I have spent the last two years considering the notion of drowning.
I have made pictures of it, read about it, considered it in cultural terms, in aesthetic terms. How drowning is considered a feminine death, a womanly thing. The relationship of madness and drowning.
But the reality of drowning here and now, in the real world, intrudes upon my considerations. The secret truth of drowning, not the paintings of Ophelia, of female martyrs, the literary drownings of Edna Pontellier, of Maggie Tulliver. The truth is it is men who drown, men who overestimate their capabilities, who are reckless.
Four people have drowned this week, three men and one woman. Three of whom went in to retrieve children, three of them on unpatrolled beaches.
I swim in rips. I swim when the beach is closed, I swim when the surf is outrageously huge. I can do that, because I know intimately every breath the ocean, here in my small stretch, will take. I know each bump and runnel of sand beneath. Every artery of pulling water. I have competed in marathons swims of up to 8 kilometers. I have swum in the ocean every day for at least twenty years.
Even so, I rarely swim at unpatrolled beaches. And when I do, it is usually at a very shallow depth. Unknown waters make me nervous, edgy. Who knows what secret rips lie beneath? what unmet creatures? If I swim I wear fins, in case I need to sprint to shore. I holiday at a remote and lonely beach, where the cicadas are shrill and the dry heat bites, and I am always cautious. Dolphins once herded me to shore when I set off to do a swim along the beach. They circled me and drove me in until I was knee deep.
Dolphins, as benign as they are, are still colossal great mammals, dark and sleek. To have them suddenly appear at eye level is disconcerting at the very least: a fin is a fin at half a meter away. To have a whole bunch of them appear and shuffle you to shore is alarming, and I wonder to this day whether it was a sharkl they were herding me away from, or their babies. The pod is a familiar sight at that beach, and they delight in catching waves next to surfers. As I said, it is vastly different to see dolphins from the relative safety of a board from seeing one eye to eye with no warning. With nothing between you.
I think of that pod often, the way they appeared, how huge they looked, how close they came and how insisitently they urged me to the shallows before departing themselves back to the deep. It was an overcast day, and few people were around. The water, as is usual up there, was the temperature of bathwater, and full of fish. I was swimming parallel to the shore, in not too deep water, nervously trying to concentrate on my stroke, when the dolphins appeared and sent me out. I remember standing knee deep in the surf, incredulous at their cheek.
There was a shark the next day, though to be sure, there are always sharks.
It only takes twelve seconds to drown.
I remeber leapin over the rockpools to reach the three five year olds who, washing their feet, spilled into one of the waterholes and began to drift very quickly.
It is hard to hold three children at once. The thing is to make a game. A chain, holding hands hold tight, children.
Twelve seconds. The lifeguard had gone home.
I remember the pull of the ocean against their chests. I remember having to use evey ounce of strength to pull them in, every little bit. A little chain of bodies, laughing, even. Had the water been even two inches deeper when I reached them, I would possibly have lost them. It was up to my chin.
And once, even longer ago, when I was sixteen. I was at an unknown beach, surfing with my beloved. He lent me a wetsuit, which had no zip and was meant for a boy. My physiology made it such that it was very very tight in places, and loose in others.
I was way out to sea. The beloved sat in his usual position, hands on thighs, nonchalant. Ignoring me completely. I caught a wave, stood up, and nosedived. The board washed in, I was out in the deep, so I set off towards shore. It was quite a way, but I was a strong swimmer.
What I had not accounted for was the binding qualities of wetsuit rubber, and the weight of the water which filled the wetsuit. Unable to escape, the water made me so heavy as to sink. I could barely raise my arms.
The beloved rose and fell from view, still looking out to sea, flicking his hair.
I sank to the bottom.
And had an idea. I ran along and then pushed as hard as I could to the surface, like a seal. Took a breath, sank again, ran again, and pushed. So I was running along the seafloor, and then rocketing up for air. All the way to shore.
I was absolutley shattered when I made it to the sand, and lay there like a castaway. A bunch of boys, sitting on the sand, clapped and grinned and hooted. I tried to remove myself from the wretched wetsuit to find that I couldn't budge it and was wedged inside. I writhed and twisted and pulled. I used all feet hands and teeth and managed to wedge it up over my head so I was blind. With a wetsuit stuck between chest and upraised elbows, I pulled it with my nails with superhuman strength, millimeter by millimeter, until finally my face was free.
I flung the wetsuit onto the ground and collapsed onto the sand by the waters edge, exhausted. The boys hooted and clapped. I stood up, my dignity in tatters, arranged my bikini into some sense of order, sniffed, and tried to ignore them.
I was mute with rage when the beloved finally sauntered in. He flicked his hair, glanced at my audience, and gave me a look, as if to say, have you been flirting?
What I wanted to say was, no, I have been drowning,
but that was back in the day when such words evaporated on their way out of my mouth, and I said nothing.
Right now, among the crowds of holiday swimmers, there are twelve people on the beach staring out to sea. I can hear them calling out to swimmers who stray, I can see them circling the swimmers on their yellow boards.I can see also those invisible folks on the beach, who will leap to their feet and go to the rescue of anyone who looks like they may be in the wrong place, whose eyes , like mine, will see these things, who cannot help but watch. I can see the dawn patrol who saved the bipolar man from heaving surf one morning at 5am: myself, the vet and the dentist. And I know in those deserted places all along the coast, far away from here, the only watching eyes are those of birds, of dingoes, of dolphins, of silver bream.
No doubt one day lies the prospect that the sea will get the better of me, will capture me, and I will become a part of it forever. But that lies far away, for now I am watchful, watchful of myself and others. The ocean is a vastness and a terrifying force: this week has proved that so.
I am going now, to be in the sea, to have a few words, to pay my respects.