Wild Swimming

Sundown rippled across the waves as Laurie slipped into the water; the cold, slapping against her thighs as she edged further out to sea, leaving the laughter of children behind, their form, a string of Lowry dots strewn across a hot shoreline. Her muscles tightened as more of her flesh was touched by the cold of the ocean, tensed as blood rushed away and up to her core, where it was warmer, less hostile.

As her shoulders slid under, until her head was fully submerged and her flesh engulfed, silence was the thing she relished most. If anything happened on the shore, she would not hear, her ears only taking in echos of gentle ocean currents and of boat engines far out in the distance; here, in the water, it was cold and quiet. The temperature drop focused her mind on the movement of her body, as she kicked and swung each arm out to sea, towards the sun as it began to hide behind the line of the horizon. She could only see the light under the water, the colour of the sea removing the orange glow of the skyline, the way a childhood storybook removed an image with a single sheet of coloured acetate, wiping it out completely and showing you a different picture through a different coloured lens. Above and below the water line were two different scenes, the image below the water, darker, mysterious, expansive. She found the vastness of the ocean liberating, freeing her mind. Laurie had seen the Ice Man, Wim Hof, explaining the Ayurvedic effects of cold water on the immune system, as well as the mind, hormones, blood flow, skin and hair. Her hair floated freely in wet strands, her skin felt the tingle of the North Sea salt water, cleansing her flesh and renewing her mind. Friends talked about wild swimming, but it had not made sense, not until she had felt the cold on her own flesh and submerged her body into the silence of the sea. It had become addictive, a way of numbing the thoughts that shouted at her as the day drew to a close, clamouring for her attention. As her body temperature dropped, so did life’s pressures. What had begun as a sponsored open water swim, had now become part of her daily ritual, a way of letting her thoughts slip into the ocean, carried off to some far flung shore, where no one knew her name.

A small shoal of fish swam beneath her, the colours, intense and beautifully untouched beneath the surface of the water. Shells and rocks clustered against the sea bed. She came up for air, then dived back down, deep enough to see again. The gentle pull of her arms as she glided through the water allowed her to scan her surroundings, feel her senses, ease her thoughts. A lone grey seal swam alongside her, watching her, matching her speed. It was curious, playful, perhaps wanting company. Maybe it had been one of the seals she had seen basking on Blakeney Point yesterday morning. It looked at her sideways, then pulled up in front of her in the water and nuzzled against her face, like a puppy wanting to play. She stroked its head, looked it in the eyes, then came up again for air. The seal came with her, its head popping up out of the water, looking at her, wanting something, connection maybe. They were too far out from the shore for anyone to notice. The seal snorted, blowing water from its nose, water droplets spraying out from its whiskers, and almost in synchronicity, both dived back down below the surface. As she began to swim, her new friend was swimming along on the other side of her, this time looking straight ahead. She had seen warnings, on a holiday in St. Ives in Cornwall earlier in the year, not to swim with seals, but this one seemed docile and she didn’t have any food on her that might cause any problems. Without looking at her, and as though it had heeded the warning, the seal turned away and swam off into the distance, disappearing into the darkness of the ocean.

Laurie turned back to the shore, swimming towards the dots on the beach in the distance. There was little more than a gentle swell; the sun, hot against the backs of her shoulders. Doves swooped and dived overhead, as though willing her back to land. The sound of small boats echoed in the distance. As she drew closer to the shoreline, sounds of children playing rose up from the sand dunes; the form of the dunes, undulating in sweeping arches, grasses reaching towards the sun. She watched the swell of the waves before they broke against the shore, forming white froth and settling on the sand, before being pulled back towards her. As she reached the shallows, thoughts of the seal entered her mind, with its intense eyes and its desire to be with her, its curiosity. She’d wanted to follow it. Her children ran up to her, threw sandy hands around her body, showed her sandcastles and shells. She smiled, accepting a mug of coffee from her brother, along with a towel. They watch the sun lower over the horizon, dried their bodies in the residual heat of the sun.

Tomorrow, they would return and she would see a lone seal sitting on the shore. It would watch her, scuttle back into the ocean, and look back to see if she would follow, then it would disappear back into the water.

FC Malby

FC Malby is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her short fiction has been longlisted in The New Writer Magazine Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes, and won the Litro Magazine Environmental Disaster Fiction Competition. She was shortlisted by Ad Hoc Fiction, Lunate Fiction and TSS Publishing, and her work has been nominated for Non Poetry Publication of the Year in the Spillwords Press 2021 Awards.