by Sue Johnson
Julia peered through the grimy kitchen window at the torrential rain – surely a sign from God that He was still angry with her.
A few hours ago a man wearing a shiny yellow jacket and waders had called to tell her about the flood warning.
‘Best to get out while you can,’ he’d said. ‘The river’s rising fast.’
‘Where would I go?’ asked Julia. ‘I don’t know anybody else in the world.’
He’d looked at her as if she was mad to think about staying there and hurried away without a backward glance.
Julia gazed at the curtains of ivy and Russian vine, planted by her mother years ago to keep the rest of the world away from them. The river was finding its way through – muddy brown water the colour and texture of cocoa was inching towards the back doorstep.
Earlier, Julia unlocked the cellar door and had been shocked to see black water that smelled of mushrooms and old newspapers creeping up the stone steps. She shut the door quickly and bolted it, knowing as she did so that the gesture was futile.
She stared out of the window again, not knowing what else to do.
Long ago, when she was a child, there was a path to the river. She remembered meeting other children there – playing ‘house’ under the willow trees and fishing for tiddlers. Julia’s father was with them then. He’d encouraged her friendship with them.
‘No good can come of it,’ said Julia’s mother as she put barbed wire across the path.
There was a fierce argument the day that the school inspector came and insisted that Julia should be at school.
‘The child needs to be at home in the world,’ said her father.
‘The world is a sinful place,’ said her mother, her mouth folded like crimped pastry in disapproval.
Her father left soon afterwards, driven out by the smell of bleach and her mother’s sharp tongue.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness was her mother’s motto as she scrubbed floors, ironed clothes and searched for dust.
Julia closed her eyes, remembering the smell of bleach and soap powder, the sound of ice white sheets snapping on the washing line and the way her pink cotton dresses moved as if they were dancing to the wind’s music.
She had no time for cleanliness or godliness now, and wore the same layers of rusty black clothes day after day.
Rain drummed its incessant music on the kitchen’s corrugated iron roof. Honour thy father and thy mother said the sampler with the smashed frame in the dusty corner by the cooker. Julia missed her father still.
She thought of the other man who had come to her one stormy day when she was shutting up the hen-house – Rob with kind brown eyes that crinkled at the corners who had called to her from the other side of the barbed wire saying that his boat was sunk and could she help him. She remembered how she’d let him shelter in their shed for the night, smuggling bread and milk to him while her mother slept. The next day he’d gone and she’d felt a prickle of longing, beginning under her ribs and sinking lower…
He’d come back though, just once, and they’d walked along the riverbank, playing their own game of ‘house’ while her mother scrubbed the already spotless floors.
Julia had enjoyed the brief glimmer of magic, feeling bereft when he’d rowed away from her towards the sunlight beyond the next bend in the river.
She’d hidden her changing shape under baggy jumpers, wishing she knew what to do next. When her time came, she tried to protect the mewling scrap of a baby girl, born when the daffodils were in flower in the windswept garden, but her mother had followed the slimy trail of blood and water up the narrow cottage stairs.
‘After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me,’ she’d screamed.
The tiny girl lived for only a few hours. Julia’s mother tidied away the stiff, waxy little body, acting afterwards as if nothing important had happened. There was no memorial to grieve beside and the child wasn’t mentioned again.
Crazed by grief, Julia waited her chance. She knew that she’d already sinned and would go to hell. She had nothing to lose.
She suffocated her mother with her own snowy white pillow while she slept. She didn’t struggle. Afterwards, Julia scraped a shallow hole in the soft earth near the barbed wire fence. She waited for retribution. None came.
Since then, she’d looked after the numerous stray cats that wandered near the cottage – creatures her mother used to shoo away. Julia treated them like her children and now the tiled floor was patterned with so many muddy paw-prints it was impossible to tell what the original colour was.
The cats twined round Julia’s legs purring and she stroked their heads lovingly, gathering them in her arms into a large basket on the kitchen table. Looking after them made her feel she’d atoned in some way for her past sins.
Now she was worried her secrets would be discovered, washed out by the flood.
Water surrounded the cottage now, snaking forward from the undergrowth, forming a moat that was edging closer as the minutes passed. Treacle-black water rose up from the cellar and spread over the kitchen floor, rising slowly up the legs of the table where Julia crouched with her collection of cats, fearful of what came next. The warmth of the cats’ bodies reassured her, making her think that physical love couldn’t be wrong. She thought of the milky blue eyes of the child who’d been in the world for such a short time and whom she still loved so dearly. If what the Bible said were true, then Julia would see her again in Heaven.
Julia peered through the grimy kitchen window, wishing she knew the answers. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, surprised to see that the rain had stopped. Maybe God wasn’t angry with her any more. The sky was pearly grey with a hint of pale sunlight behind the clouds and above the trees she could see the bright curve of a rainbow.
Sue Johnson is a poet, short story writer and novelist. Her other interests include reading, walking and yoga. She is a Writing Magazine Creative Writing Tutor and also offers her own brand of writing classes and a critique service. Sue’s Twitter handle is @SueJohnson9. For further information see www.writers-toolkit.co.uk.