Weekend Fiction: Watching People Drown
An explosion shook the building. The wall hit Sally.
Having fallen against it, she pushed off from it, charged up the stairs, burst into Katy’s room.
Katy sat on the edge of the bed with her Sparkle Cat High Top Trainers swinging. Bandy baby legs in the air and arms waggling, Ashley lay on his back behind her.
‘You OK?’ Sally’s ears rang.
Katy nodded. ‘Yes, Mummy.’
Ashley had a scrunched-up face, balled hands. His cries expanded to fill the room, in waves.
Sally took the baby, clasped him to her, jigged him up and down, to and fro.
He gradually quietened.
Katy’s head jerked up. ‘Mummy, where’s Daddy gone?’
‘Trying to get some news, sweetheart.’ Supporting Ashley with one hand, she grasped Katy’s hand with the other. ‘It’s going to be OK, I promise.’
The front door clicked open, slammed shut. Footsteps pounded up the stairs. Sally shook to the footsteps of her heart.
The bedroom door knocked against the wall as Tom flew in.
‘We have to go,’ he said.
‘They’re within sight now. They’ve set up a mortar position.’ He took Ashley. ‘Pack what you can.’
‘Where are we going, Daddy?’ cried Katy.
His voice from the landing: ‘Somewhere safe.’ A creak from half way down the stairs. ‘However far away.’
Sally jumped as an explosion flashed at the window. The grey billow of dust and fragments rattled against its panes, clattered against the roof.
Shadow drowned the room.
* * *
A missile flew low over the estate as she and Tom ran out carrying Katy and Ashley. It zipped above the rooftops, telegraph poles and lampposts, steady and straight as if on a wire.
Sally shuddered. ‘We should have left weeks ago.’
‘Yeah, we should.’
She clasped Ashley in the front. ‘I didn’t lock the door. Did you?’
Tom strapped Katy in the back. ‘Not much point, is there?’
‘Daddy, I want Digby.’
‘Ssh, Digby’s fine. I gave him a carrot.’
Sally caught Tom’s eye. They’d left the hutch outside the back gate with the door open. Digby hadn’t hung about.
The Stopes at No.67 had left it till the last minute too.
Sally waved to Jen, who didn’t wave back.
A year ago, the only thing troubling Jen had been which school to get Jack into. Now Jack stared out of the back window of her and Derek’s Volvo with huge eyes.
Sally turned the other way and, at the end of the road, she could see figures moving in the treeline on the far side of the field.
The chassis leaned slightly and resettled as Tom climbed in the front.
They reversed off the ramp of their driveway and set off up the road.
Sally waved to Jen again, as they passed.
Jen had just lifted her hand, puppet-like, to wave back, when a ball of flame erupted from the car, engulfing it.
Heat licked Sally’s side window and burning debris rained down in the road. She twisted the other way as the Stopes’ car rolled, backwards, off the driveway and into Anne’s Mini opposite. Flames poured, upwards, from every window.
Tom stared in the rear-view mirror. ‘Jesus Christ.’
Facing front, Sally raised her arm to point.
They hung in their seatbelts as a tank swivelled on its tracks at the end of their road. Its turret turned and twitched independently as if lining up to return fire.
The car’s engine whined. Tom flooring the accelerator pedal pressed them back into their seats. The tyres shrilled as he peeled off to the left. They all swung the other way. Sally hung on and sucked in air as if taking a drag, blew it out as if exhaling smoke.
Tom found a moment to grip her hand.
They joined the main road further down. Piles of rubble, plots of stubby stacks of brick and stone like ancient ruins, houses in cross section with beds teetering over the edge of jagged upper floors and burnt-out shells of houses gave way to fields with bands of soldiers, gun positions, army trucks, tanks.
Like a reflection in the window, Jack’s eyes superimposed themselves upon everything Sally looked at. It took all her effort not to cry.
One tear leaked out.
* * *
‘Come on, come on, come on,’ yelled Tom.
‘Baby…’ She touched his arm. ‘I think the cars up ahead are empty.’
The queue hadn’t moved since they’d joined it.
She and Tom got out.
Up ahead, families abandoned their vehicles all along the line.
‘They’ve taken the bridge out,’ said a teenage boy coming back to the car in front.
Tom fetched their backpacks from the boot.
The silver-haired driver behind stuck his head out of the window of his Passat. ‘Oi, what do you think you’re doing?’
Tom pointed over his shoulder. ‘This queue’s not going anywhere.’
The man pulled his head back in, jabbed his horn.
Sally put her backpack on and picked Katy up.
Tom shouldered his and lifted Ashley out of the car.
Katy squirmed. ‘Mummy, Mummy, I want to walk.’
Sally gripped her tighter. ‘Soon, sweetheart. You can soon.’
They picked their way along the tussocky verge.
A slowed-down fan-like whirring to the left made everyone turn their heads.
Coming down a field or two away, a helicopter twirled from the sky like a maple seed pod.
The explosion clapped in their ears.
* * *
The entrance to the tunnel loomed ahead. The last train had passed through six months ago. Security had left soon after.
‘Mummy, where are we going?’ said Katy.
‘We’re going under the sea, darling.’
‘Will there be fish?’
Sally set Katy down to walk beside her and, leaning close to Tom, whispered, ‘You know there was talk they might blow it. It’s not even been maintained.’
He shrugged. ‘What choice do we have?’
Sally lowered her head.
Katy tugged at her sleeve. ‘Mummy, Mummy, it looks dark.’
Sally sniffed. She had a catch in her throat and didn’t quite trust herself to reply as she looked up and saw what someone had sprayed over the entrance: ‘Abandon all hope ye who…’
Blackness swallowed them.
* * *
‘There’s a train coming,’ cried a man.
Ahead, light bore a hole into perpetual night.
‘Mummy, I can’t walk any more,’ said Katy.
Sally picked her up. ‘We’re nearly there, darling.’
Darkness rolled back, and back.
‘Stay close,’ said Tom.
Those behind pushed. Where did they find the energy? The soles of Sally’s feet burned. Her rubbery legs jerked spasmodically onwards, now one, now the other.
A pair of jets screamed low overhead as, shielding her eyes, she emerged out into an alien medium, sunlight.
Here too, the fences had fallen and the security guards had gone. France lay wide open.
* * *
By day, black smoke plumed on the horizon. Now, at night, that portion of the skyline glowed orange.
Some said it was Paris.
Sally nodded in that direction. ‘Do you think we should have gone north?’
Tom sighed. ‘Maybe.’
They stopped behind a service station with half a baguette to share between them and some water from a stream. They slept in the woods on a carpet of pine needles.
They had money. They’d managed to withdraw it before all the banks had shut their doors. They just needed to save it for what lay ahead.
Around midnight they heard small arms fire from the carpark through the trees. Tom went to have a look.
The crack of gunshots.
Hearting thudding, Sally ran, hunched, towards the outer limit of the wood.
* * *
‘Where’s Daddy?’ said Katy the next morning.
Having finished repacking, one rucksack this time, Sally held her breath for a moment to contain the sob that wanted to burst out of her. She swallowed. ‘He said he had to go back, sweetheart. To be with Digby.’
Katy’s eyebrows bunched. Her lips jutted. ‘But I want Daddy.’
‘You don’t want Digby to be alone, do you?’
Katy’s bottom lip quivered. ‘N-No…’
‘Well, now he won’t be, will he? He’ll have Daddy.’ She hitched up a smile. ‘And Daddy will have him.’
Sally lifted the pack onto her back, picked up Ashley, took Katy’s hand and, tender hooks tearing at the integument of her chest, led the way through the wood.
What were the chances of one stray bullet making it through the trees?
* * *
In the aching cold, midway between treeline and snowline just off a mountainside path, Sally kneeled and smoothed the earth among the palest of blue forget-me-nots.
She patted down the baby-sized mound and, inclining her head, said a prayer over the spot.
When she’d finished, she bent to kiss the earth.
Katy snivelled behind her.
Sally pulled on her pack and clutched Katy’s hand.
Her heart felt like a dead weight she would have to lug around with her for the rest of her life.
* * *
She sat under a stripy umbrella on a rocky beach beside the dark blue sea, flashing, now here, now there, with silver. An army helicopter clattered overhead. To either side, and all around the curve of the bay, houses in pastel shades stretched steeply back inland as if stacked on top of one another.
Her whole body throbbed while, in the crook of her arm, Katy slept.
Other forms sat huddled along the beach under the shade of umbrellas.
A man had been picking his way among the rocks from one group to the next all morning.
He waved to her. ‘Buongiorno.’
He came over. ‘You need help to get across, yes?’
Moving her umbrella so that she could see him, she shielded her eyes. ‘Yes.’
Short, slim, angular, resting one ankle on the other knee, he perched on a rock beside her. ‘Is all right. I help.’
‘How much do you charge?’
She took a deep intake of breath. It was just under half of what she had left. ‘Fine. Yes.’
‘For one.’ He held up a finger, which switched to two fingers. ‘Two for...’ He pointed at Katy.
Her arm dropped. ‘Oh.’
‘Is OK.’ His foot slid off his knee and he put his hands down to launch himself up.
She touched his arm, flinched at the mixture of determination and desperation it betrayed. ‘All right.’
He smiled. ‘You pay now.’
She shook her head. ‘No. When we’re on the boat.’
He looked out to sea, turned back. ‘Come tomorrow.’ Pointing round the headland. ‘Night.’
‘Tomorrow night, yes,’ she called after his retreating back.
When she licked her lips, she tasted the salty tang of the sea on the breeze.
* * *
Carrying Katy, who clung to her neck, Sally sloshed through seawater. Rising and falling, it splashed over her knees, dropped to her ankles, submerged her knees, dropped to her shins. The dinghy bobbed and wagged at the end of its short rope, a few feet away.
A wave rose up to her waist, tried to take her with it, and she gave a quavery laugh.
She hitched Katy higher.
Holding the rope, the man she’d met yesterday smiled. Everyone called him Carlo, though she suspected that wasn’t his real name.
Releasing a bundle of notes to him, she lifted her daughter into the dinghy’s interior, then leaned into and rolled over the side. The life jacket she’d purchased yesterday made it an even more ungainly process. Thin rubber squeaked under her. Her dress clung to her legs. Inside and the right way up, she bouncy-castle-walked the short distance to Katy. More and more people climbed aboard and, as much as their life jackets allowed, she and her daughter squeezed themselves into a smaller and smaller space.
Carlo shared out the paddles.
Rubber protested as Sally stuck her head up. ‘This is taking us to a bigger boat, isn’t it?’
Carlo stretched his arms out. ‘Big boat, yes.’
He clambered aboard.
* * *
A light that had been following them for some time at sea level grew larger.
Carlo waved and got everyone else to wave.
The light flashed.
When the light reached them, the craft turned and Sally saw that it was a small fishing vessel, nowhere near as big as Carlo had described but at least a proper boat, not a rubber life-raft.
Carlo stood up, placed one foot on the lip of the dinghy and stretched out an arm as the boat came alongside them. A colleague in the back of the boat reached out, and pulled him aboard. As Carlo stepped across, he thrust off from the dinghy, which sent them gliding, and rotating, away.
A few of the dinghy’s occupants cried out.
Slowly, the fishing boat turned the other way, and kept on going.
Men, women and children shouted.
The boat chugged back to shore.
Silence claimed them one by one.
A breeze caressed Sally’s face. Would they drift back inland, or did unseen sea currents already have the fragile raft in their grip?
She hugged Katy, who, cushioned by their life jackets, sat sideways in her arms.
The sea rocked them both to sleep.
* * *
They awoke the next morning to find all trace of land erased by a heavy swell.
Sally thought she heard something.
The cry of a bird, out here?
She peered left, front, right, back. ‘What’s that?’
‘What?’ said the woman sitting next to her, Helen, who spoke with a home counties accent.
There, again. A shout.
‘Look,’ cried Sally. She pointed to two arms, one big, one small, waving in the water. ‘They need help.’
Helen clutched her wrist. A pair of fingers pincered it. ‘No, we can’t. We’re full as it is.’
Sally glanced at Katy, who looked up at her. She stared at the woman in the water trying to keep hold of her young son. ‘It doesn’t matter. We have to.’
Four passengers got to their knees and started paddling.
Sally helped pull the woman and little boy into the dinghy. Both were as slippery as if the sea had just given birth to them.
‘Thank you, thank you,’ said the shivering woman.
‘What happened?’ said a mother of two.
‘Our dinghy deflated.’
Sally prodded the side of their dinghy. Was it her or did it have more give in it than the night they’d set off?
* * *
Like being on a Waltzer, the dinghy rose and fell as it spun, in smashed seas. The wind whipped and snapped. Billows of fine rain drenched them. Waves slopped over the side. They had to bail it out with their hands. The base dipped. The sides bent.
‘Throw your belongings out,’ shouted Helen. ‘Everything except for food.’
Two or three passengers complied.
Sally held Katy’s hand. She’d lashed her daughter to her.
In her other hand she gripped their backpack, which contained a change of clothes for her and Katy, an eighth of a loaf of bread, a plastic bottle with the last of their drinking water, her last little bit of money, some plasters, a needle for lancing blisters, Tom’s watch and wedding ring, and an envelope of pictures from a family photo session that included some of him and Ashley.
Helen ripped the pack from her grasp and flung it over the side.
Sally watched it go under and glared at Helen.
They descended as in a lift. A wall of sea rose up. The dinghy tilted and they clung on as it shot upwards. The wall curled over at the top. Water swept over them. The dinghy tipped over.
A shock of cold. Plunging, plunging, Sally sucked in saltwater. Thrashing, fighting upwards. Pressure built high in her nose, till she coughed, spluttered, gulped air.
Reaching out for Katy, yanking her closer, she spotted the dinghy, upside-down, topping the next but one crest, glimpsed Helen making for it below her, above her.
Sally clung to Katy; Katy clung to her.
* * *
The wind had dropped. All around them, sea the colour of sky had levelled out to merge with sky the colour of sea.
Another day suspended in water, drifting, locked together.
Sally told Katy stories, about how she and Daddy had met, how they’d wanted a little girl called Katy, and Katy listened, or didn’t.
Eventually Sally too fell quiet.
The salt on her lips only made her thirstier – a thirst that the whole sea could never quench.
The sun beat in the sky, beat in her head, in the skin of her face.
* * *
Sally’s feet dragged on the bottom. Sea crashed over her. She drank what felt like a quart of water. Was this it? Was she drowning? The seabed shelved. Mind going with it, she struggled for purchase. A wave knocked her to her knees. Another thumped her in the back. She skidded on all fours.
Planting her feet in claggy sand, she forced herself up off it. Land stretched out before her, wider than she could comprehend.
Her knee popped with the sound of a bulb blowing as she genuflected to lift Katy in her arms. She carried her, cold, limp, arms dangling, up the incline of the beach and laid her down on baked sand.
She shook her. ‘Katy, wake up.’
She placed her ear to her mouth. ‘No, not my little girl...’
If Katy was dead, it had all been for nothing – walking an entire continent, crossing the sea in a flimsy inflatable; the superhuman energy and endurance motherhood had demanded and bestowed.
She opened Katy’s mouth, pinched her nose, bent down and breathed into her.
Katy’s chest rose. Yes…
It fell. Come on, come on, come on…
Sally pressed down on the spot that had risen, again and again and again. How many times was she supposed to do it? Was she even doing it right?
Katy didn’t stir.
‘No, please, God, no.’
She bent down and blew every last bit of breath that she had in her into her daughter.
Katy coughed, turned her head, spewed saltwater and opened her eyes.
She sat up, pointed, coughed again. ‘Look, Mummy, a giant sandcastle.’
Beyond the dunes and the palm trees that stuck out of them rose a building the colour of the beach.
Katy blinked. ‘Mummy, you got us here. You did it.’
Thinking of all she’d lost, Tom, Ashley, half her family, Sally deliquesced. The tears flowed down her face and this time she didn’t try to stop them.
She rested her hands on Katy’s shoulders and looked into eyes as blue as her own but the shape of Tom's, stroked hair as straight as hers but the colour of Tom’s. ‘No, darling, no, you’ve got it the wrong way round.’ She hugged her daughter, tightly, crying hard. ‘We made it because of you.’
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