Still Waters – fiction by David Butler

After the estate flooded for the third time, Clodagh determined never to return. The thought of the dank interior, silted and filthy, filled her with reptilian loathing. She left Becky in care of her sister; was seen moving like a sleepwalker along Bridge Street. Before striking out in the direction of the weir, she placed the front-door key in an envelope with only the address scribbled on it and pushed it through the bank’s quick-deposit shoot.

The speed of the first flood had been chilling. In the space of a night hour, the water had swollen from runnels leap-frogging the tarmac to a waist-deep inundation upon which boxes, toys and furniture bobbed and bumped. In the pale halo of a hand-torch, a fridge (was it?) rolled its flippant back. So sudden had the upsurge been, so overwhelming, that neighbours half-dressed waded in and out of unlit houses, laughing, scarcely knowing what to save and what to abandon. She’d shivered on the high ground in pyjamas and dressing-gown, soothing the baby, watching the efforts of Kyle and the others with a detachment that was, almost, amused.

For weeks not a single resident of the estate had been able to return. Long after the waters receded, walls stripped of tide-marked wallpaper exhaled a river-breath whose alluvial taint blow-heaters failed to dry entirely. Once the insurance assessors had ticked their peremptory clipboards, carpet and underlay, lino and flooring had been pulled up and dumped over the limbs of chairs and prostrate tables in great communal mounds to the head of every terrace. Only the electricals had been taken away for specialist disposal.

At least it had been a shared catastrophe. In the hostels where those without options were variously lodged, a grim camaraderie prevailed. Besides, the inundation had been countrywide; an event which the forecasters declared a once-in-a-century occurrence. If compensation was slow in coming and not remotely commensurate with actual costs, the cheques went some way toward restoring morale. Neighbours began to talk up that night as a disaster-movie they’d all survived, a shipwreck in a midlands town. There was much talk of a communal lawsuit which, as months went by, failed to materialise. Late November, on the anniversary, Clodagh’s terrace held a party out on the common that was enlivened by fireworks.

In spite of the freak weather-event the forecasters had described, the new premiums had either shot up exorbitantly or else contained a clause that excluded compensation in the case of flooding. This was the occasion of the first real dispute between Clodagh and Kyle. For an American, Kyle was cautious. Arguably, it was his careful temperament that had landed them on the new estate in the first place. She’d wanted the semi-dee out on the Dublin Rd that would, admittedly, have stretched their monthly repayments above the fifteen hundred they’d fixed upon. That said, the sixty thousand down was her money, a legacy from her mother. The property would be in her name. She should have gone with her instinct. But Kyle could do no wrong in those days. Besides, she’d been pregnant, and who knew what unexpected costs a baby might entail.

His caution notwithstanding, it was she who now argued for the extra cover. Kyle, with trademark smirk, attempted to play down the mathematical chances of another inundation with an argument an infant could see through. She knew damn well you couldn’t ‘times it by a hundred, Clo, just do the math. We could buy a couple more houses for that kinda dough.’ At the same time, a fivefold hike in the premium payment was outrageous. It would be difficult to meet, particularly now her maternity leave was unpaid. Rebecca was a strange, interior child – later, she’d be diagnosed as ‘on the spectrum’ – and needed a care Clodagh was loath to entrust to strangers.

Her stubbornness on the point surprised Kyle. She’d always deferred when it came to matters financial. ‘Honey, I know you’re upset, but come on…’

‘Tell you what we’ll do,’ she said, brightly. ‘We’ll ask Dee.’

‘Dee? What the hell’s Dee got to do with any of this?’

At least Dee works up in the Financial Centre, she thought. She didn’t say it. Nor did she bring up the semi-dee on the Dublin Rd. She waited until he’d set off for work, then Skyped her sister.

After the call she felt deflated, even humiliated. Deirdre agreed with a roll of her eyes that of course you couldn’t ‘times it by a hundred, just do the math.’ She’d never thought quite so highly of Kyle Bradley. That said, what it came down to was Becky. To meet the sort of excess Clodagh was talking about, she’d have to go back to teaching fulltime. Bar everything else, that fivefold hike (fivefold? Jesus!) was out of their reach any time soon, with so much refurbishment still to be broached. Face it, darling, he’s got a point…

‘Ok,’ she said to Becky, once the computer screen went black. ‘But I can’t say I’m happy about it.’

Four years went by before the second weather-event. In the interim, Clodagh discovered a talent for economising. It became a fixation. It was born of necessity; the school where she’d taught, though most understanding, could no longer hold the position open for her. When Kyle was away, she thought nothing of illegally strapping Becky into the baby-seat beside her, collapsing the rear seats and driving ten or even twenty miles to a house-clearance or a car-boot sale. She became adept at surfing the second-hand websites and second-guessing which were scams. She ended up sourcing bargains for half the terrace.

She began to smoke, something she hadn’t done since college days. She put together a glasshouse and tool-shed. And in face of Kyle’s hoisted eyebrow, she developed a real knack for D.I.Y., and even earned the respect of the floor-hands in Woodie’s. With business taking Kyle increasingly back to the States, she had something of a free-hand about the house.

There was no lack of warning this time round. If the first flood had stolen in like a thief in the night, the second arrived with the inevitability of an advancing army. All summer – it was the wettest on record – a swollen sky had loured over the entire country, dumping its excess onto an earth already saturated. For days as she’d walk Becky through the fine drizzle along the river, Clodagh had watched with tightening gut the bloat current squirm between the banks like a restive anaconda. Toward the town, teams of men in hard-hats, the Fire Brigade, and even a truckload of bawdy soldiers had begun to bolster the flood defences with sack upon sack of wet sand while a pair of yellow diggers like monstrous toys rattled to dredge the riverbed. High time, because with each bulletin, the contour-maps tracked the gradual approach of a double-depression across the Atlantic.

On the Thursday she called Kyle. He was in Portland, Oregon, in all likelihood unaware of the impending disaster. As it happened, he wasn’t unaware. He’d been keeping abreast of developments on the net. ‘Honey you know what time it is?’

‘Yeah. Listen I need you back here.’

‘Huh?’

‘It’s happening again Kyle. It’s going to happen again.’ Silence. Static. ’I can’t cope alone.’

‘What about Dee? Hun, move in with Deirdre till the worst is over. Will you do that for me?’

‘Kyle. We need you back here.’

A long silence. ‘No can do.’ She waited. ‘I told you this, baby, I explained I…’ But what it was he’d told her he didn’t get to repeat, or if he did, it was into a deaf cell-phone.

She spent Friday emptying cupboards and presses, hauling what could be moved up the stairs to Becky’s room, or her own, or the bathroom. She hauled boxes filled with linen and books, CDs and pictures. She hauled up lamps, the TV and the music-system. She rescued the dinner-set, the espresso-machine, the kettle and microwave. The fridge she emptied into a Tupperware drawer which she laid in the bath alongside the perishables and foodstuffs. A number of times, she sat inert for so long that Becky tugged at her. It wasn’t from exhaustion, precisely. Her eye would fix unseeing on the washing-machine or the cooker, on the glasshouse or tool-shed, on the sofa or the fireplace or the parquet floor, her mind vacant. Dee, who’d driven all the way from Dublin straight from work, collected Becky and a bag of her things; Clodagh scarcely roused herself to thank her.

That evening, and through the night, the terrace mounted its own vigilante action. Civil Defence had deposited several van-loads of sandbags and booms which they worked to plug up each gate and doorway to the height of a child. On their macs and umbrellas, the persistence of rain was pure sound. Only within the wasp’s nest about each streetlight were the orange darts momentarily galvanised. It was hard to comprehend how they presaged a deluge.

There was markedly less humour this time round. Laughter was nervous and mirthless; cordiality strained by those pulling less than their weight, those occupied with their own properties to the exclusion of all else. The river was due to peak in the early afternoon. If the riverbanks could contain it, or if the overspill was limited, the glutted beast might just pass the estate without soiling it.

By eleven they’d done all that might reasonably be done. Nothing remained but to wait and watch and hope. Maggie Ryan, who was eighty-one, brought out a tray of coffee mugs, and another with sandwiches. They ate them in silence. By noon, the waters began to accumulate about the storm-drains and the verges. Slowly, a reflective sheen spread over the roads and the common. Word was that somewhere near the boat club, a wall had subsided. Once the water began to climb their rampart of sandbags, they handed out an arsenal of spades and yard-brushes, of buckets and containers with which to bail. There sounded the indefatigable chug of a water-pump on loan from a building-site that coughed gouts of yellow seepage back into the flood.

The level continued to inch up. Outside the dyke, a vast drab tide was drifting endlessly south.

Still they hoped.

When the blow fell, it sickened like a betrayal. A literal stab in the back. Maggie Ryan, whose house was on the lowest ground, stumbled from her doorway, deploring what was just then sobbing up over her toilet-bowl. They ran to look, and saw that the floor was awash. One after another, the houses succumbed. Liquid, oily and foul-smelling, surged up through the drains and outlets with a hydraulic logic they could no longer counter. It was neither as deep nor as precarious as the first flood, but even as the bulwark of sandbags held and the main danger passed, the entire terrace was infiltrated with an ankle-deep, rust-coloured slick infected with sewage. Even the men broke down.

It took several months before Clodagh consented to move back. Kyle had installed himself in an upstairs bedroom, throwing himself vociferously into a new lawsuit to nail ‘that son-of-a-bitch that built the estate on a goddamn floodplain, for Christ-sakes.’ She knew as well as he that this crusade was to compensate for the fall-off in work, now that his company was downsizing; for his lack of foresight in refusing flood cover; for his unforgiveable absence in the face of the enemy. Having lived there ten weeks he’d cleared out the ground floor and had it decontaminated, but little else. It remained cold, and musty, and entirely bare.

‘Where’s Becky?’ he’d asked. ‘She’s not with you?’

‘I’m leaving her with Dee,’ she said. And that was that. Until such time as the place could be called a home, that’s where their child would remain. Looking at their bedroom, strewn with mounds of papers, with a jumble of his laundry behind the door and even several plates and pizza boxes, she added ‘I’m moving into Becky’s room.’

Having Kyle about the place made Clodagh realise how much she’d appreciated his absences over the previous few years. At first she felt constrained, as though she were constantly being watched. Soon, though, in their uneasy truce, it was tacitly understood that the restoration of the ground floor was her domain; his business was to shore up the support of the estate in the pursuit of communal legal redress. To be fair to him, he was tireless in this. When, as early as the second evening, she’d mentioned over a glass of wine ‘you do know the developer filed for bankruptcy two years ago,’ he’d sat back for a minute, shuffled a few thoughts, and declared ‘then we’ll go after the councillors, and that cowboy architect, and the whatchacallem civil engineers and whatever other sons-of-bitches signed off on this disaster-zone in the first place.’

She painted. She papered. She scraped. She sought out bargains. But with little of the zeal that had marked her first mission. There was an oppressive weariness about the entire estate it was difficult to escape. A number of For Sale signs mouldered over the course of that year. Maggie Ryan’s house was boarded up, and word was she’d moved into a retirement home. With Becky in Dublin and Kyle on half-salary, Clodagh began to look for part-time work. It was fortunate that substitute teaching, when she could find it, paid reasonably well. They’d fallen several months into arrears, but no more than anyone else on the estate. She saw Becky every weekend, but rarely during the week. She even consented to Dee enrolling her in a school with special needs, somewhere in Cabra.

One day, looking over her work – the house was passably inhabitable, but to her eye a show-house, no more – she tapped at the door of their former bedroom. ‘I think we should sell,’ she told him.

‘Sell? How?’

‘This is no life, Kyle.’ The lack of fight in her own voice surprised her. ‘It’s not even a home anymore.’

He stood. He removed the glasses he’d begun to wear and paced as far as the window. With his back to her and his hands in his pockets he examined the view, then slowly shook his head.

‘So what are you saying? We wait around for the next big rain, is that it?’

He sighed. Again he shook his head. ‘There’s three, no, four For Sale signs on this street alone, or hadn’t you noticed?’

‘So what do you propose?’

‘What I propose…,’ he turned. In the look he fired her, something akin to animosity flared. His glasses back on he began to shuffle through a stack of papers. ‘Ok, so what? We sell up? That your big idea?’ Unable to locate the bank-statements he required, he slapped the bundle. ‘Clodagh.’ Deep breath. ‘So this place sells for what? Hundred-fifty, hundred-sixty tops. That’s saying we can find some chump dumb enough to take it on, which is by no means certain. Know what that means?’

‘No, Kyle. What does that mean?’

‘That means, my love, we walk outta here not just with Jack shit, not just with no roof over our heads, but with a legacy debt of a hundred, a hundred-ten grand. See what I’m saying? Take ten years just to clear that sort of figure. I mean, do the math. We’re stuck with this, baby.’

A shiver racked her. That’s twice already you fucked up, she thought, you do the math. She looked long at the man, unable even to bring him into focus.

As though it were the third term in a diminishing geometric progression, the next event arrived after an interval of two years. Once again, there was plenty of warning from the Met Office. Hard-hatted men in luminous jackets arrived with their trucks and diggers and sandbags. Clodagh didn’t wait around to watch. She took the bus to Dublin, turned down the offer of the camp-bed in the spare-room where Becky had been sleeping, and installed herself on Dee’s sofa. Kyle could stay on and play at sandcastles for all that she cared anymore.

Three days later, on foot of the inevitable news reports, Clodagh removed the house-key from the keyring and laid it flat on the breakfast table. ‘Borrow an envelope?’

Dee shook her head. ‘You’re going to go through with it?’

‘Yup.’

‘But what will you do?’

She shrugged, feeling weightless. To have finally lost is a relief when one has been perpetually losing. ‘Don’t worry. I know we can’t stay here,’ she supplied, sticking her tongue out at Becky.

‘That’s not what I’m asking, Clo.’ Dee lifted the key as if it was an artefact from an archaeological dig. ‘I mean, what about Mam’s money?’

‘The deposit? My dear, that is well and truly lost.’

‘So you’ll what? File for bankruptcy, is it?’ To fracture the surface of Clodagh’s flippancy, Dee slapped the key back onto the table. ‘Have you any idea what that would mean?’

‘You’re the financial expert.’ Briefly, she frowned. ‘People make out.’ Then, to Becky, ‘We’ll be fine, won’t we sweetie?’

Deirdre wasn’t one bit convinced by the display. Her sister was being far too facetious. ‘Ok. So what about Kyle?’

‘He’ll be in a hotel somewhere. The place is knee-deep in water.’

‘But I mean… after.’

‘It’s my house, Dee. The deeds are in my name.’ Becky had come to her, burrowed her forehead into her shoulder. ‘Kyle Bradley has no interest in custody, believe me.’ She wondered if Becky knew; a wise child. She placed a palm on the soft hair. ‘You’ll stay up here with Auntie Dee. Won’t you Becks?’

At least Dee had no inkling. ‘And if he phones?’

Clodagh lit a cigarette. Already she could hear the weir’s incessant churn. The thrill of vertigo; of letting go.

‘Tell him…’ She blew an orchid of smoke into the air, as all the disdain that had accumulated for seven years concentrated in her features. ‘Tell him the goddamn word is maths.’

About the contributor

David Butler (author) David Butler (born 1 January 1964) is an Irish novelist, short story writer, playwright, and poet. He has won several literary prizes, such as the Ted McNulty Award from Poetry Ireland and the Féile Filíochta International Award and the Fish Short Story Award.

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