by Steven John
The hot weather was due to break that evening. I’d put away the mattress from the garden chair and was walking up the path to the house when I heard a ‘Hello’. Female, but I couldn’t see who until I reached my front porch.
Gabrielle was around forty-five I guess. Her hair was a greying, frizzy auburn, scraped back into a thick tail. Her cheeks had the velvet skin of peaches that made me want to touch. She was unmarried, lived next door with her elderly folks in the same old pile she’d been born into. I’d never known her do a full day’s work. She did an hour here and there at the village school, listening to the young kids read, but that was voluntary. I’d often see her early evening, sat at an outside table at the village pub, smoking a cigarette and drinking a small wine. All the locals knew her but no-one ever seemed to keep her company. She spoke to people as though she was talking to a kitten, petting and fussing it, whispered and wheedling. Her pale blue eyes focused on your right ear rather than directly at you and her smile looked pinned on like a workday brooch. I’d heard talk that she’d been raped in her twenties and it had stayed in her head.
I’d flirted with her once. When I was still a newcomer she’d come round late one evening to ‘borrow’ a cigarette. Pink lipstick and overly dark eye make-up. I’d poured her a glass of wine and lit her smoke from a candle. After the second glass she’d taken off her shoes. She wore a fine gold band on one toe. I’d said I couldn’t believe she was still single. It was a stupid line I regretted. I said that and other stuff, then backed off. I’d pressed around the edges and sensed vulnerability, like finding rot in the window frames, under the paint.
‘Hi Gabrielle.’ She’d been knocking on the door. Her smile was missing.
‘Is everything alright with your spring water?’ she said, straight in.
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. She was looking at the old standing tap that stuck three feet up from one of my overgrown borders. Before the mains water arrived the village had relied on underground springs. When I’d first bought the cottage there was a dribble came out the tap, but only after heavy rain.
‘My spring water?’ I walked to the tap and turned. Nothing.
‘Hasn’t worked since I’ve been here,’ I said.
‘Only I was walking in the woods this afternoon and I saw the spring gushing from the ground,’ she said.
‘And our fountain has stopped working,’ she said.
In the front lawn of her folk’s place was a small ornamental pond with a fountain. It wasn’t much more than a single lead pipe that spurted irregular amounts. Her father had once told me that it was spring fed.
‘My mother and father are away you see,’ she said.
I told her that I’d walk up to the woods after my supper. I wanted to see this ‘gushing from the ground’.
‘I’m not sure there’ll be much I can do,’ I said.
‘Thank you anyway,’ she said in that voice of hers and walked back next door. I’d expected her to say she’d come.
After I’d eaten I went up to the small, spring fed pump in the woods. Gabrielle’s shabby manor house and my pokey gardener’s cottage both gold framed in the evening sun. The machinery inside the crumbling brick pump-house was a rusted tangle of broken pipes buried in nettles and bracken. The ‘gushing’ turned out to be no more than a steady trickle coming from somewhere inside the workings. I guessed an underground pipe had silted up and burst.
On my way back down over the field I’d made up my mind to invite Gabrielle in, open a bottle of wine. Perhaps I’d felt sorry for her alone in the large house. Perhaps I’d felt more than that.
I knocked on the back door that I knew opened into their kitchen. I’d seen that was where she and her folks lived most of the time, them and the two dogs sat on sofas around a wood stove. The dogs kicked off as they always did, yelping like they’d smelt a fox. After a while I knocked for a second time. There was no possibility she couldn’t have heard the barking. I reckoned she’d walked up to the pub for her lonely drink, although leaving the dogs wasn’t like her.
I walked around to the front and took a look at the fountain. She’d been right about that. Dry. When I glanced up at the bedroom windows Gabrielle was standing motionless in one of them. I waved at her. She didn’t wave back or even look down. She just stood there watching the wind thrash the treetops and storm clouds roister over the distant hills.
Steven lives in the Cotswolds, UK and writes flash, short stories and poetry. He’s had work published in pamphlets and online magazines including Riggwelter, Fictive Dream and Former Cactus. In 2017 Steven won the inaugural Farnham Short Story Competition and he’s read twice at the biennial Stroud Short Stories event.