An English Ending
At six it was a black mirror capturing and framing the first settled shapes of rising sun, but by seven the reservoir held ten thousand triangles of light that reconfigured themselves across the surface like a shoal of rising herring.
There was a light breeze too, and birdsong from the curlews and house martins as they rode the unseen currents of air. They were joined by a scattering of late-arriving swallows who settled to dip their beaks and ruffle their feathers after their long journey across the Sahara and up through Morocco, Spain, France and the length of England. Here their flight was nearly complete. In the surrounding dells and copses they would make their nests, replenish their energy levels and breed. They would rest for three months until summer’s end then take flight once more before the winter’s frost tightened across the skin of the north once again.
The woman was out of breath when she reached the crest of the hill as it flattened out onto the open vastness of the moor. She felt a cold crescent of sweat across her lower back. Damp, her blouse clung to her flesh.
She turned to take in the view of the town down below, snaking its way along the narrow valley’s floor and, surrounding it, the scattering of hamlets and houses that worked their way up the opposite hillside, their mullion windows and stout lintels suggesting a permanence at odds with the changing landscape that grew around them. Closer by she saw seasonal whin, moorland sphagnum and the wild grasses that sounded like shale and pebbles shifting in the shallows of a shore when the wind shook their tussocks. Beyond them, reaching off into the distance, the slow-turning blades of the wind turbines and the strung cables that linked pylons that stretched ominously like automatons – she always thought of the Ted Hughes story that they had read at school – and anchored her to the era.
This was her valley; it was all she had known or would ever know. For the first time, this realisation that the valley represented the limit of her life struck her as concrete fact rather than circumstantial supposition.
The reservoir had been sunk a hundred years or more ago by labourers armed with winches and ropes and pick axes. She had read about it. There had been a book in that place of retreat and solace and silence, the library.
They were Irishmen, mainly. Two thousand of them at one point, living in pre-fabricated huts up here at the top of the world in a makeshift township that came complete with a store and recreation room. Alcohol though, the book had reported, was strictly prohibited from the site, so to drink the men had to take the walk down into the town – the same hike she had just done in reverse. Only the most committed alcoholics would do that after a twelve hour shift breaking rocks tipped from mine carts at ten minute intervals.
The woman walked to the water’s edge. Something about this place has always excited her. It scared her, too, and this fear and excitement combined to evince a strange sensation within. A curious sense of awe, perhaps.
Even now, after a lifetime of visiting it, the portentous power of the black water was almost magnetically strong. She was drawn to it, continually.
Her husband however, had long since stopped accompanying her up here. Once they had been young and in love, and their future was a bright ball of fire as certain as the burning sun, and they had climbed the hill with a blanket and a basket and made a day of it, stepping hand in hand, like generations of couples had before them. Then they had stripped and swam and dried off on the rocks that lined the giant basin; rocks chiselled and shaped by the rough calloused hands of rough callous men born a hundred years or more before their time.
As the water lapped at shoes inappropriate for the terrain, she stooped and washed the stains from her hands. She watched the dark brown patches come alive again and then drip from her skin, one red droplet at a time, diluting away into nothingness, two dozen drops amongst more than her mind could compute, disappearing forever.
The water was clear here in the shallows.
She kicked off her pumps and slowly began to remove her clothes. She saw the flecks and droplets on her blouse. The dried dots as mute reminders. She felt too the throbbing in her neck. She touched the jagged, crusted graze that looked like a Morse code message scratched into her skin, and inspected the fading mauve marks left by digits that had curled too tightly around forearms and loose biceps.
As she folded her garments she tried not to look at a body she barely recognised. She felt her way around folds and ripples that she did not remember, but which mapped a body near ruined by childbirth. His words, not hers: birthing has ruined you. Ruined it.
There had been no turning moment in all of this – no single deciding factor – but rather a series of barbed comments, laden silences and the occasional burst of noise or movement that had seemed too large and complicated for their restricted domestic life. Dozens of gestures, scores of things left unsaid. Hundreds of resentments spread over the thousands of days that had stacked up to create decades of muffled misery.
She watched the steady souring of this man she had mistakenly thrown her lot in with.
Drink had played its part, too – him, not her – though it had only brought out what was already there: a nasty streak that had grown within him like rust. This bitterness had become a parasite that strangled any compassion she still believed he must once have had.
She swam here as a child too. She had played and paddled and splashed here. These memories were fondly summoned now: recollections of warm sticky pop and wasps and crisps you could wear on your fingers like rings. Dragonflies scudding low across the water. T-shirt suntans. Insect bites. The evaporating vapour trails of a distant plane.
The water bit as she walked into it. Snapped at her. She felt the shock of it in the tiny bones in her feet and then in her ankles and running up through her legs.
She had not slept and she needed this jolt.
Only as the reservoir took her breath did she realise that this was why she had left the house with its curtains closed and the duvet balled and tangled and stained and clotted, a chair upended and the kitchen drawer hanging open, and walked through town just as the sky was streaking with the first tendrils of morning. Then on up the hill to step silently into this vast black body of water. Because she had needed to feel the cold water quicken her pulse; to move beyond intuition or instinct and instead experience the visceral.
She disturbed the perfect stillness and let herself fall forward, half diving and half flopping into it. They say that the submerging of the heart is the hardest part. Once that has felt the shock of the cold, then the rest of the body follows. The blood pumps, the skin stiffens and dimples.
She put her heart beneath the meniscus and held it there, then went all the way under.
When she emerged, the woman pulled herself forward with a breast stroke. As a teenager she had been a strong swimmer. Athletic, even. She had a body suited to it and a northern constitution untroubled by the challenging elements. She was not one of those who broke the ice in winter to prove something to others, yet she could withstand a level of coldness that others had withdrawn from. She could withstand many more things then, but time and circumstance had chipped away at her resistance until she could finally no longer breathe and something snapped.
The computer. That was to blame too, along with many other things. The amount of time he spent on it, pretending to be working on “his project”, an amorphous pursuit whose content and purpose had changed over the years. First it was documenting the birdlife of the upland way, and then it was researching a book about the history of all the old mills in the area, then building a website about myths and legends of the valley. Then something about real ale – perhaps.
But she knew the truth of it. The adult sites. The films and the photos and the chat rooms. Filth. She had rather he had gone off with someone else than pursue betrayal through quiet neglect. At least affairs were tangible. Actions that warranted reactions.
Her feet searched for the bottom of the reservoir but they could not find it, so she swam on, out towards the centre. Here, from the middle of this huge hollow on the hill top, a new view presented itself. Beyond the boulders of the basin’s rim there was nothing but water and sky, their colours combining and merging into one sweep of cloud and sunlight and around her those shimmering triangles that played upon the surface like shards of a mirror smashed in anger.
Blood. She felt it coursing around her body as if bubbles were fizzing through her arms and into her fingertips. She felt effervescent, drunk on her own internal fire.
She thought of the children for the first time since those early hours when the night had slowed and swirled and the house had seemed like an endless new dimension of darkening horror. For a moment she regretted their existence, if only for the repercussions they would have to suffer. Not just the trauma of their losses but also the burden of history. The stigma of a family name from this day forward.
The woman turned onto her back and saw the shore far off in the distance. She could just make out her shoes neatly placed side by side. The water felt smooth and viscous against her skin, like oil. Like mercury.
And it wasn’t just the drink or the computer or the moods. Unemployment, also. Her having to work and cook and shop and clean while he devoted himself to inertia and cruelty. And he had been cruel – and very good at it, too. Manipulative was the word she would use. That ability to twist and control. To wear masks. To deceive.
There were many things she wished she had said over the years. All those retorts that only ever came later, when her anger had simmered. But instead she had held them inside her. Made herself into a bottle and kept the resentments there, locked away. But bottles pop and bottles break. The pressure builds or something cracks.
She swam for a long time. She swam with her eyes closed and felt the morning unfurl around her. She felt the full, rising sun on her face and heard the birdsong again. The woman swam until her legs and arms ached and a hunger opened up in her stomach like a blossoming flower.
In the end, it had been the tiniest thing. A trigger. Certainly nothing that she could have predicted. Not a raised hand but a sneer – the same sneer she had seen a thousand times but would never see again: one of disbelief at the announcement of her avowed intention to educate herself. To better herself. To move her life onwards, beyond him.
She had rehearsed her announcement for weeks and all it was met with was a sneer and one word, repeated: You? You?
A sneer and that one word, and then something being thrown. Her hand grasping at something. The picture frame, was it? No. It had felt heavier in her hand than that. She couldn’t for the life of her remember what, though. Something that could do damage. And then the fight back. Fists and knuckles and nails. A grappling. Fingers at her throat. A cracked mirror. The kitchen drawer. A frantic hand feeling for something. The cat fleeing. And all the while silence, save only for the sound of their own heavy, awkward breathing and their feet squeaking on the lino. No words. Just a thrusting and then an alien sensation of metal and flesh. Metal into flesh. A final release of pressure, years of it, released like a burst tyre. A puncture. Messy, yet contained. An English ending.
And then the morning stains drying in the rising morning sun.
She was as far from land as she could get now. The reservoir surrounded her and she could swim no more. She slowly treaded water and kicked her legs just enough to keep her mouth above the surface. Exhaustion pulled at every muscle, then turned her limbs to stone.
In the far distance she saw the wild moorland grasses bending with the breeze. The water felt colder here. Cold and dark and deep. Perhaps, she thought, the reservoir was not a reservoir at all, but the great, gaping opening of a tunnel that ran for miles into the centre of the earth.
A tiny feather floated beside her. It was down from a duck or a goose, curled upwards in such a way that it looked sculptural as it lay upon the unbroken surface, only a small part of it actually touching the water. Perfectly buoyant.
The woman watched it float there, undisturbed, alone, brilliant, white, perhaps the last beautiful and pure thing left in the world.
Benjamin Myers is the author of several fine volumes, including the award-winning, Beastings
Photograph by Benjamin Myers