Four Stories About Water…Creative Non–Fiction
Since I've got the mark back now, and did fairly well, I guess I'm brave enough to blog this. It's non-fiction, in the very very loosest of senses. And as George Ttoouli pointed out in his comments, it's not really about water. It's not really about anything, I guess. Wish I could work out how to make the blog format paragraphs properly though.
Four Stories About Water
Jack Batt had tried to kill himself once before. At five years old he’d happily stepped from the edge of a cliff with the intention of visiting Heaven, where he could meet Jesus and go swimming as often as he liked. Thirteen years later all he remembered was the fierce pain of his father’s clutching hand and the sight of blackberries spiralling past his feet, followed by a pail which splashed dimly in the sea below. Now he was floating with his father above the ocean once again, but everything was very different.
Jack lived in a lurid city many miles from the place he intended to die. Its walls flowed with graffiti and its streets were plastered in gum and vomit and bright food cartons and its people were painted orange and silver on their clothes, their faces, their hair. Toothless dealers stood on every street corner offering the chance to make the city brighter still. Jack knew a girl in the city, and she was different. Darker, wiser, older, distant and intimate as the world. She didn’t want him. She was everything.
The sun was going down. Jack sat quietly on the edge of the yacht, his trainers trailing the water. His sisters’ voices murmured sleepily below deck. His father’s silhouette stirred calmly at the wheel, enjoying his cigarette and the rare nautical adventure.
Jack’s original plan had been to slip from the back of the boat so that no-one would see him, but he saw now that it would mean risking the vicious propellers. He would have to keep quiet and drop from the side.
It was not water that struck him but the icy furnace of hell. Instinct seized his legs and jerked them like broken puppet-limbs as an impossible pain, sharp and terrifying, sliced at his ears. His trainers were kicked away. He rose to the surface.
Jack gasped gently, biting his hand to keep himself silent. He treaded water, trembling from shock in his arms, his stomach, his neck, as his father and the hired yacht chuntered merrily over the waves until he could no longer see it or catch at the sound of the engine. It was difficult to breathe, but that was only the effect of the cold. It was quiet.
Jack lay back in the water and floated, waiting to sink, or freeze, or sleep.
A child’s laughter spilled across the waves, very faint, like that of a ghost or a distant memory. Jack held himself still. He didn’t want his drowning to be noticed by a child.
‘You must be very cold over there,’ said the girl, with an accent Jack had never heard. A bright light had begun to irritate the corner of his eye, burrowing at his eyelid until it was forced to open. A few feet away an open sun shattered the clouds, silver-plating the still water. It seemed warmer there. Jack tried to focus on the speaker through after-images which purpled and pulsed.
‘Do you like our ship?’ she asked. ‘We found it in the mithdan. Fred’s going to paddle us across.’
Jack’s watery deathbed began to shimmer in the heat.
‘You must watch out,’ warned another voice, accented and piping like the first. ‘There are crocodiles.’
‘I have never seen a crocodile, Millie,’ said the first girl, with great self-importance. ‘And I learnt to swim here.’
The two girls were small and dressed in white cotton. They were sitting in a zinc bathtub on either side of a tall boy with a sunburnt nose who sculled them through the water with his hands. The sun was glaring.
‘Afternoon,’ the boy said politely. Water lapped against the sides of the tub as he paddled nearer. ‘We’re headed to the other side. You can hop in if you like.’
Jack reached for the edge of the bathtub. Two small girlish hands caught his to help him grip the slippery side.
‘I wouldn’t mind an extra pair of hands to help with the rowing,’ Fred admitted reluctantly. ‘We’ve a couple of miles to go, I think.’
Jack turned his head to see a long, long bank, brown and unpopulated, stretching from end to end of the horizon. ‘What’s over there?’ he asked, puzzled.
‘Silly!’ said Millie. ‘That’s Bhusawal. That’s where we’ve come from.’
‘We’re going to go all the way across,’ her friend cut in excitedly. ‘It’s an adventure!’
Her small blue eyes were very wide. Jack tried to smile. ‘Is it?’
‘We’ve never been,’ explained Fred. ‘Who knows what’s on the other side?’
Millie scooped up a handful of water and let it dribble back into the river. ‘Are you coming?’ she asked. ‘It’s so much fun.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Jack. ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve had fun doing anything.’ The girls nodded blithely, but he thought Fred understood him better, because after a long silent look he nodded brusquely and began to paddle away.
‘Come on, you two. Don’t look back.’
Jack let the bathtub slip from his hand. Treading water, he waved them on their way. In a few minutes he was quite alone.
The sunset here was a thing he had never imagined. The sun was larger, redder, rounder, and sunk so slowly he thought the world would burn before the day ended. And when it had vanished deep night fell with the suddenness of a gunshot.
The darkness had a familiar solidity to it, like the profound slumber following a vivid dream. It seemed to move like a living thing, brushing his arms and his wet hair, flying softly past him, enjoying its freedom from the sun.
The darkness became a bat, which touched its nose to the surface of the water. Jack’s face was spattered with the fallout of an almighty splash. A wailing voice cut into the silence.
‘¡Me caí! ¡Me caí! ¡Estoy mojado!’
‘¡Patéa las piernas, Alejandro! Trata de nadar.’
A small, distraught head bobbed and floundered within the reach of Jack’s arm. He swam forwards and caught the figure, a skinny body twisting in distress. A tall woman appeared above them, stretching her arms to pull the boy to dry land where a man of incredible age embraced him despite his state of saturation.
Jack was in a smaller space, a square pool of clear water. A house stood nearby within the confines of a tall wooden fence which allowed a slatted view of empty fields beyond. A single road wound through them, spotted here and there with trees made dead by the moonlight.
‘Entra te a la casa,’ said the old man. ‘¡Rapido! Hay hombres malos.’ He took Jack’s arm and began to tug him pathetically along the side of the pool towards the house. Jack shook his head, struggling away.
‘I can’t – I don’t understand. Let go!’
The woman knelt on the puddled floor in front of him. ‘It’s dangerous to stay,’ she told him quietly. ‘There are too many guerillas about. You’re English, you don’t know that they will hurt you. Come into the finca.’
Jack swallowed hard. ‘I want danger,’ he explained. Her concern threw his words into stark stupidity. ‘That’s why I’m here.’
The woman sighed, but concealed her disappointment so swiftly Jack might never have known it was there. She kissed his forehead, letting the pool-water smear her face. ‘Thank you. Good luck.’
Jack clung to the tiles until she had carried her soaking son into the house. The door closed, and gradually the lights behind the curtains went out.
‘Look, kid, are you hurt? We can’t help you if you won’t tell us.’
Jack raised himself on the elbows and saw what surrounded him.
It was nothing more than a vast frozen field, indistinguishable from the cloud-white sky save for the bleary smudge of trees on the horizon. White mist rose in gusts as the temperature battled the couple’s hot breath.
‘Want to walk back to my place?’ asked the woman. ‘I could fix you up a cup of coffee.’
‘Thanksgiving’s no time to be out here on your own,’ said the man.
It hurt to look at them. They were joined so irrevocably by their gloved hands.
‘I am alone,’ said Jack. He scuffed patterns in the ice with his finger so he wouldn’t have to meet their eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter what I try to do about it. I can’t fix it.’
‘Alright,’ said the woman, smiling. ‘At least it’s a beautiful place to be lonely.’
‘Make sure you head off soon though,’ her lover advised him. ‘You look tired.’
Their smile was one smile. Long after they had vanished, Jack was tortured by the unison of their footprints in the snow. He curled into a ball. Yes, he was tired now, so tired, and he could barely feel the cold.
The ice folded inwards. The ice shimmered unreally. Jack felt it creep back over his limbs, ductile, reforming. The sky overhead was brilliant with stars. He traced out the Swan, the Great Bear, the Pole Star, which twisted curiously as salt water lapped over his eyes. He realised that it was a struggle now to keep afloat.
A few moments of frail kicking, no thoughts in his head but starlight. Then, like the dawn after a dream, the sound of a new engine sputtered somewhere far away. Jack lay back and let the water claim his head.
Perhaps someone would find him.