‘The River’ – a short story

A long time ago, someone explained the difference between a salmon river and a trout river to him. Brown and swirly versus one that was black, quieter. He cannot remember, as he stands looking down at water as dark as ink and filled with menacing eddies, which is which. And then he wonders if it really matters. Right now all that counts is that it’s a river, the deeper and faster the better; it’s colour is just window-dressing.

Rivers are not blue, of course. That’s just a fairy story adults tell children in order to make their naïve pictures more colourful. How would it be if six-year-olds always painted ebony water? Teachers and parents would be chastised, castigated; they would be tainting childhood with their brutal honesty. When you eventually grew up enough to realise rivers weren’t blue, well, it was just another example of the loss of innocence; one of those rites of passage – though no-one said where you were destined to travel, where the fabled ‘passage’ was supposed to lead. Perhaps that was just as well, he thought; why be burdened with another disappointment?

Feeling a sudden chill as the wind whips across his face, channelled through the stone sides of the narrow bridge, he forces a smile. He is not sure if it is something he could call irony, finding himself worried by the cold. He is about to immerse himself in cold – the colder the better, he has read. His reading has also informed him there are reflexes over which he will have no control; the urge to gasp would appear to be uppermost. If he has judged everything right – the right river, waiting until after two days of heavy rain, wearing his heavy coat and heavy shoes – then when the cold forces him to gasp he will be under water. And then the panic will do for him.

It is the panic he looks forward to least of all; but he rationalises it away as the last brief (if unpleasant) step on the journey to his final destination. Which is nowhere, of course. A place that is – from his soon-to-be perspective – as irrelevant as any place can be. It is the fact that he won’t be there, that he won’t be anywhere, which is the prize. Not having to worry about ‘things’ – about money, about his job, about Lisa’s illness, the kids, their schooling and their bloody exam grades – that will be his reward. Later they will grieve over his body, his empty husk; but that, he knows, is not the real him. He wonders if they have ever touched the real him; if anyone has. For this moment, knowing soon everything will cease to have meaning – and without meaning, importance – he returns again to the question of the river. Salmon or trout. He shivers, then laughs to himself.

He moves from the upstream side of the bridge to the downstream, taking care to ensure that he is as central as he can be. He feels it is important to be at its apex, the highest point. The drop, he calculates, is perhaps eighteen or twenty feet. He is uncertain how deep the river is at this point, but in the past he has seen it much lower and still flowing reasonably quickly. Today its turmoil is exceptional, the surface undulating and frothing as it races away from him. His eyes follow the flow downstream, looking for protrusions from either bank which might snag him on his way down. Around the next bend, about a quarter of a mile or so further on, there is a shallower part where a stone bank has been compiled, eddies and currents gradually dragging pebbles and small rocks into a new formation, a refuge. He hopes it will be all over by then; he will have no need of a refuge. Obtusely, he recalls fragments from his childhood and a school geography lesson when, as a fresh-faced junior, he was taught about ox-bow lakes and how they were formed. It was the kind of learning that never left you. He remembers the diagram he drew; it was the best thing about the lesson, drawing that diagram. The teacher had given him a special green tick in his book for it. For a moment he tries to recall her name, then gives up. He wonders if that represents some kind of failure too, or whether it even matters. He wants it not to, even though it does for the briefest moment.

From somewhere nearby he hears the sound of a car and looks around. The road narrows to a single lane just here; it is all the bridge can accommodate. On either side, traffic lights control the flow of cars over the bridge, though ‘flow’ is probably an overstatement. He has chosen this spot not just because of the river, but because of the road, how quiet it is here, a backwater seldom navigated. The irony of the word ‘backwater’ makes him smile. Leaning against the stone wall, affecting a pose designed to project someone out for an early morning walk, he waits, expecting to hear a car pass behind him at any moment. Thirty seconds pass. Then a minute. He stands upright again and looks along the road in both directions to where it turns away from the bridge to then runs parallel to the water for a short distance. He can see nothing.

There have been instances where the road has flooded, he remembers. Twice in one winter he seems to recall. Concentrating on the river again, he seeks out the tall thin post, he knows is buried somewhere in the far bank, painted alternately white and red, the marker that measures how deep the water is. Missing it initially, he finds it half-camouflaged in the grey and bare bracken. The numbers are illegible, so he counts the steps between the surface of the water and the top of the pole. Fourteen. Nearly five metres. He wonders how much further the water would need to rise to break the bank, to start spilling onto the fields and then onto the road. It looks like six or seven, but he cannot be sure. He wonders again if the river will be deep enough now. What if it were two feet higher tomorrow? More rain is forecast.

Once more confident that he will not be interrupted, he concentrates on the surface of the water again, seeking to re-establish the sense of unity he felt was beginning to achieve, as if he and the river had a shared purpose; as if, by his actions, they would be fulfilling each other. If there were a mutuality there, some kind of symbiosis, that could only make it all the more perfect. It seems a notion that confers approval on his plan; something that makes it the right thing to do.

Unaware that his mood had shifted so much, he feels calm again. He leans against the wall and looks down. Black or brown? It doesn’t matter. Neither do those extra few feet the river might rise throughout the coming day. They are an irrelevance to him. What will he care if the road floods tomorrow or the day after? Or if it floods for all eternity? What if the water were to rage so fiercely and for so long that the bridge itself is swept away?

He stands up straight and stares at the stone balustrade that separates him from the water. It is a little over a foot thick. About the size of his feet.

It is time.

He eases himself up onto the wall, staring straight toward the horizon, to where the river has disappeared and the big hills take over. Beyond the hills, the town where he lives. Where just now, Lisa will be taking the children to school. Will she be concerned that he has not yet returned from his early morning run? Probably not. It would not be the first time he ran further than he had planned. And she didn’t know about the coat and shoes already in the back of his car.

Concentrating on his breathing, he tries to slow his heart, suddenly aware just how fast it had been beating. He looks down to the surface of the water, that turbulent, truculent, tumbling water. The water that seems so much further away now that he is standing up here. So much further to fall.

He finds himself searching the water, to see if there is any sign of fish, even though there cannot possibly be, not as it bucks and froths as it does now. But suddenly it seems the question – salmon or trout? – is an important question to answer. As if it is the most important question in the world. The final question he needs to answer.

Frozen, his eyes absorbing every atom of his concentration, he fails to hear the car coming to a stop. Fails to hear its opening door. Fails to hear the running feet.