BLESSAY 3: Grim Reaper, just practising

There’s a wonderful troubling part of a sentence in Camus’s L’Etranger  In the first English translation of the novel it reads as “I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull…” This is said just before the protagonist Meursault shoots the Arab man on the beach. Since reading the book, in my teens, I’ve often been prone to imagine death as a dazzling sun and those clashing cymbals as the sound of its approach.

The loudest clash meaning this could be it, the not so loud clash declaring I’m weighing you up, and the gentlest stroke of  the cymbal saying death’s decided against taking you, this time round. I’ve experienced three near misses with death Heared those cymbals clash.

I was in my early thirties. I was holidaying in Morecambe, where I’d spent a late afternoon, to early evening, first sunbathing and then swimming. The tide was coming in very rapidly. I was standing very close to the pier and letting the water get high up against my chest, almost playfully daring it to reach my neck. I hadn’t been drinking, but the hot sun had made me a bit spacey. When I’d had enough of the tide I tried to make my way to the stone pier steps. I suddenly experienced severe cramp in my left leg. I couldn’t move and grab hold of the rail. When I did move a bit, I hit against a large rock.  I slipped and slipped again. The water was almost at shoulder height. It was then that I physically froze and let myself absurdly imagine being drowned, when so ridiculously close to the pier.

The light was fading and no one was around. I wanted to shout out for help but couldn’t – for fear hadn’t completely engulfed me. I started to slap my thighs, then twist my hips to get more movement, as both legs were now suffering from cramp pains. For several, horribly slowed down minutes I felt that the cramp would lock in deeper, and the water knew this and was just waiting to cover me. A cymbal clashed. This was all too real. My foot struck something wooden. I placed my hand underwater and touched a wooden pole. I pulled it up to discover it was a walking stick. If I could move a bit more, then I might get close enough to hook the stick onto the step rail. The cramp lessened enough for me to walk. I caught the rail, employing the stick like a rope, got there and slowly ascended the steps. Afterwards I felt like a stupid exhausted kid who’d dared the sea’s power, become unstuck  yet let off with no warning – the sea being its own master, having no time for me now.

Cymbal clash no 2 with death occurred in 1972. The early seventies was the height of the IRA bombing campaign in London. Bombs were going off at tube stations and on buses. My girlfriend (then pregnant, a fact unbeknown to both of us at the time) and I had just returned from a long trip to Italy and Greece. We were seated in a small cafe in Euston station, having a snack whilst waiting for a train to Colchester. It was a dreary Wimpy hamburger style place. My head was still full of  Mediterranean sunlight scenes on that very chilly grey September afternoon.  I remember fantasising about such an ugly place being blown up in the manner of the great explosion sequence at the end of Antonioni’s film Zabrieske Point (where damaged material objects, including food, float slow motion style in the sky.) We finished our cardboard tasting sandwiches and then caught our train.

That evening on the six o’clock evening TV news I learnt that the cafe we’d lunched in had been bombed by the IRA just 20 minutes after we’d left it. It chilled me to think how close my girlfriend and I had come to being injured or killed. Luckily there had been very few people in the place. No one had been killed or injured. The stools near the window had been damaged. In the TV still image it looked like the very spot where we’d been sitting. I felt shaky and drank some coffee as the cymbals, of relief, clashed very softly.

The last clash happened in Turkey in 1984. I was travelling with a friend in the Kurdish region, south east of the country. We were staying in a small town called Hakkari. I’d read in the guide that it was a good area to walk in the countryside. I also read that to go walking without a guide it was first advisable to get permission from the local police, but that this was only a formality. In the event we both had to put up with indifference, soft soap prevarication and pleas from the inspector in charge, revealing his battered exercise books, and asking us to help him with his evening class English lesson. The ‘put on’ comedy and intimidation proved too much. We escaped and decided that next morning we’d still do the walk.

Hakkari on a spring day in May was beautiful. The flora and fauna, the trees, mountains and warmth of the sun were a sensual delight. We walked for three hours breathing in such sweet fresh air and listening to birdsong. In a hilly area,with rocks and caves, we stopped to eat a packed lunch. It was noon and hot enough to make us both sleepy. Alberto (the Argentine hitchhiker I’d teamed up with) crashed down underneath the shade of large boulders and rocks. I found a shady spot close to him and also rested. My nap lasted about ten minutes. I woke to find Alberto still in a deep sleep and snoring. I drank some water and looked at my very basic walking map again.

It was then that I heard a machine sound. At first I thought it was a tractor – but what would that be doing here, so high up?  It got louder and closer. An aircraft? The cymbal warning went off and instructed me not to stand up so as to get a closer look. If I lay back in my rock shelter it was unlikely I’d be seen, but I could watch. An army helicopter, with two soldiers inside, flew overhead. They had rifles with them and were obviously undertaking a routine security patrol of the area. We were very close to Iraq, Iran and Armenia. I looked back at my map. It looked like our slight departure, from the walking route, into the mountains had placed us in that sensitive and dangerous border region.

Alberto, who had drunk heavily the night before, was still asleep and oblivious to the danger. If the helicopter came down any lower, and turned, there was the chance it might see us. I crouched down even more in my shelter, hoping it would soon pass. The helicopter hovered but its pilot and companion did not deviate from their procedure. And then they were gone. Even when the sound of the helicopter had completely disappeared, the loud beating of my heart continued. Alberto woke up and smiled at me. ‘My head still aches from the wine.’ he said. I said nothing to that or mentioned the helicopter. The cymbal clashes continued inside of me to obliterate the memory of chopper blades, and the decisive sound of the soldiers’ rifles if they had fired at us.

I’ve thought a lot about those narrow escapes from injury, or more likely death. Did some benign force, supportive destiny, fate or sheer luck intervene to save me? It’s odd that we could be lightly erased, from an indiffferent universe, at any given, but unforseen moment. We cooly behave as if we are immortal. That our routine comfort zone of existence will always defelect danger: keep THE END at bay, until we decide that it’s fine to switch off the light and enter ‘the undiscovered country’.

After removing old age and disease from the equation, what we often fail to factor in are not so much the banal accidents (run over by the 31 bus or a plane crash into the cold Atlantic ocean) but horrifically unpredictable and absurdly arbitrary happenings. Mistakes directed with deadly and deathly precision at us, giving us such little time to escape.

Three escapes. There might be a few more yet before my END. I’d prefer not to go through such tension. No more practice runs, please. No disease of mind and body. Just a quiet, undramatic, slipping away, grim reaper!


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