A short story by Amanda Jennings
The river flows quietly within its banks. It is early in the morning and a haze of mist skims the peaceful water. A ribbon of smoke. Everything is tranquil. Still. Unaware.
It’s the beginning of April. April the first. A day for fools. Though the dawn cracks the spring sky promising midday heat, right now there’s a crispness. A chill that brushes my skin with icy, teasing fingers.
You April fool.
I walk with purpose but without destination. I can hear their voices behind me. Their peals of laughter, which echo like a silenced bell in still air. I ram my hands over my ears. Press hard. Head in a vice. On I walk. Once or twice I nearly go over on the soft ground underfoot. Goodness, how it’s rained these past few weeks. Cats and dogs and mice and hamsters, as Ma would say. A bloody great menagerie falling from the sky. I feel as if I’m fading. I’ve been fad-ing for weeks. For years. I’m barely here. A shadow of a person. Invisible. But not invisible enough.
The bells start up again.
Go away. Leave me alone.
I press against my ears harder still until silence finally wraps around me. I drop my hands, unsure, but the bells stay away. Good riddance. No place for them here.
To my left is a small copse beside the water. Brambles thread through branches, knotting themselves into the trees as if trying to swallow them up, inching over them, a creeping, smothering cloak of thorns. The tree escapes the scrub at its base. Roots corkscrew into the river bank, gnarled and coated with muddy moss. I step off the path. Something pulls me. Something powerful. I can hear whispering now, voices whispering over each other, battling to be heard.
‘Just you shush,’ I say. The sound of my voice makes me startle. ‘Just you be quiet.’ The whispering stops but the bells start up again. So up go my hands like they’re on springs and slam against my ears.
My foot slips on the wet clay. I stumble into the trees. A branch stabs my face. Rakes my skin. I touch my cheek and see a trace of blood on my fingertips. And at that moment – at ex-actly that moment – I see her.
I gasp. I can’t help it. The gasp knocks me backwards and I fall. Probably tripped by another root. There’s mud on my skirt from where I landed. I see Ma’s knitted brow. Her cloudy eyes. She tuts.
‘Oh, dear me, that stain will need proper greasy elbow.’
‘Not greasy elbow, Ma. Elbow grease.’
‘Don’t talk back. Cheeky mare.’
I look again at the river. I don’t want to. I want to turn and run but I can’t move. I’m frozen solid. Caught in a witch’s spell. My heart hammers, forcing blood in pulses through my weary veins.
There’s a woman in the water.
She floats beneath the surface. Suspended. I think I knew she’d be there. Her hand stretches up towards me. Fingertips reach for the surface but don’t quite make it. Her skin is white. Lips tinged blue. Her hair moves with the water’s gentle ebb like strands of spider’s web floating around her face.
My breath catches.
I wonder for a moment if it’s an April Fool. I inch nearer. Peer closer. It’s no joke. She’s dead, for certain. Dead as anything. I’m surprised to find I’m not as scared as I would have thought I’d be. She looks too peaceful to be terrifying.
She looks safe.
I glance over my shoulder and see no-one. I hold my breath. My knees buckle and I catch myself on a branch. She is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Serene and calm. Held in a moment. Her mouth open. Eyes too. What’s she trying to say? She is staring right at me. Through me. Inside me.
Who knows you’re here?
Nobody. Nobody knows. Nobody but me.
‘She’ll rot,’ Ma says, her voice splitting the stillness. ‘Rot until she’s nowt but sticky black flesh and a vague memory.’
‘Ma,’ I say. ‘Don’t be nasty.’
‘True though. We always knew she’d end like this.’
‘Who is she?’
Ma smiles and taps her nose. ‘For me to know and you to find out.’
‘Tease,’ I say under my breath.
‘Fool,’ she says back.
I hear a noise from the path. I tuck myself tight into the trees, into their scratching twiggy fingers. I don’t want to be seen. A crow caws in the sky above me and a wood pigeon answers, hollow and mournful.
Hush. Don’t tell anyone I’m here.
The noise is a runner. He’s wearing lycra the colour of boiled sweets and I can clearly see the shape of his whatnot. I look quickly away before I have thoughts. His face is red. Sweating. His cheeks puff in and out like he’s one of those fish. A puffer fish. Puffing and sweating and running in lycra.
She’s dead already, I mouth to myself. Nothing you can do. Even if I call out, there’s nothing you can do. She’s going to lie here. All alone. Peaceful. It’s what she wants.
But should I call out?
‘No,’ Ma says. ‘What good would it do?’
I look back at the woman in her watery coffin. Her eyes are glassy, swollen marbles, ready to pop right out. I imagine them rolling down her face and falling through the water, landing with a soft plop in the silt, staring up at me from the muddy bed. I close my eyes tightly. Don’t want to lose them. But when I do, they are there.
I’m holding my mop. Got a bucket of water. And in they march. All white teeth and shining hair. See how they swagger.
She stares right at me. ‘You’re in my way, you waste of space,’ she says. The others laugh. Such pretty laughs the girls have. Like ringing bells.
I don’t reply, just step aside and try not to catch eyes with her, that one with the hips and the hair and the sass. She walks into a cubicle. But she doesn’t close the door. She sits. Pulls her flimsy knickers down. Just a scrap of white lace, like a doily, looped around her thin, brown ankles. Her eyes are locked on mine. Even though I try not to look, I can’t help myself.
Why didn’t she shut the door?
‘Don’t watch. You’re such a lecher. You’re always watching me.’
It’s lies. I’m not always watching her. I’ve only seen her once or twice. Maybe four times. But when she’s near she’s hard not to look at. She’s one of those types. A magnet. My eyes, iron filings.
She takes some paper. Reaches between her legs. Wipes. Then she stands. Doily knickers up. She holds the paper between the tips of her fingers as she walks towards me. Then she drops it with a smile and it falls like manna at my feet.
‘Go on then. Pick it up.’
So I do.
You should have said no.
‘Your mother just died, didn’t she?’
I turn away to hide my face. I can feel tears brewing. I don’t want to cry because Ma says tears are for wedding cakes not cheeks.
‘Mind you,’ the girl says. ‘If I was stuck with you my whole of my life, I’d want to die too.’
And then she walks up to me, close, so I can smell her, all perfume and privilege. She leans close to my ear. Whispers. Her breath is hot and creamy with cigarettes, mints and spite.
‘I’d want to kill myself.’
Then she smiles again and they all turn and walk away, swishing and laughing like bells.
‘She died of age!’ I call out.
But they are gone and I am left holding that piece of wetted tissue, while their laughter ech-oes around me.
The runner has passed me now. I don’t call him back; it’s too late and, anyway, he looks busy. Important things to do. Most likely heading home for breakfast. Of course, he’ll have a wife. And, of course, she’ll be pretty. I can see her making pancakes. Not papery Shrove Tues-day ones, but the smaller, spongy ones the Americans like, the ones they smother with dark syrup and blueberries. I’ve never tried a blueberry. I imagine they must be very sweet and very plump and burst in the mouth like sugary fireworks.
The path is empty again. I look back at the river. Little insects dance around the water and tease the surface. I step close to the bank. Kneel down. I don’t care about the mud anymore. She looks like she’s cast in aspic. Lips parted. Mouth open and asking for blueberries.
‘I don’t want to die in a river.’
My words disturb a bird, who pushes from the branches above in a flustered rush to escape.
‘Then go home, love.’
Ma’s voice is soft as marshmallow now. I haven’t heard it that way in years. I remember her how she was. Warm and kind. Different to the cranky stranger stuck in her bed, eyes silted up with unrecognition, sour and rotten, death creeping over her like mould on old food.
I think of our bedsit. Her sheets cold. The two-bar heater with only one strip working. The building it sits in, overrun with rats and hopeless apathy. Replete with lost souls. Four walls. Memories and photographs fading together.
‘I have no home, Ma.’ I reach out and graze the water with my fingertips. ‘Just this river now.’
Tiny, see-through fish dart about the dead woman, swim in and out of her empty eye sock-ets and her open mouth that begs for blueberries. As I watch she begins to fall away. Drops through the water. Slowly fading. I want to grab her. I want to pull her from the river and put my lips to hers and breathe life back into them. But I stay motionless and soon she is gone. The river keeps flowing, moves silently onwards as the sun rises on another bright day for the laughing bells and the runner and his pretty, pretty wife.
I do up my coat, button by button. ‘It’s cold, isn’t it, Ma?’
She smiles and nods. ‘It is. Don’t go without a coat, love.’
I ease myself down on to the edge of the bank. My legs in the water. Waist-deep now. It’s warmer than I was expecting. Welcoming, even. It covers my chest, then my eyes, and finally, as the crow calls out above me, it closes over my head and my hair, which is just the colour of spider’s web.
Amanda Jennings' new novel In Her Wake is published by Orenda Books.