We all have our favourite childhood places. Memories tenaciously cling to these spots and they remain part of our lives no matter how far away we move or how long ago we were last there.
Near my childhood home there was a small lake in a large park. In summer the water was warm and dark. Ducks and swans lived in a wooden house in the centre of the lake and crowded around visitors, expecting breadcrusts. You could hire one of the wooden boats and row slowly under the weeping willows. Only once did I beg my way to this special treat. How different the lake seemed – larger, as if something entirely new and unexpected might appear beyond the little bridge or around the willow branches dipping into the greenish surface. The slightly stale smell of the warm, murky water followed us as we slowly rowed between other boats, past the duck house and under the bridge. I dipped my hand into the wake. It flowed like silk between my fingers. The creaking of the oars and the soft splash against the side of the little boat made me sleepy, but every jolt as we avoided another obstacle shook me to wakefulness. Greenish-brown shadows loomed below, the bright sunlight unable to pierce the depths.
In winter the park was a different place. The trees were a spare filigree of branches against the cold, steely grey of the sky. Icy puddles crunched underfoot, shards splintering. Sometimes there would be snow, the white covering dead leaves, mud and grass. The lake would eventually freeze over and then it would be busier than on any hot summer day. The short hours of daylight were filled with children and adults chattering as they tied the laces on their skates and hung on to each other, shrieking and laughing until they found their balance. The park was a popular childhood destination and it was often my grandfather’s lot to get us out of the flat and in the fresh air. He was a good skater and each winter he would teach us to skate, patiently showing us how to move first slowly and then faster over the ice. Soon, my little brother was skating with his friends, slowly but doggedly. My sister was turning elegantly in ever tighter circles and doing tricks, coached by my Opa.
I was the least confident but eventually, I managed to skate in a straight line, even turning slowly and carefully when I needed to. Pleased with my accomplishment, I could venture further out on the lake than ever before. It was strange to think that this was the same place where I had dipped my hand in the soft green waves a few months ago. Now it was hard and smooth, with very slight ripples hinting that there was more beneath. It felt reassuringly solid, but bright markers warned skaters not to venture into certain areas. I was a cautious child, perhaps even over-careful. But, like many scaredy-cats, I would occasionally grow reckless, tired of the constant anxiety about dire consequences. Surely nothing disastrous could happen in my boring life. Adventures were for books and fairy-tales!
I left the jostling crowd behind, tired of being bumped into and shouted at for my slowness. Now there was just the sound of metal on ice, voices in the distance. The ice was unmarked as a fresh page as I made my way alone. Suddenly, my heart nearly stopped – a sharp, snapping noise broke the quiet followed by an ominous creak and the rise of a thin layer of water on the surface. I froze. I wasn’t afraid. This was the adventure I’d been waiting for. All the same, I didn’t want to disappear unseen into the murky, cold waters… I remembered what my grandfather had taught us. Stay calm. No hasty movements. I retreated, shifting my weight and moving ever so slowly. The creaking stopped. A sigh of relief and I returned to the crowds. Nobody had noticed my absence and I told no-one.
Years later I discovered that the lake was barely waist-deep at its centre. We spend our lives on thin ice, sometimes quaking in fear at the danger we cannot see. Be brave. Get out there. Just remember your grandfather’s warnings – there’s no shame in a quick retreat when the ice starts to crack. Nobody wants to end up with a dunking, even if there are no unfathomable depths, just a shallow, icy soup of duck-pooh and rotting leaves.
Thanks to Michael Emmrich of Bayreuth, Germany, for the summer photos of the Röhrensee