Clink of bottle upon rock and cackle of teen laughter lie light upon the damp river air. It is cold. When hands are not cradling cheap cider they are thrust inside puffer jackets or, in the case of the boys, down jogging bottoms. Breath billows into the night along with swearing so thick it has become a tic rather than a conversational trait.
The boy pauses, crouched above the water. Six feet of rushing, peat-stained froth separate him from the drunken cheers of his classmates and glory. Six feet between him, the southern softie new to the area, and acceptance. The goading is loud in his ears, but both he and his fellow students know that the Stretch is no laughing matter.
Drink and bravado has brought the teenagers here tonight. Not for them the warning signs on trees and worried glances of late-night dog walkers. Not for them the local lore of lives lost and bodies found downstream. They love the idea of danger relished, of death stared in the eye. The sight of the foaming churn has failed to calm their ardour and as happens with children, one thing has led to another.
So it is that the southern softie takes five steps back across the furred boulders. New as he is, still he is aware of the Stretch’s reputation. A mile upstream from where he now stands the river is broad and serene, curling its way seawards like a canal. Here though, a geological quirk, a change in the bedrock, means that the weight of water is forced into a narrow, bouldered channel. The kids had not been slow to tell him that no-one who has fallen into the Stretch has ever come out alive. They had described to him through drink-loosened lips how the narrow banks serve only as overhangs, with the true, sucking depths of the water hidden underneath. Gouged out tunnels and caves within caves lie beneath the ground on which the group sits. One of the girls, her alcopop breath tickling his ear, had whispered to him that by the time some of the bodies appeared from the gloom they were monstrous, bloated beyond all recognition.
The boy can still feel the girl’s whisper on the side of his face as he judges the distance one final time. He is one leap from a shared memory with them, from back slaps and from a celebratory kiss on the cheek, from being part of the Group That Goes Down the River. It is only when he starts to run that he realises his legs are numbed by drink and cold. A stumble, no more that half a foot’s misstep. The moonlit flashes on the water beneath him and he realises that the far bank is further than he thought.
*Thanks for reading, folks. Recent short stories of mine include ‘Root and Stem‘ and ‘The Tale-Teller’s Manifesto‘. Image courtesy of Richard Brown on Flickr. The inspiration for this is a nasty little stretch of river called ‘The Strid‘ near Bolton, England.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order.