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The Opposite of Drowning (an extract)

By Comma Press

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I was stretched out on my stomach on an old blanket, propped up on my elbows. I heard the click of the radio on the kitchen windowsill as Mam-gu switched it on for the lunchtime bulletin. I knew that if I listened for long enough I would hear my mother’s name. Everyone said she was the saviour of the language, a poster girl for the campaign. When she stormed meetings, led rallies and spoke into a hand-held loudspeaker, the papers always ran pictures of her on their front pages the next day.

I’m going up to run myself a bath, Mam-gu mouthed through the window over the cheerful voices. I nodded, and went back to my book.

Mam-gu had cultivated every corner of the garden, apart from the lawn where I’d spread out my blanket. She grew tomatoes against the back wall of the house, and fruit bushes along the crazy paving that led to the washing line. Sometimes she gave me an empty ice-cream tub and told me to fill it with gooseberries so she could make fool for pudding. It was a task I liked to linger over, feeling the papery husks against my fingers as I pulled the fruit away from the plant.

The murmur of wood pigeons was making my eyelids droop. I glanced up at the bathroom window and saw Mam-gu standing naked, looking out at the farmland behind the house. Her breasts dangled comfortably without a bra, and the crumpling skin around her neck was pink where she’d caught the sun. She was staring out across the cornfields beyond the garden hedge. The council had put in for planning permission to build thirty new homes there – they’d already been up to stake out the land with levels and tape measures. That’ll be the next thing, she’d said. I wondered what my mother would do then, if she’d climb trees and telegraph poles.

Perhaps Mam-gu was thinking the same as me. Her lips were moving as if she was having a conversation with someone as she opened the window wide, letting the metal handle hang down.

A cloud ran across the sun, and I shivered as I remembered that my mother might not be back this time, if they found her guilty.

I read on to the end of the story as the sun came out again, its heat rushing through me. The poor husband of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach can do nothing except stand at the shores of the lake wondering if he should just follow his wife and her livestock back into the water, knowing that if he does, being mortal, he will drown. Going towards Esgair Llaethdy, the Lady calls the cattle by name: Mu wlfrech, Moelfrech,/ Mu olfrech, Gwynfrech/ Hump-brindled, Hornless-brindled,/ Rump-brindled, White-freckled… And the little black calf/ Which is on the hook,/ Do thou also come home quite sound!/ Dere dithe, yn iach adre!

Somewhere far off through the depths of the story came a ringing, an electric buzzing that shook the pigeons from their nests.

Mam-gu? I called up at the open window. She didn’t answer.

The doorbell buzzed again. I closed my book and left it on the blanket. I ran past the homely burble of the radio in the kitchen to the hall. It was dark inside after the sunny garden, and the outlines of ordinary things – the umbrella stand, the little table with the cream phone on it, the tallboy – seemed to swell, then recede into the shadows.

Mam-gu? I said, louder this time.

There was a shape that looked like a man on the other side of the front door’s rainbow glass. I reached up to open the latch. I had never done it before. It was easy.

When I saw him, the words that came into my head were Danny Inman. His face was the same as it was in the newsprint photographs in the scrapbook, but his hair had turned from black to white.

Where’s Manon? he said.

Mam-gu!

I waited for her to sigh, get out of the bath and tread her heavy way downstairs, but the only sound that reached us was the sucking of the overflow. I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears. I waited for him to go away as everyone said he had the last time: in silence.

He didn’t. Instead, he reached out and unfastened my fingers from each side of my head, one at a time. Then he bent down and whispered in my ear, holding on to my arm until I stopped pulling away from him. I stood still, keeping my eyes closed, listening to his voice. It was a not unpleasant sound, like the soft rush of running water, and I wanted it to carry on. 

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