A Night Walk


He’d been out across the Thames a couple of times, at night in his bare feet. Padding near-silently over the erratic wavelets, just to see if he could still do it. It came to him the second time that it might just be a dream; it was probably a dream, it was a dream when he was a child and he played out there, running under the bridges to hide, and wandering past the moored ships, touching their massive sides with his fingertips, wondering how they stayed afloat.

The water sloshed gently over his toes, biting them with icy teeth, but he took that as part of it all, barely noticed. The hems of his jeans started to soak up the water, but he knew he had clean clothes at home. The night was cold but not freezing; early October, some time before the shift of the clock brought the deep chill of the middle of the night closer to the evening.

There were people on the bank he had just left, dressed for a night at the theatre, staring at him like a ghost. He knew what they would think, but he didn’t believe in much of anything.

“I’m not God!” he yells across at them. “It’s just a trick!” They applauded appreciatively, drunk and cheerful. It’s true, he thought, it’s just a trick. One he learned to do long ago and could never teach to another.

He reached down and scooped a small fish out of the water, holding it up and nodding as if to indicate that this, a tiny silver packet of life, fluttering and flickering in his hand, was his purpose out there.

He held on to the fish and strode boldly towards the nearest bridge, hoping to disappear. Fascinated, he stared at the animal in his hands; the quick life gasping out, eyes fixed on his though he knew the fish would not recognise him as a fellow living creature. His cruelty in that moment, to drown it in the freezing air, was alien to its brief mind. It stared even as its convulsions slowed to a dying pulse. He knew he should put it back in the water, so opened his hands and it fell with a soft splash back to the river.

Immediately, it recovered itself. It dropped purposefully away from him into the dark, a flash of its sides and it was gone from him. He laughed and ran to where he saw it last, but the movement was wrong – he was too fast for himself, his equilibrium turned and he stumbled. One foot plunged awkwardly into the water, his left leg disappearing to the knee with panic-inducing swiftness. Without knowing how to react, he yelped and let his body run on impulse.

His right leg, solid on the wavelet-crumpled surface of the Thames, pushed hard and he leapt to the safety of the bridge, reaching the pontoon in two messy, splashing strides. If the tide had been lower, he would have never been able to drag himself onto it, but he managed to scale the sides with only a little effort and, confident he would not be noticed in the tangle of wires and girders, sat on the edge.

He let his feet, numb now, drag carelessly in the water, the current giving his dangling toes a dynamism they had not earned. His heart slowly returned to its usual slow dance between his lungs but the whole of his chest felt hollow and his arms were weak from fright. He sat back against the bridge, leaning his head against the rumbling bulk of its supports. A train crossed the adjoining bridge, rattling his teeth.

The pontoon was littered with broken skateboards, thrown there at first without thought and now with something like ritual precision. A noise in the air tore his gaze from the gaudy cairn he had been gazing emptily through to the dwindling sky. A flock of geese, heavy and noisy, late for their migration, flew overhead in a rough V. He watched them disappear over the higgledy-piggledy skyline of London, into the fallen Sun, and envied their flight.

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