Summer short story special: Message In A Bottle by Jeanette Winterson

to tilda

Every solid thing had turned into its watery equivalent.

The rain fell in long, straight chains, each drop linked to the last - long lines of rain, welded out of the iron-grey sky and dropped like security shutters, sealing off road from road, town from town.

Drive straight on - no, the road is impassable; turn in a bath of rain, the wings of the car splashing like a bird. There are no birds flying this afternoon. No birds bathing in a shallow stone trough of water. There is no shallow water. By evening the roads will be canals, and the steep rises up the valley will be waterfalls. The river and the road are the same thing now and none of us can walk on water.

"I have to get home," I say to the policeman at the roadblock, but he shakes his head, rain running like tears down his face. I look ahead; everything is soaked, shifting, except the rain itself, which to all appearances is solid. Can't see through it, can't see past it. The rain is like a room where the walls are gradually moving closer together. Soon I'll be like a saint in a glass case, a relic from another time. The rain will close round me like I'm a message in a bottle, like I'm a genie in a jar. The lead sky will plug the top and I'll never get out, never. That'll be me, nose pressed up against the rain-glass, a homunculus in an alembic. On this alchemical afternoon when nature is switching her liquids and solids, my outline is beginning to blur. I say to the policeman - "I have to get home."

He shakes his head slowly, because things move more slowly under water. He turns to talk to a lorry driver hulked inside yellow waterproofs, his red face the colour and texture of soggy corned beef. I try my mobile again, the rain running up my sleeve as far as my elbow. Then, as the policeman goes with the lorry driver towards his cab to get a map, I realise I can slip back in my car, release the handbrake and just roll out of sight, down the hill, down the road I need to get home.

I suppose this is a crime - failing to obey an officer in uniform, but if I park the car and wait to be rescued, how long will I be waiting? Life is not a fairy tale and I am not a princess. There is no happy ever after. Marriage has taught me that.

I get in the car. I make my getaway. My heart is beating like it's someone else's - you never notice your own heartbeat - and my heart is someone else's. I'll get home to you. I'm on my way home. Message Sending Failed

Drive on.

I'm driving on. The off-road tyres were never designed to turn catamaran. I'm gliding duck-wise down through the rising floods, not far now to my turning, when I remember that water is always level - not sometimes, always. One of the characteristics of water, other than its wetness, is that it is always level. I realise, too late, that the water-level on the road is much deeper than I have reckoned because this road dips. I've driven it thousands of times and I know that it dips, but, yet, I have been driving along it in all the serenity of it being straight. A wet road, a treacherous road, but a straight road.


In slow motion the water comes up over the windscreen like a fish tank filling. Up the glass it goes, and I am back at home as a child, my nose pressed up against the glass of our aquarium as my father gently fills it with the special hose, and the coral arch, and the little plastic statue of Poseidon and the mermaid with her comb on her rock each become magnified slightly, and the weed stands and floats, and finally the four angel fish and two zebra fish are lowered back in their net, and my father's finger and thumb sprinkle fish-flakes on the level surface of the water.

Then the water rises over the top of the car.

Jesus! This car has electric windows and no electrics. My breath is shallow as the water is deep. How much air have I got? This is a hatchback, so the spare tyre is in the rear under the carpet, and I once saw a film where James Bond breathed the air from the tyre, but I am not James Bond, and to open the door I must equalise the pressure in the car and to do that I must smash the window, and to do that... tyre... wheel brace...

I scramble over the back, find the heavy metal wheel brace, and smash it with all my strength into the rear window. It shatters. With the water like a power-jet fighting me, I lug at the stupid wires of the heated rear window and try to make a hole that will take me out. Now I am on the inside of the aquarium and if I can't make a hole big enough, and I can't, I must wait, wait, until the water takes control of the car, and... here it comes, total terror and one deep breath, my hair floating like weed.

I have to turn slowly back to the front, and beg my hands to work the handle that works the door...

The door gives, and I lie down and shove it with both feet. I come straight out like a birth, and behind me my tiny Titanic carries what was my life. I am out.

In the rush of jubilation, heady as the air I can suddenly breathe freely, I missed the fallen tree; that is, I didn't miss it, I hit my head on it and passed out.

Susan hasn't come home yet - she was in the car - yes, we are worried... her mobile - no. there's been no signal all day. I hope so, too.

You have... two new messages, and a saved message, saved message, saved message. Martin... it's Susan.

When I came round, I was floating quietly down the river-road like Ophelia, like the Lady of Shalott, like Winston Churchill's funeral barge, like the Take That! final tour, like the stones floated down the Thames to build St Paul's Cathedral, like Francis Drake sailing up from Deptford after scuttling the Armada, like a whale, huge on the outside, tiny on the inside, who thinks he can drift slowly past the docks and wharves, turn round at Tower Bridge and go home again, but he never can go home again because he's bigger than he knows, and the river is not so deep as it was once, in the old days, in the stories that one whale tells to another, stories like tubes of glass blown out into the sea.

And that was me, perfectly sealed in a glass tube, where the water had hardened around me like resin.

And that was me, floating home.

Martin stood on the back steps of the house looking at the river. It would not reach the house - it was built high enough up the bank - but the garden was now a lake. He watched the rain, thinking how rain is usually transparent, and how this rain was dark, each drop like lead-shot. It wasn't cold but the rain was harsh and heavy, hailstone rain. A new kind of rain, he thought, hostile, unforgiving, not like mercy, like punishment. But why should humans expect any mercy? Where was Susan?

Martin was going to tell Susan about Caroline. He had two pizzas from the freezer and a couple of bags of that salad washed in chlorine or toilet bleach or whatever it was the supermarkets did to salad to make it last longer or to kill the bugs. He had promised to make supper, but it seemed a waste to buy anything nice when neither of them would feel like eating, and when she would probably throw the food at him. He hadn't chosen anything too wet or too tomatoey for that reason.

She should have been home long before now. He wanted her to be all right, to be safe - and part of him, not a big part, only a fingernail or a nostril, wanted her to be dead. Clean and simple dead. Then he could be sorry, and he would be sorry, too, because he had loved her once, when love had seemed clear and transparent, before it darkened and hardened, and fell like a shutter between them. Yes, if she were dead, a quick painless death by water, then he would be free to remember all the good things, and later, no one, not even her own parents, would begrudge him Caroline. He would be free.

But he knew there would be no such thing as a merciful ending.

He looked at the sky. Lead-shot.

The water has quickened. I can only steer this thing by swinging my arms and legs from side to side, like steering a go-cart, or one of those lie-down pedal cycles. I can't explain how I have come to be inside a pod of water, but that is what has happened. There is no water inside the water, and I can breathe. The falling rain makes it difficult to see out, but I know that after the dip the river runs under the bridge, which means... whoa! White-water rafting is not a suitable method of transport. But it doesn't matter because this river is our river and all I have to do now is snag myself to the bank and call Martin.

Martin was standing at the back door when he thought he heard his name being called by someone far away as a dream is far away. The voice was familiar but uncanny; known and not. He hesitated, then he put on his coat.

The river was swollen, its tongue dark and foaming behind the trees. He thought about time being a river, and never step in the same river twice, but if he could go back in time, he would, wading up the current of his life until he got to the place where love had dried up, where there was no water, no wading, only a thick bed of stones. Being in bed with Susan was like that now - stones.

Martin stood still. There were things floating in the river: books, a photograph album, a bouquet of white roses, a shoe. Someone's house must be flooded already, he ought to save these things and give them back. He wondered what he would grab and run with if his own house were flooding.

He leaned in and dragged two books and the photograph album out of the water. A teddy bear was spinning towards him with that look of regret common to stuffed toys of a certain age. He hauled him out and sat him in the fork of the willow.

Martin opened the photograph album. A young man with a new haircut smiled at him. The woman at his side was holding out her hand, newly ringed.

Something was bumping against his legs. It was a bed. It took him all his strength to pull it clear. He sat on the side of the wooden frame, panting. Behind the bed was a chest of drawers, then a picnic table, then a gas cooker, then a 60s Mini, then a cot. The cot was crying. Martin jumped straight in and grabbed the cot in both arms, bracing his body against the swirling water. The cot was empty.

Now he was in the middle of the river, but the river had become a conveyor belt and, rocking giddily towards him, half floating, half submerged, came the detritus of his past, the long-gone objects forgotten and thrown away, lost and buried, land-filled, recycled, charity-shopped and dumped, replaced, refitted, disappeared forever, over and done with, life is a straight line, time's arrow, time's river, flow on, flow on. What happens when the floods come?

There was a dead body coming towards him. He screamed and hid his face. The body spun in the high water like an astronaut in space, weightless and loose, then caught on a branch like a puppet, freed itself, floated on.

There were others in the river with him now, coming closer with questioning looks on their faces. Friends he had had to leave behind - Martin was an ambitious man - colleagues he had regretfully dismissed - Martin was a leader - his son, he hadn't seen much of his son. The river rose.

What's this, floating nearer, as he stands up to his chest in the clear fast water? He can see her feet like the feet of an embalmed Pope. But she isn't embalmed, she's alive, and she's his wife, and she's coming down the river like a ship sighted and feared, thought lost and damned, crewed by spectres. The spectre of his wife rushing at him feet first. He catches the pod. It bursts like a soap bubble. She's in the water with him, her head cut and bleeding, dripping red drops like hurt rain.

Susan is hurt.

Imagine it. The flood waters subside and the ark comes to rest on top of Mount Ararat. The dove returns with an olive branch in her mouth.

Imagine it. Years and years later, the ground is long since dry and fertile, and the boat is still up there, beached on its mountain-top like a memory-point - absurd, impossible testimony to something that never happens.

But it did happen.

Later, I realised that I wanted to get home so very badly because some part of me knew that home would never be as it had been after that day. My life with Martin, our life together, was washing away; one more day of rain and it would be gone.

I knew what he was going to tell me. I knew how I was going to respond. We were both ready for the last act, and then the rain came, merciless and clear, and the river rose, depositing the past for us both to see; our beginning, and then, our end.

He plans everything, but this was not the plan. My heart beating too fast, I sank because I was drowning anyway. Just keeping my head above water, hoping.

But in the castaway stories of shipwreck and loss, something finds its way to the shore. The floods that destroy also return, and where I landed was where I left so long ago - a landing place I used to call my own. A place to begin again.

I was already sealed and stoppered, locked and nailed down, put in a bottle by the enchantments of fear, every fluid element hardening around me, dark transformation of pain.

In the wreckage I escaped. I stood up, water coursing down my body, blood on my face. But these were liquids and not stones, this was movement, not mass. The casing had shattered - what was inside was not pretty, but it was alive. I am alive.

Inside the bottle, a piece of paper, a story in a glass tube. Unfold it, what does it say?

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.

And the paper is dry land, and the story is a place to begin again.

© Jeanette Winterson, 2007


Jeanette Winterson

The GuardianTramp

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