Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Dexter Petley

Dexter Petley | 2nd January 2024

Old Man River: Dexter Petley looks over the snake-and-ladder year he turned 68.

This is the tale of the 68th year. As a number, it has rank and heritage. As history, event and pedigree. As age, no such luck. In June, I turned that soixante-huit, the way you turn a log to hunt for worms.  Your retirement clock unearthed, reluctant to chime another hour, yet when it chimes the moment is sacred, four-dimensional, a kind of polyphonic VE Day of the soul.  At sixty-eight, the hard work is over, the struggle begins.  This is the year when age came home to roost. When all you are, or have been, is reshuffled.  You’re in Dad’s Army now.  Your tea’s at the Cenotaph going cold. At sixty-eight, you only go where you’re wanted, laugh when spoken to. To most, it’s a crackerjack number for a parallax world, because you’ve already been shunted into sidings, floated onto backwaters. They think you’re over the weir.  When life has never made so much sense, you’re a passenger on the ship of death, a beginner in your field of expertise.  Once, in an argument with a French landlord, he sought a phrase to underline his insult, and settled on calling me a soixante-huitard. When Earth has not anything to show more fair, the world has never looked so appalling, people never so depraved. That’s how it looks from here, in deck-chair number 68, in Stalag over-the-age-of-considering. A snake and ladder year was 2023, belly on the ground, the bottom rung is all yours now. Every time you write, it’s like you’re the retired hitman brought back for one last bow, as if you owe the world its living, and it simply wants to see you miss, after a lifetime of bullseyes. Most of the world in which you’ve toiled, replaces you with weaker fragments of your own explosions.  If you’re a writer, it’s over till the next renaissance, the posthumous erratum, or when the fields are paved in concrete poetry.  

When people say you’re only as old as you feel, they rarely mean it truthfully, to themselves that is. At sixty-eight I feel every year of it, and so do they. The wisdom of the years that weighs you down, the knowledge burdening every step, the self-respect which shortens every breath.  Your just reward for being old as the hills.  It’s the wisdom you really wish you had back then, not youth, and certainly not wealth. Poverty has never been so good, my only pension-pot the hoard of a lifetime’s unspent words. You cannot spend a trope, you cannot sell your soul to pay the bills. Life is in old money now. Your farthings buy time already spent. At sixty-eight, the past has never looked so fine a place.  It’s where we’re from, and it was on paper. I still know where the words are kept, even if, perhaps, when I go looking for one word, I return with another.  At sixty-eight, life has never been so alone; the bliss, thereby, is all mine. In 2023, my only enemy is the mud. 

Into the mud, this year, the fallen seemed to multiply; I’m speaking of trees, mind.  A fleet of autumn storms passed by night, the yurt straining at the rigging, wind like trains roaring through tunnels. Each morning after, a winter sun burst through the rents, the forest’s wrecked furniture splintered across the carpet of leaves, Axminster abbey in the blitz.  There were many nights of this, of trusting daytime measurements and judgements had it right, the tree inspections passing muster, angles of fall, compass and string. I lay awake till dawn, counting them down in the matchbox yurt, as ton after ton of lumpen tree-trunk snapped like pencils, brushing my canvas roof as they settled on their knees and spines. At sixty-eight, life is rigged on your behalf.  Trees fall into your lap. Every leaf a mould, every twig a faggot, every branch a firelighter, every trunk a log, every log cooks the soup and its ash in the compost grows the soup. 

Then there were the chanterelles, inquisitive and shy, pushing through the broken nights, long veins of tubiform overflowing into baskets. Mycologists claim we are descendants of mycelium.  Natural scientists say we once had gills.  This might express the desperate empathy of an Anthropocene, a deep shame at being human as the race obliterates nature and replaces it with antonyms. I prefer to think it might be true, that there is some way back, down the human scale, to travel the galaxy of a forest floor, ruffle the silt of a bloodworm trove. Those are the minimum requirements of my sixty-eighth revolution, a better pact with the ground, a further loosening of human ties, house-rules for any old man living downstream of civilization.  Humanity flounders at this point of exchange.  It’s the fear of any place; that it replicates the failure, multiplies the evidence against you.  There is such a state as trans-nature.  I was half-way there this year. The milestone is my yearly water bill, 3 euros 26 centimes, 3 pints a day, and one for the pot. 

The gills also had their day, and we all pulled together. Random old-carp in ruined chateau pools, river-wizards in ancient Gaul, through stagnant heatwave or rain like stair rods, they were worth the wait this year, and those waits were various and wide; the Somme in summer where mayors drop their unwelcoming ordonnance on camping cars, and old no fishing signs on weed choked salients say locals only; the Brittany river where Roman galleys once found their way to Sussex.  Modest, age-related waters where the camping car becomes a garden shed to potter in, the boat makes short excursions in the shade, where swansongs are the only birds, the fishing now a gentle pastime on an autumn day because the year will end in mud, and broken-down vehicles, the last chanterelle when the carp are gone till spring. It was ever thus, if perhaps never quite so emphatic.