Across the road, beside the old army camp, there was a small pond that everyone called Dead Man’s Lake. My mother said I was not to go there, because if I did I would surely drown.
The lake wasn’t really that far from our front garden. Iif you climbed out onto the little concrete porch above our front door, or if you got up onto our garage roof, you could see its silver surface, and if you stood right by the army camp’s chain-link fence with your best catapult and a good pebble, you could shoot right up to the trees growing around its banks.
On one side of Dead Man’s Lake there was a steep path that you could take all the way up to the Shinfield Road, where the cars flew past on their way between Reading and Wokingham. Sometimes my firend and I would take that path on the way to a long private avenue where we could zigzag in and out of the trees and collect the sweet chestnuts in season. And on the way back my friends would often suggest that we leave the path and go over to Dead Man’s Lake ... but I would always retort “Boring!” -- as if I had been there far too many times before. I'd suggest that we go to the Rec instead, or anything that didn’t involve going near Dead Man’s Lake.
We knew that the bigger kids went there to smoke and to pore over the raggedy tits magazines they found in the bushes. Some of the older boys took their girls there, to scare them -- because everyone, even the girls, knew that it was called Dead Man’s Lake. Sometimes you could hear screams from the lake as the boys jumped out at the girls from behind the bushes.
My friend Andy Allen said that Horsefield went there on a regular basis, and if he happened across you while you were there he would throw you in to the lake. Andy said that Horsefield threw the girls in too. If he was there and you were there that was good enough for him, he didn’t discriminate. Sometimes Horsefield went to the lake with his mates, and then you would be real trouble because, if Horsefield didn’t throw you in, he would certainly encourage his mates to do so instead.
I remember coming home one day, muddy from somewhere, perhaps from rolling around in the dirt at the Rec, and my Mum said she was sure I had been to the lake, even though I promised her on the edge of tears that I had done no such thing.
“You know you are not allowed there,” she said. “If they catch you in the camp there will be severe consequences. And that lake is very, very, very dangerous”
“But I haven’t been there!”
Promise me you won’t go there again.”
“But I haven’t!”
“You wait till your father hears about this,” she said.
The lake sat in a small crater in the side of the hill. Its banks were built up to stop it overflowing in heavy rain. Sometimes the kids that went up there cut channels in the bank so that the water trickled out through small, but enlarging, streams. Often I would hear Dad in the garden cursing: “Bloody kids!” and I’d look out the window to see a stream of brown water running across the road and down our driveway.
Yet, although it wasn’t far, it wasn’t easy to get to. First, you had to go down to the main entrance of the army camp and sneak in behind the guardhouse. Then you had to navigate your way along two rows of dilapidated Nissan huts, and make a dash across a small open field. (If you were brave, you could scoot along under the windows and hope no one looked out, but if you were the more cautious, like me, you were better off crawling all the way under the huts from one end of them to the other.)
We were told that there were serious penalties for getting caught in the camp, but we never found out what they were because when we did get caught, as occasionally would happened, the guard would just write our names down in an official-looking notebook and march us out the front gate, telling us not to come back again, “Or else.”
But of course we did go back. Indeed, if you wanted to take that path up to the Shinfield Road, you had to sneak through the base to get to it. So I already knew how to get to Dead Man’s Lake both in theory and in practice. But I never wanted to go there when I was a child, because of its name.
“Why is it called Dead Man’s Lake?” I asked my Mother.
“You don’t need to know that,” she said, but then added without pausing: “A young boy drowned there in just a few inches of water. It’s a very, very, very dangerous place.”
“Can you drown in a few inches of water, then?”
“Very easily, especially if you are wearing poor shoes and you slip over and hit your head on a rock and knock yourself out and roll down into the lake and end up face down in the water and there’s no one else around, like on a Sunday.”
“Is that when it happened then?” That didn’t make any sense to me: Sundays was when all the kids went up there because there was no school.
“No. It was before the war.”
For the most part, I had no interest in exploring Dead Man’s Lake. I was happy to play in my garden and to leave the lake to the bigger kids. When you are a child the world is filled with dark places you don’t want go to because you are afraid of what might happen if you did. I had no doubt that Dead Man’s Lake would harm me if I went there, so I never did go there when I was a small boy.
The year’s passed, and I became a teenager, and I still didn’t think much on the lake. Gathering sweet-chestnuts in season became a sissy thing to do, so we didn’t go up to the Shinfield Road any more anyway, but spent our time kicking a ball around at the Rec.
When I was fourteen, Andy Allen and I made a friend called Paul, who was crap at football but had a great train set, who lived up the hill on the other side of the lake. One way to get to his house was to go by way of Wincanton Road, but I didn’t like to take this route because there was a bigger boy who lived on that street who liked to scream “Faggot!” in my face whenever he met me. I was quite fearful of him (and also confused because I liked eating faggots) so I never went up Wincanton Road if I could avoid it.
Now by this time the camp had closed down, and the guardhouse had gone, and the Nissan huts were lying empty, so it was now easy to get through the camp. Andy and I discovered we could take the path by Dead Man’s Lake to get up to Paul’s house.
Above the lake, the path went through a beautiful bit of woodland, with a wonderful canopy of green leaves (elm? oak?) above. I loved to dawdle there if I was on my own, enjoying the peace and tranquillity of the forest. Lower down, the path passed beside the lake but it was a wide path and there was no need to climb the bank up to the lake to find out what might be going on up there.
Now one day it happened that Paul, Andy, and I came down this path on the way to my house and we were throwing stones and chopping at bushes with sticks and mucking around like you do, when suddenly my friends started climbing the bank and before I knew it they were at the top and had disappeared from view.
After a moment’s hesitation, I followed them.
It had rained recently and the bank was quite slippery, so I had to pull myself up by holding on onto small bushes and young trees. I was quite muddy by the time I got to the top of the bank. I came up on all fours and took a little time to straighten up.
Then in front of me I saw, close up, for the first time, in all its stagnant glory, Dead Man’s Lake.
The whole lake was not much more than fifty paces across. The water was brown and covered with an oily sheen, and there were various man-made things sticking out of it: half a bicycle, a broken umbrella, a school satchel complete with soggy books. The water level was low because somebody had recently cut a channel through the bank. Frogs hopped through the shallows and insects buzzed over the surface. One whole side of the lake was a sticky mudflat from which bubbles of gas occasionally popped. It smelt like old cabbages.
There were two small islands in the lake with a few straggly trees and bushes growing out of them. A causeway of wooden crates and rotten logs linked the first island to the shore; Andy and Paul hopped across it. I followed cautiously, being careful where I put my feet because the wood looked slippery. I watched out for rocks in the water in case I fell and cracked my head.
Between the first and the second island a rope hung from an old tree. We took turns to swing across a muddy channel. Every time someone swung across the old tree creaked and groaned. It was scary, but exciting!
On the second island we found a clearing with the remains of a camp fire, with a few charred logs and the burnt remains of a colour magazine with a few bits of flesh still showing. There were several long lengths of fishing twine tangled about the bushes and some old clothes bundled in a corner.
“Tramps,” said Paul.
"Tramps," Andy agreed.
We threw sticks in the water and small ripples spread across the lake. We got bigger logs from the fire and threw them in and they made a more satisfying “fudd-doomp” kind of splash. Where the logs sank, the lake water billowed in greens and browns and blacks. Dark shapes floated to the surface before slowly sinking down again. Sometimes the lake belched gas. When we grew bored with throwing things in the lake we swang back to the first island doing our best Tarzan yodels – yes, the rope held – then we hopped back across the causeway to the shore.
I felt exhilarated, like I had accomplished great things, like I had set out on a voyage of discovery and had found a new world, complete with rope swings and camp fires and other signs of human habitation. Dead Man’s Lake was really no big deal. It wasn’t dangerous at all. What for all these years had I been so afraid of?
I led the way along the track at the top of the bank, making hooting noises. With a convenient stick I chopped off the tops of the stinging nettles that had dared grow too close to my path. I nipped through some bushes to get ahead of my friends so that I could jump out on them. But, as I came out through the bushes, I found two older boys standing on the path in front of me.
“Hello,” I said. I started to smile, but the smile sort of locked in place.
“What?” said Horsefield.
Horsefield was a big boy with a small bullet-shaped head and little piggy eyes that were always narrowed, as though he suspected that everyone was out to fool him.
He moved his whole upper body forward so that his face came close to mine. “Are you talking to me,” he said, “Are you talking to me, or…” and he paused, then pushed his face even closer and said with sinister emphasis “…or are you chewing a brick?”
His mate sniggered. I realised that it was the kid from Wincanton Road.
Even today I don’t fully understand what Horsefield meant by that remark about the brick – was it a threat he had heard on the TV? Or was his commenting on my diction? I mumbled “Sorry, excuse me” as humbly as I could and made my way to go past. Now I wanted to get away from the lake as fast as I could.
Horsefield folded his fat arms and planted himself in the middle of the path, so my only option was to go around him. I stepped off into the deeper grass at the side of the path. Suddenly my feet went from under me. I tried to grab at something to save myself, but there was nothing to hold on to, and I slid down the muddy bank, first on my front, and then on my back, and plunged into the lake. The water was only a few inches deep, but beneath it there was a deep layer of soft mud and I sank into it, up to my knees. Big bubbles of gas roll to the surface and there was a horrible smell. Startled frogs leapt in all directions, which panicked me more, and I threw myself flat and clawed my way back onto the bank.
Horsefield and his mate were doubled over with laughter. The kid from Wincanton Road lifted a trembling hand, pointed, said “Faggot!”, but barely had enough breath to get the word out. They were laughing so hard that they could barely stand up. Andy and Paul had arrived by this time, and they were laughing too. Andy said later “You were standing there then suddenly ‘Plooff!’ you were gone and you were in the lake! It was really, really funny!”
It took some time to drag myself out of the mud and water. I had to pull one leg out at a time. My trousers were complete soaked and covered in slime all the way up to the crotch. One of my shoes was full of mud, the other one had disappeared. Andy and Paul laughed all the way home.
That was the first and the last time I went up to Dead Man’s Lake. I never had any urge to go there again, even though it was so close you could hear the shouts of the kids that went up there from our front garden, even though I could shoot a stone right up into the trees that grew on its banks. Dead Man’s Lake was a dangerous place. A place where you might slip and hit your head on a rock and there might not be anyone around to help you out. It just wasn’t worth the risk.