Life Snapshots

#1 A Risk Worth Taking

It was as if a raven had been shot mid-flight. A black object pirouetted down onto the car’s windscreen, bounced and fell onto the tarmac. Momentum, and a driver too shocked to apply his brakes, sent both sets of wheels lurching over the bundle.

The shapeless object lying on the road was too big to be a bird. Then I recognised an arm, then part of a leg. This had been no bird or animal, but a woman clad in the black of the traditional Arabic burqa. Two barely revealed human limbs made the reality of what I’d witnessed sink in. An arm extended as if in sleep, the hand, henna-painted and resting palm upwards on the tarmac, gold bracelets bunched at the wrist and glittering in the sun.

I hadn’t witnessed the impact because a blare of car horn, a sound ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia distracted me. It was only the final screech of tires and the soft thud of metal against flesh that had focused my attention.

It had been Haj, the time of pilgrimage to Mecca, near the airport in downtown Jeddah and was as packed with pilgrims. Yet everything stopped, frozen by the sudden horror. Then, as if a switch had been flicked, everyone reacted.

Everyone converged on the scene and I also moved 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 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 clad pilgrims, everyone seemed to be shouting and gesticulating, a sea of 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 comprehend.

For the victim sake, I knew speed was imperative. I did have some first aid knowledge and holding back from offering assistance was hard. 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 even 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 the 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 I’d 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 at the edge of the desert. 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 low dunes towards the lagoon and the Red Sea surf breaking on the reef edge half a mile beyond. At the normally bleached white sand of the beach, I found it cloaked by a dark moving mass. The surface was covered in a carpet of a vast sea of feeding hermit crabs. Stepping into this moving mass caused them to hurridly scuttle away. The crabs keeeping 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. Eventually they allowed grudging access to their shallow lagoon between the beach and the reef and then closed ranks behind me with the precision of a drilled army. Behind me were the bones of the Saudi Arabian desert and ahead, the inviting warm waters of the Red Sea.

Stepping into calf deep, bath-hot water, I was wary of the sharp coral and alert to deadly stonefish, a creature that hides motionless and camouflaged on the sandy bottom, their poisonous barbs ready to pierce even protective footwear. So I started my 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 the sand erupted. A grey, disc-shaped object exploded from the lagoon bottom. A stingray, lying hidden in the sand, had made its escape, its barbed tail lashing inches from my thigh. It was 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 into the depths, the waters turning dark blue and inviting. Myriad fish, their colours undimmed by the water’s clarity, flashed as they twisted and turned in the glare of the morning sunlight. They’re hunting. Mask on, I ducked below the water to see what was around.

 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 don’t mind snakes that don’t mind me and I waited as it  languidly veered away towards deeper water.

 Taking my head out of the water I took a second to gazed around, a gentle swell was breaking in a white line along the coast marking the reef edge. 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 much care.

  Waiting unseen below would be sharks, barracuda with their cold malicious eyes and lurking lion fish with spines ready to inject and poison. Sitting at the reef edge and just before that final plunge, there was always that fear of the unknown. I wondered again if I should turn back. But, ignoring the only sensible decision, I stepped off the reef and fell into the sea.

 The warm sea water 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.

 Instantly, the sound on the reef flooded my ears, crackling and popping with a thousand fish chewing on  coral for breakfast. I finned down the reef wall, watching two reef-sharks slink away into the gloom further below. Always staying close 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 clown fish danced for his pleasure. Protective anemones surrounded them in their supporting roles alongside shoals of stripped triggerfish pirouetting in a great 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, as if clawing for air. I finned further down a now vertical deck, peering through broken portholes into dark cabins where shadows morphed into broken furniture, crockery and the debris of extinct life.

 Sinking deeper into the hulk and going beyond the time permitted at this depth, I became even bolder. To go deeper. A small voice inside in my head shouted vainly at me. Dimly I understood my elation and boldness was the beginning of narcosis.

 It was way past time to leave, but no, I wanted to stay in this cool darkness. The voice in my head became irrelevant. Then, with what felt like supreme effort, I turned and began to fin towards the surface.  Training had kicked in. I forced myself to go slow, fighting the now rising panic, realising at last that I’d gone way beyond normal dive safety limits. My air had faded to nothing. Don’t hold your breath, the voice in my head shouted. Obediently I  exhaled the last of my air from decompressing lungs and ascended at the rate of the bubbles around me.

 Breaching the surface, I found the calm sea I had left had been replaced by a rough swell. The current drove me towards land and waves began to toss me like flotsam against the coral. The sharp edges ripped into my 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 grasp a hand hold. Pain stabbed through me as coral ripped my gloves apart, lacerating my hands and tearing at my unprotected 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 a narrow reef-gully. It was an entrance to the lagoon and a route to safety. The current picked me up in it’s hand and swept me inside, past the sharp rocks and spikes of coral outcrops towards the safety of the lagoon. I kicked with the last of my energy, desperate to avoid rock and coral, knowing if I failed I might well be swept mercilessly 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, I let the sea take me. There was really nothing more to do but contemplate my foolish arrogance.

It was then that a wiry arm appeared from nowhere, gripped my buoyancy vest, and hauled me out onto the reef. In an instant I was free of danger. Lying 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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