by Fred Cucchi
Mum frowned as jagged lightning gashed the murky sky. I insisted. “Okay, Frankie, you can go down to Stephen’s house on your bike but play indoors. You be back for lunch, mind. You’ve got your homework to do.”
At Steve’s house we plotted our forbidden adventure from behind cupped hands. We checked our fishing tackle, worms and all, and rode away, heedless of the drizzle pattering on our anoraks. We cycled along muddy paths down to where a stream wended its way through green fields. Pity they had cemented its banks. We left our bikes under some wind tormented trees and began fishing.
I watched Stephen casting out and reeling back, oblivious to the rain flattening his scruffy hair to his forehead. He had the passion for fishing. I just played along out of a sense of adventure. Not to be out done, I moved closer to the river bank. Another stab of lightening scarred the sky. I lost my footing, my reel buzzed as my rod and gear flew away; live bait and all. I groped at the bank but the concrete offered scant grip. Blood spurted from under my fingernails as my hands scraped against the unyielding concrete. Steve was intent on his fishing strategy. “Bloody hell, Steve, grab me’ hand,” I shouted, more annoyed than afraid.
He scrambled over and stretched out his arm but I slipped away from him. My stomach knotted as I felt my feet plunge into the fast-moving torrent. The cold water took my breath away as I went in up to my waist. I was still grappling with the shrubbery but the current was pulling me away. It was like there was a raging sea monster rushing through the cemented banks, sweeping me along with the floating debris.
Against the flat sky, I could see Stephen’s hunched figure cycling along. I pushed up. “Go get help!” I spluttered, before I was engulfed again by water gurgling into my mouth.
Breathing was spasmodic. I felt myself slipping under the surging waves. I knew I shouldn’t panic as it would only make things worse but the current was stronger than my frantic attempts to stay afloat. I began kicking and flailing in desperation and came up out of the water. I saw Stephen waving a long branch at me and shrieking, “Grab, it! Grab it!” I lunged at it and almost jerked it out of his hand but I could see he was bent too far forward. He’d be in the water with me in a second unless I let go. Two deaths by drowning, no! I released my grip and was swept away by the monstrous current, bobbing up and down like a fishing cork.
I could hear Steve’s desperate shouts fading away as I was tossed against the other bank. Cracked fingernails grated against the cracked concrete. My fingers found a gap and somehow clasped the slit. It was razor-sharp but my fingers were already lacerated, bloody and sore. It was a fleeting respite. My feet kicked out at the angry current but it grabbed at my legs like tentacles, pulling me down and away from the bank; under, under and further under. With no time to catch my breath, a distant pain in my chest was expanding fast, choking me. All sound far away. It felt like death. Mum, you’re the best. I love you. A vision flashed like a thunderbolt. Dad, are you waiting for me up there? I’m coming. Don’t be angry. I know I should have listened to mum.
A tree trunk almost scratched an eye out with a long, spindly limb. I grabbed it and heaved my head up. I saw Stephen gesticulating but his voice was drowned out by the rumbling clouds. I kicked out towards the bank. There was a rougher surface here – shrubbery had pierced the cracks of older cement. “Go get help!” I gasped, gripping the foliage as the water surged up and over my hands and head. “Get some adults from those houses back there!”
“I’ll be back, Frankie,” Steve screamed. As I watched him cycling off without looking back, I felt a terrible sense of abandonment. I lost my grip and slipped away. Too exhausted to react. This was it. A strange calm descended, easing the flutter of panic. Grown-ups often have wonky ideas but sometimes they know best. It’s like their bad experiences have scarred their minds, so they scare us to protect us. Trouble is I don’t scare easy. Still, too late now. I’m done being scared.
I hit a curve in the stream. Through blurred eyes I saw another branch pierce the water with twig like fingers gesticulating at me. It seemed a thing alive. People have a trunk and trees have arms, I found myself thinking. I heard a voice, many voices shouting out above the rumbling storm. “Frankie, grab this. Come on, lad! Don’t give up. You’re a winner.” I made out two men. The first was holding the second who was shifting his feet down the slope, shaking the branch at me. My God! Stephen’s worked a miracle.
My feet made traction against the overgrowth. I’m yanked up, out and onto my back. People were talking but I couldn’t understand. I was mouthing words but spluttering water. Someone pummelled my chest. I choked and spewed and coughed for a while. “Thanks. Sorry,” was all I finally managed, as I stood up, on uncertain feet; determined to show it was nothing serious. “I’m fine. I knew I’d get a grip downstream. I can swim. Really.”
“Well, I thought you were fish food there, son. You were bloody lucky.”
“Dead stupid being here in this weather,” said the other man. “Do your parents know?”
“Yeah, sure, my dad,” I replied, ignoring Steve’s look.
I pointed vaguely behind me. “My bike’s back there.” I turned to Steve. “We better get going, right?”
“Yeah.” Steve gave them a high five. “Thanks a lot.”
My fingers and knees were gashed, blood was trickling across an eye but I had never been happier – I was alive. “Steve, next time you want to go fishin’, don’t tell me.” He just shrugged sheepishly. We wobbled our way home, heads bowed against the pelting rain. Horrified at what could have been. Elated for the happy outcome.
Steve’s mum looked at us wide-eyed; then scolded me for taking her son fishing! “You should’ve known better. He’s just turned twelve, you’re four months older.” The unjust accusation speared me to the heart. Steve said nothing. I just hung my head. Strange how others’ remarks can leave the biggest scars. “Besides, what will your mum say, when she sees you?”
“Please don’t tell her,” Steve pleaded, “otherwise she won’t let him come anymore.”
“Well, let’s get you sorted,” she said giving me a towel. “Otherwise your mum’ll blame me.” A hairdryer and a comb helped. A hot cup of sugary tea did the rest. “You’ll have funny fingerprints from now on, Frankie,” she slapped Bandaids around my fingers and on my forehead.
By twelve I was home, changed and ready for lunch with my mum and brothers. Proud that fear and panic had been conquered. Determined it would never happen again. But it was to be my stubborn secret. All mum knew was that I had hurt myself climbing a wall. At school I wore my scars like a medal.
I bring my hands up from my side. The scars on my fingertips harden my resolve. It has taken years but I have gone from drowning nightmares to dreaming about swimming slippery like a fish. Faith and fear, with me, can’t occupy the same space at the same time. Not anymore.
There’s a detonation and I dive into the warm pool. The race is on. Voices are cheering. I am under water, kicking hard, my head leaning into the ripples as I heave up and out. I’m gliding through the water, swimming quick but relaxed strokes. I see the stripe on the bottom of the pool; lane ropes on either side. This is my moment. No negative thoughts. I’m going with the flow. I am going for the biggest scary dream of all. I’m doing it. The whistle. The cheering. I look up at the flashing board. Its for me! Its a new 200 metres freestyle Olympic record. Another victory to notch up! That’s for you mum!
She had been amazed at how my uncoordinated splashing at the local pool had become the smooth movements of a champion swimmer at college. She never knew why.
A lifetime dedicated to conquering a fear of drowning has made me a compulsive competitor in water sports. But only indoors.
I hate open waters. No reassuring stripe to follow, no lanes. Unseen creatures lurking under you. Choppy waves splashing into your mouth. Cold waters. Floating debris. Treacherous currents. Difficult to understand how people can like that.
I don’t enjoy fishing either.
I guess some scars never heal.