Essays & non-fiction pieces

The River – 16/03/2021

The river. It makes you feel like a different animal. We sat watching the clouds the other day, and I could not comprehend the liquid nature of those white things. The river is green, or brownish. It is clear, or murky. We swim to the branch that hangs over the edge of the bank, looking as though it is diving sideways into the water. In my memory sometimes the fingers of the branch are touching the water, are submerged in it. It can rise, this river. It can flow in both directions.

When we sat in that little dinghy, spinning, drifting, I felt so separate from the land and its grounding quality. Water exerts a strange hypnosis. It draws me in, but it wouldn’t be right to call it seduction. Any description of its force must use a kind of strange language. It must speak outside itself. It feels so other-worldly, this water, and so it eludes description. I cannot grasp it. It grasps me. If I take away a cupful in my hands and keep it for hours, at some point it will not be there anymore. I could take a jar and try and bottle up its identity, but its force would be too great, and I would need to give it away; to someone else, down the drain, or back into the same river. Once I seek to contain it, it tries to reclaim itself.

The sun paints a trapezium of white onto the water. I dip my foot in. It is cold, but a cold I am not used to. Someone said it was eight degrees one day, but it felt colder, because I was not used to this cold. I was used to the cold of air and earth. There are six steps leading down into the water. The water is low, at the last step, where I first put my feet in on the little lip where the metal poles once stood, now broken off. Then I turn my hands outward, put them on the step I’m sat on, or crouched on, and lower myself into the water, remembering to breathe as my body gets used to novel sensations.

I do this at least a couple of times a week, but it I still have to remember to breathe. There is something very unnerving about using language like this, because before you know it you begin to sound like every other false guru, and yet, it rings very true. Whilst keeping in mind other situations where just remembering to breathe would be of no help whatsoever, in this specific instance breathing is what I need to do. Shock is what disturbs my breathing, what confuses my body. I breathe and lower myself further in, until the water wraps itself around me up to my ribs.

By this point there is no going back, and so it is easy for me to push off, concentrating on breathing, again, for the first few strokes. The sun is on its descent, and its gold ends up as bronze on the tops of the trees. This is a beautiful time to be outside. When the shadows begin to stretch but the sun is still visible, and the sky is bright blue. There is the sense of an ending,[1] and when something is ending, we know because we look back. I do one length, beyond the branch and then loop back round it. The current carries me on the way back. I dip my head beneath the water, and always come up gasping, but not because I am out of breath. I reach the steps, lift myself out of the water, and spend the rest of the time drying myself and looking back.

[1] Julian Barnes