My wife came into the garden, where I was pruning the euphorbia.
“Don’t take too much off,” she said.
I took a hefty slash at the bush.
“Oh, don’t do that.”
“If I don’t, it will swamp the flannel flowers.”
“Will it?” Julia is particularly fond of the flannel flowers. “All right, but not too much then.”
She bent to examine the amaranthus.
“Something’s been eating these.”
“Yes,” I said. “The dear little snails.”
Julia made a regretful noise.
“That’s the thing,” I said, “We can have pretty amaranthus, or snails, but not both.”
“Don’t be horrible,” Julia said.
I took another huge swipe at the euphorbia.
“Don’t forget to ring your father,” she said by way of counterattack, and went back into the house.
Not long after, I abandoned the garden. I thought I would get out on the water for a few hours. I threw some supplies into the esky. I sought out my son.
He was sitting in his room with his computer in his lap and his feet up on the edge of his desk. I ignored this and said: “Morning James.”
“Good morning, James.”
“What?” he said.
“I’m going to take the boat out. Do you want to come fishing?”
As usual, this made me angrier than I dared to show.
“Fine. Come and help with the trailer please.”
“I don’t want to come.”
“I heard you. I still need a hand.”
So he helped to get rid of me.
We were linking the trailer up to the towbar when Julia found us.
“Are you taking the boat out?” she said.
“Not me,” James said, edging away.
“Do you want to come?” I asked Julia.
“I thought we were looking for couches.”
“I’ll be back in three hours. Why don’t you look online?”
Julia began to protest, but I insisted: “Yes, look online, and we’ll go straight to the best place. Go on.”
Then I jumped in the car and escaped.
My boat is a tinny with a 25 hp Evinrude. It was old when I bought it, years ago. Like me, it’s unlovely but durable.
I put the boat in at the Spit. I usually head up Middle Harbour, where it’s quiet and green, but when I’m on edge I make for the Heads. I look into the east where there is nothing but ocean, an emptiness big enough to swallow my own.
As soon as I was on the water, all my anxieties floated away. I headed out on a line that would take me under North Head, where I could watch the waves coming to grief on the rocks.
Then I saw something. At first I thought it was a jumping fish or a seabird, but what I recognised at last was far more unlikely: a lone swimmer heading out to sea. This was too brave; it made me feel a little sick. I kept on towards him, losing sight whenever he or I fell into a trough, finding him again on the crests, slowly drawing nearer.
I was perhaps twenty metres away when I realised that what I had taken for a swimming cap was in fact the swimmer’s short silvery hair. His stroke was uneven. One foot sometimes waggled out of the water. I could see his gasping mouth when he jerked his head up to breathe, but his eyes were hidden inside blue goggles. I thought he was too close to the rocks. I willed him to correct his course, but he continued oblivious to the waves sucking at the shelf beneath the cliff.
Both the swell and the wind were coming out of the south-east. Small gun-grey clouds were flying overhead. A yacht careered across the face of Middle Head, far to my stern and soon gone. A merchant vessel was a rusty smear in the ocean distance. There were probably people on the North Head lookouts, but the top of those cliffs might as well be the moon when you are in the sea. The swimmer and I were alone.
Feeling like an intruder, I came alongside him, about five metres away. I could feel my face frozen in an embarrassed smile as I waited for him to see me. I watched his back and shoulders heaving. I could see the moles and blotches of his old man’s skin, like a barnacled whale.
The swell came through a little bigger and the wind made a crest. The swimmer was thrown back, upright for a moment in the water, and a groan came out of him before he smacked down into the trough. He rolled onto his back. He saw me.
I felt relieved. Now he would ask for help, or — just possibly — hail me cheerfully and assure me that he rounded North Head every week for a lark, and then I could leave him to it.
Instead, he threw himself back into the swim. For two or three strokes he splashed harder at the water, as if to flee. Then he slowed, and slogged on painfully as before.
My first reaction was to pull away, but almost immediately I swung the boat around again. Sea slopped over the side. My hands shook. I throttled back and pointed into the swell.
This man was killing himself. I wasn’t sure, but my doubt was only the fear that attends monstrous realities. You watch the plane fly into the building and you can’t really believe it. It is out of all proportion with the domestic beat, and yet: there it is, and there you are.
I wondered if I could leave him. He reminded me of my father, that old fool, driving his car into the exit at Westfield, arguing with the baffled drivers who faced him, unable to reverse. My father who bickered with shop assistants, who wrote letters but could not remember to post them, who sometimes forgot my name, who repeated the same advice to me endlessly, as if I were sixteen, not forty-six. My father had grown into a horrible caricature of himself, and if he ever realised that and decided to kill himself, I would be the last to stand in his way.
But I would not be able to watch him do it. And I couldn’t let this swimmer drown.
All I could think was how cold it would be, drowning, how my skin would crawl, how lonely I would be, choosing death.
What would my son do if he were in the boat and I was the one in the water? He would be angry with me, just as I was angry with the swimmer.
He would be angry, but I knew what I would have wanted James to do. I pushed up next to the swimmer and hailed him.
“Go away!” he gasped, treading water.
His face was red with exertion. He had a big old sponge of a nose, but the blue goggles stripped him of personality. Not far beyond him, the jagged shore sucked and roared.
“You’re nearly on the rocks,” I shouted.
“Leave me alone.”
“The rocks! Rocks!”
I gestured wildly towards the rock shelf, perilously close. At last he looked over his shoulder and, as the swell lifted him, he was treated to a vision of the awaiting smash.
He gave a shout of alarm, went under for a moment, then clasped the side of
the boat. And I saw, with relief, that his courage had collapsed.
Grasping his arm, I hooked a foot under the bench and reached over the side
to catch him up.
“No, don’t,” he said, but he didn’t stop me. I heaved, and felt a sharp pain in my back. I could imagine the grinding sound of my keel striking the rocks. I felt his cold cheek pressed against mine. I pulled him like a sack of wet earth into the boat. A shiver ran down my spine as I powered away. I kicked him off my legs. I turned towards home, going as fast as I dared.
Like a fish, the old man looked smaller now that I had landed him. He was shivering uncontrollably.
“What the hell were you doing?” I shouted.
He didn’t answer. He pulled the goggles off his face, exposing pink-rimmed weeping eyes.
I stopped long enough to get him a windcheater out of the bow. I wrapped a towel around his legs, which were bleeding where I had scraped him over the side. His arms were blue. He kept shivering. I began to fear that he would die in my boat. So I took off again, and the old man’s head bounced around on the tin deck as we crashed through the waves.
“Stop. Will you stop?” he said.
When we had run into the still water of Middle Harbour, I did stop. I got myself a beer and offered him a water. He couldn’t open the bottle; I had to do it for him.
“God, I’m buggered,” he said after a drink.
I looked at his cranky old face, pale now, except where the goggles had left angry indentations.
“So, what was that all about?” I said. “You trying to kill yourself, or what?”
“What if I was? Oh, bloody hell.”
I helped him to sit up a little more comfortably.
“Could you spare me one of those?” he said, indicating my beer.
“Is that a good idea?”
“I think so.”
Against my better judgement, I handed him a beer.
We sat, gently rocking, slowly drinking.
“Why’d you want to do it?”
“What do you care?”
“I don’t. It’s just — I pulled you out.”
He shot me a despising look. “Why the hell did you have to come along?”
“You wouldn’t have liked it on those rocks.”
I saw him flinch at the thought.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like that.”
I laughed. “I can take you back if you like, start you further out.”
“I can’t bloody do it now.”
“No worries,” I said, which felt phoney, but for once I did not mind, as if something honest in our situation could not be corrupted by words.
“Take me home” he said. “I’m too cold. I’m too hungry. I’ll have to do it another day.”
“You know,” I said, “whenever I go out there, I’m partly thinking of the chance something might go wrong.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I’m not much of a sailor, really. The ocean swell is enough to scare me. I look down into the dark water and imagine monsters and wrecks. I can just see the boat overturning, me floating like a lure, sharks taking me one leg at a time. It’s sort of a horrible fascination. In some ways, I think I’m asking for it.”
“You don’t mean it. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“How would you know?” I said, affronted.
He pulled on his nose, sniffed and spat over the side.
“It’s not something you dream about. It’s not a game.”
We drifted in silence for a while.
“I had cancer,” he said.
“Is that —”
“Hardly. My kids were really sorry for me. I hadn’t seen so much of them for ages.”
“I had treatment. I got better. They were … disappointed.”
“Surely not,” I said, although I wondered.
“Yes, really. I had wasted their time. It was like I had tricked them.”
“No,” I protested. “That’s not why you did it, is it?”
He gave me a bitter look.
“No. It’s cos there’s nothing good on telly anymore.”
I gave it up. What could he say that would be both credible and true?
By the time we motored in to the ramp, the old man had recovered sufficiently to step ashore by himself. I left him holding the painter while I fetched the trailer, then sat him in the car while I loaded the boat.
I wondered whether I should take him to a hospital, but he vetoed the idea. I pulled out the first aid box that I had put in the car when James started playing rugby. I had never used it before. I put antiseptic on his grazes and covered the deepest cuts with bandaids.
“That’ll fix it,” I said, and he almost laughed.
“So, where’s home?” I asked him.
“Just take me round to Balmoral, my car’s at the beach,” he said.
“You swam all the way from Balmoral?”
I could see he was pleased that I was impressed.
“I don’t think you should drive,” I said.
“My clothes are in the car.”
So I drove him to Balmoral, where he pointed out an old Roller.
“Yours?” I said. “Life’s not all bad then, is it?”
He restrained himself from saying something. I felt foolish.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Maybe I won’t drive,” he said. “I’ll just get dressed, and if you give me a lift, I give you a drink.”
His house was at the top of the hill. A big place, falling to bits. He took me into the kitchen, which smelled like stale fridge. We got two beers and went back out into the garden. There were chairs in the long grass. The old man sat in the sun. We talked for a while, haltingly, about nothing much. He stopped shivering and fell asleep.
I found Julia and James eating lunch. I couldn’t wait to tell them. I wanted to see how the story would come out.
“Feeling better?” Julia asked. What she meant was not quite that: she was asking if I was going to behave myself, perhaps apologise.
“Had a good trip” I said. “Biggest catch ever.”
“Don’t tell me.”
Julia doesn’t like it when I kill a fish.
“Don’t worry, I let him go.” I came and put my arms around her. James stared.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I rescued someone,” I said. I explained: the boat, the swimmer, pulling him in.
Julia was horrified. She wanted to call the police.
“Don’t be silly. He’s home sleeping now.”
I told them about the Rolls Royce and the big house, as if that made it better.
“Why would you want to kill yourself if you were rich?” James asked.
“He couldn’t say. Perhaps he felt useless.”
“I’m gonna check out the boat,” James said. He rushed out.
“It’s terrible for a man to feel useless,” I continued. “Maybe he felt unloved. Wouldn’t it be terrible to be unloved?” I asked, with leaden irony.
“Don’t be stupid,” Julia said. “What are we going to do now?”
“No — for the man.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I might visit him.”
I shivered, remembering his head bouncing on the deck, how I thought he might die there.
Julia squeezed my hand.
James rushed back to us.
“Hey Dad! There’s blood in the boat.”
“His, mostly. Bit of a struggle to get him on board before we hit the rocks.”
A little wrinkle twitched across James’s brow.
It did me good to see it.
© 2018 Craig Bingham
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