After The Rain
By Neil Beynon
The girl pulls her raincoat tight round her as she walks up the path through the slate grey hills to the lake. It’s raining faintly; dirt flecked, wind blown vapour that creeps insidiously up her sleeves and down her collar. It plasters her elfin hair to the sides of her face in mad wet swirls of colour but she doesn’t mind. She likes the rain – you have to in this part of the world or you’d go mad.
As the lake comes into view, faint ripples moving in steady rhythm across the water, her eyes fall on the small battered hut. Four sides of wood held together by a corrugated steel roof and heated by something requiring a chimney that looks like it will soon make the journey to the ground once more. No smoke shows from this fragile structure, no sign of life.
Is she too late? She looks around. No it’s OK, she thinks, still time. Nervously she walks the last part of her journey, sweat gathered at the small of her back – clammy glue that clings to the plastic of her raincoat.
The door swings easily on its hinge, in spite of the rust, the slap of it on the wall nearly brings the whole thing down on her. The hut itself smells of dust and headaches – the windows, held together with tape, have not been opened in some time. He sits in a chair, clothes stained with dirt, a blanket around his shoulders – his bald tobacco stained head unmoving in the sepia shade.
Again she thinks him dead. Then his much creased, parchment thin eyelids fold back and his milky brown eyes stare unseeing at her. Closer inspection reveals the shallow rise and fall of his chest.
“Hello,” she says.
Silence, his eyes do not move.
“It’s nearly time,” she continues. “So I’m here…to make sure…the land…no gaps…you know…”
He opens his mouth, his teeth long since gone, rotted away to nothing or perhaps just mined by some overzealous tooth fairy. His voice is guttural, cracked and caked in time; random sounds holding no meaning, in spite of the accompanying treacle-caked arm movements – whatever language he speaks it’s not hers. It’d been like that the only other time she’d been here, as a little girl, them both talking at each other, both unable to understand the other. As if there were a screen between them through which sound could not pass.
The old man’s banter fades away and his gaze shifts from her to the hills framed in the doorway behind her, although she doubts he can see the mountains. He stands, slowly lifting himself from his chair. The blanket falls away as she wishes her eyes would but can’t: the sag of his clothes, the ribs poking through the holes in his vest, the occasional scars on his flesh puckered with spent life.
He speaks, or tries to once more.
“I don’t understand,” she replies. He swings his arms at the clock on the wall and makes shooing gestures.
“I came when summoned,” she answers. He shakes his head and repeats his gesture. He does not understand. Sighing she picks up the blanket, dropping it on his shoulders before leading him to the bed. He pauses, shakes his head once more and points to the hills.
“Rhiw,” he spits.
Outside the storm has stopped, the mountains glisten like whale-skin in the embers of afternoon. He tugs her arm. Nodding she leads him out into air, fresh and sweet after the rain. Shuffling he walks to the edge of the lake, the up turned fingers of the mountains protecting them both from the wind.
Slowly he kneels down on the grass, his broken cloud ridden gaze drinking in the sky, the water, the rock, the land.
“You love it,” she says.
“I did once,” he replies. “I miss that more than I will them.”
“Hey you understood…”
She thinks he’s decided to be melodramatic as he bows his head to kiss the mud but his body keeps moving downwards, finally slumping to the side. There’s a small quiet sigh that seems an everlasting pause bleeding into forever, his final breath swept away on the breeze and she realises he’s gone.
Carefully she wraps the blanket round him, the body is much smaller than she remembers from her childhood but then the whole world looks bigger to a child. She closes his eyes gently before kissing him on the mouth, her young vital flesh pressed to his cooling, spread too thin, seen too much, corpse.
As she picks up his body, barely heavier than the air, and heads to her hut by the lake she chances a last look at the hills. They’re slowly swallowing the afternoon sun, casting themselves in swirls of copper and gold. She’s lived in the hills her whole life and she’s never seen that.
And everything’s the same as it always was, and everything’s different.