Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Jill Crawford

22nd December 2020

It’s time for the annual end-of-year musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap this year, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Jill Crawford.

Thinking is a thing I do far more easily than feeling. Earlier, feeling was the more natural of the two, but then – life, and one got ousted for the other. This was meant to leave me less exposed, cooler.

Titanic was when I found I could no longer trust my silly heart. The film began – I thought: Stupid, stupid film; I’m not falling for that. And when the lights came on as the credits drifted, my eight or nine-year-old neighbour, a stranger, placed a compassionate hand on mine and asked was I okay? did I need another tissue? so overwrought was I, sobbing out my guts. My brain didn’t approve of me. This reaction was ludicrous. My face in the mirror of the cinema toilets glowed a mottled orange and pink. There you are, I said, you grown-up baby, slave to your sentimental parts.

Someone told me in a book, before I observed it, that I would learn to use my thoughts and words to withdraw from the intensity in my body and from the continuous overwhelming dilations of being alive, and that my brain would be my resistance against chaos, against having to become my emotion, which was too much. 

In a little room for years, I played my heart to the surface, wildly within the limits. I let rip in a sunny rehearsal space, in a dimmed auditorium, in differently-shaped and -located theatres, where there was nearly always an agreement to cooperate and a barrier between me and too much: the lip of a light-bathed stage, the clothes of my character, their voice and body, a name. I’m told the best performance I gave was of a woman who didn’t speak for more than half an hour. The playwright had described her as being in a state of catatonia. I had to look that up. I knew the band but not the meaning. The playwright complained to the director that I was too young to understand. I wouldn’t get it no matter how hard I tried. He wasn’t wrong. That awaited.

This year, speaking to a wiser person, I said: I’m a rock at the moment. I don’t dare soften or I might pour away through the gaps and vanish. Watching Cléo from 5 to 7 in an ephemeral, velvet movie theatre, I thought: Yeah, I understand you, wonky pet. 

In autumn during quarantine, yearning for the sex or romance of an event, like others I ordered ingredients, hoked out paraphernalia from a cupboard, and made a cocktail – well, cocktails – then got stocious alone, my sober partner alongside, twisting butt and wrists around the flat to show-tunes and power ballads. This was the very thing. I had been wanting this. Either I was drunk, or I was better, or both. Can a rock dance? Only a little bit of this has to do with being unhealthy for the longest while yet.

At the start of the year while we were cooped inside ill, a man who was afraid of catching it in a hostel, found the woodshed outside our door and slept a night. We got woken by his feet coming down the steps, louder than a fox. The woodshed is hard, black, wet, full of web and dust. It lives beside the bins, under the road. We couldn’t go out. This man couldn’t stay. The streets were apparently riddled with whatever it was. There was nowhere safe for him to be. He drank his tea and ate his toast. By the time someone from the council arrived to help, the man was gone, I suppose wanting to make his own choice. The man was our age. That doesn’t matter. Why would it matter what age he was? The spent cup sat for a week on the spent plate on top of the electrics box till we could go outside again. I washed and returned them to our upstairs neighbours, who had spent hours on the phone, seeking the contact and a place for him that he would never occupy.

Then the bird came – a raven, I kid you not. I would make it another kind of bird if I were making this up. At first, it nestled in the bush between the bedroom window and the steps that ascend to the road. It remained there for a few days, big and solid, watchful while unmoving when people passed by, when we climbed or descended. It was so gleamy, truer than life, as close as my elbow. The raven was discussed in the vicinity. What was up with the creature? Was it planning to lay eggs? Had it lost its kin or pal? It croaked. It croaked every few minutes, at night even. The cry was caustic and plaintive. By the third or fourth day, it sounded like heartache. Yet it looked fine, it appeared optimistic, though it cannot have drunk or eaten in some while. Our quite-famous comedian neighbour laid out a thin track of seeds along the sill and a ramekin of water. The raven had been loitering in front of his house till it came to our bush. He felt a duty of care. 

Was it a raven? Telling the story, I start to doubt. Online I enquire if the odd raven can be found across the city, other than in the obvious place. Unlikely, someone says, but possible because a raven is just a big crow. Double the size, another says. (My bird could’ve been a magnified crow.) The difference is in the tail, they continue. Can you see the tail? (I couldn’t see its tail, obscured by leaves.) More likely a rook, a third says, or if there’s white as well as black, a jackdaw. (No white, I’m almost sure.) Wild ones don’t exist in London, so maybe an escapee from the tower. (It seemed lost, I reply, or out of sorts.) No different from the rest of us, a fourth says. Raven, then, and London’s about to fall! (Ha.) Their wings are clipped in the tower, a fifth says, so not one of theirs, but one flew east over Finsbury Park on October 17th, and reports had them elsewhere that month. They’re uncommon and underreported.  (Oh, that’s not far. How do you know this?) I use the Bird Guides service. (Love.) 

Except that when my bird came and remained, it was vaguely summer. I’m no surer. And why do I have to know its type to claim its presence? Nameless and without category, my bird was here, being itself with charisma, novel and unique. By the fifth day, it had migrated from the bush to a hole smashed into the wall near the ground, facing our iron-barred bedroom window, private from the rest of the world. 

When I opened the curtains, it gazed back. I wondered what its opinions were. It must have been too smart for opinions. It remained in the hole, looking in our window, for several days, ignoring offerings of food or water. Was it dying or waiting? For some reason, it had to be alone. What were we to it, were we company? Who was looking at whom? It kept croaking. It woke us, annoying, yet we were also grateful. 

Like the unaccommodated man, without a fuss, it left. I felt easier. I’d begun to attach a meaning to the bird while it had no need of meanings and no longer any need of me; we did nothing for it but look, knowing it was here. It was one of the oddest experiences this year, as was the aching everywhere, and I can’t ever tell you a third one in case you aren’t careful enough with the facts. I couldn’t explain. My bird came and went, earthy and enchanted, leaving mysteries open.  

What made this year trickier? Being reminded of how different we all are – a source of panic. 

What offered relief? The same – no point then in attempting to get through to everyone, plus it wouldn’t do me any harm to say less and listen.   

Restoratives: Casablanca; glasshouses at Kew Gardens; a footstool and a silk pillowcase; taking shameless time; letting stuff go; ‘A Forest’ by The Cure; the seemliness, even on a second listen, of John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika on Scene on Radio; Karen O and Willie Nelson singing ‘Under Pressure’; a stock of ice lollies in the freezer; becoming a meaningful figure in a young child’s life; helping to raise a baby Great Dane; homemade guacamol; the near-immortal bright force of Caetano Veloso’s ‘Tonada de Luna Llena’.

Came into its own: sleep. I could have slept away the year. Call me a lazy baggage if you want. I don’t care. This year sleeping was necessary. I fretted but had little choice. It wasn’t a waste. Sleeping’s a vivid way of being alive. The body takes time – takes because it needs – to get ready again. After sleep, missing. Also, forgiveness. Also, not always having to take a position. Finally, among others, the people who run corner shops.

Revived that was neglected: floating in water; laughter; the cinema; fresh crushed garlic; the pleasure of rolling your eyes and of coining new terms for ones who make your blood squirm (scumbarino); the patience I’d lacked a long time. 

Now know better: time scatters all over the place; lives are precious and arbitrary; there are so many liars; the altruistic are as persistent as the selfish; avid cleverness isn’t as helpful as diligent intelligence; you shrink if you construct yourself out of what you’re not.

Discoveries: There’s a clown church – you’d hope it’s only for genuine fools and comedians, excluding unscrupulous bunglers, but I don’t assume. Also, your origin is not who you are. Also, vulnerability is never not an interesting beginning. And a question isn’t always a question, so before you answer, make sure of that. Potions that soften and smell good may do uncomfortable things to the body. We seem to have to escape. Some escape is essential however we live.

Conclusions: More often than not, I don’t know. Still, you know when you know; language and proof aren’t necessarily what you want. Other places are farther away than they were; I am sad about that and will value them more. The heart has helped. You’ll heal till you don’t.


You can visit Jill’s website here, and follow her on Twitter here.