If you were me, what would you have done?
Three years, two months and sixteen days ago, I took the dog out for a walk on the front, just as the first drizzle of a week of rain started floating to the ground. He didn’t really want to go out then, but I didn’t really want to go out later. As we walked down the steps of the front of our house, the lead hung slack as he looked up and walked close to me. I half expected him to ask ‘really?’ as I pulled up my hood and slipped the handle of his lead over my wrist so I could pull the drawstrings tighter under my chin as the rain moved quickly from mist to droplets.
As ever, I crossed over to walk on the beach side of the main seafront road and we stuck close to the sea wall, next to which he’d run ahead, stop, sniff, piss, look round for me to be suitably impressed and trot off again as far as his lead would allow, to perform the ritual over again. The wind was gently rolling along the beach and would flick up and over the wall in gusts mimicking the waves that would lap the wall in half an hour or so. I looked out over the boats cocked half on their sides in muddy sand waiting keenly for that tide to roll in. He trotted back to me – evidently I wasn’t walking fast enough.
That wind grew, curling along the promenade and around the pier, grabbing and depositing upon us the smell of fresh doughnuts and burnt sugar. He looked up at me, leant his head to one side and I quickly agreed. Why not? It was cold and wet – a nice freshly fried ring of greasy batter was exactly what we both needed.
We proceeded at his pace and the rain proceeded at its own. The sky was a dark concrete grey now and the raindrops bounced back up towards it from the puddles we’d started stepping around. We reached the pier and I put his lead on the restricted setting so he couldn’t go too far. I needn’t have bothered really, as there was hardly anyone out at all. The town did lend itself to easily offended people though I’m sorry to say, so I kept him close as we passed a couple of stalls and made our way out to sea, to see the doughnut man.
The doughnut man’s stall was around two thirds of the way along the pier and a collection of fisherman had setup nearby, sipping hot drinks from their flasks and waiting for the tide to come in. Two boys ran around the arcades inside, and outside by the entrance and the stall. The dog momentarily forgot his pursuit of sugared treats and leapt and bounced around by the boys, who jumped back alarmed at his intrusion into their game. We approached the stall and I called out “Hi ya Stan,” to the man behind the counter, who had his back to us.
Stan was about my age and had worked here since we were both about the same as the two boys bounding around and playing now; what appeared to be off-ground-touch getting their feet off the ground by stepping on one of the fishermen’s bait boxes, or by grabbing onto the handrail. They should be careful really I thought, and looked briefly around for any parents. “A dozen?” asked Stan, smiling down and pouring my coffee into a Styrofoam cup. The dog was going mad, and wouldn’t sit no matter how many times I told him to. I watched the fresh batter rings rolling down the tracks to the oil and in a few seconds starting to climb the other side, golden and dripping in that beautiful fat. A sip of my coffee stopped my mouth dripping too, as one by one they fell off the conveyor belt and into the pot of sugar below, each with a small puff of sweet dust.
The dog pawed at my leg and bounced some more as Stan bagged them up, warned me they were hot, pinched the open corners and spun the paper bag back towards himself. He always did the bag up, even though he knew I’d give one straight away to the dog to eat while I sipped at my coffee. I gave him two pounds, untwisted one corner of the bag and flipped one down onto the boardwalk for the dog to nose around until it was cool enough.
“Oh Jesus,” said Stan and rushed from behind the counter and out through the main entrance as a small crowd quickly gathered by one of the fishing rigs. The doughnut I’d dropped was gone and eyes stared expectantly up at me awaiting another. “Come on,” I said and we walked over to the crowd. One of the boys was shrieking and sobbing and was being comforted by the fisherman whose rig we’d crowded around. Three men were running away down the pier and someone else asked if anyone had called an ambulance as Stan shouted over the handrail “don’t move son, just stay as still as you can and we’ll be there in no time at all”. The dog pawed at my leg and I took another sip from my coffee and another doughnut from the bag and dropped it to the floor. He guzzled that up straight away as they were cooler now.
The steady rain suddenly poured down in a heavy flurry as the men who’d run along the pier trudged through the muddy sand towards the boy laying awkwardly below, one leg half buried at an awkward angle and one arm completely invisible beneath him. An ambulance arrived on the promenade, the blue lights flicking off the puddles in the sand and gleaming along the worn wooden handrail to where we stood. The three men finally reached him and someone dropped an umbrella down to cover the boy from the rain, as the paramedics climbed down the sea wall steps and started trudging out through the mud and puddles.
The dog pawed at my leg again and I ate a doughnut myself, before dropping him another which he plucked from the air. “Come on,” I said again, and we started back down the pier. I walked along close to the handrail and glanced back a few times, seeing the paramedics arrive, then again to see them transfer him to a stretcher, legs and neck in orange braces and arm crossed gently across his stomach as water started to lap at their knees. We left the pier as the group of men began wading back towards the sea wall and I stopped briefly to watch them approach, glancing over their shoulders as the tide rolled back into town around them, unperturbed by the boy’s fall.
We walked slowly back along the sea wall and finished the doughnuts before crossing over and turning up our street. I let him off the lead and he galloped the last hundred feet or so back to our house and up the steps before turning and staring expectantly at me. I unlocked the door and he dashed in before I called him back and dried him with the old towel we kept by the front door. He rushed off again once I was done and I removed my coat and shoes and went through to the front room. I told my wife what had happened and we agreed it was a terrible thing and hoped the boy would be OK.
It was in the paper a couple of days later. The boy had suffered a broken leg and arm after hitting one of the concrete feet of the pier, had a bit of a concussion from whacking the sand, but was otherwise fine. The paper praised the quick thinking of local fishermen and members of the public and condemned the council and owners of the pier for making the handrail so easy to climb, and with no grip to hang on to. That was what had happened apparently: The boy who fell had climbed over to escape his friend as part of their game, had lost his grip on the wet handrail and fell. In the coming weeks and months, follow up pieces ran featuring the boy’s family who blamed themselves – and the boy – for the accident; with the council, who blamed the owners of the pier – and the boy; and with the owners of the pier who blamed the council for the lack of funding they received – and the boy of course. Every single report I read and person interviewed praised the quick thinking of the locals who had rushed to the boy’s aid and called the ambulance.
In the 38 and a half months that have passed since the accident, I’ve not been able to get that praise of the locals and the blaming of the boy out of my mind. I started writing him – the boy that is – a letter to say that I wish I’d done something to help, and I was sorry, but I couldn’t finish it and it’s never been sent. I wouldn’t know where to send it anyway.
We don’t walk that way anymore. We walk the other way, up the hill and back again.
Photo: Courtesy of Dean Thorpe and Aspex Design