Caught by the River

You Sent Me Out

12th February 2015


You Sent Me Out. Words and picture: Catherine Turnbull.

A cry of anguish pierced the wall between our rooms followed by uncontrollable sobbing. My mother was speechless with fury, her cheeks blotched red and tear-streaked like mine as a toddler four decades earlier. Back then she wiped my sorrows away and soothed me with stories. It was my turn now.

‘Just look at the weather while I am stuck in here like a prisoner,’ she said between wheezy gasps. ‘I should be striding out seeing the foals tasting the new grass, the crocuses lifting their heads to the sun, birds courting in the trees, Highland calves taking their first unsteady steps.’

The morphine had created a fairytale world beyond her threshold and her glittering eyes feasted on visions of springtime happenings. ‘Go girl, go and tell me what you see,’ she commanded.

Her cancererous world was bounded by walls and glass, apart from the time we bundled her into the car and that was so painful it outweighed the benefit. I could never bear to be in the classroom whilst the sun shone outside, so cannot imagine the anger she felt at permanent imprisonment.

Mum was a countrywoman who did her best on long walks to teach the young me and my sister the names of trees, plants, birds, fish but somehow they never stuck. I had a blind spot and risked her drug-induced wrath and disappointment if I didn’t return with the vital nature report.

I struck up an ancient sunken lane lined with nettles towards the patches of primroses at the edge of a copse. These were easy to identify. Brown sticky buds enclosed the conkers of the future on the horse chestnuts, there was a scrubby patch of wood anemones and ransoms were yet to unleash their garlic flowers and send me running to the omelette pan with handfuls of pungent leaves.

So far, so fairly dull. Then I got my story. A kerfuffle of feathers and the meek moorhens were squaring up for a fight on the pond. Flashing their white undertails amidst chuckles and trumpeting they turned and thrashing a storm, walked on water as they lunged and parried. No blood was spilled after quarter of an hour but honour was satisfied. And I had enough copy to go home.

I took the stairs two at a time eager to report on the stirrings of spring. Too late, Mum slept the sleep of one exhausted by her fight and pain relief. My stories would wait till later.

In the following months I took her thirst for nature news to the enth degree by walking the course of the River Wye alone from estuary to source and way above the plains and valleys on the ancient ridgeways from Dorset to Norfolk. My way of grieving. Her legacy to me was born in my early years when she took me foraging for brambles and bluebells as her mother did before (before we knew picking wildflowers was a sin).

That walk up the sunken lane spawned an award-winning short story and a poem, which won second place. But most of all my mother’s cry taught me life is for the living until we draw our last breath.

Catherine Turnbull is a newspaper editor by day and a scribbler of novels, short stories and plays at night. She has lived on a beach and a harbour-side in Orkney and on a cliff top on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Now a landlubber she seeks out river and canal side walks to see the glint of sun on water.