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Sohoitis XII: Teenage Angst on the Riverbank

By Sophie Parkin.

I thought about taking the pills as I sat swinging my feet in the
river. I had already overdosed on the strawberries in the field,
gauging my mouth with them messily before collapsing alone by the
waters edge. Inconsolable. Rivers have always had a way of giving me
ideas, not always self destructive ones, was it the ice cold water
running through my toes, or my hands playing with the pebbles? I only
knew I felt very miserable and I blamed my sister for everything. She
had taken my friends from me promising them an excitement of ideas and glamour that I didn’t have at twelve, but at fifteen she owned.

The summer stretched before me as uncomfortable as an everlasting
gobstopper, the end never quite in sight. There were only two things
that made that summer bearable, stuffed baked apples, but there was
only so many you could eat of those, and the river at the bottom of
the long sweeping garden, I didn’t even smoke. The trees shaded me
whilst the sound comforted me, the trickle rush and Tinkerbell chatter
mixed with the woods other occupants that could have been fairies, you never know, and I found a peace there like the river I had known as a child in the pages of The Wind in the Willows.

Just twelve and I had found misery of suicidal proportions! Thank god,
I didn’t know what would come later. I couldn’t believe that day
would ever end, couldn’t imagine that life would ever be different, I
couldn’t even imagine that in a few months it would grow cold, and I
longed for the cold as my feet sunk deeper into the river bed, lost
amongst the spinachy weeds, entangling my toes. Everything felt wrong, stuck, uncomfortable, even my body didn’t seem to work as it once had so reliably. My skin felt tight, my nose and mouth too big, my voice screeched harsh in my ears and my new breasts were sore, disturbing me more than the outbreak of spots on my chin and, I didn’t even have the solace of my own room to hide in.

We were staying at the artist Brian and Monica Wynter’s great big
old house, at the Lizard in Cornwall. Their family were going off on a
kayaking holiday and I said goodbye to their sons, shyly overcome with
wanting them to stay. We had our own boys, my stepbrothers, but that summer they trailed after my sister like the ephemera tied to a
wedding car, noisy and obvious with all the jokes back firing on me, I
thought.

In the Wynter’s bathroom I found a bewildering mystery of pills in
bottles with no clue as to what they did or guarantees of success. I
poured a mixture into my hand and saw myself shamefully licking them
in the cabinet mirror before forcing them into my mouth. I hated the
medicinal bitterness and spat them out into the loo, and with them
went my suicide attempt.

It was so difficult with everything being wrong, I couldn?t just wear
shorts and climb trees like I always had. Life in bikini tops was
dreadfully cruel I thought as I lay on the riverbank watching the
wriggles of fish and the fancy of dragonflies in the still heat,
wishing I could join them, lose my mortality. I thought I would
probably always be alone, and I would have to get used to it, but that
the river was a good substitute for the annoyance and unnecessary
cruel noise of humans. Not, that river life is less noisy just more
necessary, more absorbing. I liked feeling close to something that
would keep on running, whatever you said or did.

There are few things that can stop a river, certainly not my dam
building that diverted things only for a moment before the waters
unstoppable force toppled it down. I made paper boats, looked for
Moley and Ratty and ate my picnic sandwiches on its banks watching
the days slowly fold in on themselves.

I, like so many novels heroines would have to be noble, bare the
pain of humiliation bravely, (I couldn’t even swallow a handful of
pills!) and suffer. If only I had had Cassandra and I Capture the
Castle with her crumbling castle and moat to share that pain, or the
dry heat of Frankie’s exasperation in Member of The Wedding by Carson McCullers, or even more pertinently Harriet to commiserate with, in The River by Rumer Godden. We were all of that age of not knowing how we could fit into a world that we felt so apart from, that we clung to anything as our safety valves. I think like Harriet I wrote a lot of poetry too, but nothing as good as her poem on The River.

The river runs, the round world spins,
Dawn and lamplight, midnight, noon
Sun follows day. Night stars and moon.
The day ends, the end begins.

The River, 1946

Harriet’s was a great slow mile wide river in Bengal with banks of
white sand and brown mud, and a traffic of crocodiles, fish and
porpoise, mixed amongst country boats, flat jute barges and paddle
wheeled mail steamers. I discovered the 1956 Jean Renoir film first
of The River, when I returned from staying in the Himalayas in an Ashram by The Ganges. There, the soft white sand fell into the water, along with temple steps, flowers and idols and where people washed with elephants, pans and clothes. All the important ceremonies happened on the banks of the half mile wide river, funeral pyres, blessings and weddings. It was pivotal to the Hindu religion, life came from it to disappear back into it. I would go with a book to read, and find myself instead immersed in its life and rush of soothing sounds mixed with temple bells and prayers. When I got too hot I would walk into it, believing I could swim to the other side, or think I could lazily lie upon it, like the sea. But it was not the sea and I would be carried away within minutes, sinking. You are always your own weight in a river no matter how deceptively calm it might look, it is as easy to drown in as a 30ft wave. You have to always remember to tread water and keep breathing, like life really.

I couldn’t live anywhere that wasn’t near a river. I have a need to
see the tug and flow of the river every day, of course I don’t need to but I want to. It fufills a longing in me, excites me childishly, whether late at night, The Thames, fat and black in Vauxhall, displaying the whorish lights of London across its swelling belly, or young and bright rushing with the daylight energy of speeding police and fireboats, or tourist cruisers. It thrills me, absorbing me in its natural free wonder. I can lean over the bridges ledge watching it for hours, it awakens new ideas springing up like bulbs from my head, always unrevealing of its mysterious contents held within its depths: dead bodies, diamond engagement rings, three
headed multi sex fishes. Seagulls the closest things to it, squawking
like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, bring a malevolence at darkening dusk.

Next year I am getting married and moving to Rotterdam, a City of
islands and rivers, where from the apartment on the 28th floor there
is water to watch from every window, with boats bigger and faster than any Rumer Godden ever saw, with enormous swan-like bridges, industrial docks and mammoth oil tankards. There are pleasure cruisers and speed boats and thin rail bridges that move with the tide, and canals not wishing to be left out, join in. And always the unwieldy mass of water surges forward, high and low, deep and shallow, that must like any life-force keep going, holding within its body, its own life, not just what humans put upon it. Whatever happens to me in life, the river is there to remind me you don’t have a choice, bad times come and good times go, but you have to keep going for good things to come back on the next tide.

***

The Wind in the Willows: A centenary celebration
Wednesday 25 March 2009

One of the best loved books of all time – the classic story of the
escapades of Mole, Ratty, and Toad is now 100 years old. An evening of appreciation in readings, conversation and film hosted by broadcaster and writer Libby Purves with participants including Terence Stamp*, former Python and film director Terry Jones, writer and actor David Gooderson and Richard Ingrams, co founder of Private Eye and Editor of The Oldie. Plus composer Tony Hatch performing his classic ‘Messing About on the River’.

* subject to filming commitments

Event Time: 18.30-20.30
Location: The British Library, Conference Centre
Price: £6 (concessions £4)

soph
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sophie Parkin has written seven published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult, otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry edited by Michael Horovitz. Her new book, Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites (Piccadilly Press), a teenage novel set in Tangiers and London, is out now. Sophie Parkin holds a monthly 3:AM Magazine/Pen Pusher bash at the Green Carnation in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 21st, 2009.