I live beside a river now, which I know might not seem like the most soothing or pragmatic choice for someone whose life has recently been derailed by problems with water, but I’ve never liked to do things the easy way. I lived beside a river many years ago, in Norfolk, but that was a very different kind of river: sleepy and silty, with swans and exotic geese of a stoned but haughty appearance coasting along its surface, lazily demanding your adoration. This one is as fast as the kingfishers that fly above it and as noisy as a party in a New York loft, with lots of different voices trapped within the strong current, and a population of opportunistic otters I have heard much about but am yet to see. There is nowhere in the house where you can’t hear the water’s conversation, at least a bit. It seeps into my dreams and gives them a liquified flavour, with all sorts of fast, rocky plot twists. I get up to have a wee more frequently in the night here and I am fairly sure it’s not because of a sudden, coincidental weakening of my bladder. I walked the upper reaches of the river a few weeks before I moved in and those few weeks were enough time for my memory to reduce the size of the landscape, as memory always tends to. The hill the river tumbles down is vast, with a steep ski jump nose right in the middle of its ancient pockmarked face: there’s a full hour’s climbwalking to be done, at a good clip, to reach the top. That’s a lot of time and gradient for the river to gather its thoughts and, now I’ve done the walk a few times, I feel like I have more of an understanding of what it’s talking about. Not so many years ago an old lady who lived in one of the cottages behind me would ring a bell at 6am, to make sure everyone in the village was awake and not idling. I rise early here, even by my standards, and especially by winter standards. Maybe it is the old lady’s ghost and the old lady’s ghost bell bringing me out of my liquid sleep. The old lady had an old horse called Agnes who lived across the river and ate apples from a tree that, although elderly and bashed gaunt by weather, still to this day clings obstinately to the steep hillside. I have no curtains on the river side of the house as only the ghost of Agnes the horse can see me, but I still look at the old tree and think about the ghost of Agnes the horse and try to maintain as much propriety as I can.
One of the main things I’ve noticed about this strange year is how the parameters of exciting experiences have been entirely redefined. What in the language of excitement in 2019 might have meant “fell in love with a stuntwoman and made the cover of Vogue in the space of a weekend” or “exchanged wedding vows with Jon Hamm while water skiing” now means “bought a new houseplant from Morrisons” or “got smiled at by a cow near a bridleway”. That’s not actually such a bad thing, in our desensitised world. Also I already found buying a new houseplant or being smiled at by a cow pretty fucking exciting last year so maybe I have felt the force of the change less strongly than others.
What I have probably missed most while living through a pandemic is dancing. You can still do it on your own in your home, of course, but it’s not the same. I’m an enthusiastic, energetic dancer who has always danced for dancing’s own sake, even when younger and in night-clubs and on something vaguely approximating “the pull”, but I don’t do the synchronised thing and have tended to panic and subtly shuffle away when strangers have moved in and encouraged it of me. So why do I miss dancing in a room near strangers, as well as dancing with my friends? I don’t think I can quite put that into words and I think in the very fact that I can’t articulate the reason, but that I do miss it and crave it, can be located a small chunk of the magic and mystery of human nature.
I was permitted to rent my house solely because I talked to a man tending some sheep while I was on a walk. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. It has felt like a remarkable piece of good luck after a string of very bad luck, and was, in many ways, it has seemed to me, concocted and cooked up by the bad luck itself. “Nonsense,” a friend replied, when I said this. “It’s nothing to do with luck. You got the house and are renting it because you’re the kind of person who will talk to a man tending some sheep.” She makes a fair point.
One December, when I was 12, my mates Bushy and Nick and I put on our flecked trousers and slip-on shoes and got the bus down to the snooker club on St James Street in Nottingham and entered the Saturday morning competition. I ran around the tables, instinctively potting balls without a shred of strategy and beat two kids significantly older than me who had their own cues, which they unsheathed with great pride and care from thin, expensive-looking black pods. I was good at snooker for a year, then became terrible at it, which in retrospect is a relief, as during the 1980s playing snooker was one of the three most dangerous and unhealthy things a person could do to their own future, along with freebasing cocaine and working in an environment containing asbestos. I watched snooker with my nan, who would smoke nervously as she repeatedly failed to will Jimmy White to win the World Championship, which was played just up the road from us, in Sheffield. My nan, like me, rooted for the speedy, exciting players like White and Alex Higgins and didn’t like the slow calculating ones such as Steve Davis, although made an exception for Terry Griffiths, on the basis that he had the same first name as her and she believed him to be kind. In 1985 she moved a third of a mile from a tiny cottage on a hill to a tiny terrace on the hill facing it, the whole family helped strip the 1960s wallpaper the former owners had put up, and Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in the final of the World Championship, whose last frame is remembered as a classic, but which I rewatched this week and is actually just a man in upside down glasses messing up slightly less severely than a man with hair that looks like it might be made of thin filaments of metal. The hair seemed to me then, and still does seem, something you might have got from Plumb’s hardware store, down the hill from my nan’s. This was a store that excited me almost as much as Jimmy White screwing back a cue ball, due to its great smells and profusion of secret hatches. I liked it even more than the newsagent at the bottom of the hill, where Bushy once forgot he’d been sacked from his paper round and turned up for work at the normal time and which sold every sweet imaginable, and definitely liked it more than the newsagent above my nan’s house, where I was once falsely accused of stealing a Twix. My nan’s house has long since been out of the family and is for sale again now, for more than thirty times what my nan bought it for, and looks very generically smart: the plastic imitation log fire and pink bathroom tiles are gone. But Plumb’s hardware is still there, continues to be in the Plumb family, as it has since 1966, and remains able to function very successfully during a power cut, owing to its paraffin lamp and Victorian till.
I’m always amazed at the speed of the transfer between the falling gold of late October and the light-sucked days of December and most of November, which is the time when you remember, once again, that autumn is nearly all hype and can barely claim to be a season at all. Now is the time of year I have been least successfully constructed for, as a human body and mind, and I learn to accept that fact more with each passing year. I have sometimes wondered if I can trick November and December into hating me slightly less but it is not possible. Mostly positive stuff has happened to me in the last five weeks, I’m elated to be away from the damp house I was living in before, and feeling fully healthy for the first time since the height of summer, but the fact still remains that it’s early winter, everything is dying, people are trying to force you to be happy about a capitalist plot to eat more animals and spend more money on worthless plastic crap, there’s nobody to legally dance with and the sun is just a fleeting rumour. It’s similar every year, even ones when a pandemic doesn’t all but obliterate your social life. The difference is that I know myself now and no longer beat myself up for feeling different to the people who tell me I am not allowed to feel this way. From the moment Winter Solstice occurs, I can feel the big strong arms of nature pick me up and turn me back in the right direction. The change is slow but always palpable. As for the few days leading up to it: they are reliably total bastards.
There’s a ridge up on the high part of the moor, a couple of miles above my house, and when I look up at it, it’s easy to imagine that it’s where everything ends: civilisation, language, sense. It’s on one of the crushingly advanced evenings of right now, which are technically afternoons, and in fact just extended lunchtimes if you look at it totally honestly, as the last wedge of watery sun slips behind the ridge, that the sensation becomes amplified. It makes me think of the way trying to imagine what was beyond death, or where outer space ends, used to hurt my head as a kid. Of course, if you consult a map, the ridge is nowhere near as incomprehensible as those things. It just looks like it because it’s so high and dark and barren and weatherblasted and the hillside leading up to it resembles a vast mouth that somebody’s smacked the teeth out of with a giant hammer. There’s actually plenty of comprehensible stuff beyond it, including Okehampton, which has a Waitrose.
We were always quite casual about December 25th in my family. The adults have always gone to every effort they can to make it lovely for the kids but outside of that, we are largely not too fussed. So when people ask me what I am doing for Christmas, I begin to open my mouth to tell them that it will be probably a low key one this time, then stop to try to remember when it was last anything else, tracking back to a Christmas quite a long time ago when my mum and dad and I had a curry then all went off to separate rooms and did some work, or another Christmas also quite a long time ago when I stayed at home on my own and forgot to eat anything except a Marmite bagel because I was so engrossed in binge watching the first two seasons of Deadwood. But we have had our Christmas traditions in the family too, and it is sad when they die out. For example, now my dad no longer buys the bumper festive issue of the Radio Times, I find myself missing his ritual of ripping the cover off and putting it in the bin while calling whatever celebrity who happened to be gracing it that year a massive fuckpig.
Technology and the noise that came from it often used to be the thing that stopped everything being scary. Now it’s the opposite. When I was a kid I used to think about ghosts 23% of the time in spring, 16% summer, 47% in autumn, and at least 81% in winter. They were the terrifying shadow behind the surface of everything. But even if it was a cold January, and you’d just been on an icy Peak District walk with lots of ruined barns and mills and bare branches that looked like the deformed hands of death, if you stuck the TV on and saw Bananarama doing a song or a Ford Capri went past and beeped its horn or you overheard Roy Plomley’s voice from the kitchen where your parents were listening to Desert Island discs, the fear was extinguished. Now the terrifying shadow behind the surface of everything is machines, and what they are revealing about human nature while simultaneously changing that nature for good. Yet I think our residual trust in the frivolity and flippancy of technology remains, to some extent, and can prompt us to look at something genuinely ominous with a sideways grin, not quite believing it is real. The other day, I walked in very wet cold weather high on the moor. It was a walk, like many I’ve done recently, centrally characterised by stepping stones, almost all of which were at least semi-submerged in deep, rushing water. The first and second set looked a bit dicey but I skipped over them with no trouble, owing to the fact I bought some very good boots recently and am in many ways quite goatlike, but the last set were out of the question: all entirely submerged in water that was getting colder by the second, as the sun’s last pathetic offering was sucked from the sky. I turned to retrace my steps and found a jet black bullock two feet behind me. It made a short aggressive charge towards me, head bowed, and I leapt away out of its reach onto the first submerged stone – the only one not very very submerged – and just about kept my balance, then, facing no real choice, leapt back to the riverbank and ran at the bullock, asking if it it wanted some, and causing it to retreat, and giving me time to rush into the woodland behind before the bullock remembered it was several times the size of me and gathered its resources for its next – potentially more committed – assault. Was I in serious danger? Maybe not. But plenty could have happened: a broken ankle, a very cold and violent bath. And I thought about this as I made my way back to the car with wet legs, and thought about the photo I’d taken of the jet black bullock and its mates a few minutes ago before it crept up behind me, the noise of its steps masked by the sound of the current, and I thought about the caption I might have added to the photo if I’d uploaded it to social media, and the funny comments that would have followed from people who trusted in the image’s flippancy and frivolity and digital unscariness, and I thought about how the funny comments would have continued to roll in, as my body floated down the river to join the loud eternal chorus of its unfortunates and their stories.
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