The Front Door
With frosted glass panels and a big chunky knocker. The bell doesn’t work. Has never worked.
He remembers that first viewing, standing in front of it, expectant, hopeful, hand in hand with Marius.
He remembers, like his first kiss, the first time he put the key in the lock, turning first the wrong way, then the right, fumbling over the not-yet-familiar gesture.
When I tell people what I do, they always want to know if I’ve worked on anything famous. The Ben Jonson Shakespeare. The Austen juvenilia. The Abinger papers.
I have, but these aren’t the projects I cherish.
What I like are diaries and letters, commonplace books and ledgers, calendars, invitations and almanacs: the everyday documents of nobody in particular. Ephemera, it’s called. From the Greek. Like those frail-legged mayflies, with their lace-and-stained-glass wings, who live only for a day.
I wonder, sometimes, if it’s a strange occupation, this semi-obsessive preservation of the transitory. But whereas for some people history is a few loud voices declaiming art and making war across the centuries, for me it’s a whispering chorus of laundry day and grocer’s bills, dress patterns and crop rotations. The price of tallow.
Only that morning, as I was assessing and stabilising several folders of late nineteenth-century letters in preparation for digitisation, I noticed that some of the accompanying envelopes seemed slightly thicker than their fellows. Inside one, I found a handful of pressed flowers. Inside another, some pieces of fabric. Even my phone’s impatient reminders of a waiting message couldn’t break the moment.
Me and these pieces of lives, linked, for a little while at least, in quietness and time.
Then I peeled off my gloves and picked up my phone.
I hadn’t seen the sky darken or heard the rain begin to fall, but all of a sudden it was coming down hard, just streams of grey water on the windows, blurring the view like tears.
The message read: sure u know this sweetie but theres a flood warning for ur area lol love mum x.
Two, nearly three years on, and Marius’s mother still kept in touch, still remembered my birthday, and still gave every indication of loving me. Unlike her son.
She had no idea how much it hurt.
Sometimes, I tried to blame her. If she had raised him with a little more guilt, a little more shame, a greater sense of social and personal obligation, he might never have left me.
What we’d had was good. It would have lasted a lifetime.
The lol wasn’t personal. She’d picked it up as a thing commonly said on social media, and we hadn’t quite realised the magnitude of the problem until Uncle Teddy dead lol, and by then it was too late to do anything.
I wanted to ignore her, but she would worry. So I sent back fine lol, which was probably likely to be true. We—I—lived on a floodplain, but most of the city is floodplain. My friend Grace, who was less romanced by sandstone and dreaming spires than me, once called it England’s cunt. She said it was basically a big wet cleft in the middle of the country—a phrase that has somehow never quite found its way into the poetry or history of the place. But I always thought she meant it affectionately. She was the sort of person who could get away with saying things like that.
The house had flooded twice, once in 1947, and once in 2007, but not since we moved in. We’d known it was a flood risk when we bought the place, but I’d wanted it, and Marius had apparently been willing to indulge me. Since the early days of our relationship, we’d found ways to live together—in cramped student rooms, awkwardly in shared housing with friends, in a flat we’d rented—but this was the first, the only property we’d ever owned.
You don’t really fall in love with a house. You fall in love with the life you could have in it.
From the moment I saw it, I saw us. I saw us in every room: talking, touching, sharing. I saw it all. But as it turned out, I saw only my dreams.
When we broke up, he wanted to sell, but I begged, and he let me buy him out instead. I think it was a weird relief to both of us that there was something I could fight for, since he’d made up his mind I couldn’t fight for him.
Looking back, I don’t know what I was trying to keep. Because all I’ve got are responsibilities and empty spaces.
When I got back to them that evening, I dutifully went to the Environment Agency website and checked for my area. The whole of the southeast was on red-alert status: flood expected, immediate action required.
So I went to bed with a book. Surrounded by the thudding of the rain.
At about ten o’clock, lost in that interminable nowhere-time before you can legitimately go to sleep, I went downstairs to make myself a cup of Horlicks. I’d call it the comfort drink of the single gentleman, but I’ve had a Horlicks habit for as long as I can remember. Based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I’m vaguely under the impression it helps me sleep.
The kitchen and the sunroom are extensions to the original structure. Mine runs parallel to my neighbour’s, so we can see straight through into each other’s houses. Marius would forget and wander around with his shirt off. “It’s all right,” I’d tell him. “She appreciates ornamental young men in their natural habitat.” And I remember, un-faded by time, a streak of viridian on his inner wrist. A curl of purple madder at his throat.
The light was on across the way, so I could see Mrs. Peaberry with her kettle. I waved at her through two panes of glass and a rainstorm.
The truth was, we always said goodnight this way. And good morning just the same. Book-ending each other’s days to stop them collapsing into heaps of jumbled time.
When we’d moved in, she’d welcomed us. When Marius moved out, I sat on her floor and cried. I suppose I could have called any number of our friends, but that was the problem. They were our friends. Even now, when I see them, which isn’t as often as I should, I feel less. Less than I used to be. When I was with him.
She picked up the whiteboard she was meant to keep for emergency numbers, scribbled, and held it up. It was hard to read through the rain, but I thought it said, fuck this weather eh.
I nodded and mimed out, Are you okay?
I wondered if she was worried. She’d been flooded out in 2007, but her husband had been alive then.
“I’m coming round.” I accidentally spoke the words aloud, my voice so alien in the silence of my kitchen.
She held up a packet of Hobnobs: an octogenarian Eve with an oddly shaped apple, and I pretended—cartoonishly—to come running.
Something strange happens to me sometimes behind my kitchen window. It’s as if my body forgets itself, and tries to make jokes without me.
I pulled my coat over my oh-so stylish tartan lounge trousers and T-shirt combination and hesitated by the half-empty shoe rack. I really didn’t have anything suitable for the weather.
When I was at university, I’d developed a semi-ironic preppy image: chunky scarves, cable-knit jumpers, and tweed. But the irony wore off long before I hit thirty, and now I just look old.
About five years ago, in a charity shop, I spotted a pair of sparkly purple cowboy boots. I think I was hoping to rediscover my irony, or perhaps something else entirely, but I must have lacked conviction because the moment Marius saw them, they weren’t quirky at all. They were just incongruous and trying-too-hard, and I never dared wear them again.
I tugged them on and plunged into the rain. I was outside for less than a minute, but it was still enough to leave me chilled through and dripping apologetically all over Mrs. Peaberry’s hall.
She was waiting for me in her raincoat, with a big yellow sou’wester jammed firmly on her head.
I hid my smile. “You look like . . . whichever of them is the dog in Wallace & Gromit.”
“Gromit.” She unhooked her stick from the radiator. “Now, come along, Edwin.”
“Are we going somewhere?”
“To the river.”
“To see what we can see.”
“I really d-don’t think . . .” We were going to end up as newspaper headlines: Pensioner and Homosexual Found Dead in River—Coincidence, Tragedy, or Satanic Ritual Gone Wrong? “It could be dangerous.”
“It will be—” she glinted at me, “—an adventure.”
I have a sort of . . . thing, I suppose, for certain words. They spark inside me, somehow, turning me to touchpaper, but I don’t know what they are until someone says them. Once, on a very ordinary day, Marius—in some odd, theatrical humour—had lent across a table in the café in the modern art museum and whispered that he couldn’t wait to get me home so he could ravish me. And I sat there, electric-bright and honey-sweet, staring at my hands, undone in all the ways by a single word. I don’t think he realised, because he never said it again, and I didn’t know how to tell him. Or ask.
I think I also like secret. The way it hinges on its central c, like a box opening.
Or pod, enclosing itself always.
And, of course, adventure gets me too. Not quite in the same way as ravish, but it gets me. It makes me fizz a little. I don’t know how or even when Mrs. P. worked it out, but she’s been exploiting it ever since. Weeding her lawn is an adventure. Replacing a lightbulb is an adventure. Taking her bin out is an adventure. Or perhaps it’s just easier for both of us than admitting she struggles to do these things herself.
Moving at Mrs. P.’s pace, slow but relentless, we battered our way through the rain to the end of the road, navigating the old churchyard in the hazy glow from the last streetlamp. By the time we stumbled onto the footpath, the darkness was a damp fist closing round us.
Living in a city, it’s so easy to forget how absolute the night can be.
Mrs. P. paused, her breath harsh beneath the wind. “I’m sure there’s a river around here somewhere.”
“Just . . . wait a moment. I’ll check.”
I crept forward through a sticky mess of overhanging leaves, the wet gravel crunching beneath the heels of my boots. It was a rather jolly sound, really—defiant percussion within the symphony of rain.
Another step and my boots were full of water, and I was soaked all the way to my knees. A cold, wild shock that made my breath catch and my heart jump.
“I think,” I called out, “I f-found the river. And it’s really not where it’s supposed to be.”
Back at home, adventure concluded, I tugged off my sparkly boots, turned them upside down over the radiator to dry, and peeled out of my soaking pyjama bottoms before I ruined the carpet.
Tried not to think how ridiculous I looked, bare-legged in the hall, with nobody there to laugh and make it mean something.
Is too narrow.
He remembers tangles, elbows and coats, and shoes and knees, and laughter and impatience.
He remembers arriving, and waiting for arrival: the rattle of a key, the slam of the door, footsteps upon the stairs. And hello darling, and I’m home, and I missed you.
He remembers when that stopped. Not the day, or the moment, because there was never a day or a moment, but the poison-ivy sting of realising that one routine had become another.
At work the next day, fasciculing the letters and listening to the rain, I forbade myself to worry. Fascicule, from fasces (a bundle of authoritative rods), then fasciculus, meaning part of a work published in instalments. The technique was invented here, back in the seventies, and remains Oxford’s gift to the profession. It’s a method for storing loose leaves or single-sheet material without damaging it: pages are side hinged onto archival-quality paper sheets using Japanese tissue and starch paste.
I like the neatness of it.
By lunchtime, the internet was wild with news of the flooding. The Oxford Mail had already started live-blogging the event, mainly updates from the Met Office and the Environment Agency and pictures of moderately threatening puddles. Then came the “precautionary” barriers, the sandbag deployments, and the messages from the council’s emergency planning officer. They basically amounted to “monitor the Environment Agency website, protect your home, expect power outages, and don’t drown.”
There was an interesting typo for a while: power outrages.
By late afternoon, the pictures had started flooding in. So to speak. Cars plunging through muddy waves. Homes already partially submerged. The usual arty shots of sun-gleam on new-formed waterways.
I put my things away, shed gloves and lab coat, and hurried home, past standstill traffic, brake lights blurring on golden stone.
I didn’t actually see any flooding until I suddenly realised the bottom of Christ Church Meadow was a lake, and the sports fields opposite my road were a haze of greenish-grey water.
My street was quiet at first, a few doorways here and there dutifully stoppered with sandbags. But at the far end there were a couple of flatbed trucks, engines rumbling, and several clumps of yellow-jacketed workers. Whatever was going on had not precisely drawn a crowd—that wasn’t the sort of thing English people did—but various individuals had found occasion to wander in that direction on some coincidental business of their own.
I was curious. A little concerned.
But I don’t like crowds, and I’m not good with strangers.
Of course Mrs. P. knew what was going on. “They’re putting up demountable flood barriers, and we’re a Bronze Command.”
I had no idea what any of that meant, but it sounded as if they’d sent us Boy Scouts working toward their Community Flood Defence badges. “I’d better see about sandbags.”
She banged her stick against her doorstep, like a teenager moodily scuffing a toe. “I’ve decided I’m not going to bother, this year.”
“Um.” I suspected a ploy to avoid putting me to any trouble.
“Not after last time. The stupid buggers built them up so high I couldn’t get out my own house. And when I complained they told me I was vulnerable. I said I wasn’t vulnerable, I was pissed off.”
We’d had a flood scare in 2009, not long after we’d moved in, not long before Marius moved out. I could remember driving out to the Park & Ride at Redbridge to pick up sandbags. For whatever reason, we hadn’t thought to keep them.
Maybe we’d secretly been looking forward to another adventure.
Because, now I thought about it, the whole business had felt like an adventure. A slightly surreal one, involving a huge pile of sand in the middle of a car park. We should have made castles while we still had the chance.
We were good at building things out of sand.
The rain had stopped at least, leaving the night wet and heavy in its wake. I walked to the end of the road, wondering how I could get to the drop-off point without a car. Marius had taken ours during the inequitable division of the assets. I thought about calling a taxi but the roads were nothing but traffic jams, and I couldn’t readily imagine persuading a cabbie to let me fill his boot with bags of sand.
There’d been something on the flood blog about extra sand pallets being delivered to our local pub, so I decided to try there first. It was only ten minutes up the road, past the frozen cars and buses, but although the door was open and the lights were on, the pub itself was empty. It was an eerie feeling, to be alone in a space designed for many people.
I coughed, not quite daring to shout out hello.
A strange thing perhaps, but the echo of my voice in my own ears always sets me . . . apart from myself somehow, self-conscious.
No answer. Just the hollow ricochet of my cough.
I moved through the spaces between unused chairs and tables, and finally into the beer garden where a hand-written sign told me there were no sandbags left.
On the street again, I stared up the road, trying to estimate how long it would take me to walk to Redbridge, and how many times I would have to do it. Assuming an hour per trip, and maybe ten sandbags for each house, it would take me all night and about twenty miles of walking.
Defeated, I returned home.
Whatever was going on at the Bronze Command was still going on. Some of my neighbours were out, putting up plastic barriers.
My own helplessness welled up inside me like dirty water. I hated this.
Life is so full of rough edges—small tasks and expectations that scratch you bloody and remind you that you’re naked and alone.
And without a fucking car.
I glanced again towards the men in their bright jackets. I could hear the rough, authoritative tones of their voices over the whirring of the trucks and the clanking of metal.
If I tried to talk to them, or ask for help, they might laugh at me. And my words would stick to my tongue, fighting their way to freedom clumsily, if at all.
But what was the alternative? Leave my elderly (unvulnerable) neighbour to be flooded out?
It was a long way up my road. Every step became a heavy thing. The closer I got, the harsher the lights, the louder the voices, the faces of so many strangers blurring into a terrible collage.
There was silence now. Worse, somehow, than the noise. A dragon, open-mouthed, waiting for me to speak, only to devour me.
I swallowed. Twisted my fingers together. Looked nowhere.
Mustered . . . anything. Courage. Defiance. Desperation.
“So there are no sandbags left. How f-fucked are we?”
“What do you mean?” Someone, slow and lazy, treacle drops and flattened vowels. “No sandbags?”
“At the pub. The blog. It said there were sandbags. At the pub. There aren’t. So if it f-floods. Are we fu-fucked?”
“We had forty tonnes of sand delivered to Redbridge earlier.”
“I . . . I don’t have a car. So. I can’t.”
“We’ve got some sandbags in the back. You can have those.”
Wordless. Mindless. Nothing but it can’t be this easy. “Really?”
A laugh. But it wasn’t unkind. “Aye, really.”
At last, I was able to look at him, connect the voice to a body, and resolve them both into the impression of a person. Awkward height and ungainly limbs stuffed untidily into orange waders and Wellington boots. He turned away, and began to unhook the sides of the truck.
I stared at the back of his neck and at his hair, which was a schoolboy tousle only charity would have called red. It was orange, carrot, ginger, marmalade, shining like an amber traffic light, tempting you to try your luck and run.
“We can make you a pile here, right, lads?”
Nods, mumbles of assent. Nobody seemed to mind.
“Thank you,” I said bravely, dropping the syllables cleanly, like marbles, and secretly full of the most pathetic pride imaginable. I had spoken to strangers.
He must have caught me staring. His eyes were the plainest, deepest brown, wet earth, almost lightless.
The next thing I knew, he was dumping a sandbag into my arms. It was like trying to catch a baby whale. I oofed, and clung on, and just about managed to stop it flumping onto the ground.
He grinned, teeth and dimples and freckles moving like dust in a ray of sunlight. “Ayup, petal.”
Ayup: from the Old Norse se upp, watch out, or look up. Usually a greeting.
Petal, most likely post-classical Latin. Even in remembering, slipping between the consonants, my tongue tastes the softness of the vowels.
I walked away from him, wrestling my whale and trying not to embarrass myself. As I dumped it on Mrs. P.’s doorstep, I heard stomping behind me, and there he was, a sandbag swinging from each hand.
I so desperately wanted to look at him. “You really d-don’t . . . I can . . . It’s my neighbour’s.”
The door swung open. “Damn right it’s my house, and I’m not vulnerable, and I don’t want to be up to my ears in sand.”
A soft thump as he lowered the sandbags. I wondered if he was smiling at her. “I’m just dropping them off.”
Mrs. P. regarded him with magnificent scorn. “So this is it, is it? The great Oxford Flood Risk Management Strategy. A man with some sand.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid he might be angry or sad or, worse, that he might not care at all. Because he was a stranger and so he might not know. He might see Mrs. P., this walnut of a woman with gnarly hands and tight lips, and not understand. He might not understand that she was kind and funny and sharp, and that she was important.
But when he spoke, there was only warmth, deep as his eyes, and the velvet-rough edge of laughter. The sort of laughter I like best, laugher that isn’t really at anyone. Laughter that’s just there, for its own sake, like the touch of a friend, or a lover.
“You’d be surprised,” he told her, “what a man can do with some sand.”
“We’re going to be here, all day every day, until it’s over. So, if you want anything, just let us know.”
“And that goes for anyone in the area. We’re here to help.”
I knew. I just knew he was looking at me. And I couldn’t not look back.
More marbles. P had once rebelled against me, so please was dangerous, but I was good at thank you. I could carry out whole conversations with it.
He probably thought I was a fool, tame thank you or not. And he was probably right.
He was turning to go back to his team. But then he paused. “You know why the houses on this street don’t have flood cellars?”
We shook our heads in unison. Mrs. P. looked like she didn’t care.
“Well, here’s the thing.” He tucked his hands behind his back, like a six foot four schoolboy reciting his Latin grammar. “If you all have flood cellars, and it floods, everyone’s fine. If you all have flood cellars, and a couple of you use them for storage instead, everyone’s fine and a couple of cheeky buggers get an extra basement. If everyone plays cheeky buggers, though, everyone floods.”
Mrs. P. withered him, but I knew what he was getting at. I grabbed a word and shoved it at him. “Tragedy.”
“Well.” He looked a bit bemused. “It’s not that bad. It’s just one of those things that—”
Sometimes I just wanted to fucking punch myself in the fucking face. “No.” I clenched my fists. “The tragedy of the commons.”
“Oh. Right. Yes. Exactly.” It was like I’d turned on a light inside him. And I suddenly realised I’d been looking at him, and he’d been looking at me, all this time. Four whole sentences. Four whole sentences each.
“Is there a point to this?” asked Mrs. P.
“Well, the sandbag thing is similar. I could give you a big fancy speech about airbricks and flow capacity but in basic terms, if water gets into your house, it’ll get into your neighbour’s.”
She sighed. “All right, all right, I take your point. But if I end up having to eat my own arm like a coyote, I’m suing.”
Given what was clearly a dangerous tendency to stare at a stranger in Wellington boots, I had thought it best to limit my attention to the ground, or an empty space of air somewhere off to the left. But now I carefully focused on Mrs. P. My friend. I thought of tea and biscuits and Sunday afternoons—not a stranger whose ease and kindness was its own threat—and pulled out my words. Slowly, knowing that with Mrs. P. they would be safe.
“Last time I checked,” I said, “you have enough Hobnobs in there to last a nuclear winter.”
“A woman cannot live by Hobnobs alone.”
“No, you need—” custard creams “—Jammie Dodgers too.”
She nodded. “And protein.”
I went to get another sandbag. That little exchange should have pleased me, settled me. It had. It did. But there was a buzzing between my eyes and a tightness somewhere inside my skull.
No, you need Jammie Dodgers too.
Mrs. P. didn’t even like Jammie Dodgers. Too sticky for her dentures.
Oh God. I was choosing my words. A technique I had learned, then built into a habit, then built into an instinct. And then fought so desperately over the years to break.
All because of—
Damn the careless power of strangers.
And me for being weak and silly and vain. In the most harmful possible ways.
By the time I’d assembled enough sandbags to build a barrier, the man—my too-gentle nemesis—was back, this time with a roll of ground sheeting.
He glanced my way. “You know the trick?”
I needed him to stop looking at me like that. It was casual. The way he’d look at anyone, I was sure. But it made me feel so very there. I shook my head.
“There’s kind of a secret to it.” He smiled at me. “Can I show you?”
No one could have called him handsome, and the orange waders probably didn’t help—but when he smiled? Suddenly, handsome didn’t seem important anymore—only the things happiness could do to a man’s face. It was nothing more than the instinct of sociability, but it made me realise how long it had been since I’d been smiled at by a stranger. How long since I’d had someone to smile back to.
So I nodded. Yes, please, tell me a secret.
“Well, first you cover the doorway . . .” He began arranging sandbags over the plastic sheet, pulling them around until they were neatly lined up.
“You know,” said Mrs. P., “while you do that, why don’t I put the kettle on.”
He looked up, and there was his broad, effortless smile again. “That would be champion.”
Then he showed me how to build a defensive wall with sandbags, how to stack them in a pyramid, stamp them down against the ground to make a seal, and wrap the whole package in plastic sheeting. By rights, it shouldn’t have been particularly interesting, but his voice wrapped me up like a blanket, and I liked watching his big hands in their work gloves, pulling the sand this way and that with a kind of no-nonsense certainty.
It made me wonder how it would feel if—
No. I absolutely did not wonder that.
While he spoke, people gathered to watch and listen and ask him questions. It happened so gradually that it felt strangely natural, but soon nearly everyone was in the street, light spilling in puddles of gold from open doors. I recognised most of my neighbours, some of them I even knew by name, but I did not know them.
Tonight there was something different. Something both deeper and shallower than friendship. Familiarity, perhaps, the sudden realisation that we lived our sealed-up little lives in closeness to each other. That we had something to share and something to lose. Something to protect together.
He did that, somehow. He reminded us. And I watched it happen: the chain we formed for passing sandbags down the street, the way people took turns to help each other build their barriers, the handing out of cups of tea. Even the children were out, running here and there, as though it was a party.
Maybe it was. Of a kind.
And he was right in the middle of it, not controlling it or taking charge, but part of it, easily smiling, endlessly helpful. Effortlessly belonging.
His accent wasn’t strong, but it was unmistakable, its own rough music, and my ear seemed to seek it out. I think I was waiting for him to call someone else petal. I caught the occasional “duck,” and even a “chuck,” but he never said petal again. I had been so sure it was just a habit of speech. Why else would he have given the word to me?
After a while, I retreated to Mrs. P.’s kitchen to help with the tea-making. Something to do that wasn’t watching.
It was probably close to eleven o’clock when the rain began to fall again. Drizzle at first, making the night glisten, growing heavier and heavier until at last people began to drift away, disappearing into their homes.
I finished washing up, and then I realised I’d been so busy hiding that I’d forgotten to look after my own house. I didn’t expect there to be any sandbags left, but there was a neat row of them waiting for me by my front step.
Mrs. P. had lent me one of her umbrellas, which I tucked into the crook of my elbow as I shoved the sandbags into position. I was building them into a pyramid, as I’d been taught, when the voice I’d been half-hearing all night long said, “Don’t forget to stamp ’em down.”
The rain was sliding all over him, and his hair was soaked through, lying tight against his skull. The weight of water had pressed all the gold out until it looked almost respectable, red-brown and ordinary.
I rose from my crouch and put a tentative foot atop my sandbag stack. It wobbled, which meant I wobbled, which meant he caught my elbow.
Just kindness, I reminded myself. Like his smile.
But it had also been a long time since I’d been touched by a stranger.