After my mother died, I started to swim in the river Teme. Down by the weir at Dinham Mill, sometimes alone, sometimes with M waiting for me on the bank. Usually I went early in the morning with just fishermen, dog walkers and a handful of women for company. At that hour the river a convent. A place of safety but also clandestine growth. We were the missing sisters. Unshamed, untamed, unnamed. None of us under 50. Lost to the world but found by each other. Here we became naiads, weightless yet powerful, our only god the water, stronger than we had ever been.
On certain days, the river was ivy-green glass with a layer of saffron sunlight, on others it was obsidian with nuggets of teal in its depths. There was a wood on the far bank; a wall of oaks, sycamore and alders that loomed unnaturally tall as they climbed the hillside. M says trees are our witnesses. Maybe that’s why they look so sad. Ducks huddled on the shingle. Pigeons traced parabola across the water. Now and then a heron exploded into the air with a thunderous crack of wings.
Sometimes I swam at sunset. At that hour the river a secret. I had to keep my mouth closed not to swallow the midges. Blue damselflies stapled the hedgerows. In the morning the surface was transparent but by evening particles of plant matter and bubbles freckled the water. Sinister legacy of farms, factories and, as it turns out, official recycling plants which have been pouring untreated sewage into British rivers, their activity illegal but unpunished. Yet still the water still felt holy. My breaststroke a devotional act.
Did you see the kingfishers? No, I was talking to her. Three passed right above your head. I don’t care. Her blue was brighter than any waterbird’s.
My mother died on June 22, four months and three weeks after her lung collapsed. The cancer was everywhere but she refused treatment. I would rather have a few good months she said. I didn’t know why she thought galloping tumours were a recipe for anything good at all and argued the toss. But as usual she turned out to be right. More or less.
After her diagnosis, I left London and moved into my parents’ home in Ludlow, Shropshire. At first, Mum was relatively well. Eschewing opioids she got by on paracetamol and codeine. In the morning we sat in her garden while she pointed out flowers due to blossom: clematis, tree peonies, Dijon rose, monkshood, salvia. With her Jack Russell on her lap, wearing her damask rose lipstick and Indian scarf, it was hard to believe she was seriously ill.
After lunch, when she was sleeping, I started to go to the weir. On the left of the grassy bowl known as the Millennium Green, a path wound through a coppice of ash and alder. In February this was a drab, sunless world, corrugated by the trees’ grey verticals, just a freckling of bluebell, primrose, violet. But by April leaves were budding, their emerald froth scarred by foxgloves.
Spaced along the path, three wooden fishing piers jutted over the water. I took to sitting on the one furthest from the Green because few people ever passed by. As the weather warmed, the air grew spicy with burgeoning flora, river water, loam, my own sweat. I never stayed long. There were meals to cook and medication to give. But there in the humid, gnat-dusted light, propped up against the battered wooden boards, watching the river unspool around the bend, the reeds longer and lusher week by week, the ducks intent on their private missions, I felt my own interior world expand. Time dilated by the river’s cool speculum.
Time is different when you are dying. We didn’t want to know how long Mum might or might not have. We wanted to believe the GP who told her she might live out her natural life.
Time is different in a river. The midges tell you, swarming around each other like quantum particles. The mayflies tell you, living as they do in mud for two years, then taking to the air for a single day. The water tells you. Below the weir, where it tumbled down in a contralto of fury, the current flowed with a quiet, unstoppable force. Fast and dangerous. Only the dogs swam here.
Above the weir the river was still as a swimming pool, as the hand of a clock on the threshold of a black hole. Untime. This is what I wanted. To halt time. For the hour to pause, rewind to the days when my mother was still in the garden, dog on her lap, book in her hand, counting how many tree peonies were in bud.
One day, I noticed women sitting on the weir in swimsuits, with bulky bags spilling towels and water bottles. I’ll swim on my birthday I told M.
In mid-April, because Mum appeared stable, I went back to London for a couple of weeks. One evening my father rang to say Mum had been rushed to hospital with an acute pain in her shoulder. The cancer was in the bone. The next morning I caught the train to Ludlow, knowing I would not return to London while she was still alive.
Now when I went to the river it felt like stolen time. Intercalary. Comfrey, mallow and willowherb had blossomed. Bumblebees frenzied about their pink and white petals, burrowing into their coronas purposeful as suckling infants. Dragonflies veered through the reeds. The warp and weft of light stretched across the river’s loom, reminding me of my mother’s breath, the way it unravelled like unseamed cloth which only sleep could resew.
Nothing moves faster than light. Not even time. If we could travel at the speed of light, time would stop flowing altogether. While for light time never passes at all. Let there be light, I thought. But shadows were excavating the inlets of Mum’s cheekbones. She was hollowing in.
Mum’s last days were hard. One day she was rejecting assisted dying, the next… There were three days like that. Three cycles of the diurnal clock. But time is different when someone you love is in agony. Each minute spun out to eternity. Time on the rack. I spent those days going up and down to her room, with a phone in either hand, attempting to co-ordinate GPs, palliative care team and district nurses. None of her medical team had thought she was at the end-of-life stage. The result was that there was no morphine driver in the house when we needed it, a matter complicated by the fact that she went into crisis on Saturday night and all the pharmacies in Ludlow were closed on Sunday. This is like going through fire I said to M who had come down on the Sunday after I told him I couldn’t cope alone. Just keep going he said.
When Mum passed on the Tuesday evening, I felt my own spirit fly free with hers. A week later, on my birthday, M and I went to the weir. The banks were ablaze with purple loosestrife. Octaves of dogroses. Chords of convolvulus. When I first stepped into the river, the cold was punitive, as if someone had bandaged my clavicles in ice. I swam the ten yards to the bend where the channel created by the weir gave way to open water then turned back, scared by the tingling in my chest. Afterwards I felt a surge of exaltation that reminded me of my early years practising yoga. The first months when you fall in love.
Mum taught me to swim. On family holidays in Greece which remain like photograph albums in my memory though I was no more than five or six when they began A villa at the end of a dusty track. My grandmother lying on the terrace with her Poirot and sun cream. The smell of cinnamon biscuits from the bakery in the village. And Mum on the seashore gazing out at a flashy yacht anchored half a mile out. Shall we swim to that boat and see if they will give us a cup of tea? When she set off, her sinewy, brown limbs lithe as an otter, I would follow fearlessly, her confidence fuelling my own. When we got to the yacht we would swim slowly around it. The merqueen and her maid, effortlessly afloat in our liquid world. Sometimes a sailor would come to the rail and peer warily down at us. Mum would grin and wave. No-one ever offered us tea but it is thanks to those infantile adventures that I am a strong swimmer, gifted with natural breath, almost never tiring.
A few days later, I swam again. To make it past the bend with the willow tree, I distracted myself by staring at the reeds crinkling down to the riverbed, the staccato graph of a Holly Blue butterfly as it fluttered along the hedgerows. This time I reached the half-mile strait that flowed past the sports fields towards Bromfield, my body surrendered to the chill, my blood recalibrated. Something shifting within me. A new effervescence.
I started to swim regularly, usually early in the morning. Although the weir was still in shadow once you reached the playing fields, the sun glazed the water to antique copper, poured its treacly warmth on to your shoulders. On the riverbank opposite the sports fields, the ducks were still asleep, their beaks tucked into their tailfeathers. A red cow stood under an oak tree swishing its tail, a cloud of midges above its bony spine.
Mornings when the river felt like a chapel. The trees no longer witnesses but priests. Increasingly I swam close to the bank. Eavesdropped on seances of alder, foxglove, bullrushes, hawthorn. During this time my friend Sofi sent me a photograph of the island of Iona. They call it a thin place, she wrote. Between this world and the next. The Teme was a thin place. Claustral. Unstoried. As my body broke the water, as it healed behind me as if I had never been, it felt as if only the frailest boundary separated Mum’s world and mine. Here we could pass across, slip onto each other’s radar, rebirth each other. The river at once womb and mid-wife. Madonna and Child. Passenger and ferryman. Apparently the Teme takes its name from Tamesa which means ‘dark one’ in an ancient Celtic language. Is this why, when I stretch myself across the water’s skin, I feel my mother’s body map mine on the other side, as if we are articulating our own shadow topography?
Let change happen, whispers the Teme. As if setting an example, it is changing every day. It’s October now. The dragonflies have gone. Also the flowers save for a few pale flourishes of willowherb. The cow roams out across grass that is high and lush with dew. When the kingfisher skims by, his blue flash is doused to dove-grey by autumn’s silvery light. One day a cormorant arrives, its long beak and black, skeletal body a messenger from Jurassic time. But I’ve discovered that the mayfly are even older than dinosaurs. Truly, time is different in a river.
Jung says water is the symbol of our unconscious. Perhaps that’s why my grief has found a home in the river, a place which welcomes that which can’t be said. There are rapids when you are certain you will go under, choking on the swell of your longing. But there are floats to hand – love for a good soul, a weir to stop the clocks. Just hang on and eventually the turbulence will spit you out into the shallows. The thin places where you can breathe again and hear her laughter through the water’s music. Are you ok? Shall we keep going? Perhaps they’ll give us a cup of tea.
Rachel Spence’s poetry has been published in various places including The London Magazine, PN Review and the Forward Anthology of Poetry 2019. Her first collection Bird of Sorrow was published by Templar in 2018. Her latest pamphlet is Call and Response (Emma Press, 2020). Her new book, Venice Unclocked (Ivory Press) is due in April 2022.