Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The cable is singing to me as it lowers me down. I like to think it’s done in hands. It is a comfort as the water starts to submerge the vessel. Unlike Laika, I get to come back. There is an umbilical cord that connects me. I think about the man lowering me, his hands covered in fish scale and tattoo, letting the crane winch the bathysphere into the ocean. Down I go, above the water line and then the cable grows silent as the water muffles the whine. What if he were to die? To slip and fall from the crane, his head cracking on the deck, his water going back to the oceans? The salt of his eyes kissing the salt of the sea? I would be down here alone. Cut off from the world. When I was eleven I went to a swimming centre, ‘Phantaseas’ that sat overlooking the Dartford crossing. I was racing my friend on wet tiles and went down hard; my feet fell away like rotten teeth. All was black. I wanted to sleep. It was lovely there, deep inside my head, no noise, no light, no fear or anxiety. Slowly, as if it were the light of far off torches belonging to men in Sunday best searching for missing child brides, there was screaming. Gentle at first, gently rising then louder, more insistent, the screaming grew nearer. It was irritating. I wanted to sleep, to shut it out, throw blankets over it. But it just grew nearer. Then it snapped and it was I who was screaming and the light of pool, the artificial light, swam into my eyes. The whole place sank a few years later, having been built on top of a rubbish tip. As it is no longer there, perhaps the event never happened, perhaps it was an invention of childhood, and in this bathysphere, it seems even more plausible, that alone, the person that is me is left up there on the surface, full of contradictions and lies. In fact the ocean may as well not even be there. It is as unreal as film. My mind has no connectivity with the submerged world that I am entering. I read that whales and Plesiosaurs before them, suffer from the bends. 

Pits manifest inside the whale due to the deep sea diving that they undertake for food. Here in the bathysphere, the pressure is contained. The bathysphere would have to be trepanned by a swordfish, then the two worlds could meet and I would have connectivity. Down I go. Years back L posed as a dead body on the kitchen floor for her art. She had a blanket resting over her body, her face above the nose left uncovered, eyes shut tight. She almost seemed to have been submerged in bathwater; her hair flowed out behind her like a tree painting by a child blowing through a straw. Who are you? They asked in the hospital after my accident. Where do you go to school? Who is the prime minister of Great Britain? Who is your form teacher? Andrew, Major, Dilley, I replied. Dilley lived on the shores of Bewl water, where a village is submerged. Shoals of fish swim out of chimneys, through the lich gate and spiral round the belfry bell of the village church. I stopped in July outside a church in North Norfolk. I had followed Lowell's poem (Quaker Graves at Nantucket) to Walsingham and having found no trace of him I then left, driving west in my car. I stopped at a church and walked around. I recognised it but couldn’t think why. So I drove through the village and on my way out I became seasick with memory. L came from here. The memory was like murmurs under bathwater. Giddy, I drove to a heath and sat listening to the crickets and the cars from the bypass at S. Only the other day a man died there, a few yards away from where I had sat, during a flash storm he left the road, hit a tree and died on the way to hospital, (he was reported to have told the paramedic that the road was a river of water). We drove here in December 1998. She was all about water. We had walked through snow to Holkham bay. In the pines she started crying. Winter was resting on the sea. Now here beneath the waves, in my little capsule, I wonder again, if it actually happened. Memory plays out against the bathysphere, pumice stones pound the sides, the smell of my grandmother’s feet after a bath resting on her footstool swim around the capsule, the paddling pool that collected leaves floats by the window, so too, the outdoor pool at F’s parent’s house in H in Kent. In front of the house there was the swimming pool that was covered in a dark blue tarpaulin sheet. She told me that if you fell in you would never get out, the tarpaulin would wrap around you like a glove, and the more you fought the longer it would take to drown. Just let go, she said, just let go. She told me how one year, a horse from the neighbouring field got over the fence and fell into the pool. The firemen arrived and tried to place hay bails beneath the horses’ hooves, but the hay just floated. In the end the animal was in so much distress that the owner, unable to take anymore, went over to his property and came back with a shotgun and blew a hole in the horses’ head. She described the clouds of blood mixed in the blue water with the straw, her mother sobbing over the piano the whole night, jabbing out ‘You are my sunshine...’ over and over. Down and down I go then I stop. The sound of my body reverberates in my little room. I hold my hands out in front of me and turn them over, stare at the ring on my right hand, the star formed by the lines in my palms, the creases in my fingers. I bring my hands together, palm to palm and push out, turn them over and away. The breast stroke was my favourite swimming method. It meant that I didn’t have to go under the water. I hate it even now, complete submersion. The bathysphere is like the legs of Kim Hilton, closing on me as I tried to swim underneath. The breaststroke calms me. It can carry me to the edge of the pool. The cup I won when I left primary school was for swimming improvement. It was a new cup and my name was the first to be inscribed there. One night I lay dreaming of the sea. In the dream I was walking from Wells to Holkham early one morning in the summer.  The soft heat of the coming day warmed the skin on my arms. After a few bends I came across a wooded lane veering off from the road. It was a sandy lane covered in pinecones that had fallen from the canopy above. I stood looking at the trees, mesmerised by their shape and colour. They seemed as black as the retreating night, each one holding an undefinable sadness like a secret, almost shapeless, smudged against the sky like the memory of an echo. It is almost impossible to explain how they made me feel, but each one was whispering to me. 

Each one wanted to confide in me, and I desired to be lifted up into their canopy and smothered by their great blackness, to stand among them and listen forever. But I broke away from their spell and walked along the lane not looking back, I could hear their whispers racing through my head, so I covered my ears as I walked, while their image slowly faded from my mind. I reached the entrance to Holkham bay. There is a long walk down a tarmac road which seemed to shorten and lengthen. At the end I went through a gate and began to walk through the woods. These were pine too, but they were different from the others, their whispering was not as haunted, they did not alarm me even though I thought I heard soft weeping. I passed through them happily until I had a view of the bay stretching out before me. 

The tide was very far out and I walked towards the gap in two giant sand dunes that ran the entirety of the bay.  Beneath my feet were tiny purple and blue flowers that seemed to grow from a mossy covering that lay like a carpet across the sand. Hover-flies made their way around me, buzzing around the flowers. I lay down on my side and watched as they made their way through their jungle, their giant eyes and striped bodies mimicking wasps. The sea lay before me as still and beautiful as light through floorboards. Birds were swooping on the water and the sun was almost fully above the horizon. The nearer I got the more the sea became something other. This ancient mass of water is like death, cold, vast and once plunged into almost impossible to leave. I took off my clothes and stood naked before the water. I took one last look at the land – the night almost fully swallowed by daylight – then entered the water. I gasped for breath as the water moved up my body, first over my toes, ankles and knees, like a lover in reverse slowly and sensually moving against my flesh and shape as I entered further and further into their embrace. Then it had me completely, I swam below the surface; my ears filling with the briny cold and I rose and let the waves caress me as I floated on my back. Even though it was a dream, I have never felt so at peace as at that moment, I felt safe within the embrace of the sea, it had welcomed me in so softly and now I rested on my back upon its surface. I let it move me the way it wanted, being pushed by each wave back towards the shoreline, and as I lay there in the water I felt the great vastness of the oceans. I closed my eyes and jellyfish swarmed through my mind, long drifting tentacles trailing in the water, the soft pulsating umbrella bodies propelling them through the dark. I felt like I was a ghost-ship of what was once human, an empty vessel being filled with a cargo of images, the sea whispering in my head everything it knew. Slowly as the images subsided, a storm off to haunt others, I turned onto my front and looked shore-wards. Standing there were all the people I had ever known. L was there with a canary on her shoulder. My mother holding my grandmother’s footstool. F holding the reins of a horse. Some, like my sisters, had one hand in the air, others, like a group of girlfriends, were smiling to each other. Some, like the doctor who had examined me after my fall, were looking landwards as their faces had been taken from my mind forever. I started to swim to shore but they all started leaving. The nearer to the beach I got, the closer to the edge of the woods they became. I stood in the surf, the water lapping at my ankles, watching them go. Far off I could hear the sound of a diving bell ringing in the sea. When I awoke, my pillow was wet and cars on the wet road out side my house were projected onto the ceiling of my room. I’m rising up. Perhaps I have not gone anywhere, that it is the sea that has risen and fallen. The window of the bathysphere shows nothing but dark water, like that which flows around the brain, ever moving, ever flowing. Down here I am nothing but memories. As the bathysphere rises I feel things seeping away. People from my memories will stay submerged in the bathysphere after I leave; they remain like ghosts, my imagined perceptions of who they were, wide of the mark. Slowly they move away across the oceans, as if waving from the back of ferries until they are just a dot, a pinprick of light in the darkness of my very own bathysphere. Light is on top of the glass. Sunlight fills my little room. The cable sings above my head. I am home, it sings, I am home.

 Link to adaptation of Bathysphere by Michaela Nettell:

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