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Dead Man on the Beach

As in that song by The Cure.

I had taken a class on a Biology field trip to a rocky headland at Kilyos, north of Istanbul. The students were all doing transects or whelk counts and I was meandering around in the sun. One of the more mischievous students appeared and said nonchalantly,” There’s a dead man on the beach, sir.”

“Oh really?” I said. “How do you know he’s dead?”

“No ears, sir.”

I went over to have a look. Thirty pupils, three teachers and our driver were arranged in a horseshoe at the top of a cliff. They were all looking downwards. I got there and saw what there were looking at. A man was lying face down on the beach. His clothes were ragged but intact.

“Go and have a look,” said someone. I became aware that everyone was now looking at me. I was in charge. I sighed. I stumbled down the loose cliff face until I was on the sand. The man seemed a lot bigger here. He still wasn’t moving. Definitely dead. I looked up. A row of faces peering down. I was under pressure.

I walked slowly to the man. No ears or nose. Surely that was enough. They were still staring at me. I needed to do something obvious. I bent and touched the ragged shirt on the man’s shoulder. Cold. I had that horrible feeling that he was about to roll over and do something ferocious and needy. He stayed still. There was seaweed around his toes.

I took a breath and knelt. I picked up the wrist. It was heavy and wet like a soaked sandbag. I couldn’t find a pulse. I didn’t really try. It was just for show. I dropped the hand and rinsed my own in the sea. I looked upwards and shook my head. The heads on the cliff above turned to each other. They were satisfied now.

I climbed back up the cliff. “Right, go and get on with your work.” My actions seemed to have given me enough authority for the students to obey.

The driver wandered off to the jandarma post in the town. A smiling man in a blue uniform returned with him. “Happens all the time,” he said. “Russian sailor falls off one of those container ships and nobody notices until the next day.”

I wrote this poem about it later. I don’t know how much sense it makes.

sir, there’s a dead man on the beach

i approach the inescapable

ragged, blue-white starfish

weed swathes one bare foot

face turned to the sand

i have lost my chance of choice

the gallery of watchers

dispensed to me this task

of raising the dead

his clothes are frayed and flayed

hair a wet tousled paintbrush

his ear is gone, a scar

stranding waves lap his shore

i lean, reach out, beseech

him not to come to life

slap me with a heavy need

confront with salt-cold want

17 Jan 2006

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