Photograph by Lottie Davies, Story by Alison Layland
Things were getting desperate when I saw it. Even I, the last in a stubborn line, was seriously considering giving in and leaving. The dry, rain-starved soil could no longer sustain me.
My first reaction to the square etched in the parched dirt was suspicion. Was this some kind of joke? A threat? There were no footprints, just the sketchy outline, as if the scribe had hovered in the air to make their mark.
Convinced you were trying to tell me something, as you often did, I gazed out over the wasteland of dried mud that had once been a reservoir, a shallow V forming a parody of a river bed. The deep, tessellated cracks had become the symbol of drought everywhere.
I had never liked the water. It used to taunt me, a constant reminder of a once-thriving community wilfully submerged to provide water for the distant cities, back in the twentieth century when people thought moving water around would make a difference. A hundred years on, we knew better: the foundations of the houses, demolished in a vain attempt to keep dreams and ghosts at bay, no longer appeared as a rare harbinger of an extreme summer – for many years they’d been a sad, permanent stage where you sometimes walked.
It was in my blood to mourn what had been lost. I never knew the village, the way of life with its unique voice, that had drowned – had been drowned; let’s not forget it was a deliberate act – when my grandmother was a little girl. After her parents gave in and moved away to the neat houses provided as soulless, heritage-free compensation, she kept returning to visit her childhood friend – my grandfather, as he became. Their farm no longer viable, his family had nevertheless refused to relinquish their home up on the hillside. My grandfather had never wanted to be a farmer, dreaming instead of learning a trade at the village forge where the smith had no sons. When the waters came and took the forge and his dreams, leaving impotent regret in their wake, he learned his metalworking craft at college instead. He brought his art, together with my grandmother, back to the family home on the high shoulder of land, where he used his talents to produce visual laments for the community lost beneath the waters that lapped insolently at banks which had once been thriving valley sides.
Sometimes I’d challenge him with the irony of mourning a farming life he’d probably have rejected anyway. Ever the peacemaker, you said that being one step removed gave people clearer perspectives, greater insight.
Farm or no farm, community or isolation, we were happy there down the generations. I was born on our hillside and never dreamed of being anywhere else. Especially not after you arrived. Your heart unencumbered by watery histories of submersion, your mind untrammelled by tragic stories of collective loss: you came. On your way to somewhere, you paused at the layby provided for contemplation of the vast, glistening jewel – although no longer the murderous deluge of my grandparents’ generation, there was still plenty of water at that time. Looking away from the reservoir, you noticed the signs and followed them, intrigued, to peruse my grandfather’s sculptures then buy one, along with a couple of my framed photos.
There it was again. The square.
We fell in love and you stayed. Life became ever harder in our valley, but we were convinced it was worse elsewhere. My brother disagreed and left, seduced by the veneer of security offered by the city. My parents always thought he’d be back but I knew, and you grudgingly agreed, that his only connection with us from then on was the water piped across the country for him and the rest of the urban population to drink.
And now even that tenuous connection was gone.
The drought. Year upon year. Causing water shortages and food shortages, until the idea of a mere ‘shortage’ became a memory to be longed for. Disputes over claims to water eventually led to the horrors of war, both civil and international.
Which was how I lost you. We said you shouldn’t volunteer. But you felt it was only right; however hard things were for us, they were much worse elsewhere. You went.
Is this rough-hewn square the letter you never sent?
Turning my back on it, I went indoors and sat for hours imagining all the things your letter would have said.
The night brought gales with a hint of rain. Not enough to be useful, but enough to wash away the etched lines. The dirt was once again just plain dirt. Feeling foolishly desolate and abandoned, I walked along paths we’d loved, vainly seeking out streams and springs that had been extinguished one by one as the water table dropped. Yes, things had got desperate. I’d grown used to carrying containers of precious water for miles. But without a single drop, anywhere, I’d have to leave.
Never! What if you came home to find me gone?
When I returned home, it had reappeared. I looked around. I’d seen no one, nothing, as I came down the hillside. But now, here: four lines. Four simple lines. Framing a memory charged with meaning.
As water grew ever scarcer, we’d sometimes talked about building a cistern, our own little reservoir. Pooling our resources, you’d say with a smile. I turned and glimpsed the old shovel leaning against the side of the house. My boot prints patterned the dirt as I coaxed the spade into the concrete-hard surface. The ground became damper the further I dug. Immersed in you, I delved deeper until the bottom of my pit began to ooze moisture. Could it possibly, ever, be enough?
Pausing in the heat, I looked out over the crackled desert, my eye following the road I still stupidly believed might bring you back one day. Last night’s wind had died but I thought I saw movement among the skeletal trees.
Alison Layland Alison Layland is a freelance writer and translator who lives and works in the Welsh borderlands.She is the author of two novels, Someone Else's Conflictand Riverflow, both published by Honno Press, and also translates from German, French and Welsh. Follow her on twitter @AlisonLayland
Lottie Davies' unique style has been employed in a variety of contexts, including newspapers, glossy magazines, books and advertising. She has won recognition in numerous awards, including the Association of Photographers’ Awards, the International Color Awards, and the Schweppes Photographic Portrait Awards. Her work has garnered international acclaim with the image Quints, which won First Prize at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Awards 2008 at the National Portrait Gallery in London, with Viola As Twins, which won the Photographic Art Award, Arte Laguna Prize in Venice in 2011, and her collaboration on Dreams of Your Life with Hide & Seek/Film 4.0 which was BAFTA-nominated in 2012. Find her on instagram @lottiedaviesphoto