I would like to thank Jaypot, for suggesting that I explore my childhood for inspiration. Here is the first result of that exploration.
Stevie Smith wrote this famous poem, in 1957. If you have never heard of it, here is a link; http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/not-waving-but-drowning/
I did not become aware of this poem until the 1970’s, and considered it to be a fine piece of work. More than that, it had a connection for me, that even now, is painful to recall. I must start by saying, by way of a disclaimer, that many of the events recounted in this post were told to me later, by my parents. (Though despite my youth at the time, I do actually remember the main occurrence, as if it happened yesterday). This also applies to the exact geography of the location, a place I have never visited since, and which may well have changed, over time.
In the year that this poem was published, I was five years old. Though hard to imagine now, I had a mop of blonde curly hair, and an angelic face, set off by blue-green eyes. Looks-wise, I was at my peak; this is the best it was ever going to get. We were living in South London, within sight of the local docks, and as a family, we were happy. At least I thought so, but I was only five. My Dad worked as a carpenter then, making tea-chests and packing cases, in a workshop in nearby Deptford. Mum worked in the biscuit factory a few doors from our house, as a book-keeper in the office. I had not yet started school, and was due to go to the local primary, after their summer break was over. We lived in the upper rooms of a terraced house, and our landlady, a kindly widow, occupied the ground floor. It could be very hot in Central London, during the summer, and it was nice that my Mum and Dad often thought of places to go, to escape that heat.
As well as family holidays in Jaywick, a chalet town on the Essex coast, we also had a regular holiday to Cornwall, staying with a bachelor uncle in Penryn. He had been in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, and had some fascinating stories to tell. He wasn’t really an uncle, more like a second cousin, on my Dad’s side, but I really liked him. However, those longer holidays were expensive, and involved tedious, frustrating drives, as there were no motorways until 1963; and not for many years after that, to the South-West. To escape the humidity of the city for the day, usually on a Sunday, we would drive out to somewhere nearer London, like Box Hill, in Surrey, Epping Forest, in Essex, or Yalding, in Kent. These were more manageable as day trips, although traffic jams were as common then, and just as bad, as they are now. My Dad had a car, something of a rarity in our area in those days. It was a 1938 Wolseley, which had once been a Police car. Despite its age, the car was kept running by almost daily maintenance, and lots of love and devotion. It had back doors that opened the ‘wrong’ way, so an awning could be erected across the gap, which we could sit under. Inside, it had an internal string roof lining, which was used to store items to keep to hand, for the journey.
I was a bad traveller then, and could easily be car sick after less than twenty minutes driving. However, that didn’t put me off, and I always looked forward to our excursions. One hot day, Mum told me that we were going to go to Yalding, where we could relax by the river, and have a picnic on the grass. We always took a picnic, as there were few cafes around, and they were a little too expensive for us to use anyway. As well as food, we also had a paraffin stove and small kettle, for tea making, and milk would be taken in a thermos flask, to keep it cool. On arrival, we parked alongside many other cars, on the grassy area, right next to the river. (By coincidence, this area has featured heavily on the news since Christmas, as it has been badly flooded). Next to the parking area, the river was shallow, and led up to a weir. After the weir, the water is much deeper, and there is a waterfall effect, caused by the water rushing over the obstruction.
I had been allowed to take my toy boat. This was a wooden boat, made by my Dad, and it had a fairly large sail. This boat floated well, and I had previously sailed it on the pond, in the local park. After a family paddle, Mum prepared the picnic, and we all sat and ate. It was getting hotter, probably almost thirty degrees, and my parents were relaxing on the grass, tired after a long week at work. I was too young to sit still for too long, and returned to play with my boat, in the shallow water. Mum told me to stay where she could see me, and lay back on her blanket. I was enjoying the cold water on my bare legs, and the progress of my sailing boat, in the fast-flowing river. I started to follow it, as it built up speed, until I had walked a considerable distance from where I had started, near the family car. The exact period of elapsed time I am unsure of, but it was long enough for my Mum to have looked up, and to realise that I was not there.
She woke my dad, and told him that I was nowhere to be seen. They began to run around the area, which was filled with day-trippers, enjoying the sunshine. They asked everyone if they had seen a small boy, with a distinctive mop of almost white curls. Panic began to set in, when nobody could recall seeing me, or anyone like me. They went somewhere where announcements could be made, over a loud speaker system; possibly a First-Aid tent, or a Police point, I have no way of knowing now. Meanwhile, I was following my boat. I was too young to understand what a weir was, or to even notice the warning signs. I just wanted to catch my sailing boat, before it got too far from my reach, and became lost. I increased my speed in the water, and reached forward, in an attempt to grab it.
Although I was only five, I have two distinct memories of that year. One was starting school that September, being left by my Mum, and not wanting to go off with the teacher. This is the other one, and I can see it in flashback anytime, at will. My legs went from under me, and I had the sensation of sliding. Not falling, but sliding, just like on a slide at the local park. I went straight down into the deeper water, and it covered me immediately. There was no time to be alarmed, to panic, or to cry out. I was looking up, the sun bright but hazy through the water above me. There was no spluttering, no fighting for breath. I was swallowing though, as water seemed to be filling my mouth and stomach, I just kept swallowing. Every time I did, there was more water, and so it continued, for what seemed an eternity. Then there was a feeling of great peace. At that moment, I wasn’t scared, and could see clearly around me. The surface seemed to be a long way off, and there was total silence. Then it went dark. If that was death, it wasn’t as scary as you might imagine.
My next memory was of being on my back, coughing. Someone was covering me in something that felt rough and scratchy, and it was suddenly very noisy again. A man stood nearby, shivering, and soaking wet all over. Men were asking me questions, constantly repeating things that I couldn’t understand. I was lifted onto a stretcher, and my Mum appeared, wild-eyed and mad looking, most unlike her usual self. Some time passed, before I was aware of anything else. I was in a bed, but it wasn’t my bed. I was covered with scratchy covers again, and couldn’t move, they were so tight. Everything else was a blur, and I was told it all later, when I was able to understand. I remembered being under the water though, and I never found my boat.
I had wandered some way off from my starting point. It had been a while before my Mum noticed that I had gone, and the frantic searching had taken some time. On the bridge, or possibly beside it, a man had been fishing. As was the style of the day, he was fully dressed, in jacket, tie, and trousers. He had suddenly noticed a little boy, because of the white curly hair. The boy seemed to be running onto the top of the weir, and then disappeared under the water. This selfless man discarded his rod and line, and without thinking, jumped straight in, to rescue me. Helped by others on the bank, he got me out onto the side. Like most men at that time, he had seen some service in the war, and immediately knew that I was dead. I had drowned, and I didn’t even know. I had no heartbeat, and I wasn’t breathing. My lips were blue, and my body was floppy and lifeless. With the help of a first-aid trained person, the angler attempted to bring me back from the abyss. The resuscitation protocols during the 1950’s were very different from those practiced today. The generally accepted technique was to move the arms back and forth above the head, in a rowing action. This stimulated the ribs to move, assisting breathing, and also helped the lungs and stomach to expel any water. (Many years later, when training in the Ambulance Service, I was still taught these techniques. They were known by the inventors’ names, Silvester-Brosch, and Holger Neilsen.)
When this failed to revive me, they simply turned me over, and moved my ribs manually, which eventually resulted in most of the water coming out, and I started to breathe soon after. The period must have been mercifully short, as there was no long-lasting damage. By now, my parents were still no closer to finding me. They had gone the opposite way, and had no idea that I was so close to the weir. A police car toured the picnic grounds, asking if anyone had lost a child, and we were eventually reunited. My Dad told me, a long time later, that the soaking wet fisherman had retrieved a sodden packet of cigarettes from his jacket, and attempted to light one. Flushed with gratitude, my dad gave him his own cigarettes, almost a full packet. He never got the life-saver’s name, something both my parents always regretted.
I was taken to hospital in Maidstone, the county town about five miles from where I had drowned. I was kept under observation there, but I don’t know for how long, as I am sure that I was home later that night, in the dark. Perhaps not, memory plays tricks sometimes. I made the local London newspaper, the Evening Star. A small corner, telling how a London boy drowned on a day trip to Kent, and was saved by an angler. When my Mum died, I found this cutting in her possessions, saved lovingly, for fifty-five years. I was never once told off about this incident. Never scolded, or warned not to wander off. I believe that my parents always felt that they were to blame, and their guilt stopped them from admonishing me.
I never really felt comfortable in deep water after that day. And I have never learned how to swim.