Excuse this pic lying on its side. If you were as tired as I am, you'd understand why I've given up trying to get it stand up straight. This is me at Abraham Darby Academy in Telford today, talking to groups of Year Nines about my adventures in Belize. The children were great. They really listened and showed an interest. Not only that, their school was amazing. It was one of those fancy new academies, officially opened last week by Prince Edward.
I've been doing author visits for over twenty years and I've never been in a school like it. According to the teachers, the official opening day was pretty amazing too, and so was Prince Edward, but not being a Royalist, I have to take their word for that.
When I go into schools on my 'In the Trees' book tour, what I'm trying to get across is that it's not just governments and multi-national companies who can make a difference to the world. Young people can too. Young people from any background and any type of school. I know what I'm talking about here, because I saw it happening in Belize. I saw gap year projects really working, changing young people's lives as they worked to change the world around them.
When I go into schools I look at the young people in front of me and say, 'In just a few years time, what I'm telling you about now could be happening to you. I'm not just talking about other people making a difference to the world around them. I'm talking about you.'
Well enough of that. Onto the near-death experience. It happened this morning before I left for Abraham Darby. As I'd be in front of my first class at 8.30 am, I took our family dog, Biffo, for a very early morning walk. It was still dark when I got down to the River Severn and started following the towing path. I didn't think anything of that though, as I'd taken Biffo down there in the dark many times before. Nothing prepared me for a sudden, awful, heavy plopping sound in the river - which was definitely too loud to be made by a duck.
I rushed to the edge of the path, looked into the water. Nothing to see. I called Biffo's name. No dog appeared. I called a few more times. Still no dog appeared. I looked around me, thinking maybe I'd made a mistake and he'd gone trotting off along the towing path. No sign of him. I looked again at the water, scanning all the way along the river to the railway bridge where things started getting choppy a hundred yards or so before the weir. Still no dog.
I knew what had happened. Biffo had sunk. Like a stone he'd gone down and he wasn't coming back. Before my eyes flashed the moments when I'd summon the family, one by one, to the phone to give them the bad news. 'I've drowned your dog... This is all my fault... I don't know how it happened... He just disappeared...'
Suddenly, like a cork, up Biffo popped, bedraggled, terrified, out of his depth and, though he tried valiantly to swim towards me, sweeping away. I flung myself flat on the towing path and leaned over the edge. If it hadn't been for the last few days' rain swelling the river, I never would have reached him. I nearly didn't reach him either, and I'm still asking myself whether I'd have jumped in or what I would have done if Biffo reallly did sweep away. But just at the last moment I got him at the back of his ears. Just a tiny wet hand's worth of fluff, but I clung on for dear life and hauled my dog out.
I don't know who was trembling more as we headed for home. One thing's for sure. We're never going down to the river in the dark again, even with Biffo on a lead. Back home I dried him off, fed him and left him curled up on my bed. I was still shaking slightly when I reached Abraham Darby three quarters of an hour later. And Biffo was still on my bed when I returned home at the end of the day. Drama over. Here's a picture of our little darling. Three cheers for me managing to get this photo right side up so that you can see Biffo smiling. No, it's not a snarl. I said, 'Smile, Biffo,' and that was definitely his response.
Moral of story? Next time I do an author visit, get someone else to walk the dog. And next time I walk the dog, put him in a life jacket just in case.