One of my earliest memories is of dabbling in the waterbutt at the back of my great uncle’s house in Whickamford. He grew plums and his orchard seemed to begin right outside his veranda in a clutter of hosepipes, baskets and tools.
His waterbutt was an old steel drum, full sized and black as pitch. It was all surface glitter and reflection above an unknown, unexplorable depth.
Water has always fascinated me. Mum called me a waterbaby – happy and absorbed, splashing and pouring, up to my elbows in sinks and bowls.
Later swimming became my thing – especially underwater. I was inspired by Hans and Lottie Haas to practice holding my breath in the bath. It was a constant grievance that flippers – let alone snorkels – were strictly forbidden at the local ‘bathers’ – although I still went everyday that they were open in the summer.
I was disproportionately proud of swimming a whole length underwater. In my defence it was almost the sole sporting achievement of my boyhood.
All of these memories came flooding back this summer when I installed a waterbutt in my own garden and found myself – not much changed in truth – gazing into its depths, still drawn to – well, I still had no words for what it was that drew me – until I came across this poem of Seamus Heaney’s, and there seemed nothing more to say.
for Michael Longley
As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.