Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections

Jessica Andrews | 26th December 2021

It’s time once again for the annual end-of-year musings we like to call Shadows and Reflections. Today Jessica Andrews looks back over the past 12 months.


Thick, white mist settles over the city and lingers for months, clinging to our hair and skin. We walk across beaches, cities, fields and parks, clutching paper coffee cups with icy fingers, grateful to be outside at all. I write, day after day at my desk by the window; a book about abundance in the year of not enough. My nan begins to lose her memory and her sentences fracture, ellipses and question marks caught in my chest like sharp hooks. I keep writing until my eyes are sore and the letters on my keyboard snap off. The world outside my window is brittle, the pavements sheets of ice, everything almost underwater. On my birthday, we fill the house with flowers and dance on the kitchen table. L chops a chili into red curls and I eat them raw, savouring the heat on my tongue.  


Hope glitters despite everything. We go to a pub in the dirty rain, Buddy Holly on the jukebox and it is you and me again. Dancing is illegal but we do it anyway, smuggling joy beneath our masks. F calls to tell me B is dead and I sit by the river as the trees flash on and off, the whole world coloured with static. I keep writing, urgent and clamouring, so that I have something to hold onto. All of the girls I have ever been crowd inside of me, scratching my gut. I keep writing, even when it feels impossible and I lose track of what I am trying to say. We go camping and the sky turns red and we get drunk by the fire as smoke tangles our hair. It grows so hot the tarmac melts and F and I climb up onto an old electricity box in the middle of the street, sharing menthol cigarettes and for a split-second we are who we once were, but then I get on the train and the years stretch between us and I am relieved. A is growing a baby in her belly and I press my hand into her flesh until I feel him kick and there he is, a kernel of a life deep inside her, despite all of the fear. 


The air is wet with lilac and we swim in the river as dusk slips into the water, our mouths full of smoke and too-sweet cider. A full moon rises in a coral sky as I cycle down the hill behind you, hair streaming like ribbons, feeling the heat of the city as we hurtle towards canals, rotting factories, freight trains and graffiti. The sun seeps into our bones and makes us heavy. A fear of what that means. We drive to the edge, where the sky bulges with stars and the bushes flicker with glow-worms. The sea is washed pink and the flowers are acidic. We grill salted asparagus on the beach and drink wine in the dark, the way we used to when the streets were lined with palm trees and the world was not yet on fire. We dance with new friends in a field strung with light but there is something missing in me, some essential, gleaming thing that has forgotten how to be. The book is clotted inside of me and the world feels too uncertain. I go to Wales with old friends and there are fresh tomatoes and orange slices, mimosas in the warm light. I can see how much my friends have grown and I forget to be afraid. We do not shower and the salt stays on our lips for days.  


The cold curls in with long candles and heavy rain hits the windows. The book is almost finished and we drink whiskey and make coconut milk and chickpea stew. The smell of the outside is on our scarves and jackets and we remember how much we missed it, how precious it seems now. My students ask me why stories need to have narratives and I tell them that we need to be held, to be pulled along by something and they look at me like they do not understand. A’s baby is born and I am not there to hold him. I sit on a train in the hurtling dark and look at pictures of his tiny body pressed against her chest, the seashell of his ear and think about how A and I have only ever known each other as young, yet to her baby, we will always be old. I try to write everything down, so I do not forget it, but life keeps happening quickly and I can’t keep up. L says, you just have to let it wash over you and he is right but he is also wrong because if I don’t get it down then what is there left to hold onto? We wear glitter and neon, drinking Campari and meeting new friends in dark places, spinning beneath a disco ball. I eat when I am hungry, which seems obvious now. 


I am finding it difficult to let things go. You and me link arms in the wet streets, dressed in silver, falling into taxis, chopping ginger and garlic, drinking dark wine from glasses with long green stems. We sit in a bar in the early hours and a man plays our song on the piano and for a jewelled moment the city feels like ours, even though it never will be. The council blocks are lit with Christmas lights like stained glass windows and we keep finding new ways to be brave. I hang a star on our front door and think about how B is just bones in the ground now and we are all here, reeling. A sends me a picture of her baby, tucked up against the cold. She says he has teeth now and so he is biting, learning the texture of the world.