When Stumpy the cat fell into the River Thames, it brought back sad memories of Hīmatangi Beach for Helen Bergen.
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Contributed by Helen Bergen
Late afternoon, the summer sun bobbed on the orange sea. The school picnic had been fun, and now Daddy and friends were trawling the surf for fish. I sprinted back along the beach. I couldn’t hear anything, but something was wrong. Men were running about pointing here and there, the net lay abandoned. No one was the right shape or size. No one reached out to hold my hand or to share my lollies. I squinted. In amongst the rolling waves I saw something black. The water heaved and it disappeared, a head, maybe an arm and a feeble little wave. I ran into the surf. The rip surged forward tugging my legs, sucking sand from under my feet. The black head was just a tiny speck. I screamed. But no one heard. I waved. No one waved back. I was dizzy and sick.
Late night, summer, forty-eight years later, the moon was a banana, as my father used to say. The frantic cry echoed around the river. I sped along the path. The sound was louder, I went faster, with increasing trepidation. It was Stumpy, not some other cat. The path dropped vertically down to darkness swirling two metres below. Where was she? Her plaintive cries made me dizzy and sick.
The man whose broken-down car Daddy had fixed swam out into the waves. Daddy was laid upon the sand. His face was pale and peaceful as if asleep. A woman knelt and pressed her lips to his. I watched and waited for his icy lips to turn pink. They never did. My life was ruined. His life was lost and it was my fault.
Hubby came running and shone the torch, but still we couldn’t see Stumpy. Time was short. I looked down. Was it deep enough? Would I hurt myself like the May Day jumpers off Magdalen Bridge? I trembled, afraid. I plunged into the water. I sunk forever and didn’t reach the bottom. In the murk I glimpsed my father and all was quiet. For a moment I wished to stay there, just Daddy and me. But I popped to the surface gasping, swimming for the safety chain. Stumpy was clinging to some daisies sprouting from the wall, frozen. It seemed impossible. I had never seen such terror in her eyes, never imagined she could hope I would save her. I picked her up, ready for her claws to dig in, but they never did. She just lay on my chest, shaking and crying.
We floated together in limbo. I felt a strange relief that although Stumpy still might die, she wouldn’t die alone. I had tried to save her. Hubby lowered the life belt and towed us upriver where we climbed out. We went home and lay with Stumpy, drying and warming her, telling her we loved her. She survived.
Maybe now I can let go of the terrible feeling of not having rescued my father, or being with him when he drowned.
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