Vivien Jones lives on the north Solway shore in Scotland. She has two poetry collections and two short story collections in print, numerous inclusions in national and international anthologies, and has had work broadcast on Radio Scotland and Radio 4. In the last two years her focus has been on writing short plays (for which she won a national award) working with actors and directors to bring them to performance. She is one of three editors of Southlight literary magazine which is created in the south-west of Scotland where she lives. She is a Literature Ambassador for the Wigtown Book Festival Company, helping to make things happen on the literary scene and a frequent organiser of creative writing workshops in museums and galleries. When not writing she is a renaissance musician, playing and performing mainly on viols and recorders. Her most recent project is a collaboration with the Gracefield Art Gallery in Dumfries, leading a writing group responding with new texts inspired by artwork created in the last 70 years by women artists – the resulting exhibition of art and texts is open until August 24th.
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The worst thing was that the stream was muddy. She, who had been born into a cold bubbling torrent, now felt her way through narrow channels of silted water. Even at high tides when the salt estuary waters crept high up the stream and climbed the alder trunks flushing the bank-side creatures out of their holes, the murk only became thinner. Once or twice she had moved downstream to the shore but the salt stung her eyes and left crusts on her skin and she had felt herself drying. Her companions, the ducks and herons and small fish, gave her a wide berth. She was neither fish, fowl nor human so they closed their eyes to her. But she was safe.
She saw the man every day. He walked with open eyes drinking in the woodland as he went. Sometimes he touched the tree trunks, bent to smell the woodbine, kicked heaps of leaves into the air, smiled at the summer butterfly clouds above his head, but always he stared into the stream as if searching for something. She knew she should not but she so wanted to speak to him, to ask him what he was looking for. She might help him find it, unless he was looking for her. As well as afraid she was lonely.
She knew she couldn’t be seen unless she showed herself. Her bank brown and reed green skin and hair cut her body to invisible fragments and she could move in the reeds or the water without ripples or wake. So she watched the man with impunity liking the way he picked his way through the undergrowth without stamping plants down. He could not be one of those who sought her, nor a helper even. There was no urgency in his tread.
One day, after heavy rain, when she was lying in the downstream current loving its speedy rush and bubbles, she heard his slow approach and rolled over to watch him. He was walking amongst the grasses close to the bank trailing his fingers up the grass stalks and spraying the seed-heads behind him. The sun blazed over the rim of a cloud and outlined her in vapour. He gasped and from his widening eyes she knew that he had seen her but instead of sliding away and leaving him with a notion of delusion, she let the sun stay on her body. He took a step back but his eyes never left her. Perhaps his intimacy with woodland dulled his natural caution.
‘Why do you look into the stream ? Her voice was a new thing, unused. It trickled from her mouth.
He cleared his throat.
‘Why do you look into the stream ? she repeated.
‘I…I have sometimes seen movement in the water. I thought it might be a large fish. Or an otter perhaps.’
His voice was calm. A slight tremor of incredulity rimmed his words.
She laughed, another new thing.
“There are no otters here and the fish are small.’ She told him. ‘Do you want to come in the water ?
He looked puzzled but it was a clear invitation. How could he not ?
‘It’s not very deep, even with the rain.’ she assured him.
He didn’t wait to take his boots and socks off, he slid down the bank until he was under the water to the waist, sitting opposite but beside her. He shuddered and he saw something flicker across her face.
‘It’s the cold water.’ He explained.
‘Not me ?’ she asked, moving a little away.
‘You’re beautiful.’ He said. ‘And pregnant.’ looking at the rise of her streaked belly.
“That’s my business.’ She said sharply, but she was not afraid of him. His eyes were all over her, she could see he was committing her to his memory, her colours and textures, her voice and her otherness. Perhaps he was a singer. Her people were singers. She was examining him likewise for a song she might sing sometime.
‘ Do you have a name ?’ he asked.
‘I don’t tell it to strangers.’
He laughed at something incongruous, something outlandish.
‘I am David.’
If people in the village wondered why he came back from his daily walks wet to the waist, they never asked. He was not a gregarious man, did not visit the hotel where he might have told them his fisherman’s tale and he did not own a tape recorder
or a camera that might have verified it. As the summer weeks went by and she grew rounder, she spent longer each day floating in the shallows to take the weight off her back and he went to her and talked with her about his different world and all the things strange to her, in it. She offered nothing of her world to him but he saw she was afraid of something upstream, the sea seeming merely unpleasant. She was particularly nervous at flood times when she would watch the rushing water very carefully from the cover of the reeds.
Then one day, at the end of the summer, he went to meet her and found her half sleeping with three soft water-forms writhing around her body under the water. He was touched that she would let him see her when so vulnerable and trust him to be un-shocked at the sight of her offspring. By now he knew that he could only see her when she allowed it to happen. He was not shocked but amazed.
Their semi-transparent bodies moved with a motion near to swimming but their orbit stayed close to her resting body. Their limbs lay close to their bodies as they wove around her and she trailed her fingertips across their backs as they passed by her hands. Apart from the motion nothing about them suggested fish, but little suggested human being either other than the tendrils that flowed from their heads.
‘Are you well ?’ he asked shyly, thinking he should be bearing flowers. She raised her head from the water. She smiled.
‘Fine now.’ Her voice became reedy, urgent.
‘David, is there clear water near here ? I need… we need clear water if they are to thrive. Could you find a clean stream for us ?’
His mind, already full of unasked questions, filled with concern for her. How had she come here ? What was she afraid of ? Why had she let him see her ? He had never touched her but he reached for her hand now. She flinched but did not withdraw her cool fingers from his grip. He said nothing for a while but held her fingers gently thinking that she would leave him soon to a resumption of the emptiness that was his life before her.
‘How would you get there ?’ was all he asked.
‘ I can swim in the sea for a short while. If you find the estuary. They can ride on my back out of the salt water. But you must walk the river first, see there are no others like me. I have shown you how to see.’
Thinking of his own state he asked her. ‘But do you not long for others like you.
Her voice was grim.
‘They will kill me.’
He dropped her hand.
‘And my children.’
She seemed resigned.
‘No. That mustn’t happen. How could that happen ?’
She stared into the laburnum branches above them. Some small rebellion underlaid her voice.
‘I mated with the dominant male. It is not allowed.’
‘But that’s animal! No, sorry.. .no, I didn’t mean that.’
‘Yes you did. We are not animal but that’s how we live. It’s how we survive.’
‘Do you mean you can never go back ?’
‘And you cannot stay here ?’
‘It dries up too often. It’s silted up. They need clear water. I could manage here but they might not.’
‘ Well then, we must find you some clear water….’
‘Thank you, I thought you would.’
Imperceptibly he felt her squeeze his hand.
His heart was beating hard as he turned away from her, knowing he would find her a clear safe stream, somewhere up land perhaps. He would pour over his maps, find not only a possible place but a good place, a beautiful place. In his mind a whirlpool of possibilities swirled. Some nights he woke up through the night sweating with dreams of disaster, other nights trembling with joy at the task accomplished, always with the cut of losing sight of her, aching through his body. Then he remembered. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation. He had visited on its Open Day, wandered amongst puzzled gardeners and open-mouthed tourists, enjoying its humour and playfulness with space. What he remembered most sharply were the streams that cut through from the Nith, diverted to play for a while before returning to the river and the serious business of making for the sea. It could be perfect.
When he told her she looked at him with such trust he felt afraid, doubtful of his motives. What if he failed her ?
He waited until after midnight when the last house lights in the village were off then he drove the pick-up slowly to the silent bridge above the stream. In the back was wedged a child’s swimming pool, brimming with cold water. He tramped upstream to where the water was close to the path and waited. Very soon she flowed up out of the water, her children’s bodies waving in the water behind her.
‘I shall have to carry you.’ He said. ‘Will they be frightened ?’
‘I will carry them and you will carry me,’ She spoke firmly but there was a tremor in her voice.
She lay under the water and gathered her children into her arms, nuzzling them into a single tessellated form on her breast. He thought she sang softly to them until they seemed mesmerised and calm. She nodded to him. He got into the water and slipped his arms beneath her and lifted her clear in one quick sweep. It was twenty paces to the pick-up and though he knew he should be quick he didn’t want to jerk the children from their trance, or relinquish the feeling of her small damp weight in his arms, so he walked slowly. She was breathing fast. The sight of the pick-up alarmed her and he found himself singing softly to her as he lifted her into the water. She curled round her children in the centre of the pool, trying to avoid contact with the plastic sides. He wished he could have sat with her. She was shivering, not with cold.
Til try to drive slowly but it might be uncomfortable for a while. Think of Portrack. Think of the clear water.’
He pulled the tarpaulin across the pool.
He drove so slowly he feared being reported to the police but the road was clear and only lit as he crossed Dumfries. Twice he stopped to check his passengers but after the second time she was so distressed that there was further to go, he decided to finish the journey as soon as he could. He cut the engine where the drive left the road and allowed the slope to carry them silently past the gardener’s house and estate buildings. Nothing stirred. The pick-up stopped by a huge chequerboard. He threw the tarpaulin back joyfully.
‘We are here.’ he announced.
She uncurled slowly, still soothing the children.
‘Water.’ She sniffed the air.
He gathered her up once more and walked towards the red bridge that curved over the stream. He knelt on the grass and slid her into the water where she rolled,
tipping the children into clean wetness and wakefulless, before immersing herself. He watched her swim upstream shadowed by watery forms, rising half out of the water to examine the bank sides, her head turning from side to side. Then she swam back.
‘It is strange.’ She said
‘But safe? Does it feel safe ?’
‘I don’t think there will be others here.’
‘And clear. Is it clear enough ?’
‘Yes. The stream is strange though. There are no plants, no stones, and it does not wander.’
‘It is a made place.’
‘If I stay here, can you come to talk to me still ?’
His heart churned.
‘No – well, once a year perhaps but there will be other people, many other people.’
‘I don’t show myself to other people.’
She turned away without saying more and swam strongly away upstream. He sat on the bank in the quiet of the small hours and listened to the rustling of hedgehogs and small creatures and the fierce cry of a hunting owl. The angular forms of the sculptures and mounds around him seemed huge and alien. He was thinking he would not see her again when there was a splash nearby and she surged towards him with a smile on her face.
‘There is a river further on, a real river, with stones and plants. I smelt others but not my group, they will let us live there. Come, walk behind me.’
He followed her undulating body past bridges and walkways, circles of trees and log piles until he found himself crossing a farm fence onto the river bank where the wide dark waters of the Nith moved swiftly under old willows and alders. He could scarcely keep her in view amongst the foam and tumble of the flow, but he sensed her excitement and could see now that she had her children close to her and they were all rolling and circling round her body. There was no moon so he could not be sure but now and then he thought he caught the gleam of other bodies in the water moving in the same ecstatic way. He smiled. He could leave her here.
Waiting For Chilcot
It’s eleven years now. 20th May 2005. That’s when my world stopped. After all the kerfuffle around Ted’s death – the letter, the explanation, the funeral – I realised part of me would always be frozen in that moment. 11.30 am on Friday May 20th when my son,Ted, and three others drove over an IED. Three dead, one with both legs blown off. He was doing all right, appeared on news clips using his new legs, but killed himself a couple of years back. They didn’t report that.
Ted died straight away. In the report they said it had ‘not been immediately safe to recover casulaties’, so it was never really clear to me how much of Ted came home in the coffin. They didn’t specify and I didn’t ask.
I don’t keep a photo of Ted in uniform but that’s Laura – Ted’s fiance – at least she was eleven years ago. She used to come round at first but we ran out of thngs to say. She’s married now, not to a soldier. She said she’d never go out with a soldier again. I’m glad she moved on. Bad enough for one woman to be stuck with such hurt. I see her sometimes in town and she waves, but I can see she’s awkward, embarassed, as if I was an old lover she never quite finished with.
7th July 2016. Twenty one years. That’s a long time to look into something so recent, longer than the war itself. Ted and Laura might have had children about to start university round about now when Lord Chilcot is about to tell us why it all happened. To be truthful, I lost interest after the first couple of years when there was so much argument about how much of the enquiry would be secret, and how many things it wouldn’t be looking at. But i do want to be able to sleep a whole night again and perhaps some reassurance that Ted didn’t die for no good reason might help.
The nightmares are horrid and I know I do it to myself. I make them up out of bits of documentray film, old war movies and news coverage. They are full of noise and light, men’s cries and the sound of the amoured car’s wheels spinning in the smoking air. I wake sweating.
At first I didn’t watch the news or war films, didn’t buy newspapers, didn’t talk about it. That’s why John left. He wanted to talk about it all the time and I wouldn’t. Couldn’t. He would put every news channel on the TV on and watch the coverage of the war for hours. I just left the room, blocking my ears when he shouted but especially when he cried. We slept back to back, not speaking, and after a year he left. I know where he is. He hasn’t taken up with someone else and neither have I. Perhaps after Chilcot, we will be able to speak. I think I could once we know that Ted didn’t die for no good reason.