My author, L, and her husband have the good fortune to own a cabin on the shore of a lake in the boreal forest. This little house, despite the never-ending maintenance, is one of their great joys. It’s also the place where a lot of my misadventures were first imagined. I remember one evening in particular when they lit a fire in the pit and talked about me for an hour or so, and by the end of that conversation my story had three new and unexpected developments.
Like many cabin owners, L and her husband draw water from the lake, using a pressure tank and pump to push the water up the hill. The old system had been limping along for a number of years, and so this spring they installed a spanking new pump and pressure tank. After an afternoon of work, they had all the pipes and hoses cut to size and connected and the pump primed. They patted each other on the back and fired it up. No go. Pressure would build to the point it was supposed to, the motor on the pump would cut out the way it was supposed to—so far so good—but immediately the pressure would fall.
The foot valve is always a prime suspect when pressure fails, and so they hauled the hose in from the icy waters and changed the valve and hauled the hose back out into the icy waters. Didn’t help. Then they spent ages tinkering with the seals around the pump and the tank and the cam-locks, listening to the music of mosquitoes and looking for leaks. This is a useful exercise as far as it goes, and they did find a few stray drips and one teensy little stream. Small things, and each time they found one and corrected it, L felt a little burst of satisfaction. But a drop here, a trickle there, these don’t make an entire system fail, and repairing them won’t make it succeed. Once all those wee leaks are taken care of, when not a drop escapes around a cam-lock or elbow or gauge, and the pressure still fizzles, you have to look for the problem somewhere else. You have to look for something big. You have to look in the lake. The water, remember, is icy cold and most unpleasant to stand in even with hip waders on, and there’s no guarantee that, once out there, you’ll ever locate the source of the problem. Fifteen metres of hose, and how do you tell if a wet hose is leaking anyway? It’s wet! It’s heavy! It’s underwater! Ah, there are so many reasons not to venture into the lake.
Finally, having accepted that the only remaining option if they wanted to get water up the hill by any other method than toting plastic pails up sixteen stairs built into the hill, with rises that are both high and irregular, was to inspect fifteen feet of wet hose looking for a spot that might be, well, wetter than the rest.
A funny thing’s happening to me with these blog posts — I’m starting to fancy myself a writer and, like a lot of new writers, I suspect I’m overzealous with the extended metaphor. Well I won’t apologize. Let me just say it was obvious, as I watched these struggles with the water system, that pressure in a water tank is a fair stand-in for momentum or tension or conflict or suspense. Let me just say that I’ve watched L at work on my story lately, and she knows there’s something wrong, and what’s she doing?—she’s doing the equivalent of tightening the clamps and checking the cam-locks. She’s rearranging words and sentences, and that’s fine as far as it goes, and I’m sure those little bursts of satisfaction are happening for her at a gratifying rate, but it’s all just tinkering, you know? Look in the lake! I want to shout. Look in the lake!
After all, it worked with the pumping system. A couple of metres into the water, L’s husband lifted a section of intake hose out of the lake, and water streamed out of a hole in its side in an impressive arc that brought to mind the little bronze manneken pis in Brussels who, for centuries now, has been relieving himself nonstop in a public place. Of course, finding this significant leak meant L and her husband had to replace an entire section of hose with a new piece, and they had to find extra clamps, and ensure they were tight, and trust that the repair will be up to the job in all weathers. So there’s a lot that can go wrong, still. But what they had before sure wasn’t working.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Robert Kroetsch, a wonderful writer with an energetic mind; a wise mentor with a talent for asking just the right question.