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River Story
Baby lost, baby found. Love redeems.
Bernard Steeds comment 0 Comments access_time 16 min read

FROM THE FRONT window of my home I can see, almost hidden between the outlines of buildings and the contours of hills, the meanest view of water. It is no more than a postage stamp, a square inch on the pane. If I hold a thumb at arm’s length I can obscure it completely. By day, though it sparkles, it is lost amid reflections of glass and steel. But at night the buildings lose their shine. They merge with one another, are lost in the darkness. Sky and land reflect each other in a canvas of empty blue. Then, the little patch of sea stands out. Moonlight sinks into its depths. It glows. I imagine I can see the pale tip of each rising wave, the shadows and contours of the ocean’s surface.

That, at least, is how it was last night, when I sat for an hour or so in the living room, looking out that window. My son was on my knee. I told him about Helen, who I had seen that afternoon, for the first time in nine years. I felt I had to tell him, though he is too young to understand. Most of all, I just wanted to sit with him, to have him fall asleep surrounded by my warmth, with the sound of my voice in his ear.

*

Helen and I were taking a walk in a park. It was late afternoon, in the middle of winter. The sun was low and pale. Soft, anaemic shadows spread over everything.

We walked, hand in hand, along a path under a line of oak trees, all silver and bare, with twigs growing in fans from the tips of their branches.

I felt her hand tighten its grip.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

She didn’t say anything. Her skin was pale, her eyes downcast. She bit her lower lip.

We walked on, past a garden of spindly rosebushes, past the grey riverstone walls of the art gallery. A narrow path led to the river. The last, fallen leaves, red and rotting brown, crunched under our feet. Some blew into the water, rippling its green, glassy surface. I watched them flow downstream, around a bend. As each leaf disappeared I felt something – a kind of regret – but then another caught my eye. Each leaf was different: one long and thin, another broad, another curled up tight.

‘I like rivers,’ I said.

Helen frowned.

I had been going to say how I liked the way rivers moved – like time passing – and I liked that the water they carried might some day end up falling as rain, perhaps here, perhaps somewhere else altogether.

Instead I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’

She let go of my hand and took a step away from me.

Rain, on cue, began to fall. It pattered very lightly on the leaves and broke the river’s surface with tiny spots.

Helen walked off.

‘Wait for me,’ I said.

She turned towards me.

‘Can’t you keep up?’ she said. ‘Can’t you do something right?’

I stood still, letting the rain form a light skin on my hands and face and clothes, and watched her walk under the shadows of the oaks, along the curve of the river, until I couldn’t see her any more.

Then I ran to catch up.

When I reached her, I tried to put my arm around her. She shook it off.

‘I don’t want that,’ she said.

‘What do you want?’ I asked. ‘Should I go away? Do you want me to go?’

Her eyes were suddenly glassy. She shrugged.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t. I just didn’t know how to tell you. I’m pregnant.’

That night, in bed, she lay with her back to me. I leaned towards her, placing a tentative hand on her shoulder, and when she didn’t respond I moved closer until my body was curved against hers. I moved my hand on to her belly, allowing it to rest there, and I curled my legs up against hers. I felt her go tense. She clicked her tongue, sighed, rearranged her pillow, and moved as far from me as the bed allowed. I watched the rise and fall of her back, a blue continent outlined by a faint glimmer of moonlight. The space between us was an ocean, uncrossable. I turned away, closed my eyes, tried to imagine reaching down into a crib, picking up a baby, cradling its head in my palm, gazing into its dark, unfocused eyes – but I couldn’t hold on to that picture. I saw only darkness, the moonlit outlines of clothes draped over furniture, the dim glow of the glossy white door.

When I look back now, I wonder if it was then she decided. As we lay together in the darkness, did she sense my weakness, my sentimentality? Did the whiff of it drift over to her, gather under her nose so she could inhale it? As she breathed it in, did she understand that I would make no decision except to wait?

In the morning I was woken by sharp sunlight. Helen’s side of the bed was empty. I placed my hand on the sheets where she had been. For several minutes I stayed there, nestled against her warmth, feeling lost, frightened, sorry for myself.

When I got out of bed, I dressed in old jeans and a jumper that was full of holes. I found Helen in the kitchen. The jug was boiling, filling the room with steam. The benches and cupboards glinted with condensation and the bottom half of the window was fogged. I switched the jug off and took Helen in my arms. As she raised her face to me, her tears brushed my cheeks and ran on to my neck, under the jumper’s round collar. I don’t know how long we stayed like that, but it felt like a long time. It felt as if the earth had turned full circle. I have always grieved for that lost day.

‘Did you sleep?’

She shook her head. Tiny wrinkles had formed under her eyes.

‘Thinking,’ she said, tapping a finger against the side of her head. ‘Thinking, thinking.’

Anything I said could push us towards a decision, so I said nothing. But her eyes were searching my face. They were wide open – dancing, skimming. She seemed to be holding out her whole body to me, arching it up so our faces were almost level.

‘Thinking what?’ I asked.

She had wanted me to catch the weight that was falling towards us, hold it out to her, show her it was small enough to contain in the palm of a hand – it was a bead of glinting water, a jewel – but I stood, helpless, as it fell.

‘You don’t know anything,’ she said. ‘You don’t know the first fucking thing.’

She left the room. I heard her bare feet on the floorboards, and the gentle click of the bedroom door. I went outside. It was a bright, clear day. A girl was going past, walking a dog. It was a big dog, a St Bernard, pulling on its lead, and the girl was struggling to hold it. As she passed, she looked at me and I felt as if I should help, but something held me back. Soon, the dog sped up and the girl was forced to run. They turned a corner and disappeared. I kept watching the space where they had been, thinking I saw them against the houses at the end of the street.

When I turned to go in, Helen was coming down the path towards me. She was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans and a pair of running shoes.

‘Come for a walk?’ she said brightly.

She took my hand and led me down the street, past rows of villas identical to the one she rented – once-proud, with grand entrances and wide bay windows, but by then dilapidated, waiting for demolition. They are probably all gone now. Near the end of the street two had already been pulled down to make way for townhouses. We cut across the empty section and came out on another street, narrow and treeless, lined with the dull, grey frontages of low-rise office buildings and wholesalers. Between two of those buildings was a narrow lane, deep in shadow. A sliver of bright sky was visible above.

‘Where are you taking me?’ I asked.

Helen put her hands on my shoulders and pulled herself up. I felt her whispered breath in my ear.

‘Trust me.’

The end of the lane opened into a service alley, lined with rubbish bins and cars parked at skewed angles. Helen climbed on to one of the bins. I watched the sinewy curve of her body as she stretched up and caught the lowest rung of a fire escape ladder. Blood rose in her face as she began to climb. When she reached the first landing she looked down and said, ‘Well? Are you coming or not?’

When I reached the platform she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me, then turned and began to climb – up another ladder and another, until we stepped on to the roof. The city we lived in was built on a plain, with wide streets that went on forever in straight lines and buildings that looked out on nothing but each other. The only views were from rooftops.

A low concrete wall ran around the edge of the roof. Helen climbed on to it and began walking, her arms spread wide for balance.

‘Coming up?’ she asked. ‘It’s fun.’

Though I was terrified she would fall, I can’t help thinking now that she was in control. Her movements were smooth and liquid, in gentle arcs. With each step she landed soft and sure on the balls of her feet. Her limbs seemed to give a little on impact.

I shook my head.

‘You’re so scared.’ She did a little skip. ‘You’re scared of everything.’

I took a step closer, reached out a hand. She began to run. My mouth opened and my throat burned – but I had nothing to say, nothing to bring her down.

‘Will you marry me?’ she said.

I nodded.

‘Shall we keep it?’

Her voice was songlike, taunting. Mine was a whisper.

‘Yes.’

She jumped.

I felt a rush of air against my skin. Something struck my face and chest. I fell backwards and landed hard on the roof.

‘That was clumsy,’ she said.

I opened my eyes and saw her beside me: green eyes wide open, auburn hair falling across her face. She moved towards me as if she was going to kiss me, then her head slumped against my chest. I touched my fingers to her face. Her eyes were perfectly still, staring beyond me, beyond the ledge of the roof.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked. ‘What can I do? Helen?’

She sat up and looked at me.

‘I wanted you to look at this,’ she said, springing to her feet, pulling me up by the hand. Together, we leaned against the perimeter wall and looked down over the city. Below us was the street with a line of squat, concrete buildings and toylike cars and stunted trees. A little further off was the city centre, with its few glimmering towers of glass and steel, reflecting the cloudless sky. Beyond that was a tic-tac-toe of long, straight, wide suburban streets, all lined with houses on little rectangles of land. These sections were dotted with trees – pines, lush with oil-black foliage, and willows and birches, pale and naked. In the distance, the city gave way to a plain of golden farmland, which in turn yielded to a thin, blue coastline.

Snaking through this whole scene was the river, its surface licked with orange flames reflecting the afternoon light. It appeared beneath the oak trees in the park and flowed across the city, disappearing behind the high-rises and reappearing between the suburban homes. When it reached the plain, it split into a dozen branches, and each of them fanned into a dozen more, until it was no longer a river but a family of streams, a parent and its children, all running together, out towards the hazy blue line where sea met sky.

By the time we had retraced our steps, down the fire escape, through the lane, across the section, along the street to Helen’s flat, the sun was beginning to set, a soft breeze was rising, and there was nothing left to do but make the arrangements. That night we ate pizza and drank beer and lay on the couch in Helen’s living room. We watched a nature documentary on TV about a lioness trying to teach her cubs to hunt. The cubs kept wrestling on the ground and making little mewing noises while the lioness growled and snatched at them with her mouth, trying to pull them apart. They were the cutest things, with ears soft as butterfly wings and eyes full of mischief.

The next day Helen saw a doctor, and the day after that she had an appointment at the clinic. Over those two nights I didn’t sleep. I lay beside her in the half-darkness, memorising her: almond eyelids which flickered as she dreamed; skin, chalk-coloured in the moonlight; small mouth with soft lips; hair, falling in thin tassels over her face. Sometimes I thought, or began to say, ‘We don’t have to do this.’ But I caught the words in my throat. I knew if I said them she would turn away, curl herself up tight, show me the hard curve of her back. I knew I would lose her.

*

My silence was worth nothing. A few weeks later, Helen came to me and told me all the things she had held inside during that time: that I was useless, that I could have helped her but I didn’t. She told me she never wanted to see me again, so I left. I moved cities, found a job, put her out of my mind.

I had thought I had forgotten her until yesterday. It was late afternoon, rush hour., and I was on my way to my job in a hotel kitchen when I saw her. She was in the passenger seat of a car stopped at the intersection of Mayoral Drive and Queen. The car was two lanes away but I saw her through the open window. Her hair was darker, a brownish-black, and it was cut short and spiked with gel – but her face had not changed; she still wore the same, hard expression. She was dressed in a black jacket with pinstripes. The driver – was it her husband, I wondered? Or a lover? A friend? A workmate? – was clean-shaven, greying. He wore a dark suit. As I watched, she got out a cellphone and punched in some numbers and began to talk. ‘Helen!’ I called. She lifted her head and looked towards me but her expression didn’t change and she kept talking on the phone. I called again, and waved, but the lights changed and the car moved off.

When my shift ended, I walked down the great, dull expanse of Hobson Street until I reached the waterfront. I sat on a pier, dangling my feet over the water, and looked out towards the black hills across the harbour. Light rain was falling, but the night was warm. I kept thinking of Helen, of what she must have been thinking at the moment she saw me. It was so like her to maintain a straight face, to pretend I wasn’t there.

At first, I tried not to cry – I told myself  she wasn’t worth my grief. But, after a while, I let it go, allowing the tears to pool in my eyes and run down my face, into the corners of my mouth. I wasn’t crying for her, but for myself – for my smallness, my meanness and lack of courage. I was crying for the child I had lost, who I didn’t even have a name for, couldn’t even call ‘him’ or ‘her’, didn’t have a single memory of that I could unwind from my memories of Helen.

When I got home, at about three o’clock, I checked on my wife, who was sleeping. I went to Jonno’s room and gathered him, blankets and all, out of the crib. His dark eyes flickered open and he yawned silently. I carried him into the living room and settled into an armchair, cradling him in my arms. I looked out, through the window, at the sharp outlines of high-rise buildings and the tiny harbour view between them, and as I gazed at this scene, I rocked Jonno back and forth, telling him about my day, about Helen, about all the things I wished I had known before he was born. I told him he made everything all right and he stared at me as if he was trying to understand. His tiny nose wrinkled. His dark eyes were unblinking. As I held him, looking at his beautiful face, I hummed a lullaby, slow and melancholy. After a while, he yawned again and brought a tiny hand up to his mouth. He blinked and smiled. I rocked him back to sleep.

River Story was first published in the collection Water (Penguin Books).

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