One day I went looking for the river. I knew roughly where it was, and so I walked up the Devon country lane beside the house until I came to a gate into a field that stretched down to the treeline beyond which I thought the river probably lay.
When I reached the trees, I found that they formed an almost impenetrable thicket of hawthorn and brambles and nettles. It took a bit of searching before I could find an opening through which to squeeze, into the dark interior.
I listened for the sound of water, but there was none. I looked for swampy ground, or pools of water, but there were none. I decided that the river must be quite a lot further on, and went crashing onwards through the undergrowth, pushing under branches, pushing aside ferns.
And, blinded by sunlit leaves, I almost fell into the river. Another step and I would have plunged in.
The river flowed past in dead silence. There was no hiss or gurgle. It slid past like a sheet of black asphalt, its surface wrinkled like hot asphalt, eddying and swirling. And it came up to within a few inches of the grassy bank on which I stood, whose trees dipped their leafy branches deep into its waters, as if they were drinking.
The river seemed immensely powerful and purposeful, and its inky depths unplumbable. With a shock of fear, I realised that if I had taken one more step, I could easily have been swept for miles along it, perhaps to my death.
Years later, when the smoking ban had expelled me from the pub a mile upstream, I used to walk down to the river with my beer, and sit watching it flow by. I got to know the river well in all its various moods, which ranged from a small gurgling stream snaking between pebbles to an ugly brown foam-flecked torrent. I watched the fish that lurked in the deep pool beneath the bridge, and fed them cheese and onion crisps. And I watched the ducks with their spring broods of ducklings navigating in flotillas to and fro. Once I saw an otter. Several times I saw brilliant blue and red kingfishers speeding along the river. And butterflies and bumblebees, and dragonflies that moved and turned like tiny helicopters.
Eventually, I followed it up to its headwaters, where it had been dammed to create a lake, out of which it flowed as a brook barely three feet wide. And I followed it to its estuary, where after performing a few wide curves through grassy sand dunes, its brownish water turned and flowed straight out into the blue ocean, and vanished.
These days I think that living things are like rivers. They have no DNA plan or blueprint, and neither do rivers. They just happen. And they keep happening over and over again. All the water in a river must be replaced in a few days or weeks or months, and I was once told that all the cells in a human body were replaced every 7 years. So we also are like rivers in that respect. And we are full of rivers of blood that are fed by tributary streams, and which branch into deltas. And we are laced with nerves which are also like rivers, as if populations of growing and dividing cells had spilled in rivers in all directions, forming arms and legs, with sandbars of bone, and quiet pools and backwaters in which strange ideas bubbled up like frogspawn.
The last time I saw the river was the day I left Devon forever. It had snowed, and the roads were almost impassable, and our little convoy of cars was forced to turn off the road into the car park of the pub beside the river. And after I’d had a drink, I walked through the deep snow down to the river.
It had a whole new face that I’d never seen before. The slow-flowing water along its banks had begun to freeze, and snow was settling along this icy rim, and grey sheets of slush had extended several yards across the river’s surface, leaving a narrowing channel of faster flowing water in the middle.
And then I walked back and got in my car, and scrambled up the icy slope to the bridge, and over it, and away, never to return.
I miss the river. There are rivers not far from where I live, but they are either big wide anonymous rivers, or narrow streams that have dug themselves deep into the red earth. None of them are quite like the river that I knew. They’re not the same. And some days I wish that I could be instantly transported two hundred miles to the pub by the river, so that I might sit there all afternoon with a beer, smoking cigarettes, and watching autumn leaves setting sail downstream, bound for Cadiz or Muscovy or Shanghai.