Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: Floating Away

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Marina Neil
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Marina Neil

THOSE first breathtaking steps into the surf are delectable agony. The hot and cold working simultaneously. My brother and I dive under the first wave big enough to cover us. The churning water runs cooling bubbles down our hot bodies. Bliss.

Strong arms and legs strike out for the deeper water, laughing, battering our way through the breakers. Jumping the smaller waves and diving through the green glassy walls of larger ones.

I like the waves just before they break. Rising up with the swell and sliding down the other side before they can crash on me. The water is deep and I can barely stand.

I lie on my back and float, up and down. Eyes closed to the glare. The sun lights my eyelids – a kaleidoscope of colour. Weightless, sunshine and water, rocking me. The smell of zinc cream and saltwater fills my senses. The heartbeat of the ocean is all I can hear. The rhythm of the waves, sucking and surging.

Weightless, sunshine and water, rocking me. The smell of zinc cream and saltwater fills my senses. The heartbeat of the ocean is all I can hear. The rhythm of the waves, sucking and surging.

My mind wanders, touching thoughts lightly. I am a seagull swooping and hovering in the haze. Or soaring high, looking down on the tiny shapes in the surf. The breeze holds me with delicate fingers.

I always return to the sea. Cool water caresses my body, rippling between fingers and toes ‒ slapping on my hot face with the passing swells. Up and down, mesmerising, rocking me to sleep.

I was born for the sea. It’s mine. Time loses connection and relevance.

The sound of people shouting gradually rouses me from my torpor. My brother’s familiar voice penetrates my floating world.

“Rip, start swimming!” “Head sideways out of it!’

I flip over and take my bearings. Where are the flags? I always swim between the flags. I know the dangers. And I’m floating straight into one.

I strike out, trying to catch the waves into the beach. But the water is deep now and the waves roll uselessly by, powerless to help.

I roll onto my back and start swimming – it’s my strongest stroke. After long minutes I think I should be nearing the beach, but when I look around, it‘s even further away. Panic shakes me and I flounder. Exhausted. Tears well. Heart thumps.

My feet pedal in the deep dragging water. Something rough brushes them.

Shark! My body reels with the shock of the thought. I’m not going to survive this!

I thrust my arm in the air as high as I can. The last resort.

The rough skin brushes along my leg. I wait for the end. Will I feel it? Or will it just be a bloom of blood in the brine. I know it can sense my terror. I look down in dread, only to find I have swum into a kelp bed. I try to laugh at my foolishness, but I can’t. I’m still too terrified. The shark might be hiding in the kelp.

After a very long time a lifesaver in a belt and line, reaches me. His arm holds me tight and I finally feel safe, as the rest of his team reel us back to the beach and my frantic parents.

Dad and Mum come rushing over and hug me tightly.

Then Dad holds me at arm’s length.

“Get back in the water straightaway. Rob, come and play in the smaller waves with Helen. 

“Come on Kathy, you too.” His voice is firm but gentle, like him.

“I don’t want to. I want to go home. I hate the beach. I never want to come here again.” My tears fall freely.

Uncontrolled. Growing hysterical.

“Well that’s not going to happen. Now get back in the water. Now!”

We play in the shallows, and I gradually relax. Dad is right. He always is. He knows how I love the water and he can’t stand by to see that love turn to bitter hatred and fear.

At low-tide we fossick around the rock pools. Nimbly jumping the cracks and crevices, we seek anything of passing interest, or simply watch the waves fill the weather-worn holes.

Each little pool is a world of fascinating creatures and we linger there until we can feel the bite of the sun on our unprotected skin.

The familiar cool of the water envelops us as we jump into the ocean pool to cool down. We swim underwater as far as we can. Our trial-by-breath is always the first contest. My brother mostly wins it as he has the biggest lungs. One day I will beat him – but this isn’t the day.

Then to float again in the safety of the pool, no rips to drag me out to sea. I lie there somnolent, zinc cream nearly gone. Licked off by dry salty lips and tongue.

It’s now a life-time later and I still love the ocean. I’m not strong enough for the surf these days, but I still love floating in the pool. I swim, because I have to “keep active” but it’s not the reason I go. My joy is still giving myself to the water. I float and remember. The smell of the zinc cream I still wear, takes my senses back. Places I’ve been, people I’ve known, my family and those wonderful sunlit halcyon days of my childhood when I floated in the sea.

I think when I die that final rest will be floating, weightless, with firm strong limbs and a huge silly grin on my freckled face.

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