SINK or swim
Lying naked on his bunk, he listened to the words of a virtual therapy session to overcome his fear of water. The monologue promoted the peaceful properties and cadence of the sea, and the visual scene of gentle waves rushing to a sandy shore was dubbed with calming synthesised music to further enhance the mood. “There’s a tempo to the sea,” said the voice in a softly spoken mid-Atlantic accent, “It isn’t immediately noticeable but after a while you become aware of its seamless beating pulse. The human heartbeat duplicates the timing, running in tandem and often creating an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity.” He removed the earpiece, returned the VR lenses to their capsule and sighed. The relaxation technique was not working.
He turned his gaze to the ship’s porthole and reality. Outside, as if to justify his decision to end the session prematurely, the sea spat foam at him. He studied the grey pulsing mass running boundlessly to the horizon, there it would meet a dull grey sky. A featureless, monochrome scene with its own terrifying beauty. It filled him with dread. He questioned his decision to move to an island, so soon after the accident. At the time he thought it an astute idea. Someone once said to him he should dance with his demons, although he couldn’t imagine how this performance would transpire, or in what style: salsa, tap, the latest street dance or considering he was going to St Kilda, perhaps a ceilidh?
There was no point trying to deny it, in his mind there still remained an eroding fear. No virtual therapy session was going to dispel the shadow of doubt. Something had changed since the fateful day, he thought. It wasn’t just the headaches, the amnesia, the hypersomnia, the sudden light-headedness and loss of balance, or even the recent inability to concentrate his thoughts. It was something else, something more unfathomable. His mind would drift and then be brought back to reality with a jolt. It would leave him with a displaced feeling that somehow his soul, if such a thing existed, had momentarily abandoned his body. He was absorbed by an emotion he described as waiting on the edge of a precipice and counting down the days to an unknown event. It didn’t help the air inside the cabin was becoming unnaturally thick and heavy. His is normal reaction to the anxiety was to sleep. Today was no different.
His brain was sinking into the slow folds of somnolence and the onset of a dream when a noise roused him back into full consciousness. The sound reverberated from deep beneath the ship, down in the bowels of the earth. It was detected in his internal organs rather than the ears. The metal hull vibrated liked a plucked guitar string, sending a shudder the length of his body. He lay flat and motionless as if gripped by the cold steel jaws of a vice. The tremor passed. Silence descended like a comfort blanket to dampen his rising fear. He savoured the moment of relief. A seed of serenity was germinating from within and then an alarm bell sounded out in the corridor and the ship veered off course. He felt a heave in his gut and his chest bulged, as if recoiling from the crushing influence of a dead weight being lifted from his torso. He sat up and peered across the cabin to the porthole. He heard a thunderous noise from outside and then the natural light was snuffed out.
He felt his naked body falling. Like tumbling down an spiral staircase and then darkness. When he regained consciousness he found himself face down and submerged in water. Panic consumed him. His fingers searched for an anchor point, something fixed to hold on to. He pushed against the solid surface beneath him. On his hands and knees now, he gasped for air and tried to regain his balance. His cabin had been cast into an impenetrable gloom. He groped his way towards the door and finally, on discovering the handle, he opened it. A torrent of seawater swirled around his legs. Fighting the dizziness in his head he kicked his way through the slanting, flooded corridor and towards the dim green light at the foot of the stairwell. He climbed. At the top he stopped to take his breath. Making his way along the deck, he found a hatch door. He opened it. A welcoming burst of daylight blinded him but curiously, as his eyes adjusted, he found a swirling mist had engulfed the ship; like he had emerged within a cloud. The cold, salt laden wind strummed against his exposed flesh. He cursed the reality of the situation, wishing for the dramatic experience to be a dream or part of the virtual therapy session corrupted by a software virus and gone tragically wrong. He stood on the deck, his mind a negated vault, unable to provide reasonable or logical explanations to current events. A disorientated brain trying to make sense of a hopeless situation.
He felt an intense pain in the back of his head. He reached round with his fingers and found the lump where the blow had been received, presumably when falling out of his bunk. He wondered how long he had been unconscious. Strangely, there didn’t appear to be any other survivors fleeing from the ship. No hysterical characters being slapped across the face and told to stay calm. No lifeboats full of sobbing mothers holding their children close. No crew in high visibility jackets directing passengers to safety and enforcing a regime of calm sensibility. No string quartet playing reassuringly until the final moments. He presumed the lifeboats must have already been deployed, when he had passed out, and assembled on the opposite side of the ship. He could see no other reason for the deserted scene. The ferry was listing heavily, and there was no way of escape without jumping into the sea.
He edged further along the upper deck, holding onto the rails. He found a spot where he could safely fix his eyes to the water below. A paralysing fear consumed him. His breath quickened. Landing on the melange of wreckage, some visible on the surface but some under the swells, raised its own levels of concern, but right now the intrinsic fear of water itself had swamped his judgement. As he approached the bridge he came across the empty pod of a life raft. The interior was streaked with blood. He summoned his inner voice, searching for logical alternatives to jumping but all the while his subconscious was undermining his cognitive process with the stark realisation he was delaying the inevitable. He wondered how long he could he survive in the North Atlantic without a survival suit. Minutes? Hours? He convinced himself he would have jumped by now if he had spotted a lifeboat, so some level of logic had prevailed. He was also well aware if the ship went under he would have to swim well clear if he wasn’t to be sucked under. This concept was based on nothing more than watching disaster movies and he chastised himself for not knowing if this was accurate or not.
He wondered how long it would take for the ship to sink and considered the option of waiting it out until the Coast Guard sent out their cutters, or the emergency services dispatched a rescue drone to save him. If he could only find some warm clothes from one of the suitcases he had come across, strewn around the lower decks, but this would mean going back into the darkness. Into the body of the ship. He peered back towards the stern where he had come from. Water was flooding in from below. He decided he needed to find a higher level. His hands fumbled along the ship’s superstructure until he grasped a metal ladder. He scuttled to the top and stood, perched over the sea like a heron studying the waters beneath its feet.
Higher now, he was afforded a better view. Something else disturbed him. For the first time he could see through the surface of the water. A submerged light from the ship was illuminating the unfathomable depth of the precipitous green sea. New demons were now at work in his mind, egged on by the submersed orbs which danced in the scattering light. The scene instilled a primal fear of being swallowed whole, of drowning and being lost forever in the dark void below. His dark thoughts were interrupted by the high pitched screech from a passing flock of guillemots. He watched the birds fly towards, where he imagined, the coastline to lie. He envied their wings.
Finally he prepared himself for the jump. He decided he needed to take three deep breaths. The first breath made his head dizzy. On the second breath his body stiffened. Then, through his feet, he felt a metallic fracturing noise emanate from the ship’s hull. A shudder ran through his body, almost throwing him from the ladder. His fingers tightened around the metal rung. His breath was snatched away by the augmenting fear in his gut. He gasped for air. He was convinced the ship was at least mocking him and at worst was trying to kill him. “What in Christ’s name?” he cried out loud. His soliloquy sounded breathless, pitiful and high pitched for such a large man. The ship groaned. A slower but more sustained noise this time, but just as distressing. A metallic grinding sound reverberated through the air as the ship’s bulkheads filled with invading water, pulling the ship under. The vessel lurched and then progressively descended into the water, like a coffin being lowered into its grave. He felt his body arch, drawn towards the sea and for a nauseating moment it appeared the space between his widening eyes and the water had compressed. Gripping the rails tighter he muttered incomprehensible words dubbed with a roll call of expletives.
He had arrived on deck like a rutting stag running across the hillside, adrenaline coursing through his veins but the stag had disappeared and in its place was a frightened rabbit, caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. He was impotent with fear. He was consumed with a feeling of wretched helplessness. Like the draining grains of sand in an hour glass, every second brought him closer to the time he would have to enter the sea. He tried not to stare at the cold unwelcoming water. The aquatic Medusa, turning him to jelly rather than stone. He crept further up the metal ladder until he could go no further. He found a discarded lifejacket hooked onto the metal railing. He slipped it over his quivering body and for a brief moment he relished his morsel of good fortune. A degree of clarity returned to his brain. His breath quickened on conceding the jump could not be put off any longer. He needed to swim clear of the vessel and find a lifeboat, or face going under with the ship.
His eyes settled on the surface of the sea for one last time. He could see a clear patch of green water. His body began to shake but as if drawn to the water by an invisible force, he leapt forward, tucking his legs up under his chin as he fell. The fall lasted little more than a second. He smacked the surface of the water so hard his buttocks and thighs felt like they had been struck with a bull whip. He was submerged and his weight carried him downwards. The coldness of the water gripped every muscle in his body, stiffening him to the verge of paralysis. His bones felt as if they were about to fracture. For a brief moment he thought he could hear the stifled sounds of other passengers thrashing somewhere in the water, and then the buoyancy of the lifejacket carried him back to the surface.
Finally his head broke the surface of the water and once more he felt the cold wind on his face. He dragged deep breaths of air into his lungs and kicked back his legs until he gained some stability. He treaded water for a moment, remaining afloat until he came to his senses. He swam. Slowly at first and in no specific direction. His instinct was to move, if only to keep his heart pumping. He came upon a piece of wreckage and clung to it, allowing his teeth to chatter uncontrollably in-between catching his breath. And then a glimpse of something new. His heart began to race. Piercing through the mist, the bright orange image of a life raft, the pulse of the ocean making it rise and fall in the white tipped swells. A feeling of hesitancy engulfed him. He trembled at the prospect of drowning midway as he swam to his salvation. At last, he let go of the floating debris and swam. His pace was slow and cumbersome. He struggled to keep a steady course. A large wave swamped him. Salt stung his eyes and for a moment his vision was impaired. He stopped and treaded water for a while. The sea rotated his body and his eyelids closed over. He blinked repeatedly until the burning sensation passed. When he regained his vision he had lost sight of the raft. Time seemed to stretch, seconds passed like minutes, the minutes like hours. He turned his head rapidly, desperately trying to relocate the raft. His guts twisted with the sensation of despair and the disintegration of all hope, but finally the raft reappeared, observed in snapshots through the oscillating motion of the sea. He pulled himself through the cold sea, his hands clawing at the water and his legs thrusting back, and after a final lung bursting effort it was only a few strokes from his floundering body. At last he managed to put one exhausted hand on the grab rope and using his last reserves of strength, he held on, floating lifelessly like a rag doll.
With every heartbeat his veins had permeated with adrenalin, mitigating the effects of the cold Atlantic Ocean, but now his semi-naked body had stopped shivering and he started to become drowsy. He heard excited voices from within the raft, a woman’s and then a man’s. Another woman interrupting, an older voice, frail but austere. An argument of sorts. It sounded like the survivors were panicking, but he was cheered by the resonance of human voices. He felt a surge of optimism growing from somewhere deep down inside. Using his final reserves of strength, he shifted around to the entrance of the raft. He forced his head through the aperture, hauled up his torso and dragged his bare legs onto the platform.
Struggling to catch his breath, he crawled to the far side of the raft and crumbled to a heap on the plastic floor. His mind was blank, his body spent and flaccid and his purple lips were pressed firmly against the synthetic rubber of the inflated pontoon. When he broke from his loving embrace, he surveyed his new found inner sanctum with nebulous eyes. Under the canopy his world was bathed in a soft orange glow, giving the illusion of warmth, but he was cold and wet. He shivered uncontrollably. There appeared to be only two survivors on board, both men. One lay flat out and brandished a nasty cut to the head. He was unconscious. The other man was moving towards him with a silver foil blanket and introducing himself with a number of questions. He ignored him, but he noticed the same look of apprehension in the man’s eyes reflecting his own fears. The man persisted ranting.
“Are there any other survivors? The man said, “How long were you in the water? What happened to your clothes? What’s your name?” He held up a weak hand in protest.
“Bull, my name is Bull,” came the reply to the last question.