I lunge towards the wood panel at the water’s edge, eyes half closed. The tips of my fingers skid downwards off its slippery surface.
I am falling, falling in slow motion away from the light.
The waters have closed in above me. One moment longer and all the air will be expelled from the depths of my lungs. There is nothing to hold on to, nothing to grip. My mind is a blank. I can almost taste the salt of that dense grave at the back of my throat. Such peace…
And then sound breaks through.
As if in a dream, the muffled laughter of a child reaches down towards me. My body convulses. My limbs contort. In one final struggle I thrust towards the surface. It’s just there. Just above me. So close.
I grasp around for anything that might anchor me into life. At last my roving hand takes hold of something. Unsure of what it is, I grab at it. My fingers slip, yet now I know there is something to hold on to and I clutch at it again. A film obscures my vision. My eyes sting, but I keep them open. A ruthless hill shoves my shoulder aside, pushing me down. Water rushes into my mouth, down my throat and into my lungs. I want to scream, but cannot.
It is over. The light flickers for a moment and goes out.
Suddenly, a hand stretches down towards me and I can feel the strength of its fingers tightening around the scruff of my neck pulling, dragging, propelling my weakling of a body outward. The sun hits me full in the face. A rush of air pushes inwardly to replace the saltiness of the water within.
My body seems at first to draw back from the dazzle of it. Chocking, gasping for air, I hold onto the shoulders of my saviour. At last I can inhale freely. I let the sweetness of the air tickle my nostrils and take it in deeply, feeling my lungs expand gluttonous for life.
That evening the camp was buzzing with the story of the child who had almost drowned. Our head teacher gave a speech about the importance of safety on the lake. She tried to imprint on our minds how easily something like that can happen to any of us. She did not point in my direction or mention my name and I realised that no one knew that the child they were all talking about was me. How strange, I thought, that she should not know.
The man, to whom I owed my life, had chided me for getting into the lake. I had scared him half to death, he had said. I had nearly drowned his daughter too. What was I thinking? Pulling her by the foot like that?
I tried to tell him how sorry I was, that I did not realise I was dragging anyone down, that I had panicked and was just trying to reach the surface. The words came out senselessly, disconnected. I was too full of what had just happened to be able to order my thoughts. Or perhaps I was too empty, hollowed of words.
There was a wooden staircase dipping into the water at the end of a timber platform. It was there that he left me after making sure that I was out of danger, and returned to his own child. It was one of many such staircases surrounding the north bank of the lake. The stairs led to the platform and the platform extended to other flights of stairs that led to changing rooms and little cafes, cabins and games rooms. To a child it looked like a miniature wooden city swarming with life, so much of it green and brown, an outgrowth of the lake itself.
There were several swimming pools at the edge of those platforms too, dotted around, usually near the stairs that plunged into the lake. The pools catered for beginners, those who could not swim well or were too young to be trusted to the vastness of the lake without supervision. They had gated walls, a few inches above the surface of the water, and wooden bottoms that sloped so that the furthest end was at least five foot deep. I was one of those beginners that could not swim at all.
The water was pleasant and warm. I looked about me at my schoolmates. Some of them had been swimming for years and you could see it in their eager faces that they craved to be out of bounds. During that first day however none of us were allowed to venture beyond the swimming pool.
We flapped about under the watchful eyes of the teachers. Later they would evaluate our skill level and determine which of our number were good enough to be allowed in the lake. Three of the boys raced each other from one end of the pool to the other. I admired their agility and quickness and tried to imitate the movement of their arms and legs, battering the water with all the strength I could muster. At times it worked and my body was propelled forwards. At other times it didn’t. One of the teachers gave me a few pointers. Relax, she said. It’s important to find a rhythm that does not tire you out. Think of a slow song and carve the water to its beat.
The saltiness of the water helped me float so that in a matter of hours I could swim nonstop to the end of the pool where the water was too deep for my feet to reach the bottom. I would swim to the water’s edge and when the wooden pole was within an arm’s length I would raise my hands up and hold on to it.
Once I had rested for a little while, I fixed both of my feet onto it and propelled my body into the opposite direction, my arms working in synchrony to get me to the other end. After a few laps I no longer needed to rest when I reached the deep end. I could just turn around and swim back. It was such joy, whittling a pathway through the water: forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards.
By the end of the third morning I could do ten laps uninterrupted. The three boys had been allowed into the lake and they came back to join us for lunch, pink and happy, smug at having reached the red-white buoys just visible in the distance. We surrounded them in an instant, asking questions, listening to their every word. The redhead had won the race, but the others were basking in the glory of the pursuit. It had been a close one. They declared that they would have a re-race after lunch.
It is difficult to say what had determined me to follow them. I had loved the tale of the chase. The thrill of it! The very thought of it made my heartbeat quicken. Maybe it was the competitive demon in me. Perhaps I craved the recognition of my peers and a slice of their admiration. It may have been nothing more than a rash decision.
There was a time when I did not question why and whether I should or should not do something; I just did it. One thing was clear: I yearned to have my own stories of bravery to share, to prove that a girl could outswim the best of boys.
We leaped into the water one after another and off we whirled, like a pod of baby seals, towards the opposite shore. I didn’t have the strength or experience to stay ahead of the pack, but I was wilful enough to keep up with them. After a short while we reached the white-red buoys that marked the middle of the lake. We had been told in no uncertain terms that we are never to swim beyond them, so after a short break we turned around and swam back. If the first half of the expedition had been marked by the exhilaration of the hunt, nothing could be further from my mind on the return length.
I could not point a finger at the culprit, yet one thing was certain: someone had changed the lake. There was an unexpected solidity to its surface. It made me think of molten lead. Each breaststroke made me wince. I tried to adjust my breathing, but to no avail. It grew heavier under the strain of the exercise. As I soldiered on, the lake came alight. Its midday gleam blinded me so that I could no longer keep my eyes open. I had to go on regardless. I had no choice. Every now and then I would open my eyes to make sure that I continued on course and check how much further before I reached the timber pole that would allow me to rest awhile. At the last check my heart skipped a beat. Relief was within reach, only two or three paces away.
One. Two. Three. Eyes half-closed I dove towards it, and…
I watched my rescuer swim away, but could not yet muster the strength to move from the spot where he had left me. I sat on the step for a moment breathing in and out. My body was shaking slightly, but the enormity of it all had not registered just yet.
My mind processed every moment as if they were entirely separate from one another. That was the moment to sit and breathe. The next was the moment to go and get a cup of warm cocoa. As I got up on to my feet and turned to leave I bumped into my head teacher. She had come over to see whether I was alright and whether I needed any help. “That’s alright, thank you,” came the mumbled reply and then I passed by her quickly towards the changing rooms.
I did not fancy another scolding just yet. She could not have known that the shrivelled, bluish thing before her was one of her wards. I had not been more than a minute or two out of the water at that point.
Thinking back on it that evening, I remembered how altered I had looked, how little like myself had been the image I spied in the restroom mirror afterwards.
It had been a lucky escape. Had she recognised me, I would have been banned from joining my classmates the following day. Of course, this would not have been the half of it. My parents would have grounded me for life directly on my return home.
The thought made me laugh out loud. Having been threatened with death so often for minor misdemeanours in the past, perhaps it was unsurprising that avoiding punishment seemed like something worth worrying about.
So it was decided. The identity of the near-drowned child would remain forever a secret.