Carrots or Spuds?

We lived beside Murphy back up by the filter beds. In that part of the river a sandy-brown Victorian garden wall snakes beside the tow-path, marking the outer limits of the old Thames Water cleaning facility; now the charmed garden gates of the “Middlesex Filter Beds and Wildlife Conservation Area”. The former industrial project site has now become home to a number of different colonies of birds, that you can see hovering among the branches of the thin, sickly-looking trees. The discrete set of tiny concrete lagoons, overgrown with weeds, is now the only clue remaining as to the former function of this oddly quiet and sequestered place beside the Hackney Cut, once the site of a productive nineteenth-century industrial mill.

Murphy was the sort of neighbour that would make a more respectable sort of person wary. The strip of bank beside his boat was always cluttered with a mind-boggling assortment of junk: scrap metal, old refrigerators, ship heads, shopping trolleys and leaky car batteries. Though I did not speak to him many times personally, he made it clear to me that he was “the man to speak to if you were after metal or batteries.” Sometimes at night, the sounds of Cockney voices could be heard piercing the cool, still envelope of Homerton-night air; and then it was almost tangible: the suspense of secrets, the volleys of curses, the fragments of an argument so heated that it made the hairs on your arm stand on end. Who knew how many anonymous, shadowy confederates lurked in the corners of Murphy’s boat? They always came and went in darkness, leaving the boat palpably more weightless and innocent by day.

Once I made the mistake of looking too closely at one of Murphy’s belligerent friends.

“Get off! You’ve been here too long! It stinks!” – insults and oaths were being traded between land and water, while Murphy stood on his cruiser stern gesturing angrily at a stooped figure on the bank.

Alert, concerned, curious to see how the scene would develop, I stopped midway in my descent into Hawisia’s kitchen. The figure on the bank immediately realised he was being watched,

“And what exactly are you looking at?! Do you want a piece…?!” The terrifying hooded figure started walking towards my boat.

I most certainly did not want to tangle with this man and scuttled into the safety of the boat as soon as I was able – bolting the locks firmly as I went. I felt a little shaken by the abrupt threat – the harassing gesture, the morbid intensity of anger fixed on the man’s dirty face.

The next morning, Murphy knocked sweetly on our hatch roof. I hid in the bathroom allowing Gideon to take over. “Good morning!” he said brightly.

“I just err…. Wondered if you wanted some water… I’m going down to the Wick to fill up…”

I could see his bicycle trailer waiting expectantly on the bank.

“Oh, don’t worry, we’re fine for now, but thanks for asking!” Gideon piped back.

I watched him hop off the boat and onto his bike. “It was his way of saying sorry”, Gideon explained.

Occasionally other suggestive puzzle-pieces of Murphy’s life would come to call. Once or twice groups of ‘extended family’ would lurk outside and all of a sudden, clamber mysteriously on board. One little girl with lank brown hair, bored by adult conversation, preferred to glide up and down above the bank, where Murphy had built her a makeshift swing. What could that huddled congregation of visitors be discussing on board? I speculated.

Then, unexpectedly, I saw Murphy again this morning. We are further down river than previously, closer to the busy Lea Bridge Road and The Anchor and Hope pub. It was a very windy day and the boat was rocking and creaking considerably. Suddenly I heard a rat-a-tat-tat on the metal hatch door and promptly opened up. A bald head, wide woozy eyes, at least five gold teeth: “Oh, Hi Murphy!” I cooed. “You’re not normally this far up river.”

“Ah, no…” he replied doubtfully. “It’s because we’re selling…” And as way of explanation he suddenly held up two fist-fulls of vegetables: one large potato, one thick carrot. “Need any carrots or spuds? We’re selling them for £2 a kilo. You can get some now, or if you ever need anything just give me a ring – you know where to find me.”

Anxious to support this fledgling river economy – for Murphy was not a rich man – I said I would check in my wallet and see what I could find. I returned with a five-pound note.

“Two pounds of carrots and two pounds of potatoes please”, I requested, and watched him stagger uncouthly back up the steep muddy bank by the boat, past thicket and bramble.

By this point his trousers were rapidly drifting away from their intended position, as he swam and staggered towards a friend at the top of the bank who was leaning over an old shopping trolley. I recognised him immediately: the scowl, the dark look, the hooded, slumped figure. I watched as they brought out a battered Newton meter from their trolley and began weighing up the vegetables and plummeting them into plastic bags.

After a few minutes Murphy returned and held the bags out to me. I thanked him and we had a little chat: I asked him if he was still by the filter beds, he replied that he was. He said that he was not very well, so had to be within close walking distance of Homerton Hospital. Suddenly it all made sense: his kindly smile, the extended family visits.

Without warning his chronically dissatisfied friend began growling at us from the top of the bank.

“Oh, it’s your friend”, I said, as though he hadn’t noticed.

“My brother”, he replied.

“Your brother?” I repeated, incredulously (I still remembered the multiple rebukes, threats of eviction, traded insults and oaths.)

“Better get on!” he said brightly. We hugged and then he staggered on down the mud path towards the next boat.

A little later I saw him clambering back up the mound. He was still there: waiting, watching, intent and beady-eyed. Suddenly it made me think of the opening of Great Expectations. Murphy and his choleric, quarrelsome brother were like Magwitch and his hated partner, hopelessly chained together in steel manacles. Like lovers or enemies, locked together in a bitter, secret, never-ending feud.

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