Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Dexter Petley

22nd December 2016

…In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;

I encounter the usual temporal lapse when asked to cast shadows and reflect. Times and dates are as useless as handbags or horoscopes if we keep no company and win no glittering prizes. What passes for a year within my field of vision isn’t collectable at its finish; it has no souvenirs, or shelves made up of idle moments, on which to keep them safe. My memory tampers with the past, moves things around quite freely to stop them forming cemeteries or filing cabinets of unweaned aubades. Time which seeps away without being grasped is easily forgotten. A year free of conventional measure is a year as nature intended; a dozen moons divided into task and observation, daylight and darkness. Named segments become blurred and declassified in an hour-less life; I never watch a clock face or count the days. I make no appointments, have no meetings. I do buy a calendar when the local fire brigade rattle their tin at my door come advent, but this goes directly into the wood stove, next year up in smoke before it begins, the Popery of succession. My days are marked by barometric tapping, underwater temperatures, the thickness of a forest floor, the warmth or wetness of soil, the compass of the sun, the spreading echo of birdsong in a widening sky. Reminders of that other place are alien, invasive. I’ve shaped my eyes for chanterelles and shooting stars, my arms for carp, my ears for owls, my welcome for salamanders and goose eggs. That’s all very well, of course, until art and commerce catch your scent and set the dogs of 2016 after you. That way is anti-clockwise. Dates and times hanging on the wall like a death mask, for one year only, the year a queue of time, pockmarked in appointments and public appearances. I tried becoming a tree in the middle of a forest, but only heard the chainsaws working their way inwards.

One day, Olivier bundled me into his battered old Mercedes. I want to show you something, he said. We rattled along tiny forest roads, the scenes of his war. He pointed out the signposts as we passed. When there was work to do, blowing up supply lines, railway tracks, felling trees over roads, his men revolved the signposts and sent the Germans in circles. We stopped at a tiny crossroads, walled in by Douglas fir. Olivier stood in the middle and told me to kneel at the edge. His hands described a slight hump. German staff car, he said. Four Gestapo still inside. I blasted it myself with that bazooka over my fireplace. Then we buried it, covered it over so the road looked undisturbed. The Germans never noticed. I’d tried to visualise this. Four Germans, just there under the crossroads, sitting upright with maps still on their knees, a thought too claustrophobic to travel further. I looked up at the tiny block of sky instead, the clouds like a mouthful of molars, maiden’s hair, tresses becoming burned faces until reddening in the distance they became recognisable again as clouds. Today, December 17th, the world is recognisable once more. 2016 switched the signposts round, sent me in the opposite direction. This week I stood beneath a pine tree where a renegade swarm of wild bees had pitched up on a high branch and built a colony in the open air. Hearts on sleeves, stretched curtains of honeycomb draped in space, meticulous industry driven by an angry pledge to construct their wonders exactly where they landed, come what may. In September, I’d watched in horror as it stretched its perilous conurbation over nothing, the heat wave mistaken for safety, or perhaps the roofer bees had gone the wrong way. The cold snap has been particularly harsh. Not a day passed all November when I didn’t think of those bees in their brittle caskets of frozen air. This week I found the courage to look them up. All dead, of course, ice bees in open combs, thick slabs of tombed wax had crashed to the ground, others hung like doomed spaceships in frosty branches. I filled a basket with the shape of honey past. Perhaps some had escaped and returned to the hives. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, that nature rectifies an error. It seemed a good place stand, to sum up this year, the memory at ten to three and is there honey still for tea, when more than ever I understood the point of writing, but less than ever the point of publishing.

We say it was a mild winter, last time round, but mildness butters no parsnips if you sit outside most afternoons in mute attendance for a cold carp. When water temperatures touch 5°, hell has already frozen over, but it made that queuing through half the year less trial than error. I fished a gravel pit where the carp, once willing traders, had shut shop after two years hammering from the drive-up anglers. Winter seemed the perfect ruse; empty banks, disturbance limited to grebes and mallards, the passing highway cormorant on a roach raid. I cherish a long held ambition of going the year round by finding one edible mushroom per month, and catching a carp each month. As 2016 commenced, it had yet to be fulfilled, so tricky around January and February. Once I nailed it in February, but somehow failed to catch a carp the whole of that September. This year I nailed the carp, November to March, but failed with a mushroom for February.

Nothing has become more fickle than a mushroom. This year the absentees had us scurrying in ever widening circles for their drops in the ocean. Even the half-present were as shy as chub. Three years without the trompette de la mort, their beds empty, their backyards vacant lots, the skirtings of old beech trees, a secret hole, the hollow on a woodland track behind a chateau. No black brass voluntary, just the last post echoing through the dried up leaves. The cèpes clocked on briefly, then withdrew their labour. The chanterelles continue to play hard to get. Pied de moutons, faithful to a point, but several favourable haunts have broken with this fidelity. The Bolet made scant effort, like the gifted egg-heads they are, and the violets just took the piss. I shall end this year still sifting through the ghostly bracken of last year’s forests, though carp and mushroom are done for December.

I’d like to close the shadows with reflections from 1978, continuing the underpants theme of 2015 and its delightful resurgence elsewhere in these pages. This is the story, then, of why I haven’t worn said underpants since 1978: The season in Hastings was over. Agnieszka Petley had taken the train home to Poland. My prospects were bleak; either joining her for a second consecutive winter in Krakow under the communists, or going back on the dole and ignoring her telegrams for more dollar bills hidden inside tampons. No more that tiny Soviet bloc tenement, her parents snoring in the living room, a cupboard full of smuggled shoes from Vienna, walking to the tram stop in minus 27 centigrade, dead drunks frozen solid in the snow. All summer I’d been teaching EFL in a cowboy school opposite Hastings pier. Agnieszka was a waitress. Home in Nowa Huta, she entered year three of a degree in transformational grammar and military training. I was in year zero of nothing, so I forged a polytechnic degree and answered a small ad in the Guardian: ‘English Teachers Wanted, Sudan Min of Ed, apply in person.’ There was no interview. The Embassy took your name and gave you an air ticket with instructions to show up at the Min of Ed. I landed in Khartoum in 39° after a sleepless flight on a Friday afternoon in October. The Min of Ed was closed, shuttered behind metal grills. Khartoum was dead. Scattered groups of men slept squatting in the shade, stray dogs the only other sign of life. I traipsed round every building with a British connection till I dropped. Finally, some old watchman at the British Council took pity on me and used his pass key to make a phone call. A florid, bearded fool in brogues and armbands on his shirtsleeves motored up in a black Rover shouting at me: “who the hell are you?” “Who the hell are you?” I said. “Barter-Davis, British Council. Are you one of those bloody shambling band of pedagogues lowering the tone of British presence here? If you are, I don’t see why the hell I should help you out. Don’t you know it’s a ruddy Friday?”

At his bachelor’s villa in a modest expatriate compound, he poured me a lemon juice as the sun set. It was his housekeeper’s day off. Supper was scraped from the pot, the bottom of her last effort, burnt ful beans and a twist of desiccated sheep’s cheese laying on the conflagrated scraps like plaster fallen off the ceiling, a warm Nile beer, and a pitcher of typhus water straight from the Nile. We ate in silence. No adjournment to the billiard room to swap tales from the interior between puffs on lashings of cigars, he sent me to my room, ordered me to sleep and said he’d drive me to the Min of Ed at 7.30 in the morning. It was a fitful night in ovenous heat, my stomach still on GMT. At breakfast I was surprised to be alive. Barter-Davis served coffee from a silver jug. It was like Arabica paint, thick black gloss for coating stomach walls already primed with stale toast and Polish strawberry jam.

The underpants were Polish too. The day I’d married Agnieszka in Krakow, her mother had presented me with nine pairs of white underpants, fulsome, wholesome medicated and suited to the proletariat struggle or 1930s Hitler youth aerobics, the pants of AE Houseman’s Ludlow lads; home fronts. Empire bound, I’d come with two pairs. I soiled the first pair there and then. Barter-Davis was standing behind his chair, admonishing my t-shirt, wholly inappropriate attire for the Min of Ed. The alien food, the heat and jet lag, the Nile water and diminishing morale simply burst the sump. His hospitality filled my nappies. The smell was like his drains had come under the door, but I sat still and bluffed till he got up and said I had two minutes till we leave. This was no time to own up or throw myself upon his mercy. I rolled up the soiled pair complete and stuffed them in to my rucksack. The second pair went on as Barter-Davis hooted from the car. I sat in the back, consoling myself that the Min of Ed possessed a toilet. Khartoum had woken. The streets were crowded with donkeys, bicycles, taxis, peanut vendors, open lorries piled with sacks, sheep herded over bridges, dead dogs and boys with sticks. I ruined the second pair as we passed Barclays Bank, a glittering start to my expatriate career. Barter-Davis had diplomatic number plates, a Union Jack fluttering off his aerial, men saluting this Ambassador in the back seat. I did the only decent thing, opened the door and dropped the first pair of soiled Polskis onto the sandy thoroughfare, among the donkey carts and turnboys. Barter-Davis stared rigidly forwards, avoiding the potholes and donkeys. The windows were down, Khartoum stank enough without me. I had the second pants off like a pantomime dame in the wings, dumping these in the road a hundred yards from the Min of Ed. “Out,” Barter-Davis said, driving off without another word. I could see the pants from where I stood, two boys fighting over them with sticks. From that day till now, it has never crossed my mind to replace them.


Dexter’s most recent book, Love Madness Fishing, was published jointly by us and Little Toller earlier this year. You can find it here in the Caught by the River shop.

Dexter Petley on Caught by the River