Here in the UK, we had the driest July since 1935, and the draught has continued into the first two weeks of August. And we Brits do not do hot weather well. But as I type I can hear a scattering of rain on the glass of the conservatory roof.
The last time we had a long spell without rain, I was working in the city, and as I left work it began to pour. People applauded the rain. They cheered it. There wasn’t an umbrella in sight. As we rode the escalators down into the underground, we were all soaked to the skin, hair dripping, shirts clinging, and it was glorious.
What does rainfall sound like? Like a distant memory. Like a release. It was something I tried to pin down in These Fragile Things. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter Twenty Five. Judy Jones is over the worst, but her brush with death has changed her. It has changed the whole family. Now that her husband and daughter have joined the church, mother Elaine feels like a stranger in her own home.
Elaine’s voice was flat, but at least it was conversation. “It’s starting to spit,” she said. “I’m going to bring the washing in.”
“Do you want any help?” asked her husband.
“No, you stay. There’s no point in both of us getting wet.”
Elaine surfaced from the house like a diver, gasping. The restlessness of the trees as they stirred and trembled spoke to her of longing – of yearning – defying the fact that she didn’t believe in the soul. She reached upwards, blindly grasping, distributing wooden pegs here and there, piling socks and t-shirts onto her left shoulder. Yearning: a word she’d internalised but found hard to define. Present in the fluttering of leaves; in the aching in her breast; in her longing for the child she didn’t know; for something constantly out of reach; echoed in music on the radio. She recalled the illusion of simplicity in a song the DJ had announced as Nightporter. Just an old-fashioned waltz, a tumbling of piano notes, before the cello steals in from a side entrance; its appearance so subtle that she detected it only in the slowing of her breathing. This, even before the voice, deep and rich – before the strains of the clarinet wrenched her heart from her chest – and, suddenly, it wasn’t someone else’s life the man was singing about: it was hers.
Elaine’s feet began to move in time with the lilting music inside her head. She held the sheet from the top of the pile on her shoulder, as she would the skirts of an evening dress, if she had such a thing. Wondering if she was alone in being sane while the rest of the world had gone quite mad. And Elaine looked up, up through fat droplets of rain, wishing: wash me clean again.
At the same moment, perching on her windowsill, Judy was secretly consuming the non-curriculum copy of The Life of St Bernadette with Aztec Camera’s Oblivious playing on the stereo as a cover. She could no longer find the answers she needed in Just Seventeen. Miranda would say she’d taken to the whole guilt thing like a duck to water, even when there was nothing to feel guilty about. She clasped the book to her chest after reading the passage in which Father Peyramale has asked Bernadeta to prove that the lady was real by asking her to perform a miracle. Something in the periphery of her vision caught Judy’s eye. Against a churning backdrop of dark clouds, she saw her mother dancing slowly with a heavy white sheet, hair plastered to the side of her face. She laughed out loud at the spectacle, horrified by the possibility that Tommy Webber (only a metre away on the other side of this brick and plaster wall) might be sharing the same vision. She would never live it down, never!
In the midst of exchanging school uniform for drainpipe jeans adorned with unnecessary zips, Tommy paused at his bedroom window, hands still toying with his fringe. “Go for it, Mrs J!” he whispered as he watched her: a whirlwind, lifted face revealing closed lids, oblivious to the rain. He saw a woman who, unlike his own mother, was not constrained by being a housewife. Comfortable enough in her own skin to dance alone in her garden without caring what the world thinks. Tonight he would dance, but not without alcohol, not with the abandon he was witnessing. The recognition that he wasn’t as free as Mrs J made him melancholic, a word employed by the NME journalist to describe The Smiths’ music. Tommy would like to be a music journalist, a job that would lend itself neatly to his current lifestyle. His older brother does something called Credit Control, a ‘proper job’ according to his father (who thinks that only occupations requiring a suit and tie are worthy of contemplation). But his brother sets the alarm for six o’clock every morning, the time that Tommy intends to stagger home, so Dad will have to settle for disappointment.
For a moment, Tommy was tempted to run downstairs and seek out the loose fence panel, still hidden behind the overgrown border. Taking a wide stance, thumbs hooked inside pockets, he propositioned his reflection: “You look lonely dancing by yourself. Mind if I join you?” But that was the thing: Mrs J didn’t look lonely. Tommy could see the irony. Not needing anyone was what made other people want to be with you. He practised looking self-contained then stole another glance outside. Where was Mr Jones? Any man in his right mind would be out there holding a woman like that.
Graham looked on with the expression he described as ‘fly-catching’ when someone else’s jaw was hanging open. Half-tempted to rap on the window – a few short raps should do it – he was deterred by the possibility that this might be another challenge. The evening when his wife’s dressing gown had fallen to the floor remained fresh in his mind. Wasn’t there something that he – the husband – should know how to do? But Graham didn’t dance, despite his promise to Judy that he would take lessons. And although slow dancing looked easy, the circular shuffling made him feel clownish. The truth was, Graham loved to watch his wife move. He had even learned to enjoy the moment of her return from temporary partners when, flushed and breathless, she reclaimed him. The trouble was, this Elaine didn’t resemble his wife, flushed or otherwise: this Halloween-sheeted ghost was someone to be nervous of.
“Dad!” Graham turned to find Judy standing behind him, her face contorted. “Why are you just standing there? Make Mum come inside!”
“It’s only a little rain.” But there had been a sports’ teacher who had once decreed it ‘only rain’, insisting they played on ankle-deep in mud, bruised by hailstones the size of conkers. Graham positioned himself directly behind the kitchen door, poised to act the moment decisiveness arrived.
“Only rain? You think this behaviour’s normal? Anyone could be watching!”
“Oh… sod it!” Graham twisted the door handle.
“No.” Judy was disbelieving, following her father as he stepped outside, each of his hops a silent apology in response to the sickening crunch of snails. She saw him throw the sodden sheet over his own shoulder and bow stiffly: his idea of how a man asks a woman to dance. Was there a male equivalent of the menopause? Because she couldn’t cope with the two of them losing it at the same time. Not with everything else she had on her plate. Pillow cases and underpants were strewn around the wet grass. Judy covered her eyes with a hand to block out the view. “This can’t be happening.”
You’ll have to excuse me. I have an urgent need to go outside and dance. But I’ll leave you with a few rain songs.
Meanwhile, my Crazy Summer Sale continues.
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