A short story, behind which is a true childhood experience from the fifties. Hardly a short story really, but it feels like the best way to tell it.
‘Are we there yet?’ I asked, even though we obviously were.
‘Yes, here we are,’ Mum said brightly.
Dad parked our pre-war Ford by the side of the road, near the bridge. I remember our first car to this day. Black and boxy with wire wheels, it had a little roller blind on the back window. Dad bought it off Uncle Jack in London. It wouldn’t do more than forty, not safely.
‘River’s very high,’ Dad said as soon as he’d switched off the engine. He climbed out of the car raising both arms for a good stretch now we’d arrived, even though we couldn’t be more than ten miles from home.
‘Where, how high?’ Jim and I tumbled out of the car, staring up at the blue sky wondering how high a river could be.
‘It’s right up near the top of the bank.’ Dad pointed to where the swollen river churned its way under the bridge’s low stone arches. Jim and I stared. It might not be as exciting as a sky-river, but a high river was still impressive, nothing like the sluggish shallows we’d paddled in before.
‘It’s a lovely day though,’ said Mum, unloading a picnic packed into the old brown canvas bag which was once mine then Jim’s carry-cot.
‘We’re going for a paddle,’ I shouted as Jim and I threw ourselves on the grass, tugging off shoes and socks almost before we hit the ground.
‘Let’s find a nice spot first,’ Mum called. Dad helped her with the bag, didn’t bother locking the car. You didn’t in those days.
‘We want a paddle.’ That was me. Two years older than Jim, it was my job to ensure paddling rights from the outset. Paddle then picnic was the official order as far as we were concerned.
‘We’ll just sit here first and have our picnic,’ Mum said firmly, conjuring an old tablecloth from somewhere, spreading it on the ground in a single deft shake. ‘Is it quite safe Harry?’ She glanced at the swollen river, swirling violently, brown as mud.
‘I’m afraid not,’ Dad stood staring at the river, lighting his favourite pipe. ‘The shallows are all flooded – too dangerous by half.’ He sat on the cloth and sucked at his pipe to get it going. Fragrant wafts of tobacco smoke swirled round our picnic spot. Dad had spoken.
‘Awww... Why not?’ Jim and I stood on the grass in bare feet, sulking hard at the river. No point sulking at Mum or Dad.
‘Look at that, boys. Dad pointed at the river with the stem of his pipe. ‘See the way your paddling place is flooded? Look how fast the river’s flowing and all those whirlpools. If one of those got you, you’d be finished.’
‘What... pulled under, like quicksand?’ Jim and I looked at the turbulent river with new respect.
‘Pull you down a sight quicker than quicksand. Drag you under and keep you there; nothing you could do. Couldn’t fight it because there’s a lot of power in water.’ Dad was an ex-Navy man who knew what he was talking about.
‘Don’t frighten them too much Harry.’ Mum’s voice low as she unpacked the picnic. Egg sandwiches in greaseproof paper, apples, tomatoes and a slice of home-made fruitcake for after. Finally the big beige Thermos full of tea to wash it down.
‘I’m not frightening them,’ Dad said. ‘I’m just telling them why they can’t paddle; so they understand... What’s that chap doing?’ He pointed to a man on the other bank near the bridge. There was a boy with him in yellow swimming trunks, a few years older than me by the look of him.
‘I hope he isn’t thinking of going in. Sit down boys. Who wants an egg sandwich? It really is a lovely day.’ Mum began to nibble one of the egg sandwiches, determined that out picnic mustn’t be spoiled just because the river was in flood and we couldn’t paddle.
‘Don’t like egg.’ That was Jim.
‘Yes you do.’ Mum handed him an egg sandwich.
‘Don’t.’ Jim took the sandwich between finger and thumb, a thick wedge made from Mum’s homemade bread. He sulked at it suspiciously.
‘Daft bugger’s gone in...’ Dad again, sitting up straight.
‘Harry... language.’ With a glare, Mum handed Dad an egg sandwich, the one with the biggest crust. Dad would eat anything, which was just as well.
‘He’s gone in the water, that lad.’ Dad laid his pipe on the grass, took a bite of his sandwich, pointed across the river.
‘How foolish. The boys aren’t going in. I’ll pour the tea I think. It’ll help wash these lovely sandwiches down.’
‘The daft bugger can’t swim.’
‘Well he can’t. That bloke on the bank must be his dad. Fancy teaching his boy to swim when the river’s like this. Must be flipping mad.’
By then Jim and I knew something interesting was going off on the opposite bank - serious even. There were quite a few other people around, all looking, but saying little. Nothing to worry about surely?’
‘He’s in trouble.’ Dad stood up. ‘He can’t swim – I told you he couldn’t swim.’
‘Don’t go in Harry. You’re not to go in... Think of the boys.’
Dad was a strong, stocky man with big hands, a powerful swimmer. Mum was suddenly alert to serious family danger. Young as we were, Jim and I caught it straight away. We too stared across the river. We could see the boy in the water struggling, his dad on the bank waving his arms. He ran around asking for help, even dashed over to our side of the bridge. Mum shook her head as his fleeting glance of enquiry. Somebody gave him a rope so he sprinted back to the far bank.
‘I ought to do something,’ Dad muttered, knowing Mum wouldn’t let him.
‘No you won’t Harry. It’s far too dangerous.’ Mum began to pack up the picnic before we’d anything like finished.
The boy in the water kept going under as one of the whirlpools took hold, spun him round in circles. He managed to keep one arm out of the water, raised high desperate for his dad to grab his hand, but he was too far from the bank. The arm disappeared quite suddenly, as if yanked down hard. It didn’t appear again.
The local newspaper said he’d been found dead a mile downstream in some reeds. His dad couldn’t swim, so daren’t go in after him. Beyond stupid, but still a tragedy. Could Dad have saved him? Possibly - Dad was a strong swimmer. But possibly was nowhere near good enough for Mum.
Of course it wasn’t.
Of course it wasn’t.