Persistence of Memory

Jeannie, oh Jeannie, where are you!

The water splashes softly at the sides of my boat. Over the flooded rooftops the wheeling seagulls scream, but have no answer for me.

I put my oars back in the water and pull. I am already damp with salt water and sweat, but I bend my back and row on, picking my way between the inundated buildings. The water is dark with suspended silt, it looks like there are clouds drifting beneath the keel of my boat. When the clouds part I can see the tops of cars, the lids of litter bins and post boxes, passing beneath me.

“Jeannie!” I shout it again, stupidly, repeating it till my throat is sore.

I rest again till the madness passes, looking around me at the empty houses. The windows on the second floors are broken where the water has rushed into them, and I catch glimpses of furniture floating on the water inside. On one side a waterlogged mattress has fetched up against an empty window frame, on the other the hollow window frame reveals a room thick with drifting lampshades.

I try in vain to place myself in the city, but all the landmarks are gone or changed. Maps, memories, names, places; all are equally useless. I’ve been hauling myself along these flooded streets for days, sleeping in the boat, or on the occasional flat roof. The food I stuffed under my seat is damp and running out. My maps are useless. I’m starting to think that the city shifts around while I doze. I’m afraid that I will wake one morning and find that everything has become the open sea, and that I will be adrift forever.

Not yet, Jeannie, not yet.

I scull to the corner of the street and try my best to make out the name bolted to the wall under the waterline, but there is too much detritus in the way. Once before I tried diving in the water to find a name to place on my map, but the flooded streets are full of tangling debris. It is too dangerous to try again. The houses here are unfamiliar, but from the end of the street I spot a church spire emerging from the water in the middle distance. I think perhaps I recognise it.

The heat beats down on my back as I row. The afternoon sun is blazing out of a clear sky, spattering the floodwater with brilliant sparkles. I have to squint to see at all, and this transforms the pinpoints into clouds of dancing stars. I remember lying on a beach once, long ago, looking at the sea, and thinking those stars were beautiful, but here they fill me with dread. It’s like the city is dissolving.

Jeannie, where are you?

The church spire is surrounded by a mat of flotsam that has fetched up against the submerged roof. Tree branches are tangled up with bicycles and sandwich boards, packing crates and plastic bags, which trail in the current like jellyfish tendrils. Snarls of willow-herb and salt-rush cling to the rubbish. They are turning the spire into an island; perhaps this new land will spread like a skin until all the forgotten things are hidden underneath it.

Seabirds and pigeons jostle together on the narrow ledges of the spire, staining the stone faces of the angels white with their droppings. When I draw closer, after two hours of steady rowing, I am sure that it is the steeple of St. John’s.

I thrust the oars into the bottom of the boat, and balance on the thwarts to better scan the floodwaters around me. To the left of me I see a submerged house with a distinctive white roof. Surely this must be Ivy Street, and the buildings beyond it Oak Street. I twist around in excitement, and for a moment the city jumps into focus; landmarks emerge from the concealing waters. Yes! That tall window marks the back of the bank that lay on the corner. And there! That expanse of water must be the park. Even as I see it, the view starts to drift apart again, but I’m certain I am right. I’m close!

I drop back down to the bench and put my back into it, hauling the boat up the street. The seagulls screech at my departing back, happy to see me go.

At the end of the street a mass of tangled metal juts clear of the water. A truss of dark grey beams has been twisted like a corkscrew and then folded almost in half on itself. With a gut wrenching start I realise that it is the footbridge that crosses the train tracks at the bottom of our road.

The recognition brings with it a flood of terrifying images. Suddenly I’m back in the darkness, scrambling to stuff myself into the neighbour’s car as the water comes rushing up the street. It pours around the wheels of the car, gurgling out of the drains, rising so fast. A wave of it comes washing down the street, a foot high, overflowing the curbs, then another. The night is full of the blare of horns and the scream of metal — maybe I heard the footbridge collapsing.

After that I recall only montage flashes: the howl of the evacuation sirens; blue lights flashing in the darkness; my friends holding me back when I realise Jeannie isn’t there; the wailing of babies in the shelter; my own frantic tears. Then a long blankness before I wind up here, with a rickety boat and a pair of oars. Oh Jeannie! Never mind. I’m here now.

I wait until the memories slip back under the water. There are no more waves, no more sirens, it was all long ago. Now that the flood has claimed this place it appears that it will never leave.

When I haul the boat into what remains of Oak Street I am finally surrounded by familiar things. Half my life rises from the concealing waters — the places where Jeannie and I met, loved, made a home. Here is the bed and breakfast on the corner, there the rotted curtains of our neighbours’ windows, and then, finally, our home.

The upstairs of the house is knee deep in water, and dark. The sun is setting, and I’m glad, because it means I don’t have to see the damage that the water has done.

Something splashes in the corner of the room as I clamber through the window; I think it might be a rat, but I can’t see it. A pale mass of bare mattress glimmers just under the water’s surface — I’m in the spare bedroom. The door that leads to the hallway has been pushed open by the water.

“Jeannie,” I whisper hoarsely, “I’m coming.”

I forge on through the flooded house, throwing my body against the sodden weight of closed doors. The stairway is a bottomless well. A scum of once-precious objects clogs the surface of the water, drifting away as I wade through them. I hardly recognise the place. It has been transformed into something rich and strange, as the poem says.

One last heave against a heavy door and I have reached our bedroom. The last rays of the sun angle through the window, illuminating what is left of the bed I left unmade that fateful night. The mattress has come away from the bedstead and the wardrobes have floated open, but the dresser is clear of the water.

With trembling hands I reach for the picture frame that leans against the wall on top of the dresser. Somehow it has remained untouched, as I knew it would.

Jeannie, oh my Jeannie. I trace your face under the glass with my fingertips; I’d almost forgotten what you looked like.

When I return to the boat I wrap the picture carefully in cloth and hold it to my breast like a lifeline. The current plucks at the bows and the boat turns, picking up speed as the water draws it away from the last familiar things.

I let myself drift; I have what I came for.