You draw up the thin floral blind to let the early light in. Wipe the steam from the bathroom mirror to see your own stern face staring back at you. That morning, you are wrought, thunderous, your body still pumping from the heat of the dawn swim, your muscles coiled and waiting. And a new frustration gathering over it all. It sets you alight, so that you thirst for something, anything to move you. Sometimes the urgency is so strong you think you could scream. But you don’t. You’re safe, silent, and all the worse for it.
Slowly, cautiously, you turn in the burnished light. In the mirror, your body is new and tense. Swimmer’s shoulders, sun-browned and sand-scrubbed. The pale lines of your razor-backed bathers are broken over your skin like skeletal wings. Next to the sink, your arms are long and freckled. The muscles in your thighs are packed tight as cartilage.
And then the leg.
In the next room, you hear the bedsprings creak as the oldies rise, and you know that soon your sisters will be clamouring loudly round the bathroom door. Hankering to shower, pee and plait their hair while standing on their two perfect, fawnish limbs.
You bend down to touch it. The plastic is wet and smooth, the skin of a humpback. Hard, bloodless. What remains beneath is a pale, wounded knob. Severed just below the kneecap—where you have been cut, saved and ruined. Three years, and the memory of the accident is still a fresh despair. As always, your silence is broken by the image of that broad, white stern and the awful, spinning grip of a three-blade propeller. Even now, the sight of white water is enough to shake you. And as your hand curls slowly around the prosthesis, your eyes begin to burn. Your chest aches, and you are overcome by a strange horror.
The radio crackles, and the house is filled with the dry voice of a Pommy newsreader counting death, currency and mortgage rates. Your mother hums as she breaks the eggs. Someone begins to bang impatiently on the wooden door. Quickly, you turn to let the water out of the tub and grab your clothes before your sisters come pushing past.
That evening, the surfer takes you round the back of the servo and kisses you. Rough hands on your arms, wet boardies pressing against your school dress. He smells of wax, Coopers Red, and something oddly feminine, perhaps camomile. His mouth over yours, the taste of tomato sauce. You’re pushed up against the wall, and the grout snags at your hair. Meanwhile, the old Holden Kingswood is still sitting lazily at the depot, the nozzle of the hose left in the tank.
It’s reckless, sudden. Not quite as you imagined it, in those long afternoons where you pined and ached and dreamed. But still wonderful, delicious. Your body is numb but your mind sings. You are fifteen and this is it, things are still possible.
The petrol fumes swim in your head. Traffic crawls by, and people stop to wipe down their windscreens and buy bags of ice. You open your eyes to see the sky riddled with colour. Old blue and orange light. When he tells you he’ll pick you up on the weekend, your chest leaps and you nod okay. Overhead, the gulls turn, he grins. And you are just young enough to mistake this feeling—this rough, violent swell—for love or something like it.
The sea in your hands again. You are primed, faultless. Measured technique, a breath on every third stroke. There are others with you: bodysurfers mucking about the curl, men with their loose bellies, girls wiping the salt from their eyes. But you make yourself pass them with your perfect strokes, your perfect timing. Following the line of orange buoys, leaving a small, satisfying fury in your wake. And in the long, deep stretch of distance, you find an odd kind of calm. Circling round the last buoy like an old friend.
When you get back to the pier, you heave yourself up onto the landing and refit the prosthesis. Pull a towel over the leg and linger. The boardwalk stinks of pipis and bird-shit, but the sun is good on your skin and the crowds stay away. Only the boy in the red T-shirt hangs about. You vaguely remember him as the gardener’s kid, a few years below you at school. These afternoons he’s always on the same spot at the end of the pier, a folded paperback in his hands. His quiet eyes on your leg every now and again. But you don’t care. You sit with the wood warm on your back, the tide in your ears and feel yourself go soft and stupid. You think of the surfer and the bananery smell of sunscreen. The burnt sky and the pull of his fingers in the pockets of your blazer. And in your heady fantasies, you let yourself imagine a summer rolling onwards. Lazy drives up the coast in the Holden Kingswood, James Taylor in the speakers. Walking barefoot down sand spits, your red hair like glory behind you.
It’s a yellow night as he guides the Holden into the empty car park behind the abattoir. Failing streetlights. The moon the colour of marrowbone, full and low. It’s deserted and suddenly you remember that this is the lot the boys brag about at school, the place your mother warned you off for junkies and hoons.
The surfer turns off the ignition and you can smell petrol again. You struggle with the seatbelt and the handbrake pushes into your calf as you clamber into the back. He lays down a big, damp beach towel, and in its fibres you can scent dope, cologne and his sweaty, crumpled wetsuit.
You lie down. There’s a shadow as he moves over. You feel the press of his belt buckle on your stomach, then his tongue brushing against your teeth. The empty bottle rolls and clinks against something at your feet. Headlights in the glass. Hands begin to tug clumsily at your white, cheesecloth dress and you hear a gentle rip as the shoulder gives.
That dress. You scraped together your savings and worked for a week babysitting the neighbour’s sick, colicky kid to buy it. Green thread round the hemline, light and blowy. The little wrinkles in the cloth reminded you of the shallow tide. For once, you wanted to show off your legs.
After putting it on, you snuck into your mother’s room to perfume away the smell of chlorine and fish. Held back your hair in her long French mirror while your sisters looked on jealously. And when you heard the panel van rumble up the driveway, you’d never felt so happy, so sweetly delirious, in your entire life.
He took you to the dunes with a loose grin and a clear bottle of vodka swinging from his wrist. You’d never had any before and gulped it back, thinking it might be something like a lemon, lime and bitter. Desperately wanting it to seem like you’d done this countless times on countless beaches before. You had to hide your tears as it burned down your throat while the sandflies sucked at your skin.
Now, there’s a strange, soaring stillness in your head. Mouth numb, eyes open, you turn and shift in the summer dark. With the dress bunched up around your ribs, and something blunt pushing into your back, it’s messier than you imagined. This hot worry of skin and breath, the awkward weight. But you know what this is. You are not that naive. You know how bargains are made. At school, all the girls are singing about how free love is the only kind worth anything. And god, surely you need this too. Because you are so young and so ruined. Because you are fifteen, and you need to know what it could be like.
You wait. Do your laps, chase the buoys. Plead a stomach ache and let your sisters read your collection of film magazines. Help your mother take in the washing when it rains, noticing for the first time how she stoops at the door and puts a hand to her head. All the while listening for the rumble of the panel van up the drive.
But there’s nothing. And slowly, you begin to realise how young, how horribly innocent you really have been. You don’t say a word. The louder your sisters shriek and cry, the more silent you become. No-one notices. You wear the cheesecloth dress to Sunday lunch in town. The cotton sweeps gently across your ribs and suddenly you wonder if this is how you felt against him. This light, fleshless kick.
Later, the oldies talk of selling out and moving to the city, and you can’t help measuring the distance between. You go on thinking that your parents don’t know a thing in the world. But one evening, while you lie in bed, your mother comes in and sits at your elbow. With one hand warm on your back, she strokes your hair like she used to. The smell of her night-cream is buttery and her fingers are light. You fall asleep to the sound of her humming the folk songs of her childhood.
The cool weather comes as a relief. You hide the leg under thick jeans and stockings. Stay indoors. Then finally, you see him one day at the servo with a bunch of mates. The Holden is jacked up with new paint and their boards are stacked high on the bent roof-rack. You don’t even bother to stop. You don’t need to see the way they smirk and imitate your tilted walk to know how things are.
The water. It rips you down, strips you. Lovingly rocks away your small, soft body until you are nothing but bone and essence. Flayed muscles, a pumping heart. Nautilus.
You swim. You swim until the dark breaks and the air grows cold. Until the tourists have fled back to their city apartments and the fishermen have packed up their catch and gone. Only the boy in the red T-shirt stays, the book in his hands. Quietly waiting for you at the end of the distant pier.
But you go on. Here, there’s only the element. The sweet curl of a breaker over your back and the old, asking depth below. Here, you can love and scream and swoon with no-one to hear. You can outlast everything.