It wasn’t some sort of Irish crocodile…the small creature I saw in a stream. It was a newt, my mother informed me. And that flamboyant bird that scooted at Formula One speed along the river bank wasn’t an escaped parrot, it was a kingfisher, a native. It was yet another lesson in ordinary exoticism…and one of many the river shared.
Even the river’s name was special. It was called the Morning Star. Who had looked at the water and thought of the sky? Some kind of poet surely. As for the river’s smaller, intrepid, inhabitants…they were like something out of Disney. Water Boatmen had a bubble of oxygen they used for diving. Some insects glided across the water like Olympic skaters. The larvae of the Caddis Fly enveloped itself in river bric a brac and resembled a small twig. As a young girl I was fascinated by the river’s details. The helicopter hoverings of dragon flies and their Fabergé-like wings. The tree root in the muddy bank that was like a rung on a ladder, and just the right size for small feet.
Sometimes the river swelled grandly and covered fields…they became water meadows to be explored splashily in gumboots. And later, when I had a pony, he sometimes swam in its depths with me upon him. He seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. In the river’s languid tributaries frogspawn could be found. Great big clumps of it, squidgy and plump. A reminder of frogs and their perkiness, their understated, unprincely, charisma.
The river also provided a sort of boundary. One of its banks was within the grounds of my family home…a rambling old rectory in the Irish countryside. I rarely ventured onto the seemingly foreign territory of the opposite side, but I spent a great deal of time in its waters. Paddling, exploring, even floating on a partly submerged raft.
In its more shallow regions small dams were constructed. Stones piled earnestly on top of each other curved its flow and formed deeper pools within it. But parts of the river were less accessible. They had steep banks and were covered in bushes. That was where the big fish lived, the river was deeper there. I often wished I had a boat so I could find out where it went to. For the river had become a kind of playmate. If someone asked where I’d been and I said “At the river” it was as though I was talking of a friend.
Living in the middle of the countryside meant I was often on my own, but I didn’t mind. Sometimes the rectory seemed like a little world unto itself at the end of a long driveway. Its front door was a deep vibrant blue, tall trees sheltered it. Close to the house the driveway grew circuitous…like a snake. I liked pushing my way into the middle of a large bamboo bush…it had a foreign jungle feel to it.
A wooden casket in the rectory hallway contained many copies of the National Geographic. They were full of photographs of distant lands and rivers and seas, but I knew one could be an explorer closer to home. The treasures there were in the details.
For example one of the pleasures of paddling was finding that the river bed was soft in places. Squelch…the mud rose seductively through my toes. When tiny fishes bumped against my legs it felt like river kisses…similar to the small familial pecks of affection I was more used to receiving on my cheeks. They were not the kind of kisses that made me squirm when I saw them on the telly. How odd they looked, those distant men and women in the transports of passion, pressing their lips together…surely it was unhygienic.
Later on, of course, I learned why this sort of thing is popular. A book called ‘The Naked Ape’ explained it in graphic detail. I read it furtively. Jackie magazine popped through the rectory letterbox. I got in training and experimented with blue eyeshadow. I dreamed of living in Paris, by the Seine.
When I found my first love I was a student and living by another river, one I rarely watched, I watched him instead. Romance proved to be rather more bewildering than I’d expected, but it was at least intriguing, another kind of exploration.
I was in my early twenties and living in London when my parents left the rectory. We had moved into it when I was a very small girl. “Goodbye”…I actually said it to my bedroom on a brief visit home. What a special room it had been. A sanctuary. A minor art gallery of pony and pop star posters. It had known tears and laughter and dreamy afternoons when I attempted to write poetry. The Aga in the kitchen still exuded its cosy warmth. Sunlight shone through the huge windows in the spacious sitting room. It had been a room of mealtimes, piano playing and earnest discussions. I had typed some of my first stories at its large table.
My childhood home, the rectory, has gone now, but the river remains. A very long while ago I paid it a visit. I wondered ‘Could this be the same place where all those things happened? Where I had heard whispered secrets that only a river can tell?’
‘You can never step into the same river’ wrote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who also wrote ‘Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.’
So thank you river, and your flowing. Thank you for the sparkles and the light.