From the short story “The lifesaver”
There was nothing I could do. It was a terrible feeling. I was going to go where this water wanted to take me, even if that was to the bottom of the sea. I was quickly past the breakers but the swell was still large and mostly all I could see was the crests of the waves swirling around me. All my energy was taken up in trying to gasp for air in between the churning waves. Most of the time I swallowed salt water. My stomach felt so heavy I thought that if the current let me go I would sink straight to the bottom. The north rocks passed me on the left. I had a last glimpse of the beach. It was whole and perfect in my eye, like you might see it on a postcard. Then in the space of one passing wave it was wrenched from sight. In front of me stretched the open sea.
Just as suddenly as the rip had clutched me it let me go. It spat me out like a pip. The current no longer held me up. I started to sink and realised that I now had to move to stay afloat. I treaded water for a moment and tried to get my bearings. It seemed that I’d only been in the rip a matter of seconds but I’d been carried so far. I felt like a tiny drop in the ocean. The headland towered into the sky behind me. The spray lifted high in the air as the waves crashed against the huge rocks at its base. The rocks seemed to rise like giants out of the water. A heavy swell was slowly drawing me towards them. Not the rocks I thought desperately. I’d rather drown than be smashed against the rocks.
I couldn’t stay where I was. The lifesavers might be looking for me but I couldn’t take the risk that they would reach me in time. The beach was well out of my line of sight but across a huge expanse of water I could see the south rocks. I couldn’t swim the way I had come because the rip would just grab me again. I had to strike out directly across the water to the south and then swim in. It was my only chance.
I swam with my head down, closing my eyes so they didn’t sting with the salt water. Every few moments I had to stop for breath. I was so tired I could hardly stay afloat let alone swim. I had eaten too many sandwiches and swallowed too much salt water. I felt sluggish and heavy. I swam as hard as I could against the current but it was hopeless. The pull towards the rocks was too strong. If the lifesavers didn’t reach me soon I wouldn’t be able to save myself. I looked down at the water beneath my feet. It was so dark it looked black. I couldn’t see my legs at all. I felt sudden terror at the thought of the endless depths beneath me. If I sank to the bottom here I’d never be found. Panic started to rise in me and I desperately tried to clamp it down. The swell was growing stronger and I knew that the rocks were only minutes away. Where were the lifesavers? I couldn’t even hear the engine of the boat. They were probably trying to rescue my father. I was on my own.
There was a sudden flash of movement at my feet and the water became a shock of cold. I’d often felt cold currents swimming but at this depth I didn’t know what it might mean. It might be an underwater rip. It might pull me down but not bring me back to the surface. The flash of movement came again but this time something cold and smooth touched my toes. I frantically snatched my foot away and looked all around me in the water. I couldn’t see a thing. I thought I must have imagined that cold smoothness but then something moved in the water behind me. I spun around to look. A long, grey shape slowly glided past and disappeared into the dark water.
It could be a dolphin, I thought desperately but I knew in my heart it was a shark. Dolphins splash and play in the water, they don’t silently glide. It had disappeared from sight but I knew it wouldn’t be far. There was no point in trying to swim away. My swimming was probably what had attracted it to me in the first place. I was suddenly worried about my legs dangling in the water and so I stretched out and floated on my back. I looked at the sky. I could just imagine the grey shape moving underneath me. Slowly circling. The black fin cutting through the waves. I tried to remember everything Trina has told me about sharks. They can’t see very well. They are attracted by vibrations and smell. They very rarely attack people. If you don’t do anything to interest them they will go away. I could only hope that she was right.
I felt the flash of movement again, this time to my side. I knew it would be better not to look but I couldn’t help myself. I don’t understand how it is possible to be so scared and still be alive. If I had stretched my hand across I could have touched it as it slowly glided past. Smooth and silent. An endless, grey expanse. I’d never realised that sharks were so big, so much bigger than me. I begged God to let me die of heart failure. I’d rather anything than be attacked by a shark. Even being smashed into a million pieces against the rocks. The shark disappeared from sight on one side and then loomed into view on the other. Its head drew level with mine. One eye slowly passed, unblinking as it studied me. I looked right into the eye of the shark. I felt like my heart was going to stop. I could hardly breathe.
Yet even in my panic I could see that there was something strange about this shark. There was something very odd in the way it was looking at me. Perhaps it didn’t know what I was. It circled again and glided up the other side. Once again it looked at me. It regarded me with what seemed to be interest. Intelligent interest. I could almost see expression in its eye. Human expression. Then just as it was about to pass out of my line of sight the eye very slowly winked.
I think Gran knew she was going to die. That’s why she gave me the locket. Last Wednesday after school I was sitting with her in the sun room. She kept nodding asleep in her chair in the sun. I was doing my homework on the little table near her. All I could really do was sit with her. We couldn’t play Snap like we used to. We couldn’t even talk.
Somehow after her stroke it seemed that her mind didn’t work in straight lines anymore. At first I tried to talk with her. She would fix me with her bright eyes and desperately watch my face as though she might be able to see the words in the air between us, like little birds flying from my mouth. I would tell her about what I was doing and what I wanted to do. I would even tell her secret, private things that I’d never tell anyone else. I know she understood. I don’t care what anyone else says. When she nodded and her bright blue eyes smiled at me I knew that she understood.
Then she would try to talk back to me. She would rock and slap her knees trying to form the word she wanted but the only sounds she could make were grunts and strange noises, almost like a baby. Sometimes I might give her a pen and notebook and she would try to write the word she wanted to say. But try as hard as she could, all she could manage was strange symbols and spidery swirls. Sometimes she would just laugh but other times she would push everything away from her in frustration and close up, like a book.
When Dad came in with her afternoon glass of milk she tried to take the locket off. Dad helped her undo the clasp around her neck and placed it in her hands. The locket is gold and hangs from a delicate gold chain. Gran was trying to open it but her hands were shaking too much so Dad leant over the back of her chair and clipped it open for her.
” Look at this Ellen,” he said to me. “There’s a picture of you in here.”
I stood up and looked at the locket. On one side there was a picture of Grandad who died some time ago and then in the other side there was a picture of me.
” When did you put that in there Mum?” Dad asked Gran but she couldn’t answer and instead closed the locket and passed it to me.
” Put it back on her Ellen,” Dad said.
I tried to place it around Gran’s neck again but she shook her head and pushed me away. She tried to speak but could only make mumbled sounds and nonsense words. Dad suggested that she might just want to hold it, so I placed it in her hands. Gran shook her head and passed it straight back to me.
” I think she wants you to have it,” Dad told me.
Gran nodded and smiled at me.
” I don’t think I should,” I said.
I clasped my hands behind my back. I didn’t want to reach out and take it. It was Gran’s locket. Somehow it didn’t seem right to take it off her. It was almost like a part of her. Gran became agitated and stretched towards me with the locket.
” It’s all right,” Dad told me. “She wants you to have it. Take it Ellen, it’s what she wants.”
I walked over to Gran and she placed the locket in my hands. Then she held my hands in hers and nodded her head. She smiled at me with her eyes. That night as I fell asleep I could feel the cool gold of the locket against my skin. I thought it was the most precious thing I had ever been given. Gran died early that morning, in her sleep. She was seventy-nine.
The minute I walked into the stable I knew something was wrong. It was the smell. In time I learnt it was the smell of rotting flesh but at that moment all I knew was that something was wrong. I was a fool. In all the time since the fighting had begun I had learnt nothing. I could have been killed. I should have run back to the house for the rifle but like a fool I walked straight in. It was just on dusk and the stable was in shadow. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dark. There was a shuffling movement in the far corner. I snapped my head around and saw the boy slumped down next to the feed bags. In his hand was a pistol that was pointed directly at my chest.
I dared not speak. The silence between us was so tense that I feared to speak might shock him into shooting. It seemed that we stared at each other for an eternity. Our eyes locked in a silent battle. I tried to will him with my eyes not to shoot. He was only a boy, not much older than me. There was no need for either of us to die. I would never turn him in, no matter what he might have done. Yet there was no way for him to know that.
His hand was shaking so badly that he couldn’t hold the pistol steady. He raised his other hand for support but that hand also began to shake. His right leg was injured and stretched out in front of him. He bent his left leg and tried to shift his weight onto his left side so he could stand. He struggled hopelessly against his injury. Even though the pistol was wavering in his hands, his eyes were locked on mine, watching my every movement. I wasn’t going to make a run for it. Even though he was just a young boy he was also a soldier and I could be sure that he knew how to shoot. All I could do was will him not to kill me. I had to make him understand that he need not fear me.
With a sudden jerking movement he dropped his supporting hand and clutched his leg above the knee. He was obviously in pain. The gun was now wavering in all directions. He could hardly hold his arm up. The instant he dropped his eyes from mine I knew that he wasn’t going to shoot. His face crumpled in pain and he just seemed to collapse. He dropped the hand holding the gun and slumped his head forward with a sob.
I almost collapsed with relief. I breathed in deeply as though I had been running hard. I started to tremble all over. My heart was pounding. All the fear I had been holding back seemed to hit me at once. Had I just looked death in the face? Had I been brave? Did I do the right thing? Should I have run? Should I have tried to overpower him? Strangely enough I had never felt more alive than at that moment. I was frightened but also excited. Is it only at the moment of death that we know what it is to be alive? I wondered if that was what my father feels. Is that what all the soldiers feel?