They enter the city proper at Cripplegate and walk south down Little Wood Street. It seems to George like any other London day. The Walloons are sitting in a semicircle waiting to be shaved at the sign of the Pheasant. A dirty ragamuffin with a tame squirrel sitting on his shoulder is begging for money. At the corner of Silver Street a woman throws water over a vagrant lying beside her front door. He seems untroubled so she hits him with the bucket and still gets no reaction. It is entirely possible that he is dead.
“Where are we going?” asks George.
“I do not know,” says Will. “We will doubtless find out when we get there.”
“Christ’s teeth,” says George.
“In a general sense I assume that I am escorting you out of this world.”
“Enough,” says George. “Enough.” He comes to a halt and rubs his face.
A man is walking towards them carrying a small cage containing a pair of songbirds. He has powder-blue stockings and a square-cut ginger beard. George waits until the man is passing then grabs hold of his upper arm. The man’s arm feels wrong, too soft, too insubstantial. Nevertheless, the man stops. He seems confused. He looks at George. No, that is not quite right. He looks through George. He wears the expression Mrs. Brokehill wore when she both saw and didn’t see the two of them in the bedchamber. The man smells of lavender and nutmeg, and he is frightened now. The cage clatters to the ground and rolls over several times in the mud. The man is completely unaware of this. The birds chirrup, their little wings drumming on the fine willow bars. The man starts to tremble. George has seen this look on weak men walking to the scaffold. A woman with a brace of rabbits slung over her shoulder stops and stares, wondering whether she should help this troubled man in his ridiculous stockings or walk away as quickly as possible. The man is weeping now, tears running down both cheeks. George lets go and the man sinks to his corn flower-blue knees, the splashed mud spattering George’s own nightgown.
George turns to Will and narrows his eyes. “What are you?”
Will shrugs. “I am as surprised to find myself in this situation as you are.”
Two boys have run off with the caged birds. Some ragged cove is helping the bearded man theatrically to his feet and will doubtless seek payment for the service.
“Follow me.” Will turns and continues towards Cheapside. What he said to George is not the whole truth. He has not the remotest conception of the route they are following, but when he puts one foot in front of the other he knows that he is travelling in the right direction. It is a strange but pleasurable sensation. The fact that he is dead seems of little consequence. George reappears at his shoulder.
They cross Cheapside. There are geese and capons for sale, there are parsnips and melons. There are oranges arranged in a pyramid on a large velvet cushion. A cheesemonger excavates gobbets from inside a stilton. Sparrow the Butcher, one of George’s regular clients until he gave Charity the pox, is hacking cuts from a skinless carcase hanging from its own portable gibbet. Blood for black pudding drips from the cut neck into the bucket underneath.
Seeing a trolley of pies George is suddenly hungry, partly for breakfast, partly for the feel of something solid in his hands, in his mouth, in his stomach. The cloak of invisibility would make the theft easy, but he is afraid that the pie will have the softness of the bird-man’s arm. Besides, Will has entered Bread Street and George must hurry if he is not to be left behind. He skirts a lady on her palfrey and gives chase.
Next door to the Neptune three men are digging out a privy. They have dirty rags across their faces and breeches buckled round high leather boots to keep the rats out. There is a big barrel of juniper to freshen the emptied pit and a boy who looks as if he is made entirely of turd apart from two white eyes. The smell is eye-wateringly bad. At the side of the street sits a high-sided cart full of excrement bound for some lucky Essex pigs. They pass Snelling the luthier and the burnt-out house where the Tweedy children died in the fire. He wonders, for a second, whether he will meet them now that he, too, is dead. The thought opens an abyss. He backs away.
They pass All Hallows and St. Mildred, two churches he has been fined for failing to attend at one time or another. The comforting scents of woodsmoke and horse dung again. They cross Pissing Lane onto Bread Street Hill. He can see water-light now beyond the roofs. There are gulls overhead and the reek of waterweed and rotting wood in the air. They turn right on Thames Street then left down to Broken Wharf opposite St. Mary Somerset. The river opens out in front of them, the surprise of space after the tightness of the crowded city. Cold wind, oar-slap and a squadron of swans midstream. Across the river he can see the tops of the Bear Garden and the bull-baiting arena. He has a sudden vision of being over there, eating hazelnuts and a rabbit-meat pastry, some young girl fresh from the shires at his side. An old horse is led into the dusty ring with a monkey on its back, the dogs going at it till they bring the horse down and rip the squealing monkey to pieces. The joyous, gaudy, vulgar human swill of it all. He has not been well enough to go there for many months. He will never go again. A desperate, sick sadness washes through him.
“Our transport waits upon us.” Will is standing at the end of the jetty gesturing to a wherry below. It is not a boat of a kind George has used before, nor one he has ever seen on the Thames. There are no oars and the wood of the hull is stained black inside and out. The upholstery and the canopy are also black. The single waterman stands at the stern, cloaked in black and hooded so voluminously that his face cannot be seen. It is an image from a play, intended to chill the heart onstage but almost comical out here in the bustle of an ordinary morning. George steps into the boat which yaws a little under his feet. Buoyed again by the brief hope that this is all some theatrical illusion he ventures a little humour.
“This is an unexpectedly Virgilian manner in which to be leaving the world.” He sits himself on the far side of the double seat.
“You should be thankful. If we were departing in the Christian manner you would be in a furnace for ever,” says Will, climbing in after him and handing two coins to their pilot. “That is my assumption at least.” He sits himself on the other side of the seat. “I should probably know such things given my present condition but I find myself strangely ignorant.”
George wants to continue the badinage but he is distracted by the boat moving away from the jetty with no visible means of propulsion, as if it were attached to the back of some great fish. He turns and sees the waterman standing impassive behind him, untroubled by the growing bob and twist of the hull as they move out into the tangled wakes.
They pass through a thick hedge of sweet smoke; four geese crank themselves into the air over the wherry’s bows and they enter the traffic of the great river. No passengers or pilots in other vessels turn to look at the black boat and its impassive, faceless Charon. It seems to George that they are as invisible on the water as he and Will were in the streets. But whatever animating power is in charge of the vessel guides them dextrously, if not comfortably, through the gaps between the packed, unheeding craft.
When they embarked George was convinced that they were crossing the Thames but to his surprise they turn downstream. This scares him more than what might have awaited them on the south bank because he sees now that the ebb is at its height, those two hours when fares rise and small boats navigate the strongest part of the stream swiftly and at some peril. The current has them in its grip.
George looks under the seat. Some of the costlier wherries have life-preservers made from pigs’ bladders. This boat does not. He grips the gunwales. Four shirtless African men are working the sails of a whaler. Some fool is transporting a cow on something not much more substantial than a punt. To their right, the thatched barrel of Henslowe’s Rose and the Globe, both painful sights ever since the Muse abandoned him and the ink ran dry. Looming up ahead the airborne street of the great bridge tiptoes over the river on its nineteen feet, balanced upon it the palatial town houses of mercers and haberdashers with their terraces and balcony gardens. The great wooden toy of Nonsuch House. He wants to be up there, behind those buildings, in that warm, stinking crowd, walking past the White Horse and the Looking Glass and the Dolphin and Comb. He catches a glimpse of heads, legs and unidentifiable chunks of quartered bodies on the spikes which rise from the roof of the southern gateway. “Will, this is not wise.”
“You are already dead, George. We are both dead. Dying should surely be one of the matters we no longer have to worry about. Besides, our steersman seems more than competent.” Though he can see George’s point. A small boat shooting London Bridge is more often than not a few bloated corpses and a scattering of wet planks at Wapping.
“Sweet Christ,” says George.
The surface of the water buckles as they approach the prows of the cutwaters which scissor the Thames into twenty thick ribbons. The boat slips sideways into the lowest part of a trough between the stone starlings. Their already prodigious speed doubles. The sky is brie y blotted out. They enter the echoing roar. A thousand tons of water compressed. The boat exits the bridge, breasts the hill of a standing wave and thumps down onto the flatter water beyond, the currents on either side of them braiding and curling as the liquid ribbons reunite and George is greatly relieved to find the boat upright and himself undrowned.
Botolph’s Wharf, Lyon’s Key, Somar’s Key, Billingsgate . . . the bank itself invisible behind a flooded forest of masts and sails and rigging. Caravels and carracks, galleys and galleasses. Longshoremen hoot and holler. Sacks and crates swing from turning cranes. The boom of empty barrels dropped onto flagstones. Wine tuns and Turkish rugs. The Tower rising to their left, black water slopping in the open mouth of Traitor’s Gate.
They veer round a barge which sits at anchor awaiting the turn of the tide, twenty-one oak trunks roped to the deck. Bermondsey, Shadwell, the kilns of Limehouse. The ships bigger now, no other wherries certainly, the river too wide, the chop too big. Waves are starting to splash over the prow. George looks down. His boots are sodden. Are they going to capsize? Would it matter? He is gripping the side of the boat and the edge of his seat very hard indeed. He is seasick in his stomach and in his heart. He glances over his shoulder. Their waterman seems entirely unaffected by the movement of the deck beneath his feet, remaining constantly upright like the little wooden soldier George was given by his carpenter uncle when he was a child, which couldn’t be knocked over because of the lead weights hidden in its rounded feet.
Redriff and Millwall Dock, the stone stumps of the Roman bridge on either side of the river at Deptford. Times start to slip over one another, the way a reflected image lies upon a scene viewed through glass. The faint ghost of longships riding the tide at Greenwich where the Danes beat Ealpheg to death with ox-bones six hundred years ago. The Isle of Dogs, the dead hounds running for ever in search of their drowned masters. The river is a mile wide now, the featureless marshes of Erith, creeks and inlets. Ribcages of mud-stuck wrecks in assorted stages of decay. A vast sky. George has spent his entire adult life in London. Brief crossings of the river apart, he has lived for thirty years bound by walls of one kind or another. If this vast plain were a meadow it would terrify him. The fact that it is made of water fills him with inexpressible dread.
They pass through a floating island of excrement, solid enough to support the weight of two resting gulls. It is, thankfully, not on fire, unlike the similar island which passed downriver in the summer, causing great entertainment among some and persuading others that the end of the world was upon them.
They pass the chalk pits of Greenhithe. In the submarine dark a hundred feet below them the Black Shelf begins. Onto Fiddler’s Reach where, so they say, the spirits of the three drowned musicians make the waves dance in the hope of bringing sailors down to join them in their cold and lonely home. The river curves to the right and they see, distantly, Tilbury on the left bank where Elizabeth blessed the fleet before they went to meet the Spaniards. We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety . . . Then Gravesend where the jurisdiction of the river pilots begins, the port of Cliffe-at-Hoo, the Isle of Sheppey, Canvey Island where the Dutch reside. The river is five miles wide now, not in truth a river any more but the beginning of the ocean, one undivided substance connecting their tiny craft to Greenland, to China, to the map’s blank borders. The counties of Kent and Essex are no more than dark lines that separate earth and sky. George wants desperately to go home. He has never felt this way before. But he does not have a home, he has never had a home, not since he was a child. He is close to weeping. But he is distracted by the sudden conviction that something is about to happen. He is not sure yet what that something might be. He looks at Will. He looks at their robed pilot. There are no ships. Is this what has triggered the alarm? Forty square miles of water and not a single sail. They are the only vessel.
Will looks at him with an expression of . . . what is it, compassion, sorrow? “Goodbye, George.”
“Will . . . ?”
It is like nothing George has ever seen. Will is sitting beside him made of flesh and blood and fustian and leather. Then George can see the glow of daylight from the other side of him, as if he were made of paper. Then he can see the rowlocks and the horizon through Will’s chest. Then Will is made of smoke. Then wind bears the smoke away and Will disperses over the grey water and is gone. George turns round, hoping to see the waterman whose company has previously given him no reassurance whatsoever. The waterman becomes translucent, then transparent, then smoke, then blows away.
George is alone in a tiny boat many miles from land with no obvious means of propulsion and no one to whom he can signal his distress. He is wearing boots and a nightgown. He is very cold. And now he begins to weep properly. He knows that he will not be rescued. He is going to die for a second time and it is going to be lonely and painful and slow.
He closes his eyes and tries to imagine that he is on land, but without the distraction of the visible world the rocking of the hull is even harder to ignore. He opens his eyes. He is shivering. He puts up the black canopy to block the worst of the wind but it also blocks the view of any vessel that might rescue him. He puts the canopy down again. The sky is a uniform dirty white. He has no way of telling the time. There are still no sails. Something is profoundly wrong. Fear sweeps through him like wild re. The light starts to go down, a general dimming at first, then the spectral gloaming of the day’s end. The temperature drops further. He is not sure which will be worse, dying at night or surviving the night to find himself still alive and alone in this watery desert in the morning.
And this is the moment when they start to rise slowly from the water, one by one, around the boat. Lank, wet hair and salt-bleached skin. Sunken cheeks and eyes like chunks of coal, eyes you don’t look at but into. Devils? Ghosts? He cannot breathe. Five, seven, nine of them. Drowned but alive, clad in sodden shrouds that stick to their breasts and bony shoulders. They are talking in a loud whisper, words overlapping so that they emit only a general hiss. Ten, eleven. He turns round. The wet, cadaverous crowd circle the boat completely now. One of them is Ann Plesington, or some demon wearing her body. No pupils in the dungeon black of her eyes, but he knows that she is looking at him. He knows that they are all looking at him. He beat her with a strap and one of the blows hit her face and left her permanently scarred. Bound over to keep the peace in the Clerkenwell magistrates’ court.
Rebecka Chetwoode. Dorothy Lumbarde. Magdalen Samways. Hollow-cheeked and fish-fleshed, ankle deep in the water as if they were only five yards from the beach. Twenty? Twenty-five? No longer countable, though he recognises every one of them. Judith Walton. Allison Packham. Susanna Medeley whom he kicked in the belly when she was pregnant. The Old Bailey this time. And only now does he see, beside her, the child who died in her womb, too young to sit up but standing in the water nevertheless, a domed hairless skull above the naked body of a baby bird, tiny versions of those same black eyes staring at him when they should be closed. Joane Chatwyn whom he took by force. Isabelle Fletcher whom he took by force. Frideswide Chase who died when three men used her for their pleasure. Lettice Alfraye whom he sold to Lord Buckleigh. Charity Cooper.
The sky is darker. He is shivering. The water slaps and wobbles, the boat rocks under him but the women remain as fixed as stanchions. Is this a punishment? It was bad enough being led here by his offensively prolific one-time collaborator, but to discover that the sex too weak to have dominion in the physical world are possessed of demonic powers in the other is hard to bear. Dear God, he gave many of these women employment. If it weren’t for his business they would have been on the streets at best. The thought is pointless. There is very clearly no one here to whom he can plead his case.
The hissing stops. Their eyes are on him but their mouths are no longer moving. In front of the prow the crowd of women separates, not stepping sideways but sliding smoothly apart. This is the denouement. For years everything has been travelling steadily towards this terrible moment. He wishes now that he were simply adrift in a tiny boat in the Thames Estuary with night coming and a long, painful death ahead of him.
Something—or someone—is swimming below the surface, along the path of clear water between the women, the image jumbled and warped by the waves but becoming clearer as it reaches the surface. A head appears, then shoulders. She is sixteen or so, Barbary skin and mahogany hair. The same sunken cheeks, the same black eyes, but this girl is different. He does not recognise her. She is the kind of girl who would never work for him, the kind of girl punters would refuse for fear of her provenance, who wears damask and lawn and sleeps under clean sheets and washes her soft hands between courses.
The other women begin talking again, that viper hiss, mouths moving faster now, some witchy incantation. The girl is moving slowly towards him. She is beautiful despite the transformation she has undergone. The hissing is louder now. He could reach out and touch her.
Who are you? The words form in his mind but he has neither the breath nor the control over his muscles to say them out loud.
She opens her mouth. Instead of the milk-white teeth he expects, her gums are ringed with thorns like the mouth of a lamprey and it is expanding until he can no longer see the rest of her head, only a well-shaft ringed with knives. She lunges too fast for him to react, fastening herself to the flesh of his face, spikes locked in hard enough for him to be hoisted off his feet and dragged forward, his ankles banging clumsily on the prow as he is hauled down into the cold and the dark.
The hissing stops. One by one the women slip into the water. The rippling circles they leave behind mingle rapidly with the general waves until there is only an empty wherry bobbing and rolling five miles from land as the last light of the day dies over London in the west.
Excerpted from The Porpoise. Used with permission of Doubleday. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Haddon.