by Stuart Snelson
She migrated north for the summer.
Having crossed the Thames for calmer climes, she adjusted to her new abode.
Never before had she housesat a property that could drift off in the night.
Friends had requested that, for a fee, she look after their narrow boat. They were off adventuring, conquering Europe in a camper van. Theirs was a transient life. They suffered permanent structures reluctantly. For floods, for rising tides, they were set; no deluge would catch them unprepared. With all their worldly possessions intact, they would circumnavigate a watery future.
Immediately intrigued, upon inspection, stooping to peer through cobwebbed windows, she downgraded romantic notions. Moored on the Regent’s Canal, it did not bob in one of the more salubrious areas.
Housesitting was the latest in a series of unreliable revenue streams. She considered herself to be somewhere between an artist and a poet, and was rewarded accordingly. She constructed tiny pieces of poetry from large A-Z’s, reduced grid-referenced pages to lines of abstract verse, sliced street names into haiku of sorts. The resultant lines, her wrestled webs of cut away text, were glued upon black card.
Other times, she rearranged streets into new patterns, clusters of linguistic links, amusing blooms: a knife-wielding cartographer creating a spray of dead ends. She had developed her own form of street poetry.
Her pieces sold, never in droves, from a friend’s boutique. Trapped beneath glass, her intricate creations served as scissored scenery, customers considering her wares as they sipped coffee and nibbled cupcakes, crumbs sprinkled on gingham tablecloths.
In her hands maps were smithereened, atlases reduced to snowflake catalogues; on the floor a confetti of networks: jumbled junctions, fragmented crescents, a pile-up of motorways.
She tried to acclimatise to her newly buoyant existence. There were problems she had not anticipated. The isolation was fine, to that she was accustomed. What niggled were the persistent nips, the flies and parasites that would bite her in the night.
Although her own flat was far from spacious, she struggled with the narrow boat’s restrictions. She experienced spatial ambiguities, became convinced that fixed furnishings were advancing inwards. Of slight stature, she further shrank to counteract their encroachment. Her negotiations with the interior were those of a gymnast, careful turns and pirouettes. It was not a life for the claustrophobic.
Fearful, for her first few nights, she sought solace in bottles, courage slugged from tumblers.
Friday found her exploring the fashionable neighbourhoods that branched from the canal. She endured the prohibitive prices of pseudo-speakeasies, amidst hipsters sipped cocktails from jam jars. Spirited, she strolled home by moonlight.
She was not oblivious to the dangers of mixing alcohol and water. A torch was added to the haphazard contents of her bag. She did not wish to slip, tipsy, into the drink, indulge in a brisk stint of skinny-dipping. She would not be dredged shivering from its murk, a gloopy cocktail of dog ends and duck shit pumped from her stomach.
Having boarded with due diligence, suitably subdued, anaesthetised, she absorbed the stillness of the water, the waxing moon, the constellations.
Reclining, her thoughts turned to one-night stands. She pondered a restrictive tryst: romantic or impractical? Beyond backseat fumbles, her past lacked cramped passions. She imagined the boat lending conflicting rhythms to their union, hungover men waking queasy the next day in the immediate grip of cabin fever, returning to stationary lives. This was not an immediate concern. She scarcely cruised for casual connection. It would remain in the realm of the hypothetical.
She drank through the rest of the weekend. On Monday, hungover, she woke to her alarm call: the blistering pings of irate cyclists. During rush hour, tranquillity was sacrificed to bedlam. She endured the counter-flows of suited commuters, their irascible jousts. With a pillow held tight over her ears, she blocked out what she could.
Would she ever settle to the gentle swell of her residence? She tried to come to terms with her submersion. Usually dwelling on the fourth floor, she was unaccustomed to anything, beyond birds, passing her window. Now people towered past incessantly, a mundane Macy’s parade especially for her: joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, strollers.
Other visitors came for the day. Though the waters that ran beneath her were not of a life-enhancing variety, and anything that survived in there did so under duress, still anglers gathered. Slumped in buckled deckchairs, static beside badly tuned radios, they attempted to wrench small fry from its flow. Fish failing to bite they retrieved strong lager from weak bags. It was escapism rather than a considered hunt. Their lines dipped into water busy with detritus, a final resting place for refuse, a moat for city drift.
Overcast days found her sombre; rain drained fun from her lodgings. Storm lashed, trapped, she sought distraction. Through streaked windows she watched competing concentricities in the water around her. On such days, the pervasive dampness seeped into her; she felt wet to the bones.
One afternoon was enlivened by a mobile rooftop party. Motoring past, slowly, two girls cavorted in a paddling pool balanced on top of a barge. Bikinied, with a ghettoblaster by their side, they danced. They seemed surprised at the attention they generated. This, she felt, was disingenuous. She envied their recklessness. Up ahead, under a bridge, they ducked, chugged on.
Not nautically inclined, she would remain moored for the duration, would not add movement to her woes.
From her situation, she took inspiration. Turning her attentions to London’s waterways, her concrete poetry liquidised. She clipped rivers, scalpelled canals, rearranged them into something fitfully lyrical. Excised from their surroundings, an envelope bulged with arteries. Lakes and reservoirs, rivers and canals, bodies of water were pressed together.
The boat’s motion was not at all sympathetic to her art. Her intricate scissorings hindered, she found herself canal side. But there, exposure proved destructive. She failed to keep her words anchored. They became airborne at the slightest provocation of a breeze. Snipped rivers drifted from her fingers.
Initial enthusiasm proved short lived. No matter how she shuffled her waterways, she couldn’t get them to flow. Their names were too prosaic to produce anything of beauty. There were occasional flourishes – Leg of Mutton Pond, Barking Creek – but they were uninspiring overall. She would return to the streets.
Resisting drink, she approached her nights in sobriety. Minus nightcaps, the atmosphere changed. It was an altogether darker proposition. The day’s bustle was replaced by the night’s stressful serenity.
Her housesitting stint had sounded initially idyllic. The reality was a little grittier. Footsteps troubled her, their perplexing tread. Who had any legitimate business on the canal by night? Nervous she resented the twilight’s nefarious parade. Amidst sitting ducks, she considered herself one of their number. Safely ensconced, what monsters lurked in the dark?
For the sake of comparison, she had trekked the canal’s full stretch. From Limehouse to Little Venice she observed its downbeat glories: imposing gas meters; Hitchcock’s swollen head; the chirrups and squawks from the meshed aviaries of London Zoo. Westwards the canal seemed a safer environment, for barges at least, gates and fences deterring intruders. From such havens, she returned to her berth. Her floating neighbourhood seemed more ramshackle, had something of a scrap yard sensibility. Smoke puffed darkly from chimneys. Boat tops acted as roofless attics, cluttered with redundancies too big to store indoors: bicycles, barbecues, a host of mysterious shapes hidden beneath tarpaulin. Beyond perimeter walls, tower blocks loomed. Overshadowed, subject to scrutiny, she imagined, from balconies, her movements monitored. Submerged in musty shallows, she felt exposed, vulnerable.
Dusk brought its own distractions. On benches, random transients gathered, huddled drunks supping heat from a bottle, its rim spittle-slick from their lips.
Nearby, atop his own barge, one man waged war against silence with his guitar. His intricately picked intrusions were seldom welcome. Fellow residents retreated indoors. Even the rum-guzzlers were deterred, scurrying their movable feast to benches further round the bend. Reduced to serenading spiders, glistening cobwebs absorbed the brunt of his vibrations. He desisted only once listlessly spliffed.
In the absence of his strum and twang, she became anxious.
Alert to every sound, each noise seemed a potential threat. In the gloaming, spiralling nightmares: bargejackers, urban pirates, the kraken.
Tossing, turning, she struggled to drop off.
Eventually she succumbed to troubled sleep; subtle undulations lulled her into watery graves. She dreamt of drowning, of sinking slowly to the canal’s perilous bed, becoming imprisoned within an upturned shopping trolley, shaking its rusting bars as gormless fish looked on. Other nights the barge itself, her bobbing coffin, sank, was reconfigured as a watery mausoleum, all she needed for the afterlife entombed with her. She would awake choking, gasping for air.
At her flat, she feared fire, an inattentive neighbour sparking some manner of conflagration, condemning everyone to death. Subject to hellish visions, she passed dark nights engulfed in flames. Suggestible, her environment always seeped into her dreams. She had known that the canal would be no exception. She simply switched grim premonitions, had traded the element of her death. She was not convinced that such a change was as good as a rest.
On nights when sleep failed to find her, irrational thoughts were quick to inundate.
She anticipated shifty flytippers creeping down in the night, grunting as they coaxed sofas into the canal. Even worse, deranged men dumping bulbous bags, severed limbs bundled into bulging holdalls.
Perhaps her neighbours could volunteer such darkness. Had there ever been a barge based murderer? She conjured a slow motion serial killer puttering their way around the country. Cries stifled in cabins, the murdered bagged and eased overboard, the headless dredged at a later date. The notion seemed quintessentially English, a genteel spree, murder at a measured pace, a pastoral rampage.
At times such as these, her overactive imagination was not the best of companions. She always advanced to the macabre.
Once more, she checked the locks.
Unable to sleep, she peeped discreetly through her window.
It was then that she spotted him.
Hooded, hunched, he negotiated undergrowth, sleek in the shadows. Breathing heavily she watched, wondered what his intentions were. From his bag he removed something, shook it and began. She watched, entranced, as outlines were wrenched from the ether. Stealthily he made his mark upon the wall’s damp canvas: graffiti by moonlight. From a knapsack, he produced a rainbow, a spectrum of colours adding depth to matchstick figures. A mouldering wall was transformed, new life breathed into rank realms. Of all the people who had thus far prevented her sleep, his seemed the least malevolent presence. This process of revitalisation amazed her.
Heartened by his actions, she awaited further interventions. Settling into her window-side seat, in her well-disguised hide, she watched.
In he swooped, her moonbird.
Flying solo, he arrived without fanfare. Straining, she heard his sibilant mating call. Of necessity he was camouflaged, to avoid detection, beaked with the peak of a cap hidden beneath a hood. Retreating into shadows, he adorned walls with his work, a blaze of colour, rampant peacockery. She watched the quick descriptive arc of his arm, the swift rhythms that left figures in their wake, the execution of plans hatched elsewhere.
She had seen the work of similar artists; the canal was fringed with their mischief. She had not anticipated seeing one in action. She knew something of their ways, knew that they were not supposed to spray over another’s work. Such infringements ruffled feathers.
She watched, hushed, lights turned off, not wishing to frighten him away.
She wondered whether she was alone in her observations or whether the canal was lined with fervent onlookers. On other boats, other twitchers, asquint at windows. long-lens observers tracking this ravenesque intruder. Blackened, he merged with dank habitats.
His territory marked, he took flight, returned restless to his nest.
She was thrilled to have seen one in the wild. Her heart raced.
The following day her thoughts were less ornithological.
Strolling, she inspected his work, his night shift embellishments dried to a finish in the sun.
She wondered what drew them to the canals. Presumably the same factors that unnerved her: silence, isolation, the preponderance of helpful shadows. At night, unpatrolled, the canal walls proved too tempting a canvas for indigenous scribblers.
Over several weeks, staying awake into ungodly hours, she watched him. Shaking life from cans he went to work.
He didn’t arrive every night. At such times, she experienced a certain despondency at his failure to materialise. She was beholden to his timetable.
He had been lucky to locate a section largely unsullied. Graffiti wise the canal side had almost reached saturation, the walls a damp and rampant gallery, a palimpsest of rival artists.
There were occasional interlopers, challengers. She knew this only once they had gone to work. Disguised as they were, her hero remained indistinguishable until he sprayed. She knew him only by his actions. These chancers had not a scrap of his dash. She saw the occasional tagger – a quick mist and they were gone – their non-committal additions, impenetrable tangles of letters, left dripping in their wake. There were stencillists who gaffer-taped cutouts to the wall before spraying indiscriminately. They seemed too restrained, too beholden to decisions made in the comfort of their homes, the artistic equivalent of a suburbanite spraying snow through a festive template. Her man was the true artist, working freehand, at liberty to improvise. Something about his style spoke to her. She watched his work evolve, marvelled at its speed, which of necessity illegality leant to his actions. By comparison, her own art seemed so restrained, so finicky and particular. Envious, she watched his rash abandon.
By daylight, his night’s work rippled, distorted, in the water.
At night, by the window, as she awaited his appearance, her mind wandered.
Even with the aid of binoculars, she was no closer to assessing what he looked like. With a scarf covering his nose and mouth, his cap’s peak sheltering his eyes, and a hood covering the rest, his features were indiscernible.
A hopeless romantic, her heart advanced beyond logic. In her mind, they were already entwined, irrespective of the fact that they had yet to make contact. She pictured their future together, happy families upon the barge. Perhaps they could slip their moorings, travel the country by canal, taking art to unlikely places, to less aerosolled climes. She visualised a life of blissful itinerancy, floating serenely into untapped pastures, sleepy sandstone villages awakening to violent, vivid incursions, explosions of colour, the urban sprawl escaping the city. She warmed to such guerrilla notions, partners in crime, by night, a moonlight Bonnie and Clyde. In their wake, she imagined strangers rounded up in the village square, committed to the stocks whilst they punted upstream unsuspected.
She guessed they would be soulmates, after all, her cutting of maps constituted a vandalism of sorts, a desecration of the courier’s bible. Together they would destroy in order to create, would vandalise in tandem. She would branch out, reduce local maps to slithers, finding poetry in their dwindling.
In her mind they punted, reinvigorating the bucolic.
The sound of foxes fucking returned her to the present.
She blinked, shook her head, took in the vulpine howls. This was not the only nocturnal mating that had distracted her. One night she had watched a drunken couple stumble down the canal path, had second-guessed their intention: against a mossy wall they engaged in reckless al fresco sex. She spared them the binoculars. Was this how she would consummate her relationship with her masked man? A frantic bang in the aftermath of his canned manifestations, her clothes smeared with his latest artwork?
She had always pursued unconventional relationships, found romance where few of her friends would think of looking. That she was still alone, they took as vindication of their more habitual paths.
Soon she would make her move. How would she approach? As he nervously made his mark, his territorial hissings, could she advance with a cup of hot soup? I thought you might like this? This seemed a lacklustre gambit.
Perhaps she could offer him shelter as he evaded the authorities.
One night the opportunity almost arose. For once, he had to contend with a police presence, a stray officer had added the canal to his beat. Her hero was startled in the act: pictus interruptus. Half-formed work still wet on the wall, he fled. She was ready to offer her assistance, to harbour him, to take him under her wing, but he had disappeared the wrong way.
The next day she contemplated his unfinished masterpiece.
By night, she watched through the curtain’s slit, monitored his unfulfilled ambition. She hoped he would return to complete it.
Stuart Snelson is a London based novelist and short story writer. His stories have appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Bare Fiction, HOAX, Lighthouse, Structo and Synaesthesia, among others, and have been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He can be found at stuartsnelson.wordpress.com or on twitter: @stuartsnelson.