He remembered. At the exact spot, a child of the same age stood. It was a young girl examining the ducks in the green canal. She gave out cries of glee as they quacked and fought over the bread she tossed to them. He was only by the canal that day because the main road above was being resurfaced – no entry. As he walked in his black suit he kept close to the wall; his childhood fear of water, which his father had always mocked, was still as present as ever.
His mind buzzed with shards of an infant memory; of the water attempting to stifle his lungs and extinguish his breath. He stopped and took in a large gasp. He was not in the water and could still breathe. In and out, slow and steady, the voice of his counsellor rang in his ears. His heart began to thump hard against his chest. He was concentrating on his feet, pushing one forward; then the other. The air felt thick and he fought to keep moving. He was concentrating so hard he didn’t notice the little figure by the bank lean forwards a little too far.
A small shriek perforated the air, as a heavy splash echoed around the underpass. Immediately the man looked up. The small girl was in the water and flailing her arms in pure panic. This caused the algae to form a circle around her; trapping her. She clearly could not swim. Sweat began to peel profusely from the man’s skin. He watched as the girl gulped in the water whilst attempting to shout out. Her wet hair stuck to her face as she thrashed harder in the still water of the canal. Time seemed to slow, as if he was caught in some terrible molasses dream. His mind screamed at him to move and to help; to do something.
But his body was frozen in that moment. He felt as though it was his own lungs filling up with the stale water, slowly turning his pulsing life to the edges of his body. He could feel the water streaming out of his eyes and into his mouth. He could see that the girl’s small head was now completely submerged. The silence sliced through him; it was more agonising than her small screams.
‘What’s going on? Hey, you! Oh my god.’
A firm cry came from a young man in a yellow shirt from the other side of the canal. He instantly dived into the water. The older man acknowledged the blur of colour; an arm reaching for the girl in desperation – but it seemed hazy and unfocussed; like watching an old television set.
As soon as the young man slapped his wet hand against the canal-bank, the older man began to thaw. His muscles loosened and the grip of fear abated. Awareness flooded back to him; all he cared about now was the small girl who was laid swollen and still beside the canal. He pulled out his phone and called the emergency services.
‘Hello? Yes, I’m by the canal next to Canary Flight, a small girl has fallen in the canal. I don’t think she’s conscious. Yes, a young man has pulled her out. The – the girl is grey.’
He then dropped the phone and ran down to where the tiny body lay, pallid and inert. Blood pulsated in his ears. His skin prickled as the young man; his shirt drenched; pumped the girl’s chest, over and over. He then took in a large breath, attempting to transfer life back into the child. But the girl was still. Her face was a shadow and there was no light in her glassy eyes. The moments seemed to expand as he stood motionless. A throbbing lump formed in his throat; thick saliva unable to remove it. He knelt beside the child and reached out to touch her face.
‘I’m so sorry; I’m so sorry…please God…’
The young man aggressively pushed the older man’s hand away from the girl. He looked up at him; his eyelashes were wet.
‘Why?’ He asked.
They turned to the canal to see a bag of wet bread floating away.