We are souls at sea because bodies on land get found; spirits are free
by Laura Tansley
Willa. Will-a. Will-aaaaa. I have to say it like that so people will hear it. Say it like you’re at the dentist. Open wide, we want to see what you had for dinner. They still get it wrong. Every first date I’ve ever had. Not Willow or Willie, Will-aaahhh, like a cup of tea, kettle with a purifier, crisp new milk and a fresh breakfast bag. I wonder if they’ll spell it right in the paper. Paper-s? Definitely the Gazette. Maybe the Evening Standard. There’s no way this won’t be news.
I have no toes, I tell myself. I have no nose, no ears or hands. Just a cavity; a wholeness at the centre of me where my organs float around holding tight against the cold to stop themselves from fainting. Those are the things that matter. They taught us that at school. Send all the warm blood there.
I don’t know who suggested going for a swim. But they all got excited, took their tops off, scrambled down the path and we each put a toe in; one whole foot between us. It was gut-punch cold, got a gasp from all of us, then Joanne and Jamie swore, and Bryony and Billy backed away.
Nobody waves right before they drown. Nobody shouts. Panic sets in, energy drains and the best we can do is gasp, look up, stay above the water line for a little longer, but know we’re on the cusp. By ‘we’ I mean me and all the others that sink down here, a long string of paper people chains with bubbles of last thoughts floating up from open mouths reaching the surface as deep, unnoticed gulps.
Joanne and Jamie, Bryony and Billy. They couldn’t have planned it better. And we don’t know any Winstons or Warricks. We know a Wallis but he’s gay, lives the other side of Worcester so he’s out and that means they can drag me along and not feel guilty about making me a gooseberry; they already spoke to Wallis and he’s not interested. So we go out on Sundays, find a different pub lunch to the one we’re currently bored of then I wait for the moment when they’ll wink at me and shove a man in my direction. After that if the weather’s half-decent we go for a walk on the common but today they were sweaty and looking for ways to take more of their clothes off so we went to the quarry.
Couples are always trying to foist connections. They have this fantasy that if they set you up it somehow reflects on them. Like they’re the first ones to have finally figured out love and they want their friends to feel the same. But maybe I want to feel something else, something finer.
They didn’t want to go in; neither did I. Steep sides, sudden depth, no sun, could send a body in to cold shock in seconds. Plus there are all the hidden rocks and the drowned diggers left to rust. We used to think it was quick riptides, but quarry lakes have no currents. They don’t roll over themselves like rivers. It’s not the current that will kill you.
“I’ll walk back,” I said.
“Or phone us and we’ll come back for you,” Jamie offered.
“No reception,” I said, “the terrain – its tall walls make a signal shadow. It’s why it’s so quiet.” There was no one else around and at the bottom of the bowl barricaded by trees it was tranquil.
They’d decided to go, wanted sun not shade but I was done with heat so they left, fumbling and flirting back up the path, probably to find somewhere to feed each other fruit.
I think the dog must have seen me first, because when I turned towards the sound of splashing water he was heading straight for me, veering away from the edge that was closer to him. Instinct, I suppose.
I waded right in. Even from where I stood at the shore I could see his white eyes just out of the water, pupils reduced to pin pricks to let as little light in as possible. I guess he didn’t want to see what was happening and it broke my heart before the cold could.
My feet were already numb from standing in the shallows so maybe that’s why it was less of a shock when the water hit my waist, my chest and then my face. But it took longer than I thought it would to swim to him. I kept losing my view as my head went from side to side in a front crawl. I’d stop when I thought I should be near, look up and see he was over there on the left. Maybe his head was going under and he was resurfacing in odd places. That happened a couple of times. And then when I got close he started swimming away from me altogether. I said stop to him, hold on, I’m here to help, but he kept going off to the left, to the deeper and deeper part. And then the hundred feet underneath me started to pull on my legs and I panicked, my feet flapped like I was falling and I forgot the dog because there was nothing below me, no end, it would take a lifetime to reach the quarry floor and my stomach started to flip.
Then I knocked in to him. He must have swum back around and I grabbed him like he was a life raft. From the shore I thought he’s some type of little terrier maybe, white, short-haired. Hard to tell in the water when his coat was drenched and his ears were wet-heavy and flat. Up close he had a long muzzle and white whiskers that dripped with fear and drool and I thought he might try and bite me or resist me but he let me hold him and then gave up completely, started to sink, and his body was like a concrete block, each limb a brick and we went together under the water then.
Useless, he must have thought. What kind of rescue is this? But it wasn’t like real life, wearing pyjamas to primary school swimming lessons and treading warm water for twenty minutes. This was some kind of weird dream. When I shut my eyes I could see red blood cells exploding.
So he started to kick again and I let go so we could right ourselves but he didn’t swim away. He didn’t trust me to carry him, didn’t trust himself to get to shore solo.
But there’s heat at the end of burning lungs, like bodies on Viking boats pierced in the chest with a flaming arrow. Something sparks and I remember what they said at school. Stop, they said, roll over, rest. Wait a minute. Then try again. The heart will beat harder. There’s too much CO2. The lips will turn blue.
They were the ones that taught us all this anyway, to dive in to the deep end on a summer’s day after too much cider, best way in the world to stop your head buzzing. But make sure to miss the darkest parts of the water, if you hit a rock you don’t come up till tomorrow. I watched them leap from ledges when I was little, future teachers freefalling. Do as I say not as I do. They did it first, we died later. Three every year on average.
The dog is so still now. He’s stopped his squirming. His heavy head rests on my chest and I can see the gold coin tag on his collar. ‘Warren’. Meant to be, they’ll all say. Destiny.
I did have a boyfriend once, for a while. We met the summer before second year at uni and stayed together for longer than we should have because it made us feel safe. His name was Andrew and we couldn’t have been on more opposite ends of the scale. Unless I was called Yolanda. Or Zara. He hated TV, fantasy films and irony. He drank green tea, called me sweet pea, reprimanded me every time I pressed the input key on the clicker and couldn’t figure out how to get back to BBC. But we liked standing in queues together, were happily silent in restaurants, took up smoking rollies together so that we always had something that made us look busy. As soon as one of us found something better we broke up.
We met in high school. Jamie and Joanne and me. They’ve been together since they were sixteen. Bryony and Billy we met in The Brewers Arms, drinking Bunnahabhain whisky and talking about cask strengths. They seemed to care about details, so we let them give us business advice about how not to go broke but we all did anyway. Straight out of uni, CV stuffed with two lines about our degrees in philosophy, sociology, history, we talked charge-free overdraughts, minimum payment credit cards, council tax scams and got so drunk we left with nothing, not even the penny change from the cheapest two-ninety-nine pints.
Now we all just about have jobs. The time of temping is over but only because we re-evaluated, levelled our ideals and lowered our standards.
They left a while ago, I think, so I don’t think it’s worth shouting. But maybe that was a second ago. My sea-level body clock moves slow. Maybe they’re still at the top, just over the ridge, messing around by the car, smoking. Maybe my echo would coil its way up to them, maybe they’d feel it like a pulse. But I can’t even cause a fuss. It’s too much.
Time slows down, doesn’t it, the closer we get to an end. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been whirlpooling round this water and if I just went straight up or down everything would happen much faster.
Leaves, twigs, water boatmen all walk past us as we try not to sink. I keep thinking hollow thoughts to help us float. And every now and then I try a frog kick and slowly, slowly, we’ll get somewhere. I hold Warren’s chin up, look at the sky and push away from whatever that feeling is, the feeling like a plug’s been pulled and pressure is building.
‘Woman, Willa, Saves Dog, Warren, From Watery Walkies Gone Wrong’. Or, ‘Rock Quarry Swim Results In Rescue’. I could give an interview: ‘No no, not brave. I just did what I had to do.’ Maybe I could be in an ad on the radio, or one of those Safety First instructional videos. I could give talks to children in schools. I’ve always wanted to teach. Isn’t that what teachers say? Will-aaa, I say out loud and get a mouthful of water for my efforts.
I think we must be close to the shore now, we must be near something that can take our weight, so I hold Warren high up near my face, in the crook of my elbow and swim with one arm flailing, beating my legs against the water that’s like glass now, my blood frosted stuck in clotted veins. I feel the gravel on my butt first because I haven’t really been looking as I back-stroked and side-swam but I put my arm down and feel the ground and I shuffle up on to the bank cutting my legs on arrowhead slate. Warren we did it, I say, and our chests rise up and down in unison.
We are both so still, just breathing, trying to bring our legs back to life, but then a ripple reaches us, started by something from who knows where, way back when we were in peril. One last flap of the arms, one last lunge towards air, neck too stiff to keep the nose and mouth clear. I pick up one of Warren’s front paws and make him wave like we’re saying goodbye to a ship leaving a harbour or a train passing by. It was his owner, probably. Not learning her own lesson.
Laura Tansley‘s writing has been published in a variety of places including Butcher’s Dog, Cosmonaut’s Avenue, Lighthouse, New Writing Scotland, PANK, Rappahannock Review, The Real Story and is forthcoming in The Rialto. She is co-editor of the collection ‘Writing Creative Non-Fiction: Determining the Form’. She lives and works in Glasgow.