Bowels of the fire.
Dead of night.
She found she was singing to herself.
Two, two, the lily-white boys.
Clothed all in green -o -o.
Then her brother came up, pointing at something, and she stopped.
Someone had put the plank back across the water. They examined the footprints in the mud, crossed, and decided to leave the bridge as it was. Neither had energy to conceal it.
It was humid here and birds were loud in the reeds. There was a flash of white and Ffrez thought ‘egret’. They were nesting now but she couldn’t be sure. The two walkers came around the last bend before the current left the saltmarshes and began its slide into the sea. A poor ending, Ffrez had always thought, even in past times when the river was high with meltwater. A shamefaced farewell.
She supposed the rains were heavier now, but this was a dry summer. Last month they had waded naked through the undergrowth, the flow up to her neck, she with her stiff hair tucked into a baseball cap, her brother shorn, hacked by himself.
She’d felt the chemical mud between her toes, the metal piping buried decades. But Ffrez had always loved this part of the coast. There’d been talk of abandonment but she couldn’t visualise that. There were too many people, with too much to lose. Despite what had already been lost.
Yes…Bogart. She’d been thinking about him. And she’d smiled to herself. Bogie in The African Queen. Didn’t he pull the boat upriver? Up? Yes, against the current. Leeches and all sorts on his scrawny frame when he climbed back over the side. And that river no wider than their river. Bogie’s river was an idea hatched in the film studio, that swamp of fevers and dreams. Their river was a green patch she’d seen on the old Google Earth, strange tropical explosion between The Works and the beach, the Knuckle Yard and the sea. Their river was loud with creatures she couldn’t recognise yet, not to mention the crickets in the dunes, the beach frenzy of sandhoppers. There seemed a mist of them in the failing light. A living veil.
And Bogart won the Oscar. Didn’t he? Of course. But only because Jack Cardiff made him look good. It was Cardiff who filmed the makebelieve river, ensuring the audiences felt the slime of an impossible Congo.
Ffrez could still taste the sulphur in the water, see the petrol rainbow over her breasts when she had emerged on the bank. Now she scanned around for her brother, who was gazing east and brandishing that stick at the gritty beach.
The full story is available in our new short story anthology, A Fiction Map of Wales, available to buy here:
original illustration by Dean Lewis