24. The Sea, the Sea
Outside the restaurant, when Matthew and Elspeth made their way out after their meal, the night had that smell of sea, of iodine and foam, of churned-up water, of air that was washed and washed again in salt.
Matthew breathed in deeply, drawing the heady mixture into his lungs. “Let’s take off our shoes and walk along the beach,” he said, nodding in the direction of the darkness. “And then we can go up onto the path above the dunes, later on, and get back to the hotel that way.”
She took his hand. “Yes.”
“I feel wide awake,” he said. “It’s ten, or whatever, but I feel wide awake.”
She had read about jet lag and printed out a chart which purported to prevent it. “We shouldn’t have slept this afternoon. They say that you should try to stay awake until night-time.”
Matthew was not listening. He had run a few steps ahead of Elspeth, relishing the yielding of the sand beneath his feet. Now he turned round to face her, and she was a shadow in the darkness. There were lights off to their left, above the dunes, where the houses faced out to the sea, and there were the lights of the restaurant behind them. But for the rest it was dark, and filled with the sound of the waves.
“The Southern Cross,” called out Matthew, and pointed. “Look. Down there.”
She turned her head. The lights of Perth yellowed the sky immediately above them, but towards the horizon the sky became darker and more filled with stars. She saw where he was pointing and identified the tilting cross.
“That way,” said Matthew, “is nothing. Just the southern oceans and Antarctica. All that empty sea.”
She shivered. We were tiny creatures on small islands of land; suddenly she felt vulnerable.
Matthew had stopped walking and had dropped his shoes on the sand. Now he began to roll the bottoms of his trouser legs up. “I’m going to get my feet wet,” he said. “The water’s so warm. Have you tried it? It’s gorgeous.”
She shook her head. She did not want to get her feet wet, not now; there would be plenty of time for swimming tomorrow, when the surf would be less boisterous perhaps. Matthew shrugged. “You don’t have to,” he said. “Just see that my shoes aren’t carried away by the tide.”
He took the few steps needed to bring him to the edge of the water, where the waves, their energy spent, rolled in a final tiny wall up the beach. He felt the water sucking around his feet and the movement of the sand beneath his toes, as if the sea were trying to undermine him. They walked on, Elspeth in the moist sand above the water line, Matthew in the shallow rim of surf and spume, the sea at its highest just below his knee.
They were alone, or almost alone. A man walked past with a dog, a large black creature that tugged impatiently at its leash; they came out of the dark and disappeared back into the dark. Up on the path above the dunes an occasional figure could be made out against the light from the houses beyond or caught in the beam of a passing car. There was a wind now, the ragged end of the storm out at sea, but unusually warm, like the breath of an animal.
Matthew saw a piece of driftwood floating a few feet out, tossed about by the waves. Deciding to retrieve it, he pulled his trousers further up – and took a step towards it. As he did so, a wave, considerably larger than the others, suddenly swept in. From being in no more than eighteen inches of water, he now found himself in several feet, the water rising quickly up to his waist. Then there was another wave, also larger than the others, and he felt it at his chest. He tried to turn but lost his footing and felt himself go down in the water. He looked towards Elspeth and shouted. She was waving her arms about. He shouted again. “I’m…” But now he seemed to have lost the sand beneath his feet; he was out of his depth and the water seemed to be dragging him. He kicked out sharply, expecting the movement to get him safely back into the shallows, but the dragging was more pronounced now and there were more waves, so hard upon one another, tumbling over his head, buffeting him. They should be taking me back in, he thought, but they were not.
For Elspeth it happened very quickly. When she saw Matthew go in up to his waist, she laughed and called out to him not to ruin his clothes. “Saltwater,” she cried out. “Saltwater ruins things. Don’t get any wetter, Matthew. Matthew…”
Then she saw the waves cover him and she became alarmed. Matthew could swim – she knew that – but why had he decided to swim at night? Suddenly she thought of what the waitress had said that evening. Their element. The Great Whites. She screamed and waved frantically, but Matthew seemed to be ignoring her. She saw his head, bobbing in the surf, but then it disappeared and when the surf cleared it was not in the spot she had seen him in; or was that him, that darker patch in the water?
Within the space of a couple of minutes, she could see no trace of him. She advanced to the edge of the water and took a few steps into the waves; but what point was there in her going in? She could not see him; she had no idea where he was. The rips. The waitress had said there were rips.
She turned round, half panicking. Down the beach, about ten minutes away, was the restaurant with its lights and people and telephones. She started to run, stumbling in the sand, which slowed her down. She began to sob, struggling for breath. Matthew was going to drown. Her husband. She was going to lose him.
When she arrived at the restaurant she burst through the first door she found. Several people were sitting round a table, one of them the waitress who had served them earlier on.
“Left something behind?”
But then, in a moment, they understood.