wet, dark and sinister
Hilton's fingers felt the slimy worn brickwork below the rim of the mill long before his eyes detected changes in the dark grey of the weir pool. Surely, it shouldn't really be called a weir pool? It seemed strange, mind dwelling on semantic subtleties, while his body chilled in the clear gushing water. He'd long considered deep swirling pools below these ancient Norfolk watermills as mill pools, but at school his English teacher corrected him, insisting the term referred to the reservoir of water upstream of mills.
The pool was dark, deep and sinister, its current strong and water icy cold. It would've been unpleasant in daylight, groping around underwater, clad only in underpants and swimming goggles.
But night magnified the difficulties
A plastic bin liner strapped around his waist contained shoes and outer clothes, plus dry underpants and a large towel wrapping a replica Walther automatic pistol.
The sack had been made watertight by twisting, then binding stiff wire around its top. Dangling from a lanyard around Hilton's neck was a small Maglite torch, the indestructible waterproof alloy type, stocked by outdoor outfitters.
At first all went well - parking downstream, he'd approached the river along a small lane known locally as a loke - leading to the water meadows. His vehicle was well out of sight from the road, unlikely to be noticed in the doubtful event of anyone passing this lonely spot so late at night. He wasn't keen on deep water. The bad dreams he often had - made him afraid of drowning. But, despite being wet, cold, and at risk from the treacherous mill-pool, Hilton couldn't stop reviewing how he'd got into this messy situation.
He'd followed the course of the river a mile upstream, to the edge of the village. Undressing in a spinney, attacked by vicious thorns and nettles - he'd slipped into the stream, gasping with shock from the cold - but at least the water soothed the nettle stings - deep enough for him to submerge, slowly making his way against the current
He'd chosen the night well - the moon still new above a thin cloud cover that allowed little star-light, but he'd still taken care to break the surface as gently as possible - every twenty or so seconds surfacing to gulp in air. He was no longer fit enough for such activities. Long ago as a youngster, swimming in this very river had been fun
But now, in middle age, scared of drowning - it proved hard work.
The concrete sill below the road bridge had forced him to surface in the shallow water beneath the twin arches and he hauled himself onto the shelf around the central pillar. For a few minutes, he rested shivering and breathless, hugging himself desperately attempting to restore circulation. Deliberately he fought to control his breathing - to change his frantic gasping to a slow deep rhythm. The night remained quiet and uneventful except for the relentless whisper of the current downstream and the urgent roar of the mill sluice seventy-five yards ahead.
Now his short rest over - Hilton prepared to slip back into the deep fast current. He dreaded the next bit - so far I'd been relatively easy - a swim of one hundred and fifty yards against a moderate current. Now age, lack of fitness, the drag and buoyancy of the bag holding his clothes, would make it a major effort.
And he was still terrified by the thought of being trapped under water
He should've planned it better - bought special equipment such as flippers for his feet, like scuba divers wore.
As a boy, he'd swum these mill pools, diving to fifteen feet or more, where the current ran fierce and strong. Such water was foreboding, inhospitable even when the midday sun shone strongly to a riverbed littered with the debris of centuries - remains of ancient mills, replaced, rebuilt or extended over a millennium, until the present one - a hundred and fifty years ago.
They were labyrinths of crumbling stone, slabs of fallen brickwork - green and black with slime and silkweed, the haunt of crayfish and giant eels. Fascinating, sinister and threatening for anyone dipping beneath their surface
Hilton contemplated the mill pool perched beneath the road bridge - foaming water pouring from the sluice re-cycled what little light shone from the dark sky - proclaiming its power with a relentless percussive gushing, twenty five million gallons a day.
He resolved to avoid the main current The days were long gone, when he'd abandon himself to its mercy. He could make little headway against it now and would be exhausted in minutes
Surveying the pool from the bridge earlier, Hilton knew he'd need assistance from the back currents - those re-circulating eddies, flowing opposite to the vicious main current.
The back-eddies had a reverse flow eventually rejoining the main current below the moss-covered brickwork of the mill. The thought of the task ahead terrified him and he felt physically sick
The easy bit came first - slipping back, into the chilling water, Hilton swam with the back-eddy aiding him. He covered seventy-five yards easily, while fantasising irrationally - wild thoughts of bizarre creatures lurking in the dark water - watching him
Submerging under the liquid void his imagination and senses heightened high on uncontrolled imagination. Every strand of weed the grasping tentacle of some predatory creature - each subtle eddy an exploratory caress from a giant fin
The goggles protecting his eyes became an unnecessary imposition and saw nothing in the fluid blackness around him. Shutting his eyes made no difference
Now clinging to the slimy brickwork of the mill wall, toes desperate for grip in the silt covered broken stone, his senses conveying the clammy caress of silkweed and oozy sediment of centuries.
He imagined, not just enormous eels haunting these craggy places, the teeth of yard long pike, even the pincers of crayfish, but other creatures, mysterious and sinister. Things of the dark depths that could grab bite and sting. He shivered again - this time not just with the cold
going over the fence was no longer a sensible option
Along the northern, upstream edge of the property, the boundary crossed the river - the twin wire fences continuing along a wooden bridge, enabling patrolling dogs and security personnel across.
A raft of floating weed and other debris had formed upstream of the bridge - indicating defences extending underwater - preventing anyone floating downstream into the compound.
Hilton edged forward slowly - his insides a twisted knot of fear, inching towards the torrent gushing from the black maw of the sluice. Foaming spray lashed his face with an icy sting and it was difficult gripping the silkweed encrusted brickwork.
A growing, chill-induced numbness in his fingers made the task doubly difficult. Many minutes had passed since enough blood had circulated through his feet to maintain their sensitivity to the debris-impregnated slime in which they struggled for a hold
Repeatedly he slipped back deeper, away from the mill wall, sliding briefly beneath its scum-laden surface, inevitably panicking before making frantic breaststrokes upwards towards air and the sanctuary of the bricks.
Psyching himself for the worst part, Hilton ducked under the torrent gushing from the sluice. The thunderous echo in the tunnels drowned all other sounds, making concentration impossible. He feared being overwhelmed - swept downstream to the road bridge, negating what progress he'd made
If that happened, he doubted his ability to summon enough strength and will power to swim back. Perhaps he'd succumb, cold and blind in a turmoil of flashing memories, desperate to scream as his lungs filled with icy water - fifteen feet down, in the middle of the pool.
Eventually he realised he'd crawled into the gap between the tunnels. Fearing hypothermia, numbed to the point where he no longer felt the cold, the pain from multiple bumps and abrasions - he plunged into the black recess behind the rushing spill from the second tunnel.
Laboriously, he hauled himself into the gaping black maw of the water wheel tunnel. Energy drained, gasping, almost naked, he crouched shivering in the inch thick trickle lubricating the dank, slimy tube only forty-eight inches high and eighteen wide - ancient brick and stonewalling clad with the encrustation of centuries
In daylight, it would be foreboding, but at night, it resembled a flooded crypt
A wet suit would have provided an insulating layer of water next to his skin - warm and cosy, instead of a numbed wreck, but it would've restricted wearing thick tight rubberised fabric whilst exploring the estate - hampering him if he had to escape.
Now, shivering and suffering, he regretted his decision
Summoning further reserves of strength, he gingerly explored, stooping, crawling until his groping encountered something big and unyielding. In the thin beam of his tiny torch, the thing took shape - the old water wheel, or a large part - still in place.
It horrified him, leaving him devoid of ideas, panicking, and throat dry... Hardly any of the old mills retained their paddle wheels, the discovery devastated him. His pounding heart seemingly echoed from the tunnel walls, drowning the thunder of the water
Overwhelmed by claustrophobia, he examined the crumbling timbers of the wheel. Shaking from fear and anxiety, his mouth opening involuntarily, lungs trying to suck in extra oxygen. He tasted, as well as smelled the stale air, mildew and sour tang of rotting oak
The remains of a wooden paddle, one of many around the circumference of the wheel, confronted him, an oblong board blocking the bottom of the tunnel. Beyond, would be a solid sluice gate - the only thing between him and tons of water.
A tentative tug had no effect; the decay had not advanced enough. Turning his back on the wheel, he switched off the torch and began kicking the paddle, attempting to dislodge it from its spokes.
Risking his bare feet, he kicked repeatedly, a panic driven frenzy - the impenetrability of this barrier reducing him to tears of frustration. Slowly, intelligence overcame emotions, as he realised the injuries his feet were receiving from the rusty iron bolts attaching the paddle
The chill numbness failed to anaesthetise the pain
Giving up, he slumped into the darkness, resting and thinking - then switching the tiny torch on, he focused its thin beam higher, into the crumbling mess of paddles. Perhaps fourteen inches or so separated each board. It looked so rotten, old and evil, dripping with black and green slime - but no other choice existed. His only alternative was to climb, twisting inside barely passable gaps
With torch clamped between his teeth, leaving hands free for climbing - the putrid tang of ancient slime, rotten wood and a dank cocktail of wet fungus and organic decomposition offended his taste buds
he was very frightened
Gagging uncontrollably, realising he could become inextricably trapped in this damp dark tomb - until age destroyed the sluice, unleashing a torrent, flushing his skeletal remains into the millstream.
No amount of shouting would penetrate the thunder from the adjacent tunnels
Even if anyone could hear
Growing panic renewed his strength and he clawed upwards through the jumble of spokes and paddles, towards where he hoped the top of the sluice would be. It reminded him of his nightmares
The memory didn't help
Air never tasted as good as the breeze that greeted him as he breached the surface like an emerging otter. Balancing along the rim of the oak board, he gulped greedily at the clean air. Suddenly, remembering his vulnerability, he killed the torch beam
Slowly - hyperventilating - his nostrils and mouth cleared out the taste and smells of decayed wood and slime. Suddenly, decisive again, he slipped back through the oily surface into the deep water upstream and swam the five yards to the riverbank.
Shivering, gasping uncontrollably in the long grass, the exertion of swimming upstream and fighting the mill tunnel still had to be paid for. The numbness anaesthetised him from his injuries but the now stinging nettles around his legs added further pain when warm blood restored feeling.
A sharp bark from a dog brought him back to reality - a casual yelp, one it might make purely for joy - not the urgent baying of a hunting animal scenting its quarry or the sound of a guard dog.
Whatever the source, it acutely reminded him the estate was patrolled, so he slipped silently back below the water's surface, before making his way upstream.
He could detect no human presence as he lay shivering again, minutes later, amongst the huddle of farm buildings further along the river. Thankful to have reached his objective, he took the towel from the package around his waist and began drying himself
Peter Hunter 2012
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