Yes, I remember that summer of 76. That long heatwave of sleepless nights and high tempers. There was other cause for tension among the adults. A river hooked around our town and in its deep green depths my neighbour drowned. He was 17. They found his shoes, a pile of coins and a watch tucked inside, at the end of the wooden jetty where the teenagers swam. Some say he swam alone and got caught in the bur-reeds and dragged where deep fish glide between the ribbons of rush. I couldn’t understand how plants could drag an adult down. Others say he filled his pockets with rocks and waded in, surrendering his life to fate.
At the age of ten I was indifferent to adult grief but it was to our benefit that we were shooed outside to amuse ourselves.
We were too young for the jetty gang. Our camp was out behind the old grain factory. There we discovered the washed up bleached body. The river coursed past the long, shuttered windows that in better times had funnelled their goods onto waiting barges. We spent our days at the water edge, a barely 3 foot strip of soggy soil, secluded from walkers and cyclists. We launched milk crate ships and hunted for frogs and newts among the river debris. We did not expect the river to hand us this bloated flotsam. One seamless hand was visible on the water line, the face submerged beneath streaming hair. The thick vegetation of the river bank had halted his journey, parking him in the reeds, within our reach. We stared at first, deep terror cutting strips in our stomachs. Then childish curiosity overrode shock and, in reverent silence, we poked at him with sticks, making him bob and sway. Charlie pushed with an old, splintered barge pole. The body dipped and with the sound of displaced water, the dead boy half turned to face us. His head side-on to his arm as if in mid sidestroke.
‘Blurp’, said Danny, copying the noise. He doubled over with hysterical laughter.
I remember I screamed. Not at the boy’s creamy, mask-like face but at the bloodless grin of his cut throat, gaping from ear to ear, as though amused by our shock.
‘Look at its eyes’, said Charlie in whispered awe. He leaned forward, knees bent for balance. The eyes, the juiciest part of his face, had been nibbled away by watery creatures leaving dark caverns.
‘Poke it again’, I said. Feeling we should do something.
Charlie pushed harder then we all pitched in. The body broke free and drifted on. We had our play space back.
The hot days beat on and the adults held a summer of mourning, lowering a corpse-less coffin. But our summer was invigorated by our river find. We nurtured the horror, revisiting it, building and shaping it like potter’s clay and keeping ourselves awake relishing the sweet shuddering tickle of fear.