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Nigel Tiptoe




‘River Tale’

River Tale

My voice is low, little more than a whisper, and I lean forward to speak so that only you will hear. My story is one that should not be told, but one that burns within me. Let me share it with you alone.

It begins, this tale, by a wide and sluggish river meandering across the coastal plain. So slow its flow that no current disturbs its surface. Its reflected arch of sky is similarly featureless and still. It is early morning. Quiet bird calls blend into silence.

Slumped by that river, I merely breath. The morning's calm penetrates to my core, and although the image of the river, the reflected sky, the rocks and growth at the river bank lay upon my eyes, my mind registers nothing, not even the peaceful beauty that surrounds me. No inward thing disturbs me; I breath.

At this point in its passage the river is salty, blending its scant fresh flow with the spill of ocean tide. Not far from the shore seaweed blooms, darkening the waters. Thin streamers of uprooted weed tangle the shore, decaying with that familiar ozone smell. Jelly fish too have been cast up by forgotten winds and wave. They lay scattered amid the weed in glutinous death. These things I report in retrospect; at that moment I lay unaware.

Beneath the overhanging eucalypts fallen leaves litter the water surface. Those freshly fallen sit above the surface as if on glass; others have sunk and stain the water around them with leached oils and tannin. This close to the shore there is no flow at all, a fact unremarked in my trance.

I lived on these river banks as a child. Our home was perched high above the river upon an intricately weathered sandstone cliff; the house is still there. We lived a comfortable life then, growing up in a world dominated by the monumental events of the recent past. They filled my parent's consciousness - or if not consciousness that layer of mind immediately below waking thought. Memories of the war, a trauma displacing and yet validating the fears of the great depression, dominated their thought and emotions, but remained undiscussed. This left my father in particular with little sense of fun.

So we children fled the house to find our fun. We clambered down the cliff face to fish and swim in the river below, to dive into the watery trench at the foot of the precipice. The river and the rocks taught us out bodies - their capabilities, their limits - and quenched some nameless appetite unfulfilled elsewhere.

We made canoes from discarded roofing iron, broken packing cases and tar scraped from the sun baked roads. In them we ventured out into the murky depths for navel battles waged with ferocity and glee. The waters of the river bearly flow at this point, but they run all through my life.

The waters, my life, both were still that morning as I lay entranced in the long grasses upon the bank until the dolphin and the girl arrived. The dolphin came first, seemingly down stream, following the shore past the cliff to the small beach where I lay. There it waited, swimming and rising aimlessly until the girl stepped onto the beach. I shouldn't call her a girl. Rather she was a tall, plump young woman, unkempt in shapeless, dull, dark clothes. She carried a large towel over her shoulder. The dolphin swam to her and waited. I gazed soundlessly, hidden in my inactivity. Towel dropped, shoes, pants and sweater discarded, the girl entered the water in the small disturbance of the dolphin's swimming. Together they swam and played.

I have no idea of how long they swam together. I was mesmerized. The ripples they stirred seemed to spread endlessly into the morning's distances; tiny waves lapped the shore. While in their silence they swam, childhood splashing and laughter echoed in my memory. I remembered once surfacing to see two legs protruding disembodied from the water, a frozen moment in someone else's dive. I remembered paddling desperately to beach my sinking canoe after being rammed by the enemy in some play war. I remember my mother's call from the cliff top, a summons to be ignored while light remained in the evening sky. I remembered it all.

The first time I drank alcohol was down by the river; a sticky sweet wine stolen from my parent's cupboard. We lit a campfire and passed the bottle round and pretended to be roaring drunk in some half realised right of passage. Oh what that small ritual presaged. I kissed my first girl by the river. We lay chastely clothed in fashionable coats on the trimmed lawns of some waterside park. In the darkness we explored just a little way into the realms of dangerous delight. I have never swum naked in the river, although many times in the sea.

Further downstream from where I lay that morning was another cliff with a deeper trench at its base. Thieves several times dumped stolen cars in that water. With the understanding of age, this seems sacrilege, a small form of environmental rape. But in the innocence and ignorance of youth, it seemed but another use of the inexhaustible river. What is below the surface is gone and forgotten to the naive child that I was.

I remember sitting beside the river once, with the world around us, and saying to a beloved woman, "you have only to pray 'let there be peace,' and there is." And for that moment, for we two, it was true.

When the girl and the dolphin slipped below the surface and did not again rise, I stood. I stretched a gazed around me. After some time I took her towel and clothing and hid them in a fissure in the familiar cliff face. I would like to say that I left then never to return, but I did return. I went back for the towel several months later, after the search for her was all but forgotten. I have it still. The dolphin was there waiting for me and I waded to my knees to stroke its side. It tossed and splashed and chatted but I did not swim. I was not yet ready. But now I must hasten back. It is time.