Friday, 13 June 2014

A Risk Worth Taking

It was as if a raven had been shot mid-flight as the object pirouetted down, hitting the car's windscreen, bouncing and falling onto the tarmac. Despite the squeal of brakes the car's momentum carried both sets of wheels lurching sickeningly over the prone black bundle of cloth.
But the shapeless object lying on the road was too big to be a bird. There was an arm then part of a leg. This was no animal. It was a human being, a woman clad in the black of the traditional Arabic burqa. An arm extended as if in sleep and the hand, henna-painted and resting palm upwards on the tarmac, had gold bracelets bunched at the wrist glittering in the sun.
I hadn't witnessed the actual impact, turning too slowly at yet another blare of car horn, a sound ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia. It was Haj, the time of pilgrimage to Mecca and near the airport in downtown Jeddah which was as packed as any football match. Yet in that second everything stopped, frozen by the horror. Then, as if a whistle had been blown, everyone reacted. I took three strides towards the victim before Kamal stopped me with an arm across my chest.
'Leave her. You can't help,' he said, shaking his head in disapproval. 'You know how the way is here. It is as I explained to you. It's best that you don't get involved.'
Kamal was Palestinian, a refugee. Western orientated he harboured a healthy disrespect, if not outright disdain, for his chosen employers, their country and traditions. I looked back at the scene.
She'd disappeared under a wave of white, of shouting and gesticulating Haj pilgrims dressed in the traditional ihram. I saw the driver repeatedly hit his head, wailing, his hands to the sky. Some prodded at the bundle of cloth in the road. It was difficult to see, harder to watch.
For the victim sake, I knew speed was imperative. I had some first aid knowledge and holding back from offering assistance tore at me. But I stood and watched and didn't help. Kamal's advice was that as a foreigner and an unbeliever, I should never intervene in disputes, especially not in fatal or near fatal traffic incidents. If the victim died then that death could be attributable to me, due to my 'help'. It was rumoured that 'blood money' could be demanded. Or worse, death, as in the eye-for-an-eye philosophy of the Koran. In this country, he told me, it was best avoided. A risk not worth taking.
The police arrived with sirens blaring and two cops began clearing people away. Yet the bundle in the road wasn't touched. A nearby taxi was commandeered and the broken woman was half lifted, half thrown onto the back seat and driven off. Even if she'd survived the impact, the rough handling could well have killed her. The feeling of shame for not doing more, stung.
Kamal shrugged and said, 'Let's go. Tomorrow we go diving. Forget this. It's nothing. Plenty of accidents every day.'
I turned and picked up the scuba tank just filled with air and tried to put his advice into effect, concentrating on the morning dive the next day.
But that night I slept poorly. The next morning I was tired and not in the frame of mind to dive with Kamal; I called him and cancelled. He accepted without comment. I headed alone to an isolated beach out beyond the city, far from habitation and empty of people. I was about to break some cardinal rules. Never dive without a buddy and always leave information about where you are diving. But I'd become tired of advice.
Shrugging on my tank, I walked through dunes towards the lagoon and the Red Sea surf breaking on the reef edge half a mile beyond. The bleached white sand of the beach was cloaked by a dark moving mass. The surface was a vast sea of feeding hermit crabs. I walked into this mass of crabs and a dark wave formed ahead of me, flowing away from my feet as if repelled by my presence. The crabs kept a precise arc of distance, a sentient wave, never allowing me close, as if they could sense my guilt over the death of the woman. They allowed grudging access to their shallow lagoon and then closed ranks behind me with the precision of a drilled army. Behind were the bones of the Saudi Arabian desert and ahead, the inviting warm waters of the Red Sea waited.
Calf deep in the bath-hot water I was wary of sharp coral and alert to the deadly stonefish, a creature that hides motionless and camouflaged on the sandy bottom, its poisonous barbs able to pierce protective footwear. So I started to dance, a shuffling two-step that disturbed clear water and lethal fish alike. It’s a long waltz to the reef carrying a heavy full tank of air, mask and flippers, while scanning the rippled sand for signs of danger.
 Eventually I reached deeper, waist-high water. A few steps further and through the clear water a metre in front, the sand erupted. A grey, disc-shaped object exploded from the lagoon bottom, swimming away from me. A stingray, lying hidden in the sand, had made its escape, its barbed tail lashing inches from my thigh. It's gone in an instant, leaving just a fine contrail of sand in the blue water behind it. I resumed my clumsy safety dance with added vigour.
I arrived at the reef's edge and its vertical drop-off, where more exotic, dangerous creatures awaited. Their colours, undimmed by the water’s shallow depth, flashed as they twisted and turned in the glare of the morning sunlight. They're hunting. Mask on, I ducked my head below the water.
 A slithering motion caught my eye; black and yellow, a sea snake drifted near, smug in the knowledge it possessed one of the deadliest venoms on Earth. I froze and waited for it to pass. I hate snakes; but I respect them more. Languidly it veered away towards the safety of deeper water.
 A gentle swell broke in a white line along the coast marking the reef edge as I re-considered my actions. I was alone. I shouldn't be doing this. But in truth, I had no one to tell and neither did I care.
  Waiting unseen would be sharks, barracuda with their cold, malicious eyes and lurking lionfish with spines ready to inject and poison. At the reef edge and before that final plunge, there was always that fear. I wondered again if I should turn back. Ignoring the only sensible decision, I stepped off the reef and fell into the blue.
 The water was warm but felt cold on my over-heated skin as I floated exposed on the oily calm of the surface. I fitted fins and mask, emptied the buoyancy vest, turned and slid down into the blue depths.
 The sound on the reef flooded my ears, crackling and popping, a thousand fish chewing on  coral for their breakfast. Another ten metres of depth added as I finned down the reef wall, watching two reef-sharks slink away into the gloom far below. Clinging to the underwater cliff for protection I spotted a wary conga eel hidden within the shadows of his crevasse. From there he peered out as if seated in a private box at the opera, watching unimpressed as vibrant clown fish danced within their protective anemones and shoals of stripped triggerfish pirouetted to the undersea ballet.
 Deeper I fell and the density of life faded away. Out of the darkness came a surreal sight. A row of  truck tyres, each tethered by a rope from a sunken wreck below, floated like the dead fingers of the drowned. Their enticing invitation was impossible to resist.
 But a quick check showed I was going to the limits of acceptable depth. I turned and looked up towards an alien sky. Through forty five metres of water the sunlight was reduced to a small coronal haze, to the weakness of moonlight. The ship, lying on its side, was bathed in gothic monochrome. The tyres, once protecting the ships side at dock, now floated mournfully above my head. I finned further along and down the vertical deck, peering through broken windows into dark cabins where shadows morphed into furniture, crockery, the debris of extinct life.
 Deeper into the hulk and beyond the time permitted at this depth, I became bolder. I wanted to go further. A small voice inside in my head shouted vainly at me. Dimly I understood my elation to be the beginning of narcosis.
 It was past time to leave, but no, I wanted to stay in the cool darkness. The voice in my head became irrelevant. Then, with supreme effort, I turned and began to fin towards the surface.  Training had kicked in. I forced myself to go slow, fighting the rising panic, realising at last that I’d gone way beyond normal dive safety limits. My air faded. Don't hold your breath, the voice in my head shouted. Obediently I  exhaled the last of my air from decompressed lungs and ascended at the rate of the bubbles around me.
 Breaching the surface, the previously calm sea was replaced by rough swell. The current drove me towards land and waves tossed me like flotsam against the coral. Sharp edges ripped into skin, scolding me for the bravado of not wearing a wetsuit, then dragged me away before throwing me back again. Each time I was thrown against the rock, I struggled to hold on. Pain stabbed through me with each wave as coral ripped my gloves apart, lacerating my hands and tearing at my bare legs. My strength was fast ebbing away with each failed attempt to escape the surf.
A break appeared in the reef cliff and I recognised the narrow gully. It was an entrance to the lagoon, a route to safety. The current picked me up in it's hand and swept me inside, past sharp rocks and spikes of coral outcrop towards the safety of the lagoon. I swam with the last of my energy, desperate to avoid rock and coral, knowing if I failed I'd be swept mercilessly back out to sea.
Yet I failed. Strength ebbed from my body as quickly as the surf drawback dragged me away from safety. Helpless and exhausted, the sea took me. There was nothing to do but contemplate my foolish arrogance.
A wiry arm appeared, gripped my buoyancy vest, and I was hauled onto the reef. In an instant I was free of danger. On my back like some half-dead fish, I stared up into the blue of a cloudless sky and the wrinkled face of a lone Saudi fisherman. He stood looking down at me and shaking his head. I coughed water, grinned in relief and  thanked him. I wasn't sure he understood, but he shrugged his shoulders and smiled, perhaps thinking about the idiocy of foreigners and their strange games. He then turned and returned to his nets.
 Back at the beach the crabs had gone, perhaps disappointed I hadn't donated my body to their feast. I'd failed to help a stranger, yet a stranger had helped me. He at least, had thought it a risk worth taking.


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