Contract at Niagara

Author: Malcolm Bray

Wendy and Henry are married a long time, but there are dark secrets from the past, concerning their two daughters. To confront them, Wendy insists they take a trip to Niagara Falls together. There she offers him a take-it-or-leave-it contract, with both surprising and devastating consequences.

Katy sat opposite her father, trying to see behind the bushy eyebrows and the red flush of broken veins in his cheeks. He was chattering on about his latest conquest, something about an un-scalable peak in the Andes, but she let the details drift over her and continued to study him. When he finally came to a halt, she asked:
“Will I get more tea Daddy?’
“Yes, if you want. I’ve been meaning to ask you Katy,” he said, glancing out of the window as a lorry bellowed past. “How’s what’s-his-name?”
“You mean John?” Katy said, her voice trembling. “Daddy, John and I have been split up for a year now. You know how difficult it’s been. With Doctor Stark and all that.’
“Psychiatrists! They’re a waste of time and money. Bunch of quacks, the lot of them. They should all be dropped somewhere in the African bush. See how they do then, eh?’
Katy sighed. The waitress was approaching, but she decided to let her pass. She took a deep breath. “Well, Daddy. Are you going to go?’
“Go? Go where?” She stared at the great white moustache, tinted yellow on the edges by decades of pipe smoke.
“To Niagara Falls. With Mum.’
“Oh that. I don’t know. She hasn’t said anything.’
“She has to me. And to Debbie. She just wants to be alone with you for a change. I think she wants to talk.’
“Talk? She can talk anytime she wants.’
“No she can’t. You’re never there for one thing. And when you are, there’s always something more important. That’s what she thinks, anyway.’
“Well, how am I supposed to know what she thinks?” he said, frowning. He looked away. “Niagara Falls. It’ll be crowded.’
“I don’t think it really matters where. Niagara is just somewhere she always wanted to go. Maybe you can’t afford it, Daddy,” Katy said, trying another route.
“Afford it? Don’t be daft. Haven’t I always paid for everything? No trouble at all. Look Katy � there’s the waitress again. You keep missing her. No concentration, that’s your trouble. So how’s your sister anyway? Not still with that trouble-maker is she? I couldn’t stand that young delinquent. Rock bands and drugs, that’s all he lives for.”
Katy felt her heart speed up, and fought to stop the blood rising to her face. She squeezed her hands tightly together in her lap, and stared down at the whitening knuckles.
“No Daddy. Debbie’s on her own again. She’s trying to get work in Somalia � you know, volunteer work.’
“Volunteer work!” he barked. “Well, I’m sure that’s very worthy, but don’t you think they should just get on with it themselves? It’s no good doing everything for those people. They won’t learn. A do-gooder! I never thought your sister would end up like that.” Katy swallowed hard and tried to capture the grey-blue eyes as they flitted like startled birds around the caf�.
“Daddy!” she said, as firmly as she could. “Will you go? To Niagara I mean.’
“Oh, all right. When does she want to go? She won’t like it now � it’ll be freezing.’
“Why don’t you ask her, Daddy. Just ask her.’

“Do you know?” Henry said, his voice raised over the racket. “Six hundred thousand gallons per second pour over here at Horseshoe. It’s nearly two hundred feet down to the river, you know, which itself is nearly two hundred feet deep. One of the world’s wonders!’
Wendy looked away wearily. She stared over the barrier at the green and white rampage below them, letting his words scatter. The wind tore at her coat, and long grey strands of hair whipped wetly about her face. She jumped when a hand took hold of her arm, and realised he was speaking to her.
“What Henry?’
“I said, we should go and get a drink or something. We’re getting drowned out here,” he told her, raising his voice against the cacophony of wind and water. “Look at you � you’re soaked to the skin. You want to be careful. You’re not as young as you were. Come on.”
He tugged at her arm, and they set off down the almost deserted walkway. Letting him steer her along for a moment, she suddenly dug her heels in and grabbed hold of the barrier. When he turned in surprise, she bit her lip hard and lifted her face to his.
“Henry,” she said, her voice shaking, “I wanted to come here with you, because I want to ask you something.’
“Can’t you ask me inside? This is a ridiculous place to talk about anything.’
“No it isn’t � it’s the only place. Henry!” she yelled, as he began turning away. “Listen to me, for God’s sake!’
He swung around and looked at her.
“What then? What is it?”
“It’s this, Henry,” she said, not shouting anymore, but struggling to keep her voice loud and firm. “I want to make�a contract with you.’
“Contract? What kind of a contract?’
“A simple contract. It’s something I want you to do.” She backed away from him, running her hand along the barrier. “It’s this. I want you to tell me, Henry, exactly what it was you did to my children, and for how long.” She waited until his mouth began to open, then held up a hand.
“No! Just listen to me!” she shouted. “I don’t want any lies � it’s far too late for that.” Her breath began to come in short bursts, and the words machine-gunned from her. “Now this� is the contract Henry. If you� tell me the truth�here and now, then we’ll get� a divorce and try and rebuild our lives. If you don’t,” she said, taking another step backwards, “I’m going to jump� over the edge� right here and now.” She took a deep breath and forced her voice to steady. “I can and I will do it. You’ll never get to me in time. What’s it to be Henry?” Without taking her eyes off him, she placed the toe of her shoe into the steel mesh of the barrier and pulled herself up.
He stared at her in horror. “Wendy! You can’t! What do you mean? I never did anything to hurt them. I gave them everything. We both did. They’re lovely, well-balanced children. What can you mean Wendy? What?’
“How dare you say that!” she spat at him, her voice strengthening. “You don’t know the first thing about your own children. Katy has been in therapy off and on now for six years. She’s totally unable to develop a relationship with anyone. Man or woman,” she added tiredly. “And as for Debbie.” She reached up angrily and wiped a mixture of tears and spray from her eyes. “Debbie is a seventeen year old girl who can’t live her life more than a few inches away from a needle. Sometimes she buys her heroin from money she earns as a prostitute.” She lowered her voice until he could barely hear the words. “My baby�my baby has tried to kill herself three times already.” Climbing higher up the barrier, she swung a leg over.
“You made a contract before Henry!” she yelled at him. “With yourself. You must have! To abuse my innocent babies and then to forget all about it. Well, here’s another one. It’s your last chance Henry – your last chance!” Struggling to keep her balance, Wendy’s body swayed above the barrier, her hair flying wildly and her hands sliding on the slippery steel rail. He started to walk towards her, his hands held out, and an overpowering sadness engulfed her. Looking down at her thin white fingers, she slowly began to unfold them from the cold metal. When she looked up again, tears streaming down, Henry was within two paces of her, his face pale and stern. But then, instead of grabbing at her as she was expecting, he turned sideways abruptly, placed a hand on top of the barrier and vaulted effortlessly over it.
Wendy screamed and flung herself back towards the walkway, landing hard on her shoulder and hip. Gasping and sobbing, she rolled on to her front, crawled back to the barrier and peered over the edge.
A roaring mass of water and spray filled her vision, and she could see nothing but great swirls of green and white, forming and re-forming endlessly. She felt dizzy, as though she were falling from the sky, plunging and spinning down through thick cloud. Shouts came from somewhere behind her, and the sound of running feet, and she closed her eyes and lowered her face to the ground. The tarmac surface felt solid and hard against her cheek, and she rested gratefully against it. Opening her mind, she let the great music of the Falls fill her with memories of a peace she had long forgotten.