I fear I cannot do this river justice. You can’t taste words or hear what they try to convey; yet as I sit on a bank of the Tweed, a few metres to the north of, and below the house we have just moved into, I feel I have a story to tell. Pity the poet without a muse – maybe you can also pity the writer without the means to express this enveloping beauty.
The river speaks a thousand words,
In a thousand tongues so old
And wise. The ages move downstream
In dialogue; clear, precise and cold.
Last month we said farewell to a house that had taken two children through their formative years – the first eleven and twelve years of their lives; had seen the joy and drudgery of family life pass through its doors; had welcomed friends and family, some of whom would pass from this world too early, some of whom would best be forgotten – such are the quirks of fate.
I often dreamed of living close to a river; in all honesty, though, I think the river chose us in the end...
(I had to leave the bank for a while to rescue a loaf of bread from the oven, and met my daughters coming the other way down the steep, twisting path. They had made red-brown paint from the iron rich sandstone scattered across the bed of a burn that feeds the main watercourse. Already the surroundings have invoked a creative surge.)
...that sounds odd, I know, but it’s worth putting it in the context of one of the core values of civilised society: the need to always push forwards in some way, the implication being that it is a fundamentally good thing to drive society towards some unreachable goal. I touched upon this idea of “progress” in my last article; here it takes on a different form, in the shape of my simple self, sitting on the bank of the river wondering what course of events could have led to this outcome. Sheer bloody-mindedness at certain points along the way, certainly, but I believe the outcome was far more to do with “letting go” and seeing how things turned out.
In November of last year we visited my parents at their new house for the first time; they having moved to Scotland a couple of months before. Whatever it was about the village (it’s really a small town) they live in and its people, we felt drawn to the area and upon our return home started looking for places to live. It turned out we couldn’t afford to live very near to them, not with the size of garden we were looking for, in order to grow food. But it seemed that the Borders of Scotland were a possibility. Then, over the Christmas period, we took the chance to view a house – a very cold one with lots of work needed, in a tiny hamlet with no shops – and were captivated by this area. Despite being stuck in a blizzard (or maybe because of it) we couldn’t stop smiling.
With that property not looking viable, we chanced upon a cafe in the nearest large town, and got to talking with a local resident, who gave us her opinion of the places worth looking at, and those best avoided! The journey back was treacherous, but we still couldn’t stop smiling. We returned to Essex and a few weeks later, having lost numerous nights to wondering what the effect of a move might be on the children (and us) began searching in earnest for places to live. In late January we put our house on the market, sold it within a week (to a chance viewer who happened to be passing the “For Sale” board), by which time we had selected four houses that we would view in a couple of weeks. The place we now live in was not on that list.
A few days before we left for the viewings, an unusual property appeared on the solicitors offices’ website. My sister came across it after I had at first decided it was too quirky, and urged us to view it. It became the new fourth house on the list. Then, on a very cold day in February this year we embarked on “The Great Viewing” during which my younger daughter managed to vomit in a pub close to the first two houses we looked at (both underwhelming), and didn’t feel too great in the third house. But we nevertheless accepted that the third house, in a village that was looking a bit run-down, might be the best option. Then we made our way to the final place – stopping at another pub en route (in which, thankfully, my virus-full daughter managed to keep her sandwich down) – which turned out to be so beautiful that we made a verbal offer on the spot.
Over the next few weeks, stress got the better of me somewhat – the inevitable result of dealing with two different legal systems – but somehow we completed our sale in time to make a proper offer on the house. We accepted that we wouldn’t win, and started to imagine life in the third house; not so bad, really. Then our offer was accepted.
(We will be joining our younger daughter at the Village Lunch in about an hour – it’s a sort of coffee morning, with soup and biscuits, which anyone can go to, and they do; from young families with babies, to the majority of the older children at the local primary school – including our newly settled-in daughter – right up to the oldest, most established pillars of the community. It’s only our second time; but we already feel part of village life.)
After less than a month in our new house, in our new village, in our new country, we are starting to realise we are not on some idyllic holiday out in the countryside, but part of a thriving, friendly community. All the boxes are unpacked – one psychological bind already cast off – and I have been planting seeds to at least give us some extra food come the autumn. At night, when we manage to gather enough wood, there is a fire burning in the front room taking a small burden off the local gas supply; and if we look out of the windows just as dusk takes hold, bats can be seen flitting across the sky, taking tiny insects from the air in their hundreds.
Time has passed since I started this essay – a few days in fact, because there are so many jobs to do at the moment – so now I tap away in the kitchen while my wife looks over paperwork and my younger daughter reads in her bedroom, having returned from the local junior school a few minutes ago. An interesting array of sounds disturbs the peace; not in some cacophonous rage, but like a gentle swatch of contrasting colours: the quiet hum of the fan on the laptop; the movement of feet and softly clanking door catches as people move around the house; birds, always birds, full of sounds constantly defying simile; and my own breath.
This is my beauty – not some civilised artefact conjured up as a commodity to appease whatever is currently in favour, but a personal beauty that defies description. Like the insects pursued by bats in the dusk light, real beauty only stays for a moment before moving on, changing, pulling at the emotions for a heartbeat then diving away to be found again some other day.
I am struggling to work out what it is that makes this beauty so much more real than anything we purposefully seek; what it is that so harmoniously matches our desire for the apparently unknowable. I can only conclude that it is that very transient nature – the ever-changing, never static fluidity of the world we inhabit – that, for a split-second presents us with a truth that shouts: “I am the now!”
Does that make sense? To put it another way: what feels best of all? Think of the moments where everything comes together just right, so that a sense of purpose, contentment and security combine with a breathless freefall...and then it is gone and you are left with a feeling that you have experienced something that must be the truth.
Hush! There is a whisper in the air;
A fluttering light, a touch so soft,
A pungent scent, a time so rare.
It fills your head and heart with truth,
With beauty, with life. Then blink!
The whisper is gone...for now.
Someone bring me that poet.