Friday, October 19, 2007

fear of drowning

I spent a few days in Leeds at the weekend, my third trip up there and one where I knew pretty much what to expect; Universities I'd been to before, a town centre I knew well and the intention to stop at familiar record shops and pubs when I wasn't working. I arrived on Sunday, and found Leeds curiously quiet for a weekend; I've noticed that the overwhelming busyness of Brighton on a Sunday afternoon is an anomaly, rather than the norm, and far from every pub and street being packed in other cities, the end of the weekend is more often quiet than riotous.

Walking through town, then, I turned down past the Corn Exchange and wandered down towards the river front, expecting crowds but finding none - instead the river was peaceful and grey and the area mostly deserted. I walked down to look at the water and stood, quietly, thinking. It was then that I heard someone shouting, so I turned around, half-expecting to be approached by someone. But there was no-one there so instead I turned my attention upstream, and saw to my considerable shock a man heaving up and under the water, perhaps a hundred metres along, yelping and screaming for help and giving the impression that he was about to be submerged and not come back up.

At a moment like that, when you are the only person around, you react in unpredictable ways; you want to help, of course, but you want to run, too. I stood for a moment, frozen to the spot, dimly aware that a big building along the river bank separated me from him, and also spotting that the deep concrete flanks of the river made his getting out extremely difficult. To my great relief, at this point - it must have only been a second or two after his shouts alerted me - two men who were much nearer ran to the water's edge and lowered a long plank, which they had lifted from a nearby skip, into the water. The drowning man flapped towards it and took hold. Once secured, he seemed at first to lack the strength to hold on, but he did so and began to slowly inch towards the bank.

By now several more people had rushed to his aid and the bridge beyond him was filling with interested spectators. The blood stopped thudding in my head and I realised he was safe, grateful that I had been spared any involvement. Gingerly, and feeling guilty for doing so, I raised my camera - which was in my hand beforehand - and took a couple of voyeuristic snaps.

That left, of course, the problem of the man actually getting out. Despite now having a firm hold of the plank, he was obviously still in lots of distress, shouting incoherently and struggling wildly. It occured to me that he was probably pissed. Slowly, encouraged by the men, he pulled himself against the side and began hauling himself up the plank. His clothes sopping and freezing, and still hoarsely crying out, it looked an impossible task, and sure enough he got almost to the top before crashing back down into the water.

By now, thankfully, the sound of fire engines and ambulances blaring was ringing out along the river bank, and a team of firemen swiftly raced to the water's edge and lowered a kind of inflatable hoop, serving as a lasso, and a hinged ladder to aid the man. It was still a struggle, but eventually he was dragged out, exhausted and freezing, onto the bank. He was bundled into a security blanket and the crowd began, reluctantly, to disperse.

Meanwhile I stood further down the river, looking on, wondering how close I had been to watching a man drown. What would I have done if I had been nearer? If it had been just me? It was a sobering, frightening thing to wonder. To have watched a man drown minutes within arriving in Leeds would have been a terrible, frightening, tragic thing to have witnessed, not least because there was manifestly nothing I could have done to helped.

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