REVENGE OF THE RIVER GODS • by Sarah Hilary

Tamas, dark river
Bringing the Isis to the London Eye
Sailing the skulls of babies out to sea.

***

Under the empty stare of the London Eye, in the shadow of Westminster Bridge, two men in Savile Row suits were burying a man in mud.

He was putting up a fight, a tribute to the tenacity of the underdog, but it was hard to battle the suck of centuries; the riverbed was reaching for his spine, dragging him down. He slapped and flapped and panted with panic as he tried to tackle the slippery haul of the mud.

The stench of it made one of the killers lift a pink polka-dotted handkerchief to his nostrils. His free hand was holding an umbrella as tightly furled as the yellow rosebud in his buttonhole. His associate had a matching umbrella, its handle carved from dark wood, highly polished.

Their victim flopped and slopped at their feet. With the steel tips of their twin umbrellas, the clubmen poked his body back into the ooze, like fishermen spearing salmon.

He was taking a long time to die.

Great grey pleats of mud rose and then receded as his floundering became ineffectual. A crude belching echoed under the bridge as the Thames attempted to digest this latest traitor.

“Is it me,” one of the clubmen asked the other, “or is this getting harder?”

“It’s the heatwave,” his companion replied, “global warming. Not enough rain.”

To their right, the skeleton of a shopping trolley surfaced from the low tide in a rusting salute. All around the dying man inelegant mementoes emerged from the mudflat, marking out what was to be his grave. Empty beer bottles and house-bricks, crisp packets coated in a glaze of grey, fired by the dry heat of day into abstract sculptures.

“He’s coming back up,” one of the clubmen warned the other.

They attacked his torso with the steel tips until it made a sound like a perforated bladder.

“All done.” The first man struggled to extract his umbrella from between the ribs of the long mound in the mud. They cleaned the weapons with the polka-dotted handkerchiefs before weighting the cotton with a pair of fist-sized stones and tossing them after the corpse.

The Thames gave a final burp, and took the evidence down.

Deep, deep down.

High tide came, and went. The place where the men had stood was swallowed up and, when the tide receded, their footprints had been washed away. Night fell, and rain. The river ran on.

Just before dawn the next day the tide turned with treacherous indifference, eddying until the remains sprang free from their bed like a shucked oyster and rose, bloated by mud, to join the rest of the jetsam on the shore.

Policemen descended, muttering, their reflections guttering at the water’s edge.

No witnesses, other than the river.

Bit by bit, the Thames gave up its chaos. One by one, the forensic boxes filled.

Whispers of steel recovered from the torso were matched to the muddied tips of a pair of umbrellas propped like swords inside the doors of a private gentlemen’s club in Westminster, the mud an exact match for the old river’s bed.

Tamas, dark river, bringing the Isis to the London Eye, sailing the skulls of babies out to sea.


Sarah Hilary won the Fish Historical-Crime Contest with Fall River, August 1892, and has two stories in the Fish anthology 2008. She was a runner-up in the Biscuit Short Story Contest 2008. MO: Crimes of Practice, the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, features Sarah’s story, “One Last Pick-Up”. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Literary Fever, Every Day Fiction, Ranfurly Review and Zygote in my Coffee. Sarah blogs at http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.com/.

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Every Day Fiction

  • I was going to say, that’s a terrible way to do it because of the risk of apprehension during or after the fact. Yet it appears that the pair had a custom of doing it that way! There are far better methods, which for obvious reasons I shall not divulge.

  • Damn, Sarah; I’m not certain I understood all of that but I certainly liked it. Classy, very classy. I loved “an umbrella as tightly furled as the yellow rosebud in his buttonhole.” Gave it a five.

  • Thanks for reading, PM. You’re right, what a pair of twits. But what’s a clubman to do in the face of ancient tradition? The last line you wrote made me smile, hugely.

  • Thanks, KC, I’m delighted you liked it so much.

  • Lamia Van Marle

    Loved it!! Love how they are so very ‘civilized’ about the nuisance of it all!!

  • Thanks for reading, Lamia, and for letting me know what you liked.

  • FrancesG

    Excellent story, Sarah!

  • Hi Sarah
    Such beautiful images and the atmosphere is taut and murky.
    I love ‘great grey pleats of mud’ and ‘the remains sprang free from their bed like a shucked oyster’, among much more.
    Is the start and end bit a quote? ‘Skulls of babies’ is so haunting and raw.
    Great stuff.
    Nuala x

  • Thank you, Nuala. I’m very happy you liked it. The start and end bits I made up when searching for a way to bookend the piece with river references. I wasn’t sure how well they worked, as I’m no poet, but ‘haunting and raw’ is exactly what I was aiming at. Thanks!

  • Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

    Oh, excellent! I love the sheer impracticality of it, the Athenaeum version of a Sopranos scene; the Julius Pyre-like dedication to a job well-done in the face of contrary evolution (“global warning”); the “grey pleats of mud” like the fabric of those Savile Row suits on the cutting table; the sense of endless time and cycles; and the final ambiguity – yes, there’s a forensic match, but we don’t know that any policeman penetrated further inside that gentlemen’s club…

  • Celeste goschen

    Brilliant, Sarah. What superb style. I got totally lost in the story and your beautiful imagery. When’s the book being published?

  • Thank you, Celeste and Anne-Elisabeth, for reading and the very kind comments.

  • Gerard Demayne

    “I love the sheer impracticality of it, the Athenaeum version of a Sopranos scene”

    Now THAT’S a line.

    Read that story through twice and it was like hot ice cream. Pleasingly smooth but ever so puzzling. I can’t help but feel I’m often reading above my mental age group on here.

  • Hot ice-cream? Gerard, you made my morning. Keep reading!

  • Justine

    Oh, Sarah – it’s my new favourite! I love the poetic rhythm of the words; “slapped and flapped”, “flopped and slopped”. And on top of that it made me laugh. Brava.

  • A sure hit.

  • Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

    … and thank you, Gerard.

    *bows*

  • Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

    (Hot ice-cream MUST be profiteroles. Yes, fits our Two Gentlemen Of The Tidal Basin nicely. Pâte à choux, vanilla ice, hot dark chocolate nappage.)

  • A fun read, Sarah, with some wonderful word choices. Thanks for the read.

    Cheers,
    Bob

  • Excellent. I felt I was slipping about with the two gentlemen. The forces of nature slurping at me…

  • Thanks, Justine, Oonah, Bob and Alan.

  • MRB

    Nice one, you can almost smell that Thames mud! Mudlarks are those who pick over the Thames foreshore for treasure, archaeologists are also known to pass the time here…

  • Thanks, MRB!

  • Jen

    Wow, that story packed a punch! 🙂

  • sarah

    I really like how the level of forensic detail (just enough to sound thorough without overwhelming the story) gives a concrete feeling of how anachronistic their custom really is. Singing tension between their world and ‘today’s’ London. And, as always, brought a smile.

  • Thanks, Jen and Sarah. I wanted this to qualify as a crime story, just enough without spoiling the surrealism. Thanks for reassuring me on that front.

  • What a pain it is, burying people in mud. Terrible, terrible hassle, really. One needs a cigar and the crackle of a roaring fire afterward. Maybe a brandy.

    Very nice.

  • Thanks, Kev! And think of the damage to those benchmade shoes. That’ll never come out.

  • Some terrific images, Sarah, and such a dark, impersonal tone. I felt complicit just reading it.

  • i guess the corpse washed up at southend. It’s a nice place there, though to be honest it used to be better. On a weekend night its mostly druggies there.

    They could have gone to the good ol london aquarium right by them and fed them to the fishes!

    Good to see your trip to London gave you a story. I started a novel a while back sheerly based in London, seeing as im down there every week…the place feels like home.

  • Mark Dalligan

    Brutally good!

    Cheers

    Mark

  • Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

    “That’ll never come out.”

    Surely not. Really good benchmade shoes, especially when polished with a loving glaçage, can take a lot of wear. It’ll just take some time and loving attention by an expert to restore them to pristine condition…

  • By chance, I am myself a member of just such a club, in another country. By further chance, the other day I gave a talk there and my first choice of topic was related to this: techniques of the intelligence community, a subject I know a little about from peripheral connections I once had. After due thought, realising that I did not know just which parts of my information were incorrect and that the parts I got right might well get me into trouble, I chose something else: nuclear reactor technology. It turns out that the barriers to entry for this are lower than is commonly supposed…

  • Thank you, Mark, Greta and MS. Anne-E, you’re right, I’ll get my man onto that rightaway, when he’s finished with the silver.

    PM, you have a wry sense of humour and I like that. You’re in Australia, is that right? I owe Australians my conception since they rescued from mother (then 6) from certain death in a Japanese internment camp in 1945.

  • And good luck with the London novel, MS!

  • I am in Australia, yes, but not from it. For three generations my family has been in all sorts of places, e.g. my father’s father was a Scot who was an itinerant schoolteacher in the Falkland Islands before he became an Inspector of Schools in British Guiana, and my mother’s father was an Irishman who found it convenient to emigrate to France after the First World War – Nuala Ní Chonchúir probably knows what that means, though it was his brother who got into the history books as the Minister to Madrid who had all the secret conversations with the Germans during the Second World War. My parents met in Algiers after the Second World War (my mother had been a French-English bilingual secretary in MI6 – so much for positive vetting – and my father had been trained in Arabic and Turkish for various purposes). I myself spent much of my childhood in the Middle East and Africa – I still miss Iraq as it once was, though not the Congo, from which we had to be rescued by Belgian paratroops after a three day siege by mutinying paramilitaries (after which my father spent some weeks touring Southern Rhodesia for some reason). At least I didn’t get caught up in the Biafra stuff, unlike my father who caught the last flight out on a plane run by a CIA front though he didn’t know it at the time (the next man out had to spend weeks paddling through the back creeks in a canoe).

  • Sarah, your way with words in this piece reminded me of a potter molding clay, or should I say, mud? 🙂 You molded that mud in such a way that it became an even more important/prominent character than even the killers or the victim. Another excellent story!

  • jennifer walmsley

    I could smell the Thames. Loved the noises. Creepy but civilised in a weird sort of way.

  • Wow, PM, that’s some CV. I read at least a dozen stories in there.

  • Thanks, Jennifer and Madeline!

  • And thanks, Frances!

  • Lisa

    I adored their lazy detatchment from what they were doing, the boredom of it all, the way they saw him as less than human, flopping around like a dying fish. It could have been a certain Mr Siviter stood on that riverbank. Marvellously dark.

  • Thanks for reading and commenting, Lisa.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Not a whodunnit, but a duntowho.

    Sarah Hilary – For basic reference: I had hot ice cream in California. It’s dry and porous, but tastes exactly like ice cream, “There is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”