‘Father of three drowns in Welsh holiday tragedy’. This was the news-in-brief headline you nearly read last week. The father in question would have been me. Like all such incidents it came completely out of the blue. This is a thing I’ve noticed: you never wake up that morning with a spooky feeling of impending doom. One minute you’re carrying on as most of us do: as if we’re immortal or, at the very least, guaranteed to live to a very ripe old age. And the next: ‘Whooah! If it isn’t the Grim Reaper, hovering above me with his sickle!’
It happened like this: there’s a lovely house we take for two weeks every August in the Welsh Borders, and one of the many splendid things about it is that there’s a small river — the Edw — flowing past the bottom of the garden. When the kids were younger it was great for paddling and catching minnows in. As they’ve grown older we’ve started using it for more adventurous stuff, seeing how far you can go down on bodyboards and rubber boats, jumping from a rock into the only deep-ish pool, that kind of thing. But you can only really manage this — just — when it’s in full spate. Otherwise, you’re much better off going for a proper swim and dive in the Wye where it’s deeper and faster and more satisfyingly dangerous.
Anyway, I don’t know how your weather has been in the rest of the country, but in the Welsh Borders it has been tipping it down something rotten. About the only upside is the effect it has had on our little river, which has been transformed from a clear, tranquil, gurgling stream into a raging brown torrent. Great for body-boarding the kids decided. Reluctantly I agreed to go with them.
The reason I was reluctant was because it was a miserable day and I wasn’t altogether convinced that the minimal excitement I’d experience floating not all that fast down a muddy stream on a bodyboard was quite enough to make up for the risk I’d catch a chill. But when the kids are begging, what can you do?
So we float down the river on our bodyboards. ‘Isn’t this brilliant, Dad?’ says Boy. And it is, quite. Not exactly up there with the Cresta Run in the pure adrenaline stakes. But enough to make me think: ‘Hmm. Might just do this trip one more time before I dash for the hot shower.’
Below the bridge is where the course ends. After that point, the river gets much more steep and treacherous. You definitely wouldn’t want to go down there in its current condition. So, I pick my way awkwardly to the bank where Boy and his friend Ludo are waiting for me.
Very awkwardly. Even though I’m wearing special grippy water shoes, I find that for every step I make towards the bank, I’m being dragged another two steps downstream. It’s both absurd and annoying. I’ve done this dozens of times before. Why am I making such a meal of it? Have I misjudged the volume and power of the water cascading towards me?
Then I’m gone. I don’t know exactly how or why it happened but what I do know is that I’ve lost my footing and I’m being swept downstream, my board ahead of me, dragging me forward headfirst by the string attached to my wrist. And the suddenness and shock and breathtaking ghastliness of my predicament are so great I can’t quite believe it’s happening to me. ‘This is one of those moments when you die!’, I think, almost amused by the ludicrousness of the concept.
And you know how in books and films where they’re fording a violent river and one of them is swept away and you think: ‘Ah well, if that happened to me, I’d just be washed downstream and swim to a bank and escape’? Well you wouldn’t. What you don’t realise is just how awesomely powerful a river in full spate can be. Even when it’s a small, cute, family-friendly river with lots of happy holiday memories attached. You might think you’re far too nice/clever/fit/well-loved/good a swimmer to perish in so sordid a way. But to the river, you’re just one more piece of flotsam — imminently dead meat to be branch-speared or rock-battered or trapped and submerged as fate sees fit.
When it happens it’s oddly not frightening. By which I don’t mean you’re not aware of the terror and the danger of your circumstances. It’s just that, in my experience, your brain is far too busily engaged in the sheer, elemental business of survival to let panic or fear cloud your judgment. In fact — (has anyone else had this?) — there was a part of me that remained so detached it was almost as if it was happening to another person. ‘I/he had better not bash my/his head or get trapped underwater because if I do/he does, we’ll probably die,’ I remember thinking, with a kind of ruthless calm, in which I rated my survival chances roughly 50/50. ‘Really it all depends on whether we can grab an overhanging branch. That’s what you have to do in these situations. It’s your only hope.’
There was space for other stuff too. ‘Thank God it was me this happened to not one of the boys because they would definitely have died,’ was the other main thought. There was also a fair bit of ‘****!’ and ‘Oh my God!’, as the rapids I was shooting, sometimes headfirst, sometimes feetfirst, sometimes sideways (there really was no control whatsoever, even now the board had been ripped from my wrist) grew faster, steeper, scarier and I kept spotting obstacles ahead that could really hurt me.
The worst bit was plunging into that deep-ish pool, being held under by the force of the water cascading on top of me, taking two big, involuntary gulps of water and not being altogether sure I was going to come up again. Then I did and there it was. The longed-for overhanging branch. Upwards my arm shot, like the Lady in the Lake’s, and the mossy bark felt soft and welcoming but also disconcertingly slippery. It was a struggle to keep my grip. The current was still trying to drag me downstream. I was just learning another important lesson about being in swollen rivers: you lose your strength much sooner than you’d imagine.
But obviously I did hold on, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Hand over hand I pulled myself to shore, clambered up a precipitous bank, my feet slipping in the mud, and found myself standing, shivering, in a field of sheep, my mood swinging between wild euphoria and tremendous anticlimax. It’s a great and wonderful thing, not dying. But it’s quite a comedown to go from ‘If I don’t get this exactly right, I’m dead’ survival mode to, ‘Lalala here I am standing perfectly safe in a field of sheep’ in less than a minute. You quickly start questioning (and never stop questioning) whether what just happened to you was really as dangerous as you thought it was at the time. Surely the fact that you’re still alive proves it couldn’t have been.
I hurried back to find my wife and the boys. But they weren’t there. As I’d shortly learn, they had gone running, looking for me on the far bank, seen the bodyboard caught on a tree with nobody attached and feared the worst. I called to where I could hear their voices. ‘It’s Dad. He’s there. I can see him!’ I heard Boy tell the others. And even above the roar of the river you could hear the overwhelming joy and relief in his teary cry.