Not wanting to mix it with the millions of tourists Brexit brought us this summer we had already agreed on dodging them by crossing the river at Vauxhall. This way we would remain well clear of them at least until we reached Westminster. Unwittingly we’d finally done something right.
Hand in hand we trekked briskly by the Apollo Theatre and on past the unremarkable buildings that lined this route. You can say a lot about Victoria – and a lot of people do – but a tourist destination it shouldn’t be.
The sunshine soon washed away our shock at what we had seen at the station – it seems amazing now but maybe the escalation of violence reported every day around the world probably helped trivialise what we had just seen – after all there were no dead bodies lying around – and by walking away from it the danger also receded, at least in our minds.
To this day I also blame love for the rather pathetic state of my mind at the time, or at least what seemed a close approximation to it. As far as I could tell in those days I thought I was sort of in love – it was too early in our relationship to be sure (although I confess, I was definitely in lust).
As we walked towards the river I noticed the streets were largely deserted but I do remember seeing several people walking strangely, stiff-legged, drooling and bumping into obstacles such as lamp posts – they also groaned a little but with the thumping heads they had to be suffering following their nocturnal excesses it seemed perfectly reasonable to do so. Frankly, I took them to be drunks or druggies on legal – or not so – highs from the night before; they were probably the dregs of what we had seen at the station, anyway at that time they appeared to be no threat to us. I do remember sniggering at their plight – my attitude in those days was that anyone who drank or drugged themselves to oblivion asked for any problems they got into (maybe my psyche wasn’t quite as stable as I’d assumed after all).
I could hear a lot of police activity off to the west, dozens of sirens blaring their way through the streets, perhaps chasing someone or rushing to a crime scene. My exposure to the Apocalypse started out pretty gently – it’s amazing what you don’t see if you don’t want to.
After about twenty minutes’ walking we stopped just past midway across the bridge next to a red lifesaver buoy and, leaning on the iron railing, relaxed looking down at the brown Thames water, watching its sluggish, restful progress seawards. I have always loved the mesmeric power of flowing water, allowing its unstopping movement and flickering reflections to wash away all thought.
Becky was to first to see the problem. Gasping a little she pointed to a lump of flotsam near the shoreline.
“What’s that?” she asked, her voice a little choked.
“What?” I replied, my thoughts returning to the present.
“That, whatever it is, in the water near the beach.”
I peered at where she was pointing and saw something floating sluggishly past what she referred to as a beach but to me was a small and crappy mudflat just beyond the MI6 building. There was a small amount of movement from it and suddenly a head popped up for a moment before re-submerging.
“Jesus!” I exclaimed. “It’s alive!”
“Quick! We need to tell someone!” she exclaimed and ran towards the south bank.
I pulled out my phone and dialled 999 before running after her. The phone emitted the engaged signal.
“Bloody hell!” I mumbled irritatedly before quickly redialling. The same tone greeted me so I gave up for the moment.
I caught up with Becky and we sprinted around the corner before together we came to an entrance approximately adjacent to the place where we saw the floater. Running up to the yellow security hut we saw no-one around to speak to. Without further thought I ducked under the security bar and ran towards the river.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Becky cried.
“Better to ask for forgiveness!” I shouted back and kept running, the water now clearly in view. I ran past one of those yellow water duck river ride vehicles parked against the massive concrete and steel-barred wall that fortified the MI6 building. So this is where the damn things hide at night, I thought absently. I’d had a less than perfect ride in one once and they weren’t ever going to be my preferred choice of transport.
I could hear Becky’s footsteps catching up behind me as I ran down to the water’s edge and looked for the floating person we had seen. The body was now about forty yards to the right and about twenty away from the water’s edge.
My adrenaline was up and so with no thought about what I was doing ran straight into the water and immediately felt the old river’s muddy bottom clinging to my trainers, slowing me down. I fell forward which broke the suction of the mud, but not before I scraped my ankle painfully against something sharp that jutted out from the bottom. Bugger, it really hurt, I thought. The stinging of the muddy water on the wound was intense and slowed me down a little.
At the same moment the cold water immediately constricted my breathing and I had to force myself to take steady intakes of air, all the while trying not to get river water in my mouth as I swam out to the body. I was beginning to shiver with the sudden cold and I slowed and turned around, looking for Becky. She was standing on the shore, an anxious look across her face.
“Don’t worry!” I shouted back to her through chattering teeth. “I’m nearly there.”
Turning back to the body I eased over to it. A nasty, foetid stench hit me as I grabbed for an arm. I felt it move, almost seeming to struggle against my grip. Having had lifesaving training when I was younger, I knew to be wary; it wasn’t uncommon for the rescuer to become the second victim when the rescuee dragged them both down in sheer panic.
Trying the body flip technique I had learnt that forced the person to face away from my body, it screeched like a banshee for an instant before coughing up what looked like a fountain of blood.
“Hey, hey!” I shouted in surprise, trying to get the person’s attention. “Hold still, I’m trying to help you.”
It continued to thrash around in the water while I desperately tried to grab hold of it properly to immobilise the flailing arms. Grabbing it around the chest I felt a couple of what felt like two enormous slimy breasts.
“Oh, Jeez. Sorry” I exclaimed in surprise, letting go so as not to make what had to be a woman panic even more.
Losing my grip on her she swung around to face me. At the same moment I felt solid ground under me and realised that we could both stand up on a submerged sandbank, so using all my strength I pulled the woman upright, trying to help her stand on her own two feet.
“Are you okay?” I asked moments before all other thoughts were swept from my mind. It wasn’t a woman. It was a man, who by rights really ought to have been dead; his chest had been cracked open and broken ribs were whitely visible as the flesh appeared to have been eaten away. Out of his chest cavity flapped his lungs, obviously the slimy red/green breasts I had felt. I retched at the sight, heaving part of my breakfast into the water to feed the fish I knew were re-populating the Thames.
Stepping backwards, I collapsed in shaky confusion and fear and he lunged, landing on top of me and pushing us both underwater. As we disappeared under the murky surface my mind was numb, wondering how in God’s name this man could possibly be alive? Oh, I also wondered why the fucker was trying to kill me.
I felt his hands grabbing at my clothing, working his way towards my neck and I suddenly snapped back to the present. Thrashing wildly in panic, my frenzied actions caused the man to lose his grip for a moment; in spite of this his face, mouth open and teeth snapping in the water, appeared right in front of mine – his eyes were void of emotion in spite of his obvious rabid efforts to get at me. I grabbed his ears with both hands and pushed hard to force the snapping teeth away from me but he kept on coming, his claw-like hands scraping at my chest through my thin summer t-shirt. I was panicking by now, my previous exertions to rescue him combined with my fear left me with little oxygen to remain safely underwater.
My lungs screamed at me to breathe and just as a greyish darkness began to descend on me I was suddenly lifted bodily out of the water by large hands. The apparition had vanished and now I sucked in lungfuls of air. As I gasped greedily for oxygen my desperation gradually eased. Looking around me quickly I saw that the man I had tried to rescue was now floating a few yards off on his back, his lungs acting as a flotation vest. For a moment I watched him float away towards the middle of the river, his limbs thrashing wildly all the while; tuning back towards the shore I realised someone was speaking to me.
“You alright?” The voice came from a giant of a man standing next to me, his iron grip still around my arm. He wore a security uniform and was probably the biggest bloke I’d ever met. His big, confident grin made me smile in response despite my near death experience.
“Uh, yeah. Thanks.” I replied, coughing the last dregs of the Thames from my lungs. Part of me was wondering where I was going to get the antibiotics I knew I would need as a result of this up close and personal experience with the Thames, especially if the floating man had leaked into the water whatever it was that had made his condition possible.
Becky waded through the muddy water before throwing her arms around my neck. She gave me a long kiss that reeked of concern and terror.
“I’m okay,” I said, trying to placate her. Feeling her grip lessen I turned to the security guard and offered my hand. “Thanks, man,” I said with feeling. “Where did you come from?”
“You ran right past me. I was in the security office. I was picking up some paper from the floor when I heard you go by.” His thick Nigerian accent was at first difficult to understand, but none of that mattered, he had just saved my life and for that I would be eternally grateful.
“My name’s Emile,” I said. “What’s yours?”
“Pius,” he replied. I had lived in Nigeria when I was young and many of my local friends had names depicting good behaviour and belief, something I had always appreciated. I believed, and still do that a name really does influence a person’s behaviour through life.
I indicated the body floating away from us. “Was he dead or alive?”
“Both, I think,” Pius replied.
“Did you see what he did? How could he have still been alive? All his guts…” my voice trailed off, not knowing what else to say.
“I have no idea,” he began. Looking back I can see that the word ‘zombies’ was front and centre in his mind. At the time here had bene many reports of zombies in Western Africa, and in particular Nigeria, ever since the Ebola outbreak – people dying of the terrible disease and then coming back to life. Instead he chose not to raise his own fears. “I’ve seen and heard many strange things all night and again this morning. That is the third body I’ve seen in the river so far. I called the police but they do not come. Now I cannot get through to them at all.”
“I’ve noticed that,” I replied. As I stood there, waist-deep in water, I suddenly realised just how quiet London actually was on this clear, beautiful summer’s morning.
Copyright © 2016 David Kingsley Roberts
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.