Waves lap at his toes. Gentle, quiet, rippling waves. Benny Saris stares out over the undulating blueness. Here goes. He begins to wade out. The water is freezing and goosebumps cover his body like a rash. Muscles cramp agonisingly in his groin. He looks back at the desolate beach and the empty guesthouses on the front. It’s no good, suicide is the only option.
–He’d awoken one week earlier after a heavy night, drinking almost two bottles of wine and ordering books on Amazon until the early hours. He’d looked at his phone. Almost midday. His head felt groggy, blurred. Funny, there was neither phone nor a WiFi signal. He got up and went into his small, shabby kitchen, drew the curtain and looked down on the street far below. The road was empty, just parked cars. No one in sight. He cast his mind back. In the five years he’d lived in the dingy flat, he couldn’t remember that. There was always traffic, passersby on their anonymous business, people waiting at the bus stop. He filled the kettle and flicked the switch. Damn! The power was off. He stood at the window. Silence. Absolute silence.
Benny went around his cramped flat, flicking switches. Nothing worked. Bloody Hell, this is weird! He pulled on a sweater and jeans. Going out onto the landing, he jabbed the lift button. Nothing. He began to worry. He rang old man Stalewski’s doorbell, then knocked loudly on the door. No response. Perhaps the old bastard had died? He jogged down the stairs, thinking to call at his friend Sonia Schliefer’s, but something kept him going, flight after flight until he arrived in the lobby. He went out into the street and it hit him like a brick to the head. Where is everyone?
The street had an aura of malaise, an indefinable look of neglect. Paving stones that had seen a million footsteps, abandoned. He crossed over to Sanjays. The door wasn’t locked. Yesterday’s newspapers stood in a stand. The usual racks of chocolate bars stood on the counter. He helped himself to a couple, then walked to a door – ‘Staff Only.’ Pushing it open, he found himself in a short corridor. Light came in through a dirty skylight. On one side was a stock room, piled haphazardly to the ceiling with newspapers and magazines, cans of soup, beans, pot noodles and suchlike. On the other side lay a tiny kitchen and toilet. The toilet bowl was dirty and stained green. In the kitchen stood a cup with brown liquid in it. He smelt it. Instant coffee. It was stone cold. What the hell’s happened to everyone?
Benny felt a shiver run down his spine. Perhaps it was some kind of drill? One he just hadn’t heard about. He tried to convince himself. Yes, of course, that was it!
He spotted a radio behind the counter, battery-powered, thank God! He pressed a sweat-stained knob and the radio burst into life. A loud, monotonous hiss. He turned the tuning knob and then changed the bands. The hiss came and went at different pitches, but no music, no pseudo-cheery DJ, nothing.
Now, with the freezing sea up to his neck, he knows there’s no turning back. A small wave hits him in the face, soaking his hair and making him retch with the salt. He remembers walking the streets of the seaside town, shouting for help, companionship, he didn’t know what. Then going into houses, at first entertained by the wonderful entrapments of other people’s lives. Knowing he could have anything, take any painting, ornament, crockery, jewellery … if he wanted.
Maybe he’d died, gone to Hell, but didn’t realise?
He feels his numbed feet leave the seabed and swallows another mouthful of salty water. He retches again and nearly throws up. Suddenly he hears a sound he recognises, a sound from a thousand years ago. He suspects he’s delirious.
But no, it’s definitely there. With his heart pounding he turns and swims a few strokes until his feet are back on the seabed once more. He looks around and sees a black object approaching. My God! It can’t be! The object comes closer – it’s a dog, a black Labrador. The creature paddles towards him, whining and barking between pants. He swims towards it. Close now, he sees the dog’s eyes, wide, brown, the whites a little bloodshot. Then its paws are on his chest and, bobbing in the sea, the dog tries to lick his face. It’s going crazy now, barking excitedly.
“Steady on boy, you’re OK!” The frantic touch of the animal’s paws makes him think. There’s a caravan park a few miles down the coast. Caravans have batteries and gas canisters, don’t they? Refrigeration and power! He realises he is, after all, not alone. He has a responsibility to care for this animal now. Maybe there are other people too? They swim to the shore together.
Back on the beach, both wet through and shivering, he notices the dog has a collar. “Here boy!” He examines a metal disc. Salvador. How ironic! His eyes fill with tears.
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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