The Pharaoh's heart (conscience) was weighed against a feather to see if he was good enough to pass to the afterlife. In the following story, what you read is a measure of your interest, what you think is a measure of your soul. The innate in you will know the truth, you cannot hide from it no matter how hard you try.
Dave’s feelings were more than a little hurt as he recalled his wife Beth wagging a finger at him from the kitchen doorway at home saying, and not without a touch of inherited venom in her voice, ‘If you don’t go to mother’s seventieth, I will be and I won’t be coming back!’ He knew she meant it too; she'd been the love of his life but was quite difficult to live with for sure. However, he didn’t want to lose his home and family and so it was that one autumn Friday afternoon they arrived at the cosy but fateful hotel on the south coast. The family had clubbed together in a haphazardly unequal way to pay for the special event. Dave suspected that his share was considerably more than his brother-in-law Nathan’s. Nathan, an astute and manipulative man, was almost as mean as his mother and had been named after a frequently friendly local butcher.
Beth and Dave enjoyed a reasonably friendly evening on their own, as they had travelled down a day earlier than the rest of the party. Their room was pleasant and comfortable but without a sea view, as those rooms were reserved for Beth’s mother and company. As they settled into the plush bed and put out the lights, Beth warned Dave once more of the consequences of alienating her mother, ‘Don’t you dare be rude and don’t you dare wander off and leave the party. We’re only here to give mum a good time for her special birthday.’ Both room and mood plunged into an even deeper darkness. Dave mumbled his agreement and turned over with some sadness. He couldn’t stand the mother-in-law, he could hardly choke the words out to even speak to her, he certainly never called her ‘mum’ or even by her first name. He called her Mrs Briarley on the odd occasion he was obliged to converse. Dave was fully aware that his mother-in-law was of the opinion that he was a useless, weird and unpleasant object that would have been better off being put down at birth. She hadn’t attended their wedding, had written Dave specifically out of her will and refused to acknowledge Dave and Beth’s three now grown up children. None of that bothered Dave as he doubted she had any money to leave and her absence from his life was a blessed and possibly divine intervention – to his way of thinking anyway.
In general Dave interacted well with most people, he liked chatting to the landlady at breakfast, he enjoyed greeting people in the street and always had sound advice for his children on the odd occasion they might distain to listen. Beth had few friends but wasn't too bothered, they were mostly idiots out there anyway, and especially the man she regretted ever marrying.
The family, various attached partners and their children arrived midday and after a brief exchange of obligatory greetings, went to their rooms to rest. At least that's what they said they were doing.
Dave was at a loose end, he'd read al the hotel's newspapers, studied all the paintings on the wall, mulled over the menus a few times and stared out of the window at the sea. And he knew worse was to come! He returned to his hotel room where he found Beth sitting on the bed, filing her nails over his pillow and preparing for the party. 'For God's sake, stop moping about, why don't you do something useful for a change!' she exclaimed, having been quite happy with her own company.
'I think I'll go out for a walk along the beach,' Dave said almost as though asking permission. He suffered a little from a self esteem issue.
'Right, that's it, all my family here and you want to go for a walk on the beach, that's charming isn't it?' she retorted, 'Well go then and be back well before the dinner, be back by four, or else.'
Dave wondered as he turned the door handle what the 'or else' might be, but was left in no doubt when Beth assured him, 'If you're not back for mum's party then you'll be dying a lonely old man!'
As Dave wandered left along the beach and away from the hotel and edge of town, those words played on his mind, in fact he would never forget them to his dying day. He just couldn't understand how someone could even think such things, he didn’t want to be lonely at all, let alone die that way.
The further Dave walked from town the more he began to relax, the sea air, the autumn sunshine, gulls calling him to look at how well they flew, small sandstone cliffs and a sailing boat far out at sea . . . all compounded to make life so much better, so much happier. Dave checked his watch, plenty of time; he could go another half hour at least before turning back. Just up in front and round a small promontory, he spotted what looked like 1940s war time defences. 'Worth a look, this,' Dave thought, 'this looks interesting.' It seemed like there could also have been a small landing pier at some time, though the sea had brought the once proud and staunch metal framework in a tangle to its now pathetic knees. There was a fairly recent chain link fence with a sign attached, 'MoD Property. NO ENTRY. DANGER. However there was an easy gap in the fence near the cliff face and it looked like people had made a habit of passing through, 'Perhaps fishermen,' thought Dave as he stood unashamed and excited on forbidden ground. 'This is more like it,' Dave chuckled to himself, 'knocks the socks off sitting down to dinner with the mother-in-law.'
Back at the hotel the family was beginning to assemble in the lounge. Pretentious greetings and 'how nice to see-yous' intermingled with handfuls of free nuts and canapé’s.
'Like a flock of vultures they are dear,” confided the landlady's husband. He was sharply rebuked, 'Shhh if they hear you say something like that, they could easily write us bad reviews, they seem that sort. You be on your best behaviour and take 'em some more nuts out. . . I'm helping the cook now with the meal preparations.' 'Oh, and the nice chap who came last night with his wife has gone for a walk along the sea shore, said he'd be back before four, keep an eye out for him, poor man.'
By now, a new self empowered Dave had drifted off into childhood dreams and memories and was exploring the remains of reinforced concrete and twisted metal, all of which were unsighted from the town . . . 'and for good reason no doubt,' thought Dave.
The green sea algae had made Dave’s new playground more slippery than ice and disaster was inevitable and not slow in showing up.
'You stupid, stupid man,' he may have spoken out loud or just thought his self admonition. . . instead of looking where he was going he'd glanced at his watch. . . now he'd fell, twisting his ankle into the bargain. 'Idiot, idiot, idiot,' he said with more than a wince of pain, looking at his good clothes covered in sand.
'Oh well, nothing for it but brush myself down and limp straight back to face the music I suppose,' but he couldn't do either, his foot had slipped between some rusty metal lattice and he couldn't pull it back. The more Dave panicked the worse it became; the injury was already beginning to swell his ankle and making extrication nigh on impossible. What was he to do? He was more in fear of his domineering wife's retribution than the more imminent disaster of drowning; a fate incidentally which did not cross his mind for some minutes.
Drowning? Dave looked about him, the tide was out, yes, but it would be coming back. Even if he could sit up he was still below the seaweed that had made its home on the old pier stanchions . . . if he didn't get out he would drown, he was trapped and going to drown. . . slowly and inexorably. Dave panicked even more and began to shout, more scream, for help. He paused to listen hopefully for a reply, surely there must be others out here, fishermen, dog walkers and the like . . . the only sound that came back to his eager ears was the distant soft swoosh of gentle waves on sand and the hungry cry of a seagull looking for anything dead or dying on the beach. He checked his pockets. . . his wallet, car keys, a creased up hotel menu and his mobile phone! 'Thank you God, thank you,' beamed a relieved Dave. His fingers fumbled to turn it on, it seemed to be working, there was still some life in the battery. He decided to contact the hotel, he really must speak to his wife first. . . she would understand. Then he'd call the emergency services, the coastguard would be best, perhaps the fire-brigade too, and why not an ambulance because that ankle didn't look too good, possibly broken, certainly ligaments gone. Dave used the number on the hotel menu to dial, he had to try twice as his fingers were shaking so much. . . he put the receiver to his ears and waited . . . nothing. He looked at the phone screen, 'no signal'. Dave could have wept, no blasted signal, the one time in his life when he really needed the phone and there was no signal! He tied again and again, trying different positions, holding the phone high, holding it next to the steel work . . . none of it made any difference. Dave tried to sit up so that he could reach his ankle but the angle his foot was pinned meant that his knee would not allow it. There was still plenty of time, the tide would surely take several hours, I mean it only comes in once a day doesn’t it? Help would arrive from the hotel long before that. He called out loudly again.
Meanwhile the Briarley clan were gathering in the lounge in preparation for their celebratory dining experience. The guest of honour, a paradoxical accolade, circulated importantly and in her time honoured fashion badmouthed the rest of the population, particularly her dear daughter’s repugnant wastrel husband, who she was quite pleased to note was missing . . . ‘With a bit of luck run over somewhere,’ she thought with no smile.
A young and pleasant waitress appeared at the dining room door, ‘If you would like, you can all be seated and we can serve you drinks at the table. Please come though when you are ready.’ Slowly the family wandered in to the dining room and looked for their name cards, strategically planned so that Mrs Briarley’s favourites sat opposite and next to her, with those she openly detested to the far edges of her vision. It wasn’t long before Dave’s absence was noticed due to the empty chair at the door end of the table, with his name card on full display. Mrs Briarley took this as an intended personal insult, my goodness she’d like to see him suffer, her hands twitched as if gripping him by his throat. ‘Where is he then Beth, drunk, lost, asleep? Or have you come to your senses and left him at last. It’s what I would have done a long time ago.’ Some of the clan mumbled their conditioned approval, while others, fiddling with their napkins, kept an embarrassed silence, not wishing to be embroiled in the usual vitriol before having what they hoped would be a pleasant and digestible dinner.
Far away, along the beach and out of sight, Dave’s mood swung wildly, from exhausted, resigned peace, tinged with hope of imminent rescue, (perhaps the phone had worked after all - it could be being traced and located as he lay there), to a sobbing helpless despair and desperation. The thought crossed his mind that a nearby broken bottle was almost within reach; one good effort and it would be in his hands, along with his own destiny. When the tide was closing in and no sign of rescue in sight he could cut off his foot at the ankle – or failing that – finish his life quickly with the broken glass to his throat.
Just as Dave was choosing his own dreadful destiny on the remote and deserted beach, so the Briarley family were choosing their favourite starters in the warm Georgian dining room of Hotel Astraea.
Dave’s voice was beginning to fail and adrenalin wear off, he shivered without noticing and his mind wandered into a day dream, to a place where he felt no pain. He was startled awake by a voice from somewhere behind him, a man’s voice, calm strong and confident, ‘Hello, old chap, you seem to be in a bit of bother. Perhaps I can help.’ And, as he moved closer into Dave’s sight, ‘My name’s Harry, I’m from around here; spend a great deal of time at this old Royal Engineers pier myself you know, fascinating place.’
Dave thought of the worn path by the hole in the fence and put two and two together. ‘Strewth, you made me jump Harry, so good to see another living soul down here, I feared I was all alone. I slipped and my ankle’s stuck in the lattice work, it’ll need cutting free I think.’
Harry carefully inspected the trapped ankle with an almost clinical interest, as though he was no stranger to such things, and then sat down close by Dave on a fallen steel girder. He spoke comfortingly with calmness and authority, ‘You’re not wrong there Dave, the authorities will have to bring some equipment to cut the steel. Meanwhile, try and relax the best you can, there’s nothing more you can do about it. I’ll stay with you all the way, so don’t you worry about a thing.’ Looking straight into Dave’s half closed eyes, Harry lent forward, elbows on knees and concluded, ‘You won’t be the first that’s done this. . . and I somehow doubt you’ll be the last.’ He smiled a little and gave a short reassuring laugh but none the less, Dave sensed an overwhelming empathy coming from Harry. Dave felt a warm sense of comfort flow over him, washing away all his fears, thank God he was saved. Harry’s kind and somehow authoritative voice put him at ease, at peace. Dave looked at his rescuer with more than a hint of hero worship. Harry was a little shorter and younger than Dave but was powerfully built. Dave wouldn’t be surprised if Harry was in the military in some capacity. Certainly, despite the horror of the situation Harry was taking it all in his stride, like he’d been there, seen that and done that all before. Dave felt blessed indeed that Harry had turned up; it was obvious now that the situation would be resolved satisfactorily and naturally.
Back at the Hotel there were blessings too. . . mostly for the size of the main course portions. The waitress noted that Dave’s chair was still empty, ‘Are we still waiting for someone? Shall I keep some of the servings back in case they turn up late? She asked with a smile.
Beth started to speak but was beaten to it by her mother, ‘No, you can clear away the place setting, he won’t be joining us. We’re here to have a good time, not worry about some waster with no manners.’ One of his nieces, a kindly girl of good disposition towards him, tried Dave’s mobile number, perhaps she could send a covert warning of what was happening at the hotel, but only the messaging service kicked in, Dave was not answering, wherever he was. They returned to the jolly matter of fine food and plenty of it, ‘Good job Dave paid his share up front Beth dear,’ confided her mother with a knowing, some might say patronizing look, ‘You’ve wasted half your life on him, whatever was wrong with that nice boy you went out with before, whatever his name was?’
‘I told him to be back mother, he’s so uncaring and selfish, I hope it doesn’t spoil your party,’ Beth replied, already making private, vengeful plans for Dave’s unhappy future. She would see he suffered as long as he lived for this embarrassment.
Harry looked across at Dave and smiled kindly, ‘Don’t worry Dave, all will be well in the end, you’ll see, just have courage. Far beyond his ability to understand why, Dave watched calmly as short, soft waves began to wash over Harry’s feet. Dave was given comfort and strength by Harry’s stoic resolution in the face of danger, that and the fact Dave had already exhausted himself with his earlier exertions. The onset of hypothermia was dulling some of his senses; in fact the sea water that began gently lapping over his own feet seemed warm and agreeable, even welcoming.
At the hotel, puddings were being served to already stuffed stomachs, most of which were looking forward to a lie down on their beds for the afternoon. Beth was amazed at how much her mother could pack away, ‘She was certainly a special woman, one to be admired,’ Beth thought quietly.
‘Hey! There’s still money in the kitty . . . special coffees all round eh waitress,’ shouted Nathan as small bits of fudge cake decorated the tablecloth in front of him - A grand end to a party.
At the beach, Dave thought of the party that he’d missed. He’d always been grateful for a good dinner and he was sorry he’d failed his wife and children by not being there for them. He imagined what Beth’s mother would be saying about him . . . then he dismissed such negative thoughts. They just didn’t seem appropriate for the moment; they certainly wouldn’t help the situation. Warming soft waves gently lifted then covered more of his body now; Harry still sat on the nearby girder, water up to his waist but remaining resolute, still strong and with a compassionate yet empowering smile.
Dave was to feel no more pain from his trapped ankle and with his earlier plan for the broken glass long forgotten, he fell peacefully into his final sleep under the gentle rising water.
After being alerted by the landlady of Hotel Astraea, the authorities found and recovered Dave’s body. It was the second time they had been to the old MoD site that year. Harry was quite right in what he’d said; they had to use cutting equipment to free Dave’s leg too.
Beth left the car and all Dave’s belongings at the hotel and travelled home with one of her children and her mother. They excitedly discussed divorce plans all the way. It was only when, a week later, a police officer called that Beth found out Dave’s lifeless body had been found on the beach. ‘Don’t distress yourself too much, he wouldn’t have known anything about it,’ they said, ‘it would have been over very quickly, he wouldn’t have suffered,’ they said.
Beth’s mother smiled, now at last she could move in with her daughter and be looked after properly.
Dave sat with Harry beyond the fence on forbidden ground, they sat together on the girder chatting happily about old times when life was good and they watched with curiosity as twice each day the sea would cover them like a blanket, like the Gods covering a sleeping child from the cold.
At last, Harry was no longer alone. Perhaps one day someone else will join their party because they will always be there, waiting.