Whenever I need to clear my head, I go for a walk on the canal. It runs like a vein through the county, twisting and turning in the fashion of a benevolent serpent. You can follow it for miles as it takes from one place to another, a thread that connects us.
On a cold autumn morning, I made my way along the path flanking the canal as I had done countless times over the years. As I was casually strolling on my way, I saw a large family coming from the opposite direction. Between them they filled the narrow path; two adults, four children and two dogs. Rather than attempt to negotiate a way through the mob, I stood to one side, keeping the gravel path between me and the water and waited for them to pass me by. The large group ambled past noisily and I resumed my journey, listening to their merry babble as it died away behind me. Then I heard the screaming.
I turned and saw the smallest child had slipped and fallen into the water. She bobbed there, head barely visible, her arms flailing helplessly. The man I presumed to be her father lay down on the bank on his front, stretching his arms towards her, but she had already floated too far. I ran to the panic stricken family, threw off my coat and dived into the water.
It was cold, far colder than I imagined. Filthy water entered my mouth as my head broke the surface. I am a strong swimmer and it did not take long to reach the child. Her thick coat had blown up like a balloon, keeping her afloat but I knew it was only seconds before she would start to sink. I grabbed her and told her to put her arms round my neck. With the girl clinging to me, I struck back for the shore.
It was not easy going, for my clothes and the terrified child weighed me down, but at last we reached the bank. Both adults were there, reaching towards us and I lifted the child to them. But as she was taken from me, I felt a sharp yank on my leg and was dragged beneath the surface.
In the darkness of that dirt brown, foetid water, I was distinctly aware of the touch of something slimy on my ankle. I looked down and saw in the gloom a single pair of eyes glaring back at me with an expression I can only describe as hungry. Then arms grabbed me from above and after a brief tug of war, the thing in the water released me and I was dragged back to fresh air and civilisation.
The girl and I were rushed to hospital and treated for all the germs and diseases that fester in the stagnant depths of that canal. The family visited often and fussed over me; I was their hero. But I could not fully enjoy the adulation. I cannot forget those clammy, webbed fingers on my skin or the malevolent eyes watching me in the darkness.
I no longer go walking on the canal. They think I am still traumatised from almost drowning, bu the truth is far worse. I dread to think what exists down there, some freak of nature, evolving over generations in that unnatural, man-made lair. I am convinced the creature I glimpsed was not the only specimen of its kind and if there is a whole race of them, how long before the canal becomes too small for them, and they seek a larger, more prosperous domain in other waters?