What are the chances?

Martin Locock

I lower the Coke can into the pond. The water is cold – not as cold as the water in the can, but still cold. Winter this year has dragged on towards Easter, frosts nipping at the early buds. The tadpoles wriggle free, a writhing mess, to seek the cover of the pond weed. A while ago I heard an expert on the radio talking about frogs, how their ‘reproductive strategy’ was all about the numbers—a thousand spawned eggs, from which a few make to being frogs, a couple of them to adulthood, parenthood. And if the rest don’t, that’s fine, apparently. Humans don’t fancy those odds. We invest too much in outcomes to shrug off such losses. But perhaps we are just as exposed to the harsh whims of chance. I know how these tadpoles got here – but how did I?

   A moment’s thought and I was dizzy from the multiplication of long odds, the compound unlikelihood tending towards the miraculous. For a start, the pond wasn’t there a year ago. Like so many others, we had pushed back against the impositions of lockdown by inventing feelgood projects. This one was a quick fix and now the pond was an established feature, its vegetation maturing; all it needed was some animal life. I had been watching out for frogspawn on our daily walk, but hadn’t seen any.

     Today, though, I found some. Somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. The domestic routine had been dislocated by the pandemic, but some constants remained. The regular trip to the tip was one. Even with just the two of us in the house, we somehow generated a surfeit of waste, falling outside the council’s edicts of categorisation. I had a careful and headed there. It’s always a crapshoot how many cars would be lined up, backing up from the gates towards the main road. Today, bright sunshine had coaxed my rivals out early. Experience told me it would be an hour until I reached the gates, an hour of tedium in my hot metal box. On impulse, I drove past the turning, looking instead for a more pleasant way to fill the time until the jam dispersed.

     Half a mile on, a brown road sign promised woodland; I found the empty car park. Its surface was uneven – it had been awkwardly created between the thick trunks of trees which still shaded the valley. It was isolated here – no traffic noise. The river chuckling and swishing in its rocky bed, the piercing calls of birds, the clatter of wings. Leaves fluttering in the wind. All very nice, I thought. Out of habit, I walked over to the information panel. They used to be crib sheets for facts to pass onto the children, but no need now – they’re off finding their own, somewhere.

      The map was blurred beneath the patina of rheumy Perspex, but I could make out the farm names. Tir y Cwm – that rang a distant bell. This must be where, years ago, I’d visited, long before we moved here. A youth group weekend, an isolated hostel in a pine forest. My memory of the place was vague – it would be interesting to see it again. I checked the scale – a mile there, a mile back, a doable walk then back to the tip. Unplanned as the visit was, I hadn’t come equipped, so I trudged off in my trainers, feeling the track’s stones through the flimsy soles.

       As I walked, I reviewed my memories. Working back, it must have been 45 years – I had been just on the point of growing out from an odd child to a weird teenager. Life baffled me. Siblings, school friends, adults, however friendly on the surface, didn’t ‘get’ me. I could be lonely in a crowd, and often was. That’s what had made that weekend special – making a connection. Yes, it was a girl, actually, but it was nothing to do with that. Just talking to someone who was on the same page. At the time I didn’t think too much of this. ‘So this is what happens?’ I thought, you find your tribe, your gang, your type. Later I realised it wasn’t that easy.

The track climbed the valley side, cloaked with pine trees. If these were the same ones as before they must be due for felling. On a long enough timescale, forestry is as heartless an industry as any other. The house came into view. The sign confirmed the identification but my senses didn’t – I recognised nothing. Obviously I hadn’t been paying much attention to the architecture at the time – too busy talking. I stood still while a red kite circled, waiting for a flood of nostalgia, of regrets and benedictions, of pity for my past self.

        No. It stayed as it was: a building, functional, unhaunted. Time to turn around, I guess. But I have always hated retracing my steps – its strips away the quiet adventure of exploring, turns travelling into commuting. The map had suggested a possible circular route, adding a little to the distance but wholly fresh. I moved on. The early sunshine had now gone – clouds filled the sky. By the track I saw a Coke can, left here, miles from anywhere, by some hiker. I walked on again as rain started to spit. Thinking how my trainers would cope with mud, I resigned myself to turning around. The change in direction showed me different things; crossing a puddle I noticed that it was full of tadpoles – enough for it to spare a few. Most of the time I wouldn’t have a tadpole-catcher with me. Including this time. But then I remembered the can, and retrieved it. I coaxed a few tadpoles in and descended to the car park, holding the can level as I walked. The queue for the tip had shrunk a little, and an hour later I was back in the garden with my booty.

       They’re lucky buggers, these tadpoles. Think how unlikely it is that they’d end up here. It took a pandemic, a memory, someone with nothing to do, the specific circumstances. As unlikely as finding a soulmate.

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Martin Locock works as a project manager at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Carmarthen, having moved to Wales twenty years ago while working as a commercial archaeologist.  He runs the small press, Carreg Ffylfan Press, and recently published his fourth collection of poetry, The Thought of Fresh Rain.  He is a member of Lampeter Writers' Workshop and the Red Heron performance group and reads regularly at spoken word events. The short story ‘Prey’ was published in ASP Literary Journal #1.