Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Greatest Gift

"You OK?"

The voice had genuine concern, whatever that meant. She tried to answer but the attempt induced a fit of coughing: the remnants of the river she had inhaled barking and spluttering from her mouth. Gradually the coughing subsided.

"Yeah, I think so."

There was a long pause, then he spoke again. Tentatively.

"If I might say, that seemed deliberate."

"What did?"

"Well I was watching and that definitely wasn't a fall. You jumped right in there."

She looked at her rescuer. Hair plastered to his face. Clothes shining wet in the moonlight.

"No it wasn't. An accident, I mean. My intention was to kill myself."

"Well I'd say it was a good job that I was here. But you might not think so."

Her attempt to reply was drowned in more coughing.

"I mean, you might ask what right I have to prevent someone from carrying out an action that they clearly intended. An act that, one might say, was of their own free will."

She looked at him sharply. Did he know? But his face was impassive and gave no indication of any deeper knowledge of her predicament.

"Fuck that." She replied. A dry cough serving to underscore the final word.

"You think I have that right?"

"No. I don't think anyone has any rights at all. Or at least if they do, it doesn't make any difference. The "that" I was fucking was free will. It was free will -- or rather the absence of it -- that led me here in the first place. That drove me to try to take my own life."

His subsequent exhalation metamorphosed into a laugh. This annoyed her. There was something stage-managed about it, almost commedia dell'arte. A laugh invoked by the recognition of something that an unseen audience had yet to find out. The exaggerated thigh-slapping laugh an English Literature teacher does in front of his pupils on hearing a Shakespearean joke. Seemingly recognising her irritation he spoke ahead of her retort.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. It would be odd enough to say that you were compelled to do something because of free will. It seems even odder to say that you were compelled to do something because of the absence of free will. Or, thinking about it further, maybe the absence of free will just leaves one perpetually compelled. For if there is no freedom, what else remains but compulsion?"

"I wonder." She said. "Whether it is traditional for people to have this kind of conversation when one of them saves the other from drowning. It could be the case, I suppose, I guess such conversations are rarely recorded for posterity."

He laughed again, this time more naturally.

"I imagine closeness to death seldom inspires immediate philosophising. A friend of mine was involved in a near-fatal car accident and he told me that far from his life flashing before his eyes all he could think about was whether he had put the bins out."

It was her turn to laugh, but he continued.

"Philosophy is seldom best done when ones mind is doused in adrenaline -- if I may be so bold and mix ontologies in such a way -- a cup of tea and an armchair, yes, drowning, definitely not."

She looked at him more closely now. He'd scooped his sodden hair back off his face. It was an everyday kind of face, a face that does the job of presenting its owner to the world without presumption, a face that makes no specific claims about the person beneath. By the two pink depressions on either side of the bridge of his nose he had also lost his glasses.

"Well you're certainly managing to sound like a philosopher, bins or no bins."

"I dabble. Although I would hate to call myself 'a philosopher'. It is a bit like calling oneself a poet or a comedian no sooner has the word passed your lips than its 'ooh give me a rhyming couplet then, crack me a joke, explain Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence'. And of course, in such situations one's mind quite dries up. Although, I guess that might be useful right now."

He blew a drip of water theatrically off his nose.

This time they both laughed.

She shivered which brought her mind back to the reason why she was here.

"Strange that of all the people who would rescue me it should be a philosopher. Or at least someone who dabbles, or should that be paddles?"

The expected laugh did not come. She turned to face him, for the first time there was an intense, almost grim, look upon his face. He was staring right at her.

"Miss Bailey, I'm afraid I'm here to rescue you twice."


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