On Upper Thames Street where the route meets London Bridge to Temple Station
Words by Ellie Stewart, film by James Burt
How does each of us face the encroaching darkness?
Some believe in God, and mumbled prayers create a background buzz, an artificial glow. Or relationships act like nightlights. For some, gym memberships and morning runs hum.
I was a chatterbox.
Always talking non-stop. About things I’d be seeing and had seen; about timeframes and finickety facts and history; about the colour of the sky. I chattered to you.
‘Remember last Christmas when we walked down the Embankment?’
‘Yes, the dark water sloshing by the road, under the bridge, slapping at the boats…’
‘You said those dark sounds, those shadows…’
‘There could be a monster lurking down there. And imagine, I said, if it lived in the Thames, a great thick beast, slippery as darkness, wallowing in the mud and, at night, rising to the surface and sliding through the river, the water slipping over its black back, and its two eyes reflecting the lights of the city, imagine that…’
‘The beast of Blackfriars!’
The rain had eased off, and our mission was underway: a walk along the riverbank on a Sunday. Without an argument, if possible.
As we walked through Blackfriars I was already off.
‘That building – how strange! It’s called The Black Friars Pub, of course, built in 1905 on the site of a Dominican friary… Oh, let’s go closer, let’s see it up close!’
It was December, and cold, and in the city the sun rolled away at 2pm. On and on I talked in the changing light.
‘It was designed by H Fuller-Clark and Henry Poole. See the statue of the friar on the front? Isn’t it a strange-shaped building!’
We crossed the road and the sky flared. Shots of crimson and pink in plump lip lines over the buildings.
‘See the contrast,’ I went on, ‘between the old and the new. Here the Royal Courts of Justice, here a modern building – what is it? Look at the sign…’
You just looked up at the sky.
The beast of Blackfriars.
Was that on your mind? Did you summon it out of the darkness to muffle my incessant speech? If only I’d known my talking would be the end of you.
Along the bank we went, street lamps like space ships glowing on long stems.
Then, there: that great magnificent building. Only those of the inner temple may enter.
You looked at the sign. A thought crossed your mind.
‘The inner temple!’ I said, ‘Sounds like some dark cult.’
‘But it’s not – it’s the Inns of Court and look, here are the symbols: Pegasus, the lion, the griffin. That’s why Temple Station is called that! From names given to the buildings by the Knights Templar in medieval times…’
On and on I went.
You said, ‘Let’s go in.’
I looked at you. You peered through the bars into the damp courtyard. The tall trees shivered in the misty rain. The ornate buildings seemed far away. Their smoggy windows lay on their faces like lidded eyes. No one was watching.
‘We can’t,’ I said.
‘We can – we can jump over this fence and it’ll be fine. Look how beautiful it is.’
Was there a rumble, from far away?
‘Come on,’ you said.
You hoisted yourself up and swung over the fence.
I stood still. A few cars passed on the damp roads, but no one else.
You held out your hand.
As my feet landed I heard the rumble again, and heavy steps approaching.
‘Let’s go to that pond,’ you said.
We walked out of the trees and over the pathway. The bulrushes framed the water in exquisite greys and blues. The saddest time of the day: the gloaming, when it’s cold.
‘The saddest time of the day…’ I started to say.
‘Shhhh,’ you said.
We stood by the pond and you held my hand. Goldfish glided under the water, slow as ghosts. You looked at me and I felt I was breathing in that blue light as the sun went down, and I didn’t need to chatter. Your eyes were sharp and clear as Ockham’s Razor – the simplest explanation.
‘This is beautiful,’ you said.
‘Yes,’ I sighed.
The ground shook again. A whiff of fish and petrol drifted through the air.
I pulled you suddenly towards the undergrowth around the twisted trees. I heard the beast moving outside the iron fence. Its nails scraped hard as ice picks on the concrete.
Now we were crouched down in the damp plants.
You hissed, ‘What are we doing?’
But then you saw the beast, and I saw the beast, and neither of us spoke, or moved.
It came in through the open gate. Much bigger than a crocodile, its legs long with sabre-like claws. Its skin glistened; its breath hot clouds hitting the frosty air. It stank of fish guts and old blood.
We both held our breath as it walked towards the pond. It pushed past the bulrushes and thrust its snout into the water. We saw it lift its head back and swallow down the goldfish.
‘Why doesn’t it eat the fish in the river?’ I said.
Its head whipped round.
We gasped. I gripped your hand.
The monster started slowly towards us; black eyes searching, nostrils sniffing. Clouds billowed from its nose. Then it stopped. Its eyes widened.
It knew where we were.
‘I just want to say I love you,’ I said, as the beast came towards us.
‘Let’s go!’ you said.
But I couldn’t move. I curled over and chattered away.
‘You have to know that I’ve always loved you and always will, no matter what happens, and you have to understand that the reason I’m like this is because of the past…’
‘For God’s sake come on!’ you screamed, yanking me up as the beast broke into a heavy run, and now we were in full sight.
‘…and when I met you, 723 days ago on that pier by the sea I thought this is the man for me! Thank you God, you’ve really done it, just right this time, something is right, despite it all, and now…’
The beast reached us. It reared up and opened its jaws and clamped them round your body. You screamed, terribly. It dashed you against the tree and I think it broke your back.
‘You’ll always be here, beside me, listening to my chattering…’
It hauled you away to the bushes and the reeds, and I saw its body twist as its jaws ripped into you. The icy air carried the smell of blood and bone. I inhaled, and choked.
I called your name. Nothing.
‘Speak to me,’ I said, and sobbed.
The beast turned and looked at me. Dark liquid dripped from its claws. I thought: I’m next. And I didn’t care, because I’d lost you. I closed my eyes; I felt the ground shake as it walked towards me. I heard the growl in its throat. I began to mumble a half-remembered prayer.
‘Hail Lord Jesus, the redeemer, by whose work, death is defeated, for salvation has now flowed over the world…’
I opened my eyes and saw the monster moving away in the darkness.
‘Hail Mary, mother of God, merciful Mary, full of grace…’
At the fence, it paused.
And I decided to leave as well.
I made my way to the gate, chattering away, as tears prickled in my eyes. I felt the heat of its body as I passed beside it. I walked out into the street.
‘The Thames is 215 miles long,’ I began, ‘The name comes from the Celtic, and probably means dark, which is no surprise…
I smelled the stench of the beast’s breath, and heard a low growl as it followed me. I talked even louder.
‘Many birds can be found on the Thames. The cormorant, the mute swan and the kingfisher. The great crested grebe. And the seagulls – of course, there are always those…’
Out on the street, with the monster shuddering the concrete behind me, I became aware of another chattering. People on phones, music in headphones, chattering iPads and iPods. Everyone chattering; lives full of scattered thoughts. Eyes widened as the monster walked by, but everyone chattered on and on. They saw the beast, and pretended they hadn’t.
After a while, the beast of Blackfriars sat down by the road and curled up like a cat. Cars passed, headlights reflected in its obsidian eyeballs. People went by – late night joggers, whiskey-soaked city boys and lonely travellers; all averted their eyes. And went on chattering:
‘One, two, one, two, keep going, keep moving…’
‘That bastard – he was never going to do that deal! Who gives a fuck…’
‘Embankment, London, yes – new hope! Here I am, I’ll find a bar, I’ll find another place to be…’
The monster licked its teeth and smiled a crocodile smile. What did he mind?
He had plenty, plenty of time.
With this film I wanted to take the themes of Chatterbox and form my own personal response to it. I chose to tell the story of what happens after the events of Chatterbox, guided by my own philosophies about emotional regeneration.