The river was up. Away from the towpath lights there was sufficient moon to cast a shadow. He headed for one of the more overgrown barges that lay in a line in the mud a few hundred yards downstream from the Brent confluence. It was larger than the others and perhaps his favourite, although he had only seen it by day, when the word “Anabasis” could be made out stencilled on its bow in rusty white letters.
Access was over a concrete wall, between two lopped willow truncheons and down a new-looking aluminium ladder, then by a narrow plank fifteen feet above the rising water. Once aboard, you were greeted by a close, thickly-vegetated terrain littered with crushed and whitened beer cans, ragged plastic bags, underwear discarded as an offering; the whole smelling of herb robert and–more mysteriously–cheap pesto. All of this was familiar enough. But paths Shaw knew well in the afternoon seemed less amenable after dark: and he was soon lost among the disordered deck furniture, nests of wire and piles of sodden slats, the old curved hatch covers presenting as entries to an underworld. Thickets of elder and hazel, the latter black with last year’s catkins, hung over the water. The structure shifted and creaked as the tide lifted it. Everything seemed larger than he had expected it to be. After a few minutes the sense of a void to his left convinced him the river lay in that direction. He arrived instead at the huge blunt landward side of the bow where the foredeck, rotted by decades of leaching soil acids, had buckled gently into the empty hull to produce a saucer-shaped clearing.
It was nothing much–a few square metres of cropped-looking turf with a springy but rotten feel underfoot. The edges were littered, but not the middle. Moonlight bleached everything, lending more of a sense of space than you would expect; it glittered prismatically off something Shaw took at first for broken glass, but which proved to be a precise row of little Victorian medicine bottles embedded at angles in the turf as if it had grown up securely around them. Each chipped neck had been plugged with a swatch of stained tissue. They were hexagonal, square-shouldered. In their day, they had represented pain relief, life relief, relief from life’s fevers and revelations; their utility now was unclear, though clearly not ornamental. The milky fluid so carefully stopped up inside them resembled semen, though it was on second thoughts insufficiently thick. Moonlight lent it a greenish cast.
As Shaw stooped to examine this arrangement, someone burst out of the undergrowth beside him. The flimsy decking bounced and shook. He had a strong sense of being overwhelmed by events before he had even become aware of them. Something cold and muscular gripped his upper arm. He was enveloped by a smell he didn’t recognise. He was lifted half off his feet and shoved out of the way. There came a moment of confusion as he tried to keep his balance; some further contact, which spun him around; then a naked figure, very pale, not as large as he had expected, parted the vegetation and ran off bent double between the stems. “Hey!” he called, but it had already vanished.
–from The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, available June 25th, from all your trusted outlets.