To thine own self be true. It was a line that his grandmother used to say to Henry when he was caught out stretching the truth as a kid. At the time he recognised it as a reprimand, but it was only when he was much older, and his grandmother was no longer there to pull him up, that he realised that there were lies that he told himself.

Granted, most of them were harmless enough. Small acts of self-deception that seemed to be necessary as he got older, and largely to do with a vanity that seemed to increase as his looks started to fade. If he looked at his reflection but took a step back from the mirror, his face was hardly lined by the passing years. And close scrutiny of his hairline was to be avoided where possible. But the lie that scratched away at his insides, as grating as a tree branch on a window on a windy night, was that he wasn’t responsible for what had happened that day at the beach.

It had just been the two of them, Henry and Archie. It was one of those hot, dry days where the only relief to be had was in the ocean. Henry was a couple of years older than his brother, but they got on all right. Archie had a growth spurt that summer, and suddenly they were a similar height. Henry had to push himself to beat Archie when they were doing laps to the end of the swimming baths and back, and then one or the other of them threw out a challenge. Dare you to swim out to the white buoy and back.

Archie wanted to go first. Henry agreed to stay on the beach and to time him. He’d been given a watch for Christmas and it had a stopwatch feature which he loved to use. Archie was bouncing up and down, keen to get started. When Henry clicked the start button, the beeps were lost to the wind as Archie crashed through the water before diving under and starting his smooth, swift strokes out to the buoy.

Henry’s eyes flicked from the watch to Archie, spotting his head bob up and down. The wind had picked up, and the waves were starting to crest. Henry looked down at this watch again, willing time to slow a bit. He was starting to wonder if he’d be able to beat Archie, who was a good sport, but would tease him if he had the faster time. But the seconds zipped by as he looked down at his watch. He thought he heard a noise behind him, on the grassed area where they’d left their towels. Henry turned and looked around but there wasn’t anyone else there.

He turned back to see where Archie was, but the surf had picked up and all he could see was white caps and foamy waves smacking on the shore. He shook his head, and looked closer, tracing Archie’s progress, which should have been parallel to the baths and out past them to the buoy. The buoy was bobbing about faster now, but he couldn’t see Archie. A twist of fear chilled him, and he shouted out to Archie. Maybe he was just fooling around, so confident that he’d have the best time that he was doing part of the lap underwater. His words were pulled out to sea, and the only response was the shrill squawks of low-flying seagulls. Henry screamed out ‘Archie!’ and ran into the surf. With desperate speed, he swam towards the buoy, thinking that Archie might have got caught when he turned to come back. When had he last seen his brother? His mind was blank with terror.

Later he found it hard to piece together the timeframe. He couldn’t work out how long he’d looked for Archie before realising that he needed help. The trip back home and finding his Mum in the garden, trying to tell her that something was wrong, that Archie hadn’t come back, then returning to the beach as people came to search for Archie, it was one of those time warps where things seemed to take an age or no time at all.

They told him that it wasn’t his fault, that it was an accident, a riptide that had taken his brother. His parents, distraught with grief, had told him repeatedly that no-one was to blame and he’d nodded, not able to find the words to express what he really felt. And for years he’d repeated the lie, as it was the only way to get through each minute, each day, until the pain began to ease by the smallest of increments. But the lie never sat easy, and every now and then Henry felt the itch, decades after that day on the beach.

I’m participating in this blogging challenge for the month of January, which supports starting the year on the “write” track. You can find other posts with #bloganuary and join in the challenge.

Photo: Thirroul Beach