Kim Slater | 4 mins


It just looked like a pile of rags, floating on the water.

Jean sat on the bench with the brass plaque on. It said: In Memory of Norman Reeves, who spent many happy hours here.

The plaque means Norman Reeves is dead, but it doesn’t actually say that.

Jean held her head in her hands and her body was all jerky, like when you are laughing or crying. I guessed she was crying and I was right.

‘He was my friend,’ she sobbed.

I looked around but Jean was alone. People around here say Jean is ‘cuckoo’. That means mental. She used to be a nurse that delivered babies. She still knows loads of stuff she learned from medical books but no one believes her.

‘Who?’ I asked.

Jean pointed to the rags.

I went to the edge of the embankment to look. There was a stripy bag half in the water. I saw a face with a bushy beard in the middle of the rags, under the ripples. One eye was open, one was closed.

I freaked out. The sea sound started in my head and I ran right past the bridge and back again but there was nobody to help. I’m not supposed to run like mad because it can start my asthma off.

‘When the sea noise comes in your head,’ Miss Crane says, ‘it is important to stay calm and breathe.’

I stopped running. I tried to stay calm and breathe. I used my inhaler.

Jean was still crying when I got back.

‘He was my friend,’ she said again. I picked up a long stick and took it over to the riverbank. I poked at the face but not near the eyes.

‘What are you doing?’ Jean shouted from the bench.

‘I’m doing a test to see if it’s a balloon,’ I yelled back. It felt puffy and hard at the same time, so I knew it was Jean’s friend’s head.

‘Is it a balloon?’ shouted Jean.

A woman with a dog was coming.

When she got near I said, ‘Jean’s friend is in the river.’

She gave me a funny look, like she might ignore me and carry on walking. Then she came a bit nearer and looked at the river. She started screaming.

I went for a walk up the embankment to stay calm and breathe. Some Canada geese flew down and skidded into the water. They didn’t care about the rags and the puffy face. They just got on with it.

When I got back, a policeman and a policewoman were talking to the lady with the dog. Jean was still sitting on the bench but nobody was talking to her.

‘That’s him,’ the woman said, and pointed at me.

‘What’s your name, son?’ The policeman asked.

‘I’m not your son,’ I said. ‘My dad is dead from a disease that made him drink cider, even in the morning.’

The policeman and the policewoman looked at each other.

‘Can you tell us what happened, love?’ The policewoman had a kind face, like Mum when she wasn’t rushing to go to work. She nodded her head towards the river. ‘Is that how you found him?’

‘It looked like rags,’ I said.

‘He was my friend,’ Jean shouted from the bench.

The policewoman wrote down my name and address.

‘Was he just like this, when you got here?’ asked the policeman.

‘The head was a bit more turned towards the bridge,’ I said. ‘Before I poked it with the stick.’


‘I had to see if it was a balloon or a real head,’ I said.

The woman with the dog shrieked. She even made the policewoman jump.

‘It’s definitely a real head,’ I said.

‘Did you see anyone else around here but the tramp lady?’ asked the policeman.

‘Jean was a nurse,’ I said. ‘She’s not mental.’

A white van pulled up. It had the words Police Diving Unit on the side and a blue flashing light. Even when it stood still, the light kept flashing.

‘Kieran,’ said the policeman. ‘Did you see anyone else hanging around here?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘How many divers will go in?’

The side of the van slid back and two police divers got out. They had flippers on and everything.

‘They’ll need breathing apparatus on if they’re going to search the water for clues,’ I said.

‘No need for that,’ the policewoman said in a low voice, like she didn’t want me to hear. ‘Poor old bogger probably fell in after one too many.’

A man got out of the front of the police van and took some photographs of Jean’s friend in the water. Then the divers put up some screens while they pulled the body out of the river.

‘Why are they hiding it?’ I said. ‘I’ve already seen it.’

‘And poked it,’ said the policeman as they moved away. ‘Don’t go touching dead bodies in future.’

There were some people gathering on the far bank. One man had binoculars.

The police emptied the dead man’s stripy bag and spread the things out on the concrete. There was a blanket, some socks and an empty packet of cheese straws.

Two older boys from my school walked up and stood watching.

‘What you been up to, Downs? You topped somebody?’ asked one of them.

‘I haven’t got Down’s,’ I said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my chromosomes.’

‘Are you sure about that, Downs?’ asked the other boy.

They fell about laughing.