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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
under, like quicksand?’ Jim and I looked at the turbulent river with new
‘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.
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.
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
egg.’ That was Jim.
‘Yes you do.’
Mum handed him an egg sandwich.
took the sandwich between finger and thumb, a thick wedge made from Mum’s
homemade bread. He sulked at it suspiciously.
gone in...’ Dad again, sitting up straight.
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.
The boys aren’t going in. I’ll pour the tea I think. It’ll help wash these
lovely sandwiches down.’
‘The daft bugger
‘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
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.