In Spring of last year, on the 28th of May, in fact [the significance of which we’ll come to], I happened to save someone’s life, and I’ve only ever told a couple of people about it. It’s a bit of a hard one to slip into a conversation if I’m honest, certainly without a great deal of tangential segueing anyway. And the longer ago it gets, day by day by day, the less relevant it seems to bring up, or the less likely I would be to get away with bringing it up with at least a passing glance at nonchalance.
And also, it seems like such a weird experience – so heightened, so very vivid and memorable, yet at the same time so ephemeral and unbelievable and isolated from the rest of my life – that now it almost feel like a dream I once had.
The couple of times that I did bring it up, it felt weird too. I knew once I started I would have to get to the end, but I also knew that it did all seem like a dream and there are few things more boring in life than listening to someone else’s dream [I always have an overwhelming urge to interrupt and scream “NONE OF THIS HAPPENED IN REAL LIFE” at the top of my voice] but of course this wasn’t a dream and I know because I was there.
So let’s get to it shall we? I’ll give you a run down of what happened and then I’ll tell you what it’s left me with.
I will warn you at this stage that a lot happened in a short space of time so if you think I’m going to “cut to the chase” you’re in for a disappointment. This is the director’s cut. So if you were also thinking of reading this then making a nice cup of tea, I’d suggest making the tea before you start.
Right, we ready? Lovely.
Now come with me, if you will, back to the end of May.
It’s a lovely sunny Saturday, and we have my wife’s cousin and his family visiting us in Kent from their home in Cardiff in South Wales. Cousin, wife, ridiculously cute baby of almost exactly 18 months, and a big shaggy dog [a Canadian Duck Tolling Retriever, for the caninophiles amongst you] all descend and because it’s a lovely day and we have a dog too we decide to head down to the seaside in Rye, East Sussex, which is just down the road.
We decide to go to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, and once there, after stopping to get an ice-cream for the kids, we head off along the path towards the beach.
This walk takes us alongside the River Rother which has wound its merry way for 35 miles through Sussex and Kent and is now looking forward to fulfilling its destiny of spilling out into the English Channel.
Who knows, in a few weeks the water herein could be enjoying a nice weekend as waves lapping against the beach of Boulogne-sur-Mer on the French coast, closer to where we are walking than London as the crow flies. Or any bird actually. But for the moment it is trapped in by high brick walls on either side, designed to stop the tides completely flooding the unspoilt salt marshes of the nature reserve on one side and totally spoilt members of Rye Golf Club on the other.
About halfway towards the beach, my younger son (8 years old at the time) decides he had a stone in his shoe. I say “decides” because he doesn’t have a stone in his shoe at all: he’s just a bit tired and being a bit of a pain in the arse. I love him with all my heart, but he does have “pain in the arse” in his locker and trust me, he will pull it out whenever he feels the need.
So there I am, sitting on a bench, taking his shoe off for the third time and considering whether I can get away with just leaving him here forever. My wife and elder son have carried on walking with our dog and the visiting Welsh folk. If you look at the pic below, I’m at point 1. [Yes that’s correct, dear reader: I have done a bloody diagram. You are most welcome.]
Then there is a commotion. Something is going down. This is a quiet, peaceful place, and yet someone is shouting. A ruckus! I’m instantly titillated. This has potential for drama, and who doesn’t like a bit of drama, eh? So I’m half listening to my son’s whining and half trying to work out what’s happening when I hear a woman shout out with the unmistakable timbre of fear in her voice.:
Somebody help, please!
I’m not sure what happens in my mind at this point, but before I know what I’m doing, I’m ushering my youngster to run over to mum and I’m running towards the lady and her two young kids, and over towards where she’s pointing. Another shout as I come towards her:
My dog has fallen into the river
I’ll be honest, at this point I’m a little less urgent all of a sudden. I mean, I have a dog, and I love dogs, but surely the dog just swims to the edge and gets out, right?
When I get to the edge, I realise that isn’t going to happen.
The woman’s husband is lying face down on the ground, right on the edge of the river [point 2 on our diagram]. The tide is going out so it’s a good four feet down to the water, and he can’t reach the small black dog, who’s desperately swimming against the river flowing out through the narrow channel, the tide pulling it along towards its French holiday destination.
The current is really, really strong. The dog is getting tired. The kids are crying, and the woman is shouting at the man:
He’s getting tired. You’ll have to jump in and get him
To which the man shouts back:
If I go in there I’ll fucking drown.
I’m glad he says that, because I think he’s right. This is like one of those news reports you hear on the radio where someone has gone into a river or a lake or the sea to save their dog or climbed onto the roof to save their cat and they end up dead and the animal ends up fine. Let’s not do that, eh mate?
But the woman is right, too. The little dog is getting very tired.
At this point the woman runs off back towards the café which has just opened [point 3 on the diagram which you’re now glad you were supplied] to “call for help”. As she does this I’m wondering what kind of help that might be. No one is going to send a chopper out for a little dog.
And the little dog is getting very, very tired.
I shout to one of our group to hand me my dog’s lead, and for a few extremely unsuccessful seconds the man tries to lasso the little dog’s head with the lead. We both then try to encourage the little dog to bite onto the end of the lead. But the little dog doesn’t understand what we’re shouting at him to do because he speaks dog and we’re shouting at him in English. A couple of times he drifts downstream a few inches and pushes himself to swim back to us.
The little dog is really fucking tired now.
The man looks at me and says:
I’m going to have to go in.
I’ve never met this bloke before but it’s very clear I’m in this with him now. If he’s going to have to go in, I’m going to have to help him get out.
I have the dog’s lead in my hand and in the split second I have to think, I tell him to hold one end and I’ll hold onto the other and help him out.
I’ve got you mate. I won’t let you go.
So he quickly takes off his jacket and shoes, holds onto the other end of the lead to the one that I’m holding, and jumps into the dark, fast-flowing water.
He goes completely under for a moment, and when he comes up I can see the panic in his eyes. The water is so cold it’s taken his breath away completely. And the current is stronger than either of us could tell, and immediately I’m straining to hold him where he is. That little dog’s done bloody well against this unrelenting flow.
In another moment, the man catches his breath, grabs his dog and shoves it upwards out of the water, where a set of hands snatch it up. The little dog has been saved. But as I think you’ll probably have guessed, that isn’t the life I’m talking about,
So what next? A grown man is in a fast-flowing tidal current, four feet below the ground. I’m holding on to him but I’m starting to slip in the mud at the edge.
I start to pull him up but as I pull, the back of his hands, gripping the rope of the dog lead, are getting cut to ribbons against the barnacles on the side of the brick wall designed to hold the sea tides at bay. It’s too painful to continue.
I’m slipping more and more. I grab onto a rusty metal pole that is sticking out of the ground to steady myself.
It’s now that I realise I’ve got the end of the dog lead which has a slip on it, designed to stop the dog pulling. What it’s doing now is pulling tighter and tighter and cutting into my wrist and pulling my shoulder. I’m attached to this man and I’m the only thing that’s stopping him from floating off into the sea. And we all know how that news story ends, right?
I’m not going to be able to pull him out. I can’t let him go even if I wanted to, and in any case I don’t want to. I decide that I’m going to take him along the edge of the river wall towards the sea and just hope, hope that something comes up which means I don’t end up in the water with the man.
It’s the only option. And it’s just hope. And whilst we all know that hope is not a strategy, right now I don’t have anything else.
But as I let go of the pole and start walking along, I’m slipping more and more. My cherished Adidas Nite Joggers (other cool-ass trainers are available) are great for wandering along a path but they’re not great for trying to grip in a grey mixture of sea mud and sand. A couple of times I slip forward, leaning back so my body weight holds me until my Adidas get a grip.
At this point I’m kind of thinking I’m going to end up in the water unless something happens pretty soon, and then both me and this bloke are in trouble. In deep water, you may say.
I shout for help, and my wife’s cousin (who up to this point had his toddler strapped to his chest) runs down the beach and grabs onto my hand. Another, older man turns up and suddenly it’s not just me and the man, and now I think we’re going to be okay.
And then the universe decides that we need a break here, and out of nowhere there’s a set of steps cut into the wall a few yards away. I keep hold of the man and kind of lead him along to the steps, pulling him through the water like I’m trying to land a massive fish. At the steps, I and the other people help him out.
The next bits are quite strange as the world that was always all around comes back into focus. I see my wife looking after the man’s small children who are both crying. Her cousin’s wife has the tiny, shivering little dog wrapped up in her jacket to warm it up. My younger son is crying because he’s been watching the whole thing and has been scared for my safety.
And the man is more embarrassed than anything. He’s trying to say everything’s fine and thanks for your help and is the dog okay and where’s my wife, and everyone is telling him to just take a minute, and helping him on with his jacket.
He’s bleeding quite a lot from where his hands scraped on the wall and he’s shivering a lot too. I ask him to hold on while I gently clean the blood off his hands with a spare tissue I got from the ice cream van [ONLY ABOUT FOUR MINUTES AGO] and see that his cuts aren’t too bad. I tell him I’m a first aider and then hear myself say:
I don’t think you need any further medical attention
Which sounds weird as it comes out as it’s not a phrase I’ve used before or probably will ever use again. How very formal.
We walk up across the rough ground and pebbles towards the path, and I see my elder son running back down the path from the café. I later found out that he was told to run to the café but when he got there wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, or say, or get, so just ran back.
The man is telling his kids that he’s fine and the dog is fine and when we get to the path we see the woman running back down from the café too, and we all wave and say everything’s okay. She runs up and thanks everyone and gets the dog and holds it to her chest under her coat and tells the kids that everything is fine.
And I hug both my sons, and my wife. I’ve cut my leg and my hand and they’re wet so the blood is running a bit and makes everything look worse than it is, and my wrist has a nasty rope burn on it. But I tell them everything is fine, because in the grand scheme of things, it really is.
As the metaphorical dust settles, my wife and I offer to help the man, the woman, the little dog and the two kids back to the car park. It seems necessary because there’s a lot happened and the man is almost certainly in shock. So we say we’ll catch up with our own family and we’re walking just in front carrying a bag and a kids tricycle and telling the people no honestly it’s no trouble.
It’s only at this point that the woman asks the man why he’s so wet and I realise she doesn’t even know he went in the water because she was up at the café the whole time. So he tells her he went in the water and she asks how he got out, and he gestures at me and says:
That man saved my life.
Which is not something you ever expect to hear someone saying about you.
A few yards on and now the man and the woman have calmed a bit and around about the same time it starts to seem a bit odd to all of us that my wife and I are just carrying their stuff for no clear reason, so they say they will be fine from here and we say are you sure and they say yes.
The man and I face each other for the first time properly, and he notices that I’m wearing a Nike sweatshirt where instead of NIKE it says YNWA in big letters, denoting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”: the anthem of Liverpool Football Club, who are playing in the European Champions League Final that very evening. Which of course is how I know the date.
The man asks me if I’m a Liverpool fan, and I tell him I am, and he says that he is too. And I say:
You’ll never walk alone, mate
Which felt a little cheesy at the time and still does in retrospect but it was an emotional moment so I’ll let myself off.
And then we hug each other with real meaning, knowing we would, in all probability, never see each other again, but that for a few moments on this Saturday lunchtime we were connected in a way that neither of us will ever forget.
Then the woman says that they are on holiday and they ended up in hospital the day before because the little boy had hurt himself, and then this today, and “bad things always come in threes” and we all laugh and say we hope not and we all go our separate ways.
And unbeknown to either of us, she will be proved right when our beloved Liverpool lose 1-0 to Real Madrid just a few hours later.
And as we walk away my wife holds my hand and squeezes it and says:
Are you okay?
And, of course, I start to cry because I am okay but also that was about as hectic as things get and all a bit overwhelming and I could do with a hug. Which, of course, I duly get.
And that’s it. Every tiny detail of something that lasted maybe 5 minutes in total from start to finish.
And, of course, that’s the first thing that intrigues me about this: a reaffirmation of my belief that time just has to be relative [as mentioned in these pages before here] to your own personal experience. This was 5 minutes of my life which felt like so much more, with time to take in the detail of every single moment like I was rewinding it and watching it again and again.
Details burnt into my brain. The look in the man’s eyes as he came up from under the water. My foot slipping forward through the mud and catching on a brick at the top of the wall. The little black dog shivering as he was shoved up out of the river. Time stood still, as of course it would.
The next thing is about my instinctive reaction.
If you’d asked me beforehand if I were the type of person who runs towards a commotion and then puts himself in danger in order to help, I think I would have said ‘no’. But as it turns out, I am. I’m not sure what you call that? Brave or brainless? Courageous or crazy? Heroic or hasty? Probably a bit of all of these. But an interesting thing to learn about oneself, that’s for sure.
There’s also a “what if” element to it all too. What if we hadn’t stopped for an ice cream? What if my son hadn’t started complaining of a stone in his shoe? We would have been up the path by the beach. So many things aligned to make all this happen. I don’t believe in fate any more than I believe in luck. But I do like considering the magic of coincidence in our life experiences.
And the last thing that sticks with me about this is [it’s me, so of course it’s going to be…] all about how people connect.
Author and speaker Brené Brown [yes you’re right I do mention her quite a bit] has done more research into vulnerability than probably anyone in the world, and her work has come to the conclusion that vulnerability is made of three things: uncertainty, a degree of risk, and emotional exposure. You don’t know how things are going to go. There’s a chance that things might go wrong. This could be emotionally difficult. But you do it anyway. That’s vulnerability.
I can’t think of any better description of what the man and I experienced together. Uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. And because you know this stuff, you don’t need me to tell you that vulnerability is the irreplaceable, elemental, catalytic basis of human connection.
I will never, ever, forget the man I met that day. Never. And he won’t ever forget me, either. What we experienced, together, was so intense, so short-lived but so unforgettable, and so totally, totally vulnerable that we’re connected forever.
If I could change one thing – just one part of the whole experience – it’s that he could have had another bit of bad luck in the afternoon (nothing big: a seagull pooing on his head or something) to satisfy the “bad things happen in threes” rule. Then the man and I could have been further connected by the shared enjoyment of winning the footy that evening…
YNWA friends. Go safely… and keep your dog on the lead near water yeah?
P.S. Apologies for such a long post – in the words of French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal in his 1657 work “Lettres Provinciales”: Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte”, or as you or I might have it: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” Except of course I did have time, I just decided to spend it elsewhere.