The River

Photo by Caleb George

There’d been an extreme weather warning the day I started to worry about Tomas again. When I got into my car, the steering wheel was burning hot and the air was so dense that I sat there for a moment, wondering whether it was actually safe to drive. I shrugged the thought away, though. I had to get home. Tomas was on my mind and I wanted to see him.

The time we were able to spend together that summer felt important. Tomas was pulling away from all his friends and I was watching him isolate himself. It felt like a movie I already knew the ending to, and I wanted to rip the screen apart and reach in to change the story, but I had to watch it unfold instead, frame by painful frame.

By then, I was the person who knew Tomas best. In a way, I’d known him before we’d even met. I’d met his father, Agustin, first, at the refugee support group where we both volunteered, and I felt close to him quickly, perhaps just because he was so open. One afternoon, as we were driving to meet a newly arrived family in the old orange Beetle he’d owned for years and was still managing to drive, he told me that he’d been a refugee himself. Someone had helped him escape his country, but his mother was ill; he’d never seen her again. We stopped at the junction and he looked away, at the oncoming cars. From the side, his face looked rigid. There was a little silence, but once he’d pulled out, he glanced over and saw my expression. His tone changed immediately.

“Oh no, I was lucky, remember. She was just happy to know I was safe.” I smiled and he said, with a sudden intensity, “You have to focus on the good things. How would you cope otherwise?”

The mood changed, and the conversation moved on, but I never forgot what he’d said. He talked about other things after that, mostly about Tomas. He told me so much about him that I felt that I knew him, too, even before we met at Agustin’s birthday party in the garden of a little house to the south of the city.

The day I drove home worried, Tomas and I had been together for almost four years. Agustin had died suddenly, a few months before, and Tomas had been tense ever since, as though constantly braced for another blow. I wanted to help him. I wanted his ebullience and buoyancy back – most days, that was all that seemed important – but it seemed selfish to try too hard to force it. I didn’t want to rush him out of grief.

All the same, I worried that he was making irrevocable changes. In the first few months after his dad had died, he’d been reluctant to go out at all, except to work. He’d seemed anxious. He hadn’t felt up to interacting with anyone else. Recently, I’d thought he was feeling better, and he’d started to see his friends again, but he’d called that morning to say he wanted to cancel all our plans for the weekend. I worried that he was slipping away from other people again and I didn’t know how to help. I went home determined to talk. I wanted us to go to the river. I thought he’d relax there. I was cautious about it, though. I suspected that if I asked outright he’d say no, so at first I just asked him about his day as we cooked, and we talked about work.

Our conversation was stilted. I kept asking him questions and he replied, but not with his old fluency. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, that I was serious about our relationship, that I wanted to do anything I could to make his loss more bearable, but sometimes, I worried that the things I said might do him more harm than good. Secretly, I knew that in the end I’d have to accept that our relationship was struggling, that it hadn’t been the same since Agustin died. But I wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that yet. I was still mourning Agustin and I couldn’t risk losing Tomas as well.

He went to sit outside after we’d eaten, but when I followed him and stood awkwardly by the glass doors out to the decking, he didn’t turn to look at me.

“Shall we go down to the river?” I asked, looking back into the room at the big bookcases and the black-and-white photo of Agustin laughing. His eyes were warm and inclusive. I wished he was here. I could almost imagine him walking in and changing the mood immediately. He would have made Tomas smile, reminded him to focus on all that was good, deftly pointing out the softening light of the summer’s evening, Tomas’ youth and health, and the reckless passion with which I loved him.

“The river?” Tomas repeated.

“Mmm.” We often walked down there at this time of day. You could follow the river all the way to the town centre, and sometimes we did, past bridges and meadows and boathouses and college rowers training in the evening sun, with their coaches furiously peddling bikes along the path beside them, loudhailers in hand.

Tomas glanced up and looked quickly away. I wanted to tell him he should look at me, then, that he shouldn’t ignore me. I wanted to say that his dad would have wanted him to live his life fully, to focus on what was good, not slip into the shadows, as though he could be closer to him that way. I wanted to say that even after everything Agustin had been through, he’d never done that. But I knew it would have been unkind. It had only been a few months; it would be wrong to try to force him out of grief.

“I don’t really feel like it tonight,” he said.


That was it. There was nothing else I could say. I wanted to be down by the river, watching the boats and ducks and the people in pubs and I wanted him to be more aware of what he meant to me, too, and how hard it was for me to have to see him like this, but I couldn’t say any of that out loud. I put a hand on the sliding door. The silence was getting to me. I couldn’t disguise it.

“We’ve been so lucky with the weather recently,” I said. He looked up and nodded. I could feel his eyes on me and I knew what he was thinking. In our early days together, I’d never have said something like that, but then I wouldn’t have had to. He’d have been talking already, telling me about people we knew, or insisting that we hire a boat to row, or calling friends to meet us for an evening drink, or coming back from his father’s house with stories about how Agustin was still entertaining the staff at the corner shop. He’d have told me how he’d gone to look for him after he’d popped out to buy milk or wine and found him leaning against the counter regaling them with tales of his childhood, all of them gathered round him laughing, barely looking up when another customer came in.

Those loquacious days were behind us now, though, and I felt as though all Tomas’ warmth and energy had been sucked out of him. He was looking at me now, as though he was waiting for me to say something that would propel him into motion. I gave him a tentative smile, but I didn’t know what to say. I knew too well how anything I might try could be taken the wrong way and how I might feel when my latest platitude lay squirming in the silence between us.

“Shall we go to the river after all?” he said suddenly.


“I’ll just check in on Gordon first. It’s been so hot.”

He was gone about ten minutes. Gordon lived on the next street, in the block of apartments that backed on to our garden. He’d got to know Tomas over the fence, and Tomas went over now and then, to make sure he was OK.

I went out to the street when Tomas called to say he was heading back, and I leant against the bent metal railing near the old school to wait for him, thinking how beautiful the houses looked in the sun. We always felt lucky to have found a house we could rent on this street. I thought about Tomas as I saw him approach, thinking how kind he was, how similar to Agustin he was in that way. “You’re so thoughtful with Gordon,” I said as he got closer.

“It isn’t–”

“You are, though.”

He looked troubled. There was an odd expression in his eyes which I didn’t understand. “What?” I asked.

“Nothing. It’s nothing.” We walked on, more slowly than usual because of the heat, through the churchyard and down the narrow alley between the cemetery and the backs of small houses. The air was thick and heavy and I didn’t have the energy to pursue the conversation. We came out at the main road and paused to cross it. “It’s just that I’m here, you know?” he said suddenly. “I can do these things, so I should.”

“I don’t think–”

There was a brief break in the traffic. We ran across to the opposite alley.

“I’m alive, so I should,” he said, raising his voice above the noise of a bus. I didn’t know what to say to that. I didn’t know how to respond to this new Tomas, who was so much more serious than the one I’d known before. Briefly, I wondered whether we’d ever have ended up together if he’d been like this in the first place. Probably not, I thought. I’d enjoyed being with him more when he was cavalier and fun and we’d made spontaneous decisions together. He seemed so far away these days. But I didn’t want to dwell on that. Things could go back to normal, and my mind shied away from imagining a future without him.

Neither of us spoke for a while. On this side of the road, the streets were quieter. We walked past the gardens of the big houses to the conservation area, with its rows of tightly packed stone terraces, and followed the track to the river, past the lock-keeper’s cottage. It was cooler down there and we passed other people walking. A little dog ran up, circled us, and went back the way it had come. A kayak cut swiftly through the water, a paddle briefly knocking the loose leaves of a willow that leant over its surface. Past the next bend, we saw that the pub garden was full, with people sitting at every table and on the grass between them. The dog ran from the river and shook itself near its owner, making the people on the next bench shout and laugh.    

“Sorry,” said a man. “I didn’t think he was going to do that.”

“No worries.”

There was a lightness to the conversation that was missing between Tomas and me. I felt a sharp nostalgia for the carefree summer we’d had the year before.

I put both my arms around his waist and held him close for a second. “Do you want a drink?”

“There’s nowhere to sit.”

“Let’s have it on the bank.”

He shrugged and I went to the bar. If any fragment of happiness was still possible for us, we had to grasp it while we could. I was increasingly aware of that. I thought again about what Agustin had said about focusing on what was good. We sat on the riverbank, watching the boats pass and the cows on the opposite side walk down to the water to drink.

I touched Tomas’ hand. “It must feel like such a responsibility,” I said. “To have to help everyone.”

He didn’t answer straight away. It had been over half an hour since he’d said that and as soon as I’d spoken, I wished I hadn’t brought it up again. He might not feel the same as he had then; he might feel less close to me now and wish he hadn’t said something so private. He might reply in an abrupt, distant way that would make me feel insensitive and push us further apart. As we sat there, I castigated myself for not having been able to think quickly enough to reply while he was still in the same mood he’d been in when he’d said it.

But he smiled slightly as he shook his head. “It’s fine – it’s nothing.” He’d relaxed a little, since we’d been sitting here. “People helped my dad, you know? They didn’t have to do that, but they did.”

“I know.”

“And there isn’t much time.”

“Tomas! You’ve got years left.”

“That’s what he thought.”

“He was 70.” A moment passed and I added, “Not everything has to be done this minute.”

He let me take his hand and after a moment, he slipped off his flip-flop and stretched out a foot to touch the surface of the water. The dog came back, this time accompanied by a boy of nine or ten, who threw a stick into the river and threw it again when the dog brought it back. The boy hugged the dog and praised it every time it came back and the dog barked happily, lifting its paws to his jeans, and licking his hand. I was aware of them playing together in the background, until the seventh or eighth time the dog went to get the stick, when suddenly it started to struggle.

“Pip! Pip! Come on, Pip!”

The dog’s eyes were on him, trustingly, but I saw fear in them, too. The stick fell from its mouth, but it made no effort to retrieve it; it floated away. The boy stared at his dog as it thrust again and again against the water with its forelegs, panting, but making no progress towards the bank, until he suddenly seemed to realise what that might mean and started to panic. He ran a few paces away from the river towards the beer garden, calling for his father, and then seemed to remember how urgent the situation was and ran back a few paces and stopped frozen, before rushing again to the water’s edge. “Pip!”

The dog’s chin was on the water and it was trying to swim, but as we watched, its head dipped below the surface and it came up, spluttering. “Pip! Swim! Swim, Pip, come here. Come here boy, come. Dad! Dad? Daddy?”

“Is it caught in weeds?” Tomas murmured, lifting a hand to see more clearly against the sun.

“Dad!” the boy shouted again. His face seemed glazed for a second and then panic shot across it and he kicked clumsily at his shoe, trying to force it off with the other foot.

I touched the boy’s shoulder. “I’ll go.”

“No, it’s–”

“No, you stay here. I don’t want to have to rescue you as well.” I waded in, but Tomas was already in the water ahead of me, swimming out fast towards the dog. He was talking to it, trying to reassure it, and the dog strained hard towards him, but before Tomas could reach it, it freed itself and swam slowly back towards the bank. Tomas followed, watching until it scrambled out onto the dry mud close to the grass and lay still, panting heavily.

The boy embraced it, resting his head against its neck, laughing as it finally stood up and shook water over him. “Thank you,” he called to us, smiling, wiping his eyes with the back of his arm.

Tomas shook his head. “No problem.”

Tomas was still in the water. He rolled onto his back, splashing his hands against its surface and looked at me, still standing thigh-deep near the edge.

“Come and swim!”

I glanced back at the boy, who was hugging his dog again. “He actually thinks you saved his dog,” I said.

“I did!”

“What, just by talking to it? Is that your superpower? Talking?”

He splashed me then, and I got him back and we both started laughing, and suddenly we were in a sort of water fight, and laughing so much we couldn’t speak. The sun was still hot when we got out and lay exhausted on the grass. I sighed, looking up at the two solitary wisps of white cloud in the azure sky. “I miss your dad. He would’ve loved this.”

He turned on his side and took my hand. “Yes, he would’ve.” He lifted my hand and kissed it, softly. He hugged me and I lay against him for a long time, listening to him breathe, and feeling his heart beat steadily against my side.

“I love this,” I said. “I love you. I love being here with you.” I felt unsure saying that, and immediately afterwards I regretted my attempt at intimacy and grimaced, bracing myself to be pushed away, but he said, “Me too.” He turned his head to kiss me and I looked at him, unexpectedly emotional, as we lay there with our thin summer clothes drying in the evening sun and the voices from the pub indistinct in the background.

I knew we still had a long way to go, but I savoured that little shard of joy, despite all the pain and uncertainty that surrounded it, because I could see that he was starting to grasp at happiness again, just as Agustin would have wanted, and that at that moment, being there with me was enough for him.

About Sarah Turner

Sarah Turner's short stories have been published by (or are due to be published by) 'Fictive Dream', 'The London Magazine', 'Welter', 'After Dinner Conversation', and 'Toasted Cheese'. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia.

Sarah Turner's short stories have been published by (or are due to be published by) 'Fictive Dream', 'The London Magazine', 'Welter', 'After Dinner Conversation', and 'Toasted Cheese'. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia.

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