Later, pissing off the end of one of the abandoned barges upstream, invisible among the tall weeds and strengthless-looking bushes that grew on every square foot of its decaying deck, he thought he heard something behind him. There were two or three confused movements further along the hull, followed by a fluttering or rustling just outside his sightlines; then a quiet splash as if something had slipped furtively into the river. He waited for ripples but they didn’t show. He leaned out to look up and down the reach. Nothing: the surface of the river was compact and burnished all the way to Kew Bridge, where the piers split it into whorls and eddies which streamed off towards Barnes.
He zipped up and pushed his way back anxiously towards the land through the vegetation. In there, among recent shoots and withered induviae, everything felt dry and at the same time rotted to a wafer. Small cream moths floated up from among the faded lager cans and shredded plastic bags. A fibrous mulch was replacing the old deck; but you could still feel the decaying timbers flex beneath. Anything, he thought, could be living in all that warm, dense, airless, puzzling growth.
That lunchtime, for a change, he walked downstream to Strand-on-the-Green and ate a hamburger sitting outside a pub called The City Barge while middle-aged women in yoga pants by Liquido and Spiritual Gangster exercised their miniature dogs between him and the river. He felt as if he was sick of all that side of things. The tide had turned. The water was beginning to slacken and churn. The previous week’s bad weather had folded itself away into heat and humidity, but remained immanent somehow in the dull brassy glare that lay across the city. Everything was dusty again, but the sky could always open. The worst of July, the foretaste of August. Midstream, Oliver’s Island looked like a Victorian dreadnought abandoned in the quivering light, its slabby iron plates somehow turned to stone.
I would never have to fake my own death, he found himself thinking. I’ve all but vanished already. Part of him welcomed that. Another part, larger but so thinly distributed across his personality that it seemed invisible, panicked soundlessly on a twenty four hour schedule.