The waves were hardly more than a ripple this morning. An occasional roller gave surfers a few seconds joy, but the great breakers had gone away for the day. The lifeguards sat looking bored; the tail end of the season and a bank of grey clouds approached from Biscay, threatening to disperse the sprinkling of people on the beach; there was not much to cause anxiety.
It had not been so on a day five years ago. After a wet and misty morning, the cloud had finally broken and bright Basque sunshine lit the coast. This was what brought people here, the vast sweeping white beaches that ran on forever. The whole of the country could be here and it would not be crowded.
We had walked to the beach. Massive Atlantic waves pounded the sand, making a spectacular scene and a dangerous place. Red flags and large notices forbade bathing; only a fool would endanger their life by going into that water.
We walked a couple of miles to the south. Small knots of people were dotted here and there; enjoying the sunshine; flying kites; playing beach tennis or football or frisbee. The change in the weather had brought a mood of merriment. As we turned back and headed north, a gathering of a dozen or so people stood at the water’s edge. Passing by, there seemed no urgency, but minutes later waving began and two young boys went running towards the distant lifeguard station; hundreds of people were now standing and watching.
“Didn’t you see? Someone was swimming; now they have disappeared”.
A few more minutes passed before a battered old pick-up came down the beach carrying three lifeguards on the back. People at the water’s edge pointed to where they had last seen the swimmer. The lifeguards dived into the terrifying surf, but the man had now been under the water for so long, it seemed a grim task.
One half of the beach stood and watched; the other half continued its recreation. With no desire to see the outcome, I headed away. “Come on”, I said, “I’ve seen enough bodies in my time.” We reached the road as vehicles with flashing blue lights arrived; fifteen minutes later, there was the dull thud of helicopter blades. By that evening, a cluster of police cars marked the search for a nineteen year old who had come on holiday and ignored the warnings.
Death seems often like that, random and pointless. A momentary decision made the wrong way and it is the last one made. One minute a person is there and the next minute they have gone forever – without reason, without purpose, without meaning. A time to live and a time to die. Such moments prompt a cautiousness, a mindfulness, a sense of the precariousness of this existence.