Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Wendy Erskine

18th January 2020

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Wendy Erskine:

Although it wouldn’t be true to say that prior to 2019 I was a hermit, neither would it be totally wrong. In Alasdair Gray’s Lanark a character observes that for most people what constitutes their world is something pretty limited: ‘a home, the place we work, a football park…some pubs and connecting streets.’ And so it’s been for me for quite a while: getting a lift to work every day with my pal Jackie, walking up and down the same street, going in and out of the city centre on the 6A bus.  Much of the time, it’s even more circumscribed than that; it’s me sitting in the same spot on a plastic chair at the table in my kitchen, with people walking in and out, making themselves something to eat, bickering, laughing.  I’m surrounded by empty coffee cups, crisp packets and scraps of paper. Maybe I’m reading something or watching stuff on YouTube on my phone, perhaps I’m writing on my cheapo laptop.  

Well that’s how it was until 2019.  Having a book out in the world meant I was compelled to leave the house and travel about. I got buses, trains and planes all over the place.  I nodded off on long distance night buses where the people behind me played techno, woke up to the driver’s country and western radio station.  Countless journeys between Belfast and Dublin were spent on buses full of football fans or teenagers coming back from seeing a band. In my bag there is a card for a taxi firm in Diss, Norfolk, where twice I got a lift with the same brilliant woman. 

When I get off a plane, without fail the Ethan Russell photo which has the title ‘Keith Richards Exits “The Starship” 1972’ is the image I’m holding in my mind. He’s going down the steps with a drink in hand, total insouciance, the plane and sky shiny and gleaming.  Cut to me, and it was nearly always drizzling.  Possibly I’d just realised I’d left something on the plane.  In all likelihood I was clutching a jumble of bags one of which contained something that was leaking.  But hey, I wasn’t in my kitchen. 

I stayed in a hotel at Frankfurt airport which was only for people who had missed flights.  There was a despondent vibe in the place.  When the guy asked me if I had drunk anything from the minibar and I said no, he said why not? I’ve looked out at building sites, fields of maize, railway tracks where, when your eyes calibrate to the greyness, you can see legions of rats, and travelled down a river in Ljubljana.   I’ve eaten a bag of crisps that cost eight quid.  There was a room in Bantry where I opened the curtains to a preternatural greenness of trees that seemed to rush into the space. I waited around for hours at bus stops, stations, and random places – witnessing fights, witnessing little sweetnesses. I wandered around a place I used to live, looking up at the all the various bedrooms I had on different streets of the city. 

But of course, it wasn’t really about going from place to place.  Even now, the locations blur a little.  Was a train journey through England really so different to a train journey through Ireland, the fields swiping past?  Is a curving shoreline in one place substantially unlike one somewhere else?  What I specifically recall are the people that I encountered.  Kind, generous, lovely, funny, affirming, so into what they were into.  You might even have been one of them.