The Drought, p.1J. G. Ballard
OTHER WORKS BY J.G. BALLARD
The Terminal Beach
The Crystal World
The Day of Forever
The Venus Hunters
The Disaster Area
The Atrocity Exhibition
The Unlimited Dream Company
Myths of the Near Future
Empire of the Sun
The Day of Creation
The Kindness of Women
The Drowned World
The Voices of Time
1 The Draining Lake
3 The Fishermen
4 The Dying Swan
5 The Coming of the Desert
6 The Crying Land
7 The Face
8 The Fire Sermon
9 The Phoenix
11 The Lamia
12 The Drowned Aquarium
13 The Nets
14 A New River
15 The Burning Altar
16 The Terminal Zone
17 The Cheetah
18 The Yantras
19 Mr Jordan
20 The Burning City
21 Journey to the Sea
22 Multiplication of the Arcs
23 The Fairground
24 The Bitter Sea
25 Dune Limbo
26 The Lagoon
27 The Tidal Waves
28 At the Settlement
29 The Stranded Neptune
30 The Sign of the Crab
31 The White Lion
32 The Illuminated River
33 The Train
34 The Mannequins
35 The Smoke Fires
36 The Mirage
37 The Oasis
38 The Pavilion
39 The Androgyne
40 The Dead Bird
41 A Drowning
42 ‘Jours de Lenteur’
THE DRAINING LAKE
AT NOON, when Dr. Charles Ransom moored his houseboat in the entrance to the river, he saw Quilter, the idiot son of the old woman who lived in the ramshackle barge outside the yacht basin, standing on a spur of exposed rock on the opposite bank and smiling at the dead birds floating in the water below his feet. The reflection of his swollen head swam like a deformed nimbus among the limp plumage. The caking mud-bank was speckled with pieces of paper and driftwood, and to Ransom the dream-faced figure of Quilter resembled a demented faun strewing himself with leaves as he mourned for the lost spirit of the river.
Ransom secured the bow and stern lines to the jetty, deciding that the comparison was less than apt. Although Quilter spent as much time watching the river as Ransom and everyone else, his motives would be typically perverse. The continued fall of the river, sustained through the spring and summer drought, gave him a kind of warped pleasure, even if he and his mother had been the first to suffer. Their derelict barge—an eccentric gift from Quilter’s protector, Richard Foster Lomax, the architect who was Ransom’s neighbour—had now taken on a thirty-degree list, and a further fall of even a few inches in the level of the water would split its hull like a desiccated pumpkin.
Shielding his eyes from the sunlight, Ransom surveyed the silent banks of the river as they wound westwards to the city of Mount Royal five miles away. For a week he had been out on the lake, sailing the houseboat among the draining creeks and mud-flats as he waited for the evacuation of the city to end. After the closure of the hospital at Mount Royal he intended to leave for the coast, but at the last moment decided to spend a few final days on the lake before it vanished for good. Now and then, between the humps of damp mud emerging from the centre of the lake, he had seen the instant span of the motor-bridge across the river, the windows of thousands of cars and trucks flashing like jewelled lances as they set off along the coast road for the south; but for most of the period he had been alone. Suspended like the houseboat above the dissolving glass of the water, time had seemed becalmed.
Ransom postponed his return until all movement along the bridge had ended. By then the lake, once a stretch of open water thirty miles in length, had subsided into a series of small pools and channels, separated by the banks of draining mud. A few last fishing craft sailed among them, their crews standing shoulder to shoulder in the bows. The drab-suited men from the settlement, thin faces hidden under their black caps, had gazed at Ransom’s houseboat with the numbed expressions of a group of lost whaling men too exhausted by some private tragedy to rope in this stranded catch.
By contrast, the slow transformation of the lake exhilarated Ransom. As the wide sheets of water contracted, first into shallow lagoons and then into a maze of creeks, the wet dunes of the lake bed seemed to emerge from another dimension. On the last morning he woke to find the houseboat beached at the end of a small cove. The slopes of mud, covered with the bodies of dead birds and fish, stretched above him like the shores of a dream.
As he approached the entrance to the river, steering the houseboat among the stranded yachts and fishing boats, the lakeside town of Hamilton was deserted. Along the fishermen’s quays the boat-houses were empty, and the white forms of the drying fish hung in the shadows from the lines of hooks. Refuse fires smouldered in the waterfront gardens, their smoke drifting past the open windows that swung in the warm air. Nothing moved in the streets. Ransom had assumed that a few people would remain behind, waiting until the main exodus to the coast was over, but Quilter’s presence, like his ambiguous smile, in some way was an obscure omen, one of the many irrational signs that had revealed the real progress of the drought during the confusion of the past months.
A hundred yards to his right, beyond the concrete pillars of the motor-bridge, the wooden piles of the fuel depot were visible above the cracked mud. The floating pier had touched bottom, and the fishing boats usually moored against it had moved off into the centre of the channel. Normally, in late summer, the river would have been three hundred feet wide, but it was now barely half this—a shallow creek winding its slow way along the flat gutter of the banks.
Next to the fuel depot was the yacht basin, with the Quilters’ barge moored against its bows. After signing the vessel over to them at the depot, Lomax had added a single gallon of diesel oil in a quixotic gesture of generosity, barely enough fuel for the couple to navigate the fifty yards to the basin. Refused entry, they had taken up their mooring outside. Here Mrs Quilter sat all day on the hatchway, her faded red hair blown around her black shawl, muttering at the people going down to the water’s edge with their buckets.
Ransom could see her now, beaked nose flashing to left and right like an irritable parrot’s as she flicked at her dark face with a Chinese fan, indifferent to the heat and the river’s stench. She had been sitting in the same place when he set off in the houseboat, her ribald shouts egging on the week-end mariners laying a line of cement-filled bags across the entrance to the yacht basin. Even at flood barely enough water entered the harbour to irrigate its narrow docks, and this had now leaked back into the river, settling the smartly decked craft into their own mud. Deserted by their owners, the yachts were presided over by Mrs Quilter’s witc
Despite her grotesque appearance and insane son, Ransom admired this old woman of the barges. Often during the winter he crossed the rotting gangway into the gloomy interior of the barge, where she lay on a feather mattress tied to the chart table, wheezing to herself. The single cabin, filled with dusty lanterns, was a maze of filthy recesses veiled by old lace shawls. After filling her tea-pot from the flask of gin in his valise, Ransom would be rowed back across the river in her son’s leaking coracle, Quilter’s great eyes below the hydrocephalic forehead staring at him through the rain like wild moons.
Rain!—at the recollection of what the term had once meant, Ransom looked up at the sky. Unmasked by clouds or vapour, the sun hung over his head like an ever-attendant genie. The fields and roads adjoining the river were covered with the same unvarying light, a glazed yellow canopy that embalmed everything in its heat.
Below the jetty Ransom had staked a line of coloured poles into the water, but the rapid fall in the level needed little calculation. In the previous three months the river had dropped some twenty feet, shrinking to less than a quarter of its original volume. As it sank, it seemed to pull everything towards it. The banks were now opposing cliffs, topped by the inverted tents suspended from the chimneys of the river-side houses. Originally designed as rain-traps—though no rain had ever fallen into them—the canvas envelopes had been transformed into a line of aerial garbage scoops, the bowls of dust and leaves raised like offerings to the sun.
Ransom crossed the deck and stepped down into the steering well. He waved to Quilter, who was watching him with a drifting smile. Behind him, along the deserted wharfs, the bodies of the drying fish turned slowly in the air.
‘Tell your mother to move the barge,’ Ransom called across the interval of slack water. ‘The river is still falling.’
Quilter ignored this. He pointed to the blurred forms moving slowly below the surface.
‘Clouds,’ he said.
‘Clouds,’ Quilter repeated. ‘Full of water, doctor.’
Ransom stepped through the hatchway into the cabin of the houseboat, smiling to himself at Quilter’s bizarre humour. Despite his deformed skull and Caliban-like appearance, there was nothing stupid about Quilter. The dreamy, ironic smile, at times almost affectionate in its lingering glance, as if understanding Ransom’s most intimate secrets, the seamed skull with its russet hair and the inverted planes of the face, in which the cheekbones were set back two or three inches, leaving deep hollows below the eyes—all these and a streak of unpredictable naivety made Quilter a daunting figure. Most people wisely left him alone, possibly because his invariable method of dealing with them was to pick unerringly on their weaknesses and work away at these like an inquisitor.
It was this instinct for failure, Ransom decided with wry amusement as Quilter watched him from his vantage point above the dead birds, that probably explained Quilter’s persistent curiosity in his own case. For some time now Quilter had followed him around, no doubt assuming that Ransom’s solitary week-ends among the marshes along the southern shore of the lake marked a reluctance to face up to certain failures in his life—principally, Ransom’s estrangement from his wife Judith. However, Quilter’s attempts to exploit this situation and provoke Ransom in various minor ways—by stealing the deck equipment from the houseboat, and disconnecting the power lines down the bank—had so far been unsuccessful in upsetting Ransom’s tolerant good humour.
Quilter, of course, had been unable to grasp that the failure of Ransom’s marriage was less a personal one than that of its urban context, in fact a failure of landscape, and that with his discovery of the river Ransom had at last found an environment in which he felt completely at home, a zone of identity in space and time. Quilter would have had a little idea of the extent to which Ransom shared that sense of the community of the river, the unseen links between the people living on the margins of the channel, which for Ransom had begun to take the place of his marriage and his work at the hospital. All this had now been ended by the drought.
Throughout the long summer Ransom had watched the river shrinking, its countless associations fading as it narrowed into a shallow creek. Above all, Ransom was aware that the role of the river in time had changed. Once it had played the part of an immense fluid clock, the objects immersed in it taking up their positions like the stations of the sun and planets. The continued lateral movements of the river, its rise and fall and the varying pressures on the hull, were like the activity within a vast system of evolution, whose cumulative forward flow was as irrelevant and without meaning as the apparently linear motion of time itself. The real movements were those random and discontinuous relationships between the objects within it, those of himself and Mrs Quilter, her son and the dead birds and fish.
With the death of the river, so would vanish any contact between those stranded on the drained floor. For the present the need to find some other measure of their relationships would be concealed by the problems of their own physical survival. None the less, Ransom was certain that the absence of this great moderator, which cast its bridges between all animate and inanimate objects alike, would prove of crucial importance. Each of them would soon literally be an island in an archipelago drained of time.
HELPING HIMSELF to what was left of the whisky in the galley cabinet, Ransom sat down on the edge of the sink and began to scrape away the tar stains on his cotton trousers. Within the next hour he would have to go ashore, leaving the houseboat for the last time, but after a week on board he felt uneager to leave the craft and make all the social and mental readjustments necessary, minimal though these would now be. He had let his beard grow, and the rim of fair hair had been bleached almost white by the sunlight. This and his bare, sunburnt chest gave him the appearance of a seafaring Nordic anthropologist, standing with one hand on his mast, the other on his Malinowski. Although he gladly accepted this new persona, Ransom realized that it was still only notional, and that his real Odyssey lay before him, in the journey by land to the coast.
None the less, however much the role of single-handed yachtsman might be a pleasant masquerade, the houseboat seemed to have been his true home for longer than the few months he had owned it. He had seen the craft for sale the previous winter, while visiting a patient in the yacht basin, and bought it almost without thinking, on one of those gratuitous impulses he often used to let a fresh dimension into his life. To the surprise of the other yachtsmen, Ransom towed the craft away and moored it on the exposed bank below the motor-bridge. The mooring was a poor one at a nominal rent, the stench of the fish-quays drifting across the water, but the slip road near by gave him quick access to Hamilton and the hospital. The only hazards were the cigarette ends thrown down from the cars crossing the bridge. At night he would sit back in the steering well and watch the glowing parabolas extinguish themselves in the water around him.
Looking at the contents of the cabin as he sipped his drink, Ransom debated which of his possessions to take with him. The cabin had become, unintentionally, a repository of all the talismans of his life. On the bookself were the anatomy texts he had used in the dissecting room as a student, the pages stained with the formalin that leaked from the corpses on the tables, somewhere among them the unknown face of his surgeon father. On the desk by the stern window was the limestone paperweight he had cut from a chalk cliff as a child, the fossil shells embedded in its surface bearing a quantum of Jurassic time like a jewel. Behind it, the ark of his covenant, stood two photographs in a hinged blackwood frame. On the left was a snapshot of himself at the age of four, sitting on a lawn between his parents before their divorce. On the right, exorcizing this memory, was a faded reproduction of a small painting he had clipped from a magazine, ‘Jours de Lenteur’ by Yves Tanguy. With its smooth, pebble-like objects, drained of all associations, suspended on a washed tidal floor, t
Ransom picked up the frame and looked at the photograph of himself. Although he recognized the small, square-jawed face of the child on the lawn, there now seemed an absolute break of continuity between the two of them. The past had slipped away, leaving behind it, like the debris of a vanished glacier, a moraine of unrelated mementoes, the blunted nodes of the memories that now surrounded him in the houseboat. The craft was as much a capsule protecting him against the pressures and vacuums of time as the steel shell of an astronaut’s vehicle guarded the pilot from the vagaries of space. Here his half-conscious memories of childhood and the past had been isolated and quantified, like the fragments of archaic minerals sealed behind glass cases in museums of geology.
A SIREN HOOTED WARNINGLY. A river steamer with a single high funnel, white awnings flared over the rows of empty seats, approached the central passage between the main pylons of the bridge. Captain Tulloch, a bottle-nosed old buff, sat above the helmsman on the roof of the wheel-house, staring myopically down the narrowing channel. With its shallow draught, the steamer could glide over submerged banks barely two feet below the surface. Ransom suspected that Tulloch was now half-blind, and that his pointless passages in the empty steamer, which once carried sightseers across the lake, would go on until the craft ran immovably aground on a mud-bank.
As the steamer passed, Quilter stepped down into the water, and with an agile leap swung himself onto the hand-rail, feet in the scuppers.
‘Full ahead there!’ With a cry, Captain Tulloch hopped from his perch. He seized a boat-hook and hobbled down the deck towards Quilter, who grimaced at him from his handhold on the stern rail. Bellowing at the youth, who scuttled like a chimpanzee on its bars, Tulloch rattled the boat-hook up and down between the rails. They passed below the bridge and approached the Quilters’ barge. Mrs Quilter, still fanning herself, sat up and hurled a series of vigorous epithets at the captain. Ignoring her, Tulloch drove Quilter along the rail, lunging at him like a perspiring pike-man. The helmsman swung the steamer hard by the barge, trying to rock it from its mooring. As it passed, Mrs Quilter jerked loose the line of the coracle. It bounced off the bows of the steamer, then raced like a frantic wheel between the hulls. Quilter leapt nimbly into it from the rail and was spreadeagled on the barge’s deck as Captain Tulloch swung the boat-hook at his head, knocking Mrs Quilter’s fan from her hand into the water.
The Drought by J. G. Ballard / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes