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Authors: Maggie Gee

The Flood

BOOK: The Flood
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M
AGGIE
G
EE

THE FLOOD

SAQI

 

 

The author thanks Christine Casley, the most skilful of editors, everyone at Saqi, and the Hawthornden Foundation for its generous hospitality in Scotland.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue for this book is available from the British Library

eISBN 978-086356-813-8

First published by Saqi Books in 2004
This eBook edition published in 2012

Copyright © 2004 and 2012 Maggie Gee

The right of Maggie Gee to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988

Saqi Books
26 Westbourne Grove
London W2 5RH

www.saqibooks.com

For Musa and Nina, with love
and, always, for Rosa

Before

I am going to tell you how it happened. How I came to be here, with so many others, in this strange place I often dreamed of, or glimpsed in the distance, across the river – the lit meadows, the warm roof-tops, caught in those narrow shafts of sunlight, in this moment that lasts for ever. A city hovering over the darkness. Above the waters that have covered the earth, stained waters, rusty waters, pulling down papers, pictures, peoples; a patch of red satin, a starving crow, the last flash of a fox’s brush. A place which holds all times and places. And we are here. We are all still here.

I lived my life in the earthly city. The earthly city, down on the plain. Designed for humans. And pets, their playthings.

What else was there? Billions of microbes. Snails and worms. And birds, of course; visiting the gardens: nesting, foraging. Quivering, flashing on the flowering quinces. Calling sharp warnings against the cats. Jackdaws, thrushes, pigeons, starlings with dark silk rainbows on the wing. On Daffodil Hill, near the City Zoo, you saw how many, how beautiful: sky-wide, skimming trapezia of starlings, smoking at the edges as they turn on the blue.

And urban foxes. Twisting and fossicking, yipping and screaming mobs of red musk. Narrow-faced, amber-eyed, rufous, fearless. And swarming rats, and mice, and pigeons.

Outside the city there was always war. The earthly city was built for war: armies were raised, weapons stockpiled; people could be immured and defended. When things went wrong, there were massacres.

But most of the time, we kept war outside, and sent our soldiers against other cities, and tried to eliminate the fleas and the vermin, the seething enemy within.

Mr Bliss set hawks to reduce the pigeons, but rebellious old people turned up with sacks of birdseed and pop-corn to woo them back. The arrests were partial and inefficient. The city-dwellers liked their pigeons.

That year in the city it was always raining. When the sun broke through, we were ready to worship.

And there in the distance was the other city, the city of dreams, the place we half-know we have seen at night, when we wake happy from somewhere forgotten.

Perhaps the dead can move through time. If time is an endless unspooling ribbon, the living see only the short bright section to which they cling, panting, struggling, peering out, blinded, from the spot-lit moment. Perhaps the dead see the whole of the road, stretching out for ever, before, behind, three thousand human generations. Under the city, the dead travel onwards. Searching for something. Homing, homing.

That year in the city it was always raining.

One

After months of rain, the sun broke through.

The earth turned towards it, in absolute beauty.

Light poured along dull black streets which were briefly steep runnels of gold and red. Old brick semis blushed like roses. Early spring hedges glowed sharp in the light.

A white-haired widow, May, looked out and was suddenly glad it was her who survived, not him. May, not Alfred, dearly though she’d loved him. And briefly remembered how to be happy –

For here was the sun.

Alfred loved the sun.

Spring was coming. The world was gilded.

May stood at the window, smiling at the street, the narrow impoverished street she loved, and thought, thank God for small mercies. The rains have ended. I’ve got the children; life goes on, and I’m still here. She put on a kettle, and made some tea.

May had two new grandsons, Winston and Franklin, who came to see her once a week. Shirley, their mother, was a good daughter.

Yet the choices Shirley made had set the cat among the pigeons. She liked black men. Elroy was black.

Sometimes May felt Shirley had wrecked their lives, because Dirk, May’s son, was still in prison for killing Winston, Elroy’s brother. His own sister’s brother-in-law. It wasn’t Winston’s fault he was black, but Alfred and Dirk had feelings about it. People said the dead boy was homosexual, but the colour business had made it all worse, though May liked black people as much as anyone.

Fortunately, since her grandchildren were mixed. One of them was named after the dead boy, Winston. May was used to colour; she no longer saw it, and she still felt sad about what Dirk had done. The kids looked like Alfred, and May, and Shirley, although their skin was so like Elroy’s.

Her whole life had been about her children, except for the little pockets of time when she was alone, with her books and her poems, a tiny woman in a world of light, blown like a leaf towards the wall, and the beautiful words are whirling round her,
Oedipus, Charon, Persephone
– then all of life seemed to come to a point, the trees, the white clouds, the cat on the pavement pouncing on a skipping string of dry grass. In those moments, the world felt enormous, with everything bright and sharp as glass, and May wanted to weep just to be alive, this little quivering leaf of a woman. And soon, she thinks, she will blow off the edge, a speck of dust spinning out across the void, towards nothingness, maybe –

Or perhaps towards Alfred, for somewhere, surely, deep underneath the city of pain and music and crisp packets, there is a vault leading into blue air, and they are all walking, crowds of strangers, the dead, pressing onward with small mute faces, and if she searched for ever she would find the ones who mattered; her mother and father, and Alfred – marching – Alfred would always be on the move – and the dead boy, Winston – should she feel ashamed? – but maybe she could tell him about her grandchild, little Winston, who carried his name on into the future.

May wasn’t religious, but she knew there was something. There had to be; there was so much beauty. Tennyson, her favourite poet, was religious. And May was reading a book of Greek myths, a present from Shirley, who was very thoughtful. It took May back to childhood happiness, reading about the gods in her Newnes’ Encyclopedia.

She hoped her grandchildren would read.

Winston and Franklin. May doted on them. She had three more grandchildren who lived abroad, and they were white as paper, but she never saw them. She’d rather have mixed ones who came round for tea. For she herself was not prejudiced, had never been part of the menfolk’s silliness. Indeed, she had a soft spot for Elroy, who was handsome (as Dirk, her son, had never been handsome) and had a good job in the Public Health Service, the poor old struggling Public Service.

Which she hoped would last long enough to see her out: a nice clean bed; the soft hands of the nurses. Sunlight through a window. The blue beyond.

Away in the prosperous north of the city, nobody uses the Public Service. There is higher ground, better services: trichologists, reflexologists, manicurists, chiropodists, naturopaths, osteopaths, homeopaths, and chic small shops with tiny pots and parcels of exquisitely expensive animal parts, lungs, roes, embryos, fractions of hoof and horn and tail, which people offer each other as gifts; and silvered or gilded brocade clutch-bags, minuscule cards with jokes and mirror-lets, frail silk peonies, porcelain teddy bears, toys too delicate and dangerous for children. Because there is money, objects can be useless.

A rich woman, Lottie, turns over in bed in her sprawling house in the north of the city. Each of these houses holds soft sleeping bodies, sparsely distributed among the big rooms, sleeping well because they have eaten well, and drunk good wine, and been lucky in life. Though Lottie herself hasn’t slept so well, lately, as if she were secretly growing older, but Lottie refuses to grow older.

Harold was asleep beside her. She loved him, of course, his saturnine profile, the fine line of his Roman nose, though he was losing his hair – there was some on the pillow – and in many ways not quite up to the mark. Men of his age so often weren’t; men in general, when she thought about it.

Still she had decided to love him; she loved him. And really, Harold was lovable. (And in certain respects, certain private respects, where Lottie had always had high standards, Harold was very – satisfactory. He satisfied her, every time.)

Lottie loved light, and the day was alight. The morning poured in, glorious, between the curtains she never closed. Lottie heard birds, though she didn’t know which ones – if only Harold were awake, she could ask him – and she lifted her head and glimpsed blossom outside, bobbing blossom in February, Japanese something, Harold had said, scarlet flowers with golden centres, Japanese Quince, for the whole world was connected, red cups blazing on black leafless branches, glorious against the blue.

Lottie let her head fall back again. She never stirred till her tea was brought up. But she gazed, with a smile of cat-like content, at the only picture she totally loved (although she was still quite fond of her Bonnard), a picture with which she identified, a painting which spoke to her inmost being, for she certainly had an inmost being, though Harold teased her that her life was just shopping.

The woman in the picture was Lottie’s
alter ego
, but noticeably less pretty than her. It must be worth eight or nine million, now, though her father had bought it when Hoppers were cheap.
Morning Sun: Soleil du Matin.
A middle-aged woman sat on a bed, feet and knees drawn up on the mattress, her tight dress raised to show sturdy thighs, blonde hair pulled back from a strong jaw-line, staring at the light pouring in through the window, a flood of bright gold from the wide open window, sensual, worshipping, passive, intent. Lottie knew Hopper had painted her spirit. She stretched luxuriously against the sheet.

Her linen is changed twice a week. Soon she’ll poke Harold gently to wake him up, and he will bring up Lottie’s breakfast. Not too much later, Faith will arrive, basically to nag Lottie’s teenage daughter, so Lottie herself can remain sunny. But life
is
sunny; life is easy.

Eastward, southward, there are no more gardens. Every scrap of land has a building on it. Light shears between blackened towers in the east, scraping against the rain-washed sky. The towers are packed with rushing bodies, checking their pockets for pens, keys, looking for umbrellas, overalls, tool-kits. Parents scream and children wail; a young mother smiles as she hugs her baby, trying to get him to take the breast, but her milk hasn’t come, and he’s yellow with jaundice. It doesn’t matter; she has her baby, the single glorious irreplaceable thing, and the sun is shining, the sun is shining.

The first day for weeks without constant rain. A cold wind bangs at an open window, though most of the windows never open. Postmen drudge on with their heavy bags, blessing the sun that is drying the walk-ways, cursing the freebies that weigh their bags down, damning the e-mails that lessen the letters. ‘No one writes letters any more,’ they complain. But they like the rare postcards, because they can read them, poking a line of kisses through someone’s door, bending a Caribbean sunset through another.

Their arms ache, and their knees are arthritic. Life is chilly; life is hard.

Bruno knows that the end is coming. ‘The last days,’ Bruno Janes intones. ‘The last days. In these last days …’ He has the gents to himself, this morning. It is kept very clean, with a dark steel mirror which makes him look stronger, more certain than ever.

He is practising his riffs, in front of the mirror, telling himself, convincing himself. He sways to the mirror, to his own dark shape, his bony head with its faint gleam of fur. The old black attendant is watching him, from her scented cupboard where the radio tinkles, but Bruno rises above her gaze. ‘There will be signs and wonders, in these last days …’

The rich and the decadent would suffer: old women, who he hated the most; painted women; weak women; adulterers, actors, celebrities, the smug pink faces in the papers, the falsely happy, the vilely lucky, drug-takers, stockbrokers, exercise addicts, youth-perverters, lazy foreigners, lying prophets, all those whose sins had brought destruction on the city. They were sores upon the face of the earth, but God would wash it clean again.

He yearns towards himself, two wire-thin forms that charm each other, snake on snake. Bruno has always lived alone, even before he went into prison for trying to murder a dirty old woman, but now he’s found God, and forgiveness, and a following. Now he is washed in the blood of the Lamb. Bruno likes blood, and Bruno likes washing, scrubbing his skin with a worn-down nail-brush, wrapping the wounds neatly every day. The mad old woman is shaking her head, shaking her head as she watches him.

BOOK: The Flood
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