We used to live near the canal; not on it, I wouldn’t have cared for that, the water looked so sinister and I have such a horror of the damp.  I knew those houses that backed right on to the water – you could see them from the bridge on Gloucester Avenue – their gardens looking dank, too deeply green. There must have been rats.

Not that our house was free of damp – in the basement kitchen there were patches in the corners and under the stairs where the fuse boxes were. I could always smell it, even in summer, but Paul didn’t believe me, as he couldn’t. I didn’t mind walking along the old towpath though, it was pleasant, running as it did along the north end of the park and past the Zoo to Camden Lock or west to St John’s Wood and beyond. On a Sunday we always made a point of walking together, and often that is the way we went. When we still had the dog, Paul used to run with him beside the canal, on weekday mornings before he left for work. Teddy could safely be let off the lead there, away from the road.

One Sunday, around the middle of May, we decided to walk all the way to Little Venice. As we joined the path, we saw a man standing by the water’s edge with a fishing rod in his hand. We don’t usually talk to strangers, not in town anyway. Where I grew up in Sussex you would say hello to anyone you met out walking, everyone did, but in London people might think you peculiar so it is safer to ignore them. Paul knew that as well as me; besides, he was always warning me about the dangers we were surrounded by living in London. When my bag was snatched in Camden he couldn’t believe I’d been so careless as to leave it under the table at that café. But that morning we weren’t really talking much, to each other. There had been an argument at breakfast about something and neither of us wanted to be the first to forget it.

Until a year before, we’d lived in another house, nearer the park. We had to sell it and buy somewhere smaller; though I knew this had to be done I was sad about it and I thought that since we had to move we could go away to another part of London. Paul couldn’t understand that. We have friends here, he said; we’re used to this area, why go to the trouble of starting all over again? But that is exactly what I wanted to do, start again, be another sort of London person. I couldn’t convince him and we ended up just two streets away. Other people moved in to our old house, a family; I couldn’t bear to go past it, so if I had to go that way I had devised a couple of detours. Paul noticed one day as I was driving us up to Hampstead and we’d had a row then. He said, ‘Are you seriously intending to avoid driving past our old house for the foreseeable future? How is that going to work?’ He’s such a rational person, I did love that in him, because I’m not, but he suffers from a sort of emotional blindness, in my opinion. Perhaps it’s because he teaches philosophy, I don’t know, but since he was never going to understand after a while I pretended that I had got over it and if we did have to go past the house I would look the other way and hold my breath. He hadn’t noticed.

That Sunday – as we sat reading the papers, finishing breakfast – he said, why don’t we walk past number 22 and see what the new people have done to it? I should have just agreed, and pretended as usual, but there was a story in the paper, about a dog, which reminded me of another thing I was pretending about: that I didn’t blame him for Teddy’s death. So I said I would rather not, that I still did not want to go near our old house. He was shocked of course, he’d had no idea I still felt that way, but he was angry too. He asked me why I was punishing him for something that couldn’t be helped, and when I answered that if I were, it was no less than he was doing to me, it brought tears to his eyes, and I was sorry, though I would not say so. We had come too close, we both knew it. We had to recover. After a few minutes, just sitting there at that pine table too big for the kitchen, I said let’s go out.   So we did, and we didn’t go past the house, we walked the other way to the canal; that should have felt like a victory, but it didn’t.  We walked in a silence that neither of us wanted to break; perhaps that is why Paul decided to speak to the man with the fishing rod, so that he didn’t have to speak to me.

‘Caught anything?’

The man was wearing an anorak, though the day was warm. He had dark, greasy-looking hair and the kind of face my mother used to call ‘ferrety’.

‘No, there’s not much left.’ It was one of those flat London voices.

‘Why’s that then?’

‘Eastern Europeans,’ said the man. ‘They come down here and take all the fish.’

This was interesting and it promised a distraction from the unpleasantness in our kitchen. I had only recently read somewhere about immigrants from places like Bulgaria and Romania getting into trouble for catching fish in rivers and lakes, without licences of course, because in their countries they could fish where they liked. But the canal seemed an unlikely place. I peered into the dirty-looking green water; it was impenetrable. I hadn’t thought there could be living things down there, just old shopping trolleys and bottles. An empty crisp packet floated by. I asked, ‘What sort of fish are in here then?’

‘All sorts, carp, bream, perch, even pike. I caught an eel once,’ he answered, not looking at me directly. His eyes seemed to flicker somewhere between the two of us, as if he couldn’t decide which was worth talking to.

It sounded so unlikely to me. If it had been any other day I think we would have carried on walking, Paul and I would have been more in tune with each other; but perhaps we had exhausted ourselves, in the kitchen, so that it was easier just to stand there. The fisherman, having an audience, then told us a story:

‘They get here around half-two in the morning, night fishing, that’s when you get the best fish – they know that. There’s always nine of them – I think it’s a religious thing. They rig up a line over the canal; drop hooks off it, all across, into the water. Then they come back, around five, take off all the fish. One time I was down here, when they come back and I say to them, don’t take it all, and put some back. But their leader just shouts at me,’ and here he dropped his voice, putting on a foreign sounding accent, ‘he goes “What you want? What you want?” Like that. And they take all the fish.’

Behind us flowed the usual Sunday human traffic: the tourists en route for Camden market, the leisurely weekend cyclists and dog walkers. We should I thought rejoin them, there was something disturbing here, in this story of the canal’s night visitors. I didn’t like it. I touched Paul’s sleeve but he drew away, we were still not speaking; he wouldn’t acknowledge me and I suppose he wanted to know more. ‘Aren’t there controls here, on who fishes and when?’

‘Oh yes, we do. We control it. We came down and sorted them out’. He paused then went on, ‘I didn’t actually do it myself, though. I know the man who did,’ and he stopped again. He didn’t have to wait long for Paul to ask, ‘Did what?’

‘Killed them.’

The sun sparkled on the canal; it was one of those beautiful days of early summer, when all the leaves are freshly green, before dusty London dulls them. From the zoo came the whooping call of some unknown creature, far from its jungle home, as alien and bizarre as this. We stood there as if we had nowhere to go. So we heard him tell us how he and his friend lay in wait, for these nine men; how one by one his friend stabbed them and threw the bodies in the canal.

As he spoke a canal boat passed. A child waved and I automatically waved back. Two people cycled by speaking French.  I didn’t want to hear any more of this, we had already heard too much, but Paul asked, ‘So what happened to the bodies?’

‘They just sank here. Would’ve gone down to the Lock, down Camden. When the lock gates open they’d’ve been off, along the canal to Limehouse. Then into the river, down to the sea – gone.’

He stopped, he’d come to the end of his story, and at last, though too late, Paul walked on and I followed.  After a few minutes Paul said, ‘Obviously mad’.

‘But do you think any of that was true?’ I asked. Paul sounded more confident, he had decided.

‘Don’t be silly, of course not. How could it be? It was a ludicrous story from start to finish. He was either nuts or having a laugh. Forget about it.’

We walked on, in silence again, past the zoo, past the great empty villas on the Outer Circle to Little Venice. We left the towpath then, climbing up the stairway to the road and made our way back home. Neither of us said so, but we didn’t want to pass the fisherman again.

It was on those walks of ours that we used to talk, as much as we ever did. Away from the house we usually managed to recapture some of the easy companionship we had known when we were first together. That morning’s quarrel was not the first, and though we never planned it, the way we usually made up was to get out of the house, find neutral ground. By the time we got home again whatever we had argued about would have been displaced by general conversation about some aspect of our material lives; those dangerous topics not altogether forgotten but tidied away to allow us to carry on. Half an hour on a film we’d seen or our holiday plans could be equally effective. It was all a pretence, of course, but I think deception may be an essential ingredient for a reasonably happy marriage. In a way I deceived him right from the start. We met when we were both studying philosophy at university, though for me it was just a subsidiary subject and I didn’t get on with it at all. I was much more interested in the personal lives of all those people than in the details of their theories – Queen Christina of Sweden summoning Descartes to her freezing palace where he died of cold meant more to me than his Discourse on Method. I know that I misled Paul, for he thought I was much the same sort of person as he was, outgoing and positive. He told me that his last girlfriend had wanted to talk about her problems all the time, anxieties he had found so trivial that finally he had broken up with her. I wanted him to like me so I pretended I didn’t have any. I kept it up for years; I think I could have kept it up for longer – cheerfulness can be a habit, not such a bad one – but the misery of the dog and the house, and other things were all too much and the old, sad, me was re-emerging; the one Paul didn’t know he had married.

The day we met the fisherman we did not recover by the time we got home; Paul refused to talk to me about it and I didn’t want to talk about anything else, every detail of that horrible conversation seemed to haunt me, I couldn’t forget it. As weeks went by I carried it around with me like a curse and I don’t think I deserved that. I wouldn’t walk by the canal again; the water made me think of death.  Paul tried to persuade me, a few times, and then he gave up. Sunday mornings he went out by himself, I didn’t ask where he went.   

We lost the dog when we moved. Paul had taken Teddy out while I was unpacking boxes of books, he had been getting in the way; he was only young. After they had been gone for about an hour I decided to go out to meet them, and as I stepped out of the house I saw them on the other side of the road. Just as I realised that Teddy was not on the lead, he spotted me and, with that uncomplicated dog joy of his, he bounded towards me and under the wheels of a taxi. We both loved that dog; it was a terrible loss. Why Paul had let him loose, with still one road to cross, he couldn’t explain; all he would say was that if only I had not come outside at that moment it wouldn’t have happened.  He knew it was his fault, but he had to blame me too because he tried so hard not to blame me for my much greater failure. We had sold the house because it was too big for just two people. Paul pretended not to mind that we had no children – that I could not, ever – but he had always had a dream of fatherhood that I denied him. I can see that it was unforgiveable       

We grieved separately, resenting each other for weeks until we both realised that we had to suppress all that bad feeling if we were to have any chance of carrying on together. I suppose that was the great achievement in our marriage, the art of concealment that we perfected, or thought we had. Who knows how much longer it would have lasted?  It was that hard-earned equilibrium that our friend on the canal disrupted; if we had not met him we might have recovered from the quarrel. In the event, it was merely interrupted.

We lasted the rest of the summer, surviving the two weeks in Cornwall and the dutiful family visits. Paul kept busy working on a series of lectures for the History of Philosophy course and I read novels. We were polite to each other but guarded. The end, when it came, was banal. He told me he had been spending a lot of time with a junior lecturer in his department; at least he had the decency not to tell me then that she was pregnant. He did say he was sorry, but so was I.

I always thought it funny how people said that they ‘drifted apart’, as if they had been somehow afloat, like dinghies tethered together, or swans perhaps, swimming in tandem. I think of Paul and me then as stepping on to different platforms, taking trains in opposite directions; more deliberate than drifting. On the last day we divided up the books, the rest we were leaving till later, and then sat together in the garden on the old cane chairs that had belonged to his mother. And sitting there, in an ease we had rarely known in those ten years, I thought of what could be forgiven.

By Jennifer Johnson

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