by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2014
One story in three times. A survivor of the Great Flood talks to herself as she starves, a girl lives through the Cold War in a hospital bed, and in the present day a man tries to make conversation with his depressed daughter.
Driving our Katie up to Edinburgh is a lot less of a treat than it used to be. When we took her up on holidays, it was special. Her eyes lighting up and that. I bet mine did too. I think secretly we both felt guilty for never taking her abroad, but money was tight and she loved the bagpipes and the castle. This time, the first time this century, the trip could hardly seem more different. Her in the back seat like always, but her mum’s not there. The dog’s not there. And our holiday home is mine now. Less special.
Of course there was no sun on the drive up, but the rain seemed to be actively following us up the motorway, usually a mile or so in front, sometimes dropping back for ten minutes when it really wanted to take the Michael.
I’d hoped it would stay in England and Wales. Some half-decent weather would do wonders for Katie. Evidently it’s not to be.
When we arrive at King’s there’s been no change, but at least we’re forced to animate ourselves for a sec. Seeing Katie shuffle about under the rain and meet my eyes, urging me to find the keys in my pocket, almost makes me not want to find them. She’s depending on me, eh. Sort of. Nice to see her irritated, not just vacant.
But the stuff’s seeping in at the back of my shirt. I open the door, let her in.
I think to tell her where to hang her coat, offer her a hot drink, but I’m distracted. I have to ask the question.
And I know from experience that there’s nothing worse a person can say to Katie now than, Have you had your pill today? I’ve never said it, but I’ve seen her face when her mother does. Christ alone knows what that face is supposed to convey, or to hide maybes. But whatever it is, it’s a bit fierce. The sort of thing you’re not supposed to see in your daughter’s eyes, I’m sure.
Sometimes when I drive South to visit them, I sneak a peek at her pills box to see if she’s had her dose. If there’s one more empty blister in the strip then I mutter it to her mum and the whole business doesn’t have to be brought up. I always think – am I doing her a favour, or just making her even more tense? Does she just spend her day wondering when the hammer’s going to drop?
But there’s none of that from today on. I’ve been told. And I’ve re-phrased the question twenty-odd times in the rear-view mirror. Katie love, you’ve had your pill now, aye? Easy going, you know. Good cop. Or, Don’t miss your pill now, girl. Voice of authority. Bit of trust.
Katie catches me by the kettle while I’m going on to myself, so I made a little gesture with my hands: the old shaky cup. She nods, so I make a letter C with the fingers of one hand, and then a capital T with them both. She almost laughs, I bet I smile too. Don’t say owt.
“Coffee,” she says. Softly. Helplessly. Like a kid again. Like Hamlet at the bloody wedding reception. I hate to think it, but that voice she’s learned doesn’t half annoy me. Maybe while she’s living with me I can knock that little habit out of her.
I find her in the living room, curled into a corner of the couch like the rest of the furniture’s giving her a funny look. She used to love this little house. We all did, back in the day. I never stopped. I give her the coffee, sit mine down by my armchair and sigh. She has her face on her still.
Her mam has kept me updated on Katie’s illness on the phone, and I’ve seen it get worse on my visits. It’s been going on for a good long while, since before she lost her job, and her flat and that bloke she liked so much. Slipping away. I’ve been watching, giving her a meaningful look every now and again while I try to think of something to say to her. Might never happen isn’t really going to cut it, as they say. Her face looks, sort of, baggy. She sleeps funny hours, doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to do anything except stare at a wall and sigh. And sometimes mutter things that go well and truly over my head. It was a case of, spend some time with me or back to hospital.
Poor Beverley’s looking at this as a break for herself, and that’s not hard for me to understand. I feel lousy for thinking it, but this is hard work.
She says Katie just needs her dad. I trust her, anyway.
“I hope the rain isn’t getting worse for mum,” the lass mutters to a cushion.
That’s the longest sentence I’ve heard from her in a long while. I’m proud. I nod.
“She’ll be all right, yeah.”
Then after a moment I put in, “It’ll be fine”. She just closes her eyes.
The evening trundles, like they do, and we watch the news. They’re running vox-pops to fill the time between updates. Every channel seems to have been allotted extra news breaks to stay up to date with the weather, even though to my mind there’s never really anything to say except it’s getting worse. Today it’s Birmingham, because the water is still only ankle-deep and presumably the BBC’s budget for hiring ‘amphibious vehicles’ is running out. They won’t stay there long: city’ll be flooded in a day or so. They don’t show us much of Europe but apparently they’re having the worst of it. Amsterdam’s basically just gone now.
Our Katie’s staring dead ahead at the screen as the reporter asks some bloke on the high street, “What do you think the future holds for the city?” Bloody stupid question to ask. The weather men don’t know, so why should this fella?
He says something sensible about the sandbag shortage, so they move to a frightened lass with a baby.
The last one is an old lady – probably just a bit older than me, but dressed like a proper old lady. “It’s the beginning of the end, isn’t it?” she says, not joking, bless her, glancing at the sky with a stern look on her face like Terry Jones in his old woman get-up. “God’s punishing us, isn’t He?” Tone of voice makes it sound matter of fact.
Katie’s nodding. I see her from my armchair but I don’t know what to say to this. She’s never been a religious type. We didn’t even made her go to Sunday school.
I snort a bit. Katie moves her head towards me, but her eyes stay where they are.
“Daft,” I say. And the newsman is asking other people about the end times, most of whom laugh.
Katie looks at me properly, a bit hurt. As though I’ve just insulted her.
“…ridiculous,” I say. I thought I said Don’t be first, but I think I only mouthed it.
The girl – the woman, she is now, despite the way she’s acting – wraps her arms around her legs and pushes her knees into the tops of her cheeks. Looks like a little Basset hound alone in its owner’s house, up against a window.
Probably too late now, but perhaps she shouldn’t be watching this. The news about the rain is a little bit disturbing, it has to be said. It can’t be good for her behaviour. Illness. For her illness. I’m still coming round to that – but there is medication for it, and I believe she is trying. It’s depression, and it’s an illness.
She’s sat right next to a big wet bloody window so I can’t exactly get her to forget about the news altogether, but I suppose I can switch off this hysteria.
“Some more people drowned in Cornwall,” she says, the moment it goes quiet. And her voice is a bit less helpless, a bit like she used to be. Just a bit. “Dad?”
I’m saying something like, “Shall we see if there’s a film on, eh? Or put on a DVD or something if you, you know. You brought some with you.”
“There were photos of missing children. Ten-to-twelve year-olds, their school photos. It’s not right.”
Well of course it isn’t.
“Honestly, I–” she starts to say it, then lets her voice drift off, curls up a bit more into the chair. “Wish I could–” she’s starting again. I can see where it’s going but I won’t think about it. She says it: “Wish it could be me instead of them.”
Why would she even think of that? What a stupid thing to say. It’s not like there’s some sort of bloody choice! Who is she trying to bargain with? And does she honestly not know how that makes me feel, to hear my daughter saying that? It’s disrespectful to the people who are dead, even.
Cheeks are getting hot. I’m just angry. I could have slapped some sense into her, in another time. My dad would have. Certainly you can’t do that sort of thing to your kids now. I don’t really want to. But what’s making her say that?
It’s just some bleedin’ rain! How are you supposed to make someone like this understand that everything’s going to be fine?
She’s looking at me. Looks upset.
I’m not going to listen to this. So I’m out the room. The door to my art studio actually slams, but I don’t think I meant it to.
That night I’m asleep and then, bit by bit, a funny sound gets me up. Takes a good ten minutes to make my eyes open, and another five or so before my brain is actually getting in gear and I can pay attention to this noise. Shrill, it is.
My old arms and legs aren’t for moving just yet. They’re like lines of bricks. I like ‘em that way. It’s muggy under the covers but there’s enough cold air on my face. The noise is coming through the wall to the spare room.
Crying. Whimpering, more like.
Blink. Someone’s crying. Katie’s crying. Spare room.
I feel my knees lock up.
And this isn’t the sort of crying you’d expect from a twenty-six year-old woman. I haven’t ever heard someone cry like that on television, even. She’s just making noises. Throaty, long, wet noises, weird groans. And no evidence of her trying to stop herself. Louder every time.
I know I’m supposed to get up, but, well. I’m not ready. I haven’t moved my tongue yet.
Louder, until it’s ridiculous. She must know this is going to wake me up. Silence.
A minute goes by. I’m swishing my tongue about, blinking more. Breathing very deeply. Twitching my toes. Think I might rub my eyes.
It starts again. Quiet but rising every time. Horrible noise.
She’s doing it deliberately, I think. She wants me to go to her.
And this is how she asks for it? By lying there and making noises like a sea lion?
Some words get thrown in. Why, No and Can’t. She’s shrieking them, distorting her voice like she’s trying to sound like the bloody Exorcist.
Why can’t she just get up and knock on the door? Ask me, like a civilised – like a person if she wants me for something?
My face is itching. I pull off my bedclothes and lay there in my scrunched-up boxer shorts for a moment and let her build to another crescendo.
So how long was doing this before she got me up? In the middle of the night. Honestly. It’s pathetic, I think.
And that word makes me feel a little bit better. She’s being pathetic. It’s beneath her. A year ago, Katie was a teacher. Is this how she called for attention at work? What do I do, indulge her? I don’t want her to make a habit of this. She was supposed to be improving.
“Just can’t do it!” As loud as she dares.
This is not the way I raised her.
Obviously I have to go to her. I know that. What if she tries to do something terrible again and I ignore it? Is there anything sharp in that room? Nothing suspicious in her luggage, anyway. No stockpiles of medicine in the cottage, just half a packet of ibuprofen.
I have to go, I know.
But I wait through another round of her braying. I have to get dressed, for one thing. I imagine myself stomping about and her hearing it, waiting for me. Am I supposed to pretend she hasn’t woke me, or that I was just passing when I suddenly noticed her, or what? Surely she’d be embarrassed.
She’s off again.
She’s getting louder, giving out more pathetic, ugly noises. I’m tiptoeing. Wondering what to say first when I get to her door.
She just wants attention, I think. If I were properly awake I could scream at myself.
A new noise and then the sound of blowing snot. A bit of a whimper while she, presumably, wipes her nose.
She doesn’t start again. Goes quiet. I unclench my hands, lie back down, facing the door, all my weight on my arm, and I wait there until I hear her snore. My eyes don’t close all night.
The morning comes and we get the day going. She sort of staggers out to the kitchen at one point and then comes back, water dripping off her chin and two lumps of her hair wetted together. Her eyes are red and her skin is shining. I’m thinking there’s days of wax and muck on her and she’s agitated the surface of it.
For the sake of something to say I try, “Been washing your face?” Sounds stupid. She just says yes and wipes herself with a sleeve. Then she slowly, slowly gets back in the chair, back into position.
She seems to have taken to staring at her laptop instead of the telly. It makes a welcome break and it’s nice to see her moving more than once every three hours, even if it’s just the fingers. But the look on her face – she’s staring right into that screen. Little furrow above her nose, just sat there all unattended to. Staring. Christ alone knows what she’s looking for.
I make us both a hot drink, give her a coffee, and she looks daggers at it. Then it happens: she just puts the cup down hard and starts yelling, or rather croaking, loud as she can manage. I don’t know what to do. I’m so fucked up and I don’t know what to do.
She’s never swore at me before. It shocks me, honestly. I sometimes swear privately or with mates, and I’ve always assumed she must do the same, a young woman in this day and age. But I never thought to hear her swearing atme.
She keeps saying it. That she’s ‘fucked up’.
I get up, don’t go over to her but I give her a look. “No you aren’t!” I say. “Why would you say that?”
“I don’t feel safe here. Let’s go out.”
I’m gazing at her, trying to work out what that means. She isn’t meeting my eyes.
Well, there’s just nothing I have to say. She’s hardly fit for it and she’d catch her death out there before we reached the car.
I ask what she’s on about, but whatever spark was in her is all gone. Now I do potter over. As soon as I’m close enough, her fist flops out from the lump of her and lands on my chest. This is the meekest punch I’ve ever seen, let alone taken. I don’t know how to describe her face.
She mewls, and she punches me, again and again. Every one of them pushes her backwards an inch, and she’s whimpering at me. I don’t say anything. I don’t move. And then she says something very quiet, along the lines of, You only care about me when I’m fucked up.
Eventually, she goes quiet. I take the phone to my studio and call Beverley. I’m shaking here.
There’s the pick-up-muffling; she hasn’t replaced our old phone. “Hello?”
“Hiya,” I say, not thinking. And there’s that awkward pause that we’ve had to deal with for nigh on a decade now. “It’s Roy.”
There’s something very sad about ringing what used to be my home number, my marital home, and having to do that.
We get talking. Bev sounds pretty upbeat, which is nice to hear. “How are things there?” That’s a big question.
I look through the window of my studio, suspiciously, as though Katie might be outside with a glass against the door. “A lot like you said,” I tell Beverley. “It’s not easy, you know, seeing her like this.”
“No, it’s not,” she says. Voice of God. “I know.” I don’t get that, but she does seem to understand the girl’s behaviour as well as anyone can. Her illness.
“Right. I’m only ringing because, well, she’s throwing a bit of a wobbler.” Suddenly it seems like a silly word to use, but neither of us is laughing. “This morning, she’s been acting a bit strange. She hit me. Not hard, you know, but.” I cringe at my drawing table while I try to describe the fucked-up bit to her mother.
“Is she still agitated like that?”
I tell her no. “She lost all her energy. I stuck it out.” Immediately I think about last night. I should have gone to her and let her cry all she wanted, shouldn’t I? Seems very obvious all of a sudden. But the girl couldn’t have heard me fidgeting, so she couldn’t have known I was awake. I didn’t make a sound.
“Yesterday she said she wished she had drowned, or something like that.”
“Try not to be angry at her,” Bev says. She’s not at all shocked. “Honestly, I think the thing with Katie is that she’s angry enough at herself. She doesn’t likebeing like this, you understand?” I think about it. “Drowned, ah. It’s all quite normal.”
She says, “What you’re describing.”
I say, “Oh.”
“Has she had bad dreams?”
“I don’t bloody know.”
We make small talk for a couple of minutes but neither of us tries to keep it going too long. I should go back and have a look at Katie. Beverley tells me not to worry too much. Our girl needs some time with her dad at the moment, she says, she’s sure. She needs to be close to me. It will come in time. And make sure she has her pills every day.
As the receiver comes down it strikes me again. My belly feels light, sickly.
You only care when I’m fucked up.
Where did that one even come from?
I’ve never thought she resented me for the divorce. Not for a minute.
I have a little memory of taking little Katie down to Starkey’s to tell her. She was sixteen. The place had always been special to the three of us, but that day I noticed how overgrown is had gotten. Probably still is. And all of a sudden it just seemed like a bad place to bring it up. So I took her home and Bev broke the news in the kitchen.
Anyway. Getting a bit wet on the few steps from the studio to the kitchen. I shake my grey old hair like a dog as I come in and get straight back to the living room. There’s the patient: same jumper as yesterday, maybe the same trousers, it’s hard to say. Hair still a mess. Just staring at that laptop. I take a few steps, put a hand on her chair.
Ask if she’s all right.
“Yes,” she says, glancing at me, but she doesn’t sound it. She has that pathetic little girl voice on. The dying swan act. After a second, “Sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
My hand goes to her shoulder. It’s bigger than I remember.
And she stinks. She isn’t bathing, then? Is that normal now too? Hm.
“No problem,” I say. And since I already feel like I’m lying to her, I might as well throw in, “I understand.”
“They’re evacuating Birmingham,” she tells me. “Lots of missing people.”
I rub her shoulder, turn away.
Then I hear the chair creak.
She stands up, or tries to, in a heartbeat. I can see her skinny, skewed little legs – they’re weak from her months sat on chairs – giving way before she even puts her weight down. I’m moving as quick as I can but it’s not quite fast enough. I have to watch her fall, knowing exactly how it’s going to happen. There. Face first, her feet slamming up into the table, her right arm squashed under her and the left knocking her laptop over on top of her. It all plays out while my arms are stretching out. When I get my hand to her head, she’s crying again. Loud.
She wails something high-pitched that might be I can’t even get up in between her odd, sort-of-angry mewls. I think, there’s going to be a nasty lump on that forehead.
And I pull her up with as much gentle encouragement as I can, doing all the work, back onto her chair. The laptop’s still resting on its side, where it landed with a bang. Crying, slumped into herself. I have to hold her chin up just to see her bruising.
When I’m ready I try holding her hand. And yes, she meets my eyes and squeezes back, barely enough power to press into the folds of my skin. You can imagine how I feel.
The tears are still coming, and she says daft things about the floods, at first with my hand holding onto hers, and then with an arm all the way around and her head on my chest. I actually lose track of time.
I’m stroking her straw-coloured hair and thinking about kissing it, then I ask her, “Have you been having your pills?” There.
Said it. I’m actually shaking now. I could laugh.
I’d like to say that the words just came to me or that now I’m surprised to hear them aloud in my voice, but it’d be bull. I had to try to say it, and I said it. I saidit. She nods, slowly, in her way, and I believe her. I say, “It looks like they aren’t helping very much, love,” and she holds me a bit tighter.
I barely remember what it felt like to enjoy Katie’s company. This isn’t that, but it’s close. I lift her head so I can see the green in the middle of her mum’s chocolatey eyes.
“Birmingham’s gone for good,” she says, distant all of a sudden, and she lets go, shrinks right back into a ball. I was prepared for that; Bev told me that sometimes there are moments when she seems better, but then she’ll be ‘gone’ again. But those moments all count, she says. They’ll come.
I shouldn’t have let her watch the news.
Ey. As usual, there’s a gap in the conversation here that I have to fill. “Don’t be daft,” I tell her, in the kindest possible way. It’s all I could think to say, really, but Christ I meant it. More crying. I say, “I don’t really know what to do.” She goes very still. I try a bit more: “Sometimes when you’re talking to me now,” I say, “I haven’t got a clue what you mean.” Seems to like that.
And she says, “We’ll all be underwater– ”
Katie lifts her head like it’s an anvil and looks at the wall instead of my shirt. I don’t try to meet her eyes. She says, “I need a bath,” and her leg twitches. Slowly slowly. Catchy monkey.
She’s not wrong, bless her. She probably needs a lot more than a bath, but it’s a decent start.
For a second I wonder if I ought to actually help her into the tub. I mean it’d be awkward for us both, but manageable, surely. Maybe I should even stay inside and watch her, just in case she slips under– or eh, maybe I’m just panicking.
I help her up, piece by piece, slow as she goes. I even fancy that the more I help, the harder she pushes herself. First the one leg on the floor, pressing the toes down to stop her socks slipping, then an elbow bent, and a hand, levering her. The other leg, there, a bit shaky. Her expression looks as empty as ever, but there’s a sort of determination here. I want to smile but the moment hardly seems right.
The corridor then. “Short steps,” I say, hoping that’s good advice, the right thing to say. And I stand behind her with my hands ready. There’s actually something weirdly satisfying about watching over a grown woman to make sure she puts one mucky foot in front of the other – and seeing that she does, every time.
Next step. Not too quick. Good.
Aye, aye. Breathe for a second.
And I follow my daughter to the bathroom, hold her shoulder while she drags the handle with all her might, looking at it with her mouth half-open. If there’s a way to communicate I’m proud of you by holding someone’s shoulder in a particular way, or to let go in a way that says Everything’s all right then believe me, no-one has put more effort into finding it.
She’s in. The door bats at the frame and then the handle squeezes even more softly from the other side. I push it down with a finger, just a bit of pressure, so as to not make her feel weak, until it’s closed. After a little while I hear the tap turn and start pouring. There’s some sniffling, some low sound from her throat, a moment of sobbing.
For a second I’m even looking forward to the future. Once spring finally gets going, well, maybe that’ll cheer her up. The weather does things to you, they always say. And eventually one of her doctors is going to find the right kind of therapy for her and she’ll start really working hard, and I’ll see her get back to her old self.
I hear her splashing a finger to test the temperature, then sinking in. Then nothing at all.
Out of nowhere, my eyes are stinging and my neck is tight, smasming, as though I’m stifling a yawn. Come to think of it, I’ve not slept. I almost forgot I was retired for a minute! And I haven’t painted or sketched a dot since she arrived.
And now I’m thinking, would she want me waiting outside like this? Perhaps I should give her a bit of time alone. Maybe make some of those raisin buns she used to like. It’ll be nice for her to smell something sweet when she’s finished.