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54. Work on what has been spoiled (III)

There are too many people in London. I go to a coal barge, converted into separate rooms, as an alternative to my last girlfriend. The barge is like a floating grave. On top, over a few planks, a static caravan has been placed. Up here, a tenant can cook on an open gas stove and take a bucket shower with water heated on a kettle. The toilet is a single urinal that leads to the Thames below. I do not know what happens to solid matter. On the top level, a man sits and smokes fresh cannabis; his Staffordshire bull terrier is on his lap. He is local. He is the connection. The others are from Eastern Europe, here to work on trade jobs. They are saving everything they can and, compared to some house in the north east where men are crammed thirty to a room, this is luxurious accommodation. They sit with Eastern European beer on their laps, decorated with the crown of some strange monarch, and celebrate among themselves their petty victories over the foreman.

The landlord, rugby fan of a blushed red variety, shows me to the bottom of the barge. We go through a thick green curtain and past a black squat potbelly stove. I look at the grate and see a fire from hell, complete with little demons dancing inside. “We stoke it up more in the winter so it’s warm,” says the landlord. This does not reassure me. I imagine a coal falling from the fire, the cabins igniting and the scramble up the ladder—the smoke would choke you first; the curtain, the screen, is death. The lights down here are crude little strip panels purchased at a bulk store, each fluorescent tube powered by a small battery. The cabins, meanwhile, are simple fibreboard constructions built right against the bulkhead. Each tenant sleeps with his head against the bare metal of the coal barge. In the cold belly of the beast. I imagine each compartment, secured only with padlock on the outside, catching fire. The confusion and cries and choking as death takes each person, cocooned in their sleeping bags and boiled in this waterborne kettle.

“Emergency exit,” jokes the landlord, sliding a small flap open on one of the compartments. This is like a place the Russians would take you for interrogation, I think, as I look at the strip light in the compartment. I would not mind death by fire, death from the gas canister above, ignited by a stoner from the east. What I would mind is to die by falling into the mud. I saw it from the gangplank, volcanic sinister. I imagine the boat turning over in the darkness, the lights going out and the slow immersion and suffocation in the thick ooze. I have walked in it before and it is deceptive. It went up to my knees and when I moved one leg the other sank deeper, so I would have had to sprawl on the mud to survive. Old Father Thames is always there and sometimes he decides to keep you forever. The mud is thicker still beside this boat, and I imagine that, if things went sour between the locals and the easterners, a man’s body would go over the side and never be seen again. The police do not come here; perhaps, by chance, some council worker will make a desultory examination and leave with court dates arranged—the barge has gone by then.

It all happens, of course, being London, besides the most expensive properties in the world, just fifteen minutes away in Richmond. This is the interstitial zone, the post-modern crack in the wall, that has only the skeletons of heavy industry and not the sharp outlines of offices built to serve the sacred consumer. Every night new people arrive and some are not spirited into the belly of the barge but, instead, take a walk to Hades and reside under the floorboards of rank bedsits.


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