Rain has fallen since New Year’s Day. Five sodden weeks – almost six. Forty days of needling. Forty nights watching these grey heaving bladders jostling above the rooftops like Zeppelins over Nuremberg. Full cover. I am one hundred percent sick of clouds. Sick. Wherever I look, clouds scuffing their bloated bellies along the ground, swallowing streets. Everything slick, glistening. I need a holiday. Please can we just grab our things and go? Please Oz, let’s go this weekend, just the two of us. Somewhere we can be together and talk about time. Somewhere with more space between the ground and sky. My lungs are full of water.
I looked at what I had written, then tore it up and went to work. Above the clouds the stars would be coming out.
At breakfast I found Stephie’s ripped note and threw it in the fire. She meant babies. Somewhere we can be together and talk about babies. I pulled on my boots and stepped outside. She would finish her shift soon. The sun shone from a pink-blue sky. That ought to cheer her. I stalked down the slope towards town. At the crossroads there was a gathering. People arranged in a long scar across the road, heads bowed as though in prayer. As I came closer I saw it, the rift. It was deep, like a crevasse in the tarmac – twenty metres at its shallowest point – and wide as a house. I stood apart and looked into its depths. Everyone agreed that the biblical rain had formed it. An underground aquifer had collapsed. At the bottom of the rift a raging river swept mightily beneath our town, stained blood red by our rusty soil. The walls magnified the sound of this diastolic rush – a sound like hell booming. As I looked I sensed a rising emptiness that seemed to seep up through the soles of my feet.
At the south end of the rift the back of a haulage container peeked above the rim. Three of the truck wheels still spun in the breeze, scraping the air for purchase. My neighbour stood, bent forward over the edge in his dressing gown and slippers.
“No way anyone could live through a fall like that,” he said. “But we should check.” Opposite him, across the void, a woman crossed herself.
A trestle table appeared in the road. Someone brought out an urn from the community centre and settled it on top. A gas-heated tureen joined it from the church. Soon the aroma of coffee and tomato soup rose above us. The crowd had coalesced now into loose clusters. Stephie would say this is the way of nature. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be collected by the spiral arm of the nearest group. I swirled with them, one hand deep in my pocket, the other clutching a comforting mug. I shivered with them too though the February morning was warm. We began to think of ourselves as survivors.
My neighbour appeared in a frogman outfit, a rope coiled around his shoulders. I helped him secure an anchor point to a tree, tied him a harness. “Remember,” he said. “If I’m not back in 30 minutes I’m a dead man. Will you call my wife?” I nodded, though I don’t know his wife’s number, or even her name. It felt wrong to mention these things. He pulled down his mask and gave a thumbs up. I watched him descend into the gloom, face down like a skydiver, with a powerful torch gripped between his teeth.
We met at work, Stephie and I. She still nurses, though I gave up porting years ago and trained as a mechanic. The silence suited me. The maintenance. Half way between starting and stopping. Stephie wanted children even then. She has always been more at home with beginnings and ends, with life and death.
The sun turned the flowing water lava red. My neighbour flailing slowly silhouetted against the boiling rush. And this is how it is. I saw it clearly: we’re young until we’re not. Things don’t stay still. Time doesn’t stand still. It is an illusion. A comforting fiction. We’re here and then we’re gone. Flotsam tossed in a torrent. I felt an urge to shout to my neighbour, ask his name. To pin him in memory and fight the tyranny.
The rope went slack. An overhang obscured him. Looking up, I saw that Stephie stood opposite me on the other side of the rift, entangled in the crowd. Her head was bowed, hand near her perfect ear holding her blue-black hair away from her eyes. Her tears fell into the gap like a blessing. I wondered if she had seen something too.
The truck brake lights blinked rapidly, then three sharp tugs on the rope. I hoisted the driver and then my neighbour from the wreckage. The driver had a dislocated finger. As we celebrated beside the rift I looked for Stephie. I shook my neighbour’s hand. We breathed deeply together, bent over with our hands on our knees. I succumbed to the moment and told him that I wanted to be a father. He clasped my shoulder.
“That is good news Oscar,” he said. “Stephie will be over the moon.” I walked home as the ambulance arrived at the rift. In the house the silence opened like a void. On the kitchen table I found another note.