The barn by our house is full of hay. It’s hay, not straw; the distinction clear and important to me, being recently learned.
When we first arrived to live on this hilltop in Wiltshire, leagues from the city and the sea, cows packed the barn at night, huddling and sighing in the dark within the crooked building’s ancient stone walls and timbers. But hay bales now stand in their place, stacked as high as the rafters, and there is barely room to shelter beneath the corrugated roof, which resounds loudly with the constant clang of heavy raindrops.
I am standing with my young son, Elijah, who is nestled in the crook of my right arm, and with Norman, the farmer, who is hoping for the rain to die down a little before making the long, steep walk back to his own house down the hill. Ten minutes ago, Elijah and I saw Norman across the yard from the playroom window of the huge former farmhouse that we have recently made our own. We had ventured out, despite the cold wind and ravaging wetness, to take a brief break from each other’s exclusive company during another long, wet, housebound afternoon waiting for my wife, Abbie, to return from work. Although the thick stone walls of our new home mostly keep the wind out, and much of its ground floor has grown warm from a constantly roaring log fire, the house is so large as to feel empty on a solemn Tuesday afternoon such as this and, as much as we have both enjoyed every second rolling around and pushing cars about on the carpet since Eli rose from his nap, we both relish the chance of interaction with someone different. And besides this, for Elijah, seeing the farmer often means seeing the tractor, and as I chat to Norman, my son stares intently and expectantly towards the crest of the hill where the road meets the plateau at our summit, hoping for a glimpse of his favourite machine.
‘How’s Mary, Norman?’ I ask.
’Yeah she’s alright. Bit sick of this weather. How’s Abbie?’
‘Not known anything like this before.’
‘The hundredth successive day of rain next week, the radio said this morning.’
’Yup. Old record was 40.’
’40 days? Like in the Bible? Like Noah?’
’Yes, I guess so. Although that was 2000. AD, that is. I remember it actually. Really poured, it did. Cost us a fortune in damage.’
‘I don’t remember it.’
‘Guess you might not have noticed in London.’
‘No. No you don’t generally. Unless they close a tube station. 100 days, eh? Really is like the Old Testament.’
‘Well, I don’t know about that. But it certainly is wet.’
Norman is not a man to humour hyperbole, and I might have known he would be unwilling to endorse a faintly blasphemous sentiment, but his rejection is entirely affable: a tone I have grown to enjoy whenever we trade anecdotes or share opinions with the rural community that we have recently joined, its members spread out thinly across the miles of farmland that surround the hill. Our impractical nature amuses them. They cannot fathom our lack of understanding for tradition, and they find my profession as an artist – and resulting status as a kept man – emasculated and hopeless. But they have welcomed us as friends. They seem flattered by our curiosity into the life of the countryside, and find stories of our reckless former existences in London entertaining. Above all, our young son acts as an emblem of our essentially reconcilable human nature; our willingness to nurture him, and our boastful pride in describing every action since they last saw him, far more important than our status as urbane and alien usurpers. Norman grins down at Eli, grabbing his foot and waggling it playfully. Eli smiles too and, as Norman releases, holds his foot back out towards him, wanting to play more, but not breaking his gaze upon the road, still hoping for a sight of the tractor.
‘What happened to the cows, Norman?’
’Difficult to farm anything when it’s this wet for this long. I didn’t make much from the cattle last year, so didn’t think there was much chance now with so little land they could graze. Plus no one else can keep their places dry, so I thought I’d try storing hay up here and selling it on. Make the most of the hill. Not sure I’ll make much money from this either, to be honest. But there you go.’
Norman farms half the land around our home. The other half belongs to his brother, Eddie. Sixty years ago they occupied the house themselves, both growing up members of a huge family that had filled the old place and worked the land together. Eddie was the flesh and blood of the old pater familias, Mr Jonathan Harris, and his wife, but him and Norman were raised as true sons, and although the Harrises had no other children of their own, they attracted a clan of loving dependents to the hilltop upon which they built their little empire. Norman had come as a young boy from East London with his mother who moved here to groom horses, although he barely remembers the grim life they had left behind; nor much of her, after she ran away again, most probably, it was thought, leaving her son to a better life of the country, herself returning to the shadowy and criminal fraternity she had at first tried to escape.
When both brothers were young men, cancer had taken their mum, Rosie, and when Jonathan quickly followed from a broken heart, they had jointly inherited the farmhouse and the land around it. But they had fallen out, dramatically and permanently, and had split the land in two, maintaining a frosty relationship of reluctant neighbours who must speak to address practicalities rather than of two men who had shared much of their childhood.
Norman and his wife, Mary, stayed on in the family home because they had their own to raise but, once their own two sons had grown up and moved on, untempted by the tough life that their father had tried to teach them, they left the house and moved to a much smaller cottage at the very bottom of the momentous hill on which the old farmhouse sits, subsidising their income with the rent from the larger house. Eddie, an eternal bachelor, has lived in his own bungalow, which, save for a nearby barn and a few outhouses, is the only building visible from our house, standing as it does by the river in the middle of the valley.
Otherwise, from our living room windows and the garden beyond, miles of farmland fill the valley in either direction, and the top of the hills across from us are crowned by thick woodland. It is as beautiful a view as I have seen on these shores; the kind you can stare at for hours without detecting the passing of time, even since the clouds became a permanent fixture and the sun’s passage from east to west across the vale each day became undetectable beyond the dull haze and thick rain that fill the skies and valley.
Norm’s a real talker, and I’m always delighted to be able to indulge in a few minutes of conversation and form a slightly more meaningful connection with the community that lives around us. It’s been six months since we moved here from our tiny flat in London; abandoning the same kind of frantic, urban lives that Norman’s sons had been so desperate to escape to and pursue. Holed up over winter in the heart of the capital, we had felt compelled by Eli’s arrival to find a home with more space and a greater sense of peace, but had also been driven so far westwards by a sense of anxiety, having grown jaded by the dejection of metropolitan life, to find seclusion and a fresh start in the English countryside.
‘Did you hear about York?’ Norman asks me. I haven’t. ‘Evacuated. The whole town! It’s madness. Absolute madness.’
‘I guess if it helps save lives…’
‘But how are we here in the first place? That’s what I want to know.’
‘Norman it’s been raining everywhere non-stop for months.’
‘I know! So why aren’t there defences in place? Where’s all the money been spent? Every year they tell us it’ll be sorted. And yet here we are.’
’I know. It’s so sad for everyone.’
’Devastating. That’s what it is. Devastating. Did you hear the Queen yesterday?’ I hadn’t, although it had made the news too. For the first time in 18 years she had addressed the nation directly on a day other that Christmas, appealing for ‘charity and calm’ over the unprecedented flooding that was affecting so much of northern England.
‘I didn’t, Norman, but I saw a clip.’
‘No well you wouldn’t have.’ I’ve never voiced my vague republicanism openly to my neighbour and landlord, but my lack of enthusiasm for whichever milestone her reign recently passed had not gone undetected. ‘What’s The Green Party doing to help then? Your man Corbyn? Organising another riot?’
‘Ha!’ I laugh genuinely at his colossal and deliberate conflation of everything I have futilely articulated during our occasional debates over current affairs, and Norman taps the top of my arm, pleased to have made me laugh. Elijah laughs too, happy to be part of the conversation, which makes Norman and me laugh some more, for a second forgetting the chaos that has descended upon our compatriots up north and further west in Somerset, and the deluge that maintains its constant assault on our hill.
Norman pulls up the collar on his coat. ’Right young man. I reckon it’s time your daddy took you back in the warm. I’m going to dash, Jax.’
‘Ok Norm. Take care of yourself. Best to Mary.’
’Likewise Abbie.’ He makes off up the driveway and then disappears down the road westwards. I redouble my hold on Elijah, run across the drive to our unlocked backdoor, and get us out of the rain.
Inside, Nelson the cat is nowhere to be seen, but he has left new gifts for us; food for his feeders, his contribution to the household. At the bottom of the stairway, there is a mouse; dead but intact. Its eyes are still piercing with fear. ‘Oh no!’ says Eli, ‘Bird!’ and I correct him. ‘No, Eli. That’s a mouse. Can you say mouse?’ ‘Nmous!’ He repeats with a blink and a sharp nod of his head. We mount the steps, and find a bird at the top of the flight, also dead, parts dauntingly missing. ‘Oh no!’ says the boy. ‘Nmous!’ It feels petty to correct him again, and macabre to linger, so we continue to his room, and I keep a close look out for feathers and beak. The mess will have to wait until he’s in bed.
It’s September, but it’s much colder than it ought to be upstairs. The house is so large that it is hard to keep warm, and the price of the oil that fuels our heating has more than trebled over the last month as a result of the flooding. An urgent iciness permeates our skin, and Eli and I glance at each other, agreeing silently to act. In his room I find a bigger jumper for Eli and dress him, then make a big song and dance about him helping don mine next door.
We stare into the dressing table mirror, and say our names. ’Daddy.’ ’‘Lijah’. We say them ever faster and louder, and laugh. We jump on the bed for five minutes or so, and he does his balancing act on my stomach, although soon ends up with his feet on my head, having become sufficiently excited to court a reprimand deliberately. I adopt a slightly stern tone and ask him to say sorry. ‘Woreora’ he says, although there’s no doubting his sincerity. I throw him above me a couple of times and we both howl with laughter again. Then we head downstairs to the playroom.
Even after half a year, the scale of our house still overwhelms me. A playroom! A room, separate to all others, set aside for my son to have fun in. It is distinct from both his bedroom and our living room, which has ceramic coasters, a nice rug and fragile ornaments we’ve assembled from eccentric market stalls or politely pinched from grandparents. In the playroom, we’ve laid down foam matting on top of the carpet. It’s a relic from our flat in London, where the small yardage of floor space we had been able to afford was covered in cheap vinyl flooring. It provided a far too unforgiving surface in the era when the boy’s footsteps were extremely shaky, and his head so often ended up bearing his weight. There are mats with letters, a to z, and numbers, naught to nine. There are shapes too, and there are blanks, but they are all very colourful, and they interconnect, like a non-prescriptive, giant jigsaw.
I turn on the TV for background noise, and take out some toys from the basket. The news is still about the floods, and I see Wiltshire’s name, but the engulfed houses and residents weeping in blankets are no viewing for my boy. As I reach for the remote, I see flames too upon the surface of some large expanse of water flickering aggressively into the sky, but the boy’s banging of toy against toy requires instant attention. I flick to the channel with the brightest cartoons and lie down besides him. Eli opts for the cars and tractors from his toy chest, so we push them around in circles for a few minutes, before he decides we must stop instantly - ‘No, Dada!’ - and he must place them in a near-on perfect straight line.
I find another couple of vehicles to add to his convoy. ‘Ohitsacar!’ Eli says approvingly. Pushing carefully from the back, he propels the entire line forwards until the fire engine that leads the pack disappears beneath the fabric that covers the front of the sofa. ‘That was actually pretty clever,’ I think, and rub his hair in affection. ‘Neenaw. Sgone.’ Eli says, looking slightly glum. ‘Oh no!’ I reply, imitating his intonation, as I so often do. He leans down, reaches in, retrieves the tiny vehicle and hands it to me, beaming. ‘Neenaw!’ I can’t remember being more grateful to receive anything in my whole life.
We play for a while longer. Once I am satisfied he is sufficiently engrossed in his toys, I begin to think about what my next set of duties will entail. Abbie is away until tomorrow morning at work. I need to feed him, bathe him and put him to bed. I need to wake whenever he does and settle him back down. There are details within these headings emerging too. Brushing his teeth. Applying some cream. Yes, making some milk. Finishing this sequence at about 7pm. Switching on his nightlight. Carrying the baby monitor with me for the rest of the night. I’m sure there is more. I decide to phone Abbie to talk it through, and remember I owe her call anyway, having been unable to answer earlier, when Eli was mid-cry.
I scratch around for my phone. It’s in the kitchen by my house keys. I have six missed calls. All are from Abbie. I have three texts. Two are from Abbie.
‘Call me pls. X’
’Jax call me straight away. It’s urgent.′
The other tells me I have five voicemail messages.
I decide to skip the voicemails and phone Abbie directly. The first call is answered immediately ’Hi! It’s Abbie. Please leave a message...′ I hang up and try again, but am returned straight to her answer machine... On my third try, though, we connect. There are three or so seconds of fuzzy silence before I hear Abbie’s voice.
’Jax are you two ok?′ It jars that, after the urgency of her messages, that she starts with that question, rather than answering the same from me.
’Yes! Yes we’re fine. What about you? What’s the problem?′
‘The house is ok?’
’Yes. Yes! We’re fine. Everything’s fine. Are you ok? I had missed calls from you. What’s going on?′
‘I can’t get to work.’ This in itself is not bad news to me. So long as she’s still paid.
’I haven’t even got past Reading. It’s the floods. London’s cut off. All the roads are cut off.′
’I’m just stuck here on the Tarmac. There’s just a solid queue ahead of me, and behind. Nothing coming past the other way. I’ve been here...what time did I set out?’
’So I’ve been here four hours, about,′ I glance at the clock on the wall. She’s about right.
’How do you know you can’t go on? Maybe it’ll clear?′
’A police van came back down the hard shoulder. It had a loudhailer. It said stay where we are, inside our cars. More news would come. The radio just makes it sound like chaos. People...Jax, people have started walking.′
‘What? What about their cars?’
’Just leaving them. Most are coming back past me, but some have gone over the embankment towards town. A man said I should come with him.
‘What?’ The severity of the scene suddenly becomes clear to me.
’He said the traffic was never going to move. He’d heard the water was coming in this direction.′
’Abbie, Jesus. Ok. Where are you exactly?′
’I’m, God, I’m between...I passed junction 11. Jax I could see the water by the road a few miles back. It was lapping across as far as the slow lane.′
‘Ok wait, I’m going to look at a map.’ I rush through to the room off the living room at the back of the house and dig out an old road atlas. ’Got it, just hold tight two seconds.′
’Wait, here comes another police car. Jax wait a second...it’s travelling so fast....′
All I can hear is a siren growing louder and three thick blasts from its horn before the pitch softens as it passes Abbie at speed. Two more sirens follow soon behind, then another.
’Jax, they’re all driving back.′ I can hear shouting around her too. From somewhere nearby I hear the crash of metal against metal and the smash of glass.
I have found her on the map. She is on a length that means she must be a short walk from the south eastern outskirts of Reading. Beyond her the motorway crosses the River Loddon. The Thames passes to the north of Reading, skirting a solid blue mass of lakes to the town’s north east. Back beyond the last junction is another great expanse of blue, threatening the motorway’s path even before the flooding began.
’Abbie climb the embankment. Can you hear me? Don’t walk back down the road.′ Eli has stopped playing and is looking up at me anxiously.
’OK. Jax should I head towards Reading or south?′ Everyone’s going...wait. Jax wait!...No! Get off her! Get OFF!′ There is muffled screaming and I can hear a thud against flesh.
‘Abbie!’ Eli has begun to cry. Abbie get out of there! Head south!’
’Jax! Shit Jax it’s all going...Jax I’m heading south. Can you hear me! I’m going to run. Stay there! Stay at home, I’ll come to you. I’ll call you. I’ll call soon. Jax I love you both.′
The phone bleeps three times. She has gone. Eli has stopped crying and is perfectly still. I look back at him. Neither of us has any idea what to do.