A narrow, tree-lined path turns off downhill, looking as if it might lead somewhere, so you take it, and think of ducks and swans. It emerges onto a sandy beach, dotted with gnarled trunks and stones. If you were to quicken your pace and jump in the lake, you know a strange kind of alchemy would occur on contact with the water. You would be in a different lake, with your little brother and big sisters, on the first day of the school holidays. After a long and tiring journey, you would have a new kind of freedom, one you’d been dreaming of, behind your desk, all year long.

But you pause before taking the plunge, and dip your hands in the cool water. You need to observe the different stages in the chemical reaction. Now is the time to make a wish, as if you had just seen the new moon. Please may I stay here forever. Please may the summer never end. Please don’t let me become a skater on the ice of a strangely scentless and adult cousin of this lake, its waterlilies and fish all trapped and buried. Please don’t let this ever become barely a memory, barely as solid as the breath which appears as steam.

If, then, you shut your eyes in the lake, you will suddenly feel your brother’s warm tears of rage at having to leave it, when was it?, two years ago, or three, when the promised next visit was too far-flung to be real: empty words, no help making wishes.

What was it that almost brought the alchemy, though, even at a distance? How did we all, as children and then as grown-ups, somehow conjure it into being, wherever we were? A soft voice is reading a story about sailing boats as we drift off to sleep. I don’t mind if you nod off, I just love reading aloud anyway, it reminds me of my own childhood, she said.

No idea. Something about the plastic water bottles in the desert surrounding Amman, the rigid canals of Suzhou, the railway yards along the Rhine, just outside Strasbourg, neither here nor there- even the phone switches networks, and then switches back, as if making a wish. 

In your mind’s eye, all water is connected, and has a beloved skyline of great hills beyond, if you squint enough.

Recently, as you have travelled less, those memories have grown. The big sisters have gone on ahead, talking about books, and you’ve lost your little brother. He’s given up saying that he doesn’t want to leave, and just hides. You’ll promise him a story, and tell him he can draw his own illustrations. You half-sigh, but it’s not really a chore to go back and search for him. 

After all, your first name was always that of the youngest sibling.lake


I got off the Montluçon- Bourges regional “express” train at the small, gloomy station of Vallon-en-Sully. I’d had to get up at 5am in Montluçon, and, due to a lack of taxis near my out-of-the-way pension, take the first bus into the centre of town.

It was after eight, and had been light for a long while; but here, because of the drizzle and damp cold, it felt like dawn.

There was no station café, no shop nearby, not even a vending machine. A few cars bounced over the level crossing, going from elsewhere to elsewhere; the railway, perhaps once a fulcrum of village life, was now an administrative nuisance, used this morning by only four travellers: one vigorously nodding in headphones, one frail and looking, startled, in all directions, one in uniform, inspecting tickets; and me. The others had continued their warm, bouncy journey, and the short diesel train had soon puttered out of sight.

A wooden 8-wheeled passenger carriage sat banished on an abandoned siding, far from the only remaining platform. It had once been painted the kind of green one never sees on trains now. Through the drizzle, I thought I saw the silhouettes of passengers on board, whole families sitting upright, weary from their overnight vigil, hoping to finally make a departure. But the siding was no longer connected to the main line.

I set off on foot, cursing my bad knee. I had to sit and rest every few minutes, but at least I couldn’t lose my bearings- I was following the railway line northwards, as far as the next level crossing. Soon it was quiet, and as I entered some marshes, a curlew called out from the reeds.

A dirt track converged from the west, and I couldn’t help investigating. I was still in sight of the railway line, and hearing the bell of the level crossing, scrambled a little closer to watch a freight train lumber past. Then, on trying to retrace my footsteps, I saw a different track, with two white poles beside it, leading into a pine forest. A small sign read “The Dovecote”.

I took that path, just as tired and aching as before, but somehow content. I felt calm, and yet slightly dizzy, and I suddenly remembered that visiting friend who had pronounced phrases I’d never expected to hear from an adult: “I’ve never eaten mushrooms”. “I’ve never swum in a lake”. She’d been astonished at something I’d said too: “I’ve never used a natural mosquito repellent”. These trees seemed never-ending, but I smiled and decided to be honest with myself: I was quite enjoying the wait. And I didn’t know what for.







They were still dancing when, just before dawn on a late summer’s day, the harbour of Libreville prepared to welcome Le Grand-Saint-Antoine. The band- a pitifully hot quartet in faded dinner-jackets- had long ago packed up their instruments and retired to their remote and stifling cabin. A young boy finished washing down the deck, and two stewards loosened their ties, and heaved the bins full of discarded streamers across to the side. Only the couple remained, and I couldn’t help watching them for a few minutes, as the amount of sea behind them infinitesimally grew.

A strange sense of foreboding, or cowardice, or saving-the-best-for-last, meant I couldn’t quite turn around to look at the land yet. The sea stretched further than ever. A forlorn, not-quite-empty champagne bottle raised its neck above the horizon from its forgotten table as we bobbed on the waves. The dancing woman’s eyes flashed faster than her legs moved; her chin rested on her partner’s shoulder. He was looking out to sea, and she was looking at me with idle curiosity, or perhaps simply drowsiness.

I turned to look at the port’s tangle of abandoned railway sidings- some Chinese container wagons appeared to have taken root in the weeds. A café already had patrons at its outside tables, and a dog was yapping. A tired, dry scent reached me, and I felt the urge to buy a newspaper.

There was a city to explore. I realised I wasn’t wearing a watch. I turned briefly back to look at the ocean, and the dancing couple seemed frozen, the woman’s eyes closed now, or almost, I couldn’t quite tell. From somewhere behind me came the whistle of a locomotive.