27 December 2019
Like all commuter horror stories, mine begins in the mean light of early morning – or, at least, officially it does. Kit isn’t there when I get to St Mary’s Pier for the 07.20 river bus to Waterloo, but that’s not unusual; he’s had his fair share of self-inflicted sick days this festive season. An early-morning sailing calls for a strong stomach at the best of times, but for the mortally hungover it’s literally water torture (trust me, I know). In any case, he always arrives after me. Though we live just five minutes apart and he passes right by Prospect Square to get to the pier, we gave up walking down together after the first week, when his spectacularly poor timekeeping – and my neurotic punctu-ality – became apparent. No, Kit prefers to stroll on just before they close the gangway, raising his hand in greeting, confident I’ve secured our preferred seats, the portside set of four by the bar. At St Mary’s, boarding is at the front of the boat and so I’ll watch him as he moves down the aisle, hands glancing off the metal poles – as much for style as balance – before slid-ing in next to me with an easy grin. Even if he’s been up late partying, he always smells great, like an artisan loaf baked with walnuts and figs (‘Kit smells so millennial,’ Clare said once, which was almost certainly a criticism of me and my Gen X smell of, I don’t know, stale dog biscuits). Get us, he’ll say, idly scanning the other passengers, snug in their cream leather seats. It’s one of his catchphrases: Get us. Pity the poor saps crushed on the overland train or suffocating on the Tube – we’re commuting by catamaran. Out there, there are seagulls. Also, sewage, I’ll reply, because we’ve got a nice sardonic banter going, Kit and me. Well, we used to. I clear the lump in my throat just as the boat gives a sudden diesel rumble, as if the two acts are connected. On departure, information streams briskly across the over-head screens – Calling at Woolwich, North Greenwich, Greenwich, Surrey Quays – though by now the route is so imprinted I pay little attention. Through the silver sails of the Thames Barrier and past the old aggregate works and industrial depots of the early stretch; then you’re at the yacht club and into the dinghy-strewn first loop, the residential towers of the peninsula on your left as you head towards the immense whitehead of the O2 Arena. Strung high above the river is the cable car that links the peninsula to the Royal Docks, but I won’t allow myself to think about my only trip to date on that. What was done that night. What was said.
You're feeling pretty smug about your commute to work by riverboat. No more traffic gridlock or getting stuck on the tube in tunnels (you're claustrophobic). Now you've got fresh air, an iconic Thames view, a whole lifestyle upgrade. You've made new friends on board - led by your hedonistic young neighbour, Kit - and just had your first official 'water rats' get-together.The day after the drinks, Kit isn't on the morning boat. The river landmarks are all the same, but something's off. When you disembark, the police are waiting. Kit's wife, Melia, has reported him missing and another passenger saw you arguing on the last boat home after your drinks. Police say you had a reason to lash out at him. To threaten him.You protest. You and Kit are friends - ask Melia, she'll vouch for you. And who exactly is pointing the finger? What do they know about your private lives?No, whatever coincidences might have occurred last night, you are innocent, totally innocent.Aren't you?