Inspired by one of Grace Palmer’s prompts in her weekly creative writing class, The Joy Club member Elsa Browne writes this evocative short stories on a young woman and her relationship with the ocean…
My mother used to say she didn’t like getting wet, so I blame her. I think it might have had to do with her hairdo, that backcombed bouffant supported by almost an entire can of Elnett hairspray. Even our baths as children were so shallow that you had to splash around to wet all of your body.
I never learned to swim.
This wasn’t a problem until I became aware that my friends would run past me and cannonball into the deep end of the public swimming pool, their arms holding their knees in a tight hug, elated and exuberant. This was when I first became aware of my longing to also be able to immerse myself in water, move my arms in smooth arcs and strong strokes that propelled me to the far side of the pool.
The ocean was truly my nemesis. I tried standing in the shallows of the Indian Ocean once, the salty waves lapping around my ankles. This was safe, I could even scoop the water at my feet with my hands and splash my body and pretend that I had been deeper in. When a freak wave came and knocked me off my feet, I staggered out, blinded by the saltwater and terrified of the power that the waves held. I mean, they were called breakers.
I fell in love with a surfer when I was seventeen. He was kind and patient with me and would sit astride his board in the distance, at home in the deep water far beyond the swells and wave to me where I was working on my tan. We became lovers and when I was twenty I followed him to Scotland where he had signed up for a diving course. We rented a fisherman’s cottage in a coastal village not far from Edinburgh and one day he came back to the cottage waving tickets for a boat trip to the Isle of May. “You love puffins,” he said with glee, “and the island is full of them at the moment. They leave, almost as one, late in July, so we have to go now. I’ve booked for tomorrow.” The tickets read “Seabird Safari”. His big feet looked like flippers.
We left on the inflatable boat, with one other couple mad enough to go, in the most appalling weather early the next morning. Clad in heavy, oversized oilskins I felt ungainly and did my best to hide my terror. I found a seat in the middle of the boat and clung to the T-shaped aluminium bar in front of it, my icy hands not finding purchase on the damp metal. Exposed on the open vessel, I was uncaring about whether puffins were to be found anywhere on earth. When we left the safety of the harbour, the waves were higher than anything I had ever seen and loomed like gigantic, dark, shadowy mountains. And I was amongst them. I kept my head down. Fear overcame me and I had no choice but to surrender to it, clinging to the parting words of the Skipper as we headed out Just imagine you are a cork bobbing on the surface.
The sea was foreboding and the weather was grim. Occasionally, a small black torpedo shape would emerge from the mist and fly briefly alongside the boat before disappearing into the grey sky with a swoop. A puffin! Someone shouted. I barely glanced up. Another one! I dared to lift my head.
Then I heard a quiet voice: “I travelled to the Isle of May as a pilgrim and I will look after you. Here, take this shell, I carried it in my robe from where I came, to leave in a hidden place in the church there. You are safe with me.” The puffin flew in an arc over the boat and dropped a shell into the bright yellow lap of the oilskin I wore. It shone like a beacon in a slice of sunlight that broke through the gloom. I tentatively let go of the bar, surprised that my hands did not shake. I fumbled to pick up the shell and clasped it as tightly as my cold, stiff fingers would allow. As I held it, a deep peace – indeed, a warmth – came over me and I was no longer afraid.
I stood up in the boat to face the next wave as it breached in a tight circle, kicking up spray, to approach the landing on the Isle of May. The Skipper turned from the wheel, looking surprised. “You must sit down, now! This is going to be tricky, the sea is rough today.”
I stood taller and spoke loudly: I am a brave pilgrim. I have something I need to leave in the ruins of the Priory Chapel, underneath the lancet window on the West side.
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