The bright sun reflected off the wet sand and dazzled him as he stood before the calm sea. He held his hand up, covering the sun, and allowing him to look across the beach. It surprised him that people were able to paddle so far out. He could see children even younger than himself standing in shallows that only reached their knees.
It was such a perfect day that Michael only had two worries. His first and biggest was that he’d get sunburnt again. Most people assumed that because of his dark skin he wouldn’t burn, but last summer in Spain painfully proved that wasn’t the case.
He second worry was the cold. The air temperature may match Spain, but the water temperature on the east coast of Britain wasn’t even close to that in the Mediterranean.
Michael decided to paddle. He stepped forward and the sea brushed against his toes. Another few steps and the water stroked his ankle. It wasn’t as cold as he had expected and he kept walking forward towards the people playing on the sand bank.
The coldest moment was when the water reached his waist. He hadn’t planned to go that deep but the sand dipped down in a channel between him and his goal. It was only a short distance and then he’d rise back up onto shallower ground.
Michael’s foot came down on nothing and he tumbled forward. The cold shock stung him but he was a competent swimmer so quickly righted himself and started swimming across the deep trough. He only had a short distance to go; less than half the length of his usual swimming pool.
His favourite swimming stroke was back stroke but his front crawl was perfectly adequate. His arms swung forward and his cupped hands pulled against the salty water. One stroke, two, ten, twenty. His arms were feeling the work he was putting into them but he still hadn’t reached the safety of the sand bank.
He paused and doggy paddled while he looked up. The distance hadn’t shrunk at all. If anything the sand bank looked further away. He realised that he wasn’t just floating in one spot; the current was dragging him along the channel of water that separated the beach from the sand bank.
Michael angled his strokes against the pull and made some progress. He soon tired and slowed. Immediately the water carried him back and the sand bank once more receded from his grasp.
He gave up and turned back towards the beach but the currents gripped him in a chill embrace and tugged him away.
As his tired arm lifted Michael turned his head to take a much needed breath. A small, gentle wave slapped his arm and water splashed back into his mouth. He breathed it in.
Water instead of air.
Water that choked.
His head was too low. More water entered his mouth and filled his lungs. He desperately kicked his legs and pulled with his aching arms to raise his head enough that he could cough out and breathe in pure air.
The beach was only a short distance away. He had swam further. Much, much, further. All he had to do was keep going. One big effort and then once his feet touched the sand he could rest.
He decided to do twenty strokes before looking again. He bravely put his head down remembering all he had been taught. He stretched and glided with his arms. He kicked with his legs. He took a breath on each upstoke, exaggerating his head lift to account for any waves.
One stroke, two, three… twenty.
He allowed his feet to sink. He pushed down with outstretched arms and lifted his head to see.
The beech had moved. The ice cream van was further to his right. The deck chair seller was directly ahead. The car park was creeping across in front of him even as he watched. And all of it was still out of reach. Still too many strokes away.
He ducked his head down and counted stokes once more.
One, two, three… forty.
He’d planned on doing fifty but didn’t have the energy. His legs had no power. His arms were flapping and dragging through the water with no real pull.
The current had pulled him sideways and out towards the open ocean.
He took another stroke.
And one more.
The last of his strength ebbed away.
He could see people. People building sand castles, eating ice-creams, sun bathing, playing cricket, kicking balls, hitting balls, throwing balls, chasing dogs, laughing happy people.
He tried to wave his arms. He tried to shout but couldn’t.
His head bobbed down and coldness covered him.
He rose again and snatched a breath.
A small, quiet wave enveloped him.
Another lifted him momentarily.
A screech caused him to look up. A gull slid passed silhouetted against the blue sky, stripped of all colour except for its yellow beak that seemed to glow intensely in the sunlight.
Michael forced his arm to stretch up. His noticed the water drops glistening against the dark background of his skin. He dropped his arm back down into the swell and tried to pull a handful of water towards him.
The gull landed on the top of a wave. He watched it rise and fall. Its serene eye turned toward him and then flicked up as another gull flew overhead.
With insolent ease the gull flapped and lifted out of the sea’s clutches and into the sky.
Michael couldn’t flap, couldn’t fly.
He stopped fighting. His feet floated down. His exhausted arms fell to his side.
He looked up at the birds as they rose and fell, playing with air currents he couldn’t see.
He tipped back, stretched out his arms, lifted his legs and floated.
His head was half submerged.
His ears filled with salty silence.
The sun warm on his face.
He closed his eyes.
The sea rocked him.
He remembered lying in a blanket while his mum and dad gently swung him from side to side.
The sea held him.
He remembered their loving arms around him.
The sea murmured in his ear.
He remembered their sweet goodnight kisses.
The sea carried him up and down, in and out, around and around.
He opened his eyes and looked up.
The gulls were gone.
The sun was behind him.
He paddled to turn.
Looked between his feet.
Saw his mum waving at him.
He wanted to wave back.
He let his feet drop down and prepared to make one last effort to lift his arm.
His feet struck gold.
Sand fumbled against his toes and held him firm.
His tired legs lifted him.
Water released his head, his hands, his heart.
Into his mother’s safe embrace.