Carpenter Jones stared at the slow-moving water and pondered his next step. He wasn’t used to being rushed but then again the decision he now had to make was one he had not been called on to make before and it felt huge.
For Carpenter had begun to lead a double life. By day he sold paint and decorating materials from a shop in South London, mostly to the trade. He was generally regarded as knowledgeable and efficient if just a touch morose. You might go to him for emulsion but not emotion, was how one regular put it.
But these days, after he closed up, Carpenter changed and became a terrorist. Not one of the blow ‘em high sorts, or hack ‘em down kind, but just as those types sought to flout the rules, so did Carpenter. These days he was a proud HRH: not royalty but a Hidden River Hunter.
For Carpenter his life changed just over one year before, when, one cold March evening, he headed home after another mildly successful and terminally mundane day mixing enough Satin finish, White with a hint of Peach to cover the Wembley pitch. His life was as dull as his job and he felt it weighing on his shoulders, like a 5 litre tub of Artex.
His route, the same every night, took him along Robson Road, in the shadow of the high wall that hid Norwood Cemetery from view. He stopped to light a cigarette – it was windy so he tucked himself into the corner of the bus shelter. He was focused on his lighter so didn’t immediately hear the scrapping to his right. But when he looked up, a woman, dressed all in black, carrying a small rucksack climbed out of a manhole.
Carpenter pulled back into the shadows. The woman checked around and eased the cover back in place before jogging away.
Carpenter walked to where she emerged. He must have passed along that pavement hundreds of times and not noticed the cover. And he wouldn’t be interested now but for the furtive behaviour of the woman. This is what he saw.
Like most Londoners, Carpenter knew there were rivers underground. The Fleet, emerging somewhere near Blackfriars Bridge was probably the most famous. But he never thought of anyone being interested in them, certainly not someone who looked like she was engaged in some sort of illicit behaviour. His curiosity was pricked.
It took Carpenter a week of watching and hanging around before he saw her again, this time going in. He had no idea for how long she would be underground, so went and bought himself a pastry and coffee and settled down in the bus shelter.
Two hours later she reappeared. He waited until she was clear before he showed himself. She looked like a startled rabbit, about to run. Carpenter wasn’t a big or intimidating man. He held up his hands and stood still.
The woman took a moment and burst out laughing. ‘You look like you’re about to say ‘I come in peace’.’
Carpenter nodded, not sure why that was funny. ‘What are you doing?’
The woman eyed Carpenter carefully. ‘You don’t look like Council. Or the Cops.’
He nodded. ‘I saw you go down.’
‘You waited, what, 2 hours? You really that interested?’
A more vigorous nod.
‘Okay, I’ll show you. Tomorrow. 3.15. wear something warm. And boots.’ She hurried away.
She admitted later it was a test, to see if he really was interested. Carpenter followed Zanda Williams on that first expedition and then many more besides. She said she liked his company because he didn’t ask stupid questions, never complained and was always on time. Time, as she explained on that first trip, was crucial. ‘These are rivers, right? They’re also part of the sewerage system. If there’s a flood or high tide or both, the sewage shits will use these as overflows. Kill everything they do. So, we need to make sure we aren’t down here when that happens. Otherwise we’ll not get out.’
She took him to see the Fleet, accessed near St Pancras; the Westbourne out in Chelsea – it ran in a cast iron pipe across the tube lines at Sloane Square and she loved scaring the bejebbers out of the passengers by clumping across at rush hour; and the Walbrook, that cut across the riches of the City of London.
They watched rats scurrying for safety, nesting swans, shoals of fish and the tragedy of a rotting porpoise carcass caught in a sluice gate, bringing Zanda to tears and necessitating Carpenter to almost carry her out.
In the summer, they sat and watched the boats on the Serpentine (the dammed end of the Westbrook), the ducks on the Tyburn in Regents Park and pondered how someone might use the Stamford Brook to escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison.
If you asked Carpenter what Zanda did, he’d say ‘hunt rivers’ because he never asked about her day job (a civil engineer as it happened); if you’d asked what her hobbies were he’d have said the same (in fact she enjoyed painting rather disturbing images of small insects being impaled by finches and shrikes, cooking hot curries and writing to her MP and anyone else she could think of about the tragedy of the untreated sewage still being allowed into the river network – that was why she went underground, to document the recurring damage to the life beneath the surface). He never questioned her willingness to take him with her, nor wondered if she had anyone else in her life.
So when, a few moments ago, she asked him a question he had not expected he was thoroughly floored. It was a warm May evening and they had come to a favourite spot: a crumbling pier on the Wandle, where it curved past derelict industrial buildings before heading north to its outfall into the Thames. They had fished and cooked the rich pickings on a small tin box fire. As Carpenter washed the plates in the river, Zanda rolled two joints and said, ‘Would you like to kiss me, Carpenter?’
Carpenter stopped his washing and looked up, towards the sun setting in a spectacular show and wondered if he had heard her right. He felt her hand on his shoulder, easing him round to face her. As he looked at her bluey green eyes, made fiery by the dipping sun, a dam broke in his chest, almost overwhelming him. A river of love cascaded through his whole being as she put a hand on the back of his head and eased him forward.
His mind fogged and he let himself be pulled into that first kiss, his last thought before their lips touched being he rather hoped he wasn’t dribbling.
We spotted this manhole cover the other day, after passing ot without noticing what it said for many years and like Carpenter wondered about the hidden rivers. From that fortuitous moment of looking down came this story.