When I saw the child struggling in the water, I shrugged off my jacket and shoes and jumped off the bridge into the river below to rescue him.
It wasn’t bravery.
Because right at that point I was so sunk in misery that I honestly didn’t care if I lived or died.
They say that your life flashes before you when you’re near to death, and sure enough my recent misery came up in true vivid technicolour as I swam against the raging deep dangerous waters and hoped that just this once I could outwit the forces of nature.
You see, a month ago, for the first time in my forty years on earth, I had fallen in love.
My life has been blessed. When I left school I found a good job, then married my boss’s daughter, and got rapid promotion. Now as sales director for the south west of England, I spend my days travelling to our customers in all the towns of Devon and Cornwall, staying at the best hotels, and generally living the high life. But during one lonely lunchtime I’d met Carina in a bar in the tourist resort of Crabbercombe, and just like in all the songs and the stories, we had fallen in love, in my case I’d fallen deeply, desperately in love, hook line and sinker.
Carina was five years younger than me, a single mother with a ten-year-old daughter, living in a rented room over a launderette, and struggling to make ends meet. I knew from that first afternoon when we made love that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.
I told my best friend Paul at the weekend, in the pub.
“Blimey, Mark, you must be mad!” he told me. “Remember when we were seventeen? I was the one who had it all back then. All the girls were after me, while you were the spotty little twat in the corner that no one even noticed. Now look at us. You’re the man in the big detached house, director of a massive company, lovely wife, a new Mercedes and a star-studded future. But me? Three marriages, three divorces, two kids that hate me, one heart attack, no hair, no money and my face has more wrinkles than an elephant’s arse. You’re about the only friend I’ve got, and I’ll probably die alone in squalor. No, mate, don’t make the same mistake I did. I followed my instincts, lived for love and look what’s happened to me? Don’t go and fuck up your life like I did!”
Of course, Paul was right. Love was all very well, but I’ve heard that passion never lasts, and if I gave up my cushy life I might end up regretting it.
Paul’s words turned out to be prescient. Just a week ago my wife, Laura, found a note from Carina in my jacket pocket, and I ended up confessing to my affair. Laura didn’t scream and shout, she’s not like that. She spoke in a deadly whisper.
And I knew that she meant every cold, perfectly enunciated word.
“Go to that little trollop if you want to,” she snarled. “But I tell you this much, Mark. If I find out you’ve gone back to her, believe me, you’ll regret it. I’m getting dad to change your sales area to the highlands of Scotland from now on. So if I ever find out that you’ve gone to Crabbercombe again to see her, our marriage is over. I’ll make Dad sack you on the instant, and we’ve got the best lawyers, so you’ll lose any share of this house, and your company car and everything but the clothes on your back! And Dad knows everyone in the business world, and he’ll make sure you never get a decent job again. See how you like love on the dole.”
I had a few sleepless nights, texting Carina all the time, but putting off telling her the inevitable, that I wasn’t brave enough to give up everything I had and strike out alone wit nothing but our love to pay the bills. Paul’s warning had hit home, and even though my marriage was loveless, we got on all right, even though we’d never had much passion, or had the luck to have any children. Our friends described us as a ‘good team’, which is as dull and dreary as it sounds.
In the end I knew I couldn’t bear to break off our relationship over the phone, I just had to go down and see Carina one last time, to tell her in person. The vital thing was that Laura must never find out. I’d take one last secret trip to Crabber come and I’d never go there again.
I’d been mooching around, sitting at the table at the café on the bridge over the river when I saw the child fall in, and, as I told you, I dived in to recuse him.
I managed to reach him, pull his face out of the water, and with a hell of a lot of effort, swim back to the riverbank with him, where a crowd of people gathered around, and the paramedics took over, telling everyone the boy was going to be okay.
Next thing I knew, a young woman appeared beside me with a microphone, talking eagerly. Behind her was a man with a camera, filming us.
“Hello, sir, this is Mandy Fazakerley, of Channel 4 national TV news. I’ve been told that the river where you just dived in was notoriously deep with dangerous currents and that you nearly died, by diving in to save that child. How does it feel to be a hero? Have you anything to say to the viewers?”
“Er, not really,” I felt dazed and disoriented.
That’s when I realised.
I was appearing live on Channel 4 news, the programmer that Laura always watched. I remembered her words “If I ever find out you’ve gone back to Crabbercombe, for any reason, I’ll destroy your life.”
“The little boy’s names is Darren Waterbox,” the girl reporter jabbered on enthusiastically, oblivious to my predicament. “His mother has told us that she can never thank you enough for saving his life.”
“Tell her that I didn’t save her son’s life,” I said.
And suddenly I realised how very true it was. The weight of my recent misery fell away like the end of toothache, and I had the sudden feeling of excitement of being reborn.
You know what? I smiled for the first time in weeks. “No, I mean it. I didn’t save his life.” I even laughed, feeling liberated for the first time in years.
“But, he’d have drowned if you hadn’t dived in and saved him.”
“Honestly. Tell Mrs Waterbox that I didn’t save his life.”
She frowned. “You didn’t save his life?”
“No. I’ve just realised it’s the other way around. I didn’t save his life.”
“No! He saved mine!”
Image courtesy of Yaho Peyankow from Pixabay