Today the river that runs through your town is high after days of rain, a fine mist rising from the weir. Her water is brown and thick, the currents and eddies rippling the surface as she seeks out a favourable path, finding pleasure in her intimate relationship with the land.
You and your sister have both lost shoes to this river. Your sister, many years ago when her then boyfriend swept her up on the bridge, lifting her from her feet and swinging her around, a shoe flying over the edge and into the water to be taken away by the current. You, many years later, walking across the same bridge in sandals, the leather snapping and the sandal skittering across to the edge where it slipped between the bars and dropped into the water like a gift. You stood for a moment, none of your life lessons preparing you for this moment, one foot shod, the other foot bare. Finally you knew what to do. You took off the remaining sandal and put it in your bag, continuing your shopping barefoot. Your sister went on to marry her shoe-hoisting boyfriend, and perhaps somewhere downriver your shoes dwell together too.
Today the river feels like the heart of the town, walkers gloved and hatted, talking together or walking apart, children laughing and running along the mulch-strewn path, the crows cawing from tree crowns, the ivy curling around branches or trailing into the water, feeling her flow and giving thanks for the continual provision of nourishment.
In To the River, Olivia Laing writes: ‘I am haunted by water . . . I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.’ Her river of ease is the Ouse, where Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself, and Laing goes on to quote from the poet Czeslaw Milosz: ‘When it hurts, we return to the banks of certain rivers.’ Perhaps it is the constant shifting of water that we find so comforting, a reflection of our emotions that ebb and flow beneath the shimmering surface of our eyes.
Today a girl paddles in her canoe, her fists and cheeks red with cold, her breath billowing white. Sometimes she feels the pleasure of flowing with the current, sometimes she turns and forces her will upstream, testing her other perceptions with questions of how? or why? or when?, the press of water against her paddle gauging how much she listens to the answers.
Your copy of Laing’s book has wrinkled pages that are stiff with grit, as though it has been brought up from the riverbed itself. You bought it second-hand and it arrived in the post this way. You imagine someone receiving your order, going down to the river to fish for a copy, carefully drying it before parceling it up with your address. You imagine a river that is teeming with books, their covers shimmering in the dappled sunlight, a whole ecosystem of thought waiting to be fished. By now we would surely have overfished, the scarcity of wild books making them a prized commodity on anyone’s bookshelf. Or we will have found to way to farm them, feeding the ready market to those who can tolerate a thinner version that may or may not be infected with page mite.
In the summer you see the river rats scuttling across the path or swimming in the water. A woodpecker has bored a nest into the tree and you sit listening to the cheep cheep cheep of her chicks, their mother flitting back and forth and occasionally hammering on the trunk in annoyance at their impatience. Be quiet, she tells them, I’m here now. There are swans and ducks, dragonflies and bees, and the stirring movement of fish beneath the surface. Sometimes there is pollution too, icebergs of brown foam that send the wildlife into the ragged edges of undergrowth.
You walk along the river nearly every day and every day her character changes depending on the weather and the wildlife, the growth of trees and bushes and brambles, the events that happen upstream. But always she flows strong and smooth, feeling the riverbed as her closest friend. You feel the continuity of your own surface but know that you are still mutable, your friends, your family, your lover, your home, all forming the riverbank and riverbed for your own freedom of flow.