It was about as English as you can get. I saved a man from drowning, and ended up annoyed that he didn’t say thank you.
The setting was a disused railway walk near the meadows of my local market town in Suffolk. I was out with my dog, enjoying one of autumn’s last sunny days. The walk is heavily lined on both sides with trees, and shielded from view of what few houses there are nearby. From the left, where a river runs alongside the track (again, shielded by the trees) came cries of ‘Help! Help me! PLEASE help!’ At first I assumed some kids were messing about. But after a couple more shouts it was clear this was genuine.
Pushing my way through the trees and bushes I reached the river, which at that point is about 80 ft wide. In the middle was an overturned canoe, with a man’s head, shoulders and arms appearing from underneath it. His legs were obviously stuck inside, and he was just — only just — managing to cling on to the canoe’s far side, thereby stopping himself from going under.
‘It’s OK,’ I yelled. ‘I’m here.’ Despite the rather Hollywood note this struck, I knew instantly that here was the ideal ‘heroism required’ situation: the bloke would definitely die if I didn’t help (no way his strength could last for more than a minute or two), but there was absolutely no risk at all to my own safety. I had time to take off my trainers, so making the swimming easier. And indeed my jeans — no point ruining my smartphone or losing my wallet. Socks and T-shirt followed, and so it was that my overriding thought as I prepared to rescue a man from certain and imminent death was: ‘Thank God I put on a decent pair of pants today.’
The next thought, just before my outstretched fingers broke the water’s surface, was, ‘Whoa, this is going to be cold.’ But even there things were OK. The temperature wasn’t Caribbean, but neither was it limb-numbing. This was great: I was going to get a Die Hard portion of brownie points for a Center Parcs level of exertion. Soon I was over to the canoe, grabbing one end of it and turning it so the man was no longer being dragged under. ‘It’s OK,’ I said. ‘I’ve got it now. See if you can get yourself out.’
The man — mid-thirties, shaven-headed, stocky but with muscles that were already thinking of turning to fat — looked horrified. ‘No! I can’t swim!’
‘Oh. Er… right.’ I thought for a moment. ‘Listen — get yourself out anyway, but keep holding on to the canoe. Then I’ll tow it back to the bank.’
This was what we did. The canoeist had calmed down a little by now, and realised everything was going to be fine. By the time we reached the bank another passer-by had arrived. He helped us both clamber out.
‘Are you all right?’ we asked Canoeist.
‘Yeah.’ He squeezed water from his sleeveless vest top. ‘That’s me finished with this. I’m not doing this any more.’
‘I live pretty close by,’ said the other man. ‘Do you want me to get you a drink or anything?’
‘Nah, I’m OK.’ Canoeist patted a zipped pocket in his combat trousers. ‘Let’s see if this waterproof bag has worked.’ He took out a small plastic pouch, itself zipped up. It contained his mobile phone. The pixels flickered for a second or two, but then came properly to life. ‘Good. That’s still working.’ Then he took out his car key. ‘I’ve got some towels in the boot,’ he said.
Other Man took the cue. ‘Shall I fetch them for you?’
Canoeist handed over the key. ‘It’s in the car park down there.’ He pointed, giving the vehicle’s model and colour.
‘You’re sure you’re OK?’ I asked as we waited for Other Man to return. The answer was obviously yes, but I needed something to say.
‘Yeah. I’ll be all right.’ He looked at the canoe’s paddle, which had drifted out of reach. ‘How am I going to get that back?’
‘There’s the boating club back that way. I’m sure they’d send someone out.’
He nodded his head, and gave a grunt of agreement.
By now the absence of the ‘T’ word had registered with me. It was curious, but probably just a symptom of Canoeist’s shock. As he gradually recovered his poise, he would no doubt offer some thanks. For conversation’s sake I referred to the large ‘Marines’ tattoo on his right bicep. ‘You didn’t learn to swim when you were with them?’
‘Oh. You really were in the Marines?’ I’d been joking, having assumed the tattoo was an affectation.
‘You don’t have to be able to swim to be in the Marines?’
‘Nah. You have to do a really basic test when you go in, but that’s it.’
It now dawned on me just how much of an arse this man was. Knowing that he couldn’t swim, and without wearing a life-jacket, he had gone canoeing in a river way out of his depth. And having been rescued from his own stupidity by the sheer good fortune that someone happened to be passing at the right moment, all he could do was worry about his mobile phone and his paddle. I started to feel irritated. The sentence that kept forming on my lips was the one I sometimes have to use to my son: ‘What do you say?’ Only sometimes, mind you. He’s very good at saying thank you. And he’s three.
But of course the ultimate bit of Englishness was that I didn’t say anything. Other Man returned with the towels, and I used one to dry myself off, then redressed (minus the wet pants, of course — good job it was a dog walk, so I had plastic bags with me). Canoeist used the other towel, repeating all the time that that was him done with this, he wasn’t going out in one of those things any more, not if the bloody things could flip over just like that. And instead of yelling at him that didn’t he think he was forgetting something here, after all if it wasn’t for me he would, right now, and quite literally, be sleeping with the fishes, I merely retied my laces, stood up, and said: ‘Right, I’ll be off, then. See you.’
‘Yeah,’ said Canoeist. ‘See you.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012