Talking Under Water
She was surprised to see him that Saturday morning, but thinking about it later she knew she shouldn’t have been. It had been coming.
She was early, well before any other customers came to do their shopping. It was still dark, the morning light held back by the dark clouds of the storm. In the halo glow of streetlights squalls of gusty wind shifted and slanted the rain like the darting schools of tiny fish. Lightning lit the underbelly of the clouds. His palms, she thought. There was electricity in the air. It was her Saturday routine: get there early, avoid the busy crowds, especially the clusters of mocking, jeering school kids. A group of them would give loud exaggerated yawns, rub their eyes and laugh at what she was wearing. They had called her a dog, a mad bitch, and finally, when she refused to respond, a killer. That last one always hurt the most, though she knew it shouldn’t. Pretending not to hear them was always best. Algal blooms she called them. Not aloud, of course.
She would cruise the aisles of the supermarket, shark silent and alert, carrying her empty plastic bag. She could be different people when she was the solitary wanderer: the pregnant woman rubbing her tummy and planning dinner, the lover picking just the right card, preferably with some poetry on it, though it could never be the right sort of poetry. Sometimes, just sometimes, and then only very briefly, she could again be that person grabbing some coffee to make up for their thermos.
She came to get dog food; such variety to choose from, which was good because he would like that. She would flick her plastic bag open and think of all the little cans that could be filling it. Then walking out of the supermarket she would shift the bag from one hand to the other like she would do if the plastic handles were cutting into her fingers; her hands had been through enough.
Outside the supermarket the wind whipped the plastic bag about, first wrapping it against her leg, then filling it with air and sending it off like some startled squid. And standing there thinking of a little dog, concentrating so as to keep all else at bay, there must have been some dust and grit in the wind because her eyes started to run with tears. It was with this blurry vision that she saw him. There was another flash of lightning and in that frozen moment he was there, hair plastered to his head and water streaming down his oilskin jacket from the rain. Then he was gone. Into the water, she thought. Could not have been anyone else, just had to be him standing there holding out that book wrapped in plastic. Sure, his dog wasn’t with him, but maybe that was because it felt guilty that it had not warned them, had not yapped and barked to save them. When she got the chance she would tell his dog that it wasn’t his fault, that there was nothing he could have done. Yes, she would cuddle him and tell him this, not even worrying about the short white and brown hairs that would be left on her dressing gown.
Having seen him she would now take the long way home, down the side street with the second-hand bookshop, where she would always check the changing window display; you just never know. The other way, the short cut, would take her towards the harbour, past the wooden jetty with its thick planks of weathered grey that were warm against their bare legs when they had sat there watching the sun creeping into the ocean. And in those darkening evenings, as the chill crept in, she had still been warm. But going that way she would have to pass the small building of the research facility and the dry dock that held the wreck and she would have to stare at it, even if it was no longer there. Best to take the long way, especially after seeing him. Mustn’t push your luck.
However, there was that night when she did creep through the midnight dark of silent streets to get to the jetty. It was bitterly cold, but she felt none of it. Along the jetty she had walked, the gentle susurration of the water lapping the pylons lulling and telling her that it was an easy and quiet way to go. The water was icy and after the initial shock she knew she would painlessly slide away. She scanned the shoreline, wanted to be certain there was no one there to bear witness or attempt some clumsy intervention. She was about to step over the edge, about to go to him, when there was a movement, the slightest feeling of a movement, but enough to tell her that she should not do it. She turned around, retracing where she had been, but also thinking where she had to go. Now, looking back at that night, it all made sense; she wasn’t meant to do it, because he was out there, trying to get back.
It was only a small boat, barely adequate for the work it had to do. But the cabin, cramped as it was, made up for it. Each morning, fog sitting damp and moist around the jetty, cloistering them, they would set out to monitor the winter migration of humpbacks. Some coffee each from the thermos she always brought, then the rhythmic chugging of the diesel as they set out for the open sea, his Jack Russell like some figurehead leaning forward on the prow and barking at the mist and spray. Mid-morning and the fog had melted away and the sea was glass smooth and glinting in the warming sun. I need a coffee, she would say. Me too, he would reply. Leaving his dog, a sentinel that barked at anything that drew close to their boat, they would go below deck and into the cabin; a breach of official protocol, but it never entered into their thinking. Lying there after, never wanting to leave that cabin or that moment, he would reach for the tattered book of poetry he’d found in the second-hand bookshop and each time he would read two poems to her, always concluding with something from Donne, all poems she barely understood. But his voice and the burning clarity and truth of certain lines kept her rapt.
Such huge and powerful creatures. A breaching whale and their small boat is overturned and the water comes in so quickly and he is pinned, pinned against a diesel engine that should never have moved and there is blood clouding the clear blue water, and all that there is begins to darken as they are pulled under. He looks at her, holding her eyes for just a moment and forever, and indicates with frantic gesturing that she must escape, she must swim out of the opening to their cabin. She tugs at him, but he cannot be moved, tries to shift the engine, tearing her nails. He mouths some words and pushes her away and with lungs bursting she leaves him there.
A sightseeing charter boat had seen the sinking, and two of their crew dragged her out of the water. They wrapped her in an old blanket smelling of petrol, hiding a nakedness she gave no thought to. And the sea was again glass smooth and glinting in the warming sun.
People say how so-and-so could talk under water, supposed to be impossible. But it can be done, he did speak under water. And it echoes. She knew the three words that he said to her; it made things better and it made things worse.
She volunteered at the research facility every school holiday. She was a maths teacher, so four times a year she would arrive at the small coastal town. She was passionate about the environment, her one and only passion, until the volunteering. She’d been through a series of relationships, some disastrous, but most just fading away to colourless blandness, like the bleaching coral reefs she read about. It was the documentary Mission Blue that got her started; she had loved it, despite being with a fellow teacher who loudly crunched lollies and wanted to either talk to her or feel her up throughout. She read as widely as possible about all things to do with the natural marine world. The science baffled her, some books bored her, others told her nothing new, but like all newly addicted autodidacts she persevered.
She’d ordered a book online and when it arrived the padding was some pages from one of the weekend magazines. And there was the advertisement looking for volunteers. She held no hope that she would be accepted, wasn’t even sure if she should apply. But she did apply, and her world was changed. It seemed all too improbable to her, a lame narrative at the start of some light-hearted romantic comedy; it defied probability, wasn’t logical, but by the time of her first arrival at the research facility the maths teacher in her no longer held any sway.
She arrived late one afternoon. There was a weight of humidity in the air and it smelt of salt and change. Distant clouds, beautiful in their roiling darkness, promised a storm. She was shown into her cabin, a small wooden structure, one of several that lined the shore beside the jetty. The cabin was neat and comfortable and when the storm broke it creaked and groaned, melded sounds of agony and ecstasy. She thought a small wooden ship moving through the waves might sound like that and she wondered if her first night there might bring dreams of new journeys.
The storm was at its peak when she first saw him. He stood in the doorway to her cabin, frozen on the threshold, hair plastered to his head, water streaming down his oilskin jacket. A small dog, a Jack Russell, stood beside him. Only when the door was whipped out of his hand by a gust of wind did he attempt to say something, but it came out as a stutter or a mumble. He then reached inside his jacket and took out a paperback that was wrapped in clear plastic. He held the book towards her, shaking it and nodding his head as if it was this book that explained everything. He then left, leaving the door open.
He seemed to always have that book of poetry with him. Each time one of her stays at the research facility came to an end he would read her one of the poems, always the same poem. She could never tell her friends in the English faculty about that time he first appeared, or about the poetry; they would laugh and say she had been reading too much cheap romantic fiction, they’d find it childish, affected and saccharine. So, initially she told her friends very little about any of it, but eventually found herself telling them little bits and pieces. It was as if she could not contain what was happening, and in the pleasure of each telling she became more and more certain. By the time she came to show them photos she no longer cared that they fell silent in their surprise.
By the time their relationship had been going for just over a year he knew the poem off by heart, though, as if it were a necessary part of some benediction, he would always open the book to the double page where A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning was. Leaving, to go back to her teaching, became increasingly difficult, but each time his whispered reading of the poem, as if spreading some soothing, gentle balm, put her at ease. There would be no ‘tear floods, nor sigh-tempests’, they would have to move away from each other, but like ‘like gold to airy thinness beat’ never separated. Besides, they had plans. He couldn’t leave the area, too many deep ties, but she would leave her teaching and maybe they could buy a little farm, or run an oyster lease, or whatever, the details weren’t important, things would work out, she knew they would, in the end she just knew they would, had to.
Late afternoons, in the windless and quiet lull just before sunset, they would walk around the narrow bush tracks that followed the shoreline of the bay, the Jack Russell running ahead, barking at any movement. They would often stop on the narrow strip of land that jutted out into the bay. He would ignore the wooden seats that the local Lions Club had put there, preferring to sit on his haunches. He would fall silent, a silence of sadness as if he were visiting a grave, and stare at the midden. He went to a different place and at first she could not follow him; other walkers passing by were ignored and someone fishing in the nearby shallows called out his name, but got no reply. She thought he stared as if he were trying to peel back the layers of the midden, first removing the cigarette butts, the shattered glass of VB bottles, tangled fishing line, used condoms, until he was stripping away the decades, the centuries and millennia. Slowly, in snippets and single scenes, he told her what he was seeing, until she too could imagine their talking, their laughter, the sound of cracking shells and the circle glow and warmth of a fire they believed could keep away the dark. She had glimpsed a part of the world he lived in and she thought there just might be magic in it.
A few months after the sinking she started walking the shoreline tracks alone, always stopping at the midden, waiting and hoping. Often, she thought she could hear a rustle in the undergrowth, and sometimes the distant barking of the dog and she would smile, think of a poem and touch her belly. It was her, their love, that poem and her rounding belly that would bring him back.
She had been allowed to stay in her cabin, not indefinitely they said, but as long as you need. This was meant to comfort her, ease things, but it scared her, ‘not indefinitely’ scared her; she didn’t want any limitation, couldn’t bear to think of the finality of it ending, of all hope being severed. She was hanging on, but it was hard, so hard, and she didn’t want anything that might loosen her grip. And having seen him outside the supermarket, having heard the barking of his dog in the bush near the midden, meant she had to stay, she must be the ‘fixed foot’ for his return.
She never ventured too far, never away for longer than necessary: the supermarket early Saturday, the second-hand bookshop and the shoreline paths to the midden were her places. She would start each trip slowly, arming all hers senses, looking for the slightest sign. She would always hurry back, pushed by an urgent fear that she could be missing something back at the cabin. And in her cabin she would close her eyes and take a slow, deep breath, feeling for his presence; and there were those times that she was sure, absolutely positive, that there were signs. It was never anything too loud or obvious because she knew that would be ‘a profanation of our joys’. She would then stand in the middle of her room and let her dressing gown fall from her and onto the floor, a swirl soft nylon like the seaweed that drifted around his feet in the shallows near the midden. She would stand there naked, all the better to let her belly take in the memories, soak up his lingering aura. She liked it best if it was cold and the nipples on her breast would harden; she would cup her breasts and tell herself that they would do an excellent job.
Then there was that time, well after having seen him outside the supermarket, when she was coming past the bookshop that proved to her that she was most definitely right, that all others were wrong, but that she was absolutely right. Pre-sunrise, on her way to the supermarket, plastic bag in hand, when she looked in the bookshop window. And there it was, right in the centre of the display. It was his book, sitting there with the pages open to their poem, their John Donne poem. He must have annotated the poem, something she’d not noticed before, and the last two lines were highlighted in green marker pen, something he would never have done, unless he wanted to say something important, just as if he were holding her face, looking into her eyes and telling her ‘thy firmness makes my circle just, and makes me end where I begun.’ The book was a little larger than she had remembered, but memory can be wrong and the mind can play tricks.
She turned and ran back to her cabin, dropping her plastic bag as she ran. She could get another bag at any time, when she got a dog, Jack Russell of course, she could get another. In her room she let her dressing gown fall to the floor. It was then that she realised that the three words he had spoken to her under water were not the ones she had thought. Of course, he loved her, of course, but he was telling her, See you soon, he was saying, See you soon. He was mouthing it from his soul and she could finally understand it because ‘our two souls are one’. She gently rubbed her belly and cupped her breasts. It was then that she felt the slow snake slide of blood down the inside of her thigh. Like clockwork they were, always heavy and always on time.
Talking Under Water