By Emily Price
Every day for six months, I woke at dawn in the belly of a two-story purple narrowboat named the Trinity, which I’d purchased with what was left of my rent money two days before I was evicted from my apartment. Two hundred pounds had bought me its fresh coat of purple paint, its unreliable back motor that had to sputter for several minutes before starting, its two finicky but useable electrical outlets, which were occupied by the plugs of a hot plate and a toaster. This was my kitchen, set up on top of a plastic table, where I made eggs on toast every morning. If I ever bought something perishable, I had to sacrifice either the hot plate or the toaster to plug in my small fridge, which stood surprisingly well on the rocking floor of the ship but had a tendency to flood.
After breakfast I would walk up to the deck, where the cold morning air shuddered through me. It was London air, but different, less disgusting; there wasn’t the breath and smoke and sweat of thousands of other people clogging your nose, only the air sweeping off the tight curves of the canal tunnels and, if it was early enough, the stench of drying fish.
That was where I found the body.
It was a man floating face-up, his dark brown hair sticking out in tendrils around his pale face and his two closed eyes sunk into bloated cheeks. One of his legs was tangled in the corner of my net, so that his lower body was submerged. He wore a pair of heavy work jeans and no shirt. His skin, or what I could see of it, was bluish-white, covered in raised veins.
My arms are very strong — living on a boat will do that to you — but even so he was heavy, and I had to lift him over the edge of my deck in pieces: first the head and shoulders, then the torso, then the tangled feet. When it was done he took up most of the deck, water seeping out from his jeans and pooling on the treated wood. I checked his breathing; his lips rested cold against my palm, still puffy.
I called the police, speaking softly, so as not to wake my neighbors. The woman on the other end was groggy and unsympathetic.
“Where’d you find him?”
I hesitated, not wanting to admit that I’d fished him out.
“He was just floating in the water,” I said. “He went right by my boat.”
“We’re a bit short staffed right now, love. You don’t know who he is?”
“No, I’ve got no idea.”
She sighed. “It’ll be about twenty minutes until we get down there. Hold tight then.”
She hung up and I looked at the man lying in the middle of my deck. His face was turned away from me, and his arms were splayed out, as though I’d caught him in the middle of a particularly bad dream. In a sense, I guess I had interrupted something.
I sat down gingerly on the deck, lifting my feet to avoid the puddle near the man’s shoes. I stared at him and waited five minutes, then 10, then 20 more, until his jeans began to dry into hard denim lines around his legs. My neighbor came out of her boat and began watering her plants. The sun rose over the canal and broke the water into sparkling fragments that hurt my eyes and left dark spots in my vision when I looked away.
I tried not to think too much about how the man had ended up here. There were news reports about this all the time. The canal bridges were beautiful and old; their views predated concerns about public safety. As the sun crept onto the deck and no one came, I kept watching his face; every so often, I thought I saw an eyelid twitch. I imagined that, after a few hours of drying out, he would rise and shake himself like a wet dog, renewed. Perhaps he would tell me something I didn’t want to hear.
After about an hour, when it was clear no one was coming, my neighbor came by to borrow a pair of scissors. She saw the body before I could explain it.
“He’s going to start rotting if you leave him there,” she said, pulling at her work gloves, which were crusted with dirt. Some of it fell from her hands and landed on the man’s chest.
“Well, I can’t put him back,” I said.
“Why not?” She hopped over the Trinity’s railing and onto the walkway between our boats. “Give me a minute.”
She returned with an armful of violets, their stems covered with soil from their pots. The man’s fingers were still flexible enough for us to press them around the stalks, so that the flowers rested against his collarbone. I grabbed his head and my neighbor grabbed his legs, and together we hoisted him over the railing and laid him as gently as we could into the water. His back scraped against the side of the Trinity, and flakes of purple paint scattered down around his head and tangled in his hair. He floated away from us slowly, as if he were still capable of reluctance.
There was nothing else to do; my neighbor shook out her gloves, wished me a good morning, and went away with the scissors. The currents were slow, so that I could watch as the man’s hands came unstuck from the violets and scattered petals through the water. They stuck to concrete pilings or to the ropes of fishing nets or floated unsupported until, overcome by the weight of the water, they sank.
Eventually I roused myself and began to sweep my deck clean. I must have looked away too long, must have forgotten there was anything to look at: the next time I glanced at the canal, there were only the waterlogged petals, bobbing up and down like tiny vessels in the current.