By Luke P.G. Draper
The word echoed like shotgun fire through Trafalgar Square.
Pigeons scattered. Most quietened back to the ground, some flew to the domed roof of the National Gallery or away into the low and oystery clouds that folded in the morning sky.
The old man stood at the foot of the Gallery’s steps, a frayed square of cardboard and scratchy blanket at his feet a dog may have lain on before, though he stood alone and crooked, his lucid eyes betraying his wilted frame.
He clenched his fists by his side, closed his eyes and bellowed again.
I was sat at the eastern fountain, soothed by the sound of sluicing water and the pulsing rumble of traffic from The Strand, but the word pealed through the square like a sudden toll of a faulty clock. I’m unsure how long I sat on the fountain wall watching him. He ignored me as if it was all part of street act, and perhaps I convinced myself it was to justify my voyeurism. We were invisible to each other and ourselves.
The square was quiet save litter pickers and the occasional businessperson crossing the square toward the office buildings, oblivious as the old man gradually lifted his arm in the air as if raising a starting pistol and roared the word once more.
A smartly dressed woman walking alone toward Pall Mall vaulted like a frightened horse at the noise.
Guilty! He hissed behind her canter.
After she turned a corner, he stood to as upright a posture he could like an abandoned soldier, taking a moment to uncoil his wiry beard with his yellowed fingers, straighten his mariner cap and wipe his eyes.
Still, he didn’t look at me.
I began walking in the early mornings half a year ago. Four mornings after London came together to celebrate hosting the 2012 Olympics, three mornings after it was torn apart by bombs under and over ground. After days of self-confinement, my flat no longer felt like sanctuary. The view from my window of rows of shops and diners that often disappeared behind the type of bus that exploded in two filled me with dread. The bus would wait at the stop outside the drug store. And wait.
After a vivid dream of being chased by a bus and waking up at the pneumatic hiss of the first number 32 pulling in, I got out of bed, got dressed and left my flat to walk with no particular destination in mind. I walked all the way to Hackney Marshes and sat on the banks of the River Lea with a bottle of wine and a plastic cup. Usually, families would paddle in the water, but nobody swam that day.
The walks would last most of the day. I would circle Cricklewood to start, then walk through Maida Vale and Hyde or Regent’s Park and sometimes past the Thames toward Battersea. Every walk was navigated only by my awareness of London’s streets. I began stopping at pubs but felt too anxious to settle, even after drinking my fill.
A week later, my strolls brought me to Trafalgar Square. Small cuts of paper streamers floated on the paving and bobbed on the fountain’s water. The party was over before it began. The smoke and the ashes had dispersed, and the streets were cleansed of the mechanical — and other — remains, but something still hung in the air, like anger and fear had evaporated into an electrostatic force. It tasted blood-coppery and drifted consciously like lost ghosts.
The wound still gaped and would continue to as London silently endured.
Together, said the news, but London was shattered into grains that refused to rebind.
But of what, precisely? Pride? Greed? Complacency? I took my battered tobacco tin from my pocket and picked out a pre-rolled cigarette. The bite of the first morning cigarette lingered and faded. I found myself drifting into the fountain’s chant and closed my eyes, my mind empty of all thought and memory. I remained in this mesmerised state until my cigarette burned down to my knuckle. When I reopened my eyes, the man had gone.
I checked my watch. Eight twenty-four. More people were passing through the square. Soon, groups would gather and loiter. I had no intention of being among them, so I rolled the remaining paper and tobacco between my fingers and scattered the dust on the ground, stepped off the fountain wall and headed east to the river.
Walking down Duncannon Street reminded me why I preferred the openness of the square. Cars passed closer, and the narrow pavement guided people to cross in tighter herds. While before I would walk with my head down, I now mark in every face I meet the city’s burdens. Though today, fewer people walked toward me. From the offices and the bistros, people exited and headed instead for the river until we were all like knots in the same rope being pulled toward the turbid waters.
Around Embankment Station, the line dispersed. People headed to the footbridge or the pier to get a closer look at the river. I headed to an elevated walkway that granted a view down the river all the way to the Vauxhall curve.
“There, I see it!” Cried out a man on the bridge, pointing down the river.
The morning sunlight burned on the water’s surface.
“Where”? asked a clipper, dashing on the sloping bank.
The gasps and cries could be heard over the traffic and the wind that groaned through the bridge girders.
I saw it. First a ripple on the surface and then the emergence, grey and colossal.
“A whale! Look mum!” cried a child beside me, clutching his mother’s skirt. The mother held her hand to her mouth.
Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, crowds gathered on the banks and bridges to catch a glimpse of the whale that had come to visit. Though it had submerged soon after peering above the surface, we cooed over any disturbance in the water and cheered for the rescue service that zipped along the river on small engine boats toward any unconfirmed sighting.
I watched the river carefully. The water heaved with all the activity, exciting the crowds, who’s faces stole my attention. Many smiled and waved, as if welcoming family back from a long journey at sea. Many clapped and cheered. Some were holding back tears while others openly cried. Some prayed, in different styles and languages. It was a harmony of loving chaos. We were all, with our scars and religions, willing the whale to survive. We were thankful for its visit and the well wishes, but mentally guided it back to the vast ocean. We wouldn’t admit to ourselves that it was lost and afraid, that it had made some navigational error and swam into the shallow, fetid waters of our notorious tributary by mistake. A river once so polluted it was declared biologically dead. A river once a whaling port, where the stranded were hacked up for their oil and bone. A river that regularly surrenders corpses. We willed it back to safety with all our collective strength.
I stayed leaning on the walkway railings until the sun set and the winter chill had seeped through to my bones. I gazed on to the now calmer waters. Fewer rescue boats patrolled the river and most of the families had left. Workers crossed the footbridges with their heads down. I thought about the old man on the square. I still didn’t know what he was accusing us of, but really, I don’t think he did either. We all have our secrets, faults and regrets and we all have our rules and devotions. We have our histories that shape our futures, and for now the ever-occupied present. The old man stood there as a mirror to all that dared to look into it, and if they did, they would confront their guilt — just as we did when we stared into the soul of our river — and scream until all that is left is blind hope.
For the first time since the bombs, I wanted to go home.
Luke Draper is from Portsmouth, UK and lives in Japan. He studied Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. His literary influences include Leonard Cohen and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
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