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42. Beach Bureaucracy

Matthews return had a strange effect on Elspeth. When he ran up to her, she barely registered his presence. Is there any news? she asked, barely looking at him. Is he And then she realised that it was Matthew standing in front of her, bedraggled, still damp, but undeniably her husband. She screamed, and flung her arms about him. He held her, supporting her weight, calming her as best he could.

Witnessing the reunion, the small crowd of onlookers the restaurant staff, a couple of lifeguards, the police, looked away or turned to talk to one another, though some sneaked a glance. They knew, though, that they were seeing somebody find another believed to be dead, a human reunion surely more moving than any other.

Elspeth could not talk at first, but soon recovered. What happened?

I was washed out to sea, Matthew said. It was a rip tide. I didnt stand a chance. I tried to swim back, but I couldnt even see you.

It was so quick, Elspeth whispered. One moment you were there and then She shuddered; he had disappeared so quickly. There was one wave in particular. It came right up the beach.

They call them rogue waves, said Matthew. And yes, that was the one.

One of the policemen stepped forward. Well, it looks as if youre all right, he said. Sorry about that misunderstanding, mate. But alls well that ends well, as they say.

Matthew turned round and shook hands with the policeman; he had only been dong his duty. Thanks very much for For what? he wondered. For arresting him? For bringing me back here.

No worries, mate. But take care in future. The sea here is not like your sea over in England.

Scotland, actually, said Matthew. And our sea, he thought, was every bit as dangerous, if not more. But this was not the time to argue about that.

Yes, whatever. But just remember, Australias a big place. Youve got to be careful.

Matthew smiled. I will.

One of the lifeguards now produced a form that he handed over to Matthew. Do you mind signing this just here? he said, pointing to a dotted line. Its just the paperwork.

Matthew glanced at the form. Whats it about?

Oh, it just says that it was your fault, the lifeguard said cheerily. And that you went into the water at a time when the no-bathing flag was up. Otherwise people blame us, you see.

But it wasnt my fault, said Matthew. I didnt go swimming.

The lifeguard exchanged glances with his colleague. But you must have, mate, he said. Otherwise how could you have been swept out?

Matthew shook his head. No, thats not the way it happened.

Elspeth agreed with him. No. Hes right. I was there. He didnt go swimming.

Matthew returned the piece of paper to the lifeguard. Thank you anyway, he said. Im very grateful to you for your attempts to rescue me. But I cant sign something that says its my fault. It wasnt. It wasnt anybodys fault.

The lifeguard took the form reluctantly. So youre not going to sign?

No.

Even though you entered the water voluntarily?

Matthew sighed. He was beginning to feel cold, although the air was still warm. Being in the water for some time, he remembered, can lower ones core temperature, which can take some time to recover. I didnt enter the water voluntarily, he said. I was swept out. Ive told you that already.

But how did you get swept out? the lifeguard said truculently. You dont get swept out unless youre in the water in the first place. Not in my experience, at least.

Matthew rolled his eyes upwards. I didnt go swimming, he said, his voice edgy with irritation. I went in, just a few inches, to pick up a piece of wood. Then

Hah! said the lifeguard. You went in voluntarily to get something out of the sea. Voluntarily.

A couple of inches, snapped Matthew. Up to my ankles no more.

Thats enough. Ive seen people just getting their toes wet, mate. Then, bang, theyre in up to their knees and then they lose their footing and thats them in deep trouble.

Yeah, said the other lifeguard, who had been silent up to that point. We seen that. A bloke the other day. Remember him, Merv? That fat guy.

Yup. Almost a goner. Took a lot of resuscitation. There was a pause. He signed the form.

Well, Im not going to, said Matthew.

The lifeguard folded the form up and tucked it into a small kitbag at his feet. Well, in that case, well have to report you for prosecution.

Matthew gasped. What for? For getting swept out to sea?

For endangering life by entering the sea voluntarily, intoned the lifeguard, in circumstances where a rescue could have been anticipated.

That means for endangering our lives, mate, interjected the other lifeguard. For endangering Merv and mes life.

Oh really! exploded Matthew.

Why do you become lifeguards if you dont want to rescue people? asked Elspeth.

The lifeguards both turned to stare at her. Who says we dont want to rescue people?

One of the waitresses from the restaurant now decided to enter the conversation. They like to stand on the beach and chat up girls, she said. Yes, you do, Merv Andrews! Dont deny it. Ive seen you.

Matthew decided that it was time to act. Look, he said. Ill sign if it makes you feel any better. Give me the paper.

Merv reached down to extract the paper. Good on you, mate, he said. You sign this it keeps the paperwork regular and we forget about the whole thing.

So I wont be prosecuted?

No, of course not. Its just these forms. We have to get them signed or we get into trouble. Nobody ever looks at them. All they want to know is that the forms been signed.

Matthew took the piece of paper and scribbled his signature along the line. There, he said, handing it back to the lifeguard.

Thats beaut, said the guard. Now we can forget about the whole thing. He paused. But tell me one thing how did you get out of that rip?

Matthew hesitated. He could not tell the truth that was obvious. Telling the truth was an option, but only if ones version of the truth was consistent with that which other people were prepared to accept as the truth.

Washed back, he said.

A miracle! said the lifeguard.

Yes, said Matthew. It was.


41. Police Questioning | Unbearable Lightness of Scones | 43. Marching Orders