These pieces of writing about time and place – (loosely) inspired by the passage of the River Nene – will eventually be combined with visual art from Richard James and published under the Lepus Books imprint in glorious colour.
And some other impressions of the outdoor world are now sporadically appearing here: Trodden Ground.
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Under the Bridge
Down the hill from the house- where once-upon-a-time long gone you creep before dawn from your bed, haul your old rods-and-tackle-burdened Raleigh from the garage, and then freewheel through the suburbs and the enclaved Domesday village to plumb the depths of the eery mist that fills the river valley. It’s the 21st Century now; and you are fifty years older, riding a Toyota 4×4. And the roads have been re-routed. Estates of ‘80s “overspill” named for the feudal farms they cover. A roaring expressway crossed to unearth the vestigial country lane that finds you the old mill and the Boat Club.
You pull up behind the flat-pack retail park – built while you aren’t watching, but screened by rustling lines of poplars you think you remember being planted – beside a ditch-bank screed with fly-tipped home improvement debris, and bags of dog shit hung on brambles.
So you hide temptation under the seats, arm the dashcam and blink the locks on. The old lane extant beyond a rattly galvanised gate that permits only pedestrian traffic. Flanking willows and hawthorns- flagged with those scraps of wind-tattered plastic some quaint urban folklorist christens “witches’ knickers”. A half-mile to the concrete section across the culvert that carries the flood drain into the millpond. Pant-liner and tissue flotsam. January floods once mask the way here and you veer into rushing peril, plunge breathless into the shit-brown torrent and go under- bike, tackle, corned beef sarnies, flask and all. It takes most of your strength to recover your kit and transport; the remainder to plod back sodden up the endless hill to restorative porridge and maternal tutting. The rest of the day spent reading Bradbury in an armchair by a three-bar fire and wishing you were fishing.
The mill that once grinds here pre-dates you. Never a trace of a building; just the race beneath the track, still seething into the millpond beyond the low wall of crumbling redbrick. ‘Strictly No Fishing’ now, by order of the Boat Club. Once there are perch for as long as your worms last. And carp as big and round as barrels, lolling among the lily pads on peach-coloured summer mornings. You tremble as you cast your crust to these leviathans. Sigh with relief as they sneer and spurn it.
The ghosts of two Polish brothers drifting too, now. And a sly boy you can’t put a name to. The brothers bored with perch; they leave their kit unattended to try their luck in the Chub Stream. A tin-plate cigarette case glinting at the top of their canvas satchel with faded initials inked on it in an angular foreign script. A prized possession. The sly boy eyes it. Dips it. Flips it spiteful into the water. Watches it glint through the murk as it slips to the bottom. Sunken treasure. Lost for ever. Probably still down there. The sly boy challenged and searched, of course, by the righteously outraged brothers. No evidence. Not proven. A cold case half a century old now.
You walk on past the Boat Club’s armoured gates, turn down the narrow path along the fenced-in Chub Stream. Bushes here that you once push through; the far bank overhung with alder adorned with bright snagged-floats and traces: mis-cast offerings to the Chub God.
The high steel guillotine of the lock-gate stark against the sky’s grey riot. A chiffchaff shrill in a blackthorn restrained by plasticated chain-link. Across the lock on the footbridge. You stare over at the downstream concrete abutments; scabs of lichen mark the tideline on the dank boarding-steps cast in them. The water clearer than it once is- a post-industrial bonus. You look for the angle-iron spike that lurks forgotten beneath the surface, jutting unseen from the slimy bed. The spike that rips open the diving youth’s rib cage. His blood welling and coiling out dark in the silt-grey opacity of the water as it drowns him. You wonder if this horrible scene is one that you really witness- or a folk memory made actual in the imagination, reinforced by periodic reviewing. Whichever; in your mind’s eye it happens again now, and you shudder. The shocked youths pale and staring. And then one of them running and howling for someone in the Boat Club to “Ring for the fuckin’ ambulance fuckin’ now, mate!” And two more in the water splashing and heaving. The boy white on the steps and bleeding. They’re saying he’s not fuckin’ breathing. One’s crying. One’s tugging his hair in fistfuls. Another’s trying to light a ciggy with cupped hands damp and shaking.
An ambulance, two-tone blaring. Firemen with a rubber boat. A stern plod in a pale blue Morris Minor.
The stretcher eventually carried off- past the half-dressed honour guard of skinny lads straggled pale along the Chub Stream. Dead boy under a damp scarlet blanket. His draped face looks as if it’s melting.
Names and addresses gruffly noted. Witnesses dismissed to shiver home unspeaking. Counsellors not even born yet.
Accidental death, boys; now and then it happens.
A ten-foot bund around the washlands, a reservoir dug to detain the surge when the river becomes unruly. “Pity those poor devils down in the Hollow,” Old Doll says in history, looking out at the downpour with a fag on. The town no longer prone to inundation; and the wildfowl have somewhere to swim round. That has to be a good thing.
But the Dead Man’s Arm is all but lost to hydrodynamic engineering. The ancient oxbow where the pike lurk. Where Wiggy bites the slimy head off that squirming eel. Where .22 pellets from a hidden sniper drone past as you stagger tackle-laden to join the fishing gang- late and fair game for slaughter from ambush.
Duck and cover behind the reeds in the oozy mud and sour wet cow shit. Scrabble out your old Webley pistol. A flash of pale flesh across the water. Snap-shot deftly rapping carelessly exposed knuckles. Fitz squealing and capering wildly. Gang sniggering from sly concealment, mustering in the raw sleet-wind to observe the impressive bloom of bruising. The casualty nursing his wound and sullen. A Nelson lit and offered to take the sting off.
Washlands now but where have the hare gone? The sky without a cloud in. The tracks of small mammals in the fields of ice-crisped snow so bright you have squint to see across them to the hedge-line where your snares are. Books gleaned from the library- full of lore imparted by tweedy rural sages and grizzled poachers; these are the romances that lead you astray here. Wire snares and vermin traps from the gun shop. You want to be a cunning lad, to understand the creatures that run mysterious and free in the nighttime. You want to catch and kill them. Possess the Nature of them. Collect them; still their restless motion in the name of knowing. Like ragged butterflies pinned to cork. The Park Museum’s vast glass case of shot stuffed birds, with their brittle beady eyes and threadbare ruffled feathers. Dad’s prized box of raided eggs nestled safe in sheep’s wool. You’re seven in the springtime woods and he’s teaching you how to prick them with a thorn and blow them. The yolk bubbling slow and yellow. Never any rabbits or hares in your snares though. One less crime to atone for.
Later, of course, you’re sensitised and counter-cultured. Primitive urges suppressed and transferred. Night fishing is the thing this year- spiced with dope and Luxembourg phasing in and out of distortion. A Rizla on your line for a bobbin. The sickly ochre of the town seeping down across the black water and into your bivvi. You wish it’s a girl creeping in there with you.
Now the girls have all been and gone, and you’re plodding a wet field poxed with sheep shit. The sky in monochrome uproar. Wind flinging hard rain at you. This direction always forbidding; the old tannery not far off. Two deep pits intervening- a private fishery now, but once they’re ringed by skeletal willows with scabby bark peeling from them. An underfoot tangle of black rotting branches. Sometimes you push through this dead zone, stare uneasy at the brimming ponds of crusted mustard foam. And the rusty waste-pipe dribbling steamy. The world here tainted and you back off wary.
A cormorant diving today. Cormorants: since when do they claim the hinterland? And egrets? Red kites? Buzzards? If you tell Dad you see these immigrants haunting the ‘60s edgelands, he tells you you’re “Talking daft, boy. Now buck up and get the lawn raked before your dinner!” Dead now, Dad- probably off stalking the rim of some draughty mire, clutching his bins and whistling mournful. Pretty much like you are, but marginally less substantial. All that adolescent warfare pointless. We old men win in the end.
And suddenly you’re restless. Eager to get back to the future. Grandkids waiting, kicking their heels before Nan’s Sunday dinner; adventuring virtual realities, mapping new dimensions. It’s never the same as it once is. Migrants trapped and tagged with GPS now, instead of killing-jars and shotguns; refugees- tracked, counted, harried from beneficent sanctuary to grudged reservation. Wild hearts owned; arcane lives exposed and plundered, measured and displayed as lifeless data. The flight of the bar-code godwit.
Conservation: everything’s different but nothing changes; it just gets smaller.
You stand and wait on the lock bridge, watch a diesely narrowboat stepping down. A kingfisher oil-slick on the surface spiraling iridescent. Prop wash thrashes it into extinction, wavelets smacking their lips against concrete. You stay while it chugs off around the bend and its wake-chop settles.
A tern twisting and dipping and coming up empty. A coot high-stepping squeamish past a dead roach in the reeds floating bloated. A hedgehopping woodpecker chuckling gleeful; you look up but fail to spot it.
Damp cold seeping through your jacket.
It all seems significant, but it isn’t.
Just water under the bridge, mate. Life oozing away down the river.
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Copyright © Jamie Delano 2016 – All rights reserved