He thought the worst that could happen under such calm night sky was the humiliation of having to turn back.
The harbour spoke quietly about them, the whisper of plucked boat ropes and sounding bells, and the called voices of the other pub-denizens heading home, further along the hook of Stromness town.
Spaced between each building on the harbour front was a narrow strip of alleyway and at the end of each there was a pier that sloped with low gradient down to the water. The girls stood behind, three of them, giggling with crossed arms in the bright smell of their perfume. He stooped to take off his shoes, one arm thrust out for drunken balance against the building’s pebble dash. Indentations in his supporting palm; he touched the dents with cold fingertips. When the girls spoke again he took a long moment to decipher their accents, that musical Orcadian, long enough to decide that the t-shirt should stay on but the trousers would have to come off. The girls gave subdued whoops when they saw bare legs. He struck a pose, mock-heroic, hands on hips. Three girls and a star-strewn night, and the bright, bright smell of their perfume. Passing their table, stopping to fold his ferry ticket stub under the short leg of their table, to stop it wobbling, a gentlemanly act, the girls applauding, then that reflexive offer to buy them another round.
How quickly you fall into accustomed patterns.
He looked down at the oiled water lightly patting the stone and stepped in up to his ankles. The insulation of alcohol; a second or two, then he said, It’s cold. Another chorus of cheers as he stripped his t-shirt off – why not? Dead weight in the water.
He waded in, and two cold circles advanced up his calves. He kicked out to send up a spray of reflected gold, small pearls of water catching the streetlight glow. He prepared himself for the dive, knees bent and arms pointing two flat blades of his hands forwards.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” one of the girls said. “You don’t have to?”
He curved forward, then it was the encircling black, the roof of water over his head. Not silence, but a different weight of sound, and the vast presence of the cold was a voice shouting through his bones. Skull ringing like a tuning fork, he broke the surface. Off to his side, looming out of the dark, was the glint of a creel-marker.
In the daylight, spotted across the bay, their faded luminescence bobbed from the water like the heads of seals. They made it this far in, he had heard, but the thought of those sleek bodies, those canine faces, spinning and wheeling through the blackness below him put a charge into his legs. The things that live in the deep, the mucous-flank of a turning fish, crustaceans picking their way across the ocean floor, fastidious as insects! He felt the booze roil in his gut and gasped to see an arm curve
up out of the water at the edge of his vision before he realised that it was his own bent elbow and his own hand cutting down as if wanting to grip the sea, to take a handful of it and pull him forward. The arm did not feel like his arm. On he swam, crawl then breaststroke, then crawl.
No one sensible did not fear the sea. As he swam now he remembered once, as a child, a school trip on the ferry to Inchcolm. The rail bridge spanning the Firth of Forth, the paint job that famously never ends. The ferry had breathed out ragged globes of fume. Looking down from the deck rail to see the wash
of foam thrown back from the ferry’s prow, the water reeling back as if struck, the black water that had no end to it. On the way home, the return trip, their teacher had them each compose a note about themselves, a note with their address and a short statement about who they were and what they were doing. Everyone was to have brought a glass bottle with them. He wrote his statement, a wild recitation of wholly invented facts about himself and his family.
Then off went the bottles, sealed, thrown far over the side into the ferry’s wake. He shuddered when his hit the water, not realising until that moment that someone might find in the days or months to come. He had lied.
His brother could not calm him, and the teacher laughed when he asked to turn the ferry back. He squeezed the rail, like he was trying to wring it dry, and looked back on the departing water. The slumped crag of Incholm island and its ruined abbey slipping away in a coiled smirr that rose up off the jagged sea.
His breath was coming faster now. The girls’ voices back there, two laughing still at his antics and the other calling out his name – had he given them his name, his real name? Anxiety bent the Orcadian notes. Sirens, the opposite of sirens, singing to send me away.
He slowed down, feathered lightly his progress through the rising body of the water. This Hellespont nearly crossed, but not too late to turn back? What did he think was going to happen with the gesture; an amazed and incredulous kind of gratitude on the part of those girls, expressed of course in awe-struck physical terms? Idiot. Buffoon. But it seemed right though, he encouraged himself, it felt proper that even this close to the edge of the world, his tether paid out to its extremity, he could take such a detour on the off-chance of impressing a trio of beautiful young women.
On he went, and as he swam he thought back to that distant note thrown in its glass envelope into the firth, cocked back and pitched steady, dropping with white reflection to shatter the grey. Others in class had received replies over the weeks and months that followed, but no one had ever written back to him. Lost in endless tide, the sea’s vast motion had swallowed it away.
A wave rolled up to greet him like an exuberant dog; he slapped it away with the back of his hand. No sounds now from the far shore at all, the girls either having given up on him or the distance travelled to great for the sound to reach him. He did the unthinking thing of turning round to look back the way he had come, but as he did so it was like the black room of the world had turned on its pivot and lost all bearings for him, and as if all the lights had been dimmed on the town behind. From horizon to horizon as he twisted in the water there was nothing but flat darkness and night, and the slopping breath of the sea as it dipped and rose about him.
One or two cold ructions of breeze came up to pat his face and numb his lips with blue. Ahead, flecked patches of blackness darker than the sea, the lopsided bulk of what could be a buoy, too big to be a creel-marker. Had he slipped past the holms altogether, his careful crawl and breaststroke taking him on the longer route by their shoulder into the open sea? He sent stiff-immobile fingers out to grab at the buoy, his feet quickly rustling through the water behind him. It bent over at once in his grasp, but with distributions of mass and angle he had it upright and let the unsinkable beacon take all of his sodden weight. There was a moment of unravelling panic when his breath couldn’t find him, his chest squeezed by the cold, but then with the steady buoy under him he could pause and slowly take the moment’s measure. He let a steady gaze circuit the bay, and when the sea seemed to deflate ahead of him he saw again the dim lights of the town strung along the sea front, the orange glow of lamps and house lights all blended into each other in one long paint-strip of sodium. He looked away from it, over his shoulder, the other direction now giving him the target.
He wanted to kick out and carry on. He couldn’t. At the top of the buoy, gently moving in its cradle, was a little bell that tolled a deep and mournful note when he shifted his position. He could not move. He could see the two islands ahead of him, he could distinguish their darker mass against the sea, but he couldn’t make himself swim out back into the open water.
What would the girls say now to see him? They had been amazed when they heard how far he had come. Amazed, or mocking? You think they’re yokels, on these islands, this meagre archipelago, but island people have broad vistas on all sides of them. They see further, they see more. I’m heading towards the edge of the world, he had said. “Oh really?” – the girls. “And then what?” Then I’ll just have to step on over, won’t I?
More truth in this than they knew. He had fielded further questions, but with evasive answers, keeping it mysterious and enigmatic in a way he had been led to believe women found attractive. He could barely feel his fingers as he gripped the steel and plastic buoy, barely even see them.
Maybe they had gone for help. If they were no longer there, if he could no longer hear them, then how could they possibly, in all conscience, have just gone home for the night? To do that to another human being!
He prised free his hands, let his pedalling legs take the weight of him, then pushed out, irrevocably, kicking and chopping down with fast motions his arms, until the blood flamed in the muscle. He spat out salt water, raised a wet hand to wipe a wet eye. Now on, press on.
The ferry coming back, settling into port, his brother trying to calm him with an arm around his shoulder. The thought of that rogue missive floating free on the skin of this globe, those lies he had written. He could not even explain why he was upset, because this would involve a confession of those same lies, and they must remain forever secret, so secret that even now, more than a decade from that day, he could not remember what his note had said. The secret had lived in him, or the need for keeping that secret, so that as the child’s years fell away to the adult moments, always that need for secrecy remained. It became habit, didn’t it? I keep secrets from others, and I keep them from myself.
Seals, he thought as he swam. Dolphins. In this kind of situation they swoop up from the deep and rescue the stricken swimmer, they save him, they know … But I would go berserk.
Letting go of the buoy had been the worst mistake, the worst after getting in the water in the first place. His arms were like iron rods, legs now the weight that would drag him under. Who would think water could be so cold! No sun reaches in more than a foot beneath its surface. Its reaches are fathomless, fathomless.
Nothing to do but keep going forward. In life as in this, just press on, head down and keep going.
He was on the last breath of hope, reaching out for the understanding that he would never reach those islands in the bay, when his first foot scraped on the downward pedal against a bar of sand bank. It was like he had stumbled in the water, and put out his two hands flat to break his fall. He found a breakneck energy and pummelled the water until he had dragged himself up a forgivingly shallow spur of land, a shelf extended from the island to scoop up the weary swimmer.
He took up fistfuls of sand and pebble and scattered them away and blundered over onto his side. Not breathlessness but a weary kind of grief, a mourning of what might have happened to him. He lay half naked and the earth wouldn’t let him go. He watched, and let the tapestry above disarrange itself into grey thread and silver buttons, then a rope of white cloud unspooled and twisted gently away into nothing, on the other side the white moon’s orb peering like Kilroy over a cumulous bank. Lungs like parcels of crepe paper, every breath with an eternity to travel. The sand beneath, on his bare back, like a brace of needles.
The boat would be here for him soon. He would listen for its engines approaching. The girls would not have let him down, and they would have put the call out for his rescue. Just rest, soft, here for a while until the breath returns, the muscle’s blood warm again, and the boat will be here to take you back. He breathed out and sat up very slowly, and looked to the tubes of water that unrolled across the shore, the frothing rock pools, expecting to see there the glint of a glass bottle passed up and disgorged by the sea.