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THE BITTERLY cold water made him gasp as he hauled himself to the top of the grassy slope and breathing a sigh of relief flopped onto the tree-lined towpath. He sat quietly there for a good few minutes dripping wet with a woebegone expression on his haggard face, silhouetted against the bank of the canal, his bloodshot eyes resting briefly on the dark green water that gave him the shivers. After a while he stood up and shook his threadlike body free from the clinging mud, zipping up his jacket with trembling hands, hunching his shoulders for the short walk.
Rats scuttled along the water’s edge while a gust of wind forced him to lower his head even further and thrust his hands numb with cold into his tracksuit pockets, as he climbed up the rubbish strewn concrete steps past the fire station and Dolphin’s Barn Bridge.
Walking under the fluorescent street lights he thought about his sweetheart Mary. He met her when she was just 13-years-old. Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet they fell in love. When pregnant with their first child they moved in with his nan who looked after him since he was a child. Mary’s family didn’t like him because his mother was an addict who died of a drug’s overdose. He never knew his father. After he lost his job and started robbing to feed his cocaine habit, they taunted her. “You’re a fool, Mary. The apple never falls far from the tree.”
And when the guards came knocking on her door his darling nan turned them away. “Judas gave Jesus up to the Roman soldiers, but I won’t.” She would look at the happy faces of their children and smile, “Love will find a way.”
He slowed to a halt and looked around him. In place of the flat complex the canal bridge suddenly materialized and to his left the rubbish strewn concrete steps. He took a step back and scratched his head in puzzlement. Behind him the shady tree-lined towpath and adjacent footpath was devoid of panting dogs and puffing joggers. He cleared his throat and climbed up the rubbish strewn concrete steps, looking at the service station lights across the road. With a shake of his head he set off once more in the direction of Dolphin House Flats. He thrust his hands deeper into his tracksuit pockets and hunched his shoulders. As he walked, a list of drugs played without sound like the final reel of a horror movie.
When he stopped and paid attention he realized he was back where he started and looked about him in confusion, his tired eyes picking out in the evening twilight the familiar billboards on the opposite side of the canal bank.
He turned away from the stone bridge and the rubbish strewn concrete steps and walked towards the spot where he hauled his soaking body onto the tree-lined towpath, and plopped himself down. He thought about his sweetheart Mary. The last time he saw her was when he robbed the few measly euros left in her purse and ran out the door, past his darling nan and his little girls — their laughter stopping as quickly as it had begun. He felt ashamed of his behaviour and buried his head in his hands.
The sound of a moorhen startled him it’s quick-tempered voice lasting only a second near the bank edge. He stared at the trail of disturbed water until his eyes caught sight of something buoyed up on the surface among the overgrown vegetation. He waded into the cold dark green water reaching out to what he now knew to be a dead body and rolled it over onto its back. His dull eyes stared back at him.
Releasing his grip he floundered about in the shallow water like a frightened child trying to reach the safety of his parents hand. No matter how many times he looked away he found himself staring down at his cold dead body.
He cast his drug-addled mind back to when he arrived at the canal. An angry screech welcomed him as he descended the rubbish strewn concrete steps and nervously walked along the tree-lined towpath to another, who approached him from the shadows. Handing over his 50 euros he waited, but the man pulled out a knife instead and they struggled violently.
He covered his face with his hands and sneaked a peek between his bony fingers at the dead body looking up at him, hoping against hope that he was having a bad dream or suffering the side effects of withdrawal. He closed his eyes and felt himself falling backwards as he was stabbed repeatedly and his body engulfed by the dark green water. A feeling of despair overcame him and he wailed in anguish lashing out at the darkness encroaching all around him with a creeping sense of dread.
Dropping to his knees he clasped his hands in desperation and prayed for forgiveness, repenting for his adolescent years wasted on drug taking and the premature parting with his sweetheart Mary and two young children. Closing his eyes, he heard a woman’s voice. “Robert.”
The next day people walked their dogs along the narrow towpath in the warm sunshine while others set off on their morning jog. At the same time the sound of passing traffic failed to disturb a group of paddling canoeists and swans sailing past a grey heron keeping watch on a grassy bank, while dragonflies and damselflies flew up and down the green sunlit waters of the canal, snatching smaller insects on the fly. Petrol station flowers placed at the spot where his dead body was discovered fell to a musing gaze. Among the sympathy cards was a dog-eared black-and-white photograph of a young boy, dressed in his communion clothes, and standing beside him a woman, smiling at his grinning face.