Part I: The Awakening
Chapter 9: Of water, lakes and storms
It kept raining cats and dogs…and the four of us were supposed to travel up north, to the Lake District in Cumbria, to some aunt of Alice’s. The ill-tempered weather gave us little incentive to leave the house, but still, we left. The Lake District’s too much of an attraction to be passed up if an opportunity to visit it were to come up, even Alice and Mark knew that, as much as they’d already traveled around the globe.
The Lake District is an area in northern England which, apart from having inspired a huge amount of painters and writers, is also a National Park of the United Kingdom, thus being in a protective state. And once you get there, you know why it should be protected. The romantic beauty of the area was (and still is) perfect for writing poetry or for painting. It’s like the nature itself is inviting you to paint it or to write something about it. The likes of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Robert Southney knew what they were doing when they realized that the Lakeland, how the area is sometimes referred to as, offered them both a wonderful place to live and at the same time provided them with the much needed inspiration. The backdrops are often breathtaking either in their complexity and enormous variation, or, more often than not, in their simplicity. The Lakes tend to have pretty barren mountainsides, due to excessive sheep farming in the past, but, as I was to realize, it’s precisely that barrenness that gives the land its charm, just as it does in the Highlands of Scotland, barren enough as well. It’s not always about complexity, beauty might be found in the most empty-looking places. The Lake District is also a very successful tourist magnet, with a lot of small towns with so much charm that they scream to be to be explored.
The four of us left for the Lakes after some packing, not too heavy, but still, “a week spent in such a wet place might bring surprises”, we thought, so we did some heavier packing than expected. We took the M62 out of Liverpool, heading east, as Alice had to make a stop in Greater Manchester. I would’ve loved to see a glimpse of downtown Manchester, but we only stopped for a while in Swinton, on the north-western edge of town, at a friend of Alice’s. Then we continued our journey along the M6 motorway, heading north, into Cumbria and the Lake District. The charm of the landscape kept only growing, until it grew so much that it felt just overwhelming. For anyone enjoying the typical British landscape, the Lakes is an area which illustrates just that, perfectly.
We entered the actual Lake District National Park around Kendal, a fanciful little town, which, apart from being famous for its Kendal-mint-cake, also serves as the self-declared entry point into the Lakes District for those coming from down-south. We didn’t spend much time there, apart from a quick stop at a coffee shop, but crossing through it felt longer than it should have because of heavy traffic – said traffic actually allowed us to look around a little, so it was not all bad. When we finally managed to leave town, it was just a stone’s throw to reach Windermere, the largest lake in the the UK, and then the touristy town of Ambleside, our destination. ⇒⇓
Lake Windermere is a real beauty. It’s never too wide, but it sure is long enough to make it difficult for people to explore its shores properly in just a few day’s time. It’s waters are very clean and tend to have an enticing blue-greenish tint, depending on where one stands, the weather and the time of year. As I first saw it I knew why some painter or the other chose to use it as background in their paintings: it was fantastic. We drove alongside it, James listening to some stories on a Walkman (yeah, the devices on which people used to listen to music), while us adults talked about what was planned for the next few days and about other entirely optional activities we could do, if only we willed it. We decided that there was one thing we couldn’t possibly remove from our schedule: a boat trip on Lake Windermere; it had to take place on that same day, as according to the weather reports, during the following days it was highly probable to rain. A lot. As much as we came to the Lake District precisely for its mountainous and watery landscapes – the lakes of the district were, of course, supposed to be full of water – we did not want said water to fall onto our heads; we’d rather it stayed in the lakes only.
“We could just go and say hi to my auntie and then hurry back to the lake, grab their boat and have a couple of hours of watery fun,” Alice said, thinking about how best to tackle the situation. “They wouldn’t mind, I’m sure, if we postponed the whole talking, hi, long-time-no-see-kind-of-stuff…“
“Then let’s,” Mark said. He enjoyed boats alright, just not on oceans, like the Atlantic back in Liverpool. The enormity of the endless sea ahead of him scared him, so he’d rather he steered a boat on a lake such as Windermere, with virtually no single place where the shore felt too far away. I felt the same, actually.
We soon reached the house of Alice’s auntie, on the northern edge of Ambleside, up a on slight hill, overlooking the valley which leads to the lake. The old house looked imposing enough and the grounds around it even more so, with a back-garden climbing down the hill, all full of flowers, bushes and trees, and the occasional vegetable patches. We knocked on the door and a man in his 60’s, dressed in a dark-blue robe and wearing slippers, appeared from the other side of the door as it opened. He had some big, bulky glasses on his nose, the ones which make your eyes bigger and give you an air of importance. He held a newspaper in his left hand, folded up with care.
“Oh my, Martha, come and see who’s come! Our niece, Alice!” he said while inviting us in. The whole air of importance lasted for exactly two seconds, that’s how long his glasses could sustain it for him. “We expected you around evening, how come you’ve come so soon? Not that we mind, but we’re sort of too relaxed right now, we look like two retirees who don’t care about their guests. You’ve surprised us…”, the curly, white-haired man said.
“Oh, uncle Ben, you know we care little for formalities. And we know that you care about your guests, even too much so. Be relaxed! Stay relaxed! Read your paper…we’re gonna leave our luggage here and be off in a jiffy! We’d like to take the boat, if that’s ok with you? You’d have the opportunity to relax some more, so it’s a win-win situation,” Alice said, all smiling.
“It’s not about winning anything and you know that, missy! It goes without saying (or asking) that you can take the boat. We’d rather we chatted some more, long time no see, but I imagine you’re afraid of the upcoming weather, aren’t you, you Californian sunshine lover?…we don’t have that kind of sun over here, but what we have…”
“What we have is a nice boat,” Martha said, interrupting Ben just as she reached the end of the stairs. “If you don’t leave right now, the sun’s gonna set beyond the mountains long before Ben here will have ceased talking and keeping you from enjoying the lake in the afternoon,” she added. She was a red-haired retiree, about her husband’s age; from what I could gather in just a flash, she was an awfully nice red-haired old lady. Dyed hair on old people, that usually made me sick, but not in Martha’s case. She may have dyed her hair red, but it fitted her well. She wore a similar robe as her husband did, but of a different material. Her felt velvety, while his was a Turkish terry bath robe. And her was purple. They both seemed very relaxed in their outfits, so it felt only natural that we should leave them alone for a couple of more hours, to enjoy their afternoon tea and a paper or a book.
We soon left, not before thanking them for their hospitality. “As if we’re some strangers who need to be thanked! Hospitality? We just allowed you to drop your luggage! Anyhow, now go, and when you’re back you’d better introduce this new babysitter of yours, he seems a little shy, but nice enough,” Martha said, Ben nodding his head, approvingly. It felt a little awkward, me not saying anything, but I wanted to leave them to go about their business for the moment.
We did not take the car again, it was only a little ways to walk to reach the Waterhead Pier, in who’s vicinity Martha and Ben’s boat stood moored. And besides, we needed to stretch our legs after all that sitting. We also wanted to enjoy the views, the mountains around us… We soon reached the boat: a green-painted, middle-sized, typical British motor houseboat, on which a couple of people could even sleep or prepare meals. As Mark started the engine, I realized that it was nowhere near what you’d call a fast boat, but the lake should be enjoyed, not raced, so it was, in fact, perfect.
The pier was on the northern side of the lake, so we headed southwards, trying to reach the end of the lake, stay for a while around there and then be back in time for dinner. If only it were that simple! The weather turned out to not be on our side. Quite the opposite, in fact. Soon after we headed out, big, menacing, grey-towards-black colored clouds gathered. We thought that even if it rained, we had someplace good under which to take cover, so we continued on our way southbound, undisturbed by them. “The rest of the days ought to be even worse, so we might as well enjoy this one the best we can,” Mark said, confidently.
“Mummy, is it gonna rain today? The clouds look bad…!?” James asked while throwing into the lake’s crystal clear water some pebbles he’d collected on the shore. “It may, but stay calm, nothing’s gonna happen, there’s no wind so the boat won’t mind the rain,” Alice reassured him.
Little did she know… If she could have anticipated the events, if she’d have listened to her James. Soon Mark changed his mind, telling her he thought the weather to be turning quite fast and quite badly. The clouds seemed intent on bringing a real storm, not only some rain, with which they, as Brits, were accustomed enough not to care. It turned out that the storm was no joke, though it should not have posed much threat to a well-built boat. The problem was that Martha and Ben’s was not exactly the new rage in town….it was, after all, the boat of two people who have seen quite a number of winters pass them by…well kept, she was, but old.
Before being able to get halfway back to the pier, such powerful waves started battling on the sides of the boat that James started crying, panicked. Mark tried to calm him, but to no avail. For the first time, I saw James crying, yelling, pushing Mark out of the way. Alice was better at steering boats, she’d done it more than Mark did while her time spent in California, so she left him to mend for James and took charge of the boat. I knew not how to swim, but I didn’t find it an issue before, so I was not afraid to be on deck, even on a storm. Well, I should have, indeed, I should have!
A wave hit the left side of the boat violently and she lost its balance, enjoying a newly acquired tendency to overturn. In an instance I found myself in the water. It felt more like a bad dream than like a real life situation. I’d had bad dreams of the sort countless times before and they always ended up with me opening my eyes and seeing how nothing around me was actually wrong…or wet, for that matter. So my brain told me to wait for the moment when I’d wake up and realize that nothing’s happened. That failed to materialize. It felt like ages, but nothing changed. I was still in water, but it felt so real. More real than before, in my dreams. My drowning felt real…because it was real! When I realized it, I began to scream:”Help, for goodness’s sake, help me!!! Mark, Aliceee!” In no time I felt water in my lungs and no real way to yell anymore. I was going down, stupidly, like a rock fallen into water. “I should have learned to swim…why, why, why is it happening…?” I thought, while submerging deeper into the cold, raging water. I had seen it countless times before in movies, I had read about it, I had imagined it…I had dreamed of it…but nothing prepared me for how it felt like. It felt like nothingness, emptiness, abiss. It did not feel in any particular way, not bad, not good. And that scared me shitless. It would have been easier if it felt real bad, if it hurt like hell. But it did not. And I continued drowning…slowly, but steadily…For me, in those moments, the chemical formula H2O, commonly known as water, of which most of my body was made up, stopped being the life giver it had been for 20 years. It felt like…DEATH!