EXTRACT: For the Mercy of Water by Karen Jayes

© Sven Kristian

© Sven Kristian

I called the journalist from a payphone outside. He sounded pleased to hear from me, and relieved.
‘I went to the hospital,’ I said.
‘What?’ he said.
‘I went to find the guard,’ I said.
He swore.
‘Are you crazy?’ he said. ‘What were you thinking? You could get us both –’
‘He wasn’t there,’ I said.
I bit my lip. My voice turned and I could feel I was going cry. I was angry with myself for doing this. I took a deep breath.
‘Oh,’ he said.
My eyes filled. I couldn’t speak. I breathed hard again.
‘I’m really upset,’ I said.
He sighed. We were quiet. The streets were full of evening people: businessmen in blue and black undoing their collars and rolling their shoulders, unknotting their necks; hawkers dragging their hessian bags on bus-high trolleys; schoolchildren tapping footballs between their legs.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘I wanted to find him after I heard what he said on the tape,’ I said.
‘I should have taken it off,’ he said. ‘I should’ve erased it.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I had to hear it.’
I turned away from the street. I pulled the phone down. I pushed it onto my chest. My eyes were filling up. I bit down on the back of my hand. I took a breath. I put the phone back on my ear. He was calling my name.
‘I’m here,’ I said.
‘When did you listen to it?’ he said.
I told him when.
‘I knew it,’ he said. ‘I knew you were listening to it that night.’
I shut my eyes. I put my head back against the edge of the telephone box.
‘He seemed to struggle to speak,’ he said. His voice was slow and careful. ‘Don’t you think?’
I heard the purpose and the sadness in his voice. I felt a great distance open up between us, a distance of a man and a woman and our understanding of war and the acts of the people who are caught up in it.
‘Don’t speak about it,’ I said. ‘You won’t be able to make anything right.’
He was silent.
I straightened up and turned to face the street again.
‘I still want to speak to him,’ I said.
He was quiet. I said his name. I heard him sigh. ‘I tried to speak to him,’ he said.
I waited. ‘It’s not the same,’ I said.
‘He wouldn’t talk,’ he said.
I felt a betrayal, slight but firm. I tensed up. I put my hand on my neck. I was quiet.
He sighed.
‘Let’s not talk about this,’ he said. ‘Can we not talk about this?’
I stepped forward to kill the line.
He said my name again. The way he said it caught me somewhere inside and I sighed.
‘I’m curious about him,’ I said.
He swore softly.
‘How many people did you say were there?’ I said.
‘Four,’ he said. ‘Excluding me.’
‘All men?’ I said.
He hesitated before he said yes.
‘Anybody I know?’ I said.
‘The old aid worker was there,’ he said.
I shut my eyes. ‘Of course,’ I said.
I paused. I leaned forward in the box towards the phone.
‘Was the guard a man of . . . Was he an important man?’ I said. ‘You know, important in terms of –’
‘Enough for a search party,’ he said.
‘But there were the stories,’ I said. ‘The story about Mother and Eve and –’
‘The company and the government were feeling some pressure,’ he said. He spoke fast, and his voice was hard and cold. ‘What happened in the valley was bad publicity. There are other water companies who are willing to use incidences like these to –’
‘So the hearing was not really a reaction to Mother’s accusations or to Eve’s plight, but merely a publicity exercise, a kind of clean-up to ensure the company came off looking all right?’ I said.
‘But the guard requested it too,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said. I was angry. ‘I remember you saying.’
We were silent. Outside the telephone booth, the sky had turned dark. The street lamps had not been working for some time; boys had stolen the copper wires, broken the bulbs with stones, and the city was fed up with replacing them. It was time to go, but I wanted one more thing.
‘What did he look like?’ I said.
He sighed. ‘He had short white hair. He wore two eye patches. They were black. And he wore black boots. He sat in a plastic chair. I can’t remember much more than that.’
I recalled the plastic chair in the little room off the ward. It had stood on the far side of the bed.
‘Was there anybody there who knew him personally?’ I said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘He lived alone.’
‘Was he healthy?’ I said.
‘He didn’t go into that,’ he said. ‘But when he spoke, his head shook. A kind of tremor seized him at the neck.’
I remembered the goat in Mother’s story, the goat who had shivered without his coat of hair.
‘Like a shiver?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I suppose he shivered.’
I smiled. ‘Thank you,’ I said.
‘Wait,’ he said.
But I was already thinking about the girl and the goat, and the gift, so I said goodbye and I put down the headset.
I went to see the journalist at his home. We stood outside on the balcony among the plants, looking out on the sides of the city mansions, and down below a small patch of yellow grass so flat it looked like it had been ironed.
‘You should have some dinner here,’ he said.
I looked at him and I said nothing. I thought about how eating was odd in our circumstances. In the wake of what had happened in the valley, I assumed that it was normal not to eat. I was very thin. I liked seeing my bones under my skin, the way they came up so clear and clean. I would feel the shape of them as I lay on my back at night, touching them with the tips of my fingers. My body in this state was sacred, as the slow pining of the flesh feels sacred, and I did not want to eat.
‘No thanks,’ I said.
He nodded and looked out at the city.
‘So you think you’ll find this girl,’ he said. He cleared his throat and shifted in his chair.
‘Something’s bound to come up,’ I said. ‘I’ve phoned all the orphanages, the shelters –’
He glanced at me and shook his head.
‘They probably thought you were crazy,’ he said.
I looked at him.
‘I’m not crazy,’ I said.
‘Hey,’ he said. He stepped closer to me. He reached for my hand. Our fingers were clumsy. I closed my hand into a fist and rolled it around inside his palm. He pressed his fingers down on my knuckles, then let go. I pulled my hand up and held the back of it up against my cheek. We stood for a while in quiet.

For the Mercy of Water is published by Penguin, R155, and was the winner of this year’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

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