Thursday, April 15, 2021

Out of the Flow by Dharmavadana Penn

Glittering in a December night, the river waters swell and suck and curl back on themselves, as if resisting the logic of their journey, then surrender and continue. Two metres below the surface, being carried towards the estuary, is James, his arms, legs and head shifting not under his own will anymore, but only in the strong currents. They say that at least one body a week washes up in the muddy estuary of the Thames, many never to be identified, and 

James fully intended to be one of them. As soon as he hit the freezing mid-channel water, the shock paralysed his limbs, defeating his body’s instinct to struggle and survive, and he lived for two more minutes while he was dragged deeper and further into the embracing flow. The river has him now; he has entered its underworld of darkness and silt, fish and hidden junk; only it knows what will happen to him next. 

By the Tate Modern, as James passes under the Millennium Footbridge, the part of the river that holds him – as if the floodlit art gallery reminds it of better alternatives –dithers again, circles on itself, spinning the body around, and reverses. James tumbles back past the South Bank, unnoticed by the revellers still lurching from bar to bar. Bubbles of air force themselves into his lungs, his eyes open, his body spreads out like a startled seagull’s, he punches through the surface head first and flies backwards and upwards, legs and arms flapping, onto the middle span of Waterloo Bridge, landing on the pavement on the other side of its railings. He leans on them, grabs them, shaking his head, snaps into a body remembered position, thinking nothing at the city night’s blankness.

‘Hey! You all right?’ The voice is behind him. He turns. A woman stares at him, while holding her mobile in front of her, its light a star. ‘You all right?’ she repeats.

He looks down and notices that his left foot rests on one of the rails; his right hovers just above the pavement; his weight is beginning to pivot on the top rail. He looks at the inviting swirl much further below him, doesn’t climb higher but says nothing to the woman either.

‘Can I say, “Don’t do it”?’ she asks. ‘Is that a bit corny?’

Somewhere inside, a remote, different part of him laughs.

She comes up to the railing, about four feet along from him, and leans on it looking at the river as he is doing, but further into the distance.

‘I’m Camille, by the way,’ she says. ‘I was just on my way home from a party –thought I’d walk – and I’m a bit pissed. I’ve no idea how to do this, or what to say.’ Sheglances at him. ‘I think it’s best if I keep my distance, like this - isn’t it? - while being companionable, talking? That’s what they do in films or cop programmes. You’re not really going to do it, are you?’

James hangs his head. His body feels weak, as if he’s been clinging onto the railings for hours. He slightly turns to take her in. Middle-aged, slim, in a long denim coat, hair dyed red, heavy lipstick. She’s put her mobile away. 

‘So, what’s it about?’ She looks directly at him this time. ‘If I can ask that.’ She has big, wide open eyes that look a lot more worried than she sounds. ‘A girl? A boy?’ 

He stares into the water and feels his chest and lip trembling as he watches lights slithering across the surface like mobile oil paintings.

‘Girl,’ he says after a while.

‘Will you be offended if I say she isn’t worth it?’

That almost-laugh again, from both inside him and away somewhere, as if from a different James in a different world, one not as empty. 

‘So, has she chucked you? Turned you down? Doesn’t realise you exist? Sees you as a friend? That’s the worst. I can tell you all about that one.’ She gives an exaggerated, bitter snort. 

‘We’ve been friends for a couple of years,’ he says, still gazing into the river - as if presenting his case to it, giving it reasons to take him. ‘Then I told her how I felt about her. And she didn’t want to know. She won’t even speak to me. I think she’s started to laugh at me.’

‘Definitely not worth it,’ says the woman. ‘Where’s all this happening? Home? 


‘We’re both at UCL.’

‘UCL? Uh-huh. Hmmm.’ She frowns and nods. ‘So, you’re going to throw that away? 

A brilliant education, along with everything else? Great decision.’

‘I don’t want it. I don’t want any of it.’

‘I suppose it wouldn’t help to tell you no one is worth that, what you’re thinking of doing? No one in the world. Whatever she’s done to you. Or that there are plenty of other girls out there?’

He slumps down, one foot on the pavement now, his head hanging between his shoulders. 

‘And it won’t help to tell you that if you stick it out, you won’t feel like this in six months? So if you jump down there it’ll have been for the sake of six months’ pain. Or so. 

Well, a year say. One year’s… payback, you could call it.’ She glances across at him again. 

‘That’s all. Exactly enough time for a gap year. Travel. You’d come back a different man.’

He finds himself smiling – not because he believes what she says, but because of her. 

Because of a sort of impossible bravery, he can hear in her. He could almost not jump – for 


‘So, have you travelled much?’ she asks him. ‘In your short life? You know – you look out at that river and it could be the Orinoco, the Nile, the Mekong. The Amazon. If you use your imagination. So much out there.’

A convulsion rips through him, short and brutal – not a laugh, but something else that makes him grip the rail harder. Then he gets control of himself. ‘No, I haven’t travelled much.’

‘And have I, you ask. Yes, thank you. All over the place. I’ve had many adventures. I don’t know how I’ve survived. But I didn’t get to be this wise by accident, let me tell you.’

His body shakes and he leans forward, holding himself against the railings. What he again thinks may be laughter runs away from him, then turns into sobs, much heavier, deepening as he kneels down. 

She comes to sit beside him, takes his hand. ‘Come on,’ she says. ‘It’s ridiculously not worth it.’

‘I would have done it. I was really going to.’

‘I know. You weren’t kidding.’ She yanks on his hand encouragingly to make him sit on the pavement with her, facing the small-hours traffic. ‘Then of course there’s the Ganges,’ she says. ‘You’ve seen nothing till you’ve seen that.’

© Dharmavadana Penn

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