Louise gave me instructions to slip one-seventh of her into the Thames at Tilbury. It was her homage to the past; her acknowledgment of an ancestor’s vacillation between two nations. I took the ashes to the docks. It was an enormous functioning port, not the nineteenth century jetty I had imagined. The man on the security gate gave me permission to enter the private section; long piers with small ships being converted into floating palaces. I think it was the ‘Certified Human Remains’ stickers and seals that convinced him — or maybe it was just my face.
On the dock a drunken sailor chundered over the stainless steel railings of a sleek racing yacht. His mates whooped and the warm tang of his vomit greeted me as I walked past them to the very end of the pontoon. Taut wires whined and strained against the wind. Seagulls swooped and squabbled, caw-cawing at the sinking chunks. The birds scooped it up and gulped it down before flapping back in greedy circles, calling for more. I felt an involuntary heave rise in my gut but swallowed it down. I kept my head up. Not daring to look through the wooden slatted walkway to the silty water below.
I knelt and took the packet of ashes out of my pack, pulled out my pocket knife and flicked open the larger blade, cutting into the plastic with assertive stabs — puffs of ash coughed out of the slits with each impact. In post-orgasm theory, the stab then submerge approach had seemed perfectly reasonable. But in daylight I knew it must look like I was maniacally despatching something precious and living.
When enough holes had been made, I held the packet under the filmy surface of the Thames. Water crept through the gaps and into the space between her ashes; the displacement forcing air to escape, like a last breath, to the surface. I felt the dust turn to a paste under my pressing fingers — little trails of grey seeping out of the gaps. It was a long time before the last of the bubbles popped and the package felt sodden and heavy enough to release. I let go of it, pulled my hand out of the water and reached for the umbrella I had brought, in case I needed to hold the article under to make sure it drowned. But the packet stayed submerged, a fish-shadow in the murky water. A tiny shift in the current drew it away. I took camellia petals, plucked at the last minute from an arrangement on the hall table, and sprinkled them on the water — their bruised pinkness too cheerful and alive — the gesture more movie than me.
I looked up to see the drunken sailor walking towards me. Wonky eyed and concerned, he said, ‘You alright, love? Thought you were drowning kittens for a while there.’ He put a laugh in where it didn’t belong. ‘Then the flowers…’ He petered out and turned away. I heard the groan and splatter as he threw up.
The story of those long ago boats, the one bound for Canada with trunks of precious family detritus on board, and the one bound for New Zealand, chosen for a new life because of a change of heart, or a pleading wife, determined our future. Despite distance between now and then, the randomness and implications of those past choices were so fully alive in Louise. I know now that London was her little fake; that those two boats really left from Southampton. Louise found this out before she died but she had always imagined it was London, believed it was London, so she made it London.
When I tell Richard about it, he is scathing. It’s our weekly call about all things Dan. We catch up on how much the boy eats and how big he is. And turn the conversation to Nina and how much she eats and how big she is. I know about Tomas and Christa already but I let Rich tell me again how the man who attacked them and Dan had been caught and how, upon the call from the Westport police, Christa slept for seventeen hours straight.
‘She just lay down on the couch and didn’t wake up for seventeen hours. We had no idea the whole thing had had such an effect.’
But he went from the miraculous to the judgemental in one easy step.
‘I told you, from the start, the whole ashes disposal thing was going to be a wild fucking goose chase.’
‘I went past the squat.’ I want to unsettle the ‘I told you so’ fucker.
‘Our squat?’ His sense of ownership makes me smile.
‘Yeah, there’s a dentist on the first floor now, I just walked right in.’
‘Fuck. What was it like?’ I imagine his pulse rate rising just a little.
‘A bit like you Rich, all done up, unrecognisable except for the massive purple ink stain on the hall floor.’
‘Very funny. So you chucked a bit of Louise in the Thames for nothing then?’ He’s baiting and I bite.
‘It wasn’t for nothing.’
‘Yeah? If this one’s a dud how do you know all the rest are kosher?’
‘You know what, Rich.’ I only arrive at what I think as I say the words aloud, ‘I don’t care. Who’s to say what’s more important — the truth or the intent? It’s more like Louise to do this out of line thing than all the other meticulously planned shit I’ve had from her up ‘til now. It’s kind of funny — a relief.’
‘How was the squat, really?’ Something tweaks his voice, tightening it.
‘There’s an organic grocer on the corner where the Arnolds lived.’
‘What a load of wank!’
‘The 7-Eleven is still there — the Prasads have gone though. I checked.’
We are twelve thousand miles apart but we track the same landscape. He is twenty-two again, standing in front of a patched and sagging building, pointing with our held hands at his first floor bedroom window; we are in the damp room where we first revealed ourselves, one to the other — where I saw his tattoos and stretch-marks. I want to lead him up the old/new steps now; to kneel with him on the satin boards and smooth his hand over the purple stain — let him feel how, with eyes closed, you’d swear there was nothing there. I want to lie down with him, our heads together where the mattress met the wall; where we decided that stain was from ink spilt by suffragettes, by communist party pamphleteers, on some dangerous sulphur night; where we decided the labourer who’d mixed the swollen mortar that crumbled on our faces as we slept had also cut the joists that supported the once virgin planks; where we decided he was one of many damaged nineteenth century men who walked along a rope-strewn gangway and into the hold of a creaking ship; who slept on a cot the width of his lover’s thigh, twisting a nest out of flour sacks and hemp stuffing; he was a man who, courtesy of the fluid in his ears, endured the motion of the sea for a further five weeks upon his arrival on a green-bitten coastline, so unlike home he’d cried for the first time since being weaned. Rich and I decided these things, limb over limb, in a barren room. We built the labourer a colonial house, married him off to a sickly soul who died in childbirth, and, with great delight, killed him in a brutal saw milling accident — orphaning his children. Then one evening without meaning to we conceived our own and eleven weeks later, a baked-bean baby split its pod and fell into a stained toilet in a desolate squat in the arse end of London. I’d never even told Richard I was pregnant.
‘I lost a baby there — in that dirty fucking toilet.’ My voice is ice-dredged.
‘Harriet. Why have you never told me?’
‘I’ve never told anyone.’
‘I don’t know what to say. Are you on your own?’
‘No, Chris is here. I’ll be fine. It was just seeing the place — remembering everything.’
‘Will he look after you?’
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me.’
‘Because I was 20 and stupid and then I miscarried and the time to say anything was gone.’ Low down, angry-with-myself-angry-with-him sobs break up my speech.
‘I was crazy mad in love with you, you know.’
‘Do you want me to come over?’
‘What? To London? No I fucking do not want you to ‘come over.’ God you can be a patronising wanker.’ Anger rights my voice. Except for beats of static, there is silence on the line. Finally he speaks.
‘I was such an impossible cunt.’
I realise I’ve been waiting a very long time to hear those words and to believe them.