He’s so angry. Stuck in those four walls all day, everything going wrong, technology rising against him. He watches in fury as the internet connection flickers in and out of consciousness like a dying moth. Finally it expires, and despite a violent prompting of expletives and an encouraging attack on the keyboard, still it stays dead.
He stops in the act of reaching for the monitor (smashing it into the window will not help matters), takes some deep, calming breaths, and then quickly leaves the flat.
He marches his fury into the pavement, stomping his disapproval at the world hard into the concrete with each step. He glares at passers by; how dare they intrude on his anger? How dare they populate his stinking world? How dare they look at him?
Children playing! Laughing! Clearly up to no good. The kids around here have no respect, no ambition, no morals. Nothing better to do than hang around on the streets in groups looking sinister, intimidating upstanding citizens, stabbing each other with their stupid little knives.
The thought deflates him, transforming his rage into a desperate depression. What’s the world coming to when the kids have nothing better to do than murder each other? As though life were so cheap as to be worthless, death of no consequence, run of the mill; another one killed, stabbed, mourned; public outcry, but no lessons learned, no true remorse; tomorrow another one, and the next day yet another. The motives so pathetic as to make you despair; he was from another postcode; he went to a different school; he looked at me.
The last of the anger ebbs away as he halts at the crossing, waiting irritably for the lights to change so that he can traverse the river of cars and buses, his thoughts flowing now in a new direction.
How sad it all is. How demoralising. How mundane. He sighs, and breathes in a lungful of exhaust fumes.
At last the traffic grudgingly draws to halt; he fords the wide expanse of road; wandering aimlessly now, the impetus gone from his pace, taking a turning without thinking.
A long road beside the creek. Peaceful. Some calm at last… and then he sees the figures in the distance.
Just look at them! Brazen!
He passes them, shaking his head. Two men kissing very enthusiastically in public, with tongues and everything. One of them with dreadlocks, and not even black! Perhaps mixed, though; it’s hard to tell in the diminishing light. Maybe a quarter black? But half-naked, that’s for sure, out there on the street for anyone to see. Shameless.
Mind you, the other one is a very pretty lad.
And there’s a slip of a girl, watching them, unnoticed, looking so very sad, holding a tray of drinks.
He considers speaking to her, offering some cheery banter – “I’ll take one of those off your hands if your boyfriend’s busy, love” – something like that. But he holds it back, knowing from experience that it will go wrong; he seems to have lost the art of human interaction lately; he’ll trip over the words and she’ll turn to him all confused – sorry, what did you say? – or she’d take it the wrong way, think he’s having a go, and he doesn’t want to make things worse. He sees her forcing her face into a wry smile as the men finally notice her there, and the effort it costs her is heartbreaking, almost making him choke in sympathy.
He skittles past them to walk along the creek, the darkening air heavy with the scent of shit. The sun’s sinking, giving up on another fucking day, wasting its last rays on the disgusting sight of this fetid tributary, water crawling between the high squishy banks of sewage.
He follows the water along to Greenwich, still shaking his head, thinking his gloomy thoughts.
Shit, it’s all shit. This whole stinking world. Nothing but shit.
The creek – further upstream grandly known as the River Ravensbourne, despite mostly hiding itself underground – flows out into the Thames.
At least the Thames is an impressive river, a proper river – not like that pathetic trickle running through Deptford – broad and dark, the level high this evening, choppy and alive with the currents twisting under the surface.
It could take him. It could wash him away…
He feels so tired. He’s tired of everything. He’s tired of thinking.
The logical end to his thoughts – trapped and turning all day, now released and followed miserably along – is this river.
Because really, what’s the fucking point?
A boat passes by, distracting him – a loud show-off of a boat; music blaring, coloured lights flashing, the deck bestrewn with giggling, jiggling people.
“What are they so bloody happy about?” he says aloud – and he’s surprised to hear the deep bitterness in his own voice. His eyes well-up at the thought of how resentful he has become.
“Congratulations Mel and Steve it says on the banner. I’m guessing they’ve got married. How sweet.”
He jumps, spinning around to find a girl – that same sad girl from outside the pub in Deptford.
“Did you follow me?” he demands roughly, not sure whether to be outraged. Hadn’t he considered nosing into her life just moments earlier?
But he hadn’t, that was the point; he had done the decent thing and left her alone with her misery.
Yes, outrage; that was his rightful stance.
She contemplates lying to him – he can see it in her face – but decides against it.
“Yes,” she says simply. “I did.”
The outrage is proving hard to maintain.
“Why?” he asks, his tone merely curious now.
“I wasn’t wanted where I was,” she says quietly. “I saw you walk by, looking so lost in your thoughts, and I wondered what you were thinking. I shouldn’t have followed you, though. I’m sorry.”
“Why did you?” he asks again, perplexed by this starved-looking apparition.
She shrugs her bony shoulders.
He thinks that she isn’t going to answer him. She steps up to the handrail, leaning over it towards the dark water, apparently enthralled by the dancing reflections of the lights from the far bank.
“I get lost in my thoughts sometimes,” she says eventually. “It was interesting to see what it looks like on someone else. And I wondered where they were taking you.”
He waits for her to go on, but she stands in silence now, ignoring him, watching the river; having bumbled in on his internal wrangling it seems she’s lost interest in him; a little of the outrage returns.
“Don’t you want to know, then?” he asks crossly. “Now that you’ve stalked me, shoved your nose in where it’s not wanted. Don’t you want to ask me?”
She turns slowly. Her expression is sombre, her eyes knowing. She smiles so sadly, and once again he feels his heart break a little just to look at her, to observe her raw melancholia. She is like a beautiful reflection of himself; there is nothing he can tell her that she doesn’t understand deeply and painfully.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
She laughs – suddenly joyful, and out nowhere she reaches forward and takes his hand.
“Don’t be,” she sighs. She squeezes his palm gently with her tiny, delicate fingers. “It’s going to be ok. It’s all going to be alright.”
He’s crying now, not even embarrassed to be a grown man sobbing in public; he’s gone beyond that. He doesn’t care. The empty platitudes of her maternal utterances have released something inside of him, something which has been building for so long; something he had kept caged until now.
She hesitates, and then comes forward to press her skeletal limbs against him in an awkward hug. The tentative offering of bodily contact, so foreign for so long now, redoubles the outpouring.
For an unknown time he heaves and shakes as the tears wrench out of him, and she holds him in her weak embrace.
Finally it subsides, and he pulls away from her, self-awareness creeping stealthily back, making him recoil in disgust at the thought of himself.
“Shall we get some chips?” she asks suddenly.
The suggestion of warm potato, salted and vinegared, eaten by the river beside this strange girl – is really quite astonishingly marvellous somehow.
For the first time in so, so long – he smiles.