Brush with Fate: Voices from Wales. By Fflur Dafydd, Tristan Hughes, Nigel Jarrett, Rob Mimpriss, Rachel Trezise and others. Arabic translations by Hala Salah Eldin Hussein. Cairo: Albawtaka, 2014.
Hart’s Reach: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
For Graham and Cass Thomas
He saw them on the other bank stealing over the fence. The man dropped his rucksack among the reeds, holding down the barbed wire with his hand while the woman put her weight on his shoulder. They must have cut across Dewi Thomas’s land, and now they were trespassing on his, perhaps intent on a little wilderness camping in the water meadows by the river. They paused for a moment on a patch of mossy green, checking their rucksacks, his trousers, her shorts, pressing forward towards the abandoned surgery. The woman tripped on an alder stump, suppressing a scream, and a heron in the shallows took slow gawky flight towards the fish traps at the end of his reach. The further they trespassed the more damage they might do, and if they had been brought here by the sign on the road that said ‘For Sale,’ then they should have taken its advice and phoned the agent to arrange an appointment.
Neither was it weather for camping. It had been raining for most of the day, the radio had warned of floods overnight, and he had called on Dewi, who was widowed and deaf, to warn him of what was to come. Rowing home he had dragged the canoe and the inflatable onto the bank, and had wrestled the outboard motor back inside the shed, and if he were to fish out these two lovers it would have to be undone and then done again. Weariness and annoyance struggled against compassion as he remembered trespassers who had argued back, even threatened him. These two looked harmless, even a little helpless. He would go.
He had been taking dinner to his wife when he saw them, and now he put down her tray on the bookcase outside her bedroom door. The curtains were drawn, the light extinguished, and Rita lay asleep on her side, her face turned down towards the fleecy warmth of the cover. He pulled back the fold of her woollen hat, patting her on the cheek. She moaned, licking her lips. ‘Hart?’ she said.
‘It’s dinner time,’ said Hart.
‘I was dreaming.’ She rolled over onto her back, holding out her hand for help as she leaned forward to let him arrange the pillows. ‘I could have slept and dreamt all evening.’
‘It’s time to eat,’ said Hart. He brought the tray and put it carefully on her lap. She looked drained and weary from drugs and sleep, her elfin face rendered narrower and paler by the black hat that hid her scalp. ‘I feel sick,’ she said.
‘The milk will help settle your stomach. Have a little rice when it’s cooler.’ He leaned against the chest of drawers, waiting for her to eat. She put her glass on the tray half full.
‘I was dreaming I still had hair.’
‘Try the rice now, Rita.’
‘Do you remember our honeymoon, Hart? You couldn’t leave my hair alone; you’d have spent the whole week playing with it.’
‘There’s trespassers out by the surgery. I have take to the boat when you’re done.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Rita. She drank the rest of the milk and picked up her fork, dipping into the seasoned rice to pick out a piece of salmon. With a touch of impatience she added, ‘Can’t you just let them get on with it? There’s nothing there except empty rooms any more.’
‘It seems to matter,’ said Hart.
He straightened up, crossing to the window and leaning forward. He heard the occasional clink of Rita’s fork on the plate, and watched as the couple stopped on the bank, the man spreading out a map to catch the rain while the woman crouched, staring down at her knees. ‘I still feel sick,’ said Rita. ‘I’ve eaten enough for now. Hart?’
He paused, standing over her bed to take the tray.
‘Don’t stay out long. Please?’
When he returned he would have to rekindle the fire. He stood in the chill of the downstairs room, looking up at his father’s antique fowling piece, and in a mad moment of self-contempt he imagined himself, the dour householder with his dying wife, confronting those trespassers with a gun. For a moment his mind slipped back, casting off that wearying pretence of adulthood, to a February thirty years ago: the cold of gun-metal against his hand, the wind off the reed-beds between his bones, and the rowing boat restive beneath his feet as his father guided his shot towards that tumult of geese overhead. He fired too soon; the recoil stung his shoulder. He hurled the gun to the deck in frustration and his father in a hard unyielding fury picked it up and turned the boat back home, telling him he must never show temper again when holding a gun.
He went to the cupboard by the door to pull on his waterproofs, and left the house.
For a while it seemed he had escaped. Yet the Cambridge Fens where he studied had made him homesick for the gors, and when his ailing father had offered him a partnership he had ignored the advice of his mentors and agreed to go. He had found the business dying. A new vet had opened a surgery in the village; yet his father had continued to charge high prices, to bicker with his neighbours whose good will Hart had laboured to restore. He carried the outboard down to the water and returned for the oars, wading with the inflatable until the water came to his hips before steering her out of the oxbow and setting off downstream.
The surgery had been a watermill in the days when coracles were a common sight, and had housed captured SS officers for a time during the war. Touring Wales in the summer of 1957 Hart’s father had leant his bicycle against its ivyed gable wall, and glancing over the head of his companion had glimpsed the slick descent of an otter down the bank. The details solidified and settled in his mind: the pride of his recent graduation, a falconer launching his kestrel over distant fields, and the quiet fecundity of the river. Years later, as an orphaned and wealthy man, when his memories of that companion had blurred to an impression of white socks and a yellow dress, he had remembered the otter with perfect clarity, and had bought both the mill for his surgery, and the boathouse half a mile upstream on the other bank for his home.
What mattered, Walter Hart later explained to his schoolboy son, was that he had reached that moment when a life becomes clear – not with the girl, though her name was Miller, but with the otter and the kestrel and the ivyed wall: his world needing him, waiting for him to claim it. And Hart was expected to repeat these triumphs, to claim mastery of some girl, some wilderness, but the dying surgery must have been the wrong wilderness, Rita the wrong girl, and in the end his father had resented his willingness to help. He rowed with slow, patient strokes while the gors echoed to the sound of thunder and the hills disappeared behind rain. As he drew parallel with the surgery the man was sitting on the veranda with his map and the woman was trying its locked door, and Hart turned his blunt prow towards the bank and dragged the boat onto land.
‘Are you the owner?’ the woman asked. She had a round, youthful face and brown hair cut short, a look friendly but clenching against the rain and the cold. She had leant her rucksack against the wall, but it toppled under its heavy top weight, shedding a tin of some of campers’ meal on the path. It rolled and turned and came to rest where Hart in the rain stooped to pick it up, not speaking. The man put his map in his pocket and stood up.
‘I hope you don’t mind callers,’ said the woman. ‘We got a little stuck.’
‘What are you doing here?’ said Hart. ‘Were you planning to camp on my land?’
‘We heard about the mill house in town,’ said the man. ‘And yes, like she said – we need a place to camp tonight if we can’t get back to town.’
‘You came by bus?’
The woman laughed a little, exhausted, glancing at her partner. ‘We walked up,’ he told Hart.
It was almost tempting to tell them to walk the twelve miles back again, to pitch their tent where they pleased and let the floodwaters come, that they were trespassing on his land, as they had been on Dewi’s. Instead he took the key from his pocket, pushing past the woman as she stood up and dragged her rucksack aside. He was still holding that can of meat, its paper sleeve loose and fraying from the rain. They watched him. ‘Don’t stand in the rain,’ he said. The man smiled. He had a monkish, tonsured look with his growing bald spot, his lined, kind face. There was lightning. The flash lit up the furthest corners of the hall, and the sound made the windows rattle and the air shake. The woman swore. They stood by the window, the drip from their clothes darkening the wood floor, and watched the beating rain, and the river supine but writhing under its blows. ‘There’s water and gas,’ said Hart. ‘If you want you can sleep on the floor.’
The thunder drowned out their thanks. Hart went to the staff room to turn on the gas hob and open a tin of tea. The couple moved stealthily in the other room, tapping at the partitions, testing the lay of the floor. ‘He surely doesn’t live here,’ the woman said. ‘Does he?’ They moved towards the consulting rooms with heavier confidence. She woman sat down on a padded steel table and crossed her hands on her knee, and looked at her lover standing in the window, outlined in the fitful light of the storm.
‘We nearly weren’t so lucky,’ she said.
‘It’s a beautiful storm,’ said the man.
‘You know I hate storms.’
‘It’s moving.’ There was a flash, and the woman cleared her throat in the moment before the thunder. He turned round, coming slowly to sit with his back to her on the table. Hart called out, ‘Hello? I made tea!’ Neither stirred.
‘Would you move here?’
‘It’s beautiful. But no. It’s too quiet.’
‘It’s maybe not so quiet. He lives here.’
‘I’m tired,’ said the woman. ‘I’m tired of wet clothes and sleeping bags and living in my boots. And now we have to go back to that man and be polite and drink his tea.’
She leaned back, lacing her fingers with his, letting his warmth and damp seep from his shirt to hers. They waited. ‘I don’t think he’ll be here for long,’ said the man. ‘I think he’s just waiting out the storm.’
Hart steered the boat into the oxbow and stilled the engine, turning his back on the snug, bright house while he settled into his oars. He was stiff with cold. A thin edge of crimson showed between land and cloud, and the currents seemed restless, lost without their routines. Worse was to come. A greater storm thundered, not far distant. He beached and tied her to a willow tree before dragging the oars and the motor back to the shed. He paused for a moment, his hand on the door.
He put away his waders and jacket in the cupboard and took off his shirt and washed. Rita was in her dressing gown, sitting on the sofa near the empty fireplace. ‘Hart,’ she said, ‘I waited and waited.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Hart. ‘I was delayed.’
‘What if something happens to you in that boat? What if you get washed out to sea?’
‘You’ll always be looked after,’ said Hart. He was holding his wife, but his gaze was on the window and the river uneasy, fretting at its banks.