The structure rose up in front of us, like a giant, half-decapitated ‘X’ marking the spot.
Of what, I didn’t know. This didn’t look like a place where anyone would hide or find buried treasure and we were both too old to humour such a foolish narrative in our minds anyway.
I hadn’t seen him for years – we wouldn’t have moved in the same circles but I knew him from school and we would have exchanged the odd few pleasantries over the years. Running into him in the only bar, in a backwater town somewhere in the not inconsiderable space between San Francisco and Los Angeles was almost beyond belief.
Until I realised that he was lost too. He didn’t say as much but you could tell. You could always tell when a person was lost. There’s a certain listlessness in the eyes, coupled with an overwhelming desire for connection that gives the person’s true feelings away.
His car, a battered old scrapheap he had bought for the price of a packet of peanuts, had given up the ghost about a mile north of this … outpost … and he’d been holed up at this bar, borrowing bicycles to get around, ever since.
I’d only stopped in to grab a bite to eat and use the bathroom – I’d planned to be much further down the road by now.
But he had latched onto me almost the minute I walked in, waiting until I chose a table furthest from the bar, before following over and engaging in that awkward ‘Hey, remember me?’ conversation where, half the time, the desired response is ‘I wish I fucking didn’t’.
But this wasn’t one of those times. The road had been long enough so far and I was actually quite pleased to see a familiar face even if, realistically, it was someone I knew about as well as the barman who had served me my drink. We ate together and reminisced about school days, mutual classmates, and the obligatory ‘where everyone was now’ routine.
‘Probably in the dole queue,’ he’d joked when I asked about one particular character that anyone from our era would remember.
As the evening wore on, continuing south started to feel more like a chore than anything else. He had courteously offered a couch in the room he was staying in, before, more courteously, offering to take that himself and give me the bed.
That, and a bottle of cider, was the deal breaker.
In the morning, he woke me before dawn and, while I’d only had a couple of drinks, my eyes were bleary and I swatted at him like an epileptic punching at a fly.
‘Get up, I want to show you something. We need your car.’
Fifteen minutes later, sleepy and with greasy hair tied in a messy knot on the top of my head, we were driving my rented Amorak across what was once a main route but was long out of use. A flimsy metal barrier was strewn haphazardly across the road, one which he swiftly flung out of the way before signalling for me to drive on.
I had an image in my head of some poor sod driving out here from some far away hub of civilisation to check the barrier. He was an older man, someone coming up on his final few years of civil service. He wasn’t too good with computers so they put him on simple manual stuff: driving errands, courier work, non-strenuous things. I pictured him pulling in at the junction, shaking his head at the sight of our blatant vandalism and righting the barrier. In my mind, he contemplated driving in further, just to make sure someone hadn’t strayed where they shouldn’t. But he’d been told never to drive in there and so he didn’t. There could be 95 dead bodies around the cusp of that rocky outcrop but poor ol’ pensionable Percy wasn’t going to risk disobeying orders.
I relayed my Pulitzer narrative to my passenger and he laughed, adding his own quotes here and there.
‘You always did have an active imagination.’
‘How would you know?’ I asked, more aggressively than intended. He chuckled, saying that while it didn’t often seem the case, he had paid attention in classes.
‘You stopped talking though,’ he said after a moment of slightly uncomfortable silence.
‘What?’ I said, pulled from my reverie.
‘When you were about 16 or 17, you went quiet in class. Just … all of a sudden. Like, one day you were telling us why some book was shit because the author couldn’t decide what they wanted to write about. The next day … not a word. Why?’
I swallowed a lump in my throat and pretended to watch an invisible object on the road.
‘How much further is this place?’ I asked, making a show of tapping the petrol gauge even though there was enough in her to get to the moon if I’d so desired.
To his credit, he didn’t push. I could sense him watching me for a long moment before sitting back and telling me that it was just another few miles.
‘You cycled out here?’ I asked him in disbelief and he nodded, saying that he’d changed a lot since school.
‘It’s been abandoned for decades,’ he was saying excitedly as he clambered from the truck, his eyes wide with delight and I thought he looked younger in that moment.
We weren’t old but we weren’t young either – not by today’s standards. We were in a limbo-like bracket where everyone else our age had either made it or had no intention of ever doing so. For most people, there was no grey area in those categorisations.
I squinted in the sun before pulling my sunglasses back down from my head.
‘What the hell is it?’ I asked finally, perturbed by this giant X-shaped structure that seemed to be missing a quarter of its form.
He turned to look at me, an incredulous look on his face.
‘It’s a diving board,’ he said, stepping back to point out the steps to me and I nodded, finally seeing it properly.
‘Why is it abandoned?’
‘Because it’s in the middle of nowhere? I don’t know. Come on!’
He grabbed my hand and ran towards the base of the structure which loomed on our collective horizon, imposing itself on the otherwise barren, desert landscape. I wondered how anyone had thought it a good idea to build something like this out here.
The steps had a chain across them but it was about as effective a deterrent as sugar water was to wasps. Without thinking, we clambered over it and made our way up, higher and higher, past the first diving post, onward to the second one and, with his insistent tug on my hand, up the final flight of steps to the highest point.
The actual boards were long gone so we were left to peer over the steadily corroding metal railings around our humble vantage point. I went to lean on one of them, without thinking, and he pulled me back, suggesting I find something more trustworthy to hold me up.
‘Well, that’s a fucking laugh,’ I replied without thinking and he raised an eyebrow. I shook my head and told him that hadn’t been directed at him.
‘Here, try this,’ he said, sinking to the ground and turning onto his stomach. At full stretch, he almost reached the length of the platform. Slowly, he edged forward so his head hung over the edge. Cautiously, I mirrored him, giving a bit of a joust with my hip to get him to move over a bit. I eased my way to the edge of the platform, only then realising that I hadn’t actually seen what was below this structure.
A swimming pool – obviously. But it was unfinished. Not abandoned. It had never been completed. You could tell from the way the concrete and tiling were dotted around the space. It was hard to see from up high but the pool was deep – I supposed it had to be if you were diving from this kind of height.
‘What the hell was this place?’ I asked, more to myself than to him, a dread feeling washing through my stomach for some particular reason – the height, perhaps.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, turning his head to look at me, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to re-start your active imagination.’ I laughed and shook my head.
‘I wouldn’t know where to start.’
‘Try,’ he said, pushing back from the edge and twisting to sit on the ledge, his legs dangling over the side, kicking back and forth like a child on a swing. I immediately felt nervous. He looked down at me and held out an arm so I could manoeuvre myself into a seated position.
‘There was an accident,’ I said lamely and he scoffed, telling me I could do better than that.
‘Come on,’ he said pleadingly, ‘Write the story – what would you call it?’
I sat quietly for a minute, thinking, running different thoughts and scenarios through my head, wondering why in the name of God I was sitting 30 foot up, staring down into a half-finished swimming pool, alongside a guy I hadn’t seen for ten years.
And, like the splash of the diver who never got to use this monstrosity of a structure, an idea came to me.
‘I’d call it… The Depth of Ambition. And it’s the story of a town.’
He nodded, telling me to go on. I pursed my lips and thought about it for a minute.
‘So … the place where we are. It’s an outpost, for want of a better word. But 20 miles that way is a bigger town, with services and facilities and all that jazz. It’s plodding along, it’s doing ok. Then one day, this … I don’t know, rich businessman decides he wants to put something in this town, a factory or a power plant or something that people will see as the answer to all of their worries. Job security, good wages, pensions, and all of that excitement, that infection of good news trickles down and suddenly you’ve got local government fixing roads to nowhere – just in case this guy might put his site at the end of it. They start splashing out on business parks and office blocks because, as the old adage says, if you build it they will come.’
I take a deep breath, feeling myself on a roll now. I glanced around at our surrounding. It’s the middle of nowhere – how it ever made sense to anyone, government or private, to put a swimming pool out here, is beyond me.
‘This place, this was part of the deal. Our big businessman, as a gesture of social responsibility, agrees to a philanthropic donation towards a sports complex. He discovers that the local high school has a good swimming team – elite athletes, possible Olympians, especially one guy who’s a great diver. He has some all-American name like Josh or Zack. He’s like a god in the town – he keeps winning trophies, keeps racking up those gold medals, everyone loves him.’
He was looking at me now with a smirk on his face, listening as I rattled off the segments of the story, one-by-one; carefully, like someone ticking off a checklist.
‘The work begins here. For some reason, they build the diving boards first, like a modern-day Tower of Babel. Josh has been promised the first dive off the board on the day that the grand opening takes place – he’ll go down in local history.’
I pause, working the next part through in my head. It’s been a long time since I concocted anything even resembling a narrative. He looks over at me.
‘I’m guessing the diver doesn’t go down in local history?’ he prompted. I smirked and shook my head.
‘No, he goes down in national history instead. He takes part in a cliff-diving competition, just for fun: does his first dive, fine, 85% points; does his second dive and same again, slight drop maybe. On his third dive, he decides to add an extra spin to it – now he’s never done that before but hey, he can do anything, right? That’s what he’s been told, that’s what he believes, and his coach always says that self-belief is the most important skill of all.’
I let the notion hang in the air for a minute, swallowing back the words as if, suddenly, the story is real and I’m recounting it with the tension and emotion that I’d be feeling if that were the case. I felt a lump thicken in the back of my throat and my pulse speeding up – I could feel my whole body beating along with it.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked me and I nodded, saying I was just trying to figure out the rest of the story. I took a deep breath, trying to get my body to return to normal, pulled my knees up to my chin, wrapping one arm around my legs to hold them in place, cocooning my suddenly aching stomach.
‘So the boy dies,’ I said finally and he raised an eyebrow at that, which forced me to adapt the story slightly, ‘Or as good as. The extra spin doesn’t come off and he smashes into the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. The media – local, national and international – run with the story for weeks. He has catastrophic injuries – paralysed from the neck down. All of his hopes, his dreams, his determination, his will to win, all now confined to this lumbering chunk of metal and rubber; a crutch that rather than serve as his helper, thwarts and trips him every inch of the way.’
I pushed back from the edge of the platform and stood, twisting around to survey the sheer isolation around us.
‘The work doesn’t stop here. They plough on, a new notion in mind, to name this place after Josh, as a tribute to him, to his efforts, to a glittering career cut short so tragically. It’s not an inspiration, it’s a reminder that dreams can be dashed just as they can be achieved. And for most, the former is, more often than not, the reality.’
I could see the story now, in my mind. I recognised the locals from the bar the previous night. I heard them whispering amongst themselves – they’re talking about the big businessman being romanced away from the town. I imagined a big boardroom, full of investors, and a multitude of strings but, really, the only string that matters is the one with a big bag of money tied to the end.
He listened as I recounted this notion, which is hardly earth-shattering: investors who don’t give a shit about giving a lifeline to a dying town in denial, or providing an outlet for kids who otherwise hang listlessly around parks and picnic benches, desperate for adventure but resigned to never-ending boredom.
I shrugged: ‘The big businessman doesn’t care either and when he pulls the plug on the whole job lot, pool and all, there isn’t even an outcry. There is a sense of surrender to it all – like rebels laying down arms, knowing all along that their resistance was futile and this action was inevitable; that their disenchantment is permanent, and that hanging around on an empty road won’t help you find the answers you’re burning for.’
I paused for a moment as he turned to look at me, wondering if I’d finished but afraid to ask and break the spell.
‘The town and the outposts around it carry on, slowly disintegrating, eating themselves from the inside out. Those who can, leave. The others are ghosts in a place that didn’t even notice them dying.’
His knee was twisted up, his elbow leaning on it and his face on his hand. There was silence for what seems like hours before, finally, he spoke.
‘ ‘The Death of Ambition’,’ he mused, ‘I like the play on words.’
I shrugged as he pulled himself to his feet to look out across the horizon, remarking that the town’s ‘Tower of Babel’, at least, commanded a breathtaking view. I nodded, thinking to myself that the temperature had upgraded from hot to sweltering. I wiped sweat off my forehead though I wasn’t sure if it was from the heat or the sick feeling I had in my stomach while telling my story.
‘I’m just thinking,’ he said suddenly and I looked at him, eyebrow raised, inviting him to continue. His warm smile beamed back at me and, for a minute, I thought it was probably the most genuine smile I’d seen in ten years.
‘The ones that get out, the ones who escape the town…do they find their answers?’
I thought about it for a minute, stretching my arms over my head while stifling a yawn.
‘I think that’s for the sequel,’ I replied finally and he groaned, saying he wanted a more committed answer than that. I moved towards the steps, feeling that the sermon on the mount was over.
‘I think they do, if they choose the right place to look,’ I said somewhat cryptically. He held my eye for a moment before nodding slowly.
This time, I reached for his hand and tugged at it to follow me – away from imagination, and back down to reality.