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Swell Rowena Murphy's antediluvian navigations

Swell

Rowena Murphy's antediluvian navigations

by Rowena Murphy, Features Editor
first published: September, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

That morning and so many mornings before, I'd sat and waited for the small plastic stick to develop and tell me if my life was upside-down or if it was steady for a little while more. I was counting to 180 in my head and was up to 37...

Edgbaston Reservoir sits between posh Edgbaston and bleak Edgbaston. One side lit up by Range Rover headlights, the other side: red lights. The path around the reservoir is approximately two kilometres long and landmarks include a rowing club, a burnt picnic bench and a family of moorhens. If you come off the path to the right after the storm-hit tree trunk, going clockwise, you’ll see where the swans sleep.

I walked around the reservoir when my daughter’s due date came and went, walking slower and slower each day as my belly swelled. One of these walks was interrupted when I noticed hundreds and hundreds of minuscule frogs crossing from the outside of the reservoir, across the path and into the water. I stopped and stared, bewildered. Are these babies? The collective chirping of hundreds of frogs sounded like waves of wind. I looked down over my bump at my feet and marvelled at how tiny these creatures really were; each no bigger than my largest toenail. The path almost shook with their kinetics.

On the fourth day, I sat on a wooden bench on the west side of the reservoir and thought about the time a guy called Charles Blondin crossed the water on a tightrope in the 1800s. There are few large buildings around the reservoir, so the winds can really pick up across the water. I wondered exactly where he tied the rope and how high above the water he walked. He was a tightrope walker by profession, so he knew what he was doing, but did his heart flutter as he climbed up to the rope? Did the chatter of the wind through the trees make its way to his teeth; did his mouth turn dry? My baby kicked.

During our childhood, my sister and I would spend days playing along the River Rea as it runs north from Stirchley through to Cannon Hill Park. We'd throw pooh sticks off the bridge and somehow she'd always win. If we couldn't find decent stick on the ground nearby, we'd snap twigs from the bushes or use discarded bark from the floor of the playground. We’d come home to our mum with bruised knees and filthy feet and splintered thumbs. Those were the best days.

It was on the ninth day past my due date that my feet – not that I could still see them – took me anticlockwise around the reservoir. My toes, bound in leather sandals because no other pair of shoes fit, pinked as though the wind really was biting them. Taking the path anticlockwise seems to have skewed everything; the reservoir is in italics now. Slanted.

On the bridge that runs down the east side of the reservoir, you’ll see two sets of rusty contraptions consisting of cogs and thick chains. I’ve never seen these cogs turn. The black iron chains are wound around great metal cylinders like thread around a bobbin. The tension in the chains give me an uneasy feeling in my stomach, like they could just give way and rapidly unwind without a moment’s notice. The muscles in my belly had grown tighter in these last few weeks. It felt as though my body was trying to hold onto itself.

Chunky bolts dot the cylinders in a haphazard way, like the berries on my mum’s Christmas cake; the longer you look, the more uneven it appears. I run my fingers over the hard bolts as I walk past and it grounds me: I didn’t realise my breathing had quickened. I traced carvings left in the peeling paint by lovers of times past, wondering where Dean and Amber are now. Did they try hard to become parents too; did her belly swell and tighten?

The River Rea itself is usually shallow enough to stand in if you're brave enough, though sometimes after a heavy storm it swells and almost buzzes with tension until it overflows onto the banks. The current grows wild and aggressive like the brambled bushes that line it; the water too choppy now even for pooh sticks. I think our mother would have grounded us for life if we ever attempted to paddle in the river when it was like that.

On this cursive anticlockwise day, I left the bridge and turned onto the path. The stretch of path along the north side of the reservoir is not a destination zone; it functions as a passageway between the bridge and the poetic west side. A corridor full of potholes. A short way down the path, I saw something new. A tree stump, just past the rowing clubhouse, that someone had carved a seat into, roughly and asymmetrically but seemingly with care. I knew it was new because it hadn’t yet been baptised with graffiti. My feet came to a stop at this stump, as though they had made the decision for me: rest. I sat with my knees apart, the full weight of my belly finally bestowed onto another. My hips sank into the wood, unafraid of splinters; collateral damage at this point.

From my throne I could see through the chain link fence and across the swollen body of water in front of me. It had rained on and off for weeks and she was reaching her limit. The waves, once carefree and placid, had grown increasingly agitated. Next to the clubhouse, a faded flag hung limp atop its pole, clinking in the wind to let us know it was still there.

I sat back against the rough wood and let my head rest on a pillow of ivy that encased the wall behind me. I closed my eyes and thought back to sitting on my toilet some nine months prior, my head leant back and resting on the cold, hard tiles.

That morning and so many mornings before, I’d sat and waited for the small plastic stick to develop and tell me if my life was upside-down or if it was steady for a little while more. I was counting to one hundred and eighty in my head and was up to thirty-seven. Dozens of plastic sticks poked out of the bathroom bin like overgrown weeds. My dressing gown pockets rustled and crunched with screwed-up packaging. Sixty-one. I realised I hadn’t tipped away the urine I had collected in the cup on the side of the bath. My toes curled into the bathroom rug. I was sure that my feet felt swollen this week. Ninety-eight. Perhaps I hadn’t tipped away the urine in case the test looked negative, and I needed to do a second one, just to be sure. I lifted my pyjama top and studied my abdomen. Did it look swollen? I was ready for it to. One hundred and twenty-one. This would be another test to prop the bin lid up, I was sure. The rage and frustration were starting to set in. We were trying so hard. One hundred and forty-nine. What more does my body want from me? We were doing the right things at the right time and certainly enough times. How does this happen to some people accidentally but not to me? One hundred and seventy. That’ll do.

When I saw two lines on the test, I grabbed the edge of the bath, knocking the cup of urine into the tub. I didn’t notice the drips down the wall.

I took advantage of my position on the tree stump and took a deep breath before I lifted my right foot to rest on the edge of it. I managed to unbuckle my sandal before my foot pinged back down towards the ground, as though shoved by my belly. The left sandal was not so easy. Thanks to the asymmetry of the seat, there was no room for my heel on this side. Bending forward to reach it was out of the question. I could see a lone jogger approaching in the distance. Maybe I could ask them to unbuckle my sandal for me, or would that be utterly inappropriate? Please, I’d ask them. I’m so very pregnant and I just need my feet to be released from their shackles for a minute – just a minute. I couldn’t face it, though, and let them bound past me, blissfully unaware of the awkward task I was so close to setting them.

Instead, I put my right foot behind my left and wriggled my toe and heel against one another. I grunted and puffed and turned the cool air around me blue. The ankle strap teetered on my heel, teasing me, so close but so stubborn. One final push and the sandal ejected onto the muddy pathway in front of me, bouncing once before settling in the weeds by the fence. Where was my jogger now?

My breath danced around my face in puffs of condensation. I was told that pregnancy involved glowing but glowing with rage and glistening with sweat wasn’t something I’d anticipated. I could do with a kind dog walker or a hefty gust of wind right about now. Should I try hopping? I dared not; especially since the one sandal I still had on wasn’t buckled. I had no choice but to put my bare foot onto the path. Oh god, the cold. The icy mud seeped between my toes and evoked an unnatural squeal from me that I was sure would invite every dog in Birmingham to come and investigate. I really hope there are no dog walkers around right now.

My toes disappeared into the cold mud and the intensity of it sent a shock up through my leg. I stepped forward and bent down to retrieve my estranged sandal, my fingers clinging to the chain link fence for support like the weeds that grew up them.

I grew up in Stirchley, five miles south from Birmingham city centre, not far from the Cadbury Factory. You can see the factory from my bedroom window in my childhood home; I had to tiptoe for years to see the enormous CADBURY lettering. Now I lift my daughter up, her tiny pink toes splayed on the windowsill, and we practice the letters together. Her breath steams up the window and she traces her favourite letter, M, in the condensation.

I took advantage of now being upright and heaved my foot up onto the tree stump to reattach my sandal. I grimaced as my cold, muddy foot slipped against the leather. Are my cheeks as pink as my toes now? My knee pushed uncomfortably into my belly. My baby squirmed. As I leaned back upright, I felt a warm gush between my legs. Clear rivulets trickled down my legs and pooled in the mud under my feet. I swayed for a moment in the breeze. The wind circled around me, reassuring me, I've got you.

Rowena Murphy
Features Editor

Outsideleft Features Editor, Rowena Murphy, says she is a writer than needs to write more and a reader that needs to read more...


about Rowena Murphy »»

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