Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections

Kirsteen McNish | 23rd December 2021

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

For the past year the marshland and river a stone’s throw away from my house has become a place of contemplation and relief. It’s a place where my chest has broken open in elation at birdsong at 6am; where I’ve shed quiet tears in the silvery fog; have feverishly grabbed the chance for solo bike rides in a loop up to the wetlands and it’s where I’ve marched out a regular path with my two young children. I am yet to walk there alone in the dark of night, but in my mind’s eye I imagine the moon at its fullest on the water and small gatherings happening at the folding tables and mini barbecues that I see tucked away into the bushes out of the way of pedestrians and cyclists during the day. In the daily jangle of this city, I love these open spaces of land that provide their quiet song of steady familiarity and subtle changes in contrast to the whir of home and work.

I rarely walk or cycle with my headphones on, but instead my daily earworms accompany me, and can pivot at a moment’s notice with the seasons. William Doyle’s ‘And Everything Changed’ is permanently connected now to the light creeping back into the spring mornings, Solange’s ‘Cranes In the Sky’ is the heat of my early solo jaunts, chucking an unneeded layer into the bike basket as I pick up a pace, and Douglas Dare’s ‘I Am Free’ is the bittersweet pang of watching my youngest run off suddenly through a field flanked by teasels, entirely happy in his own world, me standing awkwardly in mine. Hawthonn’s ‘Dream Cairn’ swirls deep with the onset of winter’s chill; it is watery sun seeping through the skeleton trees on days where I try muster up confidence and equilibrium and look for direction as the approaching year is in sight. I would be lying if I didn’t admit my brain is equally littered with the music that my son and daughter listen to on repeat — Dua Lipa and Janelle Monae skip jauntily through my brain as I trace the pathways where a kestrel hovers and old Nirvana tracks are just a breath away from my lips. My son discovered Kurt Cobain in lockdown on YouTube and this music that is associated with my teenage years is box fresh to him, so his lit-up face swims into my head every time my brain twangs out the first few bars of ‘Come As You Are’. 

I heave my brute of a bike up an incline, beads of sweat gathering at the nape of my neck, and scramble to the top of the hill as geese land deftly like ships launched into a dock, making a distinct “doof” sound on the expanse of water under swiftly changing pink mackerel skies. The suck-lapping of a boat near the keep of the lock chinks and sways in the wind, and I stop to record simple patterns. I am hearing music in everything, and everything is music. Back home I stretch my overdraft to its limits by sifting through the shelves of online record shops, receiving a dopamine hit as I hit the checkout. 

Edges are blurred and margins are occupied. Friends stand on doorsteps and sit in gardens, shivering under rickety gazebos, bound by love and conversation, and music wafts over garden fences. Our garden is blooming, benefitting from the extra toil until night falls when the midges drive me indoors. We feel 5 paces behind everyone for the best part of the year as we continue to shield my daughter, and some friendships are cemented whilst others seem to drift quietly away like dandelion clocks, everyone finding their own way in the tempest. I find myself ever more interested as time goes on the edges of things; thresholds and those who commune on fringes and hinterlands.

On a weekend morning, with my young children, I walk early in the marshes that flank housing estates and factories. As the dust rises from the marshland path, I hear the last embers of a rave from a distant warehouse thumping out bass, in a kind of duet with the bugs in the tall grass that saw their legs back and forth. I realise I am missing things less these days — I might have not noticed the creatures chirruping in the grass so much two years ago, and I am also aware that I’m easing quite comfortably into a sense of self that no longer pivots around social events. 

As we reach the canal I spy the white of a Little Egret, and a stranger stops to talk to me as he notices it too. He points his binoculars, and I point my phone, in its direction on the bank. As we chat in the unexpected glow of the early morning sun, I feel an amber-like seep that floods my fascia from simple human connection with a stranger. I simultaneously try to cajole and distract my daughter as an internal magnetic pull whirls fast and she tries desperately to wriggle free from the wheelchair, hefting herself in a strain towards the water’s edge. This ancient pull within her is both mysterious and alarming in a way I don’t quite grasp, but it’s urgent and visceral. By the sea edge it always takes two of us to hold her back. As her strength multiplies fast her fingers spread like starfish, and we fear if we let go, we likely would never see her again. My selkie daughter is now storm-faced, so I hastily re-secure her belt and move on. My son is becoming smaller in the distance, pretending he can’t hear my calls. Bickering swans with archangel wings shatter the surface reflections of the low-stooping branches, and ducks cackle in the reeds. 

We pause to sit on a bench, so I search for accounts of the marshes on my phone — I want to find nuggets of information to connect me to the earth that’s beneath my feet. I read that an ancient wreck of a boat was once found near the Lea canal and rumoured to be Viking, and I think back to the boats I’ve seen abandoned there, once someone’s home but now half-submerged, leaning into the verges like drunks at a bar. I read in an east London newspaper that the water tables of London are rapidly rising and within a decade parts of London could be overwhelmed, and I think about how I recently marvelled at a slow rivulet of spring water that revealed itself a foot down when we planted a eucalyptus tree in the garden. Watching my son humming and kicking stones into the long grass, I wince, and am yet grateful he still slightly oblivious to how many things his generation will face.

As we head back home, ancient mariner cormorants ooze past like slow jets, and bejewelled blackberry bushes pulse with sparrows, coal-tits and discarded face masks hanging like scanty lingerie on the thorns. I sidestep the beer cans and vape canisters erupting from bins and I brace myself as I half-run, forcing the wheelchair up a steep slope, past the pylons buzzing with a cacophony of singing birds, through the housing estate with fruit gum-coloured petunias flanking streets named after wild things. I notice “Swift Close” as I stop to catch my breath, whilst my daughter rocks forward impatiently, pendulum-like in her chariot, silently urging me home. I feel bedraggled and shire-horse-strong, my new summer pumps tacky on the hot tarmac, my face rose warm, and sunglasses steaming up. I’m dishevelled, misshapen and my hair is wild, spiralling into damp tendrils, but I feel more myself. 

A woman shouts hello as she gets shopping bags out of her car. She tells me she sees us pass her house most days and that she used to work as a carer for children like my daughter. She talks at a nippy pace, and I recognise a strong Scottish burr.  She talks about the multitude of cuts facing the cared for and how the system is broken, and I feel a strange relief that these words are coming from a mouth other than my own. I’ve spent too much time this year letting disbelief tip into anger tip into sadness, and I want to stop the burn of loneliness that campaigning about these issues creates and forget it all for a bit. As her neighbours’ sunflowers stretch their faces to the sun and a smoking teenager in a dressing gown leans out of the window, my daughter looks up and gives the woman eye contact. She goes on to tell me how playing music and paddling pools soothed many of the kids she worked with, so I tell her about my daughter and her quest to throw herself into the canal a few minutes before and she chuckles. She asks why we always come out so early and I tell her I try to walk in between home-schooling and working on an album release called Mirry, centred around recordings by an artist who was a full-time carer most of her life. She asks if she can hear it and shrugs that she doesn’t have a computer or a record player.

Next time I pass her driveway I post her a CD and as we lope off, she runs after us out of her house and thrusts a baby spider plant in a plastic cup into my hands in exchange. She tells me she takes loads of cuttings as she can’t stop helping things grow. I feel a sudden tidal wave of emotion rise in me. The next time I see her she tells me that her old ghetto blaster broke, so she sits in her stationary car in the mornings to listen to the disc and drink her morning coffee. My eyes suddenly billow with tears. I tell her that her plant is on my windowsill, and she winks.

As the news starts to ramp up and the festive season beckons, I wrap up in a welcome cold snap and cycle back to my loop. In the absence of many passers-by, the woodsmoke curls in wisps from the barges. I feel a strange affection for an upturned cup on a wonky stool on the canal path verge dusted by cigarette ashes and an empty bottle of rum. I feel reassured by the tin cans repurposed to hold the stalks of petal-less flowers and the now-empty gro-bags that adorn the top the barges, all placed there by someone, all touched and a result of intention and purpose. 

I pass over the footbridge to the canal again, willing the sight of herons, which seem to have become significant to me this year. I intuit many things from sighting them, looking for signs of reassurance I can’t find elsewhere. There have been recent occasions I chanced upon them, whether it’s a foot away in the eye of a heavy storm in Victoria Park, near the local gallery in the moat, or hearing the awk-awk as one gets chased by crows low over the rooftop of my house. I take photos to ping to my friend in his house in the lowlands of Fife. But none to be seen today, when my spirit feels blanched by the grey skies and my bike struggles to grip the muddy paths. I acknowledge that today I really don’t feel like shaking myself out of the fug. I’m feeling weary and things seem to slip like silverfish as I fail to get purchase on all that is sliding.

The tip of my nose goes numb and my eyes stream with cold, as I remember seeing my mother’s do in cold weather. The wool feels rough on my cheeks as I wipe them with the back of my glove and I stick this hand in my pocket whilst pushing the handlebars with the other. I’m oscillating between marshmallow and scorpion’s tail and I’m brittle at my edges. 

I suddenly feel something in my chest before I look up. The trees swoosh with a bitter wind and I hear the crunch of distant machinery glitching and shovelling rubble. There in front of me on the bridge sits a heron: sentry-like, regal, imposing, and ambivalent to my gawping presence. I can hear my heart thudding and feel something I can’t quite articulate. I watch him as the cold breeze ruffles his chest and he looks stoically into the distance, out beyond the pylons, the factories, the warehouse club, the treatment plants and the North Circular. 

I get back on my bike and pedal, listening to the click and whirr of the wheels. I am glad of chance when all else seems to unstitch, and as the cold bites into my face I feel a warm thread pulling me on. I remember this old tune by James Yorkston played in a tent somewhere at Christmas and I sail home in a tailwind.