Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections

Mathew Clayton | 29th December 2021

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

The start of the year was depressing. I found myself going to bed early, often not outlasting the kids. The trouble with doing this, I quickly found out, is that you wake up in the night. I live in a cul-de-sac in a village with no street lights. It is quiet and dark. At four in the morning it is just you and the ceiling. The cats were the first to notice someone was awake. They began bringing in mice and letting them go on the landing. Winter meant less ground cover in the garden. They were easy pickings for our three cats.

I began to recognise the scampering sound that meant cat and mouse. A miniature version of Squid Game would then ensue. I would chase the cat down the stairs, put on a gardening glove and try and pick up the mouse. This was more successful than one would think. If the mouse escaped my clutches after about five minutes time would be up. The cat would be let back in, and once they had grabbed the poor mouse between their teeth both would be hustled into the garden. In the morning the cat would have left part of the mouse somewhere in the house. My daughter shouting, ‘Dad there’s guts on the stairs’, was often the first thing I heard in the morning.

The only other company I had during these witching hours was a car that pulled up outside our house once or twice a week between 3 and 5am. The car door would open, sometimes loud music would escape, there would be pause, before the door slammed shut and the car drove off. I presumed it was a taxi dropping off one of our neighbours. But who was living this nocturnal existence other than me? Most were retired. The only candidate was Dave. About the same age as me, he had once been a regular at Trade and was still a member of a Facebook group called Trade Babies. I started worrying about him. He was clearly enjoying the fleshpots of Brighton, but was it sensible to be doing this during on a Monday and at his age? I would glance over at the digital clock when I heard the car drawing close. Jesus, 5.30am! The second time this week. 

Winter turned to spring and the garden came alive. A few years previously I had become obsessed by planting tall things like cardoons, giant scabious and giant thistles. None of these had ever really grown but this year for no apparent reason they all leapt into life. They were joined by a host of hollyhocks and teasel planted from seed I had nicked from the local churchyard. By May, the garden was looking like Day of the Triffids. The apple tree in the front of the house, that my wife continually and correctly complained I had planted at a wonky angle, burst into blossom — my favourite smell in the world. 

Pretty soon it was time to dig the camping gear back out from where it had become buried in the garage and return to Maggie’s field in Chiddingly. The first trip was not a success. Depending on which way you looked at it I was either wildly optimistically or unthinkingly stupid. Whilst the rest of the family managed to just about stay warm I spent a sleepless shivering night. When we got up the water we had left out had turned to ice. But summer was just around the corner. We had one golden evening at Maggie’s, walking pub to pub through fields of wheat as the sun went down, the church spire at Chiddingly poking cheerfully through a crown of oak trees like a giant sign that the Six Bells and a pint of Harvey’s was in easy reach.

I started going back to bed at a normal time. But occasionally I still wake early. I am writing this at 6am on December 21 – the winter equinox possibly (I have never been sure of the exact date). Everyone is asleep upstairs including my son, who has Covid and has been isolating in his bedroom for the last two days. At 4.30am I heard the car draw up once again outside the house. I was thinking about getting up anyway. I went over to the window and peered through the blind, expecting to see Dave teetering off to his front door and bed. At least someone was enjoying themselves. But there was no taxi. I had been wrong all along. It was just the milk man delivering to my 92-year-old neighbour.