What happened was, he put together a makeshift swing. A piece of sturdy rope thrown over the outstretched branch of a willow tree, that swung out over the water in a great loop.
We played there all summer, whooping and cheering as we lunged out over the water, daring each other to swing faster and higher. To make intricate loops and twists.
Every now and then I would jump in and send up a great wash of water that sent Sarah scurrying away screaming and laughing, thick black mud clinging to her cotton dress.
She never dared jump on to it herself, and when she made that loop, fast and low over the water, you could see the tight white of her knuckles as she gripped the rope.
My father had told her not to play on the swing.
“Wait until next summer when you’re a bit stronger.”
He’d looked to me to make sure she did as she was told, but as the summer progressed, she grew tired of standing on the riverbank watching us boys flying through the air.
“Let me have a go will you?”
She asked a thousand times knowing we all grew tired of telling her no; Danny Boyd, eventually relenting and hoisting her up onto the thick knot of the rope, pushing her out slowly and gently and letting her roll, low and slow, back to the bank where I stood nervously waiting to catch her and get her back safely to the ground.
“My dad will kill me if he knows we’re letting her do this.”
“Ach and who’s going to tell him then? I’m not. Sarah’s not, are you Sarah?”
“Me? No, never, Danny, I promise.”
So we let her go and watched as she stretched out further and higher, determined to join us in the game.
But I knew she was terrified every time she leapt on that swing. That tight white grip and the way she kept her eyes to the sky and the sun, never looking at the water below her, never thinking about the fact that she was no match for that current, for those depths. I could see all this in her, but still I let her go.
It was early evening before we noticed she was gone.
Called in for tea at five o’clock, we sat for a few minutes wondering where it was she could have got to.
After twenty minutes my mother grew sick of it.
“Richard, go and see what that sister of yours is up to.”
There’s a funny kind of instinct that kicks in at moments like this. I got up from the table and had a strange premonition.
I knew she was in the water. That she was floating downstream, tangled in the reeds, and I grew pale at the thought of it. So I stood, rigid, at the table.
“Richard, will you get going already?”
I left through the back door and walked down the garden towards the riverbank and the swing.
An early summer evening. The kind that buzzes and hums. The air heavy and lazy and thick. The light deep, almost amber.
My leg brushed some lavender, and the heady perfume filled my nostrils and calmed me.
Up ahead I could see the empty swing, swaying slightly in the still air, and I imagined I could hear the rope creak as it swayed.
I hoped, that she had fallen that very instant. That that small sway was the last of the energy left from her swing. That if I ran fast enough I would catch sight of her in the water and could hold out a branch to save her.
But at the water’s edge there was no sign of her. The river’s surface was calm, the gentle flow of it black and deep. Looking at it, it was hard to imagine the treacherous pull below the surface.
I’d felt it many times, that tug and pull that drew you out and held you down. Many times I had struggled to surface, had felt the squeeze of my lungs as I panicked , disoriented in the dark, lost in the froth of bubbles that surrounded me. Surfacing mid-stream, adrift and further from the river bank than I’d imagined.
She would be far downstream by now. Swept away in some endless flow that would eventually spit her out, where the river widened into mud flats and reeds. Somewhere there we would find her.
I sat there for an hour, just watching the surface. Imagining how she must have felt when she realised she was slipping. The little gasp of shock as she hit the water and plunged deep into the river.
How she would have stifled a scream and the urge to cry out, as she was tossed and pulled down and out into the heavy darkness.
And when would it have occurred to her, I wondered, that she was never going to resurface? That she was no longer able to hold on to that short gasp of breath that she took under with her?
What do you think of at that moment?
Perhaps she saw the whole summer before her. Imagined she could taste the lemonade from that afternoon, or smell the faint waft of lavender from the garden?
I sat there by the river, a mauve dusk falling around me, until my father’s voice roused me.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for Sarah.”
“In the water?”
“Why would she be in the water? Come on, let’s go and find her.”
“She fell in.”
“Swinging. She slipped from the swing and fell in the river.”
“What are you talking about? Did you see her fall in? When for God’s sake?”
“No, I didn’t see her go in. But she did. I know she did.”
“Listen, she’s not in the water, okay? She knows not to swing on the rope. I told her not to.”
“She has been swinging on it though. Danny and I, we let her do it.”
“She just wanted to swing. So we let her. I didn’t think she’d do it on her own. She was scared of it. She only did it so she could play with us.”
It was then I saw that glimmer of realisation fall over his face. A grey shadow, that, in the end, never left him.
They scoured the river banks all evening, but it was morning before someone spotted her, head down in the bull rushes, hair tangled and muddy, her dress grey and torn.
“It’s no sight for a child” I overheard my mother explaining to my father. “Just let him be George, he’s suffering enough without having to witness that.”
But my father had wanted me to see her. Had wanted me to see what it was I had done.
For he was never in any doubt about that. I had done this. I had allowed her to swing, to be reckless.
I had teased out that daring in her, that disobedience, that flame haired stubbornness that was in her, and this had been the result.
He needn’t have worried.
I have seen her over and over again.
At night, her grey face floats to the surface to meet me in my sleep and I hear her breathe and gasp and choke.