Cigarettes and chocolate milk

It had been over a week since I’d seen E. Various Covid-scares and laziness had kept us apart for longer than usual, so I was immediately in agreement when she suggested a late-night walk.

‘We’ll just wander along the river,’ I said, ‘It will be relaxing.’

Thirty minutes later, we sat down in front of a boathouse to chat, lazy as ever. My fat-hippo-bloated stomach was straining against the waistband of my jeans and I remember reaching to undo my top button when we both stopped our conversation dead in its tracks.


It was the sound that caused me to turn around. It sounded heavy. I caught sight of a tall, white splash on the opposite side of the river, but nothing else. As I told the emergency workers countless times afterwards, it couldn’t have been a rock falling in the water, or a salmon jumping. It was something heavy enough to make that sound, like crate of bricks. Or a person.

It is a strange contradiction, that ridiculousness you feel in an emergency situation. You think ‘I’ve seen too many crime dramas’ or ‘did I just imagine that?’

E was quicker than me in her assessment of the situation. Maybe it was that she’d been facing the splash so she’d seen something falling, or maybe it was my procrastinatory instinct – a true ride or die – but she took less than half a minute to call 999.

As we waited for them to come in what seemed like slow motion, we called out again and again; ‘Hello? Hello? Can we help you?’.

But, as a bizarrely attractive fireman told us afterwards, the riverbank opposite is a steep 20 feet high and has no path. What would we have done if someone had replied?

Now, replaying the incident in my head like a Rihanna music video before I knew I was bisexual – ‘I just like the dance, mum’ – I can’t help but draw a parallel between these futile shouts and the other struggles in my life.

Recently, trying to help those that can’t (or won’t) be helped has felt like some kind of overused literary device in the coming-of-age novel that is my life.

I’ve watched friends dragged down by their problems, trapped in their own or other people’s heads. I’ve left behind a “difficult” (a word that masks all manner of sins) home life for another few months, knowing that there is only a minute chance that it will ever change. I’ve also watched what was supposed to be an entertaining column become unbearably earnest, but we’ll blame it on the shock.

The falling feeling of the paralysed spectator cannot be underestimated as one of the most painful of them all. It is not the nightmare of dying in some horrible train accident, but rather the dream in which you watch the train crash in slow, slow motion, unable to move or alert anyone.

I’ve always been someone who ‘feels everything’ (in the words of a more logically minded friend), but what else would you expect from a left-wing English student with more empathy than sense. However, I’m certain that everyone’s been there at least once; giving a friend advice and watching them ignore it is always painful, whether it’s their toxic ex who is more persistent and recurring than black mould in a student house, or their bumblebee-striped contour reappearing after you’ve begged them to blend, please, blend.  It’s always painful to see someone you love struggling and refusing your life-raft (should you actually offer it, I’m looking at you, Rose).

I counted over twenty emergency workers by the time we left the river that night. There were policemen and women, fire-fighters, ambulances, a boat and a cool guy with a drone. And yet, the last sounds we’d heard of movement in the water had been and gone for at least ten minutes by the time the first police turned up. I don’t yet know what they found, we got sent away before they were finished, but in this case no news seems to be good news. By the time of writing, I’ve spent longer than I care to admit reading about bodies, and how long they take to float, and more energy than is probably healthy, wondering if there was anything else I could have done. But as with trapped friends, unhappy family members, and bad dreams, all you can do is wait, and listen, and, eventually, carry on.

Image: David Merrett on Flickr

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