Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Mathew Clayton

Mathew Clayton | 17th January 2023

Every year, we give over all of December (and usually most of January) to a series called ‘Shadows and Reflections’, in which our contributors share highs, lows and oddments from the past 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Mathew Clayton.

I can’t remember the month I got the text but it must have been sometime after April because my father was dead and his house was empty. It was early in the morning. I had just woken up. The text said I had been in contact with someone with Covid and I needed to isolate and order a test. There was an important reason why that particular week we were keener than normal that we all didn’t get Covid but I no longer recall what it was. So lying there in the dark I hatched a plan, I would go and stay in the now empty family home for a few days. I could work from there without infecting anyone. Maybe it would even be a relaxing break.

As I pulled into the drive and got out of the car I waved at the security camera we had installed above the garage. It was linked to my brother’s phone. It mainly picked up foxes and the occasional badger, but one summer’s night two young men walked into the garden, a few nights later it was two couples. They disappeared into the garden – the camera didn’t record them leaving.

On the first night I thought I would light a fire to cheer the place up. I collected some wood from the pile at the side of house. It was from of a massive oak that had come down a few years ago. A large chunk of it had landed in a neighbour’s garden. When the tree stared splitting the neighbour recognised the noise and screamed at his wife to get off the sunlounger were she lying. A narrow escape.

For the next 18 months my dad set about splitting up the tree with an axe. Sometimes I would go over and help him, he was in his 90s but he always managed to outlast me. I was embarrassed by this. It articulated something about our relationship — we liked doing many of the same things but he was steadfast and I was flighty. Being steadfast was a quality he admired in people. Being flighty less so.

I was thinking all of this as I carried the wood into the house and lit the fire. It didn’t cheer the place up. I headed up the stairs to bed. Why did I choose to sleep in my parents’ old bedroom? I am not sure but I can confirm that this also was not a morale booster.

My dad had died in the spring. A month or so before he had hosted a big family meal, one of the first to happen since the lockdown. A meal like many before, but this one was different. Unbeknown to him, my father had caught Covid that he then passed on to almost everyone else in the room. It was our family’s very own superspreader event. My father didn’t have Covid too badly. At the start he carried on walking up the South Downs every morning: a ritual he began after my mother died. But then he didn’t get better. He went for a scan. He was supposed to see the doctor on Monday but my sister looked up the results on the NHS website. The news wasn’t good. It was rightly decided it was better if we told him first. My brother Ewan and me lived nearby so the duty fell to us. I lay in bed the night before not really able to sleep — the news a dark cloud hanging above me.

My young cousin Lucas came over from Canada thinking it would be better to try spend time with my father before he died rather than come for the funeral, but in a cruel twist of fate when he got to the house he tested positive for Covid. He spent the next ten days living in a tent we set up in the garden. Thankfully, out of all the members of my extended family, Lucas was best suited to this task. As an ecologist he had spent many months living under canvas in Cameroon. One afternoon I watched as my dad waved out of the window but Lucas was deeply engrossed in a book and didn’t see him.

My dad had hoped to make it to Dominic and Jenna’s wedding that was going to be held in the garden. It had been put off twice due to Covid. Sadly he didn’t make it, but it was still fantastic — the wedding against which future weddings will be judged. All the unique ingredients that great weddings require were abundantly supplied. There was a bridesmaid that drank neat gin from noon onwards, headbanging American relatives, a barnstorming best man speech and a spectacular cheese pyramid. My 15-year-old son ran the bar all day and well into the  night. In the evening there was a ceilidh and walking across the marquee for the first dance with my daughter Stella I realised I had never felt happier. As we took our places on the dancefloor four-year-old Liv appeared and insisted Stella dance with her so for the first dance my partner was Liv’s father, my nephew Alexander. I like to think we danced with abandon.

Later on Stella and me danced The Basket with my sister Alison and her husband Pat. This involves two couples dancing round in a circle. At various points the group closes in and two of them lift up the other two and swing them round. Five minutes of pure joy. I don’t think I ever have laughed as much. It was such a great day.


I was looking out at the garden where the marquee had stood, where Lucas had camped, when my wife phoned. ‘Hey, I got the same text as you. I looked it up, it’s a scam. You didn’t need to isolate. You can come home. I can’t believe you fell for it.’ We both laughed.

Reader, I happily went home.