by Sophie Parkin
I first thought about taking the pills as I sat swinging my feet in the river. I had already overdosed on the strawberries in the field, gauging my mouth with them messily before collapsing alone by the waters edge. Inconsolable. Rivers have always had a way of giving me ideas, not always self destructive ones, was it the ice cold water running through my toes, or my hands playing with the pebbles? I only knew I felt very miserable and I blamed my sister for everything. She had taken my friends from me promising them an excitement of ideas and glamour that I didn’t have at twelve, but at fifteen she owned.
The summer stretched before me as uncomfortable as an everlasting gobstopper, the end never quite in sight. There were only two things that made that summer bearable, stuffed baked apples, but there was only so many you could eat of those, and the river at the bottom of the long sweeping garden, I didn’t even smoke. The trees shaded me whilst the sound comforted me, the trickle rush and Tinkerbell chatter mixed with the woods other occupants that could have been fairies, you never know, and I found a peace there like the river I had known as a child in the pages of The Wind in the Willows.
Just twelve and I had found misery of suicidal proportions! Thank god, I didn’t know what would come later. I couldn’t believe that day would ever end, couldn’t imagine that life would ever be different, I couldn’t even imagine that in a few months it would grow cold, and I longed for the cold as my feet sunk deeper into the river bed, lost amongst the spinachy weeds. Everything felt wrong, stuck, uncomfortable, even my body didn’t seem to work as it once had so reliably. My skin felt tight, my nose and mouth too big, my voice
screeched harsh in my ears and my new breasts were sore, disturbing me more than the outbreak of spots on my chin and, I didn’t even have the solace of my own room to hide in.
We were staying at the artist Brian and Monica Wynter’s great big old house, at the Lizard in Cornwall. There family were going off on a kayaking holiday and I said goodbye to their sons, shyly overcome with wanting them to stay. We had our own boys, my stepbrothers, but that summer they trailed after my sister like the ephemera tied to a wedding car, noisy and obvious with all the jokes back firing on me, I thought. In the Wynter’s bathroom I found a bewildering mystery of pills in bottles with no clue as to what they did or guarantees of success. I poured a mixture into my hand and saw myself shamefully licking them in the cabinet mirror, before forcing them into my mouth. I hated the medicinal bitterness and spat them out into the loo, and with them went my suicide attempt.
It was so difficult with everything being wrong, I couldn’t just wear shorts and climb trees like I always had. Life in bikini tops was dreadfully cruel, I thought as I lay on the riverbank watching the wriggles of fish and the fancy of dragonflies in the still heat. I wished I could join them and lose my mortality. I thought I would probably always be alone, and I would have to get used to it, but that the river was a good substitute for the annoyance and the unnecessary cruel noise of humans. Not, that river life is less noisy just more necessary, more absorbing. I liked feeling close to something that would keep on running, whatever you said or did. There are few things that can stop a river, certainly not my dam building that diverted things only for a moment before the waters unstoppable force toppled it down. I made paper boats, looked for Moley and Ratty and ate my picnic sandwiches on it‘s banks watching the days slowly fold in on themselves.
I, like so many novels heroines would have to be noble, bare the pain of humiliation bravely,(I couldn’t even swallow a handful of pills!) and suffer. If only I had had Cassandra and I Capture the Castle with her crumbling castle and moat to share that pain, or the dry heat of Frankie’s exasperation in Member of The Wedding by Carson McCullers, or even more pertinently Harriet to commiserate with, in The River by Rumer Godden. We were all of that age of not knowing how we could fit into a world that we felt so apart from, that we clung to anything as our safety valves. I think like Harriet I wrote a lot of poetry too, but nothing as good as her poem on The River.
The river runs, the round world spins,
Dawn and lamplight, midnight, noon
Sun follows day. Night stars and moon.
The day ends, the end begins.
The River, 1946 -(written of course by the grown-up author, Rumer Godden).
Harriet’s was a great slow, mile wide river in Bengal with alternate banks of white sand and brown mud. The traffic consisted of crocodiles, fish and porpoise, mixed amongst country boats, flat jute barges and paddle wheeled mail steamers. I first discovered the 1956 Jean Renoir film of The River, when I returned from staying in the Himalayas in an Ashram by The Ganges. There, the soft white sand had fell into the water, along with temple steps, flowers and idols and where people washed with elephants, pans and clothes. All the important ceremonies happened on the banks of the half mile wide river, funeral pyres, blessings and weddings. It was pivotal to the Hindu religion, life came from it to disappear back into it. I would go with a book to read, and find myself instead immersed in watching it’s life, the rush of soothing sounds mixed with temple bells and prayers. When I got too hot I would walk into it, believing I could swim to the other side, or think I could lazily lie upon it, like the sea. But it was not the sea and I would be carried away within minutes, sinking. You are always your own weight in a river no matter how deceptively calm it might look, it is as easy to drown in as a 30ft wave. You have to always remember to tread water and keep breathing, like life really.
I couldn’t live anywhere that wasn’t near a river. I have a need to see the tug and flow of the river every day, o f course I don’t ‘need’ to but I want to. It fufills a longing in me, excites me childishly, whether late at night, The Thames, fat and black in Vauxhall, displaying the whorish lights of London across it’s swelling belly, or young and bright rushing with the daylight energy of speeding police and fireboats, or tourist cruisers. It thrills me, absorbing me in it’s natural free wonder. I can lean over the bridges ledge watching it for hours, it awakens new ideas springing up like bulbs from my head, always unrevealing of it’s mysterious contents held within it’s depths – dead bodies, diamond engagement rings, three headed multi sex fishes. Seagulls the closest things to it, squawking like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz , bring a malevolence at darkening dusk.
This year I am getting married and moving to Rotterdam, a City of islands and rivers, where from the apartment on the 28th floor there is water to watch from every window, with boats bigger and faster than any Rumer Godden ever saw, with enormous swan-like bridges, industrial docks and mammoth oil tankards. There are pleasure cruisers and speed boats and thin rail bridges that move with the tide, and canals not wishing to be left out, join in. And always the unwieldy mass of water surges forward, high and low, deep and shallow, that must like any life-force keep going, holding within it’s body it’s own life, not just what humans put upon it. Whatever happens to me in life, the river is there to remind me you don’t have a choice, bad times come and good times go, but you have to keep going for good things to come back in the swell of the next tide.