‘Sometimes I Am Drowning’, Louise Hughes

Illustrations © 2017 Katharine A. Viola



 [ Party, © 2017 Katharine A. Viola ] They celebrated the equinox like they celebrated everything, with a party. She went because everyone else was and her mother had told her, oh a long time ago, that one had to make an effort. No one really liked parties but they were for putting up with. Everybody felt that way. Everyone managed.

She bought a new dress, with sequins and tulle. It was purple. She hung it in the wardrobe with pride and bought new stockings. She pictured herself, straight and tall and with the confident stride she had seen on so many others. She would enjoy this because, after all, they didn’t have to invite her. A party sounded like such a glorious thing. She would make new friends and the people she knew already would see her dress and tell her how nice she looked. So different.

They collected her from her front door, with bottles already in their hands and grins on their faces. They were mid-conversation by then. She walked beside them, trying to catch the flow of it but nothing she said got through. Drops in a river, her words were. She wasn’t sure she was speaking loud enough, or if they were ignoring her, or if what she was saying was wrong. Perhaps it didn’t fit the rules.

The party house was unfamiliar. A friend of a friend’s. The hostess greeted each of them with a hand-shake that made the room briefly quiver. Candles burned in carved out coconuts. The last trails of daylight turned the walls golden. She stuck with someone she knew well amid the crowd. Voices merged like an orchestra but she couldn’t find the tune. An hour later found her sitting in a chair by the wall and following the nearest conversation, trying to block everything else out. The door to the conservatory stood open and the four-piece band had started up, but they weren’t quite in tune. She clenched her fists against the additional noise piled on top of all the rest. It turned everything into gravy.

“Are you okay?” Someone hauled her from her fog and though she really, really wanted to tell them no, she also didn’t want to ruin their night. She nodded and smiled. She didn’t have the words for truth.

“There’s cake out now, if you want some.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” The thought of losing the sanctuary of her chair, of returning to find it occupied and herself with nowhere to go, filled her with dread. The dread prickled her eyes but she told herself no. Don’t make a scene. She focused again on the nearest conversation and on trying to find a friendly face in the crowd. There’d been seven of them at the start. She knew their names and their faces and the desks where they sat at work.

Where were they?

In the second hour, she caught sight of three of them, standing in the corner with ruddy cheeks and dishevelled shirts. When they glanced her way she tried to catch their eye. If they saw her, they were sure to invite her over. She saw two more later, just after someone’s voice took on a disgruntled tone because they wanted to sit down and she had been hogging that chair all evening. She relinquished it and headed over to the corner where they stood, but there was something wrong. They didn’t want to talk to her. They moved away towards the band, as if they knew. Something tightened like a key through her temple, winding her into a rage. The music. The music. The music. Stop it.

In the refuge of the bathroom she pressed her back to the door and switched off the light, let a thick towel fall around her ears, wrapped her arms around her knees and lost herself. She sought the black and the tears because they were something. They felt. Like she imagined a hug should feel. The dreams of the perfect party, the friends she’d thought would guide her through it, beat her around the ears. They reminded her that she should not lie. She snatched up the toilet brush—all she could reach—and threw it so hard at the opposite wall it shattered.

For a time, in mouth-twisting, palms-pressed-to-eyes silence, the world ended.

When she emerged again, because someone’s knocking turned to angry pounding, they muttered “about time” and their mutter spread down the landing as she walked. She could not find the words to scream, to make them understand, though she regretted every step of silence down the stairs under their staring eyes.

She was not welcome here.

The tail end of the night found her sitting again, with the seven or so remaining guests. Good friends of the hostess. She didn’t know how to say she was going, how to stand up and make it so casual, the farewell and the smile. She was all wrong, sitting there biting her fingernails, but she wasn’t sure how to leave. She wanted, so, so much to get up but the chair held her down until everyone else made their excuses and then she joined them, the strangers. The hostess thanked her for coming and closed the door. She walked home alone and the quiet dark was glorious.


On midsummer night, when sun shadows stretched but refused to sleep, the town beside the river danced through paper lanterns. They donned their best lace, hats dripping with flowers, and swung down streets in each others arms, knocking to summon the tardy from their dressing tables. Hats fell to the pavements, cotton petals trampled. Men, in flares and sideburns, polished shoes and greased-back hair, grew red and loose of tongue. Women shouted whispers and dangled shoe straps from fingers. By morning, the town would run with vomit and spilt spirits. By morning, half of them wouldn’t even remember going out.

For now, it was early.

Except for the girl in the royal blue mac. For her, it dragged itself out for an eternity. The air shrieked. She slammed her palms against her ears and crawled beneath her sheets. She shouted at the ceiling, the music blaring above. She stamped on the floor and they laughed back. She tried to read. She reran each invitation in her head, conjured a reality where accepting ended in something other than a shaking, foetal self pressed into a corner while they gave up trying to understand and went on with their night. She’d done it all before.

At half-past midnight, she relented. She stroked the pink flowers of the peeling paper by the door as she left. She hoped, though that shred of hope was fading, that someone in the crowd would see her red eyes and ask. But no one even said hello. The man downstairs reminded her that it was bin day tomorrow, despite the festival. He thought she forgot on purpose.

She tried to find a doorbell to ring, sure that if she just sat down and explained, to someone, the world would shift and make sense. She needed a hook to drag her out but everyone had their own plans and she dismissed each face in turn because they weren’t close enough to her to bother with this.

At one o’clock, she gave up altogether. She worked out how to leave.

The river was cold. Rushing water drowned the party out.


It took two days for a paragraph to appear on page four of the local paper. They looked, for a while, but their heart wasn’t really in it.


Twelve months later. When the townsfolk locked up their shops and shuttered their windows, they looked up to the clear blue sky and smiled. A perfect night, they said. Couldn’t be better, they said. Bunting dripped from every gable and they skipped beneath it, happy as goats on the alp. It was midsummer. The best night of the year.

At ten o’clock the rain began to fall. First a flutter of a leaf, the kind of window tap that could be a fly’s misadventure. Then nothing.

Silence.

Stillness.

A handful of the clearest folk looked to the trees, palm up, head tilted. No. Not from a clear blue sky.

A bucket emptied from the sky between blinks. A pause before the screaming and then they ran, coats over heads. Into doorways, stampeding, bolting. A city herd out of control. Water crashed over footsteps, happy to join the party. Streets filled with raindrops dancing. It skittered from the roofs, scurried merrily down drainpipes. “I’m here, I’m here, I want to play too.”

Hail bounded after it. Confetti of ice, celebrating the day, hopscotching with the reckless abandon of anyone its age.

The river, placid when the balconies and verandas at its side rang with cheer, began to surge. It caught the rain’s excitement and threw itself against the concrete strictures the town had built it. Sea-like it clawed at the land.

Near the bridge to the churchyard, a couple in matching pink rain macs clutched each other’s elbows beneath a canvas shop awning. Its owner had abandoned it when the “just a quick one now” gin at lunchtime persuaded him into his pea-green suit and out of the door. The river seethed over their toes, which thrilled and curled. They laughed. They slid out their phones and photographed themselves for their friends to see. Within five minutes, twenty people shaking off in pubs or spinning like umbrellas in the park, saw their faces and grinned back.

The river surged on. It was happy.

People skimmed through it, bare or sandalled, some shoes so polished the water would not stick.

The town let the river join them and for the first time she did. No one expected much of a river, or cared when she sought out the quiet alleys, the lonely places. Everyone dashed through her equally. Their bare toes and dripping hems teased her. As dawn came she slunk away again, back inside her concrete walls. She waved goodbye to the river that had partied as it rushed off to the sea.


Leaves dusted the surface of still water when she rose again, peeking with invisible eyes from under the quiet shadow of the bridge. They were tip-tapping. The couple in pink raincoats, one with hair dyed green and twisted into an infinity knot and the other shaved clean as a whistle. They hooked arms and trailed their fingers in the water. Their boat bobbed about as the oars twisted.

With a laugh, the green-haired one pointed downriver towards the park.

They would never get there at this rate.

The river caught the boat in a current swirl and nudged it on. One of its occupants let out a yell and clung tighter to the poles of wood. They flustered and rocked, so the river paused. They don’t want to get there then? The boat bumped against the wall and they scrambled to cling on, gripping the edge of the bank and laughing. The river laughed too. Bubbles rose to the surface and the water split the sunlight in a rainbow.


Midsummer arrived this time with black-bordered stationary and a leaden sky. Everyone expected rain. They packed their umbrellas and cagoules. They took to the streets in muted greys to mark the sombre expectations. No one felt quite like partying. Bodies on a foreign hillside. Fuselage dripping in fire.

She crept from the river in white lace and twisted plaits. The river lapped the pavement along its shore. Her footprints faded as she walked through drizzle, up into the town. People shuffled past. They didn’t look up. It was midsummer and they didn’t care.

Under the cloak tower’s steady gaze, she found them sitting on a bench. The couple in matching pink raincoats looked up to see the girl in white lace. Pansies surged around them in a sea.

“Not wearing black?” the one with green hair asked.

The river’s shoulders dripped with settled rain. “No.”

Words came strangely as they always had but she had watched these two and felt she knew them, trusted them. They wore pink in a city shrouded in black.

“Let’s walk,” said the other with a smile

So they travelled the city, pink and white. Some looked up from their doorsteps of gloom to watch them pass. Shock had given way to lead weights now, a grief the rain embraced. The river soaked up the rain. As long as it fell, she could walk in the city, in glass slippers, white lace, and a feathered hat. There was something about knowing she could flow away again, whenever she wanted, that made it possible.

They walked to the park, up to the top of the hill and the monument of pink granite. Someone took a phone out, but the river reached out and shook her head. No, they agreed, it wouldn’t be appropriate. Not today. At six o’clock they paused to the clock chimes. At two minutes past they ran down the hill to fall in the fountain, stumbling over their feet like children.

A sliver of starlight on the horizon, just as the sodden clouds turned indigo, tugged at the river’s heart. The water crept up the front streets and lanes. It played on doorsteps and bubbled up from drains. The drizzle eased and before it ceased, she led them back to her banks.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

No need.

“It was nice.”

So it was.

The streets stood silent. Half-hearted surges of party fell over drunk at half-past one and never picked themselves up again.

She slipped away while their backs were turned to watch the sunrise. When they looked back the green-haired one raised a hand and admired the new gold ring. They’d planned the night and for a moment it had teetered. Should they carry on nor not?

“Well, that wasn’t so bad.”

“No, now we just have to set a date.”

The river didn’t hear them. She was lost in memories and bubbles.


Midsummer sat up, rubbed its eyes, and found a haar had drifted up the river, cloaking lampposts and driving the endless heat of weeks away. The river rose in a form of lace and braided hair, hidden in the mist. She had pink raincoats on her mind, another night of quiet company. She skipped up the lane to their front door. She knew where it was. She’d found it in the rain.

After three knocks, she felt her toes beginning to dissolve. The river called. Its endless rush.

A door opened but not the one she wanted.

“They’ve gone away,” said a floral dress and red shoes. Was she mad at all the hammering? The river couldn’t tell.

“What?”

“They’ve taken off this year. No wonder. Have you seen this fog? Typical, you know and I don’t reckon it’ll get much better by tonight. They’ll be wearing coats to the garden party up on the hill, now won’t they?”

The river blinked.

So many words to process and she had none in return. She fell back on a mainstay. “Thank you. Have a good day.” All an awkward script.

“Didn’t they tell you?” The smell of perfume roses leant nearer. “Thought the whole town would know by now the noise they were making when they found out. Pregnant, wasn’t she. Not sure… well, I guess these people find a way.”

The river stirred. Hidden channels swept up anger but she wasn’t equipped to respond with anything but a smile. Say something, the crashing waves urged her. She turned away and hurried off.

“Guess they wanted to celebrate together, not with a whole drunken town,” the sharp tongue bid farewell.

Emptiness swallowed her. She sat down where the bridge met the railings, arms hugging metal and staring down through copper brown. Abandoned. Again. The river water rose, first shrouding her feet then up to her knees. Weed and foam and leaves all gathered round her legs.

They were just like everybody else.

 [ Drowning, © 2017 Katharine A. Viola ] The river rose and kept on rising. It took the bridge and then it took the streets. Windows rippled, cobbles vanished. The people threw bangled arms in the air and ran from the marketplace. Sparks danced around the stage. The river rushed from door to door, knocking to be let in. She peaked over window-ledges and crept down drains. Anything to reach the few who hid. Sandbags didn’t stop her though they rushed to throw them down. Crowds clung to the roofs in panic and she laughed. Fish swam between the clothes racks on the high street, taking little nibbles at the hems and cuffs of linen shirts.

When she broke through doors in fury and found them clutching possessions in their arms she looked into their faces and rose up. Limbs of copper water snatched the photographs and dinner plates. She carried them out into the street until it ran with other people’s things and they leant from the upstairs windows wailing.

They deserved this. All of them. Each couple in their secluded fort, denying all others except the tribe they created and moulded into their own shape.

When she reached the park the river stopped to sit beneath the trees and with the willows weep. Emptiness. No way of putting it all back now.

They drove her from the streets with sand and patience, and when she was gone they milled about the riverbanks and watched her with suspicion. They came down to measure and inspect the concrete and the bridge foundations. She watched them from the depths with cold, dark eyes until it rained again. Then she watched them each midsummer from the shadows and the alleys, clothed in black lace. It was beautifully quiet after that. They went about their celebrations in a haze, always looking over one shoulder. Each midsummer morning they went down to the river and laid flowers for the ones it had taken from them. They read out names and wept.

Not her name though.

Never her name.

She decided as she lurked that that was their vengeance.


One year—the first anyone dared don sparkling shoes again—she took herself off, black lace and all, to a narrow street which started and ended with a pub. The houses sandwiched between these two establishments boasted brown sash windows and green drainpipes. Each door had the shadow of a single brass number and a rusting letter box.

That bit was memory. When she got there and stood beside the tall red post box, each door was blocked with two nailed sheets of chipboard. She could not slip through that door again. She could not sit in the darkest corner, hands pressed to her ears and book in her lap. She sat on the front step and looked across, at the off-angle scene of a blank window where flower pots had stood.

Water dripped from the bricks beneath her, pooled where the bottom step ate the railing.

Soft footsteps shuffled into view. Short red hair, glasses and a bright yellow shirt. The glaring ensemble stuck to the shadows like a timid cat, head flicking up to check every noise. The buildings groaned and creaked, appealing for their lives. Ignored.

The river did not speak to him and he did not speak to her.


They spoke later, when midsummer rolled around again. By then she had had the chance to watch him walk and watch him stutter.

He went to school each morning and dragged his feet home in the evening. At weekends he was out in the streets with all the others, running, shouting, scoring. Except for moments, when for no apparent reason he would stop, hang back and watch. Those were the days when he lingered by her side.

Midsummer night he joined the rest. They watched fireworks from the market square. One of them had a balcony, and a house to which it was attached. Overspill reached the fountain spray where the river watched. She sat on the stone, cold and damp, in blue satin. At midnight he sat beside her.

“Good night?” he asked.

“Alright.” She nodded.

Then they both watched his friends partner up and dance away.

“Well,” he said. “I’d best get home.”


A midsummer night filled with fairy-lights and the cast-aside wrappings of sugar plum bonbons. She chose not to join them. It was all fireworks now and parties policed by bouncers in padded jackets, with red and white tape to hold the shiver-dancing queues. Most of all it was warm, too warm, and dry as sand.

The river sank to the darkest depths and stayed there until she heard his voice.

He sat on the riverbank beside the bridge.

“I don’t get it,” he said to the stones. “No rule says we all have to go about in pairs.”

The boy watched his school friends lock fingers and go about as if a couple was the only form of being that existed. They looked to a future of two-by-two. He watched from the sidelines, tried to dip in and surfaced starved for air again, ice cold and floundering for a quiet corner. The river listened to his whispered echoes.

It made his thoughts real and set them all out in a line of sense.

When he was done, he walked back through the town. The noise and clamour didn’t bother him, the crowds on the pavements, vomiting into drains. Everything the river both hated and ached for about the town went by unnoticed. These people weren’t loud, shrieking monsters. They were blank, unfathomable, voids. He did not get them and most of the time, he did not want to.

That night the storm broke and drowned the town. The river did not flood, but pattered down the windows of the boy’s house.

“You are not ready yet,” she said.

He still thought he could win. He still imagined the town would open up its arms and notice.


One year, the boy ran down to the river on the very first day of term after the winter holidays. He saw too many backs turned, eyes round corners and muffled snickers. Too many friends spent too much time with someone else. Each time they kissed, part of him crumbled. The river whispered through the falling snow. Words turned to slush. He skidded on the pavement and sat down with a crash.

The river sat on the bank, all white-fur-wrapped like an arctic hare. Ears pricked.

“I think it’s time to leave now,” the boy said. He tucked his chill fingers under his arms and watched the water.

The town behind them went about its business in Wellington boots and fur-lined hoods.

“They don’t understand.” The river knew this and still she ached for the town to embrace her, to need her, to know her name. She was one of their children. She wanted to dance with all of them and at the same time hide and watch them dance together. “They never will.”

“I don’t want to choose just one. I want everybody. The whole world.”

Part of that was a lie, she knew. He didn’t want to choose because, deep down like her he knew, no one would ever choose him. So she chose him. The river wrapped an arm about his shoulders and he did not fight. “Then head for the sea,” she whispered in his ear. Then she pushed him forward and he let himself fall. Face first, knees cracked, into the ice and through. He rushed away, not looking back as the water took him. He had a chance to get away as she had failed to do.

He was playing with dolphins and tuna fishermen’s nets before the sun rose and rose again.


One chill midwinter day, when the snow promised but never arrived and ice dripped to swords from the drainpipes and stair-rails, a man walking his dog found the old woman beneath a willow tree in the park. It was the first place the river could release her. Release herself. She tired of letting people in and sending them away again. She taught them a truth she could never learn herself. They will never see you. She should have gone to the sea long ago as well, instead of clinging to this town. To the yearly parties they had never wanted her at, as person or as river. They brought her flowers each year, sat beside her and filled her with their stories. As a river, there was nowhere to hide, and streets to flood if she needed to.

But, really, they still did not see her. Who sees a river unless it is lapping at the lintel? She thought, as she left, that maybe now they would see her as her true self, for the first and last time. She thought she would give them one last chance.

The concrete walls fell away to pebble beach and there she lay. A halo of white hair fanned around her walnut face but she looked happy.

It made the front page.

Perhaps it was the place she picked, or the day, or just happenstance and luck. Another victim of the river, they said. Theories ran through the streets for at least a week. They buried her nameless, memorialised and all about with flowers, in the yard at the top of the hill. From there she watched them, and the river flowing through the town towards the sea.


© 2017, Louise Hughes

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