A childhood crisis in East Coast mud
With the blessed new shift of the wind, he was flying upstream
Anansi is a charity-sponsored child with a crippled foot who is spending the summer in the comfortable Suffolk town of Blythney. She and some of the other children have taken dinghies down the river to Heron
Island where there is a dangerous patch of mud. When Marta took her big stride on to the quaking mud, her front foot sank so far and so suddenly that she fell forward, throwing out an arm to protect herself from the surface which her eyes still told her was hard ground. The arm sank in also, so her face was almost in the ooze; kicking with the other foot, she felt that it too was sinking. Neither foot met anything hard; it was as if she were swimming, except that she could hardly move her legs beneath her.
Anansi was shouting again. ‘Spread your arms! Like wings! Keep still!’
At the familiar voice, Marta looked up and saw Anansi, arms outstretched like the angel in a nativity play. She understood, through her panic, and copied the action. Trembling, cold, paralysed, she realised she was no longer sinking. Yet there was nothing under her feet. She swivelled her eyes downward, not liking to move her chin down into the horrible ooze; she saw that the mud was black where she had stirred it up but glimmering brown on the surface, like some evil animal. Around her neck and chin, little rivulets of water ran, and bubbles popped into little black sucking holes as the mud settled.
There was someone screaming. Grania. Marta, her eyes on Anansi and the shore, couldn’t turn to see her. Anansi, remembering the fish-box top and its role in the dog rescue, thought for a moment then shouted, ‘Grania! Get on the hard bit and push the centreboard out to her. You could pull her up.’
Grania, frozen with fear, could not make herself step from the boat, even on to the hard shingle patch. Instead, she took the wooden board, leaned over and pushed it in the direction of Marta’s visible head and arms. It skidded forward, missed by some distance, and lay useless on the surface. A gull landed on it, slithered and squawked away.
In the Laser, the boys zagged to and fro in the squally rain. Mark lunged over the side as they came close to the bank where the Mirror was stranded and managed to pick up the rope that Grania had dropped. The wind was blowing straight across the river now, sending gouts of rain splattering in their faces when they turned into it. But it meant that he could hang on to the rope from the stranded boat and use it as anchor.
When the Laser had steadied, Mark shouted, ‘Can you get her?’ Grania began to cry, loudly and extravagantly. Among the weeping was the word ‘No!’ and the word ‘Help!’ Anansi, on the shore, seemed to have turned away and was doing something with the woodpile.
‘It’s her fault,’ wept Grania, pointing at Anansi. ‘She told Marta to come over the mud!’
Douai never really understood what happened within him at that moment but to the especial amazement of Mark, who had suffered his ranting all the way down the river, he shouted fiercely, ‘That’s a lie! Anansi told her not to!’
He had seen the moment when Marta fell and Anansi made angel wings with her arms. Of all the Blythney children, Douai, the eldest, was the only one who understood what could have happened in that moment. Marta could have disappeared entirely under the brown surface. Anansi had seen it too and she had prevented it. He understood that, and the fact set up some invisible cord between them. It did not, never could, resolve every reason that he hated her. But it made him give her justice at that moment.
Grania was sobbing hysterically now. ‘Someone come! We’re going to die!’ Her little boat, hard aground, was a firm enough anchor for the boys’ dinghy to stay steady.
Mark glanced at Douai. ‘D’you think
I ought to go and shut her up? It was boy language, the only translation he could find for the process of comforting his sister.
‘Yeah,’ said Douai. He was even paler than usual, more pinched, his lips stiff. The last
Libby Purves’ first sailing experience was in a ‘disastrously tippy’ dinghy on the River Blythe in Suffolk. She has been a Yachting Monthly columnist for many years and has also been a radio presenter, journalist and novelist. She is married to broadcaster, author and sailor Paul Heiney.
thing he wanted was for Grania to run into the mud in some kind of illogical female panic. ‘Good idea. Can you get on to the hard bit?’
‘Mm,’ said Mark, and pulled the Laser in until its bow grated on shingle. He stepped out into the knee-deep water and waded up to the Mirror. Then he climbed in and, selfconscious but determined, put an arm around his sister.
When he dropped the rope, Douai’s boat drifted back and caught the wind. He hauled the mainsail and, letting the jib flap with a fusillade of noise, coasted along the island until he was near enough to shout to Anansi. She was still by the woodpile, dragging a long plank out and glancing up every few seconds at the immobile Marta. ‘I’m coming ashore,’ he shouted. ‘I’ll help.’
Anansi straightened. ‘No!’ she said sharply. Then, seeing his face, ‘Please, no. Sail back. Get help. Grownups. Quick. I got something to hold her up, for a bit.’
‘I could stay,’ shouted Douai. ‘You could sail for help. In your boat. You’re nearly as quick.’ Even in the crisis, it cost him something to say it.
‘No,’ said Anansi. ‘You’re better. Faster.’ That, too, cost something.
Douai swivelled his boat; the river channel was so shallow, his board hit the mud and he had to bounce the boat off.
‘A grown-up,’ said Anansi, ‘would be tall enough to stand in that mud, Harry says. A tall grown up.’ Then, turning back to her woodpile, she added, ‘Good luck.’
Douai barely heard. With all his concentration and the blessed new shift of the wind, he was flying upstream, both sail lines in one hand and sitting far out on the side of his boat. As Mark watched, arm round his trembling sister, he thought for a terrible moment that a gust was going to topple the Laser, but Douai threw himself backward, hiking out with all his strength, legs straight, and the boat came back level, picked up speed and began to plane. Mark returned his attention to Grania.
‘It’ll be okay,’ he said gruffly. ‘Look, I want to go and help Marta now.’ But Grania sobbed, and clung, with the rain running down her tearful face, and said, ‘Don’t leave me. I’ll die. I’ll fall in the mud.’
Mark tried to prise her fingers from his jumper, failed and looked helplessly at Anansi who had dragged a wide plank from the heap and was trying to manoeuvre it down the bank to the mud beach.