Caught by the River


Bill Drummond | 29th April 2020

A brand new piece of writing by Bill Drummond, with illustration from Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré, 1885-1891.

26TH April 2020

You wait. 
I wait. 
We wait. 

We wait for the bus that don’t come
But now we have an app to tell us when the bus will come.

We wait for just the right boy to make his move
But now we have Grindr
And every boy is there for us to just choose. 

What do you wait for?

Will there one day be an app that removes the need for the last gasp of waiting?

Then what?

The waiting game will then be utterly and truly over. 

But I still wait. I embrace waiting.
The not knowing. The will he won’t she. 

When I was young it was the waiting for the return of the Sparling in Spring. 
And when the Sparling returned, the word would 
spread across town.
“The Sparling are back”

And I would head down toward the River Cree,
Down past Dashwood Square,
Down past the slaughter house, where I would go to watch a cow die. 
Down to the waters of the River Cree. 
Over my left shoulder would be a bag that only existed for this one job
A once a year job. 

I had been waiting. 

I would wade into the waters of The River Cree. 
No one else is here yet.
I am the first. 
But maybe the Sparling have not returned. 
Maybe it was just a rumour spread across town!

But I had been waiting. For weeks. Or maybe days. Or even hours. For now,
to be wading into the waters of the River Cree with the bag over my left shoulder. 

The waters of the River Cree are crystal clear. It is evening but there is still
light in the sky.

I wade further into the River Cree. 
It is not deep here. 
That is why it is here that we choose to wade. 
Where we have always waded.
The water is fast here. But not so fast that it will sweep me away. 

I’m nine years old. I’m wearing my grey school shorts that an old lady in the church had made for my mum for me to wear. I’m wearing my school shoes that I polished this morning and Mr Henry the cobbler had mended only last week. I’m wearing my grey school socks that I have worn every day this week, while the other pair wait in the mending basket for my mum to darn. 

The waters of the River Cree are above my socks, but not yet touching my grey woollen school shorts. 
My feet do not slip. 
My feet must not slip. 
If my feet slip…

And then I see the sparkle, the twitch
The race. 
The Sparling have returned. 
Hundreds of them.
Thousands of them.
Maybe hundreds of thousands of them.
The race is no more than two feed wide of solid dancing sparking Sparling.
None more than ten inches in length.
All desperately heading up the River Cree.
Their River. Our River.

I put my arm into the water. 
The arm that is covered in the sleeve of a navy blue jumper knitted by my granny. 
My hand feels for a fish. 
My fingers touch the fish. 
The life that has returned from the sea to the River Cree to breed and then to die. 
Sparling die after they breed – it’s what they do.
And the Sparling are here for me to catch.
But not with a hook on a line, 
but with my hands – to guddle. 

To guddle the first Sparling and lift it from the waters of the River Cree and put it in the bag over my left shoulder.
Then another. 
Then another. 
Then another. 

Until my bag is full of Sparling
Raging against the dying of their light. 
And I return to the bank. 
And up the lane past the slaughter house where I will go to watch a cow die. 

Up past Dashwood Square. 
Along Jubilee Road. 
In through the gates of the Manse.
In through our back door. 
In to the kitchen
And chop off their heads
And gut those now dead, forever dead Sparling
And fry them in the pan. 
And eat them all on their own. 

And the waiting would begin again. For another whole year for those few short hours or maybe two days, but no more, when the Sparling return from the sea up the waters of the River Cree. 

I no longer wait for the Sparling to return. 
I don’t know, if there are any Sparling returning to the waters of the River Cree. 
Or if there are any nine year old boys waiting all year for that moment to put their hand down into the crystal clear waters, while there is still light in the sky. And for his fingers to touch that writhing life force. 

Maybe the waiting is all over. 
Maybe there is no more waiting to be had. 

But I do wait. 
I wait.

Each year I wait. 
I need the wait .
I need the waiting. 
The waiting proper begins when I see the first Snowdrops in late January. 
And it builds, when it’s the purple and saffron of the Crocus in February. I try to pretend
the waiting is not there. Because it becomes too intense at times. Yes, the Daffodils are out.
So what! Of course the Daffodils are out! We can all see the Daffodils are out, the Daffodils were always going to be out. 
But it is now April.
Now all my Aprils are in London, hundreds and hundreds of miles 
from the waters of the River Cree. 

And I look to the sky. 
The sky is empty. 
Yes there are clouds
And vapor trails.
And seagulls.
And even my Crow. 

But the sky is empty. 

But somewhere out of Africa, She is returning. 
Over the Sahara.
Over the straits of Gibraltar.
Over Don Quixote tilting at his windmill. 
Up over the Pyrenees.
And the beaches of Normandy where the Allied Forces are yet to land.
And the Channel. 
And the fields of Kent.
And nearly there. 
Over the Brixton Academy, where Echo and the Bunnymen are playing Ocean Rain for the first time. 
Over the Houses of Parliament, where Harold McMillan is telling us we never had it so good. 
Up the Mall
Over Oxford Circus where the 60s are still swinging
And Euston Station – and the trains leaving for the North. 
Up the Caledonian Road – the old road, the road to home. 
And She is there.
Tearing across the evening sky
Above my head
Behind the Horse Chestnut in full candle bloom.
Back to build Her nest. 
Lay Her eggs
Screeching and screaming across the evening sky. 

The waiting is over
The waiting has only just begun. 

I have just put “Sparling” and “River Cree” into Google. And I learn that Sparling are properly known as the European Smelt. And now only returns to three Scottish rivers – the Forth, the Tay and the River Cree. 

I look on Google Maps to learn the new bridge over the River Cree that bypasses my hometown of Newton Stewart is called Sparling Bridge.

Every year I mark the date on my calendar when I see my first Swift. Yesterday was that day. This morning I wrote these words.