This story is by James Whittaker, our newest regular contributor. James lives in the Cayman Islands with his wife Kirsty and dog Stanley. Originally from England, he has worked as a journalist at local newspapers around the world for the last 20 years and is now turning his hand to fiction. His story Happy and You Know It won the Grand Prize in our Spring Writing Contest. Welcome, James!
For Arthur Jennings, the scent of sunscreen was like a portal to another world. He closed his eyes and let it mingle in his mind with the sound of the waves and the wind’s warm breath on his face. For a moment he was a young man again on a different, distant beach, massaging thick cream into the slender brown back of his littlest child, a watchful eye on the other two. Those memories were so old now, it was as if they belonged to a different person.
“We’ve had a good life, haven’t we?” he said, turning to his wife, trying to hide the trace of uncertainty in his voice.
“Mmmhmmm,” she assented, her hand finding his in the space between the two Adirondack chairs. It had been Alice’s job, he recognised, to coax him through life, to manage his anxieties and tend to the vulnerabilities he refused to let others see. They sat, side by side, in the generous shade of a sea grape tree, watching magnificent frigate birds dive and swoop over the shallow lagoon. The beach was a tangle of rocks and roots barely holding on to land. A narrow tongue of sand licked out to the sea.
“I wouldn’t change a second,” she said, gently caressing his palsied hand with her thumb. Arthur made a muffled grunt intended to convey agreement. But such certainty eluded him.
They had come to Little Cayman to end their lives. Arthur had even said as much to the young couple in the chalet next door.
“We’re here to die,” he told them, with a mischievous sidelong look at his wife. They had assumed that he meant they were here, like everyone else at the resort, to dive. This was also true. They would take the morning boat out to the Bloody Bay Wall and fin-kick over the edge, where the shallow coral shelf slopes into a vertical underwater cliff face. Then they would keep going. At around 150 feet “the martini effect” of excess nitrogen in the blood would kick-in, making them feel calm and intoxicated. As the pressure at depth increased, the oxygen pushing through their veins would slowly become toxic. Arthur anticipated they would pass out somewhere around 300 feet, drifting away gently in the mellow embrace of a warm anaesthetic. For them, there would be no long descent into senility and decay, no wasting their children’s inheritance on futile medical procedures. They would leave this world on their own terms, everything tidy and ordered, like they were turning out the lights at the end of the day. What happened to them after, Arthur didn’t care. He wasn’t a man of faith. He imagined oceanic white tip sharks feasting on his body. Blood, bone and flesh metabolised into muscle. The vision thrilled him. A reincarnation of sorts.
From where they sat they could see the young man bone fishing in the shallows, flexing and casting his rod with casual flicks of his wrist. The girl had pulled a sun lounger to the water’s edge and was watching him. She stretched out in an exaggerated lazy yawn, her back arcing, slim and strong like a palm tree bending in the breeze. Arthur had long since lost the appetites that caused such turmoil for younger men. Good riddance to that. But the smooth symmetry of her figure stirred trace elements of residual lust. She smiled at him indulgently. Harmless old man. Arthur had only ever loved one woman, only slept with one woman. He’d always seen this as a virtue that would count in his favour if there was to be any higher moral accounting. Now he wasn’t so sure. Couldn’t it equally be argued he had failed to seize all the glories life had to offer?
Arthur had never been a passionate man. He loved Alice more when she was absent. When he felt the need for her presence, like a phantom limb. But he did love her, he assured himself, more than anyone on the planet. Even as he formed the thought he recognised it wasn’t an especially high bar to meet. There were his sons of course. He’d adored them with a fierce intensity as boys, but that had faded as they had ceased to depend on him. Their adult personalities diverged from his own so extremely that at first it felt like a betrayal. Then it had ceased to be important. In the end it was just him and Alice.
“Would you like a fish?”
The young man was standing over them now, a speckled brown parallelogram of flesh slapping at his thighs.
“We caught more than we could use and you’re welcome to one.”
His expensive sunglasses hung loose in the deep v of his half buttoned shirt. Life seemed barely to have touched him.
“Oh, I love turbot,” Alice beamed.
She said it like robot. Two words. Tur. Bot. Arthur felt a reflex twitch of annoyance.
“We’re fine, thank you,” he told the boy.
“It’s really nothing. It will go to waste,” the kid persisted. Too pleased with his own altruism.
“Better to have left it in the ocean in that case. We want something left to see when we go diving.”
Arthur had regained the high ground. No longer the recipient of charity. The mature dispenser of life lessons. It was a hollow victory he realized, as Alice pouted but he was committed to the strategy.
“We already bought chops,” he insisted.
Arthur’s condition afforded him a little latitude. Wasn’t being irritable just one of the symptoms? Mild cognitive impairment, the doctor had called it. It wouldn’t necessarily lead to dementia. The girl (surely too young to be a doctor) had walked him through the insulting mental fitness test. Asked him to tick which was the rhino, the camel, the lion. Applauded him like a first grader when he got it right.
He’d fumbled over the clock-drawing test.
“Five to ten,” the doctor instructed as he grimaced, trying to hide his uncertainty. He started to draw a firm line to the five. Then he rubbed it out angrily, nearly tearing through the paper in an effort to eradicate all trace of his mistake.
“That’s good Arthur, that’s right,” she said as he pencilled in the correct solution. But the praise was less effusive this time, her lips pursed with professional concern.
“No sticker for me,” Arthur said, trying to make light of it.
But the experience had frightened him. He had watched Alzheimer’s take hold of his mother like a fog smothering her mind till there was nothing left but disconnected fragments. He wouldn’t go like that. Arthur wanted to die while he could tell one safari animal from the next.
“I’ll come with you,” Alice had whispered without hesitation when he told her his intention. He had made a half-hearted effort to dissuade her, but her mind was made up.
“I will follow you into the dark,” she said, quoting a song their grandson had been obsessed with a decade ago, turning it in her head, into something grand and romantic. The idea of the dive had seemed fanciful at first. But it gained credibility as they tossed it back and forth in conspiratorial whispers, amplified in the echo chamber of their large empty house. It had gathered force until it hardened into a definite plan.
They lay in bed in the resort chalet the night before the dive passing a mug of tea between them in the slow unconscious rhythm of a well worn routine. The varnished carapace of a sea turtle was mounted on the wall. Alice counted the segments.
“Hawksbill,” she said. “Five scutes in the middle and four on the side, means it is a hawksbill.”
It was her job to break their silences, to let small slights go for the sake of the peace between them. He let her chatter away amiably, her words a comforting ambient wash, as he retreated into his mind. He wondered if he should insist on leaving her behind. She deserved her widow years – a final phase of life where she could relax her vigil, free from the responsibility of Arthur. That would be the honourable thing to do, he admitted. The truth was he needed her to help him go through with it.
“Alice,” he confessed, “I’m scared.” But her words had faded into gentle reedy snores. Sleep wouldn’t come so easily for Arthur. His internal monologue conducted a grim accounting of the things he hadn’t done with his 85 years. Never learned the piano, never been to Africa, never had sex outdoors. It took a double dose of Dramamine before he finally drifted off to fitful dreams, haunted by these ghosts of lives unlived. Arthur the lounge pianist, Arthur the explorer, Arthur the irascible philanderer.
The after effects of the drugs left him feeling cloudy and sluggish the next morning. He assented quietly when the divemaster offered to set up his gear as the boat cruised through the cut. His wife chattered away happily with the young couple, Peter and Katie, he overheard them say. He winced at her friendliness, understanding it as both an apology and a subtle rebuke for his behaviour the previous day. They poured over a reef fish guide book and she told her story about the stoplight parrotfish. She made it sound like a fable.
“Remember how the leopard never changes its spots, nor the tiger its stripes? And we’re supposed to accept that as one of the laws of human nature. But the stoplight parrotfish changes its spots, and its sex and its colour many times throughout its life. It starts off a reddish brown. It is only in its terminal phase that it flushes an incandescent blue.”
Arthur half wondered if she had forgotten why they were here. She seemed so calm and relaxed. But later as they bobbed on the surface of the water, she pulled off her mask and kissed him gently on the lips. He felt as if he should say something profound, but the words wouldn’t come and he just smiled weakly. His smile for waiters.
“See you on the other side,” she said and was gone in a trail of bubbles.
They lingered for a few moments over the shallow reef shelf as they swam towards the wall. Huge heads of brain coral littered the ocean floor, like discarded prototypes from the creator’s workshop. Purple veined sea fans wafted gently in the current, soft finger corals reached towards the light. In a dark hollow, a sea turtle chewed nonchalantly on a broken coral head. Arthur counted the scutes.
“Hawksbill?” he scrawled on the dive slate.
“Loggerhead,” she wrote and underlined it. She reached for his hand and they slipped over the edge of the wall. It was as though they had jumped from a cliff and were falling in slow motion. As they sank below 100 feet, he pumped a little air into his buoyancy vest and they hovered for a second at this invisible border. A wave of doubt washed through him.
“Ready?” he wrote on the dive slate.
“Ready,” she replied. But she didn’t underline it like she did when she wrote loggerhead or when she wrote I love you in his birthday cards.
Schools of blue and purple Chromis drifted like confetti in the diminishing sunlight. Past 150 feet and they were sliding down a bare rock face. No life left at this remove, save for the dark potential of shapes that flickered in the shadow light. The water, turquoise and translucent near the surface, thickened here into a murky soup. The darkness closed in on them quickly. Within a minute, all they could see was each other.
Arthur didn’t have time to be afraid. The impact of nitrogen narcosis flooded through him like a shot of Valium. He felt giddy and irresponsible. He pulled his wife towards him, finding the small of her back in the hollow beneath the tank. With an extravagant flourish, he tried to twirl her around, like they were on the dance floor at the Peace Memorial Hall and the military band was playing Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” He hadn’t noticed she was writing on the slate and his movements shook it from her grip. She grasped at the lanyard, but it twisted away, twirling upwards towards the light as though driven by its own survival instinct. Arthur followed it with his eyes and when he looked back Alice was floating away, her arm outstretched towards him, like an astronaut untethered.
“My dear wife,” he thought to himself as her shape dissolved into the solid blue background, “there she goes”. He giggled through his regulator. It felt like a dream.
Still drunk on nitrogen, he drifted in the gloom. The figures on his air gauge smeared in an inky blur and he stared at them in puzzled delusion, like the unfathomable empty clock face in the doctor’s office. Then the digits swam into focus and he realised with sobering clarity that he was alone and almost out of air. On queue, the martini effect of narcosis slipped seamlessly from giddy euphoria, into a second stage of drunkenness. An edgy, fearful paranoia, with which Arthur was on first name terms. If he didn’t pass out soon, he realised, he would run out of gas and drown.
Where was Alice?
Rationing his air in tiny sips, he swam in one direction and then another, willing a flash of her yellow fin or pink mask strap to emerge from the murk. He didn’t want to die like this he realized. Confused, disorientated and alone. Death, like life, it turned out, was another thing he couldn’t do without Alice.
There was still time to abort. It would be a manageable swim to the security of the shallows. Perhaps he could get help. They would send someone to look for Alice, wouldn’t they? A dive master with a full tank. He would tell them it had all been a terrible mistake. No-one would blame him.
But as he crept guiltily upwards, he had a vision of her drifting alone in the dark. In his mind he could picture her preserved like this forever, wandering the depths in a ghostly eternal dance, her hand outstretched in the shape it made when he let her go. The shape of his hand. Behind the mask her eyes were imploring him to come and take it, to acknowledge that this life of theirs, this little life, had been enough. He sighed deeply and with a skeptical glance at his air gauge, turned back towards the darkness.
Katie studied the dive slate as though the words were a puzzle she could solve.
“Hawksbill? Loggerhead Ready? Ready Abor…..” The final letters tailed off in a confused illegible scribble.
She had surfaced early from the dive, cold and frustrated with Pete, swimming around like it was a race, never checking her air or giving her an “okay” sign. The slate was drifting near the mooring buoy. From the alternating handwriting, which fluctuated between bold capitals and shaky cursive script, she gathered it was a conversation of sorts. She thought of the old couple in the chalet next door. The serious old man who had shyly watched her sunbathing at the water’s edge, the kind, chattery lady with her sweet natured fables about fish.
Bubbles were erupting beneath her and when she looked down, she could see two divers, hand in hand, slowly swimming towards the surface. She could only make out the shapes but something about the way they fit together made her certain it was the old couple.
Years later when she and Pete went their separate ways, when she struggled through a series of failed relationships, she would often think of Arthur and Alice and hold on to this image. Two shadows entwined, slowly rising towards the light.
Kathleen Zoldak says
wow! so beautifully written – I’m going to cry – I could picture every scene – your words were that powerful
James Whittaker says
Thanks Kathleen… glad you liked it
Brenda Sorrels says
I loved this story so much I went back and read “Happy and You Know It” – loved that one too! Great work! Conflict and resolution plus great writing = the kind of stories I like. Congratulations!
James Whittaker says
Thx for reading Brenda, glad you liked it
Chris Campbell says
Wonderfult ale,loved it. Well done
James Whittaker says
Cheers Chris, really appreciate you reading and taking time to comment
William Marcus says
I plan to save this story in my inbox for awhile, as a sort of template. I can’t recall reading anything like this. To me it seemed every word in the sentences were made for each other, the rhythm of the prose gently pulled me along, not just to find out the ending, but for the pleasure of reading(hearing) more of it. It was poetry written as prose. I will try to mimic it as I continue my historical novel. A thoroughly enjoyable read. You are certainly a gifted writer.
James Whittaker says
Thx William and good luck with your novel
Victoria Norton says
James Whittaker says
Billie Wade says
A beautiful story, beautifully written. I marveled at the lilt of the sentences, the gentle cadence that allowed the story to unfold. I, too, saved the story for future reference. I want to learn to write lyrically. Congratulations on winning the Grand Prize in the Spring Writing Contest.
James Whittaker says
Georgiana Marshen says
I too am saving this wonderfully written story as a template to great writing. It was like music.
Very poetic writing. Yet you still made the scene and the elderly couple very real and their relationship tangible. With the questions in Arthur’s mind was his final decision to go back heroic or self-serving? Love the ambiguous question left. The image of the eternal bond between Arthur and Alice created an impossibly high bar for Katie and her relationships. A lot said in a short space. Thank you.