Rag Worms Take a Busride

This article was published in Puffin Post in 1978 to coincide with the paperback publication of Thunder and Lightnings.

Thanks to Helen Levene at Penguin Random House for supplying the original images!

I used to live and work on the banks of the River Thames; not the green, willowy part, over in the west, but the other end, among the power stations and paper mills. When we looked across the estuary we could see the tanks of the oil refineries, squatting like toadstools in a poisonous fairy ring. The cement dust in the air is said to be beneficial to the lungs.

The murkiest spot for miles was the canal basin. Oh, that was something, the canal basin. I was teaching art at a local secondary school at the time, and we used to get up sketching parties to the canal basin. There were a lot of interesting shapes around, and provided you didn’t look at some too closely, you could have a rewarding session. I used to suggest going there because it offered other attractions, to my art class, at least. Old Father Thames was rolling along practically over the doorstep, but they preferred the septic stew in the canal basin. Old boats went there to die.

‘Why are you so fond of it?’ I asked.

‘There’s eels in it,’ said Mac and Geoff, two good friends of mine from the second year. They had a lovely idea, both at the same moment.

‘I know, Miss, let’s go fishing and sketching.’

‘You want to go fishing in that hole?’

‘Told you, Miss, there’s eels in it.’

‘You don’t eat them?’ Eels out of the canal basin? One would rather die first. One would probably die anyway.

‘Yes,’ said Mac, happily. ‘My Nan gives me five bob a pound for them.’ This was in the days before decimal currency.

‘Let’s give your Nan a treat, then,’ I said and we gathered together half a dozen sidekicks and went down the following Wednesday after school, with fishing rods and drawing boards, on the 487 bus.

Geoff left his worms on the bus.

‘Lug-worms or rag-worms?’ I said. Generally speaking, it didn’t make much difference, one way or the other, but we all have our private nightmares. Lug-worms I could live with, even if they did look as if they’d just met with a nasty accident. Rag-worms are something else again. Rag-worms are the ones with sharp bristles and teeth. They probably carry Armalite rifles. It was Rag-worms that Geoff had left on the bus.

‘Geoff, were they fastened down?’

‘Nah,’ he said, placidly. ‘They was in a punnet. Can I have a lend of yours, Mac?’

I looked at my watch; it was four-thirty. The bus was due to go on plying between Singlewell and Northfleet until midnight. The chances of the rag-worms staying in the punnet were slim. If they went under the seats and kept their heads down they might remain undetected for hours.

‘How often do they reproduce?’

‘I dunno. You cut them in half and the two bits get married, or something,’ said Geoff. He was not much cop at biology.

I wondered if I ought to ring up the Lost Property office and report them as missing, but after some quick thinking I restrained this rare burst of public spirit. After all, the rag-worms couldn’t be traced to us. Half the population of the town was likely to be carrying live bait on the person at any given moment.

Mac and Geoff set up their lines in a particularly foetid corner of the basin. The rest of us went upwind and drew pictures of rotting hulks. Charles Dickens set Great Expectations along this stretch of the river. I am not denying that he was an imaginative man, but that book is straight fact.

Suddenly Mac was leaping about like the infant Hercules strangling the serpent. He had an eel. Geoff came over and borrowed my pencil-sharpening knife to cut off its head, which he inconsiderately threw into the water.

‘Don’t do that, you great steaming stupid radish,’ said Mac. ‘You’ll frighten the others.’

‘Does it really frighten the others?’ asked one of the good little boys who was actually sketching. He wasn’t a fisherman; a bit of a freak, in fact.

‘What do you think?’ said Mac, with enormous patience. ‘If you was in there, floating about all happy and peaceful, and I was to throw Geoff’s head in, all bleeding and horrible, would you stick around to find out what happened next?’

Mac was right. They didn’t catch any more eels. Nor did they draw any pictures. Mac sat on the concrete with my knife, and peeled his catch. You can make boot laces out of eel skin, but I don’t think he did. Geoff took off his shirt and stood exposed to the evening breezes, snapping his scarlet braces against his chest every time a girl went by.

It was, whatever you may think, a supremely happy evening. This may have been because the rag-worms were still on the 487 bus, travelling back and forth between Singlewell and Nothfleet, and not at the canal basin with us. The boats bobbed tranquilly on the congealing water, and the calm, riverside air was disturbed only by the cry of an occasional gull, and by the suggestive snapping of the scarlet braces. There were a lot of girls about at that time of day, coming home from work.

I don’t know what became of Mac and Geoff when they left school, but one day, ten years later, they joined forces once more and became Victor Skelton, when I started to write Thunder and Lightnings, and things were never the same again.

Good health, lads, wherever you are.