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The Scar

Fifteen years changes a seven-year-old a lot more than a forty-year-old; I recognise him but he doesn't me. He is with two other men, same age, same level of fitness. They aren't climbers but seem capable enough for the waterfall. Presumably they've already been for a long walk before reaching the scar and, as they take a break, now marvel.

It is a sight to see. Most people, when they've walked across the fell up by the side of the beck, turn the bend, hear its hiss, and the scar comes into view and they take a breath. It's a huge gorge of overhanging limestone with a waterfall gushing down to the beck.

We exchange a couple of words. They watch me a while. I am putting new hooks in the lower reaches of the outcrop for the junior climbers who come for outward bound courses and adventure programmes. It's all easy stuff but you have to be careful. I explain to the kids that attention is the most important thing. It's having wit, like a bird. I can usually point to one nearby, watchful, aware, cocking its head, an eye on us and everything, as it goes about its business. It might be a sparrow darting in and out of the fall or it might be a mother duck on her rounds of the streams, behind her little ducks bouncing up and down. The kids always like to watch them. 'How many do you see?' I ask. They count the ducklings. 'You forgot the mother', I say. I'm not doing anything really interesting, but those going out for a Sunday walk, seeing someone with all the gear and ropes, like to watch. He looks me over, friendly, no memory flicker. But I know him. I saved the newspaper photograph.

"How high is it?" he asks.

"One hundred meters," I say, and then add, "four swimming pool lengths."

They chuckle but he doesn't have a clue. They begin to ascend the waterfall.

I tell them, "Take your time. Once you're up, you can walk along the top to the cove and then into the village. It's windy up there. Don't go too close to the edge."

I watch them. The other two are solid and steady, moving swiftly and soon manage to get on top of the first big boulder. He's only climbed a few meters and after fumbling about taking a photograph, not seen how they've got there, so he's underneath the shelf and its hanging right above him and seems impossible to get over without equipment.

"Look over there!"

The other two call and point but I can see he has the jitters, his hands in one place, then another, snatching them away again. He looks up at the rock and down at his feet and then, pulling back, shakes his head. He's lost his nerve.

My mother was worried my older brothers would drown me. On weekends, they would be bombing and dunking in the river, backflipping off diving boards at the lido or wrestling while piggy-back and chest-deep. They did this thing where they would criss-cross arms and legs to

make a whirling ring, spinning on the surface. I once disappeared down in the middle of them and didn't come back up. They said I sat on the bottom like an astronaut floating in space. My mother blasted into the water, though she wasn't a swimmer, slapped me out on to the side like a dead fish and gave me the kiss of life. Then she sent me to him. He coached the swim teams and took a group of younger kids who were learning. We were called The Ducklings.

He laughs, shaking his head to his friends, "You go on. Meet you back at the village. I'll get the pints in."

They protest and try to change his mind but he won't. They climb and he takes more photographs. The waterfall has two levels. The first stretch from the top pours into a pool. It's deep. Sometimes young, venturesome climbers strip off on the scar tip and dive like birds. These two stop to admire the pool and one of them bends down and tosses a pebble into the centre.

He was a patient, no-nonsense coach. Lessons were on Saturday mornings. Ducklings were in the cordoned-off shallow end of the pool. He'd be out on the side, yelling and gesticulating, chucking in floats, holding out a pole for us to follow and grab, if need be. I was often on the end of that pole. The other kids were soon like my brothers; bendy, silky snakes, slithering above and below the surface, coming up for air with nonchalance. My arms and legs spun like mechanical propellers, neck craning to keep my head out of the water, like an apple on a stick. He didn't let the other kids clown in my vicinity; no bumping or holding onto me. I felt pretty safe.

He had rules like no running on the pool side, no spurting fountains at each other. One rule, once we were in, was not to get out of the pool without telling him. He said he was only watching us if we were in the water, not when we were out of it, so if he found us out, he'd throw us in again. Sometimes a kid would get out of the pool and he'd nudge them, pretending it was a mistake, back into them, hear the splash and then spin round and say, 'Oh I'm sorry, I didn't see you there!" and everyone would whoop and clap. They loved it. They wanted him to do it. Sometimes, someone would sneak out, tap his shoulder and then fling themselves into the pool in a boisterous explosion, as if he'd pushed. It was a performance; him, the water, their swimming. I was envious.

Towards the end of The Ducklings session, the older kids with goggles and swim caps would start lining the sides of the pool, like standing lizards, ready for their lesson when the lane ropes were put out. Whilst I waited for my mother to collect me, I watched them ploughing the pool, length after length.

They get to the top and hoot. He waves and they are soon out of sight walking along the cliff. He scrabbles in the rocks, examines pebbles, pockets some. Then he looks down at me and shrugs.

"Not today," he says. He looks up the scar, frowning, and then at me. He is embarrassed.

I walk out directly below him. I decide to see if I can push him.

"You should do it," I say. "You could."

He's surprised.

"I'll spot for you."

"What do you mean?"

"You go up, you listen to me, I point out all the places for you to hold, you follow my instructions. I'll direct any slip or fall."

I raise my arms, at the ready. He's deliberating. I keep on.

"I'll follow you. Right behind. You'll be at the top in ten minutes."

He nods and faces the rock.

One day I was thrashing my way towards the rope cordon dividing the shallow end from the deep. He walked the side. With the pole, he lifted the rope and told me to keep going, then he dipped the pole back in front of me and kept walking. I got to the end of the pool, the deep below me like a mouth, and he told me I could swim.

I call out spots and he follows my instructions. He grabs at hand holds and puts his feet where I tell him. The rock, covered in algae, is slippery. It's always wet from the spray. Some parts are crumbly and loose. I let him get ahead and then I follow. He soon gets to the top of the first boulder. He trusts me.

The next Saturday we had an awards ceremony. There was a little table with all the trophies and medals for the big kids in the teams. We sat on benches at the pool side. There were chairs for parents. My mother was there too, all grins, when he called my name to be presented with my 25-meter swimming certificate. I climbed over people's knees and it took ages. Coach was making a big deal of putting his hand to his brow playing at searching for me. I came up behind him. There was tittering amongst the parents as I looked at his rear, waiting. Coach called out my name again pretending he hadn't noticed me. He walked forward, I followed and then I tugged on his jacket tail. Someone went, 'Aww…' and then he stepped backwards. I reversed a couple of steps, tipped, and as I went flying, I heard the gasps from the audience. I was like a cartoon coyote who cycles in mid-air when he's just run off a cliff. My arms were flapping madly to fly away, my back arching. It was a fine performance. I smashed into the pool.

I give him a minute. He is still nervous but keeping himself together. There is no one else around. The sun is going down, the day turning. There will be no more walkers. We watch the waterfall roar.
"The best way is to go straight up the middle."

"Through the waterfall?"

"The flow's not too strong just now. You're not afraid of water?"

He shakes his head. I wait for him to tell me he was a swimming coach. He doesn't. He wants to get off this rock.

Off we go.

He crawls sideways, plants his feet firmly, follows everything I say. I see his fear and admire that he keeps going, for I am not sending him the easy way. It's not exactly dangerous, but it's unnecessary to go through the fall. I send him that way because it's more of a thrill. We don't stop at the pool because he has a momentum going. He's feeling good, strong. I look back down to the beck and can see mother duck and her little ones bobbing and sliding about. I call the spots, he obediently follows and we reach the top.

He is exhausted but I can feel he is triumphant. I turn away and leave him to himself. It's a perfect moment. He's smiling. It's that connection with the ancient rock and the power of the fall. I walk a little way to the edge, over the pool. It's a drop of 25 meters. I look across the sweep of the upland as I wait for him. A kestrel hangs above us.

He's followed me and eventually comes up behind.

"You can climb," I say.

"You gave me my courage. You're a good coach. What's your name?"

I tell him and then he recognises me, is horrified and takes a step back.

Hauled downwards, panic reflexes suspended, it felt familiar surging like this. It was like, 'Here I am again.' Throbbing, booming like a slow drum, a blooming in my chest, sinking down, sitting on the pool floor for a moment, peaceful, then soaring to the surface, a film going backwards, a glorious swimmer, arms and legs swooping. My perfect moment.
I'd bitten my lip and fine wispy clouds of blood smoked around me. Then lots of explosions. People in the pool, a commotion of limbs. I was bouncing up and under again and again, arms smacking the surface, my mouth sucking in water, filling my swelling head and chest.

They yanked me out onto the side and in a couple of minutes I'd sputtered up all the water I swallowed, and finally sat up and said 'Phew!' Everyone was talking, laughing, in relief. Then Coach looked across me. The muscles in his face lifted, he rose, flew right over the top of me and crashed into the pool. My mother was sitting on the bottom like an astronaut. I always see her like that, in Space, on an invisible rocking chair, her arms reaching out.

The newspaper said, 'Swimming Pool Tragedy'. Coach left town.

He staggers, about to fall backwards and I grab him. He's in shock. His eyes have gone black. I press him down and we sit and I take a foil wrap from my pack and bundle him up. And we hold hands, tight. We look down to the pool. The water coils and boils into the whorl from the pouring waterfall. Beyond, the ducklings have progressed a little further down-stream, followed by their mother.