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In times of peace, they were strictly enemies. Mr Wilson sat on his porch, sweating in front of an old desk fan, glowering at the boys who sat in the park, drinking beer on sun-baked afternoons, smoking cigarettes, hawking at the back of their throats, spitting, playing loud music, swearing, intimidating passers-by. They wore Nike-branded T-shirts and trackpants, or shorts with their socks pulled up. If they ever wore a collar, they popped that collar up.
They had what Mr Wilson considered to be extremely poor hairstyles: shaved too short in some places and left much too long in others. Some had mullets, some had rat-tails. It was, in fact, a blessing when any of them deigned to wear one of those horrid narrow baseball caps. They did not shave, though they hardly needed to. They had pimples and clammy skin. They were loutish and obscene. Some nights were filled with yelling. Mr Wilson bolted his door.
He did not like the young people at all. He did not feel safe. They knew him, but showed him no respect. They even tried to intimidate him. One night they spray-painted obscene words on his fence. Another night, in a drunken stampede, they stomped his flowering plants. He was afraid they would break in through a window and mug him. He was old and frail, lonely, and keenly aware of how vulnerable he was.
He did not let it show. He did not think they would react with sympathy. He pretended to be an angry old man. In truth, he was angry, but he was not as mean as he pretended to be. He sent letters to the local council and school. But the children did not attend school, so he mostly sent letters to the council. He knew one of the boys’ mothers. She was just as vulgar as her son. Nevertheless, Mr Wilson occasionally sent letters to her.
It continued this way all through summer. Then autumn came, and with it came rain. It rained hard and heavy. The soil soaked. Muddy puddles ran out of the grass onto the street. The clouds closed over like a blanket. Five days of weather piled up in the sky. It rained, and it rained.
At first, Mr Wilson was relieved by the change. Then he got agitated and irritable. Then he worried for his plants. As water rose in the street, he became uneasy. At night he watched news reports about the flood. It seemed unbelievable to him that the river would overtop its levee. It had never happened before. But the river rose and rose. Roads closed. There were no fruit or vegetables in the shop. It continued to rain.
On a Saturday, the river burst its levee. Brown water gushed into town. It came in a fetid wave, full of sewage and mud, sweeping fallen branches and rusted shopping trolleys forward. It flooded under Mr Wilson’s house, and inundated his car. The power shorted. The phone lines cut. The water was just a foot below the front porch.
He sat on the porch and watched the water rise. It stank of rot and mudflats. It swallowed the steps one at a time. Soon it was lapping at the porch. Then it was over the porch, slithering in dark, insidious waves along the beams. It nibbled at Mr Wilson’s feet. He raised his feet off the ground and placed them on a chair beside him. The water slipped under his front door and swallowed the carpet. He heard the house groan and creak beneath its weight. It ate at the skirting boards and knocked over cabinets and chests. Mr Wilson watched his house become an island. A fridge floated past, and a porcelain doll. Mr Wilson waited for something to happen. It all felt like a dream.
The water rose and the water rose. Soon, it was up to the seat of Mr Wilson’s chair. He stood on the railing of the porch, balancing and holding on to a beam. He watched his deck chair float away on the current. He knew he would have to climb onto the roof, but he did not think he had the strength. So he just stood, and waited. Dark set in. Mr Wilson trembled at the thought of night. The rain was only getting heavier.
Then a strange sight. A bright red rubber raft floated down the street, crewed by four of the boys from the park. But they looked different now. Their eyes shone. They sat up straight. They looked alert and proud. Their hair and clothes were dripping wet. They rowed in silence. There was no swearing or posing; there was a quiet assurance about them, a feeling of strength.
“Mr Wilson,” said one of them. “What are you doing?”
“Waiting,” said Mr Wilson.
“For what?” said the boy.
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you leave?”
“I didn’t know.”
The boy looked around. “Really?” he said.
Mr Wilson shook his head. “I didn’t know.”
The boys turned the raft and rowed in backwards, over Mr Wilson’s fence, up his garden path to his balcony.
“Hop in,” said the boy at the back.
Mr Wilson did. And they paddled off in silence.
The sun set grey behind the clouds. The streets were just canals between the rooves of houses. There were no dogs barking, no cars, no birds, no people. There were no television sets flickering, no children laughing or crying. Everything was silent, apart from the hiss of the rain on the rising, swirling tide.
They took Mr Wilson to the community centre. His clothes were dripping wet. His shoes were ruined. He was shivering. A woman in an orange jumpsuit wrapped him in tin foil, like a Chicken Kiev. The boys checked that he was okay, then went off to give out blankets for the night.
Mr Wilson called out to them as they left. “You boys are heroes,” he said.
They smiled. “Shucks,” said one of them.
“Whatever are you doing wasting your lives in that park?”
The boys looked down. One looked up. “Can’t be a hero every day, Mr Wilson,” he said. And they all walked away.
That night, after he had been fed his soup and given a place to sleep, Mr Wilson asked for paper and a pen. He sat down at a desk, and wrote this:
It takes a hero:
- to tell the truth
- to keep your word
- to build a life, knowing well that at any moment it could be taken away
- to give what you have away
- to not speak ill of people
- to be insulted without insulting back
- to admit when you were wrong
- to say sorry
- to forgive
- to accept another person who cannot accept themselves
- to love
Every day, you are given a dozen opportunities to be a hero. For the love of God (and my geraniums), don’t wait until the next catastrophe to take one.
Mr Wilson wrote this letter out four times, put those four letters in four envelopes, and sealed each of them. He did not send them to the council or school or anyone’s parents; he waited until the flood ebbed back, then sought out each of the boys, and gave them their letters in person.
Cover by Mika Baumeister