By Martyn Clayton
There’d been another pot-hole death. A teenage boy on a trip with his school had got stuck just as the relentless rain that had cursed the summer prompted an underground river to break its usual subterranean route. It seeped between gaps in the limestone, found its way down hidden passages before breaking forth onto the frightened face of the blond boy from the city. The peat filled water ran over him like a second baptism, filling the small gap where he was lodged. As his teacher and the caving instructors tried to free him his life slowly ebbed away. When they cut him open his lungs were full of peat from the high moors above his head. Upon hearing this news many people whose lives had hitherto been busy and untroubled by too much self-examination felt chilled by a new kind of loneliness.
Dora had been one of them. She’d spread out the newspaper on the counter to read about the boy. Photos of him in his uniform, pictures of his parents and their detached house on a new estate at the edge of York, another of teenage girls with tear-smudged eyeliner their arms around each other laying flowers at impromptu shrines. There was a photo of the teacher, and the instructor in happier times.
The shop bell rang. A couple entered. Judging by their attire they were tourists rather than walkers. The kind who frequently browsed in the shop but rarely bought anything.
The man was middle-aged, his partner maybe a little younger. She was mousy and had a shy disposition, he was plain and sallow and something about them told Dora they’d recently found one another. He was perhaps uncomfortable with women. She was searching for a father figure. It was a relationship based on mutual convenience never of great passion.
Feelings felt too intently were not the best things to have. The photos of the drowned boy’s mother spoke of too much passion. The parents looked older. It might be the ravages of tragedy that had written some extra years on their faces. The Archbishop had been on the radio asking people to pray for them and despite Dora’s atheism she said some quick words under her breath. The man found a book about local topography and placed it down on the counter. He stood there unsmiling waiting for Dora to look up from her newspaper. With a feeling that someone had just walked over her grave, a startled Dora raised her head;
“I’m so sorry. I was reading about the boy. Terrible isn’t it.”
“What boy?” asked the man.
“This one.” She pointed at his photo in the newspaper but the man didn’t look down. “The one who died down the pot-hole. So sad.”
“I’m not aware of that boy,” said the man. “This book please.” He tapped the book and looked at her. His companion stood behind him now, her eyes cast demurely towards the floor. The man was staring. He might be an academic or a research scientist or someone whose lack of emotional intelligence had meant he failed to achieve his potential. He was hard to place economically. The clothes didn’t tell you anything. His vowels were non-descript and estuarine.
Dora opened the cover of the book and saw the pencil price she’d written when it first arrived. She suspected it was one of Darren’s. He did the car boot sales. He drove across the market towns of the rural high north picking up books and ornaments and pieces of ephemera. Then he’d roll up unannounced and unexpected with a box of something for whatever seller of second hand goods seemed most likely to buy. Most of the books he found were rubbish, mass market paperbacks, celebrity autobiographies and the like. Dora bought whatever he had bagging up the dross for charity shops, picking out what was worth keeping. Darren had carried his redundancy too heavily and needed all the encouragement she could give him.
“Two pounds please.” She put the book in a brown paper bag as the man handed over a five pound note. She slipped in one of the shop’s bookmarks and gave him his change. He didn’t crack a smile.
The man glanced at the newspaper.
“Died in a pot-hole you say.”
“I never see the point of pot-holing,” said the man. “If I want to know what it’s like to be trapped in a confined space I usually just hide beneath the bed.” His companion put her hand to her mouth and laughed guiltily. Dora pictured the man’s blank face sinking deep into a black morass of cold peaty water his position marked only by a floating bookmark.
Martyn Clayton is a writer of short fiction based in York.