Not Waving but Drowning

I would like to thank Jaypot, for suggesting that I explore my childhood for inspiration. Here is the first result of that exploration.

Stevie Smith wrote this famous poem, in 1957. If you have never heard of it, here is a link; http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/not-waving-but-drowning/
I did not become aware of this poem until the 1970’s, and considered it to be a fine piece of work. More than that, it had a connection for me, that even now, is painful to recall. I must start by saying, by way of a disclaimer, that many of the events recounted in this post were told to me later, by my parents. (Though despite my youth at the time, I do actually remember the main occurrence, as if it happened yesterday). This also applies to the exact geography of the location, a place I have never visited since, and which may well have changed, over time.

In the year that this poem was published, I was five years old. Though hard to imagine now, I had a mop of blonde curly hair, and an angelic face, set off by blue-green eyes. Looks-wise, I was at my peak; this is the best it was ever going to get. We were living in South London, within sight of the local docks, and as a family, we were happy. At least I thought so, but I was only five. My Dad worked as a carpenter then, making tea-chests and packing cases, in a workshop in nearby Deptford. Mum worked in the biscuit factory a few doors from our house, as a book-keeper in the office. I had not yet started school, and was due to go to the local primary, after their summer break was over. We lived in the upper rooms of a terraced house, and our landlady, a kindly widow, occupied the ground floor. It could be very hot in Central London, during the summer, and it was nice that my Mum and Dad often thought of places to go, to escape that heat.

As well as family holidays in Jaywick, a chalet town on the Essex coast, we also had a regular holiday to Cornwall, staying with a bachelor uncle in Penryn. He had been in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, and had some fascinating stories to tell. He wasn’t really an uncle, more like a second cousin, on my Dad’s side, but I really liked him. However, those longer holidays were expensive, and involved tedious, frustrating drives, as there were no motorways until 1963; and not for many years after that, to the South-West. To escape the humidity of the city for the day, usually on a Sunday, we would drive out to somewhere nearer London, like Box Hill, in Surrey, Epping Forest, in Essex, or Yalding, in Kent. These were more manageable as day trips, although traffic jams were as common then, and just as bad, as they are now. My Dad had a car, something of a rarity in our area in those days. It was a 1938 Wolseley, which had once been a Police car. Despite its age, the car was kept running by almost daily maintenance, and lots of love and devotion. It had back doors that opened the ‘wrong’ way, so an awning could be erected across the gap, which we could sit under. Inside, it had an internal string roof lining, which was used to store items to keep to hand, for the journey.

I was a bad traveller then, and could easily be car sick after less than twenty minutes driving. However, that didn’t put me off, and I always looked forward to our excursions. One hot day, Mum told me that we were going to go to Yalding, where we could relax by the river, and have a picnic on the grass. We always took a picnic, as there were few cafes around, and they were a little too expensive for us to use anyway. As well as food, we also had a paraffin stove and small kettle, for tea making, and milk would be taken in a thermos flask, to keep it cool. On arrival, we parked alongside many other cars, on the grassy area, right next to the river. (By coincidence, this area has featured heavily on the news since Christmas, as it has been badly flooded). Next to the parking area, the river was shallow, and led up to a weir. After the weir, the water is much deeper, and there is a waterfall effect, caused by the water rushing over the obstruction.

I had been allowed to take my toy boat. This was a wooden boat, made by my Dad, and it had a fairly large sail. This boat floated well, and I had previously sailed it on the pond, in the local park. After a family paddle, Mum prepared the picnic, and we all sat and ate. It was getting hotter, probably almost thirty degrees, and my parents were relaxing on the grass, tired after a long week at work. I was too young to sit still for too long, and returned to play with my boat, in the shallow water. Mum told me to stay where she could see me, and lay back on her blanket. I was enjoying the cold water on my bare legs, and the progress of my sailing boat, in the fast-flowing river. I started to follow it, as it built up speed, until I had walked a considerable distance from where I had started, near the family car. The exact period of elapsed time I am unsure of, but it was long enough for my Mum to have looked up, and to realise that I was not there.

She woke my dad, and told him that I was nowhere to be seen. They began to run around the area, which was filled with day-trippers, enjoying the sunshine. They asked everyone if they had seen a small boy, with a distinctive mop of almost white curls. Panic began to set in, when nobody could recall seeing me, or anyone like me. They went somewhere where announcements could be made, over a loud speaker system; possibly a First-Aid tent, or a Police point, I have no way of knowing now. Meanwhile, I was following my boat. I was too young to understand what a weir was, or to even notice the warning signs. I just wanted to catch my sailing boat, before it got too far from my reach, and became lost. I increased my speed in the water, and reached forward, in an attempt to grab it.

Although I was only five, I have two distinct memories of that year. One was starting school that September, being left by my Mum, and not wanting to go off with the teacher. This is the other one, and I can see it in flashback anytime, at will. My legs went from under me, and I had the sensation of sliding. Not falling, but sliding, just like on a slide at the local park. I went straight down into the deeper water, and it covered me immediately. There was no time to be alarmed, to panic, or to cry out. I was looking up, the sun bright but hazy through the water above me. There was no spluttering, no fighting for breath. I was swallowing though, as water seemed to be filling my mouth and stomach, I just kept swallowing. Every time I did, there was more water, and so it continued, for what seemed an eternity. Then there was a feeling of great peace. At that moment, I wasn’t scared, and could see clearly around me. The surface seemed to be a long way off, and there was total silence. Then it went dark. If that was death, it wasn’t as scary as you might imagine.

My next memory was of being on my back, coughing. Someone was covering me in something that felt rough and scratchy, and it was suddenly very noisy again. A man stood nearby, shivering, and soaking wet all over. Men were asking me questions, constantly repeating things that I couldn’t understand. I was lifted onto a stretcher, and my Mum appeared, wild-eyed and mad looking, most unlike her usual self. Some time passed, before I was aware of anything else. I was in a bed, but it wasn’t my bed. I was covered with scratchy covers again, and couldn’t move, they were so tight. Everything else was a blur, and I was told it all later, when I was able to understand. I remembered being under the water though, and I never found my boat.

I had wandered some way off from my starting point. It had been a while before my Mum noticed that I had gone, and the frantic searching had taken some time. On the bridge, or possibly beside it, a man had been fishing. As was the style of the day, he was fully dressed, in jacket, tie, and trousers. He had suddenly noticed a little boy, because of the white curly hair. The boy seemed to be running onto the top of the weir, and then disappeared under the water. This selfless man discarded his rod and line, and without thinking, jumped straight in, to rescue me. Helped by others on the bank, he got me out onto the side. Like most men at that time, he had seen some service in the war, and immediately knew that I was dead. I had drowned, and I didn’t even know. I had no heartbeat, and I wasn’t breathing. My lips were blue, and my body was floppy and lifeless. With the help of a first-aid trained person, the angler attempted to bring me back from the abyss. The resuscitation protocols during the 1950’s were very different from those practiced today. The generally accepted technique was to move the arms back and forth above the head, in a rowing action. This stimulated the ribs to move, assisting breathing, and also helped the lungs and stomach to expel any water. (Many years later, when training in the Ambulance Service, I was still taught these techniques. They were known by the inventors’ names, Silvester-Brosch, and Holger Neilsen.)

When this failed to revive me, they simply turned me over, and moved my ribs manually, which eventually resulted in most of the water coming out, and I started to breathe soon after. The period must have been mercifully short, as there was no long-lasting damage. By now, my parents were still no closer to finding me. They had gone the opposite way, and had no idea that I was so close to the weir. A police car toured the picnic grounds, asking if anyone had lost a child, and we were eventually reunited. My Dad told me, a long time later, that the soaking wet fisherman had retrieved a sodden packet of cigarettes from his jacket, and attempted to light one. Flushed with gratitude, my dad gave him his own cigarettes, almost a full packet. He never got the life-saver’s name, something both my parents always regretted.

I was taken to hospital in Maidstone, the county town about five miles from where I had drowned. I was kept under observation there, but I don’t know for how long, as I am sure that I was home later that night, in the dark. Perhaps not, memory plays tricks sometimes. I made the local London newspaper, the Evening Star. A small corner, telling how a London boy drowned on a day trip to Kent, and was saved by an angler. When my Mum died, I found this cutting in her possessions, saved lovingly, for fifty-five years. I was never once told off about this incident. Never scolded, or warned not to wander off. I believe that my parents always felt that they were to blame, and their guilt stopped them from admonishing me.

I never really felt comfortable in deep water after that day. And I have never learned how to swim.

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14 thoughts on “Not Waving but Drowning

  1. Pete, thanking you kindly for the link to this post of yours…You’ve survived the beyond and returned to tell the story. What a blessing that is and a teaching tool for all parents, to be ever watchful around the water.

    I am shocked how many children drown in their own backyards in pools each year. Everyone should be taught how to swim, just like we’ve taught potty training and eating with a fork and spoon.

    You survived my friend and that is joyous, indeed. Perhaps, there’s a lesson in this story for you to ponder.

    What if someone’s child was in the same peril as you in the future, if you could swim you can do the same as the fisherman did for you that dreadful day, and save a life before, it’s too late.

    Just a thought to ponder… but I do truly understand your feelings on the subject, but never allow fear to win the day in your life…

    I was brought back after a car accident ~ by the grace of God, after they covered me with a sheet and pronounced death.. 15 minutes later, I sat up….

    Take care my friend across the pond and I’m truly thankful to that fisherman, so many years ago. He allowed us to become friends ~Decades later…

    Laura ~

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    1. Thanks for your kind words Laura. There have been occasions when I have seen a person in difficulty in the water, but fortunately there was someone else around who could swim.
      But you are right, there might be a time when I am the only witness.
      We are both survivors it seems. perhaps that has drawn us to each other across this wide world of blogging, who knows?
      Very best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Pete, stranger things have happened I’m sure. But, life has a way of teaching us, if we only listen… Survivors Unite, my friend….

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  2. What an intense story Pete! Did the experience make you afraid of the water?

    When I was about the same age, my mum, my brother and my cousin went to the beach. My mum told us that if the water touched our bellybuttons, we would have to turn back and return to more shallow water. My brother and I were always “good kids” and listened carefully to what my mum said and turned back as soon as the water got too deep. My cousin however, had the exact opposite reaction: When the water got deeper, my cousin knew she was doing something forbidden and started running even deeper into the lake, fell face down and disappeared under water. My mum ran to us from the shore and managed to locate her underwater, but the experience (though it lasted only a few seconds) taught to me that drowning looks exactly like you described, silent and almost slow-motion. My mum got her back up, she coughed all the water out almost immediately, and it was nothing as serious as your experience, but I remember how quiet it was. It was as though she was just peacefully swallowed by the water.

    Not exactly like in Baywatch!

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    1. Not at all like Baywatch Mari, you are right there.
      It did make me afraid of being in the water, but not of being close to it, or of going on boats. Seasickness is more likely to stop me wanting to go to sea though. Glad you liked my story.
      Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

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  3. Wow that was intense. Such a shame you don’t know your rescuers name – I wonder what he would think of that little curly haired boy these days 😉 Maybe that’s what started your internal mission to save people Pete xx

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    1. I expect he would be about 100 years old by now Sophie. I think my Dad did try to get a name through the Police, but nobody had bothered to ask him, and he had just gone home, soaking wet.
      Perhaps it did inspire me in the LAS, I certainly did a couple of drownings during my service, and they have a good result in resuscitation. (mostly).
      As ever, Pete. XX

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  4. A powerfully moving story and so well-told. I can well-imagine the fear and panic your parents were going through.

    I experienced a near drowning when I was caught in a rip-tide at Jones Beach on Long Island NY. In the space of approx 30 seconds I was wading in water up to my ankles, then suddenly swept 20 ft from shore by a fast moving tide. I was overwhelmed by water and went down for the 3rd time.

    It’s as if I have a photograph engraved into my mind of friends and family on the shore, all distraught & two friends desperately summoning a life guard. When I went down for the 3rd time I remember the sense of deep peace and the vision of sky and water. Next thing, I was literally ripped from the water by a lifeguard on a surf board. I felt as if I was torn from the depths which made my bathing suit come mostly off so a second of two after I was ready to die from drowning, I was ready to die of mortification from having my bathing suit half pulled off and all those people watching from shore.

    A good read. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks Gretchen, unusual to find such an experience shared with a fellow blogger. I can well see why you were more concerned about your bathing suit, than the fact that you almost drowned!
      I hope that weather is kinder for you. Best wishes from England, Pete.

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    1. Yes I was, though the fear of water has somewhat blighted my life since. No snorkelling, no relaxing in pools, you know the sort of thing. It leaves you outside the fun sometimes.
      Regards as always, Pete. x

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      1. Well I can’t claim to drowning for my fear of water – though I can swim – but not well because I hate having my head under water. So I don’t snorkel either, which is a shame.

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