“And time passes, it is only life itself that never changes – when we are all gone the clouds, the gone the clouds, the stars, the cities will still bustle and hum with no thoughts at all for who lived for a bit and then disappeared.”
John Hickman, 1960
The Bosphorus Page 3
Alcatraz Page 42
The Dart Page 81
He was late for swim training. As he clipped down Emily’s front steps and strode towards his moped, this was what he was thinking. Through the black well of Hyde Park he gunned the moped, standing over the speed bumps, over Serpentine Bridge glancing left and right to look upon the secret of the lake, the perforated walls of winter trees. By the edge of the park, where the traffic spilled along Bayswater Road between Marble Arch and Notting Hill Gate, he had made up time and he allowed himself to relax into Emily’s words. He chewed it over as he navigated Lancaster Gate. His father was dead already, wasn’t that the point? He undertook a line of taxis waiting at the lights onto Lancaster Terrace and cut left, cruising down Gloucester Terrace and turning left onto Westbourne Grove. He was stuck in his father’s shadow. He parked on a rare single yellow line on Porchester Road, in a pool of light thrown by the night lights of a Thai Massage parlour. Marching off towards Porchester Baths, swinging his silver helmet in one gloved hand, he was thinking how do you kill someone who is already dead? What was the point of further destruction?
He had first swum in Porchester Baths as a five year old schoolboy and they were as he remembered them: the smell of chlorine, the hardness of the laminated tiles under his feet. The rest of the group was already in the water. Milan, their Slovak coach, was striding up and down shouting instructions and clapping his huge hands. He climbed down into the cool water, tightened his goggles and began to swim the lane. In this way he exchanged yellow light for submarine blue, air for water. He swapped habitats. He wasn’t a great swimmer, he was OK. His weakness was not in his arms or legs, it was up front in the head. Any mental frailty was mercilessly exposed. The first five minutes were the hardest, while he tried to establish a rhythm. It was easy to work too hard – this put pressure on the lungs and the result was a feeling of breathlessness, accompanied by anxiety that the impending one and three quarter hours of hard training would be too much. He needed to hold his nerve long enough for the body to settle down, and the lungs to start working. Breathe slowly and fully. Stay calm.
There were seven of them in the group – E, J, M, K, A and D, and they were preparing to compete in a 6.5km race in Istanbul. This unnerving prospect, which he had proposed during a boozy Sunday lunch, had driven them into the arms of Milan. J, M and A were architects, D was a photographer, Ka journalist, E ran an NGO and then there was him; an entrepreneur, a writer, a retired campaigner still looking wistfully over his shoulder at the fist-fight he had left behind him.
One 30 metre length after the other, in the clinical light and cool chemical water of the pool, under constant observation. One followed the other, water-logged, in a procession of barging men and women. At his first ever training session he had entered the water light with anticipation, confident that he was a strong swimmer. The front crawl came naturally to him; he was already capable of swimming prodigious distances using breast stroke. Even back stroke, which he found irksome and flooding, was something he could perform to a respectable standard.
“Ten lengths warm up” came Milan’s first ever instruction and he and the rest of the group queued patiently and one-by-one set off. The first length was easy, the second fine but by the third and then fourth he was working uncomfortably hard to keep up, and to stay ahead of the swimmer behind. His baggy trunks dragged like a sea anchor. Spikes of anxiety stabbed him. At last it was over. The group stood in the shallow end, their faces beetroot coloured.
“What happened?” asked someone.
“Warm up” managed another. No one laughed.
First, Milan taught them to breathe bilaterally, and made them practice by breathing every third stroke, fourth stroke, fifth, sixth and even seventh stroke. The key to breathing, he explained, was to expel air from your lungs in a constant stream. He pursed his lips and blew.
“Breathe out well and you breathe in well.”
After a while he understood. But his lungs screamed with pain.
“One length breathing on 4, the next breathing on 6. And then repeat five times.”
They practised swimming with their fists clenched.
“Feel the water against your arms; everything below your elbow is important. Use it!” shouted Milan, and blew his whistle. They swum with their fingers fanned out. They swam kicking with their legs, their arms pointing forwards. And at last they were allowed to use their hands properly: the straight fingers extended, each one a paddle which pulled and pushed him through the water with unprecedented ease and power.
Other exercises were designed to teach them to maximise the reach of their arms, and to learn to move aerodynamically through the water. Hold and glide.
“Imagine you are kebab, with iron bar running along your body” Milan told them.
“You must turn your body on the bar, like this…”
‘Catch up’ was a core drill; the leading hand had to stay as far in front as it would go and not move until the following hand had stretched forwards to tap it. Sometimes Milan required them to interrupt each stroke by touching the top of their heads with their hand. Swimming a length with the right hand held high out of the water and the left held against their side, kicking rhythmically; and then vice versa on the return. Repeat. Swimming only with the right arm, and then only with the left, keeping the unused arm pointing forwards at all times. They were told to count how many strokes they used each length, and try and reduce the number by at least one stroke per length over five lengths. Swimming with a float squeezed between their thighs, swimming with paddles strapped to their hands, swimming with a float and paddles, swimming with flippers. Between each set the group was granted a rest of between ten and sixty seconds, depending on the intensity of the exercise. While they rested they sucked air into their lungs. Sometimes they didn’t understand Milan’s instruction, and paused while he repeated it. Sometimes they pretended not to understand, just to buy them some extra rest time. There was margin for error in Milan’s English, and Milan knew it and he would repeat the instruction and they would stand in the water hanging on his words and nod and take it in turns to ask for some point of clarification, or ask a dumb question knowing the answer would take another 10 or so seconds for Milan to close things down.
Next, Milan introduced the subversive idea of variable levels of effort.
“Ten lengths at 60%, twenty lengths at 75%, ten lengths at 60%. Rest. Repeat.”
“One length 90%, one length 50%. One length 90%, one length 50%. Repeat. Ten times.”
“What exactly do you mean by 75%?” asked someone, and the others, seeing an opportunity for procrastination, made supporting noises and exchanged grinning, baffled looks. Someone got out of the water and stood, bent at the waist, his top half parallel to the tiled floor as he demonstrated the range of speeds he believed available to him. Milan watched politely and when he had finished told him to get back into the water. Thus Milan herded the group forward, like a fisherman driving fish towards a net, and it was never long before the group was pushing off in a long column.
They swam in a hierarchy which had established itself during their first ever session. A – the biggest (and fastest) swimmer – at the front, his broad shoulders breaking the water first. They swam quite tight, so that he could see the soles of the feet of the swimmer up ahead. There was a vague etiquette about ‘drafting’ – like cycling, the swimming was a little easier in the wake of another, but this was considered bad form to try. And in fact it was irksome to hover around about someone’s kicking feet.
One distraction was the ancient pool’s underwater topography. An algae stain, a repair, the wisps of flotsam and grit tugged and let go by invisible currents. Looking out across the pool he watched other groups in other lanes being pushed to swim even faster over longer distances. A gross AmEan investment banker with hairy shoulders and relentless momentum, the honey brown legs of a South African girl, someone’s mirrored goggles sinister and insect-like. He had no means of communication with these people, he felt warmly towards them as fellow prisoners. The sight of the aluminum steps marked the halfway point of each length; the last five metres of the shallow end were flagged with a horizontal red line and two rows of royal blue tiles; if he had the energy he imagined himself a plane coming in to land. Overhead the skylights in the high Victorian roof were a reminder that outside the night was dark, encouraging the impression that he was swimming deep underground. As the year crept on the skylights paled until they were a source of natural light and on sunny evenings infiltrated the water with gifts of gold which had a magical effect on his spirits.
The one thing he strained to avoid looking at was the pool clock. It hung above the deep end, and if he was not careful he would single it out and monitor the time. This could be enormously damaging. On one memorable occasion he swam towards the clock, panting and failing, and processed the terrible information that it was 7.20. They had been swimming for just twenty minutes. That left them one hour twenty five minutes still to swim! Was the clock broken? How could he possibly keep going so long? He was exhausted already; he might as well get out now. And so on. But something always stopped him giving up, and gradually the panic was forgotten and he always kept going until the end.
Once he was settled, and the main set stretched out ahead, and he stopped counting lengths and just concentrated on keeping his place in the queue, he had nothing to occupy his mind save what was on his mind. After a while this became soaked and soft in the water and he slipped into reverie, moving from subject to subject, taking great falling leaps across time and geography, seeing images from his past float past, dragging up some part of his memory which haunted him and sifting it and picking it apart and making sense of it while his legs kicked and his arms shunted through the water and his body moved ahead. This deep, mesmerised thinking gathered and tidied the rubble of insights and understanding left behind by his discussions with Emily. He learnt to choose a subject on his way to a swim, and place it in the forefront of his mind so that as he settled into main set, the subject was the thing his mind began to work upon as he was broken down and by the session he might understand it better.
All of this work in his head occurred to the rhythmic hum of his exhaled breath, which he made in a guttural song which ran on in his head so that the swim became a sustained chant, his music personal and deeply feeling, releasing in a stream of bubbled sound towards the tiled floor of the pool.
The words they dreaded most, spoken in the same warning spirit as a golfer might shout “fore” after a wayward drive, were “main set.” This was a 45 minute session that formed the hard core of each training session. The words provoked a theatrical response from the group. Milan would shout “come in” and the group would cluster in the shallow end, looking up at Milan.
“Here we go” someone groaned.
“I don’t think I can go on” said another earnestly.
“Anything but the Pyramid!” implored a third.
Their tone was dry and fatalistic, through gritted teeth in the tradition of the English soldier roused to one last act of desperate valour by an incompetent officer class.
This was the worst possible combination of words:
“Main set! Come in … we are doing Pyramid”.
This elicited dark laughter from the group. Although this torture was now familiar to them, someone always asked to have the pyramid’s construction explained.
Milan smiled patiently.
“Ten lengths, thirty seconds rest. Fifteen lengths, forty five seconds rest. Twenty lengths, one minute rest. Twenty five lengths, two minutes.”
Pantomime boos rang out. Absorbing this steep challenge he sank down under the water and sat cross-legged on the bottom, shaping his mind for the climb.
“AND DOWN OTHER SIDE” Milan was booming as he resurfaced.
One hundred and forty lengths. It normally lasted sixty minutes. It was a dreadful, long hour in which one passed through a series of helpless attitudes: victim, prisoner, sherpah (put upon), survivor (dogged), sherpa (long suffering), sherpa (indomitable), survivor (triumphant), hero.
At the bottom of the pyramid, the sweetest possible words: “OK. Finish. Four lengths warm down. Any stroke.”
The luxury of breast-stroke, as slow as you like, or some sort of backstroke, gamboling, twisting, pausing at the end to dive to the bottom. Mind drenched. His face flushed red, his arms and shoulders dull with effort.
And then, as they climbed out, free men for another week…
“Good job. You swum 3km this evening. Good job.”
At those moments he loved Milan and the hard feeling of the tiles under his feet, and the short bursts of hot water from the showers and the banter and the empty-headed walk to the changing room and his locker where his motorbike helmet and the armoured jacket were wedged in tight and the rest of his clothes which he put on cursing the buttons because his hands were weak with effort.
“See you in the pub” someone shouted and ten minutes later the group was occupying the roof garden of The Paradise drinking pints of Flowers Bitter, packets of salt and vinegar crisps open to share on the table and each of them smoking because if you couldn’t have a drink or smoke a cigarette after swimming for one hour and three quarters without stopping when the hell could you?
During his last year at school he had volunteered to spend a year teaching in a secondary school in an empty quarter of Zimbabwe. The day before he left for Africa he felt profoundly anxious. His precise fear was that he would panic upon arrival, and be forced to return to his mother, humiliated and unproven. The length of time – nine months, starting in mid-winter and finishing at the end of the summer – felt extraordinarily long. On his last night at home his mother cut his hair for the final time: he sat still, trying not to cry.
The next morning he reported to Heathrow airport. He was one of a group of 40 volunteers who boarded a Balkan Air flight to Sofia; the beginning of a 23 hour journey. It was January 1990 and socialist Bulgaria was bust. Unsmiling stewardesses brandished baskets of windfall apples and the cabin quickly filled with cigarette smoke. At Sofia they disembarked in heavy morning snow and it was dark before they boarded the flight to Harare via Lagos. Arriving in the Nigerian capital the next morning they waited for their connecting flight in a terminal building with views over a corner of shimmering tarmac edged by wild vegetation. It was very hot inside the terminal. He paused by a plate glass window to take a photograph and a soldier prodded him with the muzzle of his automatic rifle.
Zimbabwe was a place of light and scale which diminished Europe. The smell of red earth which had endured centuries of water and sunshine; leagues of clean, unindustrialised air. The dirt roads, the houses made of sticks, mud straw, the black people. Everything felt strange. He had been billeted with three other volunteers at Uzumba Secondary School in a remote valley two hundred kilometres east of Harare. They reached the school the following evening, on foot and soaked through with rain. They walked through the school gates carrying their sodden luggage which they had lifted out of the back of the truck which stood stranded behind them on the edge of a spate river.
The Head Master, a smiling man wearing a brown suit and a Lenin beard, greeted them warmly. Night fell and the four of them were left alone in their concrete house. They lit candles and hung their wet clothes and sleeping bags to dry. A sleepless night, noted by the strange sounds of insects, ended at last. The sun revealed itself first in short sentences, worming into paragraphs, then a chapter and instantly a whole book’s worth of revelation which complete, dropped from his hand smashed forever onto the bare concrete floor. Through narrowed eyes he saw granite hills and banana groves lined the river valley. He saw everything in the finest possible detail: the washing hanging outside the houses of the other teachers, the hint of smoke over the remains of the rubbish pit, the shine of the blackboard through the windows of the empty classroom, a white track climbing the hillside. He saw everything and he felt no fear. He was going to be OK.
Having at last received an education, he returned home to Kent in the early autumn of 1990 and almost immediately bounced, like a pin ball – bright, blind – all the way up England and across the border into Scotland. During Fresher’s Week he joined Edinburgh University’s Labour and Conservative Parties but he never attended meetings of either. Two grinning activists flanked the Conservative Party’s stand wearing ‘Mandela is a Terrorist’ badges. It was October 1990, several months after Nelson Mandela had been released from Robben Island. He remembered the Uzumba morning when the school listened to Mandela’s release on the BBC’s World Service. The boys and girls had coursed about barefoot, whooping and hollering and brandishing long branches of victory in their hands. Though he longed to make the two activists feel ridiculous he was too shy to say anything. He didn’t trust himself to keep his temper. During his first year he attended several Student Union debates but he was too unsure to make a contribution, those who did seemed to him theatrical and insincere.
He lived in a high ceiling’d flat at the top of a dilapidated Georgian tenement. Most of Edinburgh’s students lived in halls of residence at Pollock, and in colonies of flats in Marchmont and New Town. Annandale Street stood apart, a handsome Street gone to seed, renowned for a snooker club outside which violent fighting occurred every Friday and Saturday night. There were five of them in the flat; he and the son of an old doctor friend of his father’s, and three girls. Two of the girls had also been volunteers in Zimbabwe. From their roof, onto which they climbed through a precarious skylight, he could see white horses on the Firth of Forth, the green lowland hills. The flat was decrepit and at the foot of the stairwell gathered a pile of rubbish bags lobbed by tenants too lazy to put them out on the pavement. When the north west wind raced over the water and up the hill from Leith the tall windows rattled in their frames and the cold poured in. No bed was provided by the landlord so he continued to sleep on a mattress on the floor. He had brought no other furniture. A framed photograph of his father stood on the window sill of his bedroom, its back to the water. Walking home from the university he would cross North Bridge and at Waterloo Place he turned right. He walked down Leith Street past the St James shopping centre and Picardy Place and on to the high point of Leith Walk, where it began to drop down the hill towards the Firth. One November afternoon he walked home with a beautiful English girl. She wore a black leather jacket and NHS glasses, he recognised her from his Modern History lectures. He asked her where she lived, he didn’t possess the courage to ask anything else. When she turned into a cobbled square full of tall trees he was sorry to say goodbye.
“We’re having a party on the week-end. Will you come?” she asked.
He took with him C, one of his friends from Zimbabwe. The square was full of black-fronted Georgian town houses. Inside, the flat was a huge. In the bathroom on cork tiles stood an enormous iron bath on the four feet of a griffin, or a leopard. There were a great deal of people standing in the hall, and in front of a great fire place in the sitting room. He and C stood on the edge of the room, watching.
“Hello” said the English girl. She had been laughing and she held a glass of cider in one hand. From somewhere she produced another girl, black-haired and impish looking.
“These are our new neighbours” shouted the English girl over the music.
He and C smiled back.
“There are two more of us” the girl explained. “Especially L, but god knows where he is”.
“He and H are throwing wine bottles out of the window” said the other girl.
“It’s something to do with the Iraq war.”
One morning he woke to the smell of burnt toast. But there was no one in their kitchen. He traced the smell to the hall and when he opened the front door he was confronted by a wall of black smoke. He shut the door and wondered what to do. He checked the rest of the flat and found C asleep in her room. He woke her and after she had dressed led her to the hall. There was more smoke. His hunch was that the fire was still relatively small, and not in the stone stairwell, and that should they try and get out they would be OK. The alternative was to stay in the tall tenement flat and wait for the fire to rise towards them. The idea of being trapped frightened him. He took C by the hand and they walked down the stairwell towards the fire. He could see nothing in the smoke, which was acrid; he held the stair rail with one hand and in the other held the hand of C and together they descended in slow circles into the gloom. Thick grey smoke obscured everything and when his feet hit the ground floor he almost fell. He could feel the warmth of the fire now, and he could hear it. They felt their way along the corridor. Then he could see the light of the street, and they emerged onto Annandale Street. A crowd had gathered, and its members laughed and pointed at them. He saw that C’s face was covered in black soot. He laughed, and she pointed back at him and laughed back. A fire engine arrived, and then another.
“Which flat are you from?” asked a fireman.
“Left or right?”
“Any more of you?”
“Don’t move. I’m fetching you an ambulance.”
He overheard him on the radio.
“It’s another one”.
He and C were told to sit in the back of the ambulance and given oxygen to breathe through a mask. He sat with the mask fixed on his face watching smoke pour out of the door he and C had just emerged from. He was missing a lecture on Vichy France. On the top floor of the building, his neighbours – men and women he had never seen before – were sitting on the window ledges, chatting amicably, and smoking.
At the hospital a policeman came to interview them.
“Someone set fire to the rubbish at the bottom of the stairwell” he explained.
“Happens a lot.”
“L you catch them?” he asked, conscious of his English accent.
The policeman laughed.
“Doubt it. I should think it was one of your neighbours.”
Neither he nor C had brought money so they walked home across the city. The front door of the tenement building stood open, the stone well was dripping wet and rank with the stink of smoke. When they got to the top of the stone staircase they discovered that they had left their front door open, and that everything in the flat – the walls, the furniture, the telephone, the bath – was covered in a film of greasy black soot.
“FUCK” he said, standing in the hall and looking around him.
From the sitting room, C shouted something.
She walked into the hall, and stood facing him.
“Someone’s stolen the television” she said.
He checked his room; his music system had gone. So had C’s. A bottle of whisky was missing from the kitchen. In one of the girl’s bedrooms the drawers has been pulled out and their contents – winter clothes, knickers – were strewn about the filthy floor.
He laughed. It wasn’t funny but he laughed.
They were filthy. They both wanted a bath. In a nearby leafy square, in their Georgian flat, lived the group of English students. He locked the door and they walked back down the stairwell, the walls dripping with water from the firemen’s hoses. It was late morning. The door was opened by a black haired man in a tartan dressing gown.
“What happened to you?” he smiled. They told him about the fire, and their smoke-damaged flat.
“Could I have a bath?” asked C.
“My name’s L, by the way.”
As soon as he had acclimatised, and calculated the minimum that was required of him to stay out of the hands of the university authorities, he resorted to idleness and pleasure seeking. For the first time in his life the irresponsible side of his character prevailed and although he didn’t realise it at the time, this represented a tremendous success. He attended some lectures and most of his tutorials. He scored high marks in his exams but he retained little information, he was not stretched and he didn’t mind. He thought little about what he might do afterwards, and when he did he could think of many things he wanted to be. What was most important at that time was Edinburgh’s wealth of people he liked – animated, broad ranging, willful, clever. Kind. He fell upon these people. None of them were adults; they recoiled from taking life seriously. They were complacent, their greatest fear was boredom. It was not that they were without opinion; they absolutely engaged with the world, they read newspapers, they watched the news, they discussed politics but they were living at the very end of the European age and they didn’t really care. The world still felt benign; to these young Europeans everything had a playground quality – no one was coming to get them. And they were embarked upon four years in a northern city full of brown booze, inclement weather and an indifferent population. Some of them held out for the possibility that the real world might never find them. Others were intent on one final, enduring bender; they sought, like generations of fearless students before them, adventure, the deserted hillside, the early morning party, adventure, the bizarre, danger.
His first terms were knitted together with friendship and freedom and what academic work he could not avoid. But first of all was friendship and this thrilling discovery that like-minded people existed. This idea, which his hands had clumsily uncovered in Africa, he now prised out of the soil whole. With his fingertips he brushed off the last of the dirt; he blew it out of the snags and tight corners. There it was – the same thing but dressed slightly differently: comradeship, collaboration, community.
L was clever, charmed, loved by everyone who met him and disinclined to work very hard. Instead he moved between dashing acts of unparalleled bravura and inventiveness and periods of inertia spent lying on a sofa in front of the television watching soaps and Channel 4 racing. He was their primary instigator, and the city felt empty when he was not there and full when he was and he might be seen reading the paper in a greasy spoon, or coming out of the library for a cigarette or flashing past towards the lecture hall, five minutes late and driving too fast on Edinburgh’s greasy cobbles. Time spent in L’s company dripped rich and slowly, and it was arched over with helpless laughter and smirking and it was floored by a sweet sadness.
Zimbabwe had nurtured in him this questing to find the perfect situation. It was part romanticism and part despair: would he ever find such a combination of pleasure and challenge again; weren’t moments of beauty and happiness strictly rationed, and when they arrived, fleeting? In L, whose father had also died when he was a boy, he discovered a similar ambition. They were each discerning, they were aficionados and neither of them was ruthless enough to find whatever it was they were looking for. One evening he watched L tear from the bar of a pub in Cowgate the plastic image of a full glass of Guinness and run, in comically long strides, up the street pursued by a bearded barman yelling that he was going to “Fucking kill him”. On Wednesday afternoons they played football together for a pub team. He played left back and L played right back and their football styles consisted of sliding and obstructing and avoiding any kind of responsibility. After football the team, which was named the Jacobite Hounds, ate a high tea of chips, pies and beans in the Jacobite and drank heavy beer for the rest of the night until it was time to wonder home, singing and shouting in their football kit, the mud dry on their knees, shin pads hanging out of the front of their socks.
One Saturday evening a group of them drove in a convoy to St Andrew’s for a party and around midnight L disappeared; when their hosts heard that he had gone swimming they panicked and called the coastguard and an hour later there was a Wessex helicopter search-lighting the shoreline. When L appeared he had seaweed in his pockets.
“I didn’t find it” he reported, breathlessly and white-faced from his climb out of the beach and in a minute he was fast asleep on a sofa.
It was pointless and it was idle and it was beautiful and it couldn’t last.
At the very end of 1991 he and L crossed the Irish Sea on an overnight ferry to Cork. In the carpeted bar, which smelt of diesel, they drank pints of Guinness and played blackjack in a makeshift casino and he lost and L won. The next morning they drove in L’s Alfa Romeo through empty khaki country, the trees stained black with the rain. Hours later they arrived at a castle above the Blackwater river. Here they would see in the New Year. Their hostess was nervous to find herself in sole command of a castle and a skeleton staff. On New Year’s Eve they dressed in black tie. Before dinner, cocktails were served in the drawing room which looked out across the river. A peat fire burned. They sprawled on sofas and discussed the day’s events, made plans for tomorrow, discussed their friends, their universities. He looked for allies and was discouraged.
A butler announced dinner and they sat down to a dinner of three courses. Seated boy, girl, boy, girl. They drank heavily. When they made it down to breakfast the next day there were Irish editions of the Daily Telegraph and the tabloids laid out by plates of bacon and black pudding and fried eggs. Save the date, nothing had changed. For the first few days of 1993 a mob-like atmosphere prevailed, presided over by a pair of uncomplicated Old Etonians. The weather was foul, and L took to his bed with flu. The rest of the house party roamed about. One night he was drawn into a game of cannon billiards. A complicated house rule obliged him to whip down his boxer shorts and trousers and play his shot, before whipping them back up again. The next day was dry, and six of them ventured into the surrounding country to play a round of golf before dark. There was much ribbing, and this time the house rule, which had travelled with them to the golf course like some royal prerogative, obliged a fattish, much-mocked member of the party to lower his trousers on the eighteenth green, in full view of the club house. On their return, the party settled in the library to play cards. A discussion he began about an expedition into the Knockmealdown mountains came to nothing. The Etonians seemed reluctant to tolerate another sortie outside the castle walls, to risk the empty town and the banks of the brown river and the pubs with their papal chimney smoke and balaclava black windows. He left them shouting and gambling, and climbed to his room high in one of the towers. An unseen hand had arranged dark green foliage in a glass vase on his bedside table. A selection of books, ancient and modern, sat left and right of the double bed. A dressing table, with its own heavy mirror, held his wallet, loose change, cigarettes, tickets, his personal books. In an adjoining room, he filled a deep iron bath full of peat brown water, and passed blissful hours wallowing and smoking and reading Virginia Woolf. Soon after dinner he climbed back to his room with a balloon of brandy which he had filled to the brim. When he woke dehydrated and disorientated, listening to the high river running below the open window, wondering what on earth why he was doing there.
The next afternoon L rose from his sickbed and in the evening they drove out of the town to visit Susie, the great-aunt of one of their university friends. Susie lived alone in an austere Georgian pile several miles downstream. He and L drove out through the castle gates and into the belly of the town. Nothing was illuminated. A dark town, gone to bed with its anguish by eight and beyond its yellow border lights and the tall walls of its gardens ran a black guesswork of snipe fields, woodland and hillsides; through the wide valley the river ran like a murderous secret. He thought of Vichy France, and his bow-tied professor with an electric passion for European integration. At last the Alfa’s headlights found the grey stone of the gates, and they drove up a pot-holed drive between stands of invisible trees and there was the house in their headlights and there was Susie, the headlights throwing her shadow across the stone house. When L turned off the engine he could hear the rain-gorged river sliding past. The house appeared to be unheated, in the drawing room a few logs burned in a wide-mouthed fireplace; it was cold enough to see his breath. Susie poured them large measures of gin which she topped up with flat tonic from a litre bottle. He quickly felt drunk, and experienced a crazed hunger. Susie talked about the castle, and the other Anglos in the valley.
“I bet you have otters” said L.
“They eat the salmon.”
He thought fondly of the castle: it’s generous kitchens, the blazing peat fire in the drawing room.
“Do you ever swim?” he asked Susie.
Susie gave him an uncomprehending look.
“I mean in the summer.”
Susie lit a cigarette.
He met Roddy in a History Lecture. Afterwards they played squash and this seemed a success because almost immediately they were friends. It was very simple. Roddy wore ungainly, heavy boots and there was steel in his elbows and his chin and his hands were like hammers. Roddy was clumsy and disliked washing and his indifference to difficulty and danger made him feel like a coward; he applied the Hitchens threat to Roddy and stood with his back against the lockers in the old Common Room while the burly, spiteful thug had his glasses smashed and his nose broken and his ego stamped upon by a heavy boot with North Yorkshire mud ingrained into the tread. Roddy would have eviscerated Hitchens, and in Roddy’s uncomplicated courage he was reminded of the lesson of Hitchens: that bullies must never again be appeased. Roddy cloaked his toughness with a cackling laugh and an outspoken opposition to sentimentality which earned him the nickname Rudi von Sternberg, after Flashman’s deadly Prussian nemesis. He called his enemies ‘swine’ and ‘fascists’ and they were numerous and indefatigable but they would be defeated. The swine occupied Roddy’s imagination, and the struggle to come. Of course there were allies, who went un-spoken but recognised. And there were the rest – desk jockeys, salary men, consumers – the great majority trapped in the waiting room of meaningless life. This was Roddy’s narrative, but it was just style. In time he discovered that Roddy was shy, he was a dreamer given to long and silent contemplation. And when he came to write Roddy’s obituary it was Roddy’s kindness that stopped his fingers over the keyboard; his gentleness and the patience he always showed people.
At the end of their first year he and Roddy travelled together by train and bus through the Middle East. Roddy carried with him a small hold-all for his clothes and an enormous history of the French Revolution. He grew accustomed to Roddy’s long silences; his self-sufficiency. On the heavy train from Cairo to Luxor they sat in the open doorway, smoking and reading as the green river rolled past. In Aqaba they snorkeled and bought an old silver coin from a merchant in the soukh and were astonished at their perspicacity. In Aleppo he bought a beautiful shepherd’s cloak and Roddy mocked him for his stupidity and asked him how he would carry it home. In Damascus they slept on beds set out in the open on flat rooves, and played backgammon drinking mint tea and listening to the traffic noises. Soft packs of cheap local cigarettes became their alcohol. By day he and Roddy explored the city. Roddy walked everywhere at great speed.
“Will you fucking slow down” he shouted.
Roddy would turn suddenly, as if he had forgotten he was there.
Outside the Umayyad Mosque they were picked up by a secret policeman with a comb-over who offered to act as their guide. Over a lunch of grilled lamb, falafel and fried egg plant he probed their understanding of the political situation.
“Typical Ba’athist swine” whispered Roddy. After lunch they lost the man and spent the afternoon in a hammam, where Roddy became comically overwhelmed by the heat. That evening they stood smoking on the flat roof of their hotel. Across the street the filthy façade of the opposite building was apricot in the evening sun. Crows soared and fought over the evening traffic, which raced and hooted below.
“I’m coming back here” said Roddy. “You could get up to a lot of mischief in a place like this.”
“You’ll end up dead in a ditch” he replied, and Roddy grinned and pushed him away with a hard, penetrating fist.
“Not if I get you first, scumbag.”
Their university years passed, and they went largely unsupervised and untaught. Afternoons drinking pints of beer in pubs, drunk climbing expeditions up the ladder to the top of city cranes and hand-over-hand out to the very end of the gantries to piss away into the darkness, early morning queues in all weathers for kebabs, long marches home across the greasy cobbles of the New Town which the next morning he could not recall, dinner parties, rounds of mid-week golf, useless television, hours lying in his bath reading, writing melancholia in his diary, whole mornings of deep sleep, matinée films at the cinema, trains south to Durham and Newcastle, improvised camping in the Pentlands, fishing expeditions, skiing on the ice and heather pistes of the Cairngorms. They were idle and they had enough money to scrape by and life would never again be as free of charge. On the outside there was recession and war in the middle east but both appeared to be on a scale that conformed to rules and precedent established over hundreds of years. Let them roll! One day they knew it would be their turn to manage these problems, but not yet. In truth the world was beginning to freewheel out of anyone’s control, but no matter – they lived and loved blind and coddled by the taxpayer, like generations of their countrymen before them. A long cycle of European dominance and wealth was coming at last to an end, and in fact they were just yards from the precipice, but they weren’t to know this. Sweet plenty, sweet certainty.
A great amount of his time and energy was spent being in love with the girl in the black leather jacket. One afternoon, walking home together, she stopped him and told him something unimaginable. She put her hand on his sleeve, and then her long fingers were green and soft in his; and what she promised him came to pass. He embarked upon their affair with a commitment which was adult in its determination, but he took it more seriously than the girl and what followed made him feel joy and despair in equal measure.
“My black dog is a faithful hound and I come to the conclusion that I am essentially a melancholic” he wrote in his diary on Saturday 7th November 1992. “No enthusiasm remains unpopped, no achievement is utterly rewarded and no pain without a (pleasing?!) sense of suffering. I am totally without inspiration, History bores me, politics is false, friends a lonely joy with whom I cannot laugh …” And then, on the 18th, this. “Blowy sunny day and hopefully football will not be cancelled as it has been twice this term. Back from Paris yesterday afternoon exhausted – the week-end a happy blur though moments stick: a Paris skyline from a café near the Isle de Cité in lemon sunlight; the Seine roughed up by wind just before dawn; drunken cadging of cigarettes from disgusted Parisians and a brush with les flics at 5.00 on Tuesday morning. L, H and I caught pigeon shooting armed with a block of wood, a broken coat hanger, a piece of umbrella and two mango stones.”
In December a group of them travelled to an airfield in Fife and there they spent the day training to do a parachute jump for charity. It was a funny day – the tension between the retired paratroopers who were responsible for their training and the hungover students created an hystEal atmosphere. L was reprimanded for attempting the assault course in an old pair of brogues and he found him a pair of golf shoes in the boot of his car and L wore those instead. When they all gathered to board the small plane to take them into the air they laughed at one another in their blunt helmets, and how each of them stooped in their tight harnesses. The jump was over quickly and as he hit the frozen ground he deeply resented the quick passing of the silent sky-fall when he could see the sea and far away snow on the hills. One of his friends landed heavily and broke his ankle and the old soldiers called an ambulance. They had jumped to raise money for Leukaemia Research but he never got around to raising any money.
At the end of their second summer term Roddy left immediately for Turkey where he had booked himself a place at an Arabic language school. He and L and two others caught a ferry to Calais and drove through the night across France towards the San Fermin Fiesta at Pamplona. This was the first of numerous expeditions they were to make together onto the Continent. They travelled in search of the perfect situation. When they found it they both knew immediately – an abandoned village at the end of a green lane, the lonely bar at the mouth of a river estuary, a moment of understanding with an old man whose language they couldn’t understand. These were places to hide, where wine was left to cool in a rushing river, a stand of poplars threw evening shadow, and intimate landscape and over your shoulder a bow of high pasture, a limestone peak, landscapes which promised long summers and dark winters, a knuckle of defendable land. A lake swim. These expeditions were made on a low budget but they quickly learnt that the best food was often found in ordinary looking places. An acid green salad with finely chopped white onion; a stew of pork and fabada beans. Bottles of cheap Albarino. One summer he and L left Pamplona and walked across the Pyrennes. They slept in barns and discovered wild strawberries and huge sheep dogs they learnt to deter with by reaching suddenly for a stone.
These moments combined truth and sadness and beauty and they were very hard to find. Eleven years later, L called him from Transylvania. He was on holiday with C and their daughter, who was four months old.
“You must come out here.”
There was a heavy noise.
“What was that?”
“Thunder! It’s wonderful. Today I harnessed a couple of horses to a cart and we went up into the hills; the three of us. For a picnic. It had rained in the night and the grass was slippery and we only just made it up the hill and onto the plateau. There are wolves in the forest. Wild flowers. I think I’ve found it. You must come.”
At last it was time to leave Edinburgh. Four years of his life packed into a car and driven south down the M6. His childhood bedroom in Kent became, for the last time, his headquarters. In August he flew to Toulouse, where L was waiting, leaning against his car outside the Arrivals Terminal. L had spent several weeks working on a vineyard in Languedoc. He looked suntanned and happy. They drove to an isolated farmhouse which had been rented by the parents of the girl in the black leather jacket. He quickly regretted being there; things were difficult between him and the girl, and he was not wise nor strong enough to stay away.
“Come on” said L, “let’s go and find a drink.”
Dinner was an hour away. In the village they found a bar which they sat outside drinking white wine and calvados. Suddenly they were both very drunk.
“You’ll have to drive” said L.
He squinted against his double vision. Half way home another car drove towards them and he mounted the grass verge to avoid it. L nodded sagely.
“Better safe than sorry”.
They were late for dinner. Just short of the farmhouse they saw what looked like bullocks in the field.
“Let’s get ‘em” he said. There was still enough light.
He and L got out of the car and went through the gate and into the field. Taking off his shirt he waved it above his head, goading the bullocks. L was shouting and running. Together they chased the bullocks into the corner of the field; they broke and ran about. He and L chased after them. Nothing more happened. They got back in the car and drove to the farmhouse, where everyone was eating dinner. He and L sat sniggering and in disgrace. The next morning he woke and lay in bed listening to the sound of men whistling and calling in the fields. They were rounding up the scattered beasts. The girl would not speak to him.
At the end of August L flew to Hong Kong, where his charm and secret intelligence had secured a glittering corporate role. Roddy was nowhere to be seen. He abandoned his own plans to train as a lawyer and headed instead to Sarajevo, where he had been hired as a sub-editor on a newspaper. He caught a plane to Amsterdam and then to Vienna, where he picked up a UN Press Card, and then he trained through Slovenia to Venice (two nights of feasting) and Ancona, where – feeling lonely and frightened – he boarded the Luftwaffe Hercules which waited for him on the runway, its propellers already turning.
Autumn drifted into winter and then spring arrived, illuminating the skylights in the high roof. Over this time they became swimmers and their bodies changed shape – their upper arms thickened with muscle, their shoulders built up, their waistlines slimmed down. They remained in the slow lane, and the lanes to their right remained faster, and their swimmers somehow meaner and more determined. Milan tried to teach them tumble turns but not one of them was interested. One session, after weeks of joshing, Milan agreed to give them a demonstration. They watched him dive in and stood waiting for him to appear but instead he snaked along under the water, his hands held as far ahead of his body as they would go, his long legs whipping like the hind quarters of a seal until he reached the aluminum steps and erupted onto the surface and in a smooth sequence of swooping arm movements completed the length, diving again in the nick of time to tumble turn and push off and muscle his way back underwater and up again and building a bow wave which his human machinery, above the water gangling and shy but under the water now a wonder of aerodynamic Slovak engineering, pushed all the way back to the start.
In June pool training was suspended for the summer. At the end of their final session they said ‘goodbye’ to Milan.
“Good luck in Istanbul” he shouted after them.
“You’ll be fantastic.”
They switched their training to the Serpentine. At first, this transition to open water gave him great pleasure. The lake as deep enough to drown in, a south westerly wind raised waves bearing tiny white horses. Its shores were swept by the boughs of great trees. Geese crossed overhead in Vs. One evening he watched a gull snatch a crayfish from the shallows and set about it with the yellow claw hammer of its beak. It felt like they were swimming in an isolated arcadia; yet orange cones reserved one lakeside esplanade for roller-skating and other forms of exotic urban display. Sirens whooped past, the blue glaze of police lights sometimes touched the water. Nearby there were Londoners walking, thinking, discussing their relationships, hating people, thinking about last night, thinking about tomorrow morning. Even from the low point of the water, you could see the sixties tower standing above Wellington Barracks where the troopers of the Blue and Royals nested in small cubicles; the distant Hilton; away across the green parkland the enchanted rooftops of Whitehall. The white belly of an Airbus dipping slowly towards Heathrow. A song of the city.
All of this was rich in contrast to lane swimming, but he had lost two advantages. One was the mindless up-and-down which was so conducive to deep thinking – this new habitat required his constant attention. The second was the light. The Serpentine’s water was muddy; when he put his head down to swim it felt like he was turning his back on his own world to explore, alone and blind, the edge of an infinite space. The darkness he stared into focused his mind on his unhappiness and fears. He had come to value his swim training as an extension of his conversations with Emily but now these weekly swims became a new opportunity for doubt.
“Who would enjoy swimming for a long time in the darkness?” asked Emily.
Of course he was struggling.
“Give yourself time” she told him.
“Develop strategies to manage the anxiety: swim breast stroke. Take it slowly.”
The group swam in the evenings, ducking under the Lido’s perimeter of white buoys and swimming out to the middle of the lake. Swimming outside the Lido was strictly forbidden by the Royal Parks police but for several weeks they were not discovered. Taking it in turns to lead they swam to the eastern tip of the Lake, where the Serpentine pointed towards Hyde Park Corner and the Palace of Westminster, and the lake drained out over an eighteenth century sluice gate. And they swam north west, towards Serpentine Bridge, and under it into Long Water, where the lake was shallow and brackish and the bottom was pillowed with deep mud. One evening the six of them swam together up Long Water all the way to the Italian Gardens, where ornamental fountains gathered subterranean river water and sprayed it into the air in white arcs. Here they perched below the terrace, listening to the traffic at Lancaster Gate and watching a heron settle back into reed. He felt a sense of togetherness which he knew was temporary; in Istanbul it would be everyman for himself. As the race grew closer, they swam further. They would climb in at the Lido, swim under the rope and strike west for the Italian Fountain. Then they would turn back and swim under Serpentine Bridge and all the way to the far end, touching the shore by The Serpentine Bar and Kitchen, and stop to stand in the shallows watching the drinkers sitting out on the terrace. And then they would slip back into the water and swim away. It was 1.4 km from end to end; two lengths made a respectable 2.8 km.
One week before they flew to Turkey he met E for a final training swim. It was dusk and warm. As he waded into the cool water he was overwhelmed with despair. When he put his head down into the dark water and began a slow crawl towards the centre of the lake voices of failure clamored in his ears. There was no sense to them; they were shrill and they were terrible and they damned him for everything he hadn’t done, everything he wasn’t. Soon he would be 38, and it would be too late. The failure of his business was inevitable, his lost political opportunities catastrophic and self-inflicted. He could not breathe. He broke the surface.
He swam breaststroke for a while, feeling the water move between his fingertips, feeling old and tired. Gradually the alchemy of open water, the evening sky and the music of the city slowly soothed him. The comradeship of his friend restored his hope in himself. After a while he put his head down and they swam, further than they had swum before, and as they swam night fell on London. As they swam down Long Water to the Italian Gardens for the final time he sensed that the park was deserted. By now his friend was far behind. He was swimming odd bits of breast-stroke because he was tired but mainly he was swimming crawl and he was swimming fine. He felt that he could go on and on, that everything was possible. He was no longer afraid of the darkness. He buried his face in the water and headed for the pale stone band of Serpentine Bridge. Under its arches he swam, alone in the clattering chamber between the water and the curved stone, and out again into the open water. With each breath he sang because he was tired and to hear himself above the sound of water. The water felt cold and his arms were heavy, and he made himself sprint the last 100 metres to the ladder at the end of the jetty. He stood watching E following him in, his arms and head black and orange in the dying light.
They padded across to the tree where they had left their clothes. The night was quiet and warm around them.
“We did it man”, said E with his gentle smile.
He buried his face in his towel.
“Four whole lengths. That’s 5.6 kilometres. We’re good to go.”
He said nothing. He felt proud of his swim, and he felt utterly humiliated. They stood on the burned grass of the Lido and munched Snickers bars and shared a bottle of Newcastle Brown which they tipped in turn to their lips with soft, shaking hands.
It was a Wednesday afternoon; the Bosphorus was just a few weeks away. He told Emily that he was worried he had not done enough training.
“Why do you swim?” she asked.
By way of explanation he told her about the night times swims across the Serpentine. She clapped her hands at the idea.
“Tell me more!”
He described a recent swim in Cornwall.
“There was a stone beach and a stream running into the cove. It was deep and sheltered – perfect swimming”. He had been there for a wedding, he explained, and the day had been hot and sunny after lunch he had found a couple of collaborators and they had set off, quite drunk and fully dressed down a long field towards the shore. The noise of the wedding party receded, cow pats lay like mines in the pasture and as they neared the sea they had entered an old landscape: gorse paths, a twisting metaled road, over-arched with wind-shaped thorn trees, and finally an ancient track down through a gloomy piece of steep-sided woodland. Beside the track ran a plashing, end-of-summer stream of thin water. Wands of deadly night shade glowed in the shadows. The wood creaked, their voices …
“But none of this is to do with swimming.”
“Oh, it is! It’s all about swimming.”
The track broke out into a bright funnel of pasture bounded by gorse covered hills. They could hear waves walloping onto shingle. The field funneled them towards the water.
“It was magical!”
If he had seen fairies dancing, or a magus, he would not have been astonished. Behind them black crows fell back into the wooded passage through which they had entered.
“And the water!” he enthused. It was just the right side of cold to light the furnaces –
he could have stayed in for hours. Glass-clear, and a swell to ride and brace and dare to do its damnedest as they fanned out into the cove and nudged one another further out. But the deep water was dull compared to the theatre of the cove – the bird’s eye view of blond sand, and the bottle green stains of waving sea weed, and the bright rubble of the cliff edges, the dawdling fishes, the puffs of life and death around the dark caves. They floated on their backs, on their fronts, the blather of wedding talk far away up the hill; the dank, dark passage of creaking woodland keeping them down, keeping them pure.
“So you associate swimming with escape?”
“What you describe sounds like a parallel world.”
“Yes! Which any of us can find …”
“And there’s something bacchanalian about it.”
He thought for a while.
“Maybe. I love the disorder. It’s beautiful.”
Emily wasn’t saying any more.
“I love water, you see, and the places where it edges up against the land – harbour walls, rock, woodland, beaches. It’s where man’s sovereignty disappears and nature takes over. And nothing beats a swim to start the day, or the feeling of wading dog-tired out of the water and knowing you have earned a bag of chips with plenty of salt and vinegar, and pints of beer, or a bottle of red wine.”
“Well, it’s a route to guilt-free food and booze.”
“A route to pleasure.”
“I love how swimming makes me feel.”
“But now it makes you anxious.”
He said nothing and there was a long silence.
“It doesn’t make me feel anxious. I feel anxious in spite of swimming.”
“Was your father a swimmer?” Emily asked at last.
“No. He was a golfer.”
The afternoon before the race he lay in a hamam, spread-eagled on a shelf of heated white marble. He lay on his back feeling the hot eucalyptus air enter his lungs, watching the pattern of holes in the dome of the old building spike the gloom with their traces of light. Other men lay beside him; long-faced elders, black-haired fathers, and two giggling, calf-eyed boys playing footsy with a dormant form whose face he never saw. When the masseur began to work him over with huge brown hands, he wished it was his brain that could be kneaded into shape. His arms and legs were strong. That night he was too nervous to sleep; over and over his mind rolled a wheel of bright concerns. The room was warm so his room-mate opened the window and at sunrise the call to prayer found him watching the rose pink light creeping across the ceiling.
Two ferries took the swimmers across the Bosphorus towards Asia. The sun shone down. Under the shade of the upper decks they sat drinking bottled water and eating pieces of Turkish Delight. Behind the ferries followed a flotilla of Zodiacs and kayaks. Overhead buzzed a helicopter from one of the news channels. Swimmers in speedos stood in a long line waiting to use the toilets. Everyone seemed nervous.
“I’ve over-hydrated” cussed a crop-haired AmEan standing behind him in the queue.
“You come far?” he asked.
“You done this before?”
“Yes sir. Second time.”
“Got any tips?”
The soldier nodded.
“We swim bridge to bridge. For the duration of the race course, the current is strongest on the Asian side of the Strait. Up to 7 clicks per hour – that’s quite a ride. So keep left to go fastest. But there’s a catch: the finish is on the European side. The Strait is over 1 click across. So make sure you cross early enough to make the finish point.”
“And if I don’t?”
The soldier laughed.
“You’ll get swept right on under the Bosphorus Bridge and out into the Mediterranean. Happened to me last year. They had to fish me out – it sucked.”
The ferries docked. He stood waiting to disembark, watching the helicopter hover and land near the race start. A journalist climbed out, followed by a cameraman. She began to interview the swimmers as they shuffled off the gangway. She was talking to a group of Ukranians; they wore tracksuits in the yellow and blue of the Ukraine flag. There was a team from Bulgarians, some Russians, tall Germans and an enormous man with a shaved chest who wore trunks in red, white and green with ITA in black across his backside. At the top of the gangway he paused and looked around for other members of the group but he couldn’t see them. He walked off the ferry and onto Asia alone. Then the journalist was standing in front of him.
She asked him a question in Turkish, holding the microphone in front of her mouth and then she pushed it towards him, waiting for his reply.
He smiled stupidly and spread his arms.
“For which country will you be swimming?” she asked. Behind her the cameraman crouched filming.
“England” he replied.
“I’m swimming for England.”
500 swimmers dived off a pontoon into the water. For the first few minutes of the race he was pre-occupied with making room for himself. The white soles of feet flayed in his face, hands cuffed his head. The group had planned to swim in pairs but in the confusion he could see no sign of his room-mate. Among so many people he was alone. In due course despair arrived and he toyed with the idea of giving up.
He reached the Fatih Sultan Mehmet suspension bridge. A blood red Turkish flag hung down, billowing in the sea breeze. The sun was now high in the sky and he swam breast stroke for a while so that he might look up out of the belt of shadow at the undercarriage of the bridge. Past it he found his rhythm; the breathlessness passed, and he began to swim, breathing on every third stroke. “I can do this’, he told himself. “It is possible.”
He was delighted by the clear blue water. The sun filtered through it so that he saw his reliable hands, the popples of silver air that spun from them, the shining face of his father’s watch. Beyond the scope of his arms the blue had a night-time edge and far ahead and deep below him it resisted the light and instead gathered the darkness of space. The sun beat down, and as he turned his head to breathe he saw the brown hills of Asia, the brown hills of Europe. The suspension bridge was far behind.
He began to encounter small jelly fish; a few stragglers and then in white clouds. They spun past his hands and face but he felt no sting. The suddenness of their arrival gave him an idea of the strength of the current, and his speed. Hold and glide. Hold and glide. The tall concrete spurs of the Bosphorus Bridge were now on his horizon. He felt he was swimming well but he seemed to be making no headway across the Strait. He was aiming directly for the shoreline now, swimming at right angles to the current in an attempt to make the finish but he seemed to be sliding alarmingly fast towards the bridge. He imagined himself a small, soft-sided creature caught in a drain, drawn inexorably towards the edge of the world.
In an attempt to go faster, he began to breathe every other stroke. Left, right, breathe; left, right, breathe. He kicked harder. Hold and glide. He realised that he was sprinting, and he wondered how long he could keep it up. More jellyfish, and then star bursts of rubbish, like shrapnel all around him and flattered into fleeting patterns by the turquoise water. Looking up he could see the finish point 50 metres away, but all the time he was being rushed downstream by the current. The finish was a floating pontoon built out over the water. Two ladders hung down into the water and swimmers were pulling themselves up them and others were milling on the shore, white towels around their shoulders. He could hear people shouting and clapping. He was close enough to the shore to mark the strength of the current as it pushed him downstream. Swimmers were bunching up against the pontoon, held there by the current. A couple of swimmers who had overshot were desperately trying to make headway against the current; they were 15 metres beyond the pontoon but it was hopeless. He saw a motorboat circling to rescue them, its engine screaming. A man lost his grip on the ladder and was swept away. Then he was upstream of it, right in the sweet spot so that as he reached the finish and his legs began to sweep away downstream his right arm grabbed one of the ladders and his body folded around the edge of the pontoon and he held.
After Istanbul he and Clara made up their minds to leave London. They could not decide where to live, and they spent their evenings searching maps of England.
“It has to be Norfolk. It’s where I come from. It’s where my father came from. It’s where I’m going to.”
“I’m not living in Norfolk, it’s too far away. You can’t commute from Norfolk.”
“I’d be happy in Norfolk.”
“I’m not living in Norfolk. It’s a place to escape to. It’s not a place to live in.”
“I could swim every day.”
“I’m not living in Norfolk. Your father didn’t live in Norfolk. He was sent to school there, and he bought a holiday cottage there. He never lived in Norfolk.”
Unresolved, they covered ground. Their expeditions were facilitated by his grandfather’s old car, a 1995 BMW Tourer with a 2.8 litre engine, hard suspension and wildly exaggerated acceleration so that a part of him was always thrilled to grip its leather steering wheel in his hands. Accelerating through 100 mph with all that he cherished to his left and immediately behind him, the sun flashing like a guillotine, the cars ahead making way in good order, gave him a gloriously inappropriate sense of joy.
They learnt the appearances of counties; to read the gradual variation in the earth’s surface as it showed along their small island. How beautiful England was. How intensively and efficiently the land was farmed. And the magic of finding a piece of country that was scruffy and unfinished. Between July and December they looked at houses in Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire, Sussex and Suffolk. He drove them from Powerstock Common to the brewery at Bridport, over the Blackdown Hills, across the Somerset levels, over the Mendips, around Bath, along the Nadder Valley, to Beer and back, behind the South Downs near Lewes, Hampshire, the estuary at Woodbridge, Orford, Suffolk’s empty quarter around Debenham.
Suffolk was permitted East Anglia. Suffolk had a coastline and marshes and imposing skies. Suffolk was notionally close enough to London for him to commute. Outside Woodbridge they looked at a house for rent on a large estate. It was an old apple store, converted to a comfortable house with picture windows looking out over Scots pines and marsh to the tidal Deben.
“Out of the kitchen, turn left and you’ll find your own mooring” explained the land owner, a handsome ex-soldier with a signet ring and an air of deep contentment. The river was low and running between banks of black mud. Abandoned boats listed. A breeze got up, ruffling the estuary water. He squeezed Clara’s hand. They drove back towards the main road, passing farmsteads, poplar plantations, Georgian farmhouses, rows of red brick cottages for the other ranks. They made their calculations. Apple House to Woodbridge in ten minutes. Catch the 7.53 from Woodbridge, arrive Liverpool Street at 9.23. It was too late. But the 6.53 was early, and he would have to change at Ipswich.
“I could move my office to the City” he suggested.
“I could swim in the mornings.”
For a few days Suffolk’s dry, empty country became their geography. They found a barn conversion outside Debenham which could be approached in summer along a dry river bed. Great elms formed a compound around the house, and there was a perimeter of beech and tall, flowering cow parsley. Outside: wheat fields, individual trees and the high visibility of rolling agricultural land. Inside: shade, a duck pond, apple trees, a vegetable patch and an air of self sufficiency and otherness which he and Clara fell in love with. At Orford, where the Alde and the Ore emptied into the salt marsh they had a picnic and he swam across the channel to the beginning of green marsh that stretched to the horizon.
But Suffolk, they knew, was too far. In October he swam at Branscombe, in rained-upon Dorset. They walked down to the narrow beach below the cliff tops to see the wreck of the MSC Napoli. The sky flashed orange, then grey as rain approached. A fast wind capped the waves white, and the broken ship swung slowly on its moorings. The water was dark brown and it was too rough to swim out far. Fred and Jake threw stones into the waves. A life boat fled past en route to an emergency; it began to rain and they ran for the pub.
He and Clara loved Dorset, but it too was far from London. One bright November morning he drove the Tourer to Wiltshire to view a house on the edge of a great wood which Clara had found on the internet. He was driving in the fast lane of the M4 when a horse box, being pulled by a Land Rover in the slow lane, suddenly flipped high and sideways. The Land Rover veered onto the hard shoulder and plunged into the green tree line. Instinctively he pulled left, heading for the hard shoulder. He imagined the stillness of the vehicle and its ruined box, upturned down a steep bank, the spinning wheel, the whoosh of the motorway invisible through the trees. He imagined his route down through the undergrowth. The ticking engine; a figure slumped forward across the composite steering wheel of the Land Rover. Debris and the smell of diesel. All this in a second, maybe two. But as he began to steer across the motorway a car behind him flashed its lights in warning, and he pulled back. By now he was two hundred yards beyond the crash site; he could see other cars had stopped, their hazards flashing. He saw a man running. Another talking into his mobile phone. Four hundred yards. Helpless, he drove on.
“Fuck” he shouted.
Ã Coruna’s airport stood on high ground above the port. It smelt cool and peppery, like the inside of a pack of Fortuna cigarettes. He and L moved quickly through immigration; they carried their luggage and soon they were striding through the arrivals hall towards the taxi rank. A yellow SEAT Toledo drove them down the hill towards the port. They had left their wives and families behind them in London. It was raining, and the roads were heavy with Friday traffic heading out of the city. On the outskirts pale tower blocks straddled the highway. The windscreen wipers flicked and in the wet traces on the windscreen the lights of the city below pooled and shone. Then the SEAT was off the hill and entering the old city. The Avenida da Marina took them towards the seafront and their cheap hotel. He wound down the window and felt the rain on his face. He smelt the sea and thought how much he loved this city. He thought that everything would be alright as long as it was here.
Twenty minutes later they entered the best restaurant in the world. It was nothing to look at; one of a strip of fish restaurants set a block or two back from the marina. The walls were lined with yellow tiles, the floor covered with sawdust and there was cigarette smoke in the air. It was full of ordinary people sitting on wooden stools. None of them looked rich; the restaurant was without pretence. Soon there was a cold bottle of Albarino on their table, and they were dipping waxy, honey coloured hunks of bread into olive oil, sharing wooden bowls of purple octopus, razor clams and calamari. He ordered goose necked barnacles, a local speciality harvested by men off the rocky shore, but the owner shook his head.
“Winter” he explained. “Too many storms.”
Afterwards, they walked out into the wet night. They found a bar which was full in the way bars in Spain are full – packed, male, undaunting, the air blue with smoke and loud conversation. L shoved his way to the bar and ordered two gin and tonics. The drinks arrived in huge goblets.
“It’s like drinking from a vase” he said.
They vowed to swim in the Atlantic the next day. Lighting a cigar, L said something.
“I can’t hear you.”
L put his hand on his shoulder and spoke deliberately into his ear.
“You remember that time we went swimming in Portugal?”
L had become a tease about memory, he liked to conjure images from the past.
He smiled back uneasily.
“You remember?” asked L.
He nodded. But he wasn’t thinking about Portugal; he was thinking about Bucharest. The hospital had been soviet grand and dilapidated and people milled about its entrance. An ambulance was parked up, its back doors thrown open. Inside a medic lay asleep on a stretcher. In the shade of the ambulance sat a family of gypsies. They were eating breakfast, their faces greasy with sleep and the sun. The gypsies stopped eating to stare as they walked past.
“They’re here every day” C had told him, as they walked past them. The hospital lobby was an empty space: a concrete floor, the white walls tiled to head height. People moved to and fro, there was an air of disappointment, everyone trying to catch up with events. He and C walked down a corridor and through a cafeteria. Broad-armed women guarded the counter, behind them a saucepan steamed on an iron range. Hospital staff sat drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes at a small table. Another was occupied by a gypsy family. A dispossessed looking man in a white gown shuffled past.
“L ’s upstairs” C told him. “But first we have to collect our gowns”.
They walked up concrete stairs. On the landing a crying man was comforting a crying woman. C walked by and he followed her. Outside the ward a nurse issued him with a heavy cotton gowns, grey with wear. It tied like a dressing gown, and hung open at the front, exposing his clothing.
“What’s it for?” he asked, feeling irritated.
“L ’s through there. L you come and find me when you’re finished?”
The smell was much worse inside the ward. The high smell of naked bodies lying in August heat. L was lying with his feet towards the door. The bed was raised so he was half sitting. His face was drawn, and his skin was a strange yellow colour. A feeding tube entered one of his nostrils. A blue sheet was gathered around his waist, a catheter ran out of the sheeting and down towards the floor. There was a drip in his left arm. He was wearing tight stockings up to his knees to prevent thrombosis and his hands were wrapped in bandages and tied to the metal frame of the bed. Restrained, he had a dumb, animal look
L turned his head, his eyes closed. He started to pull against the bandages but he made no sound.
“It’s me. You’ve had an accident – you fell off a horse. You’re in hospital in Bucharest. C ’s downstairs; they’re both fine.”
‘Speak to him’, C had told him. L would be confused and frightened; familiar voices would reassure him, and help stimulate his brain.
“L, can you hear me?”
One of L’s eyes was bruised. Both remained shut. The windows in the ward were narrow and placed high along a green painted wall. Most of the light came from the strip lighting and some of the lights were broken so the ward was badly lit. The monitor beside L ’s bed made a loud noise. It made a loud noise about every five seconds. It was strange that a place made up to nurture fragile life should contain so much antagonising material, he thought. L tried to sit up in the bed but his bound hands restrained him. He pulled again against the bandages then he gave up and slumped back onto the bed. He placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“L, you’ve had an accident. You’re in hospital in Bucharest. I’ve flown out from London to see you.”
He longed to untie him.
“C is fine. The baby is fine. We’re all waiting for you to wake-up”.
L turned blindly towards him and pulled once again on the bandages, trying to sit up. After a while he gave up and fell back. Two orderlies walked down the corridor pushing an old man on a trolley and parked him next to L. His face was swollen and bright with bruising. There was a darkening stain on his head bandage. The duty nurse walked across and asked him to go. She was carrying a tupperware container in front of her.
“Doctor coming” she explained. Her small office was opposite L ’s bed and through the open door he could see her empty chair and a desk. She had hung her cardigan off the back of the chair. On her desk there was a smoking cigarette in an ashtray, an apple, piles of paper.
“You go, please.”
The nurse bent below L ’s bed, holding the container carefully in her hands. An electric motor started up and he watched a dark liquid climb up L’s feeding tube; it traversed the crumpled sheets and L’s propped up body and slid over the unshaven chin and on into his nose. The old man in the next door bed began to convulse, soundlessly beating his body against the canvas restraints that bound his hands and feet. He looked strong for an old man, his straining muscles well defined. The nurse was holding a syringe in one hand and in the other she was trying to find a vein in old man’s foot but she couldn’t manage on her own. She cried out for help.
For one month L lay in a coma in Bucharest. Then he woke up, and he had a future. Now it was a matter of his potential – how far might he go? What sort of father and husband he would make – could he work again? L was flown to England by a special plane, and spent the rest of the year in intensive care at the National Neurological Centre, a red brick hospital overlooking a quiet green square. At first it was like talking to someone who was half asleep. L squinted and held his head to one side, he was unsteady on his feet, his voice slurred, he would show flashes of anger and despair. When they went for walks together around Bloomsbury L shuffled his feet, and leaned heavily. Through the autumn the staff at the Centre worked him hard and slowly jigsaw pieces of the old L began to show – first of all in small isolated clusters, which gradually grew towards one another, touched, amalgamated and formed an impression which was recognisably L. The nurses made him talk and think. A rota was introduced so that everyone’s desire to help L knit everything together again might be organised, and to stop him getting too tired. Sleep, the nurses explained, was central to his recovery. Intensive physiotherapy stimulated his bad arm and leg. One November morning, he lingered outside the hospital after a morning visit. It was a warm day and autumn sunshine had drawn patients and their visitors outside. L and C emerged out of the main entrance and crossed the street into the square. C steered the baby through the gate in her pushchair. The three of them sat down together on a bench. He stood watching his two friends and their daughter. L gingerly holding his daughter. C smiling. He stood watching for as long as he could bear.
In February they drove up to L’s cottage on the north Norfolk coast. They had spent many weekends at the cottage, which L had been left by his father. This was his first week-end away from his family since he had been discharged. Life after the accident was a sequence of new beginnings. The doctors in London had told C that he would continue to improve for two years and then plateau. None of them would say how close to 100% he would manage to get. C and L’s future looked uncertain, and L was in a bad way. His left arm gave him trouble, he had tinnitus and his eyes were bad. He dragged his left foot when he was tired. He had lost his sense of taste. Meanwhile he was trying to retrieve his memory, and what his doctors called the executive functions. It must have been hell, but not once did he hear L complain.
They arrived at the cottage after dark. The night was still and he could smell the cold sea. They drank red wine in front of a coal fire, then L said he was tired and needed to sleep. Early the next morning he found L lying on the sitting room floor, watching the television. There was even a little warmth in the fire.
“The end of Blade Runner” L explained. “Have you seen it?”
He shook his head. The windows were black, it was very cold.
“You need to see this scene.”
L pressed rewind. He sat down on the floor.
“Watch it carefully.”
‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe’ explained Roy, the dying drone; illuminated against a ruined sky; rain running off his face.
‘Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments L be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.’
It was over quickly.
“Isn’t it good?” asked L.
He nodded. The vulnerability of the doomed drone was touching; the ambiguity of his identity, the imminent guillotine of his senses and his memory. He looked at L lying on the floor, his injured head leaning on his good right arm, watching the film’s credits roll down the screen.
“I’m going to get dressed then let’s go for a walk” he suggested.
They followed one another out of the house and walked slowly down through the invisible garden to the creek. A raised causeway ran out across the marshes to the sea. They began to walk along it, into a huge night sky that rose in angles over the horizon. It felt like they were walking towards the edge of the world.
“Life isn’t what we expected, is it?” said L.
He didn’t know how to respond. Conversations with L since his injury loomed with huge questions.
“What did we expect?” he asked.
“A blank piece of paper.”
He felt that this was not his time to speak. Inland of the causeway a bogged field was studded with sleeping geese.
“Elbow room” added L. He stopped walking to pick up an egg-sized stone off the path with his good hand.
“Fucking elbow room” he repeated and as he said the words he threw the stone as far as he could into the field. They stood watching the geese clamber noisily into the purple sky. Then they walked on, all the way out to the beach, looking out for the light.
In April, L joined him and a group of their friends on a week’s holiday in Portugal. They stayed in a villa above a beach. Each morning L walked to a nearby shop to buy newspapers, which he would spread out at his feet and pore over until lunch. During the afternoons L slept. He was trying hard to be well but he wasn’t, he went about with a hang-dog expression. On their last morning L appeared for breakfast dressed in a pair of swimming shorts and a blue jacket. They sat around a table on the terrace. Without saying anything, L suddenly stood up and walked away towards the beach. He didn’t say goodbye, he just went. They were used to L’s disappearances so they let him be. Then someone stood up from the table, saying “isn’t that L?” A dark-haired man was swimming slowly out to sea. He hurried down to the beach and dived into the water. The Atlantic felt numbingly cold, there was no one else swimming. He worried about currents. When he caught up with L they swam together in silence. There didn’t seem much to say.
“Shall we go back in?”
L didn’t say anything for a while and then he said “OK” and slowly they swam back into the beach.
Neither of them had mentioned it since.
L pulled a box of cigars out of his pocket and threw it onto the bar.
“Do you think I was going to do it?”
He took one of the cigars and lit it.
“No. Were you?”
L stared into his empty glass.
“Maybe,” he replied.
The corners of L’s mouth were curling up in a smile. Before his accident, L had been adroit at setting up a moment, and striking and holding whatever pose suited him. Now he struggled to disguise what he was really thinking; he had become a serial grinner.
The church bell on the Plaza Del María Pita woke him. It was almost light. He lay in bed thinking that in a few months he would be 38, the age his father died. It seemed a big deal when he thought about it. Crossing the line. He lay there trying to imagine what he would feel if he was lying in a hospital bed, and he was too weak to leave it. What it might feel like to know one was going to die imminently, and there was nothing one could do but be as brave and as good humoured as possible, and hope for the best?
“Big thoughts after what I suppose amounts to a death sentence: could 1 pair of silk pyjamas be kept for each boy – I hope they will have as much female admiration wearing them as I did years before in here, and what a story they can weave around them.”
The Plaza was deserted, the great doors of the Town Hall shut. María Pita was Ã Corunna’s heroine, and in the great square stood a tall statue of her above an eternal flame. In 1589, a year after Spain’s failed Armada against Elizabeth’s England, Sir Francis Drake landed at Ã Corunna to wreak revenge. According to legend, María fought alongside the city’s defenders with great courage, and when her husband was killed seized his spear and fought to close a breach in the Spanish lines before capturing an English standard. He stood starting into the purple flame for a while thinking about the history he knew and the history he didn’t, and the chapters that had shaped his own country and how the same chapters told differently had shaped Spain and he thought that everything in the end was a story and in the end he was no different and it was up to him to try and make his story compelling and to find a happy ending.
He walked slowly out of the Plaza. He felt bruised by wine and cigarettes. Discombobulated, like an old man. Up a flight of steps and down a steep alley and he entered a smaller square set around a fountain and planted with tall mahogany trees whose trunks held up a dark green canopy of leaves. Troops of lively sparrows. There was a café in the corner which served him a café con leche. He was wearing a rabbit skin hat he had bought in Moscow for Roddy’s funeral and it felt just warm enough to sit outside; he eased himself into a chair. The waiter brought him a sweet pastry to accompany his coffee and he immediately ordered another, and some more coffee. This was the sort of out-of-the-way place prevailed upon by old women in loneliness and distress. Or young mothers exercising their children; an old man on his way to buy morning bread. And an Englishman curled over his book, who had drunk and smoked too much and who was fencing his hangover, his jacket smelling of cigar, his mind suddenly on his children, and then – looking up and scanning the square – on the understanding that should he ever need to flee, leaving everything behind, it would be to this square by the sea that he would flee.
An hour later L sat down next to him.
“I couldn’t find you.”
They sat together in silence. L stared out to sea, sipping his coffee. He sat reading Laurie Lee’s ‘When I Set Out One Midsummer Morning’. On the inside cover of his paperback he had written a list where he and Clara might move to:
Every so often he stopped his reading to add another county to the list with a pen he had borrowed from the waiter. L was drinking a second cup of coffee. Laurie Lee had not yet left London for Spain; when he did he would land down the coast at Vigo. But he was still south of London, wandering the Sussex roads alongside the tramps and “that host of unemployed” created by England’s Depression:
“There seemed to be more of them inland than on the coast – maybe the police had seen to that. They were like a broken army walking away from a war, cheeks sunken, eyes dead with fatigue. Some carried bags of tools, or shabby cardboard suitcases; some wore the ghosts of city suits; some, when they stopped to rest, carefully removed their shoes and polished them vaguely with handfuls of grass. Among them were carpenters, clerks, engineers from the Midlands; many had been on the road for months, walking up and down the country in a maze of jobless refusals, the treadmill of the mid-Thirties …”
He added Sussex to his list.
They ate lunch in the best restaurant in the world and afterwards they sat in a café and drank brandy and smoked. A large flat screen television played music videos. It was Saturday afternoon in mid-winter; the sky was mud-coloured. Their wives and children were far away. This city did not know them, and they owed it nothing. It was capable of sheltering and feeding them well. It had everything in proportion. They carried books about with them but they didn’t need to read them because they were happy to talk, or to sit silently in one another’s company.
“We could just stay here” L said, and they both laughed.
It was time. They walked towards the marina high on white wine and brandy and the love of life that Spain had to offer, carrying their hotel towels in plastic bags. There was a gentle breeze. A sharp-nosed Guardia Civil corvette was moored by the harbour entrance. Beyond its walls slapped the great grey Atlantic. It was at their feet, the edge of the ocean. He raised his eyes to the horizon.
“Everything from here on is possible” he told himself, “nothing is easy”.
They stripped to their boxer shorts and stood grinning in the cold. The drop to the sea was about twelve feet, and it was splitting away into a thrill of cold bubbles and deep water. Buoyant, his brandy breath hoofed by the cold, he turned his back on the new world and scrambled for the foot of an iron ladder embedded in the stone wall. He climbed, hand over hand, feeling the cold and beating the cold and drunk on the thrill of an industrial swim. He reached the quayside, where L was still prevaricating. The breeze was flicking the halyards on the masts of the yachts in the marina. On the Corvette a uniformed guard was shouting at him. He and L ran at the sea and watched the water coming up to save them.
May. L owned a sixteen foot fishing smack, with a shallow, fibre glass hull moulded to look like the clinker-built boats which were still made nearby on the Norfolk coast. The boat was called Fisherman, and she had spent the winter in a boat yard and L wanted to pick her up and sail her back along the coast to her mooring.
‘Can you come up?’ L asked in an email.
He had entered a triathlon called ‘Escape the Rock’ which began with a mile and a half swim across San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island to the mainland. The race was not until September but already the idea was vaguely intimidating.
‘If you can’t live in Norfolk, at least you can swim here. I’ll be your swimming coach.’
It was mid-afternoon and the low tide was on the turn. They waded across the infant channel to stand by Fisherman, who was listed on the hard sand. She had a brand new engine, housed in a grey wooden box in the rear, and a mast to the front of the boat. Decking ran between the mast and the bow, and below the deck was a dark triangle storage space for a spare sail, a bucket, fishing rods and mackerel lines. She was splayed and shallow and she rolled alarmingly in any sort of sea but for the lagoons and channels of the Norfolk marshes she was perfect.
They stood like race horse owners in the paddock, tongue-tied beside their machine, waiting for the tide.
“Sea trials” said L, rubbing his hands.
Fingers of sea water, foam flecked, began to move up the grooves in the sand. His feet become wet. The belly of the channel swelled, the water invading the land. Fisherman’s keel was submerged, but the boat remained fast.
“How’s your mid-life crisis?” asked L.
He bridled at the idea that he was experiencing a cliché.
“You know they’re very fashionable at the moment?” continued L.
“The odd thing is that I know life is wonderful” he insisted.
L was staring towards the horizon.
“Where do you think you do belong?”
“That’s the issue – I don’t know.”
“Don’t know who you are, or where you’re going ..?”
“Something like that.”
“Probably quite common.”
“But I’m special!”
“Sorry, I forgot.”
An old man was wading up the channel pulling behind him a dinghy. In the dinghy sat a younger man – brown and polished and wearing an amused look on his face. The old man was tall and grey haired, he wore shorts and a polo shirt and he recognised him immediately as a successful mining entrepreneur he had once raised money from for a campaign he had run. He had been summoned to his offices in Grosvenor Place, and kept waiting in an ante-room. An entourage of foreign men in petrol blue suits disappeared into a lift. Phones rang and were promptly answered. Then a long-legged girl asked him to follow her to an empty board room.
“Mr – will be with you in a moment.”
Minutes later the entrepreneur arrived. He didn’t sit but addressed Alex from the doorway. He wore a pair of suit trousers, a pale blue shirt with a monogram on his left breast, a dark blue tie. His black shoes were shined and tasseled.
“I am currently holding two simultaneous meetings” he explained, with carefully understated swank. He rocked slowly on the balls of his feet. He gave the impression of someone running at full stretch.
“Forgive me if I have little time”.
He gave him his elevator pitch.
The entrepreneur listened carefully.
“I’ll give you £10,000” he said. “My secretary will send you a cheque. I cannot get any more involved. Now I am afraid I must resume my other meeting”.
There he was, wading away from him under an oyster sky, pulling a man in a dinghy.
“Isn’t that _?”
L thought so.
“He’s buying as much coastland as he can.”
“He’s got plenty of money.”
“Can we trust him?” asked L
He said that he couldn’t be sure. The miner was approaching a brand new day cruiser; a tall cabin of green glass fixed on a white plastic hull. He was leaning forward to pull the dinghy against the gathering current. He was almost there.
“Who do you think is in the dinghy?”
They speculated. A house guest, perhaps. A recent acquisition. A well-placed person; he looked Latin AmEan.
“We should have all been investment bankers” said L suddenly.
“Where did that come from?”
“We’d have lots of money.”
“But I like what we are.”
L shook his head.
“We had fun but we did nothing. We learned nothing. I feel ashamed. I wish I had done the Milk Round and been an investment banker.”
“What?” said L, wearing an injured expression.
“The very thought of you doing the Milk Round…”
“Money makes life better.”
“… I’ve never heard anything more ridiculous …”
“Money is freedom.”
“Freedom to pull your house guest against the current?”
“Freedom to buy up the Norfolk coastline. To have house guests. Or not to.”
“But doesn’t it matter how you make your money?”
“No” said L, who liked an argument. “We can’t change anything so let’s just get rich and laugh along with everyone else.”
“Anyone can make a difference if they want to.”
But L was driving his argument.
“Everyone is robotic and we should be the same: get rich with no responsibilities. Don’t bother trying to start a good business: it’s just a struggle with minimal reward. It could improve the life of thousands, but so what?”
“Most of us want to do something with our lives, most also follow a conformist route through life and make a difference where they can: buying certain types of products, helping a charity, consciously being a good friend. All of which, by the way, you are guilty of, even when you think you are doing nothing.”
L made a scornful face.
“You’re a classic oldest son.”
“Well, you would have made a crap banker”.
“Let’s make lots of money” sang L in a nagging falsetto which drifted away across the rising water.
Fisherman stirred. The water had reached their knees. They climbed into Fisherman and sat waiting for the rising water to lift her off. Others keen to get going began to pass them, perched in tiny tenders with screaming outboard engines, or working hard in kayaks, making for their boats moored out in the current. Fisherman began to pull on her mooring, and L started the engine. Standing on Fisherman’s bow, one hand on the varnished mast, he looked out over at the golf course. Four men were putting out on the eleventh green.
Out in the lagoon they passed a trawler out of King’s Lynn. Its deck was piled high with mussels.
Steam was streaming out of the engine housing. The new engine had overheated. He unscrewed the cap of the water tank and water, piping hot, geysered into the air. L cursed the boat yard. Afterwards there was the gentle sound of water against the hull, and the ticking of the hot engine.
“If I was an investment banker I would have a better engine.”
“If you were an investment banker you’d be sitting behind your desk in Canary Wharf.”
The water slapped against Fisherman’s hull
“We’d better get out the sail while she cools off.”
A breeze pushed them steadily across the lagoon and on into the mouth of a channel. The channel ran in a straight line, cutting through the marsh. It was perhaps five metres wide, and it linked the lagoons at Brancaster and Burnham Overy Staithe.
“I think it’s time for your training” said L waspishly.
The water was the colour of milky tea. His feet sank into thick mud and then he was out of his depth. He had an otter’s eye view of the mud bank, the sea lavender, Fisherman above him. He began to swim, leaving Fisherman, leaving Brancaster, leaving his father behind him, heading deep and alone down the channel. The water was warm and the current was with him and he made good progress. One side of his body was stronger than the other and this flaw, repeated scores of times tilted progress in one direction. His bias was to his right and after a few minutes of swimming his right hand struck smooth mud and he looked up to see that he was nudging the right bank of the channel. Chaff from the sea lavender floated on the water. The opening of a narrow channel twisting into the marsh tempted him to leave the mainstream but it looked shallow and eel-infested. Back down the channel Fisherman was idling; L lounged in the stern reading Private Eye.
He turned thirty eight. Clara gave him a pair of sky blue silk pyjamas.
July. They were in the Tourer before 6.00, racing down the M4 with four empty lanes to choose between. In the west the sky was the colour of wet concrete. The boys were talkative, thrilled to be eating a picnic breakfast on their laps while the West Country flashed by. They traversed the wide, low tide Severn Estuary on the Prince of Wales toll bridge. On the road to Swansea the sky darkened and the tops of the pine trees bent under the wind and the rain clacked against the car roof.
They stopped at a service station outside Bridgend. It was not yet 9.00. On the walls of a Little Chef hung illuminated plates of bacon and shining fried eggs, rose pink baked beans, golden triangles of brownies. To a grey, hungry world the Little Chef’s doors stood open and welcoming. Beside them two lorry drivers stood holding cigarettes in hands that controlled heavily tattooed arms. They were watching a young man in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans crouched behind a silver Fiesta, patiently guiding the driver as he reversed onto a pair of Little Chef’s black plastic trays placed behind the rear wheels. Dance music throbbed from the Fiesta.
“Back a bit” he shouted, his hands signaling to the car’s wing mirror.
It was a delicate manouevre, requiring great skill from the driver, and fine judgement from his navigator; when he had the wheels in place the latter clapped his hands and did a slow-footed dance of excited anticipation before climbing in next to the driver. In a moment there followed a burst of angry power from the engine and white smoke rose from beneath the spinning rear wheels and the car glided forwards and sideways, its internal combustion spent on something that reminded him of the power and grace of a swan crossing wide water until one of the trays span out and cart-wheeled across the car park. The navigator leapt back out of the car, whooping.
“Fucking great job, brother”.
Placing his cigarette into his mouth, he knelt down to hold the tray in place as the driver reversed carefully back onto it.
The lorry drivers looked at one another.
“I’ll have what they’re having” said one.
The other shook his head.
They arrived at the ferry terminal with an hour to spare. He drove the Tourer to the very end of the land – across the freight railway line, past the sidings, under miscellaneous tanking and across an apron of oil-stained concrete – and parked besides the Fishguard RNLI station. The boys, long confined, clamoured to be let out. Clara dressed them for December; a wet sea wind tugged at their hair. Squeezing Jake’s hand, he led him to the edge. The harbour water was slapping against the quayside. He led Jake and Fred out along a pontoon to admire the Blue Peter VII, a tall orange Life Boat moored up against it. Two men were standing by the station. One was holding a dark lobster he had just pulled up from a pot he kept, he explained, at the foot of the quay wall. The other man, slightly built, introduced himself as the life boat coxswain.
“One of only two professional coxswains in the service” he told them, proudly.
“Are you based here?” he asked.
“I deliver the new boats, or refitted ones. When I’m not delivering I provide cover for other skippers.”
“Where are you from?”
“Woodbridge, on the Deben”.
He and Clara exchanged looks.
Inside the station was an empty room lined with 16 pairs of yellow waders, 16 pairs of boots, 16 yellow helmets. Invisible men prepared to put to sea at a moment’s notice.
“Where is everyone?” asked Fred.
The coxswain laughed.
“Not far. They can’t be more than ten minutes away, that’s the rule.”
He looked out of the window at the town of Fishguard, curling over the hillside above the sea.
“What’s the age limit on joining up?”
“Do you need to be a good swimmer?”
“Not really. Not really the point of the thing.”
“Is it going to be rough today?”
The young man sitting in the Stena Lines ticket booth offered them another crossing.
“You’re in the Express. She’s a catamaran – likely to be thrown about a bit. There’s a big swell.”
“What’s the man saying, dad?” said Fred.
“You can delay if you’d like and take the ‘Pride of Europe’. No extra charge. You’ll get to Rosslaire four hours later, mind”.
“We’ll be fine” he declared. He had Fred climb though onto his lap, and hold the steering wheel and together they drove the Tourer off the quayside and across a clapping steel ramp into the stinking bowels of the Express.
Out of the lee of the Welsh cliffs the Express began to roll and pitch. He counted six people gazing open mouthed into their sick bags. Those that weren’t being sick were trying not to be. No one spoke. No one entered the small shop, piped with bright music; no one queued at the restaurant for fish and chips, meat pies and pints of Guinness. Over the tannoy, the purser advised passengers to sit still. M the Monkey, an oversized figure in banana yellow and chocolate brown who had patrolled the ship’s lobby greeting children with high fives and gathering them in his furry arms, had been led away by a crew member. Jake lay asleep in Clara’s arms; she had placed a sick bag open in her lap. To their right the grey, foaming contest of the waves.
He and Fred walked unsteadily across the lounge to the open deck. They stood with their backs to the wall in the cold wind and the salt spray watching the heaving sea.
“Dad, I really don’t like this ferry.”
“I know. We’re more than half way there now.”
“I really, really don’t like it.”
Fred always spoke sense.
County Waterford was green, tree-less and spoilt by new houses embellished with shiny clock towers and ornamental lamp posts. First the Financial Crisis, then the Great Recession and now the unfolding Eurozone Crisis had exploded Ireland’s over-heated economy and much of Waterford’s high street was now shut up, or advertised for rent. There were few people about. In the midst of all of this their friend H had inherited a house on the Blackwater River from Susie, his spinster aunt.
They drove up Susie’s pot-holed drive in sunshine. A wide lawn fronted the square house. Behind it the tidal river was in silver flood. Over the river rose wooded hills. Inside, a column of scaffolding ran up through the stairwell to a skylight in the roof. One downstairs room was full of chicken feathers and Susie’s mildewed farm records. Another was being used as a dump for old pieces of furniture.
“We’re going to need your help clearing that room” said H, ominously, as they took the back stairs to the bedrooms.
The next morning the Blackwater had retreated into its mainstream, leaving a wide flange of shining rock and mud below the house. It was time for some training. He pulled on his wetsuit and climbed down an old set of steps and through the matting of broken reeds and into the mud. The river channel, when he reached it, was cold and suddenly deep. On the far side, the hills were wreathed in mist. He swam carefully towards the middle of the current. H was highly sceptical; he had inherited Susie’s tales of its treachery and danger, horror stories of young drownings. But it was just a body of water moving this way or that or, as now, standing still. Clara and the boys stood on the bank and watched. So did Susie’s herd of Irish x. For all his bravura, he felt lonely in the water; he was spooked by H’s stories.
At lunchtime they sat in Susie’s one acre walled garden, surrounded by its high walls. Clara laid a rug on a strip of cut grass at one edge of the walled garden. They ate ham sandwiches and Irish potato crisps and cool cans of Guinness which H had found in Susie’s cellar. The walled garden was a vast wilderness.
“There are apple trees in there somewhere” said H. “And pears and plums and greengages.” He wanted to introduce pigs.
“It would be nice to have our own pork and beef – I’d like to be totally self-sufficient.”
“Mum, I need to do a poo”.
H pointed Fred towards a piece of scrub.
“Go and do it over there – it’s where I’m going to put the pigs”.
Fred roared with laughter.
The sunshine held, and they walked through rhododendrons to an old highway leading to the edge of the river. The lane was lined with dry stone walls, and Jake found wild strawberries growing between the stones and the party slowly foraged its way towards the water’s edge. The lane ended in an ancient stone slipway silted with rich black mud that engulfed the tops of the boys’ boots. He put on his wet suit and walked to the edge of the slip. The river was running fast downstream. Eddies sucked around the edge of the slipway. By staying very close to the slipway, and swimming a decent speed, he just about held his place in the water. He knew if he swam too far out he would be swept away and this is exactly what happened: suddenly he was moving downstream at a speed that was uncontrollable, and the slip was receding and only Fred had noticed and he was shouting “daddy, daddy!” and he had spilled out of his boots and was now clambering black faced and black handed and wearing a black bib towards the end of the slip and Clara and H were shouting to him to stop and lunging after him.
The slipway on the north bank of the river was about 100 metres downstream; he could see the metaled road curling up the hill beyond it, and it was towards this that he swam. He reckoned he could make it comfortably. The current was very fast; he measured his progress against the reeds on the north shore. Hold and glide. He swam straight for the opposite bank, feeling the current thudding against his body, tasting the brown water in his mouth, its peat suspension. He was making good progress and it was just as he was treading water to catch his breath and look back at the slipway where his family and H’s family stood bent over some ground discovery that his right foot was seized by something deep underwater and he was pulled down. His reflex was to strain with both his arms against the weight and raise his head back out of the water but in his fear he breathed in too early and swallowed a lot of water. Choking he sunk again, feeling his right foot pinned by something hard. For a moment it felt like he would keep sinking, and he thought he might drown but after what felt like a minute, one long second after another, the weight seemed to rise with the desperate effort of his arms and the kicking of his free foot and he forced his head above the water. This time he was able to take a breath before the water closed again over his head, and he sunk on a full pair of lungs, stars and alarms ringing in his head. He shoved his trapped foot first one way, which tightened the clamp on it, and then the other, which, after a jolt of one, two … freed it so that it arced beneath and in front of him, throwing him onto his back. He lay in the water sucking mouthfuls of air into his lungs, allowing the current to carry him along. Out of the water reared a branch. It rolled over into the water again, and then popped back out, and rode, dripping and slick-skinned beside him. His eyes followed the branch down into the depths of the river, and he made out its drowned length. He considered grabbing hold of it but its scale worried him. He imaged a whole tree, rain-fed and immense, dragging at an angle down the deep channel below him, the great clawed roots bumping along the bed of the Blackwater. He kicked left with his free feet and swam towards the north bank. The current had carried him past the slipway, but he did not mind – he was safe. He landed on his belly in deep mud below thick reed, and slithered forwards like some prehistoric animal. Clara and the boys waved from the distant slipway, and he waved back and began to wade, heavy-footed between the reeds and the river’s edge, towards the slipway. A wind played in the reeds. He stopped once to site the submerged limb but he could not see it. Three men were launching two small dinghies off the slipway. They were rolling a fine meshed net into one of the boats. He stood before them in his wet suit and goggles and when nothing happened, he said “any chance I could grab a lift to the other side?”
The men stared at him, and said nothing. It was as if he was encountering members of a wild tribe who had no knowledge of human life outside their own intimate circle.
“Jump in” said a man with a shaved head and gold rings running in a series of narrowing circumferences down the edge of one ear. As soon as he was onboard the man started the small outboard motor and pushed off. The other men followed – they carried the net in a froth of orange at the bow of their boat. The outboards whined against the current.
“You going fishing?”
The man ignored him. He dropped him just downstream of the slipway, in a piece of slack water sheltered by the underwater slope of the slipway. He trod water by the boat.
The man swung the throttle of the engine and moved the boat back into the current of the river.
“Thank you” shouted Fred, who had been watching their approach from the slipway.
“Makmoo!” shouted Jake, who waved and strained against Clara’s hand which held him by the scruff of his wetsuit. The dinghies moved slowly upstream.
“That looked fun, darling” said Clara. She had not seen his entanglement with the tree.
“The current is very strong” he said.
The two boats were holding their position a little downstream of Susie’s house. They came together and then moved apart, unraveling the net between them across the river.
“Is that legal?”
“They’re not my salmon. Susie sold the fishing rights years ago.”
He and H spent the afternoon playing frisbee on the lawn in front of the house. The boys crouched on the drive making a building site. The sun shone and he soon he was uncomfortably hot.
“Let’s go for a swim” he told H. He needed to get back into the water.
“What are you afraid of?”
“The tide will be on the turn in a minute.”
He gave H his spare wetsuit and a rubber swim cap with a chinstrap.
“It makes you look aristocratic” laughed Clara. H found an old life ring in one of the stables and carried it down to the water’s edge. The tide was on the turn, and the channel was at its lowest, exposing black mud on the other side of the river.
“Come on H” he shouted and they plunged in. On the far shore the pair of dinghies launched again, moving quickly up the slackening water. From the middle of the river H waved at them and shouted ‘hello’, but they paid him no attention. They swam on to the mud bank and walked about the soft mud. A new wind moved among the reeds that lined the river bank. There was a fine view of the house against a darkening sky. The tide had turned, the wind had raised waves in the mainstream.
“I think this could be sinking sand” said H.
He dived back into the water and swam fast towards the house. It was choppy and heavy going but he felt happy and comfortable in the water; he was pleased to have overcome his fear. He breathed on every three strokes, turning upstream to breathe, enjoying his snatched view of the river narrowing between encroaching hills, the dark green of their hanging woods.
The next day was wet and grey, and the next, and then it was time for them to drive home. Just after five in the morning he drove the Tourer down H’s drive. A mist was rising off the river, in the park a fox barked. It was dark until they reached a service station and bought breakfast and then it was light. They re-traced their journey along the empty roads of Ireland towards the ferry terminal.
On-board a man dressed in a clown’s outfit was making balloon shapes for children. He offered to make Fred a sword and Fred accepted.
“Would you mind making something for Jake?” asked Clara .
“That’s what I’m here for, love. How about a monkey?”
“That’s perfect” she said.
While he worked the clown explained that he used to work for Barclays Bank in Manchester.
“I was on a good wage but in the end I couldn’t stomach it – in the car all day, never saw anyone. All they was interested in were sales targets.”
“So I moved south, got a job in Butlins. That’s what I do now: Butlins and this, during the season. Though God knows what’s going to happen.”
He wore an arm full of tattoos and his face was rouged with broken capillaries.
“When did you cross over?”
“Friday” said Clara.
The clown shook his head, his eyes wide.
“Not the 11.15?”
He and Clara nodded. The clown blew out his cheeks.
“I was in the monkey suit; threw up all over it. They burnt it in the end. And it were worse on the way back! You know what they gave us when we got back to Fishguard?”
They shook their heads.
“Rubber gloves and a mop; told us to clean up the mess!”
The clown leaned forward and said, sotto voce, “Fuck*** stank.”
His breath smelt of cigarettes and peppermint. He finished the monkey and handed it to Jake.
“There you go young man.”
Fred was brandishing the sword at Jake, who clutched the monkey close to his chest.
They moved into a thatched cottage house in a village in Wiltshire, on the northern edge of Salisbury Plain. As soon as they decided to move everything fell into place, so that they wondered what all the fuss had been about. The village was within commuting distance of London and there was a good school nearby for the boys and there was everything he needed to get ready for the triathlon: roads to cycle on, the Plain to run up and down, and in the railway village of Pewsey a swimming pool. Everything was in place.
August. “The sun is shining and it’s time for more sea training” emailed L . “Listen to your coach!”
He drove the Tourer from Wiltshire across Middle England towards Norfolk in the greasy heat of high summer. He headed north east towards Northampton, and then Peterborough and in evening light they bisected the Fens, crossing the fat drain of the Great Ouse just inland of King’s Lynn. After Lynn they headed cross country for the coast, a route that took them through rolling, wooded country and he was sad to leave the bleak levels and grateful for this fairytale country. The road twisted and turned, connecting small villages with hillsides. Behind sentries of dark trees and high shingled battlements hid great houses. Out of the woods, the great night fields were washed in blue ink, their blond wheat burnt the colour of ash. Flocks of coal-headed poppies lobbed and nodded on the verges as they swept past. They were staying in L ’s cottage and after they had unpacked they joined L ’s family to eat dinner in the garden. The summer night was cold and sweet-smelling. He sat next to a local toff whose Jacobean house stood on the edge of the nearby marsh.
“There is a green door in our walled garden” he explained. “Walk through it, and you are on the marshland. One feels quite naked.”
“My proudest moment” carried on the land owner, raising a pair of heavy, awry eyebrows, “occurred just a few weeks ago. One morning at first light I took my eldest boy onto the marsh and he shot a goose before school. I told him ‘You are the only schoolboy in England to have shot a goose before school’.”
The landowner rubbed his hands together with delight.
The next morning he, Clara, Fred and Jake woke early and walked down the garden to the creek. There was a Spring Tide and everything was drowned: the car park, the marsh, the horizon; the sea had spilt across the land and it was still pouring in so that each of the boats moored in the creek were pulling tight against their ropes. He waded into the car park and the water pushed against his ankles. He dived into the invisible edge of the creek and swam for a boat downstream of him, in the middle of the channel. The current bore him down like gravity towards the bow of the boat and as he caught hold of the anchor chain his body was swept underneath the boat. He pushed himself wide and slid along its side so that he was just able to seize the blade of its rudder. The surging water pulled him away from the sea, like a sea trout, inland towards the fields and the gravel spawning grounds, the fairytale country, the open fens, the ridgeway, his Plain. He raised his free arm to wave at Clara and the boys. Although it was not yet 8 o’clock the quayside was busy with sailors unfurling sails and pushing their boats into the water and beginning to slog down the creek against the tide. All was extremes: the invasion of high water, the early rush to man the water, the apricot sky over-written with vapour trails.
After breakfast he and L loaded their families aboard Fisherman and motored down the creek towards the lagoon. Between the lagoon and the open sea was a line of high dunes, and splitting the line a deep channel. Either side of the channel the dunes were full of the sailors; they had moored their boats on the edge of the lagoon and climbed into the dunes to picnic. The tide had turned and water was surging through the channel and back into the sea; it was as if someone had pulled a plug out of a bath. He knew this created wonderful swimming opportunities and he was impatient to get in the water. They moored Fisherman out of the current, in a scoop of deep water. The children ran screaming into the dunes and he and L helped Clara and C to make a camp and then returned to the water’s edge and rode the current in a series of loops; they dived into the shallow lagoon and were sucked towards the channel mouth. He was wearing goggles and the water was clear so that diving with the current, his arms held out in front of him it felt like he was flying like a super hero, the gravel beds like the miniature streets and houses of a ruined city. Moored just off the channel was a clinker-built passenger ferry which he flew past, or underneath – there was still just enough water – and then he was into the disturbance of the channel mouth, where the currents collided and whipped up clouds of sand. This marked the beginning of the green-throated channel, the highway to the sea.
Walking out of the water L laughed.
“Now I know why you swim!”
Back up in the dunes, as high as they could go, they ate a picnic lunch and by the time they had finished the tide had turned and the lagoon was busy with sailing boats. They sat in the dunes talking and drinking coffee from a thermos. The evening tide was filling the lagoon and it was time to go. He and L packed the picnic and helped the children and Clara and C back into Fisherman. Their families sailed away, Clara was at the helm. He and L walked to the edge of the channel. The water was surging through it now.
“I hope we haven’t left it too late” he said.
They leapt into the channel and bobbed like seals, grinning as the current lifted them along, and the shore raced past. When he put his head down and swam front crawl it felt like he was turbo charged. Then he turned and swam hard against the current and he measured his progress against a piece of driftwood on the shore and he made no progress whatsoever. The channel took them in a loop across the lagoon and on into the creek.
“Stay as still as you can” instructed L.
They floated on their backs, as terns buzzed low overhead and crashed into the water. They floated inland.
“Do you think any of us L do anything remarkable?” asked L, staring into the sky.
“You are remarkable.”
L said nothing.
“I used to think I was remarkable because I had lost my father, but then … who cares?”
“I agree” said L.
“Life isn’t fair.”
They were in the creek now; it was full and the channel was deep. In the distance they could see the quay.
“My father’s big regret” he continued “was not spending more time with his children. If I avoid the same mistake then I’ve done something remarkable. It’s probably simpler than it looks.”
“I agree. It’s just got to be about other people, not you.”
“I was going to say that.”
He and L agreed on almost everything.
“Isn’t that Fisherman?”
“Do you think the motor’s broken again?”
They both started laughing.
“Fucking motor” shouted L.
“They’re just about on top of Dead Man’s Hole.”
“Yes. They’d better not fall in.”
“Or crash into anyone.”
“Disaster” said L. They swam hard to catch Fisherman and when they did L climbed in and took the tiller and he swam ahead and Clara threw him a rope and he took it in his teeth and began to tow the boat off Dead Man’s Hole and between the moored boats towards the quayside.
“Come on” shouted L, standing in the stern holding the tiller.
Early the next morning, skittish with hangovers, he and Clara packed the Tourer and they headed home. On the edge of the fens he stopped the car at a petrol station and filled up with petrol, and bought a bottle of coke and a huge bag of flying saucers. And then he drove his family home fast across England; his sleeping wife and his sleeping children.
Eighteen days to go
He fixed a child’s seat to the back of his bike and took Fred for a ride. Cycling was his worst triathlon discipline; he found it boring and hard work. He needed the practice, and Fred’s presence sweetened the pill. They left the village, crossing the conker bridge, Fred mooed at some cows as they rode past. The road wound slightly uphill and he stood up in the pedals to work up his speed.
“Why are you standing up?” asked Fred.
“Because I want to go faster”.
When he sat down he discovered that Fred had placed his two hands flat on the bike seat. He hooted with surprise. Fred laughed and laughed.
“Do that again, dad”.
In the fields thatching straw had been stood in stooks. Behind them rose the sides of the Plain like a green wall. They rode through a hamlet and past more fields. They came to the railway bridge and they stopped and got off the bike to pick blackberries and stare over the parapet. They could see a combine harvester working a field beyond the railway line, and a tractor and trailer set ready to take off its grain. A bonfire smouldered behind a copse, releasing creamy smoke. Around a bend in the track a train appeared and growing exponentially headed straight at them until for a moment the driver was sitting beneath them and he raised his right hand from the control to wave at them and the train hooted and Fred was utterly delighted and he felt grateful to the driver.
That evening he ran up onto the Plain; past the drying barn at the end of their lane, up the agonisingly steep field and past the barns onto the edge of the Plain. Lion-coloured country rolled out in front of him. He turned right onto the ridgeway, which marked the Plain’s northern perimeter and headed for the vedette above Urchfont. Two customised Land Rovers barrelled over the rise and drove past him, one in pursuit of the other, putting up dust. The light died over the Plain. On his way back he passed a parked four-by-four. A man with a closed face was walking out of the plain towards it, carrying something. He ran on.
Fifteen days to go
He cycled alone across the vale, over the railway bridge, over the canal at Honey Street, past the timber yard and the lane to the Barge Inn and up the long, mocking hill onto Pewsey Down. On the way up he passed a jolly party in a field: a white man on a horse, a black family laying down a rug.
“I will be the serving boy” laughed the black man; a dog barked at the rider’s feet.
At the top, a wide plateau of sheep-cropped grassland. He raced along the Marlborough road. Occasional cars past him at high speed; he wobbled in the after burn of a Land Rover Discovery. At the T junction to Avebury he turned around and headed home, back across the plateau, fast down the steep hill – a great hollow to his left with the crop circles in the foreground and the country greening and thickening beyond into woodland, peddling fast so that the momentum took him almost over the canal bridge and by the time he thought about stopping for a pint at The Barge Inn and remembered he had no money, the timber yard was behind me and he had changed down gears and he was busy trying to keep a decent pace through the S bend before Woodborough.
Thirteen days to go
On his way home from the station he stopped off at Pewsey Leisure Centre. It was 7.40.
“I’d wait until 8.00, otherwise you’ll have to pay for two swims” explained the woman behind the counter.
“When do you close.”
“We close at 8.45.”
“How much is a session?”
“I’ll buy two sessions.”
He managed 102 lengths in 55 minutes. A fat boy and his girl canoodled and drifted about and got in his way. A dark-haired Life Guard in a yellow polo shirt and red shorts sat in a high chair, looking in the other direction. As he drove towards the village there was the smell of wood-smoke, and thick white smoke enveloped the heart of the village so that he thought for a moment their cottage was on fire.
Eleven days to go
He was home by 7.00 and set out on the bike. He cycled as far as the canal and then he turned back and rode home as fast as he could. He saw a Land Rover standing in a harvested field, its brake lights two bright red beads in the dusk, a pearl grey heron in another field pecking at the plough. Back at their cottage he parked the bike and ran straight up onto the Plain. Up on the ridgeway the sky was empty; the lights of Salisbury glowed to the south east. It was getting dark and he was afraid to run any further and instead he turned back and suddenly everything was quiet because he had the wind behind his and his legs felt strong and he ran back down the steep field, watching carefully so that he didn’t lose his footing.
The next morning it was Saturday and the sun shone. He, Fred and Jake climbed into the car in their pyjamas and drove to a barn where there were chickens and they found three warm eggs which they carried carefully away for their breakfast.
Nine days to go
In the changing room at Pewsey pool a man was putting on a wetsuit.
“I had a scare on my last triathlon” he explained, “I couldn’t the bloody thing off. Well, I’m not going to let that happen again.”
The man asked for his help with the zip. He was embarrassed. In the pool he swam a few lanes and then got out looking pink in the face and ran into the changing rooms.
He swam 75 lengths in 37 minutes.
Eight days to go
He arrived home from the station hungry, and ate one yoghurt, a child’s strawberry jelly and a piece of stale French bread dipped in olive oil. Then he set out for the Plain. For the first couple of miles he had stomach cramps, as he knew he would; the steep ascent onto the Plain was hard going. Up on top a wind was blowing pieces of cloud across a yellow moon and all was empty and still. There was still some colour in the blocks of woodland. He turned right and ran all the way to the vedette above Urchfont. Two cars stood empty and a plastic waste was burning in a brazier; the smell chased him as he turned and ran, with tired legs, back towards home. A deer crossed the road in front of him, an owl called from a black home of woodland. Lights turned on down in the vale and he felt alone and happy.
“There is an advantage to having no father” he thought, deep in the trance of running: “having no father means I am unconstrained – the air is open and free and though this can be a curse as well as a blessing, anything is possible, nothing is impossible.”
One week to go
I’m looking forward to our meeting.
The place to buy your wetsuit is Sports Basement. It has the best selection in the city, and if you don’t mind a little tongue in cheek, you can tell them you are part of the South Cove Rowing Club and you’ll get a 10% discount! Do give me a call when you get here and we can introduce you to the mysteries of the Pacific Ocean. I’d strongly recommend your trying out your new wet suit so you get comfortable with it – hopefully Friday afternoon, which L be hectic as my club is preparing for our Alcatraz Invitational swim with 600 swimmers on Saturday. Have a safe flight over!
Sent from my iPhone”
At 7.25pm he headed up onto the Plain. The grass was wet, a tractor had left tracks up the steep which made the going a little easier. He ran into the mist which hung heavy on the air; it was humid. Before setting off he had eaten three Tunnock tea cakes – just the gooey marshmallow and the chocolate shell, and at the top he got some stomach cramps, but these dissipated as he hit the ridgeway and turned right towards the vedette. He got into a good stride, crows got up and wheeled overhead, a large fox cantered across a ploughed field. He reached the Urchfont vedette in good time and turned for home. It was dark now, and his visibility was limited.
‘You either allow yourself to be spooked or you don’t’, he thought. So far he had managed to quash his fear of running alone in the dark, along the edge of the plateau but there was something about being alone in the mist that unnerved him. He picked up his pace past the dark woods but by the time he reached the MOD sign it was very dark. Normally he traversed off the side of the Plain, following a rutted path, but this time he ran straight off the Plain, down the steep, wet, green grass with night voices at his shoulder and his eyes straining to place his feet.
Five days to go
It was a sunny evening in London. He walked out of his office wearing a cream shirt and his lightweight navy suit and walked down Westbourne Grove and then turned right into Queensway. The air smelt of popcorn and burnt meat. He crossed Bayswater Road and entered Hyde Park. The park was full of people. An Asian woman among two small children, their nanny, chased a plastic bag across the brown grass, and he stopped to catch it. A girl in black hot pants with a lobster tattoo on her upper arm sat cross legged with her friend and laughed; a girl walked ahead of her boy, playing with her hair and straightening her t-shirt, and complaining loudly when she was asked by her boyfriend, a trilby pushed back on his head, to pose for photographs. Everyone seemed to be taking photographs, everyone was on their phone. Joggers pushed past, self-absorbed.
He reached the Lido and changed into his trunks and put on his goggles. He left his suit folded on a park bench. The water was fresh and jade green in the sunshine. A noisy group of children yelled and splashed by the jetty. In the shallows, a fat man tugged a Doberman towards the water. He walked into the lido and swam out to the line of buoys which formed its deep water boundary. Hugging the buoys, he swam 21 lengths, each 100 metres long, and by the time he was finished he was tired and cold. He stood by the water’s edge, drying off. He had no towel. After he had put on his suit he walked slowly back through the park, the dry grass slippery underfoot. As he crossed Serpentine Bridge the sunlight gilded the rooftops of Westminster. A procession of tall, thin women jogged past. It was a warm evening full of people in the park; this would be his last memory of summer. But summer was finished, and this was no longer his park. He must travel west for over an hour by fast train, past Reading and into Wiltshire to find home. He walked out of the park and crossed the Bayswater Road. On London Street he bought his supper and in the underground gloom of Paddington he sat, wordless and exhausted, eating fish and chips and watching the people rushing by.
He was ready.
Two days to go
A yellow cab playing Beethoven drove him down the hill and out along the Bay towards the Presidio. Sports Basement turned out to be a converted supermarket. From the car park he could see the blue water and the Golden Gate. Through eucalyptus on the high ridge, a military cemetery. Rows of white headstones shining through the trees.
“How much do I owe you?” he asked the silver-haired driver.
“That’ll be sixteen dollars but I’ll give it you for fifteen. You’re my first ever fare – seems auspicious.”
He inspected the back of the man’s head.
“What did you do before?”
“I was day trading for ten years but I was wiped out by Lehman’s. Couldn’t unwind in time … just got wiped out.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh, I had ten fine years. Played a lot of golf, perhaps had it easier than I should have. I’ll be OK. There’s still time to start over.”
“Here, take the twenty.”
“Are you sure?”
On the walls of Sports Basement hung redundant signs: Dairy, Organic, Cereals, Fish Counter. A bright red apple icon askew from the ceiling. A little tongue in cheek. The shelves were piled high with huge quantities of outdoor clothing, kit and accessories; made in China, worn in AmEa. Triathlon equipment was at the back of the store. There were racks of running vests and bins of sport socks. Wet suits displayed on mannequins.
“You need help?” asked a man in a baseball cap.
He told him that he was in town to swim the Bay.
“You racing on the week-end?”
“Sunday, first thing – Escape from the Rock. I’ve just flown in from London.”
“You swim much?”
The man shook his head.
“Seen too many sharks. Now let’s find you a suit.”
They had bought a cottage in the same village that they were renting in. It was a wonderful village. Outside the gate to their village churchyard stood a large commemorative stone set with a brass plaque which recorded the population of the village in the year 1000 (60), 1500 (120) and 2000 (60). The current population was 68.
He and Fred hid their bikes behind the grain dryer and walked the rest of the way up the hill. On the slope the grass was tall and wet and he carried Fred on his shoulders to keep his trousers dry. It was a little before ten on a June morning; the vale was bright below them, the sky grey and unpromising. It had rained so hard the day before that water had gushed in an arc through a corner of their kitchen ceiling; more rain was forecast for the afternoon.
At the top of the hill four men were unloading wood from a trailer. These men were his neighbours: Tim (an entrepreneur), Christopher (a soldier), Julian (village chairman), and Terry (village handyman).
“Better late than never” teased Christopher.
Julian had bought the wood from a reclamation yard in Devizes for £45; it was building waste and full of nails but it was dry. Terry had filled his trailer with the wood and driven it to the top of the hill with his tractor. They would build a great bonfire which they would light that night to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
“We had bacon for breakfast” explained Fred.
“Me too” said Terry, grinning.
“Best way to start the day” said Tim.
The six of them began to build the bonfire.
“The Antelope’s got a new beer on, it’s called ‘Red, White & Brew’” said Terry after a while.
“Any good?” he asked.
When the bonfire was built, and its hollow interior filled with straw ready to set alight, they stood back and admired their work.
“That should burn nicely” said Julian.
“Well done everyone.”
“As long as it stays dry” said Tim.
“Always petrol” said Terry.
“10.26pm is the official lighting time for ‘charities, organisations and individuals etc., including hospitals, clubs, pubs, Lions, Round Table and Rotary Clubs, Masonic Lodges, Caravan Club, Trinity House, commercial companies, Private Households and others’” read Christopher from a piece of paper.
“Shall we set our watches?” asked Tim.
Terry drove home in his tractor and Christopher climbed into his Land Rover Defender and Julian climbed into his Land Rover Discovery and he, Tim and Fred walked back down the hill towards their village.
At 4.00pm over 100 turned up for the Golden Jubilee celebrations. Tables had been set down the middle of Church Lane, a union flag flew from the church tower and bunting hung across the avenue of chestnut trees. Around lunchtime the wind had dropped and by the time someone blocked off the village square with chairs and the children were tearing around on scooters and bicycles and by the time Julian perched on the stone and shouted for everyone to raise their glasses in the loyal toast the sun was on their backs.
Games began in the field behind the village hall: apple bobbing and three-legged races, egg and spoon. Carrying Jake on his back he won the blindfold race. A band from Trowbridge played, hamburgers and sausages sizzled on the barbecue, Dick, a retired Army Air Corps pilot had everyone stand again to toast the Queen and the band played the national anthem and they sang along and hip hip hooray’d. An Official Photograph followed. By this time everyone had had a good deal to drink and began to dance the conga into the neighbouring field. Then there was more dancing; the band played on and behind it grouped Fred and Jake and other small boys and girls bobbing up and down; Fred marked time by aiming euphoric karate kicks at the side village hall. Jake copied him. Butter yellow sunshine, cricket in the field, football, Fleetwood Mac, the last sausages off the barbecue, then a noisy progress through the village, they changed the boys into winter clothing and marched with everyone else towards the edge of the Plain in sinking light eating strawberry bootlaces, picking up stragglers along the road, making way for Julian’s Discovery carrying the infirm and the very drunk. Thus the village relocated on to the Plain. Just the other side of a spur the neighbouring village beacon went up in orange flames and a frenzy of bright sparks like climbing mayfly, on the other side of the vale fires at Martinsell, Milk Hill, Etchilhampton, Devizes … at three miles their fireworks blushing like perfect roses. And at 10.26 precisely, Christopher lit the beacon in an orange roar which suddenly threw heat in their faces and drew a black screen across the night so all they had left to look at was the scarlet and platinum and tiger-coloured sprites at loggerheads in the uplift. Everyone agreed it was a fine beacon and cheered and clapped. One final hip-hip-hooray. He stood with Clara and the boys and Poppy sat on his shoulders feeling the heat pinching his cheeks, watching the fire caving in.
In the morning he walked back up the hill to pick over the beacon site; he hoped to find some fired nails for the boys. He found a neat circle of burnt ground but he couldn’t find a single nail, someone had been already to tidy up. Further up the track, he sat down on a straw bale in a barn and ate a breakfast of fruit cake and drank coffee from a thermos. A turtle dove watched from a blackthorn. Then he walked on into the Plain. It rolled out as green and empty as Africa. Squares and rectangles of woodland and stands of tall trees marked firing positions and cover and the sites of old farmsteads abandoned decades ago. Ministry of Defence signs warned of the proximity of unexploded ordnance, and told him to stay on the track. He knew the weather would come off the Plain and the skies looked grey and unsettled. A wind blew but it wasn’t cold. He had a jacket in his rucksack, and a bottle of water and apples and chocolate. When he reached the ridgeway, he turned right and started walking towards the vedette at Urchfont. He intended to have lunch in a village about 8 miles away.
Red flags had been raised to keep civilians away from the ranges and artillery impact areas. After an hour the artillery started up; it sounded like someone furiously slamming a door. Again and again. He could see clumps of white smoke squatting at ground level and then feathering and thinning away in the breeze. A copse of bright green beeches, their leaves playing in the breeze, looked irresistible and he followed a hooped path into their shade. Inside the grass was too wet to sit on so he leant against a stump and ate an apple and felt time nudging him along. The sudden appearance of sunlight dragged him outside. Below him the vale was illuminated, and the downs rising on the far side; he could see as far as the cement works chimney at Westbury. Twenty minutes later he was marching into driving rain. Besides a young plantation of field maple and ash, he passed a memorial to a German soldier killed on exercise when his vehicle overturned. A white mini-van full of soldiers in desert camouflage drove towards him. He raised his hand to the young driver who wore a fusilier’s hackle in his cap and the soldier waved back.
The rain stopped. He kept walking along the ridgeway, thinking all the time about his village and its people and their place in the world. In the past the village would have depended upon agriculture: wheat for flour, barley for the brewery in Devizes, livestock for milk and meat. But one, maybe two people still worked the land. The rest worked in business, or for the public sector; others were retired. The village derived its income from activities which ranged across the globe, and which depended directly on the competitiveness of the country, and the decision-making of its elected leaders. Where, he wondered, was Britain headed? Was there a plan?
He left the ridgeway to follow a bridleway off the hill into the village of West Lavington. Men from the council were resurfacing the A360. Heavy rain fell on the steaming tarmac and scented the air. He moved quickly in search of shelter and found it at The Churchill Arms. Bunting hung across its white walls and a blackboard advertised double vodka at Jubilee prices. Inside the door a print of Churchill smoking a cigar. The landlord was standing behind the bar in gloomy light, there was no one else. There was Red, White & Brew behind the bar, and from the Suffolk coast Adnam’s Diamond. He ordered lunch and wandered about inspecting black and white photographs of West Lavington in days gone by – ex-servicemen gathered together in 1919, the uniformed station staff standing in front of the old station, Prince Phillip visiting Dauntsey’s School in 1971. His sandwich arrived and he ate it standing at the bar. The landlord had turned on the television and they stood together watching the news. A ratings agency had downgraded 5 German banks because of their level of exposure to Spain; some sort of Spanish bail-out looked unavoidable. Northern European tourists were staying away from Greece. The UK construction industry was in a slump. All this news on a rainy day in the middle of England and nothing anyone could do.
His walk home was dry all of the way, and sunny for most of it. Larks and corn buntings. Two pick-ups passed him; each carried the logo ‘Landmarc: Partners in Possibility’. Landmarc was a private company which maintained and managed the firing ranges for the Ministry of Defence. And then one of the pickups was parked up ahead of him and as he walked passed it, out of a beautiful tapering column of woodland pointing into the heart of the Plain, came like a hammer the ‘tack’ of a heavy machine gun. Tack. Tack. The noise smacked and warped though the trees. Halfway down the wood stood a khaki tent with soldiers standing around, and a military ambulance and a brand new troop carrier and parked on the ridgeway he recognised the white minibus. Tack! Tack tack! The sound dominated. Its power, its objective was sovereign: the grasslands and the trees and the birds and inclement weather were nothing. It occurred to him that at the heart of everything was the ability to project force; to clear and hold ground and kill your enemy. He thought immediately of Roddy. He stood on the ridgeway and watched the soldiers for a while, moving between the command tent and tree line and listened to the murderous noise of their firing.
He walked down off the Plain and into the village and entered his garden by the little gate that opened onto Cruck Lane. He stopped by the vegetable bed to pick some broad beans and some runners which were ready. Black fly was everywhere; the cold wet weather had produced a poor potato crop. The green woodpecker which had been nesting in one of their apple trees shrieked. Otherwise the garden and house were quiet – Clara had taken Poppy and the boys to the cinema. He paused by the old brick shed which he used as a wood store. The southern wall was open to the elements, there were tiles missing from the roof and jagged cracks ran down the brick wall. Since they had bought the house he had nursed a plan to rebuild it; he had thought that if he replaced the tiled roof, glazed the open front, put in an old piece of carpet, a wood-burning stove and poked a chimney through the rear wall it might make a snug little office. But close inspections had changed his mind. Half of the tiles were brittle with frost damage, the timbers rotten, the mortar cracked. And it was too small. He gave the brick a kick with a walking boot and wondered how long it would take to knock it down.
He took off his boots on the terrace. He had walked 18 miles and he felt stiff and footsore. Inside he made a pot of tea and loaded a tray with the tea pot and a mug and bottle of milk and a thick slice of fruitcake into his study. He closed the door behind him and sat down at his desk with a groan and after he had poured himself some tea he turned on his computer to check his email. Sunshine fell through the window and onto the photo of Roddy he kept on his desk. The green woodpecker came down off the apple tree and nosed its way around the lawn. He watched it while he thought about Roddy, and everything that had happened in the ten years since he had died. On the walls of his study hung Roddy’s obituaries from The Times and The Guardian. Nothing had prepared him for the experience of negotiating with Obit Editors. One didn’t know about the other, and each demanded exclusivity but he wanted the world to read about his dead friend. He thought that if each Obituary was sufficiently different from the other it wouldn’t matter. And he didn’t care about the Fuck*** Obit Editors. His biggest anxiety was word count. If Roddy was to appear on the main Obit page he must reduce him to 700 words. They were both published on the same day – Roddy had been dead a week.
October 03, 2002
Journalist whose empathy for unfashionable causes took him to the trouble spots of the world.
RODDY SCOTT was a fearless freelance journalist with a strong empathy for unfashionable causes, particularly in Central Asia and the Middle East, and a determination to bring them to the West’s attention. Though he died tragically young, he lived a life that was unusually
uncompromising and colourful.
Scott developed an interest in journalism while still at Edinburgh University, where he edited the foreign pages of the student newspaper. In 1992, while his friends found holiday jobs or inter-railed around Europe, Scott spent his summer vacation in the mountains of eastern Turkey with the PKK, a Kurdish separatist guerrilla group. The experience left him with an abiding interest in the Muslim world and a particular affinity for this displaced people.
Gervaise RodEk Scott — who chose not to use his first name — was born in Huntingdon in 1971. He was educated at Repton School and Edinburgh University, where he read history. On graduating in 1994, he embarked on a career in journalism. He spent the next eight years living and working
in some of the world’s most troubled countries, including the Yemen, Kurdistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Albania, Kosovo, Palestine, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Chechnya.
He was based for several years in Turkey, contributing photographs and articles to, among others, Reuters and Jane’s Intelligence Review. He was also one of the authors of The Guide to the World’s Most Dangerous Places, which featured many of his own experiences of travel in
In recent years he had concentrated on television camera work. He was a freelance contributor to Frontline Television and his work was used by the BBC, Sky News, CNN and Channel Four. He was also writing a novel and a history of Iraq. When he died he was making a documentary on the war
Scott regarded the international media’s failure to report adequately on the continuing war in Chechnya as typical of its fickle attitude towards conflicts where Western interests are not immediately clear. A lack of objective reporting in places like Chechnya, Scott believed, left states
such as Russia free to write their own account of complex and far-reaching conflicts. Physically and mentally tough — his friends regarded him as indestructible — Scott took on work that inevitably
exposed him to danger and hardship. During the civil uprisings in Albania in 1997 he was almost shot by a drunken looter when he refused to give up his camera. Later that year he was travelling in northern Afghanistan with Northern Alliance soldiers on his way to interview their then little-known leader, General Ahmed Shah Massoud, when they were attacked by Taleban helicopter gunships.
On another occasion, while covering fighting in Sierra Leone, he caught cerebral malaria and had to be carried, temporarily blind, across the border into Guinea on a litter constructed by rebel soldiers. A year later, while trying to cross into Sudan, he was arrested by the Ethiopian Army and held prisoner for several days charged with espionage. He got on so well with his jailers that he resisted several opportunities to escape.
Scott never boasted about these experiences; they had to be teased out of him by his friends during his infrequent trips to London. The romance of wild places and conflict undoubtedly appealed to him. But this was because he thought that they mattered. He was killed while filming fierce fighting between Chechen rebels and Russian troops.
He was unmarried.
Thursday 3 October 2002
Compassionate journalist who died filming the Chechens’ forgotten war
Roddy Scott, who has died aged 31 while filming intense fighting between Chechen rebels and Russian forces in Ingushetia, would have enjoyed the irony that it took the killing of a British journalist to revive international media interest in the ongoing war in Chechnya. Scott, who was making a documentary about the Chechens’ eight-year fight to win independence from Russia, felt strongly that their struggle had been forgotten by the rest of the world. He was determined to tell it.
A descendant of CP Scott, the great editor of the Manchester Guardian from 1872 to 1929, Roddy was born in Huntingdon but grew up in North Yorkshire, where his family have a farm. He was educated at Repton School and Edinburgh University. It was at Edinburgh, where he read history, that he developed an interest in journalism. He was foreign news editor of The Student newspaper, and during the holidays travelled widely in the Middle East, spending time living with the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group, in eastern Turkey.
On graduating in 1994, Roddy could have taken the easy option of a newspaper or agency job in London. Instead, he chose the tougher but independent path of a freelance career. During the following eight years he lived and worked in some of the world’s most unstable countries, including Yemen, Kurdistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Albania, Kosovo, Palestine, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Chechnya. Based for several years in Turkey, he worked as a correspondent and photojournalist for, among others, Reuters, The Middle East magazine and Jane’s Intelligence Review, before concentrating on documentary film work. He was also a contributor to the annual guide, The World’s Most Dangerous Places.
Roddy always argued that there were three simple steps to good journalism: witness an event, work out what was happening and then report it in a balanced and accurate way. It was his insistence that journalists must see things for themselves that led him to take so many risks as, time after time, he headed straight for the centre of the action.
A happy rural upbringing left Roddy well prepared for the rigours of war reporting. Physically tough, he marched everywhere in great strides. But at heart he was an intellectual; he wrote beautifully and was happiest when he was devouring books on history, politics and current affairs. I remember a trip around Egypt, Jordan and Syria when his luggage consisted of a tiny hold-all dwarfed by an enormous hardback history of the French Revolution.
His physical presence, combined with his intelligence and a compassion that he often tried hard to hide, explain how he came to gain such easy acceptance from the tribesmen and guerrilla fighters among whom he spent so much of his time. These were vital qualities for a journalist who lacked the resources that were available to the employees of multinational media agencies.
Arrested by the Ethiopian army in 1999 while trying to cross the border into Sudan, he was held prisoner for several days, charged with espionage. Typically, he enjoyed the experience, making friends with his captors and even ignoring opportunities to escape. A year previously, he had contracted cerebral malaria in Sierra Leone and temporarily lost his sight. The hard-bitten RUF (Revolutionary United Front) guerrillas with whom he had been travelling were so distressed that they made him a litter and carried him to safety across the hostile Guinea border.
But it was the Chechens and their cause that he came to really care about. For the last two years, Roddy had carefully won the trust of Chechen rebels operating out of Georgia’s Pankisi gorge as he made a documentary about their war with Russia. Last year, winter snow had prevented him from travelling into Chechnya to interview a senior rebel commander; Roddy was almost killed in an avalanche as he struggled to save a precious satellite phone. He relished the Chechens’ company, quickly making friends among “the boys” as they swapped stories around camp fires.
In December 2000 he arrived on a holiday in Austria straight from a stint in Georgia. Smelling of wood smoke and grime, he announced that he hadn’t washed for weeks. He had never looked happier.
Outside his family Roddy had many devoted friends. He was instinctively loyal and kind. And when his eyes shone as he recalled a moonlit night crossing the Albanian alps with the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), or talked about his next assignment, you realised how privileged you were to count this rare man as your friend.
Gervaise RodEk (Roddy) Scott, journalist, born February 23 1971; died September 26 2002
There was an email about a swimming race he was doing in September. It was a 10km race down the River Dart. At the beginning of the year competing in the race had seemed like a good idea. Because it was just a few days before the ten year anniversary of Roddy’s death he had persuaded Roddy’s brother Nick to swim with him – they would raise money for the foundation Roddy’s family had set up. But Nick had rheumatism in his knee and left to his own devices, he had neglected to train. Now he had just 13 weeks to go.
Attached to the Dart 10k email was a copy of the Training Manual which he had first been sent back in February when he had signed up to take part. He opened the Manual and scanned it with a sinking heart.
“10k is a big deal – for most people it’s a similar challenge to running the marathon. This blueprint 10k Training Plan is aimed at getting you to a state of fitness where you don’t just swim the 10k, you enjoy the day” says coach Dan Bullock.
“Your aim is to swim 3 times a week, with a mixture of:
• Short technical sessions (focusing on drills and technique)
• Long swims (for example a long continuous swim outside or steady-state swim in a pool)
• Fitness sessions (during which you may cover the same distance as a long swim, but with the focus on interval training)
If your LONG SWIM is in a pool, try not to touch the wall and keep it continuous without the rest. You may find it more zen to calculate your swimming time (eg 2.5 hours, 3 hours, and so on) rather than count your lengths. You can drink during this session. Take a carbohydrate sports drink such as SIS, Powerbar or Maxim. If you are swimming for over an hour then you will need to start replenishing calories spent. If you hate long swims, it is an option to swim more frequently (eg five times a week).
Remember, you’ll be part of the first lot of people who do the 10k. It’s ground breaking, demanding and challenging! Feel proud. Tell yourself ‘you can do this.”
According to the Plan he should this very week have completed a 2.5km long swim, a 90 minute fitness session and a 45-60 minute technical session each week. But all he had managed was one fifty minute swim in Pewsey Leisure Centre. He was woefully behind schedule. He sat at his desk and stared through the window and imagined hundreds of men and women plunging into lidos and lakes and swimming pools at first light, their muscular progress, the bow waves that went before them. He tried to remember where he might find his wetsuit.
Something made the woodpecker look up and fly away. Moments later a commotion of voices and doors and the crack of a saucepan on an Aga hotplate told him Clara and the boys were home.
“Dad?” shouted Jake from the playroom.
“Don’t shout” he shouted back.
Then Jake burst into his study and was standing by his chair.
“When are you going to make me a lego frigate?”
He kissed the boy on his forehead.
“After you’ve had your tea.”
It was a Thursday afternoon and he had just returned to the campaign headquarters on Argyle Street after a meeting at the Blue Bird Café on the King’s Road and the Campaign Director said that he needed a word in the Boardroom and as soon as the door was shut the Campaign Director said “Al, I think your mate Roddy has been shot.”
Ten years later that moment, and the spreading confusion, was clear to him.
“He’s on the news.”
There was Roddy’s boy’s face, bearded and hard-staring.
‘We have received unconfirmed reports that a British journalist has been killed in Chechnya’.
He rang L and told him, and then he had climbed on his bike and cycled home along the south bank of the Thames from his offices in Southwark to his flat in Westminster and for the duration of the trip Roddy had felt very close. There was still some sun in the sky, and the light glanced off the river. He felt caught up and strangely euphoric.
He talked to Roddy and he could see his face, listening carefully. He looked chastened; he had never seen Roddy chastened before. At his flat he found half a bottle of manzanilla in the fridge and drank it. On the stereo was a Sibelius CD – his Symphony Number 3 in C Major. He found the melody and played it over and over, very loud. Clara came home and saw that he had been crying and she was wonderful but he had to be on his own, to maintain his closeness with Roddy while he still could. He rang Roddy’s parents and left a message on the answer machine and took three paracetamol in anticipation of the calamitous headache which seemed inevitable and then he walked out onto Horseferry Road. He headed across Victoria Road and past St James’s Station and Petty France and down Queen Anne’s Gate and across Birdcage Walk. In St James’s Park he possessed the space and light to talk to Roddy and he resumed this conversation all the way to Hyde Park Corner and on deep into Hyde Park.
“You stupid Fucker” he shouted when he ran out of things to say.
At Shepherd’s Bush he found L and C waiting for him outside an Italian restaurant. They had dinner and laughed about Roddy, everything giddy and winded and they grew drunk and maudlin and when the restaurant closed spilled out onto the pavement. Feeling very alone and wasted he walked to Clara’s flat off Goldhawk Road where he slept and the next day he woke with a dreadful hangover and he had a long bath and then walked out onto Uxbridge Road. He bought the papers and sat down in a greasy spoon to read them. He was used to buying the papers in a fat pile, scanning them for relevant stories. Newspapers were the fields where campaigns sowed their seed, grew their crop, took pot-shots at their enemies. Now he searched for news about the death of his friend, and he found it.
In October he travelled up to Yorkshire for Roddy’s memorial service. This could not be a funeral because the Russians were refusing to release Roddy’s body; they claimed he had been wearing uniform; that he had been carrying a rifle. In the dining car of a GNER train up to Harrogate he drank a bottle of inky black shiraz and wrote Roddy’s eulogy. He remembered dinner that night at Throstle Nest Farm, the dining room lit with candles and pictures of Roddy. The cigarettes they smoked; so many of them bedding down on the floor to sleep, the rawness of the next morning. He remembered rehearsing his speech, and the difficult sections. He remembered Roddy’s father’s face as he practised his speech in the church; the sensation of epicentre around the church in Summer Bridge as the darkness fell on a red stone Yorkshire church into which filed men and women, face after face, dark suited figures lining the backs of the church and the sides of the church. It took a young man to die suddenly and far away to really fill a church, he realised. In the lane outside was a knot of people and in the centre was the girl in the black leather jacket. He stopped to try and console her but she was inconsolable. He remembered his fear as he walked into the church, and also the courage and the sense of moment. He must not let go. He must not let go. Roddy’s cousin Alaric, barrel-chested, red faced, the tears pouring freely down his cheeks. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply.
Afterwards they all gathered in the barn for the wake. He felt neutral and done in – his body was a vessel for adrenalin, for wine, for the smoke of cigarettes. The barn was icy cold and despite a noisy fan heater, grew no warmer as they drank and smoked their way towards the end of the night. They agreed, with pantomime smiles, that Roddy, who had been indifferent to physical discomfort, would be enjoying theirs. The girls cried and all the boys laughed and swore and poured more cold red wine into plastic glasses, and handed around cigarettes and he couldn’t get drunk. And Roddy’s cousins in their school uniforms, who were excited to be up so late and who had made mustard sandwiches which they insisted their victims must be fed sitting back in a dusty old arm chair, blindfolded with one of their school ties.
Still the Russians would not release Roddy’s body, so Roddy’s parents decided to hold the funeral in Moscow. On a Sunday before Christmas he flew out to join them. From his window seat he watched the frozen centre of Europe, the rye fields, the killing grounds and the burial places of the last century pass beneath him. Industrial cities like black shrapnel scars against the snow, turning amber in the afternoon dark. The Polish forests, the Polish plains. Russia’s empty beginning. He gazed upon the earth’s surface and drank red wine and balanced Churchill’s wartime diaries against the sill of the oval window so that he could read Churchill’s wartime prose against the brutal backdrop of the eastern front.
A British Embassy car picked him up from Dormodedovo Airport. The road into the city ran through black and white forest and then, as the traffic bunched at the first of the ring roads around the city, there was close proximity of hundreds of filthy cars queuing to get back inside the capital. A red anthem of brake lights, sapping the life out of everyone. The rear windows of the 4x4s were blacked-out. The car crawled out of the sovereignty of one grey residential tower and succumbed to the sovereignty of its neighbour. Each tower enjoyed a view of the motorway, a Shell service station, building sites, an orchard left behind. On the radio phone-in a middle aged woman repeated her point, allowed her voice to get out of control, and began to cry. He stared out of the window, patiently waiting for her to finish. A row of dead trees stood guarding another grey tower. Adverts for a film called Pitbull, a symphony orchestra, cigarettes. He sat in the back of the car thinking how much he hated Russia for killing Roddy, and how fascinating and appalling the country was and how sorry he felt for its people. Up ahead, rising high over the queue of traffic snaking up the hill, tall towers painted red and white emitted thick white vapour.
The Embassy was a modern tower overlooking the frozen Moscow River. The brushed steel Coat of Arms divided as the gates opened to let them in, and then snapped shut behind him. British soil. He was given a spare room in an apartment at the top of the building which housed the head of the Visa Section. Sliding glass doors opened onto a wide terrace overlooking the river. It was dark. He went outside to smoke a cigarette. He was wearing just a shirt and jersey and it was very cold.
“I might go for a walk” he said to the diplomat.
“Wear a hat” the diplomat replied. “They can arrest you around here if you’re not wearing one. It’s minus 25 out there.”
He walked out across the Novoarbatsky Bridge and although he was wearing all of his clothes and the diplomat’s spare hat the cold rippled around him like something tangible. The pavements were deserted. He reached the southern bank, crossed the wide drag and walked back on the other side.
The next morning the Embassy car drove him to Moscow’s Anglican church. Outside the church unknown men stood chatting by an empty bird table, its black leaves pinned with frost. In a nearby garden a fire burned; above it stood a column of cream-coloured smoke. An AmEan-built hearse drove slowly through the gates and purred up to the church entrance, its exhaust curling in grand white flowers. Shipped via military plane, by unfeeling hands, bumped through the ugly outskirts and the old snow – Roddy’s bruised, indestructible body in a box.
“Hello Roddy” he whispered, thinking about a moment in Edinburgh when he and Roddy had walked into a snowball fight on Teviot Square between students and boys from a sixth form college. The boys, wearing uniform and much greater in number were winning, pushing the students back. The students were laughing and the school boys were throwing quickly and grimly. They wanted to win. He and Roddy attracted snowballs, and both of them were hit.
“That was a mistake” grinned Roddy and put down his bag. They began to make and throw snowballs; they targeted one of the ringleaders and hit him in the face and chest.
“That’ll teach you” grinned Roddy.
The momentum turned. Roddy and he crabbed forward, gathered snow in their hands and then standing to throw it. The group of school boys broke, the students charged. The skirmish was over.
Inside the church a string quartet played, filling the Anglican warmth with the unrepeatable sound of this December morning. He sat next to Roddy’s parents and his brother. One second slow-hatched after second; in his ears the booming density of life. Footsteps behind them and four strangers walked past carrying Roddy’s coffin on their shoulders. A service followed. Roddy’s father stood by his son’s coffin and spoke. Next he read his eulogy to Roddy’s unhearing ear. In turn each of them said their pieces, standing as close to Roddy as they dared. And then, just as they were getting used to the idea it was him (how badly was he damaged? Had someone washed his body? Was it as lonely in there as it looked?), the four blunt-faced men lifted Roddy’s coffin shyly onto their shoulders and took him away. The Quartet played him out. Quickly they followed, terrified about what was about to happen. In front of the church the engine of the hearse was running. He stood by Roddy’s mother watching Roddy into the back of the hearse. The crisis in her arms, her hands. Her letting him go.
In preparation for the longest and most difficult swim of his life he returned to Porchester Baths. Oh the hardship of those first lengths! The initial 10, then 10 to 20 and 20 to 30. The first half hour was brutal but by the time he climbed his way into the high seventies he felt like he could motor on forever. The old routines became familiar, the streams of fantasy and dialectic. Length after length, some in gloom, some in sunshine. The old distractions: the corner drifts of grit, the algae blooms, pretty girls passing in the next lane. In the days before the Olympics huge AmEans appeared and set up shop in the fast lane. They wore racing shorts and followed one another up and down in an express shuttle which had him swimming with constant reference to what was coming up behind him. Whenever he let them pass they did so without acknowledgement, as if his behaviour was not courteous but simple self-interest. He wondered if they were members of the US athletics team, or an advance party of Secret Service agents, hanging out for the arrival of the First Lady.
Swimmers for years have spoken about acquiring and losing the feel for the water. When it is has been lost due to a period of illness/exams/holiday keeping the swimmer away from the pool, sculling drills are emphasized to help relearn the feel for the water. Sculling movements help improve the feel for the water and the ability to hold onto the water. An improved feel for the water helps to make the water feel more solid, as if you had something substantial to hold onto. This will help you pull the body through and over the hand keeping your distance per stroke high.
When he could, he trained in the pool at Pewsey. But there were few opportunities for lane swimming. One opportunity fell between 9.00am and 10.00 on Sunday mornings, but when he arrived the pool there were no lanes, just a great number of old people swimming up and down in the warm blue water. He managed two lengths but it was impossible and he climbed angrily out. The next morning he drove to the pool for the Early Birds Swim (7.00 to 8.30). He climbed into the pool at 7.05 but it was nearly as full as it had been on Sunday; there were no lanes and he had to swim carefully to avoid collisions. The warm water felt heavy and he strained to move through it. A large woman swam in a breast stroke and he did his best to avoid her. There was an old man with a rolling, lurching crawl, thwacking the water with his fists. He muscled his way through 90 minutes, feeling lethargic and dispirited. On Wednesday (Adult Swim 7.00 to 7.55) he arrived early and claimed the lane on the far side of the pool. This time there was only a few swimmers and he managed 92 lengths in 58 minutes. He had a long way to go.
At the beginning of August he flew to Trieste with his family for their summer holiday. The city was white hot. Each morning the city emptied out onto its slim pebble beaches, citizens crowding into buses and washing away like a tide. They carried swimming things and folding chairs and beds and umbrellas and they set up camp in the stands of pine trees, or on the pavement above the sea, and the platforms raised at regular intervals and dedicated to sunbathing; these were called Topolino which meant ‘little mouse’ in Italian because from above they were shaped like a crouching mouse.
There was the busy coast road and then there was the pavement lined with sunbathing bodies and occasional trees and benches and every so often a raised Topolino. At each Topolino was a bus stop, and these stops were called Prima Topolino, Secondo Topolino
The women sprayed themselves with oil and lay very still. The men hid under umbrellas and fell asleep, their mouths open, their hands empty, their ears dead to the sounds of traffic on the coast road.
In the sea large brown men from the Balkans stood nipple deep in the clear blue water. They wore heavy gold chains around their broad necks, their shoulders bursting with ill-gotten muscle. They stood still, rarely speaking, staring impassively into the beach as if waiting for trouble to arise. Their children and their wives played in the shallows.
He swam through the men and out into the deep water. He swam all the way to the orange buoys which marked the end of the lido and just inside this safe water he practised his sculling. Afterwards he perched on a buoy and looked back into the crowded beach and the busy road remembering the afternoon Roddy phoned him at work in the City and told him he had just landed in Sarande in the south of Albania, right in the thick of the unrest, and a man had tried to steal his camera at gunpoint.
“What did you do?”
There was a delay on Roddy’s satellite phone.
“Told him he couldn’t have it.”
He looked for Clara and the children on the beach and when he saw them he waved. After a while they waved back. He swam to another buoy and sat on it for a while. Then he let himself down into the water and sprinted for the beach. Half way there his hand knocked into something solid. He stopped swimming and looked up. His path was blocked by a kayak. In it sat a young man in a red singlet.
“No boats here” he said. “Swimming here.”
“I am Lifeguard” explained the young man. “I saw you waving.”
“I’m fine” he replied, craning his neck, summoning all the self-importance available to him.
“I was waving to my children.”
“Please don’t wave” said the young man.
“Anyway, I’m a good swimmer” he said firmly and set off for the beach.
He had planned to get up early the next morning for a training swim in the harbour but it wasn’t possible. The five of them were sharing a room high in the roof of the hotel, and when he woke Clara was staring at the ceiling.
“It’s so hot” she whispered. “I can’t sleep”.
It took him ten minutes to wake the children, get them dressed and push them out of the door.
“Mum needs a lie-in. We’re going to play cricket.”
The Piazza Unità d’Italia was empty. The air was already hot, the early morning sun heavy on their backs. In the shadow of a high municipal building he found an empty bottle of beer.
“This L be our bat”.
They had brought a tennis ball with them.
An ornate iron lamp post became a set of stumps, the other was the pushchair, in which Poppy sat drinking milk.
“Poppy can be the umpire” said Jake.
“Good thinking. And who are you?”
“And I’m Graeme Swann when I bowl and Ian Bell when I bat” said Fred.
“And who am I?” he asked.
“You are Graham Onions” said Fred. “And I’m batting.”
“And I’m wicket keeper” shouted Jake.
Graham Onions ran in to bowl to Ian Bell, off his short run up. Bell moved back and cut the ball towards the Adriatic. The ball ran away towards the Municipal Buildings boundary where it was fielded by Andrew Strauss, diving heroically to save four runs.
Bell pulled a shorter ball towards the Duchi D’Aosta Hotel.
Poppy signaled a wide.
The game went on. It was hot out in the middle.
“Look” shouted Strauss, pointing out to sea.
They stopped and looked out to sea. An enormous white cruise liner was approaching the harbour, escorted by a black-hulled tug boat.
“Play is suspended” announced Onions.
They hurried across the Piazza and stood at the quay watching the ship draw near. The Costa Classica had three yellow chimneys, over them hung dark clouds of smoke. Her high white sides looked paper thin. Passengers lined her decks, peering down into Trieste while they digested their breakfasts. A crowd gathered, and Carabinieri drove up in a smart Alfa Romeo, and two armed Customs officers in a VW Golf. A man from Piccolo, the local newspaper, began to take photographs. Then crew members, neat in their white t-shirts, were throwing down thin ropes which were tied to thick, heavy ropes; these were hauled by men on the quay and hooked over huge iron bollards. Engines on the ship’s bow and stern pulled in the rope, tightening them and drawing the vessel snug against the quayside. Suddenly they were standing in the ships shadow, and the tug was heading away, its work done.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ENDURANCE / LONG DISTANCE SWIMMING
– Compared to swimming in a pool anything outdoors is infinitely more interesting – so look forward to the swim, enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere. When you compare it to time in the pool counting tiles, the natural beauty of it is likely to make the distance fly.
– If you need, roll on your back for a few strokes and soak up some sun. There are very few marathon people who don’t stop and walk now and then.
– Relax and enjoy it! This is the key to a good swim.
– Remember: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Or in the words of one endurance swimmer “pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever”. Chances are you can do the 10k without any crises, but if you do have one, try focusing on your stroke, your technique, the other swimmers, your chosen charity… Anything but the question ‘shall I stop now?’.
The day after they returned to Wiltshire he swam in a gravel lake. He woke at 6.00am and packed his rucksack with his trunks, a towel, his wet suit, a white swim hat, his goggles, a thermos of mint tea, a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.
A thick mist filled the valley. At the top of Milk Hill he stopped the car and looked back across his hidden valley. He felt so lucky to live where he did. He got back in the car and drove into angled autumn sunshine. A gate barred access to the lake and he did not know the code for the padlock so he parked instead on a grass verge and climbed over the gate. The lake lay still in the morning sunshine. A man with tattoos on his arms was standing by his car drying himself off. He had a Welsh Rugby sticker in his windscreen.
“How’s the water?” he asked?
“Not too bad.”
He changed into his wetsuit.
“Best way to start the day.”
The man grinned.
“You know, the first time I ever got into that lake I didn’t manage 50 metres. It was so dark down there and I could see all those fish. I couldn’t do it. I thought ‘sorry fishes’ and got straight out.”
He hadn’t worn his wetsuit for a year. He had to ask the man to zip him up.
“Good luck to you” said the man. “I’m late for a meeting.” He climbed into his car and drove away. He walked into the water and stood looking out. There were several swimmers making their way around the pink buoys; one loop was 750m. A length at Pewsey Leisure Centre was 25m. Porchester Baths was 30m. He had a long way to go. He adjusted his hat, he looked again at his watch, he dived forwards and for as far as he could he swam underwater. He broke the surface and he began to swim towards the first buoy. He reached it and stopped and looked about him. The water was cool but he wasn’t uncomfortable. His mind resisted the idea of what was coming; beyond the buoy lay the boredom and buried loneliness of a long distance swim. Now he could see; in a moment he would put his head down and swim and his goggles would mist and water would clog his ears and he would begin to swallow the lake water and his arms would ache as he pulled and pushed himself along. He felt the morning sun on his head. At last he struck out for the far buoy.
“I’ll do four loops and then stop” he said. Thus he coaxed himself.
He managed six loops in a couple of hours. Six loops of 750 metres made 4k. He didn’t swim very fast, he didn’t feel very fast. The water was cool and he looked down upon plumes of weed and the soft green floor and the heavy weighted fish on the bottom. In places the water smelt of rot. He swam from one buoy to another and at each buoy he rested and for a while swam breast stroke. A number of swimmers overtook him. As he walked out of the lake his arms hurt and he felt slightly disappointed. The strokes were coming back but he didn’t feel strong. Outside Marlborough he stopped in a lay-by and ordered a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee from a mobile café called ‘The All English’. He ate the sandwich and sat in his car sipping the coffee and thinking about how he was going to swim the 10k.
The next week he made another early departure in bright sunshine for the lake. The lake was very still. He was in the water by 7.45 and swam four laps and then got out to sip mint tea and eat a caramel wafer. It was good to feel the sun warm on his wetsuit, nothing about his life important except the need for him to finish his swim. He allowed himself 8 minutes rest then he walked back into the water and swam another four laps. He expected to get his second wind and settle into a rhythm that felt unstoppable but this didn’t happen for a long time. He could feel himself toppling either side. His arms ached. After his sixth lap he felt himself settle a little – everything hurt and he was slow but he could keep going. He swam eight laps and walked out of the water. He changed and drove away. In Marlborough he parked up outside the ‘All English’ for a cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich and sat in his car eating it and listening to Women’s Hour on the radio. He wasn’t happy; his arms weren’t strong enough. He had to do something about his arms.
August Bank Holiday week-end. Grey skies turned to blue, and bursts of sunshine were followed by heavy showers. There were 26 days until the swim. On the Monday morning he decided to raze the old brick shed in the garden. He needed the exercise. He ate a breakfast of two boiled eggs, two rashers of bacon, six pieces of toast, marmalade, strawberry jam. No butter. Two cups of coffee. Then he set about the shed. He started up on the roof, pulling off the tiles and flinging them down onto the lawn. When they were all off he let Fred climb up the ladder and sit with him on the top, looking out over the village. They looked up the length of the village to St Michael’s church with its union flag, which had been flying every day since the Jubilee. Then he followed Fred back down the ladder and he started work on the brick walls, punching out holes with the heavy iron spike. Fred and Jake set to with hammers. He had them wear their cycling hats for protection, and sunglasses and gardening gloves. At elevenses they downed tools and stood among the wreckage and passed round a bottle of water. They were each very thirsty and took a long pull of water. It started raining but they didn’t stop working. They had too much to do. After a while it stopped raining. Rain or no rain, the day was warm and he sweated in his boiler suit until it was soaked through with rain and sweat. At 1.00 the boys went inside for lunch. There were only just enough walls left to hold up the roof timbers. By smashing through a column of bricks holding up the south west corner of the roof he was able to collapse the building pretty much as he wanted it.
“I hope you didn’t damage my washing line” shouted Clara from the door into the kitchen.
“Nope” he shouted back.
He found the washing line and pulled it out of the rubble and walking into the kitchen, flung his dusty gloves onto the table.
“God I’m good at demolition work” he said as he sat down for lunch; he felt tremendously pleased with himself.
He ate a bowl of Heinz tomato soup, some mackerel paté left over from Friday night’s dinner party, fried new potatoes, tomato and mozzarella salad, stilton, bread and olive oil. Two choc ices. A bottle of Three Castle’s Vale Ale, and half a bottle of Languedoc. And then, after a little while, a cup of mint tea, half a Crunchie bar. Then he put on his boiler suit, which was covered in red brick dust, and led the boys back into the garden. The shed lay in a pile of brick rubble and twisted roof timbers.
“It looks like it’s been shelled” said Fred.
The boys armed themselves with their hammers and clambered over the wreckage, picking off bits and pieces. He sat down on the grass in front of a great pile of bricks and with a hammer and chisel worked his way through the pile, chipping away the mortar on those bricks worth rescuing. They were recycling the good brick to lay a path across their vegetable patch. Clara had calculated they needed 300 good clean bricks; he was – as usual – just following orders.
“Clean brick” he shouted each time he finished one and a boy ran forward and put it in a pile.
Heavy rain fell and at last they ran inside. He lit a fire in the sitting room and they watched ‘Die Another Day’, perhaps the worst Bond film ever made. The boys were too young and the plot threw them. He found himself talking ceaselessly, explaining the fantastic storyline and fast forwarding to the sword fight and car chases. While they watched the boys ate their tea on their laps: pasta and tomato sauce, slices of pear and Cadbury’s chocolate rolls. He drank a cup of tea and ate a chocolate roll.
It had stopped raining. After the film was over they went back outside to clear up. They stacked the clean bricks in neat lines, and filled the wheelbarrow with the broken ones and dumped them on a high pile of debris bound for a skip. Fred climbed the hazel tree and then fell out. Jake took a pee. They picked all the pieces of broken brick and mortar off the grass and removed the broken timbers impaled with long grey nails.
“Boys – bath time” shouted Clara.
They procrastinated for a while.
The boys grumbled.
“Come on” he told them, and herded them towards the house. “We haven’t finished but we’ve made progress; we’ve done a good job. You two should be proud of yourselves.”
His shoulders and arms ached with the work. After the boys had gone to bed he had a long bath reading the London Review of Books. Afterwards he cooked supper. Fresh pasta with ham, peas, shallots and some chopped mint scattered on top at the last minute. Yoghurt with honey. A bottle of ice cold Soave. Then they went to bed.
‘That’s it’ he thought as he lay in the darkness waiting to go to sleep. ‘That was a good day.’
Eight hundred swimmers would participate in the Dart10k. The river snaked downstream between steep oak woods and at Langham Woods it emerged into the wide estuary and hugged the southern shore line as it pushed its way towards the sea. It was a lot of people and he had not swum in numbers for a long time. If he was to do Roddy proud he needed to reintroduce himself to the chaos of swimming among other people. During weekday evenings there was a training programme for triathletes at the Serpentine Lido. There were two sessions: Technique and Fitness, and the Fitness sessions were notorious. He booked himself a space in a Fitness training session. He would find out how fit he was. The day before the session passed in dread. He had forgotten that anticipation was exhausting, he had to stop himself over-eating. The fitness session started at 6.30 and ran until 8.00. The last train to Pewsey was at 8.35; he must not miss the train. But missing the train was not what he was worrying about as he walked from his office up to Hyde Park and the struck out across the empty space towards the lake.
“I think I’ve screwed this one up”, he told his brother, who he spoke to while he walked between the round pond and the lake.
On the other side of the lake stood the scaffolding which had held the grand stands and the media suites for London 2012. The lake had been used for the Olympic triathlon, and for the 10km swim, which had been won by Oussama Mellouli of Algeria in 1 hour 49 minutes. He reached the entrance to the Lido and joined the back of a queue of triathletes waiting patiently to register. Several more men and women arrived on expensive looking road bikes which they stowed carefully and efficiently in racks, locking them tight. He felt little in common with these athletes. Just metres away, men and women sat at tables outside the Lido Café, happy in the Indian summer sun.
He looked at them enviously.
‘What am I doing?’ he asked himself.
‘I don’t take myself seriously enough for any of this.’
He stood looking across the lake at the scaffolding and told himself that he had work to do, and tremendous things to prove. He paid his fifteen pounds and found a corner of the changing room to change in and as soon as he had pulled on his wetsuit he trotted up the stairs of the Lido building and across the footbridge and down the steps to the side of the Lido. Swimmers were being divided into the Technical group and the Fitness group. There were about 25 of them in the Fitness group. He joined them, and stood waiting and stretching. His suit felt uncomfortably tight. Some of the other swimmers gave him strange looks. He wondered what they were looking at and he realised he had put his suit on the wrong way around. Colouring, he turned and trotted back up the steps and over the footbridge and back in the changing room pulled off his suit and put it back on the right way around. It was not the start he had hoped for.
Back by the side of the lake the fitness coach was clapping and shouting instructions.
“Could my Fitness group please take to the water and complete an 8 minute warm up, please. Any discipline you like.”
The coach was Dan Bullock, author of the Dart 10k Manual. Dan was the best swim coach in all of London. Milan had been one of Dan’s protégés. He walked into the water and when it was waist deep he dived underwater and soared in superman pose. He began to swim up the Lido’s perimeter. Although he was wearing a cap it felt cold on his head. He tried to control his breathing. He went along and some swimmers passed him and he tried to concentrate on his breathing but he felt the familiar stab of anxiety. He put his head up and sighted the Hilton on Park Lane. He told himself to calm down and he concentrated on breathing out and after a while he settled into it. He did four lengths of the Lido; each length was 100 metres.
“Come in” shouted Dan.
He stood at the edge of the group listening to Dan, and watching the other swimmers. Everyone looked fit and muscled after a summer of competition. Most of them had carried a plastic bottle with them down to the water, and these were now lined up on the jetty, containing dark liquids which the men and women sipped at regular intervals. He had no bottle of liquid. He had not swum among other swimmers for a year. He had put his wetsuit on back-to-front. He felt intimidated and defensive.
“Bunch up” shouted Dan. “Let’s make this as realistic as we can.”
He knew that if things didn’t go well he had very little time to do anything about it.
For the first set, Dan sent them out in 4 waves; they swam one length freestyle gradually building speed, and then on the return a drill to help them work on their hand shapes.
“There should be daylight showing between your fingers” called Dan, standing on the jetty and holding his left hand in the air.
“Your fingers should be a little apart; it helps you grip the water.”
Dan told them to divide themselves into four waves of swimmers, with the fastest at the front. He chose the third wave for himself and when they set off he breathed on every other stroke, breathing to his right so he could see the rest of the swimmers spread out across one half of the Lido and get a sense of where they were, and how he was doing. He was aware of the second wave 10 seconds ahead of him and the first wave further ahead. He was aware of the water sliding past him, and as he turned his head to breathe, the ugly tower which had once housed the men of the Household Cavalry but which was now being demolished; a British Airways 747 dropping towards Heathrow. He couldn’t see the rest of the third wave because he had pulled away from them, and now he was closing on the second wave as he increased his speed; he was almost at the buoys and then he was passed the finish and bunching with the first and second wave swimmers, waiting for the third and fourth wave to catch up and clear the lane so the first wave might lead everyone back towards Dan standing 100 metres away on the jetty. He told himself to pace himself.
They swam this sequence twice more and both times he started in the third lane and both times he finished well ahead, catching the swimmers in the wave ahead of him. He felt tired and his arms ached a little but he was doing OK.
“Come in please for Main Set”
It was just after 7.00pm; the sun was setting over Notting Hill Gate, the air was darkening and cooling. It was a magical time to be in the water.
They stood around the end of the jetty waiting while the last of the swimmers came in.
“OK” said Dan. He was tall and lean, he wore a peaked cap and knee length shorts and flip flops; an air of happiness and fulfillment emanated from him.
“We’re going to do a 1,900m set. Incremental. 3 x 300m, 3 x 200m, 3 x 100m. 2 x 50m. Rests in between: 30 seconds between 300s, 20 between 200s, 10 between 100s.”
The arithmetic befuddled him but this time no one groaned or asked a stupid question.
“Any questions?” asked Dan.
“How long do we rest between our last 300m and the first 200m?” asked a girl wearing a Dart 10k swimming hat.
“Great question” said Dan. “30 seconds.”
The clock on the tower over the Lido Café said 7.10. His last train home left at 8.35. He must get out of the water no later than 7.50 to give himself time to change and catch his train.
“OK, let’s get going” hollered Dan, clapping his hand.
“Bunch up nice and tight please for a simultaneous start. Three – two – one! Off you go.”
There was the early joshing, as slippery bodies pushed and kicked for open water. He went right, aiming for the edge of the group and he swum over someone’s legs and fended off a pair of feet as he fought his way forwards. Then he had freedom and he began to swim. He was about half way up the pack and he had nineteen 100m lengths to go.
He told himself to pace himself.
After 300m he was just behind the leaders. They stood catching their breath at the far end of the Lido while Dan shouted down their thirty seconds rest. During the next 300m he felt OK, and the third. By now he was up with the leaders and he felt strong and he was competing. They set off on the first of their 200ms, heading out into the setting sun. On the way back he liked to swim hard against the line of white buoys and for the first fifty metres he breathed to his right, so that all he saw when he looked up was the line of buoys running passed, tight by him, and then he allowed himself to look left and there were the other leaders and he was right up with them. He felt strong and he was competing. He loved the Serpentine; he loved her green trees dipping their skirts into the water; he loved the lilac sky, the setting sunlight snagging against the vapour trails. He swam with his mouth a little open and kept swallowing mouthfuls of lake water and he had never tasted water so sweet.
The 200 metre sequence was out of the way and he had swum two thirds of the 100m sequence – just one paltry length to go before the 50m sequence. He and two others were racing. Come on you Fuck*ers! The end was in sight and he breathed bilaterally, which was faster if you had the puff and enabled you to drive forwards with your shoulders and he felt himself getting faster and the water sliding by and he knew what it meant to feel the water and he was dragging it underneath him in great handfuls and surging forward, his feet still, his arms driving over and into the water and reaching and holding and dragging and shoving him along. He was singing and breathing out and he was nailing it and he was first to the buoys at the far end and he stood up, snapping out of the water like a champion and pulling off his cap with swollen hands and the other two were just finishing and he had turned his back and was wading to the side of the Lido because he had a train to catch but it was a moral victory because there was no way those two Fuck*** c**** would have overtaken him if he’d stayed in; not over a miserly two 50m.
He walked onto the shore and jogged away towards the changing hut. He unzipped his wetsuit and he pulled it off his arms and wore the top half hanging down off his waist and looking back he saw the two others swimming their 50ms and he said out loud “I beat you c***s.”
Up the steps and over the bridge and down the stairs into the changing block.
He had twenty seven minutes to catch his train.
He half jogged half walked out of the park, across Serpentine Bridge. His wetsuit was in a bin liner at the bottom of his rucksack. An Arab family let a football roll into the road and a taxi driver stopped so that the young father might retrieve it. The lake was black, the last of the light blue and some copper like bright coins on the surface of the water. He crossed the road and took a short cut through the park towards the junction of Bayswater Road and Clarendon Place. It was the straightest possible route to the fish and chip shop on Norfolk Place. As soon as he was across Sussex Gardens he rang Clara.
“I fucking nailed it.
He was a little out of breath, moving at 5 or 6 miles an hour.
“Darling, that’s wonderful.”
“I love you” he said.
“I love you to, darling. Are you going to catch your train?”
“Yes but first I’m getting chips.”
The fish and chip shop was on Norfolk Place opposite the Frontline Club. Up the stairs and turn right into the club room and on the wall was a photo of Roddy.
I dedicate the club to my fellow Frontline freelancers who risked and lost their lives for their video journalism.
Founder of The Frontline Club & Director of Frontline Television News, 1989 – 2003
He ordered a large portion of chips. They cost £1.90. He stood over the man and made him add extra salt and large quantities of vinegar. He added so much vinegar that it soaked through the sheets of white wrapping paper and the man had to take one extra sheet after another until they wrapped dry. The man put the parcel in a paper bag and he gave him a £2 coin and told him to keep the change and half jogged out of the shop and out onto Praed Street where he turned left towards the station. He couldn’t believe he was about to take his place at the very front of a fast train and take off into this warm night with a bag of chips and an Evening Standard and nothing to do but sit and eat and read. He jogged onto the concourse and through the ticket barriers and all the way down Platform 2 until he reached carriage A and he walked the full length of the carriage and took the first possible seats on the left and he threw his rucksack up on the shelf and tore off his jacket, and sitting down he tore the warm, damp wrapping from the chips and the smell watered his mouth and filled the carriage and there were the chips – square cut and pale and crisped-sided but not too much except for odds and ends which were still crunchy despite the vinegar and with deep reverence and everlasting respect for the extraordinary cast of characters who had collaborated to provide him with such pleasure – scientists and farmers, lorry drivers, the manufacturers of deep fat fryers, the manufacturers of vinegar and table salt, the paper bag printers and the railway men and those who were responsible for his seating and light and the air conditioning – he began to eat and everything about the chips was delicious.
After he had eaten two thirds of the bag he got up and walked back down the train to the Express Café to buy a diet coke and on the way he stuffed the rest of the chips in a bin. His stomach was heavy but he had stopped eating the chips just in time and he was not uncomfortable. The train arrived into Pewsey at 9.40. Standing by his bike he unpacked and looked for his torches and when he couldn’t find them he remembered that they were sitting on the kitchen table where he left it that morning. He looked for a reflecting ankle band he thought he had put into his rucksack but he couldn’t find it. A three quarter moon was high in the sky and this would have to do. He kicked off into the night, passing out of the black yellow of the village and down into the vale. The moon like a searchlight behind him. “I fucking beat those cunts” he shouted into the crow wood. He was tired but he was on a terrific high.
“I fucking nailed it” he shouted to the orchards and the fields of corn.
The moonlight couldn’t reach him through the trees and it was very dark. He sang to himself a song his father had loved
“When I first came to this land, I was not a wealthy man.
So I built myself a shack.
I did what I could.
And I called my shack … break my back.
For the land was sweet and good, I did what I could.”
On his right pasture ran to the foot of the Downs. He heard a blunt cacophony and saw the outlines of three Hercules flying low in front of him, one after the other. Freewheeling past the Seven Stars in Bottlesford he almost ran over a cat; a mile outside his village, at the top of the rise, the wheat fields full of silent lines of stooks, he switched off the dim torch and removed his helmet and coasted down the lane looking for owls.
THE LONG SWIM
There are a few keys to getting pleasure from your weekly long swim – swimming with someone, swimming in a beautiful place, and swimming outside. By the time you do your 8km swim three weeks before the event you’ll be swimming for two and a half hours, so it makes sense to find some way to enjoy it!
There are increased safety risks in doing a long outdoor swim, that comes from factors such as cold, boats, and distance from shore. These can be moderated with common sense – for example, swimming with someone, wearing a brightly-coloured hat, and swimming along the shore. See the OSS website for more common sense safety tips.
With three weeks to go, the morning of his long swim arrived. He felt a cold sense of purpose as he walked barefoot through the silent kitchen. This is it, he thought. His victory in the Serpentine had faded; so what if he had been competitive over 1,900 metres – that distance represented less than twenty per cent of the length of the Dart swim. There was no hiding from the fact that he had under-trained – he simply did not have the stamina for 10km. He drove past the hospital where his daughter had been born and was momentarily lifted by the idea of her but he quickly returned to thinking about how hellish it was to drive towards the monotony and grind of a long swim. The real world flashed past him and all he could think about was the grey submarine light of the lake which would soon be his prison; the cold water in his ears, the over and over again ache in his arms. He needed to shit and stopped at a Shell service station. How he envied the early bird commuters seated at the window with their coffees, the cheerful woman serving freshly baked croissants and cheese squares. The Sri Lankan kept busy behind the till. He walked back to his car and drove on to the lake. He parked on the grass verge and climbed over the gate and changed by the water. The pink buoys had been moved – the distance around them was now 1km. He did three loops and then got out to drink mint tea in the sun. Then he got back in and did another three. His arms ached. He was meant to have swum 8km but he had only swum 6km. That was it; he had to get home to work. It was better than nothing.
The following Monday, with the race just two weeks away, he walked across Hyde Park towards the Serpentine for one more Fitness session. The sky was grey and overcast and the water felt colder. The group warmed up and then Dan shouted “come in”. His Main Set was one loop, two loops, three loops, and back down. He swam 1,800 metres in 29 minutes. This was OK. By the end of the session it was getting dark and the lights on the cranes over South Kensington were shining and V’s of Canadian geese were circling overhead looking for a soft landing.
He asked Dan about the Dart 10k. Should he do any more training?
“Nah, you’ll be fine. The current will carry you home!” teased Dan.
“So no more long swims?”
“Too late now.”
“Should I do this training session next week?” he asked Dan.
“Only if you’ve got nothing better to do” said Dan, laughing.
“Just take a lilo” someone said.
“That’s the one” chuckled Dan.
“Are you talking about the Dart10k?” asked a girl, looking up out of the water.
“Yes” said Dan
“Cool” she said.
Over his shoulder the sun was setting in a mash of orange and dark blue. As he peeled off his wetsuit he thought that the next time he would wear it would be race day.
Blue sky. Green hill. White sheep. Ploughed fields, desert brown and warped as if they had curled in the sun. He, Clara, Fred, Jake and Poppy climbed the old drover’s path up above Huish church towards the top of the Down. He was carrying Poppy in a backpack he wore on his shoulders like a rucksack and they paused below the hazel trees to pick their small, hard shelled nuts which he cracked with his teeth. Every third nut he cracked he handed back to Poppy,
“Dudu dada,” she said each time and took the nut carefully between her thumb and forefinger.
The path took them up into Gopher wood, an ancient oak wood skirting the side of the Down. There was space between the trees so one could look down across the contour of the wood. When they walked here in the spring the wood was luminous with bluebells, in June there was a dark green and ivory scent of wild garlic. Now the trees were on the turn and the floor was littered with the early leaf fall. Sunlight pierced the canopy in staircases of yellow light. Clara was looking out for a stick to hold up her new washing line. It needed a ‘v’ at one end to hold the line snug, she explained. When she found it she was triumphant and walked ahead like a tribune. Following their mother, Fred and Jake armed themselves with light sabres. Poppy wanted one too, and he handed her a short piece of hazel but she used it to poke him in the ear and he was forced to disarm her.
“Dad, I can see a storm trooper” shouted Fred, waving his sabre and charging off into the belly of the wood.
They all followed Clara up through the wood into the bright open space of the Down. At the summit, on the very edge, they spread a rug and unpacked the picnic. The vale was at their feet; fields, the Kennet canal, the railway to London and the West. On the far side of the vale rose the Plain. He had made a salad of home grown tomatoes, celery and red onion. He and Clara forked it out of the Tupperware box and broke their bread into its juices. Here was a pork pie with uxorious amounts of saturated fat in its crumbling pastry, aspic the colour of riesling and salty, meat-scented. There was crab apple jelly, the colour of tawny port, in a pot, and yellow mustard and cold sausages wrapped in foil. He opened a bottle of Wadworth’s 6X, cool from a kitchen cupboard, and poured it, copper brown spate river, into two mugs. One for him, one for Clara. And the dregs for Jake, who liked nothing better.
“This time in a week I’ll be swimming” he announced.
“Darling you are amazing!” said Clara, without a trace of irony, and handed Poppy half a sausage.
He lay back on the rug. He thought about the swim, and he decided that he was looking forward to it. Fred lay down next to him. They lay together staring into the sky.
“Dad, why are you swimming so far?”
He wondered what the answer was. Emily had asked him the same question, and by way of explanation he had told her about his Cornish swim. Swimming as the means to earn pleasure; a path towards indulgence.
“Because I have to …”
Fred kept his eyes fixed on the sky.
“Why do you have to?”
“I’m doing it to remember someone called Roddy who was my friend.”
“Can I have a think before I answer properly?”
“Who was Roddy?”
“He was an old friend of mine.”
“Is he dead?”
“Yes. He was shot by Russian soldiers.”
“Because they were afraid of him.”
“He must have been scary.”
“He could be terrifying.”
They cleared away the picnic. The Down dropped steep below them, into a deep bowl where sheep were scattered. Scanning the steep side, hovering at their eye line, was a buzzard. Its tail flickered, its shoulders were back.
“Go away, stupid bird” challenged Jake, raising his stick. The bird took no notice.
Afterwards, he and Poppy stood together at the top of the hill. She stirred in the backpack and he sensed she was looking downhill because she was making her sound for horses and then three women on horseback were cantering off the edge of the field and up onto the hill.
In prosperous places like this, he thought, human interactions with the landscape were carefully controlled. Crop circles in summer. A rich man’s folly. The invisible management of Gopher Wood. So nothing seemed to change. But landscapes also went unchanged by our private follies; our disasters and our euphoria. Landscapes were indifferent to what was happening to our lives. This indifference belittled man. When people who were vital to us died, nothing about the earth changed. The sun rose and fell, trees stood, woods groaned and squeaked in the wind, waters ran blindly towards the sea. Someone important died and one imagined that everything would be different; nothing would ever be the same again. But that was false. Everything was exactly the same, the rules of the game did not change. What was different was that they were not there. Everything else was the same.
On the day before the race he ate lunch at home and then cycled to Pewsey station where he caught a train south west to Totnes. He spent a grey afternoon speeding between the high green walls of the West Country, tapping out emails on his Blackberry and cursing the unreliable signal. In front of Totnes station he stood alone, waiting for a lift. Everything he needed for the next 48 hours was in a small rucksack he carried on his back; he felt a gleeful sense of freedom. He carried no responsibility, there were no children, no one in this Devon town knew his story. He was here to swim their river, there was nothing else to him.
Nick picked him up in his Subaru Outback. Nick navigated a complex sequence of narrow, tunneling roads and at last turned off the road and down a private track. They passed between two high-ceilinged chalets in granite, oak and plate glass. These belonged to the freshly retired Chief Executive of Rolls Royce plc; through trees Nick pointed out the main house which was being lavishly extended, high above the river. In the grounds stood a bold sculpture of a merlin, the bird of prey after which the Rolls Royce engine used in the Spitfire had been named. Then the track turned a corner and dropped steeply between rhododendron bushes towards the river and ended in front of a boathouse. The building had been built in the sixties by Roddy and Nick’s grandfather so that he might indulge his love of sailing. It was called Viper’s Quay, and it looked over the Dart and it was the end of the road. He got out of the Outback and walked to the edge of the jetty. A kingfisher flashed downstream. Tall green oaks around the boathouse were turning black in the gloom. The river was wide and the tide was moving in and the water was dressed with vapours and he could hear the sipping and grinding and sighing and other evening sounds of a maritime river negotiating its way downstream against an incoming tide of sea water with infinity pressing at its back.
A Brief History of Viper’s Quay
The original ‘Viper’s Quay’ was a small quay or jetty at the Southern tip of the property, downstream of the Anchor Stone. No traces of this remains and indeed the access to it has been greatly eroded over the years. It is easy to imagine how its sunny position might have been appreciated by a snake, though we have only ever seen lizards and slow-worms.
The boathouse with its jetty originally served the Rectory. At the time transport was much easier by water than by the steep and often very muddy Devon lanes. Indeed, the importance of the river as a means of communication can scarcely be overstated. The fact that there were until after the war two completely separate villages, Higher and Lower Dittisham is entirely a result of the convenience of water transport. Many houses, such as Gurrow Point, had their own little quay or landing stage to bring in coal etc. and the Rectory, as the most important house in the village after the Court, was no exception.
The original boathouse was a single storey building with a pitched roof and it had no residential accommodation. It can be seen in the old photograph in the laundry room. It is not known when it was built but by the 1900s it had become a roofless ruin, almost lost in the oak trees which then covered the whole river bank. The original jetty was much lower than the present jetty and was also in a ruined state.
After the war the jetty was occasionally used a berthing place, in particular by a rather beautiful motor yacht called the Melisande which sometimes moored there in the late 1940s or early 1950s. It can be seen in postcards of the period. It disappeared after being caught smuggling and was later said to be involved in gun-running in North Africa.
In 1959 River Farm was acquired by our father, who also farmed at Dittisham Court, and in 1962 he began to build the present boathouse using the old buildings as the base. The builders were the men who worked on his farm (and when they could not avoid it, his children). The building was topped out in 1964.
The sitting room had wide picture windows with views across the river and a bookcase full of Roddy’s old books. Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’. John le Carré’s ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ (Roddy’s impenetrable, impatient signature was crawled on the inside cover). Le Carré’s ‘The Secret Pilgrim’. ‘Mr Biswas’ by VS Naipul. He lay in the bath reading Rudyard Kipling while Nick and his wife cooked in the kitchen. They ate a jolly dinner together and afterwards he went to bed in good time and the next morning he woke to rain flecks on the window of his bedroom and he lay in his warm bed in the silence of his bedroom looking out at the grey morning light, the jade river, oaks, the granite face of river cliff, and through the tree tops on the far side of the river a large white house called Greenways which had once belonged to Agatha Christie.
After breakfast (porridge, coffee, banana) Nick drove him back into Totnes. On a narrow back road they came across a group of crows mobbing a real-life merlin; the bird of prey flew low in front of their car. He sat in the front of the Outback already wearing his wet suit, his goggles slung around his neck. The race started from Steamer Quay. Nick shook his hand and smiled. His grip was very firm.
He was herded into a pen of swimmers and they were given a safety briefing. They were the third of four waves. The first wave had started at 11.00, the second at 11.15 and they were due to start at 11.30. There were about two hundred of them and their wave was identified by the red hats they wore (the other waves wore yellow, blue and green).
“Please swim along the southern shore all the way to Dittisham” shouted the Race Marshall.
“You’ll be accompanied by life guards on boards and jet skis. If you’re in trouble raise one hand above your head. If you roll onto your back my team L assume you are in trouble and come and help”.
“One last thing: it’s going to be a little cold.”
There crowd began a countdown from ten and on “ZERO!” someone sounded a klaxon and the crowd of swimmers began to shuffle towards the water’s edge. The water was brackish and very cold, and he couldn’t get his breath. The group crawled and barged across the river and then struck out parallel to the southern shore and the group included him, labouring and full of doubt. The men and women around him seemed to have morphed into black-bodied machines of tireless energy and efficiency. He was losing ground to these creatures; he was being left behind. There was no worse feeling than being left behind. Unfriendly voices suggested, in tones reminiscent of the school common room, that he would not make it.
“Where the Fuck are you going?”
As he lifted his head to breathe his eyes scanned the shoreline for landing points. Might he bail out? Friendlier voices urged patience. They reminded him that experience suggested things would settle down. This was a job that would be finished. Thus he proceeded for the first half mile: conflicted, his brain a forum for noisy debate, his hands hunting for purchase and gradually warming, his feet kicking, his arms working selflessly. And he did settle. The proximity of other men and women, rubbing up against him, over taking him, ceased to worry him. The dark green of the trees rising either side of the river gave relief and promised landfall. He achieved moments of grace as rhythm and stretches of fast current coincided. He was beginning to swim.
Slipping into reverie, he thought of Viper’s Quay, which he was now swimming towards, and where he now anchored a fantasy life in which he sat by its fireplace reading and in the mornings swam in the river and in the evenings too and on a regular basis he locked the front door at the foot of the steep track and travelled out into the world in search of Roddy and the truth. Roddy and the truth, he thought, playing the words over in his head as he swum. Roddy and the truth, Roddy – and – the – truth. One truth was that Roddy was a now an inexact figure in his memory, and he searched for clear memories of their collaboration. What, he asked himself, if Roddy had been the truth? He imagined Roddy as a divinity, sent to earth to teach everyone a lesson about what was and wasn’t important. Composing a list of Roddy’s many faults … untidiness, poor time keeping, an unfathomably poor sense of direction, indifference … he jettisoned the notion of Roddy as the son of God. He remembered Roddy’s tremendous strength, his sleepy smile and mooning, gentle nature and when he thought about it the aggression and the slithers of cruelty in his humour which were – in his opinion – vital and improving characteristics. He remembered how he had given Roddy the bullet proof vest he had carried home from Bosnia. It was French army issue, and held a heavy kevlar plate covering the chest. He had driven up to Yorkshire to stay with Roddy, who was just back from travels in Turkey. He lifted the vest out of the boot of his car and handed it to his friend.
“I thought you might need it.”
Roddy lifted it and grimaced.
“It’s very heavy.”
“You should try wearing it.”
“I suppose you have to choose whether you want to be able agile or armoured …”
“Tortoise versus the hare.”
“Who won in the end?”
Roddy wore a faraway look.
“I think it was a dead heat. Let’s see if it works.”
This was not what he had planned, but now he had handed it over he had no claim over it; he did not expect to have use for kevlar in the future. They found down a couple of bricks in the yard and carried them into a sheep field and propped the kevlar plate against them in leaning on the dry stone wall, they took turns to shoot at the kevlar plate with Roddy’s .22 rifle. There was the crack of the rifle and then a bright ping as the round hit the plate. After they had each fired three rounds they walked back to the plate to inspect it. They had hit the kevlar and it had cracked but not shattered.
Roddy picked it up and shook it; he dropped it onto the ground and stamped on it. The plate held. Roddy smiled.
The year before Roddy was killed they had met in the Austrian Alps for Christmas. Roddy had been living in the Pankisi Gorge with Chechen refugees. A group of young men had attempted to cross into Ingushetia to fight Russians and their commander had allowed Roddy to accompany them but heavy snowfalls had forced the group to turn back. Roddy had arrived in St Anton late and morose with his lack of success. He slept a great deal and even when he was awake he had the distracted look of someone who was mulling over questions of great importance. Just like L after his accident, it occurred to him. The same soul searching, the same disinhibition. They were different men, but each of them had expressed the disquiet of men whose relationship with the past had been ruptured forever, and who knew that ahead of them lay uncertainty and confusion which they must navigate as best they could. In St Anton he had taken Roddy’s ill humour to heart. When he at last agreed to accompany him skiing, Roddy had sat silent on the chairlifts, smoking and swinging his feet in long menacing arcs. At the top he barged his way to the edge of the piste and began a rapid descent which was inelegant and careless of other skiers. When he fell, sometimes colliding with others, he picked himself up and skied on. He made no fuss of his victims; his mind was elsewhere. Skiing behind Roddy he sometimes caught the scent of wood smoke and cooked meat and stale sweat which the mountain breeze lifted off his filthy jacket and lay down in pockets and deep pools to ambush anyone in his wake. He saw a man who had grown heavy and broad shouldered and whose lack of control was almost as unnerving as his grim-face. Thus for several days he shared a chalet with a stranger and when Roddy departed for Yorkshire, leaving the party merrier and easier, he did not miss him immediately.
For God’s sake, he hadn’t even answered his questions. Just grunts and maybes and explanations dying softly into silences and the quick little ceremony between his hands and his face that produced a freshly lit cigarette.
“Let’s play backgammon” said Roddy.
“And did you find it?”
“Find what?” asked Roddy, as if he had forgotten already.
“The satellite phone.”
“Oh that” as if he might have been asking about the weather. “Eventually.”
“Was the commander furious?”
Roddy’s Chechens were divided into boys and commanders. The boys were Roddy’s close accomplices and his brothers in arms. The commanders were austere sounding characters, some good and some bad. Both sorts were vital to his mission; it was the commanders who would decide whether he was trustworthy and strong enough to accompany them into battle. Roddy’s future was now in the hands of a few Chechen guerrilla commanders.
“And that’s when you all had to turn back?”
Roddy had a way of blowing smoke from his mouth in a silent stream which conveyed great menace.
“I just want to play backgammon.”
“You’re very irritating.”
Around a bend in the river he came to a couple of moored platforms. These were feeding stations and around them swarmed by swimmers, clinging on. Men and women on the platforms were handing out drink and sweets. He waited his turn at the downstream platform and when he had found a place he held on with one hand and raised his other in anticipation. Simultaneously he took a long pee. He had wanted to pee almost since he dived in at Totnes and it was a great pleasure. Someone passed him a cup of drink, another helped him to a handful of jelly babies out of an enormous plastic bag. The sweetness felt wonderful in his mouth. He felt OK. The high sides of the river valley rose either side, they were covered in huge oak trees. Downstream he could see the river widen into the estuary. He had swum 4km.
“I personally think it’s a great story, it’s about the first time I have ever seen the possibility for someone to really lift the lid on everything, rather than the usual ‘journo-grasping-at-straws-with-no-good-sources’ which seems to emanate from the region. And what really gives it the boost is that it is tied into US policy, which gives it the international rather than local/parochial flavor” Roddy had written to another journalist shortly before he left the Pankisi Gorge for the last time. He had gone after a big story – his big break.
He let go the platform and swam some breast stroke to position himself in the current and then he began to swim again. His arms were tired but he had found a rhythm – he was going to be OK. He fell back into reverie and his mind helicoptered over the Caucasus mountains. It was the end of the summer, the tree line was still green. A group of men emerged from the trees and moved carefully towards the high ground.
“On 1 August of 2002 some group from Pankisi gathered and start the way to Chechnya. In my group we were 40-60. All of us were approximately 600. Among Chechens was Roddy too. We had met before – 2001 we had have way together Mtatusheti (this is the one mountain place in Georgia through this place is the way to Chechnya). In that time he stayed for three month. I knew that he wanted to meet XX. That time we could get to the place in Mtamusheti named Dano. With us was my close friend who knew electricity very well and he was Roddy’s guide. Both us did not know English well it was reason why we could not speak with him but we used to understand each other, that time in this mountain place changed whether and begin snow. We could not continue our way and return Pankisi Gorge. Roddy liked smoke and I also smoked. I remember that we have not more cigarette and I had involved tobacco into the paper and smoked it.
In second time for some time we stayed in one gorge of Mtatusheti, which is situated in mountain, there is approximately 4 villages. And this entire place lives only 8-10 men. Roddy was tall with blue eyes and very honest. He has satellite and never refused if somebody wants to call somewhere. We stayed therefore for a month; several times appeared Russian aeroplanes but they did not bomb us. May be because it was Georgian territory. There we lived in tents, have good supply this time we have horses too in Mtatusheti we had lost 8 horses. The people also helped they used to invite several boy to diner. After the month we continue our way. After heavy way we decide to stop in Jeirakh. XX bought two caws, we have no food this moment, and near the river begins flay skin in animal off, this time Russian militaries begins shooting somewhere nearby, we manage to disappeared for some times, many of boys wanted to get liver of cow because as they said to put raw liver on the wounds helps for remedy. One of our friends wants to take all this liver and another wants to take it too and at last they have quarrel, this moment Roddy was sitting near us and waiting for peace of meat as we. We were so hungry that we ate the row meat. Our commander did not want us to strike fire because the anomy may saw it and guessed. We were surrounded by Russian forces, Russian men surrounded all the Jeirakh, and we ourselves decide to find way. It was midday were on the high place and could see that in 1 kilometer distance was Russian post. 400 men managed to puss by the post secretly by horses, 3-4 men with one horse, then another’s followed them. This time I remember Roddy was shootings with his camera. This way took us 2 day. All the time we had no water. At last in the early morning we get to the village in Engusheti, at the right side of the village was the river –Ass, at the left side another small river, then we went across the river the mountain river is fast two Arabian men died. We had have one long queue and hand in hand. It is not easy when you have approximately 40-kilogram luggage on your back. All was drown in the river. When we found ourselves on in the second side of the river there was second Russian post but small – 50 men they were so frightened that they allowed us to get through. One Engushetian man promised us to show secret way but at last he said that he did not know it. We had been waiting for one day, and during this time we understood that Russians had already new about us. At night we decide to see the place and found the safety way. It was very interesting when we entered the last village Galashka – there was nobody. But all the village was srounded by Russians. We begin shotting and manage explode one aeroplane there it was early morning and we stayed there for 3 hours. We decide to continue our way because Russians has information about us. There in villige appeared one Russian tank and Chechen boy named Muslim explode it and died. Several Cechen boys died in time of this small collision. Two of our boys Russians manage arrest alive. We decide hide and along the river bed continue our way soon we have small collision with Russian soldier at last we achieve the one safety height and at night we have heard that all our losses was 8 boy among them – Roddy. Got clear that the boy was Roddies guide had been wounded and arrested by Russians. At last we gathered and continued our way.
On our way the water was very cold, we very often reminded him to wash. He never liked to wash cold mornings, and with the cold water. Once I remember when I said that Chechens are bravest people in the world he did not agreed Roddy always considered that English country military special groups has bravest boys. When we wanted smoke our commander did not know about it, if he guised he would fire us we have a role and secretly goes. He always tries to smoke fast and come back. And if he has cigarette he always gives it us.”
He was in the estuary now and swimming into a headwind. He was in a group of swimmers and together they crossed a band of deep water and it was very choppy and he had the sensation of swimming up the face of one wave and down the back of another. Then they were swimming over shallow water and the water was suddenly dark as if someone had thrown a fist of mud into his face.
When news of Roddy’s death reached London some journalists called him irresponsible and foolhardy. There was an unpleasant piece in The Times which argued that Roddy, a mere freelancer, had “no right” to be on Russian soil with armed Chechens “sneaking” across the border. Anonymous journalists called Roddy “naive” and “suicidal”. All this elicited an angry response from Roddy’s friends and fellow freelancers.
“He was totally alert to all the risks and had indeed met most at first hand. It was only this proof of physical and professional calibre that made him acceptable on a mission that included the possibility of heavy losses” wrote Roddy’s father in a letter to The Times.
“He undertook his last trip with the full support of his family and friends, who recognised that efforts to dissuade him would be fruitless.” Vaughan Smith, the Director of Frontline News, the freelance news agency which had marketed Roddy’s work, wrote in the Media Guardian Online. “I doubt Roddy still would have been called ‘naive’ by unnamed war journalists had he returned from Chechnya with unique footage of an insurgent group we know so little about, which is reported to have direct links to al-Qaeda”. Roddy’s critics had a point – he was attempting something terribly hazardous. To scale the mountain range that formed the border between Georgia and Russian-controlled Ingushetia was remarkably courageous. To do so with a group of guerillas was extraordinary. And over the other side waited the Russians – a superior and ruthless force. Very few would have undertaken such a mission. That is why the Chechen conflict, which had led to the deaths of thousands of civilians, had received so little coverage. That is why the Russians had been allowed to carry out war crimes in Chechnya with impunity. Roddy wanted to tell the truth. He was willing to risk his life to find it. No one else was.
He reached the second pair of feeding stations and it was a relief to rest. Swimmers were bunching up against the sides. People were tired now, the headwind was draining their energy. In the estuary he felt immersed in the huge sky. They had lost the current, and the soft mud and green fringes of the shore made it difficult to measure his progress. He swam on, one hand over the other, and he felt very small in the wide estuary and very slow and it was a simple matter of perseverance. Belonging to something and someone was important he acknowledged but at some point the important thing was just doing what you thought was the right thing. He had spent much of his life looking for something to belong to and wanting to do the right thing. Now it was time just to try and do the right thing, and let the belonging take care of itself. Roddy and L had understood this before he did. Do what’s right and people L follow; the belonging L cease to matter. He thought about L, who he would see in a few days, and he thought about Roddy, who he would never see again.
“The internet being the internet there are a few unsubstantiated theories being propagated of which you might be aware” wrote L to Roddy’s parents from the hospital in Queen’s Square shortly before his was discharged. Roddy had been dead four years. “Reading them is a maddeningly upsetting thing to do, just in case (i) they are of any use … and (ii) you are not already aware of them (you probably are) the precis of them is as follows:
a) Roddy and Chechens in Galashki. Russians attack. Firefight. Shoot down helicopter and troop carriers hit. Chechens retreat towards bridge. Roddy opts to stay behind and surrender. Last seen waiting for advancing Russian troops or walking towards Russians with white sheet or material.
b) Roddy accompanying the Chechens attack on Russians in Galashki. Roddy shot in midst of filming the ensuing battle.
c) Russians shoot some captured Chechens and Roddy after the battle.”
Twenty five minutes later. Nothing much had happened except that he had put one hand in front of the other, and rolled his body from side to side in an effort to minimise his profile in the water, and he had tried to hold and glide with each stroke to maximise the distance he travelled with each effort. He kept going. That, he realised now, in no reverie whatsoever but seized instead by a powerful need to finish, was what Emily really meant: keep fighting, keep swimming, keep going. Don’t stop. There was no better response, there was nothing so essential. That was what she had tried to tell him. He understood now. He really understood.
“Nothing will bring him back” wrote L to Roddy’s mother, now out of hospital and recovering at home with C .
“This is absolute agony for most people who had the good fortune to know him. Either you believe in God, in which case he certainly is in a better place, or you don’t, in which case he simply doesn’t know. Both ways the agony is yours and ours (to a lesser extent), who knew and loved him. That’s all I wanted to say. I’ve got to stop typing now, because tears are welling up. Damn him for dying. I wanted to grow old with him.”
Just one more bend in the river. Moored dinghies told him he was nearly at Dittisham. When it was too shallow to keep swimming he stood up and walked out of the river. A crowd of spectators cheered. At the water’s edge a woman dressed as a pirate unexpectedly grabbed his hand and shook it. There was no sign of Nick. He stopped by an enormous clock so that someone could help him take off the anklet which contained a timing device. His swim had lasted two hours and 49 minutes – Oussama Mellouli, swimming through the sweet jade waters of the Serpentine with no current to speak of had beaten him by a whole hour. He made his way through the crowd until he was standing behind it, unobserved; the crowd was cheering the arrival of the next swimmer. He stood on the mud and he thought about the warm blue water of the Bosphorus where he had swum for England and where he had held, and the great Pacific where he had killed his father and crossed the line. And now the Dart. He was indisputably a swimmer now.
‘Why are you swimming so far?’ Fred had asked him.
What answer should he give to his eldest son? That life was hard, and simultaneously full of wonders, and that a long river swim was good practice for both? That there was a good chance that life in the twenty first century would be dull and intermittently frightened and that this sort of expedition was as a good a way as any to try and prepare oneself, and to find some glory. Because rivers and seas were there to be swum; because of the feasting that followed …
“Because, my darling boy” he whispered, looking out across the water, “swimmers never give up”.