It was ridiculous to think I knew the man in the water… I didn’t, but he haunted my dreams, and sometimes not only at night. I would be looking at a shiny surface, a reflective surface, a shop window, a stainless steel table outside a café, any still water in the sunshine… or in other places… a face in a painting in an art gallery, an actor in a crowd scene in some TV programme, fleetingly glimpsed, an actual person, brushing past me on the street but vanished when I turned to look, and I would see him looking at me.
There were times when he haunted me more regularly, in my dreams by night, and in quiet moments during the day, and in those times I would actively seek him. I don’t mean I actually went looking, but everywhere I went – on foot, on my bike, on the bus, at an exhibition, at the theatre, in crowded shops and bars, everywhere I would be scouring the faces of those around me.
And of course I spent hours on-line… Missing persons, mysteries, possible suicides, and more, more details which I’d gleaned from various sources… I even followed weird sites and blogs about supernatural beings, mermen, water sprites, men drawn to their death by river mermaids, selkies or nyads.
It had been rather a cool day, but we had made plans to go punting, go upstream, as far as Byron’s Pool maybe, or perhaps beyond, and find a deserted meadow to spread our picnic rugs, recline, open our hampers and enjoy the celebratory treats we had brought. We set off from Scudamore’s, just above the Silver Street Bridge in two punts, punting ourselves of course. I’d just moved back to the city and despite the chill from the river, and the grey clouds above, and the slight east wind – straight off the Russian steppes was the ancient joke, we were in summer clothes, pretty dresses, chinos and shirtsleeves, a couple of waistcoats, and had brought the picnic baskets. The retro wicker baskets were actually quite impractical, but we were taking photos for Instagram, posting on Facebook, sharing our day with the world.
We had quite a collection of empty champagne bottles in the bottom of the punt by the time we found the perfect spot. It had been a magical ride upstream; I’d remembered perfectly the trailing willows and the trailing water-weed, the moorhens and occasional plop of an unseen water rat and we had quoted Wind in the Willows and Three Men in a Boat to each other. I’d remembered the particular smell of that river, and the velvety feel of the water, and unseen things, probably fishes which brushed my fingers when I trailed them over the edge of the punt. We saw water boatmen scudding across the surface – corixa punctata, someone said, and we laughed and teased that they only knew the Latin name because they were so fond of crosswords. Not at all, was the response, did you know that male water boatmen find water boatladies by singing a love song, made by rubbing their front legs against a ridge on their heads…? We nearly had an impromptu swim as someone tried to rub his legs on his head while singing ‘And IIIIII-yI willl always luuuuuurve yoooooouuuu!’ There was much laughter, and more when we were told that we shouldn’t confuse water boatmen with backswimmers who were carnivorous, and guess what? They swam on their backs!
We came alongside the bank, and dug the poles down into the river bed to anchor us in place, then we disembarked with much wobbling and someone whistled to pipe us ashore… even if that isn’t what actually happened on proper ships. We spread out the rugs, settled ourselves, and opened the hampers and bottles of wine and began, in a leisurely fashion, to consume the picnic. Sausages and pork pies from Powters of Newmarket, Maskell’s bread, cheese and fruit from the market, strawberries, cake, everything one might desire for an English picnic, and Fitzbillies Chelsea buns to finish.
After a long and giggly lunch, we ran about, played with a frisbee, fell over, were very silly, dozed under the still grey sky, and generally had a wonderful afternoon, reminiscent of many other wonderful afternoons ten or so years ago when we were carefree undegrads. It threatened to rain… the sky send down great drops of water, and we packed up… it was probably time to go… we had to return to our hotels and get ready for our evening out together.
We were quieter going downstream, no doubt each taken with thoughts of our shared past, and maybe a little overcome by the wine and the picnic. I had my head on the gunwale… do punts have gunwales? – staring down at the water passing by… although it was we who were passing by, moving faster than the lazy current.
I don’t know what I was thinking, or dreaming, when from the depths someone swam up towards me, his face a pale blob at first, bubbles on his skin like pearls. His eyes were open and he was looking at me as he rose. His face broke the surface and I sat up, looking down at him, at his blue eyes, a strange pale blue, and his colourless lips, his teeth even and white, his dark hair swept back, the river water giving it a greenish tinge. I expected him to speak, to say something to me… and then I realised he would never speak again, not to me or to anyone.
I have no idea what I said – not screamed, or shouted, but said… and then people were grabbing his shoulders, and someone was dialling 999 and someone else said it was Byron’s Pool, and maybe it was Byron, and someone else said don’t be a sick idiot, and someone asked if I was alright, and I couldn’t stop looking at him as he would never look at anyone again.
The afternoon became a blur. We pulled into the river bank, and people got into the river to pull him out and lay him on the grass, and someone else was shooing the curious cows away, and I sat by him, and people asked again if I was ok, and I said yes of course I was. Police and paramedics arrived, and statements were taken from us, and names and addresses given to them, and then we were free to go. We went, somewhat soberly now, but agreed that we should sill meet for dinner, and then see how we felt, and whether to go to a club afterwards… if we felt like it.
The man from Byron’s Pool has never been identified, no-one has claimed him, but somehow, he has claimed me… and so I search for him, googling the few details I know. Sometimes I dream at night that he tells me his name, but in the morning I never remember what he has said, and so I keep searching, for a man with hair the colour of the river and eyes a strange pale blue