A Tale of Portsea Basin

By Christine Lawrence.

It was just before dawn on a damp November night.  Joe walked home after a most difficult night shift.  Normally he loved the walk home in the dark.  It gave him a chance to leave behind his work and prepare for the day ahead – a couple of hours sleep and then off to his job in the Charlotte Street market.  As he turned into Arundel Street, just a few more yards to his flat, he felt a change in the air.  A mist was swirling about the trees, newly planted in the precinct.  He walked a little faster and nearly fell over the man sitting on the bench in the middle of the street.  Joe stopped just in time.

‘Sorry.  I didn’t see you there.’  He looked down at the man.  He hadn’t even flinched.  ‘Are you alright?’ Joe asked.  No answer came.  He could see the man was awake but he didn’t even look up at him.  Joe shrugged and walked on.  He hadn’t gone more than a few steps when he heard the sound – the sound of a heavy horse’s hooves on cobbles, water lapping in the background.  He turned back to look and the man had gone.  The sounds had gone.  All that remained was the drip, drip, drip of the rain from the roof overhanging the shops.

If they hadn’t dredged the canal they’d never have found me.  I’d been lying there for months, the fishes nibbling at my flesh, water snails sliding between my toes, my body weighted by the rocks tied around my waist with ropes still yet to rot.  Now there would be questions asked and finally some answers revealed.

You thought I’d abandoned you but I never would have done that.  I was waiting for you, waiting at the canal basin, waiting as we’d agreed the night before.

The day was nearly over, the evening sun glowed red on the still water.  All seemed at peace.  The barge would be leaving in an hour, our passage booked to London.  We knew that this was the safest way to get you away – the road to London would have been the first place they’d have looked once they’d discovered you missing.

Looking back now, I wish that I’d been stronger, that I’d not delayed and had agreed to leave when you’d first told me about the child.  If only I hadn’t hesitated.

As the dirty waters were pumped from the muddy basin and I looked down on my mouldering body, I was glad you weren’t there to see what was left of me.  I wondered where you were – I wondered about our child.  I was so busy wondering about things that I hadn’t noticed him standing there on the bank.  His face was like a thunderstorm, ready to burst forth.  He was also looking down at my body.  I stood behind him, wanting to push him over the edge into the murky slime but the past weeks and months had taught me the impossibility of this, my own body being of no further use to me.  Had I pushed him, my hand would have gone straight through his body and the worst he would have felt was a shiver of someone walking over his grave.

I watched, helpless, as he looked about, and seeing that he was completely alone and safe from the prying eyes of the living, he made his way to a nearby stack of timber and began to carry a log back to the bank.  He dropped the log onto my poor half-eaten body.  The mud was soft beneath my remains and as the log hit my chest I sank a little.  It may have been my imagination but I swear I felt a thud as it landed.  Still my body could be seen from the bank.  He fetched another log, then another and another, dropping each one onto my body until it was completely covered.  I felt the dull thud of pain as each one dropped, sensing the vitriol from the man on the bank – the man who’d been your cruel suitor, the man who had murdered me.

No doubt he’d been confident that the canal waters would hide his crime.  The contamination of the City’s wells put paid to that.  When the local people began to complain of the salt water which was seeping through from the canal, tainting the once-fresh waters, the engineers decided that it should be dredged.  That was when my body saw the light of day once more.

Now, my remains again out of sight, the evil man smiled down at the mud and laughed.  He laughed and walked away.  I tried to follow him, to find where you were, to somehow let you know that I hadn’t abandoned you by choice but I found that I could only stay within the confines of the canal basin.

Frustrated, I waited.  I wondered if you would come this way again and that I could see you one more time before I left this earthly domain.  I could never be at peace with you not knowing.  You never came.  But he did.  He came back, over and over again, stood on the bank of the canal and looked down at where I lay, almost as if he was waiting for me to rise up and show myself to him.  I wished that I could have but it was out of my power to do so.

Then, one night, after dusk, he appeared at the end of the alleyway, standing in the shadows, looking around to see if the coast was clear.  There was no-one about, only me, as ever, waiting and watching.  The canal had long been filled again with water, the work all finished and the wells once more flowing with clear, sweet waters.  Several narrow boats and a couple of barges were tethered along the banks, the horses grazing in the meadow just beyond the basin.  In the distance, voices and laughter could be heard from a local hostelry as the owners of the boats unwound after a long day on the canal.  But there was no one to be seen on the banks of the basin.

I watched as he crept from the darkness of the alley and made his way to the edge of the waters.  Then I noticed that he held a bundle in his arms.  A bundle which was moving and as I watched I heard the sound of a baby cry.  I watched in horror as he picked up an empty sack which had been discarded on the bank.  He picked up a number of heavy-looking stones and placed them in the sack.  Then, more awful still, he bundled the child into the sack also, tying a string around its neck before he slung it into the middle of the canal basin and stood watching as the bag sank out of sight.  My child!  Murdered!

This was too much for me – I summoned up all of the anger I could feel for the loss of our child, the loss of you, the loss of my young life, and willed him to topple over the edge.  I saw him trying to resist.  He struggled but I was stronger.  He swayed, a look of fear and shock on his face as he realised that he was falling forward, in slow motion, into the deepest part of the canal basin.  As he landed, I heard his head strike something in the depths and realised that it was probably one of the logs that he’d thrown in to hide my body.   Unhappily for him, striking the log rendered him unconscious.  I watched and smiled as his breath bubbled to the surface and I stood there, staring into the water, long after the bubbles had ceased.

Many years have passed and still I remain here, unable to leave the basin, waiting in vain for a glimpse of you, long after your life must have ended.  I never saw you again.  I don’t suppose I’ll ever be free to rest my soul in peace.  Even now, now that the canal is long gone, smooth paving stones taking the place of the waters, I remain here and can still hear the echoes of horse’s hooves on stone, the lap of the dirty waters against the barges as if they still moved along the canal.  Some mornings I sit and watch as workers make their way home after a night shift.  I wonder when I see them, wonder if they can see me, wonder if they are somehow connected to you, wonder whatever happened to you all that time ago.