Gordon recognised this part of the track too late. As he careered over its edge and plunged towards the churning river, he remembered it as the spot where the little boy had drowned.
He’d made a New Year resolution to take more exercise. Thus, on the second afternoon in January and for the first time in years, he donned a tracksuit and went jogging. He entered the park at the town’s edge and trotted along the grass beside the river. When the river left the park and entered the countryside, he continued to follow it, on a track that gradually climbed one of the steep wooded riverbanks. Finally he arrived at the area’s most famous landmark, the shell of a medieval tower that rose over the trees at the riverbank’s top. There he had to stop because he was exhausted.
While he stood panting for breath, he noticed how the shadows were lengthening under the trees around him. This reminded him of the shortness of the afternoons at this time of year. Though he still felt tired, he turned and started running back. He forced himself to go faster now because, even with the torch on his phone, the riverbank would be a nightmare to navigate when it got dark.
In fact, he was running too fast when he came around a bend ten metres above a deep and tumultuous stretch of the river. If a few seconds sooner he’d recognised this point in the track, with its grim associations, he would have slowed down. But he didn’t. And because of the shadows, he didn’t see until the last moment how the track suddenly stopped curving in front of him and twisted to the side, creating an edge with a sheer drop beyond it.
When he tried to stop, it was too late. His momentum and the mud on the track, left by the recent rain, carried him forward.
Gordon went over the track’s edge and dropped feet-first. He crashed past a mesh of shrubs and bushes that coated the bank down to the water and he flailed and clawed at them. His right hand closed on something that felt too soft and smooth to be part of a bush. Then his right arm was yanked up, his body bounced sickeningly and he found himself swinging from side to side while the river swirled a metre below his running-shoes.
Something splashed under him and he wondered if he’d heard a fish break the surface. Only later, when he noticed a lightness at his hip, did he realise it’d been the sound of his phone disappearing into the river after being dislodged from the pocket of his tracksuit-trousers.
It occurred to him that his right hand was clutching a rope and he grabbed it with his other hand. Once he’d stopped swinging, he knitted his legs together, hoping to trap the rope between them. Then, by flexing his legs, he could propel himself upwards… But he saw that the rope ended at his chest, where it unravelled into tattered strands. He couldn’t climb up. His legs had nothing to fasten onto.
The rope’s top end was tied around a branch of an immense tree that grew above the track. By now, all his memories of this spot, with the edge and the drop, had come back. He recalled playing there as a kid. Back then, a rope had hung from the branch too and he and countless other kids had stood on the edge and taken turns swinging on it like Tarzan using a jungle-vine, out from the bank, high over the water, back to the bank again.
One day during Gordon’s childhood, the little boy had been there alone. He’d been swinging on the rope when he’d lost his grip on it, fallen into the river and drowned. The police took the rope down afterwards, but within half-a-year someone had attached another rope to the same branch and kids were swinging on it again.
In the time since, the rope had become old and slimy. Gordon felt himself sink closer towards the river as the rope slid a fraction through his fists. After heavy rain at New Year, the weather had been better today, but the river remained high because the streams from the surrounding hills were still feeding excess water into it. Besides, he knew that this deep, fast-flowing part of the river was dangerous whatever the weather. The little boy’s drowning testified to that.
If he couldn’t hold onto the rope and fell in, could he make it to the riverbank? He hadn’t swum since he’d attempted some snorkelling during a holiday in Costa Brava a decade ago. He’d been a weak swimmer then. Maybe now he’d forgotten how to swim. Maybe he’d be as helpless as the little boy had been on the day of his death.
Meanwhile, nobody would know where he was. He was a divorcee, he lived on his own and his neighbours probably wouldn’t notice he was gone from his house. And he doubted if anyone else would be using the track at this hour because the sun had almost descended behind the hills west of the river-valley. Darkness was accumulating along the water and the trees on the banks were thick with shadows. Nonetheless, for a few minutes he roared, “Help! Help! Help me down here!” The only response was a cawing from a bird in the trees a little way upriver. Then he heard wings flapping. The wings receded and after that the valley was silent, apart from the hungry gurgle of water below.
The light faded entirely. The darkness seemed to creep up from the river, fill the valley and blacken the cleft of sky above it. Then stars pierced through the darkness and a full moon appeared from behind the eastern slopes. In time, the moon’s lower rim passed behind the medieval tower, the ruined, saw-toothed battlements making it look like a giant egg that was broken at the bottom. Later, the moon detached itself from the tower and Gordon noticed, a few metres from where he was hanging, the moonlight reflected in the river as a wriggling, glistening smear of white.
He tried shouting again: “Help me down here!” But the words scarcely made their way up from his chest, where there was an icy chill now, and his voice was a croak. All the heat he’d generated while running had left him. His numb hands barely felt the rope and it seemed a miracle that they could still hold onto it.
Metres away, the squiggle of reflected moonlight remained visible, ever-changing in the patterns of the current. Despite his discomfort, Gordon studied it more and more. Sometimes during the moonlight’s permutations, it seemed almost to take a human shape. Sometimes it had a central part, like a torso, and appendages sticking out of that, like limbs. The limbs writhed crazily as if they belonged to a person, a small person, struggling under the water’s surface.
And while Gordon imagined he saw a human figure in the water, he thought of something else. The little boy… He’d known that boy at primary school. Gordon had been a few years older than him. He tried to remember his name. Chris? Craig? Colin? He recalled a small, timid face with a pair of heavy-rimmed glasses and a mane of long hair that made its owner look more like a girl than a boy. People said his hair was long because he and his mother lived alone, didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford to pay for haircuts very often.
Whatever the reason for that long girly hair, Gordon remembered himself taking a dislike to it. Indeed, he could recall a school lunchbreak when the hair had annoyed him so much that he’d punched the boy in the face. The blow was powerful enough to make the glasses spin off the face, strike the playground tarmac and skid across it.
Jesus Christ, thought Gordon now, wincing. He’d hit him.
Suddenly the boy’s long hair was in Gordon’s face. Tresses of stinking, mouldering hair slithered over his eyes, nose and mouth. Gordon nearly screamed. But then he realised that the rope had slipped further through his hands, so that his face was level with the unravelled strands at its end.
Afterwards, Gordon noticed how the reflected light had crept closer along the river, presumably because the moon had risen higher. But now the reflection was dull and inanimate. No longer did it resemble a struggling body, but something floating and dead. He looked up and saw rags of cloud drifting across the moon, blocking part of its light. He lowered his gaze again, in time to see the reduced light sparkle on two close-together points on the water. He shuddered. It was as if a face wearing glasses was hovering under the surface and the moonlight was glinting on the lenses.
Gordon couldn’t stop thinking about the little boy. He recalled how several times he’d hit him. Why, he might’ve hit him more than several times. Looking back, he realised he’d been an absolute brute to him. Not that he’d thought he was doing anything wrong at the time. Lots of older boys had picked on poor little Chris, Craig or Colin. It was the natural order of things in school playgrounds. Big boys picked on little boys, especially ones who looked odd or different, who drew attention to themselves with things like clunky glasses and girly hair.
The moon freed itself of the clouds and its light flared on the water again, just a metre now from where Gordon was hanging. White tendrils swirled out as if, underneath, someone was thrashing a headful of long luminous hair.
Gordon wondered how he’d forgotten so much of this until now. Perhaps he’d deliberately suppressed those memories of bullying the boy, to stop himself being tormented by guilt after he’d died. After he’d fallen into the river at this spot and drowned. Officially fallen into it…
He tried to focus on the present. He’d slipped further and his feet were only centimetres above the river. His hands no longer clutched the solid rope but its last, unravelled strands. He had an idea. Though they felt frozen, he managed to bend his fingers and dig them deep amid the frayed rope-end. Then he twisted and snarled the strands until his fingers were embedded in a dense tangle of them. With this cat’s cradle of mangy rope-fibres suspending him, he couldn’t slip any lower. He could only hang where he was.
Officially, the little boy’s death had been an accident. Thinking of the bullying he’d suffered, though, Gordon wondered if it’d really been accidental. Could the little boy have done it deliberately? Could he have jumped in, rather than fallen in? No, surely not. The police had been adamant it was an accident. But often the police in small towns, in small communities like the one here, said ‘accident’ rather than ‘suicide’ because they knew the families personally and wanted to spare them anguish.
He looked down again and saw how the hydra of white moonlight had come closer still. Indeed, it lurked directly below him. As he watched, it seemed to reshape itself. The hair-like tendrils shortened and thickened and became like fingers. These separated into two groups, so that there seemed to be two sets of fingers, on two hands, bobbing under his feet.
Then Gordon realised he was descending again. The knotted rope-strands tightened against his own fingers, and stretched, and started to break apart.
At the other end of his body, something had just grasped hold of him. And was pulling.