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Authors: Geoffrey Household

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BOOK: Summon the Bright Water
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It did. I was eager to see the glow of the weed and the silver offish against the red and green marl of the Severn.

‘Good! And may I ask you to tell no one you are going with me? Not even Elsa.’

‘But why not?’

‘They would be jealous and pester me until I started diving classes. You’ll agree that the Severn is no place to learn. And there is another point; as between friends I can admit it to you. If they knew that I allowed you to go with me, they would see my night dives as a mere sport.’

‘Instead of a mystery of mysteries?’

For a moment I thought I had gone too far, but the blaze in his eyes was instantaneously extinguished. He replied quite calmly:

‘To be the leader of a faith one must offer the followers secrets for their imagination as well as truth for their souls.’

Never was there a more curious reason for skin-diving at night, but his frankness was convincing. He himself apparently found a unity with nature in these driftings far below the swimming of the salmon. That in itself was a pleasure not far from spiritual, so in his own eyes he was justified in presenting it as an aspect of religion, perhaps linked in some way to the more dubious alchemy.

I said that I didn’t see how I was to prevent the commune knowing that I had left with him for the river.

‘Oh, that’s easy! Leave in the afternoon to continue your walk as you intended. At ten be on the Box Rock. You can reach it from the road to Awre. We will change there, and it is only a few yards to the ledge above my favourite deep where we will dive.’

‘Where can I warm up and stay the night if I don’t come back to Broom Lodge?’

‘Leave it to me, Piers! I’ll find accommodation for you at one or other of the nearby inns and tell them to expect you late.’

I felt it was absurd not to discuss his invitation with Elsa, and it is likely that I would have done so if ever we had been together long enough for a private conversation. Neither she nor I could risk venturing down the passages and through the main building when a party of the faithful might be meditating with open eyes, others getting up before dawn and saying good-night or good-morning to a prayer-meeting in the hall, or the major working out Arthur’s past or future tactics on the lawn. Bedroom-creeping, however cautious, was out; the movements within Broom Lodge were incalculable.

So Elsa and I were limited to quick kisses in corridors, with no chance to talk seriously about the future. She may have feared it and wished to avoid it. When I left in the afternoon I promised to return as soon as I decently could and meanwhile to send a letter or two to remind her of what I thought of her. She wanted to know where I would stay the night and I told her that I was going to Lydney to look at the Temple of Nodens and did not know where I should fetch up afterwards – both of which were true. She insisted that I should take cider and sandwiches with me so that I could have a meal, without thinking of time and communications, wherever I found something worth detailed investigation.

I set off about four o’clock after telling them all how grateful I was and how interested I had been, and walked through the green forest paths to the remains of the Temple set on its headland, which once must have projected into the Severn. Evidently Nodens had been one of the friendly little gods of the Celts. Marrin’s suggestion that in life he had been a hero from across the seas, bringing agriculture or the working of metals, was a reasonable guess.

Then I took a bus up the river and walked down to the sea wall where the great horseshoe bend begins and the tide, compressed by the narrowing river, explodes into the bore. I reckoned that the wave should be at its best if there was light enough to see it, for it was the night after new moon.

I did not want to call at a pub and start eating and drinking before a dive. Marrin’s deep was unlikely to be more than twenty or thirty feet at low tide, but it was bound to be tricky. However, the hours of waiting did not drag. I sat on the low red cliff above the mud, watching the fearsome ebb racing down to the sea, not even sticking to the main channels of its bed but dancing in whirlpools, dashing up unseen backwaters against the flow and forming dark drifts of silt which compelled me to look up at the sky and see whether they were not the shadows of clouds overhead. But there were no clouds except over the distant Cotswold hills when the red sun went down behind the pinnacles of the Forest, leaving a warm night behind, perfect for diving.

I started to move towards the rendezvous while the long twilight could show me the way. The Box Rock ran out at a right angle to the shore, and part of it was now showing above the streaming ebb. If there was a clean and sheltered drop on the downstream side it was easy to understand why Marrin had called it his favourite deep.

The first I saw of him was the pool of light from his torch wavering over the meadow and the offshore mud. He had his suit on under a duffle coat and carried the aqualungs and the spare suit and life jacket for me. He helped me to dress fussily, exactly and with the utmost friendliness, meanwhile telling me of the likely conditions under water, that I should follow him closely and that my two cylinders would allow me some eighty minutes. We should come out, however, in less than half an hour, well before the turn of the tide.

At about ten-thirty we were on the rock and ready. He walked downstream until the water was nearly up to his knees and stopped.

‘We’ll jump from here,’ he told me, ‘into the Box Hole. Another step and I should be over the edge of the cliff.’

The dark surface of the water was disturbed for no apparent reason; I could see no other sign of a sudden increase in depth. When I jumped I fully expected to land on my bottom, but found myself easily descending along the face of rock. The tide was hardly perceptible and the water less opaque than I expected, so that the colours of Severn rock could be distinguished. Marrin kept close to me and a little ahead, his lamp showing me what to look for. Once a conger trailed out of a fissure in the cliff and passed upstream ahead of us so that one could watch the long, silver undulations, half fish and half snake. There was no weed except for occasional clumps.

When I looked for Marrin he had gone – in pursuit of the conger, as I thought, or perhaps out into the channel beyond the rock. Finding that I was negatively buoyant I started to walk along the bottom of the Box Hole and didn’t much like it. The bottom was quicksand or some yielding emulsion of mud and sand into which the fin on my right leg sank. The effort of pulling it out broke the strap and of course drove down the left leg. Cursing Marrin for not seeing that the strap was in good condition, I recovered the fin, but it would not stay on and was useless. I pulled out the left leg with some difficulty and decided that I had had enough. The silt stirred up by my efforts blinded me, and I no longer knew where the rock was. I was experienced enough not to panic, for I had only to release the weight belt round my waist and come up. I didn’t give a damn if his weight belt was lost for ever in the sand, as it certainly would be.

I felt for the release catch but it wouldn’t release; it had jammed. But it couldn’t jam! Then I did panic – it had not jammed. It had been jammed – and cunningly, for I couldn’t see or feel how. Meanwhile, the weight of the cylinders was pushing me little by little down into the quicksand. My right leg was kicking to no purpose. My frantic efforts to clear my left leg broke the strap on that fin also.

I began to discard the lead weights from the belt, all the time sinking lower. By the time they had gone I was swallowed up to the waist. I tried to lean forward and swim like a flat fish on top of the stuff. No good. I returned or was returned to an upright position and seemed to stay there. I was not sinking any more, so long as I kept still, but I could never get out. I had checked the cylinders before the start and reckoned that I had about an hour more of life before the inevitable end. It made no difference whether I chose to die by drowning or by gradual disappearance into the sand.

I might last until the arrival of the bore. That must surely finish me since the sudden increase in depth would reduce my buoyancy still further. Mental arithmetic underwater had the most curious effect of increasing rather than reducing panic until I managed to get control of myself and was only madly impatient because I kept getting my simple sums wrong. Bottom of the ebb at the Guscar Rocks yesterday morning was 8.30, and today 10.10. This evening 11.00. But the bottom of the ebb here should be earlier than slack water down there. Hold on! That doesn’t matter to the bore. What matters is the Bristol Channel tide not the Severn, which, as I had seen, can ebb backwards if it likes. Bore passed the Guscar Rocks at 11.00. I had heard that its speed up-river was that of a galloping horse. Twelve miles it had to go. Say, fifty minutes. Bore due at 11.50. I should still have a little air left unless I had used up too much struggling with the fins. On the other hand, by standing still with sand up to my chest I was using a minimum. Not that it mattered. At 11.50, give or take ten minutes, I should be dead.

I think I could never have composed my thoughts if there had been a chance of life. I was as still as a post driven into the bed of the river. The water was comfortable, its temperature cold but not too cold, possibly due to fresh water coming down from sunlit meadows. So far as movement went I was already dead, or rather in the calm of dying with the familiar objects of vision all faded away. As best I could, being an agnostic, a hopeful agnostic, I tried to concentrate on the sort of ‘I’ which would be worthy to live without a body. The intellect, perhaps. The power to love, perhaps.

All colours darkened. The pressure on my ears was fierce and sudden. I cleared them, and then it seemed as if land and sea had dissolved into a chaos through which I was tossed and cartwheeled with no sense of position or up or down. I was conscious of speed and dreamed – so far as my brain worked at all – that it must be some limbo through which one passed at death. I never realised that the bore had passed over and taken me with it until I slammed hard into the entrance to a pill, the soft mud rising in a fountain of gobs as I hit it. The great wave, having sucked up the quicksand or forced its mass of water down into it, had carried me off along with the other debris in its path. Why I escaped I do not know. I should have gone roaring up-river, surfing on the crest like a log or a drowned cow, or been smashed to a sodden lump on the bottom. It may be that the weight and turbulence of water necessary to release me only operated a second or two after the crest had passed, or that my near-empty cylinders were heavy enough to hold me back.

Clawing like a cat in a flower bed, I reached a low branch of hawthorn and firm ground. Upstream the young moon seemed to show plumes of spray but that may have been due to mud on my mask or grass waving in the slipstream of air. The surface of the Severn was now quite even, with the tide running up behind the bore. I could imagine the silt settling, ready for the ebb to sweep it down again to the bottom of that still and deadly hole.

I did not know where I was, close to the Box Rock or a quarter of a mile up-river. The firm ground above the sharp mud valley of the pill turned out to be a little copse. I took off my harness and pushed through it, arriving at the riverside meadow where I had left my clothes. The bore had been merciful, lifting me and sweeping me round the rock.

At some time Marrin himself, while observing salmon or his soul, must have been nearly trapped in that deep chosen for my death. I don’t think that he had any such intention at the Guscar Rocks, though his readiness to take me along suggests that he needed to know how experienced I was and how I would react underwater in case later he should decide that I was a menace to – to what? I am still unsure. In every one of my theories there is a flaw.

My clothes were not where I had changed – he helping me, God damn him! I first assumed that Marrin had taken them back with him so as to leave no evidence. It then occurred to me that he might well require some false evidence and that he would have left my clothes on the bank in a likely place a good distance away. It would not be upstream because he would never have plunged across the pill. So it must be downstream and not far from some track, sure to be utterly deserted at night, where he had left his van. Would my clothes be in the open? Well, no. He wouldn’t want them to be easily discovered by the first passer-by next morning, but he wouldn’t mind if they were found accidentally or by a deliberate search later on, thus muddling the date when I actually disappeared. A fairly firm beach, where I might have been tempted to have an evening swim, would be a good place. It would then be assumed that I had been caught by some whirling backwash of the ebb and drowned.

My torch was still attached to me. I set off to walk along the bank, flashing it at intervals to see what was below: nothing at all but the swiftly rising Severn gliding past the mud. I came to the beginning of a sea-wall. A little way out was the top of a sandbank, which looked hard and was now separated from the land by a narrow channel and would have tempted any foolhardy innocent to go for a swim when the tide was low. It was easy to reach from a little beach of shale and mud immediately under the high bank, and not far away was a rutted farm track leading inland. I was sure this would have been his choice, but it took me the hell of a time to find the clothes in the dark. They were spread out above high-tide mark and hidden from the sea wall itself by waving long grass.

Clearly Marrin intended that my clothes and pack should eventually be found. It would not be known to whom they belonged, since nobody would report me as missing till I failed to come home from, supposedly, Spain. It was a hundred to one against the body ever turning up. If it did, caught in a salmon weir or bumping against a Gloucester lock, and was identified, the evidence of Broom Lodge would be straightforward. I had left in the afternoon. It was known that I was interested in tracing Roman ports. Yes, Marrin had lent me his diving kit. Yes, he had taken me out to the Guscar Rocks to be quite sure that I knew how to use it. The only snag was that I had not carried it when I left Broom Lodge.

BOOK: Summon the Bright Water
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