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From the Lake to the Sea by Ian Forth

It is the summer of 1962; the Cuban Missile Crisis is yet to happen. I’m six years old, pale and thin. A French doctor had prescribed a daily sip of red wine. I didn’t like the taste, but the sleeve of the wine bottle was perfect for making breastplates and helmets to convert my toy soldiers into medieval knights.

At the time, we lived in a flat in an eighteenth-century building in Saint Germain-en-Laye. My pal, Maurice, galloped around the cobbled courtyard neighing like a horse and shouting “Ivanhoe”. I armed myself with wooden knives and short swords made from sticks and offcuts, tied together with string.

Caravans were also the craze in the early sixties, and that summer we went on an extended camping holiday around Europe. I built sand castles with topless women in St. Tropez, walked in Italian vineyards, my mother’s dachshund, Anna, panting in the heat, and daydreamed in the hilltop fortresses of Switzerland.

The car journeys were long and I retreated in the back seat with a book, my parents commenting on the scenery while puffing away on duty-free cigarettes.

‘Read the book later. Look at the mountains.’

I stared at the landscape, but it was difficult to see clearly through the fog of tobacco. My mother smoked Embassy because she collected the coupons but sometimes switched to Consulate Menthol when on a health drive.

My father said little. We’d spent scant time together until that holiday. It was awkward; I didn’t really know what to say to him, nor did he to me. While driving, he remained absorbed in thought. Sometimes, he’d pull over to the side of the road.

‘Just going to get some ‘shut-eye’ for a couple of minutes.’

He nodded off for what seemed like hours while my mother paced up and down the road smoking and blushing at the tooting of lorry drivers.

He took me on a hike up a trail around Mont Blanc, explaining how glaciers took hundreds of years to form and yet, despite appearances, are never still but constantly growing or receding like a living thing. We arrived at a ledge with a view of the valley below. I felt that weird sensation where the slightest movement might cause a leap into the abyss. I froze and started crying. On the way back, I traipsed behind my father in silence, my useless wooden weapons rattling.

In the Swiss towns, the shop windows were full of pocket knives of all sizes and designs. I craved to have a real knife with a wooden handle and a blade that locked into place so that it didn’t fold back and slice off your finger, an object with weight and substance. I knew I wouldn’t feel so weedy. Because we were on holiday, my father bought me a knife.

The next morning, we went fishing by the banks of Lake Geneva. I sat at the end of a jetty watching the sleek motorboats crisscross the lake. I prattled away, relaxed, opening and closing my pocketknife like a conjurer. I waited for my father to ask for help to cut the line or the bait, a grown-up task. Then, a moment of inattention and the knife slipped from my hand, plopped into the lake, and sank into the depths.

Without a word, my father took off his shirt and dived in. The water temperature was sixteen degrees. When his head bobbed up, I hoped his arm would rise holding my knife aloft, but instead he drew breath and plunged back into the water. If anyone could retrieve my pocket knife, it was my father. A storm was brewing, the sky was darkening, and the lake became choppy and agitated. After the third dive, there was no sign of him. He had been under for several minutes. I was sick with worry. How would I tell my mother that I was responsible? How would I protect her without my knife?

Almost half a century later, there is a heatwave across Europe. I’m no longer weedy, but a single father on a camping holiday in Portugal with two children. That morning, you could tell it was going to be a scorcher. One side of the small street of tourist shops leading down to the main beach in Praia de Luz was still in cool shade as the shopkeepers trundled out their merchandise onto the pavement. On the other side, cafes were serving “English Breakfasts” to pale-faced customers.

After a good night’s sleep, the sea was gleaming and sparkling, the sand still damp in places from the night dew. Several early sunbathers had established themselves on the beach, and two lifeguards in yellow tee shirts were chatting while putting up flags. There was a strong offshore wind and a smell of suntan lotion.

It was our first morning on the beach. We stopped at a shop to buy the younger one a football, bright blue and yellow with a new plasticky smell. The elder one was teenage-crabby; embarrassed about having to come to the beach with his father and younger brother. On the campsite, he had made friends with a group of boys who spent their time playing football in the midday heat or eyeing up girls by the swimming pool. He sensed he was going to be missing out on something. However, even he seemed to lighten up when he saw the sea.

‘Hey, give us your ball,’ he said.

The younger one is suspicious but calculates that his brother might soften and play with him for once. He hands over the ball. The elder one kicks it hard and high into the air. The ball soars and lands between three or four metres out to sea, where it bobs up and down before heading southwards. There is an ebbing tide and a strong current. The younger one remonstrates with his brother:

‘Why? Why did you do that?’

His brother looks awkward but doesn’t want to acknowledge he has done anything wrong.

‘Do what?’ he answers tetchily.

I run into the water. Unlike my father, I’m not a strong swimmer. I put too much effort into my arm movement, leaving my legs trailing behind uselessly, and my head stays above the surface. I get out of breath quickly.

The ball is happy as it sets off on its unanticipated adventure, maybe to arrive exhausted on the beach at Tangiers to shouts of joy from children, or maybe to join a swirling convergence of other plastic things far out in the ocean.

I can feel the eyes of both of my children watching from the beach. Looking over my shoulder, I can see the younger one standing still at the water’s edge, watching intently, his face worried, anxious. He really wants his brand-new ball back. I see his brother stabbing his foot into the sand just behind him. The lifeguards are watching too.

I have witnessed scenes of people being rescued by lifeguards. It usually involves a middle-aged man struggling out at sea. A crowd gathers. The lifeguard runs into the water. People on the beach put down books and phones, and stand up to stare. The crowd oohs and aahs as the swimmer’s head surfaces for a second and then vanishes. The lifeguard gets into his or her stride and battles against the waves. The beach goes quiet, everyone is absorbed, thinking the same thoughts.

If there is a happy ending, the swimmer is helped to stagger onto land, head down, a shy smile. The crowd applauds, a relieved wife and children in tears.

Chasing after the plastic ball, I wasn’t sure which was worse: the embarrassment of having to signal my distress if I got carried out by the current, or to give up the chase, return to the shore and face the younger one’s absolute disappointment, and the elder one’s contempt.
Author Ian Forth

Ian used to be an academic but now he writes. He has published a family memoire Water Under the Bridge: Recollections From an Only Life, a collection of stories for children ‘Shoelace Saves the Day & Other Stories and a self-illustrated book: Cycling in the Canal des Deux Mers. His short story ‘Leaf Relief’ was published as a podcast on Yorick Radio Productions/Scintillating Stories in June 2023. His short story ‘Squirrel’ is to be published in The Mocking Owl Roost later this year. Ian lives in France and Wales.


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