'The Depth of Water' by student Sarah Grant was developed in Develop a Writing Project in 2021.
His first strokes are stoked by anger. He cuts the paddle deep into the blackness beside the kayak, pulls it towards him, then the lift, shift of weight through the hips, and the clean dip of the blade in the other side. He paddles until he feels the ache in his shoulders and his breath is a stream of vapour behind him and his thighs are shaking between strokes. Then he lets it glide. It’s still more night than morning. The street lights string along the foreshore and out to sea. A light mist lies on the water. He breathes in the silence and mist. This: the quiet, the hot ache in his muscles and lungs, the soft water beneath him, rocking. This is why he comes out here. To remember he is alive. To remember he could die. This is what she doesn’t understand.
He dips one hand into the cold water. Thinks of the depths below, spreading endlessly away from him. The water is dark and it hides many things. His wife is afraid. When she was in her twenties she came so close to death it smelled her. Pricked its ears, turned its face to her. Angela says it’s not something your body ever forgets: that it can die. She resents these occasional morning kayaks. He gets eye rolls and non-committal shrugs when he checks it’s okay if he goes, silences when he returns. Last night as they got ready for bed, he’d tried to explain to her why he came out here, how it woke him up. She’d turned to him, lip curled. “I don’t need a kayak and the cold to tell me I’m going to die.’ She looked away from him. ‘You’re just reaching for your youth.’
He digs the blade into the water to turn and begin the paddle home.
That morning, she had woken with his pre-dawn alarm. The anger was still there, as easy to reach for as the doona she pulled up to her chest, and satisfyingly bolstered by the hours of sleep now lost because of his alarm. He lay there, eyes shut, in the same position as when he had banged the snooze button, grabbing a few more minutes. Lucky him. She flipped back the covers sharply. Stood up and walked over to the chest of drawers, yanked open a drawer so that the perfume bottles on top rattled. He groaned. Without opening his eyes, he said, ‘Just say it, say no and be done with it rather than all this resentment.’ She turned back to him, fury gloriously kindled: ‘Don’t fucking tell me I don’t get to resent it. You get to fuck off and paddle your kayak and feel alive and think about death like it’s something beautiful.’ She shoved the drawer shut. ‘I’m here making breakfast and getting the kids dressed and thinking what the fuck there is in the fridge for lunches. You get to go because I’m here, the reliable default, always fucking here. If I want to go anywhere, I have to make arrangements and ask permission and be grateful.’ She opened the drawer again. ‘So yes, I get to resent it,’ she threw at the neatly folded shirts.
There was truth in all those things and the rush of justification left her heady. But there was fear also. Because the water in the dark before dawn was black and deep and moved endlessly beneath you. People died on the ocean. Accidents happened. It took only one small thing, something unexpected, for that veil of safety to flutter down and then you were in the dark, alone, too far to swim to shore and no one there to help you.
She got back into bed after he left. She knew she’d been trying to hurt him. Recognised that urge to land a blow, to know she’d passed a shadow of the ache within her on to him. She didn’t really mind the kayaking. He needed it. He came back more vital, with more energy for the kids and for her, renewed somehow. It was the fear. Since she’d had kids it had got worse. And now, with him going out onto the water…she couldn’t keep it under control. It was spilling out in how she talked to him, in the jabs and vicious little daggers she was throwing in arguments. ‘Come with me,’ he’d offered, and she’d sneered.
Sometimes, getting their four-year-old out of the car, she’d imagine another car crashing into them, crushing her daughter. These thoughts of disaster ambushed her all the time. Cars swerving off the road and hitting the girls as they rode their bikes on the footpath, happily oblivious. Trees falling on them when the wind was high. Finding them floating, pale and waterlogged on the beach. Threats she had to talk herself down from, try to wind her body back from the adrenaline spike that came with them. Mostly, she let the girls go and play anyway while she bit the skin around her fingernails until they bled. But now, this: Ben on the water, in the dark. It was too much. She could still see blonde hair, waving gently in the blackness, like bleached seaweed. She shut her eyes and shook her head to dislodge the image. That was fifteen years ago.
Fifteen years ago, she was twenty-two. Backpacking around Thailand by herself over her university summer holidays. Fifteen years ago, she was in a small motorboat in the dark just before dawn with five other tourists and two local guides, bumping their way through cold spray to a local scuba diving spot at a small, uninhabited volcanic island. The sun rose molten gold and fiery red as they churned through the water. The plan was to arrive at the site early, do the guided dive, snorkel, have morning tea at the island’s beach then be back at the resort in time for lunch. Except it didn’t happen that way.
She was partnered with a Swedish girl, Astrid, about her age. Tall, pale-skinned and blonde in the iconic Swedish way. She wore glasses, usually. Diving, she wore prescription goggles. That was about all she knew of her. In the few sentences they shared over the roar of the boat’s motor, Astrid mentioned a swim-through she’d heard of at the site – a short tunnel, open at both ends. The boat anchored at the island about thirty metres out from the steep limestone cliffs, disturbing a few nesting gulls from their roosts in the rocky outcrops to screech and circle the boat. From this approach, the island was a dark edifice looming over them, scattered with weathered shrubs and white gull droppings. The guide assured them that a few hundred metres further around, the cliffs gave way to the gentle incline and small, white-sand, pristine beach shown on the brochures. They listened to the guide’s spiel, checked each other’s equipment, shivered theatrically at the cold as they dipped their feet in, then dropped over the side. They kicked down to about eighteen metres and soon lost sight of the guide as the group spread out.
The dive was fairly typical: schools of curious rabbitfish, following a leatherback turtle, pointing out a camouflaged octopus and coral formations to each other. Then Astrid motioned towards a dark hole in the rocky foundations of the island, gave the thumbs up signal and, without waiting for reply, disappeared inside it. That’s when Angela knew she had one of those partners: the risky ones, ones who think the buddy system is an annoyance to escape from.
She watched a minute, hoping Astrid would emerge. Nothing. She kicked over to the entrance and swam a short way in. Visibility went to zero and the water was black and impenetrable. She didn’t know much about cavern diving, but she knew enough not to fin kick, pushing water downwards and stirring up the silt as Astrid must have done. She speared a glance behind as her breath hitched. She could still make out the entrance as a slightly lighter glow. If she went any further, she mightn’t find her way back out. None of them carried a torch.
She waited, slowing her breathing as she’d been taught, conserving air, waiting for the silt to settle. She checked her regulator: she was getting low. Astrid was a fucking maniac. They’d been diving probably twenty minutes, they might have less than five minutes of air left to get back up. She could feel the resistance now as she sucked air from the device. It set off a low ripple in her gut. She felt the tack tack tack of her heart beat. Panic and you use up your air quicker, she knew that. She’d heard of divers ripping their regulators out when the air got so low they had to suck hard to get any in. She debated heading back out to find help, but by the time she did that, Astrid would be out of air. She waited, holding herself still on a rocky outcrop.
As the silt slowly drifted down, the cave entrance became a light circle behind her. Maybe it was a swim through, and Astrid was already out the other side and fucking off back to the boat without her. She swam forward, carefully frog kicking to push the water sideways. She could feel the thumping of her heart in her fingertips, in her feet, could hear nothing but her breath sawing in her ears. Alone, in the dark, she couldn’t bring herself to go much further. Just a few tentative metres, white fingers gripping the rock wall, looking back to check the entrance with every kick. Then she saw it. Blonde hair drifting. Astrid’s regulator was out of her mouth, floating beside her. She swam to her, pressed the purge button on the regulator and shoved it back in her mouth. Nothing. She knew this picture. Every diver had imagined this scene before, but with themselves as the boneless, drifting one. She grabbed Astrid’s arm and pulled, working hard to suck air from the regulator, sobbing with fear and effort and revulsion at what she dragged behind her as she swam back to the cave entrance and tugged the inanimate weight to the surface.
The guide pulled Astrid out of the water, into the boat, and she climbed in after. He started resuscitation while Angela collapsed on the bottom, retching. She took her turns at resuscitation as they bumped sharply over waves, speeding back to the resort. Astrid was pale and cold and never moved and it felt like they were abusing a body, but in the hour it took to get back, they were all too afraid to be the one to say ‘stop’.
And there was the dark water she hid from. She lay in bed, trembling even now in her pyjamas, heart flickering as she remembered desperately trying to resuscitate a cold, wet body.
When he got home from work that night, she told him she wanted to come with him next time. She hadn’t been on a boat or taken her feet off the sand to swim in the ocean in fifteen years. She was so sick of the fear and fascination, and the water was where it all rested.
Angela sat, just a few metres beyond the end of the jetty. Felt the vastness below. The thin hull of the kayak floating her on top of it all. Breathed. Breathed. She dipped her hand into the cold blackness, swept it under, up to her elbow. The water was deep as the depth of fear and as black and unknowable. She looked to where Ben stood on the beach, waiting, watching. Four sand plovers skittered along the water line, weaving around each other. Behind her, the sun tipped the horizon, and the low clouds glowed molten gold and fiery red.