Down by the river

The bench felt cold against his back; his thin jacket serving little purpose beyond modesty.  In the bag at his feet there was a rug: threadbare, damp, filthy.  When the weather grew colder, he would wear it as a coat, but for now it was just his bed, coming out after dark, if he could find somewhere safe enough to close his eyes.

He watched the river spread its arms to touch both towns with rippling fingers, joining and separating in one bold sweep.  He’d loved the river for as long as he could remember; all his important moments seemed connected to it, somehow.  As a tiny boy, he’d come here with his mum and his sister so often that it felt as though this had been their real home.  If there was any money, they’d all go on the ferry and rush straight up the stairs to the top deck, hoping to find a seat where they could see the important sights as the ferry followed its timeless course, and eat the sandwiches and the inevitable bananas that their mum would have packed.  They seldom stayed in the hard-won seats once the food was finished, preferring to play among the benches and ropes, rushing in and out of the warm, inner area, tripping over bags and prams belonging to the nesh passengers who’d claimed a comfy seat out of the wind, sticking their heads through the holes to look at the foamy water below.

When there was no money, they’d walk along the prom, standing on the rails to see into the grey depths, with their mother’s concerned warnings bouncing straight off them.  One time, he’d climbed through the gap to see better and his mum’s shrieks had scattered the hopeful gull clan that had thronged behind them.  All he’d seen, for the pain of the slap that waited, was the green slime, climbing the bricks and chains and some rubbish, floating on the top of the water.

As he’d reached his teens, he’d started to come down to the Pier Head with his friends, staying on the bus until it reached the terminus, then hanging around in front of Mann Island, shouting at girls, laughing when they shouted back, terrified in case they came over.  The inspectors and drivers from the MPTE would sometimes tell them to clear off, but not in such polite terms and they’d move ten yards if they could be bothered or argue the toss, if they couldn’t.

He’d met his wife down here.  She’d worked at the insurance company that was in the main building: the one with the birds.  He’d been working at a local paper, further up into town and coming down to eat his lunch by the river and he’d spotted her.  She’d made the mistake of throwing a crust to try to get rid of them and now the greedy birds wouldn’t leave her alone, so she kept flapping her coat at them and saying “Shoo!”  They’d back off a few feet for a minute, then pour back in like treacle or like teenage boys sent packing by the bus drivers.  He’d laughed and she’d looked up and seen him.  He felt bad, but then she’d laughed too and that was that; he was hooked!

Although he hadn’t spoken to her that day, he’d placed himself nearer to where she had been sitting so that when she’d turned up the next day, he was close enough to ask “No pet seagulls today?” and from then on, they’d had their food together there every work day for the next year and a half, going to the pictures and to see local bands at weekends.  They married on a Saturday afternoon at her church and had their reception in a pub close enough to the river to hear and smell it.  They’d been happy for eighteen years.  When she’d died at the age of forty-two, he’d taken her ashes to the river and scattered them in the dead of night, barely stopping himself from following her into the hypnotic ink.

Slowly, at first, and then more and more quickly, his routines had fallen apart.  Without her, he didn’t care about work or talking to people or leaving the house and it didn’t take long for the knock at the door.  No work, no rent money, no home.  Family members tried to talk him into staying with them, as he shrank before their eyes; a youngish man, ageing like an apple before their eyes, drinking to keep the memories at bay.  Falling.

Trouble followed him like a predator, ripping the last pieces of his life to shreds.  Arrests, fights, hospital wards.  And always, the only peace he could ever find was at the river.  Until today, as he clung to the cold comfort of the Mersey, he heard a laugh that had been absent for years and he turned his head to look for his wife.  She wasn’t there.  There was just a group of office workers, protecting their food from the gulls.  She would never be there again, but he understood in that moment how much it would hurt her to see him so beaten.  He pulled himself to his feet and looked at the crowd around his feet.  He flapped his hands … “Shoo!” 

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