Untitled
When the river burst its banks they made everyone move from the estate to the school at the top of the hill. The gym was much as I remembered it from PE classes. The roof used to leak sixteen years ago and it was still leaking that day. The air retained a faint sniff of vomit and disinfectant.
Children played on foam mats to one side, supervised by two young women, alike enough to be sisters. The other adults sat at the other end in a circle on plastic chairs with a radio at the centre. Family groups of suitcases and knotted bin bags lined the edges. I stayed out of the way by the hot pipes in the corner, trying to dry off my jeans. I thought I remembered sitting there like this once before.
A small, skinny lad with a shaven head and a scab above his eye ran around to hide behind me, gripping the back of my collar in his bony fists.
I glanced over at the women and smiled to say it was okay. One woman turned her head.
“Ethan – what have I told you about strangers? Get over here you little bastard.”
The boy giggled and darted away, immediately jumping onto the back of another child and dragging them both down. That’s when I noticed Dianne.
She was dressed all in denim, sitting on an expensive looking suitcase and staring at her mobile phone. Her white leather shoes had mud on them. She hadn’t changed much. She’d toned down the make-up and her dark hair was shorter with more of a style cut into it, but there could be no mistake. I remembered the smooth contours of her legs topped by the navy blue pleats of her PE skirt and the bra she used to wear with embroidered flowers on the cup you could sometimes see through her shirt. A small girl in a striped top and dungarees skipped over to her and wrapped her arms around Dianne’s thighs. Dianne turned to her and they smiled at one another. They both had the same wide smile. Dianne kissed the little girl on the top of the head and said something I couldn’t hear.
It was just over a year since Mum died. One night she went to bed and the next day she just didn’t get up. I found her when I went in her room on a hunt for cigarettes. The doctors said she had a weak heart. They examined me too, in case it was something she’d passed on but they told me I was okay, for now. Then I had got as far as putting Mum’s clothes into bags but that’s about all. I hadn’t touched the downstairs yet, just buried everything beneath piles of newspaper, cans and empty cigarette packets.
I was sitting in my dressing gown amongst all this debris when the fireman arrived. He knocked twice but then just opened the front door and stared at me.
“Hello?” I said.
“Where’s your fuse box,” he said. Then he walked right in and flicked some switches on the wall, putting out the lights and all the power. For a moment, all I could hear was the static on the T.V screen, then the rain outside.
“Get yourself dressed,” said the Fireman. “There’s a tractor outside leaves in two minutes.” With that he turned and left, leaving the front door wide open to the street.
There were already several people seated beneath tarpaulin in the tractor trailer. Ted Barber, a wiry, white haired man from up the street pinched my elbow as I climbed up and spoke with a dry voice.
Summat’s up. You haven’t seen our lass have you - our young un?”
“I haven’t Ted, is she not at home?” I replied.
“They said they’re out looking for her, that she’s probably found somewhere dry and safe, like, and’s staying put. I don’t know.”
“That’s probably it.” I said, and found a space to sit.
Ted turned towards the end of the street, where the road disappeared beneath a blanket of grey water. The path to the river over the patch of waste ground was totally submerged. Further on, river water flowed right through the woods and over the cornfield. Everyone else in the trailer had bags with them. Large laundry bags and supermarket carriers stuffed with clothes and food, photograph albums and sentimental this-and-that. The time the Fireman had allowed me was hardly enough to pull on a pair of jeans and find my trainers. I hadn’t even brought my toothbrush.
At the side of the hall by the circle of chairs, someone had set up an old paste table and brought out a kettle with jars of tea and instant coffee. There were a couple of large plates there also, empty save for a few crumbs and flakes of tuna. I filled two polystyrene cups with tea and walked in the direction of Dianne, my heart pounding harder with every step. Dianne had her back to me. When I got close I held out a cup.
“Hello Dianne. “ I tried to make it sound casual but it came out almost sinister.
Dianne flinched and spun away, instinctively placing herself between me and the girl.
“It’s me, Jonathan”, I added. “I thought you could do with a tea”.
I noticed now her rich, even suntan and the tiny crow’s feet branching from the corner of each eye. I offered her the cup but she remained stunned.
“Jon-a-than?” she mouthed each syllable, the way the woman at the Job Centre does when she can’t find my file.
“Jonathan Turner”, I prompted. “We were at this school together - sat together in English. Well, near each other.” Each word seemed echo around the hall. I could feel the blood rushing in my ears and I became aware of my own body odor. I let my gaze drop to the polished floor.
“Jonny?” Dianne said. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I haven’t seen you since. I don’t know.”
“Sixteen years.” I said, reaching out with the tea once more. This time she took it and smiled that smile of hers.
She took a sip and closed her eyes. “Mmmm. That’s good. I haven’t had a decent cup of tea for, weeks. We ran out ages ago, Mum sends it over for us – and Marmite – bloody big jars of Marmite. Ha, listen to me, typical Brit. So what have you been up to then? Christ – sixteen years?”
I could feel my complexion regaining to its usual pallor but I still felt pins and needles stinging in my face and neck. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“I wish. I must look like a drowned rat. And I’ve got wrinkles – but that’s what you get for being a sun worshipper isn’t it.”
“So you don’t live in Sheffield any more?” I said.
She almost choked. “God no. I moved to Malaga. My husband’s a property developer.” She said, placeing her hands in her back pockets.
Right then the little girl ran over and asked Dianne if she could have a sandwich, pointing to the table at the back of the hall where the plates had just been restacked. The girl noticed me then, her eyes were dark, almost as black as her hair and her nose was different from Dianne’s. Then she smiled and I knew for sure she was Dianne’s. I wondered then through how many generations that smile had passed from mother to daughter. Dianne introduced her as Maria.
We walked together to the table. I refilled my tea and Dianne piled several sandwiches onto a paper towel for Maria and her to share.
“So if you live in Spain, what are you doing here?” I asked.
She stopped chewing and looked down for a moment, then swallowed and smiled at me. “My Nan still lives here,” she said. “She’s in the hospital – you know.”
“That’s nice.” I said, and left it at that.
Dianne switched the conversation back to our school days, running through a long list of names, asking if I knew of their whereabouts. For each my reply was the same - they must have moved away. I hadn’t seen them. She seemed disappointed and took to gazing at her phone again.
“What about whatsherface? She said, twirling her finger in the air. “You know, that freak you used to hang around with. She must still be here.”
“Carol? Yeah, she still lives around here with her dad. Same house at Bridge End.” I replied, feeling what was coming. “I didn’t hang around with her.”
Dianne sat up now and stroked her chin with the tip of her finger. “Didn’t you two, you know, do it once – al fresco. You did, didn’t you?”
I could feel my heart drumming again and a sickness spreading through my gut as I recalled the schoolyard taunts, the obscene graffiti in the toilets - the excruciating cross-examination in the headmaster’s office. “Don’t start that again,” I said. “Christ.
“She said you did. Carol and Jonny, I remember now. She said you’d been leaving each other little love notes in a secret place in the woods for weeks. Then one night, you arranged to meet there and made love right there on the riverbank. Naked under the stars. She said it was dead romantic.”
“Come on,” I said, rising to my feet. “After all this time.” I caught myself, took a deep breath and sat back down. “Someone told her to say it, obviously. Probably one of your mates. She didn’t even know what it was she was talking about. She was still playing with My Little Pony when she was sixteen for fucksake.”
Dianne raised her eyebrows and motioned at the kids nearby. I sat back down, tipped the last dregs of cold tea into my mouth and swallowed.
Some of the smaller children were being put to bed under gray blankets on the exercise mats in the corner. As I watched, the lights in this section of the hall went off. Dianne turned and said, “I should see to Maria.”
I needed to clear my head in the open air. The other folk from the estate were still sitting in their circle but now most had cans of lager by their feet. I wondered where they got it from. All was dark outside now. The rain had stopped and the air smelled of damp wood. All the lights in the estate were out and it was impossible to see just how far the river had risen. Without the light pollution the sky seemed bigger. In all my life I could not remember seeing so many stars.
My hands still shook as I lit a cigarette and turned to watch Dianne settling her daughter down for the night. Maria lay close and Dianne seemed to be telling a bedtime story which involved touching her on the nose and then tickling her ribs. Maria wriggled and then curled into her mother. Dianne took out her phone then and stared out of the window into the night, still stroking the child’s head.
I thought again of Mum and all her things I’d abandoned in the house. The things I’d never sorted through and might all now be ruined. People always used to say I had her eyes. I wondered what else of hers was in me. I tried hard to remember any bedtime stories she may have told me as a child. Over by the circle of people, Ted Barber sat alone, twisting a purple handkerchief around his thin fingers.
Dianne was still sitting, still staring. When I got close she saw me and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. I sat beside her and stared into the hall.
“The rain’s stopped.” I said. “I think it’s done with.”
“That’s good.” She said. “I’m sorry Jonny.”
I turned to look at her. The make-up around her eyes had run and she looked tired. No longer the schoolgirl. Now a mother. Right then her phone rang.
“I have to answer this.” She said. “Will you watch Maria for me?”
I nodded and as Dianne stood and walked away I took her place by the girl’s side. I could still feel Dianne’s warmth. Maria didn’t stir, seemingly unaware of the change over. I lay back, my arms behind my head and closed my eyes, imagining we lay directly beneath the stars. I could hear Maria breathing and the muted chatter of the people at the other side of the hall. I felt safe in the dark. Maria shifted slightly, pushing her head beneath my arm.
The next thing I knew, a red-faced man in a tracksuit and donkey jacket was tapping the sole of my shoe with his boot.
“Alright Noddy,” He said. “Emergency over, time to go home.”
He turned and began moving toward the fire exit. There was no body else around and my watch said 6am. I remembered the girls and jerked around to look for Maria. She was gone. The mat on which she had been sleeping was now cold. Then I realized her blanket had been placed over me.
The flooding was not as bad as most feared. Most homes had been spared and even those that backed onto the river needed little more than mopping out and airing. At the end of the road, the river was still swollen but now followed its usual course. I didn’t go home right away but to followed the path to the riverbank and watched the brown water drain away to some other town.
The force of the flood had forced the grass on the bank flat, each strand smoothed forward along the path of the water, pointing away from the estate. I thought of maybe heading up to the hospital to see if I could find Dianne and Maria but I already knew there was little point.
I turned away to look back along the path to my street, the houses with writing on the walls, the burned out van and piles of household junk on the corner, dumped under cover of darkness – things that seemed to collect and rot here. I heard a rustle from the bushes and turned to see a man walking backwards, stooped over and dragging something heavy from the woods. For a moment, I wondered what the man had found, something valuable, washed down to the estate by the river. Then I saw that it was Ted Barber.
She was wearing her pink jumper with the picture of a white horse on the front. Her white leggings were torn along the length of one leg. One of her shoes was missing and on one white toe was a purple ring with a plastic daisy. There was no blood.
“I can’t lift her”. He said. “Can’t you help me? I can’t lift her.”
I put my arm around Ted and then slid it down to where he held twists of sodden clothing.
“Ted.” I said. “I can carry her. Let me take your Carol.”
After a minute or so he let her go.
The police said I may have to give a statement at some point and that I needed to tell them if I was leaving the country. I told them not to worry about that. A policewoman rode in the back of the ambulance with Ted. I saw she’d removed her hat. liked her for that.

The last thing I wanted was to return home and assess the damage inside the house but there was nowhere else to go. When I got inside, the lights didn’t work. Then I remembered the fuse box. They came back on when I tripped the switch and so did the T.V. The water was gone from the floor, drained away somehow. It had pushed the furniture around a little like a disinterested burglar and the place was in a state, but I couldn’t blame that on the flood. I looked around at all the crap I’d collected over the year; debris covering every surface. I picked up a pile of magazines from the dresser and tossed them on the chair. Behind was a picture of Mum and me, taken on the beach at Cleethorpes, her in a deckchair wearing a sun visor and me in front digging myself a hole. We were smiling together at the camera.
I reached under the sink and pulled out a handful of carrier bags. I opened out one and placed the photograph inside. Then I began filling the rest with all the things to throw away.

Oliver Bailey

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