Welcome, Stella Duffy
Stella Duffy has written twelve novels. Theodora, published by Virago (UK) in 2010 and by Viking Penguin (US) in 2011, is her first historical novel. The Room of Lost Things and State of Happiness were both longlisted for the Orange Prize, and she has twice won Stonewall Writer of the Year. She has written over forty short stories, including several for BBC Radio 4, and won the 2002 CWA Short Story Dagger for Martha Grace. She is currently working on the sequel to Theodora, The Purple Shroud, as well as several film and theatre projects. Stella is also a theatre director and performer, and has written eight plays. She was born in London, grew up in New Zealand, has lived back in London for since 1986 and is married to the writer Shelley Silas, her partner of 21 years.
From the River’s Mouth
Sorry luv, don’t do south.
No darlin’ can’t go south of the river this time of night.
South? Over there? Need a passport don’t you?
South, no not me, I don’t go south, can’t go south, won’t go south.
Enough. I have heard enough. I have had enough. There is time and there is tide and there is the Thames. Here is the Thames. Old Father Thames they used to say. Because they didn’t know any better. Don’t know any better. I am no more father than I am mother. But I do have my children, my tributary babies, running into me, clinging to me, come deep down far to me, my Effra and my Peck and my fast fecund Fleet.
I have grown tired of these people who are frightened of water, worried by the south. I am irritated by their gibes, their dismissals, their lack of courage in the face of bridges, tube tunnel terror. Irritation might form a pearl in an oyster shell, but not for me. I twist and I have turned for your pleasure, writhing through your dogged isles and yet you cannot bear to cross me, too scared to cross me? Don’t cross me then. Don’t you dare cross me. I have had enough. I am very very cross indeed.
I am so old and yet, twice a day, am remade, brand new, flowing through. I have been burned and iced, open and closed, fresh and fetid. You care, I don’t. I am not interested in how many species live in me, what is the sand and silt content of my shore, where you would place another rail bridge, road tunnel, ferry landing. I am not interested in land. I am what lies between and I hear the lies you tell one another. Your tube delays and trains cancelled and walking in rain excuses, your getting lost in the south, tossed in the south. All your reasons for not getting there, for being late, for being last. I will not hear excuses any more.
I love my north and my south sides equally. Would you ask me to care more for one than the other? Love one half of me more than the other? And yet you do. You do. Elizabeth flowed from Westminster to Greenwich in my soft arms, Churchill rode me dead in a barge and all the cranes of the city bowed down when he passed. When I was young they carved a version of my face and set me fast on the Cutty Sark’s prow, it was like me, but not me. Not quite. I do not allow full likeness and graven images are quickly eroded in water. Cleopatra loaned me a needle once, I was darning something, a sock, a city, I forget which now, I kept her needle, she didn’t much care for sewing anyway, was never one for handicrafts, that girl. More makeup than make do and mend. I have been a silver ribbon misleading bombers from Tilbury to Teddington, I have welcomed the Boudicca’s flowing blood, I have sat cold and uninterested while the city burned, several times, at my sides.
I have been so much, am so much, and you can’t be bothered to cross? I’ve allowed you a dozen different bridges within an hour’s walk. Ferries and ferrymen, water wings and catamaran. Fine then. I am tired of arguing. You have turned me down once too often. Enough is enough.
Come down here, found here, twist and coiled round here, here I am, silted and salty and waiting. Waiting. The Greenwich Foot Tunnel was opened in 1902. It is fifty feet deep, twelve hundred and seventeen feet long, and it never closes. It runs through me. And I through it, though the white-glazed tiles and dry floor would convince you otherwise. But come closer, it’s all right, I won’t bite. There. Feel these tiles, smooth and cold, now this one here, see? There is a hook on the wall above you, an old metal hook, rusted just a little through the water in the air, there is always water in the air – touch and look and yes, this tile slips back, and that, and another. Now, quickly, while the lift doors are closed, the camera turned away, reach in and under, and stretch your fingers just that little bit further. That switch, there. Flick it, click it. Ah – and here we are – our entrance hall, a polished-shell path cleared for you. Come in. It’s all right, I’m with you now. You do not need to leave a trail of pebbles or crusts. I will bring you back here. I promise. I’m good like that. I always return.
Welcome. Those many man-made bridges? They run over me. The world-renowned tube passes under. But this tunnel, this one tunnel, it passes through. Is passing through. My guests do not pass through. Would you like to meet them? They’d love to meet you. They see so many faces down here. But very few who really know, who come and go.
This is Charlie. He has been here since 1913. Hush now dear, don’t cry for the people, it isn’t nice to make so much noise, hush, hush … I said, shut up! Thank you. Good boy. Charlie was perfectly happy to see young Mary from Bermondsey, as long as she made all the running. Mary walked under the river to the Isle for her tea, a strong cuppa and a nice currant bun, with a kiss and a peck for afters. She caught a ferry to meet him, then walked up to Victoria Park, by the bandstand in the dark where no-one would see his kisses, stolen from her lips. Poor tired Mary stood an hour on the tram all the way to Hampstead for the fair, her one afternoon off and again she journeyed to the far north all for him. Once, just once, Mary asked, couldn’t Charlie come to her, bend a little, bend over the water. And then he laughed, right in her face, laughed and shook his head and belched a vulgar grin, his voice raised just that much too loud, his mouth open a little too far, and his words caught on a wind that bore them to me.
“Cross the river? Not me, no fear, you won’t catch me crossing there!”
But I did, didn’t I, sweetheart? Catch you, caught you, kept you, keep you. Mary cried once or twice, wondered where he’d gone, her daring beau, the darling boy. Then she moved on. Charlie did not move on. Charlie stayed down here with me. Forever nineteen, and never crossing the river, never quite to the other side. His brothers looked up and down the shore for his body, night following night for seven weeks. It never turned up. Because Charlie did not drown. My guests do not drown, they are cool and dry and going nowhere. Ever again. Still, it could have been worse. He could have gone with his brothers to the Somme.
This is Emma. Say hello poppet. Emma? Be nice now, say hello – I mean it. You know what I can do. Say … Good. Thank you. Emma used to work in the City, didn’t you, my lovely? Smart job, smart house, smart suit, smart girl. Not so smart girl. All they wanted was one quick trip, that’s all they were asking, her friends. A hen night. In Clapham. How bad could it be? But oh no, not our Emma. She just laughed. Laughed in the bride-to-be’s face. Giggled behind the back of the long-suffering bridesmaid. Said she’d do her best, see what she could arrange, try, give it a try. Try my eye. She never had any intention of crossing. Not going to chance getting her peep-toes wet, that one. Never had, never would. That was her vow. Proud of it too, she was. Too damn proud. Still, I was patient. I’m happy to wait. I have all my life to flow downstream. And now I have all of Emma’s life. My little Queen of the Slip-Tide. How did I catch her if she didn’t cross? Good question. See how I bend, I twist? You can barely tell which side I’m on down there at Canary Wharf. And City girls always have to go to the wharf. They’re drawn to the bars, the waterfront cafes, the rich, rich men. Ordered steak frites and not a single frite passed her lips. Girl. Emma left her City friends drinking by the water, drinking no water, and went for a wander. Well, I spin into the docks too you know, all those glass-fronted places reflecting my glory, refracting my shadowed light. A wind leapt from the water, splashed single drops on to each of her five hundred pound shoes, Emma bent down to check the leather and then I was there. Now she is here.
Aaron was a taxi driver. He wouldn’t go south of the river, not for twenty quid extra, not for a generous tip to the charity of his choice, not for love nor money. He does not go south now either. As I do, he simply leans from east to west and back again on the rising and falling tides. He goes nowhere. An idle man, he would happily sit in his cab, eating bacon sandwiches and drinking large mugs of sweet tea, prefer that to driving south, rather earn less than cross the water, no matter how often his wife reminded him of the bills and the long hours she worked and the mounting debts and the cost of their children’s future. Their long fatherless future. Aaron would drive anywhere now if I let him, anywhere at all, his hands hunger for a steering wheel. I won’t let him.
Martin travelled all the way from South Africa to London, such a distance he came. But when he got here, the river was one step too many for him. Would only live north, work east, play west. So very impolite. I will not be crossed. Martin’s return ticket remains unused and he only remembers the sun. Sam journeyed south from Hexham. Stoke Newington became his new north east, and I the Thames barrier he could not face. Now Sam is my angel of the north and, try as he might, he cannot stretch his arms wide enough to reach the shore. Kane from New Zealand. Feared walking across Hungerford Bridge, mocked what he called my dirty waters, but he needed a closer look to prove London pollution and Antipodean superiority. He got his closer look. Now Kane knows the water all too well, the taste and texture is all he knows, has become expert in the ways of silt and silence, sand blocking his sighs.
There they all are, so many, so much, so missed. So mine.
Anyway, thank you, you should go now. Really, you should go. The tide is turning, London’s burning, and you don’t want to be down here when it does. Seriously, I mean it. go now. This way, back through here, that’s it, past the cool white tiles, bye bye my little ones, I’ll be back later, always back later, hush now – hush damn you! Hush! Come on, keep up, don’t you want to go back up? To the day and the bright, the riverside light? Didn’t you have an appointment? At the Elephant was it? Or Kennington? Putney? You did mean to cross didn’t you? Yes? Well go on then, cross. Quick. Off you go. Trip trap over the bridge. Wave good bye. Bye bye. See you again. Maybe. When the moon hangs fat and full over St Paul’s and you look down from Waterloo Bridge and you could swear, just swear, there was something in there. Beneath the water. Something, someone. Looking up. Calling out. Asking you to reach in and help. Calling you down. Don’t look down. Don’t come in. Keep on, cross over, make like the geese, head south. And don’t you dare, even in jest, say no to the river crossing. As I said, I’m bored with it. I have had enough. Cross me. Come on. Cross me. I’m waiting.