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The Waterfall 



He wanted his name cleared and he wanted everyone involved to admit that he’d been wronged. That’s what he remembered most about moving to the farm—walking on and on, down the narrow lane in the snowstorm, with the wind blowing ice into his face, the suitcase handle cutting into his palm, and that one thought pulsing through his mind. 

He tried to stop thinking about it and focus on what was happening here, at this minute, instead. He was struggling with the case. It wasn’t its weight that was the problem; it was the awkwardness of having to carry it by its handle. No matter how often he changed it to his other hand, it kept cutting deeper into his skin. The snow had come in over the tops of his shoes, too. He’d lost feeling in his toes, but he walked on, anyway. The physical discomfort distracted him, giving him some relief from the fury that even now swept over him in flashes of increased intensity. He was thinking about truth a lot, wondering when it had become so fluid. Other people’s feelings could be layered over fact, it seemed. Truth could be pushed this way or that.

The anger unsettled him. It was a struggle to bring himself back to this morning, the early start and the drive to the village. He’d intended to drive all the way to the farm, but it had snowed heavily overnight and the road above the village was blocked. He’d decided to walk instead and had abandoned his car down there, just where the last tyre tracks petered out and a line of footprints were half-covered by the falling snow. It was about three miles to the farm, and he’d underestimated how hard it would be to walk that far with his suitcase through the snow. But he wanted to be there. He wanted to be somewhere isolated, where no one could see him or judge him.  

He thought of the college, his student, and his wife, and rage swept over him. He made himself focus on the road ahead instead. Snow had hidden all the detail and it seemed to him that his anger had whitened his mind in the same way, so that he could feel nothing, see nothing, except his feet treading on and on along this empty, alien road. 

He walked on, until he saw the dark stone of the farmhouse in the valley. Snow had drifted here as well, blocking the top of the lane that led down to it. He climbed it, throwing his suitcase ahead of him, and was in the farmyard a few minutes later.

A violin was playing somewhere nearby, but the yard was empty. He knocked at the door of the house and waited. Then he followed the sound of the music to a nearby barn. It had stopped snowing now and a weak sun was already out, throwing light onto the rough stone floor. Julia stopped abruptly when she saw him, lowering the violin and dropping her other hand, the one holding the bow, to her side.

‘Thomas! You gave me a shock! I thought you wouldn’t come in this.’ She gestured with her bow at the hills and the snow.

‘I said I’d be here.’ 

She laughed. ‘How could I have doubted you?’ In the farmhouse kitchen, she took the key from a hook. ‘How did you get here?’ 

‘I walked. From the village.’

‘In this?’ She smiled. ‘Well, you can’t say you’re not keen.’ 

‘I’m just looking forward to some peace!’

He said it jovially, but she looked at him closely. ‘Well, you’ll certainly find that here.’ She led him to the adjoining cottage and left him to it. 

After she’d gone, the house felt very quiet. A child ran into the farmyard; he heard Julia’s voice, calling her back. He looked out over the fields towards the woods. He’d walk down there when the weather was better. There was the waterfall, too, and the moors, further on. He sat on the bed and listened to the silence. 

Julia knocked on his door soon after four o’clock, to offer him food. 

‘You must be starving. I bet you didn’t think about what you’d eat.’

He hadn’t noticed that he was hungry. ‘I was going to walk back to the village.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s almost dark. Eat with us. About six. It’s nothing fancy, only lasagne, but you’re very welcome. You’ve got to eat.’

It was just her and her little girl, who must have been seven or eight, with short brown hair and watchful eyes. 

Julia saw him glance at a photo on the mantelpiece. She hesitated. ‘My husband’s abroad a lot. With work.’

‘Oh. I thought maybe the snow –’

‘No,’ she said. ‘It isn’t that.’

‘He’s coming home for Christmas,’ the girl said, smiling.

‘You must miss him.’

Julia gave a quick, slight nod. He watched her carefully in the second afterwards.

‘Yes,’ the girl said. ‘We do.’

There was a fire burning in the living room and Julia invited him to sit by it after they’d eaten. He told them about his journey, making them laugh by exaggerating the height of the snowdrifts. 

‘We were snowed in last winter too,’ Julia said. 

The girl leant forward, enthusiastically. ‘I couldn’t get to school, so we just sledged.’

He glanced at the window, where thick flakes were falling again. 

Julia smiled. ‘Maybe we’ll get more days like that. Listen, let me give you some food. Some wood for the fire.’

‘No, I –’

‘How will you manage, then?’

He sighed. ‘I actually don’t know. Thank you. Thank you so much.’

‘I’ll get some things together. We always stock up.’

It seemed a long time since anyone had done something so thoughtful for him. Stepping out of the warm farmhouse, retracing his footprints, which had iced over now, so they seemed lined with black glass, he shivered.

The holidays had started; he didn’t have to get up the next day. He unpacked what he’d brought, lit a fire, and read. By four o’clock, it was already getting dark. He went for a short walk through the snow, avoiding Julia and Katy, who were sledging down the hill. He felt calmer already. The anger was receding. He was surprised by how strong it had been. He kicked at the snow, seeing it rise in little flurries in front of him. 

‘Do you have a daughter?’ Katy asked him, as they ate together again that evening. The snow had stopped now, but it still wasn’t safe to get his car. 

‘I do, actually,’ he said. ‘But she’s older than you. Sixteen.’ 

‘Don’t you want to be with her?’ 

He hesitated. ‘I do. But she wants to be with her mum.’ 

‘I want to be with my dad. And my mum.’ 

‘That’s good,’ he said carefully. He felt Julia’s eyes on him and said it again, softly, as though he was imparting wisdom, or at least some sort of certainty. ‘That’s very good.’ 

The snow melted, clinging to the grass and walls in stubborn patches. He walked to the village to get his car and wondered for an anxious moment whether the engine would start. It coughed once and spluttered into silence, but he tried the ignition again and this time it broke into a sustained, hopeful hum. He drove slowly to the supermarket, avoiding the treacherous patches of ice that shone like black sapphires on the road ahead. 

His phone rang. The college principal. He bit the anger down, agreed to a meeting. After the call had ended, he stared at the phone for a few seconds, seeing his face distorted in its screen, thinking about something the principal had said. He walked over the fields for an hour, aimlessly. On the allotted day, he got into his car, went to the college, and came back.  


At the farm, Katy was riding her bike down the lane. She pulled over to let him past, but he waved her on and continued at a safe distance behind her to the farmyard. She circled the flagstones as he got out of the car and looked at him curiously.  

‘You’re all dressed up. Did you see your daughter?’ 

‘No.’ He glanced away, at the gate where the horses were standing together, placidly watching the yard. ‘Maybe I should have asked.’ 

‘If you were my dad, I’d want to see you.’ 

He felt tears jump to his eyes, but smiled instead. ‘Thank you.’ 

‘I think you should call her.’ 

‘Maybe you’re right.’ 

‘I am right.’

‘Is she bothering you?’ Julia called from the farmhouse doorway. 

‘Oh no. Not at all.’ 

All the same, he leant against his own door once he was in, glad to have escaped.  

The long conversation at college had drained him. He lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. There was a brown patch near the lightshade, as though water had recently come through. His mind swept across the full range of what this woman could take from him and what was already gone. 

He rang his home. His daughter answered. Her voice flattened when she heard it was him.  

‘I want you to have my new number,’ he said. ‘For my landline.’  

‘OK.’ 

‘I miss you. I love you. Very much.’ He listened to the silence. ‘Look. This student. Nothing happened. You need to know that.’ 

She didn’t answer. He didn’t understand how the truth could sound so insubstantial. There should be more to it, something else that he could say.

‘OK,’ she said. ‘OK.’ Recently, her face would go expressionless whenever she saw him. He imagined her like that now and closed his eyes, tried to see her as she used to be.  

‘You’ve got my number. Let me know if you need—if there’s anything.’ 

Minutes passed. The phone rang. It was his wife. Her voice sounded different, rawer than usual. ‘Look. The other night. I didn’t say I didn’t believe you.’

‘You didn’t say you did.’ It sounded childish, like a taunt. 

‘Is that what this is about?’

‘You must always have known this might be a risk for me. Students claiming—I mean, statistically, it’s unlikely. I assumed no one would. But I thought if it came to it, you’d trust me.’ 

‘I can’t just dismiss what another woman says. Especially when she’s so young.’ 

He leant his forehead against the wall, feeling its coolness. ‘Look, I’ve been thinking about this non-stop and I still can’t understand where it came from. We hardly had any conversations without other students there. She’d stop me in the corridor. She always had questions. But there was only that one time in my room, and that was because she seemed so stressed. And I was sympathetic, just like I would have been with any of them. I extended her deadline, but then she decided that I’d always had some sort of interest in her, that—’ He stopped. ‘That’s why she came to the house,’ he said. 

‘OK.’

‘But I’d hoped you’d—you believed her straightaway, no questions asked. Some lonely young girl gets a crush on me, tells herself that there’s been some sort of sexual undercurrent to everything I’ve ever said to her.’ He heard the drama of it, thought that despite everything he sounded guilty.

‘That’s not what I said.’ 

‘No, but what bothers me is that you’re not sure. You think I could have.’ 

‘You can’t expect blind, unquestioning loyalty, Tom. It’s not as though you’ve never—’

He cut her off. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know.’ He tried hard to keep the fury out of his voice, but it was there in his chest, rising through his throat. ‘But that wasn’t like this. She wasn’t my student. She wasn’t 19. I thought we’d dealt with that. Years ago.’

‘We have. It wasn’t fair to bring it up.’

‘So why—’

‘I’ve put it behind me.’

‘I don’t think you have.’

The silence between them was taut. He should find a way back over it towards her. However difficult, he should at least try. But he just stood there.

‘If it was really behind us, something like this wouldn’t—’ 

‘So this is my fault? That’s why you left?’ 

‘No,’ he said. ‘I needed space.’

He thought that there was no way across to her. He said he’d keep in touch, that she could call any time. 

Afterwards, he couldn’t stay inside. He pushed his key deep into his pocket and walked down through the field to the river. His wife’s voice was in his head. He walked on, trying to focus on the hard mud of the path, the clouds moving swiftly overhead and a bird’s wings flapping heavily in a tree as he got close to the waterfall.  

He watched the white churns of water spinning on the rock, dropping endlessly into the river. There was a kind of companionship in it. He stood watching for a long time, then went back to the farm.

From the bottom of the field, he could hear Julia’s violin, melancholy at first, then reassuring, as though welcoming him home. Katy was in the yard, riding her bike round the flagstones.  

‘What’re you doing?’ 

‘I went for a walk. To the waterfall.’ 

She nodded solemnly. ‘Mummy’s practising.’  

They listened together. ‘She’s so good,’ he said.  

He felt her eyes on him as he went into the house.      

He wanted to tell his own daughter about the waterfall. He wanted to read her the famous war poem that had been written there, tell her about the other poet who’d described this landscape, the way she’d felt it as oppressive, a weight that could crush her. He wanted to discuss it with a class. But his student had silenced him; there was no one he could tell. He stood by the back window.  

Julia knocked on his door. ‘We wondered whether you’d like to come to dinner. Katy’s very insistent.’ 

‘I don’t think –’ he shook his head. ‘Thanks, but I should probably just eat here.’ 

‘You won’t have to talk.’ She hesitated. ‘Katy said you were looking sad. She’s worried about you.’ 

She smiled. He thought suddenly that he could talk to her, that he might regret it if he didn’t try. But in the end, he only said, ‘Tell her I’m not sad. Things are just complicated.’

‘Well, I can relate to that.’ He wanted to know more, but she just laughed. ‘Please come,’ she said. ‘Just give us half an hour.’ She was heading back already. She gave him another quick smile, over her shoulder.  

He felt shy, arriving at the farmhouse. It was unlike him to feel so timid. He encouraged the others to talk, deflecting questions about himself. Julia talked about the freedom Katy had here, about how much she’d wanted that for her. She talked about her own childhood in rural Scotland – the isolated cottage, the loch that she and her siblings had rowed on. He found himself listening with his chin on his hand, then caught himself staring and shifted immediately. 

Katy was studying him. How mortified he’d feel if they ever heard what his student had claimed. 

‘But what about you?’ Julia said. ‘What’s your work like? Your average day?’ 

He didn’t want to say. He looked down at the table. ‘Just the usual. Teaching. Research.’ 

She smiled. ‘The students must admire you.’ 

He hesitated. Did she know something? He felt a sort of shame, although he knew he’d done nothing wrong. He considered her for a moment, wondering whether she was teasing him, whether there was something malicious in her smile. But he could detect nothing.  

‘I don’t think so,’ he said. 

‘I bet you’ve written books, though.’ 

‘Nothing important.’ He glanced at Katy, feeling embarrassed. ‘I’m very small-scale.’ 

‘You could write a book here. It’s quiet enough.’ 

‘Oh, yes, you should!’ Katy said, leaning forward, enthused.  

He missed his own daughter, the way she was when she was little. ‘You’re very kind,’ he said.  

Back at his cottage, he paced the living room, buoyed up by energy, grateful to Julia for being so welcoming. He’d hardly realised what a toll it had taken on him to feel judged for so long. The relief of her simple friendliness was overwhelming.  

He lay awake for a long time that night. He got out of bed and stood at the window, looking out at the vast swathes of blackness where he knew the fields would be. The stars were brighter here. He could almost hear the waterfall, see the water rushing over the ledge in the dark. 

He half-expected Julia to invite him over the next evening, or the one after that, but she didn’t. He found himself listening for them, standing still in his living room, with every sense attuned. But the walls were thick. He heard very little. Occasionally, he heard the violin as he crossed the yard, or saw Katy cycling there, or Julia carrying bags home after work. The weather was bitterly cold. They were inside a lot. 

He spent long days sitting at the kitchen table, trying to work, missing his wife, his daughter, the casual conversations with them that he used to take for granted. He called Lydia, tried to arrange to see her.  

He found himself by the window, staring out at the bleak fields. He thought of Julia’s eyes on him at the dining table and shook the thought off. She’d noticed him, seen something in him. He’d felt different with her. Her partner was abroad half the time. What exactly had she meant when she’d said—? He stopped himself there. She’d been kind, nothing more. All the same, he spent time thinking about it, understanding with a shock how with less resolve he could have let the feeling develop inside his head, could have clung to it, embellishing it with little bits of “proof,” based on his own reading of what she’d said. She’d been friendly, he thought firmly. Nothing more. 

His brother invited him over for Christmas. He called his daughter. Could she come for part of the day? He’d like to celebrate with her, perhaps show her where he was living. 

‘Maybe,’ she said.  

‘Or even come the day after?’ He tried to keep the tone light. He rang his brother back, explained that he wanted to keep the days around Christmas free for now, in case Lydia could see him. 

He listened for Julia’s violin. Hearing it was a kind of comfort, a thin wire of connection between them. He opened his window to let the sound in, its sad sweetness cutting through the yard to him in cold gusts of air, accompanying him as far as the river on his walks to the waterfall. He was going there most days.

He was thinking about his marriage—about trust and betrayal and the way resentment could lie dormant, then simmer up, forceful as before. Waking early, he’d lie in bed, besieged by acute memories of his life with Lucy. Ice inside the windows of their first house. Her laughing in a Portuguese bar. The sandcastles they’d built with Lydia, all of them digging deep channels down to the wet sand, letting the white foam lap gently into the moats. It seemed astonishing that so many years had passed. He couldn’t understand why his student would even want him to show interest in her. He was forty-six. To her, surely, he must seem so old. He closed his eyes, tried to see the waterfall, but it flickered out of focus. He circled back to the student, wondering again why she’d made the complaint. 


He saw Julia in the yard one afternoon as she was coming home and went outside before he’d thought it through. ‘I was thinking,’ he said. ‘You were so kind when I first got here. I wondered whether I could cook for you one night? You know, repay the favour, now I’ve settled in?’

She hesitated. He saw her eyes move fast across his face. Scanning a trap for an exit. But no, that was paranoid. He glanced at Katy. She was twisting the heel of her scuffed school shoe against a flagstone, looking up, watching them. 

‘I’m a good cook,’ he said, and then, backtracking, trying to smooth it over, ‘I’m sure I can find something Katy would like.’

She smiled. ‘It isn’t that. I’m just so busy right now. You know, constantly catching up with work. And Katy still needs so much. It’s hard to find the time to do anything, even think my own thoughts.’ She looked over his shoulder, at her house. ‘I wouldn’t be good company at the moment. Thank you, though.’

‘No problem. But if things ease up, you’re welcome any time.’

‘Thanks.’ He could hear a tight awkwardness in her voice. All the same, her eyes stayed on his longer than seemed natural. He turned towards the gate, walked down past the horses, as though he’d intended to go out all along. 

Days passed. His head of department rang. The student was retracting her claims. 

‘Why?’ He saw after he’d said it that it must seem an odd question. He tried to explain. ‘Why say it in the first place?’ 

‘I suppose she sees that there’s nothing specific. No evidence. She’s not even sure if she was just—’ his voice trailed away. 

‘How could she ever have thought there would be evidence? When nothing happened?’ He paced to his window. ‘It feels like something that would happen to someone else—and if it did, I mean, if I heard that it had, to you, for example, I’d assume there’d been something, just some reason, that it hadn’t come completely out of the blue, that if she was going to infer something other than what actually happened it would be for a reason—there’d be something in it, some nugget of truth.’ 

‘We had to investigate. There was a duty of care. She still thinks you were flirting with her.’ 

He felt too old for this. ‘I’ve never flirted with students. I’ve got a daughter.’ He stared out at the farmyard. ‘It was never like that.’

A letter arrived in the morning post. He held it in his hands, weighing it for a moment before he could open it. He read it through twice, took in the details, and put his head on the table, drained by the pointlessness of it. He should be jubilant, but he only felt a fractured, exhausted relief. He called Lucy, but she didn’t pick up. He closed his eyes and left a brief message.  

Julia was coming home as he left the cottage. They hadn’t seen each other since he’d invited her over. It felt awkward.

‘Hello Thomas.’ She looked at him. ‘Are you OK? Have you been ill?’  

He shook his head, smiling faintly. He’d felt embarrassed, but now he wasn’t sure whether he should have been. She seemed just the same. ‘No, no. Just working.’ 

‘You should take time off, enjoy your holiday!’ 

He nodded, fell quiet. He’d thought about bumping into her, had imagined the conversation they might have, but now he didn’t know what to say. He thought about explaining everything to her. The student. His wife. How angry he’d been. Julia would understand. It’d be easy to talk to her. 

Katy ran to him. ‘Daddy’s coming! His flight’s landed! We’re picking him up and going to Granny’s for Christmas!’ 

He felt it like a sudden kick. He smiled hard, trying to cover whatever quick reaction his face had shown in that first, unprepared second.  

‘How exciting!’ he said. ‘Have a great time!’ He’d been hoping that her husband wouldn’t come, that something would happen to stop him, that they’d end up having Christmas at the farmhouse. 


The next day he got up early, drove to the station, took a train to the coast, and walked by the sea as far as he could before the path swept fiercely inland. He stopped close to the rocks, staring in the direction that he knew Julia was in, then turned away to the grey sea, and the little stripe of white at the horizon. It was nothing, he thought. Just a story he’d made up to comfort himself. 


Back at the cottage, the phone rang. His daughter. An invitation to Christmas lunch. 

‘I’d like that.’ Into the silence, he said, ‘What does your mum think, though?’ 

He could almost see her shrug. ‘I mean, she wants you to. I wouldn’t have, like, called if she didn’t.’ Usually, he’d have teased her gently for using such bad grammar. ‘You can ask her yourself if you want,’ she said. 

Lucy came onto the line. ‘It’s Christmas,’ she said. ‘I think you should come.’ 

He thought of the expression in Katy’s eyes when she’d told him her dad was coming. 

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’d love to.’ A second passed. ‘Lucy?’ he said.

‘Yes?’

‘Thanks.’

‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘See you then.’   

  He set off around midday on the twenty-fifth. Driving up the lane, he remembered when he’d first arrived, and how angry he’d been. He had now what he’d wanted then. The student had retracted her claim, but it hadn’t helped. He didn’t feel better. Just older. More tired. Then he thought about Julia, and his mind veered. Very deliberately, he thought about the waterfall. He should move out, he thought. Away from Julia. Had she ever thought about him like that? Perhaps she’d backtracked when it started to seem possible? But he stopped himself. He was doing it again. 


 

Sarah Turner’s stories have been published/are due to be published by Fictive DreamThe London Magazine, Litro Magazine, WelterToasted Cheese and After Dinner Conversation. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. 

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