I stared at the canal. An empty, barren expanse of bank lay opposite; an oily film interrupted by the movement of a duck sat like a stained bedspread on the water. All was calm now, the only sound being the gentle lap of the water on the bank below my feet.
In front of me though was the barge. The ‘Sally-Anne’ was like a floating dustcart. The hatch on deck was an old stacking palette, the portholes covered either in scrap plywood or old refuse bags. Green paint, faded, peeled and flaked, coated the lower part of the hull. Bright red paint supposedly lay below the waterline, but the colour of the water left this as anyone’s guess now.
As I walked away, I ignored the splash of a fish. Without warning I was grabbed by the ankle. I tried to jump forward but succeeded only in falling face first into the muddy grass. I struggled to stand, but whatever had grabbed me continued to pull. I snatched desperately at a tussock of grass, but I could not hold on. I dug my free foot into the ground, but ended up only spinning to the left. With an almighty heave I pushed my weight forward, just as a greater force pulled back and I crashed like a thrashing trout into the murky depths.
Gasping for breath as I briefly surfaced, I thought I saw a face staring from the porthole at the bow of the ‘Sally-Anne’. Where had I seen this before? No chance to answer as I was dragged below once more, something gripping both ankles now and the last breath escaping from my tortured body. Next, as I thought my time was up, I saw the same face in the water beside me. The old man, shouting for help beneath the murk.
I woke in a cold sweat.
The seventeenth time I had had the same nightmare.
“Tyler…,” I said to myself, “this is all your doing.”
Six days before, on the way home from school, Tyler and I had stopped by the shops. “If you are as hard as you say you are, you will come with me to the canal,” he announced. Tyler was not the sort of boy you ever refused an invitation from. He was the first boy at school with an earring, first with a tattoo, first to shoplift, or so he said.
At the canal, there was a pile of gravel from the building site. I absentmindedly picked up a handful and flung it into the water, splashing like a flock of sparrows taking off. “Not like that soft lad!” Tyler shouted, “This is how we treat the nutter!”
He scooped the gravel into two handfuls, hurled it into the air, and it crashed down onto the deck of the ‘Sally-Anne’. “Loony! Nutter! Mental-case! Come out and do that dance for us!”
A shuffle and a grumble emerged from below the deck. I had never even thought that someone could be there, even Stig of the Dump! Slowly a face emerged from the palette hatch. It was like an old walnut, topped by wisps of white hair.
“Gerrouawit! Gerrouawit!” squealed the walnut.
“Loony! Nutter! Do your dance! Do your samba!” Tyler yelled, whilst laughing like a hyena on laughing gas. The old man emerged onto the deck, as Tyler threw more gravel. The old man span around yelling “Gerrouawit! Yarrooligans!” at the sky as much as at us.
Tyler hurled more gravel, and I did the same, until it happened. As he was spinning, the old man stepped on some gravel. Time slowed as he twisted in the air, like a geriatric ballerina. He shouted something incoherent as he sailed over the deck, before splashing with a colossal belly flop into the canal.
“Tyler! Leggit!” I shouted as I turned and ran for home quicker than I had ever moved before. I burst through my bedroom door, collapsed on the bed and sobbed for an hour or more, my heart thumping like a pneumatic hammer.
Two days later, the local free paper dropped through the letterbox.
The headline read, “WORLD WAR II VETERAN FOUND DROWNED IN CANAL”
I read on. “Police identified the body of George Clegg, aged 93, who fought in Italy in the closing stages of the war, after it was found in the canal near his narrow boat home. They say there are no suspicious circumstances, and no-one is being sought in connection with his death. It is believed that he slipped on gravel in the deck of his boat, as he was a well known hoarder of a range of materials.”
I had got away with it. Or had I?