In A Dry Season
The tenth book in the Inspector Banks series, 1999
The past is a foreign country;
they do things differently there.
– L.P. Hartley,
It was the Summer of Love and I had just buried my husband when I first went back to see the reservoir that had flooded my childhood village.
I made the journey only a few months after Ronald and I had returned from one of our frequent long spells abroad. Spells which had suited me well for many years. Ronald, too, had suited me well. He was a decent man and a good husband, quite willing to accept that our marriage was one of convenience. I believe he saw me as an asset in his diplomatic career, though it was certainly neither my dazzling beauty nor my sparkling wit that snared him. I was, however, presentable and intelligent, in addition to being an exceptionally good dancer.
Whatever the reason, I became adept at playing the minor diplomat’s wife. It seemed a small price to pay. In a way, I was Ronald’s passport to career success and promotion, and – though I never told him this – he was my passport to flight and escape. I married him because I knew we would spend our lives far away from England, and I wanted to be as far away from England as possible. Now, after more than ten years abroad, it doesn’t seem to matter very much. I shall be quite content to live out the rest of my days in the Belsize Park flat. Ronald, always a shrewd investor, also left me a tidy sum of money. Enough, at least, to live on for some years and to buy myself a new Triumph sports car. A red one. With a radio.
And so, singing along with “All You Need is Love,” “Itchycoo Park” and “See Emily Play,” listening to the occasional news bulletins about Joe Orton’s murder and the closing-down of the offshore pirate radio stations, I headed back to Hobb’s End for the first time in over twenty years. For some reason I have never been able to explain, I enjoyed the raw, naive and whimsical new music the young people were listening to, even though I was in my early forties. It made me long to be young again: young without the complications of my own youth; young without the war; young without the heartbreak; young without the terror and the blood.
I don’t think I saw another car after I left the main road outside Skipton. It was one of those perfect summer days when the air smells sweet with the perfume of cut grass and wildflowers. I fancied I could even smell the warm exhalations of the drystone walls. Berries shone like polished garnets on the rowan trees. Tewits soared and tumbled over the meadows and sheep bleated their pitiful calls from the far dalesides. The colors were all so vibrant – the green greener than ever, the blue of the sky cloudless and piercingly bright.
Not far beyond Grassington I lost my way. I stopped and asked two men carrying out repairs to a drystone wall. It was a long time since I had heard the characteristic broad speech of the Dales and at first it sounded foreign to me. Finally, I understood, thanked them and left them scratching their heads over the strange middle-aged lady with the sunglasses, the pop music and the flashy red sports car.
The old lane stopped at the edge of the woods, so I had to get out and walk the rest of the way along a crooked dirt path. Clouds of gnats whined above my head, wrens flitted through the undergrowth and blue tits hopped from branch to branch.
At last I broke out of the woods and stood at the edge of the reservoir. My heart started to pound and I had to lean against one of the trees. The bark felt rough on my palms. For a moment, skin flushed and fingers tingling, I thought I was going to faint. But it passed.
There had been trees long ago, of course, but not as many, and most of them had been to the north of the village, in Rowan Woods. When I had lived there, Hobb’s End had been a village in a valley. Now I gazed upon a lake surrounded by forest.
The water’s surface, utterly still, reflected the trees and the occasional shadow of a gull or a swallow flying over. To my right, I could see the small dam where the old river narrowed as it flowed into Harksmere. Confused, unsure what I was feeling, I sat on the bank and stared over the scene.
I was sitting where the old railway branch line used to run, the train I had traveled on so often during my childhood. A single track that ran to and from Harrogate, the railway had provided our only real access to the larger world beyond Hobb’s End during the war. Dr. Beeching had done away with it three or four years ago, of course, and already the lines were overgrown with weeds. The council had planted weeping willows on the spot where the old station had stood, where many a time I had bought tickets from Mrs. Shipley and waited on the platform with rising excitement to hear the distant chugging and whistling of the old steam engine.
As I sat there remembering, time went by. I had started out late and the journey from London was a long one. Soon, darkness infused the woods around me, filling the spaces between the branches and the silences between the bird calls. A whisper of a breeze sprang up. The water caught the fading light in such a way that its slightly ruffled surface looked as if it had been sprinkled with salmon-pink powder. Slowly, even this darkened, until only a deep inky blue remained.
Then a full moon rose, scattering its bone-white light, in which I fancied I could see clear through the water to the village that used to be there, like an image preserved in water glass. There it was, spread out below me, darkly glittering and shimmering under the barely perceptible rippling of the surface.
As I stared, I began to feel that I could reach out and touch it. It was like the world beyond the mirror in Cocteau’s
What I saw there was a vision of the village as it had been when I lived there, smoke curling from chimneys over the slate and flagstone roofs, the dark mill on the hillock at the west end, the squat church tower, the High Street curving beside the narrow river. The longer I looked, the more I imagined I could see the people going about their daily business: shopping, making deliveries, gossiping. In my vision, I could even see our little shop, where I met her for the first time that blustery spring day in 1941. The day it all began.