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Seeds of Doubt

by PamH 

Posted: 14 October 2006
Word Count: 1554
Summary: On August 15th 1952 the worst floods in living memory destroyed the beautiful coastal village of Lynmouth in North Devon. This novel blends fact and fiction in one woman's search for the truth, both of her own identity and of the hidden forces that contrive to manipulate one of the most powerful forces on earth – the weather. While all characters portrayed in this book, including the roles they play, are fictitious, all references to official documents are factual.

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August 1952, Devon, England

The thundering of the rain on the tin roof was threatening to drown out the Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy. 'He opens up for business when the clock strikes nine, he likes to get up early when they're feeling fine.' The noise from above becoming louder and louder... 'with his hoppity-hippity-hippity-hoppity-hoppity-hippity-hop,' ... the band racking up the volume to compete. Great gusts of wind thudding against the walls, threatening to upend the makeshift hall from its foundations and toss it aside. And the children oblivious to it all, their staccato shouts adding to the din.

Much more of this and she would be screaming herself. She had to get out, if only for a minute. But it wasn’t any quieter outside. With each step the roaring grew worse, drowning the music, the shouting, even the murderous percussion on the roof. Her eyes were useless in the pitch black, but there was no escaping the noise; not of the rain or even the wind, but what? The gentle stream hidden in the valley never sounded like this. But if it was so well hidden, why was water coursing across the terraces, surging round her ankles, sweeping away everything in its path?

‘It's flooding,’ she screamed. Panic swept the music aside as children scurried up the slippery valley sides, scrambled over rocks towards the lights of the village, desperate to escape the terrifying force breaking through the night behind them. But the lights weren’t there anymore. Blinded, they were losing their bearings, running back towards the torrent. ‘Up, up. Keep climbing up.’ Useless words thrown back at her by the storm. Only touch was any good, guiding the terrified children until, numbed by exhaustion, they slumped on the fern covered hillside for the final count.

But two were missing. She plunged back towards the hall, forcing her way through the waist-high water surging across the dance floor, calling ‘Alastair, Michael,’ again and again. No answer. Where were they? Hiding. Why? Then her voice, shouting, blaming, launching them into the path of the flood. In the dark and confusion, stumbling out of the collapsing building into the rising water, tugging at her legs, refusing to release her. Struggling to safety or further into the path of the torrent? Hearing the cry; ‘Moira, Moira.’ Then nothing.

March 1982, Salisbury, England

'Rainmaking!' Stella’s boss was incredulous. 'Are you seriously saying that…?'
'Not me,' Stella interrupted. 'Private Dean.'
'Who on earth is Private Dean?'
'The old boy in this photo. There's a cutting stuck to the back all about rainmaking. And before you ask, it’s nothing to do with voodoo or ancient pagan rituals. He swore he'd seen planes make it rain when he was on manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain'.
Alan looked at the photograph. 'So according to this, planes flew over him, the clouds got heavier and blacker and about thirty minutes later it rained.'
'That’s about it.'
'I’m going to order.'

Stella Clarke perched herself on the edge of a stainless steel, ergonomically designed cafe chair. Presumably it had been crafted with someone's rear in mind but it certainly wasn't hers. Quirky modern chairs aside though, she was in good shape. She easily clocked up fifty lengths at the swimming baths and breezed through the occasional twelve-mile hike, keeping her five foot six frame toned and slender. No, it wasn't her body that was causing her grief. She knew that absolutely, a hundred percent. But something was.

At fifty-five she was a competent wife, museum assistant, colleague and more, but each day dawned with the nagging sensation that something was missing. Her deep brown eyes, partially hidden by black bobbed hair falling over her face, had the air of a child's; curious, questioning but somehow puzzled, not informed, by the answers. At some level she knew the pieces of her life, despite her best efforts, didn't quite fit; knew that one day, she would have to go back to the beginning and put them together all over again. But for now she continued to look for the quick solution, a makeover to disguise the cracks and shore up the shaky foundations. The only question was how?

Something else she was undecided about was the change of pace her boss had recently injected into their relationship. Daily life at the museum had taken on a different dimension. She hadn't actually been promoted – he was still the boss - but she'd definitely been invited to step up a rung. Or maybe their new routine of shared lunch hours was because Alan's only alternatives were Alice, the Museum's impossibly young receptionist, or Clive 'ask me a question if you dare' Munro, the caretaker.

She looked over to where he stood in the counter queue. No, things were definitely different. After years of treating her as part of the furniture he'd started greeting her each morning. And his visits to the gym were paying off, he looked toned, fitter and somehow younger. It was a look that suited him; it matched his boyish enthusiasm. His long fringe of unruly dark hair reminded her of a spotty teenager trying to be one of the gang. But the illusion was soon dispelled when he fixed her with his piercing blue/green eyes. Those eyes were anything but impressionable. They were focused, purposeful and increasingly impatient with life.

She watched as he scrutinised the assistant’s movements with eagle-eyed ferocity, intensifying every second of waiting time before he returned with their coffee and sandwiches.
'Oh my dear Lord, what have they done to the weather?' Dimpled elbows pushed against the door as an overweight woman backed into the café. She thrust a pile of plastic shopping bags into an empty chair and shook her umbrella out in their direction.
'For goodness sake.’ Alan spun round, his face soured with irritation.
'Sorry my love, didn’t see you there. Still, no harm done, it’s only a bit of rain.' He snatched up a paper serviette and began stabbing at the offending drops on his sleeve as his unwitting assailant forced her way to the counter, dislodging a trail of chairs.

Stella looked out the window, seeking sanctuary in the kaleidoscope of umbrellas fighting for space on the busy pavement. A young mother struggled to the café entrance with a double buggy and an exhausted toddler. Stella scraped her chair back and held the door open. She didn’t expect a burst of applause but a simple 'thanks' would have been nice. She turned back to Alan and her waiting coffee.
'Are you and Jean taking a break this year?'
'No. Jean is taking Ellie away to Cornwall but I don't know if I'll get any time alone with her.’
‘With Jean?’
‘No,' he said abruptly, 'with Ellie.'
So the rumours were true. 'I'm sorry,' she said.
He shrugged. It obviously wasn't a topic he wanted to pursue. Stella retreated to the kaleidoscope outside before boredom prompted her to try again.
‘His photograph is beginning to haunt me.’
‘Oh yes?’ Alan muttered into his coffee.
‘He reminds me of the old boys you see propping up the bar in every village pub in the country. You know, the ones who always know everything about everything.'
‘Uh huh.’
‘Each time I try to file him away he just ends up on my desk again. It's as if he’s waiting for me to get the message.’
Alan finally looked up. ‘So do something about it.’
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘Well it’s obviously got you hooked. Why don’t you look into it? Maybe it should be part of the 'Plain Talking' exhibition.’
‘I’m not sure I’d know where to start.’
‘The Ministry of Agriculture might be involved. Remember the droughts of ’75 and ’76? Hundreds of people queued for water at standpipes. Imagine being able to make it rain to order and sort that lot out,’ he said.
'I suppose so. Only according to this,' she pointed to the faded text on the back of the photograph, 'he was talking about the early 1950’s. Any experiments then couldn’t have been very successful if more than twenty years later we were stuck with a drought two years running.’
Alan shrugged. ‘But think of the press coverage if it turned out to be true. Taxpayers' money being spent on making it rain, in our climate!’
It was time to go. Alan was beginning to relax, but with the sandwiches consumed and coffee cups drained there wasn’t any excuse to linger. Stella reached for her coat.
‘Just a minute.' Alan delved into each jacket pocket before retrieving a crumpled piece of paper. ‘I wondered if you’d be interested in this, for next time.’ He shook his fringe back and smoothed the flyer out on the table. A pub just round the corner from the museum was advertising lunchtime jazz sessions. She enjoyed jazz, that wasn’t a problem, but something was. She was feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
‘I don’t know. It would be a rush.’
‘It’s nothing formal. Just background music while you eat.’
‘I’ll think about it. Just now I’ve got a box of photos to get stuck into.’
Alan took his cue and held out her coat. As Stella slipped it on he rested his hands on her shoulders, just for a moment. It was a gesture that felt strangely intimate.

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Other work by PamH:      ...view all work by PamH