Drowned Rat

I’m sitting in the sick bay at the surf life saving club. My nephew, Isaac, has a headache and a sore tummy, so I brought him here to rest in the cool and the shade. He has fallen asleep on a thin mattress in the corner and I’m sitting beside him in one of those flimsy white plastic chairs. I left my crochet back in the car, I’ve finished my book, and I no longer have a phone.

All I have is a pen and paper.

So I sit and I write and I watch Isaac sleep. The gentle rise and fall of his chest, the slight flutter of his eyelashes when he exhales, the tracks of dried tears on his cheeks.

The lifeguard comes down and pokes his head around the door. Tall, fly-away blonde hair, eyes the colour of Bobbie’s new blue studs. I remember Liam once asking if Lifeguards had to pass a good-looking test before they could qualify. I remember how I laughed and said yes. Yes they do.

“Can I make you a cup of tea?” the lifeguard whispers.

And just like that, I feel the walls of my heart cave in. Small kindnesses are the worst. Small kindnesses split a person in two.

I hear him put the kettle on to boil in the next room. Stirring the cup. A drop of milk, a clatter of spoon-in-sink.

When he hands me the cup he says “careful, it’s hot,” and then smiles in a way that makes me think of his Mum and how proud she’d be of her boy right now, the same one who could never get out of bed in the morning or pick his washing up off the floor, and left dirty plates in the sink and didn’t thank her that time she drove out to pick him and all his mates up from a party in the middle of the night, and who sometimes looked right through her as though she wasn’t even there, and now that same boy is offering the middle aged woman with the sad eyes a hot cup of tea as she keeps vigil beside the bed of her own sleeping boy.

And I think: I can do this. A million women have done it before me. I am not special. I am ordinary in the most unspectacular way.

Isaac stirs, opens his eyes.

I wipe away my tears and say “sometimes mothers cry.” Part explanation, part apology.

He nods as if to say: I know.

When he feels better, we head down to the beach to join the others. Ours is but another multi-coloured umbrella in a sea of umbrellas. There are no surfers today, just families and tourists. There’ve been no decent swells all summer. The surf has laid calm against the ocean floor day after day, week after week. The lifeguards sit between the flapping red and yellow flags looking bored. No-one to save around here.

Into the water to swim.

When I was little, I never used to feel the cold. Daddy – that’s what I used to call him even though he was technically only my step-father – would carry me out through the crashing waves on his back. His shoulders were big and wide and brown. The icy waves would slosh around us but I felt only the warmth of his body. He was an Island, a slippery rock to which I clung like a tiny limpet. Once we were out in the deep, well over my head, he’d dive under the waves and loosen me from his back, leaving me treading water frantically and screaming for him to come back. It was a game. A fucking shitty one.

“Never turn your back on a wave,” he’d instruct me as I was pummelled from behind by frothy spumes. Underwater I’d choke and gag until eventually, out of nowhere, big arms would reach down and lift me up, spluttering towards the light.

He’d smile, call me a drowned rat, then let me crawl back onto his shoulders and wrap my arms around him. Hold on, I’d tell myself. Don’t let him go this time.

Today I put on a wetsuit because these days all I seem to feel is the cold. 6mm of extra rubber flesh in an attempt to keep out the chill. Malcolm offered me the surf board and I took it, waves being the perfect size for a beginner. A few summers ago we bought a long-board and traveled up and down the coast learning to surf. We used to argue over who’s turn it was, spending hours watching the horizon and waiting, arms a constant dull-ache from paddling.

Today, the surfboard looked like the lid of a coffin.

I caught one wave and bailed. The next I was thrown off.

The third I felt the nose of the board dip under and I knew I was going to roll. The fall is never as bad as the knowledge you’re about to fall. That split second when you understand that you will go under and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. It’s the inevitability that’s crushing.

When I came up Malcolm was smiling, encouraging. “Have another go!”

But I was already tearing at the ankle strap.

“What’s wrong?” he said, as I hopped around on one foot.

“I don’t want to surf anymore.”

“Why not? You used to love it!”

I looked at him, knew that he couldn’t tell the salt water from the tears. “I’m scared of falling.”

“Oh hon,” he said. “Falling isn’t that bad. You’ve just got to stay under long enough til the wave’s passed over you.”

But I wasn’t listening. I was pulling and pulling at the fucking ankle strap. I couldn’t get it off. I felt the weight of the board and the tug of the rope and the oppressive energy of the entire ocean pulling me down and still I could not free myself.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a wave. A perfect arc, curving grey-blue behind my head. I went down, eyes filling with water, salt raking lines in my throat. And the whole time I tumbled I could hear Trevor’s voice ringing in my ears. Never turn your back on a wave.

He was such an asshole.

I wish I hadn’t loved him so much.