‘It will let me go soon…Just a little longer.’ I flew across the sea bed, the shingle becoming my skin and bubbles coating my eyes. The surface gleamed deceptively bright above me, but daylight was too far away. The salt rushed in past lips pressed white, shrivelling my sluggish tongue. There wasn’t any more time. My chest ached. My thoughts became water, slipping in and out. The beach did not come. I closed my eyes.
The Cornish coast had lodged itself in my head like a rusty hook. I felt drawn to the place although I’d never been because my great grandparents’ post-war love story was rooted there, along with my softly lilting surname. It was romantic, a place where people were birds and everyone was ‘andsome. Black-market stockings were left forgotten on benches by lovers, town hall dances were filled with sailors from distant ports, and runaway milk carts escaped down rolling hills.
My sister and I were eight when we visited. We were enchanted by stories of witches, smuggling pirates, daring fisherman and vengeful mermaids.There was an old castle that the sea claimed for half the day, dark wooden shacks filled with navy webs of nets strewn with shells like stars, cliff tops running with wild horses and quiet crawling rock-pools. I found treasure, collecting dried starfish, spotted cowrie shells and glass vials of rainbow sand. A mystic ring could even tell me what mood I was in just by wearing it. Golden pasties filled with steaming beef and thick yellow clotted cream. Wrinkling eyes and thick bouncing syllables that cooed in my ears.
The beach was a cove protected by tall cliffs and dashed with shards of black glistening rock. A splintered rope tempted visitors to clamber down, skidding in the dust towards a grainy beach. The waves wearily collapsed on the shore from their journey across the Atlantic, kicking up white jets that sprayed out in fans before them. We jumped over the rising crests and timed our launches so that the waves picked up our bodies and carried us to safety. My sister dived head first into the curled lip of a breaking wave just as the white froth descended on top of her. She resurfaced further out, spluttering the salt from her lungs before licking the briny taste of her lips.
The spell of the sea evaporated like mist as the water turned from emerald to grey. The sun abandoned us as the ocean held its breath, and the drum commanding the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves held a prolonged pause as we turned to face the horizon. An invisible mouth deep out in the Atlantic began to suck the shoreline back, ripping up the beach in loud seething inhalations. Small stones danced excitedly around bare feet, jumping up in a feverish ritual that sliced into shins. The water impatiently pushed through us to reach cooler depths, coaxing our ankles out with it in persuasive whispers. There was no time to escape. The sky shrank away as a towering wave surged towards us.
I remember two things vividly before it struck. The first was seeing another swimmer bob over the top of the wave, impossibly high in the air before disappearing behind it. The second was my mother instinctively grabbing my hand, and my sister’s on the other side. We turned back towards the beach and away from the monster that was about to consume us.
The shells and stones and pebbles scraped us as we were thrown down by the heavy descent of the wave. A layer of whirling water crushed above us and stopped us from surfacing. The three of us were propelled forwards in perfect symmetry. I prayed my sister was still attached to the other hand. My eyes stung but I kept them open, seeing streams of water and sediment rushing over me. The water held us forever in its salty sore embrace. The beach was no longer there to receive us.
The strength of the wave was finally overcome by a bank of sand in the shallows, and three gasping bodies were slung unceremoniously face down in the sand. I still dream of the sea swallowing me, but I am not afraid as I never take that underwater passage alone. There is always the warmth of another hand in mine.