The Times, 23 June 2007


After a day spent inhaling the faint aroma of burning fabric, from a proliferation of washing that is really wet, but simultaneously really hot, I’ve decided my tumble-dryer may be broken. And I’ve scalded my hand on a towel. Now before you go all hessian on me about the electricity used by washer-dryers, please try to remember that I live in the roof of a prodigiously tall building, rather like a pipistrelle might, so a washing line is but a dim childhood memory, alongside the miners’ strike, the three day week, and Mr Benn. And I dry most of my clothes on a rack, even though space constraints mean I then have access to my wardrobe for only four hours of every day. As custody arrangements go, I think abusive fathers probably have more chance to see their kids than I do my clothes, although at least we don’t have to have a social worker present. But sometimes, I do use the tumble-dryer – or at least I did, until it started turning my bed linen into lava.

All of which has led me to my current predicament, wherein I am surrounded by towels which are no less damp than they were 48 hours ago. I don’t even know how that’s possible, given that I haven’t been storing them underwater. So I could use a more efficient means of removing excess water from my home, or at least my laundry. Which is why it’s hard not to envy the people of Chile, who appear to have this problem licked.

In March this year, park rangers patrolled round the Magallanes region, noting that a lake which usually covered five acres was its normal size. In May, when they went back, it had disappeared. Yes, the whole lake, and yes, gone. Chunks of ice which had floated on top of it were just sitting in the bottom of a big crater, where the lake used to be. The people of Southern Chile are not famously thirsty, so no-one knows what’s happened to it. I’m not really much of a one for losing things myself – one the unspoken benefits of obsessive compulsive disorder is that you pretty much always know where your keys are. And where everyone else’s keys are. But even the most slatternly amongst us can rarely have lost anything on a par with a two-hectare lake. That is careless.

The BBC report that ‘geologists and other experts’ are being sent to the area to investigate the disappearance. To which the reasonable person might ask: there are experts in disappearing bodies of water? Who aren’t even geologists? Are they like Anthony LaPaglia in Without A Trace, but with lakes instead of people? How come I never meet them at a party, instead of eighteen people who work in IT?

Current speculation is that there must have been an earthquake, which opened a fissure in the bottom of the lake, allowing it to drain away, only there haven’t been any earthquakes reported there recently. Another suggestion is that Chile, being the world’s longest country, is just one big geographical sofa down the back of which to lose things. That’s why you so often find loose change on the streets of Santiago. And probably why so many people disappeared during the Pinochet years.

Or perhaps Chile left its lake on a train, and was then too embarrassed to ring lost property. My boyfriend once managed to do this with a guitar, and he was on his way to play a gig with it at the time. But by far the most likely explanation is that Chile has lent the lake to someone, and then forgotten who. A quick poll of friends tells me that they are currently missing: Cape Fear, The Usual Suspects, a deluxe edition of Brazil, Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, and a weimeraner, which turned out to be anyone’s best friend for a dog treat. Personally, I have stopped lending books to people at all, as it so rarely ends well. Buy someone a book, and you have the unmitigated joy of giving them something, with the added perk that you will then finally have someone with whom to discuss Mark Dunn’s little-known masterpiece, Ella Minnow Pea. Lend someone a book, and you will fester quietly until they return it, and then still be cross because someone you’ve always thought of as an intellectual equal turns out to be congenitally incapable of eating and reading at the same time without mishap.

Then there is the final possibility. There’s only one example of losing a lake that I can think of – when Superman freezes one with his icy breath, and carries it through the air, in order to put out a fire at a nearby nuclear reactor. If Chile wants its lake back, it should start an investigation into men who own tights and a cape.