The warning sign at the side of the road tells me the bridge ahead over the river is closed, because of recent flooding. For the last half an hour or so, I’ve been driving aimlessly around, trying not to go home, because there are boring tasks to do. I prefer to be out – even in a car – in this end-of-January-afternoon curious half-light.
It’s a flat and some would say featureless landscape I’m driving through – a quiet rural road with nowhere to go at the end of it because the river has once again broken its banks. I expect to see little traffic, or people about, and indeed see neither. I drive right up to where road meets floodwater, stop, turn off the engine, get out of the car. I take a couple of deep breaths and look around this mysterious new world. Little waves lap at my tyres, as if I’ve driven my car onto a beach somewhere, down to the very edge of the ocean. It’s strange to see a road, normally with stretches of fields on either side, suddenly become one massive waterscape. I find bodies of water fascinating, and particularly so when they appear as unexpectedly as this.
I stand still a moment, feeling my way into this liminal world. Border territory: earth and water, dark and light, civilisation and wilderness. A nothing zone: no breeze, no noise apart from some distant lapwings calling, nothing to be seen except for a village in the distance looking like something out of ancient legend, completely surrounded by water, apparently deserted. No people, no vehicles, no movement. Nothing stirs.
I pull on my wellingtons, and binoculars round my neck, step into this mystical waterscape. I know I’m just walking along the road, I can feel it beneath my feet, but can’t see it, and as the water level doesn’t appear to be getting much higher, I continue walking into this newly created sea. Slowly moving further into this other reality, I too am surrounded by water, and my car has become smaller.
The rational part of me – sensible brain, I call it – knows this is probably not a particularly safe thing to be doing, in flooded terrain on a darkening January afternoon, with gathering grey clouds and more rain imminent. But I am enchanted by the oddness of this transformed landscape, and now I see a pair of swans sailing along together down this minor B road. I scan for the lapwings I heard
earlier. There’s a small island of earth over to the right, with a few shreds of vegetation showing, and there they are feeding, presumably having found rich pickings in the mud from the broken riverbanks. I watch them through my binoculars and see other birds there too – a couple of crows, a few mallards. A long-legged bird I cannot immediately identify.
I’m now in water almost to the top of my boots. I close my eyes, to better absorb what I hear. The lapwings are calling again and as the sound becomes louder, I open my eyes to see them flying over my head with their characteristic slow flopping movement. I watch them until they are out of sight.
It’s now completely silent apart from a quiet lap-lap of the water around my boots. I close my eyes again, hoping to shift deeper into this altered state of consciousness. I feel as if I want to just walk on, until I need to swim, or even better turn on my back and float as I love to do in natural bodies of water. I want to become one with this watery environment, and it annoys me that I feel I must resist the temptation. I walk on further, and look back at my car, pleased it is now just a toy.
Sensible brain is still keeping me aware this is not a good plan. It runs the media stories: abandoned vehicle found at water’s edge… pair of women’s shoes next to it… no trace of the driver… but it’s not until I get the shock of water slopping over the top of my boots that I return fully to ordinary reality. A breeze has sprung up, and a few drops of rain touch my face. But when I try to turn around to walk back to my car, I feel my feet stuck in mud beneath the water. I must have stepped off the road.
I feel no fear, just an odd curiosity… perhaps some part of me is still in an altered state. Perhaps this is how it is for people who drown themselves by walking into the sea. No fear or panic, just a simple one foot in front of the other until their legs are buoyant and their body floats away.
I can’t see the swans any more, and there’s nothing on the little island. Somewhere in the far distance I notice car headlights, but not coming this way. A few lights are now twinkling in the village, making it seem like a distant cruise ship, moored in some vast ocean. I feel as if I have been here for hours, walking and standing in this watery wilderness, though when I check my watch, I’m surprised to discover it can’t be more than twenty minutes.
I wriggle my toes, twist my ankles a little, and try a couple of tentative steps one way, then another, and soon find my way back onto the submerged road. I’m almost disappointed, and reluctantly set off towards my car, but I enjoy the water squelching satisfyingly in my boots.