The water is jade. Seaweed has wrapped itself around the ropes tying the rowing boats to the dock. The plants sway and flick slowly in the current. It’s not deep. I can see the bottom. I wonder if I plunged in and looked up would the sky look like an ocean?
This morning, whilst curled up in the sheets of an unfamiliar bed, Dave told me about the sea creatures he finds when he scuba dives. Sea Lemons and Acorn Barnacles. Spider Crabs with their bodies forked between plants. Afterwards he made breakfast naked and sang sea shanties loudly throughout the house whilst I flicked through a book illustrating these creatures.
Now, fully clothed he stands on the dock and holds his hands out to help me onto his fishing vessel. Even though I grew up next to the sea, I spent little time on boats. As I step over the wall and onto the deck I lose my balance and almost fall over. His wide rough hands grip my shoulders and hold me steady. Last night I pawed the scars on those hands where he’d ripped or stabbed his skin with fish hooks and the like. Those hands which handled every part of my body, those experienced fingers.
I gain balance and smile at him.
‘Bit of a rough sea today,’ I say.
‘Yeah, it’s fairly choppy.’
He busies himself with getting the ropes out of the rusted dock rings. I put my bag in a large red tub and sit on the back of the boat. There are big white boxes to put all the fish into and nets hanging off the sides. After he’s pulled all the ropes in, the boat gently floats away from the dock, he goes to the steering wheel, pushes the lever next to it and away we go. The low old grumble of the engine mingles with the swish of water as the boat collides with waves. I hold onto the little pole next to me, trying to look relaxed. Trying to look like I’d done this a hundred times before, and not at all like it was my first time, and I was terrified of falling over board. I must look ridiculous; trying to look sexy with a face streaming with sea spray.
The landscape reminds me a lot of my own eastern hills, flat arable fields golden in the summer from the heat, broken up by pockets of woodland. He looks back at me and asks if I’m ok, I can’t hear the words over all the noise but his mouth makes all the right shapes. I give a broad smile and nod. We haven’t known each other for long. I can’t be myself around him. That’s maybe because he’s twenty years older or maybe it’s because he’s a scientist and I’m an artist. We operate from different sides of the brain, curiosity compelling us to continue seeing each other.
He drives us past two large grey army ships docked next to each other and tells me this is where they restore and mend boats. One has a painted white lion rearing and roaring. Behind the grey ships there’s a yellow one. Dave slows the boat down and turns to me.
‘You see that yellow one?’ he says. ‘They go out to where ships have sunk and collect stuff from them.’
‘Like pirates and buried treasure,’ I say, delighted.
He shows a quick smile and carries on driving.
We’re coming up to the mouth of the river. On each side of it there’s a castle. The one on the right is square and further back from the shore. It’s dirtied brown and sharp. The land around it is plain and flat. It looks unwelcome. The one on the left is soft grey and round. It’s closer to the shore and has larger windows. I imagine its insides adorned in red and purple, fine silks and velvets.
Dave slows the boat again and tells me about the battle between the two castles. Earlier he’d shown me a rusty cannon ball he’d found on the ocean bed. Looking at the distance between the two castles I can see the cannon balls being fired, rising into the air and falling heavy and fast into the water. It makes me shudder to think what sits on the sand under the waves. I used to have nightmares of swimming in murky waters and being unable to see what was under my feet. Even now I wake up in cold sweats thinking of land objects being submerged. Shopping trolleys, prams, wheel barrows, cars, buildings, statues. Even sunken ships which seem to have romanticism about them make me feel sick when I see them. The sea will swallow everything eventually.
I stand up and move over to Dave, he doesn’t notice me until I put my hand on his back.
‘You ok?’ he asks.
‘Just stretching my legs.’
‘We’ll stop somewhere soon and then we can have a cup of tea.’
His face is weathered and tanned, his nose is pointed and his hair is scruffy. I adore him already and want to talk to him freely, but something stops me.
He anchors the boat just off a small sandy beach with thick bending trees outlining it. Apart from the racing sailing boats behind us we have the space to ourselves. He busies himself once more, this time with tin cups and a thermos. He doesn’t make eye contact.
Last night was the second time I’d seen him. I knew the evening would end with us two in bed, ruffling the sheets with our bodies. Sex isn’t complicated. But now, on this boat, it’s uncomfortable, I don’t know what to do with my body or where to direct myself.
He pours the tea into the little tin cups and hands me one.
‘I’m going swimming,’ I say. ‘You going to join me?’
He strokes his hair back from his face and looks around at the water.
Whilst drinking my tea I scan the open deck for the best place to get changed. I could just strip off in front of him and put on my costume, but I’m aware of the daylight illuminating the bulges of my body. He’s got no problems. He strips, naked in the sun and puts his trunks on. I’m slow, jolted, trying to get changed under a towel. I give up on my top half exposing my breasts. I’ve got no shame about them. It’s the stretched thighs, the attempted removal of the bikini line, the flabby stomach.
He now watches me hopping around his deck.
‘Do you need a hand?’
I wish he’d asked more provocatively, then I’d just throw off the towel and make this into a bit of a strip tease, but he asked me like an adult would ask a teenager. There was warmth and understanding, and condescension to the question.
‘Cheers but I’m capable of changing by myself,’ I reply.
He nods his head once, waits a moment and then dives off the boat. Relief, I don’t care so much who sees me now. The close proximity made me fear close inspection. Everyone else is too far away. They’d just see a human form.
I roll off the side of the boat and bomb into the coldness. It’s fresh. It’s salty. The top layer has been heated by the sun, from my armpits down it gets colder and colder and my toes are freezing. I tread water. When I look around for him, I notice he has already swum halfway to the shore. The water is clear enough to see underneath to the bottom, I dare to look. There are grey rocks, bushes of seaweed and other plant life. My imagination flashes a shark swimming between the rocks below and I snap my focus to find where Dave is. I suddenly feel very unsafe. Dave’s on the shore now heading to a white box. He’s spotted something to inspect. He’s well built, strong arms, straight posture. He picks up the box, shakes it, looks inside, drops it back on the sand. I have no idea what he’s achieving from this. Unless he’s trying to find things to do so he doesn’t have to come back and swim with me. This angers me. I don’t need him to be safe anyway. I’m can look after myself. I lie on my back, stretch my arms and legs out and float. With closed eyes and submerged ears my head is filled with the sand tingling over itself in the peaceful alien world below. My lips are salty. My cheeks warm from the sun above.
Dave told me he also has a fear of what lies beneath his feet. I asked how he could cope diving. He said it was different when you’re fully under. You’re part of that world, on that level and you’re not separated half in half out.
I wish I could be fully under now, away from the uneasiness. I float for what seems like ages. Deep in the sounds of the ocean when I hear something I can’t place. A series of sharp swishes, perhaps from a frantically moving fish tail or fin. Sharks come back into my imagination and I open my eyes and become rigid. Too afraid to make any sudden movement I crane my head around to find the boat. I’ve floated quite far from it and Dave is nowhere to be seen. Panic rises in my throat. I tell myself I’m not in the deep ocean, I’m in the mouth of a river. Nothing terrible would come so close to land and after all this is England. Yet through all this rationalisation I can’t move, stuck in my floating star.
Think of pleasant things. The beautiful day, the sun, the light, the peace, the sex last night, the conversations so far, think of what we’ll do next, food at an old smugglers haunt, sitting on the river bank, drinking Pimms, eating chips.
And then it happens; a gentle pressure on my back. It strokes down my spine and my entire body fills with cold. The sharp swishes continue underneath. The pressure happens again, it strokes my right hip. It’s not rough or painful, but it is unwelcome. It could be some kelp trying to get to the surface and my body is blocking it. That’s what it is. Kelp. It must be. I’m about to turn on my front and swim back when the pressure comes back. This time I can feel it grip around the back of my neck and I know this isn’t kelp. These are feelers or even fingers.
Bubbles rise and break on the surface next to my head. It keeps a grip on my neck and starts to touch other parts of my body; the back of my head, my shoulders, my waist, my bum, in between my thighs, my calves, my heels. The water ripples disturbance but nothing comes to air. I’m paralysed. Then my name is being called and whatever it is that has gripped me lets go. The bubbles stop, the sharp swishes fade away. The calls of my name get louder. I remain still. The noise of swimming rings under the surface. Then a hand is on my stomach. I break from the ridged star and fold inwards like a deck chair.
‘What are you doing all the way out here?’ Dave asks treading water next to me.
‘Were you just underneath me?’
‘What are you talking about?’ he asks.
I’m afraid if I tell him he’ll think I’m being childish.
‘I want to go back to the boat,’ I say.
We don’t talk on the journey back. He’s stopped asking me if I’m ok. I watch the water trying to see something. Anything. I don’t. It doesn’t seem real but I know there was something touching me. I pull my jumper tighter. I need to get off this boat.
It began to rain as the sun went down. We’re sitting in Dave’s car eating fish and chips, the fumes of vinegar hot boxing the car. We haven’t spoken much, there’s just the smacking of lips and crunch of food. Dave turns to me.
‘What happened earlier?’
I don’t know how to reply. I’ve been going over the details and I’m still not comfortable with telling him. I fill my mouth with chips.
He turns back to the front.
‘It can get quite unsettling out there,’ he starts.
I have no patience for some meaningful explanation of the ocean.
‘Why did you just swim off like that?’ I say.
‘When we got into the water.’
‘I wanted to see if there was anything in that white box.’
‘I didn’t want you to leave.’
‘You could have followed me,’ he says nonchalantly.
I didn’t want to follow you, I think and stop chewing.
He fills his mouth with fish. I watch the rain fall down the windscreen. It’s been a long day and we have too little time with each other to argue. I want to tell him there was something in the water with me but I know he wouldn’t believe me.
He shrugs after a while.
‘Next time I promise I won’t leave,’ he gives me a half meant smile.
Later we’re in his bedroom again, lying in front of the TV watching a diving competition. He strokes me and I flinch. Being unable to let go of the sensation I’d got from the sea creature earlier. His capable hands are now clumsy. He persists with touching me and although I feel sick from this touch, I don’t stop him.
We’re in his house, he’s done nothing wrong. I have no reason to stop him.
We crease the sheets with our bodies once more. It’s quick. It’s unemotional. In the morning I slip out of bed before he wakes and get on the first train I can back east. I leave a note saying I had a family emergency and didn’t want to wake him.