Written by James McCann
It was a blisteringly hot August afternoon, the type of heat that under the right conditions evokes thoughts of eating barbecue and drinking a cold beer with friends. Under the wrong conditions it makes the mind conjure up images of prison camps or a murderous beach from an existential novel.
The route was a long, wide road with new, sticky, hot, black tarmac, the fumes rising almost as fast as the temperature. The birds in the tall trees that lined the road like ominous, intimidating guards gave out a song as sweet as honeysuckle wafting through the air.
The peacefulness was broken by the ambulance's wailing sirens piercing the sweaty, stillness of the day.
The accident had happened relatively quickly, though it seemed to go in slow motion when remembered. The small, second-hand hatchback was Joy's new favourite toy. It was bought with the money her grandmother had given her. Joy loved her grandmother.
Joy was everything William had ever wanted in a woman. She was 5'9’’, with a mass of dark brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders and down her slender, curved back. What made William fall in love with her were her faces: as dumb as it sounded he fell for the funny faces she unintentionally pulled every so often.
William was proud that he wasn't a stereotype. He loved books and reading and was every bit the sensitive book worm, the type of character usually portrayed by a weedy geek with glasses and a Bill Gates hair cut. Yet, underneath his baggy shirts and plain, solid coloured clothes was the physique of a professional fighter.
William - never Bill or Billy - loved lifting weights and combat sports. He got his kicks from knowing that for any woman willing to look past the nerdy exterior, there was a surprise hunk waiting. Other than his 17 inch arms and 44 inch chest he couldn't for the life of him see why Joy was with him. Self-confidence wasn't really where he excelled.
It was a scenario which made their friends laugh. Here you had a couple who were, respectively, a 5'9'' model and a hunk with a classical 50's matinee idol jaw-line, and neither could see what the other was doing with them.
They had decided to go for a drive in the countryside, along the long, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, winding roads that lead a car past farms, both working and abandoned out here, sandwiched between fields of grazing cows and sheep. In the distance could be heard the occasional bird-song. William believed that if they stopped the car they'd be able to hear the chirping of crickets.
It was William's idea to have a picnic out in a field. He'd been secretly mentally planning all types of things to do this summer with Joy that would make her forget all about her ex, whomever he may be. Such was William's insecurity that he had long-since devised a plan: he would do every romantic and sexually wild thing he could think of in an effort to fulfil this amazing woman’s dreams of the ideal man.
After the food had all been put out, William got to the real reason they were there. He leaned over and gently held Joy's left cheek with his right hand and kissed her. He adored her and he treasured every kiss they shared, as he believed he was on borrowed time. One day, maybe soon, she'd wise up to the obvious truth and leave him for someone she deserved.
The beach front was quiet, desolate. The sea was lapping at the stony shore, the small waves crashing against themselves rhythmically so that was almost soothing. It was the way Bas had come to know it, and if not love it then certainly be comfortable with it.
There was a chilly breeze coming towards the land from over the great grey-blue ocean, the type you didn't mind particularly walking in, provided there was a warm fire waiting for you once you went back indoors.
William walked, quite bewildered, along the beach front’s concrete walk way, the white surface cracked from years of use and weather. He was now wearing the most comfortable pair of black boots he'd ever owned, black trousers, a black jumper and a warm black wool coat. It contrasted with his pale white skin.
He stopped walking and stood at the side of the green wooden bench: all the rest were brown. Any thought in his head about the relevance of this green bench was out of his head as soon as it entered, and if there was indeed any significance to it, it was lost on William.
Bas, a bald man in his early 40's and dressed exactly like William, was sat on the single green bench , just staring out at the nothingness that lay beyond the sea. His stare was an odd mixture of intense concentration and complete absence.
‘I wish you could see this,’ Bas told William. They'd just met - not even that really - yet there was such ease in Bas's voice that anyone would have thought they'd been friends for decades. ‘because there's nothing to see. It's so peaceful.’
Summoning up enough courage to actually will the words out of his lips, William asked the question that consumed his thoughts and wracked his brain.
‘Are we... dead?’
‘No. No-no. Sit, sit’
As William sat down, he instantly felt weak for being afraid to ask; not just that question but any question. He could sense something about Bas that told him the bald man was a great man, or at the very least he knew something great, or maybe had something great to say.
‘I could leave so easily. Just sail away.’ Bas's voice disrupted the silence and broke into William's thoughts like a strong tide destroying a child's sandcastle. ‘Can you hear them?’
What the hell was Bas talking about? William couldn't hear a damn thing, not even the usual squeaking of sea gulls that goes hand-in-hand with the seaside.
‘I can't hear anything.’
‘You will do.’
‘Don't you think it's funny? The way that some people have all these plans but never act on them until something happens?’
‘You mean like a near-death experience?’
‘Near-death? There is no near-death. When it's your time, it's your time. Everything else is just Death nipping at your heels and whispering in your ears, “I'm coming for you, get moving”’
William took his time to let that sink in.
‘I don't understand’
‘I know, that's the point’
‘The point is that I don't understand?’
‘That makes no sense at all’
‘No it makes all the sense in the world, you just don't understand that it makes sense.’ Bas's voice was running the complete rollercoaster, rising and sinking to emphasise certain points. Bas's true meaning was hidden, masked behind the words he was saying. William couldn't completely understand what the man was saying, but he knew for certain that this was the most important conversation any two people would ever have.
This was all surreal. Here he was, William, sat on a beachfront with a man he'd never met before, being told some extremely confusing things, and yet he remained calm. And there were no birds in the sky.
There were no birds .
A tingle started in William's chest. It worked it's way through his torso and down his limbs, at once both making them buzz with the life of a thousand pin pricks, killing them dead, frozen in time.
William's hand sprang up towards the left side of his chest, it was more of a reflex than a reaction, and it took him by surprise how quickly his limb moved.
‘It tingles, right?'
‘Yes. What is it?’
The doctors were rushing around furiously, the beads of sweat forming intricate rivers in the furrows of their brows. The smell of disinfectant, blood, bleach, motor oil, grease, and the faintest smell of Joy's perfume still on William's unconscious, limp body mixed in the air to form a cocktail of aromas.
Bas, draped in a long, black, wool coat, looked every bit the weary gatekeeper, waiting for his shift to be over one way or another. He stood among the speeding doctors, side-stepping each of them as though there was any need.
‘Clear!’ a voice boomed, as the paddles were thrust deep on to him, leaving deep, bright pink indentation marks on William's pectorals. The jolt of electricity rushed through William's body, momentarily arching it off the table with a violent shudder.
‘Zap him again!’ Bas commands the medical staff. No one seems to hear him.
The doctors and nurses rush to check William's pulse, or more specifically to see if it has returned. It hadn't. At the same time a nurse squeezes a tube of gel onto the two paddles held in the hands of one of the lesser experienced male doctors.
‘Zap the son of a bitch again!’
‘It's getting close,’ Bas tells William in a somewhat sombre tone. Did it mean he was leaving or staying? William's head was stuffed with so many questions at this moment that none were given more attention than the others, resulting in a completely blissful mind. It was Zen-like in it's emptiness.
‘I can't understand, all the fighting. It's so peaceful here down off the shore.’
‘What about it?’
‘It's getting closer.’
‘What is? Fighting?’
‘Time. You've got to go.’
William felt a sharp, shocking pain ride through his body like electricity on the loose and looking for trouble.
‘I want to stay.’
‘No, you don't.’
‘I want to stay.’
‘You can't. You have to go!’
Another rush of electric pain took control of William's body, contorting it into an ugly, pretzel-like shape. Breathlessly, William gets the words out.
‘I want to stay.’
‘You can't. She needs you.’
William stands up, slowly at first then up straight with a sort of urgency. He stared at Bas, who still kept his eyes fixated on the nothingness he saw over the horizon of the grey-blue ocean. Whatever was out there, William wished he could see it. Or did he? He thought.
Turning to leave, William broke into a trot and headed away from Bas, back along the way he came, never stopping or even pausing to think of how the bald man by the sea knew his name. The only thing William was concerning himself about was answers.
How did the man know him? Where was this place? What could the man see out there? And who in the unholy name of Hell was the “She” the man was talking about?
And just like that, William disappeared.
Bas looked off, it seemed further into the distance now than ever before. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply through his nostrils, giving off a sort of hiss sound, opened his eyes and stared out to the horizon, at the very point the sea kisses the sky. Thinking of someone from very long ago, he whispered the words ’I love you.'
The hospital corridor smelled like... clean. That's the only word for it, it smelled like clean: sterility. The first thing he'd noticed when he awoke was that the ocean had gone. What an absolutely ridiculous thing to think, waking up in a hospital bed and noticing the ocean wasn't at his feet.
The second thing to catch his eye, and the first conscious thing he looked for, was Joy. He felt sudden and total relief, like when your body dumps a rush of adrenaline and it hits your chest dead centre.
As she wheeled him down the corridor in the hospital, William's only thought was how lucky he was. Not to be alive, not to be back here, but just to be with her. Her. He had assumed that he'd been away for some time: Joy wasn't wearing the same clothes. William spared a moment, a very short moment, to ponder whether these things were justifiable. Shouldn't he be enquiring as to what happened? What caused the accident? These things he assumed would come to light eventually, usually people can't wait to let you in on all the juicy details of an accident, especially one that you were involved in. But that could wait, the only important thing on his mind was Her, Them. Together.
‘I've got some good news to tell you.’ Joy's voice almost cracked with excitement as she told him. ‘I'm pregnant.’ But William already knew. And he knew it was going to be a girl. After all, as Bas had told him on the bench, she needed him, and they hadn't been talking about Joy.
William paused for a second, then gripping her shoulders together, he told her ‘I think I already knew that.' Joy's face revealed her complete, utter, and total confusion. ‘I'll explain later.’ He reassured the mother of his unborn daughter.
And soon-to-be-father and soon-to-be-mother walked towards the exit, arm-in-arm, never more in love, and passed the door.
If you should go over to the small glass window in the door, with it's wire mesh criss-crossing through the glass, you'll see Bas. Asleep in the bed, a shell of what he once was, with tubes and wires coming out of him, hooking him up to countless machines and mechanisms that are keeping him alive.
And sat next to him, at Bas's right, in the same chair that she's been sat for who can remember how long, is his wife. Clutching his hand, and crying once again into the bed sheets.