Caught by the River


19th June 2022

Tom Cox introduces an excerpt from his novel ‘Villager’, which covers two centuries of folklore and earth magic in a moorland village:

For years, I wanted to write a psychedelic novel about the countryside: a book of rivers, hills, soil, stone and swirling time, full of lost stories and lost music. A sometimes spooky book but a springlike and often summery book too. I started it, abandoned it, faffed over it. Meanwhile, it mutated: in location, in ambience, in shape. When I finally got down to it properly, in the summer of 2020, it flowed as rapidly as the opinionated rivers within its pages. I felt entirely pulled along by it, as if each twist and turn was being dictated by a larger force than me and my only job was to stay tuned into that force, to not drown while being swept along by its strong current. 

He came out of the canyon with his guitar at dawn, queried by the distant howl of coyotes. He was wearing a stranger’s shirt and had not been to sleep. The first truck he flagged down stopped and it only took one more ride to get to the airport. Everyone there looked almost but not quite as tired as him. The dehydrated fur all over his brain amplified a paranoia in him, made each of his small actions feel observed. On the plane a stewardess brought him a nest of dry chicken with some lettuce so papery and devoid of moisture it seemed like fake lettuce, lettuce made solely for photo shoots of lettuce. She asked him if he was travelling on some sort of business and a cough-laugh escaped his throat. What on earth kind of business looked like this? He’d told himself he had done enough of going where everyone said you should go, and wanted to try the alternative approach of just somewhere, roll the dice across a map, but it was a little more pre-meditated than that. “I’m going back where I come from,” he told her.

As the coach moved sluggishly through the last outposts of the city, it rained, just like it did in the songs. Rain grey town, known for its sound. None of the flamboyant outfits he’d heard about were in evidence. All of his fellow passengers were wearing clothes mimicking the colour of the sky. As the rain cleared, he saw toy cars, made to measure for the toy road system around them, and the toy driveways of the toy houses beyond that where the toy cars secured their prescribed eight hours sleep every night.

After a couple of hours, the coach passed over a ridge and the terrain became less populated, a light green moonscape. Big shaved-looking mounds that were more like dunes than hills. A place that looked like it hadn’t quite yet decided on its long term plans. It segued gently into light forest, little houses, something more polite, something that was finally like the England he’d been picturing when he set out, the England he remembered, although he didn’t truly remember anything. He’d been four years old. Each of the only three people who connected him to this part of the world was at least 5000 miles away. Yet many miles further on when the bus finally stopped and he got out, he realised a part of him had still been expecting a caretaker or guide to meet him at the station. A second, lost sister perhaps. A cousin. He discovered a new oneliness in the walk that followed, felt it in the centre of his ribcage.

Nearly all the streets in the city were steep, but they divided into two types: the grey ones that looked like they’d just been born from nothingness and the pastel ones that looked proud in a tired, touching way, like senior citizens still wearing their graduation gowns. He took a room on the top floor of a lanky old house that peered over the corner of a hill. He had his own sink in the corner of the room which he pissed into on lazier days but the bathroom was shared and the pipes clanged every time anyone turned on the hot tap, which hurt his head on the mornings after he’d drank too much, which was quite a few of them. The previous occupant of the room had begun to paint a mural of a squashed face in two shades of orange on the wall next to a tall window where, until the beech trees across the road came into leaf, you could see a one inch high triangle of cobalt sea. He figured the docks were the obvious place to find work and it didn’t take him long to do so. On Saturdays, he busked, usually down by the coach station. It wasn’t much of a music city, but it was easy to score some weed down by the water at night, an area of much dereliction, both architectural and human. Near a warehouse with a tree growing out of it three women a few years his senior who were high or drunk or both stopped him and asked if he wanted to go to a club with them. “You’ll like it,” one said. “There’s music playing.” “What kind of music?” he asked. “Jazz, duuddde,” she said, in a mock version of his accent. He followed them four streets further into the brutal concrete core of the city while they whispered conspiratorially and cackled about people and places he didn’t know, lagging back out of concern they might smell the odour of oysters that always now clung to his clothes, then finally allowing himself to blur back into the night for good. They did not appear to notice and as it faded their hard laughter mixed with the cries of gulls until he did not know which was one and which was the other. The next day he bought a small pot of liquourice red house paint and finished the mural. The sea smells were a constant social concern, even though he did little socialising. Oyster, mussel, cockle, crab. He was convinced they never went away, even after he washed. On the roadsides, in the wet dust and weeds, yellow flowers with darker yellow centres were appearing. Down on the containers, they never called him Richard or Richie, only “Pencil” or “Flower”. “Ere, Flower, you sure you can ‘andle this?” “Don’t give it to Pencil. It might ‘urt his soft ‘ands. Lovely ‘ands, e got, like my missus’s. You seen ‘em?” At night, he dreamt he was on his back, with sealife cascading down on him out of a metal chute. If not that, he dreamt of Alison, the girl from Albany he’d met the previous summer, who, upon taking the least amount of drink, would immediately want to jab and prod everyone around her with no little violence, or jump on their backs. In the space of just one weekend, Alison, who at barely five foot was a whole sixteen inches shorter than him, had jumped on the back of Jim Morrison and the rhythm section of The Turtles. During the dreams, he was always crouched in a corner, watching helplessly as the jumping took place, knowing intervention was futile. In the apotheosis of the dreams, he crouched in the corner of a shipping container, his hands over his eyes, as haddock fell on his head and Alison leapt on the back of a giant dolphin who smiled nervously in the manner of someone who will pretend to have fun on the vague promise of sex. A fragile awareness was growing in him that his songwriting was coming on apace. In a temporarily clean new plaza in the main shopping district, he tried out two new numbers and took home the smallest amount of money in his guitar case to date.

When other, more rampant vegetation had swallowed the yellow flowers on the verges, he set out for the docks at the usual time, carrying all his possessions, but turned right, not his customary left, and soon reached the train station. One of the country’s diminishing branch lines took him to a village by the coast, where he and nobody else disembarked. At a post office, he bought bread, scissors, knobbly fruit and – with only an intrigued suspicion of what it might be – Marmite. It wasn’t just that the tunnelled lanes he walked along, with their floral specklings of pink and blue, merely seemed a simple, elemental contrast to the city he’d spent the last four months in; they appeared to have no topographical relationship to the small metropolis at all, to belong in a whole different country. He helped two men push a rust-caked pickup out of a ditch. Afterwards, they ran him a mile or two further down the road and gave him a cold lager. They asked where he was going and, when he answered as honestly and specifically as he could, their only advice was to avoid Somerset because the people there weren’t right. The garden was full of retired machinery, fading gently into the earth. The younger of the two men pointed at two wooden structures on the hill above them that he’d taken for some kind of hutches. “Bees,” the younger man said, rolling his eyes, but did not elaborate. The sun broke through the clouds after he left, drying him out for the third time that day. At a payphone, he inserted a coin and dialled a number beginning with an international prefix, but when a woody male voice answered he hung up. Further on, in a steep valley where everything hid strategically from the wind he appropriated three cucumbers from a garden and planted a kiss on the nose of a reluctant bullock. 

As a result of trial and error, he found a zigzagging path down a landslip which spat him out onto a deserted cove by way of a rusty ladder which bridged the final gap between undercliff and shingle. Huts of varying types were dotted here and there on the cliffside, with flags and tall, tropical-looking plants outside. For the next thirteen days he slept on the beach, although he had concluded, at one point, that he would probably expire before seeing his first morning there, having come out of his initial salty self-baptism with purple digits and teeth that didn’t so much chatter as argue with themselves, then failed in his attempts to light a fire without the aid of matches. He had learned the cove’s first stark lesson, which was that it was not Malibu or Venice Beach. But by the third day he had grown acclimatised to the water, and, aided by driftwood and the fruits of a nine mile hike to and from the village store, lit fires, and worked on verses of a song that he felt like he’d reached up and plucked out of the bright waxing gibbous moon above him. It had totally slipped his mind that it was his birthday. He was 22 years old.


‘Villager’ is out now, published by Unbound. Buy a copy here (£15.79).

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