Evening Swim

I throw myself into the sea, for joy.
The crowds have gone.
These shallows hold the day’s heat.
Properly afloat, I point myself into the rush and roar of waves.
I know and override the reflex fear,
emerge into the colder, darker water
where the proper swimming starts:
a steady breast stroke. Take a breath. Head under for two strokes,
and up, and breathe, and under for two strokes, and out and out.

I stop and turn to face the shore.
How distant seems the playtime fuss of breakers here.
How even more remote my solitary car, across the beach, above the dunes.
The grown-up ocean thrills and carries me.
I’m strong. I’ve been this far before. I’m tiny in the deep.

The inward swim, the same procedure: arms and legs
are confidently forcing water backwards, minute after minute.
Stop again. I’m tired now, and breathing hard.
The waves, the shore, the dunes, the car
have all stayed where they were.

Trust to your strength. Increase the rate. Head under for two strokes,
and up, and breathe, and under for two strokes…
I’m spending energy so limbs and lungs are burning
but no progress. I am far from joy, as cold and doubt approach me.
Am I strong? What is this unaccustomed feeling
as my body loses power and my breath is ugly snoring
from a mouth so stretched to gaping that I swallow water
and its sour arrival makes my stomach flinch?

Try not to panic. Stop once more. Cease swimming for a while.
Perhaps a shoreward drift will catch you, reel you in.

That life could end this easily.
He died of carelessness.
Police, alerted, found the little pile of clothes, the towel, the car key. Obvious.
Informed the next of kin.
Increased by one the count of summer drownings.
Later, down the coast, the sea coughed up a pustulating mess.

I hang there, waiting on the sea’s caprice,
out of my element and mortally alone,
my fellow humans – all six billion of them – elsewhere.

The day I learnt to read.
My birth year and my death year on a stone.
The time I held her in a field of sunflowers.
The time I made her angry and she ran along the shore ahead of me.

Perhaps the shore is closer than it was?
Encouraged, I begin to swim again. This time I’m travelling.
Relief adds purchase to my strokes.
Head under, one stroke, two strokes, up again and breathe. And in and in.

I’m near the waves, I’m in their gravity,
one covers me, it spins me round,
I’m happy to be helpless as my head hits sand.
The wave recedes. I try to stand. The next one knocks me down.
I stand again and, stumbling, gain the land.

Bent over, hands on knees, I puke up water, groaning,
empty but of gratitude. The pride is out of me.

The footprints from the shoreline to my clothes: unsteady, wandering.
These seabirds are my only witnesses.
I dry and dress myself, and climb the wooden steps up to the road.

I open all the windows of the greenhouse car
and head for home. The pride is sneaking in.
Ascending through the gears, I plan my story
as the blessed breeze I might have missed is ruffling my hair
and crystallising salt on sun-tanned skin:
I did enjoy my swim. The sea was warm. The waves were fun.

Listen to this poem — read by the author