Chapter Three
Rolling down the highway in a bus. Full of people. He didn’t know any of them. Maybe the woman two seats up on the other side of the aisle looked vaguely familiar. But so many people look familiar to him these days. So many women who could have been lovers. Sometimes he believed he could love every woman who ever lived. At least for a short while during that intense closeness before the predicable inevitably overran the imagined. He dragged his attention back to stare again from the window at the flickering landscape. Dry and dusty, no houses, no trees. At least not anywhere near the road. Far in the distance he could make out a line of bluish hills slinking under a heavy sky. No clouds. But heavy. The bus rattled on muting the sounds of the other passengers. He closed his eyes. His ears remained alert, on guard, constantly scanning incoming signals for danger, for relief. He wondered briefly about his ears. How come each has a small flap of cartilage which might block unwanted noise if it were to fold in; but there were no muscles attached to fulfil the task…briefly he imagined this as something of a design flaw…but then, lying in your cave, in the dark, before there was time, your ear-flaps closed, you wouldn’t hear an approaching enemy. Not good. But it looked like the body had given some thought at some stage to the possibility of earlids; then abandoned the project leaving the little flange, an evolutionary supernumerary. He drifted off further into the velvet underground. Somewhere the bumpy ride stirred him. From the window he saw the journey no longer rode along smooth bitumen but had found rough terrain, slowing down. The hills had quietly approached in the meantime and the bus began a snake-like penetration of the hills until, at the top of a small rise, it came to an uncertain halt. He was the only one left on the bus. Gaps in his memory disconcerted him. He'd no recollection of the other passengers disembarking. Even the driver had disappeared. The hills were sandy, cropped with a thin layer of yellowing grass; he shuffled through its raspy dryness to the crest of the dune. From there he could see, comfortingly, the other passengers spread out on blankets and towels, taking the sun, relaxing under a breathless blue sky before a vast and shining ocean. It seemed the water was deep at the shore with no gently sloping continental shelf to shape the incoming tide into waves. He moved towards the water. His steps squeaked as they see-sawed through the hot sand. He took off his shoes and socks to feel the fine burning sand tickle sharply between his toes. At the water’s edge he stripped off his clothes and plunged in deep, stroking out for a few moments before taking breath and turning to look for the shore. Far away. Could it be that far? He’d only done a few strokes. A single breath. The shore seemed almost on the horizon. A moment of panic brushed around him as he felt the tug of a rip pulling him out. Take it easy. It’s only a rip. Relax. You’re not that far out. It’s an illusion. An unusual perspective. The brain’s making it up. Don’t fight it. After a few moments of steady, rhythmic swimming he escaped the rip and could feel the soft underwater sand at the water’s edge. He began to crawl up the quite steep slope to dry land. But crawling was difficult, he kept sliding back, his hands and knees sinking too deep to catch any purchase. The water kept him buoyant, but was too shallow to swim and the sand didn't supply enough resistance to get out. He was running out of breath. In the distance he could see some surfers on their boards. Maybe he could call them over. Just then, on that thought, the sand seemed to firm and give him traction. He dragged himself out and lay on the hard, firm shore, breathing deeply, thankfully, the hot sun quieting his overwrought nerves. His clothes were nowhere to be seen. He began to walk down the empty beach looking for them, for the bus, the other travellers he’d left sunning only a matter of minutes before. But no bus, no travellers stretched upon happy coloured towels. No clothes. He decided he must have been carried much further in the rip than he’d imagined and began to walk back up the empty beach straining his eyes to recognise some feature of the landscape, some clue which might indicate the spot where the bus had been parked. After walking for a while he thought maybe he’d gone the wrong way so he retraced his steps. To the point where he’d clambered from the ocean. His scumbled track marks coming from the water gave him some comfort as he set off once again across an unfamiliar land, hopeful this time he’d recognise something…the bus, the other travellers still lying in the sun…his own footprints going down to the water. Once again, after walking for some time, he recognised nothing. Saw no one. Only a shoreline disappearing in the distance. He kept moving. What else to do? A while later he came across a small pile of clothes waiting patiently for his return. He had to search for the shoes and socks. He could find only one sock. Perhaps the wind…? He dragged on his clothes, scratchy over his then salty body and began to look for his tracks to guide him back to the bus. But there were no tracks. And where the sunbathers should have been - nothing. Just a lightly grassed hill, waving. Had they left without him? He stood and stared, turning around, disbelieving. His senses must surely be tricking him somehow. Far away, carried on the afternoon breeze, he heard the broken sound of laughter. Abandoning his shoes and desperate to locate some humanity in this lost unfamiliar place he hurried along the beach towards the sounds rising over a dune in the middle distance. But as he reached the crest of the dune there was no crowd of happy bathers, no familiar bus load of fellow travellers, no humanity, just more expanse of empty beach and vacant sky. Then he caught sight of a single figure, small and dark, sitting on a rocky outcrop where the beach and the sand hills met. The figure was hard to see at first because it was much the same colour as the rock it was sitting on. An extension of stone. But something about the figure was decidedly unrocklike. Was it the profile? The way it leaned out towards the ocean? As though breathing in some vital force? Pulsing. Yes, the figure seemed to pulse. And then he heard it again, a faint giggle, a laugh from far away and the little figure seemed to bounce slightly on its rock. In the midst of all the unfamiliarity and aloneness he felt a splinter of recognition. A dart of hope. At that moment Babu jumped up from his rock landing softly on the sand. Heath’s eyes filled with tears as he stumbled forward to embrace his old friend. “Long time no see, little frog”. Heath could find no words to speak. He stared stupidly at the kaleidoscopic vision his watery eyes were creating and wept. His heart was tearing apart, his ears screaming. He knew nothing. He was totally bewildered. He sank onto the sand finding some comfort from the warm earth. Slowly he began to breathe again. The old African sat down next to Heath and whispered, “Have courage my friend, just another beginning…”
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