Since the Second Barrier had failed a month ago, the bodies washed up against the sandbags at every high tide, the flotsam of Tilbury and Gravesend. The Third and Fourth Barriers didn’t justify their names only channelling the run-off into Essex and Kent. As for the original, it might keep the occasional eel from squirming too far upstream but it was only on the rarest dry day at the lowest of low tides you could even see the housings. They reached up from the river bed, once burnished, now blue-green with algae and kelp.
The bodies didn’t normally wash so far upstream, not in such numbers anyway. Jetsam then. Refugees probably, thrown overboard like so much ballast. They were almost comic, the way they bumped and collided. It reminded me of the smoke chamber they used at school to demonstrate the collision of particles attracting and repelling each other. Boyle’s Law, I think.
A corpse’s hair almost touched my foot and I took a step back onto the sandbags. Alonzo grunted and pointed down the wall towards the Globe. Its walls were once white so I heard, but now had that same green sheen as everything else. I gave Alonzo a confused look. Further then, to the dereliction of Southwark Bridge? He grunted again. He meant somewhere closer, on the wall itself. I wiped the rain out of my eyes.
Water was lapping up and over, about twenty metres down the line. I nodded to Alonzo that I understood and strode down the wall like a chimpanzee, one foot on either side. The wake of some passing vessel had shown us a weak spot. Another sandbag came up from the back of the truck, the line of conscripts human-chaining it to me. Following my steps, Alonzo brought his bucket of mortar and together we roughly stuck the sandbag in place.
The temperature had dropped again and there was sleet mixed in with the rain. Alonzo made the same joke about ‘Global Warming’ people had been making for forty or more years. I could have said something about the Gulf Stream but didn’t bother.
Not before time a dredger came by, its nets gathering up the corpses as best it could. Two more followed in a sweeper formation, one on either bank. The chain passed up long wooden poles and we pushed at the bodies, forcing them against the tide towards the gathering arms of the dredger. We were eager for them to be away. You might think they would act as further ballast, like make-shift sandbags, but they were a greater risk to the integrity of the wall. For one thing, they rotted. The smell was unbearable. For another, they hid gaps; there might be another breach under a dead arm or torso.
That night I lay on my bunk, reading a book in French. I could follow maybe one word in ten. Still, it was all we had. Books in English were in high demand but were so well thumbed that the text was becoming worn away or blackened at the side of each page. You had to guess the plot sometimes.
The floor was damp. It didn’t matter how well we kept at the wall, the water always found a way in. There was a blue-black tinge to my pillow. I turned it over to the less mildewed side and struggled to understand Georges Perec.
In the morning there were even more corpses. Some ship must have gone down, or maybe two had
collided. The bodies were all clothed, some of them quite smartly as if they’d been on their way to a dinner party. This time one of the dredgers came to a halt in midstream. There was a Thames waterman standing on a raft in front of it. Alonzo passed me the binoculars. It was a raft of corpses. We paused in our repairs passing the binoculars between us. With the skill that can only come from practise, the waterman lashed new corpses to his raft. He shouted instructions to the pilot through a walkie-talkie. He’d push it back into his belt then stride across the bodies, their backs like stepping stones, their
bellies logs and he a lumberjack. He shouted over to us and we understood. We recruited a dozen more from the volunteer conscripts to stand on the wall and push the bodies out to the waterman. He was joined on his raft by others from his vessel. They were quick, each one able to lash a new corpse to the edge in less than ten seconds.
Some of the conscripts were sick. Me and Alonzo were pretty much immune to this by now. Your first few corpses are the worst, but then you see twenty, thirty, a hundred. The numbers let you look away, inside yourself.
By afternoon, the wall was clear again, the defences holding. For a short while the rain stopped and there were no barges, no dredgers, no flotillas of bodies on the river and we could see across uninterrupted to the towers beyond. The city seemed green again, as it must have done a long time – centuries – past. But it was cold, like a jungle that had grown up in the Arctic and been surprised by
the suddenness of the chill. Wordlessly, Alonzo dropped a paperback onto my bunk. It was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
In the half light I began reading, guessing at the missing words in the blackened thumb shape on each page. The paper was like my jeans, black and sticky with the accretions of a thousand previous owners. I was maybe a quarter of the way through the book when I fell asleep.
I came awake as though shaken. The building was shaking. Earthquake? No, it had stopped. What then? A bomb? I swung my legs over the side of the bunk. They went in water.
I looked at my watch. It was six-thirty; just before dawn. Other people were rousing too. We
splashed through the ankle deep water to the ramp. Water was pouring down in spasms, like slit veins involuntarily pumping out their last. I caught Alonzo’s eye but he just shrugged. Outside, we climbed, the human chain up the wall. The water was lapping up and over, breaching the wall in a dozen places. This didn’t make sense. We all knew the tide tables. The next high tide wasn’t due
for another three hours.
The rain was turning to sleet again.
I was one of the first to reach the top. I stood, bare feet gripping the sandbags, as ragged as Huckleberry Finn. Others joined me. It probably wasn’t a good idea to stand, so many of us, on our flimsy barricade. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered any more. We each knew what sound had awakened us all, had shook the building. What was left of Southwark Bridge had gone. The concrete remains were even now collapsing into the Thames.
An iceberg had destroyed it.
We watched as the ‘berg continued along the Thames, going West with the incoming tide. The
timetables meant nothing now. All was wash.
Further, smaller ice floes followed in the wake of the giant. The iceberg sailed on, unhindered. The footbridge had long since fallen, its pinions and balustrades pitiful jagged reminders of its past. A military pontoon followed in its wake, navigating the jigsaw of the smaller floes. It broke from the stream and headed towards our position. The ‘berg hit Blackfriars Bridge and came to a stop. The bridge clanged like a cracked bell but held.
The pontoon pilot drew his craft alongside the wall. There was another man standing on the prow. He wore a military jacket, but had jeans beneath. “Get in,” he said. “When that bridge goes, this whole area will go with it.”
Alonzo didn’t need any persuading; he was already across. “What about the Gallery?” I said.
“What about it? Did you leave any people in there?”
“No, we’re all here.”
The man shrugged. “Then get in.” I wanted to tell him there were Henry Moores under water now, with all the other stuff the flood would swallow. But I was on board now and the pontoon was already turning away. Only now I realised that I had left Alonzo’s copy of Tom Sawyeron my
bunk and I wondered how many more copies there were anywhere in the world.
We sailed where Southwark Bridge had once stood and looked back. Blackfriars creaked and groaning, buckled and fell. The waves rocked our boat and drowned the wall I had stood on. All things considered, I was better off here than back there. I saw the sandbag wall fall and the river rush to fill the void.
The sleet had become snow.
I looked back. The waves lashed the walls, but the chimney stood high above, like a marker buoy over lobster pots, should anyone ever have a reason to return.