The letter Jack posted on his way out late Saturday afternoon took until Tuesday to cross our tiny, crap hole of a town. 3 days to deliver 7 little words ½ mile to make my head spin: Hey you. Meet me? Your favourite place. 4am. He was being funny of course. We were at my least favourite place. The smell of boiled fruit from the jam factory made me want to gag, like I might throw up all the tortuous, mind numbing shifts I’d completed inside: stirring, bottling, labeling my travel money.
Jack was slumped against some of the packing crates in a corner of the loading bay, sheltered from the wind. He was staring at the river like he was trying to calm it down, like he could magic its progression like a modern day King Canute.
He’d only been gone one weekend, but wars are fought in less – the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896 lasted only 40 minutes – and the town had undergone siege-like preparations: the army arrived with sand bags; old people were ferried to new homes; furniture and pets carried to second and third floors. The weather had finally done – over the space of two days – what six months of protracted negotiations, policies and public pressure couldn’t manage; three hundred travellers were packing up, leaving town today. Dozens of long-legged wellies and fluorescent gilets marched through, closing off huge swathes of the river. Miles and miles of it were likely to flood, including Stevie’s factory.
He’d had to abandon operations to save his stock but Stevie’s evacuation had been a tepid affair. He couldn’t seem to care. He wouldn’t say a word. We were fraught for many of the same reasons. I’d brought Jack into his home and now Becky was missing and Jack had fled. Shop Talk suggested the one thing I feared; that Jack and Becky had run off together. No one mentioned the other alternative.
We didn’t have to, of course. Saturday night Shop Talk did it for us. One of the parents from school was buying a few bottles of French Red when they mentioned it had started again. How their neighbours’ dogs were really letting rip. When people bought their papers on Sunday morning, they were comparing the size of crows they’d allegedly seen, magpies even. How animals had a sixth sense about death. By Sunday night, the noise had permeated past the pints and pills - won’t they just shut up? – into Mum’s shell of a brain. I’d stayed bunkered down more than usual. I was grateful Stevie owned a shop – we didn’t need to leave to get food – but I avoided him and Mum, everyone really, stealing downstairs to eat when the shop had closed.
Jack’s hair was tufty, just peaking over the other side of Really Needing A Haircut. His face was ashen. To say he didn’t look well would be an understatement. I’d have gone into the warm to wait – he had the key code after all – but he’d have felt trapped indoors. His hands might have been in his pockets but I knew he was ready to run if he needed to, if anyone else arrived. Everyone wanted to know who he was, where he was. I guess, I’d have stayed hidden too.
He seemed relieved to see me. There was even a grin. “Looking good, right?” he asked.
We moved towards each other but we had a rethink halfway through – arms in mid flight – and we were left squeezing the air, embarrassed by our Almost-Hug. His crumbling body couldn’t take any more pain but worse, we’d forgotten how to be together.
“So,” I said. “I got the letter you sent.” I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice. That I had been summoned, that he’d sent a fucking note. It was nothing but sorry scraps from where I read it, reread it, read it again. Clutched it tight for almost a day; I was 24 hours and 9 minutes late. How long did he wait listening to the rain feed the rising river? “It didn’t arrive until yesterday.”
He nodded his head like he hoped that’s what happened. “Really pleased you came,” he said, like there was a chance I wouldn’t. He looked nervous about my torch, that the light might draw too much attention but I was reluctant to turn it off. The darkness made the smell worse, reminded me how wet and sticky everything was until Jack shifted his body, moving towards the only light source, a broken FIRE EXIT sign. “Bloody hell,” he said. “Everything’s so wet and sticky.”
I nodded, pointing to the new addition in my wardrobe, a pair of musty plastic trousers, an artifact from a one-off camping trip discovered half an hour before in the cupboard under the stairs. “Have you seen these?” I said. “They’re insane.” They were two sizes too big, soaked through, flapping round my legs, identical to the ones that Grace and I had worn in the Brecon Beacons; her and I, two peas in a pod. “There must be a leak, look at them, they’re –” but it wasn’t time to be funny. A thousand things we needed to say lay in a fuggy pile between us. “Where did you go?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” he forced a smile, “Took in some of –”
I finished our routine but I couldn’t even force a smile, “ – the local sites?” My voice was unsteady, angry.
“Well,” he said, looking everywhere else but at me. “So happy you’re here,” but his voice sounded strange, stiff. He pointed to the bin bag I was holding. “Is it for me?” And he was way too eager to please, like he was about to reveal a catastrophe of bad news.
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