Issue 114 of Granta is titled “Aliens,” though it really should have been called “Running Water.” There are two detailed descriptions of bathroom sinks; Philip Oltermann’s memoir of the years when he was an adolescent and his family relocated from their native Germany to the UK includes this:
Either way, the toilet wasn’t the real centrepiece of the English bathroom; the sink was. There were two taps: one for hot water and one for cold. The cold water was freezing; the hot water boiling. Right here was a puritan manifesto against the luxuries of modern living: the invention of the mixer tap had been stubbornly shunned. It took me years to internalize the handwashing routine I can now perform in my sleep- criss-crossing my soapy hands between the two jets of water while regulating the water pressure with my wrist.
The bathroom sink in the apartment where I lived when I first met the lady who would become Mrs Acilius operated in precisely the same fashion; when I read the paragraph above aloud to her it brought vivid memories to us both. Though, fortunately, we never had “an awkward encounter with a plumber who spent a week trying to fix a burst pipe before breaking down in tears and admitting that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.”
The second description of a sink is in Chris Dennis’ “Here’s What You Do,” a short story in the second person, a description of American prison life addressed to the convict living it:
Your cell has a toilet with a sink attached. The sink is attached to the top of the toilet where you think the tank should be. At first this made you uncomfortable about washing your hands. You’re used to it now. You have to straddle the toilet facing the tank or stand to the side of it when you brush your teeth, or wash, or get a drink. You push a button above the faucet and the water comes.
The main character of Madeleine Thien’s “James” is also a prisoner for much of the story, though he does not have plumbing in his cell. He is held captive by the Khmer Rouges during their time in power in Cambodia.
With the blindfold on, he felt absurdly safe. They surrounded him: bare feet on the thirsty ground, rifles smartly reloaded, the smell of the campfire. He heard someone getting a haircut, the scissors stuttering like a solitary cricket. He heard a fire starting and water boiling, he ate mushy gruel with his hands, he itched all over from the ants in the dirt, his tongue felt cracked. Night and day, his feet were shackled, he had to piss into a foul bamboo container, he was constipated. Everything hurt. He couldn’t believe it was possible to be scared so long.
A few lines down we read that James’ fear “made him feel temporary, like an insect clinging to a drain.” He was in a boat on a river when he was taken prisoner; he takes refuge in childhood memories of his brother, of being beside the sea with him, of feeling the rain with him.
Nami Mun’s “The Anniversary” is a tale of an unhappy marriage, set during a driving rain; at the climactic moment, the main character fears that “Everything in her life- her baby, her marriage, herself- would sink slowly under water.”
The role that water, or rather, the effects of water, plays in shaping the topography of a desperately dry land is at the heart of Robert MacFarlane’s “Walking on the West Bank.” MacFarlane accompanies a man named Raja Shehadeh on the strolls he has been taking through the countryside around his hometown of Ramallah regularly for most of his sixty years. Shehadeh, a lawyer who began his education at the Quaker school in Ramallah, has become quite well known for his insistence on continuing what was once the most ordinary of Palestinian habits. He has developed an appreciation for the landscape of the West Bank that is among the most valuable of the possessions the Israeli occupation has stripped from that tiny region’s inhabitants:
Raja is a good route-finder. Over decades of sarha [roaming,] he has gained, as he puts it, “an eye for the ancient tracks that criss-cross the hills, like catwalks.” Near the qasr [small tower,] he picks up an obviously old path which leads down to the floor of the valley, the dry wadi bed. There, the path merges with the wadi, following the natural line in the landscape for both walkers and water. We pass coils of barbed wire, snaking out of the silt on the wadi floor. More bullet casings. Reminders that this valley was fought over in 1967; that Ramallah was besieged and bombarded as recently as 2003.
One of Shehadeh’s very few fellow-roamers is a German geologist named Clemens Messerschmid. The day after a rainstorm, Shehadeh, MacFarlane, and Messerschmid wander about the area near Ras Karkar. Messerschmid reviews some basic points of hydrogeology:
He explains that geologists describe the solvent action of rainwater on limestone as the creation of “preferential pathways.” With each shower of rain, drops of water are sent wandering across the surface of the limestone, etching the track of their passage with acid as they go. These first traverses create tiny shallow channels, which in turn attract the flow of subsequent water, such that they become more deeply scored into the rock. Through the action of water, a hairline crack over time becomes a runnel, which becomes a fracture site, which becomes an escarpment edge.
In a landscape where limestone is a significant surface formation, these larger-scale fissures are often decisive in the development of terracing and of footpaths. Humans and animals, seeking a route, are guided by the preconfigured habits of the terrain. These walkers create preferential pathways, which in turn attract the flow of subsequent walkers, all of whom etch the track of their passage with their feet as they go. In this way the chance path of a raindrop hundreds of thousands of years previously determines the route of a contemporary walker.
It may determine the route of contemporary walkers like Shehadeh and Messerschmid, but of course very few such walkers still dare to roam about the West Bank. Messerschmid has produced a study, not mentioned in MacFarlane’s piece or available in English, in which he shows how the disruptions the Israeli security forces have imposed on the natural flow of traffic through the West Bank have created an artificial shortage of water there.
Two narratives set in Africa contain little water, but a great deal of beer. Mark Gevisser’s “Edenvale” begins with a recollection of his own wedding to his male partner in a government office outside Johannesburg, then spends most of its space remembering two gay men of the generation before his, a Zulu named Edgar and a Xhosa named Phil, who were very close friends though not lovers. Coming of age in South Africa in the 1950s and 60s, Phil and Edgar led the same-sex parts of their lives as “After-Nines,” men who stayed in bars until the other patrons were either gone or too drunk to notice what was going on around them. The open homosexuality of the new South Africa is something Phil and Edgar can admire, though it came too late for either of them to imagine coming out of the closet.
Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place” tells the hilarious story of a Kenyan government official sent to a remote part of the country to encourage cotton planting, and meeting a charismatic local chief who mocks the stodgy demeanor of the official and his fellow Kikuyu. His ethnic pride injured, the official responds by getting liquored up and dancing the dombolo. He never does get around to telling them about the advantages of cotton.
The issue also contains a series of reminiscences by Paul Theroux of the time when he lived in the UK, from 1971 to 1990. The only water in this piece are the Atlantic waves into which Robert Maxwell flung himself. There is a great deal of blood, especially the blood of slaughtered police officers Yvonne Fletcher and Keith Blakelock, of Lady Lucan (who sought refuge from her murderous husband in a pub called The Plumbers’ Arms,) of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper. The most Theroux-like line in the whole issue is Philip Oltermann’s bit about the plumber bursting into tears as he admits his incompetence; I still can’t believe it wasn’t from Theroux’ piece.