Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Barrier

A story

Diane's tone sounded worried, almost interrogative. John was driving just a little too fast, in her opinion, and not slowing up anything like as much as he should as he approached the bends.

“Take it easy...” she said.
John turned to her momentarily. His face seemed unreadable to her, almost unfamiliar. She thought he was about to say something. But he didn't.
“Whatever's the matter?” she said.

John said nothing. He could think of nothing to say in reply to her question. In fact, he couldn't think of anything to say about anything. He felt so confused he didn't know where to start. Whenever there's an earthquake you see pictures on TV of buildings teetering on the brink of collapse: move one brick, the wrong brick, and the whole lot will come crashing down. He felt his whole sense of himself similarly poised on the brink of something terrible. He found himself walking around it, on the outside. Pull out the wrong brick, utter one word, and if it were the wrong one it might all fall to pieces. He didn't want to take the risk.

However, he just couldn’t bring himself to carry on as if nothing was wrong.

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” he said.

Diane frowned, unconvinced. She needed an explanation of this inconsistency between John's actions and his words. They had been together for ten years, ever since they were both in their teens, in fact. They had known each other even longer than that. Their parents had been friendly with one another. Although never in the same class (John was a year older) she and John had attended the same school. John had been her first boyfriend. When they first got together, John's parents had been a little unsure about the relationship. When they had been together for a while and showed no signs of falling out they let it be known that they thought John should “get a little more experience” of life before getting involved further. Diane -perhaps uncharitably, perhaps not- always felt that, at that time, they wanted John to “do better” for himself. He had ambitions to be an architect and she thought they probably liked the idea of him forming a relationship with another well-paid professional. If so, they were far too civilised to actually say so outright. Neither did they ever do anything to positively thwart the relationship. Instead they pursued an almost Gandhi-like campaign of passive resistance to acknowledging the young couple's feelings for one another. Diane's parents, on the other hand, had always accepted the easy inevitability of the situation.

The first major test had come when they both left school. John had gone to study architecture in London. Diane had attended a teacher training college in the Midlands. Once it became clear that their relationship had survived this ordeal by separation, John's parents began to relax a little, to the point that when they announced that they planned to get married, John's mother seemed positively pleased.

As for the present, Diane simply wanted the open, honest interaction that had existed between them for so long to be restored. She wasn't quite sure how long the present terrible state of affairs had gone on for – the onset had been gradual. Was it weeks, or months? Whatever it was, nothing she said or did seemed to have any effect. For hours on end there would be a dreadful, barren gulf between them: straightforward conversation was impossible. The expressions on John's face would suddenly seem alien to her: looking at it it had sometimes crossed her mind that, had she been looking at a passport photograph and not a real face, she would not have recognised it.

In the not-too-distant past when things were good and they talked, John had told her stories, probably myths she now realised, of failed early space missions during which space capsules had failed to achieve orbit, instead carrying on into deep space -potentially for ever- with a payload of frozen, suffocated human remains. These stories apparently originated from radio enthusiasts who claimed to have listened in to the last words of these asphyxiating cosmonauts on the frequencies used by Roscosmos. Ever since, whenever she thought about them, she found it difficult to get the images out of her head: frozen, space-suited corpses, each strapped to seat, drifting through the darkness, slowly diverging. She could see them now.

Neither of them said anything for a while. Diane thought John seemed a little calmer than he had been before she spoke out. He'd turned off the motorway. They had just passed a sign for Sheffield. They were driving down a steep-sided valley, through an avenue of trees. She opened the map, hoping to locate the place: she felt comforted, absorbing herself in something so normal. She soon found the road on the map: a red line heading towards a strip of blue, a lake between hills. Once they got into the hills they hadn’t got a lot further to go to get to the house. What would they do when they arrived? She craved normality: talking to friends about books, music, films, politics. She was looking forward to the mysterious pleasure one can feel inhabiting an unfamiliar place. The usual associations with the immediate past are temporarily erased. It seems, temporarily, as if the future might be different.

The end of the blue strip appeared ahead of them. She glanced at the map again.
“Turn left,” she said.
They found themselves driving down a road squeezed between a pine forest and the lake. Every mile or so, lay-bys were set between the road and the water's edge where tourists could pull in to admire the view. John abruptly steered the campervan across the road, into one of them. He turned off the ignition and looked around, his elbows resting on the steering-wheel.

“Isn't it beautiful?” he said.
“Yes it is,” Diane said, gratefully.
“I'll do my best,” he said.
“I know,” she said. She rested her hand on his thigh. “I think it'll do you good.”
“I hope so,” he said. “Shall we take a walk?”
“We said we'd be there by 8.”
“Just for a few minutes? We've plenty of time.”

They opened the doors of the van and stepped out. There was a strong smell of pine resin from the woods behind them. It was a bright, clear day, but you could tell it was early evening by the slight lengthening of the shadows. There was a hint of a warm breeze. The lake shore had been reinforced with gently-sloping stone blocks. The water was lapping against them with short, sucking sounds.

They walked down to the water's edge and began to make their way along the stone bank.
“We should do this more often,” said Diane.
“Yes,” said John.
“We spend too much time with our heads down, getting on with it,” said Diane. “We should look up sometimes.”
“Get out of the rat race,” said John.
“Yes – well, sometimes,” said Diane.
“When you're somewhere like this, you begin to notice what you are,” said John, slowing his pace and sniffing the air. “You begin to feel how you're supposed to feel. Don't you agree?”
“Yes,” said Diane. She was pleased to hear him say the things he was saying. Getting out into the country seemed to be having a good effect on him.
“But what if we feel so good we don't want to go back?”
“We're big girls and boys now. We have to go back.”
“Because that's the way it is.”
John made an expression of almost comic resignation and shrugged.
“We have responsibilities...” she said.

They walked along in silence for a while. They came to an iron grating set in the stonework. Some sort of overflow, perhaps? The grating covered a deep shaft. It was thrilling to look down it.
“We could bring those responsibilities with us, I suppose,” said Diane.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean apply for jobs. Find work down here. Get out of the city.”
A shadow of doubt seemed to pass over John's face. “But how much of this is real?” he said.
“This isn't a lake, it's a reservoir. When they built these places, they flooded whole villages. When there's a drought you can see the tops of the church towers sticking out of the water.”
“Well – I suppose it's as real as it gets. As you said yourself, you begin to feel how your supposed to feel here.”
“And when you do, perhaps you begin to see what you're looking at more clearly. Those hills – those moors over there, they used to be forests. We cut them all down to make charcoal. You can still find ancient treeroots buried in the peat.” He stopped walking. He breathed deeply. He smiled. “But it's good to be out here, all the same.”

The sun was catching the surface of the water in such a way that it appeared indistinct, unreal. John looked out to the middle, where the light intensified into a bright mass. It was like -indeed was, in a very real, physical way- a barrier between himself and the reality of what used to be, rippling with light over farms, roads and villages that no longer existed. He felt a sudden urge to swim. He started to take off his clothes.

“What on earth are you doing?” said Diane.
“Going for a swim!” said John, smiling boyishly.
“Don't be ridiculous!”
“There's nothing ridiculous about going for a swim.”
“John! We're supposed to be at the house by 8! We'll be late as it is!”
“It won't take long.”
“Didn't you see the sign in the layby? You're not allowed!”
“It'll be fine.”
“You'll be soaking wet!”
“That's a point! We packed a towel didn't we? Would you be an angel and run up to the car and get it?”
He was by then stark naked, his clothes in an untidy heap beside him on the stones. He would have liked to take a running jump into the water but for all he knew he might land in a tangle of rusty submerged barbed wire. And as for running, it took a moment or two to get used to walking barefoot on the rough stones. He walked straight in.
“Thanks!” he said.

Icy braclets enclosed first his ankles, then his knees. The cold struck his groin with a shock but he kept going. Soon he was up to his neck and gasping for breath. Within moments he became aware of the fact that the water felt quite warm. He began to swim. The indistinct, twinkling barrier filled his eyes. It was as if he had morphed into a different creature entirely, one that could fly through the thick atmosphere of the reservoir, pushing the medium aside with its limbs. He quickly became aware of a feeling of deep water beneath him. He felt like a character he thought he'd seen in a Chagal painting, flying over fields, churches, villages, like an angel.

He rolled over onto his back and continued to propel himself with the palms of his hands. The whole depth of the sky swung into view. He lifted his head slightly. He could see Diane stood on the shore. She looked a surprisingly long way away. From her stance she looked exasperated.

“Don't worry, I'm fine. It'll be fine. I'll be back in a minute. Please... If you could fetch me the towel.”

The figure on the bank made a sharp, downward gesture with its hands and jogged off towards the car.

He rolled back and swam on. Without really thinking about what he was doing or what he intended to do, he took a deep breath and dived under. It was a long while since he'd last been swimming. He'd forgotten how hard in was to stay underwater – his body's bouyancy and the the air in his lungs fought with him, tried to drag him to the surface. He fought back, digging into the water with his cupped hands. He opened his eyes. They smarted at the contact with the cold water and he could not see very far. He was surrounded by a green glow that faded into darkness. He forced himself down, deeper. He turned, and swam back towards the shore. Soon, from out of the darkness below him, he saw the hillside, now the bed of the reservoir, rising to meet him – mud, scoured of any distinctive traces of its former existence. He began to feel an overwhelming need to breathe. He thrust himself upwards then relaxed, allowing his natural bouyancy to carry him the rest of the way to the surface. A moment later he broke through the barrier again, back into the air and the light. He was close to the shore now. Diane was walking back from the van, the large brown towel thrown over her shoulder. He swam towards her. The water turned suddenly shallow. He staggered to his feet. He brushed his mane of hair back off his face, combing it with his fingers.

“You ass! You had me frightened then,” said Diane. Her annoyance had dissipated. In its place she felt a familiar mood of semi-comic resignation. John: gentle, sometimes unfathomable, always untamable. If something decent and harmless could be done he simply couldn’t see why it shouldn’t be done. He had no respect for convention for its own sake.
“You should have gone in yourself. The water was lovely. Thanks,” he said, taking the towel. He started to rub himself down vigorously, starting with his head.
And why not, she wondered? Because she was not impulsive. Because she had a respect for rules that she did not like to admit to and which annoyed her: a respect borne of fear. Part of her would have loved to jump in with him. Another, bigger part, told her that the moment she did so, a Water Board van would pull up in the layby. Men in uniforms would come and tell them off, or worse. She envied John his careless sense of freedom.
“You didn’t see any houses, villages, church towers?”
“No,” he said, pulling on his trousers. “Just green light. And mud. Like going to Mars. You know, how they used to think there were canals and all that and now they think there’s probably nothing there?”
She picked up his shirt and held it out to him. He took it.
“Thanks,” he said. He struggled to pull it over his cold, still damp arms. Then he tried to do up the buttons. His fingers were obviously numb. He looked up at Diane with an expression of comic resignation. “Would you?... Please?...”
She started to fasten the buttons up the front of his shirt. So like a child, she thought. This is what it would be like if they had a child, dressing it. She looked up at his face. If they had a child, would it look like him, or like her? Perhaps a bit of both? If so, which bits, she wondered? There was still a triumphant, ecstatic look in his eyes. He’d swum. He’d proved he was a free man and buzzed with the satisfaction of someone who has simply been able to put his thoughts into immediate action. He’d broken through the barrier, even if he’d found nothing on the other side but unbreathable water and a green darkness.
“We better be getting on,” she said.
“So we had,” he said, looking round at the forest and the hill. “So we had.”


Kat Mortensen said...

Wow! I had no idea that you wrote short stories, Dominic.
I must admit I was waiting for something dreadful to happen. It was like reading the opening of a murder mystery - the preamble to the killing with the idle chatter of one party and the deep thoughts of the killer.

You really kept me absorbed in this tale and I like the open-endedness of the last lines. Bravo!

Rachel Fenton said...

That was a great read - I loved the details, the internal monologue, and the location - most of all I liked the location. great stuff. Oh, to drive the Dales to Sheffield one last time....

The Weaver of Grass said...

Why, I wonder, does this remind me of someone I know quite well (I hope).

Rachel Fenton said...

IS this true - should I be congratulating...just with the radio nerd bit....? And now Weaver's got me reading into it all....

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments. Pleased you all enjoyed it. I don't think it is very autobiographical. I've "used" my experience of swimming in it (yeah, OK, and the radio nerd bit) but only as one uses one's experience of anything. John doesn't feel like me to me although, obviously, I can relate to some of the things he thinks and feels - as I can with Diane. But who am I to say? There are sides to ourselves that only others know.

GOAT said...

Bloody fantastic! Loved it! Like some of the other commenters, I thought something sinister might happen more than once - starting with that grate. And the swimming - as someone who likes looking at bodies of water but feels uneasy venturing out into the middle of one, that part gave me the chills.

Argent said...

I too was expecting the worst - especially when the two of them were looking at the shaft. I did wonder also if John was about to do a Reggie Perrin and disappear to a new life somewhere. Instead we got a lovely, considered piece, full of sympathy and intelligence. Loved it.

George said...

I enjoyed this, Dominic! Not autobiographical? I don't know, my friend, but it sounds a bit like the old rock climber and fell runner, barrier-breaker that you are.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments/kind reviews!

Goat: I felt uneasy about venturing out into cold, wild water until I read Deakin's Waterlog. When I had, I couldn't wait to jump -well, gently lower myself- in.

Argent: Interesting that people sense the sense impending dreadfulness at the beginning. I'm pleased they do: I might even try to cultivate the effect. I didn't think along those lines - probably because I knew where it was going.

George: John is certainly a fictional kindred spirit. However, his teenage experience was very different and his personal crisis is not written from experience.