He is underwater.
Air is pumped into his lungs via a large tube. He wakes, and is frightened, scrawls a note, his hands scrabbling in the air, like crabs dislodged from a rock crevice. He writes my name.
Dutifully, I appear when summoned. When he opens his eyes he seems to look at me as if from the bottom of the ocean, as if he has dreamt me. When I speak, his heart rate increases. I am not sure in what place or form he sees me. His eyes seem full of the ocean. He weeps.
Next day he is still peering at me from his subaquatic dreamspace. His hands, crabs again, clutch at the air, writing in the air with a finger. I can recognise the number 2, but I can't follow the rest.
I give him a pen and hold the board up. He scratches laboriously with the pen:
Awareness dawns. The 2/19th Battalion:
He wants his father.
His father, my grandfather, was a prisoner of war, and worked the Burma railway. In the morning he would carry stones uphill, after noon he would carefully carry them down again, so that no work was actually done. He of the secret diaries, he who only just survived Changi. He of the long face, the blue eyes and the secrets unmistakeably shared his genes with me.
My father misses his dad.
Next day I bring a book. Expecting the worst, I am prepared to read aloud to his underwater stare and scrabbling fingers, but there he is, awake and talking. Breathing.
The first thing he tells me is that all children should know about Changi.
About the Burma railway.
I read aloud the chapter anyway. He listens obediently.
He speaks about his father, ceaselessly, like I have never heard before. I wonder where he has been, down there in the underwater caverns, whether he has been swimming with souls I never knew were there. Naturally enough, since he is the father of the fish, the one who taught me the ways of the ocean in the first place, perhaps when he was absent from his body up there in intensive care he went for a wander, and ended up in the deepest places of the ocean, face to face with ghosts.
The sea has risen overnight: to look towards the horizon is like looking into the foaming jaws of a seamonster. Along the edge are scattered groups of people, most of them skiving off from school. A group of young men, that gleam of strawberry gelato upon their white flesh, are on their knees joyfully and energetically digging an enormous hole at the water's edge. They scoop great dollops of sand with their large hands, laughing. Making a pond. The foam crackles up at speed, and fills the hole, creating a fountain which explodes all over them.
On my return lap, I see from a distance that they have waded in. This concerns me, as the beach is closed. The pale lavender tints of their complexions tell me they are not from here, and I know the sea would fancy taking them and holding them deep in the underland, where they might meet old soldiers from Changi or God knows where.
As I try to decide what I will say to get them out, the lifeguard buzzes up on his trike, and gently coaxes them out of danger.
I find a quick place, and slither in, just to make my heart race. The water is turquoise flesh marbled with fat white streaks, totally opaque. I am under, over and around and out before anybody sees me.
In the rockpool the water is dancing wildly. I am surprised to see a swimmer, a grandma, clad in a crimson sunhat, paddling across the wild water. The ribbon on her hat is printed with crimson flowers and tied in a bow, her bathers are black, against the ghostly white of her small white limbs. Her feet make tiny movements, which seem to propel her slowly, gently, a single lap across the end of the pool. She looks up at me, her face filled with joy, and I call to her hello, hello so happy and pretty she looks you look so pretty in your hat I tell her and she smiles and swims on, her soft decolletage like a cloud billowing to the surface with each stroke. Watch out the tide is not yet full I tell her.
The sea is full now, so I enter the rockpool with wild delight. Great rolling waves obliterate the edges, huge spilling surges roll on in. Here I am in my own element, the moment I hit the water I am all speckled underbelly and webbed fins, spinning through the slabs of creamy foam and the speeding water. Head down, body tight, elbow high, reaching as far as my fins will reach. People drift by, and seeing me there cutting through the water, dive in too. They are not to know that just below the waterline I am all fishspecked belly, pouting jaw and great goggling fish eyes. They are not to know that I flick to the bottom at the sound of the whitewater coming, without putting my head up. That I circle and hold fast to the sand at the bottom at the sound of a certain sea-pitch in my fish ears.
My dad taught me that.
Old Tony, shadow boxing at the top of the steps, smiles when these people clamber out, weak kneed at the hammering they have received. He says he is tempted to tell them not to go in, but my presence there is deceptive, so they follow me. I find it hard to say please get out, it is dangerous because that would sound arrogant, but they scramble out pretty quick smart anyway, thank goodness.
My dad says he wishes he had asked his dad a whole lot more, too many things he will not know. He says that his surf club colours were those of the Navy, the Army, the Air Force. He says somewhere there is a medal, that it is for me. Give it to me then I say to him but he says No.
I swim on, like a fat speckled sea thing. There is no medal for this, I say, hanging onto the sand, feet in the air as the waves roar over . No medal needed for this.