In the beginning, we were too young to take much notice of our neighbours. They were the kind of people who kept to themselves. Once, my mother baked a chocolate cake and invited herself over to the Hank’s place for tea. But that was a long time ago. And when she came back, afterwards, she told us that Mr. Hanks, who lived with his wife and daughter, was very sick. She told us that we were to keep the noise down in the street outside their house when we played. She said that if we did stray, better to do so on Old Joe’s side.
Joe lived on his own, when he was in town. Sometimes he would stop and speak for a while with my father, and they would both nod, solemnly at each other, their voices low and gruff. We were scared of the old man, even though he ignored us, mostly, even when we played cricket with the other children in the neighbourhood, right outside his gate.
We got used to him not being around. Every couple of months he would pack up his green van and drive off down the road, and we wouldn’t see him for a long time. Then his mail would pile up on his front porch, and the windows would grey, so much so that there was no chance of peeking inside, and the grass would grow so long that we would give up searching for the cricket balls that flew amiss.
And then Joe would come back from wherever he had been; his green van caked brown in a map of mud that told of distant travels. He would tend to the house and the garden with slow and meticulous care. And we would watch him from between two loose boards in our fence, and we would wonder where he had been, and why. But the wondering was brief, there was always something else more fun to do.
After some time we lost interest in Joe. We’d come home with the bus each day after school and wolf down lunch before running off down to the river. Our father had fashioned us simple fishing rods and we’d spend hours waiting for something to bite. We never caught any fish with the sticks. We’d come home, empty handed and pester my father as he read the paper after dinner. We would beg him for real fishing rods, our argument that only once we had the proper equipment, would we be able to catch any fish. But he told us that we should work hard, and maybe if our results at school were good enough, and maybe if we finished our chores instead of running off each day, then maybe he would.
I was 12 years old, my brother was only 8, when we went down to the river for the first time with the fishing rods that my father eventually bought us one Christmas. We had been fishing for an hour or two, when I suggested that we go back home for some lemonade and lunch. My brother, his name was Tim, said he would rather wait at the river, and asked if I wouldn’t mind going alone, if I wouldn’t mind bringing something back for him to eat. I hurried the whole way, not wanting to leave him there for too long.
I was breathless when I got back to where I had left him sitting. But he wasn’t there. Just his boots, tossed to one side, with his miss-matched socks in little balls lying next to them. I called out to him, thinking that he might have off wandered behind a bush to pee. When he didn’t answer, I followed the path along the river’s edge, walking slowly and yelling out for him to show himself and stop with his games. I was more irritated than anxious, I was wasting precious fishing time. After a minute or two, I turned back, looking a little more carefully this time. And then I noticed his fishing rod, the line caught up in a branch hanging low over the river. I went forward to try and jerk it free, thinking how careless he was to leave his brand new rod like this.
When I eventually saw him, he was looking up at me with a lost stare, confused almost. Lying sprawled out beneath the water. His face was pale, and his hair was moving gently in the tiny waves that lapped about my feet. I stared down at him for a long while, uncertain as to what I should do. I thought that he might jump up, laughing and splashing, I thought he might pull me under with him, I thought he might show me something that I didn’t yet know about being underwater and holding your breath for longer than we’d done before.
When he didn’t move, I knelt down next to him, got as close as I could, and put my fingers through his hair, smoothing it, over and over again, as it floated around his skull. The water was red and then pink and then red again, and I let it wash all over me.
The sun eventually set on us and it was finally dark. But still I sat there, waiting for something to happen that I could maybe understand.
With the darkness came my father’s voice. I heard my name as his boots splashed into the river a little way away from where I was crouched in the water. I dropped my brother’s head and stood up slowly, because everything was numb. He asked me where Tim was and I pointed at my feet. The light from his torch shone first onto my dress, and then my legs and then slowly, finally onto my brothers face.
And then it was gone. The torch floated away and took all the light with it.