Caught by the River

Cold Blood: Adventures with reptiles and amphibians

12th May 2014

Cold Blood jacket

By Richard Kerridge
(Chatto & Windus, hardcover, out now)

Extract from Chapter One, Palmate Newt:

It started with a golden newt in a black bog. I was ten.

We were walking on Dartmoor, coming down a heathery slope. I can imagine the kind of day it was. Around us the moor looked beaten up by winter: muddy, uncommunicative, hunkered down into itself. The heather was faded, the bracken collapsed and papery, the grass washed-out, the earth wet. Cold breezes rushed at my face and found a way down the back of my neck. But the sun was out, and around me creatures were coming to life. Chirruping birdsong sprang up and was answered. Bumblebees wobbled into flight, to be snatched by the wind. Spiders scuttled from my feet. A crow called three times, and took off, flapping hard. The gorse bushes were dense with yellow flowers. Around them, in the sun, there was a coconutty warmth.

Our path dropped towards a boggy stream and a bridge of flat stones. Pools glittered there. I ran ahead and lay on the bridge to look into the water. Quietness settled around me. The April sun warmed my back. The stream was shallow here, hardly moving over deep-looking mud. On either side, there was bog, clumps of ribbony brown grass, rising out of black slime. Between them were dark shallow pools. Patches of oily film gleamed on the surface. Tiny beetles raced in circles, catching the light.

Beneath me, under the water, the sun picked out a soft brown landscape. Particles drifted and settled, coating half-buried leaves and sticks, and making little turrets that trembled. A beetle dashed jerkily about. On the bottom, a long-legged stick-like creature, some sort of insect larva, seemed to have become furred with algae. It struggled feebly. Repelled by it, I looked away quickly, and a move¬ment nearer the middle caught my eye. A small animal, corkscrewing like an otter, swam to the surface and gulped out a bubble. As soon as it had gulped, it stuck out all four legs, and let itself drop, paddling once or twice on the way down. Tail and back feet reached the bottom, sending up a puff of mud. There the animal rested, half-floating. It was a newt.

But it wasn’t like the pictures I had seen. This newt was smooth and light brown, about two inches long. I looked down at the head, densely speckled with gold. It seemed threaded with gold, faded tapestry gold. There was no wavy crest, but the top of the tail was a fine edge, crinkled in places. I leaned out to get more of a side view. The newt didn’t move. On its sides it was mottled with green. The forefeet were long-fingered sensitive hands that stirred in the water and steadied the body. I couldn’t see the back feet in the mud.

Afraid to take my eyes off the newt, I began to roll up my sleeve, thinking about reaching down into the water and manoeuvring my hand for a grab. But I knew the attempt would be almost hopeless. If only I hadn’t left my net in the car.

Copyright © Richard Kerridge 2014

Cold Blood is on sale in the Caught by the River shop at the special price of £13