The row of trees in the distance at the edge of the park was hazy and seemed to tremble in the heat. There was no escape from the sun. The dying yellow grass under my trainers was a thin blanket on the baked earth beneath it.
“Why’d you drag me out here, Michael?” I muttered, kicking at a wilting dandelion.
My teen cousin shrugged, “Just wanted a drink, what’s up?”
“Did we have to walk right out in the open? We could’ve walked under the trees in the shade round the side in the cool, I’m burnin’ to death out here…” I may have been exaggerating just a bit, but the hot noon sun was beating down on my bare back and making my hair too hot to touch, giving me a headache. Michael chuckled a little but said nothing, carrying on across the park in long strides that I struggled to keep up with.
It was the summer of 2003, the hottest in Britain for centuries. I carried my limp, sweat soaked t-shirt in one hand, wearing nothing but royal blue football shorts and a pair of dusty black trainers. I’d left my hat at home on the sofa that morning and regretted it immensely. Michael, older than me by six years, was looking after me over the summer holidays while my parents worked. My mother was out long hours, working in the hospital in town, mostly caring for babies and the elderly who were suffering from heatstroke. Meanwhile, my father disappeared early in the morning on the packed London trains, and sometimes he didn’t come home until after I went to bed. I spent most of the days out wandering with Michael, sometimes playing football or getting the bus to town for McDonald’s, but today, the hottest it had been all week, we just drifted around the neighbourhood seeking shade.
At least I was sheltered from the sun in the supermarket. The white aisles stretched down the store, as hot flustered locals shoved shopping trolleys sluggishly up and down. I stood for a minute in the door way as the blast of air conditioning dried the sweat that ran in streams down my face and neck. Michael had carried on to the aisle where they kept the refrigerated drinks, and I hurried around the pink-cheeked shoppers to find him.
“Go on Tommy, pick one, whatever you like mate,” Michael smiled, as my eyes scanned over the coloured bottles. He gently shook a chocolate fudge flavoured milkshake. I stood on my tip-toes to grab a blue energy drink off the top shelf, grinning, as my parents wouldn’t normally let me have things like that.
As we stood in the queue at the checkout, I wished I had lingered longer at the drinks fridge where it was cool. Hot air leaked in from the constant flurry of people leaving the store through the automatic doors. Behind me, a dishevelled young mother slung groceries on to the checkout conveyor belt, while a toddler boy dressed only in a nappy sat in the front of the trolley red-faced and grizzling. An elderly man in a floppy sun hat fiddled with coins in a little leather purse for his milk and newspaper at the till in front of us. The droning echo of nameless background music playing through speakers across the store drowned out all the noise except for the random beeping from the checkouts.
Soon we were back outside in the heat. I pulled open the cap of my drink with my teeth and sat against the wall in the shade, by the car park. Michael nursed his milkshake, as I squeezed the cold fruity liquid into my mouth. The air was full of the sound of cars. Someone in a nearby garden was using a hedge-trimmer, the shrill buzz cutting through the rest of the noise. I kept my eyes shut for a while to block out the sun that glared off of windshields and wing-mirrors, sipping my drink. A siren screamed down the road, probably another old fellow who had keeled over after spending too long out in his allotment tending to his vegetables. My mum said she’d seen too many of them already this summer.
Before long, Michael said that the car fumes were bugging him, so soon we were back wandering the streets of our hometown. I tried to keep in the shade of the trees that hung over the paths. Michael didn’t seem to care about the heat. His floppy dark brown hair was soaking, and his normally pale freckled shoulders were lobster red. His rubber flip-flops clapped as he walked. I still struggled to keep up with him, as he sauntered along sipping the last of his milkshake. I’d finished off the last of my drink and now wished that I’d rationed it more carefully.
“Where are we even going?” I asked sulkily. The heat was beginning to make me irritable. “Can we go to the adventure playground?”
“Them metal slides would be like sitting on a boiling kettle, mate, rather you than me!” laughed Michael, still a stride ahead of me.
“But the swings might be alright, or that big wooden frame-"
“It’ll be crawling with kids ‘n’ all, you’d just get more hot running around anyway.” I knew he was right and I was too tired to argue, so I said nothing.
“We could go down to the canal, it should be cooler down there,” Michael suggested.
“Whatever, yeah,” I shrugged. I hoped he was right as we headed away from the houses and down towards the path that snaked away into the trees.
I didn’t care much for the canal. Sometimes I would ride my bike down the towpath with Michael or my dad. If we cycled far enough, we could get as far as the retail park on the outskirts of the town by the football stadium, to get a snack at the fried chicken shop. It was far too hot to go all that way today though. Michael and I chatted about whatever came to mind as we strolled on the pale dirt it with him later that evening. It wasn’t much cooler than it was back in the neighbourhood. A cool breeze occasionally came across over the water, but not as often I would’ve liked. The thick leafy trees were too far back, behind a barbed wire fence on the side of the towpath, to offer much shade. He had just got Burnout 2 for his GameCube, and I was trying to convince him to let me play it later that afternoon. Even Michael was beginning to struggle, patting at his sweaty face and neck with his dirty polo shirt. The air smelt of dry grass from the nearby fields, and birds chirped in the trees and bushes, scattering as we walked by.
We hadn’t walked far when the reeds and water plants became less thick on the bank. The brown water lapped at the mud gently. I stepped from the towpath and knelt down, splashing some of the cold water up on my arms. The water was slow and the shapes of rocks were clear even through the clouds of dirt I had just disturbed. “Can I go in the water?” I asked Michael, turning to look at where he hung back on the towpath. He scanned the water.
“Why not? I mean it’s not deep. Sure.”
I didn’t care about how dirty the water was, I just needed to be somewhere cold. Normally I wouldn’t even consider swimming in there, but I wasn’t allowed a paddling pool because of the hosepipe ban that was in effect because of the heatwave, and there were no leisure centres on the bus route. Michael joined me, kicking off his flip-flops as he stepped down into the canal. He walked along the bottom and stood with the water nearly up to his shoulders.
“It’s not bad actually, Tommy!” he called. The skin on my back stung to touch, I couldn’t wait to soothe it. In a couple of days it would be peeling off and I scowled a little at the thought of finding colourless scraps of skin in my bed like I did last summer. I pulled off my shoes and moist white ankle socks, throwing them aside. Michael splashed in the water, and doggy-paddled over to the far bank. I didn’t care about my shorts getting wet. I hadn’t been swimming since my school’s poor excuse for lessons in an outside pool that barely came up to my waist. The thing was always full of drowned insects, and even a squirrel on one occasion, that had climbed in under the pool cover and decayed as its corpse drifted about in there over the weekend. I usually skipped swimming class, though luckily I’d learnt to swim with my dad when I was younger. I slid myself into the chilly but refreshing water through the plants until my feet were on the slimy rocks below.
After a while, Michael jogged off back to his home to pick up some old rope from the garage to make a swing. He lived close to the where we had walked into the woods earlier that afternoon, so I knew he wouldn’t be long. I was bored of paddling, and lay floating on my back, daydreaming as I looked up at the few thin clouds that broke the blue spread of sky.
“That’s no place for a wee boy!” shouted a gruff voice. I shot back to a standing position with a splash and spun around. A white haired old man stood on the towpath scowling like a carp, hands on the hips of his cargo shorts. I stared at him for a second. “It’s not safe in there son, you’re not with an adult?”
“N-no, my cousin just went home to get something,” I hurried over the bank, hauling myself out, and sat brushing bits of plant from my legs.
The man looked me up and down. “There’s snakes in there,” he warned, “great big snakes that could swallow a little lad like you up whole!”
I patted my feet dry with my socks. We’d never learnt about snakes like that at school, only the little grass snakes and diamond-backed adders, but they didn’t live in water. “…Snakes?” I questioned.
“They’ll grab you by your ankles and pull you down,” he spoke like he was telling a story, gesturing wildly with his hands, “they’ll squeeze all the air out of you and make you their dinner.” His face was stern but there was a snigger in his voice. I wasn’t convinced. I was small for my age, maybe he thought I was young and naïve enough to believe his warning. I didn’t want any trouble though. I pulled my damp socks on and tugged my trainers onto my feet.
“I’ll keep out of the water, mister,” I said, trying not to make eye contact with him. My cheeks burned like they did whenever I was told off at school or by my parents.
“Good,” he said with a cold smile, and wandered away without another word. I watched as he turned a corner on the path behind the trees and disappeared from sight.
I heard Michael’s flip-flops clapping along before I saw him. A blue coil of rope hung from his shoulder. “What you doing sitting there like that? Tired?” he asked, looking down at me as I squatted on the bank, poking playfully at water-spider with a twig as it crawled around on the surface.
“An old man came and told me off for being in the canal,” I replied. A violet damselfly sat perched on a nearby reed that hung down and drooped into the water. Midges gathered in a thin cloud further out, in front of a line of trees that stretched out as far as I could see along the waterside in both directions. “He said the snakes would eat me,” I added.
“Snakes!?” Michael laughed, slinging the rope down on the grass, “There’s no snakes in there, where does this guy think we live, Australia?” He kicked off his dusty flip-flops once again and climbed past me into the water, making the spider shoot off under the bulrushes. He wandered to a spot adjacent to where a thick tree limb jutted out over the towpath. “You didn’t believe him, did you?” Michael called as he looked down into the water, probably checking there weren’t too many rocks.
“No, of course I didn’t! I’m not a baby!” I protested, although I still hadn’t got back in. I tossed the stick I was playing with into the canal and it drifted slowly down towards where Michael stood.
“Anyway, this looks like a decent enough place for that swing… that is if you’re not too scared of the snakes getting you,” he teased, splashing water up at me as he headed back towards the bank.
“No way!” I laughed back, pulling my shoes and socks off and chucking them aside.
The rope swing hung motionless from the thick branch, just before the water’s edge. A piece of broken wood made up the handle. “I better not jump off it,” said Michael, tugging on the rope, “the water’s not deep enough. You should be okay though, squirt,” he messed up my wet hair with a grubby hand. We played about for another twenty minutes or so. Michael drifted about idly, a mix of doggy paddle and breaststroke, before laying down on the bank with a can of Coke he’d brought back from his house. There was another one tucked in the reeds for me. No one disturbed us, not a single dog walker or cyclist. I fooled around on the rope swing, letting go as I flew over the middle of the canal and dropping down into the water with a plop like a big pebble. My feet usually hit the bottom, but as long as I kept my knees bent as I hit the water I was fine. The swing wasn’t high, in fact if I pointed my toes they would drag in the water by the bank as I swung out. It was great fun.
By 3pm, it was the hottest it had felt all day. My bare skin was burning even as I played in the canal, and my eyes stung from sweat and dirty water. The sun had shifted its position so much that the shade once offered on the towpath was now non-existent. I swung out again, and my sweaty hands slipped from smooth wood of the handle. I tumbled with a yelp into the water with a loud splash. I felt the hard points of rock dig into my ribs as my head cracked onto the floor of the canal. Pain shot from my wrist to my shoulder. The cold had knocked the breath from me and my mouth was full of foul tasting water. It filled my nose, like a thick sodden towel clamped over my face. Something slimy brushed against my leg. A strong hand grabbed onto my forearm and dragged me up. As soon as my face broke through the surface I took a sharp breath, flailing about and sending water in all directions, grabbing at my cousin who was trying to pull me away. He was still tall enough to stand, and hauled me over to the side where soon I got my breath back. “I jus’ slipped, my hands came off and I hit my head on the floor and-”
“Don’t worry, it’s okay, just an accident,” Michael smiled, looking up at me with his soft brown eyes. He dabbed a spot of blood from a graze above my eyebrow with a wet finger. I admired his calmness. He had three red scrapes on his cheek, where my panicked hands had caught him. “Just drink that can of Coke and lay down on the reeds.” I cracked open the drink as Michael slipped back into the water, drifting about and splashing his face and hair and he watched me. I nestled down with the sun-warmed can.
I’m not exactly sure what it was that woke me up. I’d fallen asleep with the Coke, and some it had dribbled out and formed a sticky patch down my hand. The rope swing swayed a little in the breeze. “Hey Michael, want to head back now?” I asked, sitting up drowsily. There was no reply, in fact, there was no noise at all. Maybe he was swimming under the water, I thought, anxiety beginning to creep over me. “Michael!?”
A bird of prey, a pointy tailed red kite, peeped as it soared in the blue expanse above. “Michael, where are you?” I called, a tremor in my voice.
I went right up to the water’s edge. Nothing moved bar the softly nodding reeds. “Michael!” I shouted again, desperately. I couldn’t see him anywhere. His flip-flops were discarded on the side where he’d left them. Tears welled in my eyes as my throat closed up in fear. The snakes that old man told me about… No, Michael was right, that was stupid, there were no great big snakes like that in England. I looked up and down the stretch of the canal, and as I leaned out too far, I tumbled into the water as my foot slipped on wet vegetation. I squeaked out in shock, splashing in the murky water and scrabbling at the bank, shouting my cousin’s name as I tried hauling myself out. Slimy tendrils wrapped themselves around my legs. I managed to get my knee up on the side and rolled out onto the bank. I lay there exhausted and crying in a wet muddy ball among the broken water plants.
A young couple out on afternoon walk found me sobbing on the bank, my abandoned Coke leaking into the ground beside me. I told them about Michael, a muddled story of how he disappeared. They exchanged worried glances and the girl took me aside and helped me put my t-shirt and shoes, sitting me down in the shade. The young man called the emergency services. I watched him through tear-blurred vision as he wandered up and down a few metres of the canal side, peering into the water and frowning. He stayed there on the phone, whilst the woman took me on a silent walk back to my aunt’s house, where I was ushered upstairs. I curled up on the folding camp-bed that I slept on when I stayed over, pulling my blanket over me despite the heat. I shoved my fingers in my ears as my aunt began to wail below. Screwing my eyes up tight, I tried hopelessly to convince myself that everything was fine, although I knew nothing would be the same again.
They found Michael later that evening. I heard the footsteps of the police officers thudding up and down the hall’s wooden floor, along with the sound of quiet muffled conversation mixed with my aunt’s heart-breaking cries. Wrapped in my blanket, I sat huddled at the top of the stairs listening to snippets of the conversation, out of sight of anyone in the hall. Michael’s body was found floating among the plants a little further downstream, snagged on a fallen tree limb. Something about cold water shock, hypothermia, slippery rocks, the weeds underwater. One of the policemen said he would go upstairs to speak to the younger cousin about what had happened. I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I slunk quickly back to the bedroom, discarding the blanket on the carpet.
Michael’s bed was unmade from the morning, a couple of his t-shirts and socks lay scattered across the floor. Grubby water guns and a bag of unused water balloons sat in the corner of the room alongside a stack of beaten up board game boxes and comics. A pair of GameCube controllers lay in the middle of the room by two beanbag chairs, the copy of Burnout 2 propped up against the purple console. I collapsed back down on my bed, the stuffy upstairs air making me sick and dizzy. The sun streamed onto me through the half open window, where a fat bluebottle fly buzzed angrily, throwing itself against the glass, unable to find a way out. The sound of slow, creaking footsteps became ever louder as someone headed up the stairs and across the landing towards the bedroom where Michael and I slept. I turned over to face the wall and began to cry
Written by Jet.98