She's "the girl that drowned".
I am flipping through an old photo album, which is odd, because no one really has them any more. But I found one I made when I was a child. My own daughter had found it, and had been adding some of her photos to it. I picked it up and idly flicked through it... and suddenly there she is.
Not my daughter. Her.
Not staring back at me, exactly, because that isn't how the photo was taken. It was a sort of candid shot, and she is looking off to one side. She is wearing a plain red t-shirt and a grey jacket. Hair the colour of pale straw, pulled back away from her face in a pony tail, a thick fringe above grey eyes. She isn't smiling, but she looks as if she is about to. She always looked like that.
I know I took this picture, because it's a badly taken one, such as a child might take, and I took it when I was a child. I remember being given the small disposable camera at the start of the holiday, like always. I distantly remember being given the small album, as well, although I am not sure when. It made sense to have somewhere to store the pictures I took. Even if mostly captured my own thumb, or the ground, or a passers-by's sunburnt backfat.
I vaguely remember thinking I should have a photo of "my friend", even though I had never met her before that holiday, and even though I would never see her again.
That is the sort of thing people do, isn't it? Grownups, I mean. Mums, especially. Come on, everybody, let's have a picture....
I know they can be terribly boring creatures, grownups, but they do have one or two good ideas. It's unbearable at the time, but years later you might be flicking through some pictures... and there will be a catch in your stomach and you will go, I remember that.
I remember that holiday. I remember that day. I remember her.
Sometimes you don't especially want to. Maybe you haven't thought of that beach for years. You haven't thought of the odd sensation of being a child surrounded by adults who are really, really frightened - probably for the first time in your innocent, sheltered life. The note of panic in their voices, terror carved into eyes that aren't really seeing you, only the half dead girl on the sand. It almost feels like being invisible. A pampered youngest child in a large family, suddenly shrank into total insignificance. Looking from her limp swim-suited body to the helpless adults, seeking some form of reassurance which doesn't come. They oscillate between trying to make her breathe to scanning the quiet, peaceful strip of sand desperately, desperately, for someone - anyone - please, someone, please! - who can help.
Some things need to be remembered. Sometimes there would be something almost immoral about letting a thing be forgotten. Sometimes, the story has to be told. Sometimes, your fingers have to pause at a particular photo, and you have to say her name.
We were a big family, but I was the only girl in a sea of brothers. My older sisters, being quite grown up and having families of their own, never came with us anymore on the annual trip to the South of France. I wasn't too sure at first, whether I would like this girl who was being foisted onto me. In some way I couldn't articulate, it seemed silly to shove us together and assume we would get along because we were both female and the same age. The girls at school were a hodge-podge of differences, and very picky about who was friends with who. But maybe, after all, even a mean or snooty 8 year old girl would be better than all those noisy, smelly, irritating boys.
It might have been a gamble, or perhaps sometimes grown-ups are not as dull as they like to appear, but either way, it paid off in my favour. Our personalities were well matched and we hit it off right away.
We were inseparable. We giggled together constantly. She was more worldly-wise than me. We saw a young and glamourous looking French couple, all tan and expensive sunglasses, kissing ostentatiously outside a cafe. My friend reliably informed me that they were having sex. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, and in hindsight, I am sure she didn't either. At the time, to my eight year old ears, it sounded equal parts fascinating and hilarious. I stared, open-mouthed. Then we mimed snogging invisible boyfriends and laughed again.
We took all the packets of sugar intended for the teas and coffees, and were terribly indignant when we got in trouble for stealing. We were collecting! We weren't thieves! It was free! We scowled, until we saw yet another couple "having sex", and then we were poking each other in the ribs and smirking all over again.
We watched elegant French people smoking cigarettes, and copied them with pebbles. We couldn't create the plumes of smoke, but we could drop it to the floor and squash it with a dainty stomp of our cheap sandals. We loved doing that. We put our cheap sunglasses on and felt extremely grown up and fashionable.
She taught me, very patiently, to skip. I had never been able to get the hang of it. My class were doing a sponsored skip for charity again this year, and I was determined to do well this time.
I had a wild imagination as a child, and she never minded letting me choose the direction of our stories and games. I loved her for that, that I didn't have to squash that bit of me down and make it small, and she never scoffed or laughed at my big, silly ideas.
We snuggled close in the camper van in the dark, whispering secrets to each other that we never told anyone else. We were astonished at how alike we were.
I don't remember bad weather or arguing. I remember endless sunshine and blue skies. I remember all of us squeezing into the camper van and heading to the beach day after day after day. The sandy excursions were punctuated with meals and snacks eaten under a red umbrella outside one of the ubiquitous cafes. I remember not being allowed one of the tiny coffees, and discovering that the hot chocolate was undrinkably rich. I remember sitting on colourful towels watching the waves and eating little vanilla sponge cakes out of plastic wrappers. Washing them down with a sugary tropical flavoured drink.
I remember being told sternly not to go into the water without an adult. We were warned away from dangerous places, and not allowed to swim far. This year, we had even stricter eyes on us, and kept to the shallow places - because my brand new best friend couldn't swim at all. There was one area which was perfect. It was shallow and circled by rocks, with no risk of being pulled out to open sea. We were playing there. She was trying to doggy paddle. I remember the stinging taste of salt in my mouth as I tried to show her how. I wasn't a great swimmer, either, but next to her I felt quite proficient, and, for once, the wiser of us.
I remember my dad watching us all, talking to each of us, checking us in turn that we were all ok. The questioning tone of his voice when she didn't respond to him calling her name, supplanted quickly by urgency and then immediately by fright.
Now, understand - this was immediately disconcerting, because my dad was never frightened by anything. Of course, I thought he was the bravest man in the whole world. He rarely got angry either. He was a very relaxed person. Nothing ever upset his apple cart. If it did, he never showed it. For him to be so obviously scared? This was new, this was weird, this was horrible. It was like falling into a different world, or a dream - a nightmare - where nothing made sense.
I remember his swift strides to where she was floating ominously, face down in the water. How limp she looked when he pulled her out of the water. She looked smaller, somehow. I didn't know how to react or what to do or where to put myself, so I followed him stupidly, onto the dry sand. I remember how he cradled her in his big brown arms, her head flopping and her eyes rolling back in her head.
I remember a young man jogging along the beach. I think he was with his girlfriend. I only vaguely remember his face, which is funny really, because you would think you'd remember the face of an angel. That is what he was to us. He came straight over to us and tended to the drowned girl with urgency and competence, telling us in broken English that he was a doctor, explaining what he was doing and what must be done. There was a sense of partial but palpable relief: someone knew what to do and was doing it.
I don't remember anyone doing CPR, although they might have done, but I do remember him working strongly, exactly as if he was trying to force the water out of her lungs by sheer force from the outside. Sure enough, it came spilling out of her mouth and her eyes fluttered.
I think we all felt a spark of hope, then. Does that mean she will be OK?
I don't remember if I said it out loud or not, but there was no answer. The angel's face looked grim. How long had she been without oxygen? It couldn't have been long, surely. She had been talking and splashing just before.
This was just before mobile phones were commonplace. I am not sure whether someone had one and called the emergency services, or whether his girlfriend had run to find a telephone and ring for help.
It's a blur after that. She must have been taken in an ambulance to hospital.
They tried to telephone her parents, but I wasn't present for that. I recall a sense of urgency, that her parents must be informed immediately, but no one had been able to reach them. A letter was written. I caught a glimpse of it, in my dad's looped script, and I remember him telling me that it had to be posted especially, better than first class, so that they would receive it as quickly as possible. It felt strange then, and it feels even stranger now, that she was so very poorly, and they didn't know. She had died and come back and might die again, or might never fully recover.... and for a little frantic window of time, her parents had no idea. They were just making coffee and checking the post, and going to work and buying bread.... For all the world as if everything was completely normal. While, across the sea, their daughter lay in a hospital bed, barely alive.
"But she was talking to me," my dad kept saying. "She was practising her doggy paddle and saying, look at me. And the next minute... she was... it was so fast. So fast."
It was fast. There wasn't any shouting. There hadn't been any splashing, or any "help! help!" That is how I thought people drowned. She had just quietly lost her footing and slipped under the water. It didn't seem possible. Everyone had been so careful. It had been so safe.
What would have happened, the grownups wondered aloud, repeatedly, if someone hadn't just happened to be jogging along that beach? At that exact moment? What if that person hadn't been a doctor? What if they had come just a minute later? What if they hadn't known exactly what to do? Someone said the word "miracle" more than once.
Of course, even at eight years old, you have some understanding that a minute without breathing is a long time. Not being allowed to visit her in hospital worried me. She must be dying. She must be covered in wires and tubes and hooked up to machines and she must be dying and that is why they won't let me see her.
I kept begging. Not so much because I missed my friend - I think perhaps I did, but I don't remember feeling that way. What I remember is knowing that once I was allowed to visit her, I would know she was going to be OK. And I very much wanted to know she would be OK.
When I went to see her, she was awake and sitting up in the hospital bed. I didn't know what had changed or why, but the ease that was between us before had gone. Maybe because she'd gone somewhere I hadn't. This was something we couldn't share. She had a haunted look in her eyes and a tube up her nose. Every time I looked at her, I could see, at the same time, her face slack and grey and her eyes rolling back in her head. I don't remember what we talked about. I don't remember what gift I brought her, only that it seemed paltry next to what had happened. I don't remember whether I voiced my curiosity about a tunnel and a light. I don't remember if we spent time together again when she came out of hospital, before we returned to England. I think we said we would write. I don't think we ever did.
I tap her matt finish face softly and wonder what she did after that holiday. I wonder if she ever had PTSD or therapy. I didn't, but I am sure drowning is worse than seeing your friend's face white and empty. I wonder if her parents fell out with my family over it. I wonder if they blamed my dad. That would have hurt him deeply, but he wouldn't have let it show. I can't ask him now.
I don't remember seeing that family again, but then, I don't remember seeing them before either. I wonder if she remembers me, and how. I wonder if she ever learned to swim. I toy with the idea of searching for her on social media, but no matter how I dredge my memory, I can't remember her surname or the names of her parents.
I flip the page.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions