28th March 1941- A cold wet spring, made colder by a year and a half of war.
1pm in the police house on the Lewes Road in Rodmell. Police Constable Wilfred Collins is writing up his record book. He hates doing this, but it is his duty. If anything happens of police interest that he does not record his superiors will come down on him at his next inspection.
He thinks about his dinner- a welcome break. He alway’s enjoys his wife Violet’s cooking.
But it doesn’t work out like that.
Suddenly a frantic knocking on the door. It is Bartholomew, the Woolf’s gardener. “Quick” he says, “Come. We think Mrs Woolf has drowned herself in the river.” He throws on his uniform and sets off through the village with Bartholomew, and then down the bridleway to the river under the grey sky, dodging the perennial puddles.
He thinks about the Woolfs. The man, decent enough, if strange- always said “Good Day” when he saw you- but the woman- you would think she had not seen you- no acknowledgement- nothing. Supposed to be a great writer, though heaven knows what she writes. What on earth did they come to this little village for?
At the river he sends Bartholomew left along the bank, while he turns right towards the Southease bridge. He sees Woolf. He is fishing a walking stick out of the river. He walks up to Woolf. The man, always thin, now looks cadaverous. “My wife’s” he says. Woolf hands him two letters. PC Collins looks at them. They look like suicide notes. Wordlessly, he hands them back. He cannot find the words to make it somehow better.
He sees the footprints leading into the water. They look like the prints of a woman.
Woolf looks at him. His duty is clear.
He must jump into the river and try to find Mr Woolf’s wife’s body.
Thank heavens the tide is on the turn and the river is fairly still. He knows how treacherous the river is when the current is running.
He has been trained for this. He has won prizes in the swimming in uniform competition. Taking off just his jacket and shoes, he slides down the bank and jumps in.
But the Ouse is not a swimming pool The cold water impregnates him, seeping into the woolen underwear next to his skin, searching out every crevice of his body.
He dives repeatedly. At first the layers of clothing keep him warm. But then the water penetrates his nose, his ears; it drags down his underwear. It numbs him. He can see nothing. His hands stretch out through the murk, seeking what he knows is unfindable. The river is too wide and too dirty for one man to search it. It is a job he must do, even through there is no point to it. At last he feels he has done enough.
He staggers out. His sodden underwear drags his trousers down, but Woolf only looks at him blankly.
PC Collins stands dripping on the bank. He shivers. He finds nothing to say. There is nothing to say.
Woolf has turned away, walking slowly back to the village.
His route back is cold and wet. No need to dodge the puddles now. He holds his jacket at arms length to try to keep it dry. Never has the bridleway seemed so long.
Finally, at home- a towel, clean clothes, and-praise be, his dinner is only slightly dry. There are winter vegetables from his allotments and meat from the smallholding. He is glad, as always, that he lives in the country and not the town.
After dinner he must write everything down. Probably he should contact his superiors and perhaps ask the blacksmith for equipment to drag the river.
But for now, the Rodmell policeman’s duty is done.
The main facts in this story are taken from the reports made about the death of Virginia Woolf to the coroner These are held in the East Sussex archive. I have also consulted the biography of Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning. PC Collins’ nephew Paul Collins provided valuable information about his uncle’s swimming experiences, as well as the name of his wife and the details of his allotments. A few details and all of the thoughts of PC Collins have been imagined.
The story of Virginia Woolf’s death has been told many times, but the role of Wilfred Collins has had had less publicity. I wrote this story to set that right. Any further details about him would be welcomed.
Virginia body was found a few weeks later, floating a little way south of the place where PC Collins dived. Some children were throwing stones at what they thought was a log. When they realised it was not they ran for the policeman. It was almost certainly PC Collins who had the job of fishing the body out.