‘Dammed’ – short story adapted for BBC Radio 4 / by Sarah Wishart

Gary had been dead for four months when his sisters rocked up from Ontario. Just when I’d started to think about scraping his shadows down from the walls, these women flowed in straight past me at the door and their passage sculpted a chaotic tidemark washing through the house. First it was the flotsam from the presents they’d brought to welcome me to the family, just as I was no longer a part of it. Then it was the jetsam of photos; Gary-as-a-baby, Gary-with-Mother, Gary-smiling, Gary-sulky. It was the manifestation of their desperation. A desperation to assuage the whirlpool of guilt they’d created by missing Gary’s funeral, sluicing it away by dragging me into the current of their family.

They looked identical to each other and nothing like Gary. They were stocky small balls of women with dark hair chopped short at the crown and growing long at the back. They wore tracksuit bottoms, bold patterned t-shirts, whilst gold lay in rich seams up their arms. The main difference between them was that Martha wore large glasses, ones that changed colour, deepening in the scope of the sun. Tilly on the other hand, had 20/20 vision, which didn’t assist her spatial awareness one bit. She zigzagged everywhere, it would have driven Gary crazy, I on the other hand never got irritated by it. I’d not felt a single ripple of annoyance with them, not once, even though they’d taken over the running of the house and my life since they’d arrived. To be fair I was used to other people taking over my life, and as for being angry, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d lost my temper. In fact, I’d been so calm since Gary had met with Dr Jancey to get the results from the surgery, I felt it was a blessing. Liz would have irascibly said that she couldn’t remember the last time I got angry full-stop, but then Liz wasn’t here was she? Liz was still in Australia, and had been out of contact for three whole months, so Liz couldn’t say anything useful at all.

After we visited Gary’s grave, on the Gower where he’d insisted he be covered in red earth, near to the house he’d mourned losing more than his second family, the sisters settled into what had really secured their trip – the prospect of shopping in London. And so the wreckage flowed on into the house. The wave hadn’t found its crest yet; cartons of take away food and countless empty plastic bags dripped over floors, and pooled on tables and chairs. They bought books from Borders, tat jewellery from Camden, t-shirts from vendors on Oxford Street saying perky things like ‘my sister went to London and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’ and they bought a variation for every single member of their extended family back in Ontario – all 22 of them. All wholly inappropriate Liz might have judged, but who was I to question with my wide-mouth set on staying silent and serene?

They bought Indian tea, English china, Scottish shortbread and an inauthentic family tartan from somewhere off Bond Street. At Spitalfields they spent a fortune on banal pale art printed onto canvases, along with lights shaped like cats, and plastic earrings shaped like peacock’s feathers. Then there were the clothes. Tiny boutiques, market stalls, and chain stores alike – all were raided and plundered, and the sisters were no more unsettled by the clamouring hoards of Oxford Street than I was unsettled by anything at all. I floated around like smoke, lacking motivation to do anything, or feel anything for myself. When I woke in the middle of the night and heard the sisters gently snoring from the living room, and I looked out from our bed, (a heartbeat), my bed, at our darkened room, (a heartbeat), my darkened room, and Gary’s absence in it, I couldn’t find anywhere to place the loss of him, it swirled around, but didn’t touch me. Until his sisters arrived, I’d treaded water steadily, doing the things you ought to do, saying the things you ought to say, as fits the bereft devotee of a suddenly empty shrine, but I was still smilingly silent, inside and out, endlessly compliant with the world.

On the first day of the second week, of their four-week stay, it rained. It was harder rain than should fall in July and the predictions of a London heat wave dissolved in all that water. Under such conditions, it would have been understandable if a crowded house might have started to grate, but it didn’t. Apart from dispersing the general silence, the presence of the sisters dammed the voices of Gary’s colleagues that were piled up on the answer machine. Since Gary and I had got together, there’d been a constant number of his colleagues at my ear at get-togethers and functions, all old enough to be my father. Perhaps I was fated to it, fated to a lifetime of older men since I’d tipped my face up to Gary and smiled. Liz blamed my polite worshipful silences and my eager mutability. Perhaps my relationship with older men was like my relationship with trains, once aboard, I might be absolved of all responsibility, allowed to sit quietly and watch the scenery outside the window. I didn’t feel anything at all, except a confidence that someone else, someone older, someone male, would decide how I felt when the sisters had gone.

On the fourth day of the rain, Tilly and Martha decided that we should go out and have a treat, somewhere nice. So I found them somewhere nice, and sat outside while the sisters got the coffees, under the giant awning under the rain, on a back-road somewhere near a canal in Hackney. I leaned across the back of the chair, my chin on my forearm and watched the few cars that rumbled slowly past on the wet roads, the few bikes that hissed through the puddles, the few people that rushed past with umbrellas, and the one boy who stood still. The boy who stood in a crow of a black coat that was far too big for him, on the crown of the bridge over the canal. He soaked up the rain with his face. He made me think of a hare staring at the moon, as his whole body followed the line of his face, he stared straight up. I imagined the rain falling from his vantage point; glassy dull drops tumbling from slate skies.

Often I forgot how old I actually was, but sat there in the rain, as I looked at the boy-hare, I remembered. I was 25, and although Gary had been too young to die, he’d still been old enough to be my dad with plenty of time to spare. It might have felt like I’d grown older over the last year, but I was frankly shocked at the sight of my face in the mirror, taut, freckled and tip-nosed; a child. Everything I’d gone through recently should have etched itself on my face, shown that I’d caught up with Gary in years somehow, shouldn’t it? But of course, he would have hated that – he loved the acolyte in me, I was just the latest, (a heartbeat), the last, in a long line of acolytes.

Something in the way he thought about literature had driven his libido on, something in the women he went for, mirrored the lives of the kind of writer he wanted to be. His first wife, nearly thirty years ago, had come from a longing for women who wanted him to be the lead in their psycho-dramas. He had wed coolly mad Julia, the blonde American. It lasted a year, and despite Gary’s predictions, Julia had now outlived him. Next there was the pantheist, Miriam from his class on The Lyrical Ballads, who’d had baby George three months after she’d got Gary down the aisle. Ten years after that –there was lovely Ruthie, born in earshot of the Bow Bells, who’d sat at the back and pretended to hate Gary during their loud arguments in his class on William Blake, who had little Lindy and grumpy baby Clive over five years and the arguments had shifted but never abated.

There had been plenty of acolytes in between and during, but there’d been no more wives since he divorced lovely Ruthie. Gary had had his fill of wives and children, and his share of acolytes, but no-one but me had played house at 32 Gregor Street. I had bricks and mortar, books and shelves, and some rather beautiful dark oak furniture left to me by my parents, I had something solid to shield me against becoming a cliché. Liz had been the one to say ‘cliché’ and with such disgust.  I missed Liz. Before she left me to it in disgust for Brisbane’s clearer skies, Gary had watched her running up to meet me at the British Library. She hadn’t known he’d be there, I hadn’t known he’d be there. He’d appeared out of Humanities Two, unexpectedly. He’d kept his eyes on her all the way up that flight of stairs, and just before she’d reached us, irritation etched on her face when she saw him stood there, he’d murmured that he loved that anger was such an elemental energy in her. He said it with such longing that I wondered if he’d forgotten who he was whispering to, but it only made me slightly nervous. He was already complaining of how tired he was, and I didn’t think he had it in him to try to start anything with anyone. Let alone Liz. Later when he’d been told he needed surgery, in a way I was sad for him that he wouldn’t have the energy for it for a while. I didn’t think ‘if ever again’. Not at first anyway. When it sunk in, I made the mistake of telling Liz that I’d thought it was a shame for him, that he’d never seduce anyone again. She came so close to shaking me that night. I’d thought it had been such an innocuous remark but it shocked me to see that she had tears in her eyes. Liz had brushed them away angrily, and asked in a low voice whether I’d ever thought what might be the kind of situation that would be bad for me, a shame for me? I was silenced as I considered the question, but had no answer for her.

I still didn’t as I stared at the boy who had turned his face sharply up to the rain. I wanted to forget that question, so I quickly thought of something else instead. I thought about hares. I thought about the statues that people buy for their gardens. I thought about the black tips of a hare’s ears. I thought about the sound their hind legs might make if they wanted to run, or to raise the alarm. I thought about something I’d seen, or read, or heard, which said that hares behaved very oddly near fire, that they’d leave it right until the very last minute before running away. That they’d crouch down, try to hide until the flames were nearly upon them, and only then, leap away. In fact, some people reported seeing hares, instead of leaping away, leap directly into the fire. Almost like they were doing it on purpose. The thought agitated me, I might have trembled, my legs might have twitched, I might have smelt smoke. I might have, but I’m not certain. I’m certain that my heart flew out to the boy on the bridge, who looked perfectly safe, even if he did look a bit odd, as he stood there, getting gradually soaked.

Tilly tapped me on the shoulder as she sat down heavily in the wooden chair, and pushed a cappuccino across to me, Martha huffed through the door, and deposited a plate with three different kinds of biscuit on it in the middle of the table. ‘Cookie?’ Martha proffered, but as usual I hated taking precedent. ‘You choose first – you know me, easy’. Tilly procrastinated and in that spare second, Martha got dibs on the white chocolate and raspberry one at the bottom of the pile. I sipped my coffee. Martha pulled a bag out of the folds of her enormous handbag. ‘Let me show you these.’ She mumbled. ‘When did you get those?’ Tilly aghast that she might have missed a bargain. ‘Just a while back, at the market – can you believe it! Three pairs for £50.’ It didn’t sound like such a deal to me as I looked at the ugly cork soled shoes, but Tilly turned the shoe over with something close to awe. ‘Three pairs!’

Behind us, a shout went up, I turned to see a couple almost speechless, almost, but just able to shout ‘HEY’ in unison. ‘HEY’ they shouted again. The boy on the bridge stood close to the edge of the kerb, and I noticed, for the first time, that he held a white cane to his side. The couple shouted, not at the boy, but at the car that swooped towards the boy, and the arm that poked out from the back window of the silver car, the arm that snatched his stick away. ‘HEY’. The car swooped, curled itself around the corner and chugged up the street, the arm waved the cane from the window triumphantly.

Without one twitch or one tremble, but with a roar, as the dam burst and the water drenched me faster than the rain on my hatless head, I was out of my seat in a heart beat. I was out of my seat and up the road. I screamed and swore, pulled upon every single sexual swear word that came into my reach, screamed and screamed, swore and screamed, as I ran and ran. I stopped at the junction, still agitated, and hurled violent V-signs at the car. The couple afraid now, held back, just watched as the boy ran across the street, swerving but drawn to me, pulled on by my verbiage of filth. He ran in a fairly straight line to where I screamed and swore, and when he reached me, he crashed into the back of my legs. He swore loudly along with me, we screamed together, but to be honest, he soundeded like he was trying most of the words on for size.

I stopped swearing. The boy carried on. I looked at him, my heart pounded. Then he stopped swearing too.

‘Come on. Quick. Follow them.’

This made perfect sense. He put his arm around me. We ran for about 50 yards, spattered by puddles, before it stopped making sense.

‘This is stupid.’ I admitted defeat. His grip tightened under my armpit, his face was pale, his eyes were pink, like he’d been rubbing them, like he’d been crying. ‘Are you alright?’

‘No I’m not. Those buggers just stole my stick. He paused. ‘I’m blind.’

‘NO!’, I shocked myself at this sarcasm, shocked that I was speaking without thinking. He turned his face to mine and his face was so pale, so small, and his eyes so red, with tiny scratches that I’d only just noticed.

‘God, you’re rude.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be, I’m sick of people being nice to me. No-one’s been rude to me since I started losing what was left of my sight.’

‘Oh. Well. I got the licence plate. We can report them to the police.’

He didn’t say anything for a second, then he asked, ‘How old are you?’

‘How old are you?’ I retaliated, unable to get rid of the teenager resentment in my voice – he made me feel defensive, made me feel younger than 25.

‘I’m 25.’

‘I’m 25.’

‘No you’re not. You’re younger than that.’

‘I am so.’

He rubbed his eyes with his oversized sleeves, the button grazed his eyelids, then he leapt towards me, and I leapt into the fire. His fingers locked into the hollows behind my ears, his wet sleeves flicked rain into my eyes and the boy kissed me. His kiss terrified me, it was so real, so incompetent, so intense and so felt. I had never been kissed so clumsily, I had never been kissed with such absence of artifice, with so little charm and so I kissed him back. His hands flickered at the hollows of my head, and I kissed him back.

‘Anthony!’ The boy pulled away. It dawned to me that we were kissing in the middle of the road and I dragged him to the kerb. A woman stood there. She looked shocked, I guessed she was related in some way. They looked a little alike.

‘They stole his stick.’ I tried to be nonchalant, but the boy had left a skein of saliva attached to my mouth, I slicked it away. ‘I got the number plate.’

The woman was speechless. The boy took her arm and expertly started to steer her away. ‘Where do you live?’ He talked over his shoulder as they moved away. ‘We’ll phone the police and tell them to come and see you to get the car’s details.’

’32 Gregor Street.’

‘Ok.’

They walked away and the woman looked back at me more than once. My heart was in my mouth, the mouth the boy had kissed only moments ago. It was dawning on me, just now, that we had stood in clear view of the café. The café where Tilly and Martha sat open-mouthed, who could simply not believe what they had just witnessed. I looked up into the rain, reading the water with my skin, finally feeling righteous and really goddamn it, goddamn it, Gary, really goddamn angry.