430, Watery Road (Part 1 of 2)
Rose sits in the driver-side seat of her car, hands locked to the steering wheel, parked across from the house.
430, Watery Road is an ordinary two-storey terrace, identical to all the others on the street. For two decades, she went in and out of its greenish-grey front door, submitting to the miseries inside. Now she stares, transfixed, a former inmate, awed by the power of prison gates.
She shivers. The car’s straining heater is no match for the cold January air slicing through the seals of the door. Rose pulls up the collar of her jacket and wraps her arms around herself.
There is a loud tap at the window and she jerks away, as if landed by a punch. Only minutes before, Rose watched her ex-husband leave for work, saw him trotting down the road towards the station wearing his smart business coat and old-fashioned flat-cap. Yet, in her confusion, she still anticipates his face at the window, clouding the glass with spittle and fury.
Looking in at her is a blonde haired woman, thirty-something, wearing a North Face jacket with a sleeping baby strapped to her chest. She makes a winding gesture with her hand and after a pause, Rose brings down the window.
“You’re idling,” she says.
The woman spreads her hands and hunches her shoulders. ”Air quality? The planet?” Then points at her child.
“You want me to turn off the car?” Rose asks.
Without waiting for an answer, Rose closes the window and kills the engine. North Face smiles like a clown then walks away, shaking her head to effect.
Rose considers turning the key again, shifting into gear and running the woman down, then laughs out loud, feeling the vitality of irritation. How long would she have sat here, gawping, before driving back to Manchester?
She gets out, locks the car and crosses the street. Entering the front garden is fine. You can cross a front garden without people raising eyebrows. Her glasses and short cropped hair, dyed rusty-red make it unlikely she’ll be recognised. Rose could be delivering takeaway leaflets or returning borrowed keys for the allotment shed. Before she left her husband, these things were occasionally pushed through their door.
At the porch, she traces her hand over the metallic numbers. Her entire relationship with Frank looms in her mind’s eye now, like a pulsing black-hole – an awful, tragic mistake which consumes all hope and joy if she dwells on it for too long. Rose feels her past tugging at her, urging her to fail.
She looks over her shoulder, removes the key from her pocket and places it in the lock. The door opens with precisely the same ascending creak as before. It’s a sound which seems uncannily familiar, as if the house itself is welcoming her back.
She steps inside and closes the door behind her.
They were brought together by a sci-fi convention. That fact alone – when examined through the prism of their relationship – strikes her as grotesque, as if she were entrapped by her own youthful enthusiasms.
Seventeen years old, she sat on a train, travelling from Manchester to Birmingham for the 1995 World Fair of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was an escape from the pressures of home and school, an excursion that was hers alone. Using the money from her part-time job at the Co-op, Rose even booked a hotel, an extravagance which made her mother so suspicious it almost led to the trip being cancelled entirely.
Had another seat been available, she knows Frank could have avoided sitting next to her. He was tall and awkward and dressed in a curious combination of cheap branded sports-wear and an old fashioned flat cap.
But he did take the seat next to her and she did see his ticket for the convention poking out of the pocket of his training top and, after a few minutes to summon up the courage, she did ask this pale-faced but not-unattractive young man what he was most looking forward to seeing in Birmingham.
And so they spoke for the first time, and she noted just how different he was to boys she’d grown up with. Intelligent and curious, there was an intensity to his manner which fascinated her.
Without explicitly arranging to do so, they spent much of the weekend together, seeking each other out in the expanse of the main hall, eating lunch together in McDonald’s and Burger King, talking and talking, mostly about her plans to go to University, to study, to live free from her parents' piety and restraint.
Even then, there were signs. She was too young to divine their meaning, but they were there.
When he spoke, his eyelids would quiver, half-shut, like a falcon taking its hood. At first, this unnerved her, but she soon discounted it as a endearing tic. He was secretive too, furtive about his activities at the convention when he was away from her. She saw him talking to a group of men dressed in long black jackets and when, later, she asked who they were, he brushed the question aside. He did not seem to be interested in any of the popular events and exhibits. She lived for Star Trek and Doctor Who and Star Wars. He spent most of his time searching through the book stalls and picking conversations with middle-aged men with pony-tails. When she asked him what he liked to read he named authors she’d never heard of. Later she checked. Most belonged to a group of writers churning out niche SF stories from a little university on the east coast of America.
But he wanted to know about her, oh yes he did. And of course she took it as a complement, why wouldn’t she?
It was only after she got back to Manchester, his phone number and address safely tucked away in her purse, that she reflected on how little she still knew about him, and how much she still wanted to know.
All the elements that troubled her before she left are still here. The plaster on the wall is flaking; the floorboards are still dressed with a threadbare rug, probably laid by the previous owner way back in the 70s. And that musty fragrance remains, a mixture of ageing timber and vegetable cooking fat.
Frank said spending money on the house would be a waste. The only people he allowed to visit were his travelling companions and they, he said, had higher things on their minds than the furniture and fittings.
What would he do if he caught her sneaking back? On the journey here she’d circled this question, but the answer comes to her now with absolute certainty. He would kill her. Given the opportunity, he would beat her with his fists, just like he did in the latter years of their marriage, but this time, he’d go on and on until her body much pulp.
So Rose doesn’t stop to look around, she doesn’t take-in the detail of her surroundings: the coats on the hallway hangers, the sunlight from the living room window falling across the stairway, the letters piled high on the collapsible table. Most important of all, her eye doesn’t catch the clock on the hallway wall or wander past the stairway to the open door of the kitchen and beyond.
She bounds up the stairs, two steps at a time, swinging around the bannister and into the main bedroom. Sheets are strewn across the bed and the floor is covered with a jumble of books - black leather bound tomes with brass locks mixed with trashy paperbacks and family photograph albums. Perhaps ”family” is a stretch. The pink fronted volumes contain, she knows, a chronological store of Frank’s polaroids. A few snaps of their married life but mostly pictures from field trips with his oddly unpleasant friends.
Sometimes he would sit for hours, staring at the albums. Stonehenge, the Rollright stones, Jerusalem. There was even one trip to America, a tour of Massachusetts, two blessed weeks when she was left at home to sample a life without his bitter hold.
She shakes her head, breaking the reverie, trying to focus on the task at hand.
Picking her way between the books, she approaches the desk in the corner, drops to her knees and pulls open the filing cabinet drawer. It takes just a few seconds to find the “Rosie Official” folder. She pulls it out and her passport falls onto her lap. A squeak of delight escapes, and she speaks, exhilarated, into the empty room.
Forgetting her passport was the kind of thing Frank expected. He called her “ditsy”, an “air-brain”. Harsh words which once played on a loop whenever she made a mistake.
These days, Rose has friends, something that Frank would never have allowed. It began with Janey from the support group, then snowballed in the most wonderful way. Janey’s friends became hers. They helped her get out of the hostel in Manchester and to secure her own flat. A year on, they still call most nights and ask how she is, they invite her out for drinks and meals. They go to the gym together, they run in the park. All unremarkable activities which Rose experiences, even now, with the wonder of a child receiving a Christmas morning gift.
It was Lisa who suggested they all take a trip to Spain. Seven days in the sun, lounging by the pool drinking cocktails and behaving like teenagers. Rose’s new job at the call centre means she had her own money, for the first time in her life. They all met up at Janey’s house and booked it online, laughing and teasing each other about drunken antics on the Costa Brava, planning all the details of their trip.
She replaces the file, then raises herself up, facing the bedroom window. Bright sunlight washes over her. The sudden change in weather feels appropriate. Her nerves are calmed. Positive energy fizzes all the way to her toes and fingertips. The drive back to Manchester will be a pleasure. She’ll crank up the radio and sing along, maybe stop at services and enjoy a leisurely meal.
Outside the window, a figure is moving past on the opposite side of the road, walking, but also pumping her arms as she goes. It’s North Face - now shed of jacket and baby. The woman wears tight black leggings and bright white trainers. Must have dropped the kid with her nanny, Rose thinks. Women like that always have nannies.
Rosie feels tired all of a sudden, like at the end of a long shift in the call centre. She turns away, passport in hand and exits the bedroom.
For the best part of a year, they conducted a long-distance relationship. They would email and call each other. He would visit her in Manchester once a month, sleeping on her parents' sofa.
When Rose finished college she started working full time in the shop, saving money to take her place at Keele the following year. But she never made it to university, and never learned that life had more to offer than an awkward young man grasping, tentatively at first, for control of her.
Frank’s mother died. She fell down the stairs at home. A tragic accident which she only questioned, privately of course, years later. Rose rushed to London to comfort him. That night, they made love and slept in the same bed for the first time.
Frank was on his own now, knocking around in that big house. He asked her to move in, to turn away from her studies and come to live with him there. In those days there was still a spark in his eyes, something which spoke of ambition instead of obsession. He had a job, crunching numbers at an IT firm, and Rose could see the possibilities. She told him she would return and marry him once she had her degree.
He changed then. Before her eyes he transformed into the kind of drunken beserker her parents had always warned her about. Frank did not touch her, that would come later, but his fury left the bedroom in tatters. Afterwards, he begged for forgiveness, told her it was the impact of his poor mother’s untimely death, and she believed him.
Two months later, with her accommodation booked in the student halls and a lecture schedule for the first semester pinned to her bedroom wall, Rose sat in the bathroom and pondered the little plastic tube she held in her hand, checking it over and over again to make sure she was reading it right.
The indicator had turned green.
At the top of the stairs Rose stops, her limbs locked rigid. She waits in the silence, praying it was only her imagination. Soft at first, the sound comes again, with more substance this time. A high-pitched wimper followed by sniffing, then more sobbing. A woman is crying. Rose knows, with precise detail, how sound moves through the house. She locates the woman in the kitchen.
She grips the banister so tight her nails dig into the ceder wood. Why didn’t she think of this? Why did she assume he would be living alone. She of all people should know how well he can manipulate the affections of another and draw them in with his lies.
Rose steps slowly down the stairs, taking care to miss out the third step from the bottom, which she knows will creak if it takes her weight.
Now she notices the clock above the coat hooks. The time is wrong, as is the date. She looks around and takes in the entirety of the hallway. Even with the threat of the woman in the kitchen, an absurd observation occurs to her. She dismisses it before it can take hold.
Rose steps furtively onto the hallway floorboards. The woman cries out again and, despite her fear of discovery, Rose's heart aches for her. She wishes she could talk to her, tell her there is another way.
On the table next to Rose, letters and circulars are piled high. At the top is a small envelope addressed in a cursive hand, her own name spelled out in full just the way her mother always had. She wrote letters because Frank wouldn’t let her visit and there was no phone to call on. Rose remembers receiving the letter in the week she left the house, but never opening it, never having the heart to hear her mother’s pleas for recognition.
Rose thinks about the woman walking past the house without her baby. Her belly, underneath that tight little top. The child was inside her a year ago.
And was Rose’s car parked there as she walked past? No, Rose didn’t have a car a year ago.
And she thinks about the bright warm sunshine on a cold January day.
The idea rears up again, more difficult to deny this time.
The house looks the same as the day she left. It smells the same, it feels the same. As if time itself has stood still.
End of Part 1 of 2