Put yourself in my position. You can’t stop thinking about something that happened here years ago, when you were just a child.
Three boys wake up one morning. Three beds vacated eagerly.
You remember the incident but never really knew the details. Not knowing means your thoughts are just looping around uselessly.
Three boys wake up one morning. Sunny summer holidays. No lie – ins for them. Up and ready. Another day of freedom. Robinson Crusoe on the telly. Then out into the sunshine. Out to play.
The eldest boy was in your big sister’s class. She remembers no more than you. You need to hear from some of the older people here though you will have to be diplomatic with any questions that you ask.
Three brothers wake up one morning. So much to do. Football and cricket. Bicycles to get anywhere. Parks and playing fields. Woods and hills. Beach and an open-air swimming pool. All within easy reach. The morning passes swiftly. Back home for lunch. Then straight back out again to play.
And if their mother doesn’t say:
Stay together and don’t do anything silly!
It is only because she has said it a thousand times before.
Your enquiries reveal that the parents are deceased and that the father never again spoke to the eldest boy. Now you decide to stop asking questions. Maybe you don’t need to know much more. What you’re inching towards is more a feeling for what happened.
The three brothers find themselves down on the beach. They saunter along to the corner of the peninsular. They sit by the pools left behind by the tide on the red sandstone rocks. They gaze out to the island. The distance is a mile at the most. With the hot afternoon still ahead of them they decide to walk out to the island, over the flat, yellow sands.
You know that island. It’s a beautiful place with a unique enchanting atmosphere. Everyone knows the island. It’s a tidal island. Twice every day the tide comes in, surrounds it and recedes again. Everyone knows the tide is dangerous. Every child is told, repeatedly, that the beach, the sea, the tide, the sandbanks and the island are dangerous.
Close to the island, water. A gully. The brothers have not anticipated this. It does not deter them. They paddle. They push through the water up to their knees. They wade on towards their destination. Their walk at some point becomes a swim.
You know that it’s not hard to walk faster than the incoming tide. On sparkling, breezeless days it’s a mirror of mercury, its leading edge bubbling over the ripples on the sand, never losing its surface tension. Even on stormy days it doesn’t come in much faster. Whatever the conditions, as you stand and watch it creep up to your boots, or your toes, you get the feeling that it is unstoppable.
The brothers are now drifting sideways. They decide to turn back. The eldest grabs the youngest. He flips over to swim on his back, as he’s been taught to do and so that he can see his other brother. But the third brother is all of a sudden five, then seven, then ten yards away.
You realise that the boys knew nothing of the waterways that form in the undulations of the sandbanks and the currents that flow within them.
The warning is always: Be careful of the tide coming in!
But that is really not the issue. It doesn’t come in fast. Speed is the measure of distance travelled over a period of time. On this part of the coast the tide takes six hours to come in and six to go back out again. So that’s six hours per mile, or more conventionally, nearly three hundred yards per hour. By contrast, constricted in that gully, in front of the island, hundreds of thousands of gallons of cold, salt water would have been heading calmly but swiftly back out to sea from the estuary. Your guess is, at something close to eight miles per hour. Did one of the brothers think that the outgoing tide was less of a threat than an incoming one? Did the boys perhaps see people heading to the island from upstream, from the orthodox route and think that it was safe to head out?
As the older and younger boys swim clumsily back to the beach they shout to their brother. The older boy can’t let go of the younger. Panic is in his voice. His feet strike the sand. He thrashes on to shallower water dragging one brother and screaming to the other. At waist depth he pushes the younger boy towards the beach and turns back to the island. He is astonished at how far away his sibling already is; a small dot on the surface of the water. The middle brother will shortly drown. He doesn’t know to swim calmly on his back. Doesn’t know to tread water. All he knows is that he’ll drown. His brothers are watching. They can do nothing.
You resolve that when a child asks you a question and especially a question about this beach, you will give the fullest answer you possibly can.