By Morgan Downie
It is out there, down towards the motorway bridge beyond the end of the island, where the waters rejoin, that is the place I am told the bodies surface, cast up from the deep currents, hands stretched out to the air they can longer breathe. Not that I have ever met anyone who has actually seen this, but they all assure me they know someone who has. Even remembering these conversations it occurs to you it is far from unusual to see fire service boats out on the water. On exercise you tell yourself. But perhaps not. And then you remember the policeman on the railway bridge, carrying a bag and a cardigan, all that was left behind.
Who are they, these people? Do they jump quickly, up and over the railing, or do they wait, staring down, fingers tapping on the sign with the Samaritans’ number? Or do they walk in further up, their pockets weighed down by stones, wade in up to their necks until they disappear, drifting downstream, submerged like Virginia Woolf until they emerge, their bodies like the damp backs of seals, nudging at the banks of the river, snagged in trees, pecked at by herons? Or perhaps they float onwards, down past the castles, mud banks, tidal islands, the sites of older disasters, until at last they reach the white rush of the sea and vanish without a trace.
There are those islands traditionally only reached across water, long ago ferrymen carrying everything from beasts to brides, islands that can now be reached on foot or in vehicle. They can be mapped out, an ideal occupation for a long winter night, turning the gridlines of the Ordnance Survey into a minefield of circles, what crossings can be driven, what must be made by boat, those that can be swum. There is even a place where one can walk over the Atlantic and canoe back across it in the same day, although to get the tide wrong is to see the ocean breathe its last, lapping around your ankles in a tug of boat and weed. Look in the right places and there is boat knowledge to be had, twisting lore of current and tide, a lexicon of sail. As you walk high above it all you can imagine the old language sinking silently into the tide.
It is possible to drive to this island but the majority of journeys are made by the council, who have vehicles that can manage the ford, a causeway accessible to pedestrians only in the high summer or in times of drought. Beyond that the sole access is by a footbridge which, of necessity, must be shared with passing trains. In the early morning one might find a pair of golfers walking through the canopy, while the idle eyes of passengers rattle above them, separated by a high fence in case, like villainous Carkers, they should stumble and fall into the jagged mill of wheels.
A grand place for birds this bridge that arches up above the trees, though it is not the place to find anorak-clad congregations of twitchers, only the occasional binocular-wielding walker, the sort who favours the common, smaller bird rather than the larger, more glamourous raptor or the wind blown exotic. Chaffinches, tits, the occasional gold crest flit between the trees. Later in the season one can track butterflies. Once, the corpse of a juvenile cormorant lay at the foot of the steps, a sight to gladden the heart of anglers everywhere. We stopped for longer, no cause of death apparent, an odd resting place for these feathers.
Down from the bridge and into elderflower and birch scrub. Turn to the western tip of the island and walk along an avenue of conifers. The water curls closer. There are kingfishers here and otters. We bend our backs looking for spoor but today there is none. In summer one can find truanting children up by the ford, always boys, settled on the stones like itinerant gulls. They leave occasional circles of ashes in their wake, curious designs of stones and sticks that only they can decipher.
We like to come to this spot in the early morning just after I have finished a night shift. I will lift the phone an hour or so before, the sun dancing through the dawn windows. Fancy a breakfast picnic? And we find ourselves out on the island as the morning rush hour rushes around us oblivious, the bridges choked with cars, their occupants staring rigidly ahead as we tear into fresh baked bread and upend steaming flasks of coffee, pretending for an instant that we are not here and that this is not a river but the sea that washes all around us.
Easy enough to sit here, islanded, beside the cairn lit up by the morning sun, that declares fortune at its peak, and look back towards the town, the wind catching half-remembered scents of Bizet as we watch the morning’s fair maids, huddled in scarves, i-podded into silence, shuffling their way into work. That side of the river is the past, a place of old vennels and subterranean canals, city walls mounded into parks and the half dreamt story of a murdered king. It is an island condition to look back to the mainland, something about being surrounded by water that immerses us in the conditional present.
Out in the wide open space of the park another long ago regent hit his first golf balls. There are pictures of these places from the not so distant past, before there were parks, men in uniforms clustered around trees, sheep grazing along side them as they wait for wars whose names are remembered now only in street names and old-man’s pubs, linen fields, the town’s sheets laid out to bleach, a field of flags of capitulation. All this long after the king himself was kidnapped, escaped and fled south never to return. Now, this area of water in front of us has become the mare nostrum of the locals where, in summer, it is filled with the suck and whirr of jetskis, looping circles round and round, again and again without a trace of irony, rooster tails of spray in their wake, useless as peacocks. And never a thought of downstream and out to sea, that mare closum that is proof that an island can change the world.
As is the way with royalty the absent king left his name behind, gave it to the golfers and their periodically amphibious fairways. The course, aside from its river island placement, is a miniature classic so I am told, the name of old Tom Morton cast glittering into a pool of expectation. But we have nothing in common with them. They eye us, suspicious as they pass, interlopers, intruders into their world of pink and plaid, the clatter of golf shoes on metal steps. We will always be marginal here, picking our way through the flood debris on the harbour side of the island, hunkered down taking field notes, making botanical drawings, watching as a pair of goosanders blade the horizon. A seal dips beneath the surface. The steady thwack of golf balls, male voices, oblivious.
On the opposite side of the island the going is easier. The first time I came here I was recovering but my chest still rattling, sick, feverish. Fresh air would do me good you said and I followed, breathless. There was a cluster of daytime alcoholics under the bridge. They too, nest around here, more on the mainland side, leaving their scent on silhouettes of crushed grass, halo’d with discarded cans. They shouted a greeting across the water. A grand day for it. I raised an arm in reply. Some of yours, you asked? Aye, I said, most likely.
Now we are in the dripping land of allotments, the day at pause. Perhaps at weekends it bustles but we are not weekend people and do not know. Through coiled stems of clematis we see the raked surfaces of raised beds, the swing of empty bird feeders, clattering like wind chimes. Discarded tools are hung with a foliage of spiders’ webs. In the cold mouth of a rusting barbecue set insects skate the surface of a newly formed pond. This was once the territory of working men but now it feels semi-retired, half-asleep, any record of them surely crumbling away in an old ledger, ink blurred, swollen with damp.
We came here to poke about in their garden middens, scattering pigeon and blackbird alike as we push our way through the undergrowth. Here scattered crowns of rhubarb, at least some of which have been salvaged into our own garden. Berry plants, currant and raspberry shoot unpruned into the sky. Where there is a growth of ramsons there is also a wonky outcrop of garlic, bulbs tossed over the fence and rooted obstinately in the fertile soil. We make plans to plant fruit trees down here, like the shoreline gages sure to be left alone by a strolling public who can only conceive of their foodstuffs shrink wrapped, imported and enjoying year long availability.
Times like these I’m wont to lapse back to the days when we would order a half beast before winter, fill up the chest freezer against the times when the ferry couldn’t make the crossing and the shelves were stripped bare. I find an easy path back to my childhood, out in the fields, up by the red cliffs watching the sea batter itself daft, the spray whipped into the air, a roar you could feel through your feet. And then it is you talking about those other islands where we walked long empty beaches, caught urchin shells as they blew across the sand. Before we were landlocked and only the river island to give us space to breathe.
You look around this scrap of ground. I miss the sea, you say. I miss the sea.
And later we will bring the boat down, unmoor ourselves out into the river, paddle out towards the rising sun, down river, and disappear.
Morgan Downie is a writer and artist who grew up in Orkney. His website is morgandownie.com.