Swimming is bad for your health
They were all a little stoned, lying sun-warmed and languid on beach-towels. Five lolled content and drowsing, but one was fidgety, and that was Jim. He tried to read a book, but it made no sense to him at all. He couldn’t remember who half the characters were, nor what it was they discussed so heatedly and at such great length. He discovered that he didn’t care, and tossed the book aside. The cover glared up at him balefully, a lurid picture of a misshapen eye under the author’s forgettable name. He kicked a little sand over it so that the eye looked like a monster peeping out of a hole.
He sat up.
“Hey, anyone want to go in? Race to the rock?” Not so far from the beach, in deep water, a craggy black rock jutted, too small to be an island. “Guys?”
“Mmm,” they said, and “Nuh-uh,” and groaned.
“I was sleeping!” Sally-Anne said.
“You go,” Matt suggested. “I’ll go in later.”
“Yeah later,” said Lou. “And stop chucking sand about, you got it in my eye.”
“You go Jim,” they said, and assured him they wouldn’t smoke the whole lot before he got back.
Jim went, stumbling slightly until he found his feet, the sun fiercely hot on his shoulders. He made his way down the beach, past other groups of friends and families, their towels and wind-breaks and umbrellas like hundreds of tiny, colourful islands in a pale-gold sea. A ball crossed in front of him and he kicked it back to its owner and chuckled to himself. The air smelled of salt and sand and sun-cream and apart from one toddler crying over a dropped ice-pop, was also full of happy noise – laughter and pleasant conversations.
The waves that lapped his toes were blissfully cool, soft and frothy. He stood and grinned down at his feet as they sank into the wet sand and dug out little foot-shaped trenches for themselves. Two little girls were playing at jumping over the waves nearby, skipping and running back squealing, pretending there were monsters. Another group of kids rolled by on a float – as Jim watched the little one on the end fell off and howled.
Serious swimmers kept out of the crowded shallows. Jim waded out to join them, enjoying the cool of the water as it rose up his legs. He waited until it was up to his waist before he plunged in and surfaced with a splash, dripping. Just amazing. All days should be like this. Give up work and live on the beach. He could eat out of other people’s hampers when they weren’t looking. Sell deck-chairs or bottled water to make money. Encourage Lou to join him in his new life, and maybe even into late-night dips and nothing on. She wouldn’t go for it, but he could dream. He’d have to, seeing as her lack of interest was becoming more apparent every day.
The water was up to his shoulders for twenty meters before the sand-bar dropped suddenly away. Jim oriented himself, checking the rock. It didn’t worry him that the rock looked just as far away now as it had from where they’d been sitting. He was a strong swimmer. It didn’t worry him that he’d been smoking and drinking most of the morning. The water was sobering him up, anyway.
Jim started off in a steady crawl, thinking he should maybe pace himself. Not to go too fast too soon, that was the thing. It was refreshing, calming, just feeling the water moving around him. He enjoyed the way his arms cut through the waves, the way the sea offered resistance, pushing back at him, rippling. He could lose himself in it, in the rhythm and the sounds.
He stopped often to check the position of the rock. By the time he was getting close to it he was alone. The closest swimmers were tiny black silhouettes near the shore, the closest boats out of hailing distance. He saw someone in a kayak, not too far away, but he or she was heading in the opposite direction.
The rock was gray-black, crusted, as he’d imagined, with barnacles and limpets and things he had no name for. It stuck out of the waves like a great finger pointing at the sky. Jim treaded-water and moved slowly around it. It was just a rock – nothing special about it. You wouldn’t catch a mermaid sitting on it. How’d she get up it, for one thing? It was sheer on all sides – a difficult climb even if you didn’t mind tearing your hands to shreds on the sea-life. Jim patted it and grinned.
“Hey rock,” he said to it.
He wished someone was there, that was all. It was the same every time. Age eleven, his whole class had been taken for swimming lessons at the old Olympic spec pool. On the last day they’d been allowed, if they liked, to try diving from the high board. Most people didn’t like. Jim had a fight with himself over it – he didn’t like heights. He made himself stand in the queue, forced himself to climb up to the top board, dragged himself to the edge and stared at the water ten meters down. Terror transfixed him so completely then that the angry part of him that was watching all of this and despairing, was able to somehow override his lack of ability to move. Like someone flicking a switch it jerked his leg forward. He didn’t jump, so much as step off.
The water came up at him fast, but he couldn’t take his eyes off it. He dropped like a stone and because his mouth was open, chipped his tooth on the water. He’d plunged down, down and down, then bobbed up like a cork, smiling, having fought himself and won. He looked around for someone to share this triumph, someone to high-five with, but no one was even looking. He’d waited too long and they were all down at the other end of the pool, moving toward the changing-rooms.
Jim had run his tongue over the new little notch in his front tooth. Who would think water could do that? He made for the side, swimming feebly, his arms and legs like limp spaghetti.
Still, it was nice being all alone at the rock, communing with the rock. Pity it was such poor company. Not much conversation. What would its thoughts be like, if it could speak them? Would it complain about the water? Talk about how the high-tides nowadays weren’t a patch on those of the last eon? Moan about the gulls crapping on its head? What he wanted, really, was someone to share these things with. Share a moment, double the pleasure. Not Lou either – someone else.
A gull shrieked high above and Jim decided it was time to go. He patted the rock again in farewell, and started back.
At around half way, he got a cramp. It clutched at his calf muscle, a tightening band, a tourniquet applied by a mad doctor with a malicious sense of fun. Jim stopped swimming and groaned in annoyance as the pain hit. He tried stretching his leg, treading-water with the other, but the pain only got worse. It felt like the muscle was curled tight as a drum-skin. It felt like it was about to snap.
Just swim through it. Just carry on going. It’s not so far now.
He looked toward the beach. It seemed further away than ever. The people on the sand were still indistinguishable blobs, the ones in the sea not much closer. If he shouted, no one would hear. There was just too much noise – the rush of the surf, the cries of the gulls, the yelling and laughter of the kids. He felt the first faint prickles of fear itching at the back of his neck, speeding up his heart-beat.
Jim tried swimming different strokes, but his leg had seized up and wouldn’t answer. Asking it to make the slightest movement caused flares of agony to shoot up and down the muscle like fire-crackers. The water seemed awfully cold suddenly, and the sun shone on its surface, blinding him momentarily. His head went under for the first time. He was up a moment later, spitting sea-water. No one would come looking. His friends would lie there hours before it occurred to them to wonder where he was. Who’d seen him swim out? Had anyone marked him?
“Crap, crap, crap!” he said.
He was being an idiot. He wasn’t going to drown. Of course he wasn’t, so he should stop thinking it.
A strong wave rolled over him, and this time he wasn’t spitting but choking. He coughed sea-water out of his lungs and began to shout; “Help! Help, over here! Help!” He filled his lungs with air and screamed out as loud as he could. “HELP!”
If he only had something to hold onto, he could make it back. He was panting now, his throat raw, light-headed and fearful. He could drown. It could happen – easily - was happening right now, in fact. It didn’t matter that he could swim. He wasn’t exempt. He was drowning.
He launched himself in desperation toward the beach, kicking, clawing at the water. He was beginning to panic. He stopped for a moment, breathed in and out, and started swimming. Use the pain, use the fear, use the adrenalin. He managed a little way and then stopped again because he was going in the wrong direction. There was the rock, seeming to lean and peer at him in a mocking, jeering kind of way.
Jim turned his back on it.
Another wave came and swamped him. He swallowed a bucketful and coughed, tears in his eyes. It was definitely getting colder, and the wind was picking up. The sea was becoming choppy. Jim bobbed up and down in the swell, moving his arms on the surface and kicking with his good leg. The other dangled uselessly, a dead weight. He was growing tired. Thirsty too.
He went under. Choked. Came up spluttering. His lungs felt heavy. He swore, if he ever got out of this, he’d never smoke again. Not so much as a drag - no, not so much as even a sniff of one. He went under again with his eyes open, stared into that blue world under the waves. His new home, apparently. Get used to it.
Something nudged him gently in the back.
Shark! He thought. He turned around, swallowing another gallon of sea-water in the process. The thought occurred to him, idly, that if he swallowed enough he could lower the sea-level and get saved that way - only obviously not if his fate was to be a shark’s lunchtime snack.
But sharks were not red. Neither were they generally made of plastic. Jim didn’t know what the hell this new thing was, but it wasn’t a shark, so he clutched it gratefully.
“Are you ok? Can you hold on?”
It was the kayak. A girl was sitting in it. She was wearing a floatation jacket over her swimsuit and her brown curly hair was pulled back into a tail. The sun gave her a halo, gilding her curls. She smiled at him – an angel with freckles.
“I got cramp,” Jim explained.
“Want a lift back?”
“Please,” Jim said.
“I heard you shouting,” she said as she began to row. “I did shout back, but I don’t think you heard me.”
“I would have drowned,” Jim said. The beach was coming up fast. Maybe he should get a kayak and learn how to row it. “If you hadn’t been there, I’d be dead. How does it feel to save a life?”
“It feels good,” she grinned at him. “How are you doing there?”
“I don’t know. I think I might need the kiss of life.”
She laughed at this, but once they were back at the beach she did kiss him. Her name was Emily and yes, she would meet him later so he could thank her properly with dinner and wine.
Jim made his way back up the beach. It was all just like before. A most momentous thing had happened to him, yet no one knew - no one, except him and Emily. His calf-muscle was still giving little twinges every step, and he’d drunk so much sea-water it was sloshing about in his stomach, but the world was really, seriously, truly a wonderful place in which anything could happen. The thought gave him a little warm glow. He raised one hand to the sun, and disregarding the odd looks he received, yelled;