Short Fiction ~ Brindley Hallam Dennis
The river had overflowed its banks hours before. TV crews had filmed it pushing against the bridge arches like an impatient football crowd. The roofs of cars had showed above the water where the main car park stood. They had lifted slowly like colourful tin trays and moved sluggishly in the flow. Temporary flood defences had been erected along the riverside walk, but the water seeped beneath them.
Rain continued to fall, but less vehemently than earlier in the day, and the sheet of water that slid like black silk across the tarmac was only an inch or two deep. It spilled with a standing wave up onto the pavement and passed across the front edge of the stone bus-shelter, edging into the dark interior where Schlep huddled. The wind had dropped, and residual heat clung to the stone, besides, Schlep had known darker, colder places.
Sylvia had gone down on her haunches, to make eye contact, conscious of the water rippling cold against the sides of her shoes. Pale light from a still-working street lamp splashed her face.
Schlep wore a dark cord jacket that folded into shadow. He smoked a thin hand-rolled cigarette, as pinched and tight as his own lined face. The tip reddened like a blown ember with each inhalation. His black eyes were quick for chances and for dangers.
Sylvia forced herself to smile. She had boxes to tick and a belief that everybody deserved better. She held on to this, fearing that to let go under the pressure of fierce experience would lead her to throw out whole orphanages of babies along with the dirty waters.
Come along, Mr Rogers, she urged kindly, adding, Peter.
Schlep hated being called by name, but at least, he reminded himself, he knew which side of several fences each caller stood. He knew Sylvia. He recognised her face even in the dark shadows of the bus-shelter but he could never remember her name, though she told it him every time they met. The fact was that Schlep had no intention of seeking refuge in the Temporary Accommodation. He did not like the thought of the other people who were being gathered there. They would have no desire to see him either. The bus-shelter was all the temporary accommodation he needed. It was dry, and it had a bench, miraculously un-vandalised, and the water level could not rise that much further. They were on the flat lands here. Every inch it rose would be spread across miles of water-meadows. And if it did reach the bench he had on perfectly good wellington boots, with which he had been issued recently at a building site on which he had pretended to be working.
He had watched all morning as labourers had presented themselves at a steel container, its door propped open by an office chair. They had emerged each carrying what was obviously a new pair of boots. Who Dares Wins, Schlep had reminded himself, and he had taken himself across during a lull. The interior of the steel box was dark, and in that gloom a man working by the dim glow of a computer screen had asked him his name. Smith, Schlep had replied. He knew there would always be Smiths. There would be Patels too, but he could not pull that one off so easily. The man had scrolled a list and demanded, which Smith?, in an irritated voice. Which have you got? Schlep had asked, trying to sound humorous. Don't fuck me about, the man had said. Are you Pete Smith, or Mike Smith for Fuck's sake? There were always Mike Smiths, but Schlep kept him for reserve. Pete, he said. Over there, the man said, thumbing a line of boots that might have been waiting for Christmas. The small ones are on the left. He took a pair from the middle and left quickly.
Once, on Bank Street in Carlisle, he had seen a scrawny kid thump, bang-bang, on the side of an armoured truck outside a building society. It was the same bang a security guard had given a few moments before, and produced the same effect. The steel hatch had slid open and an armoured box, presumably holding cash, had appeared. The scrawny kid had run off with it, like Tom the Piper's Son. Schlep had walked off, not quite so fast, in the opposite direction. Running, he knew, was not the best method of escape.
But you can't stay here, Mr Rogers, Sylvia persisted, reaching out a hand almost as far as his arm. It's too dangerous.
Danger! Schlep thought. What did she know about danger? Danger could explode upon you almost anytime, almost anywhere and without the slightest warning. There was no subtle change in the air; no sudden atmosphere of menace; no preparatory hush. The birds did not stop singing. The people did not inexplicably vacate the street. Danger was always there, beyond the perimeter of your vision, beneath the radar of your heightened awareness.
Flood water was no danger, not here, in the dark safety of the bus-shelter. He would stand on the bench if need be; clamber on the roof if he had to. Besides, the rain had eased. Who knew what nutters they would gather together in the Temporary Accommodation? And there would be questions, forms to fill in, boxes to tick, futile aspirations, unhelpful sympathies.
Mr Rogers, she said again.
A dark figure loomed at the opening, black against the darkening sky, bulked out by helmet and strapped gear. A torch beam lashed his face.
Is that you, Schlep? a male voice said. Come on out of there and stop pissing us about.
Sylvia turned to face the new figure, a look of horror and outrage on her face. How dare he speak like that to a client? But at her back Schlep had pulled himself to his feet and was shaking his head slowly. He threw down the cigarette and crushed it underfoot, stepped forward.
Bruce Meyer is author or editor of over sixty-three books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, non-fiction, and literary journalism. His next book of flash fiction, Down in the Ground, will be published by Guernica Editions in 2020. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.