The Sea Series: Friends

Words by Jack Vening

Published on July 25, 2012

Jack’s piece ‘Friends’ is taken from a larger piece he is currently working on. 

The new ambassador’s previous wives, I am told, are all deceased. All three of them drowned in completely separate instances between the years 1930 and 1939. A heart attack in a swimming pool, a yacht capsizing on a weekend trip, a cruise ship sinking off the coast of France, back at the beginning of the war in Europe, the latter of which also saw the drowning of his first born, his daughter. Naturally, don’t bring any of it up.

On Sunday, after communion, they walk the short way from the heat of the church, the new ambassador and his current, living wife, and their three children, down to the beach, and they take their shoes off and walk barefoot on the sand in their church-clothes with the residents of the town. I follow after them carrying their shoes, five pairs, calling out every two minutes how long they have until they need to be back at the hotel for brunch.

‘Yes Sam,’ says the new ambassador over his shoulder, his hands in his pockets and his jacket tucked under his arm.

‘It’s important,’ I say. ‘The consular general has come out from the city.’

‘We understand, Sam. We’ll just be a few minutes, no fucking around.’

I get a kick every time I hear him swear. He sounds like he’s speaking from a movie. He could sell cigarettes with his face. I tie the shoes together by the laces and hang them over my shoulders, then look at my watch and say, ‘Eighteen minutes now.’

It’s a fine, hot day, the kind you live on the coast for. The wind kicks up spray from the surf and the ambassador’s wife and children, walking ahead of us by a few meters, all squeal, all of them blonde and horrifyingly pretty.

‘This is a big bay,’ the ambassador says while we walk. ‘You know, for such a small town. The Reds have the bomb, but how would you know it on a day like this?’

I nod too. I want to say something, so I say, ‘I hear it’s one of the biggest of its type on any coast in the country.’

‘Is that right?’

I shrug and nod and say, ‘Yep.’

‘The biggest of its kind?’

‘That’s right.’

He glances back out to sea. ‘If I’m being honest, Sam,’ he says. ‘If I’m being totally honest, I don’t think you’re right about that one. I don’t blame you for it, I just don’t think you’re correct.’

Out along the horizon, way into the sea, there’s a rank of shipping tankers all waiting patiently to be let into the city, moving slower than we can notice. If you swam out into the water you could see the ships stretching all the way from the city harbour past the curve of the planet. The ambassador, I imagine, has not looked at the ocean squarely this entire time.

‘Well shit,’ he says. ‘I’ve offended you.’ He takes out of his pocket a little flask and has a drink and offers it to me. When I don’t take it immediately, he says, ‘Jesus, how much are they paying you to babysit us?’

‘It’s not a special occasion,’ I say.

‘It’s a Sunday, god damn it. It’s the closest thing to a specialoccasion the week can give.’

He takes another swig from the flask and replaces it in his pocket and we keep walking.

‘I myself haven’t been sober since 1941,’ he says. ‘It’s like how some people like to wear hats, I guess.’

I say, ‘But they have to take their hats off at some stage.’

He shrugs. ‘They wouldn’t if they could ingest their hats internally.’

He laughs rapidly, like a short roll on a drum, and stops when he sees, up ahead of us, his wife trying to lift one of his sons from the sand.

‘Max,’ she calls out to him, the ambassador. ‘Max, he won’t get up!’

As we get closer I realise she’s crying. ‘Max, he’s not breathing, Max!’

I drop the shoes to the ground but the ambassador is already ahead of me, running. Their son is lying face down in the sand. Alexandra is gripping him around the wrists and trying to lift him but just drags him forward a few inches in the attempt. Close up, it’s clearly evident that the boy, whose name I can’t remember, is not only breathing, but giggling. Behind his mother, the two other children, both of them girls, hold hands and weep quietly.

‘God damn it let me see,’ the ambassador says as he gets close, taking the boy’s hands from Alexandra. He grabs his son under the arms and hauls him up and the kid laughs as the ambassador hoists him close to his face and turns him left and right, studying closely.

‘Jesus Christ Alexandra, he’s fine,’ he says, frowning. ‘Not a scratch on him. Stick out your tongue.’

‘I think he was just playing,’ I say.

‘Playing? You were just playing, were you? Yes, of course.’

He moves the boy close to me and says, ‘Make sure he’s ok though, will you?’

He hands the boy over to me.

‘I think he’s fine.’

‘Of course he’s fine, god damn it,’ the ambassador says, taking his wife by one hand and his daughters by the other and leading them on along the water. ‘He’s just fucking around.’

The boy stares me in the eye and waits to be put back down. The church we congregated in this morning baked in the heat of two hundred officials and important local people and in the sun and in the spirit of God and whatever else, and the priest had spoken, sweating through his robes, of the uncertain days we were lodging in, and of the dark days we’d just left.

‘And how thankful we are,’ he said, looking over at the ambassador and his wife, and the representatives of the Foreign Secretary, ‘To have friends to share our homes with.’