The Fool

 

This is the little story I read at the Keswick Flood Relief event on the 8 March. It appeared in longer form in Word Bohemia with the title The Bridge.

Of the nine writers appearing at the event, several have been directly affected by flooding. Kathleen Jones, in her blog, A Writer’s Life, describes the terrifying experience of having to escape her home, as waters rose floor by floor. Others have been cut off from main roads, some having to take extraordinarily long diversions to travel to reach other parts of the county.  We were delighted to raise some funds for the Cumbria Community Foundation. The range of work was wonderful to hear, with several pieces written especially in response to the floods.

 

I have recorded the story on Sound Cloud. Click on the link in the pop-out side-bar if you’d like to listen.

 

 

The Fool

 
Under the bridge, water drips like rain onto his hair, and the shoulders of his woollen coat. Toms had found what he was instructed to find, hidden in the crack between the stones. Is it his imagination, or has the crack widened? The edge of the stone feels sharp. He slips the package into his coat.

 
For her, he has sacrificed his soul; he no longer has any sense of it one way or another. The light beyond the arch is grey, as if everything is wreathed in smoke. He half-expects her to emerge from the grainy light like a developing photograph, her heels clicking louder as she approaches. There will be a faint whisper of nylon brushing nylon as she walks. Shhh, shhh… shhh, shhh…

 
He had first seen her, years before, in a passenger boat on the canal. The wind whipped back her short hair from her face. She had a big scarf, patterned with chains, which flared out beyond her, trailing the path she had taken. He wishes he had captured that moment in a glass bottle, stoppered it, and thrown the lot into the canal. But he was a fool.

 
Above him a train passes. Toms steps out from under the arch. He is surrounded by looming warehouse buildings. Overhead metal walkways sprawl like gangly limbs between them. He is a man of lead, without feelings.

 
When he was younger, the sight of her fired him. He would do anything for her. She would exalt him in return. They had been passionate, sometimes violent… He can’t remember how long ago. Now, she seems to have an air of ennui, as if she already knows he’ll fail her. He does this only because of her. He takes all the risks. Fear awakens his senses like new solder on an electrical joint. He starts to walk away from the bridge, into the open space between the buildings. Another train, a local one, rattles by. Someone will surely have been seen him… His heart jolts. Quickly, he ducks through a narrow passageway into a street that adjoins the canal; it eventually leads back into the city centre. They could forgive a fool, couldn’t they?

 
He walks faster, the light of the afternoon seeming brighter as he walks towards the city. The warehouses become smarter; people are about. Toms can hear the sounds of cars in a nearby street. Canal machinery groans, and the electric motors of trams step up speed. But he is breathless; the pounding of his feet shocks the air from his lungs. Ahead, he sees two men in heavy raincoats. They walk purposefully towards him. Toms lurches over to the railing alongside the canal, and pretends he is tying his shoe. He makes a show of looking at the grey water, as if he had all day. The men pass, talking in low voices. He keeps his back towards them until he can’t hear them anymore. They don’t seem to have taken any notice of him.

 
He pats the pocket of his coat. The package is still there, uncomfortable against his heart. But she is never grateful. His vision narrows. He can scarcely gather breath. It is not worth it. He will throw the package into the canal. Let the gulls peck at it; let the fish try to eat it. Whole bodies have disappeared in that filthy water. He makes sure that the corner of the package is torn. The water will empty it, and the wrapping will look like any other piece of rubbish.

 
Toms walks away; he will have nothing more to do with this business. He needs a drink. There is a bar further on; he used to go there when he was young. That seems an impossibly long time ago.

 
Toms looks back. Seagulls cluster over something in the water. They make noises like a screaming woman.

 
The bar has an old-fashioned wooden sign, neon lights in the window flashing ‘Bar’ ‘Bar’ ‘Bar’. It is dim inside. The tables are small and plastic topped. The chairs are hard and made of bent wood. Music plays, a crackly old song. Toms sits in a corner, his back against the wall. He closes his eyes.

 
A waitress comes over. He hears her shoes click on the planked floor. His eyes still shut, he asks for whisky. She does not speak. As she returns with his drink, he can hear a faint whisper of nylon on nylon. Shhh, shhh…

 
And when he opens his eyes again, beside his drink is a small package, wrapped in plastic, wet, torn at the corner, but otherwise intact.

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