Latest Winner: Our Aftermath

by Marion Horton

Marion says: I have been writing short stories and poetry for the past few years, and love playing with words, but only recently began sharing my writing with a wider audience. I have lived in Sussex for three decades – a beautiful county, full of inspiration.

Metal curtain hooks screeched across the rails.  Like a braking train. You tried to shush me but I shouted back: “Rob, Rob.  Just look at this!” You shuffled your body over the bed and dragged yourself up, leaning your arm on my shoulder. 

And then you saw.

A mass of shiny, wet leaves were pressed up against the window pane. The nearest tree should have been 20 feet away and now it was leaning against our house. 

You flicked on the light switch. Nothing happened so you flicked it three, four more times. You swore when you realised the power was out. You were never a morning person. 

We fumbled in the half-light to find our clothes. Then you went ahead of me down the stairs. I took each step slowly, one hand on the bannister, one on my stomach. Watch it, Moira. The fall down the stairs the week before . . . I didn’t need reminding. You still hadn’t fixed the loose stair rod.

The ground floor of the house was dark, cave-like. I opened the curtains in the lounge and gazed at a nest suspended from a branch crushed against the window. It stared back at me. Like a monster’s eye hanging by a sinew. 

You went into the kitchen and I heard the radio. Madonna was playing. Then came the opening beeps of the 8 o’clock news. You called for me to come and listen: “Gusts of over 100 miles per hour have hit Sussex and the South East, leaving devastation in their wake…”

We stepped outside. Is it possible to hear a silence? I heard nothing. No traffic, no birds. 

Our neighbours stood in the road. All stunned. Trees felled, fences smashed, gates crumpled, gardens pummelled. Our leafy road ripped up. And all the sky open above us. There was an ocean of it.  We craned our necks up to take it in. 

You thought it was crazy. Then you ran up the road to look at more devastation.

A neighbour commented on the kids playing. I don’t think she meant you. Children swarmed over the fallen trunks, splashed in the puddles of muddy water, fought with broken branches.

One chestnut tree had left behind a crater the size of a paddling pool. A little girl with tiny red wellington boots was splashing in its centre. Roots as thick as my wrist dripped from the fallen tree, some stretching from its torn up base into the wet mud like a giant cat’s cradle.

What could we do? The Fire Brigade? We shook our heads.  No, we knew we wouldn’t be a priority. People mumbled and fretted. Then you came back with our neighbour Reg. 

The pair of you were toting chainsaws.  You had goggles on. Which surprised me, until I realised they were probably for effect – part of the look. I saw an excited grin on your face as you yanked on the cord of your chainsaw. Then Reg put his goggles on too. He raised his chainsaw up in the air as it leapt into life.  A pair of wartime fighter pilots ready for battle. You were impatient to get started. You headed for the chestnut tree. Rob and Reg.  Our heroes.  Here to save the day.

The noise from the chainsaws was deafening and petrol fumes filled the air.  I walked away to talk to another neighbour. We watched you both with your heads down, mouths set, chunks of wood flying in the air. You were having a great time slicing through that massive trunk of ancient wood.

No work and no school. The change of routine felt liberating. For a while. 

You and Reg had sawed for quite some time. And then it came.  A crack to split the ears lashed through the air. The ground shook with such a thud I felt it beneath my stretched coat, deep inside my body.  The chestnut’s trunk was completely sliced through. The half that was still held on by the giant roots had snapped back into the crater, like a monster’s tooth being sucked back into its socket. 

Brown water and wet soil gobbed out. There was a hush – it was thick and heavy. No-one spoke. We just looked at the grass verge next to where the trunk had snapped back into its hole. Lying on the grass was a muddied red wellington boot. 

You both smiled and nodded.  Ignorant and blissful. Mission accomplished. But the rest of us looked at the place where the little girl in the red wellington boots had been happily splashing.  A slice of trunk, ten feet high, stood firmly back in the ground. The crater had gone. And so had she.

Someone moaned. I felt sick. 

How long did we stand there, frozen, impotent? I don’t know. At some point the child’s mother called out her name. She saw the red boot. Where was her child? What were we staring at? Someone pointed towards the base of the tree. I think their hand was shaking. 

The mother walked up to the tree and looked at us the way you looked at me when I told you about the baby. What do you mean? Stop mucking about.

You took your goggles off then. Confused that there was no applause perhaps.  We watched as the mother bent to pick up the dripping boot. A cloud of wood dust fell gently like ash onto our heads and shoulders. I thought of Pompeii for some reason. The mother held up the boot, examining it like an exhibit from one of those crime programmes you like so much. A child’s squeal broke her concentration. She turned towards the sound and marched off waving the boot, shouting out her daughter’s name.

I don’t think anyone told the mother what we thought had happened. But I felt a guilt I thought we all felt. Until I heard your reaction. You said you didn’t know what all the fuss was about. No-one was hurt, were they?  For Christ’s sake Moira, lighten up. I believe you still wanted a pat on the back for sawing up the chestnut tree. 

You rested your hand on my stomach later that evening to feel the tiny feet kicking. 

I couldn’t ignore what had happened. I had seen you in a different light. And things would have to change. I moved your hand away.

“Rob.”

You looked at me. Did you hear a different tone in my voice?

“We have to talk.”