The Watery Gowns



In the sea, ever changing, ever redefining its shape, the divers felt life pulsing through them, when they plunged downwards into that vast world where every kind of life and colour and light existed. That underwater world was as rich and variegated as the one above. In three they went and they had no need of words, just gestures and signals that they all instinctively understood. Everything down there was disembodied, slow moving, the divers were shadowy, stripped of their faces, hidden behind masks, their skin hidden behind diving suits, their mouths concealed by their breathing apparatus, oxygen cylinders turning their backs bumpy and rounded. The odd refraction of light; soundwaves quelled by the cushioning glory of water and unimpeded space. Shoals of fish darted this way and that, undisturbed by the three divers, who watched them in fascination. Every now and then a weirdly shaped fish, a tapered apparition rolled and passed by and then twos and threes followed, perfect replicas of one another, clones, recurring moments; their gauzy, distorted forms made the divers think the sea contained more mysteries than any earthly realm. The truths and feelings to be found down there could not be communicated to anyone who had not been down there, in that dark, luminous abyss, that abstract underwater garden.

    One of the drivers pointed to a distended shell, half-hidden by a faintly glowing shrub. The shrub seemed to be coated in a phospherescent substance and the tallest of the trio extracted the shell, which resembled a human ear stretched into weird plasticity. It sank from end to end like an overburdened rope bridge. The shell was promptly set down in an underwater case where it took its place with a hundred others like it and yet different. Later on those shells, small, large, odd, intricate, gaudy, plain, would be glued together to create mosaics, mosaics that depicted scenes from Greek mythology. The works went on show at the Mediterranean Art Gallery in the small town of Caphos on the island and they usually attracted quite a lot of attention and plaudits.  Giorgios, the artist-diver and the leader of the three, was as magisterial and driven as a cheetah; he had even written a book detailing his passion for shells and for their transformation into details in works of art, painstakingly and lovingly assembled. He also ran a taverna with Dora, his wife and fellow diver who was floating close by him. She reached out an ungloved hand to touch the skin-like surface of the shell. She smiled through her mask and the couple executed a little dance of triumph. As they did so Kirsten, who was the youngest of the trio, felt a little displaced from them. They, after all, were bound by marital vows and the activity of their loins. Kirsten had no such connection to another human soul and she was wary of people. Only in the sea, in its underwater chambers, in its caressing, silent embrace, did she feel truly complete, truly whole and peaceful. Up there, in the earthly world, in the terrestrial shell of noise and strife life was heavy, and people made no sense, with their changing patterns of behaviour, contradictory, selfish, and sometimes downright cruel.

    The divers began to rise, drifting upwards like elongated shadows of birds borne skywards. They passed great gold corrugated leaves of macro-algae, moving slowly up and down like giant feather fans, palpitatingly alive. As the divers spiralled upwards towards the shimmering ceiling of light small fish with black and yellow vertical stripes imitated the arc of their movements, almost as though setting up some wondrous homage to their human counterparts. Then the fish sped away, gone, vanishing into the secret places only they knew how to reach.

    The divers, one by one, glided up to their little diving boat, and climbed up over the side by means of a small metallic ladder, removing their gear and breathing apparatus and placing it all on the stern.  The sun was setting and the air was full of the heady vivid sensations of summer. Overhead the sky was beginning to fade to a pinkish red glow. The moon was already visible and Kirsten spied it with her furtive, shy eyes. How different this scene was to those of her childhood and teenage years, before she had come to embrace her new Mediterranean life. In the past summer had only ever been at best a tepid affair, in England, where the temperature never rose above the twenties and where the sky was more often than not a screen of clouds and greyness. In England where were the beautifully tanned people, with their miraculously well proportioned figures and Grecian elegance and love of life? Though she did not understand people, at least she preferred people who were alive and were determined to enjoy that fact. She preferred this richer, more luscious backdrop, its subtle light, dying now, but all the more beautiful and poignant for it, the endless surface of the sea, ever changing, ever moving, but always a harbinger of calm and joy, the tiny vantage point afforded by their boat, and the salt air, which seemed to hold all the textures of life in its invisible embrace.

    They started making their way back to shore, silent and slightly overwhelmed as they tended to be after a dive.

    Kirsten said goodbye to the couple and walked over to her Volkswagen Beettle, dusty and battered in the sandy driveway that led down to the beach. The car had dents everywhere, as though serving as a visible reminder of ’s lack of grace whenever she was out of water.  As a child she had always been accumulating bruises and blisters and seemed to have a knack for harming herself, bumping her head, scraping her knee caps, falling off slides and breaking her wrist, her hip, her nose. Underwater everything was lighter, friction was robbed of its power to hurt, weight was dissipated. Maybe that was why she loved to dive …

     She drove back to the village, where she was staying at a villa that the parents of her friend Melissa had bequeathed to her for a few days. The villa contained worlds of old style grace, filled with ethereal pleasures that only Kirsten (she liked to think) was allowed to taste. From outside the simple beauty of the indigo blue wooden front door with no lock, just a latch, tantalisingly hinted at the magical dimensions of what lay beyond its threshold. The door remained without a lock because the locals and the village still existed in a universe of guilelessness. In Caphos everything slowed down, buses were late, coffee was sipped rather than swallowed, the souvlaki was cooked slowly, the hours passed slowly and it did not matter because either the sun or the sea or something ensured that purposefulness could be discarded and it was fine to do absolutely nothing and yet somehow it was never boring or oppressive. Life could be lived merely by observing, meditating, being.

     The villa was a glorious gift to Kirsten and for three days she sampled all its delights, prising open its secrets, the magnificent view of the village down below and the rows and clusters of evening lights as they switched on magically, the breakfast room and kitchen, with its strangely modern sink, a burnished, smooth block of elegance, the unbelievably opulent plants and geraniums and bougainvillea which she lovingly watered, the long, almost Victorian bathtub that was twice as long as she was, the summerhouse that adjoined the main body of the villa and, most wonderfully of all, the outdoor swimming pool which she slipped into at midnight every night, a small, exquisite pool whose surface was hardly disturbed by the movements of her lithe, naked body, as she swum without sound, greedily clutching at those watery gowns, and pulling them towards her. She strove to become one with the water, to move in tireless, perfect patterns as each stroke, each length she managed became a better and better embodiment of technique and elegance. There, in that midnight shrine, outside, as she floated on her back, looking up, she peered into the basin of the night sky and the constellations and clusters of stars were freckles on the face of the universe. Here was the perfection she had dreamed of: a silky, almost erotic abundance of water, her own form dissolving, melting into it, almost becoming water in all its protean freedom, the natural scene around, where stones and flowers existed in symbiotic, breathheld harmony, as though reality had become an etched painting, and the frozen, still sky, the vacuum of absolute silence, far far away from noise and people. She swam in wonder and gratitude as the night reached out and made love to her.


A wild stretch of the shore with a small beach.

    Close by the shore clusters of rocks formed tiny islands which caught the sun’s glare; children clambered over them, their parents stretched out on them. Further off, walking away from the sea — a complex of new, ugly apartments which had just been built. Kirsten hated them. Far, far off, away in the distance, the wreck of a ship was embedded into the horizon. A Turkish freighter with a cargo of timber had got stuck on the twisted rocks some fourteen years earlier and there it sat, a rusty, static monolith of steel and decay. Tourists sighted it and wondered why it was always there day after day and never shifted until someone pointed out that it would never move again. Something held Kirsten to the shipwreck and she stared at it all the time when she was down by the beach, with its wooden umbrellas and pork chop British tourists and leaden, unsmiling Russians.  She stared at it for hours and sometimes shuddered as its dark form became symbolic of pure evil.  An unmoving malevolent presence that, as the shadows of night gathered, became even darker and evocative of damnation.  The perpetual stasis of this great decomposing carbuncle seemed truly to carve an incision in the sea and disrupt its graceful pulsations and break up its fluidity. When Kirsten drove her car along the dust road, running parallel to the beach, but at an elevated point, she would always look out for the shipwreck. And it never failed to appear, it always came round eventually and in a way it had become part of the sea, even as it tarnished it, a hybrid of steel and water, ensnared by the rocks with which it had begun to fuse. Kirsten began to feel that in that shipwreck the secret of life lay hidden and gradually it occurred to her that she must somehow confront that shipwreck, come face to face with it.

One windy night when the moon was almost full she took out the little diving boat and gradually drifted all the way out towards the shipwreck, afraid and uncertain of what she would find there but she knew that confronting her fear would bring her some kind of peace. She half-expected to see grinning corpses. As she neared the shipwreck’s orbit  — a perpetually splashing foam around steel and rock  — she stopped the boat some meters away, held, scared, hypnotised by that immense, cold, dead form, towering above her and her tiny boat. She felt her skin crawl as some nameless dread gathered all around her. She sat frozen at the back of the boat, trying to arrest even the tiniest of bodily movements, even her breathing, looking out for a predator which would leap out at her from the darkness.  The moonlight caught patches of the watery membrane around her and the water was filled with unknowable things, and a dark beauty was born.  She inched forward and her horror grew as the waves snarled and crashed ever and again into the derelict hull, as though trying to knock dents in it, and weird phantoms were made in that clash between dead metal and water, weird reverberations that scurried across the body of the ship. Kirsten had been thrust into a sound world in which uncanny, greatly magnified noises swiftly succeeded one another.

She felt her skin grow cold and clammy. Adrenaline was shooting through every part of her as she pulled out her torch and pointed it at the ship. There, in its strong beam, she could make out a large rip in the metal and she flashed her torch into it, and inside a cold, abandoned world was partially revealed. It was as if the curtains of a theatre had come down only to reveal nothing, an illusion, behind that façade was mere emptiness, the interior of the world of the ship had long since been stripped and scooped out like the innards of an eviscerated fish. All that remained was the terrible shell of the exterior, locked into the rocky matrix below which had seized it and would never ever relinquish it. She moved her boat in closer, then closer still until it was shaking violently in the current. Then, when her little vessel was touching the great side of the freighter, she stood up and walked uncertainly towards the edge, her knees pressed against the side of the boat, and craned forward and passed both her hands through the great rip in the hull.  Her hands, then her arms, had slipped through to the other side, and she spread out all her fingers, then placed her ear against the cold hard metal wall and listened. The waves smashing against the ship boomed into her eardrum; the sound was magnified, colossal, it plunged into Kirsten with groping tentacles.  She was engulfed in reverberating sound, sound compressed her every fibre. She was steeped in it, deafened, stupefied. She felt as though her body was a conductor of energy, that she had been plugged into the universe’s nameless current and now it was coursing, coruscating through her, through her bones, her heart, her arteries, her brain.

    What was it that lay on the other side? Why was she so desperate to reach it, to touch it? Why was she putting herself through this mad experience? What was it there that she was trying to touch with her outstretched fingers, their knuckles white and burning with tension? Maybe that final day which expires in night with no hope of remedying sunrise (its cleansing hand thrust into the corners of gloom and murk, lifting both as the purifying light exiles all shadows). Maybe she sought an ever lasting dusk, an ever-lasting shadow, a cessation of the senses. She wanted to pass through to the other side, to say that she had dwelled inside that vacuum there, that empty shell, that hollowness but finally she could stand it no longer and she moved her ear away from the hull and pulled her arms back, half surprised that her hands were still attached to them, trembling violently, then she flopped back into the boat, which sea-sawed in the undertow, and she lay stretched out, prey to the violence of motion, incapable of movement or speech or even thought.  She just lay there, half dead, caught in that vortex, the sea had been festooned into a knot and she was suspended there, rattled about in its inexhaustible epicentre …

     But at long last she regained a fragment of strength and she crawled on her hands and knees over to the tiller and started up the engine and began to move off. In the distance she could make out small dots of lights scattered along the shore and she was heartened by them. She resolutely fixed her gaze on the lights as the boat pulsed onward. Looking at them, crouched down there on the deck, the waves of terror subsided and she felt safe, almost protected.

      She felt she had done enough now, she could go back. She had proven something, confronted terror, the uncharted terror of life’s underbelly. She deserved a drink, a strong drink.  She was beginning to reach the shore.  A text message came through on her mobile phone, which was strange as there was no signal out there. It was from Dora asking if she wanted to go diving tomorrow. She suddenly felt like she knew something that the perfect couple didn’t, like she finally had a story of her own to tell, that she had dived deeper than they had this time. Then, brushing these thoughts aside, she remembered the midnight swim at the villa that still awaited her and this gave her a warm glow, a feeling of almost physical warmth. She moored the boat.

    Inside the boat’s cabin she changed into some jeans and a salmon pink, gauzy blouse. On glancing at herself in the mirror she thought she looked a bit shaken and haggard. So she splashed her face with bottled water, dabbed herself with Kleenex, and put on some bright scarlet lipstick, smoothing her lips evenly. She combed her hair carefully, almost with love.  And she noticed that these actions, which normally did not come easily to her and often ended in disaster, were rather enjoyable. She took another look at herself and murmured, ‘Not bad, but you can do better.’ She upended the contents of her bag and found a necklace with a silver-plated shark’s tooth and put it on and its icy, refined beauty was accentuated in the flimsiness of her blouse. Then she dabbed her wrists and cheeks with perfume. Now she was ready.

   As she walked along the shore she noticed that she was still breathing very quickly; it was taking a long time for her to come back down to normal.  Some way down the beach she found a little bar, whose rows of fairy lights announced it, and ordered an ouzo, beginning to feel quite good. A few old unshaven Greeks were playing backgammon, a giant tv screen sat in an ugly corner, some small children splashed in a water pool. Two men in their twenties were smoking cigarettes and chatting easily. They wore ripped jeans and were gorgeously tanned. They both had a cultivated, intelligent air and they sipped Greek coffees and were sharing a plate of baklava. It was as different a situation to the one she had just been in as was possible to imagine.  She was filled with a sweet exhaustion, which at the same time was the residual joy that had slipped through the meshes of overwhelming physical exertion and fear, and life was ineffably sweet. The beautiful surroundings, the ocean that was hers, the future beckoning with its promise of as yet unsampled pleasures and the possibility of love, which was like a menu she had just been handed, filled with subtle, exquisite dishes. At that moment nothing would have saddened or vexed her.

    Would she go diving tomorrow with Dora and Giorgios? She still wasn’t sure. She wondered if the two men — now currently sizing her up — could have guessed what she’d just been doing. They couldn’t help staring at her with remarkably undisguised interest. They could tell that at that moment Kirsten was light, that she was filled with helium, was on the point of rising, wonderfully imperturbable. And when she flashed them both a dazzling smile they were caught off guard, not knowing whether to be embarrassed or to be encouraged or to be self-conscious or to be charmed so they both ended up being all of these. Kirsten’s eyes were bursting at that moment with something, a mischievous affection for these young men, an unaccountable love for them which was totally at odds with their status as complete strangers, as she watched them and wondered about them and concluded that they were clean-cut, sweet guys who were already totally in awe of her and of her mood at the moment in which they had happened to intersect with her and she could see that they were so in awe that they would never have dreamt of starting a conversation or walking over to her.  So she thought about this for a while, still watching them from afar, and then at last she decided that it was up to her so she knocked back the rest of her ouzo and strode over to them almost lazily and the way she moved across the floor was blazingly provocative, the way she rocked her hips and bottom and half pouted and half grinned and then she pulled up a chair and sat down and said softly, ‘Hallo, I’m Kirsten. My hands were just inside a shipwreck.’