June 2018 Contest Winner
Philippa Crundwell is a twenty-year-old writer hailing from Sussex, England. After winning the Peace One Day poetry competition in 2013, she had her debut poetry anthology commissioned and published, which launched in Waterstones in 2015. You can find out more about it here. You can also tweet Philippa @PipCrundwell.
The Water Tower by Philippa Crundwell
That summer was dry. Dry, and hot, and long. Relentless sweat seeped from my back and chest and hands, and wouldn’t leave. It clung like blood congealing on a wound. Sticky. But my mouth stayed dry. I didn’t say much after it happened. Not for a long time.
We’d left school for good, and things had seemed ok. But there was a sort of vacancy present, now that we were out of doors. Beyond the town the miles of dust lay, as it had always lain, since the time this land had belonged to the native people - before we had come from across the sea to plant our flags here. To hammer our flags and buildings into the arid earth.
The vista was as bare as it had ever been. Clumps of plant in dust on dust. Cacti. Outcrops of tectonic compressions in the distance. A single metallic structure broke the monotonous nothingness that bled from the town. Its arachnid presence loomed in the tangible distance. It was hard to say how far away it was. We supposed that someone from the town visited – to check on it. Or whatever. We didn’t know. We hadn’t given it much thought before then; our heads had been buried in books of math and dead equations.
We weren’t bored; we were glad to be out of school. Lessons had been dull, oppressing – patriotic. We hadn’t been taught the things that we wanted to learn. The things boys want to know. And now we were floating in the hazy vacancy of months of nothing without so much as a scapegoat for our frustration.
It had really started in Kes’s yard. Sal and I went over to his place one afternoon to kick a ball about in the dirt. In school, we’d sat next to each other in math and science class, Sal and I. I’d give him my answers, and he’d entertain me by messing with the teachers. It was a good deal. We knew Kes from sport. He wasn’t academic. Not in the way that Sal was – Sal wasn’t studious, but he was bright. Kes was…Kes was the kind of kid that wore his t-shirt inside out for a whole period and didn’t notice even when he got changed afterwards. Most boys laughed at him and he’d just get on with it. But I didn’t laugh. We played soccer together, and Kes was good with tools, helpful at fixing stuff. I thought he was alright.
Kes’s yard was hot. Sheltered from any wind by a wooden fence. It was too hot to play, really. Too hot to be running around like kids. So we sat on the veranda and his mom brought us lemonade she’d made.
‘Whaddaya gettin’ up to now eh? Now ya done wi’ school an’ all.’
She seemed pleased to see us, I suppose. I don’t think she had a husband, or anything much going on. Sal and I looked at each other. We didn’t have any plans, but we smiled politely.
‘Not sure, ma’am.’
‘I hear Joey Blue got a job down the scrap yard. And Ron and Bran Tucker are working at Clive’s store.’ Her sun-scorched face crinkled into an expectant smile.
‘As I say, we dunno, ma’am,’ muttered Sal awkwardly.
‘Well, how’dya like the lemonade?’
‘Oh, I’m glad. I thought it would be better than the warm stuff from the taps on a day like this.’
Kes gave a long slurp. His mom smiled at me, then at Sal again, before withdrawing into the house.
Kes’s house was at the edge of town. The boundary of his yard backed onto the nothingness beyond. Our gazes were drawn towards the nothingness; drawn up to the water tower. Sal and I gravitated towards the end of the yard, and Kes followed, being careful not to step on our shadows. The three of us stood there for a while, looking out into the beyond, like animals in an enclosure. We must have looked strange - so stiff and stationary, goggle-eyed.
‘What do you think?’ asked Sal, his eyes leaving the tower for a moment to question mine.
‘It’s good,’ I said.
‘Yes. We can go.’
‘Where?’ Kes interjected. But he knew. He remained staring at it, agog. The word left his mouth hanging open. It gave him a look of childlike awe.
It was too easy to do it. Kes’s mom didn’t see us leave. And as we moved away from it, we could see how lifeless the town looked. No-one saw us go. People must have been hiding inside from the searing heat. It almost looked deserted, save from the flags of red washing blowing in Mrs Tucker’s yard.
When we arrived there, and stood in its alien shadow, looking up at it, I shook involuntarily and sweat flew in drops from my hair. It was imposing, and eerily peaceful.
‘It’s…it’s good,’ I said.
‘It’s good,’ echoed Sal.
‘Let’s go back now,’ said Kes.
‘Why?’ asked Sal.
‘I’m too hot,’ murmured Kes, ‘and thirsty.’
His words ring like his shoes on the metal ladder, as Sal makes him climb and climb. He ascends the tower, and becomes smaller and smaller. We hear his mouse-like voice from near the top.
‘No, you can’t come down,’ hisses Sal. ‘Wait there.’
I’ve never seen Sal like this before.
‘What are you doing?’ I mouth at him.
‘What did you think we were doing, coming here?’ he retorts. ‘The thing wants us to see something.’
‘What?’ I exclaim.
He sets foot on the ladder.
‘What?’ I repeat. ‘What "thing"?'
‘Don’t play daft,’ he mutters and continues climbing; ‘aren’t you thirsty too?’
I look back at the town, then at the ladder. Maybe I should have told my mom? Kes’s mom? …Sal’s gone weird. I touch the metal and it touches me back – it’s hot and it hurts. I look up to the silhouettes of Sal and Kes disappearing off the top of the ladder onto the tower, then I seize the rungs and climb.
When I reach the platform it’s beautiful – the view, that is. Everything is sky, everything is blue and yellow and shining. I’m not a kid; I feel old, older than an adult – more like a god. I can see more than half the people in that town have ever seen, grinding their lives away, never leaving, from birth to death.
I shake myself from my stupor and look around to be faced with the green-black egg of the tower. I walk around the platform surrounding the bulging body. Where are Kes and Sal? They can’t have gone. I can’t see them on the ground either, but I’m so far up and feel so giddy that… Where are they?
‘Sal!’ I try not to sound too panicked. He’s going to appear, laughing at me, any second. Any second.
‘Kes?’ I whisper into the desert.
My mind reels through the possibilities of where they could have gone. What was Sal doing? Where was he leading Kes? The ‘thing’ holds the answer. They must be inside. I walk around again to three o’clock on the body and see an extension of the ladder leading to a hatch. The door of the hatch is open. It seems to be an invitation. The thing is speaking to me. I examine the hatch door and see the place where a padlock should have been. Sal wouldn’t have had a key, would he? Wouldn’t have taken the padlock? But the hatch has been opened – they must have gone in. My stomach tightens with fear, or perhaps dehydration, as I slither down the ladder into the body. The sunlight reaching through the hatch plays dimly on the walls which shine with a slimy black-green glow. My hands are stiff and my footsteps echo on the rungs as I descend. I reach a platform above the black eye of the pool. I don’t want to speak. My brain is sun-scorched and my mouth is a desert.
‘Kes?’ a voice echoes in the chamber. ‘Sal?’ The voice sounds like my own.
There is silence for a long time. I feel my way around the platform. Pause. The water sounds like it's moving, rippling. Maybe that’s what it does when it releases some to supply the town? Or maybe this thing is alive? I try to stop being so childish, and continue to feel my way methodically around the platform. Where are they?
‘Kes?’ I hiss. ‘Sal?’
The walls hiss back at me again. Then there is a metallic clunking as the last bit of light is extinguished from the chamber. Oh God. The hatch. The hatch. I hurry back towards the ladder, but my foot catches on something and I fall. It feels like…I run it through my hands…it feels like a spanner. And it’s wet! Oh god, it’s wet. I don’t have time to think about this now. I make for the ladder and scramble up towards the hatch. My hands try to lift it. It’s not opening. It’s not opening! But I give it all my strength and finally it does. Thank god it does. The sunlight is a blessing on my face. I will never hate the sun again.
There is no sign of anyone on my way back to the town as darkness falls, but I’m not really looking. All I can hear is the laughter of the school boys echoing. All I can feel is the dripping metal spanner in my hand. And all I can see is the water tower, looming as a shadow wherever I look – the creature that gives life to this town. We would all be dead without it.
I see Kes a few weeks later, working in the scrap yard. He still lives with his mother, I think, but I haven’t seen her for a while. I don’t think she leaves the house. Why would she? What is there left to see besides the view from her yard? She still makes lemonade, but she doesn’t like it.
There has never been a summer as dry as that one. Not since Sal. I have not forgotten him. I cannot ever forget. The water still tastes of it now. All these years later and the bitter taint is still there. It has never left my lips. But my mouth will remain parched and voiceless. This is not my voice speaking now. I have no words.
She eased her husband onto the wicker chair. Tucked a blanket over his spindle-legs and wiped the silver trail from his chin, careful, all the while, not to catch his glazed, unseeing eyes. Only when he was settled did the woman take up position behind him, her hand resting on his bony shoulder. Only then did she turn to face the narrow-lipped occupant of this small, woodland cottage. “You have payment?” the crone demanded.
People close to you in life - family or friends - will always tell you that they will be there if they need help, but when the time comes, they’re not around, or they’re too wrapped up in themselves and their own grief to be of any help to you at all. Sometimes you have to heal alone, sometimes you heal together. Sometimes all you need is a bit of catharsis. I suppose that’s what Whittling, Man was about, and that’s what it was for me as well.