Any eight year old is trusting of adults, and I was no different. It was a winter’s night when I lost that trust, that innocence, and developed a wariness about people in general that I’ve never really lost.
That Christmas Eve was a night of the kind that remains forever in the memory. A beautiful, magical, winter’s night. My child’s mind soaked up the atmosphere, the freezing temperatures, how my breath resembled a steam engine, how my fingers stung with ice-bite, and how this was a real Christmas!
There was snow, we were on holiday, there were games and entertainment. It was just about perfect and I constantly watched the skies for a glimpse of that special sleigh, the reindeer and my hopes for a present.
It was so magical I almost forgot I was alone, with no friends and my parents enjoying their meal in the big room filled with tinsel and drunken adults across the park. I had been left in our chalet room, supposedly asleep. But of course sleep was impossible. I got up and, finding no baby sitter there, I felt adventure call.
I quickly dressed, found my coat and snuck outside to experience the snow and the night. I remember the skies twinkling and the snow shimmering with a million diamond points of reflected moonlight. I walked over to the pool, so cold it was frozen over completely, dusted with snow and the raised sides covered in a glaze of ice.
The night was still, there was no one around, just the faint sounds of singing and laughter floating from the big rooms a hundred yards away. Fearlessly I walked along the pool’s edge, an explorer of the arctic searching for the North Pole, to become the hero, the first to reach that fabled place, to plant the flag. Just one more step and glory would be mine …
I slipped ... my arms began windmilling for balance but it was too late, I was already falling.
The shock of cold water as I crashed through the ice was harder than the worst canning at school or even the fiercest slap my Father had ever given me. From below the surface, I looked up towards a mirage of the most beautiful kind. Shimmering in distorted waves of pale blue light through a cascade of bubbles, the Moon was calling to me.
I was a strong swimmer and kicked hard towards this image, but my coat and shoes dragged me down. It felt as if I was being held by demons determined to keep me under water. I broke the surface, gasped air and sank down again, the icy coldness closing over my head like a vice.
Again I found the surface, coughing and spluttering. I flung out my arms onto the ice sheet surrounding me and instantly it cracked, breaking under my weight. As I sank down once more, I saw him standing in the darkness, watching.
I kicked, fought, struggled and found air again. And again the ice broke around me. I knew I had to reach the side or drown. I couldn’t shout, I could only fight for survival. Not twenty feet away, I could see his eyes. In a face devoid of expression, those eyes pierced me with a dreadful indifference.
My fingers grasped the side, nails clawing into the ice found no grip and I slipped off. Once again the water closed over me. Yet another frantic kick, a gulp of air, a cough of water and again I saw those watching eyes. Why wouldn't he help? Motionless, his shoulders hunched against the cold, hands thrust into pockets, he just stared and watched.
In one last desperate effort, I threw both arms onto the ice covered poolside and this time, I hung on. Little by little I pulled myself out and finally rolled away from the edge. I lay there staring at the night sky, the stars still twinkled but now they were blurred both from the water in my eyes and shivering.
I turned towards the adult watching in the darkness. But he had gone. His indifference to my plight was a greater shock to me than my near death from drowning. It was a lesson in self sufficiency I would never forget and helped toughen me up for life. I've wondered what that guy felt, did he enjoy watching a child nearly drown? I've never spoken of this event, feeling perhaps more a fool for falling in than anything else I suppose.