Eggsy didn’t stop to think about it. He jumped.
He kept his eyes clamped shut against the murky waters of the canal until his head broke the surface again. His clothes clung to him and hindered him, even though he'd torn off his jacket before he'd jumped. His jeans and shirt stuck to his limbs like seaweed as he struck out for the spot he’d last seen the flailing toddler while people on the bank shouted incomprehensible directions to him and pointed.
He kicked, took a deep breath, and submerged again, trying not to think about what sorts of awful things were in the water, and this time he opened his eyes despite the gritty feeling.
The boy had been wearing a big yellow coat against the late-Autumn chill, and that garment was both currently drowning him and bright enough for Eggsy to see through the murk. The water was freezing. His blood pounding in his ears, Eggsy reached out, his questing fingers found the boy’s feebly floating hand and he grabbed him. He kicked, hauling him upwards; Eggsy still had plenty of air, but the boy didn’t.
There was a cheer when both their heads bobbed above the surface but Eggsy wasn’t celebrating yet. The little boy was pale and cold and unresponsive in Eggsy’s arms.
Half a dozen hands were offered to help them out of the canal and someone said they’d dialled triple nine. Eggsy barely heard them, focused on the task at hand. He’d done first aid as part of basic training, and he knelt by the boy’s side, still dripping water onto the concrete, and started administering CPR.
Please breathe. Come on, kid.
In the end, they both ended up in hospital. The boy was breathing by the time the paramedics arrived, and he and Eggsy were taken away to be looked at. The boy's mother sat in the ambulance with them, thanking Eggsy endlessly through her tears. She wasn't any older than Eggsy himself was.
Eggsy was back in time for dinner, and the next day there was a small story about him in some of the papers. Michelle bought a copy of each one and clipped them out. She was proud of him.
Eggsy wasn’t so proud. There wasn’t much the papers could say about him other than he’d had some military training. Occupation: unemployed, and probably unemployable.
The next day Michelle woke him up.
“Denise just rang,” she said, perching on the end of his bed. “She says she might have something for you.” Denise was their social worker; she'd started visiting them a few months before Daisy was born, but she mostly communicated by phone now Daisy had settled in and Eggsy hadn’t seen much of Denise for months. He didn’t dislike her exactly, but she was yet another well-meaning person who went on about how he apparently had massive potential but seemed a bit short on concrete things he could do to tap into it. Sometimes she could help them out. Mostly she was sorry she couldn't.
Her job was to look after Mum and Daisy, not him.
Thus, he was suspicious.
“What does she want?” he asked, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
“She says someone saw that story in the paper and wants to offer you a scholarship or something.”
“Sounds dodgy,” Eggsy mumbled.
“Eggsy, it sounds like a decent bit of money. It can’t hurt to see what it’s about, can it?”
Eggsy sighed, “What do I gotta do?”
“Keep your appointment,” she said. She handed him a piece of paper torn from the magnetised notebook stuck to the fridge that was used for shopping lists. “She says she doesn't know how long this offer is going to last.”
“Yeah, people with money always like making us scramble through hoops for it,” Eggsy said, remembering without affection the endless forms and complex requirements that had to be met before they could obtain their government allowance. Like anyone would want to subsist on the grudging charity of the public purse if they had much choice.
“Either way, unless you’ve got somewhere better to be, you get your arse out of bed and go see what it’s about,” Michelle said crossly, and left him to get dressed.
He knew he'd go. He knew he'd be suitably grateful and tug his forelock or do whatever this person required for the money, but only so he could help out his family. He had more pride than that.
When pride was all you had, you guarded it jealously.
By the time he’d made it to the community centre, Eggsy was really in a hurry. Despite it all, he didn’t actually want to come home and say he screwed it up without first hearing what the catch was. He was almost late, fuck it all.
As he jogged around the corner he caught a glimpse of a tall man in a suit getting into the back of a cab. Not the sort of person one would expect to be hanging around this sort of place, and Eggsy wondered if he was a government inspector, some fucking Tory making sure everyone was meeting their benefit sanction quotas. Eggsy gave him no further thought as the cab pulled away.
Denise was frowning when he arrived, looking thoughtful, but she smiled when she saw him. Her next appointment had arrived already, but Eggsy wasn't late. Just.
“I'm glad you decided to show,” Denise said, sitting down behind her cluttered desk. There were children’s toys on the floor, and the walls were covered in posters illustrating various government initiatives.
Eggsy hated this place; it wasn't quite a police station, but the smell of government authority clung to it anyhow.
“Did you see the gentleman leaving as you came in?” she asked.
“I saw a bloke in a suit, can’t say if he’s a gent or not.”
Denise seemed to make her mind up about something. “He is a ‘gent,’ as you put it.” Her glasses flashed. Very protective of this bloke; not a government inspector then. “He saw the story in the paper yesterday, about how you saved that little boy, and was moved to do something about it.”
“What, fence off the canal?”
Denise got to the point. “He is familiar with your history, don’t ask me how.” She looked slightly uneasy. “I suppose people like him have their ways. He contacted me and explained that if you are willing to meet a few conditions, none of which are taxing, he is willing to pay for you to go to university. You will have to apply like everyone else through UCAS, of course, but he wants you to apply for Oxford, to be specific.” She was reading most of this off a piece of notepaper, clearly quoting. “The reason why he was so specific was that he wishes you to join Hertford College. I believe he is an alumnus and he seemed quite confident you would be accepted as long as you were offered a place at the university. You may study whatever you wish.”
“Oh, very generous of him, all I have to do is get into Oxford,” Eggsy said. If it was that easy, wouldn't he already be there? This bloke wasted his time.
“Your marks were excellent, Eggsy. Michelle told me many times. Your stint in the army probably won't work against you; they make allowances for that sort of thing, and it may even help you. In some cases it's easier for older students to get a place. I can refer you to someone if you want some help with your application.”
“Hang on, hang on, I haven't said I'd even do it yet. Who is this guy? Is he gonna pay for everything? Cause I can't hit Mum up for textbooks and shit. You know that.”
“He's going to give you an allowance so you will not be obligated to work as well as study. As for who he is.” Eggsy could tell she wasn't so keen on this part. “He doesn’t want you to know. He doesn't want you to feel obligated.”
“Like hell he doesn’t.”
“I’ve got another client waiting, so this has to be quick. You need to be quick. The UCAS cut-off for applications is in October. This isn't an official scholarship; this is an individual making you an offer, and he said nothing about it being open next year. You'll sign a contract to ensure the money keeps coming as long as you pass your classes while you are there and keep your benefactor up to date via handwritten letters care of his PA, to which he will not reply. That’s all.”
Eggsy stared at her in disbelief. Letters? He'd written about five letters in his entire life. And he wouldn't even get any back, although Eggsy was sure he wouldn't want letters from some rich old bloke anyway.
She shrugged. “You’re not going to get a better offer, Eggsy. Opportunities like this are once in a lifetime. It's eccentric, but it's genuine.”
“Can I think about it?”
“I’ll be honest, do you think you can get an offer from Oxford?”
That was the question, wasn't it? He had to decide if he was good enough. This guy knew nothing about him, but was willing to spend thousands of pounds on him anyway. Like he knew something Eggsy didn't. It kind of pissed him off, but at the same time, Eggsy knew he'd never forgive himself if he backed down.
He lifted his chin. “Yeah.”
“Then I’d spend less time thinking and more time working on your application.”