(first pubished in Scribble, Issue No.77, Spring 2018, pp. 67-69)
I found the battered and scratched figure in the hospital bed to be surprisingly cheerful. Jim Shardlow, our village GP, is in his sixties and I’d expected his near-death experience (cracked rib, large gash on his hip, multiple bruises and scratches, blood loss and exposure) to have produced an altogether frailer and more subdued patient. I put Jim’s jollity down to the painkillers, but I turned out to be quite wrong.
As the Minister in Strathgaudie (a combined charge with Newparks and Kilblair) for the last thirty years, hospital visiting is a familiar part of my job. I observed all the hospital-visitor conventions: how was he feeling? (‘starving’ – I passed him the custard pie I’d brought as part of my tea); did he need anything? (‘could I feed his cat?’ – already attended to). And then I waited impatiently for his story. Eventually, Jim brushed a couple of pie crumbs out of his grey beard, smiled and said, ‘I suppose you want to know how it happened…
He paused and then continued. ‘I reckon Sally must’ve been crossing the Mill Burn footbridge to meet her wee Nickie off the school bus: it was that time of day. I was between patients and I heard her scream. I looked out the surgery window in time to see that that the footbridge was down and there was a head in the water.’
I nodded, ‘Yep, one of the bridge stanchions has gone. Remember the flash flood back in 1997? Both stanchions were swept away then. The burn’s still running high. But what happened to you?’
‘I knew I had to be quick. I grabbed an old tow rope as I went out the back porch. I ran as fast as I could. I was hoping she’d manage to cling onto to something, otherwise I’d never be able to catch her up. I soon spotted her: she was tangled up in some semi-submerged gorse bushes on the far bank. But there was no point in throwing her the tow rope: she wasn’t moving – she was unconscious. I had to go in after her.’
I shook my head at Jim. He and I are roughly the same age. He’s reasonably fit, but in your sixties, you may be still have the will, but you lack the stamina. And unless you’ve actually witnessed a flash flood in the Highlands, it’s difficult to imagine how furious those flood waters can be: I’ve seen the Mill Burn rise a good three feet in as many seconds, and I’ve seen boulders and whole trees borne along like pebbles and twigs.
Jim smiled and shook his head in return. ‘I didn’t have much time. Unconscious as she was, she’d quickly drown. I tied one end of the tow rope to an alder tree and stepped into the burn, with the rope-end wrapped around my fist. I thought I was prepared for the force of the current, but I wasn’t. I was immediately knocked off my feet. I reckon that’s when I got the cracked rib and the gashed hip – banging against submerged rocks. But I hung onto that rope-end: I hung on as if it was Jacob’s Ladder. I lost my footing again. More than once, I think. The cracked rib was shrieking at me, but I finally made it into the flooded gorse thicket. That was a bad moment, cos I was still a few yards away from Sally and the tow rope would stretch no further.
‘I had to abandon the rope and force my way through the gorse. I got to her somehow and freed her from the gorse tangles. She wasn’t breathing. So I picked her up…’
‘You picked her up, though you had a cracked rib??’
‘I suppose the adrenaline helped. I hoisted her onto my good shoulder – she’s only a wee thing – and struggled through the remaining bushes onto higher ground. I got her breathing again and headed up the glen to Wester Strathgaudie to raise the alarm. I found Charlie Smith in his lambing shed – afraid I must’ve given him quite a fright – I told him what had happened… and passed out. I came to again in the air ambulance, alongside Sally.’
For Jim, this was quite a lengthy tale. He’s courteous to all, and a caring, conscientious GP, but he’s reserved. Of course, the local doctor can’t be seen whooping it up in the public bar at the Gordon Arms Hotel, but Jim’s reserve is more than professional self-restraint. Annie Forbes, who drives the school bus and always gives a plastic bag of romantic novels for the Kirk ‘bring-and-buy’ sale, claims he has a ‘secret sorrow.’ My brother-in-law, Angus MacQuarrie, a surgeon at the children’s hospital, told me that Jim’s a first-rate doctor, implying that he’s rather wasted on us good folks in Strathgaudie. Even to me, Jim’s been a bit an enigma: nearly every Monday night for more than twenty years, we’ve played each other at chess in either his house or mine, and we’ve slipped gradually into one of those comfortable male friendships where we talk less and less as time goes by.
But I didn’t want to lapse into a comfortable silence in the ward just then. ‘You’re a hardy soul, Jim, as well as a brave one. Many a younger and fitter man might have hesitated before plunging into that burn.’
‘It’s true: I didn’t hesitate, Sandy. But that wasn’t because I’m brave… it was because I was grateful. Grateful that, after more than forty years I’d been given a second chance…’
He paused, seeing the puzzlement on my face, squinted up at the ceiling and recited some lines of a poem about the moment when the poet realises that life no longer offers a smorgasbord of possibilities, and gates onto rose gardens have just slammed shut. ‘That happened to me, forty-odd years ago. But down at the Mill Burn yesterday, I got a reprieve. It’s an old, dark story, Sandy. But I think I’ve maybe now earned the right to tell it.
‘I was a medical student at Cambridge. It was a wonderful time to be young. “Sergeant Pepper” could be heard through every open window and the beer was cheap, but it was the girls who were intoxicating. On a warm April night, after two days of heavy rain, I’d been in love with Jenny Sangster for the previous two hours. We smuggled a bottle of cheap wine out of the party and headed across the river. I don’t think we were consciously making for my room: we were innocents, just wanting to be together under the warm night sky. On the bridge, I was reciting Byron to Jenny and the shrouded moon. Jenny scrambled up onto the parapet, spread her arms out wide, threw back her head and shouted, “I walk in beauty, like the night!” So lovely she looked: her dark, tumbled tresses, her short, vivid, red dress, and her suede boots…
‘The parapet was still wet from the recent rain. She slipped backwards and fell. It was thought afterwards that she must have hit her head on the bridge stonework as she fell, because she never made a sound. I rushed to the parapet. I shouted her name. There was very little light. Perhaps she had been carried under the bridge? There was a swift current in the river that night. I rushed to the opposite parapet and shouted her name again: no sign.
‘I was a poor swimmer in those days, really more of a floater. I scrambled down to the river bank and ran up and down it, calling her name. What shameful futility! I knew then that the right thing to do, the only thing to do, was to jump in the river myself: to put myself at risk. But I didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t.’
By this point in his story, there was a sob in Jim’s throat. My occupational instincts kicked in and I started to murmur words of comfort and condolence. Jim cut me short: ‘No, no, Sandy. Please: those kindnesses lacerate me. They lacerated me then. At the inquest, the consideration that Jenny’s parents showed towards me was almost unbearable…
‘Afterwards, I knew what I had to do. I would find a small world where I could live quietly and acquit myself as well as I was able. That’s what I’ve tried to do, these past years in Strathgaudie. Believe me, Sandy, I have never looked for… redemption. But redemption found me! Not everyone gets a second chance, but I was blest. Of course, I never hesitated when I got that second chance. A cracked rib, a little spilt blood and some scratches – they were a very small price to pay.’
When I left the ward, Jim was wearing an unfamiliar broad smile. I no longer put his mood down to the medication. As I drove back home, I reflected that Annie, the school bus driver, had been right about Jim after all.