Water Changes Everything
Looking back, it is all frozen in time. It happened. It is always happening. If I lose myself, it never happened. But I cannot stay lost forever.
Jon and Robert were the closest of brothers, at the time of their lives when brothers are closest of all. Less than twelve months apart in age, they were always together. Playing together; running from their separate classrooms to be together in the playground; fighting side by side; fighting with each other over which toy was whose; one without the other was incomplete.
Jon was the studious and careful older brother at seven, just shy of eight. He was used to overseeing the welfare of his brother, their mother forever distracted by the demands of a moment too demanding for her. Despite his diminutive size, he was frequently treated as a near-adult by his elders.
Robert was just shy of seven, always ready with a dare. Who could jump the furthest off the top bunk bed? Climb the highest? Run the furthest from the protective control of their mother? Mother was always tied to the anchor of their younger sister, Helen.
And Helen. Forever and always Helen. More than just the spoilt
youngest, forever singled out by their stepfather as his progeny. Comfortable in that role, of course, what child of four would not be?
It was the beginning of an idyllic summer, June of 1970. The short mid-term holiday, to be spent camping in the Kent countryside, twenty minutes from home in the battered family Ford Anglia Estate. With a bright sun shining through high cirrus clouds, they had perfect weather for an adventure in the wilds.
With what remained of the day after setting up camp, their mother, a strong swimmer, took it upon herself to teach them to swim. Helen was introduced to the water cradled in her mother’s arms, and Jon splashed around in imitation of his mother’s confident breaststroke. But Robert’s reaction was unexpected. He refused to enter the water despite coaxing from his mother and brother, making abortive approaches to the pool’s edge, only to run off in terror onto the grass. Eventually to just watch the family fun unfold in the pool. Robert was not a water person. The afternoon passed without a drop of water on him.
This was the wild, and in the night the wild came close. The eggs left outside the tent for breakfast were mysteriously missing in the morning, stolen by a fox. The vixen had taken the whole brown paper bag, only to have it disintegrate by the time she reached the fence. They found only the remains of the bag, she had no doubt carried the eggs one at a time to her litter.
After a breakfast of cereal, time the grown-ups left Jock, a teenager and friend of the family in charge. They warned the boys that they absolutely could not leave the campground, but were free to explore by themselves. Helen was to stay strictly in sight of Jock.
As soon as the car left, bumping down the rough track, the boys made off with their freedom. They ran from the upper half of the campground, sparsely populated with tents in this short preseason spurt before the main season, down the incongruous concrete stairs to the pool and lawn in front of the guest house on the grounds.
Uncharacteristically, Jon proposed that they split up to explore more efficiently, and report to each other their findings. Robert disappeared into the distance, while Jon set about the challenges of the locked gate and six foot high green chain link fence around the pool.
A seven year old’s feet fitted neatly in the gaps in the fence, and up he went the six feet. Easier to climb than the scrambling nets in the schoolyard, but no handhold to steady himself to hurdle the top. So he traversed to the pump room abutting the fence, and climbed over the roof to the other side. He hung by the fingers from the roof, and dropped down into the forbidden zone of the pool.
This was the adventure. Back and forth, up the fence, dancing on the roof, every climbing route explored. This was a premium discovery for the day’s report. Robert would be amazed.
But on to the next adventure. That warning about staying on the campground. With the buzzing sounds in the distance of Brands Hatch, the top race car track in England. Familiar from watching sports on TV, was it within reach?
Jon snuck onto the lane leading out of the campground without being observed. Uphill to the A20 road to London. Trucks hurtling by with no room to spare, but without Robert there was no one for the usual dare – how close could they get to the trucks stepping into their path, before jumping back at the last moment?
He struck out for Brands Hatch, eager to see in person the streamlined cars in motion. But the road was long, and eventually he decided the sounds of Brands Hatch were too far away to reach. Jon resorted to hacking up the cow parsley flowering by the verge.
Eventually he decided to return. What had Robert discovered? How could it possibly compare with his exploits? Retracing his steps, he eventually arrived back at the campground and found his way to the tent with Jock and Helen. Jock was clearly surprised to see Jon without Robert, he had assumed that the supposedly responsible and careful Jon would be looking after Robert.
No mention of the pool or the road, they played and waited for Robert. He was surely exploring the woods surrounding the campground. He could be hours.
And the hours passed. He should be back soon, the westering sun signaling tea time. How long could he spend in the woods by himself? Slowly they became concerned.
The tension grew. No play now, silence as they waited. Jock clearly torn between his responsibility to four year old Helen, and to six year old Robert. Frantic inside, but needing to present a front of semi-adult like authority to the two children before him.
Eventually it was too much for Jock. He had to search for Robert. He admonished Jon and Helen that they had to stay in front of the tent under any circumstances, and headed off down the concrete stairs to the spot where Jon had last seen Robert.
Time passed slowly for Jon and Helen. The sun lowered towards the horizon, and the tent fell into shadow. Children have a different sense of time, no watches, grown-ups order the sequence of their comings and goings. But sunlight also orders their days, and the sun was clearly leaving the sky soon. In Kent the sun sets after nine in June, that prospect was clearly in sight with no grown-ups in sight.
With a great sense of foreboding, Jon decided he now had to desert his sister to find Robert. It took him twenty minutes to break eye contact with his sister as he descended the steps half way.
To see the flickering blue lights of the ambulance, pulled up by the pool. His mother kneeling with a crowd about her. The sight of his brother’s body beneath her. The ambulance crew telling her that there was nothing they could do: he had been seen floating in the pool hours before by a witness who did not realise she was seeing a body.
Jon knew in his heart that he had failed his brother. It was his idea to split up. It was his guilt, a burden he would never be able to put down. And now he must return, to the side of the sister he should never have left alone either.