I am in a canoe on a French river up to my waist in water. Despite the glum, rumbling sky, the air is mild otherwise I’d be tempted to swim to shore; being wet is one thing but being wet and cold puts me in a very dark place. My husband follows, hampered by a large waterproof container strapped between his knees. The container looks like a giant protein pot avid body builders use but we need it as it’s keeping our shoes and valuables dry. It is incredibly peaceful. I can’t believe we have the river to ourselves. The only sound comes from our paddles pulling through the rippling water. That, and the occasional shriek from our two teenage boys as they try to capsize each other.
We keep to the right of the river, steering clear of rocks that appear above the water’s surface. When we reach our first rapid, we drop, one by one, into the churning slope. Half way down and without warning, our canoes suddenly swivel round so that we travel backwards down the final descent. There is no point in trying to fight it – though of course I do. The pull of the current is too strong and you just have to go with it.
For a while we meander and I think wistfully of the hot sun a break in mid France had promised. Isn’t it meant to be reliably warm this time of year? Then I remind myself that this Summer holiday is about doing things with the boys. That was my wish. To have adventures with them. Not to lounge by a pool.
There is an almighty clatter of thunder and quite suddenly the rain that has threatened all morning descends. I remember the young Frenchman at the rental hut warning of possible thunderstorms and the penny drops – stupide Anglais – why we are alone on the river. In the event of a storm our instructions were to make for the bank and ditch our paddles. But while I don’t relish the thought of being fried (or drowned) on a river, we see no flashes of lighting and so soldier on.
At a blockade of rocks, we have to get out of our canoes and pull them over the other side. I knew in advance to expect this but it never occurred to me that it would give us any kind of trouble. It turns out that holding a paddle (long and awkward) in one hand, yanking up a canoe (heavy) with the other while negotiating a mound of wet rocks is to be our undoing.
Several things happen at once. My eldest son loses hold of his paddle which is immediately swept away. In trying to stop it, his brother tumbles onto his backside. Someone’s canoe slides free. I see it roll leisurely into the river and make a grab for it, but I too slip on the rocks. Arms windmilling backwards, I go down hard. There is a jolt to the side of my head and left wrist and for a moment the pain is all I can think about. Aided by my eldest son, I get gingerly to my feet, worried less about what injuries I may have sustained, but that my glasses, which flew off in the fall, might be broken.
“Your hand, Mum,” my older son says, bringing my attention to a nasty gash on the palm of my left hand. Blood is pouring from it. I watch it drip and blossom on the rocks curiously detached, though I’m aware that my other son has now set off on a rescue mission. Last to climb free from his canoe is my husband. I can tell he’s not feeling well. He opens up the barrel container and finding nothing suitable, offers me a rather grubby sock as a make-shift bandage.
“Best I can do,” he says ruefully. My hand starts to throb. I hear him discussing what our next move is with my son and while they’re talking, another paddle slips free and lands, sharp end, onto my big toe. This is turning into a farce, I think, gritting my teeth as new pain kicks in. I glance out at the river, stretching out in both directions and wonder how I’m going to be able to paddle without the use of one hand; we’ve still a long way to go. Its clear, however, that we can’t stay as we are.
The rain continues to fall. We stand under its fury, bedraggled rats, and hatch a plan. In the end my older son, who is the fittest amongst us, elects to bring back the missing canoe. I go with him leaving my husband to wait for his return.
My younger son has managed to rescue the stray canoe and paddle. But neither boy can work out how to paddle with one hand while towing a canoe with the other. I hold onto a rock and watch them problem solve. Using a T.shirt, they secure the rescued canoe to the back of my older son’s canoe, but it keeps coming free and the boys drift further and further downstream. For a while I follow them, using the crook of my left arm to anchor my paddle, but it becomes patently clear they have travelled too far to make it back to where my husband is waiting. This is hopeless, I think, as the rain continues to rage and the current pulls them further downstream. We need a plan B.
I find a suitable place to leave my canoe and, with difficulty, use my good hand to haul myself up the steep bank. The white sock is now pink and sodden and probably not doing much good, but I keep it pressed to the wound. Barefoot, I start running in the direction from which we have come. I don’t want to be long in case the boys return: my abandoned canoe would confuse them. Perhaps it is being back on dry land but I picture myself as the Bionic Woman moving at an impossible speed with that strange juddering, synthesized sound from the 70s T.V. show playing out in my head. In reality the ground is springy and rough and I am forced into an ungainly side to side skipping to avoid the myriad cow pats and the thistles that catch my feet. I call out my husband’s name, fairly sure I’m on track, but the terrain keeps forcing me wide of where I want to go.
At last I hear my husband respond to my calls. A somewhat forlorn figure emerges from the trees and together we return to my canoe, me leaping on ahead to alert the boys, him following at a more sedate pace, troubled by his soaked shoes and whatever sick bug he’s carrying.
I am relieved to see our eldest son waiting by my canoe, though he appears to have lost his brother. With only two vessels between us, I shuffle onto one canoe with my son while my husband takes mine. I am sure our joint weight will capsize the canoe, but while it rocks precariously, we remain afloat. Further downstream we catch up with my younger son. He’s easy to spot because his canoe is the colour of an American school bus and screams at us through the murky foliage. Like a circus acrobat he is all limbs; one arm raised to a tree branch, the other arm holding onto the wayward canoe, his outstretched feet anchoring two paddles. The look in his eyes says, “What the hell took you so long?”
For the first time in what feels like hours, we are reunited with our canoes. Ordeal over, the mood lightens. Even the weather improves. No longer raining, the boys go back to fooling around. My older son reclines back with his eyes shut like an optimistic sun worshipper and lets his hands trail in the water. When his canoe hits a rock and upends him we all laugh, amused by how many attempts it takes him to get back in.
The young Frenchman from the rental is good natured about having had to wait so long. I give him a vague account of what has happened but don’t go into detail or mention injuries. It seems a bit pointless given that we’d had to sign a liability waiver before starting out. We pose for pictures, help load up the canoes and lifejackets, then climb into the little bus that will take us back to our car.
I don’t yet know it but my cut hand is infected. Tomorrow morning I will wake up to a fever and in twenty four hours the infection will have spread, angry and hot, half way up my arm. I will need stitches and a fortnight of antibiotics and be unable to take part in any further activity for the remainder of the holiday. I will lament this, notably when we visit an adventure park three days later and all I can do is marvel as my boys bungee jump, master a series of obstacle courses high in the trees with my husband and zip wire over a lake. I am itching to join in. Maybe not the bungee jumping. The thought of plunging head first from a hundred foot up fills me with cold horror. In this, at least, my poor infected hand has saved me.
‘Would you do it for a million quid?’ my younger son asks, testing my resolve.
‘Not a chance.’ I am categoric.
‘How about two million?’
I open my mouth to answer and then I close it again because – for a nano second – I actually think about it. Then common sense prevails. Adventure is what I’d wanted on this holiday and one turned out to be enough. As the saying goes, you want to be very careful what you wish for.