42. Beach Bureaucracy
Matthew’s 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 didn’t stand a chance. I tried to swim back, but I couldn’t 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 you’re all right,” he said. “Sorry about that misunderstanding, mate. But all’s 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, Australia’s a big place. You’ve 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. “It’s just the paperwork.”
Matthew glanced at the form. “What’s 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 wasn’t my fault,” said Matthew. “I didn’t 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, that’s not the way it happened.”
Elspeth agreed with him. “No. He’s right. I was there. He didn’t go swimming.”
Matthew returned the piece of paper to the lifeguard. “Thank you anyway,” he said. “I’m very grateful to you for your attempts to rescue me. But I can’t sign something that says it’s my fault. It wasn’t. It wasn’t anybody’s fault.”
The lifeguard took the form reluctantly. “So you’re not going to sign?”
“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 one’s core temperature, which can take some time to recover. “I didn’t enter the water voluntarily,” he said. “I was swept out. I’ve told you that already.”
“But how did you get swept out?” the lifeguard said truculently. “You don’t get swept out unless you’re in the water in the first place. Not in my experience, at least.”
Matthew rolled his eyes upwards. “I didn’t 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.”
“That’s enough. I’ve seen people just getting their toes wet, mate. Then, bang, they’re in up to their knees and then they lose their footing and that’s 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, I’m 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, we’ll 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 me’s life.”
“Oh really!” exploded Matthew.
“Why do you become lifeguards if you don’t want to rescue people?” asked Elspeth.
The lifeguards both turned to stare at her. “Who says we don’t 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! Don’t deny it. I’ve seen you.”
Matthew decided that it was time to act. “Look,” he said. “I’ll 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 won’t be prosecuted?”
“No, of course not. It’s 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 form’s been signed.”
Matthew took the piece of paper and scribbled his signature along the line. “There,” he said, handing it back to the lifeguard.
“That’s 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 one’s 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.”