Image by Ville Miettinen
I’ll tell you how I got the strength to swim away. I was ten years old and most of my friends had gone in the recent months. There were so few of us left. Despite the colourful poster campaigns and the stern talks we got inside what was left of our school, the urge to swim away weighed down on us that year. You had to have regular dives because of the heat, there was no way to stop us having those and still call society humane, but increasingly the dips were looked upon with suspicion. Back then we were untethered. Be careful, Mumma would say, we’re close to the city. She said that a lot. I knew where we were, I knew the old layout. Don’t venture too far, she’d say, there are spires. Drowning from getting tangled in the manatee grass that entwined the weather vanes was common. It was two days since Anna became a swimaway. Come with me, she said. I’m scared, I said, I don’t believe in the map. Stay with me. She was disappointed at first, then disgusted, and finally absent. When she heard what Anna had done Mumma spat, Silly girl!
There was chatter of sanctuaries scattered far across the ocean. Chatter of a map promising attainable stepping stones that could get you halfway across the world to a better life. I never saw such a map. Anna never saw such a map. We were circumfused with all this chatter and the promise of a better life if we’d just swim away. But the wrong direction by a fraction of a degree would wipe us out even if there was a safe passage somewhere. Anna wouldn’t listen. Nobody listened. All this chatter and nobody was listening because caution had become the minority position among my peers and by voicing it I was the leprous naysayer, far too circumspect for my own good. I became the problem. Something else to escape.
I stood, aged ten, poised for my short morning dive and Felix Baumgartner popped into my thoughts. Not Anna beckoning, not Mumma berating, not the colourful posters, the savage rationing, not the stern talks. Page forty-five of my history book: the photograph of Felix Baumgartner in his pressuresuit, high above the world, pausing to take in the view before his dive. What if I just kept swimming? What if I didn’t stay with Mumma like I promised I would? She was sitting behind me holding her breath, expecting this to be a morning dive but doubtlessly worrying it was more. Felix Baumgartner’s loved ones couldn’t have been thinking, Don’t do it! He was already committed by being stranded in the stratosphere. It wasn’t the desire of a better life with Anna that gave me the strength to swim away. I swam away because I’d run out of doing all other things, and that eclipses fear.
Felix Baumgartner survived the dive and yet he was not a bird, and I am not a fish.
More Visual Verse stories by Simon Webster here