The Houseboat | Katie Veitch
The water was creeping past Eleanor’s wrists. Her trousers had gone that ethereal way that lightweight materials do in water, elegantly swaying and curling like dancers. Her top, above the surface, had absorbed the water from the hem up and clung tight around her chest like it was gripping on to her, scared of washing away. The chains around her forearms, though slightly lighter with the buoyancy, pulled violently, jolting her body in whatever direction the wave came and the boat swayed.
In true suffragette fashion, Eleanor had decided at 10pm the night before, to chain herself to her bed frame. The kids were due in the morning to pack up everything that wasn’t already rotting from the damp – including her – and move them all into the eldest’s new home. But she wasn’t having any of it. The houseboat was going to last as long as she did - which wasn’t really much to ask of it - and she had no interest in being alive in any other home than the one she had shared with Maggie. But when the duct tape holding the wooden curves of the bow together finally subsided at exactly 10:25pm, Eleanor knew she had fucked up.
When the water had first come in, she didn’t panic. Sometimes a heavy tide pushed through some holes here and there, and she could mop her way back to safety in the morning. But once the water had risen high enough to float yesterday’s newspaper from the living room to the bedroom, she knew she was in trouble. She would maybe have been able to slide her body close enough to the bedside table to reach her phone, or had just enough space to wiggle and slide her arm up and out, if she hadn’t been so dramatic while using the spare anchor chain to tether herself to the bed frame. The first couple of hours were spent tugging and twisting her old arms, desperately trying to make some space. Unfortunately, 74 wasn’t the prime age to learn contortionism, and her body gradually exhausted itself, leaving her forearms bruised in great deep lines. Between the hours of 1 and 3, as the water continued to rise, Eleanor sat motionless and powerless, simply watching it soak and ruin all her memories.
She had started all this nonsense to save her home, every little trinket, picture, and creaking floorboard, and it was precisely this that was ruining it. ‘I really must be less stubborn,’ she thought to herself while her mattress attempted to absorb the next influx of water. The pictures that Maggie spent hours trimming, framing and placing all hung in the same place, all be it at a slight Dutch tilt. The plastic bag that they kept all the plastic bags in was still the same plastic bag that Maggie had hired for the job. And Eleanor did everything the same as they did; a cup tea every three hours on the dot - careful to only fill it halfway so it doesn’t spill with the daily dipping slant of the houseboat. All shoes and slippers were kept to the right hand side of the door, now with a small rock collection formed into a wall to stop them sliding across the room. Everything was old and breaking apart at the seams, and she loved it all more than when they got it.
It was all rubbish.
That was it.
All she had to do was wait long enough for the wood of the headboard to dampen and weaken, and she would be able to rip herself and the chains free from the bed. Granted, swimming would be difficult at this age and with no arm power, but she knew water well. And so the waiting began.
The water rose above Maggie’s last remaining drawer, destroying her most beautiful clothes that Eleanor couldn’t bear to pack up, never mind get rid of. Then it rose above the pillows, plumping up the dent her head left in the pillow after all the years, and rehydrating stains of tears or sweat from years of living. The water rose exponentially because the more that swam in, the heavier the boat got, and the faster it sank, so time really started to pick up. The wooden beams of the headboard gradually began to soak. It was doubtful whether they would break before the water reached Eleanor’s mouth, but she stared at the now 50-degree tilted wedding picture hung high on the opposite wall, and pledged to take it with her on her way out, keeping her set on her goal.
As water tumbled in and out the cave of her collar bone, Eleanor began to heave her torso forward, with tightened arms and power in her chest. On the third try, the beams fell in line with her movements and began to break. Large splinters ripped through her now permeable top, and scraped at her puckered skin. Pull 5 was the winner, and crossed the finish line at the same time as the water crossed Eleanor’s jawline. Suddenly free, deep pain ached from her tailbone to her shoulder blades and down through her stiffened elbows. As she clambered through the current to her feet, her back gave in and pulled her head under the surface.
Kicking off from the ground, she began to swim, using her legs as a tail to project herself through the artistic aquarium that her bedroom had become. All her possessions floated in front of her, betraying her as obstacles to her freedom. Coming up for air, the wedding picture was dead ahead, and a risky commitment considering she had no hands to rescue it. But a commitment was what it was. Driving herself forward with legs her kids had told her were growing useless, she headed straight for the wall, turning onto her stomach at the last minute, lifting only her hands out of the water to grapple along the wall. A wave, sent from above, reached the frame at just that moment and lifted the tension off its hook, allowing Eleanor to force her numb fingers behind and release it from their home. Now for the door.
Water was pushing through the door frames and a small porthole that had smashed from tumbling debris outside. The moonlight only penetrated the top few feet of water, and so she could only navigate the floor with her feet, which had to kick vigorously to keep her afloat. When she finally reached the door, it held solid ground. The pressure of the water on both sides held it so firmly in place that it the tension was almost visible in the small glass hole two thirds of the way up. She would have to smash a window.
She only needed a couple of attempts with her shoulders to realise her bones would break before the glass did. But the upper right corner, that had about 6 inches left above water level, had an ever so slight chip on the outside. It had been made by the champagne cork from their celebration on the first night aboard. It was like Maggie had left a little escape button, in case anything was to ever happen. She just needed something to smash it with.
Eleanor began scrambling round the boat looking for a heavy and sharp enough object to do to the job. On one of her bigger, more panicked kicks, her foot collided with something on the floor that immediately released blood into the water and sent tiny needles up the core of her right leg; the rock wall that kept the slippers from sliding. Eleanor dived through the blood and salt water as fast as she could, turning onto her back this time right before she reached the floor.
But life paused at the bottom; she would have to drop the picture. She had to let her go.
As if her face wasn’t always right behind her eyelids anyway. Maggie lived in every sleep, every eye rub, every blink.
She took a second to feel about for the best rock and, slowing to slide the frame calmly on the floor, grabbed her weapon and pushed herself back up to the surface. Using the current of the water running between her arms and the chain from her sudden jump, she curved her arms down and outwards, forcing the chain to slip up above her elbows. It pulled open her chest and caused her shoulder blades to stab into one another. The muscles covering her shoulder joints tore and contracted, tightening absolutely everything. But her arms were able to bend now and come far enough back to gain momentum.
She stabilised her legs by wedging her feet in between the couch cushions. After as deep a breath as she could muster, she blew all the remaining air out of her lungs, and twisted her torso to the left. Repeating the deep breath, ensuring no water made it from her chin into her mouth, she thrusted her body to the left at the top of her inhale and used all of the force of her exhale to swing her upper body and right arm back around, launching the rock directly at the small champagne chip in the window.
Deep cracks erupted in all directions, shattering the glass completely. The pressure held it in the frame but with one sharp kick, the glass lost its shape entirely. Freezing, exhausted, and battered, Eleanor did not wait for the broken glass to be swept away by the tide, and swam through immediately, collecting a few more cuts on the way. She thrust herself towards the pier and used the freedom created by the new chain position to push herself up to safety, spitting up the little water that had managed to crawl into her lungs.
Now she just had to run, to find someone, on the dead canal, at 5am.
Katie is an English Literature student at the University of Glasgow, passionate about writing in many forms! She spends a lot of time writing short stories and poetry, published by Speculative Books, and also has a passion for film. Katie wrote the script for Glasgow film company GMAC’s 2019 Summer School, and is currently working on a bigger scale production with an exciting company in America. Katie is also passionate about the Scottish zine scene and has edited and written for Qmunicate, GUM and The Delicate Rebellion.