Caught by the River


20th February 2022

An extract from Davina Quinlivan‘s ‘Shalimar: A Story of Place and Migration’, forthcoming from Little Toller Books.

It has been two months since my father’s diagnosis with cancer and we have spent a week at the new flat in Surrey with the little moat which is filled with trout. Our high attic windows frame the clouds and let in perfect squares of light. But they are also entrapping and make it impossible to see any sort of view unless standing on tiptoes: I’m not very tall, so I see even less than my husband out of these windows in the eaves of the old Gothic house. I have nothing to look at, to bind me to the present. Instead, I listen.

It is somewhere between the late afternoon and the evening and I hear pheasants whooping and clucking outside like a broken voice-box stammering on an old fashioned dolly, somewhere between a hiccup and a cry. For a Londoner like me, this noise is disturbing. I think about the incongruity of this sound, the noise of the English countryside which I have had, until now, no knowledge of. There is a distinct who—o-o-oop-whoop, wup-wup-wup call, compounded by the sound of travelling as the birds fly unsteadily, clumsily, in tightly gathered bouts of movement, shuttling past the window. Sitting on the ledge of the window, I see a bird move across the gardens and I hold my breath as it juts forwards, about to step off the grass and into that sloping, diagonal movement. To call this flight would be inaccurate, it is a very awkward propulsion.

About a fifty-minute drive away, my father is dying in our home, awake, listening to the noises outside. He is turning once, twice, in a bed that is broken at the lower half, springs gone. I don’t realise this until a visitor points it out to me. My mother is lying on the other side of the bed, asleep with the duvet over her face. In our flat, I look at the pheasants shaking their amber plumage. I start to admit to myself that there is a stone in my chest, just a little beach pebble, turning a fraction sideways. It is the weight of the pebble I am now trying to determine: how can I measure such inner, imminent implosion? What dawns on me is the slow, steady hum of separation from them, my parents and, then, the drift to nothingness, the evaporation of familial connection. I am far away.

There is no clear flow of thought here. My body has become electrified with the feeling of falling, dropping, caught in this state. A pheasant moves across a hedge and stammers towards flight. I shuffle high up on the window ledge of the flat and bring my knees to my chest, tucking my body into the alcove. I have just reached the age of 27 and I can’t imagine my future any longer. All is drowned out by the sound of the pebble turning and the clock on the side of the wall which vibrates each time a person marches past the corridor outside our flat.

The moment you know someone is dying, and dies across time and space while you are sat in your new home, is the most awful kind of limbo and liminal time. Your whole head is in the mouth of a tiger. Death tumbles out of everywhere, like sand in your shoe. Judith Kerr’s much-loved children’s story, The Tiger Who Came to Tea is well known for its allusions to Kerr’s experiences of the Second World War; the tiger’s hunger and thirst seen as a metaphor for the destructive forces of human warfare. But, the tiger is also death. Here, quiet and, seemingly, polite in his request to be invited into Sophie’s family home. Like the tiger’s hunger, which cannot be satiated until all is incorporated, consumed, emptied, thoughts of death are consuming me whole.

Unexpectedly, a story of another deadly animal greets me here, in the dark, curdling with the image of a tiger as I sit and wait for news about my father. Once, my maternal grandparents noticed a leak during heavy rainfall and its plink-plonk song beat down on their veranda. Insistent as she was, Phyllis, my grandmother, asked my grandfather, Lewis, to investigate and so he went, trudging out into the rain. At first, he sees nothing but the colour of the charcoal-grey pipe, then, a heavier patchwork of straw-coloured shapes and loose, stretched, octagonal blacks. The rain whips his face so he is looking through sheets of movement, rain and pipework, water and plastic guttering. He reaches for the pipework in order to inspect its insides. But there are no clogged leaves or moss. Yet, something gleams: a living oil painting the shape of a log. This part of the pipe, surely, shines too brightly against the guttering and calls attention to itself because it is a river and a log, liquid and solid all at once. Was it soil? Why, then, so beautifully patterned? Here, at my grandfather’s fingertips, comes the moment of realisation which stakes his body, his legs, to the ground. Lewis Benjamin Duncan is a soldier in the British army, of Scottish and Burmese descent, and he has learned to recognise fear and quell its spread. Still, he remained pinned to the ground. Far from the Irrawaddy river, a fifteen-foot Burmese python has entered the suburbs in Rangoon and attached itself to my maternal grandparents’ exterior pipework on their home. Mistaking its body for a drainpipe, Lewis had felt the python’s moving scales. For years to come, he remembered its unending, sliding shape.


‘Shalimar’ is published on 2 March. You can pre-order a copy here.

Davina Quinlivan will appear at the following events around publication:

2 March – Stanfords, Bristol

17 March – The Lost Kitchen (with Burmese Food) with Liznojan Books, Tiverton 

7 April – East Gate Bookshop, Totnes

30 April Seven Fables (with a walk), Dulverton

9 October – Shute Festival, Axminster