The wet blanket

I’m sitting in someone else’s home. A beautiful house by the sea. Watching the pastels of the sunrise over an ocean that’s beguilingly calm.

Yesterday, in the evening light, my husband and three not-so-little ones, ran down to the beach with our lolloping golden dog. The gangly limbs of them all. Their grins and voices rising.

I tried to follow and said I would as they ran ahead. But the old wooden door here wouldn’t close. I rattled and jiggled it pointlessly. Eventually I sent a sad message that I couldn’t join them. But they wouldn’t be gone for long.

When they came laughing back with sandy everythings I had the bath already run. Their bedrooms dimly lit and books ready. All seemed well.

They tumbled in having stripped off sandy clothes in piles on the verandah. They were strutting, drenched and delirious. My daughter puffed her chest proudly: “We were crashed by the waves. It was awesome!”

I felt the tightest hand grip my chest and asked my husband “Did they swim between the flags?”

They weren’t swimming, they were playing. Splashing by the edges and letting the waves chase their scampering feet. The dog was delighted and they were too. It was all that Summer holidays should be. A memory moment.

But shamefully, I couldn’t.

We had agreed to between the flags only. Having been floored by headlines of devastating drownings, I had considered cancelling our beach escape. There was just too much risk, too many ways to die. I was haunted by images of the children’s backs, faces down, floating. Or their dark bodies sinking and me swimming down…

So we’d worked out a way it might work. Between the flags only. No matter what. And now, this first foray into the sea had not stuck to my watertight wishes. My tightest strangling request.

They weren’t swimming, they were playing. They were having so much fun.

But my teetering mind can’t quite get a grip on it. Can’t quite hold to rationality and discretion and keeping things in perspective. It’s not you I don’t trust…

I have never found water benign. I shuddered as a child at “still waters run deep” with its brooding sense of lurking. I shrieked as slippery somethings brushed my treading water legs. I was stunned by the brutal disregard of my first ocean dumping. My body slamming into sand. My mouth, eyes, hair full of it. And having no idea how to read this swelling mass.

I’d scour pictures and articles of “how to pick a rip” and what to do. Even before leaving for this latest trip, I had another look. But it remains a murky mystery, a place of no apparent pattern. I keep looking but can’t see.

A main aim of my parenting is to keep the kids from drowning. The media reminds me each Summer how perilous this will be. I am floored with grief for those families who suffer each year. Their bodies tiny against that vastness, waiting, watching by the shoreline. Or poolside stunned.

Reports, again, with no patterns. Many times it’s visitors unfamiliar with the tricky deep who wash away. Or children, not yet equipped, are taken. But then sometimes the sea swallows those who know its waters well. Surfers, long term swimmers, ocean dwellers. I am stymied by this sorrow and the seeming randomness.

This is what water can do. It can fill a backyard pool. Chlorinated cool on a western Summer’s day. Clean. Bright. A blazing blue sky.

A harried mother accepts an offer for babysitting of a sort. She delivers her oldest two and takes the baby with her. Just a short time to run a few quick errands. Her friend has two of her own, girls already in their swimmers and calling the oldest in. “Come and play synchronized swimming”. The three of them laugh and do handstands in the shallow end. The visiting girl tries a backward somersault or two and feels the water fill her nose. There are choreographed routines and much bossiness. The girl’s little brother pushes his toy truck and makes his toy truck sounds.

The girl is facing the kitchen window, where the sink looks out on the garden. She can’t see her friend’s mother, but she knows she’s there, watching them and washing up. She does a glorious backflip and thinks of seals and flippers, mermaids and ballet underwater.

When she stands up to start another handstand she is startled by a strange and loud voice. It speaks in stereo, in both ears and all around and through her all at once. The depth of it too – a richness she has never heard before – more sound than accent. She hears it as organ chords calling. Symphonic speech. The word-sounds repeat: “Turn around.” “What? Huh?” And this time with the utmost insistence – the utter impossibility of resisting. The ultimate command: “TURN AROUND.”

She does. She must. She can’t but not.

And where is her brother anyway?

She looks to the pool’s edge where he had been pushing that truck. She can’t see him and is confused for an elongated second.

Then turns to the deep.

She swims, thrashes her way to it and dives down. Pulls her brother under his shoulders, his silvery wide eyed face. The truck. Grabs him and pushes him up and up. Then somehow gets to the side, his waterlogged clothes dragging. Shoves him on to the tiles and feels the blood leave her body.

The girls have screamed for their mother and she rushes out all eighties hair and panic. They run to her beautiful brother. Lying on his side. Silent.

But breathing.