The river

It’s true. I haven’t told you everything.
You pull a face and turn your head, seeing
encounters in foreign hotels, laughter, heat,

a half-drawn blind. It’s not like that.
It’s just that my past wasn’t yours –
and what can be done or said to alter that?

Sometimes we’d bring the children to this river.
In those days the track petered out
at the top of the slope and a long field

ran down to the edge of the water
ending in a little stony beach, held
in the crook of the river’s arm – so

we’d carry the basket and a chequered rug
down to the poplars at the water’s edge
and splash about with no clothes on.

There was never anyone else around,
though sometimes I saw an old man, fishing
from a flat-bottomed boat moored

the far side of the river, the boat the same
dark green as the water, the duck-boards
that lined it creaking as he shifted weight.

His wide straw hat would make a horizontal
line across the slanted pole, which
bent at the tip, turning without pause

into the long drift of the line downstream
to the scarlet float like an exclamation point.
I’d wonder when we swam if we disturbed

the fish, for I never saw him catch anything –
and I imagined he went there to dream, to think
of nothing in particular, half-noticing

the coil of buzzards mewing overhead,
or this young family turning up on Sundays,
its children the colour of apricots,

learning to skim stones across the water
where it quickened and turned hard and black.
Later in the day we’d walk downstream,

the boys always a hundred yards ahead,
scrambling up the track again to where
a few fields farther on there’d be a house

or two with a barking dog and a pail of plums
outside the kitchen door and unpegged sheets
held on a line by their own damp weight –

and I’d walk past slowly, looking,
feeling the small ache of the outsider,
wanting to stare in through the open windows.

As you stare through these windows to my past.
If we don’t walk on, the light will go and
we’ll have to find our way back in the dark.

Over the next bridge there’s a village
with a few tables set out under the trees.
We’ll see the serious priest, books

under his arm, hurry towards the church
whose bell – you can hear it now – seems
to carry for ever in such still air, through

every pigeon-loft and bramble patch,
a thin high repeated stroke that speaks
of change and order simultaneously:

births, marriages, death, the ends of wars,
all overlapping in concentric rings
of sound, like water rising, flowing.

Beatrice Garland