A child­hood cri­sis in East Coast mud

With the blessed new shift of the wind, he was fly­ing up­stream

Yachting Monthly - - A BOOK AT BUNKTIME -

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.

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