I was waist-deep in the River Thames before I saw the creature; moonlight glinting from a shell as black as the water on which it floated.
Earlier in the day, I had woken to bright, crisp weather and wandered out into the streets of London with neither purpose nor destination, save for the smallest hope that the winter sunlight on my skin would lift my mood. When the cold numbed my fingers I buried my hands deep into my coat pockets, only for one to close around the vodka bottle I had finished between rising and stepping out. The sunlight brightened everyone’s spirits but mine and I found myself longing for the usual winter drizzle that turned the capital into the cemetery in which I felt most at home; its rain-stained buildings jutting into the sky like so many gravestones.
I soon found myself in Piccadilly, jostled by commuters and tourists alike, and debated where to go. Perhaps I’d visit the places that meant something to me, but the only one I could think of was my old school and, if I went there, I’d only be reminded of Leven; the boy I’d loved and lost. I wouldn’t visit my parents. I had no desire to see my father, who I knew despised me, and my mother would be less than pleased at my arrival, knowing the foul mood it would put my father into. He made no secret of the fact I was a constant source of disappointment to him. The night he found me in bed with Leven, my father told me I disgusted him. My mother hadn’t said a word about the incident and I knew it was because she didn’t care enough for it to upset her. If I turned up at my parents’ house only my sister Beth would be all smiles and hugs, and I wasn’t sure if I could cope with any of their reactions, knowing what I planned to do in time.
I turned back toward my flat on the South Bank, weaving my way through the excited crowds in Leicester Square and Covent Garden. I stopped on Waterloo Bridge and looked up the river towards St Paul’s. The river ran away from me, slow and silent, its surface mottled by a drizzle I fancied had been conjured purely by my mood.
I felt a blast of warm air on my back from a passing bus’ engine exhaust and my stomach churned when it caught me in the odoriferous wake of passing teenage boy who devoured fast food from a disintegrating cardboard box. A wad of grease and sauce splattered on the pavement as the upper and lower halves of his burger sheared across each other. He swore loudly before laughing and carrying on his way with his friends. I watched them go, unable to remember a time I’d smiled since last kissing Leven.
I crossed the remainder of the bridge and walked down the steps onto the South Bank, my head down, and my collar pulled up against the evening breeze.
I lingered for longer than usual, watching the river, and listening to the crowds spilling out of the National Theatre, chatting about the shows they’d just seen and making plans for Christmas.
When the crowds dispersed and I finally stood alone in the night, I came to the conclusion that I simply didn’t belong in the world. I didn’t fit right; just one of those types of people born wrong. I didn’t even know whether I was a good person or not.
I thought of Martha in David Copperfield, and how she identified with the scum the river carried from the city to the sea. I leaned forward, wanting to go with it, and recited Martha’s words. “It’s the only thing in all the world that I am fit for, or that’s fit for me.”
With her words fixed in my mind, I crossed to the closest set of steps leading down to the river and climbed over the low, locked gate. As I waded into the water I gasped involuntarily. I didn’t know how long it would take before I lost the ability to function; five minutes, maybe sooner depending on how much alcohol remained in my system.
Now, faced with a creature that had already drowned as I intended, I hesitated. To my discomfort, I realised I stood downstream from it. The lifeless thing floated directly toward me. When it was close enough for me to make out its true shape, I saw that it was human, most likely a man in a fancy dress costume; perhaps a reveller who had fallen over the side of a party boat. I doubted he’d been dead for long.
When he reached me I placed my hands on his shoulders and held him at arm’s length. The smooth, black surface I’d mistaken for a shell was in fact a set of hard, interlocked panels, like a suit of armour. I was surprised he could float at all. The current caught his legs and he drifted around me. I reached out with my left arm to catch him and, as it closed around his waist, I trembled with cold and fear in equal measure. Keeping him at my side, I considered what to do. His friends and family might be looking for him. If I took him back to shore at least they’d have answers, a body to bury, and time to mourn. If I let him float away he might be lost forever but what if he, like me, had wanted to die and never be found? I had no right to decide for him.
I decided to turn him over, hoping that if I saw his face I might feel some sense of what to do. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never seen a dead body before. Would milky eyes stare up at me like pearls set into the mount of a stricken expression, reflecting his final struggle for breath?
The manoeuvre wasn’t easy. He was heavy, again puzzling me as to how he was able to float, the current threatened to pull him away from me, and the smooth armour slipped beneath my fingers. The faceplate of the helmet frightened me. Even in the relative darkness of the city night its aggressive lines and proportions suggested threat. The absurd hope he’d at least won the award for best costume countered the dread that urged me to let him go. Open eyes gazed up through the sockets but they were the only indication a human lay beneath.
Securing him a second time, I splayed my right hand over the faceplate and felt for a groove in which to dig my fingers and pull it free but, having now lost almost all sense of feeling, I found nothing. I tugged at the helmet’s crest but it hugged his head too tight to be coaxed free. Frustrated, I looked back at the shallow beach under Gabriel’s Wharf. I’d have to take him back in and find something else with which to prise off the faceplate.
I felt a movement, a shift of weight and volume, and looked down to see a naked man, wet hair plastered over his face, floating at my side, his eyes now closed but lips parted as if in soundless song. A cry of surprise escaped my lips. The armour was gone. I looked behind me but nothing floated away. Had I triggered some mechanism to release it?
Cocking my head, I touched his face, first wiping the hair from his features before placing my hand on his left cheek and running my thumb along his prominent cheekbone.
He looked peaceful.
“Lev?” No, it couldn’t be. Leven had gone to Orkney to meet his real father and never returned, Beth had told me that much, but this man looked just like him. I closed my eyes, rubbed the back of my arm across my face to clear my vision, and looked again.
It was him. For years I’d watched his face at school, studied his features as they betrayed every emotion he had. I’d held his face in my hands, kissed him, and seen the ecstasy of my love echoed back at me.
A sudden and unexpected grief scooped him up into my arms and crushed him against my chest like a recovered treasure once thought lost. His death filed away what little of my insides remained. Time slowed. The river slowed. I felt more compelled than ever to end my own life. At least I would go with him. Here. Now.
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” I whispered into his hair as I cradled his head into my shoulder.
I felt it then, as I held him. I caught the back of his head with a numb hand, and turned his mouth to my ear.
There was breath in his body.
The coldness forgotten, I roared hoarse laughter into the night. Leven lived. In what I had thought to be my final moments he had been delivered to me.
Impatient for the dry land I’d so recently fled, I strode across the current with purpose, my breath laboured but my muscles strong, powered by the adrenaline pumping hard within me. Alternating waves of elation and panic coursed through me. He was alive but what had happened to him?
I staggered onto the stony beach, the crunch deep and heavy in the night. I wiped my face, realising that it was wet not only because of the strands of his hair that clung to my face as I held him, but also because of my tears.
Struggling to keep my balance on feet I could no longer feel, I stomped the beach with my boot, flattening out a section on which to lay my precious flotsam.
I tugged off my coat, doubly heavy with water, and laid it next to him before lifting him onto one half, and folding the other over him, and hobbling back up the steps to scan the pavement.
We were alone for the time being. I limped back down and sat next to him, my knees hugged to my chest, while I debated what to do.
The right thing to do, I knew, would be to call for an ambulance and get him to a hospital but, apart from an angry-looking welt in the centre of his chest, he looked free from injury. If he went to hospital I ran the risk of not seeing him again. Either his foster father, Alex, or his biological father from Orkney, would be notified and I’d be at their mercy, with no visitation rights, because I wasn’t a relative.
Unsettled by the uncertainty of what might happen, I played out mental scenarios of doom and failure over and over again. Starting to feel lost in a future I couldn’t allow, I pulled myself back into the present.
I could nurse him myself. If he was hypothermic I’d find out how to warm him up properly. Then, when he recovered, we could talk. I would explain that abandoning him, as instructed to by my father, was my only regret in life. Leven could leave if he wanted to but perhaps we could start again. This time I would love him the way he needed me to; the way I should have done before. I would never leave him again and never let him be taken from me.
I made my decision.
The most direct route back to my flat was to cut through Gabriel’s Wharf. I pulled the hood of my sopping sweatshirt over my face and covered Leven’s too, in case the closed-circuit television cameras picked us up. It took my remaining strength to lift him and heave him over my shoulder.
I took just one unsteady step before a voice froze me to the spot.
“Shaun. What are you doing?”