It was a Sunday afternoon in 1947, in the middle of March, when Adrian had just turned eleven. The winter had been evil. There had been months of arctic temperatures and deep snow, and the thaw, when it finally came, was accompanied by torrential rain. The snow rapidly disappeared, but the ground was still frozen solid and could absorb nothing. The result, across the whole country, was floods.
At Kirkby Preparatory School the boys, their tobogganing at an end, had found a new pastime in watching the river rise. Between the village and the school it ran through a miniature ravine where, in this limestone country, it rarely reached the depth of a foot. Now, the pundits among them reckoned, it was twelve feet and increasing. It was spanned at this narrow point by a single-arched bridge, medieval but sturdy; fortunately so, because the whole of the arch was already under water, and soon even the deck was awash. Fortunately too, rather than a stone parapet to create further obstruction, it had open railings. In view of the danger, the boys had been forbidden to approach it and were kept under strict supervision. But from their playing field at its end they had a grandstand view of the voracious whirlpool where the water swirled, as if in a gargantuan emptying bath, before being sucked down through the arch, and the savage maelstrom where it was spewed out below. An enterprising youngster was taking bets on when the bridge would succumb to the pressure and give way.
Adrian was popular with the boys and well-respected by the staff. But he was quiet and self-contained and, like Kipling’s cat, was accustomed to walking by himself. That afternoon, with the rain still slanting down, he went up the valley to a point where it broadened out and, so gossip said, the stream had expanded into a lake. After a mile or so of squelching along a sodden track he reached it: a wide sheet of water, twice as wide, he calculated, as a cricket pitch is long. Even here the current was fast; not as fast as at the bridge, but fast enough to surge in wavelets against the dry-stone field walls, portions of which it had already pushed over. Ahead was a solitary cottage whose garden sloped down into the flood.
Adrian paused, his gaze far away. “It was a dreary sight,” he said slowly. “I remember thinking how inevitable it looked. Nature had taken control, and we can’t fight nature. And I thought how inevitable so much of life is too. We can’t fight our destiny either. We have to go with it.” He came back the present. “Anyway …”
From the direction of the cottage came a shrill cry. Narrowing his eyes against the rain, he spotted her: a white-haired woman sitting on top of the garden wall near to the point where it disappeared underwater. How she had got there was hard to imagine; perhaps she had been cut off while visiting the privy down the garden. And now the wall between her and the house was falling apart, and she was marooned. It was only a matter of time before her perch too would collapse and she would be swept away. He had not seen a soul since leaving Kirkby, and the duty of saving her was his alone. He splashed down the track to the garden gate, where he threw off his school cap and his sodden and encumbering raincoat. As his maroon blazer and regulation grey shorts grew rapidly soggier, he worked out his tactics. No point in trying to scramble along the wall top, for even as he watched more stones tumbled off. Best to work his way along the upstream side of it, clear of the fallen debris.
He waded in. The icy water made him gasp, it made him gasp yet more when it reached his genitals, and soon it came up to his waist. The going was hard, for the ground underfoot was uneven and the current pressed him against the remains of the wall. But he reached her. She was old and beaky-nosed and small, not unlike Miss Wilshaw who had died of dysentery, little bigger than he was; just as well, because he would have to carry her. And she was patently terrified.
“It’s all right,” he said with a confidence he hardly felt, his teeth already chattering. “I’ll take you out piggy-back. Can you get on my shoulders, please? One leg each side. They’ll get wet, but we can’t help that.”
She dithered, perhaps for that reason, perhaps because it meant immodestly pulling up her coat and skirt. To help her, he turned his back to the wall and leant against it, crouching down until his chin was near the water. He felt one leg come over his shoulder, then the other, and her full weight followed. She was not impossibly heavy. But as he pushed against the wall to stand up, it gave way. He had not yet found his balance, and he and the old lady fell with it.
“Good God!” said Mary as Adrian paused again. “Can you swim?”
“Thank goodness, yes. I used to think I couldn’t. But Mr Cracoe had taken us to bathe in Malham Tarn the summer before, and I found that I could, though not very well. Presumably I’d learned how to in Hong Kong, before we met, and never lost the knack.”
As they fell, the current pushed them through the new gap. He frantically righted himself and felt for the ground, but he was already out of his depth. An arm’s length away the old lady was making piteous noises as she floundered. He had never done any life-saving, but he did know that he had to float on his back and hold her under the arms so that she was on her back above him. By the time he had sorted both of them out and could spare a moment to look behind him, they were already an astonishing distance downstream.
Thus began a nightmare voyage. His arms being occupied with the old lady who was struggling feebly, he tried to kick out for the shore with his feet. In vain: the stream was sweeping him inexorably along. He could only go with it, as he had to go with his destiny, and hope to meet something solid. I mustn’t let go of her, he kept telling himself, I mustn’t let go. The twigs of a leafless tree whipped across his face, but he was travelling too fast and his hands were already too numb to grab them. He was whisked down a cataract and dashed against the stub of a field wall which caught his shoulder a sickening crack. As he passed through a gap in a fence something sharp tore at the sleeve of his blazer and whirled him round. He saw a momentary pink tinge in the foam, but was too cold to feel pain. After what seemed like hours but was doubtless only minutes he rounded a bend and saw Kirkby bridge ahead. A crowd of boys and masters was still in the football field beside it, watching the flood swirl past; and they spotted him and shouted.
As he raced towards the bridge several masters splashed along the deck, hanging on to the railings for support; and it was the railings which supplied what he hoped for. Twirling helplessly, he was swept in an arc around the rim of the whirlpool and flung against the bridge. Luckily he met it legs first, and as his feet hit the stonework he was able to cushion the impact. The old lady’s legs, being higher in the water, passed between the stonework and the lowest rail, and so at last Adrian found an anchorage. Willing hands seized her, but his own hands were unwilling to let her go. His arms were round her chest and his fingers interlocked, and they simply refused to obey his command. Someone leant through the railings and prised them apart, and the old lady was free.
But so too was Adrian. Deprived of his anchor, he was instantly snatched by the eddy and swept round and away from the bridge. A rope was flung to him, but he could not even try to catch it. Consciousness was ebbing away and little remained of his will-power. The whirlpool carried him round and round in ever-decreasing circles, until he reached the centre and was sucked down.
Adrian paused once more. His audience was open-mouthed and wordless.
He retained no memory of his passage through the arch, but he did remember surfacing, spluttering feebly, in the maelstrom below. He did remember his arms entangling in something. Two quick-witted masters, he later learned, had brought a goal net from the football field and flung it over the river. His arms caught in the mesh, and he was dragged to the side. He no longer felt cold, but the heartbeat in his ears sounded strangely erratic. He was vaguely aware of his body being pumped and his lungs emptied of water, of being carried indoors, of being stripped, of being wrapped in blankets.
Then memory failed once more. He came round again to the clanging of a bell. Of course, he was in school … No, not school — wrong bell — and he was in motion, in a vehicle. He half-opened his eyes and saw a white ceiling. Off to one side was someone’s back, bending over. He heard this someone call out.
“The old lady’s gone, Bert.”
Bell? Vehicle? Old lady? Gone? The penny dropped. He was in an ambulance. The bell was the ambulance bell. The ambulance man was calling to the driver. And he had failed. He almost despaired. But he remembered that he was still alive. On that thought he drifted off once more.
After an unknown time he dimly heard the voice again.
“You can ease off, Bert. The young ’un’s gone too.”
And the clangour of the bell died away.
In Wally’s sitting room there was a long silence.
It was finally broken by John. “I seem to remember reading about your adventure,” he said prosaically, “in the newspaper. Though of course your name didn’t mean anything to me then. But I think I can fill in the rest of the story. When they got you to the hospital … which one, by the way?”
“… the doctors found the young ’un hadn’t gone after all. With severe hypothermia,” he said almost apologetically, “metabolism slows down so drastically that it’s difficult to establish exactly when death takes place. And there are remarkable instances of recovery. Like you. Had the old lady really gone?”
“I’m afraid so. And it was my fault. If I’d been better prepared when the wall gave way, I could have got her out.”
“Oh, Kim,” Mary protested, “you’re at it again. Don’t be silly. Don’t kick yourself. You did everything that was humanly possible. In fact I’d say that what you did verged on the superhuman.”
“Her name was Jemima Winterburn,” Adrian said dreamily, as if he had not heard. “They told me that afterwards. She was seventy-seven. And she was terrified. Terrified when I found her, and terrified all the way down.”
“And were you terrified?”
“What? … No, I don’t think I was. I was too busy concentrating on keeping us afloat. No, it was just another thing that had to be done, and once again I was the only person who could do it … I wanted to go to her funeral, but they wouldn’t let me out.”
“How long were you in for?”
“Oh, a fortnight. Apart from the hypothermia, I’d broken my collar bone when I hit that wall, and I had this gash in my arm.” He fingered the scar. “I think it must have been from a sharp iron fence post. But once it had healed, and the collar bone had knit, I was a hundred per cent again. And that was the end of that.”
Wally stirred. “Not quite, Adrian. Aren’t you forgetting the punch line?”
Adrian lowered his eyes and sighed. “You tell them, sir,” he muttered.
“All right, if you really won’t.” Wally looked over to the Wardles. “He was given the George Cross.”
“Kim!” cried Mary, back on the floor and hugging him again. “Oh, Kim! And quite right too!”
Tom was wearing a puzzled frown.
“The George Cross,” Wally explained to him, “is the highest civilian award for gallantry. It ranks equal with the Victoria Cross, which is the highest military award. And Adrian is the youngest person ever to earn it.”
Tom was goggle-eyed, but Adrian seemed acutely embarrassed.
“But I didn’t earn it, sir. I didn’t deserve it. I’d failed.”
“Kim!” Mary protested. “That isn’t the point! As you very well know. You did your best, and you didn’t think of yourself. In trying to save her, you were ready to lose your own life. That’s why they gave it to you.”
“You went to Buckingham Palace to get it?” Tom still had enough of the child in him to be thrilled. “What did the Queen … no, it was the King then, wasn’t it? What did he say to you?”
Adrian was reticent. “I can’t remember.”
“Did your father come over for it?” Mary asked.
“No, he didn’t. Mr Cracoe had told him about … about the flood, of course, and me being in hospital, and when I heard they were giving me the medal I wrote to say that I didn’t deserve it. And my father’s reply was … well, in effect it was ‘Huh! Typical civil service botch-up!’ But I very much doubt he’d have come over anyway. No, only dear Mr and Mrs Cracoe went with me.”
“And nobody here knows about this, apart from the Headmaster and Mr MacNair? But plenty of people must have read the papers.”
“No doubt they did. But with reports like that you don’t remember names, do you? Not for more than five minutes. Not if you’ve never heard them before. After all, you must have read my name, but it didn’t stick. Why should it?”
Adrian was rescued from further embarrassment by the maid announcing that dinner would be served in ten minutes, and the meeting broke up. Mary and Tom went out to the lavatory, Wally poured sherry, and the Headmaster took his leave. John had a quiet word with him as he went.
“I’ve heard, Headmaster, that no fewer than four prisoners at Stanley were awarded posthumous George Crosses for gallantry. They’d been caught smuggling in medicines and operating a wireless and suchlike. All of them were shot. Adrian ran exactly the same risk, and it was his good luck that he wasn’t caught. Or maybe he’d call it his destiny. But it seems to me he deserves the same reward. I believe that nobody yet has won two George Crosses, but there’s a first time for everything. Adrian Longley, GC and bar, do you think?”