by Julie Oldham
I put the rucksack down on the flagstoned floor; the low-ceilinged room smells of wood smoke. Emma walks across to our usual table by the fire.
There’s no sign of the landlord and the only people in the pub are two men standing at the bar. As I contemplate ringing the bell, the older man says, ‘All me winders ‘av gone. They’ve put frames in t’skip, but glass is still there, all over t’grass. And apple tree’s through roof a t’greenouse, but it’s still got bloody blossom on. Tha wouldn’t credit it.’
The younger man picks up his pint.
‘And one of them bloody flood sign’s half way up bank now. Has tha’ seen it?’
‘No, I’ve not been down. I’ve had too much on.’
The older man nods. ‘So, what does tha’ reckon, Sam? Can you help me out? Let me share grazing at High Top.’
‘No, can’t be done, Joe.’
‘But we go way back, lad.’
The younger man stares at his beer. ‘I know that, but I’ve got my own stock to think of.’
‘Tha’s a bastard – just like thee father.’
The younger man suddenly seems to register me standing beside him.
‘Here’s not the place, Joe.’ He drains his glass, and leaves without saying anything more. The old man looks down at his newspaper.
The door of the snug opens and the landlord comes in. He walks past me and behind the bar – towards the old man.
‘Sam gone already?’ he asks.
The old man doesn’t reply, but picks up his paper and pint and takes them to a table by the window. The barman turns towards me.
‘What can I get you?’
Emma’s gazing at the fire when I join her. Shafts of sunlight are slicing the dimness of the room. The logs are cracking, making a hissing noise.
I take the crossword book out of the rucksack and begin flicking through the pages.
‘Shall we carry on with number thirty-three?’ I ask. ‘We didn’t finish it.’
‘If you like.’
I hear a snuffling sound on the other side of the room. Emma doesn’t look, but I do. The old man’s crying. I focus on the crossword book.
‘Seventeen down. Ten letters. In botany, a compound leaf with three leaflets.’
‘Sorry?’ She turns towards me.
I repeat the clue.
‘No, sorry, no idea.’
The pub begins to fill up. From time to time I sneak a look at the old man. He appears to be absorbed in his paper, but isn’t turning the pages. As we stand up to leave, he too gets up, drains his glass and walks across to the barman.
‘He’s a bastard. Just like ‘is father.’
‘You’re better off without him, Joe.’
As we cross the pub carpark, Emma insists on carrying the rucksack, so I lift it onto her shoulders and then follow her down the hill and through a cobbled ginnel towards the canal.
Emma’s always liked this walk. It’s an easy half-day trek, beginning on the canal towpath before heading up through woodland onto moorland, then finally back along the canal. Not too strenuous. Just the right length to get us back exercising again.
She stops when she reaches the end of the ginnel.
‘Oh, Ian, look at all this.’
I stand beside her and take in the scene.
The lock gates to our right are badly damaged and part of a stone building has collapsed into the water. There are orange plastic barriers blocking the way onto the towpath and a sign, which says the footpath’s closed. Emma doesn’t make any further comment, but turns around and begins to follow a diversion, which takes us back into the village and along the main road.
When we re-join the towpath, ten minutes later, the devastation all around us is hard to take in. Although this section is open, the surface is full of potholes and littered with debris. The grey, sludge-filled fields on the other side of the canal are strewn with fallen trees; detritus is suspended in their upturned roots. On our left, a triangular warning sign ‘FLOOD’ has been washed high up onto the rising ground. Beside the sign, a canal boat is lying stranded. It looks so bizarre up there, surreal – like a broken leg at a grotesque angle. It’s such a beautiful day today, which makes the scale of the destruction, the sheer obliteration of the landscape, even harder to come to terms with.
Emma gazes at the boat then turns toward me. I’m expecting her to say something about all this, but instead she says, ‘It’s hard to explain, but it feels strange now the trial’s finished. I just feel empty. And why, after all we’ve been through, did he say that to me? My God, it’s hard enough just having to see him in that place.’
This is the first time she’s spoken so openly, and I hesitate, needing to find the right response this time.
‘He didn’t mean what he said. I’m sure he was pleased to see you. It’s just it must be difficult for him in there – and he wasn’t thinking.’
She looks so dispirited, so drained. ‘No Ian, things won’t “sort themselves out” because he’s never going to change,’ she says. ‘And you know what, I’m beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. Maybe you’re right. He’s an adult and can’t rely on us bailing him out for ever – not that we could now anyway.’
She zips up her fleece and begins walking again.
We continue along the towpath for a while, but are then forced to detour along the road again through the next village.
The flood has caused terrible damage here too: split sandbags are stacked up on front doorsteps, and there are piles of ruined house contents in the village streets.
Emma stops from time to time, looking around her.
‘I didn’t make the connection with this place when it was on the news,’ she says. ‘It must be a month since it happened, but just look at all this. It’s awful. How do you cope with something like this?’
‘I don’t know. I suppose you just have to get on with it.’
She turns to face me. ‘That’s easy to say if it’s not your home that’s been destroyed.’
Just for a moment, I hear the old Emma. And there’s the look that’s been missing for so long. She’s seeing all this and reacting, not just allowing it to pass her by. Maybe her sister’s right, maybe she’ll be able to move on now. Five years – but perhaps this is what Callum needs: a chance to sort himself out. Maybe we’ll all be able to get on with our lives.
When we’re back on the towpath, she begins walking more and more slowly. This is our first walk in ages; it’s no wonder she’s tired.
‘Here, let me have the rucksack. You look like you’re grinding to a halt.’
I smile. She doesn’t.
‘You’re just not listening again, are you? I keep telling you, I’m fine, don’t fuss.’ It’s been so long since I’ve heard that voice, but can’t she just give a little?
After a few minutes, we reach a stone bridge which has been cordoned off by plastic tape. This won’t affect us because we carry straight on here, but Emma leaves the towpath and begins to walk up onto the bridge, ducking under the tape.
‘Where are you going?’ I call up to her. ‘We don’t go that way – and anyway, the bridge is closed.’
‘It looks fine, come on; there’s a footpath sign up there – at the top of the slope.’
She’s being a bloody idiot; they wouldn’t close the bridge for nothing.
‘Take care. It could be dangerous.’ She doesn’t respond but crosses the bridge, then begins to walk up the path on the other side. She stops beside the footpath sign and waits for me.
As I walk up to her, I see she’s crying.
Eventually, she says, ‘I’m sorry, but I just keep thinking, all that worry, all that money, everything gone, and yet he can still say that – after all I’ve done for him. How could he say that? But with you he’s fine. Selfish. So selfish. Just like that man in the pub. Did you see the look on the old guy’s face?
So, she’d noticed. I hadn’t thought she’d registered any of their conversation.
‘Callum loves you, Emma.’
‘No, Ian, I don’t think he has it in him. It’s all about him, always has been. He’s my son and I love him – but I don’t like him. He’s never thought about anyone but himself, she says. ‘And he never learns. He’s always going to be a liability hanging over us; it’ll always be something – the next crisis. I know that deep down; that’s what’s so difficult to live with. But I couldn’t just abandon him, could I? He’s my son.’
‘You know what I mean.’
No, Emma, I don’t know. Because he isn’t really our son, is he? It’s always been about you and him. Just him – your perfect boy. You’ve never once considered how I feel in all this, because you don’t understand that I love him as much as you do – despite everything. ‘Christ, I’m sorry, but if all this means you’re being forced to see the truth at last, and that I’ll get you back, then I’m glad.’
She turns and stares at the stile. ‘Sorry, I know I shouldn’t take it out on you. And you’re right, I must move on. It’s just it’s so hard.’
‘But it’s over now.’
‘No, it’s not over. Haven’t you heard a single word I’ve said?
Before I can touch her, she climbs over the stile and strides off along the footpath.
After a while we enter a small coppice.
It’s so beautiful in here. The new leaves are shining green; the floor a carpet of celandine and aconites. I stop walking and close my eyes for a moment, listening to the breeze, breathing in the spring; trying to soak it all up.
She’s right, it’s not over: he’s still there in the background. But not actually here. Not at this moment. Out here we have some breathing space; a chance to see a world beyond our problems. And it’s just us.
When I open my eyes, I see her further along the path, standing beside a blackthorn hedge. As I walk up to her, she reaches up and pulls down a branch of the frothy, white flowers.
‘Isn’t it lovely?’ she says.
I stop watching her and look myself.
A shield bug is crawling along the branch. Its angular, green wing cases look as if they’ve been folded, like a tiny miracle of origami. Emma gently releases the blossom, but I continue to watch the insect making its way across the bark.
When I look up again, she’s walking out of the wood. She doesn’t wait for me to catch up, but begins to stride across the field in front of her.
‘Emma,’ I call as I jog to catch her up, ‘what’s the bloody rush?’
She stops walking and turns to face me.
‘It doesn’t matter.’
We keep walking and the fields gradually give way to moorland. It’s colder up here and there are still patches of frost in the lee of the dry-stone walls.
After a few more minutes, we reach a high stone wall which has a triangular, wooden ladder allowing access across it. Emma climbs the ladder, then turns and carefully eases her way down the other side. I climb the stile myself and pause on the top step.
The fields behind me are a lustrous green; the fields in front, a patchwork of browns. I watch Emma striding on towards a derelict stone building about a quarter of a mile in the distance and take some deep breaths. The air up here’s like an oxygen mask. “A day for polishing the silver” is how Emma describes days like this. Or used to, she hasn’t really seen anything for months. Although today maybe, at last, I’m getting her back. A part of her at least.
Sheep are bleating, the wind’s gusting around me, and now a skylark’s rising. I look up, shielding my eyes from the sun, listening to the unmistakable sound, but I can’t see the bird, it’s too high, invisible in the blue. It’s a different world up here, away from the canal; you wouldn’t know anything had happened.
Nobody would think that our world has collapsed too, would they? We’ve kept up appearances, appeared to stay in control. But maybe, like the old man in the pub, it would have been better if she, we, had faced the truth sooner and let our feelings out. What good has come from deluding ourselves and bottling things up? Because Emma’s right: there’ll be another crisis. God knows what. The only thing that’s certain is, despite what she says, she won’t be able to walk away.
A rug pulls from under me.
I open my eyes. Close them. Open them again.
The world is muffled, wrapped in wool. Spinning now. The ground’s slipping away beneath me. Darkness.
Emma. A halo of sunshine around her face. She moves her head, blotting out the sun. Her eyes are wide, frightened. Why that look, Emma?
A sheep bleating. A bird singing. Pain eating a hole in me. My body’s so heavy, sinking down. A woman’s voice. More voices. A man’s, ‘Hello. Can you feel this, Ian? Squeeze my hand if you can.’
A blur of green and blue. A merry go round of colours: streaming, drifting….
‘Can you hear me, Ian?’
‘It’s a beautiful day outside. A day for polishing the silver.’
‘When you get better, we’ll have to do that walk up to Hays Fell. It’ll be lovely up there now. Do you remember that time we had lunch in the field with the horses and they pinched your crisps?’
I try to speak again, but gag: my mouth’s full. I need to swallow.
I open my eyes.
‘Emma.’ She’s staring at me.
I look down. My hands are on top of a blue blanket. Emma’s holding one hand. There’s a plastic needle in the back of the other, and tubes running along my arm. Why can’t I feel my hands, or her hand on mine?
Is she talking to me? We’re in a blue tent. The curtains move apart.
Too much light. I close my eyes. I can still hear her, and a man’s voice, a machine bleeping. Bleeping, but quieter now…
…a baby’s clothes floating past me; his body so tiny, cradled in my arms. Her eyes watching him. ‘I never meant what I said, Dad.’ A branch covered in blossom. ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ An insect, struggling through the water, legs flailing as it passes, sinking now. Emma swimming towards me, her hair streaming. My body, so heavy… sinking. Grasping for something to hold onto; a triangular sign on the bank – coming loose. The current’s too strong. Up there, above me, voices, a circle of light. Emma. Reaching for her…kicking my legs. Come on, Ian. Swim.
A beeping sound. The light bursting, much too bright.
‘Listen to me, don’t you dare close your eyes again. Not now. Come on, Ian.’
I stretch my arm forward and pull back the water.
Julie Oldham lives in West Yorkshire. She writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Her stories have appeared in a number of publications including Bare Fiction Magazine and Artificium Journal. Her work can be read online in Open Pen Magazine, The Nottingham Review, Unbroken Journal and Spelk Fiction. Julie is a Pushcart nominee.