The low January sun sails above the muddy Thames Path, casting its golden nets into the river. Cold trees in ivy coats reach up towards its light. Birds sing to the distant grumble of gravel lorries. A few dog walkers overtake me. I am a slow walker now, with my stick, each step marked by the pain in my arthritic knees. I try to synchronise my breathing and my footsteps and count each breath to the bridge. Here the river splits, a weir feeding a nearby lake. I grip the wooden rails and watch the water dropping, accelerating and rushing on beneath me.
You can never visit the same river twice. Always moving, always changing. I peer over and try to catch my reflection on the calm side. In my 84 years most of my body’s cells have died and been replaced countless times. Even my brain, though it tries to hold on to its cells, forever reconfigures their connections. A recent memory drifts away. An old memory resurfaces. Am I still the same Irene I used to be? Barney’s Irene. My young body so slender that his hands would almost meet as he held my waist, lifting me on to my tiptoes to kiss me.
I stare down at the wispy outline of my face in the water. I recognise the red of my coat and my cheeks but my features are dark and crumpled; ripples or wrinkles, it is hard to tell from here. My eyesight is not what it was. The sound of gushing water is all I can hear now. Loud white noise, formless at first but the more I listen the more it sounds like voices whispering. As the water moves, my reflection grows clearer. Now I see dark hair falling in neat curls around a smooth jaw line. This is the Irene I remember. I hold my arms out to her and she reaches back towards me. I smile and she smiles back, mirroring me. She is wearing the red dress that Barney used to love. I glance down at my thick red coat. My eyes are deceiving me. I look again. My red-dressed reflection smiles knowingly and beckons me towards her. I try to speak but my tongue sticks in my mouth like a stray riverweed. I imagine the taste of the water, as sweet as her smiling face. Her face or my face? I reach up and touch the cold cling-film skin on my cheek. Not my face anymore.
How much time hangs off this bridge to separate me from her? My mind turns to all those who have shaped me, their kindness flowing over me, smoothing my rough edges like a pebble on a riverbed. Barney’s daily walks with our babies in the pram, back in the days when few men did that. The friend who cooked for us when Barney first became ill. My grandson who called me yesterday to say he was thinking about me. Do I wish to reel in all that time? To have my young body again? I hear my voice escaping from my dry throat,
“No. That’s not what I want.”
The falling water whispers, “Barney. You could be that girl on his arm again.”
I feel something warm brush against me, startling me, and for a crazy second I think it is him. Then I realise a dog is pushing past me through the rails of the bridge and splashing down into the water. I look around for its owner and when I turn back my reflection has disappeared in a cloud of sediment. In its place the dog looks up at me, grey and soggy with its tail wagging. It clambers out, shakes the water off its coat, then jumps up on to me, splattering me with mud.
Its frantic owner is not far behind
“Oh God! I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
It is difficult to guess her age. Time has marked her unevenly, skimming gently over her soft face then rushing quickly through her hair, churning it up in silver streaks.
“Don’t worry, please.” I say, “I love dogs. They accept people as they are, sometimes a little too enthusiastically that’s all.”
She pulls the dog away from me and looks me up and down, as if inspecting me for damage.
“You look cold” she concludes, “I have a flask of tea if you want some?”
I accept gratefully and her kindness warms me before she even pours the drink. As she fumbles in her bag, the dog’s front paws are back on my chest.
“Sorry.” she says again, “He’s just a puppy, y’know, always moving, always changing.”
She pulls the dog into a sitting position then hands me the drink in the lid of her flask. Circles form and break in the warm brown tea as I hold it with trembling hands.
Louise was a runner-up in the Wild Words Summer Solstice Competition 2018. Below she describes her creative process…
My head has always been full of words and stories but for most of my life I have lacked the confidence and self discipline to get much down on paper. This changed last year when I joined a writing group in my village. There were only a small handful of us but for a while we would meet in the pub to challenge ourselves with writing exercises. This piece was the result of one of these exercises. One week the group leader brought along some photos and we were asked to select a photo of a person and write about them as a character and then select a landscape photo and place our character in that landscape to create a story. I found myself drawn to a photo of an old lady with deep wrinkles and eyes that were hard to look away from, and a photo of a nearby bridge on the Thames footpath. I wrote my first draft of this story right there in the pub in response to these prompts. Later I walked along the riverside to the bridge, imagining myself as the character and this helped me to describe the environment. I then redrafted my story at least ten times until I was happy with it. Sadly, after a few months our writing group disbanded as we are a small village and we had too few members to sustain it. However, the encouragement I received there has motivated me to continue to write. I have now joined a larger writing group in a nearby town, I write short stories whenever I have a spare moment and nature continues to inspire the best of my writing.