It was a strange place to search for cleansing and healing, but there were stories gurgling here. Half-remembered stories of a Midland river with the scent of industrial revolution still clinging, like detergent suds caught on rushes or trapped in streaming river weed, and the washerwoman.
Concrete steps led down to the water on the near bank while downstream the steps gave way to grass and a stone and a metal bridge that spanned one bank to the other, although as he stood there with his stained and grimy sky-blue and yellow jacket slung over his shoulder, it never entered his mind to try to cross the river.
Everything belonged on the south bank and that couple of hundred yards between where he stood and the other side of the bridge where the sun seemed to shine just a little more brightly. He knew that people and things did go over the bridge, but he was happy just to pass beneath it and occasionally walk out on the yellow patterned carpet that floated on the river there, a yellow floating patterned carpet supporting chairs, a piano, books and furniture … and anyone who cared to walk across it.
He wasn’t sure how soon he noticed her, or how long he had been looking for her, but there was the washerwoman wailing at the water’s edge.
‘The water’s gone mad,’ she said looking up at him from beneath her red bandana. He felt as though she ought to be a toothless crone, but she wasn’t – she was just an ordinary woman in white shirt and blue skirt, bare footed. Not young. Not old. She pointed at the river and he looked hard at it before agreeing with her. It had gone mad. The flowing life had disappeared and instead the wine- dark water looked like jelly. Deep beneath its surface he saw some clothes, faint splashes of colour. A mauve shirt. Green jumper. Blue jeans. Preserved, as if in aspic. Pickled in gelatine. Grease paint smears in a cold-cream jar.
‘I’m going to have to go in,’ she said and made for the water.
He almost offered to go for her, but felt a shudder of horror at the prospect, as if that jelly engulfed him and held him down there forever, an unwilling ingredient in an unwholesome, unnatural trifle.
‘I wouldn’t,’ he started to say, but before he got any further she dove into the river and was instantly invisible.
The panic began to rise, and for a moment so did she. He heard her break the surface and cry for help, but when he tried to see where she was, all he could see was the semi-liquid roll of the river surface. Gingerly, he put his foot on the surface and wondered if it would support him.
He sank up to his ankles and stepped back hurriedly. He tried to work out where the current would have taken her – downstream. Towards the bridge.
He smiled at the prospect. It meant he could step out on the carpeted stretch of water. He waded through murky shallows. A decaying fox lay atop the mud and he thought that he could hear the woman’s cries for help far below. He let himself mentally rehearse swimming down to help her, but the picture in his mind and the feel of the viscous water suffocating him made him too scared to do anything other than run.
He was on the carpet now. And as he ran, he could feel the water undulate beneath his feet as the carpet kept him afloat. At the edge of the carpet, water leapt and roared. Alive and lively, it called to him. And yet, although it promised freedom it still had the stale earth smell of a Midland river in summer. White and yellow maggots wriggling on the bank, escapees of bait boxes.
He looked at the sky-blue and yellow jacket in his hands and tried to work out how best to clean it. He mentally rehearsed again, saw himself hanging the jacket on a clothes hanger and holding it over the side into the river, walking the length of the carpet with the jacket trailing in the spray.
‘How would the washerwoman have done it?’ he said, finding himself with a bucket and bars of soap and bottles of fabric conditioner.
‘This is an act of faith,’ he said and hung his jacket on a coat hanger and lowered it into the river. There was a momentary jolt of unease and memories of a drowned washerwoman and lost things trapped, but it soon went and he found himself running along the edge of the carpet, trailing his jacket in the water.
To his amazement, the water smelt fragrant. He looked forward to putting on his fresh, clean jacket and walking by the river under a warm sun.