Geoffrey stood on the roadside in the morning sun. Peak hour had just begun, and cars were starting to queue in the direction of the city. On his side of the road a sparse number of vehicles soared past at speeds unattainable by those in the citybound throng. He moved over to the shade of an enormous fig that had, over the course of a century, exploded into a mass of tangled branches and thick foliage. The harbour shone on the other side of the pocket park behind him.
It was seven o’clock. He took out his phone and dialled Dave’s number.
“We’re all fine, Geoff. All good.”
“You in the café?” Geoffrey said.
“We’ve just been seated and have ordered coffees. Andrea’s ducked out to the loo.”
“Make sure she comes back,” said Geoffrey.
“It was a forty-five minute trip, so it’s understandable. But don’t worry. We’ve got this, okay?”
“Alright,” said Geoffrey.
“Where are you?”
Geoffrey looked around the setting.” On the footpath, near a park just outside Rose Bay.”
“Go home, mate,” said Dave. “Get some rest. We’ll call you at eight.”
“Thanks,” said Geoffrey, “but I’ll stick around all the same. It’s only half an hour. I’ll rest up then.”
“Okay, mate. I’ll look after Doctor Andrea, triathlete extraordinaire, up here, and you look after you, football wing extraordinaire, down there. That’s the deal.”
“Thanks again,” said Geoffrey. “I mean that. Thanks to you both for going out of your way for me.”
“It’s only the northern beaches,” said Dave. “It’s not like we’ve travelled interstate. In fact it’s actually quite beautiful. The surf is rolling in, the sun is high, the sky is blue. I could live up here.”
“Okay, you guys enjoy breakfast. I’m going for a walk.”
He hung up and picked his way over the tree roots and descended across the sliver of park to the harbourside. He was relieved to find himself alone. The drop from the road to the water muted the traffic and he could relax a little. A strip of sand curved along the edge of the grey water. Two marinas cordoned off the view at either end, their boats bobbing idly in the spent wake of a ferry. A halyard rattled on a mast. A cormorant sat on the white top of a mooring pile with its curtain of black feathers open to the sun. The water dribbled in on the sand with a soothing wash.
He strolled along the sand. A few plastic bottles lined the tide mark, grimy with their time in the water. He watched a purple crab crawl out of one and scuttle across the sand to the water. He waited until he could no longer see it beneath the surface. He wondered if crabs preferred walking or swimming when they were in the water. He noticed a couple of ducks at one end of the beach. They had grey heads and rippled orange feathers on their sides. Their beaks weren’t duck beaks though. They were as big as bent chisels with pointed ends. He wondered if they were ducks at all.
In the bushes on the edge of the sand a grubby white ibis was busy disgorging the contents of a garbage bin. It dipped its long black beak into the bin and hauled out ripped bags of waste. Plastic cartons and cutlery fell on to the grass and sand. Geoffrey walked over for a closer look. The bird eyed him along its slim proboscis, blinked and then fluttered off. He caught the stench of it as it passed by, its wings doggedly beating the air.
He checked the time. Seven-ten. He wondered if he should call Dave, just to check in, but resolved not to. He could rely on him. They were miles away, consuming poached eggs and sourdough no doubt, or something more exotic. Talking about him no doubt. Dissecting his strange visions, and all that had occurred over the last week.
This would settle it. His vision of Andrea was about to be proven false. She was up there. He was down here. There would be no accident, no death, no loss of a brilliant medical career. The sun would shine and the day would turn as it was meant to and he would go home and get some sleep.
Andrea was right. This would eliminate one major aspect of his perception, the idea that these visions really reflected what was about to happen. Of course that left the issue of what was actually going on inside his head, but it at least showed him once and for all that he was not some sort of bedevilled clairvoyant, not a fortune teller, and not cursed by some uniquely moribund ability. Instead it was an issue that fitted squarely within the normal range of neurotic or emotional anomalies. He smiled at the contradiction: a normal anomaly. It was treatable, that was the main thing. He could undergo a course of therapy, or drugs, or both and have it dealt with and get on with his life, and get on with Lucy without fear of tripping up. And even if he did see something about her, it would not be true. He could dismiss it as a silly dream, laugh it off and revel in her company.
Looking back, he thought all the visions he had were explicable on a rational basis. Andrea was probably right, he probably was reacting to some external stimuli. Even her cycling for instance. Sure, he hadn’t known that she was a triathlete when he’d suffered his turn at reception two days ago, but thinking about it closely, she looked like one. She had an evident tan from training for hours outside, and she radiated health and vitality. One could easily pick her for a triathlete or a cyclist. First impressions can be very rapid, and people respond to images very quickly and often unconsciously. So whatever was going in his head tagged her as a cyclist and put her in the image on the road.
He looked out at the grey ducks with the enormous beaks paddled across the water. There were four of them now. One had something in its beak. He hoped it wasn’t the crab. He thought about his other visions. It had all started with the bad feeling about Slabs. That was easily explicable, given the amount he’d had to drink that night and his feelings at meeting Lucy. It wasn’t a foreboding of the car crash, it was nerves, and alcohol, and uncertainty. That was it, uncertainty. He was convinced he wouldn’t get anywhere with Lucy, that she was out of his league, with her dugongs and politics and him a boring corporate auditor. His lack of confidence combined with his unconscious responses to her first impressions to overwhelm him. That was it, surely. He had immediately convinced himself he was going to fail with her, and projected his sense of failure on to the night, on to Slabs in particular, with his enormous paws and abrasive manner. The car accident was just that, an accident, a coincidence. He didn’t predict Slabs would be in an accident, he just had a bad feeling. Sure, the feeling was bad enough to press Slabs not to go home, but that was just him being glum spirited in the face of unattainable romance. It had nothing to do with Slabs or what was about to happen.
So when the accident did happen, he just carried it on, and thought he saw everyone else dying. Morbid, yes, but not true. It is true that everyone dies, but what he saw was not everyone’s individual death. What he saw – or imagined he saw – was the blunt fact that people die, and Slabs’ sudden death had made it all so terribly real. That would explain why so many of his visons were of people dying of old age: most people do die of old age, in hospitals or at home. He wasn’t imagining anything more than what he knew was a common event. The hobo? Hobos die in the street. The man was seriously unhealthy anyway. He reeked and was filthy, and obviously suffered from severable illnesses. His prospects weren’t at all good. So any prediction about his imminent demise wouldn’t be shocking in the slightest. The fact that Geoffrey had pinpointed a time for it probably meant he was responding to some hidden signals which made a wild guess a bit less wild. What had the prediction been? 11pm. Well, that was pretty simple. No science there. They had found him after eleven. So it wasn’t a precise prediction. Certainly not a provable one anyway.
And Dave, in his chair with his light, in his rug and old age? What a beautiful image. An elderly man in his nineties who’d spent a productive and enjoyable life: what better compliment could Geoffrey have paid his friend. And the light? Coincidence. Geoffrey had described a lamp shade. When Dave showed him the one in the photos he must have figured yes, that was it. He’s not good at design or art. There’s no mystery there. These are all readily explainable occurrences. Rajiv, the long living uber driver: Geoffrey told him what he wanted to hear. The patients in ICU: Geoffrey predicted the old ones would die, but who was going to be around to see the kid live to be a hundred? And his childhood experiences? Just that, childhood experiences. If they revealed anything, it was that he possessed a solidity of character that would be useful in a career as an auditor.
This was why both Dave and Andrea were being so circumspect. Every example had a rational explanation. They knew it, but buddy boy Geoffrey was off on a tangent of his own, and couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Dave didn’t need to test the visions to see if they were true. He knew they weren’t. He wanted to test them to show Geoffrey they weren’t true, and Andrea was the same. So they devised their little breakfast trip as a clear and incontrovertible demonstration that Geoffrey had not been seeing dead people.
He felt embarrassed that he had put his friends through all this kerfuffle. He felt stupid at his own susceptibility to the belief that his dreams were real. He was an auditor for goodness sake, and a bloody good one. All this nonsense about seeing the small things on the periphery, the tell tales of life’s misdemeanours; that was all baloney. He was good at picking out details in accounts which showed up corporate error, but nothing more. It was stupid to go from there to claiming he had a unique skill in existential ESP. What a dumbass he’d been!
And how good Dave had been to him. He hadn’t ridiculed Geoffrey, or laughed at him or told him not be stupid. He must have instantly recognised Geoffrey was suffering some deeply anxious response to Slabs’ car accident. After all, Dave had watched him in the pub, had witnessed his pleas to Slabs not to go home. So he must have been aware that all was not well and decided to keep an eye on his friend. So when it all blew up, when he came around on Sunday he was sensitive to Geoffrey’s fraught emotional state. And then he went above and beyond to help. The whole lamp shade saga, the visit to ICU, these were all attempts to put Geoffrey at ease. Who knows, perhaps some of the ICU predictions surprised even Dave, rational clear-thinking Doctor Dave, but he knew deep down that no-one can actually see the future. What a friend. What a professional medic. What a support he’d been to someone who’d been, quite frankly, sick, traumatised by the accident and in need of intense and immediate help. Geoffrey felt extremely fortunate. He’d been saved from possible psychic collapse by the quick thinking and rapid response of a friend. He owed Dave big time. Plus, Geoffrey realised, in the middle of all this, Dave had helped him kindle the romance with Lucy.
My god, the dinner on Tuesday. The contortions of eye patches and sunglasses and pretend blindness. What a load of absolute and embarrassing shite. What an idiot he had been. He’d got the girl, she liked him. He had nothing to fear: the romance was attainable despite his fears. He’d just lacked confidence, like so many people do. Luckily she didn’t know any of this, and he hoped she didn’t find out too soon. Maybe one day he’d be able to tell her and look back and laugh at the humiliating length to which his fears twisted his mind and made him wear a bloody eye patch on a first date.
All of which meant, of course, that when they next met he could look her straight in the eye and tell her how much he enjoyed seeing her and how beautiful she was.
He kicked the sand and danced a little jig, arms swinging awkwardly in the air. He didn’t care if anyone saw him. A great burden had just been lifted from him and he felt as warm as the cormorant on the mooring pile.
He scarcely registered the cry of the ambulance as it weaved its way through the peak hour traffic above him. He first thought it was a police siren, as there was a police station on the corner of the park. But it repeated, and its urgency wormed into his mind. It couldn’t be. Andrea was up on the northern beaches. But still he thought he should check.
The siren increased and became more compelling as he climbed the slope from the beach. The mass of peak hour traffic had come to a standstill, and to his left he saw the ambulance cautiously advancing up the wrong side of the road into the path of oncoming vehicles. Cars skidded to slow down and veered to the kerb to let it pass, but its movement was inhibited by the blind curves in the road. Worried by what had brought the commuter traffic to a standstill, Geoffrey began running along the footpath in the direction the ambulance was taking. He skipped across the road and through the mass of commuter traffic and ran past building sites and blocks of flats, ducking under the dark vegetation which overhung sandstone walls and skipping past bus shelters and traffic lights. The ambulance was catching him up, its siren bleating in his ears and tormenting this brain. He ran down the concrete path past blocks of garage doors and flights of stairs, down past old brick houses and modern concrete mansions until he arrived at a set of traffic lights where the block of traffic ceased, leaving open road in front of it.
He saw a truck stopped at an angle to the kerb and when he ran past that a ring of people stood around someone on the ground. He pushed his way into the ring and looked down. A pair of legs in cycling lycra lay on the bitumen, one leg bent in a manner it should not be. A man squatting down obscured Geoffrey’s view of the face, but he knew he had to check. He pulled out his phone to ring Dave to make sure, but a man next to him knocked it away from him, saying,
“Taking photos? What the fuck?”
Geoffrey’s heart sank as he watched his phone fall on the road. Someone said, “Paramedics are here.” The man who was squatting stood up to make room for them, revealing Andrea’s broken body, her mute eyes staring at the roadside, her cropped blonde hair caked in blood, her body twisted with red stains on her ripped outfit. Next to her the rear wheel of her bike slowly turned, and beside that lay Geoffrey’s phone, face up. The words Dr Dave were spread across it in clear lettering and above that, the time at 7.32am. The ring tone was a glum intrusion into the hideous silence on the road.
A shadow crossed the scene as the first paramedic bent to attend to the body. Geoffrey scooped up his phone and fought his way back on to the footpath. He answered it, releasing Dave’s panic-stricken voice on to the street.
“Geoff, it’s Dave, she’s gone!”
People scowled at Geoffrey as he pressed the phone to his ear, and he walked a few metres to be clear of the scene. A man chased him and tried to pull his arm down.
“For fuck’s sake, there’s been a woman killed and you’re on the phone?”
Geoffrey turned and stared at him fiercely and pulled the phone back to his ear. The man spat on the concrete next to Geoffrey’s feet and left.
“She was here. We were talking, and then I got up to order more coffees and when I came back, she was gone. Is she with you? Tell me she isn’t with you.”
Geoffrey looked at the small group of people surrounding the scene of the accident. They obscured the body. Police had arrived and were directing traffic in slow single file around the site. He said,
“She’s here, Dave.”
“Yeah, but is she alright?”
Geoffrey took in a large breath and said,
“What, what’s happened?” said Dave.
Geoffrey exhaled, and felt his body trembling. A cold pall descended upon him, and he felt weak and sickly. Beads of sweat marshalled upon his brow. He said,
“It’s true, Dave. It must be true.”
What he wanted to say was, ‘what’s happening to me?’, but this was not the right time. Instead he said,
“It’s what I saw.”
“But that’s not possible,” said Dave. “She was here. I was with her.”
“She’s here now,” said Geoffrey.
“But … but -” Dave went silent. Geoffrey watched the cars dribble past. Then he saw the ambulance slowly come down the hill without any siren, moving resolutely along the road towards where he stood … towards where he thought. He thought of who was inside it, and what sorcery had led her there. He thought of the ambulances on the night of Slab’s accident, and how the doors closed on him and how the ambulance slid away unobtrusively into the evening. He thought of the old hobo and the police car stopped nearby, and of the patients in ICU, closely attended by caring hospital staff. He thought of Rajiv, the uber driver, surrounded by family in his last moments. His eyes kept watch as the ambulance disappeared around a bend.
Dave’s voice was hysterical.
“She was with me, Geoff. Here. I only got up to get another coffee. There’s no way she could have left, gone home, got changed and gone riding. No way. It’s just not fucking possible. We’re fucking miles away. Are you sure it’s her?”
Geoffrey nodded, even though he was on the phone.
“I’m sure,” he said. “I’ve only met her once, but I’m sure.”
“It’s not possible,” said Dave.
“It’s her,” said Geoffrey.
“Well what the fuck is going on?” shouted Dave. “What is happening?”
“It’s her,” he repeated. It was all he could say.
“Who are you?” said Dave.
“I’m sorry,” said Geoffrey and slammed his eyes closed to stem the flood of tears that rose behind them. “I’m sorry.”
Sorry to Dave, sorry to Andrea, sorry to himself. Sorry to all the people he had seen, all the truths he had told, all the lives circumscribed. His mouth opened and released a gut crawling howl that rasped his throat and tore at his lungs. Tears followed, in large hot sobs of terror and bewilderment that ran down his stricken cheeks. He ran his hand through his hair and spun around. The traffic was flowing again and bore a bitter echo that bounded between the sandstone walls to brick fronts that lined the road. A bus growled by, kicking up dust and wind in his face. A truck followed with throttled brakes squealing beneath a stubborn roar.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” he said into the phone. “I don’t know who I am.”
The phone was unresponsive.
Who was he? What was his role in all this? How does one see what is yet to be? And why that? Why death, when there was so much more to look out for? He was sick of it, sick of the orgy of death, sick of the visions, sick of the black weight that pressed on his being. He felt suffocated. He was shaking. Breath struggled to find his lungs.
“Dave!” he shouted. The world was twisting, the blue sky, the cars and thick trees. The dust and grime of the air coated his lungs. He coughed, and great wads of green phlegm were kicked from his lungs. His vision exploded into a plaque of blinding light, and his mind was swamped with an oppressive hum like the centre of a great transformer. He could neither think, see nor register his orientation.
“Hey you!” a voice call from somewhere in the blank.
A shadow appeared in the white mist, an arm raised without hands, no feet on black legs, faceless, only a voice.
“You’re still on the fucking phone! Have you no manners at all?” A black arm came towards him, and he reeled back. He felt his own arm rise in opposition, but it swayed aimlessly in the air somewhere out of sight in front of him. The wind roared. He was weightless. He was flying. He was free.
His legs were sandbags, his chest pinched, and he felt the brush of cloth on the side of his face. A bird called, and everything was swallowed by dark.