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The Rea Is an Unloved River by Liz Churchill

In our Geography lesson, Miss Perry taught us that Rea meant ‘to run’. In response, it wasn’t clear who started it, we whispered: Rea rabbit, Rea rabbit, Rea-Rea-Rea. We began to chant it under our breath at moments of displeasure. If a car passed quickly in the rain, splashing water over our knee-length socks; if the canteen staff frowned as they slopped pickled beetroot onto our plates; if a boy crossed our path and made eye contact: Rea rabbit, Rea rabbit, Rea-Rea-Rea. We began walking in time as we said it, slow, quick-quick, slow, quick-quick, stamp-stamp-stamp. 

Miss Perry laughed and called us her minnows. 

 

***

 

On the day of the field trip, we were registered alongside the boys; there were three being integrated into our class as part of a gradual merger between the single-sex schools. They stared at us the way sheep do: fascinated yet blank. We circled them quietly and poked out our tongues. Lately a competition had erupted between us concerning who could be the most shocking. Penny had licked the Tippex brush. Anya had held her school tie in a Bunsen burner flame. And Layanne had taken a compass spike and carved the word art into the back of her hand. We had stared, delighted at the bloodied lines wondering if any of the letters would scar.  

It was Miss Perry who took us to the river. We liked her better than all the other teachers and her name, when said quickly, made us think of fruit. We loved her outfits; the patterns she wore went together like soft furnishings in a fabulous hotel. We invented a term for it: ‘upholsterial’. She walked with the air of someone just out to post a card and when we followed her along the towpath, we held our heads up like proud horses. This was a sad little river she told us and so much of it hidden in culverts. It was important that we shouldn’t be afraid to love it. Yes, ugly things could be pitied. But water required respect.

The sun was fierce and as we walked we lifted our hair, inviting the heat to burn our necks. Our skirts were short already and we longed for strong, bronzed thighs. We moved in single file, the boys trailing at the end of the line. We could hear their deep voices muttering but the exact words were lost to us by distance and it didn’t occur to us to care.    

We took some time to reach the clearing, strolling between sunshine and shadow as we went. Thin trees leaned in on either side of the path as if to cage us. We heard the alarm calls of birds but didn’t stop. Miss Perry told us we would find what lived just beneath the surface. Foreshore she said. Foreshore we echoed. And we all laughed as one.

When we arrived at the agreed-upon site, Miss Perry announced that the research could commence. Her voice was light as a skimming stone and we didn’t imagine it could ever sink. The way down to the water was riddled with raggedy branches and untamed plants, lengths of grass gathered in clumps like wigs. It was an undergrowth of rebellion. We paused at the side and watched Miss Perry slip off her sandals and wade silently to the halfway point. She looked briefly hesitant. The boys had missed the build-up of lessons preparing us for this moment and had barely become absorbed. They were clueless.

The river lapped at Miss Perry’s calves just above her ankles and she looked down as though to shush it. Crouching, she cupped some water between her hands, splashed it all over her face. As she rose, she stared at us; we watched the drips slide down her cheeks. 

And then she nodded. 

We pulled off our leather lace-ups, tugged down our white socks and trotted down the river bank. Our bodies stilled in different spaces and we all faced upstream. The boys – who had been picking wordlessly at leaves and flicking them to the floor like old receipts – now stopped. We slipped out the nets we’d kept nestled in our bralettes. Miss Perry shouted that we were in a dead ecosystem but did we believe it? We chorused, no, and held our nets aloft like flags of allegiance. Then we bent down pushing our bodies forward and under, soaking ourselves all along our lengths. We gasped at the cold bite of water. We arced our arms, dragging the nets along the river bed the way Miss Perry had demonstrated weeks ago in the classroom, sunshine streaming across her body, pooling the whole of her in golden light. She had spun like a ballerina beside faded world maps. How could we watch such grace and not become disciples?

Blue minds she was telling us now, blue minds. We must inhabit that mildly meditative state. We knew exactly what she was talking about. We had studied this. For many Tuesday afternoons, we had not learned about oxbow lakes and soil erosion, not practised grid references or co-ordinates, but instead lied atop our desks imagining the come and go of river water - blocking our ears, entering our nostrils, wetting our lips, calling to us, calling us under the surface. 

Drink, Miss Perry told us and we gulped the river in. She brought the net she had been dragging out of the water. It was bulbous with silt. As we watched her, resting on our elbows, our shirts, luminous, floated up and away from our skin. They ballooned palely like stepping stones. In our peripheral vision we caught glimpses of the three boys waiting, confused. Eat, Miss Perry ordered, her voice the breath of someone ascending full immersion. We turned and sat, brought our nets to our chests. Miss Perry, standing until now, sat too. We peered at the brown water, looking for small signs of life.

Liz Churchill started writing a few years ago. It began with a short story course run by Comma Press - and has been furiously reading and trying to write short stories ever since. 

She has had stories published online by the Mechanics' Institute Review, STORGY and Ellipsis Zine. She's had a story long-long listed for the Brick Lane Short Story Competition, and last summer completed a Summer School with The Stinging Fly.

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