Barbel’s Ait – A short story by Simon Gompertz

Former BBC journalist Simon Gompertz is raising money for the Trussell Trust, who support food banks in Britain, by donating the proceeds from his book of short stories Limb of Satan. He has permitted The Chiswick Calendar to serialise the stories, which are all set in Chiswick during the lockdowns of 2020 – 21 and delve into odd and unusual happenings:

“a mixture of the strange and the weirdly normal, with happenings you wouldn’t expect on your doorstep, intriguing mysteries, chancers who’ve taken advantage of the virus and good people caught up in the tension and fear” says Simon.

if you enjoy Barbel’s Ait, please make a contribution to the Trussell Trust. If you would like to read the rest of the stories in Limb of Satan, you will find them here:

Read Limb of Satan on Kindle

Read Limb of Satan on Apple

Read Limb of Satan on Kobo

Barbel’s Ait

By Simon Gompertz

I LOOKED OUT OF MY LITTLE WINDOW across the dock and the other barges to the willows and the high alders behind. The willows were a luminous green in the morning light and they sparkled where the new leaves touched the river and pulled against the tide. It was just starting to go out. Under me I felt the swirling of the current. I wished it would take everything away. I wished I had never met Food Bank Freddy.

Debt is like a deadly disease. When you wake up and you are sick, you glance around, taking things in, thinking about the warmth, your kids, hearing the birds and someone shouting or a car revving. These are comforts telling you that your world is in balance. Then your throat and chest tighten. You feel an ache: there is something else. You remember you have an illness which will not go away. Most likely it will get worse. Those few seconds after you wake up will be the only moments in the day when you can feel at peace.

Debt is the same. It is a dark cloud looming above, eddying in the sky. There is no going back. Your name has been taken. You can go bankrupt but that means handing over control of your life. Anyway, the sharks don’t care. They will still be chasing you. You can dream of changing your name or disappearing. Good luck with that. You are still you.

As soon as they find you, the cloud will be back. Every morning you will open your eyes; your thoughts will drift around for a bit; you will stretch and see a hopeful sun gushing in, a warm current full of floating specks of dust. Then you will see the day for what it is and remember the debt.

Image above: Boatyard at Dock Road, Brentford; photograph Gwen Shabka

I pushed up the hatch and pulled myself onto the barge roof. I sat with my legs dangling over the cabin. The sun was warm on my back and it spread a morning brightness on the five other boats between me and the other side of the dock. All there was on Barbel’s Ait, this little island in the river, was the boat yard, some barges which people lived in and a jumble of collapsed vessels rammed into the banks.

Beyond the yard, a blue metal footbridge led over to the riverbank, though at the lowest tides you could wade across in boots. The Ait was a dreary place in winter, with the mists and the wrecks sticking out of the mud, whereas on a bright day like this it was a muddle of colour and noise. Either way, to me it was a safe place. The gate at the other end of the bridge had a lock on it so people seldom came over.

It was a safe place but my bed was borrowed, my roof was borrowed and I could only stay there some of the time. After I was chucked out of my security job, a mate said I could stop in the barge when he was away, to look after it. He was running a construction team and that took him all over the country, sometimes for weeks on end.

When he came back I would sleep on friends’ sofas and after a while I got in with some of the other boat-owners and they let me switch to one of their bunks if they were travelling. There was the odd piece of paid work to do as well: repairs, cleaning, or emptying toilet cassettes. The barge I used was called Bolthole which made sense to me.

How did I end up on Barbel’s Ait when I had a flat over in Brentford, with Mills my other half and the kids, Maze and Phill? I was a pain to live with. The night shifts were hard. I was tired. I was no help and lashed out now and then. But money was the killer. The job finished after the virus hit and we had nothing saved. We were missing meals so the young ones could have something. No one can do that for long and keep smiling.

When Mills found out I was sneaking out for beers, she said I could bloody well stay out and not come back. That was when I found my way over to the island. Not long after I heard about the food bank at a church up near the motorway and the football ground. It was called Our Lady of Sorrows. No joke. This was something I could do for the family. I could go over there and get some food which would tide everyone over.

I rang the Community Centre and they called me in and gave me voucher. I thought it might be my ticket back to the old life but I was wrong. It was my appointment with the worst swindler this side of Feltham.

I turned up at the food bank at nine, thinking I was early enough to pick up a parcel without waiting too long and hoof it back to the flat in time to cadge a coffee and try to mend relations. There was a woman with a clipboard and a mask and she gave me a sideways nod, showing where I needed to go. It was only at that point that I got an inkling of the size of the queue. It stretched out of sight.

“What? Down there?” I asked.

“Yeah. It’s not as bad as it looks, once they start doling out,” she said.

I turned about six corners walking to the end of the line. There were hundreds of people of every sort: old, young, parents with pushchairs, thin and fat. Some did look desperate, but most were like me, people who used to have just enough but now had a few pounds too little. I knew how they felt. For a week or two you are OK, but when it goes on you begin to feel unmoored. The water is rising around you and something is dragging you down.

For the next two hours I was one of them, but the woman was right: once the place opened the queue moved quickly. They would let six or seven in, close the door, then let another bunch in a few minutes later. I joked that I hoped it was going to be a good game, that the Bees had to have a chance if they had a crowd this big behind them.

I might have won a chuckle from the next guy along. I could sense the mood improving as we walked and stopped. They were hauling us in, like we were all on a rope, pulling then resting. It began to feel like a rescue for these people. But, of course, whether it is a rescue or not depends on who is holding the rope at the other end.

Freddy was someone who could trick a hungry dog into giving up its dinner. He was the school bully who would get you to jump first into the cold river, for a dare, then scamper off laughing. He landed the food bank job because they needed volunteers, but for him it was an opportunity to earn something under the table. And that is where he ruled: the table, where the food boxes were given out and the racks behind where everything was stacked.

All the other volunteers did what he said because he kept talking and kept bossing, because someone had to take control to keep the queue moving. The paid staff stayed back in the office, sending emails and answering calls. In the front, Freddy was in charge.

He was shaped like a roll-top beer glass: thick all the way up, with a bulge across the chest and under the armpits, topping off with a solid neck and not too much head. He had a round face with small dark eyes and black, greasy hair pulled from a side parting. What you noticed mainly was the mouth which was set in a down curve when it was closed, like the hump of a gentle hill. Usually, though, he kept it open, showing a line of yellow upper teeth in a one-size-fits-all grin.

It was a grin which said: I’m smiling at you now but if you get close I might take a bite out of you. Why could you see the mouth at all? Because while everyone else had fresh masks over their faces, he wore his under his chin. No one seemed to point this out. He did what he liked. What stood out apart from the grin was a pair of arched eyebrows. He was laughing at you and didn’t expect any challenge.

“Ah, Jonno. What brings you here?” The thing is, I already knew him, from the boys’ school years before. I recognised him as soon as I sloped into the hall. He had ruled the playground and I was a thin-legged nobody who tried to do my work and move on, without much success. He viewed people like me with contempt and still did.

“Looking for some grub. That’s all,” I said.

“Well, let’s see what we can do, Jonno.” He said my name again as if it was an insult, while grabbing the voucher. Then he started piling things for the family into a box: pasta, rice, onions, carrots, bread and butter, eggs, long life milk and tins of meat, fish, soup and beans. I am not giving the full list: there was more, including a tin for the cat and some puddings. It really was food for a week, with extras thrown in by Freddy to butter me up.

As I pushed the box along the table, aiming to get out of there as quickly as possible, he glanced up at me, then back to the cluster of helpers behind and back to me in a movement which he meant to look shifty.

“You might not qualify for the second box, next week,” he said, “But come back anyway and I’ll sort you out.” He tapped his nose, while giving me his fixed grin and lifting his eyebrows into the shape of pointed hats. I nodded and hurried off.

*

This was Freddy’s scam. You had to show a higher level of need to qualify for multiple boxes. And he was right: I would struggle to get the vouchers on a regular basis. At best I would have to wait a few weeks for the next one. But there was nothing to stop you queuing up again if you chose to.

The point is that Freddy was king of the vouchers. He took in most of them, the ones he wanted to anyway, and if he decided to overlook the fact that you offered him some other grimy piece of paper, or a piece of wrapping from the burger bar, or nothing at all, that was up to him. No one was checking what Freddy did. It sounds harmless enough: Freddy gives his mates a few favours. Maybe that is what some of the other volunteers thought. Maybe they did not realise that he was keeping a tally in his notebook under the table.

“Let’s scratch each other backs,” he said to me the second time. You have to understand that the food boxes were addictive. When I took the first one back to the flat, Mills was all talk and smiles again. She wasn’t going to let me back to live there, not yet. But she made coffee. We had a chat. There was hope. So I had to get hold of another and when Freddy said he was writing me down in his book, I said fine. It was painless: no cash changed hands.

What did it matter if he scribbled me down for a tenner and then wrote me in again and again? I never thought about paying. Some weeks I queued up twice and the boxes were always brimming over. The kids had plenty after school and at the weekends breakfast, lunch and tea were feasts.

Then I had a text from him. I suppose he nicked my number from the office.

“Food bill is £200 with charges. Settle up today. Food Bank Freddy.”

Image above: Boatyard at Dock Road, Brentford; photograph Gwen Shabka

I was sitting in a chair on the bow as the tide ebbed out. Bolthole was pointing a little upwards because the riverbed was out of the water and had pushed up her front end, which was the end nearest the dock. I was facing back down towards the shallow channel, just as the last of the brown river was being sucked into the sea. I was looking into the mire.

Two hundred pounds may not sound a lot, but we already had plenty on our cards and were behind with the bills. The landlord would chuck us out as soon as the virus eased off and government lifted the ban on evictions. I had a few quid from working on the barges plus some benefit to set against the overdraft; Mills had the Child Benefit in a different account. There was zero to spare.

I decided to ignore the text. What else could I do? Nothing would happen for a while, anyway, I thought. But there would be no more food boxes. I could not go back to Our Lady of Sorrows now I was in debt to Freddy. The water ran out between the stones. It was a very low tide. There was a rusty engine which someone must have thrown in years ago. It was so heavy it never moved much.

There were piles of bricks appearing: maybe they had been part of a walkway. A gull was picking up snails, flying up a few metres and then dropping them back down to smash them and get to the meat inside. Everything was being revealed and shown for what it was.

On an island you can imagine that you are in a separate world and time can pass at a different rate. Now and then I had been lounging on Barbel’s Ait for a few hours, then found the day had nearly gone, or stayed for what I thought was a couple of days, tinkering and doing odd jobs or sleeping, then had a call asking where I had been for the week. I suppose I knew what I was doing and I knew it again now.

You might accuse me of skulking. That is not how I saw it. I said the island was a safe place; it was also a place to mend myself. It seemed to float offshore. Crossing the blue bridge was like stepping along a gangplank. I felt that other lives and other places were laid out around me and I was drifting free of them for a while. I soaked up strength from the mud, the air, the sun and the mist.

I don’t know how many days went by. Not many. Then came the morning I was telling you about, when I was thinking about the debt. I was sitting on Bolthole’s roof, looking across the other barges and riverboats, and keeping half an eye on the bridge to see if anyone might be coming over. And someone did appear.

She hurried down the lane to the bank, her yellow hair shining in the sun, her feet bare, her pyjamas rubbing together at the knees, her small face serious and scared. She was nine; she liked reading; she played football on the recreation ground. I knew all that because she was Maze.

“Dad. Dads.” Maze had come up against the metal gate to the bridge. She was rattling the bars. I jogged over the planks on the bridge, pushed the green button and yanked the gate open.

“Some men came. They’ve busted up the flat. They’re coming here.” She was sobbing.

“Whoa,” I said, putting my arm round her and pulling her back to the Ait. But Maze squirmed away and sprang up and down, making the bridge creak.

“You don’t understand. You have to be ready.”

“Who came?”

“There were two. One had an iron stick. They came in and asked for you. Then they smashed the telly and they went in the kitchen and bashed a big dent in the cooker. One said he was Freddy.”

I told her it would be OK, took her hand and walked her to the barge. I calmed her down then the full story came out. The three of them had been getting up when there was a crash at the door. She said it wasn’t a knock because it was the stick striking the door front.

Mills had opened it a crack but they stuck their arms through, broke the latch and barged in demanding to see me. When no one told them anything, they had started whacking things and they grabbed Mills and pulled her arm behind her back, but she wouldn’t say where I was. Maze was weeping again. She said she had shouted out that I was down at Barbel’s Ait.

“I couldn’t help it. I had to tell them. They were hurting her.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “You did the right thing.”

“The man, Freddy, he was laughing all the way through. He thought it was funny. He said we looked well fed on his food and now he wanted his money. Mum told them to piss off. They’d let her go. Then she nodded to me and I sneaked out the front while they weren’t looking. That’s when I ran over. They’ll be here next, Dads.”

“I want you in a safe place while I get organised.” I took Maze over to Bolthole’s stern hatch. There was a ladder down into the aft cabin which was the one I slept in. It was independent from the main lounge area forward of the wheelhouse. It had its own head and the hatch was the only way in.

“They won’t be able to touch you here. Just flick the catch from inside and it’s locked.”

I had to think how to deal with Freddy and his henchman, whoever he was. There was no one else around that I could see. Maybe one of the lads from the yard would turn up soon. On deck I could see a boathook, some ropes, a few sections of hose and various plant pots, as well as the chairs and a small table on the bow. Not much I could do with those. I had an advantage, though. This was my island. They would have no idea what to expect.

I loosened off the moorings so Bolthole could lie further away from the dock. Then I locked the wheelhouse and the cabin, pulled up the scaffolding board we used to step on and off the boat and trotted over to a derelict workshop which stood between the bridge and the yard. It had a corrugated asbestos roof, half of which had caved in.

The sides were filled with huge casement windows, the sort with criss-cross glazing bars and small panes. Most of the glass had been smashed, but there was still plenty of cover and I could keep an eye on the bridge without drawing people towards the barge and Maze. Keep them guessing. They might not know where to start looking.

*

I must have been cowering in that workshop for about a minute, no more, when I caught sight of two figures moving down the lane. They looked like a pair of greasy rats following their noses towards the smells of the river. Freddy was wearing a cockroach-coloured leather jacket along with his usual forced grin. He was staring straight towards the Ait.

To the right was his back-up, a scrawny character in jeans, a grey hoodie and a dark baseball cap. He was unimpressive except for two things. First, he had a vicious look, as if he meant to do some damage. Second, he had his fingers around a metal rod, the size of a broom handle, which he was dragging along so that it made a ringing noise as he pulled it over the broken tarmac.

This must have been the stick Maze had told me about. By the time they reached the bridge I could see that it was a digging bar, the sort with a point at one end and, at the other, a flat edge which could be sharpened like a chisel. I could feel my heart drumming.

Freddy’s sidekick pushed his bar through the gate and started prising it open. He could have reached just a bit further and hit the green button, but he didn’t think of that. He fought with the metalwork for a bit and there was a crunch as the lock broke.

Then he swung the gate unnecessarily hard, so it crashed against the rails at the side: these two were not bothered if anyone heard them coming. They were probably trying to put the wind up. I only hoped that Maze couldn’t see. Just then I felt my phone buzzing. It was Mills. I texted: “Cant speak theyre here”. They were coming down the stairs onto Barbel’s Ait at that moment.

“Be carefulxx” she replied. It was the kisses which got me going. Now I was ready.

I picked up a loose piece of brick and lobbed it in the direction of the first barge on the dock. God knows why. Maybe I thought I should make the first move, to stay in control. It landed with a clunk on the far side of the deck and, sure enough, the two men loped towards the sound.

The barge was attached by two long lines to some cleats on the other side of the paving. The lines were lying slack and they stood over them peering at the boat. I had sneaked out of the warehouse and I grabbed those ropes, pulling them up and yanking them sideways.

Freddy was caught and thrashed about like a fish before falling on his bum and letting out a groan. But I had let on where I was. The other guy curled both hands around the middle of his bar and advanced towards me. I fled down the side of the boat yard into the trees behind.

“Bolthole.” It was Freddy calling out. “We know the name, Jonno.”

“Leave it. I’m over here,” I shouted from the undergrowth.

“No, we’re going to remodel the boat, do a bit of design work,” he said. “So you’d better come out.”

There was no choice. I skirted round the back of the yard and came out at the opposite end of the dock, down where Bolthole was moored, so I was between them and the barge, and Maze.

“Leave off. It’s not worth it. I’ll get the money. I just need some time.”

“I want it now. Jimbo here wants it too.” He threw a sly glance at his companion. “We have our own debts to pay off. It’s been long enough.”

“It’s been a week, if that.”

“You’ve been my customer for a couple of months. All that time I’ve been serving your needs, bending the rules in your favour. You knew what was going on. Now you the customer need to pay your bill.”

Freddy’s eyebrows were arching. He was pressing his upper and lower teeth together and pushing out the corners of his mouth. It was a con-man’s smirk.

“I’m a man with a family to feed and you’re a fucking crook. That’s what you are.”

Suddenly I could feel something gushing through my veins. The strain of the past few months had been stored deep in my body. The split with Mills, the debts, the lack of work, the hunt for food, missing the kids, the shame: they had been forming pools and lakes inside. Now the sluices were up and anger was pouring out. All the worries had turned into anger, pure and simple.

“Ah. Pissed off, are we? Us too.” Freddy waved at Jimbo then pointed at Bolthole. The digging bar went high in the air and slammed down on the bow rail. Jimbo must have jarred his hands with the blow because the rail did not bend much. But he was making a point.

I had already jumped down on the barge which was a good stride away from the dock but slightly lower because the tide had turned. I grabbed the boathook and slotted it under Jimbo’s steel bar. He tried to push me down; I tried to yank him sideways. It was like a grappling of spears except mine was longer and lighter. The tussle was going nowhere, so I jabbed the point of the boathook into the cavity between the top of his chest and his neck.

He backed off and dropped the bar which clanged away along the dock. I spun the hook around and whacked him on the side of his head. I hoped that was the end of the round for Jimbo. He was on the ground, his face pressed into the gritty surface of the dock and purple blood seeping out behind his ear.

“Not clever, Jonno.” Freddy had picked up Jimbo’s weapon and scurried along the jutting-out section of dock which ran alongside the barge. He was trying to extend his foot across the gap and come aboard beside the wheelhouse. In the end he had to make a leap and grab a rail which was screwed into the side panels.

The digging bar was still in his right hand as he held on and his forehead went down on the pointed end. So when he started picking his way over, waving the point at me, there was an open gash below his hairline.

I was crouching where the seats were, on the raised bow deck, with the boathook beside me and my arm around a pot holding a yucca. I stood and bowled the plant underarm at Freddy but it glanced off and splashed in the water. Then I saw the stern hatch being pushed up behind him.

“Christ.”

I couldn’t shout to Maze because Freddy would have worked out what was happening. Instead I lurched forward, forgetting the boathook and thinking only about keeping the attention on me. He thought he had the upper hand. He didn’t expect me to come at him, so he hesitated. In any case, the bar was no real use to someone stepping along a narrow walkway. I got hold of the end and we had a struggle while I pulled him back to the bow. Then I kneed him in the balls.

This is when Freddy had his come-uppance. He was doubled up on his side and grunting when shit started pouring down on him from above: shit and piss, on his head, his shoulders and over his cockroach jacket. It splatted onto his cheeks and dribbled under his collar. His hand came up and started pushing it around on his face. At first he had no idea what it was. He was mixing it up with the blood from the gash. Then he got the smell.

“Bloody shit fuck,” he said.

It was Maze. She had carried up the toilet cassette from the rear cabin. What an idea. I had pulled the cassette out for emptying that morning, so it was heavy. She must have had a job bringing the thing up the ladder. She nipped around the other side of the wheelhouse and onto the roof of the front cabin.

As it turned out, that gave her the height she needed because Freddy was sprawled on the low platform in the bow area beneath her. She unscrewed the cap and pressed the button to let the air in. I scratch my head now wondering how she knew about the button. Then she tipped the contents over the man below. Never have I been so happy that I had a good dump early in the day.

*

Two lads were at the yard by this time and they walked over to see what was going on. This was the end for Freddy and his scam. I thought about trying to push him into the river but the anger had ebbed away. Maze had seen to that. And he was in for it, anyway. Everyone would know what he had been up to.

It turned out that he had been ripping off the food bank over the supplies as well. When he drove to supermarkets to pick up donations, he would keep back some of the food for himself and sell it on the sly. The stuff never even reached the food bank. All this was an eye-opener for Our Lady of Sorrows.

When I had hosed off the decks, I sat with Maze on the cabin roof, our legs hanging over the side. I had my arm around her and we looked over the barges, the yard and the tumbledown workshop to the trees and the cloudy sky. The tide was nearly gone. It always seemed to muscle in secretly and go out fast and carefree. The last water was running through the stones again and into the channel.

We turned to the bridge and spotted two figures close to the gate, one small and one larger. I nudged Maze and told her to run over, to run over to the bridge and let them in. It was Mills and Phill. I am not normally one to cry, but I had the wet in my eyes and I was blinking.

Then tears dripped down the side of my nose and I gulped once or twice. It was because I saw Mills, walking over the blue metal bridge and looking at me through the gaps. She was speeding up. In the end I couldn’t stay where I was. I wiped my eyes with my hand, scrambled onto Barbel’s Ait and hurried along the dock.

Simon Gompertz, author of Barbel’s Ait, was a news correspondent for the BBC for many years, working in the Business unit and specialising on personal finance. He has won a series of prestigious awards for his work. He lives in Chiswick. This is his first book of short stories.

Read more on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Ruth Cadbury and Hounslow Council blast Government’s ‘failure to act’ on cost of living crisis

See also: LB Hounslow economy expected to be second worst in whole of London

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

Support The Chiswick Calendar

The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist). Click here to support us.

We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.

To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, go here.