Aftermath of tragic accident
You’d have liked my uncle Henry. He was one of those people who are ‘sorely missed.’ There was nothing very special about him on the face of it. He never climbed a mountain or crossed a desert or earned a medal in the war. He was just a nice, elderly chap, who had a kind word for everyone, and you could always count on him if you were a little strapped for cash. He spent his entire life in our little sea-side town, and the world outside would never have heard of him were it not for the extraordinary manner of his death. The actual cause of death was a heart attack, but he didn’t die at home or in a hospital bed. Instead, his body was discovered early one morning by a fisherman, lying on the far side of the estuary below the town, directly opposite a beach known locally as The Flats.
Now, The Flats is no place for the bucket and spade brigade. There are quick sands here, and deep holes that have the nasty trick of moving around with the tide. The greatest hazard of all, however, is the tide itself. Twice a day it surges with frightening speed up the narrow funnel of the estuary. As the water rushes past the town it becomes the great and deadly wave called the Walcott Bore. Cows, horses, even tractors have been swept away by it. Yes, and people, too.
The only way of crossing The Flats on foot is by navigating the ancient, slippery breakwater that spans the estuary at its narrowest point, where it’s less than 100 yards wide. Not so very far for you and I, but no easy task for someone of Henry’s age. Even so, it’s what he must have done, because his footprints were plain to see, leading straight up the beach from the far end of the breakwater to the spot where he was found. Strangest of all, the footprints were sharp and deep, like those of a running man.
Shortly after the funeral an envelope was discovered in the back of a drawer
in Henry’s desk. It contained the following pages, written out in his old-fashioned copper-plate hand. I’ve left out some of the personal bits, but what remains makes it clear we didn’t know Uncle Henry as well as we thought.
‘From the window of my study I can see right across the estuary and the Flats, to Caxton village, where I went to school. In the late afternoon it all looks so peaceful before the tide comes in and covers everything. The whelk fishermen are still out, and the sun turns the rock pools to silver. There are several children playing next to the breakwater, and I would call down to warn them off if they weren’t so far away. Not that it’s necessary nowadays. The breakwater’s been fenced off ever since my best friend Billy Roberts fell off it and drowned during the summer holidays nearly fifty years ago.
Of course, you’ve all heard about what happened to Billy, but what you don’t know is that it was my fault. If it hadn’t been for me he would never have been on that breakwater in the first place.
Billy and I were best mates ever since Kindergarten and when our last summer together began we were both eleven years old. We had no inkling of what was to come. All we could think of was freedom from school, with nothing but endless days of fun ahead of us. There were no computers, of course, or video games, and we didn't know anyone with a T.V. There was a Saturday Morning Picture Show in Morecombe, only we never had the money. Not that we cared very much. There were still plenty of other things we could get up to for free.
And we got up to all of them: football in the mud, scrumping for apples, rabbit-hunting in the fields above the bay, giggling over girlie magazines Billy found under his brother's bed and nicking chocolates from the sweet shop when the owner's back was turned. Sometimes we wandered the promenade, making witty and suggestive remarks to the girls, or raided the yard behind the pub, where the beer empties often had stale dregs left in them.
It was after we'd downed more flat beer than usual one evening and were feeling a little dull that I decided we ought to race the Bore again.
Racing the Bore was one of my favourite games, mainly because I always won. All you had to do was to go down to the Flats and wait until the siren from the coast guard station warned you the tide was on its way, then sprint across the breakwater to the other side, and back again before the Bore caught you. Piece of cake. There was nothing to fear from the quicksand--not as long as you stayed on the rocks.
As a rule Billy was up for just about anything, but he'd had enough of the Bore.
"We did that last week," he objected.
"Winner gets a bottle of cider," I said.
Billy's eyes brightened. His father was a cider drinker, and Billy sometimes sneaked a swig from Dad's bottle when no-one was home.
"But we ain't got no money," he said, turning his empty trouser pockets in-side out as proof.
"Who needs money?" I answered, scornfully. "Loser nicks it from the off-licence."
Billy laughed. "That'll be you, then."
"We'll see about that," I said. I was the fastest runner in our year and there was no way Billy was going to beat me, not even if I doubled his usual head start.
Billy and I knew the tides as well as any fisherman, so we decided to do the deed on the following night, when there would be a full moon, meaning high tide about 9.30 and still plenty of light to see with. There was some big football match on, as well, so most of the grown-ups would be watching T.V. in the pub, or sitting at home next to the wireless. Neither of us had a watch, so we arranged to meet up after supper at the church clock tower in the High Street. Unless it rained, of course: we knew better than to try and cross the breakwater in the rain
By 9 o'clock it still hadn't rained, and my father went off to the pub. A few minutes later my mother left for her bingo. When I was sure the coast was clear I slipped out and hurried to the church, where Billy was already waiting. We both wore thick-soled plimsolls, which gave good purchase on the rocks. At twenty past nine we started down the hill towards the breakwater. We thought no-one would be about because of the game, but there was a policeman leaning against a wall over-looking The Flats. He held a pocket-watch in his hand, and we knew he was waiting to set it by the siren.
"We'll 'ave to call it off," whispered Billy.
"Chicken!" I said.
"Who you callin' chicken?"
Before I could reply the siren went off. The racket was tremendous and we covered our ears until it was over. Then, as the noise gradually died down, I willed the policeman to leave, only he didn't: he lit a cigarette and puffed away for at least three minutes, then looked at his watch again and sauntered off down the High Street.
"Come on then," I said.
Billy looked up at the moon. "There's clouds," he said.
I made a clucking sound.
That did it. Billy glared at me and hurried down the steps to the beach, where he jumped up onto the first rock of the breakwater and stood looking down at me with his hands on his hips.
“We'll soon see who's chicken,” he said, and raced off with a loud whoop, as sure-footed as a deer as he leaped from rock to rock. I counted to ten, then scooted fearlessly after him, for I knew every crack, angle and gap here as well as he.
And then the rain came. It started without warning, as it often does in these parts. I ignored the first few drops and kept on going, then stopped as it began coming down in buckets. I could no longer see Billy, so I called out to him, but there was no answer. When I looked back I saw I was still less than half-way across. I began cautiously retracing my steps, not at all worried about Billy, who’d run a lot better than I expected. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been more than three-quarters of the way to the other side. I laughed as I thought of what Billy's father would say when he had to drive all the way round to pick him up.
I was about ten feet from the steps when I felt a vibration through the soles of my shoes. I knew what that meant and began to run. I reached the steps and was half way up them when someone reached down, seized my arm, and lifted me bodily into the air and over the wall above the breakwater. The man who'd grabbed me kept shouting something. It sounded like a question, but his voice was drowned out by the train-like roar of the huge wave that crashed over the stones below us.
When I got to my feet I saw that the doors of the pub across the road were open, and people were running out into the street. My father was among them. When he saw me he tried to get me to come inside, because I was soaked to the skin, but I wouldn’t go. I just clung to the wall, shouting Billy’s name across the water. Then the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun and the moon came out. Someone must have called the coast-guard, because a search and rescue vessel soon appeared, its wake gleaming as it made its way to the beach on the far side of the breakwater, which was now completely covered by the tide.
The policeman on the beat turned up as well. He came and stood next to me by the wall with a radio in his hand. It crackled and he held it to his ear, but he couldn’t hear anything.
“Bloody well shut up, the lot of you!” he yelled.
We fell silent as the radio crackled again. The policeman listened for a moment and said, “Right, over and out, then.”
“Well?” my father said. “Did they find him?”
“They found him, all right.”
The policeman shook his head slowly.
“Poor little bugger,” he said.
No-one blamed me for Billy's death. Instead, people treated me like an invalid, tiptoeing around, and giving me worried looks, and speaking to me so softly that I wanted to ask them to speak up, only I couldn’t. My mother told me later that I didn’t say a word for nearly three days. When I got my voice back a kind policeman came to the house to take a statement, but I said I didn't remember very much.
I did remember one thing, though, something I couldn't tell the policeman because I was afraid he'd take me to prison: I remembered that I'd called Billy 'chicken,' because I knew that would make him race even when he didn't want to. The policeman said never mind, I was probably still in shock. He promised to come back and talk to me later, but he never did.
Hundreds of people turned up for the funeral, including most of the kids from
school. My parents thought I shouldn't go, but I knew I had to. The worst moment came when we were all standing round the grave. My mother and father were on either of me, each holding one of my hands. Billy’s mother was crying. When Billy’s dad saw us he hurried over, and I cringed when I saw him coming. I thought he was going to hit me, but he just gave me a hug and said, “It’s all right, lad, it’s all right.” Only it wasn’t all right. I felt like a murderer.
I never went back to my old school. When the 11+ exam results came through I found I’d got into the grammar by the skin of my teeth. This meant leaving behind most of my childhood mates, and starting afresh at St. Luke’s in Caxton. To tell you the truth I was glad to get away from all the questions, and the funny looks people gave me. I was especially glad to get away from the chants of ‘Henry’s a chicken!,” that sometimes followed me as I walked down the street.
The rest, as they say, is History…The details of my life since then--leaving school, National Service, the bank, marriage and kids, my angina--are so well known to all of you that I won’t bother going into them here. Apart from the truth about Billy it’s all been pretty much of an open book. Until recently, that is.
A few weeks ago I started dreaming of the Flats almost every night. Always the same dream. It's evening and there's still a glow from the sunset above the horizon. The tide is out and I'm walking across the breakwater. I'm looking for Billy, but also for someone else, only I can’t remember who. I find Billy buried up to his waist in quicksand, not far from the end of the breakwater. He looks remarkably well, considering. When he sees me he giggles and says, "Come on in, then. The water's lovely."
"But there isn't any water, Billy," I say.
"Don't you worry about that," he answers, and giggles again. "There will be, in a minute..."
And then I hear the roaring sound behind me, and I wake up.
The details of the dream remain crystal clear in my mind even when I'm awake, and I always want to get back to it, as if I’d woken just before the most important part. I long for sleep so much you'd think I was waiting for the next installment of my favourite T.V. serial. I do realise it’s only a dream, of course, but what does that mean, exactly? This dream has a purpose. Something deeply buried is coming to the surface, a message from me to myself.
Last night the dream completed itself. Don’t ask me how I know; I just do. This time I didn’t wake when I heard the Bore: I ran. I ran for my life with a feeling of freedom I had not known these last 60 years. When I reached the end of the breakwater I jumped down and pounded up the beach, laughing as the water lapped at my heels.
And the meaning of all this? Well, it's obvious, isn't it? I must race the Bore again. Only this time I must see it through to the end. And what good will that do, you may ask? I can answer that one as well. When my friend Billy died part of me died with him. Since then I’ve been more or going through the motions. Oh, that's not to say I haven't led a full enough life. I’ve known happiness, and I've loved my family and my friends, but I've always had the vague feeling that some important part of me was still back on that breakwater.
I haven't told anyone about this, of course. If I did I'd be locked up for sure. So Mum's the word, because I’m going to do it tomorrow night, when the moon is full. Mind you, I won’t be hanging around for the siren. It’s me who needs the head start this time, so I’ll be off long before that, hobbling fit to burst.
Whatever I find out there, it won't be Billy. But then, there's no secret about where he is. Perhaps I’ll lay some flowers on his grave before I go, and ask him to wish me luck. No, what I hope to find is my own childhood self, the missing piece of the jigsaw that is my life, and to do that I must face the Bore one last time.
Will I beat it? Well, if anyone ever reads this, I probably didn't. But there's one thing you can count on: I'll give it my best shot. Just see if I don't.'