Michael Gouda

It was only when I rescued Toby from drowning that I really realised the full meaning of obligation. It was, I guess, partly his own fault. As I found out later he wasn't a strong swimmer and he actually admitted he was frightened of water. But he was young, it was summer and all our mates decided that swimming was the only thing possible on that hot summer day.

It was one of those summers that we all remember, when the sun shone all day for weeks on end, when the grass turned yellow and dried up, when the air itself was almost thick with heat, when butterflies hovered around those flowers that love the heat, cosmos, verbena, begonias and sucked the oils out of herbs like lavender and thyme. It was only in the evenings when the sun turned deep orange and hid itself behind banks of clouds that it was possible to enjoy any activity beyond gentle walks.

Yet we kids, backs bronzed and long past the angry red of sunburn and with no thoughts of what the sun was doing to our skins, lolled in the shade or visited the reservoir which swans and wind surfers had appropriated for their own use. It wasn't supposed to be used for swimming. In fact there were notices that stated in big red letters that swimming was prohibited, that the water was deep and dangerous, that reeds could catch and hold intrusive limbs.

But who could resist the lure of the water with the sunlight flashing its silver glints over the surface and the cool, cool waters closing over our heads as we depth-charged each other, knees clasped in our arms to make maximum effect and the droplets of our splashes catching and reflecting the prismatic light.

And there on the bank was Toby Ross, hesitant and obviously reluctant. Even from now, so many years in the future, I can see him, set apart by his nervousness from the shouting enthusiasm of his peers. Not that he was in any way physically different. He was as lithe and athletic as they were; he was as darkly sun kissed as they, and in other circumstances he would be as vociferous and daring. He, I remember, was wearing bright red swimming briefs. Yet he hesitated on the bank until – and I saw it coming – Andy Warrington, not a bully but always a boy who liked creating mischief, walked round the back of him and, with a great shove in his back, pushed Toby in.

Unlike any of the others, who would have instinctively curled into a ball, or tried for a dive, or at least have pinched their nostrils, Toby fell, arms flapping to land in an almighty bellyflop on the water, which must have punched the breath out of him, and then sank below the surface.

I don't think anyone else noticed, though Andy must have watched the result of his action. I waited for Toby to bob up spluttering and no doubt, as I would have done, cursing Andrew but the ripples widened and nothing broke the surface. I looked across at Andy but he'd disappeared, either jumped in himself or slunk off guiltily. It wasn't far from me to where Toby had landed but it seemed to take forever before I reached the spot. I took a deep breath and plunged down. I could see little. The water was greenish brown and that part was deeper than others so that I couldn't even reach the bottom. Lungs bursting, I came up to the surface, took another breath and went down again. This time, when my natural buoyancy tried to pull me up, I breathed out, the bubbles brushing my face as they went up, and sank lower. Pale strands of weedy growth touched my face and body and I could imagine being grabbed by them as they twined around me, holding me down, angry at my interference into their world.

I was about to pull myself up again when I saw him – or at least saw a pale shape, silent and still just below me. I forced myself even further down and grabbed hold of it, feeling the slipperiness of wet skin which kept sliding out of my grasp. At last I grabbed hold of the waist band of his trunks and forced my way upwards. An inconsequential thought struck me on the way up that I was giving Toby a wedgie and how cross he would have been had he known.

Then I thought I was going to die, that I'd have to breathe in, that water would fill my lungs and that both Toby and I would sink down to the bottom again when the water lightened and I was in the open air, gasping and spitting, trying at the same time to get Toby's head above the surface. I had misjudged Andy. He hadn't disappeared but had been trying to alert the other guys so that they were all around us as we surfaced. They helped me drag Toby out and spread him on the bank.

They looked down helplessly. Someone said,"What do we do?" Someone else said, "I've got my mobile. I'll ring for an ambulance." I knew though that we couldn't wait. Years before I'd been on a first aid course and I dimly remembered there were things to do. Clear the airways. I laid Toby on his back and opened his mouth feeling inside with my fingers. There were a few strands of water weed but nothing I could see that actually blocked his gullet. I listened for any sounds of breathing but couldn't hear anything.

OK. Mouth to mouth. I pinched his nostrils and covered his mouth with mine creating a seal. His lips were cold and soft. Then I blew in. Dimly I heard someone say," He's kissing him." And someone else answer, "Shut the fuck up, arse 'ole."

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Toby's chest rise. I knew that was a good sign though I couldn't remember the reason. I blew in again. Then I knew I had to compress the chest. His skin was pale, almost bluish. The instructions came back to me. Place the heel of one hand over the centre of the person's chest, between the nipples. Place your other hand on top of the first hand. Keep your elbows straight and position your shoulders directly above your hands. Use your upper body weight (not just your arms) as you push straight down on the chest 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Push hard and push fast – give two compressions per second.

The water came out in a gush, not much but enough to fill the lungs I supposed. At the same time Toby gave a spluttering cough and his eyes opened, the colour of his skin returning.

"Eugh," said someone but the expression of disgust was almost hidden by the sigh of relief from the other boys standing around.

"Mark," said Toby, staring into my face.

There was the sound of a siren and an ambulance drew up. Two paramedics dressed in yellow coats got out and ran up to us. One looked at Toby who was breathing and trying to speak.

"I got him breathing again," I said. "I think he's all right."

"Well done, lad," said the paramedic. And then to Toby, "What's your name?"

"Toby," I said. "His name is Toby Ross."

"You boys should know how dangerous it is to swim here," said the other paramedic but the first one looked at him.

"We used to do it when we were kids," he said, then turned to me. "You want to come with him to the hospital?"

"He'll be all right?" I asked anxiously. "I've got to get home. My mum'll kill me."

"He'll be OK."

They took Toby on a stretcher though he was complaining that he felt fine. The ambulance took off and suddenly I felt cold. I shivered. I was about to tell Andy that he had nearly killed Toby but he looked so guilty and crestfallen that I just ignored him and went home.

* * * * * *

On Monday Toby was back at school seemingly little the worse for his experience, and it was the week of the inter-House cricket match finals. A pedant might wonder why I have joined those two sentences together but they are inextricably linked – the reason being that Toby was Grenville's finest batsman.

Why the school had named its houses after Elizabethan adventurers, one might almost call them pirates, no one seemed to know. Perhaps the Victorian founders – the school was established in 1840 – had a rather more romantic view of those pillagers of the Spanish Main, Drake, Gilbert, Raleigh, Frobisher, Grenville and Hawkins than more modern historians. Anyway that's what the Houses were called. I was in Hawkins; Toby, as I said was Grenville's 'golden boy' at least as far as cricket was concerned. He had certainly been instrumental in Grenville reaching the final and that year the opponent was Hawkins.

The week of the House cricket competition we were excused afternoon lessons, but expected to watch the matches. As I was studying for my A levels, I really should have been working privately but I had my set book with me – John Ford's famous comedy (Huh) 'Tis Pity She's a Whore' – and I lay on the grass under the elms alternately watching the cricket while revising the text. Elms! That tells you how long ago this was. No more elms now, what with Dutch Elm disease killing them all, and soon farewell to the oaks, if that American disease, what's it called? Sudden Oak Death – sounds suitably apocalyptic, takes hold.

Grenville had won the toss and had opted to bat. The two opening batsmen were at the crease and the rest were in the pavilion, I assumed. I'd seen Toby in the distance but not to speak to. I didn't particularly want to talk to anyone. The sun was still hot but it was cooler in the shade of the trees and I felt too sleepy to want to be sociable. The wicket and the outfield had been cut and the smell of new mown grass was in my nostrils. The air was thick with heat.

I could hear the sounds of cricket, the sharp crack of wood on leather, the cry of one batsman, someone shouting, 'Catch it', the applause of spectators. I looked over, yes, one batsman was out. He trudged to the pavilion, his bat under one arm, taking off his helmet and wiping the sweat from his forehead.

The next batsman emerged from the pavilion. Though he was wearing a helmet, I could recognise Toby. I thought of his body as it had been on Saturday, slim and tall, dressed only in the red speedos. How I had tried to clasp him round his waist to bring him to the surface and how finally I had grabbed him inelegantly by the waist band and hauled him up. Now of course he was wearing a white shirt, white trousers and pads. He took his stance and waited for the first ball. I'm not a great cricket fan but I could appreciate the fluid elegance of his stroke and the ball struck magnificently at just the right point hurtled towards the boundary rope. I clapped enthusiastically and shouted, "Well hit, Ross." In the distance he must have heard because after the umpire had signalled a four, Toby looked in my direction and waved.

Someone passing behind me said, "That's the opposition, you know." It was Andy Warrington, but I ignored him.

Toby was good. He'd come in at number three and he stayed in, though his partners at the other end were systematically out, bowled, caught, run out and once spectacularly stumped. It was a limited overs match and when the twenty overs were up, Grenville had scored 127 with Toby getting 84 of them – a good score though not necessarily a match-winning one.

They went in for a ten-minute break, euphemistically called a tea break, though it was doubtful if anyone drank tea. There was just time for a cold drink and then they were out again. Hawkins, my house batting, Grenville, Toby's, fielding. The captain dispersed his men around the field, pointing Toby to somewhere on the boundary. I waved to him and he came towards me. I could see the mark around his forehead where the helmet had pinched, but he was cheerful and his face had a glow which was part sunshine and part exuberance at having batted so well.

I had never noticed his smile before – I thought of his pale drawn face on Saturday when I had covered his lips with mine and blown in. But now the smile animated his face, his eyes, brown I noticed, sparkled with life, and his hair flopping over his forehead, darkened with sweat.

"Hi," he said.

"You played well," I said.

"I did, didn't I?" and he laughed to show the boasting was a joke.

The umpire shouted 'Play' and the bowler began his run up.

"Shouldn't you be fielding over there?" I asked, pointing to where his captain had sent him.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "I'm crap at fielding anyway. He only wants me somewhere where I can run after a ball and throw it back if they look like getting a boundary."

When the overs were called and the fielding side changed, he came and sat beside me in the shade of the trees and I could feel his heat and smell him, a fresh, clean smell with a hint of healthy, young sweat. Then, when play was resumed, he'd stand up again, just the other side of the boundary rope, close enough so that we could chat. I lay back in the grass and watched him.

Once while he was sitting next to me, he put his arm across my chest and I felt a shock pulse through my body so that I almost thought I'd been stung by an insect. But it was a good feeling, not really painful, and I looked into his brown eyes and saw that he'd felt something too. But neither of us said anything.

The match proceeded, Hawkins gradually gaining runs. We reached a hundred and there were still three overs left, though we were down to the last three men.

"It's going to be close," I said.

"I hope you win," he said.

"I don't really care. You deserve to win after your magnificent innings. Anyway our last three aren't up to much. That bowler of yours will soon skittle them out."

But, as is the way with these things, though one was quickly out, the last two Hawkins' batsmen hung on, getting a single here and two there until we reached 120 with one over still to go. Then, as if the two batsmen realised that something phenomenal and unlikely was needed, they played as they had never done before. One, a fair-haired boy called Middleton, struck out, probably more by luck, caught the ball just right and it shot away to the boundary for 4 runs. Four more needed for Hawkins to win, five balls to go. Even I was excited and stood up. Toby was just to my right and a little further in towards the wicket. Middleton stood up, facing the next ball. It was easy to see what he hoped to do. Another shot like the last one. He could do it, the expression on his face, tense and confident, told us what was in his mind. He swung and missed and the ball thudded into the wicket keeper's gloves behind him.

"Shit," I said.

Confidence shattered, Middleton waved his bat at the next ball, again missing it, which was probably all to the good. If he'd have touched it, he would surely have been caught.

Last ball but one. I swear no one breathed. I watched Middleton's face and saw that as he batted he actually shut his eyes. The ball flew off the surface, up and towards the boundary. Surely it had been hit hard enough to clear the rope. Six runs. Victory for Hawkins. But Toby was in the way and the ball headed straight for him.

Crap at fielding, he'd said.

I think I said a prayer though I'm not sure whether it was for him to catch it or to drop it. But three words did come out and they were, "Hold it, Toby."

The ball thudded into his hands and I saw the sudden painful sting of the impact register in the expression on his face. He almost withdrew his hands letting the ball fall but perhaps my call decided him. He held on to it. Grenville had won.

The other team members ran to him, crowding round, congratulating but it was to me he turned with an expression almost of dismay, of regret. His lips framed the words, "I'm sorry."

He was pulled away to join the House celebration, unwillingly, I thought.

"Whose side do you think you're on?" asked a sneering voice. Andy Warrington.

* * * * * *

Freud said that we are all victims of our unconscious desires. I guess if they weren't unconscious we'd be able to sort them out better and thus not be their victims. I don't know what Toby's desires were. I know he wanted to be my friend, though he never said as such until the end. Perhaps in those days and at that age, we were too inhibited to express our feelings so baldly. Certainly, after the episode at the reservoir and the cricket match, he never seemed to be far away from me. I'd turn round and there he would be, not exactly clinging but just there.

Others noticed it too though I don't think anyone expressed it as forcibly as Andy Warrington. "He's like your bloody shadow," he said one day when, for once, Toby wasn't around.

"He's a friend," I said, though my defence sounded rather weak even to me.

"He may be a friend," said Andy, "but does he have to behave like he's your boyfriend?"

"Fuck off," I said. "Are you jealous?"

"Don't be fucking stupid," he said, backing away and looking uncomfortable. I wondered then whether I'd actually struck a nerve. But of course he had with me and I knew I would have to start to change my behaviour with Toby.

Before, I'd have been quite happy to put my arm around his shoulders as we walked together, or sit close to him so that our thighs touched on the much-coveted sofa in the Common Room. Get there first to get a seat! Sometimes resulting in a jumble of students piled on top and around each other. That had been fun with Toby next to me or even under me so that I could feel his body with mine. God, what was I thinking?

I felt for a moment that I was drowning, drowning in emotions I couldn't comprehend, couldn't control.

All that would have to stop.

When Toby came into the Common Room a little later, I was with a crowd of students who were on the same course as I was. I made sure that I was always with someone else during the day.

Of course it was impossible for Toby not to find me alone sometime.

He caught me a few days later as I wheeled my bicycle out of school. It had developed a puncture.

"What's the matter, Mark?" he said. "I thought we were friends."

"Christ, Toby, we can't be in each other's pockets all the time." I knew I was hurting him but I was insistent. "We can't always be together."

"I like being with you."

And I realised that I liked being with him. I could scarcely bear to see the hurt I was doing to him, but I didn't know what else to do.

"We'll see each other around," I said, as coldly as I could.

He turned and went away, his shoulders slumped. All of a sudden I wanted to run after him, grab hold of him, turn him round and – And what? Pull him towards me so that we touched all the way down? Hold him tightly? Kiss him?

What in Christ's name was I thinking?

What made me think things like that?

Shit! Shit! Shit!

I think he was crying.

But I saved my tears until I was alone.

* * * * * *

If you would like to contact the author, please write to michael@tanyardbank.plus.com

Date started: Thursday, April 20, 2006
Date finished: Saturday, April 29, 2006 17:45
Words: 3,426


Stories delivered in your email (or call for them online)
Or you could visit my website where I've just posted my 100th story