Song of the River, by John Saul

It was towards the end of April, and London was under cow parsley. As if they were in their twenties, Molly Cadwalader and Susan Thress moved in together. Molly brought her beach chairs, her boxes of pieces of clay pipe and bones; Susan her piano. The piano had an enviable solidity—broad slings and six strong arms were needed to carry it across the threshold—whereas the beach chairs were a portable kind, hollow-strutted, ready to take down to the river; and the expectations Molly Cadwalader brought with her were wisps, a feeling something was vaguely around the corner. There would be someone, man or woman, on the Thames walk, at Hogarth’s house, the TESCO express, on the platform at Barnes Bridge. She would invest energy in reaching this nebulous corner, put the disastrous affair with Hal Hammond behind her. She would join clubs and activities, mingle with the celebrities of Chiswick.
—Or, Susan, we’ll make our own things happen. Find and take in that escaped monkey (the monkey, a tama-something, that was in the Evening Standard).
—No, we won’t be taking in anything.
Having put her foot down, Susan swivelled square-on to the piano.
—We’re so close to the river. I will do river tunes.
After all the discussions about living together, here they are. Molly looking as if she’s come in from the rain, Susan at her piano.
She plays a song of the river, a short piece after Beethoven.
tamarin: its cotton-top hair was a shock of white
like Hal, thinks Molly
except that Hal’s had turned white prematurely
it went past his shoulders
Rattling to an end (those ageing wires) the piece is followed immediately by a Bach something. Typically—was it typical? Molly was not yet sure—Susan races, and surges, but steadily. Through the window the next aircraft approaches Heathrow. Everything is steady: the aircraft, the way Hal’s hair stayed, the piano, Susan. Molly grows envious of this assuredness at the keys, when the tune tumbles to a close in a rush of notes.
When Susan claps down the lid a petal falls from a rose on the piano top. One of the removal men must have put it there. What was that all about, Molly wonders.
—So. Come on Molly, we can’t sit on orange crates all day.
her mind is back with the Evening Standard
—It weighs less than a little packet of sugar. It would be a toy in your hand.
—No pets. Is it true you’ve kept mice?
—What if I did? Oh Susan don’t worry, it’s not as if speaking the words can make a monkey appear.
or maybe they could
that was the thing about words, the word-thing that began with Hal Hamm …
she checks the Standard
—430 grammes it says, while you have your ton of piano.
—Ton? A ton of piano would be quite a piano. Are we going to see the Boat Race or not?
Molly takes a cap from a box. Susan calls it jaunty. Don’t say that Susan, you make us sound old. They leave the beach chairs propped by all the boxes. They will walk alongside the Overground to get a riverside view of the eights (Susan calls them eights; Molly thought she said aches). They pass cow parsley behind the row of houses and cow parsley behind railings and cow parsley beside the meadows and cow parsley by the Health Club and more cow parsley by the rail tracks.
parsley but no cows
They sit on a concrete wall by Barnes Bridge. A girl with a tray of Mars bars passes. As they wait for the eights to shoot by, Molly still hears the piano. She hears the lid shut. The water is dark. She wonders how cows swim.
—Remember Hal Hammond and the Liquorice Angus?
Hal, Hal Hammond.
—Hal Hammond. Who is Hal Hammond?
Molly flaps her cap at Susan’s knees.
—Oh him, says Susan. That little country outing. Him with the hair.
—Yes with the hair, that looks like the monkey I’m going to get us.
—Like the monkey you’re not going to get us. Besides, those monkeys are almost extinct.
—Oh really, are they now?
—It’s not like getting a dog. Get realistic, Molly …
realistic? thinks Molly, realistic
a police launch ploughs upriver
… shut that door, get him out of your system. Have a Mars bar, get your teeth in it, and cheer like mad when they go by.
—Why? Why should we cheer?
—To let it out. Forget him.
—It’s so hard, hard to forget.
Damn Hal Hammond. She was constantly reaching out from under his shadow, but his shadow was large, larger than she ever thought possible.
At their first meeting (also beside the Thames, at Hammersmith) she was struck both by his white hair and the force of his words. The words stuck. The Internet was a bureaucratic technology. England was a nation of bumblers and bunglers
my golden girl, he called her
she was no girl, how did that slip through
and what about the my, could that be right
the word-thing
words added to things everywhere
more to cows than being cows
If the black and white blotches on cows in a field put him in mind of liquorice and he said the cows were Liquorice Angus, then for Molly they were, as a fact, were and always would be. After he said they were called Liquorice Angus she saw them everywhere. Following, grouping and re-grouping like Travellers, roaming the country, chewing their parsley. And so casually. Knees knocking and hooves going tonk at tree trunks and gateposts. Resting their heads on SUVs. About to appear again, at any moment.
As they wait by the black water, she imagines cows, the cows, gathering at the back of the Health Centre. About to cross in single file over Barnes Bridge. Looking over the back fence of their newly acquired property. Leaning on the fence so it collapses.
There had of course been more searing, more personal instances of the word-thing, in which—simply—he had pointed out where he found her wanting. It had begun sweetly in June. By November all was sour. Her admiration had peaked, and flipped: she feared his words. Damn Hal Hammond: casting such a shadow. He wasn’t even a looker.
Leaving him in the clatter of Chelsea, where nothing ever stopped or was quiet—youth and crime at every corner—Molly had struck out with her new friend Susan Thress.
Susan had hesitated—when she heard Molly had bones in boxes; had kept an animal skull in her bathroom, better to observe the maggots. Oh well, Susan had said, it doesn’t sound life-threatening. They agreed a quiet week to consider before signing, contracting themselves to equal responsibilities.
In that time Molly contemplated the pleasure of hearing Susan enter the keyboard—as it felt. In she went, inside the music, in the piano. She liked her habit of clapping down the lid on finishing. At each thud Molly felt she could start anew, from that point.
Now there’s a rumble from the Barnes side. Will she wave her cap, she’s not sure. A growing rumble. There they are. The eights are coming up fast. The dark blues seem ahead. All is dark for a moment, dark overhead and over the river.
—I know a shady little pet shop, Susan. They’ll get me one. I’ll call it Hal.
—In exorcism? Is that how it works?
Molly has no idea.
—Yes, she says, in exorcism.
On the way back it drizzles. There is cow parsley on the river bank, cow parsley around the car park. The drizzle thickens. The Liquorice Angus behind the Health Club will be sheltering in the squash court.
Hal the monkey would be made to feel at home, provided they found somewhere for it to swing in. They would have to raise him not to stray. To depend on them.
—We’ll have irresistible food, says Molly behind Susan at the door. The glass door-pane reflects the next aircraft coming in to land.
—He will come scampering at the sound of his name.
Susan puts the kettle on. Molly flops on the sofa, closes her eyes and murmurs to herself.
We can try to establish minimal communication. I will go around repeating useful phrases:
I hear no snakes. What about you, Hal? There are no snakes. Hawks. What’s that? Sh. Chichichichichichichi.
We’ll speak his language.
snakes, hawks (the Standard listed the few enemies of the tamarin)
what are ocelots?
a fly lands, he snatches and eats it
There are seeds on the floor there, Hal are you blind? There, by the window.
when Hal the monkey talks I will imitate him:
Jujuju. Dibble dibble.
Molly opens her eyes to take the mug of tea from Susan, who takes her own to the piano.
She plays the river piece again. This time the lid closes gently.
—I like the way that slows. Maybe I should do more slow pieces. Moon River. Joni Mitchell: River. Didn’t Springsteen …
—Sh, can you hear a snake?
that’s how it would be
the three of them
Where? Susan would say.
In the kitchen.
they would worry about him, like a child
keep him away from the foxes and squirrels
not that his hair could turn any whiter
Hal’s on edge, Susan. Switch on a light and he jumps. He can’t understand electricity.
Are you suggesting we don’t switch lights on any more?
that’s how it would be
Susan blows on her tea.
Molly on hers.
I tell you Molly, Susan would say: that monkey has got claws. He’s been ripping the curtains. He saw me drawing them, now he’s doing it himself.
He’s not a monkey, he’s Hal.
And his hairs are everywhere.
I know. Even in the air.
He’s all over the place. I wish he wouldn’t climb over everything.
Wait. Hal’s saying something.
word-thing, man-thing
He just wants more flies. But he’s yours, Molly, you get them. It’s no trouble. The cows leave so many.
The cows have moved on, haven’t you noticed? You’ve been in your piano so much.
yes that’s how it would be
He’s saying something else now. Look at those whiskers. That quivering. He loves you, Molly.
Hal? No way, not Hal Hammond. He wasn’t capable. He never loved me, never will. That’s not what he’s saying to me now.

John Saul’s work has been collected in four books in the UK, three at Salt Publishing.

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