Stillicide by Cynan Jones

That first time I saw them, they were sitting together with their legs through the railings, looking out over the edge of the embankment, above the drained riverbed, pretending to be on a ship. They were pretending the city was a great old-fashioned ocean liner sailing through the sea.

The next day, after shift, I went to the same spot. To rest my eyes after the glare of the Dock. I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the great ocean ship. Had lain awake. Travelling myself to the countries of the world. To home.

But this time there she was, crouched intently, trying – I thought at first – to fish a thorn out of her thumb.

Until she leant back, and I saw she had conjured a paper rose in her hand.

I hadn’t noticed the first time, but there were flowers laid on a blanket, nearby. Hillie was going to and fro to the dry riverbank, bringing rubbish for her mother to use.

I had wanted to hear her describe again the world go by from the deck of a ship. But instead she had a little fire going in a rusted can, and she melted an ancient plastic bottle to use as drops of glue.

Instead of make-believing the big wide world, here she was. Building flowers.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I thought I was over that sort of thing.

I smell the krill blocks from supper at the end of the room. Hear the toing and froing of the passenger trains. Stare at the paint peeling from the ceiling, the curling flakes. Like turning pages.

Let time go a little.

But I begin to feel in my body I should look at the clock. Just thinking of the polishers makes my shoulder blades ache. My hands sore.

But perhaps the protest will stop the work today. They say half a million people will be on the march. It’s not that many, I suppose, in the context of the city. And few of them will be people who are actually affected.

But the Mayor has announced that far more families will be moved from their homes than the water company first said.

Two years since the project started. An anniversary today. Of the beginning of construction, that started with a ribbon of buildings being demolished, before we could begin. A gash cut through the city to steer the iceberg through.

How often the process of construction starts with destruction.

Now they say the run-off channels need a wider margin than they thought. The stillicide channels along the tow-track to the Dock, to catch the melting ice water.

More homes will be knocked down. More families will be moved.

And we’ll be one of them. Well. Nita and Hillie. They are the ‘they’ who will be moved. This bedsit.

But, she says, we might get somewhere better. Nearer to the riverbed. Maybe with a view.

Somewhere up high, I say. Like a bird.

Somewhere where we will not hear the soilmen. Or be rattled by the trains.

We’ll wait and see.

I reach onto the floor and pop out an immunotab, crunch it in my dry mouth. I should get up and spray myself with alcowash, take a tooth lozenge then boil up some of the sterilised grey water for tea.

I know though, once I rise Nita will wake, the rhythm will take over.

‘What will you do today?’ I’ll ask. And she will say ‘I’ll ride the train to the riverbank. Like every day. And there I will make flowers. And then I will go to sell my flowers, at the foot of the busy bridge.’ And she will then say, as she always says, ‘Will you be with us later?’

I close my eyes. A few more moments here. My body already moving towards the day’s work. The whine of the polisher. The dust, like flour. Making paste round the seal of my eyeguard.

The way the heat throws itself back off the walls.

I think of all the water locked up in the cement of the Dock. One hundred and fifty litres bound up in each cubic metre of concrete. They do not talk about that.

And how much of that becomes powder in the air.

Nita moves. Stretches, and the tattoo of a bird seems to dip along the tan sky of her skin.

On the table close to the bed, the bare light catches her scissors and thread.

An old lump of smoky white glass, long-ago long-smoothed by the river. It looks like a chunk of impossible ice.

I try to imagine the berg again, there in the Dock. When finally we’ve finished.

I can’t help but be in awe.

Millions in this city. The Thames tanks just can’t hold enough, Water Train or not.