My thanks go to my proofreaders LadyCibelle, and my friend SH, for attempting to sort out all of my co... foul-ups! But I must remind the reader that I still retain my annoying habit (Well I would be surprised if I doesn't get right up their noses, after all the effort they put in on my behalf!) of fiddling with my tales of woe, almost every time that I open them. So blame for typos, spelling mistakes and all grammar foul-ups, should be laid at my door.
For clarifications of Tow-path, Bedsit or Wobbly; please see the story's end-note.
I didn't often walk along that towpath by the river any more. I'd enjoyed the tranquillity of the place since I was a child, and in my younger days spent many happy hours fishing there and watching the waterfowl raise their young. To see the transformation from cygnet to swan take place over weeks and months had been my idea of heaven as a child. It could have been that my fishing expeditions to the riverbank -- which were never very successful - were an excuse to sit and watch the swans and all the other waterfowl. Bird watching -- as it is euphemistically called -- wasn't really a pastime that was readily accepted by my peers back then; well not the kind of birds with wings on them anyway!
As I'd got older, I had got into the habit of taking a stroll along the towpath almost every day. Even when we started courting, Mary and I spent a lot of our time on the riverbank. Not exactly what you could truthfully describe as bird watching or fishing by then though; Mary and I enjoyed that grassy riverbank for its... yeah well, I don't have to spell it out to you, you know what I mean!
Once I'd lost Mary, I tended to walk there nearly everyday. I suppose recalling my childhood and the many happy hours Mary and I spent there together. That was until the day I looked into the water and saw those eyes staring back at me. That young woman's face has haunted my dreams ever since, and maybe I feared that I would see it looking back at me again if I walked by the river again. Look, maybe it's best if I go back to that afternoon again and I'll try to explain it in a more coherent manner.
Back then my life was in a kind of limbo and had been for many years; my mind remained in a kind-a fog of memories most of the time. I was literally drifting through life day to day. Anyway, it had been my routine to take a long walk after work everyday; it didn't really matter where I walked, as long as it kept me from sitting in the house alone. I'd vary the route I took quite often, but it always took me through the cemetery where I could say hello to Mary and Loretta.
Mary and I had tried for years to have a child, but her pregnancy was to bring an unexpected end to our happiness. I suppose it's unusual in this day and age, for both the mother and baby not to survive a birth; but it does still happen when complications set in, and I'd been the unlucky husband and father that it had happened to.
I suppose I sort-of withdrew from the world after the funeral. Of course, our friends had tried to be very supportive, but they were flogging a dead horse really. I just didn't want to be around anyone, let alone married friends and their children.
Over the years, my life dropped into a routine of work and long quiet walks alone. Maybe I should have sold up the house and moved away, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to sell the house Mary had loved so much. But just being inside that great big Victorian pile, reminded me of all the work that Mary and I had put into it together to make it into the comfortable modern home we intended to spend the rest of our lives together in, and her enthusiastic excitement as we'd converted the smallest bedroom into a nursery.
"Three!" Mary had said, "Three children are going to begin their lives in this room and grow up in this house!" she'd grinned when we finally finished decorating it.
As the years rolled by we'd began to think that children were never going happen for us and then eventually she fell pregnant. Mary and I were both ecstatic at the news.
But less then eight months later my life just stopped!
Now the door to that nursery room stays permanently closed, as does the door to the room Mary and I once shared together. I never did sleep in that room again after... It held too many memories!
Anyway, I've digressed; Mary really has nothing to do with the particular day I was telling you about - you'll please forgive me if I keep referring to her though - other than the fact that as I did every day I had visited the cemetery and had my little daily talk with her and our baby Loretta, before I headed down towards the river.
Although it was a warm spring evening, there were very few people about as I took the steep path that led down from the bridge to the towpath beside the river below. That path is narrow and quite a claustrophobic place, with almost vertical banks either side. Those banks did strange things to the sound of the traffic on the road above, sort-of deadening it and distorting it at the same time.
I suppose that I must have been three quarters of the way down the path when a strange sound caught my ear. For some reason -- probably the distortion caused by those steep banks - I had trouble working out what the noise was at first; eventually coming to the conclusion that someone had thrown something - probably some rubbish - into the river from the bridge above. What I'd heard was the distorted sound of the splash as it hit the water.
"Arsehole!" I called out loud. Not that there was much chance the miscreant would have heard me.
It amazed me even after all the time and effort that had been put into cleaning the river, from the environmental disaster area it had become. People would still used it as a convenient dumping ground for their crap; rather than take it a few miles up the road to the official tip.
Probably still annoyed about the idiot's thoughtlessness, when I eventually got down to the towpath, maybe a minute of so later, I found myself studying the surface. Looking back, I suppose I was hunting for any clue as to whatever had been dumped in the water. But all I could see were the usual ripples in the surface as the water moved slowly along by the current.
Proceeding on my way along the bank, my mind noted a young courting couple walking towards me, maybe about a hundred yards away. And I think I wondered whether they'd spotted what had been thrown into the water. But having second thoughts, I realised that, like Mary and I had been all those years before, they looked far too into each other to notice anything. It was doubtful they'd have noticed if the QE 2 had steamed by.
"Remember when Mary and you, used to walk along the towpath arm in arm together like that?" A little voice - that I didn't want to hear - said somewhere in the back of my brain. A lump immediately formed in my throat, as I tried to ignore the voice. I didn't want to get into conversation with that voice again; those conversations always ended with me feeling even more melancholy.
Instead, I turned my attention back to the water, looking again for any sign of the detritus that I was sure had just been added to it. What I saw took my breath away for a second; two eyes just below the surface, staring back at me. Christ! The sight of them gave me such a shock, that I staggered backwards for a few paces.
But then, taking my heart in my hands I moved back to the bank edge and looked down into the cold water a little more carefully. Sure enough, there was a face, just below the surface whose pleading eyes were staring back up at me.
Things kind-of happened quite quickly after that, as I moved into a kind of automaton mode. Look, I'm no hero and I believe if I'd stopped to think about it, I most likely would have stood there and yelled for help. But I wasn't thinking, my mind was concentrating on or captivated by the pleading expression in those eyes..
I remember yelling something -- god knows what - to draw the courting couple's attention, and then I plunged head first into the cold water. It took me only a couple of strokes to reach the body; then taking firm hold of it under the arms, I found my feet in the mud and struggled to get her back to the bank. Where I found that the young man of the courting couple had jumped into the water with me, to help pull the inert body from the water.
"I could hear the guy's girlfriend talking to the emergency services on a mobile phone, as her fella and I started resuscitation on the apparently lifeless form. I, doing the mouth-to-mouth bit; whilst the young man, counted out the chest compressions as he did them. I find it strange to have to say, that as two people who didn't know each other - but who both had obviously trained in the technique -- not one word passed between us. We both knew what had to be done and we both did our part, with dedication. Even though for a very long time, no sign of life came from the body we were working on.
I believe that inwardly we both thought that we were too late. Not speaking to each other prevented us from having to actually air those thoughts. Whilst we kept working, there was a faint chance we would be wrong.
I think we could hear the sirens wailing in the distance, when - what we I'm sure we both feared was going to be a corpse - gave a sudden -- and very unexpected - cough -- spraying river water all over us - and then she began to breath on her own. Then the young man announced, "I have a pulse." Just as suddenly as she'd started breathing, her eyes - that had been closed by the time we'd laid her on the riverbank - flashed open and stared at me again for a few seconds, before they slowly closed again.
She was breathing steadily, so the young man and I could relax a little; I rolled her into the recovery position, where she lay coughing up more water with every couple of breaths. Then I looked at the young lad properly for the first time. We both smiled at each other, knowing that we'd done what very few ordinary people get a chance do; we'd brought someone back from certain death.
"Nice work man!" The young man said, with a smile of satisfaction on his face.
"Thanks for your help." I replied, moving back from the young woman's prone body, as my assistant's girlfriend covered the casualty with her coat and began talking soothingly to her.
We could hear that the sirens were getting closer by then.
"I'll go up to the road and direct them down here!" I found myself saying, then I turned and ran back along the towpath and up the path to the road; where I found the police and an ambulance crew just arriving. I shouted a quick explanation and directed them to where they could find the casualty; then I stood and caught my breath as they raced away from me down the path
For some reason, I didn't want to follow them back down to the river. I've convinced myself since that it was possibly because a shorter route to my house was by the cemetery, and my clothes were soaking wet. So I went that way home and climbed into a hot bath.
Warm spring evening it might have been, but the water was cold in that river and I felt frozen to the bone as I walked the streets back to my house in wet clothing.
Lying in that hot bath, I tried to convince myself that that was the end of it. That I'd done what anyone else would have done in the circumstances and I could push all thought and memory of that afternoon out of my mind. But of course it wasn't, and I couldn't!
Oh, the conscious memory, I believe I wiped from my mind quite easily; for a few days at least. It was that unconscious part of the brain, the part that forces us to recall and replay happenings over during our sleep, that wouldn't let go!
As if my nights weren't bad enough dreaming of Mary; now I had another face that I kept dreaming about. Even worse, Mary's and that young woman's face, looking back at me from below the water, kept getting mixed up in my unconscious mind. Sometimes I saw Mary's face distorted as it was by the waters surface. Sometimes I dreamed that the woman I'd married and lived with for five years had those appealing eyes I'd seen in the river.
Those first few nights were as bad as my nights had been right after I'd lost Mary. But things were to get much worse later. Something I hadn't even contemplated happened; the press picked up on the story.
"River hero disappears after saving drowning woman!" and "Shy rescuer vanishes!" were the headlines in the local papers that week. Before I knew it, everyone in my office was talking about the unknown man who'd jumped in the river and rescued a drowning young woman. Everybody seemed to be speculating on why a hero would slip away without leaving his name.
The young courting couple were interviewed at length by the newspapers and even appeared on a morning TV show. I found it somewhat embarrassing to hear myself described as a handsome man who leapt into the raging torrent like Superman and dragged the young woman to safety. The young couple certainly played down their own part in the rescue.
I was surprised to hear the young couple say that they'd seen me on the towpath many times before. Although I walked there quite often, I certainly couldn't remember seeing them in the past. But then the young woman added that she thought that I was a very private or shy person; she had noted in the past that I avoided looking anyone in the eye. I had to admit to myself that since Mary and the baby's death, I did try to avoid people.
The odd thing about those news reports was that they skirted around any details about the young woman I'd pulled from the water; except to mention that she was a local woman, aged about nineteen or twenty and that it was rumoured she had been pregnant.
It was inferred that she might have fallen into the river by accident; the inference instead of a direct statement leading me to believe that she'd jumped into the river in an attempt to end her life. But that somehow didn't tally with the expression I'd read in her eyes when I'd seen them below the water. I was convinced that they were appealing to me to help her.
"Maybe she had second thoughts!" I unintentionally said out loud in the office one afternoon, as I played the events of that day over again in my mind.
"What's that Bill?" my work colleague who occupies the next desk asked.
"Oh nothing. I was just thinking out loud." I replied.
"Doing a lot of that lately mate, half the time you're off in a world of your own!" He replied.
I didn't reply, because he was probably right. For many years I'd spent much of my time daydreaming about my life with Mary, and by then I had that young woman on my mind as well. I couldn't stop wondering what possibly could have driven her to try to drown herself. Surely, it couldn't have been because she was pregnant? In this day and age it's reasonably easy to have a pregnancy terminated. Easier still, to have the child and then put it up for adoption; there's a queue of prospective parents, a mile long for newborn babies.
Weeks passed and the furore in the local newspapers - about finding out who the vanishing hero was - began to subside and so I'd thought it was safe to return to walking beside the river again.
Leaving the cemetery, I took the same narrow path from the bridge down to the towpath. Glanced under the bridge to my right, I assume to make sure no one was around and then set off the way I usually did along the bank.
I tried not to, but when I reached the spot from where I'd spotted those eyes in the water I stopped. The months between, had wiped away all sign of the drama that had taken place there that day, but somehow I intrinsically knew the exact spot. I have no idea how long I had been stood there staring down into the murky water, wondering how on earth I'd even managed to spot the outline of the young woman, let alone seen her eyes. When behind me a female voice suddenly said. "We knew you'd have to come back here eventually!"
I spun around to find the courting couple standing there smiling at me.
"You kind-of run off and left us holding the bag that day." The young man continued with a grin on his face.
"I'm not one for notoriety and you two handled it all just fine." I smiled back at them.
"We kind-a guessed that Mr Shaw." The young woman replied. "And we believe we have a good idea why."
"Yes we've seen you in the cemetery many times. We're so sorry for your loss." Her face took on a very sad expression. "We understand why you didn't want reporters asking all those stupid questions that they asked us. I should imagine that they'd have had a field day with your story."
"I thank you for not giving them my name, but how long have you known who I am?"
"We saw you by your wife's grave about five weeks after... Well, then Carrie did a little research, she's good at that kind of thing, and well... then everything kind-a made sense to us when we thought about it. I'm Ben by the way." The young man replied.
"Well hello Ben and Carrie, you can call me Bill, every other bugger does. We didn't really have time for introductions last time we met, did we?" I said. Not really sure why I felt so comfortable talking to these two youngsters. Perhaps it was what we'd done together that afternoon, which had formed an unbreakable bond between us.
"Mr Shaw... Bill." Carrie said in a tone of voice that told me that a request of some kind was coming. "I know that you don't know Ben or I from Adam. But I would like to ask a very special favour of you, if I may?"
Jesus what could this young woman possibly want of me? I thought. But still being the sucker I'd always been for a pretty face, I found myself replying. "You may young lady. But I can't promise that I can grant it for you, until I know what it is!"
"Well, you see, it's like this, Mr Shaw... Bill. Benjamin and I are going to get married in a few weeks time, and... er... well, to put it bluntly, my father died four years ago. That's when I saw you in the cemetery the first time by the way, when I was visiting my father's grave one time. Then Ben and I saw you there again today."
"Carrie insisted that we told her father that we'd decided to get married first, before we told anyone else. That's what we were doing there today and we saw you." Ben added, by way of explanation. "We wouldn't like you to get the idea that we were stalking you or anything."
"I understand, I'm there most days." I informed them.
"Yes we thought as much. Anyway Bill, I know this might sound silly, and I don't know whether he can hear us?" Carrie went on.
"I'm sure he can and did." interrupting, I assured her. "I talk to my wife Mary and Loretta all the time."
"Yes I've watched you." Carrie added, looking a little embarrassed. "And that's why I wanted to ask you... would you... Well would you mind giving me away at our wedding?"
"Oh my, Carrie; why me? Surely you've got relatives or people you know who would fit the bill far better than a complete stranger." I replied. Completely taken aback by her unexpected request.
"Yes I have got uncles, but I want you. Look Bill, obviously my dad was a lot older than you...
"I somehow doubt that Carrie, I'm almost forty; easily old enough to be your father." I slipped in when she hesitated and took a breath
"God, you're the same age as my dad would have been. Maybe that's what it was? Anyway, when I watched you doing what you did that day, you reminded me so much of my father. That's what my dad would have done in the same circumstances, dived into the water to rescue someone without thinking of the danger to himself."
"I just did what was required Carrie. As did you, and Ben here! I'm sure anyone else would have done the same thing."
"You might think that Bill, but I know better. Most people would have stood on the bank and called for help, that's if they didn't just look away and pretend they didn't see anything."