Something in the Tide

My best friend, Marty Darnell, used to say he could read the shape of people. I often wondered what he meant. I guessed it was that we were all unique shapes inside, and those shapes often were nothing like the clothes we wore or the words we used in conversation.

He watched the throngs of passers-by from the vast window of the elements-beaten Beachcomber Café, supping his steaming hot chocolate like it was fuelling his mystical powers of observation. The couples, the dog walkers, the surfers, they would lurch toward the short valley between the grass-topped dunes that led to the sea, unaware they were under his intense scrutiny, caught in his eye-line and dissected. He had worked them all out from clues that were beyond my perception. He was a scientist at heart, who saw people as an entirely odd species that didn’t fit his world well. To see something clearly, and objectively, you had to view it from a vantage point, from the outside looking in, even then, you had to really look to really see.

We stared out in contemplation, but the lazy day was rudely interrupted by an ambulance crew who appeared from seemingly nowhere, to sprint for the dunes, barging past sedate walkers. Someone must be in trouble in the waves, I presumed. Marty did not look surprised at all, which made me curious – almost nervous. I could hear a low helicopter too, its blades with a hard-edged vibration that shook my inner ear. The winds were beginning to pick-up, a named storm, one of many, was wheeling in from the Atlantic.

Marty had a steady girlfriend, a job as a statistician that he was good at, and a cosy apartment in a bohemian part of town. He earned surprisingly little for someone who worked with the brightest minds in the country on projects that could be Top Secret or influential on laws, policies and protocols. Since the pandemic several years earlier, he, like everyone else, was remotely working most days. It kept him away from London, which appealed to him greatly.

He would go out on Friday nights, enjoy fish & chips and beers, usually with just me for company – one of his very few friends in this ramshackle outpost. On Sundays, he would visit his mum for a cup of tea and a custard cream, even a roast if she had made an occasion of it. He had all those sacrosanct rituals that weaved together the week, the month and the year. It was life as he knew it, the pattern, the template. “Wake up and repeat” he would joke. There was nothing out of place I could see. Looking at him in my mind’s eye, perhaps there was something there, when I thought about it, a tiny flicker of tension in his gaze, or more like a deep void barely visible, concealed under the canopy of a thin but tough membrane.

That day at the Beachcomber, he asked me: “Do you know the biggest cause of death in men under the age of fifty?”

He did that a lot, posing a big question out of the blue, when he knew I did not know the answer. It was his work, analysing societal trends for research, for fact-finding government bodies and firms.

I had shaken my head, then offered feebly: “Cancer?”

“It’s suicide. Men have a predisposition for offing themselves. And that’s the ones that do it right, there are thousands more messing it up, ending up in shame or hospital beds, or just thinking about it daily. Women too, but the men, it’s big numbers. I’ve seen those numbers – it’s in every other street, every other house in every part of the country. You might presume living as a man today is a modern tragedy.”

“It is, in your case, anyone can see that…” I joked, my eyes finding the leather man-bag he had his work notes stuffed into, the battered thing dangling on the back of his chair like a dead animal on a butcher’s hook.

“Fuck you…” he had laughed, wide-eyed, and then as if something switched in his head, he looked back at me directly, deadly serious and sighed. I knew what that meant. It meant he was going to tell me something he probably shouldn’t about his work. It happened now and again, God knows, no one can keep secrets, not really.

“The thing is…” he began, as more emergency first responders seemed to swarm the beach peripherals, “There is something I need to tell you… Since Covid-19, a group has been assigned to study any new viruses and well, there is a new one and it’s out, and it’s terrifying and no one seems to want to break the news…”

I was shocked and for once, speechless.

He filled the silence that had broken out between us, over the table.

“They have given it a name, Despair, kind of corny and silly but also, it’s pretty accurate. They found it in the air, everywhere, and it’s particularly biased to infecting young men, our kind of age… It makes them feel nothing and makes them, well…”

I furrowed my eyebrows, catching his drift.

“You’re saying, most of the suicides are because of a viral outbreak?”

He sat back and nodded slowly.

“Like I said, something is in the air. It’s a new pandemic” he whispered at me. “It’s out of control and no one knows what to do… They say it starts with rage which changes to sorrow, and then, you just feel nothing at all… And that’s not good for making decisions…”

It was a terrible day, much, much later, when it became real, when he became real. The unusually spikey booze-fuelled argument should have been the warning, I should have realised, we should have realised…

I had been walking that awful morning, the day after, alone, drawn to the ragged cliffs and the soothing sounds of the coast. I hated pointless fighting, and I hated loud arguments more than anything, they upset me to the core. The sour evening had spilt over, to find more fuel on texts, and social media, like the bitterness had grown tentacles that would follow you to your door, to your living room and to your bed. I had needed to recentre myself, my mind had been scrambled into white noise. My only defence was to switch the mobile off, to surround myself with a buffer of impenetrable silence.

For the walk that morning, a walk to shake out the poison, I had remembered to bring a coat at least, but I was chilled to the bone in minutes. It was spitting long bullets of rain and strong bitter gusts bullied me, fresh from the expanse of the ocean near my feet. Cresting, curling waves would collapse and charge me, then retreat inches before soaking my boots. In the aftermath of the storm, a carpet of foam peaks was wobbling and disintegrating in the wind. A thousand plastic fragments protruded like littered gems with their bright colours, discarded artefacts from civilisations unknown, lodged in clumped seaweed across the shoreline. People threw away everything. Nothing mattered. The beach looked different that day.

When I first noticed that outline, that shape, it was merely a dark, wet lump, it was driftwood I assumed, delivered and deposited by the breakers overnight.

I did not change pace at first and I was walking slower than normal, my eyes still fixed on the bulbous object in the wet sand. It was a dead seal, a beast, yes, I could tell from the way it was heaped up, a mound too large for the usual debris, with gulls picking and pulling at it with sharp beaks. It had not weathered the ferocity of the storm, or perhaps it had been tangled up in the ropey webs of fishing nets and drowned. It was not unusual for a carcass to rot on the sands, especially after a gale. I had seen a pod of dead dolphins once, yet another mystery of the tide. It was like they had suffered a grave misadventure, or their homing instinct had betrayed them with some internal malfunction.

Marty would often argue with those who loved him in some way, with friends, partners and family, me included – rarely with strangers I noticed. They were outside his rant comfort-zone. As much as I valued his company, he could be hard work. What was that saying, ‘hurt people, hurt people.’ That makes sense now. But still, when I look back, it was a sure thing that the virus must have found him and wriggled into his blood, poisoning him against reason and hope.

When someone turns on you, it is natural to fight back, you ignore them when they call, you say to yourself, ‘not now, not in the mood,’ and you wait for the clouds to pass, the thunder to calm, before you would choose to become centred, and return to inspect the wreckage that was left.

The wind was teasing my hair into my eyes, and the sky was so overcast I was sure it might release a downpour at any moment. As I approached, the carcass was not what I expected, bloated, yes, but long, too long for a seal, with an unusual protrusion, like a human head. It was then I noticed the odd skin of the animal, it looked like material, like green wool. And then the bag, it was that old beaten-up leather bag. I would recognise it anywhere. I stopped short. I found myself dropped abruptly into the gloomy dread of a bleak dream.

Marty had said, that last night that I talked to him, before we were rat-faced on tequilas: “We are all simply alone, it doesn’t matter who you are with”. It disturbed me at the time, as it was out of place in the conversation. He must have been ambushed by the power of Despair. The cliffs were towering sacrificial monoliths. They invited you to stare beyond the prison of your day, they offered you a view of eternity, and they offered you the power of beckoning waves that would pull you away forever.

More clues were there, the breadcrumbs dropped delicately, but even a sharp-eyed detective could miss them, amongst the zig-zag and clutter of the rhythms of life. They were buried in conversations like sediment, only visible for a moment when stirred up with the flurry of a current. Despair was rapcious, was stealthy and it could hide in veins well, hidden in the tides of blood.

Snapshots of memories came to me like flashes of truth, as I crouched beside his twisted body. I would wait for a moment before calling the police. I would have to organise coherent thoughts to do such a task, to explain what I had stumbled on. His hands looked wet, white, and delicate, and it was as if they were reaching out to stop something. As if it might help to bridge the journey to nothingness, I gently reached down and closed his cold, grey eyelids.

I looked up through the rolling sea mist and my jaw dropped. It became clear, there were other shapes on the beach amongst the seaweed and debris. The more I scanned the pebbles and sand, the plastic and junk, it was clearly littered with the corpses of men. The were all clothed and they were all washed up, as if they had jumped in tandem, in parallel, or perhaps like lemmings in a lineout, plumetting from the cliff edges. I imagined they would not have stopped to gaze at each other or pause in a lucid second, to reassess their unravelling nightmare. They had been resolute.

More gulls were circling and bombing, their desperation to feed was palpable in their crass rhythmic screeches. I sat down in the slippery seaweed, a cocktail of stenches overpowering me.

In the sand, he did not look like Marty, not my friend, not really, more like the discarded, brittle shell of a creature that had long deserted it. Without the small signs of life, without the blinks and grins and breath, his shape was not him.

The bodies were stretched as far as I could see, right up to the cliff edge, the jagged muscle-lined rockpools and that bouncing, rippling, unstoppable stream that was pouring into the ocean. Once my eyes adjusted to understand what I was looking at, they were unmistakable, they were everywhere. Soul after soul, dumped on the sands, human debris, abandoned and isolated.

“We need to stop this…” I remember saying aloud as if the wind was listening. Immediately, I was worried Despair would find me, but the squalls were still violent enough to disperse any particles shed into the air.

The howling gusts and the crashing sea were immeasurably stronger than my small voice. It was as if nature was screaming at me, like it knew that I was just a scared survivor bracing the winds, who didn’t know what to do next.

The End

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