Slowly I lost my sense of where I was. Which way was I facing? Should I try to swim to the river bank? I stared into the fog’s whiteness, trying to imagine where the reeds met the steep, muddy bank. The slow-moving water made me feel uneasy. I tried to focus on the bow of the boat which was edged with black. I dropped down on my knees and crawled towards it, making the boat rock. I felt sick. Loneliness swept over me. I gripped the bow of the boat.
My voice shattered the white stillness. My cry hung on the air as I turned in all directions. I shouted tilI I was out of breath.
I stopped to listen and then came a reply – a shriek which made me freeze.
I was losing the ability to think normally.
The shriek came again and this time it was answered by another. The high-pitched shouts came thick and fast from every side. Some fainter and further away; others overwhelmingly close. Suddenly the calls stopped and the only sounds were coming from me – sobs. My chest ached as I drew breath and howled.
This time the response was the beating of wings cutting through the thick, damp air. First one bird then hundreds. The tips of their soft wings skimmed my hair without making a sound. The air that they disturbed stroked my face.
Through a haze of cream and golden feathers, I reached again for the anchor chain.
The metal links rattled like so many skeletons as I tried again and again to lift the anchor.
A river in the day is a delight; at night it is desolation. I lay flat on my back in the bottom of the boat staring upwards. My eyes felt tired and dry but I did not dare close them.
Time after time now I saw in my mind white arms reaching into the boat to pull me down to the bottom of the river. The owls were circling around my head, watching me disappear into the weeds and underneath the water.
Eventually I fell asleep.
When I awoke the fog had cleared and the whiteness had been replaced by the grey of early dawn. The silence of the night had been replaced by songbirds welcoming the morning. Even frogs joined in the chorus and the tiniest glimmer of light in the east brought such a rush of happiness in my veins that momentarily the horrors of the night were forgotten. The railway bridge and the willow tree could be seen again, as could the riverbanks.
Someone was bound to come along soon. I would be fine.
I began to tidy up my half-eaten picnic and pack away my rod and line, left in the bottom of the boat. As I was bending my head, sorting my equipment in the boat, I hadn’t noticed a man walking along the riverbank. He stopped and watched me.
‘What the hell are you doing!?’
The shout across the water made me jump, but the delight at seeing someone made me greet him like a long lost relative.
Smiling broadly, I waved and shouted back,
‘Am I pleased to see you? I’m stuck. My anchor is stuck. I’ve been here all night.’
‘You’ve chosen a night to be on the river. A young gamekeeper has gone missing. The police helicopter’s been up…the dogs out…everything. Did you not hear anything?’
The screams of the owls were still fresh in my memory. ‘Didn’t hear a thing – it was thick fog.’
‘Well, sorry I can’t help you mate. Why don’t you swim to shore?’ The idea seemed to amuse the passer-by, who continued on this way laughing.
In spite of the rising sun, the day was grey and dull. A drizzly mist covered the river.
I must have been sitting in my boat for another hour before finally the flow of the river changed – another boat was coming.
‘Hey! Stop!’ I stood in my wobbly boat waving, like a child.
‘Here! Stop!’ I shouted, bending down to support myself on the sides of the boat. A small craft with an outboard motor was heading straight for me.
‘What are you doing here? Everyone’s been looking for the young gamekeeper. Have you seen anything?’
I was about to recount my night on the river but changed my mind. ‘Just help with me with this anchor. It’s stuck.’
My would-be rescuer took hold of the anchor and pulled. It didn’t move. There wasn’t enough room for us both to take a proper hold and pull so I lay on my stomach and edged over the bow. When we hauled together the anchor started to give but it was pulling a heavy weight. We pulled and pulled and gradually the anchor started to rise through the water.
And then I saw his face.
Green reeds were wrapped around his neck like a matching scarf for his green jacket. Tucked into the top of his jacket were the remains of a barn owl. Around his waist was a belt of stones.