His demeanour was unnerving, but I tried to remain composed in the face of it, reasoning that if my confidence faltered, this would disturb him and leave me all the more unnerved.
He was slim – not to the point of emaciation, or self-starvation, but blubberless, proportionally not quite perfect; overlong, though not a beanpole. His hair was wild from the sea, tangled both in itself and bits of seaweed. His face was blue-grey with the cold, as drained of warmth as the concrete beach defences in the pearly morning light. He was forbidding in every way – strange, unexpected, unpredictable. But when I asked him questions in the surest tone I could muster, he was so genuinely puzzled by his inability to answer that I no longer felt intimidated. The blue-grey face cracked, and through the cracks something vulnerable seeped out. Something human. Streaks of warmth began to colour the icy visage.
I picked the seaweed out of his hair as I felt his scalp for bumps or cuts. His head was a weird shape – in one place it was as though a slice had been taken across the sphere of his skull, as you might pare an apple of a bruise to its skin. But there was no blood.
He must have been knocked out by his board while surfing in the dark, a foolish practice that only someone who believed himself immortal would undertake. He was extremely lucky not to have drowned, and I told him so. By rights I should have found a body during my morning walk, and the consciousness that I had not turned my relief into exhilaration, as if it was I who had narrowly escaped death. And so I ended up offering help and taking temporary responsibility for this lost antipodean soul. How could I not? He was helpless with amnesia and I was the one who found him. I would at least get him to a hospital, despite his protestations that he didn’t need to go.
He was also a mystery and any that my life might once have possessed was long gone.
‘You’d better come with me.’
Tremors coursed across his face. A tic from the cold, or frayed nerves, or both.
‘Not to a hospital, just to my house. Have a cup of coffee and get yourself warm. Here, take my jacket.’
Whatever sense was left in that battered skull gradually came to him now. It barely fitted him, lending his frame a look of the scarecrow. He got the fleece on, after first inserting the wrong arms into each sleeve, straightjacket-style. I wasn’t sure if he would be able to walk, but I wasn’t going to risk having to support him all the way uphill or allow him to nuzzle me again. So I set off for the gap in the dunes, and he followed. Once we were on the narrow thread of sandy path, I checked again. He had lagged behind, but he was still coming, concentrating on the path as if it were a particularly abstruse line of philosophical argument. On the road up to the house I let him draw level.
‘You think I’m Australian?’ he said.