I will not live as long as I have lived. I can say that with confidence, finding myself now at the indeterminate age of fifty-four. I have passed the arbitrary span of mid-life, even at its most elastic. The archetypal crisis, which in a strange way I had hoped for, could not in fairness be described as such, and I can’t help feeling I missed out. No dramatic reshaping in the image of youth, fun and pathos intermingled. No, for me it was more a pervasive unease, which continues to this day. I am devoid of the certainties I see in lives around me. And yet…
It’s difficult to say what sort of life I had in mind. Hope fluctuates, aspirations morph, contingencies intervene, memory distorts the younger self. And then there’s the stock exchange that is confidence. And not so much the difficulty of imagining beyond my immediate circumstances, more the feeling that whatever I imagined, by the act of imagining, would distance me from achieving it. I have watched other people doing things, seeming certain, or at least confident, feeling a part of something larger, however small in actuality. On the whole such feelings have eluded me.
I look more and more to memory. Memories are the final arbiter of age. They make our life inescapably what it is. It’s not only personal of course. Era is a template that defines and shapes. Those who came before, and after, are from different tribes. They wore different clothes, liked different things, and shared or argued over different sets of principles. My generation, or at least specimens like me, imagined that life would form itself around us. When this happened we would find our ‘thing’ and do it. My ‘thing’, it’s fair to say, has proved elusive but, I suppose, something about my early life impregnated me with hope which, in vestigial form, remains to this day. Or almost.
I recently excavated photos, stuffed away for years. Which version of myself was me – or were they all? The fringed child, painfully trusting of others? The teenager, stylised, disaffected, but more than anything confused? The pale young man in a wedding suit, adulthood rapidly catching up? Then a phased retreat into anonymity, mercifully before the advent of Facebook, though when I think of it I suppose that contributes to the anonymity.
Perhaps it’s my hormones – men are allowed to talk about an ‘andropause’ now I understand – but this potent concoction of regret and yearning..... What do I value about my life in retrospect? Whatever it is bears no resemblance to the aspirations of my youth, even if I could fully describe them. But perhaps people like me are defined by the opportunities we fail to take, or even recognise, until others step in and do what we might have done. Forgive me for outlining the background to my state of mind, perhaps it might give a context to what happened. If so, you are now in a better position to grasp the full implications.
I live in a coastal town in the south of England. If that sentence chills your heart I can quite understand. There’s something deadening about seaside towns facing the English Channel; full of stark evidence of the ageing process and youth lacking the vitality to migrate to lives more fulfilling. It’s as though the ebb and flow of the sea sucks energy from the land, and its inhabitants.
Speaking of which, quite frankly the sea has always terrified me. Years of proximity have done nothing to change this. Thirty lengths of the pool and then hit the jacuzzi feeling mildly virtuous – that’s the sort of swimmer I am. Apart from its nasty undulating surface there’s all the murk that lies beneath: a grim, sordid collective unconscious of malevolent plankton and hostile crustaceans. And the sheer scale. Man versus nature? There’s only one winner. In short, little about the prospect I am about to describe appealed to me, except, I’m forced to admit... Well, judge for yourself.
I was walking along the shore in the mid-morning, something I do from habit on days I am not working. Nothing was unusual: predatory gulls, snatches of banal conversation, the late spring weather not warm enough yet for sunbathers. Bandstand, pier, promenade; what else is there to describe? To locals, a backdrop to our lives, to visitors, novel in an anachronistic sort of way, if that isn’t too contradictory. The sea was bland and roughly the same colour as the sky, and I looked towards a horizon that, in consequence, had almost disappeared.
And then I saw him, on his back in the water, some way beyond the pier. He was not so much thrashing about as employing his limbs in a dystopian way, as though the sea was a bizarre, unsympathetic world which he happened to be inhabiting, much to his discomfort. Every so often spurts of water issued from his mouth.
As I began to assimilate this an elderly couple approached me.
‘We think that poor chap’s in trouble,’ the man said.
I agreed this seemed probable.
‘Can you swim?’ He asked pointedly.
I had to admit that I could.
‘Only there’s no lifeguard on duty today – we checked the rota.’ He indicated a rotting notice board.
The implication was clear and I would like to say that I strode forward and plunged in unhesitatingly, but in honesty a prolonged discussion ensued before I began removing shirt and trousers. Neither do my motives in eventually taking this course, when I consider them, bear close scrutiny. Many things can pass through your mind at moments of crisis, but I fear that empathy for the struggling swimmer was not foremost. Something more base was at work. A creeping thought emerged as I began to undress. How would it look if this went well? Some residue of wish fulfilment, perhaps an image from something I once saw or read, floated to the surface, and with it the opportunity to view myself in a different light.
A shapeless life redeemed by a single act: does that sound preposterous? Well yes, I suppose it does, but I found myself suddenly overcome by a potent blend of adrenalin and submerged hope which, like a tsunami, washed aside my reluctance. I was unexpectedly galvanised. Outer clothing discarded, I moved with purpose towards the gentle folds of tide.
The sea is often described as a living entity. When you step into it you realise this as a literal truth. It is cold in a rather hostile way. It is also whimsical, in the manner that a psychopath choosing a victim might be viewed as whimsical. As the mild waves began to lap my calves the vision of heroism began to feel considerably more arbitrary. I would not have been the first to turn back. But, like many others, I suppose, the combination of quest before me and shame behind drove me forward. When the water was up to my chest I needed some moments to control my breathing and then set off, head as high as I could keep it, in dogged breast stroke.
The struggling swimmer bobbed in and out of my view. The pier to my left towered above me, and I noticed a handful of people had already gathered to watch. Heroes, or at least those we remember, never do their acts in private, but as I trundled forward I began to yearn to be free of scrutiny, especially as, with every few strokes, my thoughts turned increasingly towards survival. Subjectivity, I know, is intrinsic to the human condition, but when I looked back to the shore fifty metres behind me, I saw a mile of distance. Trying to control my imagination, which was rapidly taking a sinister turn, I edged toward the end of the pier and, once beyond it, realised I had lost a final symbol of safety. I looked out into the enormity of the sea, unameliorated by a detectable horizon. The sense of being adrift in an alien element augmented the chill that had, like a greedy predator, entered my bones.
Panic is a physical thing. Roughly at this point my brain explained to my body that it was in trouble, and it reacted accordingly. My limbs abandoned coordination. Breathing became a desperate act. A sporadic honking sound arose in my throat which, in retrospect, brings to mind a donkey in sexual arousal. The drowning man, who was now less than twenty metres away, looked over and began to swim towards me with a powerful crawl.
‘Don’t worry, pal,’ he said as he drew near. ‘I’ll get you back.’
Grasping me by the chin and armpit he took easy control of the situation and I found myself gazing at the sky, which I had never viewed with such relief. My body was numb, limp and passive, but I had stopped hyperventilating.
My sense of time at that point can’t be relied upon, but we seemed to reach the shore quickly, and when the water was shallow enough, my fellow aquatic carefully stood me on my feet and led me to the sand, where a small crowd had gathered.
‘Just sit yourself there for a minute, friend,’ he said. ‘You’ll be fine now.’ Then, turning to the small crowd that had assembled: ‘Has somebody got a towel?’
‘He went out to try to save you, he thought you were drowning,’ said the woman from the elderly couple, accusingly.
My rescuer looked at me as though trying to grasp a new paradigm.
‘Sorry, mate. I was doing my whale impersonation,’ he said.
I had misconstrued. Not drowning but whaling.
Sitting on the dispiriting sand, the realities of my life were brought abruptly into question: there were consequences to be assimilated. But this was not the time. As quickly as my traumatised body would allow, I dried myself, put on my clothes, reassured and thanked my now solicitous and apologetic rescuer, and with the dignity of the humiliated began an unsteady walk home.
So there you have it; an episode too banal even to be ignominious. I’m told photos have appeared online. The term ‘gone viral’ has been mentioned. Bear in mind I returned to land wearing only underpants.
I’ve heard it said that rather than attempting to fill the shoes of another we should try harder to fill our own. If anything, as a result of this experience, my shoes have grown loose. But then, perhaps, they always were.
MIKE FOX is a trained therapist. He has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. His stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, The Nottingham Review, Fictive Dream, Popshot, Confingo, Structo, and were awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competitions. He is currently seeking publication for a collection of short stories. His website is www.polyscribe.co.uk