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Authors: Rachel Ward

The Drowning (2 page)

BOOK: The Drowning
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The flowers are for my brother who drowned. They’ve told me over and over, but it’s just a story. Something that happened to someone else. I can’t remember a thing. They said my memory will come back, but it’s hard to believe when you can’t even remember where you live.

I stop by the gate. Mum comes and stands next to me and we gawk at our front yard.

“I didn’t know he had that many friends,” Mum says weakly.

I push at the gate and go up to the door, sweeping a path through the flowers with my feet. Some of them have got little cards stapled to the plastic, with handwritten messages.

“Don’t kick ’em,” Mum says. She’s following behind, picking them up.

I put the key up to the lock. My hand’s shaking. I open the door and let Mum go in first, her arms full of flowers. I scoop up the ones she’s missed and walk into the hall. The place smells stale: stale drink and stale smoke. I follow her into a kitchen; mottled gray plastic countertops, gray cupboard doors, and a little table pushed up against the wall.

She drops the flowers in a heap on the floor and heads for the fridge. From the doorway I can see that the contents are two six-packs of lager, half a pint of milk, a bottle of ketchup, and another of brown sauce.

Mum takes a can out and cracks it open, tipping her head back and pouring it in. Her throat pulses as she swallows mouthful after mouthful until it’s all gone. She reaches for another. “Do you want one?” She holds a can out toward me.

“All right,” I say. Anything to dull the misery of coming back to this dump. I put the flowers I’m holding on the table and take the can. I pop the top and take a swig. The bitter taste fills my mouth and trips another switch in my head.
Lounging on some grass, with water lapping near my feet. The boy’s there, the one that looks like me, we’re drinking ourselves silly, T-shirts off to catch the sun. I can feel the warmth of it on my face and my shoulders, the itchiness of the grass on my elbow where I’m propping myself up. He takes a long drag on a cigarette and blows the smoke toward the lake.

There’s a lump in my throat. Feels like I’m going to be sick. I swallow hard, forcing the drink down. Mum’s sucking on her second tube of lager like her life depends on it. She finishes it and puts the empty on the side. The fridge is still open. She reaches forward.

“You can have this,” I say, holding my nearly full can toward her.

“No, that’s yours. It’s all right.”

She’s got another one now and she starts necking it like the last two. She’s going to be out of it soon. I’m holding my can but I’m not drinking anymore. I’m just watching.

“Mum …”

I want to stop her, tell her about the sun and the water. I want to ask her about the boy. The boy who could fly through the air and land on his feet like a cat.

My brother.


“What?” she says.

“Can we … can we just talk?”

She glances at me and then quickly away. She looks trapped, cornered. Like the idea of talking makes her scared.

“I’m tired, Carl. It’s been a hell of a … Let me have a drink. We’ll talk later, I promise,” she says.

“But …”

“Don’t start, Carl, I need this,” she snaps, her voice brittle, close to breaking, close to tears. I don’t want her to cry again, so I stand aside as she heads into the front room. She settles on the sofa, one can in her hand, what’s left of the six-pack on the floor next to her, within reach. I hang around in the doorway. She doesn’t look at me or try to talk to me.

“Mum,” I say after a few minutes. She’s going to get trashed and I don’t even know where my bedroom is.

She looks up, startled, like she’d forgotten I was even there.


“Where do I sleep?”

She scrunches up her eyes, trying to work out what I mean.

“Your room,” she says in a tone that says I’m an idiot. Case closed. End of. She turns away, back to the TV that isn’t on.
I can’t stand being here with her anymore. There obviously aren’t any bedrooms down here, so I head upstairs. This should be easy — walking upstairs and into a room. Nothing to it. Just one foot in front of the other. But I get stuck halfway.

It feels like trespassing, walking around someone else’s house.

Now I’m looking up and I can see three doors and my legs just stop. One door’s got three holes in it. For a moment, I’m staring at them, wondering how they got there, but then I hear the noise from when Rob punched them there. One, two, three — fists balled up tight and him in a total fury. Then, in a flash, he turns back to me and his fist flies into my face.

I turn around, sit down, and take a swig from the can that I’ve still got in my hand.

What was he so mad about?

Another mouthful. And another. It’s me and the beer and the stairs and the dark. I sit and drink until it’s all gone. The liquid’s heavy in my stomach but it’s doing its job. I feel softer around the edges. I feel tired, too, could do with a lie-down.
Come on, Carl.
I leave my empty can on the step, swing onto my feet, and head upstairs, trailing my hands on the walls on either side. The surface is bobbly under my fingers. There’s something comforting about the wood chip lumps and bumps. How many times have I done this, felt these walls? Is this what I do when I walk upstairs?

I go along the landing, past the first door. It’s open. There’s a double bed, women’s clothes strewn around the floor, bottles and tubes and all sorts of makeup littering the top of a scruffy
chest of drawers. The next door is the bathroom. I move on and stop in front of the final door. I close my fingers and put my fist in one of the holes in the door. There’s space around it. He was bigger than me. My big brother.

I push the door open and go in.

he stale smell fills my head. I can’t tell what it smells of, but it floods me with feelings, things half-remembered. There are two mattresses lying parallel to each other along the walls, with a few feet in between. And not much else. Clothes lying about. Some magazines. Empty cans. A couple of fishing rods propped in a corner.

Two mattresses, no pillows, no sheets like in the hospital, just sleeping bags on the top. One orange and one green. The green one’s mine. How do I know that? I sit down on top of it, then, with nothing else to do, I climb inside, shoes on and everything. I pull the nylon edges up with both hands, so that I’ve just got my eyes and nose sticking out. I’m lying on my side, looking across the room and at Rob’s mattress, his orange sleeping bag crumpled up in a heap.

And now I can hear the zipper ripping up past his face and over the top of his head. See his face, streaked with mud — there one minute, gone the next. Sealed in.

I close my eyes and I’m underwater.
There’s a tangle of arms and legs, thrashing in front of me. The water’s pressing down, my lungs are hurting, an ache that’s turning into a pain. I can’t breathe. I’ve got to get some air. I’ve got to …

I open my eyes and it’s just me in this dirty jumble of a room. I’m breathing hard, and the air coming in and out of me feels like it’s secondhand. It leaves a sour taste on my tongue. I think back to my hospital room — how bright, white, and clean it was. It smelled of antiseptic. Now I push my nose into the fabric of the sleeping bag and inhale. It’s the stale smell of old sweat. It disgusts me, but there’s something reassuring about it, too. This is me. It must be — it’s my sleeping bag. This is how I smell.

But who am I? And who was my brother? Did I like him? Did he like me? Not if the memory on the stairs was anything to go by.

I think about what they told me: “Your brother’s dead. There was an accident. He drowned.” Why don’t I feel a thing? I must be a monster, not to feel sad.

I lie still for a while. It’s dark now, but there’s light from the landing coming in through the open door. I look and listen, trying to take it all in — this place. Home. The apartment is quiet, no noise from downstairs, but I can hear the TV going next door, and people walking in the street outside, cars coming and going, doors slamming. There’s a dark patch on the ceiling in the corner above Rob’s mattress. There’s scribble on the walls.

I feel like I’ve landed from another planet, been dropped into someone else’s life and left to get on with it. I want to go back to the hospital. This place isn’t mine. The woman downstairs isn’t my mum. The boy who died wasn’t my brother. There’s been a mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake.

I’m shaking now. I’m scared. I can’t handle this. I don’t want to be here.

My nose catches that smell again, the smell a body leaves in a place when it’s slept there night after night. And it tells me I’m wrong. This place is mine. There’s no getting away from it.

I wrap my arms around myself and curl up tighter in my sleeping bag, but I still can’t relax. Without thinking, I unwind one of my arms and reach under my mattress, and my fingers close around something hard and flat. I pull it out. In the soft light I see the cover of a hardback book. The letters in the title are large, white against black:
Of Mice and Men
. Lying on my side I open it up and find the first page. The light isn’t good enough for me to make out the type, but I don’t need to see it, the words come to me from somewhere in the fog of my brain:

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.

“For fuck’s sake, Cee, turn the bloody light out.”

“I’m still reading.”

“You’ve read that thing six hundred times.”


“So put the bloody light out. I’m knackered.”

Holding the book close to my chest, still cocooned in my sleeping bag, I wriggle across the floor until my face is hovering over Rob’s mattress, his orange sleeping bag. I rest my head down, breathing hard. The material under my nose is rank,
as rank as mine, only different. I shut my eyes again and I can hear him breathing.

“Say good night, Cee,”
he says. And I know that this is what he does every night. Did. This is what he did.

He’d tell me to say good night first and I’d say, “Night, Rob” back.

And he’d say, “Night, Cee.”

Every night.

I say it now — “Night, Rob” — and I keep my eyes closed, my body lying in the gap between our beds, my head on his mattress.

His breathing is steady and slow and I find myself breathing in time with him. The book falls to the floor and I’m drifting. Drifting slowly off to sleep.

wake up in a dark, quiet space. I’ve got no idea where I am, what time it is, who I am. And then, slowly, it comes back to me.

My name is Carl Adams.

I’m fifteen.

My brother’s dead.

The last thought rattles around my head. Rob’s dead. Rob’s dead. I know it’s huge, but it’s only words, just words.

I remember falling asleep here, hearing his breathing, his voice. There’s nothing now. No noise from outside, no TV playing. Only a tap dripping somewhere in the flat. It’s a faint sound, but everywhere’s so quiet now I can definitely hear it — and my mind focuses on it.
Plip, plip, plip.
Like seconds ticking away on a clock.

The top of the sleeping bag is wet where I’ve dribbled in my sleep. I move it away from me, sit up, and wipe my mouth on the back of my hand. My head’s achy and my throat’s dry. I struggle out of the bag and stumble onto the landing. The light’s still on. I head for the bathroom door, where the dripping sound’s coming from.

It’s the cold tap at the sink. I turn it full on, bend forward, cup my hands, and splash water onto my face.

A boy shouts.

A girl screams.

Water’s in my face, my eyes, my ears.

My heart’s racing. I’m close to them now, so close I can see their arms and legs thrashing, see his jaw clenched with the effort, her face contorted with terror.

I jump back from the sink and reach around blindly for a towel. My hand finds the pull cord for the light, I tug at it, and the light clicks on. I grab a towel from the floor and frantically rub at my face, then stare around the room. There’s no one here. It’s only a small room: sink, toilet, bathtub with a shower at one end and a plastic shower curtain bunched up. Black mold between the tiles, and on the ceiling. My heart’s still beating ten to the dozen in my chest.

BOOK: The Drowning
12.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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