Since her death six months earlier, all sanity for Graham has been compressed within the contours of challenges, bright, tightly bordered oases of purpose and achievement in a world, flat and grey and devoid of meaning. He builds his day, task by task, around demanding questions: “What’s next?” “What’s new to do?” “How can I do this better, quicker?” In troubling moments of repose, which are infrequent and whenever possible avoided, he has come close to accepting that he is no longer a well-balanced person; but appearing normal, convincing friends and colleagues – and himself – that he is functioning and functioning well is itself a challenge which he readily accepts.
A Saturday morning. The lawn is mowed. Graham glances at his watch and notes with a fleeting degree of satisfaction, that the job has been completed in record time. What’s next? The sky is cloudless, and the day is already warm. A good day for swimming, he judges. His thoughts turn to the little secluded beach a half hour’s drive from where he lives.
At the bay Graham parks his car, and briskly follows his usual routine, stripping to his bathing trunks, locking his car, and hiding the key. Under the clear blue sky, the sea is calm. For a few minutes he paddles at the water’s edge, enjoying the caress of the sun on his back. Then he glances at his watch to note the time. Three minutes out into the bay then three minutes back. His normal time.
In his mid-forties, fit and well-built, Graham is confident in the sea. Three minutes out and three minutes back. “That’s safe.” That’s what always he said to reassure his wife Mary who would stand on the beach strolling up and down trying to hide her anxiety. She did not share his love of the sea.
The water is cool, and he feels invigorated – strong and alive. He strikes out in a vigorous crawl, one stroke after another, his whole being concentrated in the next stroke. But as he swims, he momentarily imagines Mary holding his big red towel as she always did, walking towards him, smiling as he came ashore.
Now he stops, treading water. He looks at his watch, his guess is good. He has done three minutes.
A thought, a new challenge nudges its way into his mind. Push on a bit, a new target, he says to himself. How about four minutes? Mary would have been watching him from the from the beach expecting him to turn. But Mary was dead, her life cut short by a drunk driver. The image of her lying by the roadside flashes into his mind. He feels again her hand squeezing his. With a flash of anger, he strikes out strongly.
Again, he stops, treading water to check his progress. Six minutes have passed. He thinks perhaps he should turn back. A new challenge? Further out than ever before? Why ever not?
He becomes aware of a languorous numbness slowly seeping through his body. And now, his consciousness seems to split. He is inside his body, aware of his breathing, his heartbeat; but, at the same time, he is distant, merging with the warm, blue sky, detached, indifferently observing a body, its arms and legs moving slowly, machine-like in the sea.
Weird, he thinks, but he is not alarmed. At peace, he vaguely senses the offshore current bearing him gently along.
A sharp, painful image suddenly lances into his mind: Mary, standing on the beach at the water edge, red towel in her hand, looking out to sea, white faced, eyes wide, distraught. For Mary, his life was important, part of some big, joyous enterprise, a world vivid and meaningful because it was shared.
Seized by the memory he turns towards the shore, all purpose, all his reserves of energy now focussed in the moment. One stroke at a time. Next stroke, next stroke, now another, another…next …next.
As in a dream he senses sand beneath his fingertips. Exhausted and barely conscious he crawls up onto the beach to where the sea grass mingles with the sand, turns onto his back, and in an instant is asleep.
Something wet is lapping against his face. For a moment he imagines that he is still in the sea and readies himself to swim. Then he opens his eyes to find a large dog, a labrador, licking his face.
“Brigid” a distant female voice is shouting. “Brigid. Come here!”
A woman enters his field of vision.
“I am terribly sorry,” he hears her say.
Graham looks up and sees the tall, young woman scrutinising him, concern sketched on her broad attractive face.
“I saw you.” She points out into the bay. “I thought you were in trouble. I was going to phone emergency services then I saw you make it to the beach.”
“I was in trouble.” Graham says with a faint smile. Then after a pause: “I was …I was very stupid.”
The woman nods and returns his smile. “But how are you now?”
“Recovering, I think,” Graham replies hesitantly. He manages to ease himself into a loose cross-legged sitting position and finds himself fondling the dog that is once again paying close attention to his face. “Lovely dog. Brigid is it? I think I heard you call her Brigid.” As an afterthought he gives his own name.
“I’m Alice,” the woman says, laughing as she flicks back a strand of straw blond hair that has drifted across her right eye. “It is a lovely day, isn’t it?” Without a further word she sits down on the beach beside him.
Graham nods. For a moment he wonders what he should do or say next, but as he gazes out across the bay the thought seems trivial, and annoyingly intrusive.
Sensing that this is a time for non-play, for rest, the dog slumps down on the beach beside them.
About the Author:
John Young is an old chap living in St Andrews, UK. Interested in exploring themes of longings and limits.