This is a slightly edited version of the original story as can be found posted on other Internet sites; in this form it has appeared in hardcopy. My thanks go to LadyCibelle, and my friend SH, for their assistance in preparing this tale for posting/publication.
Clarifications: Towpath = a path beside a river or canal, originally used as a pathway for horses towing barges; Bedsit = a rented room consisting of a combined bedroom and living room, with cooking facilities; Wobbly, = (in this particular incidence) a fit of panic.
At that time I didn't often walk along that towpath by the river any more. I'd enjoyed the tranquillity of the place since my childhood; in my younger days I had 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 in those days; well not the kind of birds with wings on them anyway!
In later years, 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 that 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 were all young once; you know what I mean!
Once I'd lost Mary, I tended to walk there alone, 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 had 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. You could say that 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 Mary's 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 everyday, 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 do 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 just 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 waters 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 feared 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 convinced was 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. But 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 into 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. I 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; anyway 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 wouldn'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 achieved together that afternoon, that 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 when 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."
"You have a low opinion of the general public Carrie." I suggested.
"After hearing Bethany's story, I don't have much confidence in many people!" Carrie exclaimed.
"Bethany?" I asked Carrie had confused me by mentioning the name.
"Yes Bethany, the pregnant girl you pulled out of the river that day. Ben and I have got to know her well."
So the young woman's name was Bethany; I finally knew her name. And she definitely had been pregnant; I suppose that that explained a lot to me. I was somewhat elated to hear that Carrie and Ben knew more about what had happened to her.
"How is she, I wondered how she'd got on; the newspapers never did say very much about her. Did she lose the baby, do you know?"
"No, she's fine. Actually she's a very plump Bethany now, you'd have trouble pulling her out of the water with that great big baby inside her."
"I assume the baby was connected in some way to what she did that day."
"Oh yeah, you can say that again; poor girl didn't know which way to turn."
"A bit drastic though, wasn't it? You know, trying to drown herself just because she was pregnant." I suggested.
"Well, maybe you wouldn't think that way if you knew her and what she'd been through. Look Bill, Beth had a very sheltered life. You know, she went to one of those convent schools and was never allowed around boys. Her parents kept her on a very tight leash and she was unbelievably naïve for a girl of her age. Anyway, when she eventually went to work, she was easy prey for some slimeball in her office. From what we've learnt, he was an older man and he knew all the tricks. Poor Bethany had no idea what game he was playing, and from what she says, at first she looked at him as a kind father figure in the office; until he seduced her."
"Ah, one of them!"
"Yeah a complete ars ... bastard. The bleeder was into her pants before poor Bethany really knew what was going on; I told you she was very naïve and had no idea how the buggers work. He'd given her all the old flannel, 'you're such a beautiful young woman' and 'My wife doesn't understand me.' Do I have to spell it all out?"
"No not really, standard office wolf stuff. Most women see through it though!" I pointed out.
"Unfortunately not when they are as naïve as Bethany. You know, they didn't even have a TV set in the house at home. Bethany was completely lost in the real world."
"So I assume that eventually Bethany got pregnant by said office wolf."
"Yes ... sooner rather than later though. The poor girl was so naive that she had no idea about birth control or anything. When she told him that she thought she was pregnant, he called her a scheming little slut who was trying to trap him for his money and told her to get lost."
"Arseho..." I began to say, but then checked myself; I was talking to a young lady.
"My sentiments exactly." Carrie replied, and then she went on. "Well, Beth told us that she didn't know what to do. Look, she was that naive she didn't even know that she could have turned to the social services for help. She agonised over telling anyone else that she was pregnant for a long time, but eventually she had to tell her parents. And their cold hearted reaction was to call her even worse names than he had done, and order her out of their house."
"Oh my. Are there people out there who don't have any compassion at all, even for their own children?" I commented.
"Unfortunately it seems that there are Bill!" Carrie replied. "Poor Bethany wandered the streets all night and found herself up there on the bridge the following afternoon. Well, you know what she did then, she really had no idea what else she could do."
"And now; how is Bethany getting along now?"
"Oh fine, all things considered. Social services found her a little one room flat for the time being. It's a bit of a dump ... well; you know what bedsits are like! But they say they'll move her to somewhere a little bigger when she's had the baby. My mum has really taken to Bethany and I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't invite her to move into my room after Ben and I get married. Mum loves children; she can't wait for me to get pregnant."
"That's a relief to hear. I've always wondered what happened to the girl."
"Well Bill, what about my request?" Carrie suddenly asked.
"Sorry!" I said. Carrie had lost me for the minute by her sudden change of subject. But then I remembered. "Oh yeah, your wedding! Well, I'm extremely flattered by the request, but what will your family think of a complete stranger walking you down the isle?"
"The only person's opinion that I'm worried about is my mother and she's already said that it's my decision."
"But we haven't told her about us getting married yet!" Ben blustered.
"About the date of the wedding ... no Ben, we haven't. But we've been together a long time and mum has been expecting you to ask me for some time now. To be honest, she drives me nuts sometimes; I think she's almost been wetting herself with anticipation. Anyway I told mum that when we set a date, if we set a date, then Mr Shaw was the man I wanted to give me away." Carrie explained to a very confused looking Ben.
"Looks like you've got a lot to learn about women Ben, they kind-a run things really. Well the good one's do!" I said grinning at the young lad.
"Thanks Bill, I'll take that as a compliment." Carrie grinned back at me. "But you still haven't answered my question. God, I'll bet poor Mary was tearing her hair out half the time with you." Carrie grinned again.
"Carrie, you've got a way about you, maybe you remind of my wife in a way. Yeah all right, if you insist and providing no one else objects, then I'd be happy to give you away." I found myself replying.
Carrie grinned at Ben when he said. "She always seems to get her own way. She had her dad wrapped around her little finger most of the time!"
"I'll have you know my dad was very strict with me!" Carrie retorted.
Ben didn't reply he just gave me "the look!"
So it was that on a Friday evening some six weeks later I found myself sitting in my car outside that same church that Mary and I had been married all those years before. I was late, I knew it, but it's easy to say you're going to do something; it's somewhat harder to go through with a promise and meet and mix with people when you've avoided such occasions as long as I had.
This particular occasion -- Carrie and Ben's wedding rehearsal -- wouldn't be as bad as the actual event the following day, but I was still filled with apprehension over the whole thing.
"You Clown, what'd you agree to do it for?" That little voice said in the back of my brain somewhere. "Your trouble always has been that you're a sucker for a pretty face. But you've been avoiding them for years, how come you got trapped by this one?"
It was true, I'd always had been a mug where pretty young women were concerned. Since my Mary had gone, I'd avoided getting into conversation with them for years. I don't know, I suppose I had been afraid that one of them might have taken a shine to me and I could have ended up getting involved in some way. I just couldn't let any other woman replace Mary in my heart.
Eventually I plucked up the courage and got out of the car, then -- pushing that same door Mary and I had walked through on our wedding day open -- I entered the church.
"Bill! Oh boy, am I glad to see you. Carrie's throwing a wobbly down there; she thought you'd forgotten for a minute!" Ben who was waiting just inside said to me.
"Sorry, Ben, I ran a little late today." I replied.
"No worries mate, just please don't be late tomorrow. I'm counting on you to make sure she actually does turn up. I don't fancy looking like a complete lemon standing there at the altar for hours."
"You have my word young man; she'll be no more that the traditional five minutes late!" I grinned at him.
"Five minutes!" he said his eyes getting really large.
"That's how long my Mary kept me waiting!"
"Oh that's all right then. If you were willing to wait that long for Mary. Then I think I can wait as long for Carrie. Now you'd better come and meet Carrie's mum."
Ben led me down the nave to where Carrie and her mother were sitting. Carrie grinned at me over her mother's shoulder; that grin alerting her mother of our approach. Both women turned to face us.
"Josette ... Mrs Mercer, may I introduce Mr William Shaw, he's the..." Ben began to say but Carrie's mother was on her feet before he finished speaking
"Introductions aren't really necessary Benjamin, I remember Billy Shaw from our school days, even if he doesn't remember me! I was a year behind you in school, Bill." She said, throwing her arms around me and kissing me on the cheek.
"Well I'll be, Josette Banner! Of course I remember you." I replied. "I guess you must have married Tony Mercer; you know, I never made the connection in my mind."
Josette had changed very little from the young woman I'd seen around school. Maybe she'd put on a few pounds, but they were obviously in all the right places.