Learning to Breath – a short story

Meg was feeling slightly sick as the little dinghy bobbed about on the swell. She and six others were all crowded on to the little rubber boat, tanks between their knees, pressed up against each other, sleek in their wetsuits.

She had got most of her kit on on-shore, struggling into her skin-tight wetsuit, heaving the heavy weight belt on with fingers numb from the cold Atlantic breeze, and strapping the big bladed knife to her thigh in case of trouble. Then, pleased to be feeling like ‘one of the boys’, she’d helped carry the rubber dinghy from the car park, down the pebbled beach, to where they launched it on to the choppy grey ocean.

This was her first ever open water dive. A virgin diver, the lads called her. She was the only woman on the trip, although there were one or two others who came to the weekly meetings at the echoey old Victorian pool back in London. That was where she’d trained and suffered, and where she’d very nearly drowned on many occasions in the five months or so since she’d joined the club.

She remembered the first lesson, when she was told she would have to swim 10 lengths with the weight belt on before they’d even consider teaching her anything else. Grim determination got her there, her arms pulling the water out of the way and legs kicking frantically, just managing to keep her slight frame afloat. It had taken four attempts, but she finally succeeded and progressed on to the next stage.

Clearing your mask.

Doesn’t sound very difficult she had thought at the time, but it proved to be another stumbling block, that, in truth, she still struggled with a bit. The trick, they told her, was to grasp the bottom of the mask and lift it up at the same time as blowing through your nose. Theoretically that should empty any accumulated water from it. But usually Meg ended up with her eyes stinging and feeling more like a goldfish peering through its bowl at the world beyond.

Nevertheless, as the weeks passed, she became more confident and was eventually able to attempt the final hurdle, which was to put all the equipment on at the bottom of the pool. Again, it took several attempts. Just diving down there was difficult enough, and then to position the weights across her legs before gasping at the air was well, challenging. On several occasions she just didn’t have enough air left in her lungs to blow the water from the mouthpiece before taking a breath, and resurfaced gasping and floundering. In the pub afterwards, the men would tease her mercilessly, but she’d stuck at it, and eventually built up the strength to get through it.

She had seen the advert for the diving club in the local paper. She’d tried one or two other types of clubs in the past, even the WI, but found, as the ‘new girl’ the small talk and false camaraderie made her feel like a fish out of water so she hadn’t stayed for long. She had never even dreamt about doing such a potentially dangerous thing before, but now she was alone, she felt that she needed something, a distraction, just to feel alive – to do something extraordinary to get away from the daily grind of surviving. Sod the danger.

Working as a receptionist at the surgery she’d always felt like piggy in the middle, with both the patients and the Doctors harassing her. She tried to be professional, really she did, but recently she’d found herself not only making uncharacteristic silly mistakes, but snapping at patients and colleagues alike, and to make things worse, she’d been called in for ‘a chat’ with Di, the Practice Manager who had even suggested she might benefit from medication. Bloody cheek!

Although she was slowly coming to terms with being on her own, the split had left her feeling bewildered, lost, hurt and angry. She knew very well that she’d been prickly and often said things she regretted later. She suspected, that that was probably why Dan had decided to leave her and go and live with his dad instead. A 15 year old boy only has so much understanding to give his mum.

Anyway, he had been very interested in her new hobby, and she was hoping that he might even start to join her at the pool every week. At least it would be regular contact. Not like now, when he often seemed too busy to even talk to her on the phone. She’d tried texting too, but her texts were clearly not so urgent as the saucy ones from his fan club of girls.

Now, though, now was her time. The virgin diver. She sat on the edge of the dinghy confidently adjusting the straps of the tank, pulling on the big black flippers, and tightening the mask that she knew would leave those unattractive ridges on her face when she took it off. Someone turned on her air supply and she put the mouthpiece in and immediately blew out, as had become natural now.

She tipped backwards over the edge of the dinghy, and briefly glimpsed her flippers against the sky before sinking. The shock of the cold water made her entire body contract as though the pressure on the outside had purged everything inside. She heard the comforting, and now familiar, mechanical sound of her breathing, and smiled to herself, before sending a quick ok signal to her companion. Then feeling strong and free she headed off into unknown waters.

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Masks

Meg was feeling slightly sick as the little dinghy bobbed about on the swell. There were seven of them all crowded on to the little rubber boat, sleek in their wetsuits, unnaturally pressed up against each other, tanks propped between their knees.

She had got most of her kit on on-shore, heaving the heavy weight-belt on with fingers numb from the cold Atlantic breeze, and strapping the big bladed knife to her thigh in case of trouble. Then, with no dispensations for age or gender, she helped carry the dinghy down the pebbled beach from the car park to float it on to the matching grey ocean.

This was her first open water dive. A virgin diver, the lads called her with a nudge and a wink. She was the only woman on this trip, although there were one or two other, younger girls, who came to the weekly meetings at the echoey old Victorian pool back in London. That was where she’d trained and suffered, and very nearly drowned on many occasions, in the months since she’d joined the club. She remembered the first lesson, when she was told she would have to swim 10 lengths with the weight belt on before they’d consider teaching her anything else. Grim determination got her there, her arms pulling the water out of the way and legs kicking frantically, just managing to keep afloat. It had taken four attempts, but she finally succeeded and progressed on to the next stage.

Clearing your mask.

Doesn’t sound very difficult she had thought at the time, but it proved to be another stumbling block, that still she struggled with sometimes. The trick was to grasp the bottom of the mask and lift it up at the same time as blowing through your nose.  Theoretically it should empty any water out of it. But no, usually Meg ended up feeling more like a goldfish peering through a bowlful of water at the world beyond.

Nevertheless, as the weeks passed, she became more confident and was eventually able to take the final hurdle, which was to put all the equipment on at the bottom of the pool. Again, it took several attempts. More often than not she just didn’t have enough air in her lungs to blow the water from the mouthpiece before taking a breath, and resurfaced gasping and spluttering, giving the men good reason to tease her mercilessly when she joined them at the pub after the session.

She had seen the advert for the diving club in the local paper. She had never been sporty or adventurous, but now she was on her own she felt she needed to prove herself, and it would be good to have an unusual distraction that took her away from the daily grind at the surgery, where she had to fix her smile in place to cover her almost constant irritation with both the patients and doctors. The other receptionists seem to cope all right, and she thought she did too until the episode with old Tom Burns, who had always been difficult and abusive, but this time he’d actually slapped her. Sandra, the junior, had been quick to call the police and they took the poor old soul away.

Try as she might, she couldn’t really remember what had happened. She might very well have been sharp with him. She often was prickly since the divorce, and sometimes said things she regretted later.  She suspected, that that was why Dan had decided to leave her and go and live with his dad instead. A 15 year old boy only has so much understanding to give his mum.

Anyway, he had thought her new hobby ‘cool’, and she was hoping that he might even start to join her at the pool every week, even if it was only with the foolish and unrealistic promise of warm waters in exotic locations to come. At least it would be regular contact. Not like now, when he often seemed too busy to even talk to her on the phone. She’d tried texting too, but somehow her texts didn’t seem as urgent as those from his fan club of girls.

Now, though, it was her time. The virgin diver. She sat on the edge of the dinghy pulling on the big black flippers, accepting help with the tank, and tightening the mask, pulling out wisps of hair, knowing that there would be unattractive ridges on her face when she took it off. Someone turned the air on and she put the mouthpiece in and blew out as had become natural now.

She tipped backwards into the uninviting water. Hearing the now familiar mechanical sound of her breathing, she sent an ok signal to her companion and headed off into unknown waters.