Short Fiction by Andrew Oldham


Charlotte dislikes the arty lot at number four. They infect our community hub, send us filth on our tablets and brainwash teenagers to their cause. I won’t watch the community spirit of Hurley Park kicked into the gutter. As group liaison for the recycle bins on the cul-de-sac I have decided I will not collect their bins. It’s Kristian’s fault this has come to a head, he fell in with number four and things have not been the same since. Charlotte no longer builds her doll’s house. I find little doors and windows left in her wake, little families left on the kitchen worktops, their faces blank. At Christmas, Kristian bought Charlotte and I eco-bikes, the new models with the spring-loaded attachment for tablets so you can peddle and charge as you ride. It smacked of number four’s brainwashing. In the weeks running up to Christmas, the community hub was flooded with their campaign to ditch our cars, plant trees and ride a bicycle to work. One morning they goofed my car with the slogan, ditch it, it’s a dinosaur. We have always recycled in our household, that is why I am the liaison officer to convince others to do likewise. Charlotte and I helped to establish a community clean-up squad. It was Charlotte who built a model of the community so others could see the potential of Hurley Park. It was immaculate, from the tightly clipped lawns to the children playing in the park. We cannot be seen arriving at local events puffing and sweating behind handlebars. I told Kristian that he had nothing to worry about when it comes to being green, my car is an eco-model, uses renewables and is serviced yearly to make sure that it is one hundred percent planet friendly. It was then, beneath the mistletoe, that Kristian showed me filthy images on his tablet. At Christmas. From number four. Under our tinsel. Kristian moved out on Boxing Day. The eco-bikes are in the garage and little doors and windows in our kitchen.

Number four are on the community hub claiming we are running out of food due to climate change, that ‘big business’ sells us out and takes away our freedom. I am all behind the push by the government to find solutions to food problems, to work with private backers to quash unrest from the immigrant flood. The recent posters calling for volunteers to make a better tomorrow have been inspiring. I have signed up and await my orientation pack. Number four can bark on all they want about investment in public services. I for one will stick with my car rather than have my face jammed in the armpit of some sweaty ingrate on public transport. I told that to Kristian as he stormed out slamming the door behind him. I have called for a community meeting next week to address my concerns. I have extended the olive branch to number four. To make sure I have someone there to witness how they behave at such meetings, I have asked the new group I have joined to attend, the Water-Men have sent me a positive reply and will attend in ‘numbers to support a fellow Water-Man’. This is in stark contrast to number four who sent me a blue thumb’s up. This sums up their rudeness; thanks to their relentless hectoring, filming, and streaming of nonsense, Hurley Park is awash with speed bumps in zones where you cannot go above ten miles per hour, fruit trees shade our gardens in summer, their leaves block our drains in autumn. Number four film the resulting flooding and claim the Thames is rising. Government officers have stated on record that flooding is by and large down to lack of drain clearance and not all to do with rainfall. They dislike me because I have taken steps with my clean-up squad, to go out weekly during spring and autumn to clear the gutters of first blossom, and then leaves. Number four have filmed me and Charlotte, Clive, his wife, Margaret and their two sons, Stephen and Paul, and their wives sweeping up dead leaves to a voiceover about us being over fifty and being to blame for climate change because, as number four says, ‘they did not take a stand until it was too late’. I cannot believe that they would do that, just so they could get a permanent sign outside our home saying, ‘Road liable to flooding’. It has upset Charlotte, who has to leave the room each time I talk about it with Clive and Margaret for fear of saying something she will regret. The sign’s claim is untrue and grammatically appalling. I’d grub the thing out, but as Charlotte says, we have a standing in this community and vandalism is something you find on the estate and not in the confines of Hurley Park. However, Charlotte has added this sign to the model of Hurley Park with what looks like a group of men stood around it looking angry. Clive points out that in the model, the Thames is a whisker away from our back garden. I remind Clive that in earlier times, Charlotte and I used to walk our dog, Trudy, out the back gate and onto the bank with little Kristian trundling behind us on his three-wheeler without the need to look out for druggies or thieves. Models are not always accurate. I tell Clive, that the seventy-two flood was a nuisance in Windsor, but the waters here barely lapped into Trudy’s kennel. According to our so-called MP, because the river is nearby, the sign must stay. I told her, then I told Clive, the Thames Barrier has stood for one hundred years and the dykes constructed have done their job with the bonus of creating a bird reserve to the north of the city. A few people may have been displaced, but the revenue brought in has benefited us all. I say to Clive that no ark has ever sailed past Hurley Park with Noah waving at Charlotte and me.




My orientation pack has arrived, the uniform is black and comes with a short booklet called The Water-Men Code of Conduct. There is something at the bottom of the package, I turn it over, shake it until a short black truncheon falls out onto the breakfast table. It dents the grain and makes Charlotte jumps as she sorts tiny figures of families on the kitchen counter. What she doesn’t want is swept into the bin.




Charlotte has dropped a bombshell. With days to go before the community meeting, she says she needs to visit her mother. I tell her that she will miss out on the Water-Men marching into the meeting to the rallying drums of Our People. She will miss the looks on number four’s faces. Charlotte plays with the dent on the breakfast table, her fingers stop where the truncheon has broken the veneer, and she says, that she will see it because number four will film it and that her mother is old and scared, and alone. I feel ashamed. Charlotte is right. Her mother is down there scared that the Red Cross will turf her out of the home that she has lived in for sixty years because they’re setting up camps to take in those running from the conflict abroad. If Charlotte goes then her mother will claim that she lives there and save her cottage from their hands. I tell Charlotte that I will get in touch with her mother’s local branch of the Water-Men to make them aware of a frail old woman who has been run amok by immigrants. Charlotte picks some of the veneer off. I can see that she is worried, and I go to hold her hand, she looks at my hand and pulls away her own, she says that her mother would prefer no interference. That she would prefer if I left the matter alone. I remind her that it wasn’t our war and I shouldn’t be punished for caring. Charlotte spends the afternoon packing the car as going by train has become far too dangerous to even contemplate with a suitcase. I wave at her as she leaves and spot a fellow water-man coming down the drive from the Miahs across the way. He salutes me, and I respond in kind.




I dream of the drums and the song, Our People. At each blow of a drum, I hit Kristian in the face and sing along, our people of this hallowed kingdom, my fists pummel out each word as he holds up his tablet to show me filthy images. I keep on punching because the song tells me not to put down my sword or my faith, my will or my beliefs. My blows are insistent, and in rhythm with the drums. Charlotte wraps her hands around his head and still I strike them both until the skin on my knuckles splits, and the drums beat until they are at my door, I open it, my hands drip and there are my Water-Men waiting for me at the end of the garden. It is a sight to behold, heads held high, drums strung across their chests and their drumsticks in firm, strong hands, held high ready to start the blows again. They watch me. I start to sing Our People, but the drumming does not start. Then I see that at some point I have wrenched the tablet off Kristian and I am holding it for all the world to see as the filthy images scroll in my bloody hands. I wake up, shouting out my excuses, coughing out the words as the sound of rain against the windows replies. I clutch for a shadow in the bed thinking it is Charlotte, I come up short and cry out for the Water-Men to get away and leave her alone. The tightness in my chest passes, I can see clearly now that the drums in my dream are just a summer storm. It will pass. I settle down once more and as I drift off I think that I hear the distant sound of a siren, a lament for my son, calling him home.




Number four are on the community hub again with days to go before the meeting, they wave placards in the Windsor Red Cross camp saying such nonsense as: see real people, see, hear, speak no evil, it is a play on the lyrics of Our People. My favourite one is fear the water you drink mocking the line fear to be the coward at the brink. The army is in the distance and as I watch I see several black vans drive into shot, number four must think their filming is covert. A river of black boiler suits spills out of the vans, and I find myself cheering, for a moment I feel silly doing so, sat in bed with a coffee and no one to share this moment with. The Water-Men don’t look like the ones in the orientation pack. These men have faces that are lived in, bellies that languish over belts and some have badly tattooed arms with mashed knuckles wrapped around truncheons. Then there is pushing, there is always pushing in such films, teenagers like pushing and then there is soil, dust, and the film is cut short. I catch my reflection in the mirror, a middle-aged man, my stomach seems bigger than I remember. I turn over to the BBC and thankfully they have a more balanced output. A General is being interviewed about the clearing out of the camp and the reallocation of the immigrants to more suitable facilities to the east. The Red Cross woman keeps butting in, in the background I can see local people and Water-Men working with each other. The presenter cuts to shots of the clean-cut, short-haired, and strong Water-Men moving through the camp, the strength of their words rounding up the lost as they stoop to pick up small children with a smile and a kiss on the cheek. They cut back to the Red Cross woman who is bleating on about civil liberties. I think I see Kristian in the background being put in one of the black vans but when I zoom in on it, the image is fuzzy and the Water-Men pushing him into the van seems more like the ones from number four’s film. It couldn’t be Kristian. To calm myself down I get out The Water-Men Code of Conduct and read the part around civil unrest, it states clearly that no citizen can be harmed by a Water-Man. I put on the boiler suit, look at myself in the mirror, I may be over fifty and my stomach may not be what it was but the uniform makes me feel like I am sixteen years old and ready to take on the world. I wish Charlotte had seen me in the uniform before she left, I think it would have become part of our bedroom repertoire. I skip down the stairs, my truncheon playing across the spindles and find water lapping against the stairs.




Clive says the community clean-up squad didn’t meet up last week, not after number four did that film about them. They couldn’t face being filmed and mocked again, so they went out for a drink together. This explains the flooding as obviously the gutters are blocked. Clive laughs and says that I should give it a few days before tackling them. He tells me to take a canoe and a solicitor when I do. He said something about the community meeting I have called, he said that when he asked the Miahs to come as guests of the Water-Men they didn’t reply though he could see they were online.




The garden is under water, Trudy’s old kennel is bobbing around, it only needs to flip over and I can call the local zoo to send over animals in twos. I lug furniture onto the dining table to dry out and sit up there watching the ducks swim by, for a moment I consider opening the patio doors and letting the Thames in. I could punt out on the dining table in my new uniform, for a moment I think of how I met Charlotte at university, how we punted down the Cam, our laughter at the bloody tourists jamming up the place. It’s culverted now, buried beneath social high-rise housing. The rockery rises in the middle of the lawn, a group of ducks make for it and start to gobble my plants. I jump down from the dining table, truncheon drawn and bang on the lounge window. I spook them and they flap away. Then I see that I have cracked the glass and as I run my fingers over the break I hear a boat horn, the long lament of my dream and for a moment I think it’s Kristian come home, I wrench open the patio door, let the river water spill in and wade out onto the patio trying to see where the sound came from. Then I see it, it’s a pleasure boat called the Maiden of Windsor, one of those boats that tourist sail back and forth on along a two-mile stretch as a recorded celebrity voice points out historic landmarks for £75 a pop. Faces push up against rails, hands clutch bags hastily packed, lives spill out between plastic handles. I watch as they sail by and they watch me in the middle of my patio holding a raised truncheon.




I sit on my island paddling in the river water still coming in through the open patio doors. I couldn’t get them closed again and now white river horses crash on my boots, there are tiny figures in the muddy water, tiny chairs and beds from the doll’s house, the backwash taking them into the garden. Everything in the house is being taken too, books, side tables, cushions; everything must be small. I can see in the open doll’s house that Charlotte has made a tableau of figures beneath Christmas decorations, a middle-aged man looking down at a woman and boy who cringe beneath a table. I wade over to them, like a colossus and bring my hand down onto the scene until I hear the crunch.




My tablet is yellow, it flashes beside me in my bed, I bring it close and cuddle it, it whispers to me of dreams of power, of the sounds of sirens I hear in the night. There are no streetlights outside. On the cracked screen, I watch number four punt down the Thames, it will only be a matter of time before they culvert it and bury my middle-aged self by my youthful one under a sheen of concrete. My heart is buried with the Cam, but my belly belongs to the Thames. It is the sound of number four hooting that brings me back from these depths to see that the weir is gone. I flick over to the BBC and see the moment the barrier folds under the North Sea. The Red Cross woman is on there too crying, telling the presenter that we sent them east and we are responsible for what happened. I don’t know what she’s talking about. I rewind to watch the moment the barrier folds, like paper, like the closing of a flower at the end of a hot day. That night I dream of the Red Cross camp and of Water-Men who change shape, and of Kristian on his three-wheeler, fuzzy in the background peddling away until he loses form. I am a Water-Man chasing him, truncheon in hand, desperate to jam it into his belly but he is just out of reach, all that is left are great divots in the ground that the wheels of his tricycle have torn up filling with water and I yell after him that his father will be angry. Each time I say it, the dream folds in on itself and water rushes in.




The river water is rising, my tablet is red, I could use the solar to charge it but I enjoy the silence. The lack of number four. Charlotte will wait. I sit on my island and watch as the Miahs pack up. Boxes come out of their front door carried by Red Cross workers into a waiting boat. Clive tells me the Miahs are public service doctors and therefore have been prioritised, it is all rather sickening to see such people with so much stuff. A fat Red Cross worker in a high vis tabard sees me on my island, and nudges a thin, stupid looking man in a black boiler suit; one of the fake Water-Men number four say are bully boys. I watch them gape at me through the glass of the lounge window, like goldfish. I will call one Laurel. I will call one Hardy. I will call them fat and thin. Dim and Dumb. Dim asks whether I need help to move from my island. Dumb knocks on the glass with his fake truncheon. I climb down from my island and draw the curtains, I hear Dim and Dumb mutter and then Dumb bangs his fake truncheon on my window and yells at me to pack up. I open the curtains. I can see the shock in their eyes as they see a true Water-Man, a true uniform, a true citizen, they see my knuckles are bruised and split. They see the work I am responsible for and they do what only cowards do.




The Miahs’ house is empty, their front door is open, and the Thames has been welcomed in. I see number four are back, they wade towards it with their tablets. The water is waist height. I look at my bruised knuckles. The doll’s house is broken, parts of it bob out the patio door, the remains of the kitchen, the Christmas decorations, I must have hit them hard when they said they were leaving, I must have struck them so hard that I can’t wash the memory of it out of my hands. I climb down from my island, go out into the hallway and open our front door. It is a tight squeeze, now the doll’s house is broken, the walls cling to me. The front door handle is so small in my hands that it breaks when I turn it, the door swings open because Charlotte fitted it so badly. She always did a bad job of everything. She couldn’t cook anything without burning it. She always took sides. I look out into the twilight and strain against the door jamb, I manage to cup my hand around the sign and push it under the muddy water, I press an eye to the window and watch it vanish. I squeeze back into the lounge. I lift the roof of the house and peek out to see that number four are wading out of the Miahs front door, they must see me lower the roof back down and they point to my home. They see what remains of my doll’s house son washed away with their libellous road sign. It must annoy them to lose both. I pull back the roof of the house a little, it has started to rain and I want to taste it on my tongue. Number four will come, they will want to know how a colossus got inside, it will make a great film. I pull the truncheon from my belt careful not to smash the walls with it, my knuckles have split again, they bleed into the muddy water turning it red. I hear number four as they enter my home; my home built by Charlotte, with its tiny windows, its tiny doors and its tiny people spilling out into Hurley Park. I raise my truncheon as I feel number four push against the door to get in and see me as I really am.


fullsizerenderAndrew Oldham is a fiction writer and poet. He is a Jerwood-Arvon fiction nominee. His short fiction has appeared in Transmission, Gargoyle, The Times Magazine and has been published by Unthank Books and Route Books. His poetry has been heard on BBC Radio Four’s Poetry Please and has been in Ambit, The London Magazine and North American Review.  His first collection Ghosts of a Low Moon (Lapwing, Belfast) was published to critical acclaim (‘One of the brightest and most memorable British poetic voices of today.’ – North American Review). He narrated the film Chalk Trace for Channel 4. He is presently writing the novel, Song of the Metal Grasshopper. Andrew lives in Saddleworth and regularly goes on walks on the moor to achieve a weathered look, akin to moss on rolling stones



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