Somewhere along the Limehouse Cut, not far from the basin but before Mile End Park, we see the bridge. The exact location is not important; this could be any city. We are walking quickly. It has rained in the night and we trail wet leaves on the soles of our shoes. The morning is thick grey; a little too warm for our coats. Ahead of us, the brick of the bridge is dark and lichened and in its shadow the skin of the canal is scummed a deeper green.
It is early and the towpath empty. Later, hobby shermen will gather in twos or threes. They will bring camping chairs and cans of beer and some of them their sons. There, they will wait the day away in silence, faces turned from the NO FISHING sign, imagining themselves outside the city, inside another world. They might catch a sh and reel it in. More likely they will hook plastic bags, right shoes, the cans they left on their last visit. It is nothing that Hemingway would have written.
We walk on. On the other side, there is no path, only road, cut in half by the bridge. And under it: an alcove, a shaded wedge of damp stone. A shelter of sorts, from the rain at least.
Once there was a mattress, piled high with heavy blankets that bulged and blew in the wind like heaving bodies; the rag of a pink pillowcase spilling out like an arm. To reach it I suppose you must shimmy arms and legs through makeshift fence, then drop down the six feet to the oor. I have never seen it done.
We are two steps from beneath it now. Across the canal, under the proscenium arch of the bridge; the mattress is gone and in its place a poor man’s theatre.
I walk more slowly. We both stare.
Centre stage, a rug, trodden with the same wet leaves we trail. And atop it, a co ee table, with books and photo frames; three wine glasses set expectantly. Where should the guests knock when they arrive? Please come in. Let me take your coat. Stage left and right: an ironing board, a barbecue on wheels, a standing lamp, its cord coiling, socketless. And at the back, a bed: a single with sheet, quilt, pillows. It is a heavy frame to carry down from the road. There is little else; minimalism embodied, then doubled, re ected back on itself from the surface of the canal. Who sleeps in that bed? Ask the shermen.
The whole thing takes four of my strides, two of his, and then we pour out the other side, outside again, and leave the bridge behind. We walk on again in silence, asking each other questions in our heads:
My love, how quickly could you climb out to the road if you had to? Another question: then what?
Does he (who?) on coming home (home?) cook himself dinner, lie in bed on Sunday, read the papers? Does he ask ‘what is this world coming to?’ Do the damp walls make the sheets clammy?
And still we are walking; the Limehouse Cut is long and we pass under more bridges. Talk turns to the weather. Soon it will be cold September bright. It will rain more. We say goodbye at the station.
Later I return alone. I take a photograph and feel like a thief. In my picture, I see a sparse apartment with a river view; a showroom of resourcefulness; the steely will of the deep bone tired. There are faces in the photo frames. The bed is made.
Oh there is subversion plenty in the sheer normality of it all; an art student couldn’t do it. In springtime, moorhens will mimic this nestmaking; gather their own rubble and settle in it. It is the most natural thing, this stage play.
Exit stage left. Curtain.
by Rachel Parris
Rachel lives on a narrowboat where she reads and writes. She is one of the associate editors of IOTA.