In about 20 minutes I am going to put on my sporty little togo-cap with the green sun-visor and head on down to the beach. It’s a short walk through a cow pasture and a coconut grove. I might see a monkey or two on the way.
This beach of mine is famous: one of those places both purveyors and consumers of tourism tend to call paradise, which in this instance means lots of sun and blue sky, a diaphanous, (ostensibly) unpolluted ocean, smooth sand, tall palms, cheap drinks…and that delightful little extra touch — that men may, and do, go about in public wearing colourfully patterned skirts.
On the negative side, paradise’s visitors are apparently perishing in alarming numbers. A journalist friend from New Zealand on the trail of a marketable story told me that there were at least 6 drownings off the peninsula’s western coast during the past few weeks as far-off storms had pumped up riptides to perilous levels.
The victims are mostly Europeans; according to my friend’s research, often Germans. The uninitiated swimmer accustomed to tamer shores is apt to panic when caught off guard in the surreptitious surf of this island. My friend’s angle on this is that the government is keeping a lid on fatality reports in order not to disturb the tourist trade and, what’s worse — he claims that warning signs go purposefully unposted as they might give overseas visitors ‘the wrong impression’.
Some travellers come on down here straight from the airport before even bothering about their lodgings. They have been longing so for this oceanic encounter. They just throw down their bags on the sand, tear off their clothes and rush out over the sudsy shore break, yelling and hooting like cowboys and injuns.
With alarmingly little concern for their personal safety, as I have observed on many occasions, they just plough on into the sea, knees jerking high in a splashy-stompy, quick-time march; giddy-up slapping the swells at their sides like the flanks of one’s hellbent pony.
Out they go to a waist-level-deep vantage point from where the breakers can crash about their bodies and wash away the industrial grime of rusty Amiens, elute the stink of the Ruhr River Valley, extirpate the fuzz from their computer-frizzed, office-fried brains. Dreaming of liberation, to be taken up in the furl of these glorious waves, they receive the salty eucharist of crystalline foam, and their wily host says — Ah, yes, of course my child — as you like. Welcome, please, jump right in.
This is how it works: First you stand resolutely — if slightly taken aback by the forcefulness of the currents pulling at your legs, and you think to yourself — wow, this is going to be fun. You move further outwards. The waves charge at you and you are given the over-under choice: dive under and hope to come up on the outside of the break, or dive over and hope not to get caught in it. Do neither and you will take a royal pounding.
And so it goes. You experience a few spills and swallow a swig or two of brine. All in good fun. You venture — you are drawn out still further. The currents grow stronger and you are thrown into magnificent, gigantic waves which you no longer can circumvent and they tumble you, rumble you, and slop you around like Action Man in a clothes dryer. Surcharged with excitement, you might initially thrill to this rough treatment, but then you get knocked over just one too many times, (rather rudely, it will occur to you) and you find it increasingly harder to regain footing.
Only now do you ask yourself — could this be dangerous? Should I be doing this alone? How in the hell do I get back? And after one or two more extended rounds of involuntary plummets and plunges, when you very badly need to breathe and discover that your head is nowhere near the surface – your feet nowhere near the seabed floor, well that’s when you begin to panic. You are embroiled in an underwater maelstrom, unlikely as it may seem — or have seemed, when you first saw this strand as the romantic backdrop for the tender kiss of a glamorous she and he on the cover of the Abenteuer Reisen catalogue.
Meanwhile, up on the beach, where she is being incessantly pestered by a hawker of beads&bangles and a masseuse, Elise sits with her right hand cupped over her eyes squinting into the sun for a glimpse of her beloved Wolfgang, with whom she has just left Europe (the trip of a lifetime), wishing he would come out of the water to help her chase off these annoying, impinging natives who won’t take no, nein, niet, nay, nix, nada, bugger off, or worse, for an answer.
Elise does not catch sight of her geliebter Wolfi, as he happens at this moment to be at least three feet under in the advanced stages of panic. He is unwillingly breathing seawater with calamitous results, of course, and has lost the better half of his faculties of reason.
Wolfgang is improbably drowning within just five minutes of going for a quick dip; just two hours off the plane; just three days from his parent’s home on Spinnstraße, his respectable — but poorly paid job at the AFK Bank on Fredrichstraße; one week from the last pfennig-ante poker games with his affable drinking buddies at the Café Luisen in good old Wuppertal.
He has expended himself thoroughly: fagged himself out uselessly kicking and thrashing about, ineluctably going nowhere other than up and down and around and around and so on and so forth. His strength spent so unwisely, he has botched any possible return to the beach. His limbs are no longer capable of purposeful propulsion. Bubbling profusely he sinks into deeper and less turbulent waters.
A seabird skimming the shore break for her supper could easily be distracted in her work by the sight below of Wolfgang’s bold neon-red bathing suit glimmering in the ripple-filtered rays of submerged sunlight, demarcating his flaccid white legs from his limp torso. His flannelbush yellow hair has already taken on the semblance of seaweed — his water-filled lungs suspend him in the equilibrium of aqua-space like a 200 pound jelly fish.
He is not dead yet, though it has occurred to him that he is going to die, and that his entire life will now be played up in review: his own personal eternity projected on the insides of his eyelids in one great hallucinatory flash, as we all know happens to people in his situation. But here too there is only disappointment at play, for Wolfgang musters up no greater chimaera than the half-bitter taste of celery, and some adumbrated memories of a school trip to Zermatt, 18 years previous, when little Eva Barza did it in her pants on the bus to the merriment of the entire class; and his mother had forgotten to pack his PJs.
I? Well, there was nothing I could do — what would that have been? I was as unaware of Wolfgang’s physical struggle as I was of those final thoughts in his diluting brain. Perhaps I was at another part of the beach, or feeding leftovers to the skinny pigs in back of my shack. And if I had known — then what? Would I have been able to save him? Had I gone in after him without a board or a float the chances are good we would have both drowned. That sort of thing happens you know.
But had I been aware of his sorry predicament, I would — short of saving his life of course — really have liked to do something about his parsimonious comatose imagery: I would have liked to send him a dignified thought to go out on. I am thinking particularly of a few lines of verse written by his countryman, Rainer Maria Rilke, necessarily brief considering the circumstances, but boundless in scope nevertheless.
If the sea troubles you – become the sea…
And as the earth forgets you,
to her silence answer: I flow
To the rushing waters say: I am
One — two hours later, Elise is sitting in the sand looking out over the waves, clutching Wolfi’s rucksack, fingering Wolfi’s passport, repeating Wolfi’s name to herself. Wolfi has clearly vanished and the anxieties of death, loss, loneliness and fear are breaching her barricade of numb-dumb incredulity.
Yet where, she asks herself — where, for God’s sake, is everybody? Where are the lifeguards, the ambulances, the paramedics, the rescue teams, the police, the authorities, the clergy, newspaper reporters, television crews, the bosomed babes and biceped boys from the Baywatch reruns on RTL? Where, for God’s sake, is civilization?
The wide expanse of beach, as far as she can see, is deserted, with the exception of the tightly-wrinkled, sparsely-toothed masseuse, who has now knocked down the price of her services from seven fingers of currency to four, since this curiously fraught foreign lady is such a reluctant customer; and against the smear of a purple sunset, the tiny figurine silhouette of a distant jogger making her way along the beach. Just the three of us. The jogger is me. Only I am not actually jogging — it is not something I wilfully do. I am just trotting along getting ready to take a swim.