Just now, coming up Smith Street, passing Rick Rack Retro, a shop selling fascinating and eclectically glamorous artefacts from the 1950s and 60s and even 70s, as well as a fine selection of second hand books, I saw in the window a hardback about German short-haired pointers and it triggered a memory. Alex ... I had to search for the surname ... Ward, with his blond hair and gappy teeth, my friend in Huntly, had a dog of that breed which he was training to go duck shooting with him. The duck shooting season began in May, the first I believe, and only went for a couple of weeks. People would set out for the lakes and swamps of the northern Waikato, the river marshes and the ox-bow bends, with their dogs and their shotguns to blast the ducks and the black swans out of the sky or off the dreaming waters ...
One day late in April, Alex and me and a couple of others - David Cowan? Roger Mackay? - were out on the vastly deserted playing fields of Huntly College, kicking a football around. Where was everyone else? In class, I suppose, and why we were not I don't remember. I was chasing a loose ball and, as Alex bent to scoop it up off the ground, I aimed a kick at it, missing the ball with my foot but collecting Alex on the temple, not hard, with my knee. He fell to the ground and then, as he started to get up, saying, not angrily, You bastard, Edmond ... jerked suddenly back and fell to earth again. His face turned grey and his skinny body started to spasm. His teeth were clenched hard together and a grinding sound came from his throat. He started foaming at the mouth. None of us had every seen anything like it before.
But I, even at fourteen an inveterate reader of the sporting pages of newspapers, had recently become fascinated by the story of a rugby player who'd swallowed his tongue, clenching his jaws so tight together someone had to use one of the poles - iron sheathed in plastic, ours were - that held the corner flag to force his teeth apart and retrieve the errant organ. This was what had happened to Alex I decided and, as his face turned from grey to blackish and the jolting of his body started to lessen, I kneeled down to try to clear his airways.
He was the most gat-toothed person I've ever known, so it wasn't difficult to get a purchase upon his incisors with my fingers and start to open that rictus up. But it was hard, harder than I would ever have imagined, to actually do it; I was convinced he was dying and that must have given me strength, for at last I did manage to get upper and lower jaw wide enough to reach my hand down into his maw for the swallowed tongue. I remember my astonishment at finding that, rather than being turned back and down his throat, it was merely stuck to the roof of his mouth in such a way as to block both throat and nasal passage. As soon as I depressed it, he went limp; and breathed again.
I don't know what the others were doing. With Alex lying still and pale and curled up on the ground, I turned and ran as fast as I could for the nearest classroom. It was a maths class, Mr. O'Brien, Sticky we called him. I remember as I gasped out my tale, looking down at my hands and seeing that the skin along the backs of my fingers and over my knuckles was torn and bleeding and covered with bits of Alex's saliva.
He survived, but they took him to hospital for observation and he missed the start of the duck shooting season, which really pissed him off. As for me, the wounds along the backs of my hand became infected and festered for a week or two before finally healing up again. There are no scars I can detect. Our friendship survived this peculiar hiccup without any deficit at all; but, since my family moved away from Huntly a couple of years later, I haven't seen Alex again. I heard he became a Quantity Surveyor. He had a sister called Merlene. His girlfriend's name was Jill Nightingale. He'd be 55 now if he's still alive.