Down in the Mud on Limehouse Beach
Commended in the 2018 Bath Short Story Award and published in the corresponding anthology
I saw him last week and the week before that, falling out the front of The Grapes and swaying around like he couldn’t choose which ear to follow.
This time he was standing on the balcony out the back of The Grapes, watching a gravel barge on the Thames with a scotch egg in his hand and dripping. When I passed below him he shouted to me like they sometimes do.
'Hey lady. You find anything down there?' he said.
'Plenty of things,' I said.
Then he asked the question they always ask. 'Anything valuable?'
So I gave the answer I always give. 'Of value.'
It sounds like I’m being picky but I’m just telling the truth because I don’t like lying when I’m teaching.
I started coming to Limehouse Beach to escape the sugar.
I used to work at the Silvertown sugar factory where I shovelled the sugar into the machine that packed the sugar into those paper bags that stack so well. It’s amazing what the sugar does to your skin when you’re around it long enough. First it smells of roses and then it smells of the opposite of roses. But the mud down on Limehouse Beach makes your skin smell of mud and then still mud because there is no opposite to mud. Paper maybe. Or clouds.
Then one day I started coughing though it might have come on slower than in just one day. The doctor said it was because of the sugar like the coal dust did to the miners and he called it Black Lung but White which made him laugh but I was still coughing. So I told the bosses at the Silvertown sugar factory and they sent me away with a sack of money which wasn’t a real sack because it was a cheque but they kept calling it a sack of money. I think they did that to make me feel like a robber or something.
My old friend who’s dead now said I could have got more money but I think I could have got less money because the cough has mostly gone now though sometimes it comes back. And it’s enough money to last me the rest of my life if I live to seventy-four-and-a-half which is longer than Mum and Dad. Maybe it will last me until I’m seventy-six if I find some treasure down on Limehouse Beach.
But I don’t come here for the treasure. I started coming here because there is no opposite to mud. Except maybe carpet. Or glass.
Once I said that to a Slovakian on a forklift and he looked at me like I was French or something but then he became my old friend who’s dead now.
The man on the balcony was wearing a posh suit and he could have looked quite smart if he wasn’t getting his scotch egg all over his posh tie. But I can hardly talk. Sometimes I look like old bags of soil roped together badly and I know that because someone from The Grapes said it to me once.
He finished the scotch egg and sucked the crumbs off his fingers for a while and then he asked, 'Find any Roman coins?' because he probably learnt Roman at school which I didn’t.
'No coins,' I said.
So then he asked, 'What did you find?'
I take a real sack down to Limehouse Beach because you can’t carry much with a cheque though the cheque did buy me a new real sack. I took out the biggest pieces I’d found that day and they were a wooden box and a coal scuttle.
He leant over the balcony quite far and his face went quite red and a vein on his bald head got big and blue like a choking worm.
He asked, 'What’s in the box?'
And I said, 'It’s empty.'
So then he asked, 'Is the bucket copper?' but he meant the coal scuttle.
And I said, 'No it’s not copper.'
He looked a bit confused and said, 'Is that all you’ve got?'
So I listed everything else in the sack which was a comb, a spoon, three right shoes, two left shoes, and some clay pipes though most of them were snapped.
'I thought you’d found valuable stuff,' he said and now he looked disappointed.
I like it when they’re disappointed because it means there’s lots to teach.
When I first started coming to Limehouse Beach you could still see the chimneys of the Silvertown sugar factory. Then they put up Canary Wharf and those buildings went up and up and up and sometimes I think they’re just painted on the sky. My old friend who’s dead now said those buildings are just full of people making numbers from numbers or something. Money from money.
Once I found a banker down on Limehouse Beach.
At first I thought he was a big dead fish but then I saw he had a posh left shoe and a posh right shoe. His wallet was full of money which you could call treasure but I gave it to the policemen and they said thank you and I said you’re welcome.
Then I tried to take the banker’s posh right shoe and they got quite cross because they didn’t understand.
You see I don’t come here for the treasure. I started coming here to escape the sugar but now I come for the stories.
'Value isn’t just money,' I told the man on the balcony.
I knew it would make him snort or laugh and he did both so then I knew that he was ready for my teaching and that he definitely needed it anyway.
I looked down at the Thames and the wind smelt of eggs and scotch eggs. The tide was out and out and out so there was lots of mud and the sun was getting low so the shadows were long and that’s good because the long shadows show you where the best stories are.
There was a quite long shadow about three quite long steps into the mud and I had a feeling it was exactly what I wanted though I get that feeling most times.
I pointed at it and I asked the man, 'What do you reckon?'
'About what? That?' he said. 'I don’t know what it is.'
'Of course you don’t know what it is,' I said, 'and you won’t until you go out to get it. I’m asking whether you think it’s worth it because the mud is quite deep and I’m quite tired.' And by that I meant very tired.
He said, 'It could be valuable I guess.'
'It could be of value,' I said.
Then he licked his lips and that reminded me of the dog that belonged to my old friend who’s dead now and that dog was called Jacob but really it was called Jakub and that dog could eat and eat and eat.
'You should go for it,' he said. I knew he’d say that because he’s the type that doesn’t see danger when there’s treasure on offer and I guess that’s why he wasn’t doing so well up and up and up in Canary Wharf and why he was drinking in The Grapes all the time.
The mud always tries to suck off your left shoe and then right shoe so you have to walk with your legs wide like a cowboy. You always fall and put your hand in the mud and then you always touch your face and get the mud all over your left cheek and right cheek and forehead and sometimes nose. But it’s nice to crack the mud off your face because it feels like peeling dried glue off your skin and I know that because I used to paint my whole left hand with glue when I was crafting with Mum and Dad a long and long and long time ago.
When I bent down to pick up the quite long shadow my back hurt quite a lot. The doctor said my back is like one of those accordions that make you think of French people but he said it would only play a tune like snapping twigs which made him laugh but my back was still hurting. I think my back hurts because of all the shovelling I did at the Silvertown sugar factory but I won’t ask for another sack of money because they’ll make me feel like a robber again.
Anyway, I’ve got enough money to live until I’m seventy-four-and-a-half which is longer than Mum and Dad. Or maybe until I’m seventy-six if that shadow was Roman coins but it wasn’t because it was an empty wine bottle and I was quite pleased.
I got back to the man on the balcony and he shouted down, 'What is it then?' and if he was Jacob but Jakub the dog he would have been salaverating but he wasn’t but he was red and panting from all the booze.
'It’s a wine bottle,' I said.
'Well that was a waste of time then,' he said.
I didn’t mind him saying that because people who say that end up wasting all of their time. I don’t like wasting all of my time because I’ve only got enough money to last until I’m seventy-four-and-a-half and I’m already seventy-three.
'Why is it a waste of time?' I said.
'It’s just a bottle,' he said. 'It’s completely worthless.'
And this is when I did my teaching. Because he knew a lot more than me but I knew a lot more than him.
I said, 'You’re wrong about that,' and then he looked at me like I was French or something. So in my poshest poshest voice I said, 'It was of value to someone once. Maybe it was drunk by friends at a party. Or maybe it was shared between lovers.'
And that last bit made me think of when I went to Norfolk with my old friend who’s dead now. We went digging in the Blakeney mud and he found a metal ring and he went down on one knee and made the funniest joke ever.
Then the man on the balcony barked at me like the dog he wasn’t and he said, 'Well which was it then?'
So I held the bottle to my ear and then I told him. 'Neither. It was some pour soul’s last tea before they jumped off Tower Bridge. If you listen carefully you can still hear them.'
Then I put the bottle on a big pebble and the eggs and scotch eggs wind picked up across Limehouse Beach and it made the empty bottle moan and the moan was quite low and quite sad.
He stopped doing the salaverating he wasn’t doing and instead he started grabbing his pockets like he was chasing a tail he didn’t have. But he was only looking for cigarettes. He lit one and smoked it so hard that his face went purple and the worm on his bald head started choking again. I felt like telling him he shouldn’t smoke because that’s what killed Mum and Dad but one teaching was enough for one day.
So instead I asked two questions I already knew the answer to.
First I asked, 'Do you work in Canary Wharf?'
And he said, 'I do.'
Second I asked, 'Are you losing lots of money?'
And he said, 'I can get it all back.'
Then I gave him my poshest poshest look and said, 'What if you don’t?' and then I told him about the banker I found down on Limehouse Beach.
We didn’t say goodbye because I hated saying goodbye to Mum and Dad. I think that’s why I never wanted to be a mum and that’s only just occurred to me. I wish I’d told that to my old friend who’s dead now because then he might have understood and he wouldn’t have looked so sad when I laughed at him on his knee in the Blakeney mud.
There’s some slippy steps that go up from Limehouse Beach and when I reached the top my Black Lungs but White were rattling and my accordion back sounded like a bag of marbles. So I stopped and looked back at the man on the balcony and he was still listening to the bottle on the big pebble.
And I said to myself, 'I hope when he sobers up he doesn’t think my teaching was nonsense.'
Because it’s not. And when I’m seventy-four-and-a-half I’m going to come down to Limehouse Beach and lie at the edge of the Thames and wait for the tide to come in and in and in and when it does the mud will suck me down and down and down and then I’ll be a story like everything else down on Limehouse Beach.
Comments by judge Euan Thorneycroft: A strong, unique voice pulls the reader through this curious story of a woman combing the muddy banks of Limehouse Beach. Much like his character who finds beauty hauling lost items from the mud, the writer creates something achingly moving in the dredging of memories. There is thoughtfulness and lightness of touch in the creation – through fragmented comments – of the woman’s relationship with an Old Friend. This is an intelligent story with a real and subtle emotional undercurrent.