If the filmreel of his life flashed before him, or flared inside him, before disappearing down the wormhole, then at some point he would have seen the scene of bullying, crouched over me, spitting in my mouth and laughing, laughing at my powerlessness and distress. And hopefully this mental image would coincide with the gobbet of spit I let drop from my mouth, resting briefly over his white face, on the surface of the water, delicate as an insect: the two moments, past and present, joined at the point of death. Death, the little puckered sphincter of death, into which his life disappears, leaving behind the body, not lifeless exactly, but lent life by the gentle waters, given grace and temporary beauty by the slow green waters, the gentle flow and ripple of the river. A pale water creature beckoning from another element.
Fat dumb head of a chub. I’d always thought he looked like a fish. Blank and cold and open mouthed, I’d always thought, even at school. To myself I called him “the chub”. The chub is dead, with a fat cold head. Remember him sat with his cronies, farting and giggling, picking on “swots”. You, reader, listener, will say it wasn’t him, the schoolboy, you drowned, the kid who bullied you at school. You drowned a man who’d outgrown all that. But that’s not how is works, it not how time works, it not how the self works. Not like that. All the selves we were are stored inside us, a roll of the dice and they return. A smell of varnish and they return. A tune, a face. And at the moment of death I’m sure he joined hands with that schoolboy bully, the schoolboy bully usurped him, briefly, only to die with my face on his retina. The sudden peremptory justice, the redemptive force, the surge of triumph and clarity thet only violence can bring.
This end would cast a dark shadow over his whole life right back to his birth. And therefore when, thirty years ago, he was spitting into my mouth, this same shadow was already hanging over him. I was already there, waiting by the river’s edge, watching the cruel spectacle from afar, the winter sky all heavy with death. He was now, and so always had been, a man who would die at the age of 45 by drowning in the river Aire. All his life was now re-written. When he spat in my mouth the thread of his death was already spun. And the end of his story was an image that belonged to me.
That image, the dead face under water, is still captive in my memory. Not as an image of reproach or guilt, but the signature of a victory and a beginning. Sometimes only a deed can save you; only a deed that breaks all rules can put things right. The deed is done and the drum of timestarts up a new rhythm. In an instant the future is born.
I realised, afterwards, that there had been a vent open which allowed the child I was to supervene the man I had become. The humiliated child, the child in pain and helpless. That vent was now closed.