Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Dexter Petley

Dexter Petley | 28th December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Dexter Petley:

October, the chestnut moon, a red ball of china in a copse of cloud. It had us rooted to stubble.  Silenced owls, it dazed the hare, sky of dry lake beds, wild boar out peeling layers like sardine tins off forest floors.  In a year of four quartets, we’re out in dry salvages, no two ways about it.  Five minute shower on a tatter of chestnut leaves, 25 tons of apples this year, Jean-L says, and 2 tons 500 in the pear orchard, nowhere near enough empty bottles. Our place has it too, the straining baskets, orchards like cobbled squares, months living off chestnuts in a year when things don’t work out, no harm in that at all, you lose the thread, your life won’t go through the eye of a needle every bloody year.

The last time winter spoke it snowed air gun pellets, cold calling at the wrong door.  Under the floor planks was a two acre pond.  Between the gaps, the black and orange shimmer of a sunlit carp drifted slowly under my bed. The landlord was an octogenarian, a gentleman farmer dressed like a priest in grey cardigans and dog collared shirts.  A miniature 15th century château, ivy clad, inspired in grey slate.  His charolais grazed tiny hedged fields, lush cascades of buttercup and marsh marigold on the slopes which formed a bowl around the pond.  Inside his chateau, the rooms were cramped, like tiny fields.  Fat books on Chirac seemed over-scaled, bullish on thin shelves.  Department store reproductions fading on the walls more like a drawing room in village amdram, as if the oak panelling had been papered over and the fireplace was fake.  The ceiling was too low so the chandeliers had gone, the beams covered by a false bottom like a smuggler’s suitcase.  He showed me the windowless room where he was born, untouched since 1930.  It all reminded me of a Waddington’s magic set I’d owned in childhood, housed in a cardboard cabinet.  One trick was a set of six decorated boxes – gold leaf stars, crescent moons and pointed hats.  The boxes fitted into each other in a sliding scale of size.  The smallest was a golden matchbox.  The trick was to magic- wand a sixpenny piece into the empty golden matchbox.  Under a silk cowl, you inserted a flattened metal tube and simply slotted the sixpence in.  It was like the château had lost its golden matchbox.  The rooms were packed away inside each other, coinless in the cabinet, its magic suspended but for something so simple.

We drank warm champagne before teatime. I persuaded the châtelain to let me live on his pond for a year.  We haggled over rent. His plank and nails cabin was only fit as shelter for a Sunday fisherman in summer.  We shook hands on it, then walked down the old Roman road to the pond as a thunderstorm topped the hill. We hardly had time to shut the cabin door as hailstones the size of tangerines smashed into the roof.  They squirted through gaps in the planks like an ice machine, converting the floor into streams of fractured ice, the sound on the roof so deafening we had to block our ears.  Mounds of crushed ice remained for hours after, piled against the skirting.

The pond itself was old enough.  Victorian postcards and 18th century oil paintings showed its better days.  A line of villagers in their Sunday gladrags lean against the dam wall.  The château spires are just visible behind the hilltop farm.  Even the oak looked old in 1903.  I measured its girth myself at 18 feet.  A Citroën 2cv asleep among the holly trees behind, haunt of Jenny wrens and back seat robins.

The pied wagtail didn’t take to me living on his patch, his mate brooding in a grotto beside the run-off pipe, protected by a stump of fallen tree.  He had an urchin look, tail wagging like those French youths who gather at ponds and tumble drink bottles over and over in their hands.  At first he perched on the terrace rail and butted the windows with his beak, two stuttery jabs each hover.  He moved on to the Land Rover, standing on the wing mirrors, pecking at his reflection for hours on end until I chased him off.  Each day for months he caked my mirrors in layers of drooling whitewash, spattered the windows with white scratches.  He refuelled along the dam wall, filling his beak with sand, mortar, even milling stone.  Mixed with spit, each stab created an abstract portrait of his resistance, a rock hard stippling when dry. It set like sandpaper and is still there this December, an indelible cave painting on my wing mirrors.

The frogs were his nocturnal arm, rendering sleep impossible.  The pond was ringed in marsh grass and duckweed, six feet thick.  Green and yellow edible frogs, they lived thick as thieves, like a jeering mob at a French roundabout.  Their chorus line was nine feet from my bed, a diminishing distance as the weed increased and the water level dropped.  The repetition of ten thousand ballooning pouches, random harmonies which mimicked car alarms, snatches of conversation, common household noises, phones, machines, metallic clicks.  Frog nation, if you tie a red rag onto a length of string you can pop them in your gunny sack.

By day the hut turned inside a wheel of swallows.  At dusk, bats took over the rims, like centrifugal night weavers, keeping the air warm, whipped-poor-wills, unpicking skeins of insects from our backcloth.  These were circus bats, a merry-go-round in a wall of death, orbits at the speed of dark. The swallows, not to be undone, played out their insecticide in contours and sine waves, a constant blur at breakfast throughout May.  One stayed on for three whole weeks, bewildered in its short tailed uniform, its hunched and lonely colours, scarlet red of glorious evening, burnished blues of skies to come. The other swallows whisked away in the hurly burly as he watched.   Over the trees and hills, over fields and woods to the lakes and valley of the Yonne.  Perched upon the wooden railing, he sat with us all day.  Now and then he took a change of view, a jaunt to the other side, stretching wings to catch a passing gnat.  Sometimes a marauding band of unknown swallows dipped into our valley to try their luck.  Their tired young’uns, up all day, sat a few dances out beside our charge.  They’d absolutely talk, such nervous animated chitter, noddings along a row of six till a sign from their elders and they were gone, leaving our swallow shaken and bereft.  He sat on, a little perplexed but unafraid of us, patently safe, even interested in our strange ways of moving and eating.  His first day began to raise disquieting questions.  What would he do come nightfall?  Where would he go?  We watched a wild cat tiptoe round the field, from mole hill to shrew hole, finally giving in and curling up in the sun to sleep. The châtelain burnt his rubbish beside the pond, lighting tyres filled with straw to set it off.  Swallow flinched as eagles floated down the mountain.  He stayed put when a heron blew up like a windborne rag and clattered onto the tin roof.  The flash of red belly from tadpole newts, a grass snake swimming backwards with a frog in its jaws, fox cubs somersaulting down the hillside.  The day dwindled and we sat on the deck as the shadows lengthened, sun-downers to hand, the little swallow beside us with his back to the pond.  A sudden snatch of hunting swallows came in on an angle, wheeling right to left, picking off the pond skaters.  One broke formation and headed for the railing, pulling up mid-air to hover, letting out the briefest natter while brushing our swallow’s neck.  His face lit up and it was joy which swept them airborne, a duet lost among hundreds of duets, out over the water and away for the night.  I imagined a hundred other little swallows farmed out on daily rails, the caravanserai of a hundred hills.  Day after day she brought him back, three weeks of wonder-watching, swallow and I.