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By Pat Barker
Picador Copyright © 2001 Pat Barker
All rights reserved.
They were walking along the river path, away from the city, and as far as they knew they were alone.
They'd woken that morning to a curious stillness. Clouds sagged over the river, and there was mist like a sweat over the mud flats. The river had shrunk to its central channel, and seagulls skimmed low over the water. The colour was bleached out of houses and gardens and the clothes of the few passers-by.
They'd spent the morning indoors, picking away at their intractable problems, but then, just before lunch, Lauren had announced that she had to get out. They might have done better to drive to the coast, but instead they donned raincoats and boots and set off to walk along the river path.
They lived on the edge of what had once been a thriving area of docks, quays, and warehouses, now derelict and awaiting demolition. Squatters had moved into some of the buildings. Others had suffered accidental or convenient fires, and were surrounded by barbed-wire fences, with pictures of Alsatians and notices saying DANGER. KEEP OUT.
Tom kept his eyes down, hearing Lauren's voice go on and on, as soft and insistent as the tides that, slapping against crumbling stone and rotting wood, worked bits of Newcastle loose. Keep talking, he said to clients who came to him for help in saving their marriages, or—rather more often—for permission to give up on them altogether. Now, faced with the breakdown of his own, he thought, Shut up, Lauren. Please, please, please shut up.
Bits of blue plastic, half-bricks, a seagull's torn-off wing. Tom's gaze was restricted to a few feet of pocked and pitted ground into which his feet intruded rhythmically. All other boundaries were gone. Though he did not raise his head to search for them, he was aware of their absence: the bridge, the opposite bank, the warehouses with the peeled and blistered names of those who had once owned them. All gone.
A gull, bigger and darker than the rest, flew over, and he raised his eyes to follow it. Perhaps this focus on the bird's flight explained why, in later years, when he looked back on that day, he remembered what he couldn't possibly have seen: a gull's-eye view of the path. A man and a woman struggling along; the man striding ahead, eager to escape, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a black coat; the woman, fair-haired, wearing a beige coat that faded into the gravel, and talking, always talking. Though the red lips move, no sound comes out. He denies her his attention in memory, as he did in life. The perspective lengthens to include the whole scene, right up to the mist-shrouded warehouses that rise above them like cliffs, and now a third figure appears, coming out from between the derelict buildings.
He stops; looks towards the river, or rather at a small jetty that runs across the mud into the deep water, and starts to stride towards it. And at this moment, seeing in memory what in life he did not see, Tom freezes the frame.
In reality, it was Lauren who first noticed the young man. "Look," she said, touching Tom's arm.
They stood and watched him, grateful to be distracted from their own problems, to be mildly interested, mildly puzzled by the behaviour of another human being, for there was an oddity about this boy that they both recognized seconds before he did anything odd. His trainers bit into the gravel—the only sound except for their own breathing—and then he was slipping and slithering over the rotted timbers of the jetty. He stood, poised, at the end, a black shape smudged with mist. They watched him drop his coat, scrape off his trainers, tug the sweatshirt over his head.
"What's he doing?" Lauren said. "He can't be going to swim."
People did swim here: in summer you saw boys diving from the end of the jetty, but surely nobody would want to swim on a raw, murky day like this. He seemed to be shaking pills into the palm of his hand and cramming them into his mouth. He threw the bottle away, far out into the water, but his body got there first. A low, powerful dive that raised barely a splash. Almost immediately his head appeared, bobbing, as he was swept further from the bank.
Already Tom was running, crunching broken glass, dodging half-bricks, jumping piles of rubble. Once he lost his balance and almost fell, but immediately was up again and running, the slimy wood of the jetty treacherous beneath his feet.
At the end, fumbling with buttons, he looked down into the dead water and thought, Shit. And realized this is what people do think who meet sudden, violent deaths. Shit. This is it. Oh bugger. Lauren came panting up and said nothing, not "Don't" or "Be careful" or anything like that, and he was grateful. "It's September," he said, answering one of the things she might have said, meaning the water wouldn't be lethally cold.
A second later, the water enclosed him in a coffin of ice. His mind contracted in fear, became a wordless pinprick of consciousness, as he fought the river that pushed him under, tossed him about, slapped him to and fro across the face, like an interrogator softening up his victim.
After the first few floundering strokes, he began to get used to the cold. At any rate he could get no colder. Looking around for the dark head, he realized he couldn't see it, and thought, Good, because now he could get out, phone the police, let them dredge the river or wait for the body to float. But then he saw the boy, drifting slowly with the current, thirty or forty feet away.
Water slopped into his mouth, skinning his throat, and then the current pushed him under. Bubbles of released breath trickled past his eyes. He kicked his way to the surface and came up closer to the boy. Purple face hidden by a fall of black hair. The current threatened to sweep Tom past, and he panicked, scrabbling at the water like a drowning dog. Then he let himself sink, and dimly, through the thick brown light, he saw the boy, hanging suspended, a dribble of bubbles escaping from his gaping mouth.
Tom grasped him by the arms and propelled him to the surface, gasping for air as they broke through and floated, the sky rocking around their drifting heads. Deep breaths. The river seemed to squeeze his chest tight. He didn't care, now, whether the boy was alive or dead. The determination to get him out had become as mindless as a dog's retrieving of a stick. The current made the turn difficult, but then he saw Lauren running along the path, and towing the boy along, his eyes full of sky and river water, he struck out towards the bank. He made slow progress at first, then, miraculously, felt the tug of another current pulling them in to land. They floated, at last, into a fetid backwater, amongst a scum of rubbish the tide had cast up. A shopping trolley, knotted condoms, tinfoil trays, plastic bottles.
Tom pushed his face through it, to reach the edge of the mud. Thick, black, oily, stinking mud, not the inert stuff you encounter in country lanes and scrape off your boots at the end of the day, but a sucking quagmire, God knows how many feet deep. Lauren reached out to him.
"Don't come in," he shouted.
A tree had been washed up on to the bank, and she clung to that, reaching out her hand. He began to inch his way towards her, keeping his weight evenly spread, dragging the boy behind him. The mud clutched at his elbows and knees.
Lauren's spread fingers seemed a mile away, and she wouldn't have the strength to pull them out even if he managed to reach her. The stench and taste of the mud filled his nose and mouth. He was aware of not wanting to die and, quite specifically, of not wanting to die like this. Heart shaking his chest, he squirmed forward, and found the new ground firmer than he'd thought. Lauren, still clinging to the dead tree, had waded in to her knees. His outstretched fingers closed over hers, and slipped. "Get my sleeve," she said. He knew he should be keeping the boy's mouth clear, but there was no way he could do that and drag him out at the same time. Another few inches and he was able to grab Lauren's coat. The effort exhausted him and he lay still, panting for a while, then started to crawl across her until his hand closed round a branch of the tree. He tested it, found it locked fast in a groyne of the bank, and slowly stood up, hauling the boy behind him out of the mud, which surrendered him with a belch of protest. Tom lay gasping, head and shoulders on the grass, feet trailing in the slime. Then he told himself the job wasn't done, and turned to look at the boy.
Black and glistening, he lay there, a creature formed, apparently, of mud. Lauren knelt beside him, supporting his head, while Tom raked an index finger round the inside of his mouth, checking that the airways were clear. Then he pressed two fingers against the slimy neck, but his hands were so numb with cold that he couldn't feel anything. He shifted his hold, dug deeper.
"Yes?" Lauren said.
Immediately she placed her hands one on top of the other on the boy's breastbone and pressed down. Tom tilted the head back and—aware of a momentary frisson of distaste that surprised him—pinched the nose, fastened his mouth over the flaccid lips, and blew. Through the spread fingers of his left hand he felt the ribcage rise, then he came up for breath, counted, went down again. The boy's mouth jerked under his, as Lauren pressed again. He heard her grunt with effort. This time when he came up he looked at her. Her eyes were glazed, inward-looking. Like labour, Tom thought, the irony as sour as the mud on his tongue. The boy looked like a baby: purple face, wet hair, that drowned look of the newborn, cast up on to its mother's suddenly creased and spongy belly. Distracted by thoughts and memories, Tom breathed too hard, detected from a struggle in the boy's chest that the rhythm had been lost, checked himself, counted, went down again. His breath snagged in the boy's throat. He pressed his fingers to the carotid again and thought he detected a flutter. "Got him."
They waited, Lauren's hands still clasped one on top of the other, ready to start again. One breath, then another. And another. No way of telling whether the colour was coming back. His face was masked by mud.
"All right," Lauren said. "Let's get him over."
Together they heaved him into the recovery position. She stood up, brushing pebbles from her knees, and looked up and down the path, but the damp fog was enough to keep people indoors and there was nobody to send for help.
"It's probably quicker for me to run back to the house," she said.
"No, I'll go."
"I think you'd better stay where you are."
Something in her voice startled him. He looked down and realized he was wearing a red glove. The blood had dried on his fingers, which felt tight and sticky. He had no memory of injuring himself, and felt no pain, but he must have seemed shaky, because Lauren said, "Are you sure you'll be all right?"
"Yes, go on."
He watched her set off down the road, a tall, pale, blond figure fading rapidly into the mist, which had thickened and lay over everything, smelling metallic, iron perhaps, unless that was the blood on his hand. The boy's eyes were closed. Tom took his pulse, and then, hobbling over the sharp gravel, retraced his steps to the end of the jetty and picked up his coat and the little heap of the boy's clothes. Then he stood still for a moment, looking out over the water. The mud smelt sharp and strong. He was conscious of his skin chafing against his wet clothes, and he was filled with joy.
The elation drained away as he walked back, tripping over dangling sleeves like a honeymooner in an old-fashioned farce. The cut on his arm had begun to ache. He knelt down beside the boy, wrapped the heavier of the coats round him, then huddled inside the other, muttering under his breath as he rocked to and fro: C'mon, Lauren. C'mon. He was too cold to think or feel anything.
After a few minutes he heard an engine, then voices. He looked up to see two black-clad paramedics negotiating a stretcher down the crumbling steps. They worked their way along the bank, elbowing branches of willow aside. Thank God, he could sign off now, have a hot bath, a whisky, two whiskies, climb back inside his own life.
A stocky woman with strongly marked eyebrows reached him first, followed by a bull-necked man with a ginger moustache, still breathless from the struggle to get the stretcher down the steps.
"My God," the woman said, kneeling down. "Wasn't your Saturday morning, was it, son?"
They worked quickly. Within minutes they'd removed the coat, checked his pulse and breathing, wrapped blankets round him, established that neither Tom nor Lauren knew who he was.
"We were just going for a walk," Lauren said.
"Lucky for him you were."
Gently, they transferred him to the stretcher. The small procession filed along the bank. The boy's head was hidden now, wrapped in the folds of a red blanket: a solitary splash of colour against the waste of black mud. When they reached the steps, Tom pushed his way forward and helped discreetly with the lifting. The mud on the boy's face had begun to dry and crack, like a ritual mask or the worst case of psoriasis you could imagine.
The ambulance was parked a short way from the steps. They trudged over the gravel and set him down briefly on the ground while they opened the doors. At the last moment, just as they were preparing to slot the stretcher in, the boy stirred and groaned.
"You'll be all right," Tom said, touching his shoulder, but there was no sign that he'd heard.
"You want to get that cut looked at," the woman said, gesturing at Tom's arm. "We could take you in now, you know, if you liked."
"No, it's all right, thanks. I'll see my own doctor."
"Where are you taking him?" Lauren asked.
The engine was running. Tom bundled the boy's clothes together and handed them up to the woman. The doors slammed shut. Tom and Lauren stood and watched as the ambulance jolted along the path, weaving from side to side to avoid the worst of the potholes, and then, reaching smooth tarmac, accelerated and disappeared round a bend in the road.CHAPTER 2
After the ambulance had gone, Tom went back to the jetty and, kneeling at the far end, managed to scoop up enough water to wash off the worst of the mud. A smell came off the river: something cold, fishy, and rotten—and then he realized it was coming, not only from the water, but from his clothes, his skin, his hair.
They didn't speak at all on the way back. He hadn't bothered to put his trainers on and the pebbles hurt his feet. As soon as they were in the house, Lauren took him upstairs to have a look at the cut. "It's not too bad," she said, peering down at it.
"They always look worse than they are," he said, impatient to have it over.
She washed his arm with a sterile solution, till the sides of the small wound gaped white, then pressed the edges together and applied a clear, waterproof dressing. She didn't speak as she worked and was breathing audibly, as children do when they concentrate. A dim memory of playing doctors and nurses with his slightly older girl cousins came back to him. He'd always been the patient, he remembered, though in those far-off games it had never been his arm that required attention. There was something erotic in Lauren's intent, impersonal gaze, and he put his free hand on her hip.
"Hot bath," Lauren said, closing the lid of the first-aid box. "Do you a lot more good than whisky."
Resigned, he stripped off his wet clothes. She was bending over the bath, stirring the water, her face slick with steam. "Do you think he'll be all right?"
"Depends what he took. Prozac, yes. Paracetamol, no."
"Do you think we should ring?"
"No," he said. "We did what we could. It's somebody else's problem now."
"I'll put these into the wash," she said, picking up his clothes.
He could see she was disappointed. She'd wanted to talk, to polish the shared-but-different experience until it acquired an even patina, became theirs, rather than his and hers. But he was used to switching off, to living his life in separate compartments. He'd learnt early, in his first few months of practice, that those who take the misery home with them burn out and end up no use to anybody. He'd learnt to value detachment: the clinician's splinter of ice in the heart. Only much later had he learnt to distrust it too—its capacity to grow and take over the personality. Splinter of ice? He'd had colleagues who could have sunk the Titanic.
Excerpted from Border Crossing by Pat Barker. Copyright © 2001 Pat Barker. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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