By lisa h
As told by Jane Sinclair
We moved to Reading in 1999. Dad got a job in the brewery and came home smelling of hops every night. We rented at first, in this stinky flat just off Oxford Road. I hated the school, and Mum didn’t feel safe, so they bought a house in Purley, on Colyton Way. I’d never had such a big bedroom. And the river Thames was only a walk away.
Next door lived a foul old woman, Rhonda Cook. We tried to be friends with her at first. Mum made her a Victoria sponge, took it around hoping for a cup of tea and a chat, but Mrs Cook grabbed the cake and slammed the door in Mum’s face. Shouted, “Interfering wench!” through the letter box, and stomped off. Mum didn’t try again.
Mrs Cook used to stand on her porch, watching us kids in the street. I was fourteen, but would still play a game of ball, especially if Billy Roper was out. The old woman had amazing hair, pure white, and long enough to sit on. She never tied it up, and if the wind blew, I’d stop playing and watch her hair whip about in the breeze.
A few weeks after we moved in, little Jack Pritchard kicked the ball too hard. It rolled into Mrs Cook’s garden, came to a standstill near the first steps up to her front door. I’d been sat on a wall, trying to not to stare at Jack’s teeth. His Mum doesn’t make him brush, and he eats too many sweets, and when he smiles, all I can see is the nasty green colour in his mouth.
Mrs Cook put a hand out, like a ghostly lollypop lady, but none of the boys would have dared step foot in her garden, even if she hadn’t done anything. She took the steps off the porch carefully, as if each movement hurt, one arm twisted around so her gnarled fist pressed into the small of her back, the other clenched on the banister, and went to the ball. Then she had a hatpin in her hand, as if from nowhere. Slowly, she placed the point on the ball, made sure we were all paying attention, and pushed the pin in. Once through the flesh, she pulled the hatpin out, and tossed the ball back out onto the street.
Billy caught it, and I could hear the hiss from where I sat.
“Bitch,” he whispered, and stalked off.
No one dared openly taunt Mrs Cook. She’d lived on the street longer than anyone; all the Mums and Dads who’d grown up locally knew her from when they were young. They said she looked old back then, and just as mean. But no would tell me why.
In the spring of 2000, the rain fell, and fell, and wouldn’t stop, and the Thames grew wider, stronger. Billy and I threw sticks into the water, holding hands as close to the edge as we dared, the eddies swirling and the level rising. It was scary – I remember my heart beating hard, the nerve ends tingling all over my body. I couldn’t tell if my heightened emotions were from the approaching flood, or Billy being so close.
He told me, “The locals say Lewis Carroll wrote a poem about this stretch of the river, for Alice in Wonderland.”
“You’ve read Alice in Wonderland?”
“Why, got a problem with that?” He smirked. I wanted him to kiss me. I’d never kissed a boy before, never been interested.
“Nope, no problem,” I said, and stared over at the Thames. The river was full of twirling branches, churning water and ducks trying to feed.
“We’re going to get our feet wet,” he said suddenly, and pulled me away from the river’s edge as the water spilled over the bank and flowed towards where we sat.
We jogged back to the street, not knowing what to do. Billy told his Dad, who went down to the Thames, and ran back screaming the words, “Flood, the river’s flooding!” He pounded on the doors of the families he knew, and before an hour had passed, half a dozen men were knocking, helping get people out and up to higher ground.
The water came fast. After a couple of hours, thick muddy water lapped against the steps to our house. We all went up to Beech road, to the Barn, and stayed for the night. In the morning, Billy and I returned, but we couldn’t get past Oak Tree Walk. Grass, plants, pots, and a kid’s tricycle, all submerged underwater. Some houses had been built up high, ready for the water. Ours was one of those, but three steps had disappeared under the thick silty liquid that covered our street. And everything stank. Billy said the sewage had came up through the drains and mixed with the river water. I gagged, and left him there, he wanted to know whether the level was going up or down.
The flood stayed for a week, long enough to make all us neighbours best friends. Some people had family nearby, and left the barn. I felt sorry for them, as the rest of us had a pretty fine time camping out together.
Another two weeks passed before they allowed us back in our houses. The authorities had to scrape off all the muck, so we didn’t catch dysentery or something. Then, we all teamed up, and helped those who had faired worse. I wore four pairs of marigold gloves right through, scrubbing and cleaning.
The only part of our house damaged was the bathroom. When the water levels came up, the toilet overflowed. We cleaned that up first, so we could share with Pritchard’s. Their house had been built at ground level, and two feet of water and mud had got in. The upstairs stayed dry, but they cooked dinners at ours for weeks until the insurance company gave them a cheque to replace all their stuff.
A couple of months after the flood, we kids noticed a smell wafting from Mrs Cook’s house. Tim, from two roads up, threw a Frisbee, and it flew right over the roof, and into her back garden. We all froze, unsure of what to do.
“You seen her?” Tim asked, turning to me.
I looked over at her bungalow, thinking. “Not since before the flood.” I finally said.
“Didn’t anyone check on her, when they evacuated us?” Billy asked.
He was in year ten, one year above me, and his hair fell like chocolate brown curtains about his face. He tucked his hair behind his ears, and tried to peer in the front windows without stepping in her garden.
“Dad thought she’d got herself out. No one answered when he knocked,” I said. “Maybe she decided not to come back.”
“Shouldn’t we do something?” Billy asked.
“Like what?” Tim said, and tentatively walked down the now overgrown path. “I want my Frisbee back. My brother will kill me if I don’t return it.”
Tim disappeared around the side of the bungalow, opening and closing the tall gate to the back garden almost silently. He remained there a long time, when the gate creaked open; he beckoned to us, his face pale and tinged green.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Billy went first, stepping carefully; no one had cleaned her garden after the flood. The mud had dried to a sticky paste, with a crust hard enough to walk on, and I kept thinking about the diseases we could catch.
“It’s the smell,” Tim said, and pointed to a back window.
Mrs Cook lived in a bungalow; one built a couple of steps off the ground, but not high enough for the flood. Billy stood on tiptoes, and peered in. He looked for a long time, cupping his hand above his eyes.
“Christ.” Billy turned around. “You shouldn’t look, Jane.”
I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Both Billy and Tim were over six foot, and they had to stretch to get past the windowsill.
“She in there?” I whispered.
“Is she okay?”
Tim walked off when I said that, rubbing the back of his sleeve across his face. I heard the gate open and slam closed in a series of rickety bangs.
We told Mum, but she didn’t want to go in the bungalow, so we waited until six o’clock, when my father strolled in, with a wide smile and the sweet scent of hops emanating from his skin.
He went straight round, knocking furiously before trying the door. It was locked, but Dad is a strong man, he put his shoulder against the wood until the lock gave way, and the door opened a little. A gush of water poured over his feet, Dad didn’t take any notice, and started slamming the door against the mud inside, until he had enough room to get through.
“Stay here,” he ordered us, took a look, and walked in, his boots sucking and squelching. The stench overpowered me; rank and so thick it coated my mouth and the inside of my nose. There were flies as well, they fled the confines of the room, more and more taking flight as Dad stepped slowly across the living room.
He got to the back bedroom, clambered through the mud, and then backed out in a hurry. He struggled to get out of view, and started retching.
When the emergency services came to remove Mrs Cook’s body, I decided I needed to see. I took a box around the back, and with everyone occupied at the front of the bungalow, I slipped from view. I climbed up to the window, and peeped in.
The room must have been a foot deep in muck. It lapped up against the sides of the bed, where she’d placed a book, the bookmark poking out the top. A glass with white scale coating the inside, the water long evaporated, stood on the bedside table. Mrs Cook lay spread across the floor, like an angel, arms outspread, her nightie black from mud and decay. Woolly blue slippers became one with her feet, at the end of blackened swollen legs, and her hair floated on the top of the mud, still white and perfect.
I climbed down; glad her face had been hidden, and went home.
A year after the floods, we had a neighbourhood party. Tables were set up right through the middle of the street, flags and Chinese lanterns covered the trees and the fronts of houses. Two large boxes of fireworks sat on the front of Billy’s lawn, waiting for nightfall.
Glasses were raised, and as a raucous cheer and impromptu hip-hip-hooray were shouted out, I glanced over to Mrs Cook’s bungalow. It was uninhabitable, still filled with silt and muck. Also smelly, and there had been talk during the day of each house on the street chipping in a little so some professionals could be hired to clean it up. Nobody mentioned the fate of Mrs Cook. Billy and I spoke of her sometimes, sat out on the banks of the Thames, out bare feet trailing in the water.
As I watched, she appeared on the porch, her nightie billowing out in the wind, her hair free and perfectly white, catching on swirls of air, moving as if alive. She put a hand up, in greeting. I toasted her, as the others cheered at the cleanup effort. She turned as I drank to her, and opened her front door. But before she disappeared from view, she glanced back, and motioned for me.
I don’t know why I went, but I got up and walked over to her bungalow. She waited, holding the door open, but I didn’t go in, the place was still almost knee high in mud. She transformed the living room, redecorating before my eyes, people moved about, as shadows. Three children dashed by, barrelling past me and out the door. Their giggles hung in the air. Then I watched myself walk down the stairs, older, my hair long, almost to my waist. Billy followed, his hair speckled with silver at the sides, still grinning that cheeky smile of his. He caught up to me, kissed my neck from behind, and wrapped his hands around my stomach, clasping them together over a small bump.
Mrs Cook floated from the bungalow, taking the vision with her.
I still think of her, seven years on. I’ve been asking around about Mrs Cook, finding out information before the older residents pass on. She’d moved to Purley with her husband in the nineteen-forties, and after years of trying for a baby, he died in a freak car accident. I hope she’s happy, and with him.
The council have put the bungalow next door up for auction. I think, perhaps, that Billy and I will put in a bid.