It was as if the tree liked children and had grown that peculiar branch to accommodate them. If so its act of generosity must have caused it considerable pain. The branch was a sturdy thing running parallel to the ground, no more than two or three feet from the soil. It stretched in this way for some distance before turning steeply upwards towards the sky. This parallel stretch was bare, long since stripped of bark, or more likely the bark had simply worn away and the wood itself held a dull polish. For the younger children it served as a horse, sometimes a dragon; it was a thing you could ride. For the older ones it served as a seat, somewhere to practise smoking or to lie about sexual exploits. It had always been there, long, burnished, familiar. The part of it which turned upward represented the neck of the beast, reins imaginary or real, usually meant lengths of bailing twine, could be hung from this neck. The position near the neck was always subject to taking turns. By some arcane hierarchical system the neck with its canopy of dark leaves was the place to be. It was a kindly tree, the ground beneath it well-trodden and broken. Of all the trees in the small coppice it was the hardest to climb as the growth of the up shoot being so dense as to be almost impenetrable, and the tree’s main bole, with the exception of this one branch, went upward with scarcely a twig before throwing out a mass of strong branches well beyond reach. It was as if the tree had put a tremendous effort into this branch and then changed its mind.
It is a long time ago now, the time of the trees. They were my refuge then, and as I grew older I moved further and further out into the forests, climbing higher and higher finding clusters of branches that were possible to sit in, to be alone, to sleep even. But of all these trees, the one with the branch was the first, the nearest to home.
Of the two boys, one I knew well. We had played in sand pits together, close to our mothers, fought, run toy cars down slopes, set toy soldiers up in ranks, we had been cowboys, racing drivers and war heroes. But we had grown apart as we moved toward early adolescence. New allegiances had been formed, perhaps because of the distance between our homes or perhaps our mothers had some kind of disagreement, this is one of many things I will never know. What I do remember is that the boy I knew had always been held up to me as an example of how I should behave; perhaps I had become resentful or jealous? In any case he had found a new friend from whom he was almost inseparable. This other boy was unknown to me; I remember him as slightly fat, with piggy eyes and a spiky blond crew cut.
The lake was a cold place of terrifying beauty, as grey as polished steel, lapping and eating at the clay banks of its shore. In the early morning a thin mist hovered above it obscuring the fells. Its waters knew nothing of colour, just blackness and those shades of grey the northern sun could leach from it. I had learned to fear the lake from an early age through the warnings of those who knew it well, and from my own experience. It had almost taken me into its icy depths once. The wind blew its waters in unpredictable patterns and the icy rivers, which fed its dark volume, were notorious for their undercurrents. Yet we swam in it nonetheless, and sailed upon it on homemade rafts and in fragile canoes. Usually we kept close to the shore, but occasionally faced its breadth to wander in the pine forests on the other side. It was a lake which was indifferent to human life, it had taken strong swimmers and divers with air tanks. It had taken famous men in magnificent motor boats striving to break world speed records. Its friends were water-bound things: large needle-toothed pike, perch with sharp spines, slimy amphibious creatures, and the still heron which fed off them among the reeds.
From high up on the fells it was possible to see stains of oil, vivid rainbows of petroleum left upon its surface by the many boats which used it. There were large pleasure steamers with names like: The Swan or The Cygnet which had a hull, white-painted and curved like a canoe. Once at the beginning of their lives their bowels were fed with coal, men worked with shovels to feed their fires, and the funnels which still graced their decks breathed steam and smoke. Now they ran on diesel which bled from their exhausts into the lake. Smaller craft also plied these waters; the dinghies of sailing enthusiasts, the luxurious motorboats of the wealthy and the less luxurious versions belonging to those that wished to emulate them. There were the small wooden rowing boats rented to tourists by the hour, and boats powered by outboard engines used by those who believed in fishing as others believe in eternal life. There was even an amphibious car, small and pastel-painted owned by a rich family who had a house on Belle Isle. This island was well named, a rocky outcrop of dark stone, wet from the waves and lurid with green moss. Covered by a mixture of pines and deciduous trees, in its centre a house, white becolumned and private. We would take our canoes, braving the lake’s cross currents to try and find some form of harbour on its shore, so that we might creep terrified through the undergrowth to peer at the house in awe. The car with wheels for the road and a propeller for the water was a thing of legend. Those of us who had actually seen it make the transition from land to water recounted the experience with pride.
The first news of the boys’ deaths came to us at school, in the unreality of morning assembly. A master made an announcement coloured by moral superiority, a lesson against delinquency in tones of sadness. This was their epitaph: that not only were they missed, but also that they were missing, that their bodies had yet to be found. Police divers were searching the lake’s icy depths for their corpses. No one knew exactly what had happened, but it was presumed that they had stolen a rowing boat from its mooring and had capsized it somehow. So far only the boat had been found. We were told that they were well-liked, and that our feelings should go out to the parents at this time of great sadness. That they were good lads who had paid too great a price for what was probably no more than a boyish prank. I remember looking around me in disbelief certain that closer scrutiny would prove that they were still here as always. In the silence of this moment I could see everyone else was doing the same. Our eyes rested upon a gap where two chairs were empty, and upon the downcast faces of those occupying the seats beside them, and in this moment I became aware that I could not truly remember their faces.
Some days later there was news that the boys had been found. The police divers had attached them to a rope and hauled them up from the depths. Their corpses bloated, and frozen in the exact posture of the moment of death. Their bodies were said to have been enshrouded with weeds, the crew cut boy clinging to his friend’s leg as if he had dragged him down unwillingly to a mutual death. I learned also that someone I knew had seen them being pulled from the lake, and was so ill and disturbed by the sight that he had been granted several days off school to recover. I wondered if this story was true – were the two boys clinging together, and if so how? Was it some forbidden embrace chosen willingly like love? Did one of them drag the other to his doom? Was it simply fear, panic, or was it that even at this final moment he had been unable to let his friend go, been unable to face his death alone? Had the boy I once knew accepted his fate, or in his last hopeless moments rejected his companion, trying to fight him off, in the most final and terrible of ways, and their faces, how did their faces look? Perhaps they no longer had faces, perhaps the water, the weeds and the sharp-toothed things which fed there had taken them, leaving them without expression, merely rotting, bloated, half-eaten, in a last embrace, in a shroud of foul smelling vegetation? I wanted to know, I wanted to know what the lake did to those it stole from the light, was there some strange form of beauty within its depths? Or was there only horror, indifference and decay?
Some days later I came across Peter, still absent from school sitting on the long low branch with a friend of his. They were both some three years older than me, almost men; when school finished that year they would leave, find work, be adults. They were sitting on the branch not as a horse, but as if it were a bench laughing together at some joke or other. I approached them feeling young and childlike in their presence, it was difficult to know if I should stand before them or try to sit alongside Peter as if I was one of them. I hesitated but drew close enough to try and ask my questions. It was hard to find the words, I felt embarrassed, but got some of it out, my thoughts and the words that left my mouth seemed so different. The thoughts I remember well, but the words have long since vanished like the breath which propelled them. I managed to somehow ask if he had seen them and what they had looked like. Peter laughed swapping glances with his friend and without a word beckoned me closer, he took my hand, and I let him, and he placed it on his penis, it was erect. I looked at him and he laughed, they both laughed. I took my hand away, it felt strange, I could still feel the shape of his erection on it. It made me feel unhappy, it made me feel humiliated, it made me feel sad. I looked down on the trodden earth and I walked away filled with despair.
I walked away with this sadness, a sadness which was all too familiar. I had thought that perhaps there might be somewhere in the world I might escape it, that it was a thing peculiar to my home, that beyond that house there might be something different, and in that moment, I knew this was not the case, that it would never leave me. Those boys were lost, they were the lost boys, they were lost to life, and I was lost within it. I would simply never know, knowing about the one who was once my friend was the least of it; I would simply never know. I began to walk towards the lake.
The place where I was born is named after a bridge and the small river which flows beneath it. Once a storm had filled it so quickly that a huge wave of water swept down drowning two men who were illegally netting for trout. Normally it is a shallow stream with occasional deep pools good for swimming, but the scars of that one day are still plain to see; there are huge boulders standing midstream, once tossed as if they were pebbles, but now stranded where the flood waters left them. Here and there the riverbanks are deeply undercut, in some places almost like grottos, the legacy of one day’s flood.
I made my way down to this bridge and climbed over the wall to step knee-deep in daffodils. This oak and beech wood had huge trees, but was well spaced. In it was none of the darkness to be found in densely packed pine forests. A canopy of broad leaves filtered the light so that when you looked up at the sky the sun dappled through the leaves sending strange dancing rays of light through their mellow shadow, and beneath them nothing but yellow. The flowers brushed my legs as I walked, each step crushed a plant or more, and if I had looked back the path I had trodden would have been as clear as if I had walked in snow. I made my way to the river, scrambled down the steep undercut banks, until I stood in its shallows. There I dipped my hands into its fast bitter cold stream and washed my hands, taking an abrasive mixture of sand and small stones and scrubbing them. Even through the numbness from the cold water and the sting of the sand I could still feel his penis on my palm. All was quiet as I crouched there, if quiet is the sound of running water, then it is a sound better than silence, a soothing sound like tears that don’t need to be cried. I washed them again in the same way, then cupped my hands and drank. It was so cold, almost painful in the back of my throat. At this point I began to feel alone again, almost free of what had just happened. Yet it would be wrong to think that even these waters were clean, free from death. Just upstream from where I was, stranded on the side of the river between two huge rocks, was the carcass of a sheep. Its fleece sodden, a blue stain on its side – the remains of the farmer’s dye brand – and its eye sockets were empty, picked out by carrion crows. Its belly an inflated bladder of death gasses as yet still captive within its skin. I could see the flies and maggots which riddled its flesh clearly heaving and suppurating. It was so still that even the songbirds had ceased their melodious warning calls. There had been times when I had walked this wood imitating their calls, rejoicing in the echo of their song, but now all I wanted was the sound of the river running through the stones, a sound which rendered my tears superfluous.
The longer I crouched there the longer the silence prevailed the more at ease I became. This time could not last forever; soon, if I waited long enough, there would be another time and time past is time lost. I was old enough even then to know of lost time. Near to where I was squatting there was an overhang of earth and clay from the flash flood so deep as to almost qualify as a cave. In it a mass of roots, huge, barkless, frozen, where they had once hunted through long-gone fertile earth. Once I had played there with Peter and the other boys. One of the oak roots was massive, as thick as any branch above and we used it as a slide climbing up the entangled web of smaller roots to where it broke exposed from the bank. We took turns to slide down it, to land with the crash of our shoes on the pebbles below. I remembered the day when this sport ended, and again Peter was the cause. After he had taken his turn he stopped to look at his arm, which was cut from wrist to elbow, so deep that you could see the bone, there was no blood, not in that instant. The cut to the flesh was no different to a knife through a chicken breast; he had caught it on a root which had sliced it cleaner than a razor. We gathered around him and without thought used our hands to clasp it shut. He was quiet as if he felt no pain, shocked. Not so far from where we were, a short straight walk through the woods, were some houses; a nurse lived in one of them. Miss Simpson was a childless person, there was nothing that might have drawn her into our world, other than she was well respected and well-liked by our parents. So we went there still crowded about him, our hands for clamps. She took him from us, reassuring us that all would be well, praising us for thinking and acting so clearly, smiling, closing the door on us, telling us not to worry as she would call his mother.
I learned some years later that she had killed herself, overwhelmed by some unknown sadness; she had cut her wrists before climbing into a warm bath. I suppose she had all the knowledge necessary to do such a thing with skill.
I had planned to make my way down the river to the lake, but all determination had drained from me. Now I only sought a tree. I wanted to climb into those huge wooden arms and rest. Further downstream there was a massive oak, it stood on a sort of land bound island, a knoll of soil held by its root system, in that time of the inundation, that sudden wash of water it had literally held its ground. It would have been nice to think that this tree was mine and mine alone, but it was not, like the horse branch it had been handed down through generations of children. It was virtually unclimbable, yet to those who knew or had been shown, there was a way up, hidden and partly disguised were a few rusting fragile nails. They were hard to see and hard to negotiate. They gave access to a cluster of branches not unlike an armchair. This oak was my citadel of solitude, yet, even this was not truly safe; was there no place in the world which would give me that unknown and longed for sense, perhaps there was no such thing as safety, perhaps it was a mythical thing.
From the tree’s clasp of branches it was possible to look out over most of the wood, to look down on the river which danced in ripples and small gurgling eddies of water, and to look out over the field opposite where the local landowner kept his horses. I made my way down the river bed, jumping across the slimy stones, black and wet, keeping my eyes on the grey translucent river, on the clay banks, the moss, the sodden tongues of ferns, the encrustations of lichens. Stopping from time to time to peer into rock pools to watch the stickle backs and the caddis fly larvae dragging their homemade carapaces of minute stones and wooden splinters, anything but the glorious yellow field of flowers between the trees. Then I climbed this oak to sit and think. The lake seemed far away now I was alone and no longer needed its company. The two boys were dead and all I would ever know about them was the shape of another boy’s erection.
I sat in that tree alone, or almost alone, for it was not possible to totally relax as it was necessary to remain vigilant. There was the farmer to watch out for and the gamekeeper on the other side, but my main worry was that some other boy would seek refuge in this tree, climb the nails without me noticing to break this fragment of peace. But there was peace, it lasted, and I began to think about the nature of love; in this my thoughts were purely theoretical and based upon stolen books. There was a sensual world I craved but feared; what did I know of the world of women? I had seen their sex; felt it even, in childish exchange; in rural life sex existed outside the moral imperatives of religion. I had seen beast mount beast, seen how the bull would lap the cow’s sex before mounting her, seen how even the cows would mount each other, and I had seen more than that. Once from this very tree I had seen the most extraordinary sight. In the field on the other side of the river there had been four maybe five horses all of them stallions. Two of them began to prance around each other, to push and nudge, beginning to bite each other’s necks; they both had huge erections which hung down and swung as they moved, then one of them stopped and raised its tail. The other mounted it as if it were a mare. The river is not wide, it is what we call a beck, something between a river and a stream, they were close to me. I clearly saw one horse’s penis enter the other’s anus. The mounted horse’s erect penis quivered and pulsated as the other stallion rode it. This was the act that I had been told was unnatural, an abomination. Yet there it was as real as the water or the grass in the field. I had seen dogs do this thing, but dogs are hard to believe, whereas horses are not. I had been so astonished by this sight that I had left the tree, crossed the river and inspected each horse in turn to be sure there was not a mare amongst them, and there was not. And, so what then was the nature of love, or of friendship, what of the boundary between them? Was it possible to know a girl as a friend and also join with her sexually, and what of boys and their friendships, was there no difference, and what is the difference between the one who opens to accept and the one who enters, what knowledge is transmitted in that act? Was it one of hierarchy, like being the closest to the neck of that branch, and what is the relationship between such an act and death; why had Peter answered my question with his penis?
The kind arms of the oak held me that dark day and the river of tears calmed me. The two boys’ faces never returned, even photographs of them alive and happy could not restore them. As for the lake it was never the same again, even though I went and sat by it to watch its evil waters, I swam in it throughout an entire year, breaking the ice on its surface to do so. In the same way Belle Isle also vanished from my dreams along with the moon paths. I determined to seek my life and my death elsewhere, beyond the lake. One day I would walk again through still waters, and there would be an edge, and that edge would collapse, and the silt and the weeds would steal me from the light, but perhaps between this day and that I would know love, give myself to it before I gave myself to death.
The last time I saw Peter was in a public house, I was drinking there with some friends. He was playing darts with some other men. No signal of recognition had passed between us since that day by the branch. There was some form of disturbance, an argument between him and one of his companions. His opponent threw a deadly insult at him. He was likened to a ram unable to service a ewe, the bite being not only that of impotence, but of being fit only for death. A male sheep only has value if it can sire strong lambs, and the day it failed in this duty the abattoir beckoned. Strangely my memory of what happened next is vague. But I do not remember a fight which would have been the only way for him to redeem his honour. So perhaps it was true.
The lake is still there, as dark and evil as ever. Not a year passes without it taking the lives of children, as well as those of men and women. Yet one cannot deny it is a place of beauty, it is sublime, the sun and moon dance on its waves like diamonds. It belongs to fish, to leaches, to water-bound insects, to frogs and toads, to the water fowl, to the sharp-beaked heron, to the otters, to that lost time known as memory.
The Drowned Boys by Edward Allington, a story sent out in five parts over five days (9–13 January 2012) courtesy of Akerman Daly © 2012, Edward Allington and Akerman Daly