Thursday, July 22, 2010

Long ago... way before kids, me and Donna went on a camping trip with the guy in the next room, Simon. He drove trucks, delivered animal feed to small, remote farms on Dartmoor. We hung out together a lot and at the time I'd have called him my firmest friend. So... packing an ancient tent into an equally ancient Ford Cortina we headed off to Cornwall. Maybe three hours from home...

First full day down there I take everyone to a place I knew as a kid. The beach, Mawgan Porth, just below the airbase of RAF St. Mawgan from where the Nimrods would hunt the Atlantic for Russian subs. The cold war was in full swing at the time and these huge planes would haul themselves off over the beach every evening heading for their vigil over the North Atlantic. A beautiful bit of coastline... typically Cornish, and in the last days of summer with the first hint of Autumn in the air, it was a desolate and lonely place.

I regaled Donna & Simon with my memories of high summer, childhood visits to this, by now, almost mythical beach, as the three of us hunted the lanes and farm tracks for those little for sale signs "Free Range Eggs", "Goats Milk"... you know the kind. We stocked up on local food and headed for the sands.

Sand grains scudded past my bare feet, hurried along by a very brisk wind, as we looked out to sea. Impossibly blue, sand & waves & scents & textures that I can still recall so vividly. We had muesli, local organic goat's milk and local organic honey... plastic bowls & the odd errant sand grain thrown in. The waves looked very surfable. I'd been surfing here years ago & the first of the Autumnal winds meant the waves were running to 8ft or so... tempting!

We had no surfboards with us, but me and Simon had a set of fins each. Long, black flexible fins. Made for scuba diving... I'd seen body surfing before, pick a wave and stiffen your body, fin hard with the swell and wait for that magical moment when the wave takes over and you skim towards the shore. Sounded like a plan!

We left Donna on the beach, I glanced back and saw her tidying the bowls & straightening the blanket. She looked up, smiled a smile that is still imprinted on my memory and waved. Me & Simon ran into the water... the waves even in the shallows swept in like steps. Ankle deep one second, knee deep the next. We put on our fins and dived seawards, arms tight to our sides. Out past the white water, where the sea suddenly cools and the swells are long and full. We turn, face to the shore and wait for the moment. Just before it breaks, timing is everything!

I feel the wave building behind me, slow, oily dark... the first hint of fear. I hear the sound of the white water at it's crest as I fin hard for the shore. To late! It's breaking already! What feels like a thousand tons of ice cold, hard water slams into my back, pushing me under. Tumbling, disorientated as the daylight fades and it goes dark. I hit bottom hard. Gravel, sharp stones, sand... dragged mercilessly across the sea bed by the undertow.

I right myself, feet down, to kick off the bottom for the surface. Painfully aware I had no time to take a lungful of air before I went under I feel the ache in my chest and my muscles start to complain from oxygen deprivation. Arrow straight I push for the dim daylight above. Kicking hard I realise one fin has been ripped off my feet. What to do? Kicking with only one fin is so lopsided, so asymmetrical as to make the remaining fin useless. I decide to kick the last one off. I realise my mistake as soon as i try swimming upwards unaided. Naked in the water i'm suddenly slow, too bloody slow. The surface so far off...

My lungs bursting I break into the air, take a huge, groaning gasp... But the relief is momentary. Out of the corner of my eye I spot the next wave towering 8 maybe 9 feet above my head.Foaming white and milliseconds away from hitting me. I glance to shore... surely we didn't swim that far out! Then it hits me again. The breaker that started out off the Grand Banks, unchecked across thousands of miles of ocean, driven for days by strong, steady winds nails me to the sea floor once again. Drags me back, out to sea across shingle and boulders, dark, cold... strangely quiet.

It hurt! Not just the oxygen dep, not just my muscles complaining but the sea bed is so dark, sharp, rough. I get dragged maybe 50yds out to sea every time this happens. I have no idea how many times I managed to get to the surface seconds before the next wave shoved me back down to that cold, dark world of fear and pain. Ten? Twenty? Maybe more... It couldn't go on like this. It started to dawn on me there was only one way today was going to end. And I wished it would hurry the fuck up!

There came a point where the fear of death outweighed the hurt & the struggle. The future i would never know, the people I loved I knew i'd never see again. Donna sat on the beach waiting... But I couldn't face any more. I knew I was beaten. I knew the ocean had won. My last glimpse of the sky, blue, so beautifully blue. The sound of the last wave... I almost welcomed it's arrival. Pushing me downwards, back into the dark.

I relaxed... my muscles glowed as I stopped fighting. Limp as a rag doll I let the sea do what it would with me. Almost curious. Would it hurt? What would that bolt of cold, hard sea water feel like as it entered my lungs? I was surprised to find myself at peace. Acceptance. Acceptance of my mistakes and my final end. Comfy... Warm... and so achingly sad!


One last thought hit me! My epitaph! Not carved in stone in some crow haunted cemetery, but in the thoughts of the people I loved. How would the tale be told? They'd know nothing of my last, painful, lonely struggle. The last they saw of me was wiping organic honey and organic goats milk off my chin! My last meal would be the penultimate chapter. But what a meal! A tree huggers, sandal wearing, hippy, vegan meal. Bloody muesli! With bloody goats milk and honey! OMFG no way! I'm NOT going to have that as the defining moment at the end of my life! Raw buffalo flesh ripped out with my teeth maybe! A 20lb bass caught with my bare hands and cooked over an open fire would be fine! But organic goats milk! For fuck sake! No!

That, strangely, was the thought that saved me. Not the fear of death, i would have welcomed death at that point with immense gratitude. Never seeing Donna again was a huge part of the sadness that went along with the calm, eerie warmth I felt, but it wasn't the catalyst for my last, desperate fight to the surface. Not experiencing the next 60 years i'd already got used to. It was that damn last meal!

I hauled myself off the bottom. Struck out for the dim vestige of daylight seeping down through maybe 60ft of boiling, seething water. Surface! Breath! Oh fuck that felt good! Then everything started hurting again. The pain, the fear all flooded back. I turned 90 degrees and managed two strokes towards the headland. The beach now an unattainable distance away my only hope was reaching that last promontory of rock before I was swept out into the bay proper. Another wave knocked the breath out of me as back down I went. This time anger, a rage filled me. Energy I had no idea I had, red, angry... I hit bottom, crouched and lunged back upwards. This time three strokes before the next wave. The rocks now closer but would I manage to reach them before I was dragged out past their jagged, welcoming, longed for solidity.

Now within maybe 20ft of them I saw Simon standing, looking at me as I broke surface once again... I waved, tried to scream for help, cut short by the next wave my scream was was silenced by the sea as it once again swamped me. Next glimpse is of Simon. Waving arms, shaking his head in an unmistakable "No!". He had blood all down his chest, arms and legs. What the hell had happened to him? Either way, knew he wasn't going to leap in and rescue me. Didn't blame him... Never have.

The first solid object apart from sea floor brushed my fingertips. The rocks! Next time up I grabbed onto them with both hands. The joy of touching solid land short lived as the next wave dragged me off, barnacles & crags ripping my skin. Again I reached out with both hands and managed to get my knees wedged hard against them. Bright, white searing pain as the shells of limpets dug into my skin. The wave drained away. Thousands of gallons of water tried to prise me off but I clung on. Free of the water at last I climbed upwards a few feet. Another wave on it's way... I strained upwards for a better handhold... It's then I felt Simon's hand grasp mine and pull me upwards.

We hugged... Neither of us could talk... Breathing was far more important. My legs gave way. We both sat there, blood seeping from cuts and scratches and mixing with the seawater, coating us in livid red.

"I couldn't get back in Les... Couldn't.. I heard you shout... but i'd have never got out again!"

I hugged him again...

"I know Si, I know... Don't worry man. I know..."

If you look at the picture you'll see a telegraph pole bottom right. From the top of that pole track right along the green band of seaweed until you see a white dot. That white dot is at the base of the rock we climbed out on. You can see the climb we had to do to get back up off the headland and down onto the beach. Both of us naked, our trunks and fins long gone, covered in blood, we somehow managed to get through the brambles, stinging nettles and mud. We must have looked a mess when we eventually made it back...

... a crowd had gathered on the beach, all looking silently out to sea. We'd have to get through them to find Donna. Wondering what was happening we asked the first few people at the back of the crowd. "What you all looking at?"

"Couple of guys caught in the riptide... both drowned... Oh!"