It was one of those days you wouldn’t want to be in school: a day when the wild boys turned their faces to the sky beyond the classroom window, staring at its astounding blue intensity, their hearts aching at the thought of those perfect wasted waves rolling in just beyond their grasp; a day when the humidity seeped through us, making concentration on anything but dreams of beaches, swimming pools and Coke floats impossible. So it was a relief to escape the classroom with my best friend, J, and the rest of the school to compete in our inter-House swimming gala at the local council swimming pool.
J joined our primary school mid-way through my time there. Sharing a love of dancing and an absurdist sense of humour, we became firm friends. She and her brother, S, who was a year above us, excelled academically, with both being awarded school colours for multiple subjects. J shined at sport and S was a budding amateur magician and comedian. He was also a dreadful tease and, as brothers do, annoyed J (and me) a lot of the time but also made us laugh. He was in his first year of high school at the time of the swimming gala and had promised to come and watch us swim, a cover, we surmised, for an ideal opportunity to chat up some girls.
The day sweltered in typical sub-tropical style while we competed our hearts out, glad for our time in the pool, an escape from the shimmering heat. As is the progression of such steaming days, a summer breeze, a welcome relief to those not in the water, drifted in and gradually built to gusting. And as we swam and cheered, it found its way to the judges’ table, lifted the beach umbrella sheltering the staff from the heat of the day and tossed it like a tumbleweed towards the cheering audience.
Memory is notoriously unreliable. I thought S was in the stands watching, but my mother, 25 years my senior, says no, S had just arrived and was standing on the grass near the stands. It makes more sense, now that I think of it. The detailed events of that day, discussed many times in the ensuing years, were ultimately swamped by a terrible sadness, and diluted into murky swirls in the corners of my mind.
When the umbrella finally came to a halt, S lay unresponsive on the grass. Some assumed that he had fallen from the stands and been rendered unconscious as a result; others assumed he had fainted from the searing heat. But he could not be revived, and my father, suspecting something more serious, stabilized him and rushed him to the nearest medical rooms where they called an ambulance.
They say that there’s a million ways to die, but how many ways are there to render a life less lived? As J and I waited with my parents in the bleached corridors of the hospital that afternoon, J’s mother was informed by the attending neurosurgeon that S had a small entry wound in his forehead and an equally small exit wound in the back of his head, on the opposite side, at the base of his skull.
S’s intelligence remained intact; he even went on to get a university degree, but in spite of months in hospital and years of therapy, he would never walk or talk properly again, his motor co-ordination and speech severely damaged by the piercing spoke of a beach umbrella.
Whenever I hear someone repeat that thoughtless, vacuous line—everything happens for a reason—I think of an umbrella on the wind and reply silently: No. No it does not.