In the darkest hour, he is swimming like a salmon towards his mother. She moves through the water just ahead of him, her long dark hair fanning backwards, beckoning. With a flick of her tail, she shoots forward and disappears, leaving him alone upon the vast ocean swell. He turns and sees the ship’s prow looming right in front of him. And in the next instant he is awake, sweating, in his tiny metal berth. He feels the ship roll uneasily beneath him. Two weeks ago he had never seen the ocean. Now he can no longer remember the feel of land beneath his feet.
The next morning, the ship leaves the cold waters of the Atlantic and steams up the long, grey ribbon of the Thames. Nathan stands on the ship’s upper deck watching the dark face of London in the distance. For twelve days he has seen nothing but the line of the horizon. Now he sees only endless rows of buildings, made of blackened brick and wood and stone. And the sky is of a colour he would not have dreamed possible. Singed by the smoke of a thousand chimneys, it is a dirty yellow haze.
It takes hours for the ship to berth. Amid much shouting and heaving to, the ship finally succeeds in navigating the crowded waters, the great iron hulls jostling for space along the docks like a colony of giant sea birds. London Bridge rises up in front of him like some colossal beast, so close that he can hear the faint slap of water against its grey stone arches. He can just make out the crowded roofs of omnibuses inching along the parapet. Beyond it, the river heaves with activity. He can see half a dozen densely packed steamers, and scores of tugs and fishing boats and mooring barges darting among the waves. Further along he can see more bridges, so close they appear to be stacked upon each other in an extravagant feat of engineering.
At the last moment, he is afraid to disembark. He hovers on the foredeck, is almost the last to clamber down the gangway. And when his feet first hit the shore, Nathan panics. The air is so dense it stings his eyes and snags in his chest. And he cannot see the sun, though he knows it to be there. He wonders for a moment whether his journey has been wasted, for he cannot imagine that his mother would choose to settle in such a place as this.
He sees at once that London is far too big a place to locate anyone by chance. That first week he walks for miles. He memorises landmarks, studies maps on station walls, knows by instinct that the better districts are not intended for the likes of him. He keeps to the more densely populated areas, spends hours hovering outside shop windows along the Strand, or roaming the narrow alleyways of Southwark, or listening to hawkers on the crowded steps of St Paul’s. Twice he ventures deep into the slums and is stunned: so many people packed so tightly together. He did not think that human beings could exist amid such squalor. And yet there is life in them. These people fight and curse and spit like any others.
He keeps his bearings by the river, returning to it frequently. He marvels again at the number of bridges, has never seen so many in one place, and cannot fathom why they’ve all been built. Within a few days he has memorised all seven: their size and shape and colour and who uses them. For solace he spends hours perched upon their rails, mesmerised by the flow of tide and traffic beneath him.
The Thames has brought him here and in a sense it quickly owns him. It seems to him the river is London: swift, chaotic, dangerous, changeable. The bridges themselves are evidence of this: the people here have somehow tried to bind the land and water, have laced it together with stone and iron so it cannot come apart. And though he fears the river’s murky currents, Nathan is also drawn to them, for they are his only means of escape. After that first week, perhaps without realising it, he rarely ventures more than half a mile from its banks.