‘Have you noticed how little traffic there is?’ Helen asks. They have been driving for four hours, but mostly on motorways. Since they started on minor roads twenty minutes before, they have met no traffic at all.
Michael Standway grunts in agreement. It seems a bit odd, but then settlement in this part of the country is pretty thin, the nearest town still more than fifty kilometres ahead of them.
‘How much further, Dad?’ asks Jennifer, leaning forward between the two front seats.
‘Have you undone your seat-belt, Jen?’ demands her father.
‘No, Dad. How much further?’
‘We’ll take a break in the next town,’ Michael tells his children. ‘Then there’s another hour or so to Gran’s.’
Patrick sits beside his sister engrossed in the DVD playing on the small machine strapped to the back of the headrest in front of him. He has the sound turned up far too loud, Jennifer can tell. She leans towards him and taps his knee to get his attention. She signals him to remove his ear-phones. Clearly irritated, he nevertheless pauses the DVD and lifts one of the ear-pieces. ‘What?’
‘I can hear every word,’ she tells him. ‘You’re damaging your ears.’
‘Well I can’t help it. Dad won’t buy me any noise-cancelling earphones, so it has to be turned up.’
Jennifer has given her warning, and leaves it at that. She turns and looks out the window at the rather dreary landscape, sodden after a day of solid rain. The paddocks are saturated, shallow pools of water lying everywhere. Ever since they left the motorway they have been splashing through pools of water where the culverts have been overwhelmed, small streams running over the road.
It is early evening. Helen and Michael are both listening to a talking book on an iPod plugged into the adaptor on the dashboard, each listening through their own earphones. Michael feels slightly guilty about this, knowing it is not really good driving practise. On the other hand it helps to keep him alert on the long drive from home to his mother-in-law’s house set deep in the country, the country where Helen had been brought up.
Jennifer is reading a real book, looking up every now and then to gaze through the grimy windows of the car. She has visited her grandmother most summers, but the sparsely populated country, as flat as a board, is still a little threatening to her, so different from the cityscape with which she is familiar.
The drone of the engine, hardly changing pitch in this flat country, and the slap, slap, slap of the windscreen wipers sweeping monotonously from side to side are making her drowsy. She settles back against the two cushions she has dragged forward from the piles of luggage behind them and closes her eyes.
‘Shit,’ Michael says loudly, and changes down rapidly as he applies the brakes carefully. There is a dip in the road ahead and he can see in the fading light that it is flooded, his lights blazing over a wide expanse of water, perhaps two-hundred metres. He looks at Helen, who removes her earphones and stops the iPod. They look at each other, each trying to gauge the reaction of the other.
‘What do you think?’
Helen peers ahead. On either side of the road ahead she can see the marker posts, and from them she can see that the water looks to be about thirty centimetres deep in the middle. There is clearly a current running from right to left, ripples forming, small waves, as it flows off the roadside on the down-stream side. ‘I think it’ll be okay,’ she says. ‘Take it easy, and stay on the right-hand side of the road. There’s nothing coming.’
Michael agrees. The four-by-four is big enough to get through the shallow water without too much trouble, and certainly has enough clearance to keep the cabin out of the water. He punches down the low-ratio knob and slides into low gear. The vehicle moves slowly forward, sending a small wave ahead of the tyres. In the back of the car both Patrick and his sister are wide awake and staring at the water. They have no trouble crossing the flooded area, and are soon rising onto the higher ground ahead of them. Michael stops the car, flicks the low-ratio knob to normal and pulls his mobile from his pocket. He looks at the tiny screen, then looks towards Helen. ‘No signal.’ Of course there is no signal. He would have been very surprised to find that there was.
Helen turns on the radio, and punches through the pre-set wave-lengths, hoping to find some sort of local news. It is ten minutes to seven: maybe they will be able to get some information from the news at seven.
‘I’m not too happy about this,’ Michael says. The two children in the back seat look at each other, surprised by the tone in their father’s voice.
‘Tell me what you’re thinking,’ Helen says.
‘Well, should we go on? How much flooding is ahead? Is the rain going to stop?’ He pauses as though thinking it through. ‘We might be wiser to turn around and get somewhere safer for the night?
Helen frowns. It is her mother’s birthday, and they are already much later than they had thought they would be. ‘Why don’t we see if there is any mention of flooding on the news?’ she suggests.
Michael looks at his watch. Eight minutes to go. ‘Okay,’ he makes up his mind. ‘Try to find the local station, and we’ll listen to what they say.’ He reaches forward and switches off the engine.
‘What are you doing?’ Helen asks, surprised.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Why have you switched off the engine?’
‘We’ll wait here until we get the news, yeah?’
‘Don’t be silly, Mike. Let’s just get a move on, and we’ll turn back if the radio says flooding.’
Michael is dubious, but nevertheless he starts the engine again. It’s her part of the world, he thinks; she’s used to this sort of thing.
Cautiously he drives on. Two kilometres on they come to another flooded stretch, a little deeper this time. Once again he engages low-ratio and inches ahead into the flow. The current is stronger, and he feels the tug of the waters through the steering wheel. He is not at all happy about this, but decides that turning back here would be more dangerous than going on. It is much further to the other side of the swollen creek, and he is relieved when, eventually, they reach the other side.
The news is not good, telling of wide-spread flooding, rivers breaking their banks, livestock being moved to higher ground, towns in danger of inundation, the SES turned out in their hundreds, the army asked for help.
‘Okay,’ Michael says at the end of the bulletin. ‘We’d better turn back.’
Helen thinks of her mother alone in her isolated house. ‘I don’t think it’s that bad yet, Mike,’ she objects. ‘Look, how about we press on into town, and make a decision there?’
She has a point there, Michael thinks. It’s only a short distance to the town, and they can stay at the pub or one of the motels. But can they make it? It has clearly been getting worse the further south they drive. ‘Okay,’ he says reluctantly. ‘but one more swollen creek and that’s it. It’s silly to take chances.’
He has always been too cautious, Helen thinks. Too much of a townie, always worried about the dangers of the bush. She snorts to herself, not quite in derision, but something close to it. In the back of the car the two children are thinking similar thoughts, but neither of them say anything.
Michael leans forward over the steering wheel, as though striving to see further ahead through the rapidly darkening gloom. He has the de-mister going full blast, the wipers turned up to maximum speed. The road is clear for a while, then they cross two more shallow floods, both far smaller than the two previous ones. Michael is feeling more confident now, and he smiles at his wife, glad that she insisted on continuing.
A short distance on, they meet the biggest flooded area yet. Michael stops the car. The guide-posts an either side of the road have disappeared under the water. They are about a metre high. The current across the road is frightening, waves thirty centimetres high, at least. For as far as they can see in the gloom of twilight, the land is flooded. Occasionally a tree stands in the water, trunks mostly submerged.
They cross back over the two shallow flooded areas with no trouble, though Michael thinks they are already deeper now than they had been when they crossed them before. He bites his lip and says nothing of his fears, driving back along the road as fast as he dares. When he comes to the larger flooded area he quickly engages low ratio and the lowest gear and drives slowly into the water. The guide posts are more than half submerged. In the light of his headlights he can see that the flood is at least double the width it was when first they crossed it. Nervously Michael drives on.
‘Dad,’ shouts Patrick suddenly, ‘Dad, water’s coming in my door!’ he lifts his legs, twisting to get his feet onto the seat beside him.
‘My side too!’ Jennifer exclaims
Helen twists to look into the back of the cabin, then examines the seal around her own door. ‘Nothing here,’ she reports.
Michael looks down quickly, and sees a small jet of water forcing its way through a faulty seal. There is nothing to be done except to get to higher ground as soon as possible. Struggling to maintain control in the current, he presses on.
There is a rising tension in the cabin, all four of them aware of the difficulties of the situation. Michael grips the wheel tightly, knuckles white. The three passengers hold on to anything they can, though the vehicle is progressing smoothly. Water rises in the back of the cabin. The carpets will be ruined, and it seems likely that much of their luggage will be saturated too.
Michael realises with relief that the water level outside is decreasing as the car reaches the other side of the flood. He bangs the wheel with the palm of his hand, looks at Helen. ‘Made it,’ he says loudly, grinning at her. He looks quickly behind him. The children are grinning too, the tension in the cabin draining away. He accelerates a little, and the car heaves itself clear of the water.
The road is built up higher than the surrounding land and is standing like a causeway through the flood. Michael drives quickly but cautiously, aware that there is at least one more flooded area ahead of them. He is anxious to get back to the motorway as soon as possible, to find somewhere to stay for the night. Suddenly he realises that the tarmac ahead of him has disappeared, and he slams on the brakes, the big car slewing to a halt in a short skid. Everyone is flung forward to be brought up painfully by their seat belts. Michael looks round apologetically, but says nothing. He backs away a little, straightening the car on the road.
Everyone sits immobile for a minute or two. ‘Pass me my jacket, Jen, please,’ Michael says, and Jennifer reaches into the luggage area where all their jackets lie on top of the luggage.
‘Mine too, if you would, please,’ asks Helen. Dragging their jackets around their shoulders, Michael and Helen leave the car. Some of the water in the bottom of the car slops out as the doors are opened.
Michael shines a torch at the edge of the tarmac running in a jagged line across the road. There is a drop of a hundred millimetres or so to where the rushing water is eating away at the rubble under the tarmac, washing it away downstream. As they watch, half a metre of the roadway falls into the flood, carried away immediately.
‘Bugger me,’ swears Michael under his breath, and Helen takes his arm and presses closer to him, the rain pouring down, the noise from the rushing tumult of water making it hard to hear what’s going on. Michael shines his torch over the flood, but can see nothing ahead. ‘Shit,’ he says. ‘Reckon we’re in a spot of bother here, Helen.’
Helen knows it. She stares at the water, then backs away suddenly as another strip of tarmac the whole width of the road gets torn away.
They turn away together and return to the car.
‘What’s happening Dad?’ both children ask, their eyes wide.
Michael sighs. ‘The flood is washing away the road, that’s what’s happening.’
Patrick and Jennifer look at each other. ‘Does that mean we’re stuck?’ Patrick asks.
Helen nods mutely. Michael drops his head. He suddenly feels very tired.
‘We can’t just sit here, though,’ Patrick says. ‘I’m getting hungry.’
‘Me too,’ Jennifer adds.
Michael gets out of the car again, goes around to the back door and pulls it wide. He can see immediately that the luggage is fine, that no water has got in there. He feels around the side of the pile of luggage and pulls out a telescopic walking pole. It is a metre and a half long, with a thong at its handle. He closes the back door of the car and returns to the driver’s side. He climbs in and awkwardly removes his shoes, socks and trousers.
‘What are you doing?’ Helen demands.
‘I’m going to check how deep it is,’ he tells her.
‘Oh’. She climbs down from the vehicle too, and walks back with him. ‘Do you want me to hold the torch?’
He thinks about it, then hands it to her. ‘If it’s less than bum-deep, I’m going to try to drive across.’
‘That’s silly, and dangerous.’
‘Not as dangerous as staying here.’ He lowers the walking pole into the water at the torn edge of the road. It isn’t much more than thirty centimetres deep; he lowers one foot into the water. The rubble at the bottom of the stream cuts into the soles of his feet, and he winces in pain. ‘Christ, these stones are so bloody sharp.’ As he lowers his other foot into the water he leans onto his pole, which he has placed upstream. Bit by bit he shuffles forwards, the water rising rapidly to his knees, then after just a few metres to mid-thigh. He is only five metres into the stream, and already he is realising that the torrent is un-crossable.
At his next step the force of the water drags his foot from under him, and he falls sideways into the waves, only regaining his foothold with difficulty. Helen screams. ‘Come back, Mike, it’s too dangerous.’
Easier said than done, Michael thinks. He is soaked, and the force of the current is dangerously difficult to fight against. Rocks are being rolled over his naked feet and lower legs, and he is in considerable pain. He has no option, though, and he struggles back to the edge of the tarmac, inch by inch. Helen holds out her hand to him, and he lifts the walking stick for her to grab and pull him up onto the tarmac. He notices that the water has risen twenty-five millimetres in the short time they have been there.
‘We’re in serious trouble, Helen,’ he tells her.
She nods, and they hurry back to the car.
Helen scrabbles in the back of the car, dragging Michael’s bag from the pile, finding a towel. Michael pulls off his soaking clothes and looks at his legs. His left shin is bleeding from a long cut caused by one of the rolling rocks, and both his feet are bloody.
‘Dad!’ complains Jennifer as he scrambles naked into the driver’s seat; she looks away in embarrassment.
‘Shut up, Jen. This isn’t the time.’
Jennifer is shocked. Neither of her parents have ever talked to her in this way. She looks resentfully at the back of her father’s head, and her mouth draws down into a sulk.
Helen climbs back into her seat, passing Michael a towel then trying to get dry clothes for him from his bag. She passes him a thick rugby shirt, a pair of underpants and a track-suit. She zips the bag again and passes it silently back to Patrick, who heaves it behind him into the luggage compartment. Michael is dressing awkwardly, pulling on his socks and shoes. She tells Michael to start the engine and when he does she turns up the heater.
It is soon very warm in the cabin, and the windows start to mist up.
Michael half turns in his seat and addresses his family. ‘We’re in serious trouble,’ he tells them. ‘The road behind us is flooded, the road in front of us is washed away. The water is deep on either side of us. It’s still raining, and the water is rising. Until the water goes down we’re stuck.’
‘Are we going to have to sleep here?’ Patrick asks.
Helen looks at Michael. ‘Yes,’ she says. There is silence in the car. Michael turns off the engine, and the only sound is the sound of the rain on the body of car, hard and unrelenting.
Jennifer gives a little sob. ‘It’s worse than that, isn’t it Mum?’
Helen lowers her head for a moment, but realises that she has to prepare them. ‘Much worse,’ she says.
Michael looks at her. ‘Tell us the worst,’ he says.
She takes a deep breath. ‘Well, you can see that the water is rising. There is no higher ground we can reach. The road will be under water soon...’
Patrick, looking out of the window through a hole cleared in the mist interrupts: ‘It’s underwater now.’
Jennifer gives a little squeal of horror. They all look out as best they can. Michael opens his door and prods down with his stick. ‘It’s about twenty-five millimetres underwater now,’ he reports, then closes the door once more.
After a moment’s silence, Helen begins again: ‘Well, we’ll keep an eye on it,’ she says. ‘How deep can it get before it starts coming into the cabin?’
Michael shrugs. ‘Haven’t a clue,’ he says. He opens the door, puts his stick on the surface of the road and leans down to hold the stick at the bottom of the door. He brings it back into the cabin, and looks at it. ‘What’s that? About four hundred millimetres?’
Helen nods. ‘Give it another two hundred millimetres and it’ll reach the top of the seats. If it does that, we’ll have to climb on top of the roof. I think we’ll be alright up there.’
Patrick starts sobbing quietly. Jennifer undoes her belt, and holds him.
Michael looks out of the windows. ‘Did anyone notice any trees near us? Big ones we could climb into?’
Helen shakes her head. ‘It won’t come to that,’ Helen says. The children don’t respond.
‘How about food?’
‘I’ve got some chocolates I was going to give Mum. And there are some apples. Anyone got anything else? How much water do we have left?’
Michael measures the rise in water level every quarter of an hour. He writes the levels in the little notebook he always carries, and after an hour, at eight thirty, he tells Helen quietly that it seems to be rising steadily at about one hundred millimetres each hour. ‘If it keeps that up we’ve got about six hours before we have to get onto the roof.’ Helen has already worked that out for herself.
They run the engine every half hour or so, partly to keep the cabin warm, but also to keep the battery charged. They have plenty of fuel.
Michael is thinking furiously about what could happen to them. He has had no experience in life that would help them now. He is a solicitor, an everyday simple solicitor. Skiing during winter holidays is the only outdoor activity he takes part in, unless you count cycling around the city. He wishes he knew more about survival skills, feels he is letting his family down by not knowing about them.
The children are dozing in the back seat. Michael and Helen lean towards each other and try to work things out, decide on some course of action if the worst comes to the worst.
‘What is the worst that can happen?’ he asks Helen.
She ponders this question. ‘I suppose the worst is that the water might rise higher than the roof of the car.’
‘What, and we all get washed away?’
‘Bloody hell. Surely not?’
Helen shakes her head. She doesn’t know.
Michael takes her hand. ‘I’m so sorry, Babe,’ he tells her in a whisper. It’s his secret name for her, used only in the most intimate moments.
She puts her cheek beside his. ‘It’s my fault,’ she tells him. ‘I know you wanted to turn back before.’
‘It would have been too late anyway, I expect.’
Helen starts to cry, her shoulders shaking a little. She tries hard to control her shaking lest the children realise she’s frightened, but the best she can do is to push tightly into Michael’s arms. He holds her close and wonders how they’re going to get out of this.
Her crying subsides after a while, and she realises with a start that she has been dozing. ‘What time is it?
‘Nine thirty. Nearly time for bed.’ He smiles at her, and she tries to smile back.
‘What we’ve got to do is to prepare for the worst.’
‘I know. I’ve been thinking about it.’
‘Well, what do you think?’
Michael opens the door and takes another measurement. The water is clearly rising faster than it had been. He notes the time and the depth in his book. ‘First,’ he begins, ‘we have to try to stay dry. If we have to climb on the roof we take as much as possible with us. We have to put on as many clothes as we can...’
‘... woollen things closest to the skin,’ interrupts Helen. ‘Have you got any real woollen things?’
‘I’ve got some of those thermals,’ he says. ‘Did you pack anything like that for the kids?’
Helen shakes her head.
‘We’ll put the thermals on the kids.’
Helen nods. Bloody hell, she thinks.
‘There’s a small tarp in the tool compartment. It might be big enough to cover us. In fact it is—I thinks it’s three metres by three.’
‘Our bags are all fairly waterproof, too,’ Helen reminds him.
‘So we should be able to stay dry, for a while at least. How about seats? Can we get any of the seats out?’
They look at how the seats are put together, and realise that, without specialist tools they’re never going to manage that.
‘We’ve got sleeping bags. We can sit on those.’
‘Mmmmm,’ agrees Michael doubtfully.
‘What about if we get swept away?’ It hardly bears thinking about, but they must plan, must do all they can.
‘Do you mean something to keep us afloat?’
‘Well yes, of course.’
Michael thinks. What have they got that floats? Not much, he thinks. Inner tubes! They have two spare wheels, one on the back door, one slung under the back of the car. But they haven’t the tools to get the inner tubes out, and in any case he has no idea how to do it. But would the wheels float as they were? ‘What do you think, Hel? Would the spare wheels float? We have to find out,’ he says. He measures the water depth again, and realises that it’s lapping just below the door. ‘We’re running out of time,’ He tells his wife.
She nods. ‘Right, what do we do first?’
‘We get the kids up and explain what we have to do. We lower the seats in the back and climb in there with them. We get into all our clothes. I get the spare wheel from under the car, and the one from the back door, see if they float. We prepare for evacuation. I reckon we’ve got an hour at most.’
The children are quiet and frightened. They are roused, and help to lower the seats that fold flat beneath them, leaving a space in which they can kneel, the adults with their necks bent. That done, Michael removes his shoes, socks, track-suit bottoms and underpants. Jennifer makes no comment at this time. Despite everything, Michael smiles to himself.
He opens the back door and climbs out. He tries to reach under the car to drop the rear wheel, calls for the torch so that he can see what he is doing, but it defeats him. He has never retrieved the wheel stored under the car, has no idea how it is done. He gives that up as a bad job, and takes the cover with the smiley face from the spare wheel on the back door. He realises that it is waterproof, too, and hands it into the back of the car, then realises that he has never removed that wheel either. He scratches his head. He needs tools to unbolt it. He shoos the children forward so that he can raise the lid of the undercompartment, and as he does so he remembers that he wrapped the tarpaulin in a long length of rope when he stored it there not long after they bought the car. He passes the rope and tarpaulin into the cabin, and reaches for the tool kit. He unrolls it and finds an angled wheel-spanner. He remembers then what he has to do.
Only three wheel-nuts hold the wheel in place, but they are very tight. He pulls with all his strength, but only one of them moves. He removes that one, then wonders how to loosen the others. He remembers the hydraulic jack in the tool compartment, and fetches it out. It is heavy, almost too heavy. He places the spanner on the first nut and hits the end of it hard. It seems to give slightly, but is still too tight to move by hand. He hits the end of the spanner again, and this time it does move. He tries it by hand, and finds that he can turn it. He tries the same trick with the last nut, but has to hit the end of the spanner as hard as he can several times before it shifts. With a sigh of relief he finishes unscrewing the nuts, and drags the wheel from the door, lowering it to the ground. He turns it on its side and is relieved to find that it does float, even though it rides fairly low in the water. Will it support the children, he wonders? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It’s the best he can do, though.
Michael rolls the wheel through the rising water towards the front of the car. Struggling under the weight of it, he manages to lift it as high as the big bull bar, and balances it there while he rests. When he has regained his breath he climbs onto the bull bar himself and drags the wheel higher onto the bonnet of the car. He should tie it there, he thinks, and clambers down. ‘Pass me the rope, Helen,’ he asks, and when she does he looks at it. It is five millimetre polypropylene, a fair-sized hank of it. ‘Anyone got a knife?’ he asks. Patrick has a Swiss army pen knife with two blades and a number of peculiar tools. Michael uses this to cut a short length of rope from the hank, and takes it to the front of the car where he ties the wheel to the roof rack. He has very little experience with knots, and looks at his efforts dubiously. It is the best he can do.
In the back of the car the children are dressing themselves in his thermal underwear. These are made of ultra-fine merino wool, and as he has two sets of underwear both Patrick and Jennifer have a full set each. They roll the sleeves and legs up, and then pull track suits over them, though Jennifer has also put on her only woollen pullover as well.
Helen has no woollen clothing, making do with her thickest clothes instead.
Michael joins them, pulling his jeans on first and then a track suit over the top. Each of them have a hooded waterproof jacket, and they pull these on last.
Patrick is ready first, and he sits uncomfortably, leaning against the side of the car, surrounded by the contents of their bags, watching the others, and thinking about their predicament. ‘It’s a pity we don’t have any life-jackets,’ he says. They have all been thinking about this, but they don’t have them, and that’s that. No-one says anything.
‘You know that thing I did in the Cubs?’ he continues after a while. ‘You know, that camp thing I went to last year?’ Helen is wondering why he’s thinking of camping when they are in such a precarious situation.
‘Well, we did this sort of adventure game where we had to get all sorts of stuff over a river, and we had to make up ways of floating things.’
Michael looks at his son in sudden interest. ‘Mmm,’ he says encouragingly, trying to pull his bulging clothing through the sleeves of his jacket.
‘One of the things we did was to tie knots in the bottom of the legs of our jeans and turn them upside down in the water, and they sort of filled with air like plastic bags, and you could put one leg under each arm and they made you float a lot higher.’
Helen darts a look at Michael; is that possible?
‘How d’you mean?’ Michael asks. He takes a pair of his jeans from his bag, passing them to Patrick. ‘Here, he says, ‘show us.’
Patrick ties a simple knot in the bottom of each leg, and passes them back to Michael. ‘You sort of lift them out of the water by the waist-band and flop them back into the water so that they fill with air,’ he says.
Michael isn’t game to take off his clothing to get back into the water again to try this, but he can imagine it might work. ‘The air would just go through the material, though,’ he argues.
‘Not when they’re wet,’ Patrick tells them.
Helen thinks about how stiff jeans get when they are wet, and realises that it could work. She sorts through the pile of discarded clothing, pulling all the trousers to her. ‘Got to give it a go,’ she tells them, and starts tying knots in trouser legs. God, she thinks, it won’t come to that, will it? But she looks at her children and realises that it might.
‘The other thing,’ she tells them, ‘is we should stuff the bags with the sleeping bags and all the spare clothing and zip them tight... they’ll float for quite a while.’
While they are intent on stuffing the bags, Jennifer screams,‘Dad, the water!’ and Michael realises that the floodwater is spilling over the rim of the back door of the vehicle.
‘Quick, don’t let your clothes get wet.’ They try to stand in the back of the vehicle, backs bent awkwardly.
‘Time to move,’ Michael says. ‘Helen, you first, and take the tarp with you.’ He stands in the doorway with his head out, holding the door for balance.
Helen edges past him and turns to reach up to the roof of the vehicle. The roof rack ends too far forward for her to grasp it and pull herself up, so Michael bends his leg so that she can stand on his knee. Even so she has great difficulty on the wet roof, dragging her body up and over the edge like a seal, then turning to sit at the front. The rain is still falling, though there is little wind. She unwraps the tarpaulin and pulls it over her head, then tucks the edge under her. Michael passes her the torch. At that moment the interior light in the vehicle dies suddenly.
Patrick is next, and though he has difficulty in reaching the roof rack to pull himself forward, he is far more agile than Helen. He wriggles towards the shelter of the tarpaulin and sits beside his mother.
‘Move over to the other side of the roof,’ his mother tells him, and he does so immediately, grabbing the roof rack for safety.
Jennifer manages the manoeuvre with little trouble. She props up the third corner of the tarpaulin and waits for her father.
Michael first of all passes up the leg-tied trousers, then all the bags, and finally the smaller bag containing the box of chocolates and the apples. Then he, too, climbs onto the roof of the vehicle and joins his family under the tarpaulin.
There is plenty of room on the roof, and though each of them got a little wet in the scramble, none of them are soaked. They sit quietly for a while, each sitting on one of the stuffed bags, their heads supporting the tarpaulin. They look at each other sombrely. ‘I guess this is it, then,’ Patrick finally says. Jennifer sniffs and Helen tries to keep her feelings under control.
‘How long do we have?’ Helen asks.
‘At the present rate? I guess a couple of hours.’
The flow of the water is against the right hand side of the vehicle, and Michael realises too late that he should have turned it to face the flow, rather than expose the flat side of the vehicle to the force of the water. He knows what that means. Sooner or later the vehicle will be swept off the road. He is a failure, he knows, in his attempts to safeguard his family. Their only chance now is that the rain will stop and the flood recede before they are swept away.
With a gulp, he realises that this is not going to happen. He takes the rope and ties one end of it around his waist, then makes a loop which he hopes will be a tight fit around Jennifer’s waist. He makes another loop further up the rope to suit Patrick’s waist, then another for Helen. The family watch him, understanding what he is attempting. ‘Here,’ he says, passing the rope to Jennifer. ‘Get into the first loop.’
Jennifer tries, but he has tied it too tightly and she can get only one arm and her head through it.
Michael loosens the loop and pulls the knot tight again, and this time Jennifer can slip it to her waist. She passes the next loop to Patrick, who also manages to wriggle into it. Helen watches, then takes the last loop. ‘Are you sure this is the right thing to do?’ she asks.
Michael shrugs. ‘No,’ he says dejectedly. ‘I haven’t a clue. But it seems best to make sure we stay together.’ Helen nods, and wriggles into the loop. It is far too big, and she loosens the knot, reduces the loop and tightens the knot again.
Michael looks at the length of rope remaining, which is considerable. ‘Chuck the rope over,’ he tells Helen, and she passes the end of the rope to him. He estimates the half-way point in the remaining rope, and cuts it there. He tucks the loose piece of rope under the loop around his waist and knots it there as tightly as he can. ‘Tell me.’ Helen says.
‘If we do get swept away, and if we get swept near a tree, the one of us closest should try to get the end of the rope around a branch, to give us a chance of climbing out into the tree.’
Helen nods, but he can see she’s crying as she nods, recognising the hopelessness of the situation. Patrick sees his mother’s face and he begins crying too, more noisily. It takes only a few moments before all four of them are sobbing, clinging to each other, the torch their only light.
Helen tries to pull herself together. She takes the meagre bag of food and opens the box of chocolates. She gives them one each, then another and another. Then she gives them each an apple, hard Granny Smiths, green and round. ‘I don’t want one,’ Patrick says, but Helen insists.
‘You’ve got to. We all need the energy. Eat them now, and quickly. The cores too, if you can.’ She doesn’t have to explain, and the children bite into the fruit. The bitter-sweet of the fruit takes their minds from their danger for a moment. When they have all finished their apples, Helen shares the remaining chocolates between the children. There is one apple left, and she hands it to Michael. He takes the penknife and cuts it in two. Helen isn’t sure she can stomach it, but nevertheless bites into it, and manages to swallow it all. When they have finished eating, there is nothing left to do but to wait.
After a while, Jennifer asks ‘What’s the time, Daddy?’ She hasn’t called him Daddy for a few years now; he is touched by her reversion. He looks at his watch. It is two thirty, and he tells her so. Three hours until dawn. Can they hold out till then, he wonders? The torchlight has turned yellow, he suddenly notices. ‘I’m going to turn off the torch,’ he tells them. He should have switched it off ages before. He just hadn’t thought.
They sit in the dark, the rain still falling on the tarpaulin. The air is warm, and even the water flooding past them is far from cold, but they are growing stiff, and they are very uncomfortable on the hard metal of the roof.
‘Maybe we should say a prayer,’ Jennifer suggests.
Patrick snorts. He gave up religion a year or so before, despite his age. ‘So who do you think you’re going to pray to?’ he asks his sister.
Helen leans across and puts a hand on Patrick’s arm. She doesn’t say anything.
Michael looks at his daughter. He holds her hand. ‘Go ahead and say a prayer if you want to, Jen.’
Jennifer looks at him, but can see only a darker shape in the night. She closes her eyes. ‘Dear God,’ she starts, ‘help us in our hour of need. Let my Mummy and Daddy and even Patrick know how much I love them, and please save them. And me,’ she adds. Patrick sniffles, and Helen is about to rebuke him when she realises that he is crying. She clutches him to her instead.
Michael has a lump in his throat. He doesn’t know what to say. Helen looks towards him in the dark, and says it for him. ‘Children, you know we love you more than anything else in the world. We’re going to get through this, and we’re going to do it together.’ She stops. She has felt some movement. She feels the others stiffen as they, too, sense a new development. The four-by-four seems to float slightly, then settle again.
Jennifer cries out in fear, and they each hold on to each other. Suddenly the vehicle lurches to one side, and each of them holds on to the roof rack. The roof tilts further, and they start sliding on the wet metal.
‘Look out, don’t hold on,’ shouts Michael as he realises that the vehicle is going to slide sideways off the road into the deeper water beside it. They must leave it now, or be carried over with it. ‘Quickly, let go and come with me.’ He stands shakily, and they all cling to each other before the vehicle gives a final, violent lurch, tipping them together into the flood.
The tarpaulin tangles around them, and Michael kicks wildly to free it from them. He hasn’t had time to free the spare wheel, and they are washed away from the foundering vehicle. ‘Don’t let go of your trousers and bags,’ he shouts, struggling to keep his head above the water. The torch has gone, they are alone in the dark, wallowing in the current.
‘My bag has gone,’ shouts Helen, but the others all have hold of theirs. Should have tied them to us too, Michael thinks.
Suddenly they are away from the turbulence over the roadway, drifting rapidly downstream with the current. The worst has occurred, but they are still together. Michael flips his trousers into the air and tries to fill the legs with air. With considerable surprise he realises that it works, and he tucks the legs under his arms, floating higher. He hears the splashes as his family try to do the same, and one by one they achieve it.
He thinks about what is happening. ‘Don’t pull yourself too far out of the water,’ he tells them. ‘It’ll force the air out too quickly. Just get a bit of a lift from them.’ He senses them all doing what he has suggested. ‘Bloody good idea, Pat,’ he says.
Silently they drift side by side on the flood. It is a long time before daylight.