By: Jane Collins-Philippe
The water level was high, the current strong. The familiar blue-grey ribbon tumbled wildly as it worked its way to wherever it is that rivers go. Leafy silence was interrupted only by the chirping of birds and the kissing of waves on surface-breaking rocks. April’s run-off was as cold as ice. Practical, thought Claudia, who was counting on the speedy efficiency of hypothermia. At forty-five, she had not yet read any books by Virginia Woolf. Nor did she know any details about the famous author’s life and death. She believed her plan to be original. It came to her in a dream: a fuzzy, nonsensical set of images that seemed irrational at the time but later didn’t. Could this be what she’d been looking for – the ideal means to an end?
Everything had been calculated: the leather hiking boots and the denim painter’s pants she bought last year and had never worn. The bulky sweater and heavy woollen jacket purchased for a pittance at Goodwill would help drag her under. Ditto for the boots. Claudia wanted the operation to be over as rapidly as possible.
The river, this clearing in the pines, the sliver of sandy beach encroached upon now by rising water and broken boughs, had once been a favourite spot. When they were young, she and her sister Pauline used to swim here. The family home had been just up the hill. In springtime the river was off limits. “If you fall in, the undertow will pull you down even before you can cry for help,” their mother warned. “You won’t have a chance.”
If one were to pose the obvious question, Claudia would be able to iterate several reasons for the mounting distress that led her to the river’s edge. They would start with her repeated losses and failures and her persistent inability to better herself – not to mention her knobby knees and horrid hair. Nevertheless, she’d managed to get up and go to work every morning, smile at her co-workers and laugh with her friends (of which there were few). Her courage disintegrated the day Stanley, her husband of thirteen years, admitted he was having an affair with Pauline. Her sister. ‘In love for the first time in my life,’ he said, (the first time!). He bought a flat in the city so the lovers could spend more time together. Claudia considered burning it to the ground.
Yet, wasn’t this par for the course? Throughout their childhood, Pauline had been the favourite, reaping more than her share of parental love and affection, getting whatever her horrid little heart desired. Confident and assertive, she pushed her only sibling into the shadows. Claudia was badly nourished by Pauline’s rejects and left-overs. ‘My hand-me-down daughter,’ her mother used to laugh. As though it were funny. In regards to guys, her sister was a ‘pick-up-and-throw-away kind of gal. Any boyfriends Claudia managed to get were snagged by Pauline and later tossed aside. Pauline couldn’t tolerate Claudia’s having something she might want.
The elder sister had it all: a wealthy husband who was devoted to her, two kids and a house the size of the Taj Mahal. Most considered her beautiful. She could have any man, why would she steal Claudia’s? And how could he choose someone so selfish and self-centred? Claudia was a good wife; rarely complaining, always doing Stanley’s bidding, putting his needs first. She may not match Pauline’s beauty but she wasn’t hard on the eyes either. Stanley was far from the ideal mate, but Claudia believed that he was hers, at least. Wrong again. How easily seemingly solid and safe things could fall apart without intervention. Or none that was visible. Therein lay the trouble. She had no control. No power over her life. Except the power to end it. The time had come for Claudia to give her pitiful existence the ultimate finger.
The painter’s pants, with their deep hip and leg pockets, were a stroke of genius. Several good-sized rocks went into the immense pouches meant for paint brushes and tools. The trouble was that their weight was pulling the trousers down. It didn’t take long before the crotch was at her knees. By transferring a few rocks to the coat pockets the situation was improved. Finally, Claudia assessed her body to be sufficiently ballasted. Had she considered how her parents and her best friend would react to this act of self-destruction, rather than jumping into the roiling river, she may have given Stanley the finger instead. But Claudia’s thoughts couldn’t extend beyond herself.
Stepping onto the riverbank, she could hear the blood rushing away from her brain; as though her mind had chosen not to take part in the undertaking. What she couldn’t hear, however, as she stepped into the shallows, were the voices of two fishermen approaching from the west. Local fellows who, as it turned out, used to fish regularly with her father. They were heading for a spot not more than fifty metres from the pretty place in the pine grove where his daughter had chosen to end her life. The men’s voices didn’t carry far because they were downstream and downwind and the rushing river provided auditory camouflage. On top of that, Barney Potts and Noel George were the soft-spoken types.
At her point of entry the river-bed was sandy and shallow, but not more than a few steps from shore it grew rocky and deepened rapidly. Noel and Barney couldn’t see Claudia staring blindly at the racing water. She was hidden from view by the towering pines and they were busy preparing to cast their lines. As Noel fussed with his reeling mechanism (his vision wasn’t what it used to be), Claudia was edging her way slowly and painfully away from shore. By the time Barney had made his cast and was getting a kick out of Noel’s awkward efforts, she was in up to her knees. “Je-e-eez,” she hissed. Her feet ached and it felt as though her calves were being crushed. Arms, held out horizontally like wings, tried to provide some balance.
Noel George gave a chirp of satisfaction as he threw back his long slender bamboo rod and let it whip. Meanwhile, Claudia was second-guessing her plan of action; thinking that if she got out of the water right away it would be okay. Nobody was there to witness her cowardice. She could drive home slowly with the car’s heater on full blast. That way, her pants and maybe even her boots would be dry when she got there. After all, she wasn’t in that big a rush to end it all. She had time to come up with a warmer and more comfortable way to go.
Those were the thoughts running through her mind when she slipped on some slimy rocks and toppled in. The shock of hitting the freezing water took away her breath, otherwise she would certainly have screamed and drawn the men’s attention. Weighing her body down had been effective. Claudia had to fight to keep her head up. The water was barely waist-high, yet the load in her pants prevented her from gaining the leverage required to climb out. Hampered as well by her sodden clothing and heavy boots, she was at the mercy of the deepening river. Her frantic struggle did nothing but shift her further into the current. She tried frantically to dig the rocks out of her pockets but was so numbed by the cold and shaken by the water’s movement that her hands could barely function.
On the nearby bank, Noel’s friend was preparing for another cast. Good old Barney was known as one of the best around. He could hit the centre flow nine times out of ten. The shoulder muscles of his right arm were particularly well-developed from decades of fly fishing. The air virtually vibrated as he wound up, his arm and rod becoming one fluid arc. A beautiful sight to see.
Noel George didn’t aim for the same accolades as Barney Potts. He was happy if his fly landed somewhere off-shore. A breeze had picked up, jostling the multitude of flowering blossoms overhead. A few delicate petals fluttered like butterflies, settling on the water. Noel was watching them with quiet pleasure, thinking how beautiful nature was and how well it managed if left to its own devices. He was admiring the way the colourful bobbing blossoms were juxtaposed with the sun’s shine on the river’s surface when his attention was distracted by a hefty tug on his line.
“By George,” he yelped in surprise (he loved that expression). “Looks like I’ve caught me a whopper!” Sure enough, several metres from where he stood was something huge, dark and thrashing.
Both fishermen wore hip-waders. It was their habit to begin by casting from shore, then once they were ‘warmed up,’ wade into the shallows. Noel’s line was a strong one, though it would likely have snapped had he not been able to get out there and relieve the tension on the thing. It didn’t take long for him to realise that this was no ordinary trout. He praised the new fly he’d tied just the week before. The one that was written up in Rod and Stream. “Well, how ‘bout that,” he said, amazed at the lure’s efficacy.
“I’ll be darned, Noel,” cried Barney, jealous as hell. “Looks like you caught yourself a monster.”
The bamboo arched dangerously. Noel George was having trouble controlling it. Barney Potts finished reeling in and placed his own rod upright against a tree so he wouldn’t go stomping all over it the way he’d once done. Broke one of his very best that way.
“Might be nothing but an old tire. Happens all the time nowadays,” Barney suggested hopefully as he moved into the river for a better look.
His buddy wasn’t buying it. “Nope, that’s no Michelin out there.” Noel screwed his eyes against the glare. “In fact . . .” Noel George nearly jumped out of his waders. Even with his failing eyesight he could see that whatever he’d caught had no place being where it was. “Christ, Barn,’ take a look, will ya? Isn’t that an arm I see waving out there? I think a somebody, not a fish or a tire has gone and chomped on my bait.”
“Krikey, I think you’re right!” Within seconds the two of them were wading like there was no tomorrow.
It took a while, but with the help of their combined experience and Claudia’s almost futile efforts, they managed to land the biggest catch ever. Barney was sorry he hadn’t thought to take his camera with him that day. What a shot it would have made of them standing proud and tall, rods in hand. With the gal slumped between them, soaked and shivering, the hook still embedded in the seat of her trousers.
Naturally, Barney Pots and Noel George assumed she’d fallen in accidentally (which in a way was true). Although, there was some confusion about how the rocks got into her pockets. Claudia maintained that the river did it as she was scrambling to get to shore. In fact, the opposite had happened. Thanks to her flailing, several of the lighter ones had fallen out. In any case, regardless of whatever conclusion they may have reached, neither of the men chose to deny her theory. Perhaps one reason for their gullibility was that they knew her. Or knew of her, what with Claudia’s being Frank’s daughter and all. Noel was pretty sure they’d met some years back. And nobody who was a relative of Frank’s would ever throw themselves into the river willingly. That prospect was simply out of the question. At any rate, they were mighty pleased to have been there to save her. And so, it turned out, was Claudia. Though when she stopped to reflect upon it, she realised that by the time they’d rescued her she’d already gone through the worst of the ordeal. She was so numbed by the cold that she no longer felt a thing. If they’d left well enough alone, she would no doubt have arrived at her chosen destination within just a few short minutes. That kind of pissed her off.
By the time Claudia pulled into their driveway her clothes were almost dry. She got out of her car and shook herself as would a wet dog. Her head was lowered as she rummaged in her pockets, pulling out bits of river weed and pebbles. Which is why she didn’t at first notice her husband sitting on the backyard bench. His eyes were red, his hands wringing. He looked miserable.
Something horrible must have happened to my sister, thought Claudia, rushing over to join him. Getting closer she could see tears in his eyes. “Oh my god, what is it?”
Stanley stood and threw his arms around her. “She’s dumped me.” he cried, snot and tears running into her dampened hair. “I’ve been such a fool. Pauline never loved me, she told me that herself.”
“There, there,” hummed Claudia, patting his back.
It seemed the day hadn’t been a total loss after all.