Beyond the Mangrove Trees By Annie Power
No one expects their house to float away. Ethel certainly hadn’t. Our story begins in the sleepy village of Greenwood, where Ethel had spent her entire life. It was an overcast Sunday afternoon and Ethel watched the rain lash against the window from her armchair and sighed. The rain hadn’t stopped all afternoon. She’d intended to go to the library and visit Wilfred’s grave today. Ethel sipped her tea and swallowed her disappointment.
Ethel didn’t get out much anymore. Most of her friends had died or moved away. If she was lucky she saw the postman once a week and the dour man at the corner shop when she ran out of milk. Fortunately, loneliness had never afflicted Ethel. She had always enjoyed her own company.
While she couldn’t be accused of having lived a very exciting life, Ethel had no regrets. Well, there was that one burning ambition she’d locked away years ago. She’d never even told Wilfred - he’d have thought her daft. Secretly Ethel had always wanted to be an explorer like Lady Stanhope, venturing to the Middle East and liaising with Kings and bandits or Anne Bancroft who travelled over the ice cap to the North and South Poles or Lady Drummond-Hay who circumnavigated the world by air.
As she thought about how wonderful it would be to be an adventuress untethered to modern-day life, a tremor ran through her house making it creak and groan. Ethel gripped the arms of her chair. On the table beside her, her teacup rattled. She wondered if a cumbersome lorry had sped past, diverted down their once quiet street, but it was more guttural than that. An earthquake? She immediately dismissed the idea – what were the chances in Devon?
The drumming of the rain grew louder. She felt a growl from deep within the bowels of the house followed by a splintering, searing screech and leapt to her feet. The entire house shook violently as Ethel rushed towards the front door. She swung it open to see a body of water gushing down the hill towards her at high velocity. When it reached her, it swirled about her home, swept it up, and was now carrying her house down the street on the crest of a wave.
She floated past the snooty Bexleys at number 12; past Mrs. Miller’s prize winning rose garden at number 8; past the nice couple with the rowdy dog at number 4. The torrent of water veered left and she sailed down the high street.
Ethel closed the front door, moved towards the window and peered out. Her house picked up speed and the shops dotting the high street became a blur as they whizzed past. Her house was heading in the direction of the river. Ethel smiled. She should be nervous, should probably ring someone on the mobile phone contraption her great niece had given her for Christmas but she couldn’t think of a soul to call. The house tilted and there was a loud splash, then it began to drift freely, gliding down the river. Ethel gazed up at the sky – the rainclouds had cleared and the sun was shining. The water was calm as she and her house began their journey out to sea.
Ethel decided she was probably hallucinating. The doctor had changed her pills last week but if this was a side-effect, it was rather a pleasant one.
She stepped out onto her verandah. The shimmering river water lapped at the side of her house. She slipped her shoes off and sat with her legs dangling in the cool, clear water and lifted her face to the warming sun. She was too far out to hear the cries of alarm from the villagers or to care. Ethel was happily ensconced in the gloriousness of the moment. She never wanted to go back.
She made quite a name for herself: the woman whose house floated away. Ethel became conversation fodder around the water cooler in offices, the hottest topic on social media and had news headlines regularly dedicated to her. Even the
Bexleys at number 12 deigned to speak of it at the next Neighbourhood Watch meeting.
Ethel quickly learned to filter rainwater so it was drinkable, became a skilled fisherwoman and taught herself to navigate by reading the stars. She bartered with and befriended the inhabitants of the lands she visited and fellow mariners who shared the waters. She went up the Yangtze, down the Nile, through the Volga and circled the Caribbean. She enjoyed the solitude, living day-to-day, hand-to-mouth. Each new day a challenge, something to relish.
One sultry afternoon she was in a swamp in Tanzania, trying to decide if it was worth fighting off a crocodile to get to the roots of a mangrove tree to chop for firewood, when a canoe approached. A man called out to her. It was Mr. Baker from the Bainbridge Insurance Company. She stared at him as he neared. He looked most out of place – dressed in a white suit and clutching a briefcase. Matayo, a native from the local Hadza tribe, was steering the canoe.
Her crocodile foe, resting on the swamp bank, eyed the canoe hungrily and slipped into the water. It propelled itself towards the canoe and lunged at Mr Baker. Matayo swiftly hit the creature across the snout with his paddle and it retreated.
Ethel held out her hand and helped Mr Baker clamber onto her verandah. He straightened his suit and for a moment his presence seemed ridiculous, reminding her of a life that seemed foreign now. Matayo bid them farewell, promising to return soon for Mr Baker.
After welcoming Mr Baker into her home Ethel noticed him glance disapprovingly about her parlour. The curtains needed washing and the floor a good sweep but the visitors she usually entertained didn’t mind about such things. Her last guest had been Bineshii, an Elder of the Leech Lake Ojibwe Indians of Minnesota. He’d popped in for lunch during her trip along the Mississippi river. He’d liked the egg cress sandwiches she’d served but hadn’t taken to the sherry.
She offered Mr Baker a seat and a cup of tea. He accepted both gratefully. As Ethel busied herself in the kitchen Mr Baker’s eyes automatically assessed the room – doing an inventory of all the damage and thanking his lucky stars that Ethel hadn’t taken out contents insurance.
Ethel realised she’d run out of tea and poured him a cup of kvass instead. She’d acquired it three months ago on her voyage through Russia and had grown rather partial to it. She returned to the parlour and held out the kvass. Mr Baker took it cautiously. She sat opposite him and he smiled haughtily.
‘To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Mr Baker?’
He opened his briefcase with a grandiose air. ‘It appears you never claimed the building insurance you were entitled to before you... set-off on your travels.’
Ethel stared blankly at him.
‘Your husband was most thorough. He took out buildings insurance which covers the main structure of your house,’ Mr Baker continued. ‘Should your home subside, burn or be damaged by extreme weather your buildings insurance policy covers the costs of rebuilding or repair. I have some forms for you to fill-in so we can assess the damage, return your house to Devonshire and fix it accordingly,’ he paused. ‘We wouldn’t want you to set a precedent. Your escapades have become... renowned and have started a trend. Many people now wish to have their homes made floatable,’ his upper lip quivered with distaste at the very notion, ‘and that just won’t do.’
His snootiness annoyed her. Ethel stood-up and refused to take the papers he proffered. Mr. Baker’s eyes narrowed as he realised she was going to be difficult, but what else could one expect from a subversive?
‘I need time to consider my options. Could you call again tomorrow?’ Ethel said in a tone that brooked no argument.
He smiled through tight lips. ‘Certainly.’
They agreed midday was a mutually convenient time and shook hands. Before she could stop him, Mr Baker bounded off through the front door. Ethel heard a splash followed by a blood-curdling scream. She ran to the door but by the time she looked out all that remained of Mr Baker was his briefcase bobbing on the water as a crocodile’s tail disappeared beneath the surface.
Matayo was paddling as fast as he could towards her but realised it was futile. He slowed as he reached her verandah. Ethel shrugged helplessly and Matayo shrugged back. He hadn’t liked the silly pale man but nobody deserved such a grisly and watery death. There was nothing to be done so Matayo bid Ethel goodbye and started to paddle back towards his village.
Ethel quickly upped-anchor. She would stop at the nearest port and send word to England informing the Bainbridge Insurance Company of Mr Baker’s untimely demise.
She set sail for Argentina. She’d always wanted to see the Iguazú Falls. She just hoped the good weather would hold. She leaned out of her bedroom window, a light breeze billowed through her hair and her nostrils filled with the scent of salt water. She sighed contentedly. She’d never been happier. Ethel’s adventures inspired a generation. She became known as The Devonshire Pioneer. Soon everyone in Great Britain wanted floatable houses. The craze spread throughout the world, heralding a new golden age where the seas were once again full of vessels of every colour and description. Bungalows, semi-detached cottages, stately mansions and skyscrapers floated up and down the canals, rivers and oceans of the world. Soon, no one was tied to a country – people were free to roam and explore. Wars over land boundaries ended and an era of peace descended upon the globe.
Ethel is still out there, people say. She’s been glimpsed on the horizon - sitting on her door step, feet skimming the water, face raised to the sun with a smile on her lips. She’s a legend now, a story steeped in the mists of time, and like all good stories, there is no end.