Suddenly from out of the deep a monster looms – a sleek, grey killing machine is heading straight towards us. I feel the boy grow tense. His grip on my hand tightens. “Don’t worry, Dylan,” I tell him, “it can’t hurt us…Dylan?”
In an instant his grip has gone and so has he. And for the umpteenth time I find myself searching for him in an ocean teeming with shoals of schoolchildren in various shades of uniform.
This morning, I was enlisted in our Year 1 trip to The Deep: a huge, shark-shaped public aquarium overlooking the River Humber in the City of Hull. I have been given the task of looking after Dylan, who requires one-to-one supervision because of his special educational needs. Officially, these include learning and behavioural difficulties. Unofficially, they also include unnaturally fast reflexes and selective deafness.
I have read the risk assessment several times and nowhere does it explain why the oldest and least mobile member of staff has been put in charge of the slipperiest and most agile child. When I finally spot him on the next floor up, I am relieved to find the lurking Mrs Grimdale has him ensnared in one of her octopus-like arms.
“One of the sawfish in the viewing tunnel swam right up to the glass and he panicked,” I explain. “He knows it can’t get him, but I think he was worried about it eating Dory.” Mrs Grimdale looks at me as though the rumours about my showing signs of dementia are true. “He thinks one of the regal tangs in the Lagoon of Light is Dory from Finding Nemo,” I continue. “I had to stop him climbing into the tank to rescue her.”
We rejoin our group and I spend the rest of the visit playing Thwart Dylan’s Escape Attempts. It is an exhausting game, both physically and mentally, and I’m relieved when everyone is safely counted back on to the bus and we can begin our long journey west along the migratory route to Sheffield. Inside the warm belly of the vehicle, the excitement of The Deep gradually begins to take its toll. One by one, the children (and some adults) close their eyes and drift off to sleep; but not me or Dylan.
He may have special needs, but sleep isn’t one of them. I suggest playing dead fishes but it makes matters worse, and I have to reassure him several times that, despite what Courtney has told him, the sawfish will not use their long serrated beaks to cut Dory into little pieces and gobble her up. Neither will she be consumed by penguins, stung by stingrays, torn apart by sharks or devoured by a spotted wobbegong.
Later, my wife arrives home and hauls me from the depths of slumber. There is disappointment in her voice. I think it’s because I’m sprawled across the sofa like a shipwrecked mariner desperately clutching an empty beer bottle. She doesn’t understand how wearying it is to navigate the treacherous waters of The Deep. She’s no idea I’ve been to Hull and back.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield