by Lucie McKnight Hardy
I have very few memories of my childhood. A handful before I was 11, at which point they seem to rush me, as if making up for the previous absence. I think of this often. It’s not right, is it, to have half-a-dozen of my own memories – not those handed down by parents, friends, encased within mementoes, captured in pictures – and nothing else? I regularly pull myself back from the brink of cod-psychology, fearful of what lies beneath.
I remember a nightmare, a giant spider climbing the narrow stairs in our house and turning towards my room. It’s only recently occurred to me that I may have read The Hobbit by then. I remember two birthdays, arriving downstairs to find a Hornby railway track snaking through the sofa legs, and the following year a Subbuteo stadium laid out with teams and floodlights, both items my dad had as much, if not more, fun with than I did. I remember riding a bike in the concrete square outside our front door with the Pakistani boys from the house opposite. After my mother left – I was nine – I remember creeping downstairs one night, standing by the living room door, watching my father cry into his hands. 10cc’s Deceptive Bends on the stereo; The Things We Do For Love. I still have that album, ‘borrowed’ from under my dad’s nose when I was a late teen. And I remember looking down a road and seeing the tarmac ripple, melt into ice-cream rifts and peaks, wondering if everything was ending.
The road was, without question, the Summer the year my brother was born; 1976. To those of a certain age, that Summer is almost mythical. Forty-three years later, you can almost pick it up, feel its weight, like a museum exhibit. Until recently, I’d be hard pressed to think of another year which exhibited such meteorological extremes, that stood out from its peers, a brutal, bright exclamation mark in the era of economic woe, union unrest and the unravelling of a grey government that ended with Thatcher and eighteen years of Me Me Me. A glorious Summer presaging the Winter of Discontent.
The drought that accompanied the heat – it was the driest Summer since 1772 – actually began in September 1975. By April ‘76 (my brother was 3 months old) many water supplies were regularly turned off in the early evening before being reconnected in the morning. A Minister for Drought was appointed. Hosepipe bans were common, enforced by street patrols. ‘Bath with a friend’ was more than a ribald joke for young adults in the pub. Beer was in short supply, so maybe jokes were required. Old churches, barns and broken bridges, long lost to rising water levels and tides, re-appeared in silent protest. Haweswater, a man-made reservoir that covered the village of Mardale in Cumbria, lost 90% of its water, allowing the remains of the village to feel the breeze for the first time in 50 years. By June, standpipes replaced standard water supplies. Major infra-structure industries were told to halve their consumption.
The Summer of 1976 was a national crisis, one the population stumbled into unprepared and walked through in an increasingly uncomfortable stupor, as if we’d all been drugged into uncontrollable ennui. Those moments when you step off a plane into Mediterranean heat? They went on for months without pause. And whilst society’s norms burned and broke, children lived the cliche of unbroken sunshine; ice-cream and afternoons that seemed to last for weeks. For anyone post-Baby Boomer, pre-Millennial, the cheap nostalgia conjured by ‘We had real Summers when I was a child‘ can be traced, I think, to this.
Another memory, this one slightly later, possibly early teens. Watching An American Werewolf In London at a friend’s house. My first horror movie. Despite being loaded with peak ‘scream’ moments, the image I recall most clearly is that of the walkers entering the public bar of The Slaughtered Lamb. The unspoken distance between those sat at the tables and the backpack-laden men, the ‘otherness’ that initial, small silence creates. The uncomfortable detente at the bar.
From the moment Dead Ink revealed the cover, this was a book I wanted to read. The typography, the grey against the muted orange, the stunning title, all of it was enough to mark the book out.
McKnight Hardy conjures a perfect storm, then holds it on the very edge of breaking until it’s almost beyond your wit not to succumb. A suffering family decamps to an isolated Welsh village in an act of deliberate denial, only to have to confront its recent past without the safety net of familiarity and amidst the cruelty of strangers, both within and without their own walls.
Two teenagers – Nif and Mally – on the edge of impatient adulthood, full of fecund maturity and expectant gratification stunted by the lack of moisture in the air and endless, bone-dry, dust-covered days blanketing every move with a sense of drugged languor. They come together in shocking, vital moments; the cold cleansing of the river when Mally watches Nif bathe, the vigour and vivid colour of the flowers in Janet’s garden that they pass through on the way to Mally’s room, Nif’s matter-of-fact, comically cold introduction to sexual contact with Mally, all feel nothing short of sudden submersion after a long dry spell.
Layer on top of that the frustrations of their parents. For Nif, her once optimistic but increasingly beaten down father Clive tiptoes around the withdrawn, hollow mannequin of her mother. Linda is deftly drawn. Her bottomless grief is broken with random moments when she appears to re-join the world that’s been so cruel to her, and it’s no surprise when her strongest moments in the village are allied to her relationship with Mally’s mother, Janet. The open, brash, wanton drunk, with enough curves for a Formula 1 track, she easily turns the head of a man desperate to hold his family together in the face of insurmountable odds, his own weaknesses not least. Linda’s need for an independent voice finds a natural home in Janet’s affected nonchalance.
Janet’s continued intervention into the new arrivals’ crumbling state of affairs leads to some spectacularly tense triangles of dialogue. Pain is never far from the surface, a tangible, dense, clogging barrier to the normal rhythms of family and friendship. Like her garden, she is a curiously colourful foil in the bleached landscape. Between her and her cock-sure son, stuck in a purgatory of his mother’s making and mischief incarnate, they trigger conflict across the plot like nuclear codes in the hands of a madman.
Nif is a protagonist for the ages. Cut from similar cloth to that worn by Annie Wilkes and Merricat Blackwood, she exhibits that particular blend of early teenage confusion and unwarranted confidence, the bravado of the unsure, but here it’s bolstered with an underlying malevolence and acts of casual brutality that shock like ice water on a burn. There’s a cold inquisitiveness about the way she moves through her day, analysing and dissecting her interactions, breaking down seemingly inconsequential moments to look for their meaning, all the while in thrall to the pulse of an invisible beat, a master of ceremonies without a face. A mess of contradictions, you root for Nif as much as you are repulsed by her behaviour, often within the stretch of a page. You want to climb into the paper and deflect her from the choices she makes, a small nudge here and there, but you fear for the consequences, for yourself as much as her. Who knows where the new direction will lead? I couldn’t help but like her and yet…
Wrapped around the core protagonists is the open hostility of a closed community living out their own Wicker-Man-lite fantasy. The tied-up-tight parishioners of the local church; a clique of native teens; the aforementioned pub-dwellers, all in varying degrees delighting in the cliche of refusing strangers. Last, but not least, the blistering, relentless, sticky, molasses-thick Summer of thought-sapping heat. A season that whispers through the dry grass, speaks from the hot stone, flirts in pockets of still water, beats down upon everyone and everything with merciless abandon and a sense of something else, that something ‘other’.
Imagery blurs like the oil on a Turner canvas, allowing for numerous explanations. Some threads conclude, others dry up. McKnight-Hardy stipples omens throughout the early chapters that only bloom when absolutely necessary, opening up further layers of the picture to analysis. There are regular intake of breath moments – you’ll know them when they arrive. Check your availability of oxygen. She applies her brush deliberately, slowly, building up colour until sunglasses are mandatory. When the storm breaks, it is brief, all-encompassing, tropical in its urgency; viciously efficient.
It’s writing of a quality rarely seen in a debut; taut, economical and open to the knowledge that what isn’t said is as important as what is. The prose veers from aspects of fragility; Nif’s references to the bird’s eggs, her scratches, injuries real or potential, with moments of hard edged certainty – the breaking of the china cups, the axe, the pitted stone of the Plague cross, the cruelty of teenagers.
I often wonder what my brother remembers of his childhood. More, or less than me? He was three when our parents split. After an initial period living with dad to allow mum to ‘sort things out’, we went to live with her and our threads on the loom went in different directions. It might be fair to suggest my brother didn’t have the same opportunity to connect with dad the way I had. To be sure, there was no fight over the 10cc album. A rough deal then, perhaps; a few months old as the hottest Summer for 250 years drained everyone’s ability to communicate, right at the point the only method he had was to cry – for food, for comfort, for a connection. As a launch goes, 1976 was a tough ask. It feels like the champagne may have missed the hull. There was no telling if the keel would run true. He turned out okay though. Better than okay, actually.
The jury is out on Nif.
A theme, of sorts. Water Shall Refuse Them feels like a natural companion to two books I read earlier this year; Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall and Folk by Zoe Gilbert. All three write tension brilliantly. They sow gut-wrenching twists and turns, pathways through funhouse glass that bend and distort the reader’s perception of what’s real, or right, or safe. When the knife turns, it’s with precision, as surgeons wield scalpels. And afterwards, if they’ve done their best work, you’re never quite sure where the scar is, but you know the pain. You remember it. Memory is cruel like that.
Quotes used with permission of the author.
Published by: Dead Ink