The boy I'll never forget

A Thames drowning brought back sad memories for Paddy Burt – whose idyllic life on Pharaoh's Island was brought to an abrupt end
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Although it was a long time ago that my small son Philip died, I remember what happened that day as if it were yesterday.

It was 1964 and I was living near Shepperton on an island in the middle of the Thames. Thin and canoe-shaped, with houses on both sides, Pharaoh's Island – where a boat capsized last week, ferrying guests from a dinner party to the mainland, tragically drowning two men – was not a bit like the exclusive riverside residence it has become today.

Then, with its ramshackle bungalows, most of them with verandas, it was a place with more than its fair share of eccentrics. At either end were large brick-built houses with lawned gardens, one belonging to a Mrs Harris, who spoke to no one if she could help it; the other to the actors Ian Hendry and Janet Munro. Just beyond was Shepperton Lock and a weir. One day Janet fell into the river and was almost swept over it. The water at that point in the river is unpredictable – it is not tidal, but can become extremely fast-moving after rain. A fact I wish I was not familiar with.

When I first saw Pharaoh's Island, I knew I wanted to live there – it was exciting and different; and the houses all had Egyptian names. My father, who could also see the attraction, said he would help financially – it wasn't the sort of place mortgage companies were keen on; the houses were too ramshackle, some being built of timber, others of timber and asbestos. "They look as if they might have been built between the wars by returning colonial ex-pats," he told me. Nevertheless, "Osiris" was soon ours.

At that time I was married to Lawrence, who never really took to island life, and when our son, Simon, was a few months old, was offered a job in Scotland. He never returned – he had met the woman who was to become his second wife.

There were three heavy, flat-bottomed ferryboats, each with an enormous pair of oars, and a ferryman called Wilf, who lived in the tumbledown cottage that went with the job. On the landing-stage on either side was a ship's bell for people to ding when they wanted to go across. After seven o'clock, when Wilf went off duty, anyone who didn't have a boat of their own had to use the ferryboats; this involved doing the "double row"; in other words taking one of them across, attaching it to the one on the other side, then doing the return journey, thus leaving a boat on both sides.

One couple, the Goldsteins, couldn't be bothered with all this palaver and regularly dinged the bell when they arrived back from the local pub, usually about midnight. This meant that Wilf had to row across to collect them, whatever the weather – I can only think they paid him handsomely.

Romantic and different though the island was, it wasn't the ideal place to live on one's own with a child. All the gardens had fences dividing them from the next-door ones; and those where there were children also had fences along the river frontage. But as with everything on the island, they had a tendency to be a bit rickety. Not something any of us seemed concerned about at the time – it was a different era. Children had more freedom. Parents worried less. Something that has not lessened the guilt I've felt ever since about what happened.

I suppose it was inevitable that men began to circle around this apparently single woman. There was too-timid John, who lived on the towpath; Edmund, who embarrassed me because he made his feelings obvious even though his wife Josie and I were friends. And when Simon developed a rash and needed a doctor, I found one who became more interested in me than in Simon. "You don't look well," he said. "I think I need to examine you properly ... " There followed a series of letters, all unsigned, though it was obvious who they were from. I found another doctor pronto.

Then I met Derek, who lived on the island but had a rather splendid gift shop in nearby Walton-on-Thames. I started working there on Saturdays and our relationship developed into an affair; and when I got pregnant with Patrick, my second son, we got married. Two years after his birth, Philip was born, on 15 July 1961 – not in hospital this time, but at home. The midwife, who was known as Nellie, slipped and fell into the river when climbing out of the boat – being a jolly sort, she had a laugh about it, implying that falling into the river was something she did every day. But then, to the people who lived or spent any time there, crossing the river seemed as normal as crossing the road.

Philip was a happy child. I used to stand him on a chair while I got him dressed and he always found this procedure very funny, jumping up and down, stamping his little feet and laughing. I could have sent him to nursery school – there was one in the village – but instead of going to work as I'd had to with my two older children, I now had the luxury of being at home and enjoying his company. We'd go for walks every day, mostly to Shepperton to shop, and on the way back we'd feed the ducks. Philip loved the ducks and we always looked forward to getting across the water, back to our ramshackle house where we knew everyone, and where we felt so safe.

Until, that is, someone I had worked with called Jan came to stay with us. She arrived with her two small daughters but minus her husband – she had just left him. While she was staying at the house, one day, with nine-year-old Simon at school, her little girl and Patrick – who were both four-and-a-half – made a hole in the wire fencing that ran the length of one side of our garden.

Squeezing through it, they got into the empty "For sale" plot next door which had no fence between it and the river. If the hole had been nearer to the house, I would have seen it; but it wasn't and I didn't. And, I suppose, with the river so much a part of daily life, the dangers somehow melted to the back of one's mind.

When I went outside to get Philip for his mid-morning glass of milk, I couldn't find him. Panicking, I then saw Jan's little daughter running, running, running, through the long grass towards our garden. "What are you doing in there and where is Philip?" I shouted. She didn't – couldn't – answer; and I could see that she was very frightened. I ran to get Wilf. "Please help me find him!"

Philip's little body was found on the river bank outside the Thames Court Hotel, not far from the weir, where it had been swept by the current. "We haven't been able to do anything for this little chap," said one of the men who had joined in the search. There were tears in his eyes.

There was an inquest of course; the verdict being Accidental Death. Although this was a relief, I still felt that I had killed my child. "You should have looked after him better," said Patrick.

After the funeral at Shepperton Parish Church, Philip was buried in the graveyard across the road. "You will get over it, but it will take time," said my brother-in-law, meaning well, I know. I also had an unexpected letter from our neighbour, Maisie Goldstein. "In our religion," it said, "we believe that when children die, they become flowers in heaven – flowers that bloom all day long and curl up at night to sleep. Your little one will never know the unhappiness that exists the world over. I was so fond of him ... " Of all our neighbours, she was the last one I expected to have sent such a comforting message. Even after all these years, I am still moved when I remember her words.

How did I cope? I don't know. The shock numbed my emotions. I think this gave some people the impression I had been unmoved by Philip's death. Of course, nothing was further from the truth. But life had to go on. The first thing was to move away – I simply could not continue living in a place where something so terrible had happened and Derek and I left the island soon afterwards, having gone our separate ways. There were already problems in the marriage but this cemented the gulf between us. Though of course very upset himself, he was nice to me: he didn't blame me for what had happened – it had been a terrible accident as far as he was concerned. I, however, did blame myself. And the fact of me having been there and him having not gave us very different responses to what had happened. I found it much harder to accept. Inevitably, we grew further apart.

I remarried – to a man who had been a neighbour on the island. That he understood the place where this terrible thing had happened was a comfort. And I threw myself into work; stayed busy.

Eventually I found a counsellor who listened while I talked; even so, it took a long time for the guilt and anguish to go away. And reading the tragic news about Pharaoh's Island last week has brought it all back.

Despite everything, I have always loved the river. But could I have moved to another house on the river? No, not when I still had small children to care for. For many years we lived landlocked in a street that we chose because it was a quiet cul-de-sac, no water, no traffic – a place that was safe for children to play.

Eventually, when they were all grown up, my husband and I bought a house, near the river but much further downstream and more urban. I don't find myself thinking about Philip every time we walk along the riverside. I don't want to think about it. It all happened such a long time ago. But I can never forget.



Some names have been changed.

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