All These Inexorable Things, by Liz Jones


All These Inexorable Things

 

Today water and sky are scheduled to meet here, where they shouldn’t, yet I am

unable to move. I’ve been advised to evacuate, via radio, television, internet, text and

earlier, as the inundation inched nearer – the phone, but then I’ve been inside since

last July, and I’m not sure I’m ready.

This morning, like every other morning, I’ve been watching the heavens

through the roof light above our bed. That’s right, the bed you haven’t been back to in

nearly six months. Across that patch of sky, when it’s not cloudy, which it is most of

the time, I see the trails of the planes running north and south. Raised lines with puffy

edges, like so many white fingernail scratches on blue thigh skin. They fly from

Manchester and Liverpool to southern France, Portugal or Spain, and back again.

Shiny metal tubes of human sweeties, packed with anticipation and regret. Buffed and

lipsticked cabin crew squeezing along aisles like thrips under glass, handing out bags

of nuts, nonchalant as they soar improbably above a patchwork landscape of sad

willows and sodden farms. I marvel at the linearity. How can anything move so

straightforwardly from A to B, I wonder, when I could go chasing the tail of my

thoughts forever?

The last time I walked into the house, my instinct was to wait and see if you

came back. My brother tried finally to extricate me, a few weeks ago, before

Christmas. ‘You can’t be on your own. Not this time of year. Stay with us.’ I told him

I wouldn’t leave. ‘They’d have to carry me out,’ I said. I could never have imagined

making such an utterance, once. Once, he would only have laughed in reply to my

fatalistic melodrama, ill-suited to a woman of thirty-seven.

I have the kettle up here so I can make myself a cup of tea. I still drink tea,

which if I stop to consider it I find remarkable – so inessential – but there you go. Out

of the window on the half-landing, I can see the water all around now. Yesterday

there was less. I could still see the tops of the furrows in the fields beyond the end of

the garden, separated by bright silver, and today they are gone. The garden itself is

soaked and spongy, not quite submerged. And I can see sandbags: a last line of

defence around our house. Someone put them there. Someone is trying to protect me.

Past the line of sandbags, there are people milling about, with little boats.

Some from the village, and some from beyond. Fluorescent jackets and waders.

Carrying other unfamiliar things – portable barriers, super-sized hoses, shovels that

could bury a person – that someone somewhere had just lying around in readiness for

such a situation. Amazing. This is officially a crisis, I read this morning, but

nevertheless there’s something cheery about the scene in the street. They will have

flasks of tea, too. So much tea, and even smiles and jokes.

The tape starts playing in my head. Tape! Should I be old enough to feel old?

So soon I find I am thinking in terms that would stump a teenager. All these

inexorable things.

You are packing. You’ve just texted me from the hotel to tell me – the buzzing

phone woke me up – and you’re throwing things into your rucksack. You didn’t take

much; you weren’t meant to be gone long. It’s hot there, you told me, so you’re only

in a T-shirt although it’s early, and then you’re going downstairs to the hotel

reception, and dropping off the key. I can picture the hotel; we looked it up together.

You go outside into the quiet street lined with tall buildings, where it’s beginning to

get hazily light, and you duck into the waiting taxi, which is yellow; it’s like one of

those IKEA posters that everyone used to have where a single element was saturated

with colour, and you hated. The cab pulls away from the kerb with you inside. I can’t

wait to see you later, you said. Both of you.

Downstairs, the water is at the door. I can hear it, smooching at the wood, but

it’s not yet properly inside, though the carpet in the hall is now squelchy. Well, we

needed an excuse to replace it, and here it comes. I have been instructed to turn off the

electricity, but I realise I don’t know how. You would have known. I expect you

would have wanted to see the water, too, and attempt to capture it. Don’t look at the

damage, just look at the incredible light! Look at the entirely new world that has been

created, in the space of the old one.

I can’t think about a time when the water recedes, assuming it ever does. What

happens after that? Do you try to sell up, hope that the place will still be worth

anything, and that someone else will be prepared to take the risk? Or do you take the

line that it was a freak occurrence, claim any money possible, redecorate and cross

your fingers? Will anyone even insure us after this? I don’t know. You can’t insure

against everything, that I do know.

Climbing the stairs is harder than it was. I have to haul myself up, and once

there, it takes minutes to recover. This is the main side effect of life inside, this

creeping unfitness for purpose. Pacing around like a caged animal is not sufficient, it

turns out. It’s easy enough to survive in all other ways. Everything can be delivered.

If I need things doing, I can summon people with a click. In an emergency, family

would come, though I haven’t asked recently, and they haven’t seen me like this. I’ve

not been ready for that, either.

Out of the taxi, and into the terminal, I can see you walking past the cafés and

the bookshops towards check-in. Fraying at the edges, crumpled. Never very tidy,

other things to think about. Would you have picked up a newspaper, or a magazine?

Perhaps. I like to think a newspaper. You might have sat down and had a coffee or

even two while reading the paper, leaving joining the queue until the last possible

second. You don’t like waiting. Me, I could wait all day.

I turn the TV on. There is the main street of this village, with the reporters out

there in their shiny Hunters wielding fluffy microphones. It doesn’t appear as cold as

it really is – the kind of cold that makes your bones hurt. People are angry that the

Prime Minister has not been to visit the stricken farmers. Perhaps, after all, this is not

the ideal time. What is he meant to do, stand around in knee-deep solidarity, looking

concerned? Hold back the flood with his bare hands? I wonder if I always felt this

resigned. Perhaps there was a time I’d have been angry too.

The picture changes and we are flying with a drone, high above the Levels.

From one horizon to the other the water stretches like a drum skin, pierced here and

there with model railway trees poking above the surface, and the roofs of toy cars, just

left there. Our doll’s house is one of the ones on slightly higher ground, in the middle

of the village in the centre of the screen. We are completely cut off. In fact that’s how

it always felt, and once it was a desirable thing.

I turn the TV off, and the tape begins again. You are about to board, but still

hanging back. You try not to show it, but you don’t like flying, which I admit makes

me laugh. I could be more sympathetic. So fearless in all other ways, you take on all

comers – dogs, guns, spiders, motorbikes, love – with the same calm pragmatism. But

you don’t like to be inside a plane. Still, it has to be done. Life necessitates reaching

out to touch things, and connecting up the dots.

You are among the last to board because you have no need to find a group of

three or four together, or even two. You can sit wherever there is space. There, next to

the aisle, somewhere near the wings. At least you’ll be able to stretch out your legs,

and try to catch up on some sleep.

Outside the house there is banging. Someone is knocking on the door and

calling to me through the letterbox. ‘Hello? Are you still in there? You need to think

about coming out now, love. The water’s still rising. You can’t stay.’

For the moment I hide. The tape is still flickering on.

Now, I have different versions of this scene, which I watch through my

fingers. In the first version, you feel nothing. It’s like going to sleep. The pressure’s

gone, and you’re simply extinguished.

In the second version, you know. Everyone knows. There’s a lurch, a snatched

announcement, and people look up from their screens and their sandwiches and at

each other. And then you’re going down, mostly silent and stoic, except for a few

whose screams linger in the dead air of the cabin. And then everyone blacks out on

the descent. And that’s it.

In the third version you remain conscious until impact. It takes minutes that

expand to fill universes to plummet to the earth, and you think of me, and you think of

us, and you have time to remember every little landmark of your life along the way to

this precise moment, which you know is the end, and then you see fire rushing up

between the seats towards you, and you have time to register your eyebrows crackling

with the intensity of the heat. I hope that’s not the way it happened.

You weren’t flying from Spain to northwest England. You were flying from

Budapest to Bristol, and then you weren’t. Dropped out of the sky, as they say: one of

those things. Those things that statistics have shown will almost certainly not happen

to you – but then statistically, they have to happen to someone.

I have spent half a year trying to figure out how to play the tape and get a

different outcome, but I can’t. Bashing the machine with the flat of my hand,

swearing. Nothing works. All I can do is begin to feel myself tiring of playing the

tape, and perhaps that is all that will ever happen. One day I’ll simply be too

exhausted to think about it any more.

More knocking. I am going to have to let them in. It would be rude to ignore

them forever.

I open the front door and a miniature wave breaks over the threshold, rolls

along the floor. Followed by another, and another, and another, each one reaching

further than the last.

In the front garden, there is a boat, so incongruous that I cackle with

inappropriate mirth. So much sky is dazzling. A person presses my shoulder and

hands me a pair of Wellington boots. ‘We thought you might need these. Come, into

the boat. Are you taking anything with you?’

I shake my head. Almost all that I had was lost last summer. What remains is

you, who cannot now be stopped, who will be with me soon

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014