I don’t think I’ve ever told you about one of my more silly adventures, some years ago. It was New Year’s Day. We’d spent the evening with our friends Stuart and Caroline, and it had snowed hard during the evening. The next morning was dry and sunny and I took my dog Chester and my mother’s greyhound Henry out for a walk. Tilly stayed at home in the warm.
The temperature had been freezing for several days and the river was iced over. We walked over the three bridges towards the marshes – I should mention that, here, “marsh” does not imply boggy ground, but low-lying water meadows that provide a natural flood plain in wet weather. The dogs ran and played over the snowy field. The ice on the river made a strange ‘singing’ sound as it creaked and crackled against the bank and Chester was intrigued and trotted over to investigate. I called him back but it was too late. His feet slipped from under him and he fell into the water.
I went to the bank and looked down. He had vanished. I thought he had gone under the ice and I felt strangely resigned, as there was nothing I could do. Then I realised there was a slight overhang and Chester was there, treading water, looking up at me trustingly. There was nothing to hang on to and it was at least a couple of feet down to the water, too far to reach. I took his lead and made a loop – I thought that if I could get it over his head, I might be able to yank it enough to grab his collar. It wouldn’t matter if I half-choked him, if I could only get a grip on him.
It was awkward and I couldn’t get it over his head, and then my feet slipped and I found myself lying on my back on the edge of the bank, unable to move. I lay there wondering what to do. Any movement would send me in. Chester was still silently paddling. Fortunately, Henry was ignoring us and rambling around the field. After a few minutes, I decided that something was better than nothing, and I let myself slide into the water.
Chester was thrilled and immediately climbed up me and draped himself about my head and shoulders. He was an Irish setter/bearded collie cross, about the size of a golden retriever. He was heavy. I was up to my chest in water, but there was a slight shelf for me to stand on. I started to walk along the edge of the river. It was only a few yards to a bend and then, a few more yards on, the bank fell away to a watering place for cattle – if I could get there, I could just walk out.
I discovered that the ice came in three layers where the water level had fluctuated and it had frozen each time. So I couldn’t walk directly and it would be impossible to swim, even if I didn’t have 40 pounds or so of dog on my head. I lifted my leg up and smashed the ice down with each step. I rounded the corner and the bank was a little lower. Chester seized his chance and clambered up on the bank and ran joyfully around, shaking the water off his coat and rubbing himself along the snow to dry himself. I wondered if he’d fall in again, but he and Henry scampered about and ignored me.
And there I stood. I couldn’t go any further without getting into deep water. The shallows weren’t far away, but unreachable. I’m not sure how long I stood, and I considered how long I could last. I didn’t feel all that cold, funnily enough, but the longer I was there, the less I could help myself. However, Z’s luck held and, after several minutes, I heard footsteps.
“Er, excuse me,” I called out diffidently, “Do you think you could help me?” Yes, polite and frightfully English to the end. Stephen appeared and looked down at me. He’d brought his camera to film the snowy scenery, which was very beautiful. He’s keen on wildlife and hoped to film the birds. I gave him my hand – it wasn’t far up to the bank, but there was nothing to hold on to – and he hauled me out. I dripped. He went and fetched my sheepskin gloves, which I’d taken off while I was trying to loop the lead, and held one out. I pushed my fingers at it but they wouldn’t bend and I couldn’t get it on. I didn’t feel cold but I was completely numb, too numb to know how cold I was. Stephen walked me home and delivered me into the care of the Sage, who ran me a hot bath and poured me whisky.
I was fine and so was Chester. No after-effects at all. Except I had awful bruises on my legs from forcing my way through the ice. The next day, my mother noticed them and asked what I’d done. I said that I’d fallen up the metal steps of the bridge and bruised myself. I never told her the truth. A bit late to worry her about it and she’d only fuss.
I understand that Stephen has dined out on the story ever since. Fair enough.