Water may be hot by David Mathews


Water may be hot by David Mathews

 

ARBEN’S, THE STORE FOR ALL YOUR LIFE NEEDS

I won’t miss this place, she had thought as she came in. Warm and dry, which is great in January, but that’s about all you can say for it. Everything so awkward, the departments illogical, whichever one you want next always separated from the one you are in by Travel or Gardening or Menswear. The music is too loud, and when it pauses for some promo in kitchen knives and to insist you have a great shopping experience the wretched announcer gabbles and you can barely understand a word he says. The stairs to the Ladies are steep and narrow and were an effort today. The cubicle had a single peg, but with her coat, scarf, hat, bag, umbrella and several purchases she was thankful even for that because the floor was damp and its hygiene unconvincing. The door latch was dodgy but might hang on for a bit.

No-one lingers in the chilly corridor leading to children’s toys and clothing, for all its posters about the bargains in perfumes and coiffures and exotic island holidays. This morning, though, a picture of a family on a beach caught her attention, and she spent minutes gazing at the blue of the sky, the sea and a little boy’s eyes. Teddy had blue eyes.

She peed and afterwards sat a while. Another customer came and went, as you might say. Maggie – only her mother calls her Margaret and Dad is still calling her ‘Kid’ in her 40s – Maggie re-dressed with difficulty in the confined space, putting on her coat as the easiest way to cart it about. By the basins – no hook or dry surface – she tucked her bags and other things under her arms ready to wash her hands, determined to keep her cuffs dry for a change.

Too many bags though, and she dropped one, full of pills. She had called at three different pharmacies on her way in because they don’t like to sell you more than a couple of boxes of painkillers nowadays. Thank God I didn’t drop the whisky, she thought.


CAUTION: WATER MAY BE HOT

Haven’t seen that before. What are you supposed to do about it, bring your own thermometer?

May be hot. Not is hot or will be hot. They seem not to know. Couldn’t they check from time to time and have a digital display: WATER IS HOT/NOT HOT THIS MORNING? What about thermostats? I may teach English, but I know how a thermostat works.

I could wait for another customer and watch what happens to them. If I’d known I could have listened for how that other woman got on. What would you hear if someone scalded themselves? A cry like a baby’s?

The phrase shopping experience sidled into her mind, and she slapped it away.

She pressed the tap and risked a finger to test the temperature. That’s alright, she thought, what’s the fuss about?

Her sixth-formers call her Mrs D to her face and Pie (for magpie) behind her back. Not bad as these things go; after she had put on weight it could have been Pork Pie or even Porkie. She bought a bike that she rides several times a week and supposes it is helping, that and the walking.

CAUTION: WATER MAY BE HOT

Discuss.

‘Is it the water from these taps that they’re referring to? What do you think, class?’

‘Well, Mrs D, if you were kind you could say that they are trying to be educative about water at large.’

‘That may be too generous, Amy, but sweetly put. If I’ve got you right, under your theory the notice is a generalisation, yes? And, like many generalisations, it is … what would you say, Gary?’

‘Bloody useless, Mrs D.’

‘Thank you, Gary.’

Useless. Incomplete too. For a full understanding of water you need to know that it may be cold, tepid or at body temperature. Cooling, warming up, at 92o for a perfect coffee, freezing with ice cubes, turning to steam when it boils, feeling just right when you test the bath, feeling just right for the baby.

She pressed the tap a second time, squirted the soap, felt the slickness of the lather, felt her palm sliding on Teddy’s wet back. She stared at her face in the mirror and did not smile.

Now, five minutes and several embarrassed customers later, she still does not smile.

CAUTION: WATER MAY BE HOT

… when it bubbles from volcanic rocks, but not when it oozes up through sodden moss, brackish, or puddles over mud. It may be distilled and tasteless, treated and flavoured with swimming pool, full of fish, tadpoles, full of weeds … and water babies, their blue eyes bright, their hair adorned with fronds. Oh God, what is it with me and water today?

Hot, cold, hot. Cold as the water in the church font, some of it from the River Jordan, the vicar said, smelling rank but dripped from a bottle like a precious remedy. If only. They’d mixed in some warm water, but that was earlier, and the first splash on Teddy’s head startled him into a cry that echoed around the empty aisles. The vicar laughed, used to it, and they all laughed too.

He recognised them when they went back – the vicar – though it was more than a year later. He did his best. We should have sung Granddad’s hymn, she thinks, that wet, wet day. Boy how he sang it when she was a girl, Jesu lover of my soul, his temple throbbing on the tenor’s top note, Safe into the haven guide. If only it was that easy. O receive my soul at last. O, if only. O so simple in those far off days, so easy to be fired up by injustice and consoled by Wesley.

Instead, as the rain beat and beat on the church windows, they sang children’s hymns for Teddy who could not hear them, hymns more poignant than consoling, not that she could sing a note.

She rinses her hands, pats them on a paper towel and finishes them under the dryer, cautiously. Air may be hot.

Yesterday she finished notes for her A Level students for the rest of the year. They’ll do well, she thinks, they’re bright. All someone has to do is feed them the stuff and they’ll fly. Even Gary.

CAUTION: WHAT MAY BE HOT?

A hob, glowing coals, flames, flowing lava, hell, ashes, cinders, steam, the desert, a car exhaust, a boiler, a kiln, an oven, a furnace, the crem, the summer sun, the baby’s head – hot, too hot.

From an Arben’s bag she takes out denim dungarees, 12 to 18 months. She holds them up and sees the chubby feet, the fingers waggling and grasping, the runny nose and the wide smile that changes to an uncomprehending cry as he fades from her, her lovely boy.

Why do we think a child beautiful, when much of the time they are furious with us or ignoring us, spotty, or filthy with food at one end and shit at the other? But we do.

CAUTION: HOT

He’ll be fine, her man had said, it’s what children do, throwing a temperature. It’ll be gone as quickly as it came. Don’t bother the doctor, and anyway you’ll only get some out-of-hours wanker who can’t get a proper job. If it goes on we can always run him to A & E. Give him another dose of Calpol and he’ll be fine. Come back to bed.

No imagination, she thinks. Couldn’t contemplate anything messy or inconvenient, could you?

He insisted on his prognosis, and was furious when she called the helpline in the small hours without asking him, but in the end he drove them to the hospital rather than risk the raised eyebrows of the paramedics. ‘Go right away,’ the woman had said on the phone, ‘or we can call an ambulance for you.’ Her man didn’t stay long. ‘Teddy’ll be alright now, and I can catch the early train.’

They called him back just after his meeting started. He wouldn’t touch Teddy. Just looking at him was all he could manage, not holding him, stroking him, talking to him like she was doing.

CAUTION

Before they married he had chosen the bands they went to hear, the restaurants they ate in, the car, the flat, the holiday. Masterful. Occasionally she had wished he would ask her first, but she knew they would be more equal partners once he had no need to prove himself, once he no longer had to impress his mother, once she, Maggie, earned his respect.

Being promoted to head of English at 35 seemed a good start. She surprised him with the news and champagne, but he’d had a bad day at work. ‘Head of not much is still not very much,’ he had said, but he was happy to spend the extra money. Two years later, when she announced she was pregnant, she had not bought champagne and did not expect elation. But, ‘What are we going to do for fucking money?’ was still a disappointment.

She looks at herself. Grey hairs always show against black, but she can’t be bothered to count them. Could you describe a mirror as frank? ‘What do you think, Amy?’

‘Probably not, Mrs D, though I know what you’re getting at. It doesn’t lie does it? But being frank implies sincerity, a conscious avoidance of deceit.’

‘Which means?’

‘A mirror doesn’t care that you’re old, Mrs D.’

‘Thank you, Gary.’

She doesn’t blame Brian for his lack of urgency that night. He was brainless, but she regrets most her own failure to safeguard Teddy. I should have taken charge sooner, she thinks. Should have done it years ago, before he was born. You can’t put things off with a child, no second chance.

She’s taking charge now, she thinks.

She looks again at the dungarees, holds them to her face, wets them with tears. Funny how we dress our children as plumbers. It used to be sailor suits. What would Teddy have become? A plumber, a sailor or what? He would have made me proud whatever he had been, wouldn’t he?

‘If he’d been a plumber, Mrs D, you’d have done him a lovely website. No spelling mistakes and proper sentences.’

‘You could’ve have called it Leak House, Mrs D.’

‘Thank you, Gary.’

It took her three months to summon up the courage to ask Brian to leave. He was not surprised and sneered at her for her having taken so long to give him his marching orders. She wonders how he is getting on in his quest to find someone who will appreciate him. It must be difficult choosing from all those pebbles on the beach – or was it fish in the sea? Caution: water can be salt. Like tears. Who will he make cry next? She wishes there was some way of putting out a sisterly warning that would not seem like revenge, like cutting up his suits. Perhaps there should be a register for men like him. Teddy’s List.

She does not relish talking to Mum and Dad. She wants to say goodbye, but without distressing them. They’re fit and well, though, and they have each other. They feel the loss of Teddy, of course. Dad was particularly taken with him, and he will never forgive Brian for his procrastination. ‘Don’t do anything silly,’ he had said to her one day when she was particularly down, ‘always talk.’ And he meant it.

Paracetamol is frightfully expensive in France, so she has bought as many as she can fit in her rucksack with the few clothes she’ll take. Perhaps the walking will ease her headaches, or maybe they will just go in time. When she gets to Compostela she intends to carry on. By harvest time she can be in Portugal and then, who knows? No books; there are enough in her head for the year she wants to be away. And if I want to write, she thinks, France and Spain have paper enough for my needs.

Dad will enjoy the whisky and will drink her health each time he has one.

Time to go.

‘So, class, I’m trusting you not to let yourselves down. Mr Jones will look after you a treat. I wish you all that you would wish yourselves and much more.’

‘We’ll be fine, Mrs D. But won’t you miss us, all our erudition and wit and wisdom?’

‘I’ll carry it all in my head, Amy, like the books. Yes, Gary?’

‘If I was 20 years older, Mrs D, well, you know …’

‘Thank you, Gary.’

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014