I swim far out into the Ionian Sea – and then I panic | Life and style

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theguardian

At the start of our Greek holiday, Freddie, the owner of the house we’re renting, arrives to welcome us. He keeps a respectable social distance, standing just outside the door and rolling a cigarette. Behind him is a hill covered in pines. Out the window to my left, the Ionian Sea sparkles.

“You should keep the doors shut when you’re here,” he says.

“Really?” says our friend. It’s 36C outside.

“It’s better for you,” he says, lighting his fag. “Because there are animals that can get in.”

“Animals?” my wife says. “Animals like insects, or like mice?”

“Pine martens,” Freddie says.

“Pine martens,” says someone. “Aren’t they nice?”

“No,” says Freddie. “They’re mean.” I think, don’t worry – I will shut the doors.

“Can we walk to the sea from here?” my wife asks.

“Yes,” Freddie says, shrugging and tilting his head to one side, as if to gird his answer in philosophical qualification: yes, insofar as any of us can do anything.

“Is it far?” my wife asks.

“It’s not far, but it’s steep,” he says. “It’s not for old people.”

“I’m not sure who you’re referring to, Freddie,” she says. Freddie smiles.

“Someone,” he says, “who does not exist.”

The path to the sea is not for old people. It plunges precipitously through dense forest, over loose rock, for about half a mile. All the way down I think, why did I wear flip-flops? When I am not looking at my feet, I scan the branches above for pine martens.

Eventually, we reach a tiny pebble beach in an inlet, with views across the strait to the cliffs of the island opposite. I dive in and swim out until I am hundreds of metres from everything. During the long months of lockdown many people seem to have craved social interaction, public spaces, multitudes. But this is what I have craved: true, unforced isolation.

I see a yellow marker bobbing in the distance and decide to swim to it. After a while, it becomes clear that it’s further than I thought, but the sea is flat and warm. I feel incredibly buoyant and although the water is deep beneath me, I can see the bottom clearly. Also, I can still hear my wife gossiping with two of our friends as they all float gently, halfway back to shore.

I put my head down and swim. As I clear the rocky point the sea gets a little rougher. The yellow marker now appears only intermittently, on the crests of the waves. I can no longer hear my wife, just the water lapping at my ears.

Finally, when I come within 20 feet of the marker, I panic: I decide my determination to touch it is the thing that is going to kill me. I turn and swim hard for shore, as if being chased. At first, I seem to be making no progress at all, but eventually reach the calmer waters of the inlet, where I realise I had nothing to fear but my fear. As I turn to look back at the yellow marker, I hear the reassuring sound of my wife criticising someone’s furniture.

The next day, as I sit by the pool, the main character in the book I’m reading does a similar thing: he goes for an evening dip in the ocean and absentmindedly swims too far out. By the time he sees where he is, he realises he probably lacks the strength for the return journey. The metaphorical potential of the predicament doesn’t even hit me then, because I’m preoccupied.

“If a pine marten gets into your house, is it then a house marten?” I say.

“A house martin is a bird,” my wife says.

“That makes no sense,” I say.

“You make no sense,” she says.

I do not see any pine martens during my holiday, except in my dreams, where they are much meaner-looking than the charming mustelid pictured on the Wikipedia page. After a while I start leaving the doors open at night, so that any pine martens already in the house will have an exit strategy.

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