I took him for an exhibitionist. I'll never forgive myself but I did. He was just sitting in his car, stark naked, with the door wide open for all to see. It's true the beach was deserted and windswept, the sea boiling up the sand and crashing against the rocks in a display of malevolent power that had drawn me irresistibly to watch in awe. So there was only me to see him, and at first he didn't see I was there, working my way along the beach against the force of the wind.
His was the only car on that stretch, hidden from the more popular part of the beach by an outcrop of land with a concrete retaining wall, that held a caravan site, closed at this time of year. He'd parked his car nose in against the wall and as I approached I saw only the car and that the young man in the driver's seat was not wearing a shirt. Only once I was past the car and glanced back did I see his door wide open and buffeted by the wind, and the whole length of his entirely naked body.
I was tempted to stop in my tracks, walk right up to him and engage him in conversation. What I'd have said to him I had no idea. But I didn't, I walked on, giving him some privacy in that public place.
When he saw me he closed his car door.
I walked to the end of the beach,where it narrows and there's an inlet, a river that runs into the sea, through a deep and muddy channel where small boats are moored and lie on the mud at low tide. I like to walk around there, looking at the boats, watching their owners working on them or just sitting in the sun enjoying ownership of a thing of beauty. It was probably two hours later that I walked back and was surprised to pass the same car still parked against the wall. The car was empty and its door closed. This time I did approach. There was a neat pile of clothes on the front passenger seat and on top of it an envelope with a name on it – James. The clothes were a set of man's clothes, trousers, sweater, shirt, and on the top of the pile a pair of boxer trunks, the knitted kind that fits skin tight, and a pair of white socks, the top of one sock neatly turned inside out over the top of the other, holding them together as a pair. There was a pair of trainers on the seat beside the pile of clothing.
It did occur to me that these were probably the clothes of the man I saw earlier. That he was somewhere away from his car but without his clothes. And it occurred to me that the envelope might contain a suicide note. But that's the sort of thing that occurs to me all the time. I have an over-active imagination, and I spend my time having to dismiss from my mind the most lurid imaginings. I dismissed this one, but not before scanning the beach for any sign of him. It was as deserted as before although the wind had dropped a little and it was not so cold. I tried the car door handle, but it was locked.
Back at my own car I opened my door, sat in with my feet hanging out over the sill. As I always do, I banged my shoes hard against the side of the car, hoping to shake as much of the sand off as possible, before swinging my feet into the footwell. As always, there was still a lot of sand ended up on the carpet.
I started the car and moved off, turning the wheel to swing the car in a great circle in order to return the way I'd come, back up the slip from the beach onto the tarmac road. But as I did, my eye was caught by a protrusion at the shoreline. I pulled the car out of the turn and headed towards it as far as I dared – you can't go far down the beach or the wheels get stuck. I got close enough to tell that it was a human shape, curled up like a foetus.
I hesitated a moment. Cowardice, I suppose, and that awful instinct for not getting involved. But I was the only person on the beach apart from the figure at the shoreline and I was mentally piling up my bricks, building a case for going to the rescue. It only took me a second I expect, before I was out of the car leaving the engine running and the door swinging, and running towards the water.
The sand gives way to sticky mud before you get to the waterline except at high tide, and there are signs warning that it 's dangerous to go beyond them. People have died after getting stuck in the mud, and then being drowned by the incoming tide. So I should have been wary of the problem, but I didn't even think about it. All I could think about was what I would find when I got to him.
He was alive, very cold, and semi-conscious. He wouldn't talk, didn't respond to my words, but his eyes followed me and he was shaking uncontrollably. I remembered reading somewhere that shivering is a good sign. It's when you stop shivering that you have to worry. Hypothermia, when your core temperature drops and your body's systems begin to shut down. Shivering exercises lots of muscles, generating heat to raise your temperature. It delays the onset of hypothermia until you tire out.
I picked him up like a baby, my left arm under his thighs and my right around his back under his arms. He sagged against me, his head on my shoulder, but he didn't make any attempt to hold onto me with his arms around my neck. It would have helped, he was probably as tall as me though a bit thinner, and I'm no spring chicken, I was struggling to hold him up, let alone walk back through the mud to my car with my burden. I got to the car and I had to put him down to get the passenger door open. I sat him on the sand and propped him against the front passenger door, then pulled the rear door open and lifted him again, just as his upper body was toppling back towards the ground, from where it would have been difficult for me in my now exhausted state to lift him. But I got him back up in my arms and sort of posted him into the car. Concern for the fate of my upholstery ran through my mind but didn't get a purchase there, by now I was concerned that this shivering naked scrap of humanity was going to peter out like a flat battery, and whatever the young man's life could become wasn't going to happen. I became consumed with the determination that he was going to live.
There's a travelling rug I keep in the boot of my big old estate car, along with a load of other stuff I hardly ever use. I reached over the seat and grabbed at it, and wrapped my passenger up as best I could. Then I ran around the car and leapt into the driver's seat and drove off. I turned the heating up, grateful that I'd left the engine running, so there was now some heat coming out of the vents. I drove far too fast along the narrow roads from the beach, to the local hospital, which is not far. And I behaved like an ambulance driver, I drove straight up to the Accident and Emergency entrance where the paramedics unload stretchers, ignoring the signs directing the public away from there.
Still with the engine running, I opened the rear passenger door on my side and tried to encourage the man to move. But he was still unresponsive. I yelled at two men in lime green jumpsuits who were smoking under a tree nearby until they reluctantly stubbed their fags out and came over to help. Between us we got the man out of the car and onto a trolley. The guys in green took over from here and wheeled him into the building through an entrance with a big sign that said 'No Entry to the Public' and directed me to go in through the parallel entrance and report to the receptionist.
I had to queue, and when it became my turn I explained myself and told the receptionist next to nothing useful. I didn't even know the man's name. In my mind I'd begun to call him James because of the name on the envelope in his car, although he wouldn't write his own name on an envelope, would he?
I was told to sit in the waiting area, and that as soon as they knew anything one of the staff would come out to talk to me. Well, I couldn't do that – I was covered in mud from head to toe – so I retreated to the toilet off the corridor and stripped out of my muddy waterproof jacket, my muddy trousers and muddy shoes and socks. In my shirt and underpants I looked a little better. I washed my hair, face and hands in the tiny sink, and then rinsed through my trousers and shoes. After wringing my trousers out and blotting out much of the water from my shoes with lavatory paper I put them back on without socks. I used more paper to mop the muddy marks from the floor and basin. I wrapped my jacket inside out and carried it like a little parcel, and emerged into the waiting room damp but relatively presentable.
I sat for a while and went over what I knew about the man I'd brought in. Essentially I knew nothing. I realised I didn't even know that the man I saw in the car was the same as the one I'd brought in – I admitted to myself ruefully that when I'd seen him in his car I hadn't really looked at his face, and on the beach his face was all muddy and his hair matted across his eyes so he looked quite different. Even so I didn't really doubt it was the same man, otherwise the car and the pile of clothes were too much a coincidence.
After ten minutes I broke all the rules and left the waiting area. I went back out the way I came in, and marched as confidently as I could, despite my damp condition, through the 'No Entry' door and straight up the corridor inside to the casualty area. I caught and held the eye of the suspicious-looking woman at the desk that was visible as I approached and tried my best authoritative bark.
“Where's the hypothermia case, just come in?”
It worked. She switched smoothly from fortress defender into co-operative colleague and pointed to one of the curtained cubicles. With rather less confidence, but in an attempt at keeping up the pretence I briskly pulled away the curtain and stepped inside before drawing it closed behind me. There on the bed was James, wrapped in a quilted thing like a sleeping bag but with wires running away from it to a box and from there to the wall socket. I guessed it was an electric blanket. I wasn't alone with him, two very young-looking men in white coats were rubbing at him. With their hands under the folds of quilted material one was rubbing at his arms and the other at his legs. And he was connected to one of those monitoring machines that beeps rhythmically. Not that I can read one of those things, but the graphs looked healthy, peaks and troughs at regular intervals. On my arrival these two stopped their work and looked expectantly to me, presumably for instructions. Medical students, I guessed. In an attempt to keep the façade up as long as I could I, grabbed at the chart hanging at the foot of the bed and pretended to assess it. With the merest glance in the direction of the nearest medic I tried the bark again.
“Any further response from the patient, yet?”
“His temperature is rising steadily, but he's not yet talking. His heart rate and BP are almost up into the normal range, as you see.”
“Thank you. Well, carry on, don't stop what you're doing because I'm here!”
As they continued with their limb-rubbing, I walked around them to the head of the bed and took a look at James. They'd cleaned him up and I saw the face of the man I'd carried off the beach. A long narrow face with grey eyes below thin eyebrows, and a fringe of mousy hair covering most of a high forehead. He was aware of me, I was sure. His eyes watched me. I couldn't read his eyes, maybe it was fear, or shame, or pain, or perhaps anger. Something was haunting those grey eyes and I felt drawn to them the way I'm drawn to the beach on windy days. I like to see the natural power of the ocean. Perhaps there was a power in the grey eyes that watched me now.
I stayed with him, rather to the surprise, I think, of the medics, who gave up with the limb-rubbing once the red light on the monitor went out, indicating that all his vital signs were back in the normal range.
After an hour he was no longer shivering, although a nurse had been in some minutes before, glanced at the monitor and unplugged the electric blanket. His eyes were closed and he was breathing slowly and steadily. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully and I left him there. A sudden instinct to kiss his forehead in parting took some effort to resist but I managed it.
Outside I found my car was missing. And I remembered I'd left it with the engine running. For some reason I didn't panic, and a quick scan of the A&E car park found it for me. But when I got to it I found it locked. I had to queue at the reception desk again to retrieve the key. And that was when I got collared by the police. Two of them, a man and a woman, both ridiculously young and I must have been a little dazed because I didn't really listen to their spiel, I was noticing that the man was no taller than his colleague, maybe five foot six. What happened to all the tall policemen? Eventually I realised they wanted to ask me about James, to take a statement from me, in fact. I didn't really have one to give, I told them I'd been leaving the beach after my walk and caught sight of him at the shoreline and went to investigate, found him and brought him into hospital. Why didn't I mention his car, or the clothes and the envelope? What made me hold that back? I can't really explain it except to say I felt I could get away with keeping quiet about that side of it, and somehow I thought James wouldn't want me to tell the police about the car. So I didn't. I ended up telling them more about me than about James. I had to give my name and address, telephone number, employer details, and I even had to promise to take my driver's licence to the local police station within five days. And then they let me go. I wondered if they were going to try to interview James, and whether they would get anywhere.
As I finally got back in my car and sat on the muddy seat to drive home, my thoughts were turning over the events of the afternoon. I didn't yet have answers to any of the questions that occupied me and I would certainly return to the hospital the next morning when the patient might be sufficiently recovered to talk, in the hope of getting those answers. One thing that occurred to me was that James' car was presumably still on the beach. And I wondered where his car key would be. He'd left it locked, but he was naked – nowhere to stow a car key. Might he have locked the car with the key inside? Or was it somewhere else?
I drove back onto the beach and in the failing light I used the headlights of my car to investigate. All the car doors were locked, there was no sign of the key inside the car, and it wasn't on top of any of the wheels. I tried to imagine myself in James' position. I thought I might get out of the car, lock it and then throw away the key. Yes. And I found it. He'd thrown it over the wall, and not too far either. Peering over the wall I could see it glinting in what light was left, and it was the work of a moment to scrabble up and over the stone wall into the abandoned caravan site, grab the key and return onto the beach.
I decided my best course of action was to drive James' car off the beach, leave it parked in a side road and keep the key, to return it in due course to its owner. So, having done that, I walked back onto the beach, retrieved my own car and drove home and after a much needed shower went to bed.
The next morning I did my best to get rid of the mud from my car's upholstery. Then I drove to collect his clothes from his car before fighting my way through the hospital bureaucracy, and eventually finding him in the Assessment Unit. He was sitting up in bed, wearing one of those gowns that open all the way down the back, and as I approached he looked up. No sign that he recognised me, but he recognised his clothes in my arms and looked up at my face in puzzlement.
“Hello!” I smiled my best smile. “I thought you would need these.”
“Thanks.” The puzzlement deepened as I put his clothing at the foot of his bed. He reached immediately towards it so I lifted it again and handed it to him. He took the underpants under the bedcovers and scrabbled into them. Then he tugged at the strings tied at the back of his neck to remove the awful gown. But he couldn't get it loose.
“Would you?” he twisted around, presenting his back to me, and I untied the knot. I pushed the gown off his shoulders and he let it fall to his waist and put his shirt on instead, and then his sweater. And finally he swung his legs out of bed and I remembered seeing them all muddy the previous evening. He pulled his socks on and then his trousers and I saw him for the first time fully dressed. He looked good, really good. Like a clothing advert. His long legs made his trousers, crumpled though they were, look neat and elegant, and his broad shoulders and narrow waist made the most of his fine woollen sweater. I couldn't help smiling at him, but my smile faltered slightly when I was caught in the vortex of those disturbing grey eyes, which still had that enigmatic look about them.
It seemed to be up to me to say something. “Are they letting you go?”
He didn't answer at first. “You're the man who brought me in, aren't you?” I nodded.
He looked away, busied himself with the jug of water on the bedside cabinet. “Thank you.” he mumbled into his glass as he drank.
“I moved your car. I hope you don't mind. I wasn't sure how high the tide would come, sometimes it covers the bit where you parked.”
He turned and his eyes were flashing fire but there was no energy in his voice. “How did you get in my car?”
“I found where you'd thrown the key. Here it is.”
He took the key out of my open palm, his fingertips brushed my skin and I flinched.
“Thank you” a little more clearly, this time. And he followed up: “What's your name?”
Ridiculously pleased at this overture I told him: “Robert. What's yours?”
“Scott. Scott Granger. I'm...” but he tailed off, turned away. I decided to be a little more direct. I stepped up to him, put my hand on his shoulder and swung him around to face me, then grabbed his other shoulder too, so he had to stand and face me as I spoke. Scott, I reminded myself. So, not James.
“You tried to kill yourself yesterday. Why?”
I'd shocked him, I could see.
“I didn't. I did... I...” - and he began to cry. I took another step forward and his head dipped just as my shoulder arrived so he could bury his head in it. And I wrapped my arms around him as he sobbed and shook. He just stood there, his arms at his sides, his legs not quite holding him up so that I had to support him, and his head down and his face buried in the crook of my neck. I held him and rubbed his back and whispered nonsense into his ear.
“There, there. It's all right. Have a good cry. Let it all out. You'll feel better. It's better than bottling it up. There's nothing to be ashamed of in a good cry...” I was babbling, but I hoped the tone of my voice would calm him if nothing else.
Gradually his crying died down. He brought his arms up and pushed gently at my shoulders so I let him go. He wiped his eyes on both sleeves and looked at me blearily through bloodshot eyes, for the first time that disturbing look was gone, replaced by a rueful grin.
“Thank you. Why are you here?”
Why was I? I could think of a string of reasons, but I didn't think I could admit to most of them. This was so far from my previous experience that I couldn't be sure how open I ought to be. In the end I threw caution to the wind.
“I wanted to be sure you're okay. I think I saved you from drowning yesterday. I didn't want to just walk away from you. I wanted to keep in touch, maybe meet again, out of hospital. I'd like to get to know you. With or without clothes.” I put that last bit in on impulse and tried to bite it back but it was too late – I'd said it. How would he take it?
He smiled. “Okay.”
“Are they letting you go?”
This time I got an answer. “They say there's nothing wrong with me. I have to go whether I like it or not. You brought my clothes just in time, or I'd have been out on the streets in that dress thing!”
“Did the police find you?”
“Last evening, a police man and woman, were asking about you. They said it's routine in cases of suspected suicide attempt.”
He wrinkled his nose. “I was questioned earlier this morning. They're treating it as temporary insanity, not attempted suicide so they are no longer interested.”
“Don't they want you to see a psychiatrist, then?”
“Yes but it's voluntary. I can choose to go or not. And it's a psycho-therapist, which is different, somehow.”
“Will you go?”
“Maybe. I'll see.”
I can give you a lift to your car. Then you'll go home?”
“Thank you. But I will not go home. I can't go home.”
“Well, where, then?”
“My brother's place, I expect.”
“Where is that?”
I watched in confusion as his face contorted and he wailed “I don't know!” and began to sob again.
I didn't know quite what to say to that but I knew one thing and I said it. “Well, you're not staying with your brother tonight, then. Would you like to stay with me until you find him?”
His shoulders stopped shaking, his sobs calmed gradually, but it was some time before he turned his face towards me. It was definitely... hopeful.
“Can I? I'd be no trouble!”
“Come on then. My car's in the car park.”
I took him the short trip to his car and he climbed in and started the engine. Then he followed me across town to my little house. I parked on the drive and he parked on the road outside. I tried to make him feel welcome, I swung the door wide open and waved him inside. What am I letting myself in for, I thought to myself. The adventure continues.
We talked while I put together a bite to eat. I was right, he had tried to kill himself. He had thought he would drown and his body would be washed up somewhere further along the coast, and he'd hoped it might be unidentifiable. That's why he took all his clothes off. But the tide along our stretch of coast is very powerful and treacherous, and he found he couldn't swim out against the flow, it kept washing him back up the beach. He kept attempting to swim out but quickly tired in the cold water. And he was beginning to lose the battle against hypothermia when I found him.
I really wanted to know why he wanted to kill himself rather than how he went about it, but that wasn't forthcoming. I didn't push it.
After we'd eaten I took him into town and we bought him some essentials. A change of clothes, and a toothbrush and razor. And deodorant, and shower gel. I paid for it all, there was no sign that he had any money. Back home, we searched for his brother on the internet. It wasn't difficult to find him, he wasn't hiding. He turned out to be a student at the Guildford College of the Performing Arts. Training to be an actor!
Scott explained that he was embarrassed about needing so much help from me and made an extravagant promise about paying me back, but the fact is he wasn't being expensive, I wanted to help, and he did need some support, at least until he was reunited with his brother.
We tried phoning but the only phone number we could find was the accommodation administration office for the college, and they wouldn't give out his brother's address or phone number. Scott had asked for James Barford, so now I knew his surname, and it didn't take much imagination to work out the mystery of the letter Scott had left in his car.
Making contact with James would involve a trip to Guildford and Scott asked me to go with him, which would mean reporting sick for a second day, but I decided I was in too deep to back out now.
We went in my car the next morning and the journey took three hours, rather silent hours. I could tell Scott was nervous about the meeting, which didn't make a lot of sense to me. Who's nervous about meeting their own brother? He still wasn't opening up, and I was still biting my tongue to avoid prying.
We learned that James was attending a 'workshop', whatever that is, in the college's theatre and that's where we found him. We walked in at the back of the auditorium quietly, and a young man on stage took one look at us and leapt from the stage down into the aisle, hit the ground running and made it up to our position in five seconds flat, coming to a halt in Scott's arms, where he stayed for a long time, the two of them swaying slightly side to side and hugging each other tightly. I wondered that Scott hadn't mentioned it to me, but they were very obviously twins.
It was lunchtime when I heard the story, and at first it was James who told it. Scott still appeared unable to.
It turns out that they were brought up in a strictly religious family. Their father is the minister of their church. It's a fundamentalist church, and they were taught that much of what passes for modern civilization is wicked, the devil's doing, and to be avoided at all costs, including having dealings with people 'not of the faith', which had restricted their school friendships severely. In telling the story James quoted chapter and verse from the Bible. Here he pronounced 'Bad company is the ruin of a good character!' - First Corinthians chapter fifteen, verse thirty-three.
When they'd turned eighteen and finished school, James had decided he didn't want to follow his parents' religion, but there was no way he could continue living at home if he didn't. So he left home to attend college in Guildford and his parents virtually disowned him. He had become 'bad company', and made it worse by his choice of career. Actors are all immoral and homosexual. James hadn't heard from them for two years, since starting college.
Scott on the other hand had been a different personality and didn't want to rock the boat. James thought Scott genuinely believed in the church, and he tried very hard to live up to his parents' standards. He enrolled in the local college to study accountancy and stayed home, and went to church. And he immersed himself in the church community, helping out with all the charitable activities. He even ran the junior Sunday school.
Clearly James didn't know about Scott's suicide attempt, so my question 'why' remained unanswered but I was beginning by now to have my suspicions. And they were confirmed when Scott took over the story.
Addressing his brother, he began hesitantly.
“You remember that awful argument when you told Father you wanted to act?”
“You remember what he said about actors?”
“It's why he doesn't want anything to do with you. He thinks you've gone over to Satan, and you've done it just to spite him. Mother hasn't been the same since you went, she cries all the time, and clings to me like she thinks I'll be gone tomorrow too.”
There was a quiet between them, but they seemed to be communicating still, with their eyes. Eventually James spoke.
“I didn't know.”
“Well, you couldn't. I don't hold you to blame, James, but can you understand the pressure it put on me? I had to be the perfect son, if she lost me too it would break her heart...” - and his voice broke, and his brother hugged him until he was calm again.
“I don't think it can be true what Father said, is it?”
“Actors. They're not all homosexual? You're not gay?”
For the first time James managed a smile. “No, I'm not gay. I hope you'll meet my girlfriend. But certainly some actors are gay, just like some doctors, soldiers, judges, are gay. Some of my friends are gay. Is that a problem for you?”
Scott stared at his brother for a moment, then shook his head. “That's the point. It's why I'm here. You're sure you have gay friends? Being gay isn't a problem for you?”
“It's not a problem for me. Where's this leading?”
“It's me. Don't you see? I'm gay! I'm...” and he broke down again, and was duly wrapped again in his brother's arms and comforted.
James held his brother a long time and stroked the back of his head down to his neck. Scott seemed to respond to this and gradually emerged from his fear.
“You don't mind I'm gay? You really don't mind?”
“Of course I don't mind. You're my brother. You're part of me. Why would I mind you're gay?”
“I'm not Father.”
“No.” - deep sigh of relief - “ Thank you, James. I was so afraid you wouldn't want me when you found out.”
“Well, now you know and you can stop worrying. How long have you known about this? How long have you been carrying it around with you?”
“I've known for years, I guess. But I couldn't allow it to be, couldn't admit it to myself, and... and, I thought I could defeat it. I prayed about it, I prayed so much.”
“You poor thing. It doesn't work, does it?”
Scott shook his head miserably.
James recited “First Corinthians six, nine” and caught Scott's eye and they chanted together “Fornicators and Idolaters!” and the mood changed. The boys grinned at each other and hugged tightly, in brotherhood now, instead of in despair. It was a heart-warming sight to witness.
For the rest, it all worked out well. I felt very happy with my part in it all. Scott came back with me and stayed another week, while James found a flat for them to live in. Scott moved in with him and got a job working for an Estate Agent, to support them both while James finished his college. They kept in touch, and I learned Scott was taking an interest in one of James's gay friends, and since James and his fiancée were getting married, Scott and Nicholas were looking for a flat together.
I got an invitation to James's wedding, Scott was best man, and I met Nicholas. He's a nice lad, they seem very happy together. I don't know if Scott ever told his brother what his desperation had led him to, knowing his parents couldn't accept his sexuality and assuming his brother wouldn't either. But I think he must have told Nicholas about that day on the beach, because he introduced me as the man who saved his life.
The parents didn't go to the wedding.
© Bruin Fisher December 2008