Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Paul Cowlishaw

10th January 2012

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments:

In the spring of 2011 I celebrated my forty-ninth birthday with a glass of champagne that seemed half full, followed by a second that seemed half empty. There was still a year of youthfulness to enjoy before I would reach my half-centenary, but then my wife pointed out that, earlier that morning, my fiftieth year had already started.

Perhaps my view of that second glass hadn’t been helped by my recent reading matter. I had been dipping in and out of Norman MacCaig’s poetry since the start of the year after the wave of publicity marking the centenary of his birth at the end of 2010. I enjoyed his unique perspective on the everyday, his wry observations, the lack of pretence. In his later poems the themes of mortality and human fragility occur more regularly. Although they’re rarely pessimistic, it’s possibly not the kind of subject matter to be dwelling on in the run-up to a middle-aged birthday.

And the hay falls and the dances end.
And the scythe cuts, no matter who’s holding it.
(from A man walking through Clachtoll)

In most years, any post-birthday blues are dispersed by the thought that it’s the time of year when the fly fishing is warming up and the start of the coarse fishing season is not far away, and fortunately this year was no different. For the time being, all age-related concerns were forgotten. Another summer of rivers beckoned.

It was a fine August dawn and I was up to my bare knees in the cool, crystalline water of the river Tarn at the bottom of a deep gorge that cuts dramatically through the Massif Central of southern France. The river was low and wound along the gravel-bottomed, rock strewn valley and at the point where I was standing the far bank was a towering vertical cliff face. The curved roofs of a series of underwater caves were just visible above the surface of the water. I was fly fishing for trout that didn’t exist. I had been told they were there but over the last few days I had snorkelled that whole stretch and not seen one speckled flank. What I had seen though had amazed me. Barbel, huge bronze barbel so close I could nearly stroke them, laying low amongst huge limestone boulders in the deep pools, flashing gold as they fed in the sunlit shallows. It was extraordinary to enter their world but in such low, clear water and armed only with fly fishing gear, I knew I was very unlikely to catch one. So, invisible trout and impossible barbel. I cast out towards a likely looking spot.

A short distance up the shingle beach, in the misty half-light, I could just make out the figure of a woman, sitting cross-legged near the water’s edge, her upturned wrists resting on her knees, deep in meditation. The only sounds were the gentle purling of the river and the soft swish of my rod. As the light slowly brightened something disturbing the surface of the river far upstream caught my eye. It looked like a log floating downstream towards me, incongruous in the centre of the mirror-flat river. As it got closer, I realised that it was progressing more quickly than the river – there was a bow wave ahead of it. It looked like a Labrador. My brain finally engaged and I realised it was an otter. As it approached it looked huge, it’s tawny head standing proud of the surface. I stood frozen, holding my rod in the air like a outsize garden gnome. It passed by a few feet away from me, not veering from its mid-river course, reducing me to insignificance as I stared, it seemed, at every glistening hair on its back. And then, abruptly, it performed a ninety degree turn, swam to the bottom of the cliff face and disappeared into one of the caves. I relaxed and turned, desperate to share the experience. There was no-one there of course. I looked upstream towards the woman on the beach. She was still sitting there, her head bowed, her eyes closed. I hoped her internal world was just as good.

One day in November I heard a commentator on the radio dispelling the male mid-life crisis as a myth. I was keen to be convinced and indeed found the evidence presented compelling until, one morning soon afterwards, I went to the barbers. All was going well, I was having a pleasant chat and a coffee when, towards the end of the haircut, the barber asked, quite nonchalantly:
“Would you like your eyebrows trimmed sir?”
Initially I was stunned into silence. No-one, barber or otherwise, had ever suggested this before. Then my instinct was to resist:
“No, no… not yet… it’s too soon…”
He paused, clippers cocked, and waited patiently for me to realise the futility of delaying the inevitable.
“Go on then” I said quietly.
A brief whirring, a flurry of clippings and my virginal eyebrows had been deflowered. As the barber performed his finishing touches at the back of my neck, I gazed down pensively at my cup of whisker-flecked coffee. It looked decidedly half empty.