There was a war on, a civil war but with other neighbouring countries involved too. I was not very sure about that. But it meant that we could become a target, according to my father. Not because we were important nationally, or even regionally, but apparently we mattered in the local area. Anyway, he said that it had got too dangerous for us at home. We had shut our lumber yard in town for the moment, and left our house and moved into a hut in the forest to be safe. It only had one room but it did have a brick chimney so we could do a bit of cooking indoors. My parents, five brothers and two sisters and I all slept in there in sleeping-bags. My younger sister and I shared a hammock. I was not sure if this was better than sleeping on the floor but it was more fun. At night we plaited each other’s hair and whispered stories to each other. On the plus side, there was no school and the shack was close to a big old carp pond. I was on the school swimming team so I swam in it quite a lot. We all did.
It was a big pond, very muddy at the edges with thick groups of tall reeds clustered round the banks. There was a small pier at one end where our rowing boat was moored (loaded with my fishing-tackle that I had forgotten to bring indoors). At the other end was the old sluice gate. Try as we might, we could never get the old gears to turn. Not that we wanted to drain the lake but things could get a bit dull out here, even if it was the summer.
And it was a good summer morning. The others were not up yet but the sun was and it was just beginning to warm me as I lay by the side of the pond. A bank rose up behind me for a few feet before dipping down and levelling off about 30 yards away around the shack. Further on it rose up into the forest which undulated slightly in all directions so you could never see very far, and of course the trees didn’t help. So I was surprised to see our old foreman’s head appear a couple of slight rises away from me. I could have hit him with a stone quite easily. He did have a big head, it would have made an easy target. He hadn’t noticed me but then he was staring very intently into the trees, straight at the shack. I rolled over and stuck my head up to see what he was looking at.
He was watching half a dozen or maybe eight men crowding round the shack, mainly at the door which one kicked and they all ran in. Something odd happened to me then. My feet went very cold as if they were encased in a shoe box of solid ice and something in my chest became very heavy. I didn’t move. I had seen big knives and some guns. I heard some screams, some like how my younger sister would scream, others I did not really recognise. There were shouts too. Then it went quiet and then there was a shot.
I turned my head and looked at the foreman. My eyes were blurred and I could not see him clearly. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and he turned his head and looked at me. He looked annoyed. He stood up and I saw that he was holding a gun which he put to his shoulder and pointed at me. For a second I did not move which was lucky because when I did move he fired and I saw leaves and twigs lift up where I had been lying. I was only a few steps from the pond when I stood up and I ran for the water’s edge. It was a cheap single-shot hunting rifle with no magazine so he had to load a new bullet by hand. He brought the gun up to aim again as I stumbled through the mud and then dived into reedy water just as the gun fired.
I was underwater. It was pretty cloudy but I could see the light of the sky above as I swam deeper. I turned to my right, trying not to disturb the reeds as I swam, towards the pier and the foreman. I hoped he was heading down to where he had seen me dive in and was watching the water towards the sluice gate assuming that I was trying to swim away from him.
It was the summer and my family had been in hiding for two months. One month of playing chase in the woods and one month, when it got warmer, of playing chase in the water. And what a game it was.
Trees are fun to climb but it is rare that you can cross from one tree into the next. For some reason branches never seem to overlap, or even grow very close to each other and from the ground it’s normally fairly easy to look up and spot whoever is hiding up there. In fact climbing trees was a hopeless thing to do if you wanted to escape.
On the other hand water is three-dimensional. You can swim over someone and miss them or hide under them and grab them. It isn’t a matter of stamina either, surprisingly. Using old bits of hosepipe you could hide underwater for minutes on end just waiting to pounce. My younger sister was especially good at that, and swimming without splashing, a giveaway in chase, is especially handy when someone is trying to shoot you.
I had clothes: a vest, a dress, pants and socks, my sandals had come off when I had dived in. Also, with no school, my hair was longer than ever before. Not only was I going to be able to stay in the water for a fair bit of time but I was also going to be showing very few bits of pale skin when I stuck my eyes out of the water.
I could swim twenty metres underwater, sometimes forty at a push, enough to get to one of our water dens. You couldn’t often get right out of the cold water unless you could get to the swan’s nest on the other side or hang over the branch of the half drowned tree surrounded by the high reeds. Thankfully the bit of pipe was stuck on a branch stump. This was good, but not as good as the metre-long pipe that floated beneath a ring of bottle corks that made it almost invisible from any distance. That was under the pier where I had left it a couple of days ago.
There were shouts. I looked back to where the foreman was standing. He was at the edge of the pond, roughly where I had gone in, pointing at the water and calling over his shoulder. Some of the men appeared, shouting down at him, not believing that someone had escaped. I could not see the shack from the water but I could hear someone doing some loud counting and another calling out the family names. Yes, they agreed with the foreman: I was unaccounted for, and more than just a witness, I was someone who might want to remember. There was a bit of pointing and arguing but within a minute most of them were spreading out around the lake’s edge, guns in the crock of their arms. One even had a telescopic sight. I sank lower in the water. I had fourteen hours at least until night fall. I pissed myself and started to shake. I could remember more clearly now what I had heard coming from the shack. I bit the log. I practically had to break it and my jaw pulling it out again. I decided to only think forward.
A man with a beard walked up to the edge of the pond closest to where I was hiding. This put him at only five or six metres away. He was wearing shoes so I did not think he would consider wading out to the tree. I did not move. My hair covered what little of my face showing above the branch. I wished I had my arms down, under water, not hooked over the wood. The man looked to his side and called out to the next gunman. I sank down lower and slid my arms into the water as slowly as possible. This was all from experience gained from playing with my brothers and sisters: fast moves and obvious human shapes could give you away over a long distance. I decided it was time to go under and have a think. I tipped the tube horizontal to get the water out, I stuck my mouth over the end and pushed myself underwater, holding myself there by bracing my arm against the underside of the branch.
There were a lot underwater noises. I was breathing in and out of my pipe which I could see above me just breaking the surface of the pond. Somebody was wading heavily through the mud quite far away, probably on the far side of the pond.
What can I do? I have water, if I have to drink it, I have no food, I will get cold, I can relieve myself, number one easily, number two, well it had been done in the past. Evasion and escape. I do not think that they will get bored and go away. I do not think that they will all come wading into the pond as they know I could possibly slip between them and be out of the water and running into the woods before they could get out of the very sticky mud. They must believe that I am in the reeds. Or hiding under the pier. Or drowned? Or wounded and dying?
Then there is splashing very close to me. I know not to look. I grab the tube and push down deeper and start swimming out into the pond going as deep as I can. I roll over onto my front and start to do a troubled breaststroke, one hand hampered with holding the tube. I want to make it as far as I can before going up for a breath. This is a very difficult operation that takes many attempts to get right as it is very easy to break the surface as you come up for a breath. Especially as you really want to come up and gasp for air. But this time I have to have good control. I do not try to swim as far as possible like normal so I can take my time coming up and letting the pipe top gently break the surface of the water. There are three options here: one – blow the water out the top like a whale which is obviously a terrible idea if you are trying not to be noticed; two – attempt the suck/close tube mouth with tongue and blow the water out the side of your mouth; three – drink. The second is the holy grail of our water chase game; I have never managed this, so I drink. It is difficult and pretty disgusting. Then I breathe.
There are still some splashing sounds, probably from where I had been. Maybe they have seen the damp stains where my arms rested on the branch. I hold my breath and duck down and start swimming. I don’t have much clue which way I am swimming so I am just swimming in the direction I feel is right. My hand touches a reed. Through the dirty water I can see their vertical lines. Very carefully I swim into them trying to move as few as possible. I do not go far in. I bring my head out of the water very slowly, take a breath and look round. No one is too close. I have a better view of the pier. I can see a man in more military looking clothes standing there. He has the rifle with the telescopic sight, a forage cap and camouflage jacket and trousers. He is a big man with a beard. He is talking to two other men. I do not recognise them. One is small, not much bigger than me.
Now I see that there is a man waist deep in water by the tree I had been hiding under. That frightens me and I sink underwater with my pipe to calm down. The necessary slow breathing is so effective it reminds me of the many times when… I stop that thought and think about where I am.
The pier is up to my left and I could swim there in one go. The old swans’ nest is only a few metres away to my right. I suspect that these are obvious hiding-places. There are others: the very thick reeds by the sluice gate; the water lily type plants up beyond the pier. We weren’t supposed to swim there because the roots are dangerous. Though I thought I might be able to get very close to the edge of the pond under their broad leaves without being seen. An untried manoeuvre may not be the best thing to rely on now, but worth thinking about.
If it was not for the grinding.
It spread across the water blocking out all the other sounds. Painful metal on metal sounds that was then followed by a deep gushing sound. The sluice! I brought my head up again and looked down to the end of the pond. Three or four men were standing around the gate. Two were working down behind the sluice. They must have been using some kind of bar to help lever the gate whilst the two at the top forced the rusty crank round. They were draining the lake.
The water would drop down the legs of the pier. The reeds would fold down in to the mud. The old wash tub would appear and I would be squirming in the mud like a worm trying to bury itself before the birds come. The men would surround me and hack me to death. Or shoot me, or just tread me in to the mud until I drowned in the slime.
There were places in the lake where rocks could be grabbed and stuffed into my trousers. I could weigh myself down, drink more water. Join my family. Be a pale body in the mud.
I got punched, flattened, gripped from my toes to my neck, and knocked backwards until I was almost underwater. Air exploded out of me as water leapt into the air on the far side of the pond close to my drowned tree. A bomb! How could a bomb go off now?
Then I saw the rowing-boat. It had left the pier. Soon it would only be a few feet away. The big man in camouflage was standing at the front looking over to my old tree. The little man was sculling with our home-made paddle from the back. The big man reached down and picked something up, a grenade. He toyed with it as he scanned the water. There were a lot of dead and stunned fish floating around the boat. As he came closer I could see his fingers clamping down on the lever of the grenade to stop it flying away and setting off the timer. He put the index finger of his other hand through the safety pin ring and paused. I slid underwater and pushed out towards the boat.
We all loved it, it became the way we would begin the game. With five children in the boat at least two had to be standing up and that made it very unstable, all you had to do was…
I went deep. You could normally find a patch of rock or hard ground in this area of the pond. I found it with the tips of my fingers, brought my knees up and looked above me. The sky, the rough shape of the boat was directly above me. I kicked down with my feet and dragged the water past me with my hands as hard as I could. I kicked and pulled again and brought my hands up in time to push the edge of the boat up as I burst out of the water. The boat rolled heavily away from me. The men shouted trying to balance themselves, especially the big man standing up. I could see the open mouth, the wide-eyed look of surprise and .. and fear as I flipped my hands over the edge of the boat and pulled down with all my weight. The big man went over the other side, the small man came down with me.
I did not let go of the boat, that wasn’t how to play the game well. Whoever was ‘it’ and doing the tipping wanted to grab someone else to join the ‘it’ team. Normally whoever was in the water was splashing around trying to clear their eyes and swim away as fast as possible. That was what the two men were doing. But another trick to play was to climb up inside the overturned boat and not make a move, then, then they didn’t know where you were.
I got my feet under the front seat and my shoulders over the middle bench.
The grenade went off. I felt the push in my back and the boat lifted a bit. The splashing and shouting outside the boat stopped.
I could hear some yelling coming from the shore.
By my feet was the fishing tackle bag. Slowly, without rocking the boat I reached forwards and undid the buckle and felt for the fish knife. I had it in my hands. Then I felt something else, lumpy and solid. I brought my hand back, put the blade in my mouth and reached again into the nose of the upturned boat. It was a cold, heavy grenade.
A hand slapped against the side of boat and I almost dropped the grenade catching it, to my horror, by its pin ring. I froze. Another hand or an arm flapped helplessly against the planking. I could see camouflaged legs kicking in the water only inches from me. I shoved the grenade into the waistband of my trousers. The man’s jacket had risen in the water revealing a grey vest tucked in his belted army trousers. His stomach looked huge in the water. I took the knife from my mouth in my fist and pointed it just above his belt beyond the curve of his belly. I pulled back my hand and then stabbed, pulling the knife across as far as I could before he pushed himself away from the boat. It had been much easier to cut than I expected. The noise outside was tremendous. I ducked down into the water going deep again so that I could look upwards and get a view of what was going on.
The body of the smaller man was floating outstretched and motionless to one side of the boat. On the other side the big man was kicking and flailing one arm – his other seemed to be held against himself – it was difficult to tell because of the dark cloud of blood around him.
I swam back up into the boat, took a breath and then went down into the water again. This time I stabbed him in the groin. I could hear him scream even though I was underwater.
I swam back up into boat. I pulled the roll of fishing line from the bag and tied the loose end to the pin of the grenade and put the grenade in the bag, buckled it shut and then tied the straps round the bench. I left the fishing line on the bench. I swam back out and under the smaller man’s body. He was face down and very white. Luckily his eyes were shut or I would not have been able to touch him. I grabbed his foot and pulled him back to the upturned boat, pulling him down and then letting him bob up into the upturned boat. I couldn’t hear the big man now. He did not even seem to be splashing. But I could hear more shouting from the shore. There was the crack of a rifle. The bullet smacked into the boat and into the small man. A thin ray of light lit a spot of wood on the other side of the hull. I ducked down and looked for the big man. He was not far. I grabbed a foot and hooked it under the edge of the boat. Another bullet came down through the water in front of me. I snatched at the fishing line, took one last gulp of air and sank deep, turned and swam for the pier playing out the reel behind me.
It was a long swim.
If there had been anyone on the pier they would have seen me bobbing underwater. But no one was. I heard a couple more shots. But all I could really think of was to hold my breath a bit longer and a bit longer still until suddenly the air went cooler and darker and I knew I was under the pier. I came out of the water far too early, behind one of the old piles. There was a slight splash, not noticeable above the racket of shouts and shots from the remaining men round the pond. Someone took a few steps onto the pier shouted and then ran off. I could see his legs for a bit before he disappeared behind the reeds. I continued letting the line out as the boat and bodies slowly drifted towards the open sluice.
I could see no one else at this end of the pond. To the left side of the pier I had an almost clear view over the whole of that side of the pond round to the sluice. To my right the reeds blocked out the area closest to me. But I could see a group of men down the other end of the pond. There were five or six, including the foreman. They seemed to be waiting for the boat to drift to them.
It was cold under the pier. It always was. Everything seemed slimier and dirtier. But we loved diving off it.
The line tugged and tugged again.
I let it out some more. I was angry with myself for losing concentration so easily. The boat was not far from the end of the pond. One man was leaning out over the water with a long stick. Another was stepping very slowly down into the water. The others were aiming their guns into the water encouraging him to go further. He reached the boat. He got a grip on it and pulled it to the bank. Others were coming down to lend a hand. I tightened the fishing line and then pulled, it came loose. But nothing happened.
Two men were pulling the big man from the water, two more were bent over the boat, they rolled it over to reveal the body of the small man. It was a matter of seconds. Four seconds. The grenade exploded.
I was splashing out of the water, up to the head of the pier, onto dry land, the brown dry earth firm under my feet as I ran for the trees. Then I was among trees. I took a glance over my shoulder. There was smoke over the end of the pond, some bodies. I ran on, starting up the hill. I could see the roof of the shack over to my right.
Later, not long before it got dark, I came back down. Nobody had followed me. I crept through the trees very slowly, trying to count the number of bodies. I went round the pond until I was almost looking uphill at the back of the sluice. There were more bodies down this side. I was after a gun and I soon found one. A shotgun. It was loaded so I felt better, safer. I climbed a bit more up the bank to the pond. A rifle lay on the ground. I put that over my shoulder. Then I checked all the bodies looking for guns and ammunition. The guns I didn’t want I threw into the mud that was all that was left of the pond. Our pond.
I left the bodies where they were and walked over to the shack.
I spent the night on the steps sleeping and crying. The black oval of the drying pond reflected nothing. Later, before sunrise, I left the shack with what I needed in my brother’s rucksack.
TWG Fraser asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work