By: Josephine Greenland
Are they really going to swim here? Ellen thought as the Syrians strode into Torne River. She assumed they were Syrians by their black hair and beards, and the rapid Arabic they were speaking. They had to be at least twenty-five – the taller one, definitely. His hair was receding. Shorter guy might be younger. He was facing the beach now, slapping the water with the back of his hand, laughing at the flat sound it made against the surface. He had stubble instead of a beard.
Ellen looked around her. On the beach was a young man in a lifeguard vest, sitting in a foldable chair. Down in the water, in the kiddies’ area, were three boys, aged seven or so, throwing a red ball between them. To their right were two girls, ducking and diving, collecting stones from the bottom and putting them on the shore. A line of toddlers knelt by the waters edge, building sand castles with their mothers.
The men wouldn’t be able to do a single breaststroke, Ellen thought. Tall Guy would hit the river floor with his knees, Short Guy would knock a boy over. They should go beyond the buoy line, where her brother, Simon, was crawling up and down, treating the river as another lane in the swimming pool at home. All she could see of him now were his wind-milling arms and the water trails he left in his wake.
She checked her phone. The digital clock on the screen shifted from 18.20 to 18.21. He’d been going fifteen minutes. Not including the time she’d swum with him.
He’ll get tired, she thought. That current was strong. She’d felt it tug at her ankle the whole time when she was in. She could not watch him get swept away. She wanted a shower, to wash out the salt smell from her hair, before they went out to eat, and she didn’t want another late night take-out at the petrol station. Restaurants closed early in Haparanda-Tornio, especially in Finnish side of the town which was an hour ahead. And they had to be up so early tomorrow, for the ferry.
She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and flicked sand off the towel with her foot. Thinking of the ferry still made her grumpy. They’d spent three of that four hour bus drive down here arguing whether to book the ferry or the river rafting. In the end, the ferry won, and her brother had spent the last hour sulking, leaning as far away from her as his seatbelt would allow, refusing to answer why he cared so much about crashing along an ice cold river, when he could explore the beaches of the Bothnian archipelago.
Not for the first time, she wished she hadn’t let her parents talk her into this trip. Did they really think a week of travelling up the country, trapped in stuffy trains and buses, would make the two of them “bond”?
18.23. She should tell him to come back, go out on the jetty…
And shout at him like a schoolmistress? Or mother?
No. Simon was fifteen. He’d only swim further out to spite her.
Her gaze drifted back to the Syrians. The two men were still in the shallows, where the water reached Tall Guy’s hips and Short Guy’s waist. Short Guy made a right mess, splashing and jumping, churning the water through his arms as if amazed it was there.
She frowned. If they just wanted to splash around, they could go further down the river. The bank stretched a whole kilometre downstream, and she’d seen other people taking a dip down there.
Here they were just in the way. The two girls had stopped playing and were wading back to shore. The boys had moved over to the left corner by the reeds, where she knew the river floor was muddy and stuck to your feet. The mothers had moved their little ones away from the shoreline, due to the tidal waves created by the men’s splashing. The lifeguard stood up and wandered over to the ice-cream parlour.
Short Guy attempted a tackle. Tall Guy could have evaded it; his friend had no momentum, the water slowed him down. Yet he stood still and let his friend topple him over into the water. There was a huge splash, and laughter filled the air.
The boys, who’d watched the scene, shrugged and continued playing. The girls and the women didn’t so much as look at the men.
Why was no one reacting?
Could it be the language? The Syrians probably didn’t know any Swedish, and the women didn’t want to be awkward and ask. Maybe they wanted to avoid speaking Swedish anyway, given the chance. Everyone in Haparanda-Tornio was bilingual, but no matter which side of the border they stood on, people preferred to speak Finnish. Four hours she’d been in the place, and not heard a single Swedish word except at the Tourist Information Office.
The Syrians wouldn’t know Finnish. Sweden was the country who accepted refugees, Swedish was the language they would learn. There were no mixed nationalities in Tornio.
Ellen shifted on her towel. What did it matter that no one reacted? The boys didn’t seem to have a problem standing by the reeds. They were ducking and hiding behind the stalks, treating it as a jungle.
She looked around her at the beach. People lay splayed out on the sand, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, headphones plugged into ears, bodies bared to the sun. She heard snatches of conversation: Finnish vowels, up down in intonation, bubbling and skipping like the Torne River.
Perhaps no one cared about the men. It was the beach after all. People came here to get away from themselves. She should be enjoying the sun, like them.
Yet, Ellen couldn’t pull her gaze away from the two men. There was something about their chemistry, the way they shoved and pushed one another in mock battle, the contrast between Short Guy’s energy, that laughter which was louder and happier than any laugh she’d ever made in public, and Tall Guy’s reserved manner; the way he watched his friend, making sure he didn’t get too carried away. After a while, he motioned to Short Guy to come up to him.
Short Guy flicked his hair out of his eyes. He bent down to the water. Tall Guy put his hands on the shorter man’s waist, standing straight backed, square in the shoulders, like a swimming teacher about to teach his pupil. Short Guy kicked out. Water splashed from his hands and feet, soaking the older guy. After a few seconds Tall Guy let him go. Short Guy managed a few meters, paddling like a dog, before he sank. He stood up and they repeated the procedure again.
Tall Guy was teaching him to swim.
Again and again they practised, Tall Guy demonstrating the breaststroke and then making his friend copy. He muttered words of encouragement, watched Short Guy’s progress with a growing smile. When Short Guy finally managed five full breaststrokes on his own, Tall Guy clapped his hands and the two high-fived. A rapid exchange of words followed, probably banter. Tall Guy playfully bumped his fist on Short Guy’s shoulder, pulled him into a one-armed hug and ruffled his hair.
They are brothers, Ellen thought. They must be. Friends wouldn’t ruffle each other’s hair, or joke around like that, out in the open. That chemistry was their brotherhood, energetic and powerful like the river current.
The river in which Simon swam, alone.
She blushed. What would her parents say if they saw her now?
Perhaps she should go back in. It was 18.35, she could join him for a few minutes, maybe splash at him from behind.
That wouldn’t hurt, would it?
She brushed sand off her legs and stood up. She’d taken her first step into the water when one of the boys cried out.
They’d thrown the ball too hard. It landed beyond the buoy line and
began to bob down the river.
One of the boys, with cropped, blond hair, approached the Syrians. He
muttered a few words in Finnish, switched to Swedish when the men didn’t respond.
‘Can you get the ball for us?’
He switched to English: ‘Ball, help, please.’ He pointed at the ball.
Tall Syrian watched as the ball floated past the jetty. Cast a look at Simon, who was crawling down towards the reeds. He opened his mouth as if to speak but said nothing. Glanced back at the blond boy, who still looked up at him hopefully. He turned and looked at the people on the beach.
Then he dived beneath the buoy line and crawled into the river.
He wasn’t a fast swimmer. He didn’t put enough strength and force in his arms. Yet, he kept pushing. He passed the jetty and followed the ball deeper into the river. Made a grab for it, but was just beyond reach. The mini-waves created by his hand hitting the water pushed the ball another metre away. It bobbed on the surface, laughing at the man’s failure.
The younger brother called out to him. Scrambled onto the jetty, put his hands round his mouth and shouted.
Beyond the buoy line, just to the left of him, a figure appeared. Simon.
‘Help!’ Short Guy called to him in clipped English.
Simon opened his mouth to speak. He looked out to the river, then back at Ellen.
‘No,’ she called, and shook her head. ‘He’ll be fine, Simon, he doesn’t need you.’
Tall Guy drifted further away every minute. Now his head was a black dot bouncing on the water.
Ellen turned to the beach. ‘Someone call the lifeguard!’
Silent, blank faces stared back at her.
She pointed behind her at the river. ‘He needs help!’
She turned back to the river and gasped.
Simon was swimming out towards the Syrian.
No, no, no.
The river drowned out her cries. She strode further out, ignoring the cold that numbed her body as the river floor dropped and she came shoulder depth in water. She grabbed hold of the buoy line.
Simon was fast. He’d already reached Tall Guy. He held on to the man with one hand and with the other, lunged out and grabbed the ball. Ellen felt a moment’s pride for him, managing to snatch the ball like that, but it was soon replaced by panic.
The current was too strong. Swimming with one arm each like that, they’d get swept away. Ellen called out to them again; again the river drowned her voice. Torne played around with them all, chuckling in a language of its own.
A loud, sliding sound, followed by a bang, made her jump. Ellen whipped her head around.
The sliding door to the storage building attached to the parlour had been opened. The lifeguard was hauling a small rubber dinghy down the slipway to the water, on the opposite side of the jetty. He started the outboard engine and headed off into the river.
She watched him go, counting the seconds, gripping the buoy line until her hand cramped. Water splashed up against her lips and she tasted salt.
The dinghy reached Simon and the Syrian. The lifeguard helped them in. They returned to the shore.
Ellen and Short Guy scrambled onto the jetty to meet them.
When the taller brother had clambered out of the dinghy he tossed the ball at the child, who stood in the water looking up at them. The boy caught it, stared at the man and rushed back to his friends.
Shorter Brother spoke. There was no laughter in his voice. Taller Brother hugged him tightly, muttering a string of hushed words. A current seemed to run through the brothers, connecting them, mingling their Arabic whispers with the mutterings of the river.
Simon edged closer to Ellen. He looked at her through his dripping hair, like a schoolboy knowing he’d done something irresponsible. When she tried to meet his eyes, he lowered his gaze.
Ellen licked her lips, unsure where to begin.