New Year’s Eve, 1999
A few hours to go and I’m ready. I never took for granted that I would see the next century, but it’s already arrived in New Zealand, Australia and it’s creeping across Asia to hit us before the dawn breaks again.
Christmas was nice enough. A couple of days at Lisa’s place, gorging, drinking, watching telly and verbal jostling with David and the kids. It’s easier now they’re in their twenties; I loved them when they were little but the games, stories and questions always wore me out. Then a day with Michael, Caroline and Lily, quieter as usual, and easier to talk about his mum without the risk of tears. He loved her, but has always accepted that we all get a big share of sadness in our lives. Lisa almost expects everything to be lovely, so she finds it harder to cope when bad stuff happens. I hope she gets better at taking the rough with the smooth, but that’s for her to sort out.
Both have made their plans, with their families, for this evening. Lisa, David and their kids are going to a big party in the big house of a friend who’s got plenty of money to blow on the biggest night of the millennium. They wanted me to go, but I’m honest in saying I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s Eve, and fifteen months after Eileen died I can claim that I’d rather sit at home and wallow in some happy memories. Michael and Caroline have been invited to a friend’s flat in London, right by the river with a balcony view of the fireworks. I’ve told all of them to enjoy themselves, and not worry about me tomorrow as I’m off to my friend George for a long walk, a late lunch and a few beers, in that corner of the countryside that mobile phones don’t reach. It might be the second or the third of the month that they think about a phone call. That gives me plenty of time.
I sit in the armchair with a tumbler and bottle of single malt, take the first sip with no worry about drinking too much, and let my thoughts drift. I find minutes of pleasure in memories, playing with the kids when they were young, then their kids, and walking by seashores and through forests with Eileen, and snuggled with her on the sofa, and doing things in the bedroom that I would never describe to anyone. But for the twenty thousandth time they collapse and once again I’m in the sea.
Spitting out saltwater as I swam with the soaking weight of my uniform and the fatigue of days without sleep, towards the boat packed with soldiers as behind me men splashed, cried, drowned in the froth of the sinking gunboat. I could see the boat ahead was close to crammed, a tug made for four of five crew with at least sixty men on its deck, but that it was drifting, waiting to give a few more the chance to survive. A line of dark smoke wafted across my face, a moment of blindness, a smell of burning. I heard a plane swoop and spit bullets from above and feared the U-boat below. I didn’t know if there were other boats close by, better possibilities to survive, but kept my eyes on the tug and swam as hard as I could, silently pleading with whoever was in its wheelhouse not to boost the engine.
Other men were ahead of me, flailing arms and bobbing heads, each in his own desperation. I saw the first reach the tug, grasp a rope and wave for help. Two, three, four of the soldiers onboard stepped backwards, before a fifth reached over the side and pulled the man up to the deck. I saw others look towards the wheelhouse and knew they were shouting for the captain to take them away, that they couldn’t take all the men from the sinking gunboat. I kept going, saw another man pull himself out of the water, then a soldier try to push him away before others pulled him back. There was a scramble on the deck, a few men at its side extending arms to help the swimmers, a couple trying to pull them back, most backing away from the side. I saw another three, four men clamber onboard and with a few more strokes I was within feet of the boat’s side, looking for a rope or an outstretched hand, when another swimmer splashed into my path. It broke my own stroke, knocked me sideways into a mouthful of sea and a moment of terror. When I straightened up I could see him clutching at a rope, a face of wet blond hair and heavy freckles turned towards mine. It was Harris, a boy I knew only as a face and name from my company. There was a moment in which we stared at each other, sharing the fear and a hope that we had both found the chance to stay alive. Then I heard a loud splutter, the rev of an engine, and as I touched the rope a slither of movement in the tug. Both of us screamed, I tightened my grip, threw a hand on Harris’s shoulder, pushed it hard, pulled with the other hand and hauled myself half out of the water. I felt fingers grab my jacket then the belt of my trousers and my fear erupted into a flailing that brought a fist against his head and my boot on his neck. I got a hand on the deck rail and a foot on the rope, then felt other hands at my sleeves and shoulders pulling to me safety. I crashed onto the deck, gasped a long, choking breath, then realised what I had done. The tug was circling, not yet pulling away from the men in the water. I got to my feet, looked over the side and saw nothing. I barged my way along the deck to the rear of the boat, looking across the surface for a blond head. A couple more men made it onboard but I could see neither was Harris. The tug rolled, men jostled and tried to retain their balance, a fresh wave of panic rolling across the deck. A voice shouted “That’s enough!”, the boat pulled out of its circle and began to move away.
Around me soldiers went wide eyed in relief, guilt, dismay, as we watched other men in the sea, still swimming but falling further away from the boat. I looked for Harris, but all I could see was the blank slosh of gentle waves. Then we lost sight of the swimmers’ faces. Their shrieks followed us across the Channel.
I got through the war – one minor wound in Italy – married Eileen, had two good kids, a decent job, a nice house, friends, foreign holidays, lots of little pleasures. By any measure it’s been a good life, but I’ve never been able to enjoy it. On most days there has been a moment, often more than one, when I feel the sea pulling as I stare at Harris, relive the desperate splashing as I push and kick my way to safety, feel his fear as he sinks and sucks the sea into his lungs. Then I roll under my own wave and endure a silent shame that pollutes all the pleasures a day could bring. I’ve lived with the guilt for fifty-nine years, never really escaped those minutes in the sea.
I finish my third glass of whisky, feeling comfortably woozy but still intent on fulfilling the plan. Many times I had thought of sacrificing myself to the memory of Harris, but there was Eileen and the responsibilities of family; I didn’t want to deprive them of their breadwinner and subject them to the grief when we expected plenty more years to come. It was too much to give, even for the man I had killed. But now Eileen has gone, Lisa and David no longer rely on me, and we’re arriving at the point where I rely on them. They will be upset, but at my age the loss shouldn’t be as hard to take. And there’s one thing I can sacrifice. In those days of retreat and chaos the thought of living into a new century was unthinkable: on the beaches we wanted to stay alive for days; in the water it was minutes; another sixty years was a fantasy. Now I’m on the verge of seeing it happen, but I can give it up. That’s the sacrifice I can make.
So I top up the glass for the fourth time and reach for the bottle of pills, a cure for a bogus insomnia. I recall a day when I felt moments of contentment – a picnic on a beach with Eileen and the kids – thank life for giving me more than I deserved, tip half a dozen of the pills into my hand and swallow. Then I drink from a glass of water, swallow another half dozen pills and drink again, then do it all a third time. I place the pill bottle on the table and take a slow sip at the whisky, feeling a gentle burn roll across my tongue, sink into my throat, and release its slithers of pleasure into my blood and up to my brain. The light fades around me and my mind sinks into a comfortable darkness.
Then I’m beneath the water. I push upwards, break the surface and gasp for air. I look around, see nothing to either side, but then hear a splash behind me. I turn and see Harris, treading water, his hair and face soaked as if he has just arisen from the depths. He has an expression of relief, as if he had just pulled himself free of a drowning weight. Then he smiles. Now I feel a moment of fear, asking myself if this is my eternity. All I can think of is the words I’ve wanted to say for nearly sixty years.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for killing you.”
He bobs in the water for a couple of seconds and his smile broadens.
“Don’t worry mate,” he replies. “I know you didn’t mean to do it.”
He slides his hands forward and places them on my shoulders.
“You’ve done your time,” he says. “You can rest.”
Then he presses me gently downwards, so that I go under the surface. I feel the water seep into every part of me and I drift backwards, out of the sea, into a soft light and gentle breeze, my consciousness evaporating into a sense of relief and freedom. At last I’ve escaped.
More about Mark Say at marksaywriter.com
Image by portengaround, CC BY 2.0 through flickr