Last watch

This story is fictional, but its inspiration will be obvious to anyone who remembers the tragic news reports of August 1952 or who has visited the pretty Devon seaside town of Lynmouth.

Florence sat in the window gazing at the water, just as she always did - just as she did yesterday, when the dipper put on an engaging display as he hunted around the larger stones in the bed of the river. As the dipper scuttled from stone to stone a garrulous flock of mallards disturbed the peace of the too-hot early afternoon. It was not too hot today. Florence gathered her cardigan around her and shuddered as she watched rowdy raindrops bounce off the larger stones and merge with the swelling stream. Bright days were often brightened still more by passing visitors who responded to her gaze with a cheery wave. Today, even the most determined visitors gave up by mid-morning and disappeared into the hotels and bars, or scuttled inland where the wind was lighter.

Nobody knew how old Florence was. As long and anyone could remember, she had lived in that riverside cottage, with its prominent bay giving a sideways view of the sea. And she always kept up her daily surveillance. Townspeople drew comfort from her regular habits and she never bored of her self-appointed task. She didn't go out. She didn't have visitors, other than the paperboy and postman and the shop people who delivered her groceries. She lived alone and, as far as anyone knew, she had no relations. But she seemed content as she watched people in the street and studied every change in the passing river.

The river was busy, but never fierce. It tumbled prettily over its stony bed with a music that was especially cheering in the twilight hours. The fading of the day was hard to discern this evening after an afternoon when clouds lay heavy on the scene and deposited their load without mercy.

The stones, which hosted yesterday's dipper, were invisible now under a deep, but restless torrent that turned the music into pandemonium. Florence remained at her post, watching her restless neighbour behave with a brutality it had never displayed in all the years of her surveillance. The nearest boats, moored where the river flowed into the quay, strained at their chains and rattled their masts with increasing irritation. Branches joined the flotsam sweeping downriver as the water mounted the side arches of the bridge.

"Florence is up late", observed Jerry as he looked from his hotel across the river.
Phyllis peered over his shoulder, "I expect she's watching the storm"
If the weather had been clear they would have waved, but Florence herself was barely visible - just a silhouette in the light that shone from her kitchen through her unlit living room. They continued watching, and Phyllis frowned as she notice the river rising steadily towards the bridge.
"If it gets much higher we'll be in danger of flooding. D'you thing we should do something about it?"
"I don't think you should worry. It's never come over before".

Darkness closed in, but the river raged louder. It rolled boulders down the hill demonstrating how the dipper's stones had arrived in the town. It lifted massive branches and piles of rubbish and stacked them against the bridge, forming a natural dam. It hurled a small tree at the parapet and burst through with a roar as it summoned its strength to pour destruction on the town. It lashed at the street furniture, burst through riverfront windows and made unaccustomed companions of cars and boats as it swept them together out to sea.

Phyllis and Jerry's hotel was repaired after months of labour and was open in time for the next holiday season. The cottage across the river was damaged beyond repair; the river-view window, and the angular bay of which it formed a part, had been sliced from the front of the house. The town's faithful watcher disappeared with her window and her body was never found.

© Derrick Phillips - 2001