41. Police Questioning
Because he was still damp, with that particular, uncomfortable dampness that comes from immersion in salt water, Matthew found that he was sticking to the seat of the police car into which he had been bundled. It was a double discomfort: that of being arrested, or at least detained, coupled with that of being soaking and sticky.
“I wonder if you would mind taking me back to my hotel,” Matthew said politely. “It’s not far from here.”
There were two policemen in the front – one at the wheel and one in the passenger’s seat. The one in the passenger’s seat turned round and glanced at Matthew through the grille that separated back from front.
“Your hotel?” he said, not unkindly. “You think you’ve got a hotel?”
“Yes,” said Matthew. “It’s somewhere over there. You see, I was washed out to sea and my wife will be wondering where I am. It was a dolphin, you see…”
The policemen glanced at one another. “There, there,” said the one behind the steering wheel. “You’ll be all right, mate. Don’t get too excited. No worries.”
“But I am worried,” protested Matthew. “My wife will be frantic with worry too.”
One of the policemen smiled. “Yes, well, you may be right there, mate. It might be a bit worrying being married to you. Know what I mean?”
Matthew leaned forward. As he did so, there was an uncomfortable sucking noise as his clothes detached themselves from the seat. “May I ask where you’re taking me?”
“You can ask, mate,” said one of the policemen. “No harm in asking.”
“Well, where are we going? I’ve done nothing illegal. You can’t just…”
“Oh we can,” said the other policemen. “We can pick up people who are a danger to themselves or others. Not that it’s your fault, mate. We know that.” He paused, and looked at Matthew through the grille. “Were you in hospital before… before you met the dolphin?”
Matthew stared at the policeman in astonishment. He now realised what they were assuming: they thought that he was mad. They did not believe his story about the dolphin – and who could blame them?
He knew what he would have to do. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am. I think that there’s been a misunderstanding. There was no dolphin.”
The policeman nodded. “No dolphin now? Well, you did tell us. And of course we believed you. Why would we not believe that you met a dolphin? So what was it? A whale, maybe?”
Matthew laughed. “Certainly not! Listen, I know that you think that I’m round the bend. I know you think that I am one of these people who imagine all sorts of things. Well, I’m not. There really wasn’t a dolphin and I was just making it up. Just to… Just to amuse myself. So, if you wouldn’t mind, just let me get out and get back to my hotel.”
The policemen stared fixedly ahead.
“Did you hear me?” asked Matthew after a while.
“Oh we heard you all right, mate,” said one of the policemen. “But you just sit back and keep calm. We don’t want to have to use handcuffs, do we? Everything is going to be all right. They’ll fix you up nicely at the hospital.”
Matthew looked through the window of the police car. This could not be happening; it simply could not be happening. He could not be in a police car, here in Perth, being treated by two policemen as a raving lunatic. It simply could not be happening.
And it was while he was thinking of the complete impossibility of his situation that the radio in the police car crackled into life. There was an incident on Cottesloe Beach, the voice reported. Further help was required to co-ordinate the search for a missing swimmer and could cars report back in if in the area. The policeman in front of Matthew turned round and looked at him. When he spoke, his tone had changed.
“What’s your name, mate?”
Matthew told him, and the policeman reached forward for the radio handset and muttered a question into it. There was a short pause before a voice came back over the speaker. Matthew recognised his name.
“That’s me,” he said. “That’s me. I was the one washed out to sea.”
The policeman frowned. “You should have told us that, mate! Jeez. You should have told us that. We thought that you were mad as a cut snake. That dolphin business…”
“Please just get me back there,” interrupted Matthew. “My wife will be worried sick.”
The car slowed down and then made a swift U-turn. The policeman at the wheel now concentrated on his driving while the other one spoke briefly and urgently into the radio. In the back seat, Matthew was no longer concerned about the feeling of stickiness; his clothes had now started to dry and were clinging less to his skin. And he felt, too, the relief that comes with waking up from a nightmare.
Within ten minutes they were back at the restaurant. A small knot of people was standing at the top of the path that led down to the beach, several of them holding torches; there was a man in a swimming costume with a curious belt-like apparatus around his waist – a lifeguard prepared for rough seas; and there was Elspeth, standing a little bit apart.
Matthew tried to open the door of the car before it came to a complete halt, but the door would not budge.
“Kiddie-locked, mate,” said the policeman in front. “Just calm down. You’ve had enough accidents for one night.”
“I have to see my wife,” said Matthew. “I have to see her.”
“Strewth,” said the policeman. “I know a lot of blokes who’d willingly be washed out to sea just to get away from their old ladies.”
Matthew said nothing. This was not a time for such comments. He was going off Australia quite quickly; how odd, he thought, that one can rather like a country and then not like it quite so much, all within the space of a couple of hours. Mind you, how would an Australian visitor feel if he were to be washed into the sea off Gullane beach? Cold, thought Matthew. And would one be carted off to a psychiatric hospital quite so quickly, just for claiming to have been rescued by a dolphin? Probably not, Matthew thought. There would be waiting lists for that.