OPEN ROAD REVIEW SHORT STORY PRIZE, 2015 (Joint Winner)
By Petra McQueen.
Using his net as a walking stick, Edgar trudged down the garden path to the mill pond. On his right, khaki-brown fields swelled towards the horizon and in the distance, a tractor tilled the earth tagged by swoops of gulls. When Edgar reached the end of the lawn, he turned left, putting the fields behind him. The copse at the far end of the pond echoed the tractor’s grumble over the still waters. Edgar stood by the rusted sluice gates and scanned the waist-high stone lintel.
Rubbing the back of his neck, he took a step closer.
There! An insole. Floating. Just a small meaningless thing. Good. Because what had washed up over the last few days had been heavy and strange: a grimy teasmaid; an ornate oval picture frame; a Commodore 64 keyboard.
All the objects bothered him, but those great unwieldy things even more. How on earth had they fetched up on the lintel? He’d lived here for ten years and, until last month, the mill pond had been maintenance free; a pleasure in a garden that continually needed trimming, pruning, planting and mowing. Even the sluice gates, rusted solid, had never caused any problems.
Edgar hitched back a sleeve and plunged his hand into icy water. He pinched the insole.
Dear God! He jerked back. The insole was not thin but thick and slimy, made of some sort of leather and, (he took a deep breath), attached to something.
He set the net to one side. Using the lintel as support, he leaned over. He grasped the object with both hands. Now he could feel what it was. What he’d thought was an insole was the top of a leather foot attached to a smooth plastic shin. A prosthetic leg! He tugged as hard as he could. It gave only a little. He tugged again. No luck. His wrists ached with cold; old-man muscles weak.
Annoyed, both at his feebleness and at the fact of the thing, Edgar gave a tremendous yank. The leg exploded through the air: propelling him backwards. He would’ve fallen except that the metal fastenings caught on the lintel.
Hanging on, knuckles white, he became aware of the tractor’s bullying thrum. He turned. The farmer girl was at the edge of his land, shouting at him.
He righted himself, unhooked the leg and dropped it on the ground. He hobbled towards her. ‘What?’
‘Are you alright?!’
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine!’ Couldn’t a man do what he liked in his own garden?
She nodded and trundled up the hill. He went back to the pond. Studying the leg, he spied a small black slug sliming across the shiny pink shin. He flicked it off. Before it’d landed he’d admitted to himself that this object, like all the others, had something to do with his late wife. But what? She’d had the full quota of limbs.
Edgar dragged the leg up to the rest of the washed up objects placed in a neat line on the lawn. He put the leg next to a faded pink plastic brooch, shaped like a dahlia, turned from it and stomped back to the house. There was the crossword to be done.
All that day, warming a tin of soup, queuing in the Post Office, tidying his shed and placing the sledge-hammer close to the door, the objects filtered through his mind like a purgatorial Generation Game Final, threatening to churn up the past. He batted away memories, telling himself that the only thing that mattered was the present and pressing question of how the objects might have entered the pond. He came to no satisfactory conclusion.
He didn’t sleep well.
As he opened his bedroom curtains, the first thing he saw was the line of objects. Horrible things. There was no way he would go to the pond today.
He tried to concentrate on a game of Sudoku. The tractor was a persistent rumble against the shut windows. Thoughts elbowed their way through numbers: Who put the objects in the pond? Why? What did the prosthetic leg mean? What did it have to do with Sylvia?
He stared at the phone before plucking it up.
‘Dad! It’s not Thursday.’
‘Of course not.’
‘You always ring on a Thursday… Are you alright?’
‘Couldn’t be better. It’s just… why would your mother have a prosthetic leg?’
She snorted. ‘What?! I don’t know. Oh wait! You mean the one under the stairs? I used to be scared of that. I think she was Tiny Tim in a church play once. She must’ve chucked it because I don’t remember seeing it after I was very little.’
He let her talk, and wept silently. It wasn’t so much the thought of Sylvia playing Tiny Tim when she was young and happy. It was that the leg had been hidden all that time, in their old home, pulsating with meaning, sending him a message he’d been too stupid to read.
When Elizabeth finished talking, he gathered his breath and uttered that he loved her. He put the phone down so as not to hear her surprise.
Bolstered by his declaration, he dried his eyes. Was he a man or a mouse? He knew the pond had yet to do its work. He stepped into the cold. Another colourless day: the fag end of winter.
In the water was a baby doll, floating on its back, head bobbing against the lintel. Of course. He almost laughed at the inevitability of it. His imagination, cruel and clear, morphed the doll: gave it a swollen, lolling head and a protruding belly with caked and bloody navel. A premature baby he never saw. The baby he stayed away from, finishing the day’s ‘business trip’ (a love affair, actually, with a woman who wore a plastic brooch) with clinical precision. By the time he reached the hospital, the child was dead; his wife mute with grief and reproach.
Forty years had gone by and he’d never thought of the baby, of the pain he’d caused. And good job too. Because remembering hurt. Remembering hurt like merry hell.
As he fished out the heavy, dripping doll, fury washed over him. He flung the baby on the lintel and marched to the shed, pulling out his sledge hammer. Forgetting his old bones, his weak muscles, the weight of regret, he trotted to the pond.
Anger gave him strength. He hoisted the sledge-hammer and smashed it against the rusted sluice gates. Clang of iron against iron, clamour of metal, rattling bone-shaking rebound. Damn pond! Damn things! Damn portentous leg! Damn lover’s brooch! Stupid, stupid doll.
He paused, breathless. The fury was pulsing out of him. Such an old, old man. He lifted for a final fling.
‘Hey! Hey!’ The girl sprinted towards him. ‘What are you doing?’
He dropped the hammer, exhausted.
‘You break the gates, you’ll flood my field.’
‘I haven’t broken them.’ He hadn’t broken them because he was a weak old man.
‘What on earth are you playing at?’
He snatched the doll and brandished it at her. ‘This,’ he said. ‘This!’
‘Oh, my word – a Baby Love Light! I had-’
There was a splintering, a terrible shifting, a grinding. Water spurted. Neither of them was quick enough. The girl whirligigged, dancing, and stumbling. Knocked off his feet, Edgar tumbled into the ice cold. A silent second under the water’s rush. Gasping, he broke into air. Flotsam – ear buds, Lego bricks, dead leaves – rushed over him, past him, towards the field, taking the dancing girl. The water rose in silver waves over furrows until, energy spent, it puddled blackly on the grey soil.
The girl waded out of the field like a goddess: her green overalls clung like kelp; her golden hair was a shining cap.
She bent over him, grinning. He was still clutching the damn doll. The girl grabbed his elbows and hoiked him up. ‘You hurt?’
‘I’m fine. Don’t fuss.’
But she was looking over his shoulder. Through the open sluice gates, they saw the exposed bottom of the pond littered with bottles and broken furniture, plastic plates and iron junk. The air was full of the fresh stink of rotting mud.
Wet and dripping, clothes chaffing, Edgar walked towards the detritus. The girl followed. They clambered over the lintel, picked their way through junk, crunching across memories. The girl gripped his elbow, steadying him.
They reached the other side where a narrow stream fed the pond. The back of a broken chair balanced on the drop.
‘Look!’ said the girl. She pointed through a mess of brambles to a black wall. ‘A tree’s fallen.’ She scrambled up the side, leaving Edgar in the bowl. ‘It was hard to see because of the scrub.’ She pushed back branches. He heard her tread snapping twigs, then nothing.
Holding on to the doll, he felt like a tiny boy trapped in his play-pen. He lifted the doll onto the side and tried to scramble out. It was no good. Bone tired, he hadn’t the strength.
‘Yes, that’s it!’ The girl appeared from the bushes, a damp leaf stuck to her cheek. ‘A birch has fallen. Probably when the storms were bad, remember?’
He did: copse crashing in stampeding winds; rain like steel pins. He’d been afraid his roof would be flung to the heavens like a great recalcitrant crow.
‘Its roots have disturbed all sorts of things from Mum and Dad’s old tip. The stream has washed some of them into your pond.’ She picked up the doll from the side and jumped down, landing neatly. ‘So this is mine.’
Not yet ready to give up his fear and memories, he turned and walked. Tears filmed his eyes. She caught up with him and clasped his arm to prevent him stumbling.
Once over the lintel, she faced him. ‘Why did you break the sluice gates?’
‘I’m a foolish old man, that’s why! I thought the pond was throwing up memories.’ He stabbed the doll with his forefinger. ‘I abandoned my wife with a baby who died.’ With the words came shame. Not only for actions past but for the speaking of them. Excuses balled up in his mouth – ‘I made it up to her. Fine life we had until she passed.’ – but he did not let them fall. The girl’s hand was warm on his elbow.
He swallowed tears. ‘Sorry about your field.’
She grimaced and eyed the mess of strewn objects.
Later that afternoon, dry and bundled against the cold, the girl and Edgar gathered the scattered objects, laying them in the corner of the field: some to be reburied; others to dry for a great fire come spring. Working side by side, they chatted lightly of the objects. The prosthetic leg had belonged to the girl’s alcoholic uncle; the teasmaid had been her granny’s.
With the last light fading, they surveyed the pile.
‘All that stuff,’ said the girl.
‘Wretched stuff,’ said Edgar.
The girl climbed into the tractor. Edgar waved goodbye, holding his hand high even when the trees hid her from sight. Then he turned and went inside, holding the plastic brooch in one hand and the doll in the other.