Today, a short story I wrote in 2011. This is dedicated to open water lovers and friends of the seas and oceans everywhere.
We pulled up to the railway track in my old Golf. Visibility had been terrible as we wound our way down the road towards the coast and now that we had arrived at our destination I knew it would soon be a party of one. I told myself, not for the first time, that I had nothing to prove.
I had learned the hard way that the water didn’t have eyes. It didn’t look to see who or what it took. It wasn’t selective. I hadn’t realised I was foolhardy until I’d been turned and churned and slammed to the seabed for the third time in quick succession. I’d crawled to the safety of the shore red and raw and utterly humiliated, goggles on their way to Wales and a crotchful of sand and shale hanging halfway down my scorched buttocks. Humiliation doesn’t always need a witness but there was a passerby in full wet gear who moved on once he realised I’d seen him and ashen-faced received his astonished gaze.
The storm raged outside and shook the car with us in it. I stared pointlessly through the fogged up window and imagined the birds of the marsh with their heads turned and beaks firmly buried to avoid the worst of it. Looking back to my left I saw he was already changing into his Speedo’s with a slightly maniacal glint in his eye that would have been worrying if I didn’t know him so well. He thrived on the performance although I’d long stopped thinking who it might be for. Hardly me at this stage. Adulthood was something he wore very reluctantly and there seemed little that thrilled him more than escaping the expectations of ‘grown up’ behaviour. It would be disingenuous to say there wasn’t recognition on my part but I’d somehow come to terms with its necessary diminution.
As teenagers I had marvelled at his fearlessness and unpredictability but as we grew he seemed utterly incapable of leaving behind the shape that had served his fragile soul so well. Where he once had been vividly elastic and genuinely hilarious he now seemed gaunt and somewhat haggard, edges frayed with longing and regret. Our get togethers had become more and more infrequent and they seemed to be most often accompanied by a nagging sense of desperation that needled and pinched our once effortless spontaneity. And yet as I looked at him now contorting his lanky body in the passenger seat I couldn’t stop myself grinning at him with my own reciprocal lunacy. He was unfazed when I told him I wouldn’t be getting in. He laughed nervously which was an admission that at least one of us was making the right decision.
He’d never been in control of his impulses and when checked he would be brittle and snappy with anger, an addict deprived of his fix. He was a child who simply could not comprehend not getting his own way. He wasn’t spoilt or petulant but such was his total joy when immersed in the activities of his choice that he was convulsed with frustration when faced with their deprivation. Water was his element and his enthusiasm when salmon leaping from beneath the surface was irrepressible and infectious. He had an ease and grace when swimming that was never in evidence on dry land where even basic one foot in front of the other coordination could elude him.
Was it pride that drove us? I supposed it was habit. I would quite happily have found the nearest cafe and ducked in for a coffee and cake but here we were on a November morning mere feet away from the remorseless lash of the brown and swilling sea. Even before we crossed the tracks and descended the battered steps to the stony beach the froth was flicking and whipping in the air. He as good as naked, me wrapped, clad and hooded. The waves were huge and the undertow immediately visible as one after another a great heave of mucky salt water smashed into the shore before being obliterated by its ravenous successor. Undeterred, he hugged himself and awkwardly stepped across the sharp pebbles and shells underfoot so he could better assess the situation from the wash.
He looked ridiculous. All angles and points and skinny insanity. Backing and forthing as the sea repeatedly encroached on his position of safety, trying to judge his point of entry but clearly having no choice but to accept the hopelessness of his task. It was hardly an epic struggle. There was an awful lot of sea and very little of him. He was getting colder by the minute and the wind and rain and monstrous waves took on a new intensity as they sought to drive home their superiority. Anyone else would have called it quits there and then but I watched with jaded expectation as he made his first real attempt to get in. A sudden jagged dash as he tried to jink into the back side of the foremost wave was comical in its ambition. He was knocked back with a pitiless ferocity that was as quick as it was brutal. Up and in again and the same result. The bit was between his teeth and the headless momentum was for the time being overriding his fear and trepidation. Three times. Four. Five. I was wondering how long he’d keep at it when I became aware of a body standing beside me.
An elderly woman holding her hood in place with one hand was trying to make herself heard over the storm. She was anxious and irate and evidently exhorting me to do something. I turned to face her and stooped my head to hear her more clearly.
“I’ve just come from a funeral.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“A funeral. A real tragedy. A man was buried. He left two children behind.”
I had no idea what she was trying to say. Her face was heavily lined and she had a gap between her top middle teeth. Her fringe clawed her forehead in white talons and she was possessed of a brisk, fiery urgency that demanded attention.
“A real tragedy. Tell him to stop. Get him to stop that. He’ll get himself killed. That’s suicide. A tragedy. I’ve just come from a funeral.”
“Did he drown?”
She scowled at me.
“The man who died. Was it a drowning?”
“No. It was a tragedy. Get him out of there.”
“I will. I’ll do that.”
I looked over at him to check his progress. He was jogging along the shore trying to stave off the cold. His skin had taken on the pink glow of the recently slapped. I turned back to the old woman.
“He’ll be done soon enough, don’t worry.”
But she was already gone, bent over as she walked headlong into the wind in search of humanity.
In the meantime he had finally admitted defeat because when I looked over at him next he was doing push ups in the surf, in and out of the crash and whoosh of the advancing and retreating waves, momentarily submerged then up again. Finally spent, he stood up and made his way over to me. He was battered but exhilarated, burnt with cold and mouth too numb to speak. We walked back to the car together side by side, the storm buffeting us all the way.
He was so cold he was barely able to dry and dress himself. I started the car and put the heat on to give his body some chance of recovering. His breathing was rapid and he was shaking involuntarily, his impatient muscles trying to stimulate themselves whilst waiting for his frozen hands to pick up and fasten trousers, shirt and jacket. We both agreed that the sea was rough. I told him I wasn’t sorry I hadn’t joined him. When we got back to the house I made us lunch and by the time I dropped him to the train a couple of hours later he had only just started to feel normal again. We said our goodbyes using ancient nicknames, embraced and went our separate ways.
* * * * * * *
The Melbourne sun shone down hot and dry as I descended the steps into the glistening water of the baths. I practically sizzled as each inch of my body eased below the surface. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t go soft but how could I not when a swim was this easy? Pushing off from the bottom step I counted strokes until I found my rhythm. One, two, three and breathe, one, two, three and breathe. Odd numbers ensured my head turned to each shoulder from beginning to end which suited my compulsion for balance. I spotted a small ray glide across the seabed beneath me and I instantly thought of him trying to will his way into the sea that day. Had he succeeded he would have been as graceful as any animal finding its way in its own place.