He was a cinematic cliché. A drunk; dishevelled, clutching a half-empty bottle of gin. About to witness some absurd supernatural occurrence, then do a comical double-take and peer enquiringly at the label of his bottle.
Only the event he was shortly to experience was far more natural than supernatural, and only absurd in that it was real.
The old vagrant was sitting beneath a bridge, surrounded by soiled rags and cardboard, coughing occasionally, rocking pitifully back and forth, and weeping copiously.
“Ah, it ain’t fair,” he exclaimed intermittently. “No, no –” he shook his head and a tear flew from his face into the water – “not fair, no way!”
Whether, objectively, this was true, it was difficult to say.
Certainly being born to deranged parents was an unfortunate piece of bad luck, and having to suffer his childhood being taunted for his poverty was hardly his own fault. But his first burglary – well, that was surely a matter of choice. Had he been obliged to engage repeatedly in acts of violence? Had turning his back on those who had tried to help him been the only option? Only recently he had refused treatment for addiction, clung on to misery with a vengeance.
Without doubt, the drunk had largely been the cause of his own downfall. But now, on top of everything – tuberculosis! Well, maybe that was one short straw too many. Maybe that was just a little bit unfair.
In front of him, the River Thames rolled gently by, the lights from the city reflecting on the water’s surface, little waves lapping engagingly at glistening pebbles. Some people would have found it calming, the timeless flow of the river, but the drunk had tonight driven himself to new depths of despair and was virtually oblivious to his surroundings.
“No end,” he cried out, before mindlessly taking another swig of the hateful elixir which was poisoning him. “No way out.” And then suddenly the presence of the dark river obtruded itself into some part of his befuddled brain, and he realised he was looking at a solution. His sobbing stilled and he dragged himself to his feet. Ah yes, of course. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? And the means so readily at hand. Hurriedly almost, he took a step forward.
That was when it happened, the unlikely thing.
The water stirred and rippled, it splashed and gurgled, and it seemed as if a shape formed from it; swirling, rising – a hand, an arm, a man. A dripping figure stood before him in the shallows, shimmering, resolving, becoming more solid. Yes, surely there was someone there now, someone who had emerged from the river.
Was it one of his homeless brethren, who had perhaps fallen into the water earlier and was now clambering out? Was it a Police diver who had been searching the river bed for a missing corpse? Or was it merely an apparition, a drunken hallucination? That seemed to make most sense. He might indeed have inspected the label of his bottle, if the existence of that object had not been entirely driven from his mind. For the mystery figure now had a face, an aged and friendly face, and it was smiling at him.
“Come!” The voice was deep and soothing. “The time for weeping is over.”
A strange feeling came over the drunk – a daze of confusion chased away by acceptance, a shiver of fear slipping seamlessly into wonder.
The figure extended an arm, and it appeared to be made of flesh. But when the arm encircled the drunk’s bony shoulders, it felt cold and heavy, and though he felt himself propelled, the poor soul was so distracted he could not tell if it was towards the water or away from it.
Another moment passed, and the mysterious apparition was gone. There was only a gentle swirling of water and darkness, and a lingering sense of something small but important having been achieved.
Beyond the streetlamps the stars shone faintly, their echoes in the river fainter still. Fishes drifted in the gloomy depths, pigeons and rats slept soundly in the shadows beneath the looming bridge.
And the drunk was no longer a drunk. The river had washed all his pain away.