ANDREW PAUSED near the middle of the bridge and looked downstream. The tide was low so what he saw was mostly mud and what water there was seemed mud-colored which perhaps meant that it was clear. There were a lot of birds, a lot of gulls at any rate. Dipping their heads and cackling like pirates. White, grays and browns. Every one a bully, every yellow eye fixed on the main chance. He wondered whether it was true to say, when the tide was full, that the water was olive-green. That seemed to be the right thing to say but he didn’t know that it was true. You wouldn’t eat an olive that was that color. You’d soon pluck that fellow out of your dry Martini. He had lived near to this river for almost all of his life but it had been a while since he had walked beside it. It was disappointing. The inevitable shopping trolleys, several the property of a supermarket gone bust ten years since, numerous bicycles certainly stolen, traffic bollards disregarded by everything that could move, Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk Constabulary still legible on them. The lost, the abandoned, the thrown away. Actually the river was cleaner now than it had been when he was a boy. Not tidier, but cleaner. The birds and the fish did not care about this rubbish. A redshank piped itself from one bank to the other, flashing white. These thirty yards of impassable mud were nothing to it. A swan had built a nest on the grassy side and was now asleep in the drizzle with its head beneath a wing. The river had a Viking name which it had given to the town but the bridge Andrew was standing on had been named after a football player. Above the weir there were yellow lilies, iris, dragonflies. The scarlet and the electric-blue were as thin as needles but there were lilac ones as thick as a baby’s finger. Down here the water was brackish. It had a tang. He noted a pair of oystercatchers with their comedy carrot noses. The gulls he could not distinguish and they irritated him because of that and a little egret stalked carefully among the cormorants. Was a little egret a rarity? He didn’t know. It didn’t seem likely here. The gnats or mosquitoes whined around his face, a swarm of meaningless particles. Dandelion seed in its millions lay close to the water’s edge in drifts. There was a tatty memorial fastened to one side of the bridge; artificial roses, teddy bears, unicorns and kittens, photographs of the dead girl’s friends all with those selfie faces, almost identical, paler now after the wind and the rain than they had ever hoped for. He had no idea what sort of tragedy this commemorated. One small posy was fresh. The swan was quite right to make its nest where it had. There was a path on the other side that saw a lot of traffic but on the swan’s side you would have to scramble between the buildings and over the flood defenses to get to it. In the shelter of the other bridge, the old railway bridge, no longer in use, was a man. Andrew identified him immediately as a tramp. Tramp. That would have been his mother’s word. To describe a man who walked from place to place as he exhausted the compassion of the towns he left behind him. Homeless people didn’t do that any more. He didn’t think so. When faced with a derelict, Andrew thought, the solid citizen reacts with a mixture of curiosity and repugnance. The needy, the dissolute, the merely distressed, the lost. Andrew thought he might have a use for such a man. He picked up his carrier bags. He decided to go and have a word with him. From a distance, the tramp looked quite decent. He was shaved, had short hair, a black wind-cheater, jeans, white trainers. The man knew Andrew was looking at him, was going to speak to him most likely, but he couldn’t show that he knew that as there was no reason for it. He kept his face turned studiedly away, looking over the river. Andrew thought that there was something not exactly right about the way the man was dressed. He had taken no account of the weather but he was not really odd. Maybe those clothes were too young for him or he looked like he had not chosen them himself. He might have had a skewed idea of what was reasonable or normal. Andrew thought that if he saw this man in six weeks he would still be wearing the same clothes. The trainers would not be as white. They would have had a few adventures by then. When he came up to the railway bridge Andrew did not speak to the tramp as he had intended. He just stood there too, looking over the river, as if he were sheltering from the rain. He could see now that the man had that old boxer’s face of the street alcoholic, the out-of-doors-all-the-time lizard skin and that made him wonder if he were doing the right thing. He caught himself thinking that this man looked like he might be a character. He knew that was condescending, patronizing, but it reassured him, the thought of it. What he meant, probably, was that the man would have more to say than just what everyone said. He would get boring quite quickly, no doubt, because he lived such a restricted life. He wouldn’t talk about his job though, his car, his wife, the price of his house. He would have an agenda because he was a drunk. And that was no more interesting than what happened at the office, maybe less so. Once he had had one or two he would be hopeless. There were empty beer bottles in the thirsty grass by the steps but they could have been there for a long time. In his two white carrier bags, Andrew had quite a lot of cans of lager. It had been his intention to go home now, at lunch-time, instead of going back to work and to drink all of them. But standing on the bridge, he had changed his mind. He had decided not to drink any more. He had decided to give all of this lager to the tramp. Now though, he could not see an easy way to do that. Giving a stranger two carrier bags full of lager requires an explanation and Andrew did not want to explain anything, perhaps could not. So he did the obvious thing. He wrestled one of the cans out of those plastic thongs that tie them together in fours, cracked it open and took a long slug at it. The tramp watched him out of the corner of his eye but still did not turn to face him. Andrew wrestled another can free and handed it to the tramp. - Want one of these, mate? The man managed to look both surprised and as though this kind of transaction was what normal people did. The cunning of the drunk. - Cheers, buddy. One minute Andrew had been prepared to give up drinking and now he was swigging lager straight from the can by the river with a tramp. You had to wonder what people would think. - Tommy, said Tommy. - Andrew, said Andrew. They got talking. About the river. This and that. Tommy smelled a bit, Andrew found. You had to expect it. It was more than the drink. If one of your mates smelled like that you would have to tell him. Wash your clothes. Air them. Why don’t you? You smell moldy, musty. Sour. Of course that might get you an interesting answer. But you don’t ask Tommy that because you know the answer, or think you do. A couple of cans later and Andrew was feeling much more cheerful. The drizzle fizzled out. A cyclist came past which they were allowed to do on that path and he shouted something that might have been friendly, or an insult. Hard to tell with some people. But it prompted Andrew to sound Tommy out about one of the things that had been preying on his mind. He had been walking along his road, on the way to work, and this cyclist had shot past him on the pavement so close he had felt the draught. More than just a kid, a bloke in his twenties. And the other side of the road was a cycle path, that’s what got him. Then this bloke stopped up ahead and looked at his phone, right in the middle of the path so that Andrew had had to step around him into the road to get past. Then of course the bloke comes flying past him the same as before. But this time his cap comes off his head and lands on the path. He brakes and calls something to Andrew which Andrew does not clearly hear but which is obviously along the lines of, Pick my cap up. Cheeky bastard. Andrew did not pick up his cap, so he straddles back to it himself, walking the bike without going to the trouble of getting off it first. He gets the cap and then he gives Andrew a mouthful, riding past him for the third time in two minutes. He didn’t really hear this either but he did reply, suggesting the bloke might ride his fucking bike on the fucking cycle path, or even in the road as he wasn’t ten years old. Then this bloke had stopped and actually said that Andrew was going the right way to get himself stabbed. Get himself stabbed. He repeated it. - He didn’t say he was going to stab me, mind. He said I was going to get myself stabbed. - What did you say? Is that why you walk this way now? By the river? Andrew found he didn’t want to discuss this. It was always an option to drink instead of talking. Tommy couldn’t know how he felt about something like that. It would be a closed book to him. Something it most likely had in common with every other book. Andrew peeped through the simple key-hole of his lager can, into its inky mirror and asked, - Is that me? You looked at Tommy and wondered where he slept at night but you didn’t think about it for very long. He didn’t actually live by the river but that is where he chose to spend most of his time. Sometimes Andrew saw Tommy down by the river with someone else and he avoided him then. He wasn’t always disappointed to have to come back without drinking a carrier bag-full of lager. He saw other men too, obviously drinkers, more than one with a dirty-looking unhealed gash on his head. Tommy may have known these men. Tommy was not a beggar. That was not at all the right word for him. He did not beg but he so clearly needed in his unostentatious way that people gave him things. Andrew always took a libation with him and Tommy could never stop himself looking at what Andrew might be carrying, assessing quantity and kind. Andrew did worry still about what anyone might think but he knew that those judgemental know-it-alls would see things differently if they got on the outside of a bottle of wine. Things were changing for him. He was wondering what he would do if everything fell apart. Where would he stand and turn and think of starting again? Where would his bolt-holes lie? He wanted to talk to Tommy about this because he would know but Tommy just wanted to sit on the bench by the skate-park, look at the river, drink, talk about birds. Andrew asked where he had learned all of that. - Oh, I’ve always been interested. But what kind of man had he been then, before he had grown into this sun-hardened face? What kind of impassable barrier existed between what Tommy was now and the man he had once been? - I was up in Stranraer once. On the West. With my wife. Family holiday. We were round by the harbor, not really an attractive place and we were looking for these black guillemots, which we really wanted to see. You only get them in Scotland, more or less. Smart little fellows in their dinner-jacket colors except for their bright red feet. She wanted to see them so we were walking towards this concrete structure, like a partly demolished multi-story, right on the bank of the estuary. I don’t know what it had been but it was deserted and disused now. Then this chap comes up to us, just an ordinary chap off the street, and asks us what we were looking for. He had twigged we were English, tourists. I thought he was after something of course, a handout, but I was glad I didn’t say anything because I think he just wanted to help. He could see we didn’t know what we were doing so he had thought he would help us out. Trouble was, he had never heard of black guillemots. Lived in Stranraer all of his life and was sure there was no such thing. Of course we found them a few minutes later. There were loads of them. Some of them stood in the niches on the structure like guardsmen on sentry duty and plenty in the water. I often think of that bloke. Kind but hopeless. The wife had thought he was a bum. Andrew saw a caterpillar on Tommy’s arm of the bench. A fabulous thing. Orange tufts of hair studding its back like cockades. He dismissed it immediately, impatiently, as a hallucination. Tommy pointed out a common sandpiper that Andrew only pretended to see. He said he could count on a kingfisher every day in the winter. Goldeneyes in the wet dock. Sometimes a diver. They looked at the pollen on the water in silence, the meaningless shapes that the sun made in the waves of the full tide. Andrew hadn’t really wanted to go out but he had a letter to post and thought it had better make the next collection. He didn’t want to walk along the street where the nearest pillar box was. He didn’t like that street. But it was stupid to walk further just to avoid it. He could see that the group of girls was going to cross the road ahead of him and he knew there would be trouble. Some kind of bother. Four or five of them walking very slowly stretched out across the pavement. He would have to overtake them. He was doing this when one of the girls called out, - Let the old people through. None of her friends laughed or said anything. Perhaps they were not her friends. Andrew did not look at anyone. So she said it again, - Let the old people through. Still nothing. One girl was further ahead and he had to overtake her separately, so she tried once more, - Nicola, let the old people through. Andrew just kept walking. He was not afraid and he could think of things to say but they were just stupid. Stupid children. Losers. Bottom of the class types. There were no older boys with them. That would have been worse. Those boys thought they were gangsters, the sort round here, because they sold a little bit of weed, but they were all soppy failures really who couldn’t get it together to wash their clothes, cook a meal, do the dishes. Then it did get worse. He posted his letter but he didn’t want to turn around and walk back through the girls, so he kept walking until he could find a place where he could cross the road and walk home on the other side. The problem was there were no gaps. The traffic. And all these cars parked on the grass, more than one up on bricks such a long time that the hubs were rusty and the rubber petrified. Crumpled wings held together with masking tape. There were the traditional fridges and washing machines and huge plastic toys all broken. All of the bins left out all of the time. Everyone has three bins, massive bins, packed beyond hope of emptying and black plastic bags of rubbish, torn open by gulls, all around them like foothills. The flotsam that thoughtless people leave behind them. A maze of stupid obstacles. He had to turn back and that’s when he saw the cap boy. Stabber. He was sure it must be the same one. There was nothing to it really. Someone pushed him in the shoulder while he tried to keep his head down and avoid making eye contact. It was like trying not to challenge an over-excited dog. Someone said something. Smelly old drunk. Keep your head down. Keep walking. Keep quiet. It made him want to talk to Tommy. Tommy was excited, by his own impassive standards. He was pacing. He was talking about this man he used to know, or thought he knew, or thought he ought to know. Andrew was finding it difficult to follow him. - He was over the way. I couldn’t catch his eye. - Over the way? Do you mean on the other side of the river? - Yes. Of course I do. - You can’t get over there. - I know that. You’re really lost if you are over there, but I saw him. I couldn’t work out who he was but I was sure I knew him. No idea what he thought he might be up to. I really needed to speak to him, warn him about something. I waved but it was like I was invisible. It was like a dream. Tommy had been very sympathetic when Andrew had told him about the kids trapping him among the parked cars. He had understood the predicament and Andrew’s feelings. Andrew had not had to explain anything. It had been like he was telling Tommy something that had happened to Tommy himself. So he didn’t like to express too much skeptical sarcasm when listening to what his friend was saying now. - Was this like a vision, Tommy? - Vision? Tommy considered the word. - Like of the future? he asked. - Or the past. Tommy shook his head. Andrew didn’t think Tommy had much to do with the future. That was one of the key differences between him and everyone else. He had no plans beyond the next drink. Andrew thought maybe everyone had visions when they were half way down a bottle of Bell’s. - You’re probably thinking everyone has visions when they’re half way down a bottle of Bell’s, said Tommy. This was the first sign, if not of hostility, then at least of unfriendliness that Tommy had shown Andrew. Andrew liked to think he was Tommy’s benefactor. - No, I’m not, said Andrew. Tommy stared into the sky and Andrew looked up too. He could see two crows. One of them dipped a wing aggressively. They were bothering something. - That’s a peregrine, said Tommy. Andrew could just make out a slightly smaller but much slimmer bird between the crows. Its body a rigid T. He had never seen a peregrine. Years ago he had been on a school trip to Pembrokeshire when these falcons had been much rarer and had been told to look out for them as the boys had walked the coastal path. But they had not seen one or at least he did not remember having done so. - Might it not be a sparrowhawk? - No. Too big. Next to them crows. - There’s nothing wrong with your eyesight, Tommy But that did imply that there were other things that were wrong and Tommy may have noticed that. Andrew hadn’t seen Tommy for a while. The weather had not been great and they seemed to have missed one another when the sun shone. Now the tide was low and the lost world of trolleys and bikes had once more emerged from the mud. The smell was ripe, teetering between a sense of freshness and decay. - I thought it was you, said Tommy. I recognized your jacket and that shirt. Tommy identified Andrew as though by his plumage. He couldn’t prevent himself from noting that Andrew’s hands were empty. Andrew detected his disappointment. He was a bit short right now. Andrew wondered whether Tommy had ever done any time. He looked like he might have. And the smell of the jailbird, that Victorian air that was locked in with them. Still, Andrew had to admire his single-mindedness even if that was almost exclusively aimed at drink. If he could have brought it to bear on something more remunerative he might not now be sitting on a riverside bench nursing a can with an inch of Polish lager in it. - The river smells like olives today, said Tommy. Tommy had developed a knack for saying what Andrew was thinking. Andrew did not care for that. He considered the fanciful notion that Tommy could only escape from the river if he could persuade someone to willingly take his place there. He tried to think of something more pleasant to say. Down by the weir the week before he had seen a bird like a pied wagtail but it had been yellow. Tommy didn’t go down to the weir much unless the rain caught him. He preferred to stay around the bench near the skate-park. - I saw a yellow wagtail down by the weir the other day. - That would be a grey wagtail. - It was yellow. - Grey wagtails are yellow. And grey. Andrew walked away without replying to this. Tommy swished at the mist of gnats in front of his face. Andrew had started to walk with his hands clasped behind his back, which allowed him to press on a kidney. He found this a comfort. His father had had to do that. Andrew had put his hands in his pockets when he first realized he was doing this but then caught himself doing it again and just smiled. He hadn’t seen Tommy for ages. It was so easy to avoid him. Don’t walk by the river. Stay home. Be normal. Walk somewhere else. He could reject change, remain who he always had been. He didn’t see why he should be forbidden the river, though. When he did return, with a gift for Tommy, quite deliberately looking for him, he knew he would not be there. He had a feeling about it. It was as though he could erase him by thinking about it in advance. He would imagine that bench, Tommy’s bench, surrounded by its scruffy parched grass, nettles, thistles, litter, as if seen from this distance and Tommy not there. Andrew went looking for him but it was a matter of checking to see that he was gone. Hard to know where a man like Tommy would get to. It was drizzling again. It occurred to Andrew that that might draw Tommy under the disused railway bridge. He hadn’t imagined him not there. He slipped down the alley unobserved past an old pram, spokes broken and awry, surely destined for a muddy end. He cocked his leg over the barrier and started to edge his way towards the bridge. A redshank flew over towards him and landed almost at his feet as though he had summoned it. The bird bobbed its head convulsively. He saw Tommy. The wind-cheater, the blue jeans, the dirty white trainers. Looking up at the sky. Andrew called his name. Waved. He thought he might never have said Tommy’s name out loud before. No response. He seemed absorbed in the dull grey, lost in thought. It was treacherous underfoot here. There were brambles and the grass was twined in ropes. Lariats, lassos, gin-traps, nooses, snares. Insects stung his cheeks like fine rain turned to dust. He had to keep looking down but was afraid to take his eyes off Tommy. The uneven ground was pocked with hidden holes, ankle-breaking crevices, thorn-covered gullies. Rusted wire, cogs and wheels. He would miss his signal. Andrew was amazed when the swan reared up beside him with its hot-breathed hiss. Tommy might have looked up at that but then looked away. — ROBERT STONE
Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton in the UK. He works in a press cuttings agency in London. Before that he was a teacher and then foreman of a London Underground station. He has two children and lives with his partner in Ipswich.