Water's Edge (Book One: Troubled Times)

By Rachel Meehan

Young adult, Action & adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller

Paperback, eBook

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619
8 mins

Chapter One

The sun beat down on Nairne as she crossed the garden; her hair, damp with sweat, clung to the nape of her neck. She placed the steel watering can beneath the water butt and turned the tap. Lifting the lid of the butt she peered at the cool water; only the slightest ripple indicated that the precious liquid was seeping away. She filled the can three quarters full so it was easier to carry and there was less danger of spilling it. She watered the lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and finally the beans, but there was insufficient water for the potatoes; they would just have to take their chances.
Placing the spout close to the base of the plants she watched the dusty soil turn a chocolate brown. The liquid puddled on the surface then sank in slowly. Nairne liked this part of the day: better than hoeing, she thought, as hours had been spent shearing off the weeds between the regimented rows of vegetables. She glanced at her watch: it was six fifteen, but there was still no sign of her brother Zane, or Dog. Their stomachs would tell them it was time to come home. They usually spent the afternoon in the woods shooting rabbits, but with the drought rabbits were scarce this year. So Zane would be fishing or more accurately lying on the riverbank dozing, with Dog resting patiently next to him; another of their favourite pastimes.
Nairne heard her father’s pick-up truck rumble up the potholed driveway long before it came into view. He parked outside the front of the house and waved to her before taking a couple of shopping bags inside.
As she gathered the tools and returned them to the shed another car approached more cautiously, trying in vain to avoid the most damaging holes. It swung into view. The driver emerged first, a tall man with black trousers and a dazzling white shirt. From the passenger door, a young woman appeared; she put on her hat and together they marched up to the front door and rang the bell. Her father let them in.
Zane’s in for it now, she thought. It wouldn’t be the first time one of them had got into trouble, but the police; what has he been up to, she wondered? Several minutes passed before her father reappeared.
“Nairne, where’s your brother?”
“How should I know?” she responded, but his expression showed this was not a time to talk back. “I’ll go and find him,” she added and ran off towards the woods.
“Zane! Zane!…” She raced through the trees towards the riverbank. Her instincts were right; she could see his prone figure, hat covering his eyes and fishing rod lying abandoned at his side. Her call startled him. Dog lifted his head, barked and bounded towards her.
“What’s the matter?” Zane mumbled, having just woken. “What’s all the noise for?”
“You tell me – come on, get your shoes on. We need to get back to the house. The police are here to see you!”
“Yeah, very funny….” He paused. “Really?” He could see from Nairne’s expression that this was no joke. He slipped on his trainers and charged after her, while Dog ran backwards and forwards between them.
“Hang on Nairne, wait for me. I don’t understand. I haven’t done anything!”
“Well, the police are here and dad didn’t look too pleased so you must have done something.” Although she was desperate to know what he’d done, she was also very protective of him. Zane was fifteen and a half, older than her by almost two years, but much younger than her in many ways. He was simple; at least that’s what the other kids at school said. Dad said Zane was special. She liked ‘special’ better.
“Oh come on, it can’t be that bad,” she paused to let him catch up. She could see he was scared.
As they entered the house, Zane grabbed her hand. The policewoman was in the living room with their father, who was leaning against the mantle shelf. He did not turn round. The other officer was in the kitchen making tea. No one spoke. Nairne glanced at the female officer. She was young with a plain face, which wore a look of professional concern.
“What’s wrong?” Nairne could feel her stomach knotting and a rush of anxiety. “Dad, what is it?”
Zane squeezed her hand; she could feel his breath on her neck. Their father did not move. The policewoman spoke.
“Nairne, Zane, I’m sorry, we have some very bad news for you, why don’t you come over and sit down?”
“No, we’re fine here. What is it?” Nairne replied curtly.
“I’m sorry to tell you - it’s your mum - I’m afraid she passed away yesterday.” The silence was broken by the sound of Zane’s sobs. He rushed to their father who hugged him tightly.
“How did she die?” Nairne asked.
“It was a fire; you might have seen reports on the news. The block of flats where she lived had been quarantined; it was at the centre of a dysentery outbreak. Several residents had already died; your mum was on the list of those infected and was due to be taken to hospital the next day. Unfortunately a rumour started circulating that infected people were trying to leave the building and there was a disturbance. Local people took matters into their own hands and someone set fire to the building. Your mum is one of those reported missing, presumed dead. The blaze was ferocious.” The policewoman’s voice was soft. “I know it’s a terrible shock, but it’s OK to cry.”
“I’m not going to cry. As far as I’m concerned my mother died years ago,” Nairne replied.
Nairne could feel the officers’ relief when she showed them out. She returned to the living room, followed by Dog, who could sense there was something wrong. Nairne went through to the kitchen and prepared the evening meal. She flicked on the radio; the news was still on.
The London death toll in the arson attack at the Hanover flats in Kensington, which were linked to the latest dysentery outbreak, has been confirmed. Seventy-two people perished in the blaze. An official spokesman announced that the outbreak had been contained. The fire was started during a disturbance late last night. Police have not yet made any arrests in connection with the attack.
The high temperatures, which have been affecting the capital for the last two weeks, have exacerbated the spread of dysentery. Doctors expressed concern that due to the increasing costs of metered water, people are trying to save money by not flushing lavatories and not washing their hands thoroughly. This, the third outbreak in London this summer, has seen the largest loss of life.
She turned it off. She’d heard the reports earlier in the week, but unlike her father, she had not paid much attention. He always listened avidly to the news, especially anything to do with climate change which he was obsessed by. This summer, the hottest in ten years, the news had been dominated by climate related stories including outbreaks of typhoid and dysentery, especially in the South.
Nairne had never seen her mum’s flat, but from the descriptions on the news it was a block of luxury apartments, just the sort of place she imagined Angela, her mum, living. Dad couldn’t understand how Angela could have been caught up in a dysentery outbreak; they normally happened in poor areas, where people couldn’t afford to use too much water. The policewoman said that migrant workers, who cleaned the buildings, had introduced the infection. Their houses were far from luxurious. Several of the cleaners had also died.
Nairne placed the food on the kitchen table and called through. Her father and Zane came in and sat down. No one spoke or ate much. After dinner they returned to the living room. Zane had managed to stop crying, but he was pale and his eyes were swollen and raw.
“Dad,” his voice was hoarse. “Can we look at the pictures?”
“Okay son, if that’s what you both want to do…. I’ll go and fetch them.”
Nairne said nothing. She didn’t want to look at them. She didn’t want to think about Angela. Their father returned with a slender photograph album and sat down next to Zane.
“Nairne, why don’t you come over here?” He gestured to the space on his other side. Reluctantly, she sat down but made no effort to look at the photographs. As he turned the pages Zane pointed out all the things he could remember.
“That was my birthday party. What age was I?”
“Seven,” replied their father.
The picture showed Zane standing next to his new off-road bicycle. He was smiling. Nairne, who would have been five, was standing next to him, wearing her best dress, ankle socks and sandals. Angela was behind them, laughing; her arm draped around Zane’s shoulder while her dark wavy hair framed her face.
The last picture in the book was of all of them standing outside their current house. Nairne remembered that day: she was nine and her hair was long then. Zane was standing next to her, behind them stood Angela. She looked older, the strain clearly showing. Next to her stood Daniel their father, his left hand rested on Zane’s shoulder. They all looked at the picture in silence and then he closed the book.
“It’s late, time you two got some sleep.”
Zane was reluctant, but Nairne couldn’t wait to get to her room, to get away from the pictures of Angela and the tears for Angela.
She lay in bed. The air was stifling although the windows had been opened all day. Covered by a single sheet she listened to the noises outside and to the sobbing from her brother’s room. Dad was still downstairs having a drink and no doubt thinking about Angela. Even after four years she could just come right back into their lives and ruin everything, thought Nairne, rage filling her chest. She watched the minutes tick by on the clock; hours passed before she heard her father climb the stairs.
Nairne was sitting on the stairs; the rough bare wood scratched her legs. The paint had been scraped off them, but they were yet to be sanded and varnished; like everything in the house, they were unfinished. She pulled her thin nightdress down over her knees and feet: She was shivering. The hallway was dark, except for a sliver of borrowed light from the kitchen. The voices had woken her so she had crept down to find out what was wrong, but as she neared the bottom of the stairs, she could tell it was something bad. Now she was too afraid to go in, but she was even more afraid of the darkness upstairs.
She had never heard her father shouting like that; then her mother’s voice cut through.
“You can’t expect me to live like this! The constant jibes and those bloody looks…. you think I haven’t noticed the way you look at me. It was an accident for Christ’s sake; an accident and I’ve done everything. I gave up our house; I came here to live in this God awful dump. I don’t see my friends; my parents won’t visit. Even the neighbours think we’re mad.”
“What? So because the neighbours don’t like the fact that I’m getting ready for what’s coming you’re going to leave me? God forbid the neighbours don’t approve. I know Angela, why don’t you invite them round and they can tell me how to live my life? Or better yet, why not invite your good friends from the estate? We haven’t seen much of them since the accident; we don’t fit into their cosy little world anymore, do we? Poor Angela with the spastic son and the crazy husband, maybe it would have been better if the boy hadn’t survived. Isn’t that what they say behind our backs? But he did survive, so you’ll just have to live with it.”
She could hear her father pacing backwards and forwards.
“No Daniel, I don’t have to live with it. It’s not Zane. It’s you and this end of the bloody world obsession. You’re scaring me. You don’t want me to go out, or have friends. We never go anywhere, we don’t have any money and you spend every waking moment fortifying your little empire to keep the rest of the world out. I can’t do it anymore! I’m leaving and I’m taking Nairne with me. I’m going to stay with a friend. It’ll be better for all of us.”
“Nairne? You’ll take your daughter, but not your son. Why is that then? Who’s the friend Angela? One of those vipers you used to hang around with?” There was a silence, Nairne held her breath.
“Wait a minute; it’s a man isn’t it? - I should have seen it coming.”
“Yes, it’s another man. His name is Martin. I met him….”
“I don’t give a shit what his name is, where you met him or what his sodding star sign is. If you want to leave then go ahead, but you’re not splitting our kids up.”
“Daniel please! I can’t take them both….let me take Nairne.”
“So why can’t you take them both? Does Martin not approve of the spastic son? Is that too much effort for him? God it must be love!”
Nairne felt sick; she was shaking with the cold and with the sounds of anger. She could hear her mum sobbing.
“Oh don’t start with the tears. You don’t give a damn about those kids, you never have; it’s just too difficult isn’t it? It was fine when we were the perfect little family, but at the first sign of a problem, Angela can’t cope. The best of it is if you had been a half decent mother none of this would ever have happened and you’d have two perfect children.”
Nairne closed her eyes tightly as tears squeezed out from under the lids. She pressed her hands over her ears and blocked out the sound.
She opened her eyes. She was standing outside Mrs Allen’s, two streets from their house.
“I’ll not be long, so behave yourselves, stay in the garden and no wandering off and Zane, look after your sister.” Her mother ruffled his hair and walked round to the back of the house.
Zane ran across the front garden and kicked the football to Nairne; she kicked it back. It was a blistering July day and they could hear the babble of voices from the back garden; Mrs Allen and mum’s other friends were sitting on the decking drinking wine and gossiping.
They continued to play; half an hour came and went and they were bored.
“Kick it harder Nairne, see if you can score," Zane shouted. Nairne charged towards the ball and kicked it as hard as she could; it sailed into the air like slow motion, higher and higher, it flew over Zane’s head and the garden fence onto the road. It bounced, again and again and again, each bounce slightly smaller than the last until it came to rest against the opposite curb. Zane raced through the gate across the road and picked up the ball. He turned and smiled.
The Range Rover turned into the estate. Peter Evans held the wheel with one hand and clutched his mobile phone in the other.
“Yeah Angie, I’m just at the end of the street, get a beer ready for me.....”
He didn’t see the boy, but he felt the impact, the dull thud of flesh and metal. Then he heard the scream. Afterwards that’s what everyone said; they all heard the scream.
Nairne was screaming, as her father rushed into the room. She woke confused, soaked in sweat and then she was crying so hard she couldn’t stop.


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