Once I put a message in a bottle and dropped it in the river.
Watching it bounce along until it disappeared, I suddenly felt guilty.
Most of the guilt was about littering but some of it was about deception.
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this sort of thing. A year or so earlier, I’d drawn a detailed map of the woods alongside our village. Only it wasn’t the usual sort of map.
This is what our woods were like. For several yards, bracken grew. In spring it sprouted bright fronds, curled like babies’ hands, unfurling as they grew. In summer, the green of the waving leaves grew dusty and tall enough to hide in. In autumn, they were golden and dry.
Interspersed with deciduous trees which were good for climbing, the heathland led to huge slabs of rock from which you could look across the valley to the mountains beyond the main road and bigger river.
Below the rocks was a path. In one direction the path led back towards the village, past two caves. One was nothing more than a hollow, a shelter from rain; the other was deeper and at its back a metal grating stopped you from falling into its depths. Ignoring the caves and continuing along the path, you would pass through the churchyard of the Welsh chapel. Gravestones in curlicued Welsh, grey and upright, stared down as you emerged onto the lower part of our street, next to the chapel’s only concession to the English language – a black sign with the words ‘Whosever believeth’ in gold.
Alternatively, if you climbed down from the stones and went in the opposite direction along the path, you would end up in the old quarry, a massive hollow of mysterious green and overhanging trees.
Above all of this, larches loomed and other trees gathered in conference. There was a copse with a circle of clear ground in the middle. The grass here was different: dark and shiny, lustrous, rich. In spring, bluebells grew. There were three slab rocks protruding from the ground, fallen together forming what looked like a tomb. It was just big enough for a nine year old to huddle inside.
This copse and the river were my places. I stood on the bridge of the river and told my problems to the lights under the trees. I sat in the copse and talked to invisible listeners. I drew a map which showed all the portals into the other world which I knew was there but couldn’t reach. The main portal was the stone ‘tomb’.
This sounds mad written down, but it wasn’t. I was a lonely child and at the time. Mercilessly bullied at school, I distrusted most of my peers. I read numerous books about other worlds running alongside ours and somehow, I discovered special places where the boundary was thin and I could be heard. It was comforting to have someone listen who wouldn’t sneer when I cried. l just wanted to find out how to cross over.
One day, I put the map inside a sweet tin with a coin and a couple of other contemporary things and buried it in the ‘tomb’. It was the thing to do at the time. A few months later, I dug it up again. I possibly felt guilty about littering, probably wanted the coin and definitely didn’t want the map to fall into the wrong hands.
But at least the map told the truth.
Dropping a bottle into the river wasn’t quite the same. I had been watching dramatisations of ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘The Little Princess’. Here were tales of misunderstood girls for whom life somehow came out all right without the need for any magical intervention from outside. Magic would be more fun, but it eluded me.
While writing a heavily plagiarised version of the same sort of tale for my Guides Writer’s Badge, I carefully drafted a message on some paper, which I’d tried to make look older with the use of cold tea. I made my handwriting as Victorian looking (to me) as I could, rolled the paper up and put it inside a glass bottle with a screw top.
It could have said ‘How far did this go? Please ring Paula on 45223’.
But it didn’t.
It said: ‘Help! I am imprisoned by my wicked aunt in the tower of her mansion. Please rescue me! Victoria.’
As I watched the bottle disappear, I started to worry. Our river ran down from the mountains and at our village, joined a much larger river to head down to the sea. Anything thrown into it could theoretically have come from quite a large area of South Wales.
I wasn’t naturally a liar. What if the bottle was found? Would anyone believe it had been cast into the waters by some long dead Victorian, who had never been rescued?
Then I thought a bit harder. Would felt tip pen on modern paper and a twentieth century fizzy drink bottle fool anyone into thinking the message was Victorian? What if they thought it was recent and genuine and launched a rescue for someone who didn’t exist?
In all likelihood, the bottle was smashed long before it got to the main river. Quite apart from all the stones it had to dodge on the way, our little river joined the bigger one after dropping down a waterfall onto a pile of rock. What I should have been worrying about was all the broken glass in the water as the words of my carefully penned bit of fiction dissolved into nothing.
Even now, I still feel vaguely guilty. I’m not sure why. Yet part of me still hopes after all this time, that the bottle will be found, intact, with the message still inside and triggering a delicious mystery.
And as for the map… I am still hopeful it is somewhere in the clutter of our attic. One day, I will find that portal, one day…
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission
Click here for links to my book “Kindling” which included two stories about the woods and river near where I grew up