‘Look. Paul, look over there.’
Marcy was pointing, but Paul was already kicking off his shoes. The old man was down by the water’s edge, wading out into the crashing waves toward a child, a girl of maybe eight or nine, who was floating away from the beach. The old man lost his footing and disappeared beneath the surf, struggled to his feet and laboured on, shouting something to the child, the sound lost beneath the cries of the gulls and the crashing of the waves.
Paul was already hurtling down the dunes, stumbling as he hit the hard, level sand of the beach, slowing only for a moment to look for help, for lifeguards, for anyone that might save him from what he had to do.
Picking up pace, he tore off his sweatshirt as he ran, ripped his loose summer shorts from his legs, stumbling again as they dropped from his feet, and ran through the shallow, frothing waves until he was thigh deep, eyes getting a fix on the child now, a bobbing head maybe eighty yards from the shore, the old man nowhere to be seen, and so Paul leaped forward, powering into the waves.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked silently, taking a huge breath as he surfaced for a moment, ‘What’s your name?’ needing to know who she was, asking the god of non-believers, ‘Save me from what I’m doing,’ and then all he could think of was the chill of the water and the power of the rip-tide as it dragged him out and away from land, pulling him north beyond the headland as he swam.
And he swam on.
Fifty yards out from the beach the surf died away to a rolling sea that lifted him and dropped him like flotsam, and every fourth of fifth wave he caught a glimpse of the child, a girl, still struggling against the water, ‘What’s your name, little girl?’ he whispered through surf-filled teeth, coughed, gagged, and swam on.
He thought he heard Marcy scream his name from the beach. He thought he heard the bark of a dog. Seagulls. A child’s scream. A keening sound that might have been the wind.
He couldn’t tell.
And then, there she was, a minute away, fifty yards, then thirty yards, then fifteen, she was screaming, struggling, going down and rising to struggle again, ‘Hey!’ he shouted, ‘Hey!’ and the child peered around through pale water-glazed eyes, pausing before screaming again and gulping, choking more, fighting to stay afloat, fighting to live.
He reached her.
‘Come on!’ he shouted, trying to be encouraging though already his strength was failing, and he grabbed her by the strap of her bathing costume to guide her back toward the shore and instead she dragged him under.
They rose, spluttering and struggling, and she bit him, screaming, fighting him, fighting for her life. Legs kicking to stay afloat he grabbed her hair and cupped his other hand round her jaw to stop her biting, and her skin was cold and carpeted with goosepimples, the water out here was cold, and her skin felt like dolphin skin as he jerked her toward him and began to swim back with one free hand and two tired legs, with her trailing behind him. But still she struggled; raked his arm with her fingernails, bit his hand again, fought and fought and slipped beneath the waves to rise and fight him again.
He couldn’t continue; she was killing them both, he needed a rest, so he let go of her for a moment and she slid beneath the water, her mouth swallowing hard, arms splashing.
He trod water looking for her, dismayed, and then she surfaced again, vomiting, crying.
‘What’s your name?’ he shouted and she screamed a reply, a thin piping sound that sounded like Abby, then she coughed and vomited as he took her by the arm but he knew he was failing already, knew that his strength was leaking away and when she fought him again he punched her savagely, angrily, on the jaw to knock her unconscious, to knock the fight from her, but the water and his own weakness slowed his punch and ruined his aim and his fist caught her across the temple and this time she yelped as a wave engulfed them both, but she didn’t stop struggling.
‘Abby!’ he shouted at her, ‘Focus on me!’ but instead she pushed him away, crying to herself, slipping under, rising, arms, blueing fingertips, rising toward the sky; he felt dreadful, he was losing her, she kept pushing him away and his resolve was being beaten down by the water and the cold and the fear.
In some dark recess of his mind he made brutal calculations and at once he knew the truth of it, so he abandoned her.
He turned and swam for the shore.
He swam for minutes, for hours, for what felt like years, his energy ebbing against the tide until a wave lifted him and he saw he was a mile out.
‘Marcy!’ he shouted, half-choking, half to himself.
For a few seconds began to cry, briefly filled with an overwhelming self-pity, but then something forced him to keep moving, some stubbornness he didn’t know he possessed.
As he struggled toward the shore, limbs flailing, fingers splayed, his hands too weak to even cup the water, he prayed to the god of his future children, gave them names and imagined lives for all of them that he’d treasure, and the waves tumbled over him, blanketing him in coldness, the darkness rolling across him as prayed again to Marcy, prayed to the god of all the things that he no longer believed in, never had believed in, begged help from the angel on his shoulder, and all the time his turgid shivered limbs pleaded for him to surrender as he swam toward the shore, muscles shuddering with fatigue, body beginning to shut down, the cries of the little girl he’d left behind now silent.
‘Please,’ he whispered, swallowing water, ‘Please, please, please…’ and his legs kicked, despite their own dead weight, his arms and shoulders worked though they were exhausted beyond measure, and he swam. He swam. He swam and swam until he thought he must surely be dead, until he barely felt the foam of the surf and did not hear the crashing of the waves on the sand.
And then he felt the beach beneath him, and with no water no to take his weight, when he tried to stand he collapsed face down onto the wet sand, each surge of the waves leaving him further above the receding waterline.
He stopped fighting and lay still, exhausted.
… dreamt he was at a fairground with Abby; they were sharing an ice-cream, watching a Ferris wheel as it spun. ‘You’re funny, Paul,’ she told him, then asked in surprise, ‘is this vanilla?’ and he was about to tell her Yes, just how you like it, but then he realised he didn’t know what flavour she liked.
He turned to look at her, but she was walking away.
‘Here’s here! Over here!’
Quick footsteps scuffed across the dry sand to where he was sitting hugging his knees, half conscious, resting his head, shivering, heart thudding slow and irregular in his chest, and he allowed someone to wrap an orange blanket around him, pull a beany hat over his head, and all he could do was sit and shiver.
A while later they helped him onto a stretcher. ‘It’s alright mate,’ a voice said, looking down, ‘just lie back.’
‘Abby?’ he asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.
‘You’ll be alright, mate, you’re a hero.’
He was lifted from the sand, carried over the dunes, shivering. Someone wrapped him in another blanket as he lay on the stretcher. A while later he felt an engine start up and felt someone attach a drip to his arm.
‘Best to try and be quiet there, mate.’
‘Paul,’ he sighed, My name’s Paul.’
‘Paul, right. Be quiet Paul, rest yourself, you nearly died there; we found you about two miles along the beach from where you went in. Mate, the cops were out looking for your body, they thought you were dead. Don’t worry though, we’ve told your wife. You’re a hero!’
‘Abby?’ he whispered again.
The medic patted his arm, ‘You did your best Paul.’
He opened his eyes and looked around; he was lying in an ambulance, the paramedic fussing with wires and pads, standing above him.
He looked across to the stretcher laid on the other side of the ambulance, where a small figure was lying shrouded by an orange blanket.
‘We were just passing,’ the paramedic told him. ‘We picked up the little girl and were on our way back to the hospital when the cops flagged us down. You’d been gone an hour. Everyone thought you were dead.’
The paramedic looked at the figure of the child beneath the blanket. He said, ‘You did your best mate. That’s all anyone could ask.’
Paul reached out and placed his hand on the blanket that covered the small cool figure beneath. He closed his eyes, listened to the siren as it drowned the noise of the gulls wheeling through the sky.
His voice hoarse, he said her name.
Whispered a prayer.