It must have been my lucky day as I got back from a late dinner break to find the entire management of my firm in a meeting that wasn’t scheduled to finish until after my clocking off time. I’m not a genius but it didn’t take me long to work out that if I buggered off home early, then none of the bosses would notice. Of course that gambled on their meeting running its fully allotted time but that was a gamble I was willing to take. I mentally weighed up my options…stay at work and do another couple of hours graft….or abuse my position of confidence, get home early, walk the dogs and spend some time with my wife and daughter. No question really so I left my jacket on the back of my chair in the vain hope that if anyone came looking for me, it might look like I hadn’t gone home and was indeed being an industrious busy-bee in some other part of the building.
My wife was pleased to see my car pull up and I was greeted at the door by her and my daughter, who is always pleased to see me, bless her. I think I took the edge of the whole coming home early business when I told her that I was intending to get the dogs walked first so that I could spend some time with fatso (my daughter, not my wife), but a little bit more time together is better than none at all. The state of emergency that had been declared a couple of weeks earlier had long since been consigned to the memory but it hadn’t stopped raining for more than a few hours since then. The amount of rain had reduced to a bit of a drizzle but every now and then it would kick up again to a really hard downpour. Bearing this in mind, I knew the forest would still be flooded although I did hope that it was at least passable so that I could get the dogs out for a stretch. The now ubiquitous shorts and an old Mudhoney t-shirt were thrown on as the depth of the water meant that wearing anything below the knees was a waste of time. The shorts were actually my old issue 85 pattern DPM trousers that I’d cut down. Now these trousers were given to me in the late 80s’/ early 90’s and I’d love to say that they still fit me now…but I can’t remember the last time I could actually do the top button up. They must have shrunk a bit over the years.
The intention was to just get the dogs out for a quick dodge over the woods and get back sharpish so that I could spend some time with the family. It’s seems an odd thing to moan about, but the dogs have been knocking over too much tackle lately as there’s just so damned much of it on my permission! Freezer space is at a premium these days and I’ve already started avoiding my mate down the road who’s holding a 70kg wild boar in his freezer for me. He wants rid and I just haven’t got the space right now! So I came up with a cunning plan to scare off any game in the area and ensure that I just got the quick walk that I was looking for…I would whistle.
I got to the edge of the forest and the dog’s leads were unclipped. Jasper went like a rocket to the edge of some small pines and I thought oh shit, there can’t be one there…I’ve just let him off! But there wasn’t….it was just him being a daft beggar. So on we went into the forest. It was just starting to get dark but not dark enough for the Clulite, although I did have it with me as I knew we would be coming home in the pitch black. The mud was soon up to my ankles and over my trainers as I sloshed my way after the dogs, whistling away as I went. I am not the most tuneful whistler in the world and I was soon getting on my own nerves if I’m honest, so I decided that I would change tack and sing instead. I once rode a Vespa PX125 all the way from the Kent coast to Leicester one night in 1991 and kept myself company by singing some of my favourite songs on the way…it was long night at the stately speed of about 50mph and I think I was hoarse by the time I got to Leicester. Anyway, I’m waffling again. The reason that journey popped into my head was because one of the songs I sang that night was the one I was singing on the night I am talking about here. The sound of the mud attempting to suck the shoes off my feet accompanied my singing “I never thought it would happen with me and a girl from Clapham” as the dogs trotted on ahead and my plan of not-hunting seemed to be working a treat.
We got to the first clearing in the wood before the dogs jumped the trail as they heard something splashing in the swamp to our right. I initially thought it was the dogs making the noise, but then I saw them race into the water so it couldn’t have been them. The lyrics to my songs were replaced by expletives as this was precisely what I didn’t want to happen! My Clulite went on but it was useless as it only penetrated a few feet into the trees such was their thickness and close proximity to each other. The splashing of the dogs masked whatever noise was coming from the swamp so I couldn’t tell what was going on. Whatever it was in there had either climbed up a tree or flew up there as some weird croaking noises were coming from high up in the canopy. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard it though as it meant the dogs would be back within seconds…that’s if Van wasn’t sat at the bottom of some tree marking it.
I needn’t have worried as both dogs were soon back and we were on our way again, this time with me singing even louder than before. I’ve got an awful voice, truly awful so I thought it was dead cert that I’d clear the area of game. There’s a tape of me singing when I was in a short-lived band in my teens and it’s brought out every now and then when others want to laugh at my expense. Some people are so cruel. Anyway, my screeching versions of 70’s classics seemed to be doing the trick as we had no other incidents on our journey into the forest. We reached our turn-around point and then we started our journey back the way we had came, back home to the bosom of my family. The Clulite was on gate bulb now as the ground was treacherous and it was fully dark. Now we’d just walked this path on the way so my singing tapered off as I honestly believed there wouldn’t be an animal within a mile of us by now, especially considering we’d be going the same way home. Being wrong is getting to become a habit of mine.
As we were approaching Fox Corner, which is a chicane made up a tight left hand bend followed by an equally tight right hander, Jasper jumped the trail and headed into the scrub. The fact that Van stayed with me meant one thing to me….Jasper was lying to me and that there was nothing there. Van is the “nose” dog and has been for as long as I’ve had her so if she’s by my side then there was nothing to worry about. Jasper was stood still in the grass, and then Van jumped the trail and was flat out, with Jasper close behind. My shoulders slumped and I muttered a few Anglo-Saxon phrases as I switched the lamp off. I could hear the dogs running but I just kept walking in the hope that the dogs would lose whatever it was in the dark. No chance. The noise got closer and closer and there was the familiar thump-thump-thump of something else in there too. The lamp went on as the deer, Jasper and Van broke through the grass and in a split second they were gone again through the grass on the other side of the track….into the swamp. Now I was interested!
Being mindful of the snakes from the other week, I was determined that this one was going to be claimed. I knew the depth of the water so I tramped my way into the swamp with the lamp on full. No sign of the dogs but I could hear Van making up ground on her son. They didn’t sound that far away so I was hoping it was an in and out job, with me being home in time for tea. Yeah right.
There was no sound other then me as I cleared the tall reeds and ferns that surrounded the edge of the swamp. I was in relatively clear water now. By clear I mean just gum trees every two yards or so. I still had the lamp on full but I couldn’t see any sign of the dogs at all. I pushed on, feeling with my feet for submerged logs. I could hear a dog moving towards me and the lamp revealed this to be Van, struggling through the water to be back by my side. My logic told me that Jasper and the deer would be wherever she had just come from, so I set off in her direction calling the youngsters name and trying to pick him up in the lamp. A few massive fallen trees barred my way, but I clambered over these in an ungainly fashion, so eager was I to get to my dog. There was no sound at all now, other than that made by me and Van and I just thought to press on and we’d find him. This is when the trouble started.
I rounded a tree and there was a massive bank of reeds about 15 yards in front of me. Van showed some interest over there so I ploughed on as I was pig-sick of trudging around in this stinking bloody swamp. I stepped forward and there was nothing…no logs, no mud, no ground. I had stepped into a seriously deep part of the swamp and down I went. I didn’t close my mouth in time and got a gob full of filthy, brackish water. The noise of the night disappeared as the water went over my ears and immediately I was plunged into darkness as my lamp went out. My feet hit what I thought was the bottom but it was so soft it was hard to tell. I instinctively pushed but I just went further down into the sludge. I know I was shouting as I could hear myself, and I know my feet were scrabbling around for some purchase, but none seemed forthcoming. All of my oxygen had been expended in my cries and with no bottom in sight; I was beginning to panic. I was thrashing around like a dog in a bath and it suddenly dawned on me that this situation I was in was becoming serious. I dropped my lamp head and started clutching in the hope that I made contact with something. I was still under water at this point and hope found me in the guise of a gum tree. My greedy fingers clawed at the paper-bark, which just came away in my hands. This didn’t deter me though as I now knew salvation was there and it took me seconds to get a firm grip and haul myself towards the tree and upwards to safety. Who’d have thought the damp, dank air of a swamp could taste so sweet?!
I clung to that tree as my feet sought firm ground. Not finding any, I reached down for my lamp cord, which miraculously was still attached the battery in the pack around my shoulder. There was no life in the bloody thing of course which meant I could only see a few feet in front of me. Van was stood about 5 yards away, wagging her tail like nothing had happened so I knew I just had to make it over to her. After I got my breath back, a short swim found me by her side, where I took in lungfuls of air time after time and spat the filthy crap out that I’d swallowed when I went under. My plunge had seriously panicked me and I just wanted out of there. One problem though….still no Jasper.
I made a decision, and that was to get to dry land and then call Jasper from there. Easier said than done. I looked around me and realised my situation….I couldn’t see a bloody thing. It was dark, I was surrounded by reeds that were much taller than me, there was a tree every couple of yards, I was disorientated after my dip and I didn’t have the first idea in what direction dry land lay. My one salvation; my get out of jail free card was my phone….which was in my pocket. I knew before I fished it out that it was useless but I had to check. Yep…dead to the world. I thought I hadn’t gone far from the edge of the swamp so I picked a direction and started wading…..carefully!
Within a couple of minutes, the sound of splashing could be heard and it wasn’t long before Jasper joined us. A mouth full of fur and a face covered in mud. I was bloody pleased to see him and told him and his mother to get us out of there. I think they had as much idea as I did about just where we were. I followed them as best I could but time after time we came up against banks of impenetrable reeds and fern. I’d turn back each time and the dogs would take me in a different direction, only to run into dead end after dead end. The fallen trees I’d clambered over and falls I’d taken had cut my shins to pieces and I could feel them starting to sting badly. I was now more worried than ever…..stuck in a swamp with zero visibility and no way of contacting the outside world. I was desperate to avoid another dunking and the panic of the sucking mud. Telling myself to calm down, I though just how big can this swamp be? Surely if I just kept going in one direction, I’d reach the edge sooner or later.
As it happened the dogs found a way out and after a bit of wading and climbing, I found myself back at Fox Corner and finally on dry (ish) land. Panic over. I wasn’t going to spend the night wandering aimlessly round in circles in a stinking, sulphurous, snake infested swamp. A glance at my watch told me I’d been in there for an hour and a half which was much longer than I thought. As the dogs shook themselves off, I started jogging as my only thought was to get home. Once there, I was straight in the shower as my wife fired questions as me about where I’d been. I explained to her what had happened and this upset her quite a bit. She implored me never to go back in there as she didn’t want our daughter to be an orphan. I did point out that she would need both parents to die before she’d be an orphan, which then prompted my wife to declare that she’d be half-an-orphan then. This put a smile on her face and we both laughed it off.
My only two forays into that bloody swamp had been disasters. Great for Jasper mind you, but I was getting the impression that it’d be best if I stayed out of there in future. It had cost me a mobile phone, a lamp (which hopefully will be salvageable), some cuts (that hopefully won’t get infected) and some bruised pride. I know when I’m beaten.