The Silent Highway
‘You can bugger off! I’m not getting out of here until you tell me what you did with it.’
Joey Garlick changed his stroke from breast to crawl and the world disappeared as he swam alone along the silent highway, half submerged in the water, Silent highway: Joey liked that phrase. Some journalist from the New York Times had written it about him back in ’93 when he’d won the mile. It was just him and M’Cusker in that race: two hundred and fifty pounds a side and Joey had won the lot in world record time. If he had the money now he wouldn’t be swimming round the mill pond, that’s for sure. He’d be far away from here, where there was sunshine to ease his aches and clean water to swim in.
Each time Joey turned his head sideways to take in air he could hear Annie berate him from the bank. Her shrill voice mingled with the swish of the water to form part of the rhythm of his strokes.
‘Out…death of cold…people think…ridiculous.’
Joey didn’t mind the din from his daughter’s voice; he often swam through it, much to her disgust. As he settled into a steady pace, Annie’s calls became the roar of the crowd lining the banks of Hollingworth Lake and the cheers that greeted him at his testimonial gala in 1925.
Joey was far away, winning the three miler in Rhode Island, when the jab of Annie’s umbrella in the side of his head brought him home. The shock of the blow made him break stroke and he trod water while he looked mournfully at his daughter.
‘What did you do that for?’
‘I want you out of there now father, you’re not staying there to die of cold. I don’t want that on my conscience.’
Annie looked out of place in her best coat, kneeling on the lodge bank. Strangely Joey felt honoured that she was wearing the coat as it was normally reserved for chapel and trips to town. Still, she looked wrong kneeling there, as if the unaccustomed contact of the woollen cloth with the ground lessened her authority.
‘If you had a conscience you’d tell me where my cup is.’ Joey said.
‘I’ve told you. I don’t know where your blessed cup is and care less.’
The cup was Joey’s last relic, stored with a few photographs and press cuttings from the old days. He had a picture of himself, dripping wet and shaking hands with the Prince of Wales after winning the quarter mile at Regents’ Park. The inscription on the small gold-plated cup said:
Presented by His Royal Highness
Edward, Prince of Wales
to Joseph Garlick Esq.,
Undisputed World Swimming Champion
26th of May, 1894
On market days, when Annie was out of the house, Joey would reach under his bed and fetch out the battered cardboard box that contained his memories. Sometimes he’d sit there alone, reading the press cuttings out loud to himself. On school holidays he’d sit with his grandson and tell him stories of his forty year-old victories.
‘There are not many mill hands that have met the Prince of Wales’; he’d tell the admiring boy.
Then, one market day, only the press cuttings and pictures remained: his cup was gone. Joey was convinced that Annie had taken it, when her coldness towards him had turned to anger. But she remained tight-lipped, only breaking her silence to deny Joey’s increasingly frantic accusations.
Now, today at the pond, Joey wasn’t going to let things lie.
‘Deny it all you like lady,’ he said, ‘and jab at me with that gamp all you want. I’m not shifting, no matter how much you prod and prattle on.’
Annie puffed up her rounded cheeks and looked offended
‘You can’t stay there forever, no matter how much you say you can. But I’ll tell you this father: if you’re not home before dark you’ll find the door locked and you can sleep on the doorstep.’
‘You wouldn’t dare, I’ve still got friends here you know. They still call me Champ in the village, so someone would take me in. Besides, you’d not live down the shame of seeing me beg for a bed.’
Annie reached out for Joey with her umbrella, trying to hook him round his neck with its crook and drag him into the bank. Joey laughed and dodged away easily, sculling backwards just out of his daughter’s reach.
‘You old beggar,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t behave like a spoiled child if our Ted was here. You’d show him some respect.’
‘But here’s not here is he,’ replied Joey. ‘You’ve sent your husband away. ‘Cotton trade’s dead’, you said. ‘Go and look for a living wage’, you said. So he’s gone, and all you ever see of him is a thirty shilling postal order every fortnight.’
Annie struck out in anger with the umbrella, churning up the water, but missing Joey by a yard. He turned and swam away from Annie.
‘Give over and go home,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘You’re not needed here.’
A few stiff-shouldered strokes later Joey was travelling smoothly along the silent highway again. This time the silence was undisturbed by Annie’s voice and Joey guessed she’d given up and gone home. Now he was alone it felt like the old days, when only the swimming mattered. He understood the water and felt at home in it: better to stay there, out of reach.
Joey was powering home in some bygone hundred yard dash when he felt the push of water as a heavy object fell into the pond. He didn’t need to hear the splash, although it had been a loud one, because his body was trained to feel the surge of a rival swimmer. Joey felt small waves lap against his face. Whatever had fallen in was alive and struggling, sending the waves out, but they became feebler so Joey swam towards the far end of the pond where the disturbance came from. He couldn’t see the cause, because this was the deepest corner of the lodge and the water was too murky to see to the bottom, so Joey held a deep breath and dived down, reaching out with his hands. He felt nothing at first but groped around until his fingers touched something soft. It was the thick wool of Annie’s coat.
Joey lit a fire in the small grate in Annie’s bedroom that night. She was chilled and shocked, the doctor said, but nothing worse. Once she was settled in bed with a glass of warm milk and medicinal brandy, Joey left Annie to rest and went downstairs to reassure his grandson. An hour later he crept back upstairs to look in on Annie one last time before bed. She was half-asleep, her greying hair spread out across the pillows and a white linen nightdress buttoned up primly round her neck. Joey glanced down to the milk glass and smiled. Every last drop was gone.
‘You pulled me out.’
Annie’s voice was weak, but in the firelight, Joey could see some colour in her cheeks.
‘Of course I pulled you out you daft bugger. What else would I do?’
‘I don’t know; leave me there for the lodge keeper to find? It was an accident you know, I fell in.’
‘I guessed that. You wouldn’t choose to jump in: never were much interested in swimming.’
Joey couldn’t think of anything more to say so he just stood there awkwardly, waiting for Annie to speak.
‘I fell in because I was angry with you,’ Annie said. ‘I was trying to catch up with you so I could tell you some home truths, and I slipped.’
‘You should be careful round that pond; it’s easy to slip on them banks. What home truths did you want to tell me about?’
Annie looked away.
‘I pawned your cup. Ted’s postal order was late and we needed the money for food.’
‘I thought as much,’ said Joey. ‘Did you get a good price?’
‘Bloody hell, the price of fame. So what were you angry about?’
‘It was what you said about Ted and the postal orders. Thirty shillings isn’t much, but it’s like the widow’s mite to him.’
‘So why be angry with me?’
Annie looked back at Joey, her hard stare piercing him.
‘So how much do you reckon you made from swimming years back?’
‘I dunno, a fair bit.’
‘And how much of it did you send home to mum when I was little? How much of the prize money that came with that bloody cup did we see?’
Joey mumbled in reply.
‘I sent back…’
‘…Oh, go to bed dad. It’s too late for this. Just go to bed.’
As Joey lay in bed that night he thought about his cup. At least he knew where it was and maybe, when Ted’s next postal order arrived, he could fetch it back from the pawnbroker’s. Just before he slept doubt briefly washed over him: was the Silent Highway the road he should have taken? But he knew the answer even before he’d asked the question.