33. The Longest Hour
Provided that they survive the experience – which unfortunately many do not – those attacked by sharks provide us with a rather surprising account of what it is to face imminent annihilation in the jaws of a predator. Some describe feeling anger at the creature attacking them – understandable, perhaps, in the circumstances; others describe a feeling of calm verging on acceptance; yet others speak of an overwhelming determination to survive at all costs. This last reaction is perhaps the best response, as it can spur people on to heroic efforts to repel the shark with blows and kicks. And if these are directed at the sensitive part of the shark – the nose, which contains the shark’s navigation and sensory organs – then such blows can be successful in persuading the shark to desist. After all, it is thought that we do not taste all that agreeable to sharks, and while they might go to more effort with a succulent seal, a surfer in a wet suit may be a less attractive proposition.
Not that Matthew was wearing a wet suit. He was clad only in the clothes in which he had gone for dinner at the restaurant on Cottesloe Beach, minus one shoe, of course, which he had kicked off in his struggle to get back to the shore. When he felt the shark brush against him, though, he felt the sleeve of his shirt rip, exposing more flesh to the sea. He was calm enough to know that this was not a good development: an exposed arm was a more tempting target than one that was clothed.
He thought that at least. Beyond that, his reaction was neither to fight off his attacker nor to spend his remaining seconds on this earth in the contemplation of the life that he had led; in thoughts of his new bride, his gallery, his family, Edinburgh, his flat in India Street, and so on. He thought of none of these, because he lost consciousness. The human mind, faced with its end, can simply blot out the unacceptable; refuse to believe what seems to be the inevitable. Matthew’s mind did that. But just before that happened, he opened his eyes wide to the sight of the creature approaching him in the water; to its fin, which was rather floppy, he noticed, and to its curious beak-like nose. Beak. Dolphins have beaks.
He became briefly unconscious, possibly through relief, possibly through shock, possibly through a combination of both. But his unconsciousness did not last long, as he was partly aware of being in the water and being propelled by this creature. He felt waves break over him; he felt the tug of water; and then he felt sand beneath his feet, just under his toes. And with one final tumble, he felt himself pushed into the line of surf right at the edge of the beach. There was foam; there was water in his mouth; there was sand in his nostrils. He spluttered; he dragged himself up onto the dry sand, which stuck to his wet skin like a layer of icing on a cake. Never had the feel of the earth, of its sand, been more welcome.
He lay down on the beach, gasping. Then he rolled over, and with his head cushioned by the sand he stared up at the sky, the star-studded sky that he had looked at from the water and which he had decided, then and there, he loved so much. It was so precious, as was this smell of sea-weed, this sand all over him, this sound of surf. Everything, everything was precious beyond price.
He remained there for several minutes, gradually taking in what had happened to him. I almost drowned, he thought. I was almost attacked by a shark that was not there. It was a dolphin, and it pushed me… He paused. It could not have happened. He simply could not have been saved by a dolphin. It was ridiculous; the sort of thing that happened in Greek myths, not in real life, here on this beach in Western Australia, in a world of aeroplanes and electricity. This was a miracle – a sheer miracle – and miracles simply did not happen.
Rising to his feet, he brushed the sand off his face and hands. Relief at still being alive had obscured any thought of Elspeth. She would think him drowned; he would have to get back to her as soon as possible. He glanced at his watch; the manufacturer’s claim of waterproofing had proved to be well-founded, and it had survived the ocean. He remembered that they had left the restaurant at nine-thirty, and they could have walked for only about ten minutes or so before he had started his ill-fated paddle. That meant that he had been caught in the rip tide at about twenty to ten; it was now ten-thirty. He had been in the water for almost an hour.
He looked about him. The beach was shrouded in darkness, but a hundred yards or so behind him were the dunes, and beyond that, blazing with light, the long ribbon of houses that lined the coastal road. He would go up there and get somebody to telephone the police, or the coastguard, or whoever it was who would now be searching for him.
Then an unsettling thought struck him. What if Elspeth had tried to save him? What if, unbeknown to him, she had gone in the water after him and had herself been swept away by the same rip tide? What if she had met, instead of a friendly dolphin, an unfriendly Great White shark? What if he was the widower rather than she the widow?
Matthew began to run across the beach in the direction of the dunes. Clambering his way up to the top, he grasped at the tufts of grass planted across the slopes for coastal protection. The grass was sharp and cut his hands, but he did not care; he had to get to a telephone at all costs.
He reached the top of the dune, still holding on to some of the grass he had torn off during his climb. There was tarmac under his feet, there were houses before him, there was a car cruising up the road towards him, its lights casting a pool of liquid yellow before it. The car stopped and a policeman emerged.
There was a shout. “Can’t you see the signs? Keep off the dune defences. Can’t you read, mate?”
Matthew smiled. “Sorry. I’ve just been rescued by a dolphin. Sorry.”
The policeman took a step back and muttered into the radio. “Picking up a confused male, late twenties, sleeping rough. Possible drug-related hallucinations. Query psychiatric case.”