It is Wednesday afternoon and the weather is glorious. Not a cloud in sight and bright green leaves cover the sparse trees around our blocks. We have the rest of the day off and hurry out of the school, onto the hot concrete tiles of the pavement. It smells but of what, I prefer not to know. And as we hurry around the corner, into the narrow, sun-drenched street with its endless row of 19th century apartment buildings, Mickey says, “Let’s go for a swim!”
“Swim where?” I ask. The official swimming pool is quite far away, costs money and to top it all, we both can’t swim.
“Oh at Kattenburg”, he says and I immediately grasp what he plans to do. Apart from the locals calling it “Rattenburg”, I see other, unsurmountable problems hindering this project. “Mickey”, I say, “we have no swimming trunks and no towel. How do we get dry?” But Mickey has thought that one through already.
“We’ll swim in our underpants and when we’re done we simply get back into our shorts. We’ll wring out the underpants and use them to wipe our legs. And tonight we throw them in the laundry basket; nothing to it!”
I still am not convinced but I can’t rat on my best friend so the two of make our way as quickly as we can to our local ‘beach’, the stretch of sand opposite the naval establishment. As we pass across the bridge in front of the maritime academy, we see a large crowd that has already gathered on that dismal piece of dirty sand. To us it is the ultimate treat on a hot day in spring. Water and sand all kinds of things to discover and we lose no time in shedding our shirts and shorts and shoes. We put them next to a friendly family, hoping they will keep an eye on them, and run into the water.
I shall never forget that smell; the tang of stale green water, mushy rotting sea-weed and marine diesel fuel. We ran up and down that beach, splashing and spattering between a rich harvest of washed up driftwood and other flotsam (including two dead cats), By the time we both were both soaking wet, we had thrown all caution to the winds and we had soon collected enough planks and poles along the ‘flood line’ to put a makeshift raft together. A washed up crate would do for a seat and a more or less oar-shaped piece of wood for a paddle.
The snag was, the thing would only hold one of us. Mickey won the toss and after carefully mounting the slightly rotten crate (I saw it had held oranges in the past), he commanded, “Shove Off!” and I gave the contraption a push.
As it floated away I immediately saw we were no great boat builders. Our raft had no freeboard at all and short waves washed Mickey’s feet every few seconds. The ‘raft’ was some yards off the beach now and when he tried to paddle back, the whole thing nearly capsized. He had to sit absolutely still in order not to upset its balance. Then he noticed that the water was too deep for him to stand and he knew he was in really deep water (literally),
“Help me get back!” he shouted anxiously.
I waded into the dirty water until it reached my chin but he was still out of reach.
“I’ll get a rope”, I shouted and hurried back to the safety of the sand. I had seen a discarded length of slimy rope further down that ‘beach’. But before I could reach it, one of those ever present workboats came rumbling out of a side canal. It was the Ocean, a fine, sturdy workboat belonging to the Blue Funnel line. All of us boys admired it for the magnificent bow wave it threw up. The inevitable happened; the Ocean rumbled past at a sedate four knots, but its powerful waves lifted the flimsy raft way up in the air. It shattered completely and Mickey splashed into the water.
“Help”, I shouted, “my friend cannot swim”, pointing at the boy spluttering and trashing amidst the remnants of our ‘raft’. Several people looked up, but one lean and tanned Navy guy jumped up from the towel he was sharing with his girlfriend. In a few strides he ran down the sand, splashed into the water and grabbed Mickey at the moment the water closed over the boy’s head.
“What the fuck were you doing out there?” shouted the sailor after dropping the spluttering and coughing Mickey on the sand. The two of us tried to explain but with no great success. “Go and get your clothes; and this will speed you home”, the man snarled as he slapped Mickey’s bottom hard with a large, calloused hand.
We straggled home like two two nearly drowned cats, dripping water and sopping in our shoes. For a few moments we stood hesitating at the entrance to our block, not daring to face our parents and afraid of the ‘reception’ we would get.
Then my grandmother passed by on her bicycle and our fate was sealed
“What happened to you?” she shouted angrily as she jumped off the saddle. After my halting, rambling explanation she turned to Mickey. “You go home and stay there; I’ll talk your mom later.” Mickey hurriedly made off and Grandma slapped my face twice snarling, “The pair of you could have drowned, you idiot!”
She hauled me up the stairs and made me wash all over – the stink of the ‘swimming water’ permeating the small apartment. When I was washed and clothed again she sat me in a chair and gave me cup of tea. “Never, ever do that again!” she growled, raising a threatening finger in front of my face. “There will be trouble enough when you mom and dad come home.”
And trouble there sure was; my stepdad was livid and wanted to belt me properly. But my Grandma interfered and I was banished to my little room with the door firmly closed; house arrest as it was. I heard their voices go on in a low rumble for a while. Then Grandma left and I shivered with fright what would happen next. I didn’t have to wait long. My mother came into my little room and looked at me for a few moments.
“You could have drowned today”, she said in a quiet voice and I nodded, tears in my eyes.
“There’s too much water around here”, she added and then, to my total surprise, “so Grandma has decided that you’d better take swimming lessons; she’ll pay for them!”
To Be Continued