One day, amidst the vibrating jumble of a dual carriage-way’s pillars, I happened upon a desolate piece of land. I had lost sight of the river: perhaps I had left its course, or had it gone underground? Following the wilder branch of the Lea I had become tangled in briar and brushwood along a trail, barely a beaten track, between bushes crowned with rubbish, where tattered plastic bags crackled in the wind and rustled under occasional afternoon showers. The ground was sodden and boggy – which is to be expected where the ground is thin and covers a network of rivers – but it also smelled sour and putrid, as at the edge of rubbish dumps. What was wild here felt like a wound, the scar of a mindlessly delivered laceration, edged by roads that rested on supports and crossed where the piece tapered, passing under and over each other and veering away in divergent directions from north to south-east. This out-of-the-way piece of land was a protrusion of the marshes and meadowland along the Lea, the town-land-river fringes I had extensively walked, where different aspects mixed together, and an urban, rural or riparian character might come to the fore depending on the light, or the time of day or year: it was a twilight domain, overshadowed by roaring expressways, a place that was lost on me until I caught sight of a skewed signpost in the thorny bushes: Cat Cemetery. The path followed the direction indicated by the sign onto a patch of brownish grass, where sticks, boards and bits of plastic had been stuck into the ground. Each carried a name, some had dates, commemorative plaques with scribbled writing, attempted engravings, or burnt in letters. Photos were attached to some of the memorials, battered by the weather despite their plastic covering: bleached cat’s faces, wherein death was an entirely credible factor, staring face-to-face at nobody from little round eyes, which, here and there, were the only things that had not blanched. Some pieces of wood were waterlogged or rotten; one half of a bisected plastic bottle, which somebody had placed for protection over a stick with photo and name on a bit of paper, had been pushed upward by sprouting weeds so that it now hung askew over their pallid stalks, while still managing to protect the almost illegible note and oddly unimpaired photograph of a black cat with particularly pointy ears. Who buried their cats here? Who had slogged their way through these hostile bushes with a stiff cat in a sack and dug a hole, most likely stumbling on the bones and skulls of previously buried cats as they did so? Who came here to remember or mourn? Was it a suburban ruse of some kind, a secret address, a whisper passed under pledge of secrecy from mouth to mouth? A few bunches of plastic flowers lay between the memorials; they had been gnawed by winter and were so leached out by the passing seasons that their only remaining colour was an eminently unnatural blue-green. Beyond the cat cemetery, the path led through scrub and under the dual carriageways across a strip of green to a road that seemed deserted and was fenced off on one side from stacked containers that alternated with small, makeshift huts. On the other side of the road were caravans surrounded by low fences. I remembered the island of caravans I had seen in glaring light and shadows from a different perspective along the river, also under dual-carriageways on pillars, but nothing here seemed familiar in the murky half-light under an increasingly thick layer of clouds. Disconcerted, I struggled to remember which directions I had taken, but without the river as orientation I was flummoxed. There was nobody to be seen around the huts between the containers; the gates were barred with padlocks and chains, and a dog snarled and barked behind a fence. I heard a train whistle far away. My path was blocked by a barrier at the end of the street, and I had now lost all sense of the river Lea and its banks. It was as if by coming under the dual carriageways and passing through a gateway of scrubland I had set foot in a totally foreign country. Lamps were lit in the caravans, toys lay scattered about; a pink bike with stabilisers stood on the well-trodden artificial grass that covered the passageways between caravans. A barely ankle-height fence surrounded a patch on which stood garden gnomes and pots of artificial flowers. It began to rain, more heavily than I had expected, and I could see nowhere to take shelter. A woman stepped out of a caravan to retrieve the bike; I could feel her suspicions towards me, but could not think how to dispel them. I was in the wrong place. However, she summonsed me almost imperiously to join her and waved me into the caravan. Caravans were unfamiliar territory to me; only once, in an English meadow one cold summer’s day, had I sat on the steps of a caravan with its tiny mobile dwelling at my back, and that had been many years ago. In the distance you could see the river Wear between clumps of sparse riverbank brush. You got water for tea from a small stream that poured into the Wear within sight of the caravan. Now the woman set a mug of tea down in front of me, and I wondered where she had got the water for that. From the Lea? There was a smell of food, not any specific dish, but the essence of cooked food itself, albeit of a kind that had possibly been typical decades ago. The woman offered me a seat on a white folding chair. I could sit there until the rain passed over. A number of photographs stood in a row on a shelf along the wall, mostly black-and-white and, in the front row, a few faux-coloured: the usual prim annual pictures taken by travelling wedding photographers who worked the schools and crèches and made the children look like interchangeable dolls against a background that never changed, children with no past or future, grinning out of nowhere in an eternally trite now.
The woman sat down at the narrow table, which was decorated with a lace-patterned oilcloth, and contemplated me as if I were an extraordinary find. I felt somewhat awkward and barely had the courage to lift the mug to my lips. All of a sudden, the woman threw her hands up in the air – there was no sugar in my tea! She leapt up, took a silvery bowl from the shelf on the wall and, without asking, heaped a spoonful into my mug. Although I found sweet tea disgusting, I made no objection.
As if we were playing a game she now reached across for my hands. Give me a palm and I’ll read your future! she said, bending over my hands. From close up, I noticed that her face was much older than I thought. Her fingers were bone-dry, like thin lizard’s legs, covered with brown spots. I stretched out both hands; she hummed and hawed, wondering which one to read. What was written in my left, what in my right? I was suddenly eager to know what she might read there and began to study my palms with curiosity; lying there in this strange woman’s hands they no longer seemed to belong to me, reminding me instead of two unfortunate tortoises that had flipped over onto their backs. The woman knitted her brow, narrowing her eyes and rocked her head from side to side in thought. She prophesied that I would undertake great journeys. By rivers? I asked. Oh yes, she said, beside rivers: I see great rivers in your palm, in distant lands! She grinned and gave me a wink; one of her lower canines was gold. When is a land distant? I wanted to ask her, but held back. She predicted I would enjoy modest wealth, espied cats in the tiny folds on the heel of my hand, wrinkled her nose because she sensed a life touched by leave-taking, but then her expression brightened as she caught sight of a true king hidden in the crazy patterns drawn by the countless little lines of my palm. But I don’t think you’ll marry him, she added, almost in warning, as if she wanted to protect me against disappointment. I was quite content: even a brush with a king was quite enough for me. The rain was still drumming on the caravan roof, a soporific sound that made me feel heavy and tired as soon as the woman released my hands. I would have liked to have promptly taken my leave, indeed the more promptly the better; with not a single coin in my pocket, our parting would be embarrassing, and yet the rain dismissed the possibility of an awkwardly precipitous departure into the darkness of the night, when I had no idea where I was or how to get back to the river, which I could follow north, step by step, making my way back through familiar terrain to the bottom of Springfield Park. In my increasing lassitude, I suddenly thought I remembered my grandmother saying that fortunes told, if unremunerated, turn into their opposites. What could be the opposite of a river, or a king? Without being asked, she now set herself up under the shelf of photographs and began to explain them. She spoke in the accent of the broader region, Estuary English, the tongue of the river mouth, open vowels, clipped syllables that nonetheless spilled into one: I found it hard to listen to, as I almost always did with this particular colouring. The words snapped at my ears: malicious fish, whose pursed mouths were probably full of sharp little teeth. The woman broke off for a moment and asked me to sit on the bench against the opposite wall, to have a better view of the photos. I refrained from replying that I was too short-sighted to discern from that distance the little figures and faces in the pictures; I sat down on the designated seat, blinked and listened, trying to remember whether she hadn’t spoken with quite a different accent when she was reading my palm. The voice of the commentator of the lives portrayed in the photographs – all of whom, it appeared, had dedicated themselves to the precarious – now seemed different to me than the half-flattering, half-beguiling voice of her prophesies for my future. The shy sounds gurgled and pattered around my thoughts, and I must eventually have fallen asleep, for I awoke with a start at the jarring sound of a plucked string. My father, the woman said insistently, was the King! As she was speaking she tapped on a small, children’s guitar lying beside her on the table, a bright yellow piece that might have come from a funfair. She was sitting across from me at the narrow table with a wry grin on her face, as if she knew something about me I didn’t know. She then picked up the guitar and began to strum its clanging strings. In fact her voice was lovely; it was wistful and young. She sang with ardour of a girl on her way to market to meet her sweetheart, who, stopping to slake her thirst from a river, sees his reflection in the water instead of her own and knows he is no longer alive. During the song, I thought of the Lea, of the water puckered by tiny whirlpools I had hoped to encounter that afternoon, of the alder-and-willow-lined crook of the river between Hackney Marshes and Temple Mills, where swans plunged their necks into the semi-exposed roots, the gentle, almost straight line of the Lea along Walthamstow Marshes, where the swans had rehearsed their return to the wild. It had stopped raining. It was very still, with only a quiet rustling of things that were trying to shake off the wet outside. I was about to ask the way, for a pointer in the right direction, when on the green alarm clock under the photos I saw a time I could not believe – it was far into the night, almost morning. The woman looked at me blankly when I asked for the nearest bus stop, then shrugged her shoulders mutely, stood up and opened the door. With reluctant concern she accompanied me for a short distance through the darkness. Out on the road it was quite still; there was only the dog barking and growling at the sound of our steps from behind the fence that ran along in front of the containers, its bared teeth grinding audibly. In the distance, the rushing and roaring of the town: a dormant beast. The woman did not mention my sleeping, and nor did I. I thanked her and she turned to go. After a few steps she glanced back over her shoulder, and I could see her grin in the lamplight as she waved.
For a long time I stood at the corner of a big arterial road and waited for the night bus. It was not cold, and yet I felt frozen under the orange tinted light of the tall street lamps. Now that the rain had turned to the invisible drizzle of a marshland night, the dim light on the glistening asphalt made the surrounding darkness, for all its flickering lights, neon signs and headlamps, seem a kind of ink, a spilt bluish-black, in which countless lives on every side were now immersed. I tried to remember the story the woman had told me. We never forget what we have heard in our sleep, I was told as a child: a warning not to discuss secret matters within earshot of someone who is sleeping. Perhaps I had absorbed a story – about horses, kings and princesses, the river Lea, a story I would never know but also never forget, a sleeping story that would speak to me only in dreams.
Traffic was sparse but persistent, sometimes a driver would honk in passing, nobody stopped. The direction of the movement alternated like the swell of the sea. Now and again there would be a surge of rushing cars and roaring lorries heading east to the coast and estuary, then a wave of traffic would push townward from outside. The bus arrived. There were two passengers on the upper deck, asleep; impossible to say how many times they had been back and forth on the same route. At some point in the early morning light they would stumble out of the bus, trying to work out where they were, remembering, or more likely struggling to forget, what had happened before their night ride started, and would then begin the possibly rather long walk back to their beds, if they had one. I got out at Lea Bridge Road and walked for a while along the peaceful river. The swans were grouped in faintly luminous formations in the safer places on the water, asleep, motionless. It was completely still. Night birds in the willow thickets on the marshes called hoarsely, a low barking sound; perhaps there were foxes beyond the tracks. I looked over to the island between the rail embankments. A feeble strip of lighter sky loomed in the east. Was the dawn already coming over from the sea? Would there be a first grey reflection on the distant shore mud at low tide? I heard the familiar clattering of a train in the distance. Like a string of pearls pulling the night away, although the sky over the Lea was still utterly dark. The train was a ticking glow-worm leaving the city, creeping across the horizon. In the opposite direction came a second worm, creeping into the city. The Springfield Park gates were closed at this hour; I came in through dark roads along the perimeter of the park. Two foxes crossed my path, a cat darted out of their field of vision. First birds were singing, an earthy smell wafted over from the park. On the road in front of the locked park gate stood an ambulance, its blue light flashing. Across the road, in a ground-floor flat in the red-brick block, the lights were on, the windows open, and two black women were talking assertively to a paramedic. A broken mirror hung on the wall, with only a couple of craggy teeth projecting into a dark field surrounded by fancy gold-coloured mouldings. A large greenish feather, speckled and iridescent, stuck out from behind the frame, its shadow cast on the wall by the glaring of the naked bulb that was dangling from the ceiling. I stopped between ragged bushes at the entrance to the building. The door to a staircase stood open and the lamp above the stairs was flickering. Meanwhile the blue emergency light swept coldly and unremittingly over the bushes, the brick wall, the bare trees on the other side of the street and the park gate. Paramedics appeared from the door of the flat and, balancing a stretcher, came down the three steps to the front entrance of the ground-floor flat. The two black women I had seen through the window appeared behind the medical personnel, one of them following them down the steps to ensure the outer door swung to after they had passed the threshold. A person was strapped to the stretcher, helplessly twitching against the firm belts that held him in place. I recognized the ankles and sinewy legs of the King. For the first time, as he passed in front of my eyes, I noticed the scars that covered his legs: small circular cicatrices wanly shimmering in the blue emergency light, suggestive of pecked stabbings of tips of beaks, although the birds had always circled him gently. The King’s magnificent robe had dwindled to a tattered loincloth in which pale gold threads glittered, modest appeals to the memory of his raiment’s former splendour. The King’s torso was bare and wiry, and a number of scratches and welted scars were visible under the straps that were supposed to restrain him. In this state of nakedness they carried him through the cold, early spring night. For the first time I saw the King’s eyes: his semi-upturned pupils sent out tiny golden sparks and the whites of his eyes protruded from his bony face. His head was uncovered.
The paramedics shoved the stretcher into the ambulance and contacted their control centre by radio. A driver emerged from the dark path that led from the red-brick building; they all got in, closed the doors and drove off.
The light was extinguished in the King’s flat. I took a quick look through the park gate. I must have been wrong down by the Lea: there was no sign of dawn, and the only bird singing was the one I had heard before, in a tree above the crossing foxes. It called again and again, its voice full and throbbing, as if heralding all the sweetness of spring.
When I got home I picked up a book. It fell open at a page about gypsies.
‘I have heard them laugh over their evening fire at the dupes they had made in believing their knowledge in foretelling future events . . .’ was the first sentence to meet my eyes.
‘Stratford Marsh’ is taken from Esther Kinsky’s book River, which is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Photograph © Dudley Miles