The Dive by Anthea Morrison
by Anthea Morrison
I’m hoping for a glimpse of the delights we have been promised, but the surface of the sea is opaque and gives nothing away. The sun beats down just like it’s supposed to on holiday, just a few clouds building on the horizon of the brochure-blue sky. But no breeze diffuses the heat or stirs the sea today; it is flat, secretive and listless. Like the old man steering it, the boat has seen better days. White paint clings to the railings in stubborn patches, resisting the rust that will eventually claim it. The smell of the sea mixes with the smells on the boat; stale alcohol, sun tan lotion, rust, neglect. Stray items of clothing left by other tourists over the summer have congregated on the floor of the boat, where they have been by turns soaked by the sea and bleached dry and colourless by the sun.
Mark sits next to me; he is rubbing his hands together and smiling to convey his enthusiasm to the other tourists, squashed together in two lines along the sides of the boat. The diving trip is his idea, not mine. He says it will be something we can do together on future holidays. A cosy-couple hobby we can boast about to our cosy-couple friends, he means.
I lean forwards, trying to ease the pressure from the overcrowded bench, and my eye falls on the captain. He is silent, his eyes unreadable in their permanent squint against the sun. He doesn’t acknowledge the exuberant young Australians leading the trip, save for the occasional grunt in answer to a question; it seems to me they take for granted the fact that all our lives have the potential to be in his hands.
Why is he steering this boat? I study his face more closely as the engine revs and we speed further away from the island. He could be anywhere between fifty and seventy. What is visible of his face under his beard and shabby peaked cap, is lined and browned by who knows how many years of weather, but his arms are still muscular and he stands straight at the wheel. This job is beneath him, and I suddenly feel personally responsible for the indignity I have bestowed on him, embarrassed that I am part of this group of fun-in-the-sun seekers who know nothing of the sea, of the knowledge and experience of this man who has ended up ferrying the likes of us a few miles from shore and back each day, on a dirty rusty boat.
They call themselves our instructors, these people who are going to take us under the sea, which makes me laugh, as none of them can be much older than twenty-one. Right now they are heaving clinking cool-boxes and diving equipment up out of the hold onto the deck. They are laughing, fit, suntanned, absorbed in each other and the sexual tensions between them. They are probably taking a year out before university, the girls; they have that middle class confidence about them that brings with it the expectation of a degree. Or maybe this is their reward to themselves after finishing their studies, a couple of months in the Greek Islands, laughing and joking their way through a few hours of work each day to support their hedonistic nights, before they start the serious business of the rest of their lives. That could have been me a few years ago. Too late now.
There is something edgier, more rebellious about the two boys; they are no doubt from the same background as the girls but there is a hint of self-destructive defiance in their looks; maybe they have dropped out of university or maybe it is just more appealing to stay here for now than take the paths mapped out for them, and who can blame them? The four of them swig from what appear to be bottles of soft drinks, but they wink at each other whilst warning us of the dangers of drinking alcohol before a dive. They crack jokes and everyone on the boat laughs, but not everyone can see that they are the butt of the jokes.
My finger is sore where I have been turning the ring round and round on it. The small diamond glints in the sun as I repeat the action; I have never worn a ring and I can’t get used to the feel of it. The sun gets hotter and I long to slip into the sea and swim, to feel the freedom of the water.
I would have been happy to stay on the beach, losing myself in my book and snorkelling when I get too hot. I love to snorkel; just by dipping my face down into the water I can access a magical world of darting acid-bright fish and hypnotic waving forms clinging to the coral. When I want to feel the air again all I have to do is lift my face, as easily as a child flitting between the worlds of fantasy and reality. But diving is another matter. Diving involves a commitment to stay under the water, to allow yourself to sink down from the safety of the surface under the weight of this complicated-looking equipment and trust that it won’t fail you. I watch one of the blond Australians showing us how the air cylinders fit on our backs and demonstrating how the regulator works. He flips through the signals we should make if we get ourselves into trouble. Like an air steward who has explained the procedures for evacuation a thousand times, he cannot take the threat of death he is talking about seriously.
Mark puts his arm around me and squeezes my shoulder. The gesture is his own instruction; that I should put myself in his hands, trust him to keep me out of danger. I smile automatically and look away. Wayne or maybe it is Shane, has been peering down over the side of the boat with one of the girls and now waves and yells at the captain, who without looking at him, cuts off the engine and drops anchor, and then disappears down into the hold. There is a murmur of anticipation and excitement from the passengers in the sudden silence left by the engine. The instructors are sorting through a pile of faded wetsuits, laughing knowingly amongst themselves as they attempt to gauge our sizes, tossing a suit to each person. I remove my shorts and T-shirt and pull on my suit over my bikini. It feels crusty like it hasn’t been rinsed in fresh water in between wears, and it doesn’t fit; they’ve sized me up wrong, for one. I shudder as I eye the waiting heavy tanks. I can’t believe we are going ahead with this, I am feeling claustrophobic already. I look over at Mark hopefully to see if he too might be having second thoughts. He is struggling with the zipper on his wetsuit, but there is eagerness in the nervous laughter he is sharing with the man he has been joking with on the boat.
The whole group goes quiet as the first people volunteer to get into the water – these must be the few who said they have dived before; everyone else is hanging back. Now the chatter and laughter start up again, once the brave are in the water and putting on their cylinders. More people are stepping forward, as if this is something so normal, so everyday, something that everyone does. It’s my turn now. I panic. I haven’t been paying enough attention to the brief instruction on the boat. I’ve forgotten what to do once I get in. Shane, I think it is Shane, sees my face and reassures me.
“There’s nothing to it babe. C’mon, take my hand.”
He helps me to the top of the ladder and grins at me as I clumsily lower myself into the sea. I cling to the ladder with one hand and tread water while I wait for him. The water is much colder out here than the shallow waters off the beach, and I inhale a few sharp intakes of breaths while I try to adjust. Shane is bobbing next to me now, holding my air tank and mask. He supports me in the water as the air tank is loaded onto my back, and he oversees a couple of practice breaths using the regulator. My mask is misty and the drops of water on the outside distort my vision. The refracted side of the boat looms over me as I take a last look up at the deck. Then suddenly Shane is guiding me down underneath the water and pointing around him, removing his mouthpiece to grin at me. Then he swims off to catch up with the couple in front.
I register that the fish are even more exotic than the ones I see when I’m snorkelling in the shallows, and I know that I should be wide-eyed with delight, but my chest feels tight; I feel like I am suffocating under the unfamiliar weight of the tank. I get a grip on my panic and breathe deeply through the regulator. I move further away, trying to focus on the task of swimming to dispel the claustrophobia. I feel more in control now but I still have to fight the urge to rip all the equipment off and swim to the surface, to breathe in great gasps of fresh air.
I turn around, not wanting to stray too far from the instructors. My fiancé has followed me. He is just a few feet away, but he is kicking his legs and wheeling in blind panic. He is pointing frantically at the gauge on his cylinder – showing me that the needle is in the red section of the dial. His cylinder has not been filled with air and is almost empty. All I have to do is help him co-ordinate himself to the surface a few feet above, guide him up in the right direction. My own panic disappears and I breathe steadily, but as I watch him flailing, trying to grab the mouthpiece he has let go of, the panic is replaced by a calm paralysis. I stare at Mark, unable to move towards him. My eyes move away from his face, and it’s while I’m noticing that the hair on his head is waving like the fronds on the coral, that the headlines about a tragedy involving inadequate instruction and unsafe equipment form themselves in my mind.