by Ruth Brandt
We were down by the Wey Navigation, where it passes the ruined priory at Newark. The flood plain. You know it? Just after that sweep down the hill by St Nicolas? That’s where we were. On the towpath. Standing.
Dad had this thing at that time. His head was always on to the next thing, and the next, so even though we were by the canal, he was talking about some pub he’d read up about. He wasn’t committed to eating there, not until he saw what the place was like. The atmosphere.
This narrow boat chugged past, the Sally-May, with a dog running along its roof, barking a swan out of the way. All big and bold from five feet above. Dad looked at that boat and said, ‘Birmingham?’
He read that off the side. Birmingham? Like he’d never heard of the place.
‘It’s in the Midlands,’ I said.
‘I know where Birmingham is.’
I was fifteen. He forty-six. Not old, but some time ago he’d stopped picking up sticks to fight me with, and tumbling me over and over on the grass till I couldn’t breathe. He’d stopped bothering me about brushing my teeth and drinking Coke. I’m not sure when all that had dropped off. Perhaps when he’d had to become a bit of Mum too.
Anyhow, we were right by the canal and he was saying he knew where Birmingham was without any smile. Next thing we’d be back to discussing this place to eat, like it was the only important thing he knew to talk about.
‘Sorry,’ I said.
‘Why are you sorry? Always sorry nowadays, you.’
The Sally-May futt-futted off round the bend. I stepped forward to look after her and waited for Dad to call, Careful you don’t fall in, like it was funny, like it had always been funny to say, Careful you don’t fall in and then judder me and hold on to me like he’d saved my life. I was ready. If he touched me.
‘Really?’ he said.
Really my arse. Really what? Really it’s OK to spend an afternoon talking about some place to eat.
So I did it. I stepped clear into the water. I’d like to say it was an elegant jump but in truth it was a slither and a bit of a yelp and ten tons of reeds wrapped around me till I was sitting on them, bum wet, top totally dry, facing a moorhen. And for what? Complete twat.
Except there was no What have I said? or I told you so. There wasn’t anything. So I sat, being absorbed into the canal because the wanker did not say a sodding thing. Could talk for years about some stupid menu he might never eat, but not say anything at all.
In the end…like there’s ever an end to anything. Except when someone dies. Is that really an end though? Anyhow, a short while later, I decided to sort myself out and that’s when the fun started. Loads of weaving and waving and slipping till I was well over my waist.
He didn’t move.
‘Why won’t you help?’
And I swear to God he glanced at me for an instant. I swear he did. But if he did glance, that was all.
I don’t know how I got out because one minute I was up to my waist in the Sally-May’s wake with the Wey’s wildlife paddling round me, and the next I was dripping next to him, while he stared off at the sky, following something that had flown.
‘No,’ he said. Just like that. ‘No.’
‘No what, Dad?’ I said.
I didn’t want to touch him. I was wet, see. Wet and a bit cold.
He looked down at my trousers. He should have shouted, or he should have laughed. He should have done what Mum would have done. I’d been in the water. I’d arsed around. Messed. Got wet.
‘What are you talking about?’ he said.
I’m sorry, I wanted say. Sorry. But my mouth was clenched with cold.
Ruth Brandt’s short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines including the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017, Litro, and Neon, nominated for prizes including the Pushcart Prize, and read at festivals. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Kingston University and is Writer in Residence at Surrey Wildlife Trust.