by Gerard McKeown
Beneath shelter of the giant motorway bridge, I am almost alone. The roar of cars speeding elsewhere hangs in the background like a comfort blanket on a clothes line. The temporary presence of each vehicle and the fact they are moving away from me convinces me they are driven by the better examples of my species. I muddle through my own thoughts beside the undiluted stillness of the infected looking canal. A mass of algae has lodged in this stretch. The green nubs are packed so tightly that rubbish, which would otherwise sink, sits strewn on the surface, so the canal resemble a carpet the morning after a party.
My head is similarly cluttered. But these walks bring clarity, especially in the rain, which clears the tow path of joggers, pushchairs, and screaming toddlers. Only dog walkers don’t irritate me. Because of the dogs. On rainy days, I imagine this path was made for me alone. People who complain about the rain are a mystery to me; on sunnier or even drier days these little clips of nature, sprinkled throughout the city, become cluttered with morons, acting as if they’re on a busy street, fighting to be heard over the traffic and the indifference of passers-by. Here, I’m not indifferent to them. Every time some idiot shouts to their friends, some teenager laughs extra-loudly to show they get an immature sex joke, or some little brat screams, I’d love to kick all of them into the water.
Such as the wee shit-stain two meters from me now. Him and his dad have been sharing the path with me on this overcast day, walking the same direction as me, which isn’t a crime, but however they’ve caught up, they show no intention of passing. Speeding up and slowing down at inconvenient times, they never let me get ahead or get ahead themselves. I stop briefly to tie my shoelace or sit on a bench, just until they get out of view, but, and I can’t claim this is anything other than coincidence, they stop at the same moment. Then when I start walking, they do too. I know if I sit back down they’ll stop again. If I was paranoid I’d assume they’re doing it to piss me off, but the stops are all to do with the kid, dropping the ball he’s playing with, or kicking it past his dad and having to run back towards me for it. He fell once but didn’t hurt himself. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing some noisy kid fall splat on their face. It’s great when they cut their knee. Even better if they snap a tooth. The dad looks to be in his mid-twenties and has that lankiness of someone who never quite filled out, as if he still plays Saturday morning football with the same lads he went to school with, each of them vaguely believing they could yet be scouted for a mediocre team, one battling for promotion from the conference.
I give up waiting for them to take the hint, and jog ahead. I’ve a nice bottle of Shiraz in my bag that I want to tuck into. If they start jogging too, I’ll elbow them in their mouths. The dad anyway. The kid is the right height for a knee to the face.
As I reach a turn in the canal, the boy screams. This isn’t the sound of a brat who wants ice cream. This is the scream I’d expect if a wasps’ nest had fallen on them. Turning around, I see they’re both missing from the canal bank.
‘I’ve got you, calm down,’ the dad is shouting. The child yells his head off.
I run back to where I left them. That part of the canal is clear of algae, but dirty enough that I can’t see the bottom. I’d always assumed it was shallow, but by the look of things, the dad’s feet can’t reach the bottom. He’s trying to pull the boy back towards the bank. The boy is climbing up on him, flailing his arms around, smacking the dad’s head all he’s fit with hard panicked slaps. The dad is struggling to keep his head above water.
I scan the embankment for a life ring, but the iron stand where it’s supposed to be is rusted and empty. I think about how tempted I was to kick the boy into the water, or to elbow the dad in the face.
‘Hey,’ I shout from the bank. ‘I’m going to help.’
I’m not sure what I expected: looks of gratitude? The superman theme to start playing? The dad’s wide eyes fix on me as I hear Might Mouse holler, ‘Here I come to save the day!’ The boy keeps screaming, keeps swinging his arms. Now I’ve involved myself I don’t know what to do. I’m not jumping in; there’s nothing to say the dad won’t lose it too. I look round for someone else, but when a passer-by is needed, the path is empty. I pull my belt off and wave it at the dad, shouting for him to get ready to catch the end. Once I’ve wrapped the buckle round my fist, I realise the belt isn’t long enough to reach him. I pull my jacket off, dumping my wallet, keys, and phone onto the grass. I wrap the end of a sleeve round one hand and fling the other sleeve out towards the dad. He catches it with a free hand. I can’t pull them in, but holding onto the jacket with both hands, when my arms feel as if they’re being yanked out of their sockets, is enough. I can hear the stitching break as the dad pulls himself and the boy towards the bank. When they’re close enough, I lift the boy off his dad. He’s a lump of a wee lad, maybe older than I thought. He’s still slapping his hands around, but once his feet touch the ground, he collapses crying on the grass. The dad has found a hold on the wall. I grab him over the shoulder, under his armpits, but he’s more or less pulled himself up onto the bank by then. Panting from my efforts, I gather my things from the grass and slip my coat back on. One of the sleeves is noticeably longer than the other. The dad is hugging the wee lad, telling him they’re safe now.
A passing jogger, who appeared unnoticed, has phoned for an ambulance. Although the dad says he’s fine, he’s going to take the kid to get checked out. I try to sneak off, but the dad keeps shaking my hand and offering me money for my jacket. I tell him it’s fine. I don’t mention the new length of the arms and the greater broadness to the shoulders. It’ll probably fall apart in a few weeks.
The rest of my journey, I pass parents, kids, joggers, dog walkers, but I guzzle the whole bottle of wine, giving them no more than a glance as I do it. The rescue, if you could call it that, seems like a surreal blip that didn’t even happen. Looking down at the itch on my knuckle, I notice it’s skinned. Maybe from lifting the kid or trying to pull the dad up the wall. Regardless, I tuck the good deed into my back pocket for another time. I might dine out on it or use it to soothe my conscience next time I’m fuming at never being alone in this city. When the rain starts I turn back for home. I go miles without seeing anyone, until, as I’m passing the spot where the drowning almost happened, a jogger rounds the bend. Her trainers slap the pavement with a pounding tap-tap rhythm that brings her closer. The sound of rubber striking concrete, matches the words I sing inside my head as she passes me and fades out in the distance.
‘…fuck off, fuck off, fuck off…’
Gerard McKeown’s work has been featured in The Moth, 3:AM, and Litro, among others. In 2017 he was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize, and in 2018 he was longlisted for The Irish Book Awards’ Short Story of the Year. His story Detachment is featured in the anthology Still Worlds Turning (No Alibis Press).