Come with me down to the river. We’ll park by the village hall. You’ve got the towels, I’ve got coffee and biscuits. We walk down the path next to the Stour. It’s banks are lush with red campion and the willows bend down to kiss the water. We pass the play park, the old mill houses, past the weir and the walls of blackberries beginning to ripen. Walking further we come to a huge tree, it’s good for climbing. Today someone has pitched their tent under its shelter. Opposite is a rambling house, red shingles covering the first floor walls, its garden coming down to the water’s edge.
We pass through the cycle gate into a wide meadow, yarrow is blooming all along the path and I wish I’d brought some scissors so I can take it home to dry, yarrow tea will be helpful come the winter cold season. You press on, you can see the pumping station and know we’re nearly there. We stop at the wide patch of grass, put on our wet shoes and clamber down the bank. I get a bramble hooked in my arm and have to pause while I free myself. We step down carefully onto the wide gravel ledge, feeling the cold slip into our shoes. You go in front, stepping down until the water reaches your knees, it’s cold and deep after yesterday’s rains. I follow and gasp, then stop to watch the minnows swimming in shafts of sunlight.
You’re braver than me and push on through the cold until you launch yourself and head out towards the opposite bank, swimming in wide circles. I work my way out, swinging my arms through the water, struggling to breathe as the cold reaches my rib cage. I have dreamed of this moment, setting out, free, into the open water. It sums up something inside me, a wish to break the rules, to take a chance, to experience the real wild world.
I am so close now, another few inches and I can push out. But my feet stay rooted. I am not sure. And in the end I do not trust the river. Or myself. I feel and growing sense of “no”. I can’t. It is at this point that I want to re-write the story. Say that I overcame my fear, that I did it anyway, that I was stronger than my conditioning. Not today. Today I make my way back into shallower water. I am convinced that with that extra step, that push, I will cease. I am sad. But not surprised.
Walking back, picking blackberries as we go, I wonder about this. What stops me? It isn’t just about swimming in the river, though that is part of it, the completely open, unsanitised, unsanctioned space, with no signs or lifeguards. It is about trusting myself. Believing that I can, and that I am allowed. It is about permission and the ability to scream “Towanda!” and take the plunge.
I am edging closer to that space, I am working my way there, each day, each moon brings me closer. But gently, holding my own hand, speaking soothingly and with compassion to my scared, bruised soul. Peace. All is well.