• North London tales

Regent's Canal and Urban Legends

This month, our theme is Urban Legends. I was walking along Regent's canal when a man passed me by and the heavy grassy smoke of his joint wafted into my nostrils. I did not get high with only one brief inhale yet the smell triggered some memories in my mind and once I got back home, I sat at my computer and typed away. There is the back story of my newest flash fiction.

Pass The Joint ( 1,995 words)

I remember it well. It was a sunny Sunday in London. I decided to make the most of it and went for a stroll along Regent’s canal. Leaving Kings Cross behind me I stepped back in time, strolling along the bare brick walls where dockworkers used to load the boats with heavy jute bags and boxes of spices while their horses pulled them along. It was a distant time when coal was burnt to heat and power the city yet I could still scrape the soot off the bricks on my right with my fingernails.

My mobile phone in my left back pocket, flat keys in the other, I walked deliberately slow. There were cyclists, couples and joggers overtaking me. I counted the locks; there were three. A couple _urban, quirky, thirty something were manning the old cast iron machinery, water gushing out off the wooden gates, lowering their houseboat into a narrow corridor. I stopped to stare at the water level. It felt like time was stretching out and I finally got rid of the tension that made my shoulders feel like two blocks of concrete sitting atop my spine.

I got to the last lock, the fourth, before Camden Market and its hordes of tourists and decided to sit there, my back against the wall, to keep that peaceful feeling. The water is pretty stagnant there, the dark green colour of glass, you know the bottles that hold Eastern European beer with glossy labels and long hard-to-spell names.

I closed my eyes, the sunbeams were toasting my eyelids and I could see red through their fine layer of skin.

“Fancy a puff ?”

I purposely did not react. Being Londoner, I was not going to get startled because someone was talking to me. Although I was a bit annoyed for it was obvious I was chilling and did not want to be disturbed.

With my eyelids still closed I answered:


Then I felt I could no longer keep my eyes shut for I am the curious type and the voice was hard to define. It could be a young man’s or an older woman’s, for it sounded gender fluid with a neutral accent.

“Here,” it was a woman’s hand, holding a spliff, right under my nose. Its scent was strong, like rosemary and thyme and heavy rich soil. It reminded me of late nights in student halls chatting about politics and free love.

“I don’t like smoking on my own,” she shrugged her shoulders.

I let my gaze encounter hers. She was older than me. Perhaps ten or fifteen years… Hard to tell now, with healthy food and medicine, women look good well into their forties. She had wrinkles around her eyes, thin horizontal stripes on her forehead, but her pale skin looked soft and creamy and, the colour of her eyes reminded me of London drizzle, wet, grey and scintillating.

“Why not,” I said and grabbed the joint. I took three big long puffs and exhaled in a low whistle. It was a strong one. It felt good. I hadn’t smoked for a while. Too expensive, and I believed my student years were behind me.

“That’s potent,” I said.

She smiled. Her straight teeth were the colour of precious and old ivory, tea or smoke stained. I took two more puffs before I gave it back to her. She had sat down next to me and her crossed ankles were poking out off the wharf above the water. She was wearing old frayed trousers made out of tweed, a bit passé, like in the 40’s, befitting for an American scarecrow in a cornfield. But they were clean and she had a nice cashmere jumper on. She could be a single mother fallen on hard times from one of the council flats behind us or a bohemian wealthy artist married to a banker living in Highgate with a passion for vintage clothing. It was hard to tell the difference sometimes.

“It’s a beautiful day,” she said.

I did not bother answering and let my eyes wander again, watching the snail-paced current. A moorhen dived head first into the water and her small black-feathered bottom jutting out, with two bony yellow legs spread out. The woman just sat there, next to me, quietly smoking. Then she lit her joint again before passing it back to me. I was getting nicely high by then and felt my tongue starting to form words that my lazy brain had not even clearly thought through.

“That’s good stuff, where did you get it from?”

“Secret of the trade”, she smiled and the way her cheeks moved, tilted downward as if she was suppressing her smile made me feel warmer inside. She was older but she was still rather cute. “I get deliveries and sell it on when it is there.”

She was working then, looking for customers. I nodded. We were in Camden after all. Nothing surprising here…

I tried not to stare too much. She was literally just minding her own business. My eyes riveted on a passing duck, its wing feathers were ridged with bright purple that looked exactly like the big stone she wore on one of her fingers.

“Same shade,” I said, while pointing at her gem and nodding towards the duck. It took her a while to get what I meant then she said: “ah” and smiled again.

She kept her eyes on me, smiling too much, like drunk women on pay day do, half-flirtatious, half-dreamy. I am not going to lie, that made me quite horny.

She waved her knuckles at me:

“That’s an amethyst, my favourite. I bought it in Russia.” The ring was thick, it had a lion’s head and his eyes were gleaming gems.

I blinked.

“Russia? That’s an original destination.”

I noticed she had dimples on her cheeks. The little crease made me want to pinch the curved flesh around it. It must have been the sun, the spliff and a coupe of months of celibacy that made me so desperate for contact with the first female of my species that I encountered.

“How old are you?” she asked. She passed me the joint again.

“26,” I whispered in a cloud of smoke.

She looked happy: for maybe she had guessed my age right, or maybe she only liked men who were below thirty. I did not know and to be honest I did not care. I was starting to think that it was a good day. I got a free joint and a woman making a pass at me, with her eye lashes flickering in the golden light.

Next time I gave her the joint back I made a point of touching her fingers. She had rough skin, the chaffed hands of someone who does the dishes in a restaurant. But her nails were cut short and neat and her wrists were small. She had a fine bone structure, almost like a child’s.

For some time, we just stayed by the water, and when we finished the joint I asked her for another. She magicked one out of her trousers pocket. I got so high my head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton wool, I was underwater, disconnected.

She just stared at me, half-conscious, half-detached. Until the sun went down and the wind took over and my skin was covered in goose bumps. Yet for some reason I did not want to go home. I just wanted to stay there and hang out. She giggled when I tried to explain my feelings. My speech was slurred and that could not have been very attractive. She understood what I meant though. She could read the clinginess and the hunger in my eyes. Perhaps this was what made her choose me, on a busy bank along the canal.

When most people left to go home, the occasional jogger still trudged along. I bent towards her and pressed my lips against hers. They were dry like paper. I realised she was shivering and immediately felt guilty for not having offered her my jacket. I mumbled and tried to take it off. I was pulling my sleeves down, awkwardly and this was the moment she had been waiting for. I was trusting, slow and high when she pushed me in the canal. So I fell into the dark water like a stone. I only waved my arms once when the cold startled me but the murky waters felt as heavy as a blanket and I got pulled under. The last I saw of her was a frail seated figure. The cool water embraced me and its muddy taste filled my mouth. It was thick like syrup.

When I finally kicked and thrust my head above water a hand grabbed me. It was a man on his houseboat, leaning out to pull me out of danger.

“Are you all right mate?” he asked while I was spitting water all over the deck.

He gave me a towel and we sat inside his home. I thanked him when he handed me a cup of tea.

“How come you fell in the water?” he asked, “Were you drunk?”

I looked at his red, swollen, puffy hands and concluded he was himself a dedicated alcoholic.

“A woman pushed me,” I shook my head, still in shock.

“Could it be that Russian chick who ambushed you?” he sniggered, “You need to be careful with that one, she is as mad as a box of frogs,”

Feeling stupid and angry at myself, I finished my drink and rushed home. I never went to the police. After all, if they had found her, she could have argued I tried to kiss her and that she had gotten scared. She could have gotten me in trouble. It made me nervous so, out of fear of ridicule, I kept it to myself.

A year later I visited the Canal Museum with my sister and nephew_ he was fascinated by boats. A black and white photograph attracted my attention: there was a woman, with mournful eyes and a ring on her left hand.

I recognised her instantly. And it was the same stone that she wore. A cold shiver ran through my bones as I bent over my nephew’s shoulder to read the adjacent note.

La Palatina was a Russian aristocrat who fled the revolution. She settled in London and put her knowledge of seven European languages to good use, getting involved in black market arms trade with city gangs operating from London to Birmingham. She fell in love with a gypsy man who fought in the trenches during the First World War and threw herself in the canal when she received a telegram announcing his death. Only her ring was found decades later by a man who was fishing and cut it out of a fish’s guts.

I squeezed my nephew’s shoulder so much that he complained.

“Sorry,” I whispered. My head was spinning and I had to excuse myself and go home. My hands were shaking. I remembered the lion head with the glittering stones, the dimples on her cheeks and the arousal I had felt when I had kissed her. I had tried to pull a ghost.

Since then I also took to haunting the banks of the Regent’s canal. I would often be there in the crispy cool autumn mornings when joggers trampled the uneven slabs of concrete along the bank.

I lost count of how many times I retraced my steps, searching for the Russian lady.

I have never seen the woman with the amethyst again. I often wonder why she approached me. Was it my loneliness or hers that had been so compelling? Was it something about my demeanor that reminded her of her dead lover?

Was she hoping to finally leave this place and evaporate in a halo of cannabis-flavoured smoke? Not unlike her, I was left behind, bereft.

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