A drowned village is the setting for this observant short story by Rebecca Holmes.
Heather was feeling restless, but could she take that huge step?
ARE you sure that map’s right? I thought the shop was nearer the church.” Heather knew who had asked the question without looking. The tall visitor with the Australian accent had shown a lot of interest during the tour round the reservoir’s visitor centre.
He knew a surprising amount about the drowned village for someone who clearly wasn’t local
“It could well have been,” she replied. “The plan’s based on Ordnance Survey maps of the time. These included pubs, churches and so on, and contour lines, showing the valley as it was in the 1950s. Post offices were on there, too, but the village shop didn’t have one.
“Details like that had to be filled in after speaking to former residents, but by then there were fewer people in the area who remembered, and a lot of memories had faded.”
“You said a member of your family was from the village,” someone else said. “Don’t they know?”
“My great-grandfather grew up there, but he moved to another part of the country before the dam was built and only vaguely remembered the shop from buying sweets there on Saturday mornings.”
She led everyone to the next stage of the exhibition, illustrating wildlife that had colonised the man-made lake along with the woods and wildflower meadows planted around it.
“The ospreys are our proudest achievement, but don’t let them overshadow everything else. We have a hugely diverse range of flora and fauna, both in water and on land.
“I hope you continue to enjoy your visit here,” she concluded. “There are several walks round the reservoir, and of course the two cafés, picnic area, shop and children’s play area.
“The ospreys and swallows will be leaving soon, so this might be your last chance to see them this year.”
Although a handful of visitors remained to ask questions, she felt disappointed that the tall stranger was nowhere in sight.
After the long day, Heather savoured the early evening peace on the shore before heading home. With most visitors gone, calm settled over the reservoir.
However, she could almost sense the restlessness of birds getting ready to leave.
They would be replaced by winter visitors – ducks and geese, redwings and fieldfares, escaping the harsher conditions of
Russia and Scandinavia. The hides were as full of eager birdwatchers in winter as in summer.
It wasn’t only the birds that were restless at the moment.
When Heather had returned home just over two years ago, after three away at university and joining conservation projects during the summers, it had felt strange, especially living with her parents to save money. But she had soon settled.
She loved her job working on the nature reserve and helping to preserve some of the past, even if, physically, that had been lost.
“The past is never really gone, so long as memories remain,” her greatgrandad, Bob, had told her. “Whenever I feel sad about the village, I remind myself that something good has come out of it all, as well as making sure we have a plentiful supply of water,” he’d added.
She had always been close to him. He had retired to the area when she was small, after living away for forty years.
He had been someone to turn to, growing up, when her parents hadn’t always had time to listen.
He had been restless at her age, too. She wondered if history was repeating itself. Recently, an ad for a more senior position on a reserve in Scotland had caught Heather’s eye.
It was a long way from home, and she suspected the weather would make Derbyshire seem almost tropical by comparison, yet she couldn’t help thinking about it.
The sound of footsteps on the pebbles behind her interrupted her musings. “Mind if I join you?”
She looked round to see the Australian visitor from earlier in the day.
“Not at all. I wondered where you’d got to.”
“Don’t worry.” She laughed. “I’m just curious as to how you know so much about the village.”
Close to, she reckoned he was in his mid-twenties, probably backpacking round the world before settling down to real life.
“That’s easy. My greatgrandmother, Polly, comes from there.”
This time it was her turn to look surprised.
Her companion grinned. “I know. Small world, eh? Let me introduce myself. Chris Storr.” He held out his hand.
She took it automatically. “Heather Watson. How old was your greatgrandmother when the village went?”
“About twenty, I think. She and my greatgrandad, George, had
just married and were living in the town where they both worked.
“George didn’t come from the village, but they wanted to move there.
“When they realised that wasn’t going to be an option, they had a chance to emigrate to Australia and took it. Polly still speaks of England as ‘home’, even now.”
“She’s still alive, then?” “Very much so. Eightyfive and gets stuck into everything. She says staying busy keeps her going. George passed away four years ago. We all still miss him.”
“That’s similar to me. My great-grandad’s eightyfour, but my great-gran went nearly six years ago. I wonder if they knew each other.”
“You never know. Crikey, it really is a small world, isn’t it?”
“You’d be surprised how many visitors tell us their relatives either came from the village or remembered it.” She hesitated. “Do you think your great-gran would be willing to tell us some of her reminiscences if we got in touch? We’re always trying to find more history of the place.”
“I don’t see why not. Mind, I remember her telling me she was really upset about the village.”
“A lot of people were. Most of them came to terms with it gradually, once the nature reserve got going. You must admit, it is beautiful on a day like this.”
“It is. I’ve just walked right round the perimeter. Those hides are brilliant, like windows to another world.”
They both fell quiet for a moment as they looked over the lake, shimmering like mercury in the early evening light. Its still waters were broken only by the concentric ripples from fish rising to the surface.
“I’ll Skype Polly when I get back to the hostel, and ask her then. She’ll want to hear about my day. I promised her I’d come here, as a kind of pilgrimage.”
Heather watched as he skimmed a stone expertly across the water, to the indignation of some passing ducks, safely out of reach.
An idea formed in her mind.
“How long are you here for?”
“Another couple of days. I’m taking some time out to explore before I start on a year’s contract further north, not too far away.
“The company I work for posted me there. I wanted a change after a recent rough patch, so it suited us both. Why do you ask?”
“As our relatives are about the same age, I was just wondering whether they could chat. Reminiscing about the village might bring back some old memories.”
“Which you’ll frantically be scribbling down?” Heather smiled. “Probably. It might be nice for them to talk, anyway.”
He looked thoughtful. “I reckon she’d enjoy that. I’ll mention it to her. If you give me your number, I’ll let you know what she says.”
The text came as she was getting ready for bed.
“The answer’s yes. Tomorrow evening OK?”
The next day, Heather contacted her greatgrandfather and relayed his reaction to Chris.
Seven this evening at his house, she texted. She gave the address. Fancy fish and chips?
I’ll be there and hungry after hiking in the hills ,he replied.
Her great-grandfather’s bungalow was on the edge of town, with a neat garden where he still grew vegetables.
She was pleased to see the two men take to each other straight away, and tried not to blush when Gramps winked at her as they tucked into their fish supper.
The meal was much appreciated by Chris, judging from the way he polished off a large helping in next to no time.
Duly nourished, and after chatting about Australia and his great-gran, he opened his laptop.
A minute later another tanned face, with sharp eyes that Heather sensed missed nothing, appeared on the screen.
Polly peered across the room.
“Bob? Bob Preston? Is that you? I guessed it might be when I heard what Chris said.”
Bob leaned forward for a better look.
“Polly Broadbent! Well, I never. What have you been up to?”
“Plenty, as I’m sure my boy will have told you. Is that your greatgranddaughter? Let’s have a look. Oh, she’s nice.
“Do you have a boyfriend at the moment, love?” she added.
Heather was too surprised to reply.
“I’ll take that as a no. Get in there, Chris. It’s time you got yourself a new girlfriend after that floozie left you high and dry.” “Polly!”
His cheeks were pink even through the tan.
Polly rolled her eyes. “Turn me back to Bob. I might get more sense out of him.
The two of them were soon catching up on gossip about their lives and mutual former acquaintances.
“I think we’re surplus to requirements,” Chris murmured.
“This probably isn’t a good time for me to ply your great-gran with questions,” she replied. “Do you think it would be OK for me to chat to her another evening?”
“I have a feeling you won’t be able to stop her.”
“There’s a nice pub a few minutes away. Do you fancy slipping out for a drink?”
As they left the older couple to it they heard gleeful laughter behind them.
Afterwards, after picking up Chris’s laptop, they drove to the reservoir and walked along the dam in the moonlight. The hoot of an owl in nearby woods and a fox’s bark somewhere in the distance added to the sense of timelessness.
“It’s magical,” Chris whispered, as if anything louder would be sacrilegious. “Now I can truly tell Polly the place is at peace with itself.”
Heather knew what he meant. What was more, she felt at peace with him, and soon knew he felt the same way, as they joined hands.
The moon set a silver path on the surface.
Who knew? Perhaps its eerie light even reached the depths, in its own way bringing to life the ruins of the village that been there and in some ways still was.
She remembered her great-grandad’s words.
“The past is never gone, so long as the memories remain.”
“When do you start your job?” she asked, still looking out over the water, held by its spell.
“In about ten days. That should give me enough time to visit some other places around the country as I make my way to Edinburgh.
“I’ve already arranged for somewhere to live there, so I don’t need to worry about that.”
“Edinburgh? That’s in Scotland.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t far.”
“It isn’t by Australian standards. I’d love to see you again,” he added, after a brief pause. “Maybe we can keep in touch.”
“It’s funny you should say that.”
She told him about the job she had been thinking about, and felt a surge of happiness as his eyes lit up. At that moment, she made up her mind.
After all, birds flew away from here and flew back when they were ready. Perhaps it was time for Heather to set off on another migration of her own.