The Memory of Water and the Gallic Shrug

Has anyone else noticed that water’s sentient?

Our roof started leaking last week – not an inundation but an annoying drip, drip, drip through our ceiling. Out came the buckets. And then the long wait for the rain to stop so I could get up on the roof and take a look. It rained for a week. The leaks moved, seeking out those places just beyond the rim of our bucket. Water’s like that. Vindictive and sneaky.

I have the proof.

When we put a new slate roof on our log shed – a tornado having taken the old corrugated iron roof off in one piece and deposited it thirty yards away in the top of a cherry tree (it became a tourist attraction) – I had to leave a gap between the roof edge and the stone wall of the stable it abutted. The stone wall was a couple of hundred years old and made of rough-cut granite so it was impossible to cut the slate to make a perfect fit. So there was a gap four yards long and, in places, half an inch wide. Plenty of room for water to get in.

You’d think. But it never has. I check the log shed after thunderstorms, after weeks of persistent rain. Nothing. No streaks of water staining the wall. No damp patches. You can stand inside the log shed and see daylight. But rain just looks the other way.

Next witness: our house chimney. When it rains hard, water starts to drip down our sealed chimney and onto the register plate above our fire. It rarely gets any further as we cunningly covered the register plate with a layer of absorbent mortar. But it’s persistent and it’s annoying.

So, what do I find when I climb onto the roof and investigate the chimney? Nothing. No holes, no obvious cracks. I scan the entire stack, I gouge out suspect cement and replace it. I deploy mastic. And for a few days the chimney’s watertight, then back comes the drip, drip, drip.

That’s when I embrace paranoia. How come rain can’t find a way into our log shed when there’s an enormous great hole and yet find microscopic gaps in our granite chimney. Only one answer. It knows where I live.

But after ten years and a dozen trips to the chimney with a tube of mastic and a magnifying glass we’ve developed a French attitude to the problem. The shrug.

We were introduced to the shrug some years back in a neighbour’s kitchen. We were all sat round the kitchen table sipping Calvados and sampling cake when it started to thunder. The rain poured down in sheets. Then came in under the kitchen door. No one said a word. I watched, transfixed, as a pond formed on the flagstone floor. Still no one said a word. It wasn’t until the pond was ten feet long, five feet wide and in danger of lapping against my chair leg that our hostess acknowledged its existence. She smiled, shrugged and said ‘pluie’ in a ‘what can you do about it’ kind of way. Today it rains, tomorrow it will be dry. Why worry?

This is a much less stressful way to live. When we lived in England a leaking roof was seen as a disaster. Carpets would be ruined, walls and ceilings would have to be replastered, wooden floors and joists replaced. But in rural France we’ve learned to shrug. We don’t have carpets. We have tiled floors you can mop and a ready collection of buckets.

So, what did I find when I inspected the roof yesterday? A cracked slate? A hole?

Of course not. Everything looked fine. So I started removing slates until I found the source of the leak – a place where water defied gravity and decided to travel up the 45° roof, push through a gap between the upper and lower slate that I couldn’t insert a flat bladed knife between, keep travelling upwards for another three inches and jump into our house.

I looked at the two slates in question. There was nothing unusual about them. They were the same size as all the others and posed the same way. There was nothing strange about their position on the roof. No reason why that junction, out of all the other places where one slate sat upon another, should fail.

So, I added a strip of roofing felt under that area and replaced the slates. In spring we’ll strip the roof and do the job properly.

Then we’ll move into the log shed.

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The Memory of Water and the Gallic Shrug — 3 Comments

  1. Chris,

    Of course water is sentient. Try driving in Western Oregon where the PAVED roads develop ruts that one cannot escape and stay in the lane. These ruts collect and channel our copious rain and trickle it downslope until a car comes, then it gathers all that stored energy and pushes it under the tires until the car is floating, usually off at a weird angle. Braking just makes the problem worse because the the tires don’t have anything to grab.

    A car can drown (or crash) in 2 inches of water. And the water knows this. It is evil and malicious and just laughs at us.

  2. Phyl,

    I agree, and yet the water propaganda lobby still trot out all those myths about ‘water finding its own level’ and ‘choosing the quickest path from mountain to sea’ when we all know that, given the choice between flowing into a gutter or taking the scenic route through someone’s home, a stream of water will choose the latter:)