Tense because they were wearing swim clothes indoors that they’d just been wearing outdoors, as you might feel when you passed through a hotel lobby in capes of wet towels, and because it was just the two of them with the Greek man in the dark hot shed, Agatha in her stripes of shades of blue bikini and Christless crucifix, her belly lined, and Will in comparatively good nick, he thought, when you considered they’d been eating and drinking out for a year. Now to inspect with serious faces the goggles and snorkels handed to them with declarations of “you” then “you” by this middle-aged man, shorter than Will and skinny as a convalescent, his skull pronounced by the dark aviators in front and dome of wild hair behind. He said as they printed their names and emergency contacts, signed disclaimers and waivers and such about damaged equipment, that he’d expected a larger group, only for them to smile back because they didn’t know whether it was their fault or the hotel staff’s. Agatha put her toggled flippers over her shoulders, but Will put his on for the walk. Goofily he smacked the concrete steps as they headed to the pier or jetty or quay or wharf, in the hope of teasing some chat out of the Greek (Will had repeated the man’s name over their handshake to check he got it right but now couldn’t remember).
The spray of the boat wasn’t enough to refresh anyone: already Will was dripping with suncream-thickened sweat. Agatha, with the excuse of a shoulder massage, had snuck some factor ‘Basically Paint’ onto him, knowing he made too big a deal of how his vague Portuguese heritage meant he could throw caution to the sun. Head severely craned in successive bathrooms, he’d watched his back over the months turn the orange glow of desert stone, freckles disguising the shoulder stubble. The boat coasted to a stop in view of their hotel, where the Greek waved at the flags, traffic-cone red, that marked the snorkelable distances. Agatha took the ladder backwards, hung for a second before splashing in. Will leaned the whole boat by standing up then dived in as the Greek shouted. When Will came back up, he tossed his hair then raked it back like in a shampoo ad to ignore the shouts. Sometimes he’d watch himself in the glass fence around the hotel pool as he broke the surface, water oozing out of the top-knotted pineapple frizz of his hair like honey in wax cells. The Greek clapped for them to listen. “The rocks! Not on this side please.” Agatha said sorry for him/them. Will was whale-spouting air through his snorkel, dunking his streaky eye mask, but then he yelled sorry, too, but with face turned to the equipment and his reflection.
She could, though, dive without any eye mask like the fenlander half fish-woman she was, hair pulling behind her underwater then at her turnaround getting confused, mossy black seaweed, then oh yeah snapping the one way as her meaty bullock legs powered her back to the surface, bubbles from her nostrils and lips and along her body like up a glass.
Now that they had the cove all to themselves – the Greek had ripped at the engine and sped away, steering one-handed, his phone in the other – Will imagined Agatha’s reaction if he swam across and, with them bobbing next to each other, he proposed. Had he managed to propose back at that lookout spot in Ponta Delgada, he’d have christened the trip as one long pre-honeymoon. Doing it now risked the proposal being tainted with their end-of-holiday blues. Or a proposal might be what’d alleviate the same: Oh, William! But they didn’t have the cove all to themselves: at the far end, bodyboarders were hooting distantly across the sea-top, some of them upright, some just heads in the water. Their voices were small but clearcut. “Jackson. Jackson!” “Rod, you donut.” Jill and Tom – Agatha smirked when Will called her parents that, though he never found it weird himself, having called his own parents by their first names since he was a teenager – were High Church so wanted him to propose to her more than she did. She wanted him to because they wanted him to, and was otherwise more willing to stretch it out, within reason. The ‘world trip’ – Azores and the Mediterranean (they weren’t so tacky as to settle for South East Asia) – that Will had gotten them had to be a pretty hefty show of commitment. Only so many times, however, you could stall with extended holidays – circa Malta he’d told himself: Get engaged, then never get round to the wedding. He’d banked at uni his statement to her that he didn’t see the point of marriage. He used to daydream about the other girls in Agatha’s halls saying goodbye to him at breakfast then saying to her, “Sooo, what was he like?” and her blushing and grinning, and protesting the question, and that being enough, till the next time he was in their company and he’d square his shoulders and flex his abs but otherwise not even go near the subject. He was relieved for last night’s shag, because they’d not been doing it as much as at the start of the trip, and on the trip not as much as at uni. Relieved to have slept together as well, waking up tangled and only separating to turn off the fan that’d been on all night and watch the decay of its spin. They’d eaten breakfast in the hotel by themselves, smug at having gotten up so early, determined to squeeze more juice out of the day than anyone, even if the heat already made them cringe. If they came down early for kitchen staff, and if she sat near enough to watch, he’d pound out lengths in the pool, the racket of his crashing thumps followed by the shush for silence when he reached one end, dived below, turned and pushed off the tiles. The suncream showed as pearly grease on his arms when he dived to where the modest coral reef broke back into a cove of its own, with a dimpled sandy bed that had something dark in the middle of it, a flat rock or a barracuda, something fun to flush out for her. She wasn’t able to dive with her snorkel on, which Will liked trying to teach, demonstrating how to keep the snorkel free of water with your breath. She could, though, dive without any eye mask like the fenlander half fish-woman she was, hair pulling behind her underwater then at her turnaround getting confused, mossy black seaweed, then oh yeah snapping the one way as her meaty bullock legs powered her back to the surface, bubbles from her nostrils and lips and along her body like up a glass. No question she was the better swimmer, though she’d protest she wasn’t when he said so in front of his friends – therefore a good judge of swimming. Her take on Will’s backstroke was valuable to him, fast but too wobbly, like a torpedo with rotor damage, she said. Will would want nothing less in a girlfriend than somebody with good judgment. Wife.
Aggressive paddles of his flippers and he’d surged ahead of her, through the warm then cold water, part otter, part dolphin. In pleasure he chewed the tooth-grips tighter onto his sensitive gums. He began singing songs amplified by the plastic tube. He’d sung, “The summer wind, came sailing in, from across the sea,” when a swell passed over him or a drag passed under him, and a length of saltwater dropped down his throat like a glug from a fat straw. Again he whale-spouted, came coughing and acking upright: everyone’s a critic. For his next number, he risked a rendition of ‘Under the Sea’, in the hope it’d reach Agatha, playing the tomfool like she liked. If she was planning when they got back to the beach to read her pop-theology book, he was planning to pack her legs in the sand. When that sniffy old tour-guide had lauded the Parthenon, Will had asked, “Built by slaves though, right?” – and made Agatha giggle past her blush, maintaining his position as the person she found most funny. Unsure whether she could hear him sing from her distance, he switched to talking to himself, in a monsterish way through his widened, gum-shielded mouth. He talked to the fishes. Hello Mr Fishes! Private time with animals and we all halve our mental age. Looming over little shoals of candy-striped fish, he imagined himself as some kind of silent drifting predator about to explode their complacency. He ‘sang’, like when you talk a tune into the mouthpiece of a saxophone instead of playing it, the theme from Jaws, puffing the notes through his snorkel. Whether because of the tune, or because certain crimps in the water might’ve passed for crescent tails or triangular fins, he jerked 360 on the spot while scanning his head back and forth in 45 degree arcs, in case all this time some kind of silent drifting predator was a flipper-length away from him.
In the thrashing scan, Agatha was nowhere to be seen, so he took off his eye mask. In the distance a magenta tube with a black cap roved past periscopically, her butt following behind like an albino turtle. She herself was only an Olympic-pool-length or two from the shore.
Aggressive paddles of his flippers and he’d surged ahead of her, through the warm then cold water, part otter, part dolphin. In pleasure he chewed the tooth-grips tighter onto his sensitive gums. He began singing songs amplified by the plastic tube. He’d sung, “The summer wind, came sailing in, from across the sea,” when a swell passed over him or a drag passed under him, and a length of saltwater dropped down his throat like a glug from a fat straw. Again he whale-spouted, came coughing and acking upright: everyone’s a critic.
He soothed himself: in so many sticky wood cabins or three-star hotels he’d wake up on the stiff and too high beds and assume he was facing the wall but then found himself facing the door – and in between, a panicked seizure of ‘Where am I?’ The horizon was always going to look short and near when you were right at sea level, as though the Earth were a water-covered ball more the size of an asteroid, with you just rolling round and round it, deceptive because this so-called rolling continues till, in a sudden expansion, he saw the dot of himself, and the leagues of water behind him and ahead of him, and those below.
The flags in the sea weren’t an actual fence, like the nets they’d seen on private beaches for filtering out sharks and litter and presumably the drowned to create rockpools of hotel-guests-only. These flags were a level up, symbolic: as with road markings, it was up to him to imagine any two nodes connected by a line, and be advanced enough a human not to cross it, even though physically he could. But he was finding it harder even to distinguish the flags: the sea swells amplified and they accelerated, and whether he breathed through the snorkel or his bare mouth, his breath struggled to keep up.
At the risk of Will adding to the heap of anecdotes about getting caught in rip tides that others have lived to tell, and tell, let’s relate what only the survivors really know, that first moment when, with a sort of O-Kay silent resolve, you turn around, decide not to test the staring big dog that’s come to block the lonely country road. Methodically, Will kicked his flippers and pulled the sea under him arm by arm. The sea rushed past, but laterally, first like foot traffic that buffeted him and slowed him in annoyance, to teach him a lesson about going the wrong direction and getting in everyone’s way, then like an irresistible force, no no, this way, come on, you’re going with us now, this is the way you were going, weren’t you? This is what will have happened to you.
Among his fears, a dilemma: whether to keep heading for shore before the tide closed off the option, or whether mustering his courage with a sustained burst of energy would mean he wouldn’t notice, not till he’d exhausted himself, that he hadn’t gotten any closer to shore, hence guaranteeing he’d sooner or later drown. He made sea-boiling kicks and deep Get-Behind-Me-Satan strokes, face down in the white bubbles of his exhale then up into the spangling sun. He hadn’t gotten any closer to shore. Water was surging down his windpipe faster than he could keep it out, no relent and no mercy: that’s it, that’s it.
A churn in the sea, like a speedboat without the boat, coming right at him. Will thought something had actually been shot at him, Agatha toting a harpoon gun on one hip, hopefully the ammo tipped in rubber. The churn slowed down as it neared, and the man’s head inside explained confusingly, and harshly, Will later thought, that they had to “get off this,” though at the time Will gladly grabbed the man’s arms. A triangle of thick arm came under his chin like a sleeper hold, and he stiffened at the liberty but then childishly succumbed to it, went limp, and let the man drag him out of the stampede of water.
The man jolted him out of his swirling stun: “Fuck’s sake. Kick, you numpty!”
He pulled Will onto some driftwood or a float or cabinet door he had under his other arm. Will kicked his guts out, literally, seeing as he would vomit once he got to shore. He was baffled, though, to the point of petulant anger that they weren’t swimming straight to shore but along it, and continued to swim along, till his kicks became feeble foot-drifts. Without a word, the man shucked Will off, or Will slipped from the bodyboard and the man didn’t try fetch him back. In either case, the man swam away on it, stopping to tread water once, yes, but not looking back to check on Will, no, and soon the current reasserted itself even more brutally.
Agatha was all over him now he was back, not crying but saying “Sorry” on repeat. Will didn’t understand what for yet, though in the unkind moments to come, he’d blame her for everything.
Will was treading water, too, though he attempted front crawl, then breaststroke, then drowning-doggy-paddle. The stupid injustice of what was happening now on top of the accident that’d happened before made him kick so hard his left flipper loosened then shot away with the current. The snorkel and eye mask round his neck were choking him. At first faintly, almost with embarrassment, he called, “Hey! You! Hey you help! You!” (Will didn’t know Roland’s name yet). “Help me! God help me please!”
The man stopped swimming away at last, and he was far too tall. With the instant exasperation and condescension of a headteacher, he yelled, “Put your feet down, lad.” Will lowered his burning legs through the jacuzzi rush. He stood up on rocky sand and the water sluiced off to groin-height.
Still, it was difficult wading to shore. His rescuer hadn’t swum them completely out of the tidal area so much as into the ebbing water. Will walked as if tethered at the waist, or against a strong wind, pedalling with his hands as he came, and swearing each time a rock bit his foot.
Agatha was all over him now he was back, not crying but saying “Sorry” on repeat. Will didn’t understand what for yet, though in the unkind moments to come, he’d blame her for everything. They had to walk back, Will one-flippered and sniffing with each step from the throat-burn of saltwater. Less from need than resentment, he stopped now and then to haul up his pricked foot and examine the bleeding. His rescuer hadn’t come to shore to check on them but had swum back to his friends, and Agatha, kicking sand over Will’s vomit, agreed this was abnormal, but then the man wasn’t a lifeguard or paramedic, he wasn’t obliged to give any follow-ons or after-care. When the Greek reappeared on his boat, he had to trail Will and Agatha along the shore-line with head shakes and unclear yells, and when he got off at the pier / jetty / quay / wharf, and before Will could yell at him as planned for not waiting around to keep an eye on them, the Greek looked at Will’s bare foot then brandished the forms they’d signed. Silently ahead, he walked them to the hotel, then waited in the reception for them to come down with the money. They only had high denomination Euros. He didn’t have change.
Mazin Saleem was born in Manchester. He has written short stories for the Mays Anthology, Litro Magazine, Literateur, Open Pen and more. You can read his other short stories for Minor Literature[s] here and here.