt someone pressing the full length of their body against my back. Their wet-through body.
GET AWAY FROM ME!
Kim! What’s the matter?
It’s my friend Lisa. She puts her hand on my back and steers me away. Then she says, ‘What have you been doing? Your back’s wet. Did that stupid bloke spill his drink down you?’
‘Yes, he must have done,’ I said. ‘I think I’ll go home.’
‘Come outside for a minute,’ said Lisa.
We made our way to the door. I can feel his eyes on me.
'Who’s that?' I ask Lisa. ‘Him, over there, the pale young man in the long blue coat.’
And I turn to look at him. And there’s no-one in the room but the two of us. The pub is weather-beaten. Shadowy. The wooden panelling is scuffed. Distemper falls in patches from the ceiling. A small round windowpane. Broken. A face. Blue eyes. A long table. A candle in a tin candlestick. A rope. More than a rope. A noose.
The door opens.
‘Come outside. Come on.’
Outside, under the street lamp, a couple of people smoking, everything feels all right again.
‘Who is he? He’s so pale.’
Lisa shook her head. ‘Search me. They’re all pale. Too many hours sitting in front of a screen.’
‘Can you get me my bag?' I said. ‘The brown canvas backpack. I don’t want to go back in.’
She went through the swinging door into the noise and brightness of the pub. I’m thinking to myself, What time did they say the boat is leaving?
‘The boat is leaving now,’ I heard the voice. I have heard that voice already tonight.
The frontage of The Prospect of Whitby is deserted. I turn and turn round and round like a figure on a musical box. There is no-one here.
Am I going mad? Who is answering my thoughts?
I don’t know why I didn’t go straight back into the pub. My hand was on the door…
There’s an alley to the side of the pub leading down to a set of steps to the Thames.
I made my way, dim-lit, alone.
It must be getting colder. River-fog. Fog hovering on the top of the water. I can see our boat bobbing gently up and down. I could just go and sit inside and wait for the others. No-one will miss me.
In my ear, so close my hair lifts at his breath, I hear him: ‘That is true. No-one will miss you.’
The pale man called Jonathan is behind me. I fight back, but he is so much stronger and heavier. When he pushes his weight against me it isn’t ordinary weight; what is it? Then I know. He is waterlogged.
He wrestles me, pushes, kicks me, half carries me, onto the deserted boat.
‘This isn’t our boat!’
But he is untying the anchor rope and pushing away from the jetty with an oar. While he busies himself, I get up from the deck where I fell. I stare around me, frantic for any escape.
The boat is dark, tarred, a dirty, battered vessel from another time. There is a figure at the helm swinging a big capstan wheel. As my eyes adjust I see a double line of figures seated at row. Dully, their arms pull the oars. Most of them wear clothes that don’t belong in my world; jerkins, heavy boots, shawls, torn jackets that cover collarless shirts, caps on their knees.
‘Who are you?'
No-one answers me. There’s a girl at the top of the rowing, silent figures. She’s wearing flared denim, love-beads, a sheepskin coat, filthy, but recognisable.
‘What’s happening here?’ I ask her.
‘We’re trapped,’ she said.
‘Trapped? How? By what?’
‘This boat is a trawler. We are the trawled.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘To the night-side of the river.’
By now the boat was in the centre of the Thames and heading east, away from the lights of London. Towards the darkness that has no end.
'How long have you been on this boat?’ I asked her.
‘Since my birthday. June 3rd 1978.’
‘Yes. What year is it now?’
I did not answer. I looked at the others, older and stranger. I went over to one of the women. ‘What are you doing on this boat?’
She did not answer. I am a mild person. Yet I leaned forward and shook her shoulder. Still she did not answer or raise her head. I shook her again. ‘ANSWER ME!’
Her figure - I cannot call it a body - crumpled under my hand. She fell forward; nothing but a heap of rotting clothes.
I stepped back, not able to scream, and I felt myself caught by the wet force of the pale young man.
‘You will take her place,' he said. ‘Row!’
I hit him so hard I landed on my face on the deck.
My blow had met no resistance. And yet he bent down and hauled me to my feet. What was he, who could be so solid at one moment, and the next as vanishing as air?
Where are you taking us?
He smiled his empty smile. ‘There is no destination. There is no home. There is no journey’s end.’
I leapt past him and, hardly knowing what I did, hurled myself at the impassive shape at the wheel, as I tried to turn the vessel back towards the shore. Yet however I pushed him away he returned instantly to his position.
‘Are you dead or alive? Show your face!’
The shape was shrouded in a deep hood. He continued to look straight ahead. The pale young man pulled me away. ‘Go to your place and row.’
‘Why does he not speak to me? Why does he not show his face?’
Jonathan’s eyes fixed on mine. ‘What if he has no face to show?’
Jonathan jerked back the mariner’s hood. There was nothing there. The shape, headless, continued to steer. Jonathan returned the hood, and it assumed the contours of a man’s head.
Senseless, stone-like, I stumbled to my place at the oars and began to row. My hands were soon slippy and sore. I felt myself – whatever myself is – dissolving. I felt myself becoming my watery equivalent. I was drowning. I was disappearing. My mind was spongy. I could not think. I could not be. This is death then.
I must stay awake. This is the sleep from which there is no waking. I must not let go. I must remember my name.
I looked up. The moon had pierced the clouds. The moon. The river. These were real things in the real world. This ship of death was still in the real world. But soon we would pass into the shadow-space from which there can be no return. I understood that the boat had a limited licence to drift into time, to gather others like me, and to return to the empty seas of dark eternity.
Jonathan was standing at the prow with the motionless mariner. Around me, next to me, the rise and fall of the oars. The scoop of the vessel made it difficult to see over the side, but what my eyes could not see, my body could sense. The cold. The deathly quiet, the moon beginning to fade now. We were crossing the bar.
Now or never.
I laid down the oar in its lock. I stood up. To my horror I saw water oozing like blood from my legs. Dark water. I was paddling in my dissolving self. Silently, I moved from my seat to the side of the boat. I jumped.
There was a shriek of rage and fury. Jonathan was at the side of the boat with a billhook. The hook caught my shirt. I felt myself being pulled back. I kicked with all my might, swimming hard. He would land me like a fish. Then, with a last desperate kick, my shirt ripped. I was free.
The water was deep and cold. I swam not looking back, fearful of what I would see, of the boat returning for me. Silent and deadly. I don’t know how much time passed. Eventually, above, I saw the moon again, and that distant planet seemed like a friend to me.
I don’t know how I got to the muddy bank of the river, the tide out, me half-stripped and shivering. I don’t know how I got help, but I was saved that night. The story goes that I fell overboard, drunk, got swept out into the Thames. I was lucky to be alive.
I am lucky to be alive.
I researched the site of The Prospect of Whitby, and there are many dark stories, but none that answers mine. What violence and fear, what evil end, urged Jonathan to ruin others as he had been ruined? I learned that a man named Jonathan Strong had been hanged for smuggling in 1838. His corpse was thrown into the Thames.
Still I wake up, thinking my body is wringing wet. Still I fall asleep unsure of where I begin and end.
I used to believe that the world is dry land with firm edges. I used to believe that life and death were separate states.
Now I know that things are liquid, porous; not solid at all.
I do not go near the River Thames. Somewhere, in the dark and rain, moonless, motionless, Jonathan is waiting for me, Jonathan is there.