Duck Diving (song)

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The ponds are very big, so at the one end people bathe, and at the other end they fish. Old chaps with bald heads sit on folding stools and fish with rods and lines. Little kids squeeze through the railings and wade out into the water to fish with nets. But the water's much deeper at our end of the ponds, and that's where we bathe. You're not allowed to bathe there unless you can swim, but I've always been able to swim. They used to say that was because fat floats. Only I don't dive, not from any diving board, thank you. I have to take my glasses off to go into the water, and I can't see without them. And I'm just not going to dive, even from the lowest diving board, and that's that, and they stopped nagging about it long ago. Then this summer they were all on at me to learn duck diving. You're swimming on the surface of the water and suddenly you up-end yourself just like a duck, and dive down deep into the water, and perhaps you swim about a bit underwater, and then come up again. I dare say ducks begin doing it soon after they're born - it's different for them.

So I was learning to duck dive, to swim down to the bottom of the ponds and pick up a brick they'd thrown in, and bring it up again. You practised that in case you have to rescue anyone from drowning. Of course, they'd be bigger and heavier than a brick, but I suppose you have to begin with bricks and work up gradually to people.

The swimming instructor said, "I'm going to throw the brick in." It was a brick with a bit of old white flannel round it to make it show up under water. He made everyone else come out of the water to give me a chance, and they were standing watching. I could see them blurred along the bank, and I could hear them talking and laughing. But there wasn't a sound in the water, except me just treading water, gently, waiting. And then I saw the brick go over my head as the instructor threw it, and there was a splash as it went into the water ahead of me, and I thought, "I can't do it. My legs won't up-end this time, they feel just flabby, they'll float but they won't up-end, they can't up-end. It's different for ducks!" But while I was thinking all that I'd taken a deep breath, and then my head really went down, and my legs went up into the air. I could feel them there, just air around them, and then there was water around them, because I was going down into the water after all. Right down into the water... straight down.

The water was like a thick greeny-brown lemonade, with wispy little things moving very slowly in it. Down we went. And the lemonade look quite went from the water. And it became just a dark blackish-brown, any wonder you could see anything at all, especially as the bit of white flannel seemed to have come off the brick by the time it reached the bottom and I caught up with it. The brick looked different down there anyway, and it had already settled right into the mud. There was only one corner left sticking up. I dug into the mud with my fingers and got hold of the thing, and then I didn't think of anything except getting up again with it into the air. In touching the bottom like that I'd stirred up the mud, so that I began to go up through a thick cloud of it. It made me feel I might be getting lost. Perhaps I'd swum underwater too far. Perhaps I'd come up at the far end of the pond, amongst all the fishermen and foul their lines. And perhaps get a fish hook caught in me, or perhaps I just wasn't going to find the top again and the air again.

The funny thing was I only began to get afraid on the way back, even though I was going up quite quickly and the water was already changing from brown-black to green-brown, and then to bright lemonade. I could almost see the sun shining through the water, I was getting so near the surface, it wasn't until then that I felt really frightened. I knew I was moving much too slowly. I knew I would never reach the air again in time...

And then suddenly I was at the surface. And pond water was trickling down inside my nose and into my mouth which I hate, but there was air all around and above for me to breathe to live, and I might live to be a hundred now, and keep a sweet shop of my own, and walk on the moon, and breed mastiffs, and rescue someone from drowning, and be awarded a medal for it, and be interviewed on TV. And then I noticed they were shouting from the bank, they were cheering and shouting and the instructor was halloing with his hands around his mouth. I turned round and I swam to the bank, and they hauled me out and they gave me my glasses to have a good look at what I'd brought up from the bottom. 'Cos it wasn't a brick, it was just about the size and shape of one, but it was a tin. An old, old tin box with no paint left on it, and all brown-black slime from the bottom of the ponds. It was as heavy as a brick because it was full of mud. Don't get excited as we did. There was nothing there but mud. We strained all the mud through our fingers but there wasn't anything else there, not even a bit of old sandwich or the remains of bait. I don't know how that tin could have got there. Anyway, it must have been there for years and years by the look of it. When you think, it might have stayed there for years and years longer, if I hadn't found it. Perhaps stayed sunk underwater forever.

I've cleaned the tin up now, and I keep it on the mantelpiece at home with my coin collection in it. I had to duck dive later for another brick and I got it all right without being frightened at all, but it didn't seem to matter as much as coming up with that tin. I shall keep that tin as long as I live, and I might live to be a hundred.

Notes

  • The lyrics are from a 1970s school English textbook. The story, written by Philippa Pearce, is called Return to Air.

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Page last modified on October 02, 2009, at 10:09 PM