If There Were Water by Ken Head

September 25, 2016

Dirty and battered, a white van bumps and grinds along the track.  Its driver, probably on his way home from a few beers in the village and a trip to the local builder’s yard, veers first one way then the other to avoid the deepest ruts.  At this hour on a sweltering afternoon, when even the birds and lizards are taking it easy, the only other movement is a tepid breeze, the only other sound, cicadas shrieking.

Amid so much space, what’s near seems distant, at a remove.  Across the plain, every field is sun-scorched.  Almond, carob, olive, blackened trunks adrift thigh-deep in brittle grass and thistle, blur into one another.  Ramshackle farmhouses, some home to families whose dogs aren’t there to welcome strangers, others crumbling ruins abandoned when their wells ran dry and left for wide-eyed owls to colonize or feral cats, seem indistinct, no more than out-of-focus smudges shimmering in the haze.  Almost a mirage.

Yet, barely an hour’s drive away, if you have fuel to spare, along the unfinished motorway, past the air terminal, two or three monster construction sites abandoned by smart developers and the skeletons of unfinished apartment buildings nobody’s going to buy, the city persists, a tourist’s dream of gambling, international hookers, air-con bars and sun-tanned bodies baking under parasols, a higgledy-piggledy urban sprawl where businesses will stay to make a buck so long as the music plays and visitors with nothing else to do lie about watching vapour trails dissolve slowly into light. An oasis in the desert, you might think.

But here, in this eviscerated place, where parching heat and drought mock honest labour, as they’ve done since carthorse lives trudged slow behind a plough and silent, stubborn men climbed hillsides every day to work their rock-hard terraces, the penny still hasn’t dropped, so tankers deliver precious drinking water, trucks come and go with bits of kit for getting things in shape and on energetic days the noise of power tools rips peace and quiet to shreds.  And why not? the stubborn locals ask, why ever not?

In a cloud of dust, the van turns between sections of cinder-block wall and stops on the overgrown driveway of a house with its windows boarded up.  Dogs yap way off.  From the back of the van, the driver, a fat man with a beard, unloads coils of hosepipe, a pump, a portable generator, a couple of sizable cardboard boxes.  Piece by piece, he lugs it all inside the house  past a woman watching, stone-faced, in the doorway.

Spiky cactus, yellow flowers, brilliant, regardless.

Ken Head lives in Cambridge, England where, until retirement, he taught Philosophy and English Literature.  His work has appeared widely both online and in print, most recently in Prospero’s Bowl, a collection of his poetry published in 2013 by Oversteps Books (www.overstepsbooks.com).