“Where a Good Town May Take Us”
by Andi C. Buchanan
Overnight, our town unmakes itself.
Copper nails slide out from the blue-grey slate and form bundles, heads at one end. The slates stack themselves in neat piles, keeping themselves in order to make the reconstruction easier. The bricks unburden themselves from the wooden frames, which in turn collapse themselves into ordered length of wood. The church bell secures its clanger and makes its way patiently to the ground. The climbing frames in the school playground dismantle their brightly-painted metal and tyre-swings unknot themselves from the trees.
We stay in our beds and pretend to be asleep until the bedlinen is neatly folded and the slats from the bedframes start twitching, ready to roll themselves up. Then, silently, bleary-eyed, we rise in the pyjamas we slept in, decorated with stripes or owls or half-moons; we rise and we walk. Our journey may only be a few metres, or it may be miles, and we are mostly barefoot unless, when we readied ourselves for bed we felt, for no particular reason, that this would be one of those nights. We are thinly clad, unless we are thirteen and sleeping in our clothes, lying on our backs in full make-up with our hair in a tight pony tail because being seen in nightclothes is simply unimaginable. And yet we walk.
Had we known, all those years before, that a nomadic existence lay ahead of us, we would have chosen materials better suited for this journey across fields and roads and then whole countries. We would have lived in thick canvas tents that could be folded in the evening, or wooden caravans high upon spoked wheels. But we were once a solid people, bound to the mines and the freezing works. Only when they closed did we become untethered.
Still, our town takes care of us, as good towns do. When we reach our destination, we know that the timber frames will rise into place, the bricks will stack themselves atop one another, and the slates will overlap on the roofs once more. Our beds will be made and we will lie down, heavy and listless, as the blankets are tucked in over us.
It is only in the morning that we will see our new location. Once we would stay awake all night, but now, with moves once a week or more, and children needing to go to school, meals to be cooked, even a few, a lucky few, with jobs to go to, it’s become impractical. We’ve found a rhythm. We sleep. And in the morning, thin white bread is dropped into the toaster and if there has been money spare this week then eggs are scrambled, and the children drag open the curtains in the front room and report back excitedly where we are.
Sometimes we move only a couple of metres, and it’s hard to tell the difference save for the angle of a hill or the fact a stream now runs through our garden. Other times, it’s a difference of miles, and our feet are sore and our cheeks smart from the cold night wind, though we remember little of the walk.
Today we are by the sea. I can smell salt in the air even before Morga reports back that she can see the grey waves through the gap between the houses in front.
“Can we go swimming?” she asks excitedly.
“It’s the middle of winter,” I say. “Eat your toast and maybe we can go for a walk on the beach after school.”
I brush and plait Matta’s hair while she finishes off the margarine-covered crumbs left on her plate, persuade Morga to get dressed, find lost shoes and bookbags, and somehow get us all out of the house mostly on time. The streets follow the same patterns, though occasionally the town has adjusted them to accommodate a river here, a hill there.
As they approach the school the girls spot their friends and run ahead, merging into a stream of green polo shirts atop grey shorts and skirts. I exchange casual chatter with the other mums and occasional dads, keeping half an eye on Morga and Matta until they are through the gates with their classmates. Back home, I put the TV on as background noise, wash the breakfast dishes, drag a vacuum round the floor and throw yesterday’s clothes into the bag I’ll take to the laundrette tomorrow.
I’m supposed to be applying for full-time jobs now that Matta is five, but no-one works around here except those who keep the few shops, a mechanic, a bar, and the takeaway open. No-one outside will hire you when they know the town could be another ten miles away by morning, and hundreds by the end of the year. I’ve thought about moving away, but even the cities don’t have many jobs to spare these days. And a good town that takes care of its people is hard to find – why would you give that up on a gamble?
I slip my feet back into my shoes; they’re almost worn through but I’ve been trying to put a little money aside each week for one off expenses like that. Wrapping myself in a coat and a thick woollen scarf, I head out, turning, halfway down the street, into the lane that sometimes takes me to fields or the foot of a mountain, but will today take me to the sea. The sky is overcast and a light but steady breeze beats at my face.
There are few people around; just an old man reading the newspaper on a bench and a couple of teenagers with skateboards. There’s no high school in our town; the older children move as the town moves, or they learn by correspondence. Except most of them give up. It’s too much effort and they don’t see the point. I’m not sure I do either.
There’s just a small strip of grass to cross, and then some low dunes, before I get to the beach. There are more people here, out to explore the town’s new surroundings, or to take the dogs out. I acknowledge some of them, briefly, but no-one’s really in the mood for talking. I walk the length of the bay – it matches the length of the town almost exactly. Well chosen, I think.
I light a cigarette and watch the waves come crashing in, all grey and capped with white. The wet sand is firm beneath my feet. A seagull circles for food that isn’t there. A dog brings a stick to me expectantly so I throw it out across the sand.
Back at home, the TV picture flickers, the sound buzzing in and out of static. It happens a lot; they can’t plan to broadcast to locations that are bare land one day and, unexpectedly, a town the next. I read a romance novel I’ve read before, watch the time until I need to pick up the girls.
We go to the beach as promised, even though Morga’s broken her shoelace and the shoe slides off her foot every few metres. I don’t think anywhere local sells shoelaces, wonder if we’re near anywhere bigger. I don’t want a child of mine going to school with her shoe held together by string. The shoe gets lodged in the sand dunes on the way over and I say, ok, you can go barefoot and then Matta wants to go barefoot as well so I follow them, carrying both sets of shoes.
They run excitedly, seemingly unaware of the cold, chucking handfuls of sand in the air, drawing pictures with lengths of driftwood. They spot a friend and I walk alongside his mother, offer her a cigarette even though I try not to smoke when the children can see me. I’m sleep-deprived and need it.
“Nice of the town to give us a beach,” I say. “Shame about the weather.”
She laughs, pulling her coat tight around her.
“It’s fucking freezing eh. If it had done this in summer, we could have had donkey rides, ice-creams, all that shit. Maybe the fair would visit. Those folk might get on with us, always moving around as they do.”
“They’d have to catch us first,” I reply. A pause. “I miss the fairs. Not the fairs exactly, but everything we had when we were kids.”
“Mmmm.” She flicks off a bit of ash from the cigarette. “We’d go to the movies after school sometimes. They told us we’d get jobs. And then there weren’t any jobs. But I miss thinking there would be…”
We’re interrupted by Matta complaining that her neck is sore. I pull down the collar of her polo shirt; it’s red and swollen, skin flaking. Probably just a patch of eczema. I kiss it better and send her on her way, chucking stones into the waves with a group of children who have gathered while their parents stand scattered around. When it gets too cold, even for the children, we go home and I cook sausages and mashed potato and they flick through channel after channel of static.
It’s a week before the town moves again, and it’s just a little way, perhaps twenty metres. Less disruption in the night, though the girls are still restless through the night and overtired in the morning. Both seem to have some difficulty breathing, it’s loud and uneven, and I hope it’s nothing that needs a doctor, because the nearest one could be hours away. The ground outside is uneven and when Morga calls me to the window I see we’re at the edge of the sand dunes. There’s noise outside on the street, and I, instructing the girls not to touch anything, wander a few metres in my dressing gown, enough to see that some houses are now on the beach, the waves lapping at their front doors.
I know, instinctively, why people are so upset. It’s not the salted lawns and vegetable gardens, or the carpets they can’t afford to replace. It’s not the hours they will spend today filling sandbags and moving their possessions into crowded upstairs bedrooms. It’s the betrayal. Not every place we’ve been has been sunny, but there’s been land for the kids to run around on, even enough for our houses to stand straight. There’s been a semblance of a road, or a rural train station within walking distance, even if it required crossing some boggy fields. And we’ve known, always, that after we’ve moved we’ll be safe in our beds with our houses built sturdy around us.
If we can’t rely on our town, we have no-one.
I read through a stack of magazines at the laundrette, watching our clothes swirl almost hypnotically. I read about people with lives more dramatic than mine, and homes so fancy I couldn’t dream of them. When everything’s dry, and sorted and folded into drawers, and I’ve had a ham sandwich for lunch, I head down the beach to help out. I pack possessions standing on sodden carpet, help pass boxes up stairs. We wonder when the town will move again.
And overnight we follow it into the sea.
I tell the girls that things will be all right, even as I drag what I can upstairs into the two small bedrooms and cram the sofa cushions under the girls’ bunkbed, even as the sea laps into the hallway, and the waves come crashing in. The high tide reaches the bottom of the upstairs window.
The morning is unseasonably warm, and seagulls are circling in the orange light. People are clustered on roofs, leaning out of windows, but mostly in the water. Matta and Morga jostle for space by the window, as if some carnival or long awaited spring has finally arrived.
Nervous, unsure what the safest thing is to do, I open the window to get a better view.
Before I can stop her, Morga has leapt out of the window and is paddling away.
I stifle a scream. “Sit on the bed, Matta!” I tell her. “Don’t move.” And I leap after my elder daughter into the cold water.
I’m not even sure I remember how to swim – I was on the school team, but that was a long time ago. I thrash, feel for a moment like I’m drowning, and then I right myself, head above the surface, spitting out mouthfuls of water, and – thankfully – realise that I can at least keep myself afloat.
Right in front of me, Morga pops up out of the water, grinning, her face shining, her pyjamas clinging tight against her limbs.
“Morga!” I’m not sure if I’m angry or terrified.
Then Matta’s paddling towards us, hands scooping at the water, glistening, joyful. I feel like I’ve lost control of everything.
“Look how long I can swim under water!” Morga says, and dives down before I can say anything else.
I’m not sure how long you can stay under water safely, but I know Morga’s been there too long. I plunge under, grabbing at her shoulders.
“Morga. Morga you need to breathe!” I pull her to the surface, frantic, panicked. But she’s not spluttering or gasping for air; she’s giggling and confused, determined to dive back down. I can’t see Matta. All around are frantic parents searching for their children, desperation cutting the cold air.
I take a deep breath, dive down into the cold. When I open my eyes everything is blurry, but after a few seconds the children’s faces become clear, swimming, laughing, making their way into the sunken homes, legs kicking behind them, the gills on their necks fluttering as they swim…
I pull myself to the surface, spluttering, cold. I raise my hand to my neck. Nothing has changed, not for me. But for them… Matta swims up to me, grabs my legs, giggling, not yet understanding that I can’t swim as she can; this seems so natural, so completely natural to her. I pull back, pull her up until we are floating, heads above the surface, hold her, run my fingers over her gills.
“Where are you trying to go?” I ask.
“Home,” she says.
If you have a good town, I think, treading water, shivering even as the sun rises, it’s not just your home. It’s a home for your children, a future for them.
And our town is a good town. It always takes care of us.
Andi C. Buchanan lives among streams and faultlines, just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Winner of a Sir Julius Vogel Award for their short story “Girls Who Do Not Drown” (Apex, 2018), their fiction is also published or forthcoming in Fireside, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. Their 2019 novella From a Shadow Grave (Paper Road Press) uses a historical murder as a launching point into narratives of multiple possible futures, deploying urban fantasy, historical fiction, time travel and more. You can find Andi on Twitter @andicbuchanan or at www.andicbuchanan.org.