Friday 1 June 2012

Flash Fiction: Underwater, Overwater

I can feel my heart beating.


"It's OK, you can jump in."

But I can't. I can't swim. It looks deep. I'm afraid.

"Everyone's enjoying themselves, see?"

Yes, splashing and shouting and swimming. Messing about, having such a good time.

My armbands are inflated. Against the encouragement to get in their pressure is oddly comforting.

My brother is filled with life. Underwater, overwater, smiling at me. I know he wants me to join in and play. But I just can't do it.

My mother's at the poolside in front of me, smiling, urging.

"Come on Edward, I'll hold you."


I see my brother again beneath a sky whose blue I thought lived only in colouring pens, a sea I have only ever seen in pictures and an island whose name is too unfamiliar, too foreign for me to remember at this age.

Traffic, tourists, ruins. Two days in Athens, the three of us. Hot, bored, bothered. And then escape to the sea, away from the city. Not simply the coast, but to an island away from the overflowing beaches, bars and bistros, away from the nationless front of the Med.

"Come on Edward, pretend you're an outboard motor! Get in and hold onto the lilo. We can both kick. We'll be back to shore in no time. Mum won't even notice we're gone!"

But I can't do it. It's too deep. I'll be in over my head. It's not like swimming in a pool. Maybe it would be enough if I dangled my legs slightly over the side? We try that, but my splashing doesn't add enough to counter the current. We're drifting out of the bay and the waves are picking up. The shallowness near the beach lured us in, pulling against caution.

"Edward, be careful. Don't go too far or too deep. Charlie, the same for you. And keep an eye on your brother — remember, he can't swim as well as you." My mother's concern.

It was hours before the wayward current delivered us back. And, of course, she did notice we were gone. A notice that rang in our ears and kept us from the beach for days after.

My brother's optimism and sense of fun is laced with an edge I don't have. It's why we're drifting out to sea in the first place. It's why we get back. It's why he finds some kind of thrill in being grounded while I just brood.

"OK, Edward, I don't think kicking's going to work, but I think I know what might."

We scrabble back onto the inflatable, exhausted, on our fronts, sun-coloured backs against a felt-tip sky. My brother rolls over, still catching breath, feet dangling in the water. He stares into the sun, squinting, his face caught between a thought and a grin.

"I heard... instead of swimming against the current, you should just go with the flow. The waves, the tide, the undertow... they'll take you along and back to shore... eventually. It can work both ways."

This sounds too good to be true. It doesn't make sense to me. But neither does seemingly still, shallow water pulling us out to sea. My brother's face breaks a full grin.

"You know why it's called the undertow?"

I don't. I don't even know what that is.

"Because it pulls you from under your toes!"

At least this makes sense. My brother laughs.


Always water.

The last time I see my brother is by a waterfall in New England.

He's home from university. He's just finished with his girlfriend. More convenient than trying to keep the relationship going over the summer. Apparently. We're off to greyhound across America, zigzagging from California to the north-east. Highways, motels, hotels, camping, floors, family friends, friends of his friends.

He's at the edge of the pool, I'm holding him. We're soaked through. I can hardly hear my sobbing against the white noise. My tears never get a chance to take hold. My face is already wet. The spray washes away anything I might add.

I tried to save him. We were both messing about, having such a good time. We're near journey's end. After Maine we were going to head down to New York, catch our flight back to England. The campsite is not far from the waterfall, so we went searching for it after pitching the tent. He wanted to get close to the edge.


I can feel my heart beating.

Underwater, overwater, breathe.

Underwater, overwater, breathe.

Underwater, underwater, swallow, struggle, overwater, gasp, underwater.

A-BEAT... A-...A-...BEAT... A-BEAT... A-...

Dark. Can't see. Can't breathe. Night? Yes, night. But darker.

The car? The car. The car and the bridge. The bridge and the river.

Heading home? Yes... no, visiting my mother. Late. Long drive.

What will she do? Dad. Charlie. Me.

A-...BEAT... A-...A-...BEAT... A-...

Rain. So much rain. Couldn't see. Can't see.

It's always about water. Always water.

Underwater, underwater.

A-... BEAT... A-...


"Underwater, Overwater" was first published in Word Gumbo. More background here.


Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful, eerie, and ultimately sad little tale. I really enjoyed it.

Rebecca Emin said...

I can picture this... and feel his fear throughout. Really well done.