An Outside Chance
by Geoff Nuttall
My God, to live this intensely every moment of your life, the squinting figure thinks, a deep indigo sky sweeping down to the long shard of white sand where he stands. The sand is studded with pink and purple flowers. His nostrils dip to taste their scent. They give off a crushed flower perfume that somehow reminds him of the soft, sliding sounds of Portuguese in the locals’ mouths. A hot breeze blows off the sea. Outdoors, he thinks. For the very last time.
Later, they will not even notice their last moments outdoors, in the short passage from apartment to air-conditioned hire car. From the car drop-off, through the hot breeze, to the sudden chill of the airport terminal. Maybe one or two more such moments the next day, before finally, strapped in the sealed shuttle, they head for a life indoors. In the eternal mall-world of a Martian settlement, where (he will be continually reminded), the kids will thrive, away from the crowd, mixing with the movers and shakers with the foresight to see that this is where opportunity lies. This is the future. The only future with a future, as the vacuous ads say.
He walks further along the beach. The day's heat is growing. But this is living, he thinks. Why did I never see it before? Why did I ever let myself join the hordes who allow themselves a fortnight a year of this and slave the rest of the year in glass and steel boxes for the privilege? And now, somehow, this is my last day of really living. The last real air I will ever breathe. He looks at his watch and remembers his promise to be back by 11, in good time to leave for the airport. And then he realises. He has 30 mins left to live. Or to find another life.
He feels a shattering boom off to his right and in the corner of his eye a point of unwatchable light to rival the sun rises slowly into the sky. Another shuttle leaving. More competition heading for Mars. Need to get moving, the voices in his head say, but he shakes them off. The sand crunches unsatisfyingly underfoot so he rips his beach shoes off and hurls them without looking into the sea, so he can feel the sand on his bare soles, between his toes. He walks on, thinking only, this is too beautiful to leave. I cannot leave. I, we, all of us, must find a way to stay. Somewhere along this beach, he thinks with sudden conviction, I will find another life. And, ignoring the light and the rumble to his right, he runs forwards along the beach, gradually noticing as he does, something bright up ahead.
As he draws nearer, the glare pushes his eyes back but his mind, hungry for any hope it might find, drives forward, willing this glare to give him the answer. And now he sees that it’s coming off the sloping corrugated plastic roof of a rough wooden cabin planted a little way up the beach with a couple of wooden tables with half-log benches on either side. A tanned and dreadlocked twentysomething mans the shack, tending barbecuing sardines. Their aroma fills the hot air. A tempting set-up, but the truth is clear. This is only temporary. Not a life but a young man's interlude. The answer lies elsewhere. And now there are 29 minutes left. Less 10 for the barefoot run back to the apartment, so really less than 20.
He turns his gaze to the customers. At the table to the right, a young family, like his own. The young children, their skins tight with salt and sun and unbrushed sand, drinking ice cold drinks through plastic straws. In heaven, yet blissfully unaware of it. Then he thinks of his own children spending their last hour in the apartment, on screens that will be there on the journey home, on the journey to Mars. And ever after. Wherever they go, the same. In the same 21 degree environment. The same windless, recycled air.
He looks at the young family again. Projects a few years ahead. Sees the kids older. Distracted. The screens in their hands now. Their minds elsewhere. Their skins unfeeling now. Inside? Outside? All the same. Their world virtual now. A screen on Mars is a screen on Earth. All the same. Just a backdrop. So why not go where the schools and the jobs are? The prices lower?
At the other table, a casually well-dressed man, ten years his senior, sits nursing a cocktail. A businessman perhaps? But what business? He imagines him as the owner of one of the grand Art Nouveau bars in the city, walking past the queuing tourists into the cool dark interior, all wood and mirrored walls and marble floor, the waitresses whispering to each other to signal his arrival, but not fazed, still smiling. Content like him. Since later all of them will share the same warm, steep streets as equals; drinking in the same changing scents as they pass each doorway. But this is a life the businessman was born to. He is the opposite of the twentysomething. A symbol of permanence. The latest of many generations, living blessed under the sun.
“Can I get you something?” the twentysomething asks.
“Uh, Coke..” he replies, his own voice sounding unfamiliar, and sinks down onto the other end of the businessman’s bench, without the language skills or the nerve or even the energy to talk, instead turning his head towards the sea. The eternal sea. A great heaving womb. The birthplace of life. But then, he senses a discomfort, a niggle, a sensation. A dampness is seeping into the right leg of his shorts and he looks down to notice a coloured towel he is half sitting on. Too bright and feminine to be the businessman's. Another customer? But where? And might she have the answer? Might she, he thinks even more desperately, be the answer? But there is no sign of her. Just the family and the businessman and the sea. And the faint cry of a distant seagull. Barely audible but insistent. Sometimes louder whenever the wind gusts their way. And now a little more insistent. Higher pitched. From the sea. Yes, definitely from the sea. And, not a gull he realises, but human. A high, insistent cry. A cry, he realises, for help.
He squints harder at the sea and sees, amongst the spray, a horizontal line of white bobbing in and out of view, and next to it, a head bobbing. To one side of the head, an arm reaches onto the white line, and then the other, trying to pull up onto what he now sees is a long flat board. One arm flops back down again then the other leaving just the bobbing head again. The cry fainter and more desperate now. And the next thing he knows he is running, scuffing along the ever smoother sand as he approaches the water and launches himself into it, not thinking now, 100% per cent alive. About to save a life, but feeling, in the act, he is saving two. Hers and his own. His limbs drive through the water, enjoying its resistance. All sense of time has gone now. His deadline gone. No quest left now but to save this woman from drowning, a woman that, despite his frantic pulling of limbs through spray, he can clearly and calmly visualise. A woman he must meet. Someone not afraid to feel. Someone like him, who needs not just to be, but to feel alive on the earth. Even if it means risking all. He needs her to know that her risk was worth it. Is always worth it, if the alternative is never to feel. To be no more than eyes on a screen. Already, he sees her sitting next to him on the bench, reunited with her wet towel, able to laugh now she's ashore again, her wet unkempt hair framing a freckled thirtysomething face. Her eyes full of life and the hunger to live it to the full. But then, the plaintive cry cuts through again, insistent and somehow.. yes, no mistake.. gull-like again. And now, in intermittent flashes through the bobbing waves, he sees her slipping onto the board again with ease and, pulling a strap out of the water at her feet, standing and leaning back to draw a sail up from the water that the wind immediately fills and pulls her swiftly away from him. And, as she turns into the wind to tack, the sun reflects off the sail, blinding him. He strains to hold his gaze on the sail as the periphery of his vision goes dark, until all he can see is a blinding cold white light surrounded by blackness then surrounded again by a frame. A cream-coloured, man-made plastic frame around an oval window. A trickle of salvia has dribbled from the corner of his mouth in sleep. And, wiping it away, he draws himself upright in the shuttle seat.
His eyes fall to the tablet screen on the fold-out tray before him. The top of the screen crowds with unread notifications that he absent-mindedly begins to open and dismiss one-by-one, not yet ready to confront the reality of his situation. That it is all too late. That 24 hours have passed since his last walk on earth over the Portuguese sand and already his sleeping mind has begun craving and remoulding the memory. But then an image opens on the screen that arrests his attention. The screen shows a vast, amorphous greenhouse structure set in a stony red desert, stretching out to the horizon. The camera swoops down towards the structure, down and down, until, reaching the glass shell, it bursts through and levels out, skimming low over treetops, then out over a great expanse of water, a vast lake studded with wooded islands. A voiceover cuts through the soaring background music. “Join the Martian terraforming programme. We need volunteers now. Build the future of your new planet…”. And, as they soar over more shining treetops, he catches just a momentary glimpse of the shimmer of leaves caught by a gust of wind, and a tiny speck of hope takes root against the blackness of space, against the weatherless mall-world that awaits him. A thought to cling to; to live until old age for. The thought that just maybe, he might one day feel again the sun’s heat, a cool breeze, or a rain shower on his naked skin.