from Farewell To Bluefields / Fat Man Drowning
He couldn’t get the awful taste of puke and spittle and death out of his mouth....
At Holywell there’s a big pub by the river. His friend Florence lived near there with her daughter. He used to canoe down to visit and help out in the garden. Occasionally they had little get-togethers down there. A bunch of the gang from upriver at the St Ives flats would come down in boats and have an evening of food, drink, and musical interchange. Florence was a brilliant musician, a natural. She had been living for a while with a guy called Geoff, a Chinese Malaysian educated in an english public (meaning private) boarding school. Very well spoken chap. The most incredible charmer. A most benevolent host and supping companion. Also a molester and abuser of children as it turned out. Nothing like a private education. He had since disappeared.
Robert tied the Keir Hardie up at the pub river bank and walked across the green and down the road to Florence’s. Her house looks out over another bit of flood meadow. It’s high up above the road which often floods in winter. Her perfect little house. Low wall and gate with paved path up the front garden to the front door. Very, very nice. He would have been happy to live there himself except all the neighbours were rabid, drinking tories. As it happened, her female “barber shop quartet” was there, psyching up for a rehearsal. Robert sat back and savoured an afternoon of sweet-blending close harmonies.
Later on, Florence walked him back to his boat. At the pub a bunch of noisy tory alkies were beginning to achieve their ritual euphoria. Robert wanted to take his boat over to the opposite bank for the night. Florence said, “Go on then, I’ll get my dinghy out and row over for a night cap.”
He had his boat nicely tied to the opposite bank as she turned up in her dinghy and clambered aboard. He made brandy coffees and they sat on deck chairs on the roof of the boat, watching the darkening opposite bank where the pub throng was producing a noise more softened and baffled by the summer evening. She had been telling him about their mutual pal Harry who was a student liaison officer at some north London college and had become a bit of a recluse lately. For her, worryingly so.
Calls from the other side of the river began to impinge upon their conversation. It was now quite dark. Lights from the pub flickered on the water. Now there were one or two torches. “Charles, Charles...” someone was calling. There were more muffled voices with a sense of urgency building up. Robert and Florence stopped talking to listen more closely. Urgent voices were saying, “There he is... No, over there.... Charles, are you allright?”. Suddenly in the middle distance they heard a guttural voice trying to respond. “Here... (gurgle) Here.... (gurgle) Help, help...” The voice was very low and wasn’t carrying. It was slurring as well as gurgling. Robert suddenly had the erie sensation that he was going to have to get involved. Some piss head had obviously gone for a swim and lost his bearings. A boat was putting out from the other side. “Can you see him? He went in over there.... He couldn’t have gone far.... Charles, Charles....”
“Can you see him?” Robert asked Florence.
“I think he’s just there,” pointing.
He peered across the water and thought he saw a lump floating. There were no more slurring calls. They jumped into the dinghy and rowed towards the lump. Feeling vaguely repulsed, he reached out and touched it. He shuddered as he realised it was a head. He grabbed the soggy mass of hair and tried to pull. The dinghy tipped dangerously.
“Can you stay on the other side?” he asked Florence.
She leaned over on the opposite side as he tried again. It was an enormously fat man. With both hands clutching the sodden hair, Robert dragged the head up as high as the side of the dinghy. He tried to keep the head in position as he moved one hand down to an underarm, and heaved again. Florence was calling out to the other boat which was now headed their way. He had the top part of the torso under his chest as he ventured a hand further down again. He grabbed a massive belt and heaved some more. Gradually the body’s centre of gravity inched towards the centre of the dinghy, Florence still precariously leaning out the opposite way. The other boat coming nearer with, it became apparent, a drunken crew. Robert finally had the enormous, bloated body in. He and Florence tried to roll it on its side as they recommend in the pamphlets. Robert hit its back several times. Objections floated over from the other boat. “What the hell is he doing?”
The fat body regurgitated. Some mucky froth with lumps spewed out, then some more. Robert was putting off the awful moment. He looked at Florence in the flickering light off the water. She stared back, motionless. The other boat was still lurching toward them. He rolled the body on to its back, tilted the head, and, with a shivering grimace, put his mouth to the fat man’s and blew. As he drew his head away, the body sighed, spewing up more froth and flotsam and a distinct odour of vomit and alcohol. He put his fingers in the mouth and cleared some of it out. Lips curling, he pressed his mouth down again and blew. He had his hand on the chest and could feel it rising dramatically as he blew. The body exhaled again. His disgust slightly dissipated, he got into a rhythm. He heard the other boat come along side. Florence was telling them to tow us ashore and call for an ambulance. Robert kept blowing. “What’s he doing?” someone kept asking from the other boat. “He’s doing it all wrong.” Robert kept blowing. He felt the dinghy tip as one of the other crew clambered aboard. Florence, alarmed, was saying, “What are you doing?”
“That’s my best friend,” slurred a voice behind Robert as he kept blowing. “He’s going to die. You’re not doing it right.” Robert kept blowing. He could feel the boats moving. They were obviously headed toward the shore, but painfully slowly. He blew again. “That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it,” whined the voice behind him. “Leave him alone Alan, let him get on with it,” said another voice. “But he’s gong to die,” said Alan. Robert blew again, and then turned to look at Alan. Robert was in his boiler suit, very wet, and covered in bits of puke and froth. Alan was in his designer jeans and a lovely white pull-the-girls open-at-the-chest party shirt. “You want to do this?” Robert asked. Alan looked at his fat unconscious friend and whimpered, “Charlie, oh Charlie...” Robert blew again. “You’re not supposed to do it like that,” said Alan. Robert turned again. “Well how the fuck AM I supposed to do it asshole?” Alan staggered jerkily past him, the dinghy heaving precipitously, and got into position. He hesitated. The reality of touching mouths was upon him. He hesitated some more. “What the fuck are you doing?” said Robert.
Alan said, “Oh Charlie, oh Charlie, what’s happened to you.”
“You’ve got to blow you fucking dickhead,” said Robert.
Alan finally put his mouth down and blew a tiny useless little puff. He lifted his head again and started saying, “Charlie oh Charlie, my best friend...”
“You’ve got to keep blowing, and harder,” said Robert. Voices from the other boat began to concur. “Blow Alan, blow harder, blow more...”
Alan got into a pathetic sort of rhythm. The delicate little puffs not even making the dead man’s chest heave. He kept stopping to reflect on the passage of their friendship. The boats were nearer the shore. A police car had arrived and two cops were standing awkwardly at the water’s edge. The boats ran aground.
“You’re going to have to get you feet wet pal,” called Robert to one of the cops. They both splashed forward. Alan looked up at them imploringly. They dragged the fat body off the dinghy and through the shallow water to the shore. Then stood and looked at it. Robert looked at Florence. She was incredulous, her eyes wide. Alan and his pals from the other boat sloshed ashore and also stood looking at the body. An ambulance arrived, lights blazing. Two guys jumped out and crouched next to the body and began pumping.
Robert washed his mouth compulsively with river water as Florence rowed them back to the Keir Hardie. They got aboard. Robert made for the cupboard, grabbed the bottle of brandy and swished his mouth out. He kept gargling and spitting. He couldn’t get the awful taste of puke and spittle and death out of his mouth. He was brushing his teeth for the third time as Florence rowed back to her house.
A few days later he read in the local newspaper that the man was DOA. Nevertheless, they wanted to interview "the hero" who'd tried to save him. Good thing he was leaving town.
© 2013 Deacon Martin
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