Iris splashed through the house searching for the cat. Water forced its way into the living room, despite the floral scatter cushions blockading the door. She called “puss” over the noise of the choking house. The flood water was a toxic recipe of city soup, boiling with petrol, garbage, ripe sewage and shards of broken glass that hung beneath the surface like crocodile teeth. Brown liquid bubbled up the u-bend of the downstairs toilet and spilled across the lino. Water gushed through the spluttering letterbox and cracked the groaning floorboards.
As Iris fought her way through the rubble of the sitting room, she grabbed floating objects; a wicker basket, the flower vase, her address book. Throwing them all onto the dining table and returning to save more. With her thick woollen skirt dragging behind her, she waded through the murky water, feeling blindly for lost treasures. As her hands searched through the watery underworld of the coffee table, Iris prayed they wouldn’t find a ball of fur or a lifeless tail. She was forced to give up when blue sparks exploded out of the TV. From the soft-boiled sofa, Iris watched helpless as the flood swallowed her home.
In the kitchen, a tiny voice cried for help.
‘Puss?’ Iris called towards the door. The cat cried out again. ‘Hold on, Rosie. I’m coming!’
Keeping her eyes on the dormant television set, she jumped from her three-seater lifeboat towards the door.
In the kitchen sink a small head popped up to see Iris pulling herself around the breakfast bar.
‘There you are Rosie. It’s okay. Mummy’s coming. Stay there.’ The cat crouched back into the sink, the tip of her tail raised as a twitching distress signal. Tupperware boxes spilled out of the toppled fridge freezer, creating an obstacle course of leftovers and condiments. Reaching the sink, she grabbed the cat and waded towards the hallway. Rosie hissed at the filthy water splashing around them and dug her claws into Iris’ shoulder.
Iris clambered onto the staircase, pausing only to watch her hall rugs float up the corridor like Persian lily pads twirling upstream.
From the bedroom Iris could see her neighbours at their upstairs windows, like castaways, stranded across distant shores, signalling to each other and gasping at the scene below. The street was a black ocean sparkling with broken bottles and debris. Treetops stood like broccoli islands. Car rooftops breached the surface like a pod of metallic whales migrating out of the cul-de-sac, rainbow ambergris trailing behind them.
Downstairs the flood rummaged through the house, shaking and stirring the furniture into a cocktail of splinters. Everything beneath the dado rail would be ruined. It was more than just tables and chairs. The water washed away memories. The stain on the coffee table where Bill always rested his mug, despite being told to use a coaster; the dent in the sideboard where he banged his knee practicing the Waltz for their anniversary party; the dip in the seat of his armchair; the slippers still resting by the fireplace. All gone.
Every few minutes Iris peered down the stairs into the frothing face of the flood as it lapped the steps. Was it getting higher? To be safe, she raced through each of the bedrooms, lifting chairs and boxes onto beds and throwing towels and toothbrushes into the bathtub. In the closet she found their wellies and pulled on her pink pair, along with an emergency plastic poncho from their trip to Florida. She fished through piles of bric-a-brac for her snorkel and armbands. She pulled the cat’s carry box down from the top of the wardrobe and tied an inflatable travel pillow to the handle.
The cat sat on the bed licking herself furiously.
‘Come on puss, into the box. We don’t want you swimming away.’ Once bundled inside, the cat continued to meow in protest, silenced only when a horn sounded outside. Iris ran to the window. Her fellow castaways were all pointing up the street towards a fleet of yellow dinghies. The rescuers rowed into Wensleydale Drive on rubber ships, calling up to the windows through bright red megaphones. The residents waved and held their children and pets up like passports, desperate to return to the mainland. They were instructed by the fluorescent jacketed men to stay upstairs while the streets were evacuated house by house.
Iris looked back at the cat in her now buoyant carry case.
‘It’s alright Rosie. The nice men will get us out. They won’t forget you.’
She observed the progress of the rescuers as they worked their way around the street. They began with the Joneses at number three. Iris thought of Bill as she watched the old couple wade out of the front door. Mr Jones helped to lift his wife into the boat before clambering in after. Bill would have done the same. He could always be relied upon in a disaster.
The rescue was slow. Iris passed the time pacing the room, practising the arm moves for the breaststroke and doggy paddle. She inflated her armbands and checked the door to the cat box was still locked. In the bathroom she spritzed L’air Du Temps into the air, trying to disguise the pong of sewage. She switched on the shower radio and stared at her dishevelled reflection in the mirror while listening for any news. Information dripped in between safety announcements and live reports from the helicopters. The River Ouse flooded every winter but in forty years this had never happened before.
York was prepared for the banks to swell but the water never reached beyond the city centre. Along the river, the pubs were well practised in moving service to the front of their buildings, but even they had been forced to close. The reporter explained how the decision was made to raise the flood barriers for fear that the pumps would fail. It was “the safest decision” and would cause “less damage in the long run.” They want to see my kitchen, Iris thought. With the raising of the barrier, the environment agency had cut open the city’s veins and left it to bleed across the map into the defenceless suburbs.
They blamed the rain. It fed the rivers till bursting and for the first time in centuries the River Ouse and the Foss got to taste each other. The Ouse poured into the Foss and together they ran through the city, binding it in watery threads. They flooded beer cellars, drowned the Vikings of the Yorvik centre and silenced the orchestra pit of The Grand Opera House. They drank all the culture they could swallow and spat it back up into the living rooms and kitchens of families and lonely old women.
‘Oh Bill, I’m glad you can’t see this mess.’ Iris said, looking around at their bedroom. She’d managed to empty the entire closet onto the floor. He wouldn’t have panicked like that. He was always prepared for disaster, especially after the incident with the tumble dryer. He’d fitted the house with new smoke alarms, a carbon monoxide detector, a fire extinguisher and a St John’s ambulance first aid kit. He’d packed a box into the loft filled with water sterilising tablets, tinned food and batteries, but even he didn’t think to prepare for a flood.
Iris stared at the green wellies on the floor, trying to remember the last time they’d been worn. Was it the camping trip in the Lake District? Or fishing in Strensall?
‘Number twenty-three? Are you in?’ A man shouted through the letterbox. ‘Can you get to the door?’ Iris grabbed the cat box and leapt onto the landing.
‘Yes. I’m here. Don’t go!’ she yelled down the stairs.
‘Can you get to the door, love?’ He asked.
‘Yes, I think so. Just give me a moment, the hallway’s flooded.’ Iris placed the snorkel in her mouth and wobbled down the stairs with the cat box above her head. ‘I’b cobing!’
Rosie growled at the open letterbox as they descended into the swamp at the bottom of the stairs. Cold water spilled into Iris’ wellington boots. The moment she squeezed the latch, an icy wave pushed the door open and rolled up the hallway. Men grabbed Iris by her armbands and pulled her out of danger. Taking the rattling cat box, they passed it to the young family already sat in the dinghy.
‘Blease be carebul, she’b bery old.’ Iris mumbled through the snorkel pipe. They hurried to lift her into the rocking boat. Everyone clung to the sides and held their breath. As the men pulled the front door shut and dragged the boat up the driveway, Iris ripped the snorkel from her face, ‘Oh wait! I need to go back. I’ve forgotten something.’
‘Sorry madam, we’ve got to evacuate everyone as quick as we can,’ insisted the stern faced soldier.
‘Oh but you don’t understand,’ she protested. ‘I have to go back.’ But it was too late. The rubber boat pushed on up Wensleydale Drive and round the corner of the cul-de-sac until the house was out of view. Boat passengers looked around at each other as the elderly woman rolled her armbands off and wept. The young mother rested a hand on her shoulder.
‘It’s ok Mrs Newbound, you’re safe now.’ She said, handing her back the cat box. ‘And your cat’s alright, see?’ At the back of the box Rosie sat in a ball, shivering as water dripped off the ends of her whiskers onto the soggy tea towel beneath her.
Iris had always told herself that if the house ever caught fire, there were certain things she would rescue. And after last time, she swore she wouldn’t forget them again. But when the water crept under the front door she simply panicked. All she could think about was the cat and the mundane clutter that floated into view. Only there, sat in the rubber boat, did she remember all those precious things they’d stored away in the ottoman. It would be rolling around in the living room, filling with water and filth. All their photos and scrapbooks would be mashed to pulp. And the delicate little baby bonnet would be muddy tatters.
‘I’m sorry Bill, I forgot it again.’
The smell of burning woke Bill before the smoke alarm. He sat up sniffing the air, trying to decide whether it was coming from inside the house or had drifted in through the open window. A curl of smoke floated through the shaft of moonlight above the bed. He shook his wife and instructed her out of bed and down onto the floor. In the en suite he soaked the handtowels and wrapped them around their shoulders. While touching the door to check it was hot, Bill told his wife to stay down in case of back draft. They burst out onto the landing and waved their hands to clear the smoke at the top of the stairs.
‘Where’s Rosie?’ his wife screamed over the sound of the alarm. She rushed into the other bedrooms looking for the cat, while Bill shouted at her to “just leave it and get outside”, but she kept searching.
‘I’m not leaving Rosie! Help me find her!’ She begged.
‘No need.’ Bill spluttered. ‘Look.’ He motioned down the stairs where the plump cat scrabbled at the front door for release.
‘There you are puss.’ His wife cooed. ‘Bill, get the cat box. It’s on top of the wardrobe.’
‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, love, but the bloody house is on fire!’
‘Bill please, she’ll run away and get lost or run over or…’
‘Alright, alright.’ He coughed. ‘Take her and get out, I’ll be back in a minute.’ He thudded up the stairs, cursing the cat. If only she’d let the sodding thing go outside. Spoilt sodding house cat. He grabbed the carry box and ran outside to find his wife cradling the cat like a baby. They both hobbled up the gravel driveway barefoot, choking on the cold night air. A fire engine roared around the corner into the cul-de-sac. Men jumped out and unrolled the hose.
Neighbours peeked out from behind their bedroom curtains, while Mrs Jones trotted across the road with a pair of blankets. ‘I heard your alarm Bill.’ She exclaimed. ‘I saw the smoke and called the fire brigade. Are you alright?’
Luckily the damage wasn’t much. The firemen had caught it before it spread beyond the utility room. They explained that the lint in the tumble dryer had caught fire. Bill looked at his wife with an “I told you so” expression.
The next week they had a new, more efficient model delivered. Once installed, Bill went around the walls with a tin of paint. The scorch marks looked like bruises under the lilac emulsion. It would need a few coats. After finishing the first, Bill stopped to make his wife a cup of tea. He found her in the living room, crying into a handkerchief.
‘Iris, what’s the matter?’ He set the tea beside her. ‘We’re alright, love. The house is ok. You won’t know it happened when I’ve added another coat or two out there.’
‘I know. I just can’t forgive myself for leaving this behind.’ She opened her hands to reveal the handkerchief. It wasn’t a handkerchief at all. It was the baby’s bonnet. Their daughter Jane had only worn it a few hours at the hospital, but they kept it to remind them of the day they were parents. It lived in a small plastic bag tucked inside the ottoman with all the other souvenirs of their life together. Thirty-five years later and it still looked and smelt brand new.
‘There’s no damage done.’ He assured her.
‘But it could have been burnt, Bill. I forgot it.’ She hugged it to her breast. ‘After I always promised myself it would be the one thing I’d save. I’d never have forgiven myself if something happened to Jane’s bonnet.’ She sobbed.
‘I’ll tell you what, love.’ Bill held her trembling fingers. ‘Let’s make a new promise. Next time there’s an emergency, you just worry about the cat, and I’ll remember Jane’s bonnet. Alright?’ His wife nodded and wiped her tears on his shoulder.
‘Ok.’ She sniffed. ‘But let’s not have any more disasters, eh?’ They chuckled and said goodnight to Jane once more as they closed the lid on the ottoman.
In the dinghy, Iris wiped her eyes and opened the door of the cat box just enough to squeeze a hand inside. Rosie’s fur was damp but warm. She sniffed Iris’ fingers and nuzzled them for a reassuring fuss.
‘She’s lovely.’ The young mother remarked. ‘What’s her name?’
‘Rosie. She’s too old for all this.’ Iris said. ‘My husband, Bill, gave her to me as a kitten. Since he passed away she’s all the company I’ve had. I don’t know what I’d do if I left her behind.’
‘Well luckily that didn’t happen.’ The woman smiled. She looked over at her children, sulking in the corner of the boat and leaned in to whisper to Iris, ‘we had to leave the guinea pig.’
The boat neared the end of the street. Dry land emerged from the water like a concrete beach. A crowd was gathered at the water’s edge, taking photos with their mobile phones. Iris pulled the snorkel mask off her forehead and rubbed out the red crease above her eyebrows. For the lack of a handbag, she tucked the snorkel and deflated armbands into the box next to Rosie. Her fingers slipped under the warm tea towel and felt the crackle of a plastic bag. She tugged it out from beneath the plump cat. Inside the small clear Ziploc bag was a baby’s bonnet and a piece of paper. Iris’ fingers trembled as she unzipped the bag. Taking care not to drip water on the bonnet, she took out the note. Iris knew Bill’s beautiful curly handwriting immediately. She read.
I kept my promise, love. I hope you and the cat are alright. Do remember to turn the tumble dryer off before you go to bed. Love Bill. XXX
This piece formed part of my coursework for Open University module A215.