Authors: James Runcie
Tags: #General Fiction
31st January 1953
I know the fear of death is always with us but sometimes it can disappear for days. You don't think about it when your wife is coming to bed and she takes off her nightgown and you're excited by her nakedness even if you have been married for a long time. You don't think about it when your child gives you a smile that you know is meant only for you or when the sea is dead calm and you're out fishing with no one to trouble you. You don't think about death, of course you don't, it never crosses your mind, but then back it comes, far too soon, telling you not to be so cocky, don't think this is going to last, mate, this is all the happiness you're going to get and you should be grateful I didn't come before.
I should have known. I'm a fisherman. All my life I could read the sky.
I'd already decided that it would have been nasty to fish on, what with the tide rising on the full moon and a long fetch expected; but it was hard to imagine what followed. In any case everyone was in a state because of the dance. Lily was anxious and wanted to look after our boy; her sister was fossicking through her clothes wondering which dress to wear; and I was convinced we were going to be late for the bus. By the time the storm reached us we didn't have a prayer.
I don't see why I should feel guilty. My sister told me that it was all right to go to the dance without her. It wasn't as if there was going to be any hanky-panky with Len and she was never much of a party girl anyway. The little boy provided a perfect excuse to stay at home. She always said she didn't like leaving Martin alone on a Saturday night.
âCome on, girl,' I said, making a bit of an effort, âhave a drink and a dance.'
âIt's all right, Vi. I've got my knitting and the wireless.'
âYou need a bit of a treat, you do.'
Len came into the room, took one look at his wife and decided that there was no point trying to persuade her. âHave you seen my cuff-links?' he said.
He liked to put them in when his shirt was laid out flat so that he didn't have to fiddle about with one hand later. But even then he kept getting them the wrong way round. He could be all thumbs, that man; which was strange given how well he could dance.
âYou sure you don't mind?' I asked.
âYou know what I'm like,' said Lily. âI'd rather stay at home. Is George ready?'
âHe's happy enough,' I said. âAnd I've made sure he's got a blanket.'
I liked to see to my husband first so that I was free to concentrate on myself afterwards. I couldn't abide his fussing.
It was a relief when I found out that it was going to be just Len and me doing the dancing. Now Lily wasn't coming I wouldn't
have to worry about getting another partner. George could sit and watch. It calmed him down, I think. It was about the only thing that did in his condition.
Afterwards people did ask if we had ever thought of staying back with Lily and the boy, but how were we to know? I'd always liked dancing and Len and I were natural partners. We waltzed with an easy sway, always moving, always light. When he led, I never had to look at my feet or worry about the steps because he gave me such confidence.
Going to the ballroom was our one chance of a bit of glamour, an escape from the cold of winter and all our anxieties about money and whether George would ever get better. I let Len take me in his arms and we floated away from everything that troubled us. Dancing can make you forget anything you like if you let it get to work. You're moving faster than the world and nothing can touch you: not war, not storm, not even death. Nothing can harm you if you keep dancing.
At least that's what I thought.
I should have said. I saw the leak in the ceiling but I knew Mum would worry if I told her. She was washing up the tea things and humming along to the wireless in the kitchen and I didn't want anything to ruin bedtime.
It was the best part of the day, the time I had my mother all to myself, when she read me a story and smiled and laughed and sang me a song. And so when I knelt at the foot of the bed, I prayed she would not notice the ceiling. I even thought that if I looked away for long enough the leak would disappear.
âWhat shall it be?' Mum asked when she came into the room, picking me up for a swing in her arms. âOh, what shall it be?' She had taken off her apron and was wearing a red cardigan, as if she had dressed up especially for me.
I tried to imagine which would be the longest song to keep her. I wanted to be snug and warm with the rain outside and my mother beside me. I wanted to fall asleep to the sound of her voice.
Tom, he was a piper's son,
He learned to play when he was young,
But all the tunes that he could play
Was âOver the hills and far away'
Over the hills and a great way off,
The wind shall blow my top-knot off
She sat down on the bed and stroked my hair. âClose your eyes,' she said to me, âclose your eyes, my darling. Sweet dreams are coming.'
Then she kissed me on the forehead. I kept my eyes shut and felt the weight of the bed change as she rose away from me. I could hear the sound of her heels, two steps softly on the rug by the bed, and then four louder ones on the linoleum to the door. I half-opened my eyes so I could see her turn for a last look before she switched out the light. Then she gave me a little wave. I think it was her secret to keep me safe.
Perhaps if I hadn't looked then the storm wouldn't have come and we would still have been a family. Perhaps it was my fault for peeping.
Mum left the door ajar so there was still some light from the hall. She even turned the wireless down but I could hear her humming. Then I was glad I hadn't told her about the water in the ceiling. Everything changed when she was afraid.
I listened to the rain on the roof as the wind began to pick up.
When I woke up the light in the hall had gone out. Mum never turned it off because I was afraid of the dark and so I knew something must be wrong.
I tried to find my torch and put my hand down into water. At first I thought the hot-water bottle had burst or that I had wet the bed but it was too cold and there was too much of it. The floor was shining and the sea was coming in from the hall. I could hear waves outside, close against the walls and window.
I reached for my dressing gown and stood on the bed to get dressed. I had to do it one-handed because I didn't want to let go of the torch. The light made patterns on the walls, moving all the time as I tried to put on the dressing gown. Then I got down into the water and felt for my slippers. Dad never liked me coming through without them and I didn't want to make him angry.
I pointed the torch at the bedroom door and saw that it was open, blown back on its hinges. I began to wade, picking my feet up but trying to keep my slippers on. The water was almost up to my knees. I knew I had to find my parents and not be scared. Perhaps they had already left and forgotten about me. I couldn't think where I'd go, perhaps Uncle George and Auntie Vi's, but they lived miles away and we always went there by car so I didn't know how I could walk.
Then I saw Mum, dressed in her nighty, standing in the middle of the living room and staring at the water.
I shone the torch into her face. âMum,' I said. âWake up.'
She didn't seem to know who I was.
âWhere's Dad?' I said.
She began to take out her curlers and let them fall into the water.
âDancing,' she said.
I could hear the storm against the front door. âWe have to go, Mummy. We have to get out.'
She looked up at the ceiling. âShould we go up there?'
âNo, Mummy â¦ the window at the back. In the kitchen.'
âYou must,' I said, tugging at her arm. âWe have to get out.' I pulled her towards the window and tried to push it up but it was stuck.
âLen always meant to do something about that.'
âWhat are we going to do?' I said.
Mum struck at the window with the side of her arm but hit the wooden frame. âOh, heck â¦ don't shine the torch at me, Martin â¦ I need it here.'
She hit the glass with her forehead. It cracked and fell away from the centre. Then she used her elbow to push away at the edges, pulling out the bits that stuck with her fingers.
She stepped back and hit the central frame with her shoulder. The wood cracked. Mum pushed the crosspiece away so that there was enough room for us to get out. She put out her leg first, bent down and lowered herself into the water below.
âO Mary, Mother of God,' she said.
Outside everything was louder. There was wind and flood and rain; bells ringing, gates banging, police whistles, people screaming.
Mum held out her arm. âCome on.' Blood from her forehead was trickling down into her eyes.
She had always promised that nothing bad would ever happen. âMake it go away,' I said.
âIt's all right, Martin. Shine the torch down here into the water. Get your foot out.'
âI'm frightened,' I said.
âIt's only the darkness. It'll be all right.'
âI don't want to do this.'
âYou must, son.' She held out her hand and helped me out of the window. âHold on and don't let go. The water's cold but it's not deep.'
I jumped down and the flood was up to my knees. I felt bits of wood bang into my leg. Mum took my right hand in her left and used the other to clasp to the side of the house, pushing against it for support. I could hear the creak of the outside staircase beginning to fall away.