When my younger brother was about 4 years old he nearly drowned in a body of water near our home rather bizarrely called The Craigavon Balancing Lakes. It is only in checking out the reason for it being called that, for the purposes of writing this blog -that some 40 odd years later I now understand why they are so named. It’s literally too boring- even for me -to try to explain it, but feel free to google it if you are so inclined.
There were two car parks around the lakes and one of them was near a concrete pier and access to the water for boats and water craft, whilst the other was near a manually created sandy beach. We would have gone to that part less often than the concrete one which is pretty ironic- well it wasn’t that pretty so I’ll just say it was ironic. My entire family were there at the sandy beach and as usually happens in family outings my parents sat on towels on the shore and my brothers and I went into the water. I don’t recall how long we were there but after awhile of playing with a ball and throwing it to each other and wading about I came back out to warm up. I remember wrapping a towel around me and getting ready to sit beside my mother when she suddenly rose up looking out to the water and said ‘Where’s Tony?’ As I turned my head the flash of her taking off into the lake in a sprint was all I could see and then as she got further away I could then scan the surface of the water and noticed that something was bobbing around under it and creating waves. Within seconds my mother had scooped my brother up and out of the water and was rushing him to the safety of the dry land.
He was within 6 feet of my other two brothers and probably myself when I was leaving the water but we’d just not noticed him slipping down. Apparently there were areas where the depth of water increased dramatically but this was not something that could be assessed from above. You would literally have just had to fall into a crevice to alert you to it’s presence.
Luckily for my brother there was no CPR required but my mother’s health care training which had been deployed in sewing my finger back on as told in an earlier blog post, came in to effect as she ensured that he was safe and well.
And do you know what happened thereafter? I immediately took out my father’s camera and took a photograph of him, hair still messed up and him wrapped in a towel. It’s still one of my favourites but also shows that its not just in the modern day with camera enable smart phones that we see near tragedy and think - ‘I must get a permanent reminder of this moment!’
A few months later and not dissuaded from lake activities we went back to the concrete pier-ed end of the amenity to enjoy an open day of sorts where there were lots of activities on, including water sports demonstrations.
Myself and my brother were small enough to have worked our way through the crowds to be able to stand at the very end of the marina so we could get a really good view of the action.
To this day I do not know if it was deliberate or otherwise but my sibling pushed me in off the end and I fell the 6 feet or so into the water- and it was deep - there was no doubting that either from looking into it, nor disappearing beneath it.
Not that I had a lot of time to think about it, but my first abiding memory of that moment was not - I’m going to drown or I’m going to die - it was - ‘that wee git just pushed me in!!’
I doubt I was under the water for long but all I do know is that a local hero jumped in after me to rescue me, just the one, I think the others were all digging into their camera bags to get their long lenses on.
The remarkable thing about this man, who never gave his name, was that there was no sense afterwards of any lack of calmness as he sat with myself and my brother - the silent assassin - whilst my parents were located.
I think though that this demeanour allowed him to see something that I was incapable of seeing- that my brother was as affected by the incident as I was - even though I was the one that ended up under the water this time. And he showed it in a remarkably intriguing way. When he was leaving us, he slipped a ten pence piece into my hand as a gesture of ‘you’re safe now and you can go buy yourself a bag of sweets to prove it -all’s well’. And then he slid a heptagon of a coin into my brother’s hand!
We laughed about that for years afterwards - pushing me in to the water had earned him five times the return - but it ensured that there was no animus over the event and no one felt guilty or worried about what might have happened.
It would be a good while before I would have the opportunity to go into the water again whilst learning to swim via lessons in the local pool arranged through school.
I recall that I was in the same year, albeit not the same class, as my cousin who was given a pair of 14 hole Dr Marten’s boots as his footwear in that year. I’m not sure if they were technically regulation and compliant with the uniform policy - but like - it was a pair of DM boots - no one was going to argue with him!
It’s strange to think of it now, but there was a time when like McDonalds fast food joints, there were no Dr Marten’s boots in Northern Ireland, but thats how it was. We all knew what they were but unless you’d been out of the country on a holiday you’d never actually seen them in real life!
The thing you have to understand about 14 hole DM boots is that they are perfectly acceptable when you only have to lace them up in the morning and then lace them down in the evening. If you have to take them off during the day - they are entirely impractical as it seemed to take an eternity. So whilst getting into the pool and redressed afterwards, myself and my cousin who I would impatiently wait on were always last into the water and last back on the bus and usually being told-off by the teachers for keeping everyone behind.
Regularly it was just me and him in the changing rooms with me looking at him concentrating on the task at hand - you knew it was tough work because his tongue would stick out - ironic when what he was doing was ensuring that the leather tongue of the shoe was well stuck down!
I remember on one occasion again we were last in the pool again as the lace saga had slowed us down and were consequently at the end of the lineup of our class mates in the pool. We were all waiting for the lesson to begin when we realised that the swim instructor had not finished with one of the Primary Seven pupils. When i saw who it was a shiver of terror came over me - it was the school bully! I don’t even recall his name even though he had been scaring me for a year or two by that point.
It quickly became clear that he was also shivering in terror because despite being four years ahead of us he was both unable to swim but also seemed to have a fear of the water.
It was a strange moment, probably his weakness was compounded by his own wearing skimpy trunks but he seemed to be tiny.
The instructor said exasperatedly to him ‘I want you to swim across the width of the pool and then you can get out.’
He didn’t move, he was frozen to the spot even though he could plainly stand-up in the water.
‘Right... I tell you what...all you here’ the by now irate pool attendant continued pointing at myself and my class, ‘..if he doesn’t swim across here...you all laugh at him...’ and turning back to the hapless child before him said ‘Right.. now go..swim’.
After a second or so of looking back at the attendant and then at us, he made an attempt at swimming. He just pushed himself forward, reached out his hands and made a splash and then stood up again, waiting for the assessment.
‘Right everyone - start laughing’
And I don’t know if it was because he was the bully getting his comeuppance, or that the class thought it was actually funny that a P7 couldn’t swim, or just that they had been ordered to that a ripple of laughter began to filter along like a Mexican wave at a football match.
‘Come-on keep laughing’ the coach encouraged us.
But it all ran out of steam the further along the line it got so that it had petered out completely even before it got to us at the end. And the looks that we gave each other and apprehending the look in the poor boy’s face as tears began to well up, expressed in powerful terms the absolute horror of the moment.
I fully expect that if I hadn’t been late into the pool that I would have been laughing too, but such good fortune it was that fate had intervened in my life, in a way that in the moment I resented, to give me a perspective that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been given that bit of extra distance and space to fully take in what was going on and fully understand just how wrong it was.
The swim teacher gave up on us and on the boy, telling him just to get out and go get changed and then they turned to us to start our lesson as if what we’d just witnessed hadn’t even happened.
And in an odd prologue, that sounds far fetched but is completely true, the next time I saw the bully who had so terrified me and who had always looked like he was looking for any excuse to kick my head in with or without DM boots on, it was a day or so later in the playground and I had no fear of him. I was a little nervous, yes, but I made eye contact with him and smiled a little and he nodded back and motioned that I could go on my way, but before I did I reached out my hand and I slid a fifty pence coin into his hand for the last time and walked on.