Having given a solicitous ear to Jorge’s business problems for over an hour yet again, Dr. Bennett was chatting to Grace Warmisham, the assistant librarian at St. Cross, the only parent outside the Family that he’d met before. Her twin daughters were of the party. Very good swimmers, like Bella, said Mrs. Warmisham. She wouldn’t have been surprised if they chose it as a career.
‘Gives a whole new meaning to sink or swim,’ smiled Dr. Bennett. He added that Angel wasn’t very sporty, but he understood that Bella won herself a few awards for swimming and riding. ‘Everyone assures me Angel’s artistic.’ He assumed some evidence of parental pride was in order.
Mrs. Warmisham laughed. She’d always been the cheery one among the stiff-faced bunch that presided over the halls of silence. The sun was nearing the horizon behind her and her blonde hair was melting into its pale flames.
‘They seem to be on their way back.’ She turned her head towards as yet distant but distinct noises that sounded anything but of human origin. Dr. Bennett watched her as she strained her neck slightly as if to get closer to the sounds and her eyes roved among the greenery to greet the first sighting of the boats. There had to be something to being a mother to yearn for the proximity of one’s offspring quite so much. He followed her gaze trying to look as eager and impatient as his fair companion.
‘I’m surprised they’ve still got so much energy left,’ said Mrs. Warmisham. She spoke lightly with a little chuckle in her voice, but Dr. Bennett caught a slight, fleeting frown.
She only shook her head and continued to stare into the sun. The boats were visible now, but only in silhouette and even that was fuzzy and changeable. He could see a few standing figures moving about in the first boat, swaying. There was some waving of arms he thought, and it occurred to him that in fact no one in the boat should have been upstanding. Then he stopped thinking altogether. Grace Warmisham cried ‘Help!’ from the depth of her lungs and that sent him running as he’d never thought he could. He was very much out of breath by the time he reached the gravelled bank, but his legs refused to stop no matter what his pounding heart and temporarily pushed aside common sense were ordering him to do.
Even if he wasn’t blinded by the setting sun and the sweat that was running into his eyes, in his agitation he was unable to register the exact order of events. The oars were still splashing and there was a lot of screaming. Someone was shouting orders, then just shouting. Not all the screams sounded scared. A few must have thought it exciting and were calling to each other, looking for spectators and admiration as they jumped into the murky water before the boat completely overturned to its side. A single child’s voice rose above the din in a continuous, unnerving wail.
Dr. Bennett somehow remembered to slip off his shoes before stepping into the water. Before he was in up to his knees he grabbed one little body that floated towards him, lifted it up and deposited it onto the bank. The boy shook Dr. Bennett’s hands off with a ‘I was doing very well on my own, thank you’ look and headed straight back into the water. His second attempt met with more appreciation. Mrs. Warmisham pressed one of her muddy and dripping little girls to her silky floral outfit.
‘Thank you. Thank you. You’ve saved her life.’
The gratitude was a hugely exaggerated but pleasant.
For a moment the incident seemed to be little more than a scary mishap. The other Warmisham girl made her own way to the shore with a small group of spluttering but high-spirited children. A few were led out or even carried out by the trip attendants. The remaining two boats docked safely and their occupants were quickly frog marched into the marquee in spite of loud prrotests. Several parents packed their own offspring and those they’d brought along into their cars and drove off. Others, the more public-spirited ones, stayed on to look after the over-excited little crowd in the marquee until the appointed collection time.
Dr. Bennett kept wading around, pushing one or another straggling child in the right direction or passing it on to the next pair of helping hands. Occasionally, when he lost the footing, he had to keep himself afloat by paddling doglike in circles and twice he even dived under to inspect two large rocks that protruded a fair way into the stream.
Angel and Bella were among the last to be found. Angel had been hanging for dear life to the stern of one of the other boats and her fingers had to be prised off the edge before she could be moved.
Bella was carried out unconscious.