Thursday, 17 January 2008
On sunny days in early summer, if he was working in a field nearby, their father would drop them down by the river. Sometimes the two girls would play there all morning. With their two heads bent together over the water, they had one aim, to catch the elusive little river creatures swimming in the shallows. Up to their knees in the clean brown river, their favourite place was on a shallow bend, where sharp gravel washed between their toes.
With home made fishing nets in hand, (the top of an old stocking fitted craftily onto a short bamboo cane), they stalked like herons, stealthy little hunters after fish.
They found the sleek, dappled stone loaches easy prey. These lay on the stream bed with their tails pointing down stream. A crafty net could creep up alongside. Then all that was needed was a quick movement, a little panic, a tiny disturbance in the water, a flick with the net and the captive could be popped into the waiting wide necked jar.
Miller’s thumbs were the real favourites. Hunkered down between the stones they were hard to spot, but once moving, they proved a small, fast and exciting prey, and much harder to catch. Miller’s thumbs were thrilling too because they were dangerous. Their dad had told them of kingfishers found choked to death with their spiny prey stuck fast in their throats. These little terrors tended to huddle their tight triangular bodies in the smallest crevice. Neatly camouflaged unless nearly trodden on, only a sudden movement, some disturbed stones and a wisp of sand in the clear water, showed where they were.
When the tell tale movement was seen, the hunt could begin. The girls followed eagerly, with little shivers of anticipation, moving stealthily through the water, net kept low and behind the fish. Careful to keep their shadows out of sight they stalked their prey. With two it was easier. One to startle, one to catch. When one panicked the creature so that it darted away, the other positioned the net in the path of the panic.
Once caught, with heads close together, they examined the fish. They were always disappointed by their tiny captive, flattened and vulnerable in the bottom of the net. They felt a little disgusted by it’s gasping form, so much smaller out of the water.
In the middle of the river the girls felt safe. Socks and shoes piled neatly on the bank, they stood motionless, with water swirling round them it was a place for quiet concentration. Occasionally a thirsty dog muddied the water, to be called away by its strolling owner passing along the bank. Once a tramp, pushing a bicycle, muttered to himself as he walked past, but he ignored them. They stood and watched him warily, ready to flee, but quickly returned to their game as his hunched form departed along the narrow river path.
When their father called them to go home, they carried their big glass jars carefully, and set them firmly between their feet on the floor of the Landrover. He passed no comments except to tell them to make no wet.
Mostly the cramped and agitated captives, swam up and down, thwarted by the glass, but the millers thumbs sulked square on the bottom, making no bid for freedom. Occasionally a loach would make a wild jump, leaping through the neck of the jar only to find no waiting river, only dust, debris and scorching air, before being scooped, bruised and damaged, back into the jar.
Once home the little fish were released into the confines of an old water tank in the garden, or left to slowly suffocate in torpid water on a sunny bedroom window.. Fed copious pinches of fish food they seldom lasted long. One or other of the girls would be disappointed to find their small catch, belly up, reddening gills gasping on the surface. Then they would be sad. They loved the little fish and were sorry when they died, but a matchbox made a lovely coffin and they decorated the little burial places with heads torn thoughtlessly from their mother’s garden flowers.
The river trips came to an abrupt halt after their father, preoccupied with his own cares, forgot them when he went home to his mid-day dinner. It was only their mother’s shock at their absence, that made him go back to fetch them. He was guilty and angry with them for his mistake. The girls had been so engrossed in the water that that time passed quickly, They had not noticed they had been forgotten and stared in amazement at his anger.
Although they pestered, from then on their father was always too busy to take them to the river. They stood at the window looking longingly up the lane, their noses pressed against the glass, irritable with each other and dismissive of their mother’s pale and tentative suggestions for play. But one evening, towards the end of summer, their father relented. A stile needed fixing in the water meadow and, if they were ready early, he promised he would take them the following day.
It proved promisingly warm and when they arrived the river was calm and peaceful, their own stillness adding to the quiet. Father and daughters stood together on the bank as wisps of mist camouflaged the surface of the water. Together the girls stepped cautiously onto the narrow bridge and looked down to where the river flowed deeply between the high banks.
Without warning an eerie whistle pierced the mist. It came again and again. Transfixed for a moment, they shivered collectively and pulled closer together, their flesh goosy. The chilly mist seemed suddenly to penetrate under their arms and down the centre of their backs. Their dad laughed.
“It’s only an otter,” he said, “It’s calling to its young.” He told them they were lucky as the little beasts were rare. Not many of them left.
With the spell broken he went to his work and they to their sport, but it wasn’t a good day. They were restless. Soon tiring of the fishing they built damns in the shallows instead, using the sticks and rubbish swept down in the summer storms. Growing bored with this they invented a new game, climbing the slippery river bank and swinging on the curtain of tree roots overhanging the water.
Before long the peace was interrupted by a group of boys, Foul mouthed and rowdy, they stood on the stepping stones just up river and amused themselves by throwing stones into the water but, on seeing the girls, they bared their bottoms and pretended to pee into the water. Intimidated, the two sisters retreated, cringing at the humiliation of climbing the bank and running to safety across the bridge, with the boys howling and laughing at their backs. Once with their father they pestered to go home. Annoyed, he eventually packed up early and all river trips were finished.
The following year brought changes. Her sister no longer wanted to play last summer’s games and spent her time with new friends. The old tank in the garden, once home to their lovely little fish, had become dank and smelly .
Her father, always difficult to approach, was increasingly quiet and stern. Unsmiling, his work often kept him near to home, where mother sat quietly in her chair looking out at an overgrowing garden and sighing. Time hung heavily in the air. At the weekends both girls were allotted household jobs and, when the youngest had finished hers, she found some solace in collecting garden creatures. But, when garden snails escaped in the house and her mother cried, this new collection was banned.
As the summer progressed and the holidays came, she thought again of the thrill of cold water round her ankles and the scratchy, slippery feel of gravel between her toes. She thought of the river.
A short cut through the woods wouldn’t be too far. She could get there and back and still do some fishing before her father noticed she had gone. It was such an inspiration she wondered why she’d not thought of it sooner.
The plan of action started the evening before. After clearing the table and hurriedly rinsing the plates, she left her sister to dry them and, collecting her jar and net from the downstairs hall cupboard, she hid them in the long grass half way down the lane, just where the path entered the wood.
The next day, her sister was splashing in the bathroom when she slipped out of the side gate. With her mother still in bed and unlikely to get up until the afternoon and her father hammering in the barn, only the cat saw her go.
The walk to the river was further than she anticipated. What took only ten minutes or so in a car seemed a long way to her, alone in the wood. She was jumpy and the overgrown path snagged her clothes and caught at her net. Waist high nettles stung her legs and arms and a bramble drew blood on the side of her knee. Once, on stumbling, she let go of the string handle of her jar. Her heart lurched but the jar didn’t break.
On reaching the edge of the water meadow, where the woods tailed off into rough wet grass, she felt exposed. She crept round keeping close to the hedge, jumping when she startled a rabbit, her socks and shoes soaking in the long wet grass. Awkward as it was climbing with her hands full, the stile felt reassuringly familiar. She could see the lighter wood on the top bar where her father had mended it a year before. She touched it for its comfort and familiarity.
Once over, a loneliness welled up inside her, she thought of last year and the sound of the otter. Cautiously she listened again but all was silent, just the odd ripple and gurgle as the river flowed under the bridge. She wished she’d told her sister where she was going. Maybe she would have come with her, just for the adventure. Alone she felt her smallness and was no longer brave.
On crossing the narrow bridge the water looked leaden and uninviting, but the old thrill of excitement returned as she sat on the high bank looking down at the familiar fishing place. She removed her shoes and socks, putting them to dry on the roots of an old tree that lurched over the water. Gripping the jar tightly she slid the net, handle first, down the bank and slithered behind it, using an overhanging branch to steady herself.
Gasping as she entered the water, she waded out until the river eddied round her knees. It was deeper and browner than before, The opposite bank had caved in and the gravel was almost completely covered by silt. Feeling nervous and alone she moved back a little closer to the bank. A line of debris hung and flapped on the exposed tree roots hanging out over the stream. Under the shade of the bank the water seemed slimy as the mud oozed between her toes. In her heightened awareness its oily movement seemed threatening and sinister.
When a cheering shaft of pale sunlight hit the water, she edged up stream to a brighter pebbly shallow. Standing on this unprotected patch, close to the middle of the river, she heard voices coming down the path. Yells preceded thuds and splashes, stones and tussocks of mud and grass flew into the water. From her exposed position she could see a group of boys running down the path on the opposite bank. They halted at the stepping stones, jumping and pushing each other from stone to stone. The largest of them carried a fishing rod, the others had triangular nets on sturdy poles or large plastic containers that clunked together as they ran.
She was trapped in the water. If she retreated to climb back up the bank they would see her and would be across the stones and upon her before the narrow bridge could be reached. She realised with a shiver how chilled she was. Cautiously she shrank in towards the bank. She held her net tightly in defence but let her jar sink and be carried away in the stream. Under the shelter of the bank she was no longer able to see the boys but she could hear them laughing and yelling just round the bend in the river. The water in the shadow of the steep bank felt cold and the mud oozed clammily round her toes.
From her hiding place she could hear the excited whoops warning her that fish were being caught. She felt sorry for the fish, trapped like herself, unable to escape. She imagined the boys’ unspeakable cruelty. In the past she had seen the stones smeared with blood and scales where the little silver bodies had been stamped on and smashed. She looked down at her pale legs distorted by the water and shivered with vulnerability. A breeze rippled the surface as a fish floated by, looking alive as it spun in a slight eddy, but it was broken and helpless. It floated past her, belly up. Panic rose within her and she gathered herself for a wild bid for freedom.
Before she had time to move, there was an excited yell and thudding foot falls vibrated along the bank. They stopped above her head. The older boy’s voice was cracked with triumph and she remembered with horror that her socks and shoes were drying at the base of the tree. She shrank as far as she could into the bank where the looping tree roots hung out over the water. Some were like spindly fingers dipping into the water, others were thicker than a boys arm, but together they formed a tightly laced curtain. Hardly daring to breath she silently pulled herself further under the protection of these roots and held her breath. All thoughts of a panicky flight left her as she crouched completely motionless. She could hear the boys running up and down the bank. They sounded feverish in the excitement of the hunt. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut to blot them out, but one splash followed another as her shoes were hurled into the water.
One of the smaller boys started to climb down her protecting curtain. She opened her eyes in fright just as a muddy trainer came crashing down on the roots above her head. She knew if the boy scrambled any further down, her hiding place behind the roots would be revealed. Instinct told her that if she was startled out of her hiding place, she would soon be caught.
Almost on the point of discovery, a squeal of dismay from the direction of the stepping stones came to her rescue. Evidently one the boys had not taken an interest in the chase. Soon, his wailing and sobbing indicated the nature of the hurt. He was caught by his own hook. It had snagged him cleanly between the soft web of his fingers. She heard screams as the others tried unsuccessfully to remove the barb. His agony brought her relief. After a brief scramble, there was silence above her and she realised the hunt had been abandoned. They were gone and her immediate danger was past.
Very cautiously she ducked out from under the roots and hobbled through the water, staggering on numb feet and ankles. She didn’t turn round, but a commotion on the far bank told her the boys were retreating back up the path the way they had come. With care she waded through the shallows then slowly climbed the bank. Her shoes were gone. One sock still lay where she had left it, the other was snagged on a bush nearby. She balled them up into her fist and painfully started the long walk home.
On crossing the bridge she heard the boys call out. They ‘d spotted her retreating form but had no real heart for a chase. She knew she wouldn’t be followed but the thought of them behind her quickened her flight.
Once over the stile, she flew across the wet grass of the water meadow and hurled herself back into the safety of the trees. Not slowing until she felt the cover totally envelop her. There was security in the dry warmth of the wood as she ran under its protecting branches.
Only when well out of sight of the hated river did she stagger to a halt, gasping to catch her breath. Almost choking with fear and effort, she sank to her knees then rolled on her back and stared glassily up at the sky. She lay there a while, gulping in air before continuing the painful journey home on soft and bleeding feet.
The photo is of a Miller's Thumb or Bull Head
Tuesday, 8 January 2008
I’ve mentioned before that my sister lives in a remote village in the very far north of Scotland. Over the years she’s become deeply involved in the running of a drop in centre for the local elderly. Each day a lively assortment of old ladies gather there for lunch. These senior St Trinians are a chipper bunch.
A couple of days ago one of her fellow volunteers, a vigorous woman in her early eighties, phoned my sister. Apparently she was supervising the daily lunch club when things got rather racy.
The discussion had somehow got round to swear words. The ladies were trying to decide what makes a swear word such a bad thing when many of the words are to be found in the dictionary. The talk at the table ranged far and wide until, Gee, my sister’s friend, gradually began to realise she didn’t know the meaning of many of the words that were being so gleefully discussed.
On arriving home she decided to look them up in the dictionary.
“And do you know,” she told my sister in a shocked voice over the phone,
“Many of the words were marked with the word taboo and most of those words are to do with sex!”
My sister, glad that this was a telephone conversation, struggled to control her smiles,
“Yes” she agreed, she believed that was true.
Gee continued conspiratorially,
“I told my husband about those words and what they meant, and he was so shocked he threw his bible at me.”
Such is the invincibility of innocence.
I guess it isn’t only miles that separates her world from mine.
The photo is of some of my sister's other neighbours.
Thursday, 3 January 2008
If you are a guest in an old house it doesn’t pay to be too fanciful. I’m very sceptical about the supernatural but sometimes strange things do happen. I’ve just spent New Year with friends in their little house. The house is the type that squats low in a wide open landscape. Built around 1720, its little pointed windows gaze out onto flat and wintry fields. It is a house that has sheltered many lives.
On the first night I woke up at 3 am to the smell of onions being fried with meat. Curiously, enquiries the next day showed no one had been in the kitchen at that time. I took it to be an unusually vivid dream, put it to the back of my mind and enjoyed the New Year’s party without another thought.
The following morning arrived damp and grey. Outside a thick fog pervaded everything; inside the kitchen was welcoming and warm. Time passes quickly in friendly company but in the spare early twilight of a New Year’s afternoon the sitting room led me on to think of its past history. What hopes and fears, sickness and suffering had those rural walls seen over the years?
Later, sitting by the fire, the evening was jolly enough. Cheerful company, wine and good food soon dispels any lingering ghostly spirit, but as the fire in the ingle nook died down the atmosphere in the room chilled.
I was back to thinking about the miseries faced by the rural poor in the 18th C, when a large white moth fluttered against the outside of the small window.
It struggled towards the warmth and light several times before disappearing into the night.
The sight of the creature brought me back from my reverie and my friend remarked that a moth visited every night, no matter the weather or time of year. She followed on with,
“I hope it’s no-one I know.”
I laughed with her, but inside my heart lurched. What if I’d conjured up an unquiet spirit by my musings?
Later, cosily tucked up in my bedroom under the eaves, as the clock struck 3am, I realised a trip downstairs to the bathroom was needed. Reluctantly I left my warm bed and crept down the creaking staircase.
The light was still burning in the little arched window in the front room, though the fire was just a pile of cooling ash.
All was deathly quiet and still. Trying not to think about spooky moths I crept across the floor. I was almost safely to the other side of the room, with my hand already feeling for the reassuring door latch, when I heard an unearthly, wheezing,
“Heh, Heh, Heh!”
With a lurching heart I shot out of the room, across the hall and into the safety of the bathroom.
On returning, heart still hammering in my chest, I rested a nervous hand on the back of the sofa, summoning my courage to creep back across the floor. At once the demonic sound happened again, and then again.
I had been frightened out of my wits by an elderly piece of furniture with a wonky leg and creaking spring. As the floor flexed under my weight, the sofa moved and I could summon the noise at will.
Safely back upstairs, trying to snuggle under a cooling duvet and attempting to get back to sleep, I swear I heard the old house creaking with laughter all around me.
The photo is of a Death's Head hawk-moth, a very rare visitor to the U.K.