Book 2, Chapter 23
Standing on the shore at the end of a long, hot, sweaty day’s ride in the leathers, and I’m wondering if it’s really worth risking it.
Over the last few day’s I’ve travelled along the Ghanaian coastline, dying for a swim but not daring.
The sea has been furious.
A thunderstorm - and a tropical one at that - on the day I crossed the border has whipped the Gulf of Guinea into a frenzy.
The carnage of the mashed up seas and the howling of the breeze would make my glasses mist with salt water even hundreds of meters back from the shoreline.
But today, here in Cape Coast, the wild weather has departed, leaving raging sunshine.
The stillness of air and sea leave no signs of the storm that’s been.
The swell; It’s massive.
Deadset fucking huge.
I’m squinting out at it without my glasses on. Nothing’s sharp, but I can still see vague shapes.
A big lump of clean water, moving fast, forming up into a towering, clean wall, and dumping down in a straight line along the whole length of the beach.
I might not be seeing it so well, but I can sure as shit hear it; that roar...
I've spent the day melting in my leathers. Even this late in the afternoon the sun is still belting down. Unrelenting.
I'm stuck in two minds. Even from here the waves are intimidating. Out there - and up to my neck in it - it’s going to be sketchy at best, really sketchy at worst... And what about currents? Rips? I know nothing about the local conditions...
It’s a Saturday and the beach is packed with Ghanaians, all enjoying the beach. The “beach resort” that I’m staying at - which is full of whities (a fun novelty) - is brimming with tourists having drinks at the bar that backs right onto the beach sand.
Everyone’s enjoying the view.
Yet not a single person - not one - is in the water. Not one Ghanaian, not one tourist.
Join those dots...
Well... Fuck it.
I’m a strong swimmer...
I run at it and jump in.
It's good. Really good... There’s something so refreshing about being back in the ocean again. I realise how much I’ve missed it over the last few weeks.
The upside is that I’ve got it all to myself.
I nearly get fucking murdered on the swim out - had to swim like stink - but I've managed to negotiate my way past the breakers to the other side; gently treading water.
On one side is a perfect flat stillness, on the other, carnage. As the swell comes on it sucks at the water in front of it, pulling me into it, the face rears up and I'm pulled up and over the huge crest as it passes through.
At the last moment of each wave I turn my head back to the beach, to glimpse down from the top of the breaking wave, back down at where the wave is going to smash. I’m so high up that it brings on a queasy vertigo. It's a long, long way down. A moment later and the wave curls on itself. The thunder rolls, water erupts, spraying everywhere like a bomb. An awesome display of power.
I don't feel safe.
The big forces are making me feel very small.
All I’d been thinking about on the swim out was getting past the waves and into this safety of the flat water beyond. But - now that I’m here - the equal and opposite question presents itself; how the fuck do I get back in??
I feel an undercurrent pulling me further out. Away from the beach. I can't see well, but it feels like the beach is getting further away.
In a snap, I decide I want out. Now.
The “smallest” wave of the set is coming. I swim like hell to try to catch it. I’ve only got a few seconds to get to the break, so it’s head down, full stroke and a six-kick.
With my eyes shut, I feel it starting to pick me up and I go for it; thrash, thrash, thrash.
The wave takes over. I pop my head out and take as big a breath as I can, skimming like a rock down the face of the wave. The big bastard breaks right on me.
I feel my forward momentum stop, change direction. I'm going backwards, up. Feet first, it bends me over backwards, and throws me over the falls again.
I'm forced into a horrible back bend.
Vulnerable. It'd take nothing to break my back...
It slams me back down like a plaything.
I rag doll over and over in the wash till I can figure out which way is up again.
I break the surface and suck air.
The luck of not breaking by back on a sandbar has quickly turned into unluck of having nothing to stand on to get my breath back.
I need to breathe, but I also need to swim. Now.
I'm in the worst place I could be...
I get to it.
I swim for a few seconds and then turn around to time my breath and duck dive under the next wave; I don't want it catching me without a lungful of air.
Looking out to sea I spot a hazey blob in the corner of my vision. No more than a hop, skip and a jump away, just a bit deeper out than me. A black blob.
Thank Christ there’s at least one other person out here...
The blob’s hamming it up. He's waving to his mates on the shore, carrying on like a pork chop.
Yeah, well done mate. I'm sure everyone’s very impressed...
I turn to look to the shore to see what they’re doing; I get a quick glimpse of lots of black blobs, not moving much. Odd... It's like life on the beach has come to a stand-still.
I’m smacked in the back of the head by the next avalanche of white wash. Off guard. I’ve got no wind in the lungs. I’m empty.
My lungs wrench at me. I keep somersaulting...
Finally, I can tell up from down. I pop out of the wash, and breathe.
That was a long hold under. Yuck.
I check out the blob. I freestyle over to him, right up to the point where the blob's face becomes clear, and I know that I’m wrong; I’ve never seen a face like it. He’s terrified. Beyond terrified. Way beyond it...
I flick my head back to the shore. Lots of blobs, none moving.
Where the fuck are the surf lifesavers in their rubber ducky?
It takes a moment to settle into my spinning head. This is Ghana, no one's coming...
I turn back to the face.
He’s my age.
He’s half trying to swim, half trying to wave for help. He can't swim; even in the calm between waves he can't keep his head out of water enough. His neck is tilted back to try to keep his gaping mouth from going under.
His eyes are wild, looking down his nose in my direction. Face shaking.
I swim over to him. I still can’t stand, and I still can’t believe that he’s actually drowning. “Are you ok mate??”
What a dumb fucking question...
He grabs onto my right wrist with both of his hands - latches on. As his head goes under again we cop the next set of white wash.
Neither of us lets go as we take a roll together in the wash.
I find the surface first. I’ve got to kick like fuck to keep my head above the water while I try to pull him up. He’s not doing either of us any favours; I can still feel both of his hands clamped tightly onto my wrist, and without him swimming for himself it's like trying to drag up a sack of spuds.
In between every frog kick my head keeps going underwater, just enough to cover my mouth, I’m not really getting a chance to breathe.
He's not letting go...
Panic. A monster dump of adrenaline. Fizz!
I drag him to the surface and try to put some of my effort into going forward, to be beach, but we’re not going anywhere fast. There’s such a long way to the shore.
The shore... I turn my head to have a quick look. No one’s in the water.
I turn back to see the top half of a terrified face, and the rush of white water, coming on fast behind him. I stop pulling him, and with the extra slack I put my head well above water and take the biggest breath that I can before the white wall hits.
In the wash there’s one thought that’s overwhelming me, the only thing that matters: Don’t let him drown you.
It’s weird; my mind is clear enough to reflect on how cowardly it is. It’s also thinking of the glory I can pull if I get him back to the shore... Cowardice and vanity. And not a whole lot else. Never mind what happens to this guy. I don’t care.
My lungs and legs are on fire. I get to the surface, kicking like an epileptic frog and try to breathe, but it’s not enough. I slowly dredge him up. He’s been a long time under, and I don't reckon he got a breath in before he went under. The look on his face tells me that he’s figured the same thing out as I have: This isn’t working.
It’s not going to work.
He’s drowning now.
He freaks out. Completely. His hands scramble up my arm like he’s climbing a rope, fast, and he gets to my shoulders and hauls himself on top of me, pushing me down and under.
Bastard! Arrgh fuck!!!
I try to swim up with both of my arms now. Frantic. But I can’t. My whole body is on fire, there's acid in my veins, with a special kind of burning reserved for my lungs.
I’m trying to swim and fight him at the same time.
I give that up and shove him off then pull him down, and not a second too soon because I’m panicking, out of oxygen, drowning, but I'm still well under.
My hands are at the surface but my head's not as the next layer of wash comes piling over the top and knocks me around.
This is it...
I’ve been under for too long.
Gonna die gonna die gonna die.
Without the young bloke as dead weight I make the surface far quicker. And breathe. I'm choking and coughing on water; half of it's been swallowed, the other half went down the wrong pipe. It's grating and burning the back of my throat as I burk it up.
I’m shit scared. Wide-eyed fucking terrified.
Fuck this. Fuck him. I’m out.
I don’t even think of staying out there; not for a moment, even though I've got my breath back and I'm swimming fine.
I want out of this water, right fucking now.
I freestyle slowly for the shore, leaving the young bloke out there to drown.
As I throw in the towel, a few Ghanaians - young blokes themselves - come swimming out the other way; if you can call that swimming...
I don't care.
They can manage it. I want nothing to do with it.
I get to the shore. Safe. Slumped with hands on knees.
My head is clear, and cold.
I'm fine; so I have to act it up that I'm in worse shape than I really am, lest people think I gave it up too early; I don't want to be judged.
And then it sinks in: the kid's dead. And I’m alive. And I threw it in early. Way too early. I could have stayed out there, tried again after getting my breath back. I hardly fucking had a crack at it. I must look like I’ve had a crack, sure, but I know the score... And now someone's dead.
I’m so disappointed with myself; at the pointy end, when truly tested - a true test of character, a true test of the man - and I copped right out.
That look on his face...
Standing on the beach, I know all of this. Yet, even now, this very moment, I won't go back out there. I’ve got my breath back, I’m still alive, I’m actually fine. I could go back out and try again. I could go out there and fix this, undo this cowardly shit. But I don’t dare to.
Instead, I keep up the act; coughing and spluttering; looking like I’m suffering a lot harder than I have a right to, so that no one that was watching - and there are hundreds now - will know how gutless I am.
A local bloke comes dodging through the crowd with a surfboard.
Good. That’ll help.
He comes down to where I am - at the point where the wet sand meets the dry - and holds the board out to me.
Nah. Nope. I can’t... No.
I take the board. What else can I do?
I haven’t turned to look at what’s going on out in the wash since I left it. And I’ve got no idea what’s going on. He could be still alive, he might be dead. I don’t know.
Time is of the essence.
Without really caring - and I can hardly believe this myself as I watch myself do it - I put the surfboard on the ground and start untying the velcro on the leg rope that tethers to the board.
I’m a piece of shit.
The first strip of velcro comes off, then the next, and the loop is open. Now I’ve got to get it around my wrist. It’s like putting on a giant wrist watch – that awkward action when you only have one hand free. I’m fiddling with the velcro and I can’t get it right.
It's taking ages... The clock is ticking. Fast. And I’m in slow motion.
Some poor fucker is dead or dying, and I’m tying a leg rope to my wrist.
Covering my own arse.
Selfish bastard. Self self self.
I fail at it once. Then twice. I realise too late that it probably would have been quicker to use both my hands and tie the fucking thing around my ankle where it's supposed to fucking be; it's called a leg rope for a reason... But I’m too far along now, and I keep at it.
I wonder what the people watching are thinking of me.
Third time’s a charm.
Finally I jog into the water, awkwardly get on the board, and start paddling.
The first wave of wash knocks me off the board.
I can’t stand, even this close to the shore, and I labour to get back on. My arms don’t feel like working anymore.
The second wave knocks me off, again. I can't get back on the board till another lot of whitewash has come through.
Finally, I manage to negotiate a few waves of wash without falling off, and make progress.
I make it out to the three guys who had gone out when I came in. They've been out here, treading water - and struggling at that. These blokes don’t look like they could swim in a bathtub, let alone out here in this heavy wash.
They’re yelling their heads off, hovering in a triangle around the fourth. The fourth is the young bloke.
All I can see of him is the slump of his back, and the back of his head - face down. That’s it, not moving.
Jesus effing Christ...
All the blokes treading water leave the body and come swimming over to the board, frantic, thrashing, and awkward - they each look like a dog that's been thrown into deep water for the first time.
They latch onto the surfboard like it’s just saved them.
Another wave of wash comes through and scatters us like ten pins, and I'm flung off the board.
Water’s all white foam and froth. I'm glad for the leg rope...
The four of us get back to the board and grab hold. We swivel our heads around. But the body has gone missing. Can’t see it anywhere.
All four of us are yelling now, panicking.
One of the guys spots something bobbing, sickeningly, in the water a few strides away.
No one’s actually on the board anymore; all four of us are in the water with one arm across it to stay afloat. We have to do an awkward one armed scramble with the free hands to get to the body.
The poor bastard's gone. Time’s up...
We’re all struggling and straining to pull him up onto the board, but there’s no way to get any purchase, no way to get any leverage to lift him onto the surfboard with. Not from down here in the water with him. He’s slippery, and he’s so goddamn heavy.
Incredibly, impossibly heavy.
All dead weight.
Another fucking wave of wash comes through but it's a small one, and we manage to keep hold of him and the board this time.
I don't know how, but we haul him onto the board and arrange him so he's lying straight. We point the longboard at the shore, and paddle.
The next whitewash through is big and powerful enough to drag the board, the body, and us four hangers-on all the way back to the shore.
The three swimmers - and one other bloke from the gathered crowd - grab the limp body, arms and legs - a man to a limb - and unceremoniously haul him, face down, up the beach.
I take my time to slowly carry the surfboard up to the dry sand before I put it down and tear the leg rope off my wrist. It’s bizarre - and even while I’m doing it I’m reflecting on how weird an act it is - but we wouldn’t want a wave to come and wash the board away now, would we?
Am I out of my mind??
The guys have been smart enough to think the same way about the body, and they’ve run it all the way up the beach and dumped it face first into the dry sand. They roll it over onto its back as I come over.
There's a massive mob gathered. Everyone is losing their shit. Women are wailing, men are yelling, everyone’s making a huge racket.
I push my way to the front row.
The eyes are half open, half closed, and all whites. A bit foamy around the mouth too.
No one’s doing anything. There are a few people kneeling about him, giving him a bit of a shake. That's it...
There’s gotta be a doctor in amongst all those tourists at the bar, surely, or at least someone in medicine, or something. Some sort of professional. Someone qualified...
And there’s no way that they could have missed this hoopla...
I get on my knees.
Righto... Fuck. I know first aid - I’ve been trained, sort of... That was a while ago. Years ago, even.
Better than nothing... It’s not like I can make it any worse than it is, can I?
Ok. Ok, ok, ok. Here we go. "DR ABC". Those are the letters to follow...
What the fuck does "D" stand for??
Dee... Dee dee dee dee...
No. No Danger. Good. Move on.
"R", is... Resuscitation...?
What the fuck does that mean?? Resuscitation??
What am I supposed to do for that??
"R" is Response!
Shake him, right? Get a Response. Yes. No - they’ve been shaking him already... So...
I wind up a trembling hand and give him a massive, adrenaline-fuelled bitch slap right across the face. Damn near rip his head off; my fingers fucking hurt.
The gathered mob has been looking at me for cues on how to assist. Without my say-so they start laying into the guy, belting the shit out him. Fists come in from everywhere. Everyone’s taking their chance to do their bit and sock him one. I'm shrieking. Some silly dickhead down the end starts punching him in the thigh over and over, giving him a dead leg. Dumb fuck. While some other bloke’s sunk the boot in a couple of times before they finally hear me over the din, and give it a rest.
Fuck’s sake. It’s gone from resuscitation to mugging...
The pummelling’s had no effect. I was hoping - really hoping - he'd just wake up.
Airways. That means making sure he hasn’t chundered. Right? Or swallowed his tongue?
I grab his face with my hand and squeeze, like I'm trying to get a stick off a dog. I’m trying to pull his jaw down with my other hand at the same time, but it’s not loose. It won’t come apart. His skin just moves, the teeth wont. The bastard is locked up tight.
I try to put my fingers in between his teeth to pull it apart.
I wiggle a little bit of my fingers in the gap of his overbite - just enough to get a purchase - and pull like hell. It gives. Just enough room to fit my other fingers in. I’ve gotta strain to pull his teeth apart; I’m using so much force I’m waiting for his bottom jaw to just snap right off.
First a beating, then a broken jaw. Fucking brutal.
I take a close look around inside his mouth.
No vom. And the tongue is where it ought to be.
D.R. A. "B"...
Breathing! How do I check that??
His chest. If it’s moving up and down, that’d be it. Right?
Everyone else is still shaking him. I don't think I'd be able to tell one way or the other. It's too subtle...
I stick my ear down to his mouth and nose - and listen.
I can’t hear myself think over this fucking din - let alone listen out for something as light as the breath of a body...
Fog a spoon?
Panic. More adrenaline.
I don't know how to do B.
Can I skip it?
Wait... Is the “mouth to mouth” bit supposed to be part of “B” or “C”?
What does it matter?? Gotta do it.
C. Circulation. Last thing.
It’d be fucking ideal if someone wanted to part the crowd right about now and say “Stand back! I’m a doctor! I'll take it from here!”
Fuck. I’m kneeling over him and just shaking out my fingers by my sides like a fucking dandy.
Did it have to be a bloke?
Any fucking time now...!
OK! Here we go!!
I grab his jaw, I put my mouth wide over his open mouth, make the seal, and blow.
A big glob of snot comes flying out of his nose and sprays all over my cheek.
Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!
I can’t think!
Right. Fuck! Try again.
This time block that goddamn nose.
Someone next to me is very close and is yelling something in my ear. I’ve got my fingers pinching his nose and my other hand holding his jaw open as I turn my head to look.
It’s a white girl, about my age.
She says something in English. Even though I’m looking right at her I can’t register it. It’s too loud. And I’m not really listening. I’m not even really here... It’s all too much.
“You need to check the pulse!”
“Have you checked the pulse?!”
“The pulse?!” I look back at the body.
Fuck. Have I missed a step?
Does it even matter right now?
Fuck the pulse. I turn back to her, “Who the fuck are you?! Are you a fucking doctor??”
“WHAT?!” I stare at her and she just stares right back at me.
“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME??”
I look back at the body, then back to her. She doesn’t make a move to take over, she just kneels there in the sand, jibbering about the pulse...
Bugger it. Where was I? Right.
I blow, again. No snot. He makes a sound like an air mattress being blown up. I can see from the corner my eye his chest inflate and rise up a surprisingly high amount. It's working.
Good! Excellent! Progress!
I remember this now: two of those breaths, then thirty pushes on the chest - two every second - count to fifteen as you go. Try to crack ribs, that means you're doing it right. I remember this...
Two pumps to each count...
One.. Two.. Three.. Four..
Everyone tries to help. Again. Everyone within reach is mimicking me. The trouble is that they’re doing it everywhere. All over. Someone’s shoving him in the guts, someone’s shoving him in the side, someone’s doing it on the other side of his chest, out of sync with me. That dumb fuck down the end starts doing compressions on his leg.
This isn’t real.
I scream at them to stop it. I shriek it at the top of my lungs. They're fucking it up.
But the mob has reached fever pitch. Either they can’t hear me or everyone’s as desperate and freaked out as I am. They’ve all stopped listening to me. I shove one guy off, then another. In the time that I’ve shoved the second bloke off the first one’s gone back to mashing his guts again.
Nothing for it. Hopeless.
I sit back.
The body is jiggling and wobbling around like jelly with everyone’s pushing. It all looks a little crook.
What to do now?
Fuck it; might as well keep going till the ambulance gets here.
Wait. Is an ambulance even coming?? Surely someone's made a call... Do they even have ambulances here??
In any case, there's no point in stopping what I'm doing...
Another two breaths in, and I start the compressions again.
I’m looking from his face to his chest, from his chest to his face as I go, and his half open mouth suddenly wells up with water and starts spilling over his cheeks like a blocked up laundry sink.
I flip him onto his side like I’m flipping a table.
Water comes pouring out of his mouth. A lot of it. There are chunks of pink stuff in it. What the fuck is the pink stuff?? Chunks of lung??
I roll him onto his back when it’s stopped flowing out.
Is he breathing? I put my ear to his mouth again. I can't tell shit... I think we've just plunger'd him.
The crowd is going mental. Everyone’s screaming.
I give him two more breaths. I go to work on his chest again.
He starts doing little convulsions in his guts - I can see it flex - even with everyone shoving him all over.
This is definitely him...
I flip him onto his side again and he convulses, a big one, and noiselessly brings up a heap of water. He pipes a half bucket of seawater out onto the sand, relaxes, then convulses again and brings up the other half.
More water than you’d think possible.
More chunky pink bits.
He starts making noises like he’s got machine gun hiccups.
Everyone loses their shit. It’s panda-fucking-monium.
I leave him on his side. The "recovery position".
I lean over him and look at his face.
His eyes are open. Bulging way out of his head and bloodshot to hell. Like a fish brought up from deep water; his eyes look like they’re about to pop right out of his head.
They’re not blinking, they’re not moving, just staring, fixedly, at nothing.
Jeeeeeesus. H. Christ.
Is he alive??
I can’t tell... I can’t tell if the hiccuping is really, really shallow breathing, or just convulsions that are getting no air in.
I stick my ear next to his face again but the crowd has gone totally deafening, It’s impossible to know whether he's breathing for himself or not.
People are trying to push him out of the "recovery positions" and onto his back. This time I’m having none of it. I'm ready to punch someone in the face. They stop pushing.
I bend over him again, real close, and he’s breathing. Tiny little gasping breaths, but it’s definitely getting into him.
I’m looking right at his eyes, I try to talk to him and get a reaction. He’s not looking back. He’s still got that far-off, wide-eyed stare.
His eyes are so far out of his skull that it looks cartoonish; it looks broken.
Alive, at least. On a knife's edge... but alive.
I scream up at the mob to "call a fucking ambulance" but no one’s listening to me; they're too busy losing their minds.
No one’s giving me the green light that an ambo is on the way, or exactly what the fuck the plan is now...
It’s making me furious.
I pick out a tourist in the crowd, lock eyes with the guy, point at him and scream at him to get an ambulance.
Off he runs.
Back to the dead guy. He's still hiccuping away. He doesn’t look conscious, but I tell him that he’s ok and that help is coming anyway, and tell him to try to breathe a little deeper.
The chief muggers have decided that now is the time to get him off the beach.
They start to grab limbs and pick him up.
I'm having none of it; This bloke looks right on the edge of the living and the dead, I reckon if they shift him he could easily stop breathing again and die anyway. He shouldn't move an inch till he’s at least blinking again, or breathing something close to normal, or till an ambo comes...
I yell at them to leave him where he is.
They yell back.
It's a shouting contest, they're giving me full beans.
I’m upto my gills in adrenaline. I shriek right back at them.
I'm going to punch someone...
Then it all snaps.
All the adrenaline blows up and I'm suddenly knackered.
I melt into a pile and sit back on my haunches.
Fine. It's someone else’s problem now...
They drag him off; a man to a limb again; face down, again; running, ungraceful and uncaring. He looks dead.
Poor bastards gonna die twice in a day.
I feel sick.
His name is Richard.
Not brain dead or anything.
He's KO’d in a hospital bed; a pretty shitty hospital bed.
His only complaints - back when he was briefly conscious - were that his stomach and legs were really, really sore. Of course he couldn't join the dots as to why drowning would make his legs hurt so much. Clearly no one's filled him in yet on the mugging...
I'm getting this intel from his mates; the gutsy three who came in the other way when I was heading back to shore.
He can’t swim.
Not even a little bit.
His mates can’t swim either; despite them being fucking fishermen for a living.
Seems crazy to me.
Apparently; people drown here on the coast all the time.
And despite their predisposition to sinking like rocks, they all hang out down at the beach, and just fuck about in the shallows.
Which is just plain thick, I reckon.
A big wave comes in - take everyone by surprise - and whip someone out of the shallows, off their feet and into the waves. Their mates - who also can’t swim - can only watch as their mate drowns. Powerless to help.
And that's just what happened to Richard.
I head back to the "beach resort", and I'm treated like a hero by anyone who saw the thing.
Being hugged by people I don’t know and getting quite a few free drinks. A lot of free drinks, in fact.
It’s all bullshit; I know the score. Piss weak cowardice followed by the worst, most botched successful resuscitation in the history of resuscitations.
Richard wasn't the only bloke who was very lucky today. In the same grain of pure selfishness I’d exercised at the time, I shock myself again by feeling happier that he’d lived for the sake of my own conscience rather than rejoicing that he survived for his own sake.
Luck is the only reason that I get to be ok with this.
It seems a hollow victory; a different roll of the dice and this could have been a fucking wake. Should have been, in fact... All things considered...
All that I thought I was by doing this trip - brave, courageous, tough - has been revealed, at it's very depths, to be selfishness and vanity.
It's redefined me.
It feels ugly.
It’s grating on me a bit that everyone’s making out like I’m the white knight of the story.
But if they want to buy me a drink, hey, I’m not about to refuse...
I end the night just like Richard; bringing up a big bucket load of fluid with my eyes popping out of my head whilst lying on the sandy floor of the beach.
History, delightfully, repeating.