Gemma Seltzer's piece "Should a Catastrophe Occur" originally appeared on Ruminate's online space The Waking on July 7th, 2020.
Ruth parks the car, then she and her teenage daughters, Sara and Grace, dash through wet streets laughing under a shared umbrella. The rain is coming down in sheets, while thunder bellows and a dog barks mightily.
“The weather!” shouts Sara, the oldest, flicking a sodden leaf from her anorak. “It’s like someone emptying a bucket on our heads.”
“It’s because of the oil companies,” Ruth yells above the downpour.
Her fourteen-year-old, Grace, is trying to cover the three of them with a single umbrella, while using her spare hand to hold her hood. “Yeah, yeah.”
The girls are shrieking now. It’s new to them, this area of London, which they see as they rush along Streatham High Road. Displays of open-mouthed silver fish—bodies shining on piles of ice, a bakery with a mountain of croissants in the shop window, and the swoosh of a bus sliding through puddles.
“I’m serious!” Ruth can’t remember when her fears began to rise about extreme weather, but since they began, they haven’t stopped. “You’ve seen the documentaries!” Trails of rain run into her ears.
Grace says, “God, I just thought, did anyone bring a hairbrush?”
Sara calls her an idiot. Ruth tells them to be nice. The rucksack on her back suddenly feels heavy, her long ponytail caught in the straps. She thinks about the epic tidal storm that will eventually engulf most of the world. The question is when. God? she asks. Is today the day?
Turning up a steep side street, they spot the synagogue.
“I can’t breathe; I need to give up smoking,” says Sara, panting. She slows down, picking her way across broken paving slabs in her wedges.
“What?” Ruth cries. Her own mother died of lung cancer only a few years ago.
Grace sprints up the synagogue steps and knocks on the stately wooden doors. As the other two join her, an entryway nearby opens and a woman wearing a flat cap, trouser suit, and an earpiece beckons them. A decoy door and trained security staff, Ruth thinks. Excellent.
Inside, Ruth leads them up two flights of stairs to the synagogue sanctuary. They stand at the back, scanning the room. The lighting is warm and welcoming, with lamps glowing by each row of seats. A golden ark stands on a raised platform with doves decorating its doors. Rain thrashes its shoulder against the windows, causing the frames to rattle, but Ruth feels safe inside. Grace rakes her fingers through her hair, encouraging the others to do the same.
“So much wood,” Sara says.
Ruth agrees. Useful, should they choose this building as a designated safe place and need to build a fire.
The rabbi pops up by their side. She has fair hair in a bob and beaming eyes, and while she doesn’t hug them, she looks like one day she might.
“Welcome! You must be Ruth.”
“Rabbi Rebecca?” Ruth emailed in advance and knows she should reference their conversation about her renewed interest in Jewish things, but she is distracted by the other woman’s sweet dimples, the way her fringe flicks.
“Student Rabbi Rebecca, actually. I’m new to all this!” She looks around astonished, as if she has never been inside a synagogue.
There’s a gap, while Ruth searches for some words to respond. Her eyes dart over Rabbi Rebecca’s forehead, cheeks and chin.
“Right,” says Sara, holding out a hand. “Well, we are Ruth’s lovely daughters, Sara and Grace. Our dad, Ben, recently died.”
Ruth’s heart stumbles. She stares at these almost-adults, these women.
“Hullaballoo!” says the rabbi.
“What?” says Ruth.
“So sorry, I tend to say fun things when I haven’t quite got the right words. It can lighten the mood. But I’m sorry to hear about your loss. I wish you all a long life.”
The girls smile and say ordinary things. They nod as the different features of the sanctuary are emphasised. Other families enter the room. Shabbat Shalom, they say. Ruth, Sara, and Grace file along a pew and take a seat. “I’ve got a wet bottom,” says Grace.
“That’s too much information,” says Sara.
During the service, a man calls page numbers so they can follow the prayers. When someone opens the ark, the girls rise from their seats like pets she has trained. Outside, the storm decides enough is enough. Rain reduces to a patter. Ruth enters her thoughts. They have good evacuation plans, overall. Should a catastrophe occur, Ruth will be in the office, at home, the supermarket or the petrol station. The girls both at school. They’ll meet in the disused warehouse beside the railway station where they have a store. The synagogue building may offer an alternative, should roads be blocked or flooded.
After the rabbi’s speech, which includes the words ‘jabberwocky’ and ‘buttertrees,’ Grace leans over to whisper. “It’s time, Mum.”
“Good luck,” says Sara from the corner of her mouth.
Ruth grabs the backpack and makes her way out of the sanctuary. She must cover the basement. Plan F allocates ten minutes. Sara will follow in 90 seconds to survey the ground floor. They will then meet to return together, as if they’ve merely been talking in the bathroom or corridor as women do. Focused on her task, Ruth runs down the staircase. In the main hall, people arrange platters and flowers for the Kiddush.
An older man with white puffs of hair and a toddler in his arms calls, “Where’s the fire?” Then, “You don’t want to meet my granddaughter?”
“I need the toilet!” Ruth replies.
She pushes open the first door downstairs. As expected, it is a gloomy, abandoned room. Behind every door, the usual: Computers and books. Mops and cleaning equipment. Old files and newspapers. The final room she examines is a bathroom with six cubicles and six pink sinks. Each stiff, rusty tap is tested, each floor tile checked. Back in the corridor, she sees a cupboard with slatted doors. “This is the place,” Ruth says to herself, and unclips her backpack. From its depths, she takes a travel blanket, water purification tablets, soup tins, a can opener, and dried fruit and nut bars sealed in an airtight container. Organising the goods into the cupboard, she pictures a sun rising over a fresh, wide lavender field at the midpoint of summer.
Suddenly, there’s a voice. “Have you found something interesting?”
Ruth pauses and looks around. The man she saw earlier is bouncing the child on his hip. “This is not in the plan,” she says and climbs into the cupboard, pulling the door shut.
“I didn’t hear what you said,” the man says, voice muffled. “I don’t even know your name.” He knocks on the door. “Mrs. No Name? Can I help?”
Ruth doesn’t reply. Her eyes take time to adjust to the dark, but soon she makes out her hand in front. She hears the man sigh and talk to his granddaughter. Here in the cupboard, Ruth can finally think about things. For a start, Ben. He listened to piano concertos quietly because he enjoyed challenging himself to hear the softer notes. A man she loved, but who didn’t leave much of a footprint on life. Their friends would retell him his own funny anecdotes. If a flood came, Ruth knows her heart wouldn’t have been able to cope with protecting their daughters and him, too.
She’s perched on the boxes containing the fruit and nut bars. Her skin feels damp still, but not unpleasantly so. This habit of keeping close to you all the things you need is something Ruth’s mother would have understood. They lived in a small house in Leyton, which had sticky linoleum in the hallways, bathroom, and kitchen. Her mother who always said Ruth was too thin, and that men liked to grab hold of a woman. “There’s so little of you to love,” she would complain. There were other memories. As a girl, enjoying a tea party with spoons as dolls: “You’re the dream I had for a daughter,” her mother had said. “You and me in the whole world,” she said another time. “You’re my number one,” she said the day her father announced he would be remarrying. “Nothing else matters.” Ruth was still a child when her new life arrived to bite her. The three members of her family became two. They moved in with her aunt’s family who had a cherry tree at the bottom of the garden which hid, or tried to hide, the railway tracks. Her mother became full to bursting with feelings but kept them contained in her body so she fizzed as she walked. She once dented the washing machine with a vicious kick. If Ruth cried, she would say, “I can’t help you to help yourself,” which she now thinks was untrue.
And then there’s Grace and Sara. Earlier that week, they sat on the sofa and watched a YouTube video showing an elk taking ages to jump over a fence. Sara and Grace had seen it multiple times and kept cooing, but for Ruth it was new. Separated from the herd, the lone elk trailed the perimeter, back and forth, unsure, trying, judging, running, and finally leaping. “I feel so sad,” said Ruth afterwards. She said it seemed too much a metaphor for life. “It takes some folks ages to get to where they want to be, and when they get there, it’s a couple of people, or none, who care.” The girls had made her drink a cup of tea and suggested an early night.
Ruth doesn’t know how long she stays in the cupboard but when the door opens years may have gone by. Crowded into view are the man and his toddler, Rabbi Rebecca, and the girls. All are frowning and Grace’s face is tear-stained.
“Phantasma?” the rabbi says.
Ruth nods. “I’m fine,” she says. There are more people nearby. A woman wearing a dress printed with a leaf design much like wallpaper. The security guard with her earpiece. Another man, this one with a pointy beard.
I should’ve made space for this when the girls were small. Taken them to synagogue. Taken myself, too. As a child she had sat beside her mother who was swollen with anger, while the other children had a father to gaze at through the partition. She hates that memory. But the girls would have had each other, and Ben was around then, too. Ruth presses her body against the back of the cupboard.
“Interesting to note all the items,” Rabbi Rebecca says. “For the food bank?”
“The food bank. Right, Mum?” says Grace.
Ruth’s mother was the only person who might understand if she said she was afraid for her children and also afraid of them. Ruth looks at Grace, and at Sara. “Sorry, I let you both down.”
“No problem,” says Sara, arms folded.
“What’s this lady’s name?” asks the white-haired man, speaking to everyone but Ruth.
“For the record, I did my bit. I did what you wanted me to,” says Sara.
Grace elbows her sister. “It’s not important, now!” She turns to the man and says, “Her name is Ruth.”
“To be honest, half my life I’ve wanted to hide in a cupboard,” the leaf-dress woman says, sitting down by the cupboard door and arranging the fabric of her dress around her.
“Well, that’s nice,” says Ruth, with some suspicion in her voice. “What kind of cupboard?”
The woman doesn’t hesitate: “Airing cupboard.”
Ruth stretches out her legs and crosses her ankles. “Warm there, I suppose,” she says. “But you couldn’t stay for a long time. Too uncomfortable.”
The toddler's grandfather kneels on the floor. “Ruth? Good Biblical name. I have a nice cupboard under the stairs. I tell my granddaughter it’ll lead her to Narnia.”
The man with the beard says, “Well, I’d choose the cupboard I keep my records in.”
This was getting silly. Ruth says, “I bet there are heavy doors. It would be hard to breathe.” He shrugs, suggesting they must agree to disagree. He wears a diamond wedding ring, so maybe his record cupboard is spacious and well ventilated.
“What’s her full name? She looks like someone, and I’m trying to work out who,” says the grandfather.
“Excuse me Aaron, while we prioritise what you need over anything else happening right now,” says the leaf-print woman.
“I was just asking.”
“Honkytonk,” says the rabbi.
One by one they sit down, discussing cupboards they have admired. “In the art room at school,” says Grace. “There’s a cupboard filled with tubes of paint, paper, ink and brushes and stuff. I like the smell of it. I’d go there.”
“I like that,” says Ruth. “Plenty to occupy you.”
“Did you ever come to the synagogue before?” says the man, Aaron. “You look like one of our old members. She stopped coming, but I remember her. She had the same face as you.”
“No,” says Ruth. She appreciates him trying to find a connection. These people are strangers, Ruth thinks. What she wants is to avoid anything happening to any of them.
Ruth wonders if the rabbi would say life isn’t a set of weighing scales. Or, would she say it is? “I need to think,” she says, and closes the door again. Nothing happens except everyone else stops talking. Ruth peers through the slats and sees that they all remain sitting, like a puppet show audience. She opens the door.
“Sausages, sausages,” says Rabbi Rebecca.
Aaron is undeterred from his memory trawl. “I’m trying to recall her name. It’s on the tip of my tongue.”
Ruth pulls the door closed and there’s silence again, except for a walkie-talkie crackling with a faraway voice. It’s calm and the dusty darkness covers her like a blanket. Ruth thinks a great deal about erupting volcanoes creating seismic sea waves.
Later, when she opens the door, a few of them have plates of food. Falafel and challah, pickled gherkins and stuffed olives. “That looks nice,” she says.
“I think I’m thinking of someone else,” says Aaron. His toddler is gone, and he has a chair, and a newspaper on his lap.
Rabbi Rebecca rushes into view and leans near the door. “Your bladder must be strong,” she says. “Or do you need a jug?”
“No, no,” says Ruth, with a little pride. She’s always had a robust constitution.
“The weather has turned wild again,” says the leaf-dress woman. “I don’t blame you for staying put.”
The rabbi says, “It’s God. I’m going to call His mum. He’s not playing nicely with the other children.”
“She’s never done this before,” Sara says to everyone. “Honestly.”
“We all have our moments,” says the man with the beard. He hadn’t spoken in a while, and his voice wavers as if he might cry.
“But are you okay, Mum?” asks Grace.
Ruth nods and grins, holding up a finger to suggest she just needs a minute. Behind the closed door again, she thinks about how mosquito outbreaks will kill families upon families of birds.
The afternoon is spent that way. Talking for a while with these people, then closed within the cupboard to think. Ruth decides there are some things she knows for sure. She has learned basic, intermediate and advanced first aid with St John’s Ambulance. She can sing in tune. A natural in the garden, she can recognise plants that soothe and plants that poison. She can navigate, she can sail a boat, she can use a hacksaw. Plus, she’s not alone, is she?
Gemma Seltzer is interested in different forms of storytelling. Her work includes The Guardian's award-winning virtual reality film "Songbird", fictional blog “5am London” and online flash fiction series "Speak to Strangers", subsequently published by Penned in the Margins. She has written for BBC Radio 3, performed her work at the Venice Biennale and runs Write & Shine, a programme of morning writing workshops. gemmaseltzer.com
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