THINK FIRST, THEN ACT
Still the dreams came
'Oh God, someone help him.'
Charles Russell heard the frantic female cry behind him. It shattered what had been a relaxed and pensive stroll along the beachside esplanade.
Thoughts that had led him far from here and far, far above were wiped away by this immediate intrusion into his contentment.
He turned and saw two women, both aged in their early 30s, twenty yards behind him on the concrete path. Both were looking towards the sea. The taller one waved an arm in futile agitation. 'Help him . . . someone,' she pleaded, but there were few other people on the town beach and Charles knew he was the nearest.
'Oh, what,' he thought. 'Who would be dumb enough to be out there in that crap. You would have to be an idiot.'
It was a wretched afternoon for anyone to be in the water. The sea was windswept and getting rougher by the minute. Foaming waves carried churned sand as they broke towards the beach. Sunbeams cut only sporadically through scudding cloud. The pine trees swayed over the esplanade and the palms rustled.
It was no day for a beginner to battle the turmoil and undertow, but not unmanageable for a strong and experienced swimmer. Charles saw two men, both aged in their 20s, in an inflatable dinghy as it came thumping along from the southern end of the beach and headed out over the breaking waves 70 yards from shore.
A larger wave caught the small craft awkwardly and tossed it sideways. It went up and almost over, throwing the pair into the choppy surf. A bit further out a small, lonely figure waved weakly and clearly in serious trouble.
Charles, robust and fit at age 29, knew what he could and should do. Being out of his depth in the sea so close to shore was not something he feared. He pulled off his sandals and turned to the taller of the two women, who wore her long, dark hair in a ponytail, and handed her his wallet, keys and sunglasses.
'Please hold these for me.'
'Of course. Please help my boy. I told him not to go out, but he wouldn't listen.' She was close to tears.
He ran into the water, hoping the other guys would soon be back on their boat but there was no time to wait to find out. Swimming with powerful strokes, and hardly restricted by his shorts and close-fitting shirt, he quickly got to the boy, who was about to go under again. Those swimming trophies from Charles's school days suddenly meant something real and represented genuine usefulness.
He kept the boy's head above water until the other two had scrambled back onto their boat, restarted the engine then got him and the pale, scrawny kid to shore. The whole thing had taken only a few minutes. The exhausted lad, barely a teenager, vomited a little water and flopped onto the sand.
'How can I thank you enough,' his mother said. She handed Charles his things.
'That's okay,' he said. 'Glad he's all right.'
He thought that the other woman, whose blonde hair was cut in an attractive, short style, was the more eye-catching of the two, though both managed to look shapely despite their tracksuit bottoms and loose sweaters.
They were at the beach only because they had the time off work and the boy had nagged his mother to take him for a swim. Charles had his mind mainly on the kid, but he thought he had seen that impressive blonde somewhere.
Though he sensed that only she was watching him closely, his chunky build and crew-cut hair had made an impression on both women. One of the young men came over.
'Thanks for your help, mate.'
Charles nodded but said nothing. He didn't want any fuss over what he had done. It could have turned out differently, though. What if he hadn't been there? Would the others have got there in time? If it had been him in difficulty, would someone have got to him in time? He felt a cold shudder.
He walked away slowly, his back to the sun. He would be dry soon enough, but he would remember that chilling moment. The blonde woman, Terry Martini, watched him walk away.
'Good thing he was here,' she said to her friend Di Van Der Meer. Di was wrapping a towel around her son Kenny. He was shivering, from both cold and shock.
'Yes,' she said, 'He's a strong swimmer. Strong looking fellow altogether.'
'Hmm. I noticed,' Terry said. 'Seems to be more of a man of action than of words.'
'But,' Di said, knowing her friend well, 'you still would like to talk with him some more, wouldn't you?'
'Not sure, Di. We'll see. Now let's get Kenny home and into a warm shower.'
As Charles ambled back along the path from the beach southwards towards his home, he wondered about how suddenly things could change. Until this day in January 2007 his life at Boorunga Beach had been unruffled, scarcely interrupted by anything more than the few chores needed to keep his modest cottage neat. His methodical approach kept life simple.
After walking the couple of miles back from town he climbed the short green slope from the pathway up onto the level of his sleepy residential suburb. He crossed Old Coast Road that decades ago had been the main inter-town link hugging the coast southward from Boorunga Beach. It was now a picturesque drive into new housing estates spreading their attractive fingers down the coast.
Charles's home, near the end of The Crescent on the edge of town, was an easy half-day's drive south from Sydney. He rarely had any need or desire to go to Sydney, or even as far as the much nearer Wollongong.
His small, solid weatherboard cottage had a shallow angled gable roof, was painted a gleaming white outside and had deep green doors and window frames.The narrow garden space in front of it was planted with native shrubs (callistemons, grevilleas and melaleucas) in low-maintenance mounds of thick mulch.
In the garage to one side of the house a small inexpensive sedan was distinguished only by its sturdy roof rack and the fact that the car's pale blue paintwork clearly got only an infrequent hosing. So far as Charles could tell it went just as well whether it was polished or not.
The heavy timber front door of the house opened onto a brightly painted interior with gleaming timber floor and furniture that was sparse to the point of Spartan. The place had a welcoming aura though, mainly because of the lingering warm aroma of spices drifting from the no-nonsense kitchen.
He kept his prolific garden expertly tended and weed-free. Not a thorn or thistle in sight. If he needed fruit and vegetables that he didn't have growing, he had only to stroll through the market and buy the freshest and brightest items that caught his frugal eye.
Then it was a simple matter to whip up a healthy meal for himself when he felt like it. He had all he needed, and in abundance, for a lifestyle that was pared down to keeping body, mind and soul in uncluttered equilibrium.
He appeared to be in permanent holiday mode and he was - except for his imagination, which at any time would catapult him millions and even billions of years into the future. His imagination rarely stopped bubbling, or even eased back to a simmer. But in real time he never had to rush anywhere. Now he changed out of his damp clothes, brewed strong coffee and switched on his computer.
The rescue had tired his arms and legs, but his mind buzzed with darting ideas and he thought it might be a good time to get back to the short story he had been tinkering with for days. The words flowed as the afternoon faded to dusk and he was satisfied with the results by the time hunger stirred him away from the computer and off to his kitchen.
The hard swim and concentrated writing had drained his energy and he needed a refill. No tofu and vegetables tonight. He was up for giving himself a little reward for his efforts. A steak and a large glass of cabernet-merlot would do the trick nicely, followed by a solid night's sleep.
His sleep was deep, restful and refreshing, but still the dreams came. They fed into his waking thoughts about trying to write some sort of science fiction story that might help him coalesce his developing ideas about life, death and the whole damn thing - the whole damn thing being mainly the mystery of humanity's utterly fantastic future.