When I’m not writing, I like to spend time by the river. I go because I’m looking for treasure – I’m a mudlark, which means someone who searches the foreshore for the flotsam of lives, the pieces of history that rattle around on the riverbank. I find small fragments of glazed tile - green, white, yellow and brown. Marbles, winking up at me from the silt, a vulcanised rubber stopper, the teeth of a horse - some still in the jawbone. Delftware and willow in glorious blue, length after length of clay pipe. The river decides what it wants to offer me, and I am always grateful. 

Yesterday, the river gave me a different kind of treasure: a lesson. I have been thinking about writing a particular thing for years, and working on it for months now – something long, and large. The magnitude of it has overwhelmed me, and most days I have been afraid I will not be able to find all the words. I can feel the weight of it, holding my clarity under the waves, drowning any ability I might have to write it all. 

Sometimes I feel the same way when I am searching by the river - I worry I will not have time to look at the whole foreshore, because it is so big and there is so much treasure to discover. On these days, I find almost nothing – my mind races as I scan hurriedly between flinty pebbles and pieces of brick, and I am lucky if I find solace, let alone artefacts. 

Yesterday, I decided to see what would happen if I looked in just one small area, no bigger than two square metres. There is work to be done here, I told myself, crouching down and scraping my trowel gently through the grit. My eyes adjusted to smaller details – pins prickled to the surface, copper nails fell into my hand. I listened to the foreshore fizzing and bubbling as the tide leached back into the river. 

As I stood up, watching the wind ruffle a goose and ripple waves on the water, I heard the river telling me what to do. Be patient, it said, look carefully. So that’s what I’m doing now, and it seems to be working. I’m slow, but it’s something - my work feels measured, deliberate. I’m finding the words, one at a time, as they show themselves to me, and storing them away in my treasure bag. Thank you, river. 


©2020 by Sophie Shillito