I’m typing this in the living room, sitting on an old settee, the material woven in a mix of red and gold and a sort of muddy green, which I can’t name. Outside, past the net curtains stamped with butterflies and trailing leaves, sunlight fills the road, and the neighbouring windows, with a white and too bright light. I can barely keep my eyes open against its insistent glare. It’s been like this for three days. Three sweltering, sickeningly humid days. My head aches, my eyes throb in unison, I can’t move without the feeling that I’m wading, up to my neck, through water. I’m filled with lethargy, whilst a grotesquely large bluebottle circles the room at a fantastic speed, its maniacal buzzing almost as maddening as the screeching tinnitus inside my head. The middle finger on my right hand is swollen at the joint near the fingernail. I’d been scraping wallpaper from the living room walls three days ago, until the heat became too oppressive; using a scraping tool which continually rubbed against the affected finger. I found something written on the wall, behind a piece of ripped off paper near the fireplace: EDDWASERE it said; what can it mean? EDDWASERE, EDDWASERE, EDDWASERE. I don’t know why but I felt compelled to write my own name beneath it, underlined in black felt tip pen.
I have a name, therefore I am.
I fell asleep an hour ago. Beside me, already beginning to come apart at the cheap book binding seams (and is my mind too?) lies a copy of After Me Comes the Flood, by Sarah Perry. I finished reading it yesterday. I want the man, with his back to me on the front cover, to turn around so I can see what sort of man he might be. He’s wearing a 1940’s style hat and what looks like a dog collar. When I awoke, everything had changed. My presence in the room seemed to be an affront to the rug near the fireplace, its woollen soft pink rose petals opening in barely concealed malicious intent. The partially bare walls closed in, so that the room shrank down to the prison cell it may always have been. The mantelpiece clock was cross with me, I could see it on its face. A wave of nausea drenched me from head to foot. Have I always felt this ill? Now, in the kitchen, the sound of a dripping tap causes me to flinch at every drip, drop, drip. Chinese water torture. We must fix that leak. Every morning the washing up bowl is overflowing with wasteful water, like a mini reservoir rising up above its retaining walls. Years ago, I turned on the hot tap once and the knob came off in my hand, sending a jet of water straight up to the ceiling. I was alone in the house and all I could do was stand there helpless, my hand covering the valve; one woman holding back the flood.
I wish I could use some other voice to write this down. In fact I am, if you but knew it. I feel there are two of me; the uninteresting housewife, around whom the house fits, like a wrinkled old tortoise in its shell, and the character typing on a laptop, sweat collecting at the back of her neck in the arid heat, her heart occasionally lurching with anxiously missed beats. Who are you? said the caterpillar. I hardly know anymore. At least, I knew who I was before I read After Me Comes the Flood, but now I think I’ve been changed. Can a book haunt you?
Susan got up from the settee and left the room. As she did so the ever present headache jabbed malevolently at her eyes. She walked into the kitchen, passing the recently papered hallway and couldn’t help noticing the arch look one of the yellow flowers, in the paper’s repeated pattern, gave her. Why did I never notice these things before? she asked herself, rubbing her aching forehead with her right hand and pausing to check her reflection in the hallway mirror. Was there a reason for that arch look? It’s true, her hair was now grey, her eyes more sunken, her skin more finely lined.
On the kitchen table lay a piece of paper. On it someone had written: CAN TOMS X 2. What does it all mean? she wondered. Outside in the garden, she caught a neighbour’s cat in the act of defecation in her modest, but prized, border. She clapped her hands and ran at the creature. The cat fled, but not before giving her a knowing wink. ‘What does the cat know that I don’t?’ She almost said this out loud.
Her husband came walking down the path, grinning. Susan noticed the insidious weeds, slowly pushing out their hideous roots and somehow breaking up the steadfast concrete. Would the weeds take hold of everything? Her husband walked on, oblivious to the evil at his feet, the same inane grin on his face. Was it a grin? Now that she looked more closely, might there not be a touch of contempt in that wide smile – for her and her little housewifely duties. ‘Can we walk on the hill? Susan asked. ‘Of course, give me a minute,’ and the fear that her husband might be a stranger to her evaporated in the non-existent, too close air.
We had our walk up the hill. ‘It’s like walking through treacle,’ Colin said. The heat was suffocating. It took us 30 minutes to climb, instead of the usual 20; frequently stopping to pause for breath, but with no air to draw a breath from. Colin’s new cap, OLD GUYS RULE emblazoned on the front, was set at a jaunty angle. I noticed an insect I’d never seen before, whirring ahead of us. A black body and red polka dot wings. Looking around I saw that the hill was filled with them. Colin pulled his cap from his too hot head and threw it carelessly out in front of him. At the same time one of the pretty insects crossed its path and collided with the cap, dropping to the ground. I found it in the grass, one wing lying useless, the other making sporadic, jerking movements. ‘It’ll die,’ I said. Colin said he didn’t mean to do it, that that kind of thing must be a one in a zillion chance. I’d have believed him if I hadn’t caught just the suspicion of a glint in his eye. I told him I’d finished my book. He said, ‘What book is that?’ So I told him it was called After Me Comes the Flood, all the while feeling like I was divulging a deep secret that only I wanted to be in on. I told him the author is Sarah Perry, just 38 years old and from a family background of intense religiosity and alienation from popular culture. Blah Blah Blah I went on, in my fervour for this new literary find. ‘She’s written two of the best books I’ve read in a long time, the other one is The Essex Serpent. And you know what, she did a PhD in creative writing a few years ago and her supervisor was Andrew Motion, one of my tutors and lecturers when we were at university. He became a poet laureate you know.’ Colin said Oh and Ah in all the right places and then stopped suddenly at the brow of the hill. He asked me to look across the valley, all the way to the coast line where the sky was a metallic grey line above the green. He said there was a storm coming in, there’d be a lot of rain. I had a sense of strange foreboding.
I’m back in the living room, waiting for the storm. I feel I’ve been dreaming for four days, languishing in a torpid state, caught between hallucination and reality. Life, what is it but a dream? I want the air to clear and the headache and nausea to go. Most of all, I want to let go of that strange book.
In the kitchen the tap dripped on, the drip becoming more of a persistent stream. Susan went looking for her husband and asked him to fix the leaking tap, please. Hadn’t it been dripping for months? Colin obliged and began replacing the 30 year old valve with a new one. Outside the storm clouds gathered and lightening flashed white across the black sky. Suddenly the air changed and the rain came in an instantaneous downpour. Inside, the spanner slipped and water gushed from the tap, flooding the worktop and the floor. Colin had forgotten to close off the water supply.
Susan felt as though something momentous had occurred and yet, at the same time, as though absolutely nothing had happened at all. The lawn now resembled a large pond. She went upstairs to the airing cupboard to turn off the water and fetch towels to mop up the floor. In the bedroom, she opened the airing cupboard doors. On one of the white walls someone had long ago written the words STOPCOCK LEVER in black felt tip pen. As the rain turned the street outside into a fast flowing river and the tap continued to eject water, Susan pulled a black felt tip pen from her pocket and wrote on the airing cupboard wall:
APRES MOI, LE DELUGE.
It made her feel clever.
(with abject apologies to Sarah Perry)