The coastal town of C, half an hour drive from Lisbon, looked cheerful on the TripAdvisor photos, and her choice of the summer holiday was made quickly.
She arrived in C in oppressive August heat, high on expectation. She would go straight to the beach, large and deserted as it was in the photos, isolated from the rest of the town by a white stone wall. She would sink in the light brown sand and regard, for hours, undisturbed, the great wide ocean bristling in the summer sun. There will be a few holidaymakers around, it’s that time of the year, but all quiet nature lovers, admiring the ocean in reverent contemplation… The beach turned out to be a communal bath, with water stale and flat, hundreds of bodies cramped together, and not a hint of a wave in sight. On her first evening in C, she took a stroll along the waterfront, hoping that the sunset, the cooling air and receding crowds would bring about the power of the elements. But the sea breeze smelt of fried meat, and the pitiable piece of water that TripAdvisor called the ocean was no different from the swimming pool in her gym in London, and probably not as clean. If ever man triumphed over nature, this was it.
The next morning, unwilling to resign to her circumstances, she complained to the concierge. Weather-worn and tired, he did not even try to prove her wrong. “Go to the Guincho”, he said, “this is the real beach. I will call you a taxi”.
The taxi took her across town. She looked out of the window in morbid fascination, taking in the ugly concrete high rises, dirty street cafes, weary waiters repulsed by the very idea of customers, cheap and shabby bazaars with hoards of browsing holidaymakers, most of them speaking English. Why are they shopping here? What can they find in this dump of a place that they cannot buy back home? Is this how her next week is going to be? In her mind, she was already drafting a damning TripAdvisor review, accusing the site of cheating customers. She would post it tonight, demand a refund.
Then the taxi turned around the curve, and everything changed. No more buildings, cheap holiday flats, dusty pavements. Just a vast open space, the sky, the sand, large rocks, some prickly evergreens. And the ocean, enormous, dark blue, stretching all the way to Brazil, with nothing on the horizon, except for a cloud and a solitary cliff. Is it a cross on top of it? One of those abandoned monasteries.
The taxi stopped on the plateau. The beach, long, broad and curved, was lying below her, ragbag crowd taking up every spot on the sand. In August, humans wage a holy war on nature, desperate to grab the last bits of fresh air, sun and sea before the onset of winter hibernation, and at the Guincho they brought heavy weapons. But they were losing: despite the glaring barrage of faces, towels, picnic baskets, dangling stomachs, paper bags, blasting music, lizard skin, cellulite and an occasional bare breast, the ocean stood unperturbed, dominant and majestic, the only thing that she could see.
In the next several days, her life would follow a happy pattern. She would get up early, eat quickly, go straight to the taxi stand, take the first driver, ask him to drive fast, stare at the road ahead through the dusty window, wait for that fairy tale curve when she would see the cliff, the cross, the ocean, feel the warmth in her body, forget everything else…
On the morning of 31 August, she arrived at the Guincho early, and for a few hours, the beach was hers: no tourists, no locals, just a man walking a Labrador. He looked like a retired chairman, way too sleek for a morning stroll. She passed an old corroded metal sign: “Beware of the rip current”, wondered lazily what “rip” meant. Is it the same as “RIP”? Funny. It was low tide, the underwater rocks stood tall and bare, almost like cliffs. She lay still on the sand, the morning sun caressing her body, in a trance, either thinking of nothing or having vivid erotic dreams. She brought Love at the Time of Cholera, but gave up after 20 pages. Not his strongest book, this one: how could a man who wrote 100 Years of Solitude write something so mediocre? The morning went by happily in a brainless stupor, the sound of crushing waves, passing cars and arriving crowds blurred into a soothing distant noise. She fell asleep, for an hour, maybe two.
She woke in a blazing afternoon heat, broken only by strong and, for this time of the year, strangely chilly wind. She looked around: the beach was deserted, there were scattered towels, bags, water bottles, an odd surf board rising from the sand at a sharp angle, like a shark’s fin, but no people. Then she saw a large crowd lined up by the ocean’s edge, leaning intently towards the water, shouting something at the waves. Was there an accident? A body washed ashore? Dreading to see something sinister, she pottered cautiously towards the water. No, the vibe was happy, people cheered, laughed, waived their arms in the air.
It was four in the afternoon, high tide, and the ocean, calm and languorous that it was in the morning, finally regained its energy, sending over waves high and powerful. These could crush you down, pull you in, close over you, all in seconds, as if you were never there, just a tiny speck buffeted by the elements. She shuddered at the thought. The ocean is a man’s friend, of course, it lets us sail its vast waters, travel and discover, it carries us through, makes itself placid as a lake to let our ships pass, sends us friendly currents. It’s kind and magnanimous. But then once in a while its mood would darken, its waters turn black, it would show its terrifying might, and swallow people and entire fleet, all in minutes. And as these sink to its bottom, some still alive, some hoping for mercy, the ocean would become serene again, and show us the surface of many sparkling diamonds, deceptively calm, deceptively cheerful. But what morbid thoughts. Today the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the crowd is jolly, and the ocean will surely play along with the holiday spirit and welcome all who enter it.
There was a bunch of kids, the youngest ten, the oldest fifteen, bronzed and muscular, extremely fit, their thick dark hair bleached by the sun: locals, no doubt, who knew every rock, curve and current of the beach. It was they who drew the crowd, as they were diving in the waves with wild abandon, and the beach looked on with a mix of awe and fear. It was a show, and it was mesmerising. She joined in, found a spot next to a woman in a lime neon bikini, her stomach split in halves, and a subdued middle-aged man in y-fronts, probably her husband. Every five minutes, the water started to rise at the horizon, the wave formed – but where its predecessors would slowly dissipate, mingle with other waves, flatten as they reached the shore, this one would gain force as it roared towards the beach, getting higher, stronger, deadlier. The crowd gasped and edged back, terrified of its brutal power – but not the kids, who bravely threw themselves into the whirlpool. They ran the length of the beach looking for the highest wave, the first one to spot it would utter a high yell, sprint towards it, the rest would follow, a tight gang, like ancient warriors, only the spears missing, their silhouettes carved against the sky. They would leap, spread their limbs in the air, dive in the wave’s roaring core, merge with the white foam, fearless as only the young can be, eyes gleaming, delirious, ecstatic.
Their eyes. Sean Penn could not fake this look. Had she ever been this happy? When she landed her first real job, perhaps? Or when Sam came to her desk for the first time, with no obvious work to discuss, hovering around, pupils dilated, with that unmistakable look of lust? Yes, she was pleased, but not as these kids. These kids, more than half her age, know how to live: they belong in the ocean. While she belongs on the shore, in dull safety. But it’s not too late to change.
She walked into the water. First to her knee, then quickly to her thigh, as the current drew her in. The water was transparent and smelt of salt and many creatures who swam and lurked underneath it, or so she imagined. She looked around for the kids: they were floating further ahead, waiting for the next high wave. This reassured her. She saw the crowd on the beach: she used to be just like them, she gloated – dreary and faceless – but not any more. The subdued man in y-fronts seemed to be looking her way, slight alarm in his face. Suddenly, she felt strong impact, something pushed her from behind, lifted her in the air, twirled her towards the beach: this speed, it’s like a jet ski, no chance of fighting, the water covered her, threw her against the sand, she must have caught a breaking wave, never turn your back towards the ocean. She rolled forward, her body in somersaults, the power of the water too strong to resist, hit the shore. But the sand was warm and soft, it was like landing on a cushion. “It’s like a rollercoaster, but more fun”, she thought, “the ocean is playing games with me”. Now she knew what those kids felt, why their eyes gleamed with mad light. One day they will grow up, get a job in a local office, put on a baggy suit every morning, sit at their desks and count the hours until the day was over, their spirit slowly dying. But they will always have the Guincho, and its breaking waves. Kipling said something about filling every minute “with sixty seconds worth of distance run”. He probably meant this sort of thing. But then he sued his neighbour over the size of his garden hedge…
Reassured by this small adventure, she got up from the sand and went straight back into the ocean. The man in y-fronts was watching her, now openly alarmed, his weary face animated. He has clever eyes, this guy, he must have had allure in his youth, but the fat wife and daily drudgery beat the life out of him. And he should not worry about her, there is no danger, the ocean is her friend, it would treat her kindly. She quickly walked in to her thigh, then her waist, took a deep breath, thrusted her body forward, started swimming. The first shock was brutal, her body was shrunk by the chill: how can the water be so cold when the sun is mercilessly burning her face? The ocean was a vast plain of glistening metal, the horizon a perfect straight line, as if drawn by an A-pupil, with no ships in sight. Shame, she would have loved to see a shining white liner. She won’t swim recklessly, no need to take crazy risks, it’s the Atlantic, it could be treacherous, she remembers this from geography books. She rolled to her side and swam parallel to the shore: the waves here were smaller, the water calmer, she felt adventurous yet safe. This was perfect. How long since she last swam? A year at least, she went to Costa del Sol last July with Sam. But her body is strong, she is a dancer, she trains five times a week, she is swimming in slow comfortable strides, it would be a while before she gets tired.
She thought of the solitary surfer, someone she saw many years ago while sitting on a cliff in Cornwall and watching a small group of surfers ride the gentle nocturnal waves. Slowly, one of them separated, swimming further and further into the ocean, until he was so distant that none of his friends could have reached him if he was in trouble. Then he leaned on his surf board and became immobile, gently rocking in the water, a small black dot against the sky of sinister crimson, alive but removed from this world, and she watched him, from the safely of her bench, in fascination and desperate envy. But now she was like him: in this world, but with none of its constraints. Decisions seemed easy. She won’s go back to her job, she will resign. And sell her house: it was too familiar, too oppressing, reminiscent of too many bad things. Yesterday, on her way to the Guincho, she spotted a cheerful bungalow for sale. It can’t cost too much, this is Portugal, she would buy it and spend her days sitting on the cliff with the fishermen in a glorious stupor.
She looked at the shore. The kids were still jumping in the waves, but they seemed further away. Time to go back. She swam in confident breast strokes, relishing her well-trained body, the ease she felt in the water. She looked good for her 37 years, the German college boys on the beach kept staring, one of them was reading Kierkegaard, he looked like a caricature. She was aiming at the kid in the red trunks, it seemed like the fastest route to the shore. After a few minutes, she raised her head.
Where are the red trunks? And the rest of the kids? She had been swimming towards the cliff at the far end of the beach, in the wrong direction. She regrouped, chose a spot – the life guard’s booth – thrusted her body forward with force. A chill crept into her head, a first sign of worry, but she supressed it wilfully. Her body was stretching in the water furiously, arms and legs worked in perfect harmony, her PE teacher in the sixth grade would have been proud. By now her feet should touch the ground, perhaps there will be a favourable wave to carry her triumphantly to the sand, and she would emerge from the foam like Venus, with her long curly hair flying picturesquely in the wind. The German college boy would ditch Kierkegaard and fantasise about her for weeks. She wished Sam could see her now.
Where am I? I can’t see the beach. There’s that cliff again, with the cross on it. Jesus, the beach is far. I was carried by the current. That’s what they meant by the “rip”. I should have paid attention.
The chill was real now, it was spreading through her body, her legs were getting meek. That middle-aged cyclist she saw on a side road outside her office last winter, is this what he felt when the weight of 10 iron tonnes was dragging him under? He was lying on the ground, his yellow helmet intact on his head, his legs in a pulp. His eyes were wide open, intense, fixed on hers, pleading. On any other day, she would have been a random passer-by, she might have even told him off for cycling on the pavement. But now she was his last link to this world. What mad thoughts were racing through his mind? Was he hoping that she would save him? Her helpless, terrified face was the last thing that he saw. There was no hope in it. How bad was his pain? Hers will be bad, it’s an awful death, drowning, slow, four minutes, she had read, and she will be conscious all the way, her body fighting, her mind firing off the final desperate regrets: everything she had not done, everything she had wasted.
What if she makes a plea with the ocean? If it lets her live, she will go back to her old little life as soon as her feet touch the shore, she will never try to be happy again, she will carry on as always until she is old and decrepit. Now she gets it, she is not like those kids, she is not a daredevil, never will be, she will always skitter on life’s peripheries without ever knowing its magic. But she still wants to live. She wants to see that brown chow-chow in Hyde Park again, his fur is so thick, and he licks her ear when she cuddles him. And the large oak tree in her garden, it’s always the last to blossom, and its trunk is very thick. And Alicia’s house, her gazpacho and the wildflowers she puts by her bed when she visits. And Sam, she will miss Sam. No, she wants to live, she overwhelmingly, desperately wants to live.
This flock of fish, it’s quick and nimble, dashing forward and pivoting and going back and plunging down, in perfect unison, like a well-trained battalion. They swim so fast, can they help me, can they carry me to the shore? They will still live their short lives after I’m gone. Don’t cry, it will drain you, keep your head high, don’t let the water get into your nose. The wind is starting again, the waves are getting higher.
With her last strength, she raised her right arm from the water, waived in rapid, jerky movements. Yes, a woman noticed me, I remember her from the beach, she is French, she came with a large group, she is waiving back, her friend is running for the lifeguard. There is a commotion on the beach, people rising from their towels, buzzing around like disturbed bees. Where is the lifeguard, is he taking lunch? They slack a lot, these Portuguese. Please hurry. There is this French woman again, she is agitated. What is she shouting? Oh, it’s “swim”. Give me a break, I know I should swim, but my body is paralysed, the water holds me in and pushes me down, it’s a force a million times stronger than me. Nice woman, she is standing in the water up to her ankles. She does not want me to drown, of course she does not, you need to be crazy otherwise, but neither does she want to risk her life, she knows the rip is deadly, she won’t get in the water for me.
But would anyone?
My mother. My mother would be livid, she would shout, run up and down the beach, summon help, she may even faint, have a panic attack, but will. she. get. in. the water? Mother, mother. Why do I scream out for you, we are long estranged, you are cold and indifferent. Is a mother our closest bond to life, even though we hardly know her? No, my mother would not get in the water. It’s good that she is not here, at least I won’t watch her hide her face in horror and shame, unable to meet my eyes, repulsed by her betrayal, but choosing her own life over mine.
Mark. Where is he now? He has three children, I think. How easy our divorce was, we barely noticed, long leading our own lives. Simple creature, Mark, practical, down-to-earth. He thought that love was a matter of good timing, no more, and our timing was way off. But a decent guy. Mark would go in the water, because that’s the right thing to do, he may even go as far as his waist. But then, just before that crucial moment when he dives, he would stop. He, too, would stop. I would cry out his name, my head barely above the water, waves covering me, mouth pleas of help, but he would stand paralysed, staring at nothing, like a first-time murderer mortified by his own act, dreading his cowardice, but unable to overcome it.
They would all stay on the shore, everyone I have ever known, liked, loved.
A large crowd has gathered, some trying to help her, others in morbid curiosity. That’s the guy in y-fronts with the clever eyes: he was right to worry, the ocean is not her friend, she is too small for it, it crushes tiny creatures like her all the time and doesn’t even notice. That’s the lifeguard, finally there is hope, but so much for coming out of the water like a Venus. Her body is turning into stone, she needs to rest, float on her back, gain some time, but she no longer controls her limbs and the fog is rising in her head.
That’s that bare cliff again, why do I see it so much, and the cross, if this is God, then please save me.
When Sam left, she thought of killing herself, starving to death. But that was bullshit, she did not want to die, she wanted to live with Sam, feel the weight of his body on hers, his incredible strength, have him lift her up, carry her up the stairs, throw her on the bed, straddle her, hold her down. But Sam won’t be back, not for a long time, he is happy in New York with his young wife. But so what, she still wants to live, there is always hope when you are alive.
The guard is too far, he would now need a boat to reach me. The water is rising, white foam splashing in my face, I need to blow my nose to breathe, but another wave is coming. Sam, I can see you, smiling with the glow of first love, your sleeves rolled up, your lean arms tanned, reaching for me, caressing my face, my neck. Don’t forget me, cry over me. This wave is strong, it’s holding me down, salt is in my mouth, will the salt eat into my body when I sink to the bottom? Mother, what was that fairy tale that you read to me at night when I was seven, about a brave rooster who was a corporal in the army? He got shot in a battle, and his comrades wrapped his body in a flag and put it in an air balloon, the balloon then rose into the sky, and as it was about to disappear into a cloud, the brave rooster corporal leaned over the edge and waived his wing at his friends. Mother, I cried the whole night under the blanket, so that you don’t hear me, I knew that the brave rooster was dead, but a part of him lived on. You called it his soul.
Another wave. I can see the sun from down here, a large yellow disk, so happy earlier, so sinister now, like a final glare of farewell. Hold your breath, try, just a bit longer, until your head pops up. Another wave, the ocean is getting angry, it’s rolling them one after another, it’s punishing me. All that shit about the brave rooster corporal, there is no such thing as soul, he just died, vanished, rotted, as I will soon die, and will no longer know, will no longer remember. I won’t go up in a balloon, I will sink into the salty water, a diver will look for me, put me in a ghastly coroner’s car, take me to a local morgue, the beach will look on in solemn silence, some upset, others annoyed that I ruined their perfectly pleasant day, I will lie in that morgue, naked and defenceless, my body – strong and full of life just a day ago – bloated and disfigured, my face in blue patches. They will load me on a plane, with the cargo, no more Club class, take me to London, bury or cremate me – bury, I hope, it’s less scary. Mark will come to the funeral, no doubt, he will be sad, perhaps even Sam, although flying from New York for a day is a drag, Sam will try to fit some meetings around the funeral. My mother will mourn for a month, perhaps two, so will my friends, my office will be quiet for a week, someone will write an obituary, post it on the website, draw a black frame around my name on the staff list. They will wait, four weeks is appropriate, then take the obituary down, delete my name from the list. My mother will start telling people that she used to have a daughter, but she had tragically died. Mark will say that his first wife had drowned. It will be all forgotten. I will be forgotten. And I suppose that’s fine.
Good-bye, mother. I think I may be going up in a balloon.
Elena Shalneva is a London-based journalist and literary critic. Elena writes a regular column on management and office politics for City AM and literary reviews for Standpoint Magazine. Elena was born in Moscow and grew up in the US. She has a Ph.D. in Germanic philology from Moscow State University.