The Beach Diaries 2012 – #35
* I’m sat on the pier, idly looking out over the coast. The river flows behind me, cutting between the East beach, where I am, and the West, and emptying out into the ocean. It’s low tide, and the sea’s on its way back in, causing the mouth of the river to swirl in a way that instinctively makes you grip the rail if you stare at it too hard. Behind me, from the opposite bank, my ears pick out the sound of clapping, and a frantic voice. I stand and move to the other side, scanning the water below, and hoping — really hoping — it isn’t what I fear. But it is. In the centre of the river, a dog paddles helplessly towards the steep, flat walls that stand fifteen feet high on both sides. It’s not wearing a lead, and clearly fell in when it peered over the crumbling wall on the West bank. The raging swirl of undertow where river meets sea is barely twenty yards away. Among the dark rush of waves, the dog looks so small; so vulnerable. A bee in a hurricane. My gut wrenches so hard and fast that I almost vomit. Dogs can swim, but not forever. I’m going to see a dog drown today.
I’ve mentioned before about dogs being my emotional Achilles heel. I’ve a borderline pathological lack of empathy for actual people, and whenever there’s a terrible story in the news about something horrific happening to another person, I know it’s bad, and I do feel for them, but I don’t get that sick, teary flush until my mind says “What if that had happened to a dog?” Like a new parent who can no longer stomach films about murdered children, any canine abuse has me mentally flashing to the family dog, cutting and pasting her into the story; the fear, the pain, the neglect; projecting it all onto that furry, innocent little face I love so dearly. It’s a thing that makes me understand why we have Trigger Warnings, and why I don’t read the Daily Mail website just to moan about it anymore, with their constant, gleeful streams of dog-abuse porn.
Back at the river, and I know for sure that today is now going to involve my watching a frightened, exhausted dog drown, and being able to do nothing to help. It’s a dangerous river, one of the fastest in the country, and when I was a kid, coastguards would come into school and hold assemblies where they told us we’d be swept to our deaths it we so much as looked at it. For the dog, there’s no way up, and it’s in the most hazardous section, paddling madly in the black, completely stranded. On the opposite bank, the panicked owner peels off her shoes, tossing them behind her like she’ll never need them again. She dangles her legs over the wall, looking down at a drop that’s two or three times her standing height, ready to jump. By now, the rail on my side of the river is packed with people, and the lifeguards sprint from the beach to shout through a megaphone that the lifeboat is coming, and you mustn’t jump in. A man on the other bank — who’d held back the owner when she was about to leap — in a terribly desperate, terribly British effort to look useful, frenetically retrieves the orange life-ring. For a moment, you see it play out on his face. “Would a dog be able to climb into this? Would they even know what it is?” No, he thinks. He clutches the ring impotently to his chest.
The actions of the owner dangling over the edge lures the dog back across, and somehow, it finds a tiny slat or beam; just enough foothold to balance on, with the river lapping at the bottom of its jaw. A pink, bone-shaped name-tag glints in the sun. It’s a girl, I think, just like the family dog. So now, the lifeboat is on the way, and we just have to wait. But you can’t tell that to a dog, and she scrabbles at the wall, crying and scratching so loud that it’s the only noise there is in the world; just howling. I find myself pacing, with a genuine terror in my belly like those mad, paranoid moments when you’re sure something’s happened to a loved one, because they’re not picking up their phone, and where are they, and God why aren’t they picking up?!
Like a cliffhanger on a serial matinee, the dog’s nose is barely above the ever-rising waters, with her neck craned skyward, just so she can breathe. The fast, incoming tide is a tick-tick-tick that hangs an unspoken countdown over all our heads. The lifeboat crew are amazing, and close by, but they need time to mobilize, so waiting is all we can do. At points, the dog panics, swimming back out, until its owner calls it back onto the little foothold, where it stands, whimpering, and clawing at the timber of the bank, staring up at someone who must seem a thousand miles away. Suddenly — salvation.
A speed boat ploughs up the river. A chorus of people scream at the driver and his passenger, two shirtless men in their forties with leathery, bloated, pub physiques.
“Stop!” “Get the dog!” “Turn around! There’s a dog, help the dog!” The driver slows the boat enough to hear the cries and throw a look back towards the drowning, terrified animal, a few feet away. He literally shrugs his shoulders, pointing out to sea as if to say “I’ve got better things to do,” and gunning the accelerator. As the boat tears away, the resulting wash churns the water, rocking the river violently and hurling it over the dog’s head, knocking her from the foothold. She panics again, and paddles away, towards death. This is awful, I think, just the worst thing that has ever happened. The owner calls her back, for now. Nobody dares breathe.
For ten or fifteen or a million long, long minutes, we watch. This strange, shared tension is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Fifty people, with their hearts in their throats. A stranger’s ragged dog, the centre of all our universes. The tide’s getting higher, the dog’s getting more and more distressed. I’m a mass of nervous twitches and jiggling limbs. I crack each of my fingers the four different ways I know how. I babble swearwords and “Fucking hell, that dog’s going to drown, Christ…” out loud like a street-loon. My head glares towards the launch ramp of the lifeboat station, down the way, willing it to appear. And then, another boat comes burning along the river. Not the lifeboat, but a boat nonetheless. My stomach’s in knots as I remember the last time, how the wash almost pulled her under, how they’d shrugged and left her to die. By now, the crowds are bigger. People scream, furiously pointing at the dog and waving their arms at the driver like they’ve been shipwrecked on an island for twenty years, and cursing the men as the pass. “Why didn’t they turn around?” says a woman, utterly incensed. But they do. They turn around and come back. Only, the boat has caused the wash to get violent. Then, like that old, shit joke about buses, which everyone on the river seems to say out loud at once, more boats appear; four, one after the other. The water becomes a treacherous, writhing beast, with currents and tides clashing with the washes, the push-and-pull of nature and man, and a little dog somewhere among it all, clinging on. On the far bank, the man clutches tightly to his inflatable orange ring.
And like that, it’s all over. The men reach into the waves and pluck her out, up into the boat where she’s safe. There’s a spontaneous round of applause, whistles and cheers; the heroes of the day providing a brief moment of joy in Cameron’s wretched Britain. Beneath the shades, I’m sobbing. Uncontrollably sobbing. The whole experience, the fear, the indescribably intense relief — I feel like I have to get away. But I need to witness the ending for myself, so I push through the dispersing crowds and jog along the river behind the boat. On the far shore, the dog reunites with its owner, shaking it all off like nothing ever happened.
Meanwhile, out at sea, the men who drove on by and not only left the dog, but almost killed it with their boat’s obnoxious wake, had their genitals bitten off by a shark, and then drowned, alone and afraid. Hopefully.
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