The last day of my life as I knew it was a baking hot Thursday in the last week of August.
School would be starting again in a week – the A-level years. The years when our futures would be forged; when the consequences of a failed test, a skipped assignment, a hasty choice could haunt us for years to come – or so Mum was keen to remind me. The end of summer and the foreboding spectre of adulthood loomed darkly on the horizon.
But that was a week away and until then, my plans involved nothing more strenuous than enjoying the sunshine and my last few days of being footloose and fancy free.
How blissfully ignorant I was.
As the blistering heat scoured the surface of the small island I call home, we lay side by side, a row of tight packed sweaty sardines, on the gently rocking raft in the middle of the bay. Gulls cawed noisily to each other; I squinted up at them as they wheeled overhead, the only blemishes on the canopy of faded denim sky. Tinny radio tunes and the screams of small children playing in the surf echoed from the shoreline. But from out here in the bay, the busy beach was a distant planet.
We’d arrived at the bay early that morning and made the swim out to the raft, our supplies for the day tied to our backs in plastic bags. It was a popular spot – especially in this heat – so we wanted to stake our claim before any like-minded souls beat us to it. It was worth sacrificing the extra half hour in bed for – it was so peaceful out here and the view of the bay was something else – from the quaint little chapel at one end to the heather covered cliffs at the other, on top of which Gran’s small white cottage nestled, overlooking the golden sands beneath.
But after a couple of hours under the relentless sun, I began to feel like perhaps I’d had too much of a good thing. My back was melting into the surface of the raft. I peeled myself free, breaking the suction with an audible pop, and lifted the thick mass of curls off of my neck – my hair was a curse in this weather. I looked along our row at my fellow raft mates; my older twin sisters Bell and Lucy, Bell’s boyfriend Fin and – of course – Seth. I say of course, because Seth not being by my side was a rarity. We were born on the same day and, thanks to the ensuing friendship between our mothers, had been an intrinsic part of each others lives ever since. Being the youngest of six girls, he was like the welcome brother I never had. Only our good friend Pete was missing from the line-up. He’d been noticeable by his absence this summer, choosing to spend it working on a building site instead of hanging out at the beach. No amount of money could be worth that on a day like today – and I missed him being around.
I looked down at Seth’s prone form, his clammy thigh stuck to mine. He stirred, sensing my scrutiny, and squinted up at me through thick dark lashes. I coveted those luxurious lashes – wasted on a boy in my opinion.
“Evie – you’re blocking my sun” he complained drowsily.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough already?” I retorted, giving him a playful poke in the ribs.
After six long weeks of sunshine, Seth’s skin was a deep rich shade of brown. His lean torso looked as though it was carved out of polished mahogany. Heeding Mum’s warnings about looking like a croc by the age of 30, I settled for a shade of warm oak.
“Wassup Evie” my sister asked groggily, raising her rumpled head, sunglasses askew on her nose.
“Nothing Bell – just hot”
“So go for a swim – but stop fidgeting, your making the raft rock” she suggested grumpily, lying back down on Fin’s chest. The two of them were joined at the hip, but how she could stand snuggling up to another body in this heat was beyond me.
It wasn’t a bad idea though – I needed to get cooled off before sunstroke set in.
Gingerly, I tried to get to my feet, but quickly sank to my knees again. Standing up after basking in the heat for so long made my head spin and black dots danced before my eyes like busy tadpoles. I shuffled to the edge that way, risking splinters in my shins, and knelt there, waiting for the dizziness to pass. While I waited, I amused myself with the thought of scrambling back on to the raft post-dip and shaking myself like a dog over the others.
I looked down at my reflection on the still surface of the sea. The water wasn’t quite so inviting up close. It wasn’t the same Mediterranean blue that it deceptively appeared to be when you looked out over the bay. It was black, inky. Dense. I reached down and trailed my fingers across the surface, fracturing the frowning face that looked back up at me.
Despite the intense heat, I shuddered as the tide sucked hungrily against the underside of the raft. What was with me? I’d lived on this island surrounded by the sea every day of my life so far – I could swim before I could walk, Mum had made sure of that. But suddenly it filled me with unexpected apprehension of what might lie beneath. I glanced at Seth behind me, looking for a grin or a word that would snap me out of it – but he was oblivious – eyes closed, earphones plugged, fingers drumming out the beat on the wooden surface.
I gave myself a mental shake, trying to rid myself of this ridiculous sense of foreboding that had gripped me out of nowhere. The raft wasn’t that far from shore and, hot day or not, my guess was that the English Channel was probably still a tad too frosty to attract many passing great whites. Absolutely no reason for an attack of the heebie jeebies. So, casting hesitation aside, I wobbled to my feet, curling my toes around the edge of the rough wooden planks for purchase, and pushed off hard – maybe subconsciously trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid to dive right in and face what lay beneath head on.
Stupid stupid stupid.
The cold water hit me like a brick wall. After the baking heat, diving into the water was like being submerged in liquid nitrogen. It literally took my breath away. My heart froze in my chest. Unthinkingly, I gasped as I plunged down into the murky depths, desperate to pull some air back into my lungs, and succeeded only in inhaling a great gulping mouth and noseful of salty sea, which instantly burnt the back of my throat like acid.
Choking and gagging, I flailed for the surface, desperate to breathe in air, instead of salt water. Fuelled by panic, I kicked hard with my legs and propelled myself upwards like an oxygen seeking missile.
But, in my confusion, instead of bursting through the surface into sunlight and fresh air as I had anticipated, I collided forcefully with the hard metal struts on the underside of the raft, smashing my head sharply. My ears rang. My mouth filled with the taste of warm copper as the impact made me bite my tongue hard enough to draw blood.
I felt liquid heat on the side of my face and, when I investigated with my fingertips, they came away red. My stomach performed a slow lazy roll as a dark curtain began to fall across my consciousness. With frustratingly sluggish limbs I tried to grab onto the raft, but it was no use. My grasping fingers fell away. My last coherent thought was to call to the others– to alert them to my predicament . But my voice was lost in the deluge of sea that flooded into my open mouth. I slipped back under and drifted away.
I sank like a stone – into the depths and into unconsciousness. A deep, dark dreamless sleep from which I might never have awoken, had it not been for the piercing voice screaming at me inside my head to WAKE THE HELL UP NOW. I experienced a flash of intense irritation at that voice until I realised it was my own.
Although they felt as heavy as crypt doors, I forced my eyelids open. I could see red in the water, floating by my head in drifting smoky tendrils. It dawned on me then that I could be in some real trouble here. Trying to remain calm, I rummaged through my addled brain, searching for the memory of what I had been taught to do in this situation – taught in the safe confines of the school swimming pool. Look for the light – if you swim towards the light it will bring you to the surface. So repeating that in my head like a mantra against the encroaching hysteria I could feel growing inside me, I tread water while I tried to figure out which way was up. Time seemed to be moving with soupy slowness , though the desperation I was feeling in my lungs was testament to the fact that in reality, it was not. But although my mind was willing, my body was condemningly weak.
Despite my best efforts , the weight of my flaccid body continued to pull me down. From somewhere in the dark chasm beneath me, there came a soft white glow. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing – surely I must be looking at the sun through the surface of the water? But how could that be when the surface was above me and I was spiralling endlessly downwards? To add to my confusion, as I drifted closer, the light began to pulsate like a glowing, beating, subaquatic heart .
The dire urgency of my situation dissipated; I was transfixed. The pain in my head, the bursting sensation in my lungs seemed suddenly secondary. Maybe, my calmer mind reasoned, maybe this was the sun I was looking at – maybe I was moving towards the surface after all. Or maybe this was the light that those people who had come back from the brink of death to tell the tale reported seeing in the moments before their fate went the other way and they were summoned back to life. Or maybe it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it was the most enigmatically beautiful thing I could ever remember seeing.
But for every inch that I moved nearer to the light, so it danced teasingly away from me. It moved and swirled ever deeper, the bright core at its centre waxing and waning, gossamer threads of light spreading and writhing from it. As I stared, slack-jawed and oblivious to all else, the glowing core began to churn, as liquid as the water, and shapes began to form within it. Shapes that I fleetingly recognised. The curve of a cheek, the dark hollow of an eye. People.
The strands of light undulated and wove themselves together, gradually merging while I watched transfixed, until a throng of faces looked back at me. Most were insubstantial with only vague indications of features. But at the glowing heart of the mass was unmistakably the face of a woman. A beautiful young woman who looked directly at me with eyes that were alive and aware. There was no hint of compassion or warmth in that gaze – only cold contemplation.
Something about her scrutiny triggered the alarms in my survival system that even the suspected knowledge that I was probably drowning hadn’t. The spell was broken. The dull acceptance in which I’d floated was overcome by a sudden onslaught of adrenalin and fear. With fear came clarity. What had I been thinking? My fascination with the light had lured me down further into the depths, and, unless I got myself back to the surface now, I was going to pay for that curiosity with my life.
I dragged my eyes away, turned my back and tried to swim with all my might. Shock and pain were really kicking in now I was no longer distracted, but despite using all the energy I could muster, my limping ascent was slow.
Just as I felt I was making some small progress, something – I didn’t dare contemplate what – closed around my ankles, snaked around my calves, pulled me back down. I flailed and thrashed my legs in a desperate bid to break loose, but my captor held fast.
I didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see, but what choice did I have? Sure enough, my worst imaginings were realised. The glowing mass remained lower down in the depths, but its long tendrils had reached out and ensnared me, drawing me back to it until I was close enough to see her face again. But now she wasn’t alone. There was a man’s face too, and a child – a girl, long hair flowing out around her. And another man – strangely familiar – but my oxygen-starved mind couldn’t piece together where I had seen him before. There was no malevolence in these faces, just sorrow, mute acceptance. Their faces reflected the emotions that I now too felt overwhelming me, as if I were connected to some strange collective consciousness with these apparitions.
I stopped fighting, stopped thrashing. What was the point? Besides, it wasn’t so bad. The glowing tendrils enveloped my legs entirely and moved up and around my torso as if weaving a cocoon around me. I didn’t try and break free. I felt peaceful again. I knew that I was drowning, but somehow it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the sensation of the gentle probing in my mind, of psyche blending with psyche. My lips parted, but even the water rushing in, down my throat, into my lungs didn’t hurt……….in fact there was no pain at all…………
I was unaware that I was being propelled from beneath, back up towards the surface, until I felt steel fingers digging into the soft flesh of my upper arms, pulling me free of the water – and perversely I was almost sorry to go.
And then I was free, warm air on my skin, a hard surface beneath my back and pounding pressure on my chest, again and again, until a gout of burning salty acid spewed up through my throat. Then the pain closed in on me and the dark veil fell again.
When it lifted momentarily, all I could see above me was Seth’s face, contorted with anguish. Others were huddled in next to his, but all I could see was him. His lips moved , but his words couldn’t reach me. I wondered if this was a dream – if in reality I was still under the water and these were the last deluded thoughts of my dying mind. It seemed that must be true, this couldn’t be real – because Seth was glowing , soft white light emanating from him in a perfect aura as if he were some heavenly being and not just my familiar friend. His dark eyes, luminous with tears in his suddenly ethereal face, were the last things I saw before I gratefully slipped back into unconsciousness……..
Click below for Chapter 2