An excerpt from
Secrets of a River Swimmer
I dip my toe in.
It’s fucking freezing.
I sit and watch the majestically sinister Scottish river hurtle along below me. I’m not sure whether to be in awe or terrified, but that was always going to be the case today, my last day. The idea of jumping into the river reminds me of the feeling you experience when you arrive at the beach, and you’re thinking about jumping into the sea, but you know it’s going to cause you grievous bodily harm from your nether regions up. For some reason, your legs are the one part of your body which can handle intense cold without too much stress. But all body parts above your legs are a whole different story. My voice just rose an octave, and I’m not even talking.
So you sit and watch the sea while contemplating your next move, as if this thinking time will give you the required mental strength to leap into the cold blue water. However, this thinking time just gives the water an opportunity to look you in the eye with laughing menace, because the water knows the questions you are grappling with deep in your soul. The water understands it is strong and you are weak—the eternal power imbalance at play.
The waiting period only makes it worse, of course. All it does is allow you to hand more mental power over to the cold water than a short and simple jumping-in maneuver would have done. Why do we employ such counter-productive strategies in our lives?
Hesitation only makes it harder to achieve the things we want, and yet we’re always hesitating. I’m always hesitating. Maybe too many parents have called out “Be careful!” to their children when all they were doing was exploring the garden. Maybe we’ve all listened a little too well when we should have been rolling in the mud, or jumping straight into dangerous rivers, no questions asked. Yes, mystery solved, that’s it. Surely it must be my parents’ fault that I’m sitting here ready to end it all at the hands of the river. Aren’t parents always to blame for the unspeakable things sitting inside the closets no one wants to open? In my case, that closet has been locked for too long, and who knows where the damned key is? I can’t even picture my father’s face anymore.
The water gurgles at anyone who will listen. It reminds me of a scene from a nature documentary in which the presenter, most likely David Attenborough, talks about the power of the river: “The river moves millions of tons of water to places it’s needed to support life. It’s the source of life for a vast array of species who depend upon it for all their needs.” The film then focuses on a salmon trying to swim against the powerful current—the poster-fish for the struggle of life. With sympathy in his voice, the presenter discusses life as a salmon: “It’s a tough gig being a salmon since few of them survive the arduous journey they need to undertake. Swimming all the way upstream requires an extraordinary amount of effort and luck, more than most salmon can hope for.” The documentary focuses on a few of the poor salmon who’ve attempted the swim against the current, but have stopped at the side of the river exhausted, defeated. These poor souls are now stranded and waiting to die, or to be eaten by a passing animal in search of an easy lunch. They find themselves in a retirement home for salmon who’ve failed in their life’s mission, the dregs of the fish world. I know those guys so well—it’s almost like I’m looking in the mirror. The presenter concludes the scene with a semi-empathetic tone: “Nature is a harsh mistress.”
I’ve always believed I’d make the perfect successor to David Attenborough as the next great voice of nature documentaries. Surely I have everything a documentary presenter needs: a compassionate voice which is both deep and soft, a love of nature, an interest in learning, and a decent knowledge of nature to start with. Of course, I’ve never presented anything in my life, never mind a TV production, so this is just another Walter Mitty “what if” thought which I’ve never followed through to its conclusion. Oh well, it’s too late now. It’s strangely comforting to know that everything I haven’t achieved will soon stop being a weight of unfulfillment around my neck.
My thoughts have wandered away from my quest to enter the river, which I’m putting in the too-hard basket. But the river’s gushing brings me back to the job at hand. Maybe a few moments of meditation will provide me with the focus I need to jump in. Most of the world’s celebrities seem keen to peddle meditation as the answer to everything, although I know it’s nothing but a smokescreen. They want the world to think they’re mentally healthy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re all wearing masks which they’ve customized to appear as different from their real faces as possible—because the truth is most celebrities are as mad as cut snakes. I won’t judge them, though. What we see and hear is never the truth, whoever’s talking. We all wear masks all the time. I’ve worn one all my life. Not today though. I’ve had enough of the pain my mask has been hiding.
The river’s sounds are starting to make some sort of sense to me, like a loud drunk uncle at a family function who is only comprehensible when you’re also drunk. I wonder how Uncle Bob is these days. What’s the river saying to me? Does it want me to jump in? Does it want an unwelcome intruder immersed in its pure waters? It doesn’t look like it cares about much, apart from moving forward to where it wants to go in the shortest possible time. There’s no mask here, just raw truth on display for the whole world to see.
I dip my toe in again. Once again, it feels unbelievably cold despite the fact my toe is probably the least sensitive part of my body. This is a bad idea. There must be some other way to stop the pain of living. I cross my legs and think warm thoughts.
Could there be something positive coming my way if I were to jump straight into the river, no questions asked? Maybe I’ll turn into a magical fish who can fly upstream while singing acoustic Beatles songs from their drugged-out period. I’m thinking “Strawberry Fields” will hit the mark. I can relate to the lyric “No one I think is in my tree,” or in this case, river, and have always believed that line was written for me, about me. Or maybe I’ll float so impressively downstream that I’ll have invented a new sport for the world to enjoy: freezing river flotation. The rules are simple: competitors must relax their bodies, and let the river take them where it will. Coming out alive is a bonus. Rivers all around the world would be bombarded by random, floppy-bodied drifters driven solely by a need to go with the flow no matter where the flow is going. I was made for this sport—it’s lucky I almost invented it.
But back to the bad stuff, which is sitting there like the item of necessary unpleasantness it is—and the reason I’m here. Understanding a little about science makes this part easy. Firstly, I note that the river’s temperature on the oh-fuck-o-meter is all the way down at maximum ball shrinkage, which is around forty degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, I’ll become hypothermic within a matter of minutes. My body will be unable to warm itself as it will be so low on energy after unsuccessfully fighting the cold for so long. Then my internal organs will start failing. There’s a high probability I’ll be dead within an hour of entering the water. Oh joy! Thanks, science, for clarifying that bloody obvious unpleasantness for me. But, fair play, with my mask off today that’s what I’m here for.
The bad stuff is a can of worms, and it’s officially open for business. The next worm in this can is the not insignificant risk that I’m crushed to death by the water pounding me against the sharp rocks beneath as I float through the fast-flowing white-water rapids. Without a helmet, my head is particularly vulnerable to being fatally whacked on the way through. Now I think about it, being crushed to death on rocks sounds like a better way to go than freezing to death. Every cloud has a silver lining.
The river will be heard. The water gallops over the rocks like a prized racehorse attacking a racecourse, creating white water in all directions like a huge spa as it pushes forwards with ever-increasing momentum to where it needs to go. The sound of the river’s gushing is getting louder and louder. It’s speaking to me, shouting at me. Stay where you are, you fool.
No! A fool I may be, but I’ve stayed where I am all my life, and that’s not working for me. I’ve had enough. It’s time to let the bad stuff take me to a better place. I put my foot in. Sweet mother of god, it’s cold. I wade a few steps in. With each step, the cold water inches up my body from my feet to my ankles, and is now creeping up my legs. This is by far the coldest water I’ve ever been in. If immersing my legs in the water feels this painful, the idea of going any deeper is terrifying. My bones are fast emerging as the weakest link as the cold is diving deep into them. I suspect they’re close to shattering like glass into infinite pieces.
Can I do this, or is this the right moment to pull out the white flag? There’s no one here to ridicule my lack of balls, both literal and metaphorical, apart from me. I promise not to give myself a hard time about this in the future. I’m sure we’ll all look back at this moment and laugh: me, myself, and the river.
The idea of retreating from the river, white flag in hand, diverts my thoughts to a scene from my childhood, a scene which exposed my weakness. I was queuing up alongside the rest of my classmates, awaiting instructions from a teacher who’d left the classroom for a moment. I was minding my own business when I felt a sharp push from behind, as I was shoved into the person standing in front of me. The boy I’d been pushed into turned around and hit me hard in the face. I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. I cried, which led to my attacker adding verbal abuse to his arsenal of bullying strategies—he was a true innovator. He started throwing words like “sissy” at me as I reeled in pain on the ground. Now I think about it, he reminds me of my father—the two of them would have had scintillating conversations about the latest developments in bullying techniques.
I later discovered that the boy whom I’d been pushed into had asked the boy behind me to push me into him. He’d premeditated the whole show to create the opportunity to sock me in the face. When I asked him why he wanted to hit me, all I got back was that he felt like it. This was a bully without a backstory or motive beyond his Neanderthal need to cause pain in others. What a nice fellow. I wonder what he’s up to these days. He’s probably the chief executive of a global technology company.
The river seems to have moved past its initial indifference towards me, and is warming up to the idea of my uninvited visit. Or maybe it’s me who’s warming up to the idea of fully immersing myself into the river which is making the river appear friendlier—like when you start to like someone more, and that leads to them liking you more.
I wade out further. The cold water violently gallops further up my legs, causing shoots of intense pain. The water is still below the all-important ball-immersion zone, the line that represents the boundary between a fun day out and the stuff of nightmares. The idea of crossing to the other side is one step too far for my weakened mind.
A song jumps into my head as if the river is a radio through which a DJ has a sonic pathway into my psyche. I know this song as well as I know myself: it’s Frightened Rabbit’s “Swim till you can’t see land.” The words “I salute at the threshold of the North Sea of my mind / and I nod to the boredom that drove me here to face the tide” shiver around my ears. Swim till you can’t see land. That’s a pretty clear message, even for me. The river isn’t messing around. Was it boredom that led me here? That will require some serious thought, but I sense there may be something in it.
The thing is, this song and the band Frightened Rabbit are important to me. What were the chances this particular song popped into my head in this very moment? The lead singer of Frightened Rabbit, Scott Hutchison, seemed to be as genuine a person as you’d ever meet, the opposite of most successful singers. He loved the art of putting his heartfelt words into music, and making something fly that had started out as an inert thought. I read that Scott had suffered through a long battle with mental illness which he was fighting through his music. He believed that once he’d written lyrics comprising the destructive thoughts which he was fighting deep inside, he was free of their power. Once released, his lyrics were free to fly elsewhere to help comfort other people dealing with similar challenges, and to let others know that they’re not alone in feeling desperate. In a world short on heroes, Scott was a unique type of hero because he saved others by speaking his truth.
However, I know how Scott’s story ended, and it’s not great news for me, given the glaring similarities in our respective situations, excluding my singing ability, of course. In a moment of desperation, Scott ended up living his lyrics in a way most songwriters never come close to. He committed suicide by drowning. Hearts broke all around the world as Scott had become a poster- boy for singing your troubles away, uplifted by his band’s inspiring music. The message was clear: it can happen to the best of us—we are all vulnerable.
I’m vulnerable. That’s why I’m here.
If I just lower my body a little further into the river. Oh my god! I can’t help but yell out a few choice expletives as I go below the danger line. Even in my pain, I’m grateful there’s no one here to judge.
Who cares anymore? I lift my legs, and let the river’s current take me. Towards something better.