That’s probably the most wonderful pair of words you can use if you’re a fireman. I’ve done it a few times now, and it never fails to give me a rush of pure joy. I did save a couple of children once, and it truly was a fantastic feeling.
But, just as often happens in life, that happiness wasn’t pure and unadulterated. The joy was all mixed up inside a massive wave of sorrow.
When I was a trainee I had long drunken talks with a retired fireman, Charlie, who was as keen on boozing as I was. Once in his cups, he rabbited on about ‘spontaneous human combustion’ when he had allegedly found two human legs still in shoes, while the rest of the body had been destroyed by fire and nothing else in the room was damaged. A keen bird watcher and animal lover, Charlie always used to say when he was really drunk: “Blimey, son, I’m not religious but when you see a lovely bird flying off up into the sky, how can you think your body just dies?”
He was convinced the soul came out of your body in some form or other, presumably free of its shackles and would surge upwards to eternity, or wherever. “I mean, who’s to say that we only have one life here on earth? I’ve seen a few things that make me think maybe we come here more than once, and that in each of those lives, it’s as if we’re only passing through. An Indian guy once told me that he believes we come back more than once, and that you learn something in every life you live on earth.”
“In your case, not to drink so much! Honestly, Dave, you want to cut down on the booze. You really do.”
“Right mate. In my next life I’ll be a camel!”
My own strange experience came years later, after I was married to a marvellous Cornish girl. I’d met Alice on holiday – I’ve loved Cornwall ever since family holidays there, and for some reason I’ve always felt an affinity with that part of the West Country. When Alice agreed to marry me, I successfully applied to join the fire brigade based in Penzance. Perhaps because I’d married a local girl from a popular family, I found that I was accepted by the crew, even though I had to put up with the ‘foreigner’ taunts for a while, and never outgrew my nickname of ‘London’. But like firemen everywhere they were basically a decent lot and I enjoyed working with them, made lots of friends and settled into their ways. However, I have to admit, my drinking was getting worse, and I was on the point of admitting to myself that I had a serious problem.
The odd thing was that for some reason I felt as if I had somehow ‘come home’, that Cornwall was in my bones somehow, that I truly belonged here, even though I was born and brought up in London, and prior to meeting Alice I had only been there on annual holidays. I had a real connection with Cornwall. Even Penzance town, where I’d only been a few times as a child, seemed somehow familiar, and I found that I knew some of the old roads, reckoned that I recognised a lot of the old houses. It really was like that poem by Christina Rossetti: ‘I have been here before, though I know not where or when. . .’ and it ends up: ‘like a dream within a dream.’
Brrr. Heavy stuff.
The shout that changed my life came through one night, telling us that Ingoldby Hall was well ablaze. It was the huge stately home that belonged to the Leggetts, descended from the original Lord of the Manor.
I knew it well, for I had stayed there as a child when the Elizabethan manor house was being used as a hotel, about thirty years ago.
When we arrived the memories of the fine old building came flooding back, but there was no time to reminisce. The fire had got a real hold, and our nightmare scenario was when we were told that the two toddlers in the family were still inside, the desperate parents hadn’t been able to find them during their escape, and the father had to be physically held back from charging back into the inferno.
To my utter shame, I had been secretly drinking all day, banking on the fact that we wouldn’t be called out. I wasn’t drink, but nor was I completely sober. I was terrified that my judgement would be adversely affected.
So it was down to us to search the first floor first, where the children’s bedroom was. Four of us, in full breathing apparatus, plunged through the hallway. Visibility was the worst thing, smoke made seeing anything more or less impossible, and we felt our way along walls to find the doorways, anticipating that the children might have run out of their room at the outset of the blaze, to adjacent rooms. We were banking on finding them huddled in a cupboard or a doorway. My mates had given up and were leaving – the inferno was too intense to go any further. But I had refused to obey the orders in my earphones to leave immediately.
And then I found them!
There they both were, huddled together in a tiny cupboard, their faces coming alive in my helmet light’s beam. I picked them up, and their little arms clung around my neck, and I groped along to the staircase and we made it to the ground floor. But in the seconds since I’d found the youngsters, the fire had really taken hold and my escape route to the front door was completely cut off.
We were done for – there was, literally, no escape.
Then the miracle happened: all of a sudden I knew where I was! Long buried memories of my holidays here came flooding back, and I remembered that somewhere was a hidden room and a secret underground passage. I recognised that we were in the West Wing here, and, still clutching the children, I groped my way along the wall to what I knew was called the Picardy Room. I went straight to the huge fireplace by the far wall and went inside the cavity itself, to the left of the grate, and found the tiny panel in the side wall, which opened when I gave it a few whacks with my axe.
We went inside I recognised the stairs that were yawning downwards, away from the smoke and heat. As we stumbled down the heat gradually diminished until I could see moisture in the walls, and feel soil beneath my feet.
And, weirdly, at the very time I should have been feeling elated I was overtaken by the saddest feeling I have ever experienced in my life, and I began to weep uncontrollably as we went onwards. I put it down to drunkenness or shock, or both.
The children were alive and so was I.
So why did I feel such an overwhelming weight of misery?
My radio was still working, so I was able to tell the lads we were all safe and that when the blaze was under control, to send a recue team for us.
“I reckon you must have come across one of those Priest’s Holes,” Alice told me much later when I was relaxed on the sofa at home, having had a bath and few more stiff drinks. “I learnt about them in school. During the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, Catholic priests were suspected of being traitors, and weren’t allowed to take services, so in some of the big old houses, where the owners were Catholics, like the Leggetts, they built secret rooms for the visiting priest to hide away from the constables. Some of them with underground escape passages.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “That must have been what it was. A hiding place.”
“Yet you say you remembered finding it when you and your mum and dad were staying at the hotel, all those years ago? When you were a child? How come they let you wander around on your own like that?”
I shrugged. “I haven’t a clue, but that is the only explanation. It’s funny but I’d completely forgotten about the Priest’s Hole until I was actually standing in the corridor and staring death in the face. And, thank goodness, it all came back to me. I knew exactly where the entrance was. I had definitely been there before, no question.”
A few days later, the father of the children came to see me at the station to thank me.
“What I can’t understand,” he said finally, “is how on earth you knew about that Priest’s Hole? Even my wife and I had no idea it was there, just knew of old family rumours about it from my grandparents.”
“Well, I stayed here as a child, when Ingoldby Hall was a hotel,” I explained. “I must have found it by chance then, and the memory of discovering it must have come back to me in the moment of crisis. I was a nosy kid, always going into places I wasn’t supposed to.”
“But no, you couldn’t have done,” he went on, frowning. “The Priest’s Hole is in the West Wing.”
“That’s right. In the fireplace in the Picardy Room.”
“How did you know it was called the Picardy room?” he asked sharply, staring at me in surprise.
“I don’t know. I guess someone must have told me its name.”
“They can’t have. It hasn’t been called the Picardy Room for a century. And I’m sorry but you can’t possibly have been there before. You see all the rooms in the West Wing, including what you called the Picardy Room, were locked up and private. They were certainly never open to hotel guests.”
“Blimey,” I said, staggered. “But I knew where I was going! I remembered the Priest’s Hole, the stairs underground, I remembered everything!”
A week later he sent me a photocopy of an article from an old local newspaper, dated 1890.
Heroic family retainer loses his life
Herbert Prowse, who was a footman at Ingoldby Hall, rescued the two infant children, Rachel and Nicholas, from their father, Sir Christopher Leggett, who, armed with a powerful rifle, and in a state of drunkenness and madness, had shot his wife and was attempting to kill his entire family. Successfully hiding the children in the Priest’s Hole, as he came back into the Picardy Room, Mr Prowse was shot to death by Sir Christopher, who went on to take his own life afterwards. . .
I phoned Alistair Leggett afterwards and we had a long chat. He went into details, telling me his family history. “I’m sorry to say that my great great grandfather, Sir Cristopher, was the worst kind of man, there’s no getting away from it,” he said forcefully. “Absolute embarrassment to the family. Drink was really his downfall. It was the drink that really unleashed the devils in him. He was also a bully and a bastard, who had reputedly beaten his wife, fathered numerous children in the village, had his staff flogged regularly and ended his life by suicide, after killing poor old Herbert, who had been protecting the children, one of whom was my great grandfather, Nicholas. By all accounts, poor old Herbert was a really nice guy. Sacrificing his life to save those children was typical of him, apparently, he was a real hero. A bit like you.”
Herbert Prowse. The name was familiar to me.
Just hearing the name sent a shiver down my spine. That name wasn’t just familiar to me, it was second nature to me!
So I reckoned that reincarnation had to be the answer. It was the only explanation. As Sherlock Homes used to say in the novels, when you’ve ruled out the impossible, what you’re left with has to be the truth.
That afternoon I had more than a few drinks in the pub after my shift. On impulse, I went to the church on the way home, and after searching, I managed to find Herbert’s grave in the churchyard. It was overgrown and neglected, in a corner by the old stone wall, the lettering on the headstone announcing his name and his age at death, the H of Herbert encrusted with a wedge of bright green moss. And yet, after apparently solving this crazy mystery, I felt no emotional attachment to Herbert’s grave, no sense of association, memories of a funeral, as I had thought I might have done if I had lived his life. And in that instant I knew what a fool I had been.
The whole idea was ridiculous, I realised. I was behaving like a drunken idiot.
Reincarnation? It was the stuff of fiction and fantasy. There had to be some other explanation for what had happened. In a way I was bitterly disappointed: Herbert had sounded like a decent man, a hero who had given his life to save others, and actually I would have been very proud to have had a connection with such a person.
And then, as I left the churchyard, by chance I spotted an old stone building beside the church, that looked like a strange little hut. When I looked closer I stumbled and tripped, falling against the wall, looking up to see that it was the mausoleum of the Leggett family. My heartbeat quickened, as I saw the name Sir Christopher Leggett inscribed on the marble slab set into the wall right above my eyes.
To my horror, the memories crowded into my head: sombre men and women in dark clothing, black horses and a hearse, sadness and sorrow. A fusty smell of mothballs, cigar smoke. Drizzle, freezing cold, twilight and gloom. I wanted to cry.
Because suddenly I knew the truth. . .
And from that day to this I have never touched a drop of alcohol.
(image courtesy David Mark, from Pixabay)