Authors: Peter Boland
The Girl by the Thames
The Girl by the Thames.
Copyright © Peter Boland 2016.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior permission of the author.
A teenage girl stands on the bank of the River Thames at 4am.
Something black drifts past her in the murky water.
It starts a chain of events that will alter her harsh, inner-city life forever.
A gritty, suspenseful drama reminding us that hope can be found in the darkest of places.
Inspired by a true story.
The shouting had started earlier tonight. Usually it only took a few hours to erupt. The tiredness of the day would seep out of Tanya’s parents, building up like poisonous gas. It would reach saturation point, then they would turn on each other. Tanya could sense it like a thunderstorm coming, the air thick and heavy, primed to ignite at any moment. All it took was one spark. A sarcastic remark here, a filthy look there. Then the two of them would be off, hurling insults like ninja stars, inflicting as much pain as possible.
Tonight was different. She’d heard her dad come in and go straight into the kitchen. Usually he’d be in the lounge first, shoes off, TV on. But this evening he found her mother cooking. Tanya heard the scream as the dinner was swept off the stove and clattered to the floor.
Over time, her parents had had so many arguments that Tanya became immune to them. Their harsh words had lost their sting. Initially, they had upset and confused her, she would instantly blame herself for whatever argument they were having. Fat tears would streak down her hot red cheeks. Of course, they never noticed. They were too busy winning whatever war of words was being fought. They didn’t think to tell her to go to her room because
mummy and daddy had some things to discuss
. So Tanya would get the full broadside of ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, ‘bitch’ and ‘bastard’, and other words not meant for a little girl’s ears. In the end, it had become a normal part of her daily life. Boring almost. So she would just go back to her room and play with her dolls, while all the vile words she heard got lodged in her subconscious. It caused a dull, numb ache that festered deep down in the marrow of Tanya’s bones, waiting to emerge later on as a cocktail of bitterness and anger.
Tonight she heard a new word amongst all the shouting. It was a name: Samuel. She’d never heard this name before. Whoever this Samuel was he seemed to be the subject of tonight’s argument, and all the horrid words her father usually aimed at her mother were now directed at this
Samuel. Tanya wondered what this person had done to make her parents shout louder than normal. Every sentence was harsher, as if wrapped in barbed wire and dipped in poison. She heard her father shout, “Am I not good enough for you?” And then her mother said something about how Samuel understood her and gave her what she needed.
Then the conversation changed and they started talking about sleeping. Tanya couldn’t understand what going to bed had to do with it. Her dad said that Samuel had slept with mummy. Why was this such a bad thing for mummy to do? Tanya often fell asleep next to her friend Lena in class when they had story time, but Miss Atkins didn’t seem to mind.
Then her father started calling mummy an ‘oar’, which also didn’t make sense. Boats had oars and Tanya wondered if mummy and Samuel had fallen asleep together in a boat. Maybe daddy was angry because he hadn’t been invited. Now he started calling her a fucking oar. This must have been bad because she heard rapid footsteps belting past her room.
Tanya looked out into the hallway and saw her mother fumbling with the lock on the front door.
“Mummy, where are you going?” Tanya asked.
“I’m leaving,” her mother said without looking at Tanya.
“To go shopping?” Tanya replied.
“No, to live somewhere else.” The words came out straight and cold.
“Tell her where you’re going to live,” her father said. “Go on, tell her.”
Her mother was still facing the door. “I’m not going to live with your dad anymore.”
“No, I’m not good enough for her, so she’s going to live with her own kind,” her father said.
Tanya had always known her mother was beautiful. People, mostly men, would stare at her when they were in the supermarket together. Some would even try and talk to her. She would usually just ignore them, smiling politely while she dragged Tanya away by the hand. Her flawless black skin, strong cheek bones and big dark eyes seemed to pull people in. By contrast, no-one looked at her father. He wasn’t exactly ugly, just pale and unremarkable. Tanya always thought he looked like he was coming down with something.
Her mother spun round to face him. “Colour has nothing to do with it and you know it.”
“Oh come off it, that’s the real reason, isn’t it?”
“I’m not doing this again, I’ve told you why, now deal with it.”
Tanya didn’t understand what all this meant. What was her mother’s kind? All she knew was her mother was going somewhere and she wanted to go too.
“Can I come?” Tanya asked. If her mother was going then she needed to be with her. If it was a choice between her and the distant man who was her father then she would choose her mother.
“No, not at the moment.”
“Why?” Tanya asked, suddenly at her mother’s side.
“Because, well …” Her mother stuttered trying to find a reply. “It’s just not a good time at the moment.” She didn’t look at Tanya as she opened the door.
And then she was gone.
No hugs, no tears, no kisses goodbye. Just a slammed door.
Weren’t you supposed to say goodbye when you left to go somewhere? That was the polite thing to do. Maybe because she didn’t say goodbye it meant that she would be back to pick her up. Yes, she’d said Tanya couldn’t come at the moment, which meant that there
be a moment when she could go with her. It made sense. She’d said it’s not a good time. This must mean in just a little while, a day or two and then her mother would be back to collect her. Tanya would need to be ready. Her mother could come back at any moment.
So each night Tanya would take out her backpack, the pink one covered in flowers. She’d fill it with as many of her favourite clothes, plus her cuddly bear and her toothbrush. The backpack would be placed in the hall and Tanya would sit on it staring up at the front door waiting for her mum to come through it. Hour after hour she would sit there like a dog waiting for its master to come home. Every noise and footstep outside would make her heart skip, believing it to be her mother returning so she could take Tanya to live with her and Samuel.
Eventually she would fall asleep and her dad would find her curled up by the front door, using the backpack as a pillow. Every evening it would be the same and every night her dad would lift her into bed and put her clothes back into her tatty chest of drawers. Tanya would wake each morning to the gloomy truth that her mum had not come for her.
Her dad never said anything about it. After several months with still no sign of her mother, Tanya stopped packing her clothes and her cuddly bear and her toothbrush in her pink backpack. She still sometimes sat by the door on her own while her father watched TV. Then eventually she stopped sitting there at all.
Ten years later
Tanya watched the man walking up the littered street. His hands were punched deep into his pockets, protecting them against a chill wind that scraped yellow polystyrene takeaway boxes along a filthy pavement. As he reached the corner of the road where Tanya leant against a lamppost, his eyes immediately dropped towards the tarmac.
“Hey, mate,” Tanya said, as he passed. He pretended not to hear her. Tanya started walking alongside him, step for step. His eyes refused to budge from the pavement. “Mate, you going to the Co-op?”
“Er, yeah.” His voice was timid and his pace quickened.
“Buy us some booze,” she demanded.
“Er, I can’t do that, it’s against the law.”
“Oh, come on, it’s alright, I ain’t going to tell no-one.”
“Sorry, I can’t.”
He strode faster, accelerating away from Tanya like he was heading for an imaginary finish line.
“Pussy!” Tanya shouted after him. She ceased her pursuit and took up position under the yellow flare of a street lamp, waiting for her next victim. She propped herself against the lamppost with one foot tucked up against it, her hands in her pockets.
It was a slow night. The lack of alcohol frayed her patience and made her desire for drink only stronger. It was like being a vampire who hadn’t fed. She couldn’t wait to feel that hit on the back of her throat and the warm, fuzzy feeling that came with it. Her tummy gurgled. She wasn’t going to feed it no matter how much it complained. An empty stomach meant you got pissed quicker. Food was only going to slow it down. Of course, you felt like shit later, but who cared.
was all that mattered.
By this time, she’d normally have persuaded some random passer-by to get her something. Maybe she was losing her touch. Too aggressive, perhaps? A bit of politeness might sweeten things. Could she remember how to be polite? It had been a long time.
A battered van, freckled with rust pulled up onto the kerb. A man with a fat head and splats of dried plaster on his clothes jumped out. She seized the moment.
“Excuse me, could you get me something from the Co-op?” Tanya asked.
“Oh yeah, let me guess, is it alcohol?”
“You’re smarter than you look.” She flirted, moving a little closer.
“Okay, you’re on, flash some cash, then.”
Tanya did her best to make her eyes look big and innocent. “Er, would you be really sweet and buy it for us?”
“Oh no,” the man said, laughing. “I’ll get you some drink but I ain’t forkin’ out for it.”
“I’ll show you my tits.” She grabbed her small breasts and pushed them together.
“Course not, I ain’t showin’ you my puppies, you perv.”
“Hey, watch your mouth. Learn some respect.”
“Respect a paedo like you?”
The last remark triggered his anger. The man grabbed Tanya by the hair, yanking her head back so his face loomed over hers. He smelt of the building site. Pain stabbed at every follicle.
“You hoodies are all the same,” he snarled.
“Get off me. I’ll kill you,” Tanya screamed while she pounded uselessly on his arm. He had a grip stronger than a pitbull’s jaws.
“Really, what with?” he replied.
“With this.” Tanya’s friend Lena appeared. She’d been hiding around the corner out of sight. The odds of scoring alcohol were always greater if you were alone, it looked less intimidating, so one of them would always stay out of the way while the other worked. She stood in front of him, holding a small knife inches from his face. Her arm shook, so she steadied it by grasping it with her other hand.
“Ha, you ain’t gonna use that,” he said.
“Maybe, maybe not, want to find out?”
“Darling, you ain’t got the balls.”
“Let her go, wanker,” Lena said.
The man smiled, pushed Tanya away and laughed. They both unleashed a Pandora’s Box of obscenities at him.
“You kids today, what a state,” he said, tutting and climbing back in his van. He started it up. Black oily smoke blew out of its exhaust and then he was gone.
Tanya turned to Lena. “Bloody hell, Lena, what you doing with a knife?”
“Oh thanks very much,” Lena said, walking away. “I just saved your ass from that tosser. Is that all you can say?”
Tanya caught her up and walked alongside her. “I mean thanks and shit, but are you sure you want to carry one of those?”
“Why not? Everyone else does.”
“Yeah and they end up stabbed.”
“It’s okay, I wasn’t going to use it or nothing.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“From your kitchen.”
Tanya stopped and stuck her hands on her hips. “My kitchen? You are joking.”
“No, it’s alright I was going to put it back.”
“You stupid cow.” Tanya marched up to her so she was shouting in Lena’s face. “Do you realise what you could’ve done? If someone got stabbed, I’d get blamed.”
“Relax, nobody got hurt.”
They were best mates and had been since primary school, but sometimes Tanya still didn’t understand how Lena’s mind worked. Her logic was warped, usually resulting in Tanya getting into trouble.
“If you wanted a knife why didn’t you get one from your own kitchen?”
“I didn’t think of that, I just saw it on the side in your place. It was just there.”
Tanya put the palm of her hand on her own forehead, as if she was taking her temperature. She sighed heavily. “What if he’d gone for you and you’d stuck him, they’d trace it back to me wouldn’t they?”
“Don’t be daft, I wouldn’t leave it hanging around.”
“Give it back to me right now.”
“Calm down, girl”
“I don’t want to be calm, give it to me.”
“Okay, here.” Lena held out the knife and Tanya snatched it away. It had a tatty handle and the blade was slightly bent, but it would still do plenty of damage. She put it in her pocket, leaving her friend standing at the corner of the road like a full stop.
“Hey, where are you going?” Lena said, catching up.
“Where do you think? To take it back home.”
“But we still haven’t scored any drink.”
“We’ll think of something on the way.”
The two girls walked back towards the estate without speaking to each other. They climbed the urine-stained concrete stairs that led to Tanya’s dad’s flat. Tanya put her key in the lock and opened the door.