The Rescue by Gill James

John had his big waterproof boots on. He nearly always did, except when he went to sleep. The others used to laugh at him. Even in the summer he wore those big old boots. He was rather glad of them today. It hadn’t stopped raining since four o’clock yesterday afternoon, and the river had already come over the bank. Water was beginning to pour into the riverside cottages.

‘We’d best go out in the row boat,’ said John’s dad. ‘See if folk need any help.’

John didn’t wait for his dad. He made his way to where their boat was moored and was just in time. The rope was taught. In another few seconds he wouldn’t have been able to reach the post the boat was tied to, and it would have been pulled under. He quickly undid the knots before it had time to drift away. He was good at doing and undoing knots and controlling boats, even if he wasn’t so good at school work and talking to people.

This water was a bit frightening. He wished Dad would hurry up. The big waterproof boots were keeping his feet and trousers dry, but he couldn’t hold on to the boat anymore. He clambered into it, and it drifted into the middle of the river, but then he managed to get the oars out.  Soon he was rowing back towards Riverside Walk, which was now more like a river than a walk beside one. The street had turned into a fast-moving stream.

The boat was outside old Mrs McKenzie’s cottage. The other families who lived in the cottages were standing on the bridge with PC Winkworth and Mr Paige, the fireman.

‘That you, John? Can you see Mrs McKenzie?’ bellowed PC Winkworth.

John shook his head. But what was that? There was a light shining from the little window halfway up the stairs. It was just above where the water had got to.

‘Is there anybody there?’ he heard a faint voice cry. ‘I can’t get up the stairs.’

John wanted to answer that he would be there soon, but the words stuck in his throat. He nodded vigorously at PC Winkworth and Mr Paige.

John spied the strong-looking bracket that held up the gutter. He fastened the boat to that, allowing plenty of slack in the rope. The water was still rising and rising. It was easy enough to get up to the window ledge on the top floor and force the window open. Seconds later he was climbing into the bedroom. It smelt funny, like Mum’s wardrobe where she kept all her fancy dresses that she hardly ever wore. The rain was still thundering on the roof. He could hear the water churning beneath the floor below.

‘John Johnson, isn’t it? Is your dad with you? Oh lordy, I can’t move.’ Mrs McKenzie started to cry.

John couldn’t talk. Some days he could speak, but not today. But he knew what he had to do. He found his way to the stairs and started going down them. It smelt like the moss that grew in the graveyard and he could see thick muddy water below him. How would they ever be able to make this cottage like a home again?

And there was Mrs McKenzie, halfway up the stairs. The water was past her knees. He held out his hand to her.

She shook her head. ‘My foot’s stuck. It’s gone through the step. I can’t move.’

John went further down the stairs until he was level with her. His boots were still high enough to keep his feet and his trousers dry. He bent down to feel where her foot was stuck. Yes, the step had broken and her foot was down in there. But that wasn’t what was holding her: her skirt was caught on a nail. He pulled at it, but it wouldn’t give.

How could he tell her that she’d have to take her skirt off? He tried to mime what she should do, but she didn’t understand. He would have to take it off himself.  He put his arms around her waist and managed to undo the buttons and the zip.

‘What do you think you’re doing, John Johnson? Get your hands off me.’ She started hitting him.

At that moment the candle that had been burning in the little window on the stairs went out.

Well, that meant he wouldn’t have to see her in her underwear. It was almost as dark as night in here. The skirt slipped down, and Mrs McKenzie would be able to walk away – if he could persuade her. He grabbed her arm and pulled. It was difficult. She was a big woman, and, even though John was tall, he wasn’t very stocky. She wouldn’t move.

He jumped down behind her. The water started seeping over the top of his boots. Once Mrs McKenzie was safe, he and Dad would be able to go home and sit by the fire. At least their house was on top of the hill. He started pushing, and at last she realised her foot wasn’t stuck. She lifted it up out of the broken step. As she put her weight on it, she whimpered. John decided that having a sore foot was better than drowning. It had to be very painful though.

John pushed. Mrs McKenzie shuffled. John grunted. Mrs McKenzie moaned. Slowly, slowly they made their way upwards to the bedroom, the water following them up the stairs.

John looked away as they got near the light from the window. He didn’t want to see her underskirt, or worse, her bloomers.

‘Well done, John. We can take it from here.’

Dad. Thank goodness. PC Winkworth and Mr Paige were there as well, in a snazzy launch that was bobbing up and down outside. John shoved, the three men pulled, and Mrs McKenzie slid through the window.

Too much happened afterwards.

‘Good lad,’ said PC Winkworth. ‘You deserve a medal for that.’

He came to the school and presented John with a medal a few weeks later.

When Mrs McKenzie was back in her own home, she baked John a cake and brought it to his house. It was a chocolate one, his favourite.

Mr Talbot at school asked him to talk to the rest of the students about what he’d done. ‘Don’t worry if it’s one of your non-speaking days,’ said Mr Talbot. ‘We can do a Power Point and we’ve got plenty of photos of the floods. I can do the talking for you.’

It was a non-speaking day when John did his assembly with the help of Mr Talbot.

Everybody was really nice to him, even though he was still wearing his big waterproof boots. It wasn’t completely a non-speaking day, though. Something bubbled up inside John when Mr Talbot showed the last slide and finished speaking. They were all making such a fuss. He’d got to put them straight. It was nothing, what he’d done.

‘That was all,’ said John.

Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown. She edits CafeLit and writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation. Gill is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing.
Image via Unsplash, with gratitude.