This story is set in the world of Thicker Than Water and stars Meg, the mother of one of the book‘s main characters.
After the Flood
Meg watched Martin lower the boat and then himself down to the brackish water in silence.
He reached the boat and looked up at her. His face was pale.
“No. I’d slow you down. You go. Find safety.”
He looked as if he might cry. Don’t, she thought, or you’ll start me off.
“I’ll come back for you.”
She nodded. Of course he wouldn’t.
He blew her a kiss and she feigned a laugh. Then he turned away and started rowing. She pulled back and closed the window, shivering.
By the time he’d disappeared, she’d had to wipe her fogged breath off the window three times. She leaned into the glass, not caring about its cold against her forehead, watching the vast lake around the farm become empty once more.
All she could see now was the orange line of the boat against the horizon, his body a tiny grey-blue dot hovering above it.
And then he was gone.
She turned back to the bedroom – his bedroom – and slid to the floor, the wall hard against her back. She let her legs splay out in front of her, her skirt tugging as she fell. Her mind felt heavy and dull, her ears were ringing and blue swirling shapes played in front of her eyes.
She looked at the door, wondering about Frank. Who knew what state he was in.
She looked at her watch but it had stopped, flooded when she’d plunged her hand into the icy water outside. A vain attempt to straighten the sandbags she and Martin had piled up outside the front door.
The sandbags were gone now, sodden and useless against the storm.
She and Martin had watched out of the window for three days and nights. At first, the skies had been dark and wild, streaked with huge raindrops and heavy with gusts that took the farmyard gate off its hinges and sent it skittering across the field opposite, knocking down sheep like dominoes as it went.
She thought of the sheep and a lump came to her throat. A third of them had been pregnant, too sluggish to escape the water. A couple of the livelier ones had staged an escape through a hedge at the far end and she’d watched as half a dozen more followed them through. By then the living room had been covered in a layer of greasy water and she hadn’t the heart to wade through it and go outside, to try and save her flock. They were better off gone, like her son. The ones that had stayed behind were dead now, floating on the reservoir that the farm had become or stuck to hedges and fences, their wool snagging as they’d panicked and tried to reach higher ground.
She wiped a tear from her eye. She cared more about those sheep than she did about Frank, probably. Certainly more than he did about her. And now they were dead or gone and she was alone.
She hauled herself up and peered at the old-fashioned alarm clock on Martin’s bedside table. Four in the afternoon. What time had he left? Just after lunchtime maybe. Their lunch had been meagre, the remains of a bag of peanuts he’d found in a trouser pocket.
She thought about what she’d have to do if she was going to eat, and sighed. The kitchen was a no-go area, more than three feet deep in murky water. Things she’d rather not identify floated between the battered units. So much for the supposedly flood-proof door that Frank had fitted in the back last year. Typical Frank: buy something knocked off in the pub, believe the claptrap he was told about it, and then bodge the job of putting it in. She was amazed the farm had stayed afloat for so long. She smiled. No pun intended, she thought.
But starving was no way to go. She steeled herself for the mess downstairs. For Frank, if he was conscious. The bottle of whisky, a permanent fixture on the table next to his armchair, had been emptying steadily since the storm hit.
She pushed the door open, listening. Hopefully he’d have fallen into one of his drunken stupors. She crept to the top of the stairs and peered down. The living room, immediately below the stairs, was gloomy. Dull shapes moved on the walls as the low light reflected off the water. The furniture was like a flotilla of abandoned ships, gradually succumbing to the water. She could smell the damp from up here, heavy in her nostrils.
Then she heard it. Scratching, was it? And a drumming sound. Faint.
He’s awake then.
Her stomach growled. Plucking up courage, she crept down the stairs. If she let her weight fall gently onto each step in turn, he might not hear. His chair was just a few feet from the bottom of the stairs, its back squarely towards her. The top of his head poked up over its back, his white hair glowing like an exotic plant in the gloom.
She reached the bottom of the stairs, eyes still on him. On the sixth step up were her waders, right where she’d left them. She gave herself a mental pat on the back for bringing them in from the laundry room. Martin had left his next to hers at first, but now they were somewhere over the horizon with their owner.
There it was again. A knocking now, dull and repetitive. Like the sound of an animal trying to escape. There was an assortment of cats that roamed the house and its outbuildings, but she’d seen none of them for days. Maybe one was trapped somewhere.
She paused, one foot halfway into a boot. She eyed Frank but he wasn’t moving. She looked past his chair towards the hall but there was no movement in there, not even the swirling of water. The house was darkening now and the reflected light on the walls had gone. She wished she’d thought to bring a torch down.
The noise stopped. She eased her legs into her boots and let them sink into the water, holding her breath. When she felt the sodden carpet give beneath her tread she breathed a sigh of relief. The waders were tight and it had been a struggle to pull them on but the water was below their rims, thank God. She muttered a small prayer.
She was going to head for the kitchen but then decided to check on her husband. She stuck her tongue between her lips and edged towards him, waiting for him to move or speak. Her eyes were growing accustomed to the dim light and she could clearly see the top of his head.
She froze and crossed herself.
She waded towards him, not caring now if he heard her. His wild white hair, thin and greasy, was clumped with dark red blood.
She stared at it, her heart pounding in her throat. Frank, you idiot, what’ve you done?
She eased a hand out and fingered his shoulder, keeping clear of his head. He didn’t react. She tightened her grip and tugged, trying to coax him into wakefulness.
She leaned over to take a closer look. His face was grey and his mouth hung open.
A scream caught in her throat, but then she heard the noise again and managed to hold it in.
It was coming from the kitchen. Regular knocking, dull but insistent.
She turned towards it. She had no idea what to do: check it out or retreat upstairs.
“Anything valuable, Lee?”
She froze. The voice had come from the kitchen. It was a young voice, with a local accent. She didn’t recognise it.
But if there were two of them in here, she knew the other one. Lee worked on the farm from time to time, helping Martin with jobs that were too heavy for Frank. What was he doing here?
She stood still and listened, her blood running cold.
“Shh,” came the response. Followed by laughter. A mean, sharp kind of laugh. A laugh she’d always been nervous of.
“Let’s look in the other rooms, see if there’s anything we can nick.”
More banging. She knew what they were trying to do: there was a locked cupboard in the scullery off the kitchen. It was where Frank kept cash. And his rifle.
Her heart sank into her boots. Why didn’t she give the gun to Martin? Why did I let him go?
Alone, she was no match for them. She didn’t care about the cash – it was probably ruined anyway – but she knew that young men in desperate times could be jumpy if they got their hands on a rifle. She had to hide.
She picked her way through the water and back to the stairs, slipping her boots off as she reached the sixth step and gripping them to her as she slid up the stairs. At the top she paused for breath, realising she’d been holding it in. Then she stepped into her and Frank’s bedroom and closed the door.
She sat on the bed, panting. With the door between her and them, the house was silent now.
She looked around the room. There was a heavy wardrobe in an alcove, where she could hide if she needed to. Or she could go under the bed. If her bulk would let her. She shook her head, knowing it wouldn’t.
She rubbed her eyes. She felt dull and heavy, no match for these young men. She pushed her thumbs into her eye sockets, willing herself to stay alert.
She looked back at the door. Maybe if she opened it, she would hear them go. Maybe they would find the money and leave.
She put a hand on the doorknob and turned it slowly. She eased the door open, keeping her ear against it. Dull voices came from downstairs.
She stood behind the door and listened. She was cold: it was almost dark and the house echoed with the damp. Beyond the window, the moon was rising, casting shadows against the glass. She imagined the farmyard in the moonlight, the white light reflected off the water. It would be beautiful, if it weren’t so ugly.
She stiffened. That was the voice she didn’t know, the one that wasn’t Lee.
“Ah, fuck. It’s wet through. No good to us.” That was Lee.
“Over a thousand in there, too. Bastard.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. They’d found the money. Which meant the rifle too. She risked putting her head around the door to hear better.
“Well he’s no good to us now. Stupid old fucker.”
“What about his missus?”
She whimpered, horrified that they remembered her. She’d always avoided the farm labourers, preferring to let Martin deal with them. They intimidated her with their vigour and brash youthfulness. She knew they looked down on her too.
There was quiet downstairs. She pushed her head further round the door, concentrating as hard as she could. Behind her, the windowpane rattled. She turned to see a tree branch pushed up against it, spider-like in the gloom. She blinked. Had the tree come down?
Splashing sounds came up the stairs. They were wading through the living room, approaching the stairs. She pictured them passing Frank. He’d spent most of the last five years in that chair, planted in front of the TV with a bottle or a can at his side. Relying on Martin to run the farm for him. When he wasn’t yelling insults at the poor boy, or worse. Stupid lad. Good for nothing. Never be a proper farmer.
No wonder he’d escaped.
Her eyes widened and she shrank back behind the door, almost losing her footing.
“Old woman? You up there?”
She pushed the door shut and leaned against it, panting.
Not so much of the old, she thought. She was only forty-eight. She caught sight of herself in the mirror over the bed; she looked older. Maybe ten years older. Life on the farm had turned her skin ruddy and creased, and worn her hair to a thin grey hedge that reminded her of the sheep. She thought of Frank’s prematurely white hair, matted with blood. Her stomach lurched and she put a hand in front of her mouth.
She bent over, retching quietly, amazed at herself for being able to control it. But nothing came up. One advantage of starving.
She pulled herself up and pushed her hair out of her eyes. She was sweating and her skin crawled. She leaned into the door again.
She groaned and crossed herself. Dear God, am I going to die?
She pursed her lips, suddenly determined. Not today.
She opened the door a crack again, only to hear creaking on the stairs. They were coming.
She swept her gaze over the bedroom. It was tired and threadbare. Pale cream counterpane dotted with pink flowers, the one Frank’s parents had received as a wedding present. Flimsy bedside tables topped with heavy, old-fashioned lamps.
She paused. The lamps.
Licking her lips and feeling her pulse quicken, she crossed to the bed and bent over to reach the socket behind it. It wasn’t easy: she was a large woman unaccustomed to bending, and the socket was in the centre of the bed, as far away as it could be. Typical. Finally she grabbed the lead and yanked at it, pulling the plug away from the elderly socket. She praised the house and its worn-out electrics.
She stood over the bed, plug swinging from her hand. Could she really do this? She tested the lamp’s weight. The shade was a deep russet, with tassels adorning its edge. But it was the base she needed, made of a heavy gilt-plated metal.
She unscrewed the shade and dropped it on the bed. She tightened her grip of the base and approached the door. It was still ajar.
“Old lady? Are you up here?” The voice was closer now, but soft. Lee. Don’t you remember my name, young man? she thought. At least call me Mrs Walker.
She pushed her feet apart, readying herself like a shotput thrower preparing to take aim. She watched the door.
There was an eternity of silence and then the door moved. She tightened her grip on the lamp base, stifling a gasp. She leaned towards it and pulled her arm back.
The door opened and she swung at the man with all her strength. He screamed as it made contact with his head. He fell backwards, clattering down the wall and coming to rest in a twisted S shape on the floor.
She stared at him. His arm was bent back at an angle that made her stomach lurch, and there was a deep gash on his forehead where the lamp had made contact. She put her hand in front of her mouth and pulled in two heavy breaths.
She waited for him to move, not sure if she wanted him to or not. A sound came from downstairs. His friend’s voice.
Her eyes flicked over him towards the stairs. The staircase disappeared off to the left and she couldn’t see the bottom. Frank’s chair was down there, and the second man. She felt cold sweat run down her face. She desperately needed the toilet.
She looked back at Lee. Blood pumped from the would on his head, red blossoming on the carpet beneath him. That’ll take forever to wash out.
“What ya doin’ up there?”
She put a hand out, her fingernails catching on the wall. How would the other one react when he saw what she’d done?
She held her breath and stepped over Lee, her foot brushing his leg. She whimpered.
He was empty handed. No gun. Which meant it was still downstairs, with the other lad.
Her back was itching now; it would be developing a rash. She looked ahead to Martin’s door, wishing she hadn’t let him go. Where are you, son? Was he safe, or had he been attacked too? She imagined him lying face down in the water, the dinghy floating at his side. No. He’ll be fine. He’s a strong boy.
The lad downstairs was moving through the water; she could hear it sploshing around. It wouldn’t be long before he followed his friend. She sniffed and tightened her grip on the lamp. It dug into her palm.
She pictured Frank downstairs, oblivious. Had they finished him off or was he already out? She didn’t really care. She stepped towards the staircase.
As she rounded the head of the stairs, her eyes widened. A dark, ruffled head was only a foot or so below her, its owner inching upwards. He was looking down at his feet and hadn’t seen her.
She raised the lamp base and hurled it, shrieking as loud as she could.
The man looked up, startled. He was young, maybe only sixteen. Martin’s age.
Her shriek became a whimper.
He raised an arm to protect himself but it was no good. He hadn’t been ready and in his surprise he’d leaned backwards. When it hit him he was already off balance, and it didn’t take much to send him backwards.
He gave her a terrified stare and scrabbled wildly with his hands. They found nothing but air. She leaned forwards and flung out a hand but it was no good. He moaned and tumbled backwards, almost flipping in mid-air as he careered towards the ground below.
He hit the water with a wet thud followed by an agonised scream. He convulsed, his body jumping in a way that reminded her of the calf they’d had to put to sleep when it suffered from fits.
She waited for him to move again but he didn’t. She descended a few steps and leaned over, gripping the bannister. His body was still and his eyes open. Their pallor contrasted with his grubby face.
She bent double and was sick on the top step. Disgusted with herself, she ran to Martin’s room, slamming the door behind her. She sped to the window. Maybe he’d turned back. Maybe he would know.
Outside it was dark, with no sound except the wind in the trees opposite.
She slid to the floor and let herself go, sobbing like she might never stop.