Water in context

Michael, the senior "scout" in my Oxford College, had a sure feel for the dramatic. One blissful spring lunchtime he loped resolutely down the length of the College Hall bearing a large jug on a silver tray. Thrusting the tray high in the air so that it gleamed in sunlight streaming through the leaded windows, he paused and eyed us conspiratorially.

"Water, gentlemen!" he announced.

After which a flight of Celtic lyricism overtook him, the intensity of his emotions registering in a cascading sign, sotto voce:m

"Water, Ah . . . ah, water!m Gentlemen, it's a miracle!"m

We gazed back, awestruck. Up and down the tables, the usual postprandial babble ceased as fierce young minds sought to grasp what manner of statement this might be. Perhaps wisely, the sage refused to elaborate, and went his way well pleased at having refreshed, with a morsel of primeval wisdom, the cookie cutter intellects in his care.

I had forgotten this incident until a few days ago when, sorting out my desk, I came across an unfinished essay written during my first few months in England. It starts like this:

Coming from a dry country, so much water seems almost miraculous

There it lies, in great shimmering pools, soaking into the meadows

outside my study window. . . .m

Africa, you see, is so very different. there the coming of the rains is an event. For months the tension builds. The bush gets drier and drier, the days hotter and hotter. Asphalt melts on the city streets, lawns go yellow and dusty. In the farmlands, cashcrop agriculturists and subsistance farmers alike wait patiently for that all-important downpour which will transform seed into food for hungry mouths. Promising cloud banks can flirt and deceive for weeks, while only a few stray, tantalizing drops splash wastefully into the dust.

At last, though, it happens. The air goes very still; deep blue-black clouds cover the sun. Fork-lightning cracks, thunder reverberates, and down comes a glorious deluge of hard, driving rain. Shop assistants fling off their shoes to join the little girls and boys paddling in the streets. Staid businessmen deliberately get wet. The plants nod gratefully in the gardens. There is a new easiness to living.

Or, the start of the rains can be subtle, indirect. I remember once eating lunch with friends in the perfectly dry bed of a river. The high bank shaded us from a baking hot day, with not a cloud overhead. Suddenly a strange rustling, shushing sound brought us to our feet. Churning toward us, only 100 yeards upstream, was a five-or six-inch bore of water from the highlands to the west of the city, sweeping before it a barrage of dry brush and scrub. We grabbed our gear and jumped.

"Coming from a dry country,"m it is easy to find water wonderful. Michael hails from the damp greenery of Ireland, and lives among the damp stonework of Oxford. Yet, like a fish that can somehow appreciate its own habitat, he finds water miraculous . Now that really ism a miracle!

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