As I park at the harbour and check the weather again for the last time, I can feel myself begin to unwind. It’s a perfect day with the sky stretching blue as far as the eye can see and the water sparkling, ruffled with cats paws as a gentle breeze plays over it. A special place, this harbour – filled with memories.
I proposed here. And was accepted, joyfully, with excitement and arms flung around me. I remember thinking that nothing could ever spoil that moment as I hugged back fiercely, clasping the warmth and shape of my (now) wife-to-be to me, drinking in her perfume and promising her forever.
A year later we brought our child here, watched her eyes widen as she saw the flotilla of little yachts, clinker-built fishing boats and the occasional Sunseeker all swaying gently against the expansive backdrop of ocean.
I remember the first time we all went out on the boat as a family – the engine throbbing merrily, its percussion thrumming the balls of my feet and my hand on the tiller. My wife, glamorous in a headscarf (to keep her hair out of her face) and sunglasses and my darling daughter in a sweet pink lifejacket we just HAD to buy for her.
Memories spill into my brain unbidden as I complete my warm-up jog. They warm my heart as the exercise warms my body.
A throw-away comment from a friend got me into free diving a few months after my wedding. I’d begun to put on weight from too much good living, and he suggested I join him one weekend.
This harbour is where he brought me – it felt like it fit – this harbour and I go back a long way, so I did it.
I was terrible at first, but he made me an exercise regime and I followed it religiously, quickly losing the spare tyre I’d begun to gather about my middle, enjoying the challenge as my muscles became lean and hard, and my shape changed to one which made my wife’s eyes glint whenever I got changed in front of her.
My weekends were transformed. I began looking forward to getting up early to come here and pound the harbour walls with Tim. We’d laugh and joke, breathless, as the early sun began to show its strength and the ‘normal people’ began to surface and make their presence known. By 7am we’d be ready to hop into the boat, as slick with nighttime moisture as our bodies were with sweat, and scud out across the waves to the sweet spot where our landmarks all joined up and we were ready.
Weighing anchor (on the longest chain you ever did see), we’d get down to trunks and jump in, de-fogging goggles and adjusting them to ensure that nothing could get in and the pressure around our eyes couldn’t suddenly change and become harmful. An uncomfortable sensation at first – sealing your eyes in – but one I soon got used to, as the payoff was SO incredible.
Lying back, cushioned by the waves, it’s important to slow down. No heavy breathing here, but a time of quietening the mind and almost willing the oxygen to be drawn in. Then time to breathe. Not too deeply, but strongly, pulling in the atmosphere and the energy – becoming one with the sea and the sky.
A quick up-end, and powerful strokes of the arms begin pulling me down alongside the anchor chain (conveniently adorned with coloured depth markers, for reference) until about 25m below the surface, when gravity takes hold. From there, very little effort is necessary, and it feels as though I’m being sucked down into the darkness.
35m and a swift kick of the legs to speed things up.
40m and still descending, body kept arrow-straight, face looking steadfastly down – feeling great about this dive.
50m and I can feel the pressure begin to build.
65m and I know I’m nearly at my limit.
80m and the world begins to sparkle and flicker as the depth presses nitrogen from the air in my lungs into my bloodstream and the narcosis takes hold. I experience swells of terror (willing myself to remain calm – academically I know that it’s an effect of the depth, in spite of what I feel) and excitement, wanting to dance and kick for joy, but restraining myself.
82m and I reach my limit. I perform an elegant somersault and turn my face towards the brightness and the tiny blur which denotes the underneath of the boat. Kicking with measured rhythm, using my arms to haul myself up through the water, my ascent is as rapid (if not as calm) as my descent.
10m below the surface I feel the anxiety as my lungs constrict, desperate for fresh air.
5m below the surface, black stars begin popping in my vision – I’m cutting it fine, but keep a handle on the panic and keep pulling – rapid, strong strokes towards oxygen.
My head bursts through the swell in an explosion of spume and glittering droplets. I tread water frantically, the air howling as I suck it greedily into my starved body, grinning as Tim surges up beside me, his strained face and frantic breathing echoing my own. We share a quick ‘hi-five’ and swim leisurely back to the boat.
Tim’s not with me today though.
I finish my run and scramble over the edge into the boat, firing her up and casting off alone. The sunshine mocks my thoughts as they turn darkly to recent events.
I weigh anchor in the usual spot and strip, diving in, hoping to feel the calmness envelop me as the sea does.
It doesn’t, and I grimace, stressed by my unmet expectations.
I fix my goggles and lean back in the water, glaring at the sky, trying to will my heartbeat to slow and my lungs to find their groove.
Eventually I feel settled enough to start breathing deeply, pulling in the air, absorbing the atmosphere.
I up-end and go down too fast, letting loose a cloud of bubbles from my careless mouth. Shit!
I return to the surface and let go of some of the tension, thrashing at the waves and churning them creamy with bubbles as I scream my frustration at the side of the boat, looming over me from a metre away.
I begin again, readjusting my goggles and rinsing away the extra salt water which leaked inside of them.
I lay back in the water for longer, connecting with it, feeling it move my limbs as they hang there, loose as a puppet’s. I breathe, becoming one with the atmosphere.
I upend and begin descending.
The sun through the water creates rolling curtains of light which dance on my arms as I pull myself down. The depths look as forbidding as ever, but I know I want to go there.
25m and I feel the suck of gravity start to take hold. That inevitability, that certainty that something’s going to happen, so unlike the startling rapidity of events changing out of control – of a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road suddenly coming around a bend. So unlike the chaos they had to face – without me.
30m and I adjust my body to arrow-straightness, turning my face towards the dark, wondering about the pain of having your body suddenly smashed out of shape by huge chunks of metal and plastic displaced by the force of impact.
35m and a swift kick of the legs speeds me up, trying not to remember the phonecall from the police. The panicked rush to the hospital. The praying, begging and pleading with God to make it all better – to let them be okay – to spare them.
40m and I begin to feel great about this dive – it was a great way to get some space to remember them.
50m and I begin to feel the pressure building around me as though their bodies are there again, wrapped snugly around me the way we used to lie in bed, the three of us, on lazy Saturday mornings.
65m and I know I’m nearly at my limit.
80m and the world begins to sparkle and flicker and I see them below me, arms outstretched, magically made whole again. Their brokenness no longer a factor, they call my name and I hear their precious voices once more. I want to dance and kick for joy and excitement.
82m and I’m there – reunited with my family, once again held in their arms. Tears begin to clog my goggles – I don’t need them now.
I hold my wife and child and breathe deeply – a sigh of relief, of belonging, of my world being right again. I am one with them and with the sea. My promise of forever has been kept.
So, apart from the fact that you figured this was ‘spoken’ by a male voice, and you *totally* didn’t need a warning sign, I hope you enjoyed it. This is the piece I entered in a local ‘short story’ competition. The results will be out at the end of October, but if I don’t even place in the competition, the wonderful feedback I’ve had on the Making You Feel series, and the fact that through it, I was given enough confidence to enter, has made it all absolutely worthwhile, and made me feel like a winner.