'For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.'
- Khalil Gibran
I came round in my own bed, as the August dawn was breaking. I sat up slowly, and next to me on the camping mat, on the floor, was Shell. The pain behind my eyes made me shrink from the light as I tried to remember the night before. We'd been on the beach, just the two of us. No, wait, Ben had been there as well. He'd been in a bad way; he'd lost his place on the Job Centre 'Back to Work' scheme for turning up late three days in a row. That meant his benefits would stop. We'd gone out with cans of Magners to try to cheer him up, and if I'm honest, to keep an eye on him. So, where was he now?
I stumbled out to the bathroom and heard my mum call, 'Jo, I'm off to get the bus to Newcastle. Could you give Shell's mum a call, she wants to know where Ben is. Bye, love.'
The front door slammed shut. Mum's words jangled in my head, 'She wants to know where Ben is.'
Some of the fog cleared and left an icy dread that clawed at my stomach. Ben, Ben, I saw his face twisted with gloom and booze as he'd told me and Shell to get lost, go home. He wanted to be on his own. Adrenaline swept my hangover to one side, we had to find Ben and find him fast. It might be too late already, but we had to try. I knew in every cell of my body that he would have tried to go last night, go for good. A quick pee and a splash of cold water on my face and I was back in my bedroom. I took hold of Shell's shoulder and shook her, she groaned and tried to turn over,
'No, Shell, no you don't, get up,' I said.
She groaned and tried to push me away.
'Get up, get up now. We've got to find Ben. The way he was last night he could have done anything. Your mum's told mine he's not been home. Come on. Shell, for God's sake'
Something must have got through to her, she sat up and rubbed her face. I saw last night's memories return to her like they had to me a few minutes earlier. She started to shake, but I couldn't be bothered about that, we had to go. I pulled her to her feet threw her clothes at her and commanded, 'Dress, or I'll push you out in your night things.'
Within five minutes we'd left the house. I dug two old bikes, mine and Mum's, out from the shed and said, 'We're going on these, we'll be faster that way.'
We both wobbled at first, neither of us had ridden for ages, but then we took off. We were back on the path that skirted the dunes within twenty minutes. We were too late. I turned the corner ahead of Shell and saw an ambulance and a police car with blue lights flashing. I skidded to a halt and Shell crashed into my back wheel. We both fell to the ground, tangled up together. As we scrambled to our feet, Shell looked over my shoulder. She screamed and passed out. I turned and saw two paramedics in green overalls. They laboured to get a stretcher over the brow of a steep sand hill and then started to carry it down. The body on the pallet was covered from head to foot by a sheet. As they negotiated the stand of broom at the bottom a corner of the cloth blew loose in the breeze and Ben's untidy, blond curls bounced free.
Fast forward twelve months, August again. I don't know what I'm doing out here, alone in the middle of the night. Lynemouth is the sad, blighted village that's home to me and my best mate, Shelley. I said that I'd meet her and go back with her to Druridge Bay. See, she has to do this thing; she's half cracked but she'd do the same for me. She wants to go to the place where her brother, Ben, died. She wants to go there at night because it was at night that he lay down in the dunes and poisoned himself. He took a shed load of tablets, stuff left in their house after his dad died of cancer five years back. Ben washed the lot down with a bottle of scotch. He didn't wake up. As you know, we were the last ones to see him alive, the only ones who might have stopped him if we had but known, if we'd been sober.
Shell's family has had a rough time, rougher than most. I kind of get it when she says that she wants to find out if there's anything left of Ben out there on the beach. Tonight is his anniversary; he died a year ago today. So, here I am standing under the street lamp at the end of our road, waiting for her. The moon's full, the night's cool with the winds blowing from the northeast. I'm shivering in my Doc Martens and my dad's old fishing jumper, the warmest one in the house. I look at my watch for the umpteenth time, five past midnight. She said she'd be here at twelve sharp. I cast my eyes up and down the pavement, there's two ways she can come from her house. I can see someone walking towards me, but I think it's a man. I feel a tap on my shoulder and nearly jump out of my skin. I swivel round and there she is. I want to tell her to go to hell for scaring me, but I see her white face and glassy eyes and I don't.
'I'm sorry I'm late,' she says in a whisper. 'Mum was sobbing for ages; I couldn't leave her. I thought she was never going to bed but she did in the end. She had one of her sleeping pills so she's spark out now.'
'No worries, are you ready?'
'Yes, I've bought what we said. Candles, joss sticks, matches. I've got my MP3 player as well, loaded up with his favourite music. Afterwards we can share these,' says Shell.
I look into the outer pocket of her backpack and see that she's made tomato and marmite sarnies and she has a packet of Doritos and two cans of Magners.
'Do you remember when we ate that picnic on the beach with Ben, the summer before, before he did it. Must have been two years ago. He put up the food, this food.'
I do remember, it's crystal clear in my head. And I remember the kiss he gave me when Shell went over to the dunes to take a piss. It was the first proper kiss of my entire life.
Shell looks at me hard and opens her denim jacket and I see that she was wearing Ben's Glasto tee shirt, it was hardly ever off his back.
'You're a real mate. When we've done, you can have this shirt for keeps.'
We link arms and cross the road. Two lads are heading towards us, careering all over the pavement. They are off their heads, caterwauling alley cats.
'You two got no home to go to?' says the tallest one.
'Piss off,' says Shell.
'No need to be rude, young'un. Maybe we should see you home? What do you think Nate?' he says to his friend.
Nate isn't listening. He's turned into the hedge and is spewing his guts out.
'I said, piss off,' says Shell again.
This time she pulls Ben's Swiss Army knife out of her pocket and flicks open a blade. She waves it within a metre of his face, just out reach
'I'll use it, make no mistake.'
'You're one mad bitch. I'm away; remember my kind offer when someone pulls you into a ditch. Stupid cow.'
With that, he grabs hold of Nate's arm and steers him off down the road, swearing loudly under his breath.
'Come on, Jo,' says Shell. 'There're some sick bastards out tonight. Once we get across to the dunes we should be free of them.'
We walk with brisk steps and three quarters of an hour later we take the dead end path that runs parallel to the coast. We pass one parked car that rocks energetically as the two dark figures inside bounce around. We'll not have any trouble from them, that's for sure. A short way ahead, to our right, there's a gap in the fence and a wooden stile, beyond that the dunes and then the beach. This was our place; this was Ben's place. We climb over the stile and head up into the sand hills, the marram grass stings my legs and more than once I turn my foot in a rabbit hole. When we get to the top, the tide is out and the wide stretch of coast sweeps out before us, the moonlight turns the sand to liquid shimmers as the retreating tide leaves it doused in brine, and the piles of abandoned seaweed form tiny islands that clutter the shore line.
Shell skitters down the soft helter-skelter sand down to the beach and lands on her bum.
'Come on, Jo. I'll race you to the water.'
And she sets off, her long legs pounding the hard, ridged ground as spray flies up and drenches her jeans. Her back pack, loaded as it is, does little to slow her down. Her crazy, enraged spirit fuels her dance and projects her flying to the heart of her search for Ben. I can't catch her but I chase after her, the tail to her kite. When she reaches the foam she stops and stands stock still; tense and listening for secrets in the breaking surf. It is weird, I've never felt so far from her but so close at the same time. I fall back and watch but I could not have foreseen what happens next. She casts off her back pack and throws it towards me; then in a series of fluid movements she pulls off her jacket, Ben's Glasto tee shirt and her trainers and piles them neatly on the sand. I am paralysed as she runs forwards and hurls herself into the breaking waves.
'Ben, Ben, I'm coming,' she says. I know that she can't swim and nor can I.
Her head bobs up a couple of times and then her arms flail in the air. For a second she disappears in an eerie stillness. The next thing I see, is Shell airborne; as if a high velocity force has lifted her and hurled her backwards. She falls at my feet and lands in a pool of sea water, drenched and shivering. My brain quickens into chaos. I start to yell at her,
'Why Shell? Why? What in hell did you think you were doing? You stupid bitch.'
I start to pummel her with my fists, tears stream down my face.
'You're hurting me, Jo. Stop it, stop it,' says Shell, her ragged voice cracks my head open. 'Listen to me, he's there, he saved me. Just like he said in my dream. He said to test him. I did and he came through.'
All the energy drains from my arms and the world comes back into tired focus again. I half hear Shell but her words tango in my head too fast for me make any sense of them. She speaks again, more clearly this time.
'Jo, you must get your head round this. Ben is here, and he saved me from drowning. He threw me back out of the water. I trusted him and he was there for me. I couldn't tell you what I had to do, you'd have stopped me, but I had to know.'
I flop down bewildered onto the wet sand. Shell goes back and scoops up her clothes, retrieves the rucksack and comes back over to me. She holds out her hand to pull me to my feet.
'Come on, let's go back to the dunes and make a fire.'
'Ok, I'm coming.'
For the next quarter of an hour or so we collect driftwood and dry grass. I remember how Ben once taught us to build a tepee-shaped fire; dry grass for tinder, small sticks for kindling, larger ones to keep the fire burning and then more driftwood fuel. Before long, we have a good blaze going. We huddle round it and Shell shares out our sandwiches, Doritos and cider. We don't say much at first. In the smoke, everything begins to blur and I can almost believe that the wizened tree behind us is Ben. Tall lanky Ben. When I was only eight years old I decided I wanted to marry him. I was fourteen when he kissed me and I wanted to be his girl more than ever. I knew I was way too young for him but I could still dream, couldn't I? When I'd be eighteen he'd only be twenty-three. I had dared to hope. Now, my eyes smart: if only.
Shell takes a deep swig of her Magners, coughs then says, 'Can I tell you what happened, Jo? I mean, what really happened out there tonight.'
'Go on,' I say. 'This'd better be good.'
'Shut your face. Being a cynic doesn't suit you. You always knew I had to come out here tonight. I made my mind up after the funeral and I told you, remember? But in the last couple of weeks I've been having these dreams. In every one I've seen Ben and he's told me that he is looking out for me. Each time I got very angry and said, So, why did you leave me, you bastard, why did you kill yourself?
'Then, the night before last, I had a different dream. I climbed up into the dunes and found Ben was sitting on the sand, facing the sea. It was completely him, but I could see through him and I could see and hear exactly what he saw. Everything was clear, sharp, more real than life if that makes sense? We saw sanderlings run back and forth at the tide's edge on their clockwork legs. We watched a huge, black cormorant dive for fish, reappear and land on a rock. It extended its wings and wafted them to dry in the wind. We heard curlews and oyster catchers piercing the air each with their distinct cries. Then all at once the light drained away and silence muffled the sounds of life. Still Ben didn't turn round, but in the unbroken, thinner voice he'd had as a young lad he said, Shell, this is doing you no good. You have to understand I'm looking out for you and then move on. So, what would it take?
'I spun like a top. I went dizzy and fell under the waves of a wild sea. The water was warm, not like the Northumberland coast. Ben's arms caught me, scooped me up and threw me back onto dry land like I was a ball. Then I knew what had to happen; if Ben saved me from the ocean, really saved me from our own freezing waters, I could look to the future and believe he would always be there behind me. So, we made our bargain.'
'But you nearly drowned. In front of me. You nearly drowned,' I say.
'No, I didn't nearly drown, I was quite safe. Don't you see?'
'No, I don't. You're out of your tiny mind, Shell. Have you got a death wish or what?'
'The opposite. Ben's given me my life back. It's like the sea fret has lifted. It's been clamped down over me since his suicide. Only he could bring me through and I had to believe one hundred per cent,' says Shell. 'If I'd told you, you would have argued. You'd have made me doubt, then I would have drowned, no question.'
I feel as if everything is tilting and I reach and press my palms on the sand to steady myself. Ben's death has remained unnamed as suicide in my head, I can't face the horror of the word itself: suicide. Then, to see how close I've come to losing Shell the same way, whatever her explanation, is more than I can deal with. I start to shake with pure fright, I wet myself like a bairn and then I pass out.
In the cold, metallic dawn light I come back. The fire has died and Shell is asleep with her back pressed to mine. My damp, clinging jeans make me burn with shame. I struggle to my feet on automatic pilot and set about building another fire. It is well away when Shell finally stirs, the girl would sleep through anything, I swear. She cannot look at me and hides behind the curtain of her long, blond curls, a family feature. After several minutes she breaks the silence, her voice reedy and weak.
'Jo, I shouldn't have put you through all that. It wasn't fair. I'm sorry. I was scared to do it alone, I had to do it, but it wasn't fair.'
'Too bloody right,' I say. 'I don't know how you didn't drown last night, but it had nothing to do with Ben, whatever you want to believe. Ben is dead and dead is dead.'
'But you saw me, I was thrown back out, you saw me. Don't say you didn't 'cause I'll know you're lying,' says Shell.
My mind fizzes with uncertainty, short-circuits in the face of Shell's conviction. A flash still of her flying back out of the sea explodes in my head and it blinds my reason; my grip on reality ebbs away with the retreating tide. I am too exhausted to argue, and any arguments I might muster will evaporate as soon as Shell blasts them with her own truths. Then with a shocking suddenness I feel a switch flick in my brain: I know I have to meet Ben too. I want this more than I've ever wanted anything in my life. I will not let him go until I have said goodbye; if I have go to hell to find him, I will.
With words unspoken between Shell and me, we call a truce. We pick up our things and trudge home. Shell doesn't want her mum to wake up and find the house empty and I want my own bed and clean clothes. I don't know if Shell knows my head has turned traitor to everything I used to believe was true but I'm going to do this alone, my way.
Shell has just left. She visits me each week after her lectures finish early on a Thursday afternoon. She looks good, confident and switched on. In the last three years she's turned herself around and next summer she'll graduate as a qualified nurse. Who'd have thought it? It's funny how life turns out. At one time I wanted to be a teacher and Shell said she hadn't the brains to go to college and do anything like that. Now look at her. And look at me.
Did I say? I went after Ben. At first I tried the local spiritualist church in Ellington, nada, a complete no show. Then one day in winter, I sat alone in the dunes on Druridge Bay and this geezer came up and we got talking. He said his name was Rocky. He was about forty and I'd say he'd had a hard paper round. My dad says that when folk look old before their time. On some mad impulse I told him that I had to find Ben, my lost friend. I'd never said this out loud to anyone before, not even to Shell. Then I told him Ben had died, died here at Druridge. He said he understood. He offered me a swig from his flask and I didn't say 'no'. The fierce liquid burned my throat, and I melted. The next thing I knew we were rolling around together in the sand, it should've felt gross but it didn't, not then. That came later.
At first Rocky's pills gave me hope, I was travelling back to Ben. I'd no money to speak of so we settled up in the usual way. I took whatever he had on offer, I don't even know the name of most of them. I think benzos figured, certainly tranx and then I started to inject. It all came to a head one night when my mum found me dead to the world in the hedge at the bottom of our garden. I don't remember that at all; she told me the real story when I'd been here for a few months. I apparently came to in hospital and had my stomach pumped. She says I spent three weeks in Intensive Care. At the time it didn't feel like hospital: there were bright lights and demons and they were trying to kill me. I heard voices telling me to get out before they killed me. I gave one doctor a black eye when he tried to stop me getting to Ben. Ben was standing just behind him. I'd found him at last and now this shitty creature was getting in my way.
I'm in another hospital now, I've been nutted off. The summary in my notes says:
Admission: unresolved grief reaction and drug induced psychosis.
Perpetuating condition(s): predominant feature is a treatment-resistant, encapsulated psychosis and pervasive anxiety disorder'.
Legal Status: Detained under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983
Detention due for review August 16th 2010
So, there you have it. I'm a long stay patient on a psychiatric ward. Usually I'm no trouble, but that's because Ben's here with me. He shifts around but he's here. A new lad, Damian, came in last week and Ben's gone into his shell, just like a hermit crab. On Damian's first night, me and Damian were caught in bed together having 'inappropriate contact'. How can it be inappropriate? I've known Ben since I was six, and loved him since I was eight, did I say? Other times Ben comes inside my head and we talk all day long. I'm so glad I found him again; just think I didn't believe it was possible and yet here we are. I feel sad for Shell though; most of the time she puts Ben right out of her mind. She barely mentions him to me, maybe the doctors have told her not to. Once, she did say to me that she'd lost it that night in the sea at Druridge; she said she knows that now. It's such a pity, Ben would love to have a natter with her for old times' sake. But at least I can tell him what's she's up to, how she is.
They plan to start me on new medication next week. They're hopeful that it might get rid of my 'hallucinations and fixed beliefs' for good, although it might make me put on weight. I've talked to Ben about it and we've agreed, it's time to go back to Druridge Bay. The best time to go AWOL is during staff handover on a Sunday evening. I've been behaving myself lately so they'll let me make a quick visit to the chapel. I often go there to write poetry, they say that's to be encouraged, it's therapeutic apparently. So, next Sunday we'll be off. Life apart is no life at all for us. We'll go together in his Glasto tee shirt and walk into the sea. I'm glad I can't swim.