Health and Safety

That was the theme given by Hour of Writes last week. Here’s what I came up with in response:

There would have been a splash. A loud one. You would have heard it from a distance if you’d been in the gardens. But no-one was in the gardens when it happened. They were closed. Locked against vandals. Who got in anyway, climbing over the fences, pushing through the bushes after closing time and, afterwards, scattering their empty bottles and cans across the gardens. Where, by the time this happened, they were glistening with the morning dew of an early autumn day.

There would have been a few bubbles that rose to the surface of the pond and, slowly, one by one, burst. Then everything would have settled in the water and the surface would have become, once more, quite still.

It was a while before they even knew the girl was missing. The family was large. Chaotic, dysfunctional, from the big estate up the hill. So people said. People can be cruel, especially when they’re frightened. They were afraid, of course, that she’d been murdered. Which didn’t happen in a small town. But perhaps now it had, and suspicion is contagious and destructive. An atmosphere of distrust spread through the town, it swirled through the estate and around the houses with big gardens in the lower town. Children were kept in, not allowed out to play in the parks or the gardens.

This atmosphere, this fog, obscured sense. The investigation was haphazard and it was days before the search parties looked in the gardens. They were locked at night so the girl wouldn’t have been there. That’s what people said. It might have been even longer if the woman with the sad eyes hadn’t gone to the police. She found it hard to leave her house, the house which overlooked the gardens. But in the end she made herself do it. Because she had seen the girl, from her upstairs window. Not that morning, no not then. She couldn’t see the pond from her window at that season when the trees were still in leaf.

But before that day the woman with the sad eyes had seen a girl running along the grassy stretch between the pond and the semi-circular flower beds. She had seen her lots of times. She had noticed her amongst the other children because she ran alone, and at times when there was no-one else in the gardens. She had smiled to see her running. It reminded her. It reminded her of what it was like to be carefree. But when the girl went missing the woman was afraid, because she had not seen the running child since. The knowledge weighed on her. Her husband, who walked in the town as she did not, came home and spoke of the rumours. She said nothing, but in the end she went to the police and told them what she knew. 

Then, at last, the police sealed off the gardens and searched. The pond was surrounded by railings. A health and safety precaution. But not enough of a precaution. Children are curious. Children see risks as adventures. That’s what it was, they said in the end, death by misadventure. The unfortunate child had tripped as she climbed the railings and tumbled into the pond, hitting her head on the stones. There was, the police said, no indication that any other party had been involved. It was a tragedy, but it was, they said, no-one’s fault. There was a large and emotional funeral, flowers left round the pond with messages about the perfect little angel who had been taken from us, a two-page spread in the local paper.

The rumours of a murderer at large died down. But once gossip has brewed it can so easily bubble up again. People said the gardens were not safe. They said other children could come to harm. They said, what about that woman in the house who went to the police? What was she doing watching the child anyway, they said. It’s not normal, they said. Her husband heard the whispering as he walked in the town. He wanted to defend her, but no-one spoke to him directly. So he did what he had always done. He pretended that it had not happened. He went to his meetings, he went to the market to buy food and he went home again and sat at table with his wife, the woman with the oh-so-sad eyes, which she kept downcast as they ate together in silence the food which he prepared.

They’ve been round the gardens again, the men from the council, with their health and safety manual, assessing the risks. They decided to drain the pond. People say it’s better that way, and definitely safer. But it’s too late. Too late for that child, that grieving family. And for the woman with the sad eyes. In the winter, when the branches of the trees had become bare, she could see the drained pond. She watched then, day after day, until the burden of what had happened there dragged her down too, and she walked out of her house one last time. There was, afterwards, just a small paragraph in the local paper under the heading “Local woman drowns in tragic accident.” People said she had it coming to her. People can be so cruel.

About Cath Barton

Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in South Wales. In June 2017 she was awarded the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella, and her novella The Plankton Collector was published by New Welsh Review in September 2018. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, was published by Louise Walters Books in November 2020. Cath is also active in the on-line community of writers of flash fiction.
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