They were specks in the distance. He wouldn’t have spotted them but for the lone tern that drifted into his binocular sights, dipping with the air currents that clashed across the bay. Usually he wouldn’t bother focussing on a bird he routinely documented but this one’s insouciance caught his eye and he followed its progress until he saw them.
Pressed against the barrier, there was something more than the almost bipolar volatility of adolescence about them and he allowed the tern to drift out of sight, a practised finger adjusting the dial to sharpen his newest quarry. He was unable to quantify his interest – the beautiful views of the channel from that part of the coast attracted a constant stream of tourists in all moods – but the dynamic seemed odd and he was compelled to watch.
Two teenage girls. He was too far away, even with the binoculars, to see decisive tells like hairstyles or clothing but after his accident, when he’d passed the wanting to die stage at least, his observational skills had sharpened in compensation of movement and speech and he’d gained pleasure from training himself in body language. Almost without exception (and the convention of it bored him) young men pushed and shoved their way to the barrier, eager to parade their manufactured fearlessness to their companions. Girls and women approached with caution to tentatively peer over the barrier, nervous giggles carrying some distance on the wind.
Suddenly, the girl grasping the barrier let go and stepped back. Squinting, eye cups pressing against his face, he was certain he could see her head shaking in exaggerated refusal or denial. The other, red coat or cardigan caught in a sudden gust, took a step backwards too but then flung open her arms in a gesture of frustration.
For a moment, nothing happened. The blanket his daughter had tucked over his legs before leaving strained against its moorings but stayed in place and he suddenly wished he’d stayed indoors while she popped to the village for groceries, rather than insisting she wheel him out to his favourite spot to take some sun. He regretted his cantankerous insistence on his own way and, perhaps more, her passive accommodation of his demands. Dread nipped at his nerve endings like a puppy on the teat.
As an ocean’s silent recession precedes a destructive wall of water, the girls’ inactivity snapped. The submissive one lifted her head and, without hesitation, strode back to the barrier, grasped it again and swung a leg over. The movement, fluid and determined, shocked him and the binoculars slipped from his clammy grasp.
He caught them between his thumb and forefinger, despite having caught little more than a cold since moving in with Jeanette. He’d been a keen cricketer in his youth and while the muscles barely functioned now, the memory of aptitude remained intact.
Desperate to see what was happening, he somehow fumbled the binoculars back up to his face. A sticky thumbprint on the lens occluded his vision but to his horror he was able to see the girl was standing on the cliff side of the barrier, feet parted inches from the edge. Head bowed, peace seemed to have settled upon her. She could have been relaxed but she might have been resigned. He couldn’t tell.
In contrast, her friend’s distress had intensified. Arms stretched out in desperation, he couldn’t hear her plaintive cries but could feel them as though they were born from his own lungs.
When he opened his mouth to yell, he had every reason to expect no sound to emerge but the weak croak that belly flopped out of his mouth and down his chin still shocked him to the core. Five years of rehabilitation, reconstruction and finally acceptance crumpled and collapsed like a tower filled with explosives and he silently howled. The slippery binoculars dropped from his hands and with them, his tenuous grasp on hope.
Later, walking up the winding path towards her father with a teapot and his favourite Chelsea buns arranged on a tray, Jeanette noticed nothing unusual. Flesh crammed into a wheelchair with no consideration of comfort or dignity wasn’t how a man once of proud military bearing would have wanted to be remembered, she was sure, but it was that or nothing and she had accepted his choice because it was his to make, not hers.
She accepted his choice to die without protest too. Through sheer momentum he lasted another two months in that ruined slump of a body but for Jeanette, the moment she saw his tearstained, reddened face was the moment she lost him forever. The doctors told her it wasn’t uncommon for a man in his condition to simply give up but she drew the line at accepting that. Her father was a survivor. Something had strangled the life out of him as callously as brutal hands and every morning from that day on, as she stood on his spot and stared out to sea, she felt the explanation fluttering just outside her grasp, like the terns still swooping and rolling in the gentle breeze.
Like him, it would be out there somewhere.