A lake, somewhere in Burma, 1945 ©Blackmouse

1945, somewhere in Burma. Peter Williams had a day’s leave and a chance to get off the base for a few hours. His friends were heading into the nearby town but Peter had other ideas. As a keen cyclist before the war he had been happy to spend his off duty time getting an old bicycle working as well as he could. He now had the chance to use it for more than getting round the air base.

It was a dirt road but it was quiet, but the main purpose in taking it was that it led to a large lake that Peter had discovered when surveying possible sites for a radio beacon to guide aircraft in to the airstrip. It was perhaps fifteen miles but he expected to get there in little over an hour. Anyway, he had all day and was in no hurry. The lake would provide a peaceful few hours away from the concerns of the war and better still a swim would be pleasant respite from the oppressive heat.

As the view of the lake opened up it seemed as peaceful and as calm as he remembered. There was a gentle breeze, just enough to ruffle the water’s surface, which took the edge off the temperature. He sat in the shade leaning against a tree on the edge of a sandy beach that led down to the lake. He just took in the scene as he decided what he was going to do next; there was no rush. Peter was feeling good. He considered his options – the lake was large, at least a mile in any direction and there were no islands. Peter was a strong swimmer and three years in the Royal Air Force meant he was even fitter than when he had volunteered at eighteen. Could he swim right across? But then he would have to swim back as there didn’t appear to be a track around this remote body of water. Young and impetuous he decided to go for it; after all war put a different perspective on personal safety, it was all relative really.

He stripped down to his identity disks and hung his few clothes on his bike. He strolled down to the water’s edge and hesitated while he confirmed his plan and ran through one last visualisation.  He ran into the water and was surprised by how cold it seemed despite the hot air; after a quick gasp he dived into the clear water and in a few strokes later his body had adjusted. Now comfortable, Peter rolled on to his back and, treading water, took a long look back at the shore to get his bearings for his return. He turned over and started a leisurely crawl out into the lake.

Peter knew he had to pace himself, no rush; it was about covering the distance not speed. He concentrated on the rhythm of his stroke and the timing of his breathing. In the smooth water it was technique that was most important, not effort or survival as it might have been in rough water. He took pleasure in the getting it all just right and he soon settled into an easy stroke. At first his mind wandered especially to his sweetheart, Joyce, back home; he had left her latest letter back in his shorts. It was full of the usual pleasantries and sweet nothings as well as a lengthy description of the goings on of both families back in England. Apparently his younger brother had decided to follow his father and Peter in to the Royal Air Force instead of the Royal Navy. But that would be some time yet, Phillip was eight years younger, plenty of time to change his mind again. And the memory of the smell of Joyce’s scent on the notepaper washed over him; he so much wanted to be back with her.

Peter bathed in the love and concern as he kept the rhythm going. As he got away from the shore the sound of the forest began to disappear. All he could hear was the gentle splash as his hands entered the water at the start of each stroke punctuated by the occasional leg kick as it broke the surface. It was all very peaceful, even mesmerising and Peter slid into an almost trance-like state. Calm, yet he felt so alive and aware of his body and his mind as he kept moving through the pleasantly cool water, feeling the cooling effect of the breeze on his wet face and back. Apart from being home he would not give up these moments for anything – the sense of pleasure was overwhelming. While in Asia he had seen Buddhist monks and now he began to appreciate what they might feel when they meditated. Though not particularly spiritual, essentially agnostic, Peter decided to learn more about Buddhism, and especially meditation when he got back. He let his mind go quiet and let the swimming be automatic.

As his mind reawakened Peter took stock of his position. He was feeling good with no sense of fatigue, his easy stroke was working well. He paused and looked around, seemed to be as far from any shore as was possible. It was decision time; if he continued Peter would have to repeat the swim to get back to his clothes and bike. He could treat it as an out and back and return to where he started but that seemed to lack the sense of achievement he had imagined before he set off. He just floated there and revelled in the quiet and calm.

Peter pressed on towards the far shore. He was feeling strong, his breathing was easy and he had lots of time. He had made good progress and he was on a 24 hour pass after all. But the thought did cross his mind that no one knew where he was; he had only told friends that he was going off for a swim but there were many places closer to the camp than this lake. If he got into trouble it might be a long time before anyone found him, if they ever would. It was war time after all and the search for one missing Leading Aircraftman would not warrant much effort; there were more pressing matters even in this essentially British controlled sector.

He continued but the foolhardiness of the enterprise started to grow in his mind; he was no longer in the calm and meditative state he had been enjoying. He was thinking more and more about Joyce, his parent and siblings. What was he trying to prove? With those thoughts Peter began to feel the fatigue. He broke off and trod water. “Am I being stupid?” he asked himself but with no answer; the doubts continued to grow as did the weariness. He rolled into a gentle side stroke and soon realised that it would take a long time to complete the one way trip; and then he would have to swim back or find a way around the lake. That would be difficult and uncomfortable, naked and barefoot as he was; the dense forest came right down to the water’s edge, there were few beaches or tracks between the trees and lake.

Finally Peter came to his senses and just floated in the middle of the lake staring at the sky. Decision taken, as he rested the aches in his arms and legs began to ease as the tension eased. He relaxed there for a good time just feeling the sun on his body as he became aware he was doing the right thing. He owed it to Joyce and his family.

Peter duck dived and as he surfaced he settled into breast stroke as change to rest some of the muscles he had used as he front crawled into the middle of the lake. Slower, it was relaxing and he began to feel reenergised; he could do this.

Moving steadily through the water back towards his starting point he was aware of the sun sinking lower in the sky, he was now well into the afternoon. He wanted to be back at base by dark, the roads would be pitch dark once the sun had set. He was not worried for his safety but it would slow him up and he would miss dinner. He switched back to crawl and as the shore got closer Peter upped his pace as he became more confident that he would not run out of energy before he got to safety.

Although very tired it was only yards to shore; even if he ran out of steam now he could rest and manage the last little bit in short stages if necessary. But he was feeling good and increased his speed, almost sprinting to the shore. Soon his fingertips touched bottom, he stood up and waded to the sandy beach. Glowing with satisfaction he lay down staring at the sky and fell asleep with warm feelings thinking of Joyce.

The RAF Jeep reached the beach the following morning after his friends had raised the alarm when he had not returned by dark. Someone had remembered Peter mentioning the lake and they had got there early. The sergeant swore “Judging by the footprints he never made it to the water. Poor devil, he never got his swim”. The neat entry wound in the temple told its own story, Peter had been hit by a sniper’s bullet and was probably dead by the time he hit the ground. “Probably a lone sniper operating in this area, we will have warn everyone”. They put Peter’s body in the back of the Jeep, there was no sign of his clothes or the bike.

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