Border Crossing


by Pat Barker (Farrar, Straus and Giraux)


     When I picked up Pat Barker's Border Crossing, I had no idea into what category it fit. I have now finished reading and I am no better prepared to describe it. I suppose it is a psychological thriller or perhaps a character study. But who cares? It is, as might be expected from a Booker Prize winner, a remarkably well written story about a child psychiatrist and his work with a seriously threatening patient.


   Some parts of the story are quite exciting. Here Dr. Seymour and his wife, strolling along the bank of a river, are suddenly confronted with a challenge: "In reality, it was Lauren who first noticed the young man. 'Look,' she said, touching Tom's arm.


"They stood and watched him, grateful to be distracted from their own problems, to be mildly interested, mildly puzzled by the behavior of another human being, for there was an oddity about this boy that they both recognized seconds before he did anything odd. His trainers bit into the gravel -- the only sound except for their own breathing -- and then he was slipping and slithering over the rotted timbers of the jetty. He stood, poised, at the end, a black shape smudged with mist. They watched him drop his coat, scrape off his trainers, tug the sweatshirt over his head.


"'What's he doing?' Lauren said. 'He can't be going to swim.'


"...He seemed to be shaking pills into the palm of his hand and cramming them into his mouth. He threw the bottle away, far out into the water, but his body got there first. A low, powerful dive that raised barely a splash. Almost immediately his head appeared, bobbing, as he was swept further from the bank.


"Already Tom was running, crunching broken glass, dodging halfbricks, jumping piles of rubble.... At the end, fumbling with buttons, he looked down into the dead water and thought, Shit. And realized this is what people do think who meet sudden, violent deaths. Shit. This is it. Oh bugger. Lauren came panting up and said nothing, not 'Don't' or 'Be careful' or anything like that, and he was grateful. 'It's September' he said, answering one of the things she might have said, meaning the water wouldn't be lethally cold.


"A second later, the water enclosed him in a coffin of ice. His mind contracted in fear, became a wordless pinprick of consciousness, as he fought the river that pushed him under, tossed him about, slapped him to and fro across the face, like an interrogator softening up his victim.


"After the first few floundering strokes, he began to get used to the cold. At any rate he could get no colder. Looking around for the dark head, he realized he couldn't see it, and thought, Good, because now he could get out, phone the police, let them dredge the river or wait for the body to float. But then he saw the boy, drifting slowly with the current, thirty or forty feet away."


Ms. Barker makes me feel that icy water.


She also has a feel for children that I find quite remarkable. Notice here how she gives us a clear sense of how easily children can drift into tragedy:


"No geese today. Then, they'd honked and hissed and swayed off, to stand at a slight distance, malevolent and watchful, as Tom started to wade into the pond. His feet raised clouds of fine mud....


"New spawn, the jelly still firm with tadpoles like full stops. Old spawn, slack jelly, tadpoles like commas. Tom lowered the jam jar beneath the surface, easing mounds of silvery slobber over the rim. Some of it was too firm to flow; he had to pull it apart to get it in. When he'd got enough, he turned round and saw Jeff, scooping spawn into his own jar, and behind him, wobbling precariously, still wearing his wellies, Neil.


"It started as a joke. A cruel joke, yes, but still a joke. Whose idea was it to put frog spawn into Neil's wellies? He couldn't remember. Jeff's, he thought, but then he needed to think that.


"Neil screamed as the heavy jelly slopped over the tops of his boots and filled them to the brim, pressing in on his bare legs. He wasn't hurt, he just couldn't bear the cold slime on his skin. He screamed and screamed, jumped up and down, fell over, got up again, soaked, face smeared with snot, piss coursing down his legs. There was no way out. The more he screamed, the more they panicked. They couldn't take him home like this, and they couldn't clean him up. Jeff scrambled on to the bank, Tom followed, but Neil couldn't move. They shouted at him to get out, but when he tried to move the spawn shifted and squelched inside his wellies, and he screamed again.


"Jeff threw the first stone. Tom was sure about that. Almost sure. Little stones, pebbles, plopping into the water around the screaming child, who backed further out towards the center of the pond. Why did they do it? Because they were frightened, because they shouldn't have been there at all, because they knew they were going to get into trouble, because they hated him, because he was a problem they couldn't solve, because neither could be the first to back down. Bigger clods of earth landed in the pond, not too close, they weren't trying to hit him yet....


"And then a bus came past. A man, glancing up from his paper, peered through the window, hardly able to credit what he saw, and immediately jumped up and rang the bell. The driver, who could have decided to be awkward, stopped the bus, and minutes later the man -- Tom never knew his name -- careered down the bank, waded into the pond up to his knees, and gathered Neil into his arms. He carried him all the way home, having got the address out of a subdued and frightened Jeff. They followed him, stomping along behind, too shocked to speak, leaving the jam jars marooned in muddy footprints by the side of the pond.


"Three children were saved that day. A man glances up from his newspaper, sees what's going on, acts on what he sees. Accident. A more interesting news story, a thicker coat of dirt on the bus window, a disinclination to intervene, and it might have ended differently In tragedy, perhaps. It might have. He didn't know. It was his good fortune not to know."


We're in the hands of a master here.-- Gerry Rising