Man Overboard

Sereine Coutellier

 

Basil wasn’t born deaf. He was five when he fell into the sea. He was running across the damp rocks of the pier when his glow in the dark jelly sandals slipped, and the deep masses of water claimed his chubby half naked body. Devoid of armbands, he sunk further and further, cold streams curling around his limbs, dragging him down. By the time his parents jumped in and brought him back to the surface, he was unconscious.

            He woke up in a white hospital room that smelled like the dentist’s office. His parents were there, talking to the doctor. His father had an arm wrapped around his mother’s waist and was holding her close. She was covering her mouth with one hand, her eyes wide and scared. That was the last time Basil ever saw her cry. When his parents realised he was awake and up, they dismissed the white coat after shaking his hand firmly and came to sit on the bed. His mother wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and hugged him tightly. He felt her lips move but no sound came out. The same happened with his father. Curious, he asked them if they had lost their voices but his own voice had vanished. Panic and a crushing headache seized him. Still, the world remained silent. He moved his hand to his throat to feel it vibrate under his touch as he tried once more to call his mother. He began to sob and whine, his head spinning. His parents hushed him quietly, the worried lines of their faces unknitting to show reassurance. Everything would be fine they told him, he would be fine. He just needed some rest. Basil shook his head despite the pain. He wanted to go home. He wanted his bed and his car toys and his lazy cat. He wanted to hear them say they loved him.

            Exhaustion eventually took over. The blurry figure of his father eased him down under the covers, kissed his banded forehead and mouthed words that faded before they could reach him. His mother cupped his face, brushing her thumb on his skin, and gave him a long kiss on the cheek. When she sat up, she put a hand on her heart then moved it to Basil’s. She smiled as his eyes fluttered closed.

 

Basil was ten when he asked what had happened to him the day the world fell silent. Thanks to re-education, he had learned sign language, lip reading, and even how to keep speaking – something he avoided as much as possible in public, considering the tensed or awkward reactions he would get. Sometimes, he put the tip of his fingers on his throat and allowed himself a few words to feel his vocal chords buzz with life. It wasn’t much, but it had become a nervous habit; rubbing his neck to make sure it was still there, warm and throbbing.

            His mother must have been expecting the question, for she only smiled and invited him to wait on the couch while she fetched the file. She had aged in five years. She held her chin high and defied anyone who would look at her son the wrong way – with disdain or pity – but she was tired. Every day was a fight to make Basil belong, to make sure nobody abused him, to make sure he was happy. The first year had been the most challenging. The impossibility to communicate smoothly, the formalities, the change in their everyday rhythm, Basil’s incomprehension… It had been draining. Things had calmed down once all the paperwork had been completed and Basil had learned how to read. It had helped them while the three of them still took signing lessons. She was proud of what they had accomplished; the way they had dealt with their son’s disability, the way they supported him, the way he relied on them, never felt sorry nor gave up on living his life the way he wanted. They had never kept the accident a secret, nor had they avoided speaking of it. Basil had simply never asked for the details. She trusted that if he wanted to know, it meant he felt ready.

 

Sensorineural Hearing Loss is what they called it on paper. In his case, a combination of unfortunate causes: eardrum damage due to the water pressure, head trauma, infection of the inner ear. Basil skipped the unfamiliar jargon, and waited for his mother to tell him the story. She traced the white scar behind his ear.

            They had gone to the sea during a weekend in June. They were walking along the beach Basil running ahead cheerfully. He wanted to be the first one to see the fish and say hello, so he’d climbed the rocks of the nearest pier and ran further ahead. But he had slipped. Lost balance. Hit his head on the concrete… Fallen into the water with a frightened gasp cut short. Of course, they had rushed to him. His father had been the one to dive in and bring him back – breathless and bleeding. They had managed to empty his lungs of the water, an ambulance on its way. Basil had immediately been taken to the Emergency department to get his wound stitched and the trauma asserted. The infection had been decisive. Total hearing loss. The rest, he knew.

            Basil stayed quiet once his mother stopped waving her hands around. It didn’t make sense. He looked at the black words on the white papers. The capital letters. The numbers. The illustrations. It must have been wrong, this wasn’t the whole story. There was more to it. He told his mother, and she tilted her head to the side, puzzled.

            What do you mean, this isn’t the whole story?

            The day the world fell silent, something else happened mum.

            She frowned, What? What is it Basil?

            The papers are lying. It’s because of the sea that the world is silent, mum. The water is a thief! It stole my voice. And it stole yours, and daddy’s. It stole the voice of the world, mum!

 

Basil spent the next couple of years trying to prove his mother’s teasing reaction wrong. All the sounds of the world were held captive by the evil sea and he would be the one to find them and set them free. Just like his father had done with him. Together with Tom – the lazy and now fat – cat, he began his preparation. He took long salty baths during which he would sink underwater in hope to find some clues. Maybe the world would try to speak to him. While his friends marvelled over comic books and dinosaurs, he spent days at the Aquarium learning about fishes and water currents. He studied hard, at school and at home, in case he would have to answer riddles just like the ancient heroes facing the Sphinx. When Basil asked to join a diving club, his parents stopped turning a blind eye on this new obsession of his. They had never gone back to the seaside since the accident, who knew how he would react when facing his so called nemesis. He explained them he felt ready; he had left behind all his childish coping stories, and it was time he faced his trauma. If it wasn’t the whole truth, it was enough to convince his parents.

            Basil revealed himself to be the most rigorous member of the group. He was hard working and assiduous. Impatient for summer to come, also; they would not dive before mid-June, the water was too cold before then. For their first session, the instructors had explained they would only go three to four meters deep to make sure everyone could practice the basic moves: expiring the air in thousands of gurgling bubbles, pinching their noses until their ears popped with the adjusted pressure, underwater signing to say everything was okay. On D-day, Basil was the first one on deck, armed with his wetsuit, flippers and mask.

            He also was the only one who did not set foot into the water.

            Basil refused to talk about that day. Despite their concern, his parents did not pry out his reasons for quitting the club, ditching all his marine extra activities, and never talking of the sea again. The kid was gone, replaced by the broody teenager. Basil barely signed to them, or to anyone for that matter.  His cheerfulness was still there though. His scores at school were as good as ever, so was his attendance and his relationships with his group of friends. He went out to Friday night parties or to the pictures, invited friends over, flirted, dated. Yet something had changed. Something deep and cold had slowly settled in since that day. Twice, Basil had lost a part of himself to the sea. Twice, he had been wounded beyond reparation. He was five when he fell into the water, and thirteen when he had realised he had never truly come out. A part of him was lost, not because it had been stolen, but because it had drowned. Every day since then, the rest of him kept on falling and falling deeper. He was lost to the whims of the tides, his head forever held underwater.

 

Basil was nineteen when he came to terms with the fact that even in silence people lied. He knew his parents did, or at least had done so at first to protect him. They had done nothing but their best to make him feel less different, in hope his disability would not get in the way of his ambitions. It hadn’t. He had gotten into the university of his choice to study mathematics and biology. His first year was going well. He’d met a group of people who did not look at him as if he needed help all the time. They put subtitles on when they watched films together, lent their notes when he missed the class, even learned the basic words in sign language. He’d gotten a girlfriend, Alice, who liked to do things to his ears that made him feel surprisingly good. He had not pronounced a word since that day on the boat, but for her, he made an exception. When it was just the two of them, curled up naked in the sheets, sweaty and panting, he liked to call her name. He liked to see her face lit up and her body tense to what he could only suppose was his hoarse tone. Only at that moment, when she held on to him as if her life depended on it, breathless and leaving red strikes on his skin, did he feel like fresh air filled his lungs. One long second of pure bliss that rippled along the surface of their bodies, drowning the world and dissolving silence in a loud crash.

            The hardest part was when he eased down under the covers. Basil always expected the voice of the world to come back to him, first in a whisper, then loudly. A dog barking maybe, or the distant hum of a vacuum cleaner late in the night. He’d even settle for a car honk. Of course he heard nothing. The world was a music sheet with no musician to play. He’d learned to read the scores. He knew the lines and shapes that lips could form. He knew their meaning. He knew that when his eyes fluttered close, the recent memory of Alice’s writhing figure would blur. Only her mouth would remain. Her gasping mouth, begging for release; distorted in lines and shapes that called another name than his. And Basil would feel like he was drowning again.

 

Basil was twenty-one when he broke up with Alice.

            I can read lips, he wrote one morning.

            Oh, is what her mouth said.

            He dropped out of university a couple of months later. He didn’t tell his professors, he didn’t tell his so-called friends, he didn’t tell his parents. He locked himself in his flat and closed the blinds and curtains until it was pitch black inside. Basil first sat on the floor to let his senses adjust. When it was clear he wouldn’t be able to see his hands in front on him, he lied down, eyes open. It didn’t change much whether he closed them or not, the sensation was the same. He was fading. Each second that passed redefined the limits of his being. Silence became darkness became him. Soon, the floor extended under him, dissolved. He felt the boundaries of his body melt into nothingness. Was it his head or the world that was spinning? Was there even a world to begin with? It seemed he was floating; drifting away from reality to unknown places of empty landscapes, where time stretched meaninglessly. And maybe, just maybe, if he stopped breathing, the smothering sensation of air stuck in his lungs and throat would disappear… and he would stop being altogether.

            Basil came back to life in a beige hospital room that smelled of lavender. Through the half-way pulled curtains, he saw the sky getting ready to cheat on the sun with the moon. He blinked a few times to water his eyes. His throat felt dry. He reached out for it, but his arm stayed stuck on the mattress. Only then did he notice the I.V line attached to the crook of his elbow. Parenteral nutrition. He pushed himself up with his free hand, only to find himself shaking madly. He looked around, gasping for air. His parents were there – wherever he was – slouched down the armchair in the corner of the room. His mother was nestled against his father’s torso, held loosely by his arm. Her nose was still red, only proof she had been crying. His father had a three-days beard and dark circles under his eyes. Their clothes were creased, their hair dishevelled. Even while sleeping, they looked exhausted. Basil bit his lips with a frown. He lied back down and stared at the ceiling, ignoring the warm streams of tears rolling down the side of his face into his ears.

            The next morning his parents introduced him to Dr. Jasmine. A tall woman shaped like a pear, with a green cardigan and plain purled skirt that the regular white coat did nothing to hide. She would be the one to discuss with him what had happen and what she had to offer. Basil asked if his parents could stay in the room, but they softly shook their heads and hugged him tight. Dr. Jasmine waited for the door to close before she brought a stool closer to the bed and sat, crossing her potty legs. She leaned forward and started to sign.

            How are you feeling Basil?

            Shattered was what he wanted to say. I’ve probably been better, was his answer.

            Do you remember what happened?

            I’ve drowned is what happened.

            Basil…

            He sighed angrily. No, I don’t remember.

            A week had passed before they’d found him in his room, unconscious, weak with hunger and dehydration. His friends had called his parents after not having heard from him in a few days. His parents had tried to call him in vain. They had come as fast as possible, crashed his front door, brought him to the nearest hospital. There were no signs of a gas leak or anything else that could have caused his black out. They had treated his physical depravation as soon as he’d arrived, and moved him to a quieter aisle the second day. However, they couldn’t keep him indefinitely. He had a choice: he could either sign out and go home, or he could seek help.

            It’s because I’m deaf, uh? Because I can’t hear you, because I can’t speak like you? What, you think I’m a sick freak?

            Dr. Jasmine kept her patient smile. She laced her fingers on her lap and started to mouth her words. Of course not Basil.

            Then what?

            I do not think you’re sick. My only worry is that you are the one who believes your words. If you’ll let me, I could try to help you.

            I don’t need your help, I just need to go home.

            You tried to kill yourself Basil.

            He didn’t answer. A minute or two passed, then Dr. Jasmine spoke again.

            Please, Basil. I know how hard this can be but you have to trust me. I can –

            You can what? He cut her. Save me? Don’t make me laugh.

            Basil…

            ‘I’m...al..ready d-dead!!’ he howled. He punched the broken words out of his chest, ‘I’m d-dead d-doctor! All...of this! All...of me! D-dead d-dead dead dead dead!’

            Dr. Jasmine jumped on her feet and grabbed his wrist with all her strength to prevent him from beating himself any further. All his strength crumbled into tears and harsh sobs. ‘My b-body...is a tom...b d-doctor.’ He chocked and coughed and croaked his last words, ‘I...I have...d-drown...all this yearsss...Drown. Dead.’

            Basil yanked his wrist free as he looked away. He gripped his throat until his veins pulsed frantically against his palm. Then he turned to Dr Jasmine again, eyes bloodshot and pupils quivering.

            Help me.

 

Basil spent the next three months at the Vicci Centre. Despite his parents’ worry, he’d chosen it because it was close to the sea. His room was facing East. He’d wake up early every day to watch the sun rise above the flood. Dr. Jasmine had told him that, even from afar, he would need to grow familiar with it. Demystify the smell of salt in the air that cleaned your nostrils, the strong winds shaking the windows and ruffling your hair in mischief, the languid undulation of the tide. Then he’d go for breakfast, group discussion, private interviews, and all the other activities at his disposal. The Centre specialised in people with disabilities, all very much alive. Basil spoke again. Hesitantly and to his doctors alone at first, his voice rough on the edges, then with more confidence. He spent time with the other patients, mostly playing chess with Robert who had lost his hearing twice, once during the war, then with age. Their games were always sparking with silent intensity, they’d glare at each other to foresee the next move and smirk when they’d won the round. When they visited, Basil hung out with Robert’s family. In his late fifties, he had a wife and two grown up children, David and Lucy. David was a fun fellow, obsessed with modern and post-war literature that he researched for his PhD. A few years older than Basil, he quickly played the part of the big brother. He came once every other week, and despite spending most of the time with his father, he always reserved an hour or two to discuss with Basil. He didn’t judge, he didn’t pity, he simply listened. He taught him how to keep his head above the water. Lucy he’d only caught a glimpse of once or twice; the older girl seemed to prefer long walks on the beach. Basil knew it wasn’t entirely true. After his family departed, Robert always bragged about the presents his daughter brought him and the quality time they had spent together. Why he was at the Centre was a question Basil never dared to ask.

            His parents rented a small apartment and visited three times a week. They’d bring clothes, food, games, and his favourite books. Stuff to study, also. It was never too late to go back to university, if he ever felt like it. Basil was scared of their visits. He dreaded the pain in their eyes, the disappointment in their lines, the lies in their hands and lips. Each meeting twisted his guts; each meeting was a relief. After a couple of weeks, they looked much better. The sorrow on hir mother’s smile was replaced by laughter, the concern in his father’s brows by joy. Their son was still here. He breathed, smiled, cried, sometimes both at the same time. He went to bed every night with the growing desire to wake up the next morning. After a month and a half, Basil finally felt ready to tell them what had happened. That day in his flat, and that day at the scuba diving session. He saw his father clench his jaw so hard it turned white, his mother hold her hands so tightly he thought they would crack. He kept speaking, with his hands and with his voice. They did not interrupt. They waited for him to finish. They apologised, for having been so blind, for letting him alone when he needed them the most, for not having heard his cry for help. They were here now, always. His mother cupped his face with both hands and looked at him straight in the eyes as she mouthed her pride. He’d come so far, he’d been through so much and had survived. His father nodded in unquestionable agreement. Then she smiled tenderly, with a hint of tease. We love you Basil. Do you hear me? We love you. Before they left, his father would squeeze his shoulder, his mother would put a hand on her heart and then on Basil’s. And Basil heard them.

            In his last days, his parents announced they would keep the apartment as long as he had his appointments with the doctors at the Centre. Basil suspected they had missed the sea and projected to move in once and for all, but did not object. He needed to stay, needed them to stay. On the day of his departure, with his suitcases in hand, he promised Robert he would visit regularly and make sure he didn’t get too good at chess. He was told to take care of himself.

            The apartment was cosy, with two rooms, one bathroom, and the kitchen made adjacent to the living room with a small counter. It had an all-time sunny balcony, with view on the sea. Even Tom was there, as lazy as ever although less fat, curled up under the sunlight. His room was ready to welcome him, had been since the first day. Basil took his time emptying his stuff and arranging the furniture. He knew his father was preparing lunch while his mother laid the table, probably humming to herself. Everywhere he looked, he could see the trace of them; in the few pictures on the walls, the faint shape of their bodies on the couch, the Dior perfume and after shave fragrances in the bathroom. Basil was home.

Illustration by Sereine Coutellier

Illustration by Sereine Coutellier


Sereine a French frog who'd rather write in English than in her native language. She also does a little art, but is a terrible singer. Currently a Masters student in English Literature, in Montpellier, south of France. Lived five years in Portugal, and sadly returned home after a six months Erasmus in the University of Kent. She's working on a project with no definite title, format, nor length but which could be defined with the "representation matters" motto.