Plainsong

The wind howled over the moorland like the slow scrape of a bow across a detuned cello. Focused by the steep valley it raced through the barren peatland, collecting a wall of brackish mist that soaked the tiny figure clinging to the cold rail atop the dam. She stood there often, finding hidden melody in the scream of the rusty steel balustrades under the assault of the upland gale. Like everything else about this place, the cruel sound was the product of an ongoing tussle between man and nature. She gazed down the sheer face of the concrete dam into the black water of the loch, and found strange comfort in the tumult.

Every place had its own music, from remote wilderness to great metropolis. The song of the loch was a new composition, a raw punk thrash in the midst of a baroque dance suite. The loch was new, excavated in the 1960s to feed a hydroelectric power station. They’d taken the decision to abandon the tiny village to the waves, residents young and old evacuated to the surrounding hamlets. Progress, they said, but the song of the village faded quickly as the evacuation began. It ebbed to nothing before she had learned the words, leaving fragments of primitive melody that tumbled around her mind in the years that followed.

It was those scraps of half-remembered melody that drew her to this place time and time again. She had tried to join the dots herself, reimagining the tune in her own fashion, but each failed attempt galvanised her resolve to rediscover what had been lost. Every year she came to this place to search, standing on the dam and trying in vain to penetrate the cacophonous triptych of wind, water and the perpetual churn of turbines deep within the hillside. Last year things seemed different. Last year the roar of the loch seemed dimmer, quieter. Last year she felt the pull of home more strongly than ever before.

It had been a particularly long, hot summer and the surface of the water slowly shrank back from the intense gaze of the sun. The growing shoreline revealed concrete walls and stone gabions, a crude facsimile of the granite-walled tarns that dotted the surrounding hills. Concrete gave way to mud that in turn dried and cracked. Ominous grey forms were revealed by the shrinking surface, forms that gained stunning familiarity as the days passed. It was no Atlantis, but the long-gone shapes of the fallen church tower and the crumbling wreck of the village hall were unmistakable. Ghosts of a vanished past. The ghosts of her youth, of endless summers and the faint smell of pipesmoke. In the blazing heat of that summer the hardship of the intervening years had melted away. She spent many happy afternoons at the loch shore, mudlarking and humming the song of home that flooded her mind once again.

The rain soon came and the village was lost to sight once more, the lilting refrain replaced by the distant drums of rising water. There was soon no trace that the village had ever existed, but she kept up her vigil, hoping for the waters to shrink once more. Now she stood alone, one year later, sheltering from the elements in the shadow of a concrete watchtower. Its naive brutalism was a sharp contrast to the stonecutter’s handiwork that shaped the homesteads of her childhood, now lost in the black, forbidding deep. She used to mourn for the loss of the past, but she hadn’t felt the weight of grief since that last perfect summer. She now knew that the music of a place never truly dies, but sometimes it gets lost in the chaos.

She sang the song of the village softly as she turned away from the dam and walked into the setting sun.

Berrow Beach, 1987

An old oak bench stood beyond the ruined pillbox, long forgotten and lost amid the marram. The old man sat there often, his regular perch a polished oval within the lichen-encrusted wood. Precious few ever noticed him, but that day I did. I saw him staring sadly across the bay, a faded photograph clutched tightly in his arthritic hands. I saw bright tears tracing a haphazard path down his weathered cheeks. I saw him silently talking to a companion unseen.

The tattered picture barely held together, glossy paper turned to fragile vellum by years of adoring study. The girl in the photo was beautiful, wide-eyed and happy. I asked him about her. They were in love, he said, long ago, before the bombs came. Nearly half a century past, and yet he still thought of her every day when he performed his lonely vigil. He never loved anyone as he had loved her. As he still loved her.

We exchanged the briefest of nods as he shuffled away. I took his place on the worn seat, continuing his solemn watch as I drifted into a reverie, mind filled with wistful notions of love, time and loss. Footprints in the undulating dunes were the only sign that the old man had ever been there, but the thoughts and feelings of that day still remain.