JOHN LANGRIDGE

Angler, writer and journalist

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NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING

 

Atop the white cliffs looking down, the lake shimmered turquoise with dark weed patches of blue or green. Below the two lads, swifts shrieked and scythed in the transparent trembling air. Near to hand was the giant ivy, with massive tormented limbs inside that they could clamber down, shuddering with excitement in the sweat-dripping chill. The rod in its bag, tied by strings behind, kept digging into his legs. Half way down was a sheep’s skull just to scare the unwary.
In the Burham chalk pit with its fenced gate entrance and signs of ‘Keep Out’ and ‘Danger’ the boys would fish. In just their shorts these hot days, burning their shoulders and the backs of their necks, Seaton and Bryn came often to their flooded quarry through the long summer holidays to wade chest deep in its beauty after roach. It was full of roach, this cold crystalline water. One of the old men from the village had put them there other boys said. Stick, an older lad from Wouldham said it ‘was ’im, e’d caught ’em down the dykes near the river.’ Bryn and Seaton knew there were no roach there, not in that foul and briny water, there were just eels.
Once out of the dark, covered in dust, dead leaves and cobwebs, the two boys hunted through the shallows for great crested newts or a grass snake until they reached their favourite spot and their camp. Four thick branch uprights supported the thin twigs and dried grass of an ill-thatched roof over an old rear car seat to sit on.
With only one rod between them they took long turns each trying to outdo the other for the whopper of the day. A two pounder was the one to beat, Bryn had got that the summer before, but mostly the best was a pound, a pound and a bit. On this July day Bryn had opted to stay on the slight sloping bank with Twentieth Century Poets. He was not happy about it but his holiday project, which he had somehow been volunteered to do with class super swot Susan Holdaway, was on three of the poems and she was already nagging him about reading them. ‘I can’t understand a word of it’ he groaned, ‘there’s one about a dead crab but...’ And so, he slumped down in the glowing sun and applied himself to the lines. ‘AND I’ve got life saving tomorrow...’
He liked that really though. He was swimming champion of the 5th year and Pollard the Games teacher had collared him for the Life Guards Club where he was really doing well, with badges and trophies and everything. But his face was a picture just now. Poor old Bryn, he’d much rather go fishing.
Seaton waded in a mirror of blue, soft chalk squeezing between his toes. Far off, floating slices of Mother’s Pride gave hops and shudders upon the surface where the eager small roach below mouthed at them. Skimming them out there like flying saucers was fun and a slice would glide fifty yards or more before angle diving into the water, breaking in two. The larger fish were never far away but were shier and less ready to come to the surface. The lads always baited with flake and left a long drop between the bread and the shot so as let it fall slowly through the water once it was passed the frenzy of tiddlers.
Nearly neck deep in the cool summer water, rod held high in the air, Seaton carefully walked weightless as an astronaut, slowly closer to the feeding fish. They always made long casts with their perch floats and swan shot, easy to see twenty yards away. A lurch one side or the other and a quick tussle to head the fish away to open water and not spook the others.
Seaton’s first fish, though, ploughed away from him straight into the reeds. Brief havoc among the stems, then he lost it. The surface bread remnants stilled a while until of a sudden the skimmers came swirling back, but the big fish had certainly been scared off. Seaton squeezed lumps from the soggy bread in his pockets and threw them further off where the reed bed ended, a little too far. His float soon flew after them landing short where he watched it hopefully. His patience didn’t hold though and soon he waded forward for a cast nearer to where the bread had landed.
A step into the infinite, a plunge and there was no soft chalk bed beneath his feet. He felt a dull blow as his back thudded off the edge of a drop. His hands too slid down through the cloudy chalk-turquoise swirls, and light danced in blurs above him. Weed strands and strings clung to his legs and he felt their sliminess across his mouth and face. Pretty pale blue with silks of weed and bubbles became the subaqueous world. The world of water and of fish and flakes of bread tumbling in the turbulence was warm and embracing. Seaton, unconscious, unknowing, accepted. Gentle fingers in the smult mulm played in his tousled hair and murmured breathings of comfort seemed to whisper in his ears.
A slight breeze brought ripples to the water’s edge breaking in a moment on the flow of the poetry. Bryn looked up from his reading and watched Seaton’s antics. ‘What a clown! He’ll be over in a minute and get water up his nose… serve him right.’ He laughed and gave a wave then read on a line or so. The next poem had a Latin epigraph, Et in Arcadia ego, he scratched his head and looked back across the lake sure that with no observer Seaton would abandon acting the goat and resume his fishing. Where was he now? He was nowhere to be seen. He couldn’t have gone that far. Bryn scanned around the wide flat bottomed lake. Seaton had been far out, far from the shore. Too far to have gone anywhere.
The water was lapping, innocent at his feet.
An impulse seized him then and he tore into the water pounding his crawl across the intervening lengths. He got to the place where Seaton had been gesticulating like a lunatic. It was dark, a weedy hollow. He saw something and dived into the hole pulling up the lifeless body of his friend. With all the aching power he could find he gripped and struck for the nearest shore where the slippery chalk and clay was beaten with hard flint thuds and bruising until he could hammer down on Seaton’s chest. There was no pulse, no breath, no life any more in this skinny forkéd body. He applied his mouth to his, blasting in air ten times a minute. The rule book, the practices with dummies, all the courses flooded in and drowned his thinking. He counted and blew and counted, feeling dizzy and fighting back the gnawings of panic and fear. Seaton suddenly belched water, vomited, vomited colourless green water and cried out in agony.
Now it was hurting. Jumping as though electric to his feet he shook like a crippled gazelle claw torn by a lion. Every muscle and tendon and joint in his body wracked and writhed in the pain of living. Sobbing, sickly blue white-
faced, his head thundered, his vision was black then blinding then black again till some drunken whirling of the gentle water and soft chalk slopes began to reassert itself and he saw Bryn standing before him, red faced, watery blood on his right shoulder and arm.
‘What the hell happened?’ Seaton choked, then spluttered and panted the new air.
The two boys stood half buckled staring at each other.
‘You drowned’, Bryn said, ‘you can’t swim... you drowned.’
                                                                                                      ****
 
 

 

 

now

My Angling Blog... well, it may be a little different from the usual thing, consisting principally of stories, some perhaps published previously, some not. This first concerns my drowning. Have you ever drowned, or come terribly close to it?