Holidays! Remember them? Two weeks away in the sun, drinking, eating and swimming? Sex Again, Generally August, as my Aunt Nan calls her Saga breaks?
This is called “The Pearl Divers”, and you can find it, and like-minded souls, in Suckerpunch , my first short story collection.
The Pearl Divers
The pleasure boat began to fill up with very loud French people. One little man in the group turned their conversation into a performance, prancing about on deck in his bare feet and punctuating a series of hoots, growls, grunts and keenings with extravagant hand gestures. Although he was obviously a spanner of the first order – his three-quarter length trousers were the big giveaway – the people with him laughed uproariously at his antics.
Despite being initially snarky, Caitlin and Trevor couldn’t help joining in with the mirth.
“Marcel Marceau turns in his grave,” Trevor whispered.
“Silently,” Caitlin said, and they laughed some more.
They had bagged a terrific spot on the sun-deck. Caitlin flicked through her little guide book, sunglasses perched on top of her head. “Ooh, there’s stories connected to these islands.”
“What kind of stories?”
“Gods and monsters and things like that.”
“Excellent. Hopefully there’s a nudie statue too, by way of illustration. They were a naked bunch around these parts.”
“Hmm. It says we’re going to Spyros’ Reef first. There’s a story of love and tragedy connected to old Spyros, it says.”
“If it’s a tragedy that means they all die in the end, doesn’t it? Bum note, darlin’.”
“Hmm. Not necessarily. Tragedies can still be sort of romantic.”
“A tragi-rom-com? It could work.”
“Although… it does say there’s a bit of betrayal, too.”
“Wickeder and wickeder!”
It was day four of the holiday, and they had gotten blasé about all these perfect days. Zephyr breezes, the sun, the water; anything else would have been a shock to the system on the day they’d picked out for the boat trip.
No surprises, though; it was another cracker. The engines had been churning even as they both padded across the gangway onto the boat, grinning boat crewmembers clambering over each other to help Caitlin on board. After they’d taken their seats, the foaming, bubbling sea visible from the sun-deck had drawn their eyes so effectively that they did not notice the moorings being untied. Caitlin let out a little whoop of surprise as the land suddenly veered away from the sea.
The tannoy system on the sundeck whistled, and a gruff voice speaking heavily accented English said: “Good morning everyone – welcome to Cruise Mystique.”
Caitlin and Trev had been desperate to do it: “Whoooooh!” they said.
“You are seated aboard the good ship Perseus, it is a wonderful morning, and I hope you will enjoy our voyage. Can I get a whoop whoop?”
The English-speaking people – mostly confined in the lower decks and around the sides of the tour boat – responded lustily, as did Caitlin. This outburst confused the French group, even when the boat prompted them with two toots of its horn.
The ship passed through the smooth channel out of the harbour and into the gleaming sea. Caitlin tied her hair back while Trevor rested his chin on the railings and gazed at the unfurling waters. He was a bit older than her and had been getting a bit blobby, although of late he had been hitting the gym in anticipation of his first beach holiday since he was 12. He had on a straw sun-hat which she had loathed at first, but now found cute. “That hat’s growing on me,” she’d said, one time he had worn nothing else.
“I meant to say to you,” he said. “You freaked me out a bit last night.”
“Yeah. You started giggling in your sleep. In a really odd, high voice, like you were a little kid. It woke me up. You wouldn’t stop. It was really weird.”
“I had a flying dream. It must have been that. I meant to tell you. I absolutely love those.”
“Yeah? Didn’t know you were a flier.”
“I was moving over a dark sea, just after the sun had gone down. There was still a bit of colour in the sky, just a shade of pink. It wasn’t cold and I wasn’t scared.”
“Freedom,” he said to her. “That’s what that dream means. You’re free.”
“It felt like it. I could have gone on forever. Chasing the sun. I woke up and felt like I’d been giggling. And I had. Do you ever have dreams like that?”
“Funny thing. I dream about swimming. I’m in the blue, just beneath the surface. And I see some light in the water above my head. Dappled, like you see on the ceiling of indoor pools, you know? There’s never any danger of me drowning. I can breathe perfectly well. And I’m going at an amazing speed.”
She lowered her sunglasses to peer at him. “Trev. Are you binned already?”
“Hey, you started it!” He grinned. With his stubble, his even white teeth and his straw hat, he looked – for the first and only time in his life – like Brad Pitt. “I’m just binned on you, honey.”
“Big flirt. So… swimming dreams. What do they mean?”
“Same thing, isn’t it? Freedom.”
“I would worry about sharks. I’d think one was chasing me, if I was in that situation. That’d be nothing to giggle about.”
“There’s nothing like that in my dreams. I’m never scared. I sometimes think I might be a shark. You know, in spirit.”
“More like a whale. I mean, a killer whale,” she added, catching his look.
Another whistle came from the tannoy, prompting a massed “Aaaah” from the French people. The captain talked them through what direction they were heading in, where to find the toilets and where to buy the beer and crisps.
“Beer,” Caitlin said. “Mmmm.”
“I know. I kind of want one. I’ve got the fever, darlin’.”
He shrugged. “We’re on holiday.”
The captain said: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the story of Spyros’s Reef, which we will shortly be passing over. Please, keep your eyes peeled for rays, turtles and even… der-dun… der-dun… yes, sharks, boys and girls!”
The boat cut across a darker patch of water. Upon closer inspection, the gloom took the form of the surreal vegetation and bony exoskeletons of the reef. Fish darted away from the boat, and plant fronds waved as it approached.
“It is called Spyros’s Reef out of a very famous local legend,” the captain explained. “Once, on the mainland, there were two famous sponge divers, Spyros and Theo. This was in the days when they dived without oxygen tanks and masks and flippers, which we have nowadays. All they had to do was hold their breath… and dive. Then they used the knives and baskets to collect sponges.
“They grew up together and they were friends, but they were very… competitive.” The captain’s odd inflection gave this word an extra edge over the tannoy.
“Yes, ladies and gentlemen, they competed over who could dive the furthest, who could gather the most sponges. There were some who said it was Spyros, others who said it was Theo.”
“Sponges are funny,” Trev said. “You know that they can regenerate and they live longer than turtles?”
The captain’s voice dropped – seductively, one imagined. “But there soon came another thing to compete for. Can you guess what it was? Yes, that’s right, a girl. Her name was Dania, and she was the most beautiful girl in the village. Soon, Spyros and Theo, they fell in love with this girl, and soon they began to compete for her attention, too. Is it not always the way, ladies and gentlemen? Only a woman can come between two friends, yes?
“Dania could not decide who to choose – Spyros or Theo. So she came up with a way of deciding; the first of them who could bring a pearl up from the ocean floor would have her hand in marriage.
“They both began to search for oyster shells and the pearls inside them, but there were none to be found. And then Theo had a very wicked idea.
“He took a pearl set in a gold necklace from his mother’s jewellery case, and tied it to a stone. During the night, he took a boat out to the deepest part of the reef, with only the stars to guide him. Then he did a wicked thing… he gently dropped the stone into the water.
“The next day the pearl caught the light on the ocean floor in the sunshine, and it soon became known among the sponge divers that there was a treasure on the ocean floor. Theo knew it was the deepest part of the reef, further than anyone had ever swum before, and he knew that it was in Spyros’ nature to try to get the pearl.
“To complete the deception, Theo dived first for the treasure, and of course it was too deep for him to reach. Then came Spyros’ turn. He plunged into the water and went down into the ocean… It was too deep for him, too, but he was determined to reach the treasure and win his heart’s desire.
“But poor Spyros went too deep. He drowned trying to reach the treasure and win the hand of his beloved.
“Theo had planned for this to happen, but even so he was full of guilt. And Dania, rather than being driven into his arms, as he had hoped, was heartbroken.
“Theo confessed to his crime, and was sent to jail. But there was a strange end to the tale for the lovely Dania. One night, she vanished. Her footprints led down to the beach, and the water’s edge. No-one ever saw her again.
“Perhaps she decided to be with Spyros, for evermore. Some sailors have reported seeing a mermaid in the waters around the reef; who can say? Perhaps this is what Dania became, searching the ocean for her love. Nobody knows, ladies and gentlemen, whatever happened to her.
“And they say that the pearl is still out there, too, ladies and gentlemen… Treasure waiting in the deep for someone to find. But perhaps it would not bring you luck?
“And so… That is the story of Spyros’ Reef, and the depths of true love.”
Some people groaned.
“In half an hour, we will have the swimming. Be sure to wear your sunblock, and be sure to wear your bathing suits.
“To your left side, the sea, to your right side, the sea, and up above – God! Can I get a whoop whoop?”
This time everyone was ready for the whoop whoop.
“Swimming! Coolio,” Trevor said. “Just as well I brought my shorts along. Might go and get changed. You want something from the shop?”
“Is it wrong to want an ice cream at this point?” She pulled off her loose, long-sleeved boho top. She was wearing a pure white bikini, her skin clear and brown. As she pulled the top over her head, the lovely tight little muscles at her tummy rippled. She closed her eyes as she pulled her long, frizzy blonde hair up tight and tied it back. Many of the men on the deck stared at her. Trev giggled.
“What?” she said, alarmed, checking herself out. “Do I have a tiger tan?”
“No,” he said, choking back laughter.
“What is it then?”
“I just realised, you’re way too hot for me. I’m so far ahead of the game it’s not even true.”
“You’ve just realised, have you? Huh!” She pouted. “So anyway… ice cream? Too soon? Will we be alright eating stuff if we go in the sea?”
“It’s never too early for an ice cream. An ice cream isn’t too heavy.We’re on our holibags.” He gave her a kiss and took the bag. “Back in a minute.”
Downstairs, he took some time to look at the white wake surging past the starboard side before ducking into the gents. He had taken his khaki shorts and boxers off before some change in the light alerted him to the door at his back. The porthole, which had appeared dark from deck-side, was actually transparent. A middle-aged woman with hair the same consistency of candy floss did a double take, looked at Trevor’s winkle, met his eyes with a look approaching grief, then hurried on.
Trev was still sniggering about this by the time he appeared back on deck with two enormous cones with plastic sci-fi domes shielding the ice cream. Caitlin was gazing out at the sea, her big sunnies on. She had a strange half-smile on her face and Trev would remember this image for the rest of his life. They ate the cones, and Caitlin took a picture of Trev licking trails of chocolate off his hands as the cone melted in the sun.
The boat toured some rocks and caves, barnacle-encrusted, foamy places not far off the mainland. Trev and Caitlin stood by the railings while the captain spun tales of heroes, monsters and deities.
“And it was here that the goddess first appeared,” said the captain, with the practised intonation of five-year-old reciting his prayers. “And it was here that she blessed the water.”
“And it was here that I began to wish for a beer,” Caitlin said.
“And it was here that I agreed with you.” Trevor, running his fingers up and down the perfectly smooth skin along her spine, hadn’t been listening to the captain.
But they kept off the beer, knowing that swimming was on the way. The boat began to slow near a dark patch of water; in the background on the mainland there was a beach, a fine yellow band dusted with people. It was time to get wet.
“We’ve probably only travelled about 20 miles. They’ve just gone the long way,” she said, pulling off her linen trousers and sandals. Long brown legs, white bikini bottoms.
Trev shielded his eyes. “Look at the water. Look at that shade of blue. It must be the mineral content or something. It’s like a crayon a kiddie would use to colour in the sea.” Off came his stripy blue and white polo shirt. There was some definition in his stomach muscles and ribs, his arms. He slipped the beads she’d bought him from around his neck and folded them up carefully in a side pocket of her bag.
A set of steps were produced at the stern and lowered into the blue. The sea was so clear you could make out stones and gently waving plants at the bottom, though it had to be at least 20 feet deep. A few people edged their way down the steps, curiously reluctant to go in.
Trevor stood on the edge of the ladder, taking quick breaths. “See you in the pool,” he said, then executed a passable dive clear and straight into the blue. And he
didn’t hear the unprompted whoop whoop from the rest of the boat, the roar of the water swallowing him up as he plunged down, down, arrow-straight towards the bottom. He had a sudden moment of dissonance, realising the immensity and the blue of the space he had dived into as the pressure of the water squeezed his temples, his sinuses and his ribcage. He levelled out, hung there for a moment as the bubbles tickled the side of his face, then began to kick back towards the light. It took a worryingly long time for him to get there, and the blurred image of the surface deceived him. He reached out for the sparkles of light and expected to breach, but it was beyond him. Before he could panic the whine in his ears reached a pitch and he was through again,
gasping, the laughter and splashing of the other swimmers assaulting him. He treaded water, looking around for Caitlin.
One of the boat’s crew grinned as he helped her onto the ladder and she padded down, her back to the water. She took an uncertain little glance at the surface before immersing herself, then finally letting go of the ladder.
Her surface dive was a graceful, sinuous move, and her feet barely made a splash as her body undulated. She was a ghostly blur in the water for a moment, transformed in that curious absence of the third dimension.
He was seized with a strange and unaccountable dread.
The figure almost seemed to melt into the sand far below; then it shot upwards, rocket-propelled. He saw her face break the surface almost in slow motion, the water forming a smooth sheen over her features as it coursed off her skin, eyes closed, mouth opening to take a breath.
She breast-stroked towards him, face screwed up and her mouth pressed into a tight line like a grandmother in a public pool. “It’s warm,” she said, “warmer than the hotel pool.”
“Fantastic, isn’t it?” They linked arms, spinning each other around in the water.
“Feels weird… Usually I’m never comfortable about being out of my depth. But this feels fine.”
“You can’t beat it. It’s like being in a bath. Minus the pubes and stuff.”
“I can’t believe we’re here,” she said, “it’s like paradise or something. I can’t believe places like this exist. The last beach holiday I took I was at Skegness!” She laughed, and he felt her body shuddering against his.
“You’re just a child of the sun,” he said, nuzzling her neck.
“Don’t get too fresh here, mister. There’s children about. You’d better think of something nasty before you climb out.”
“I’ll think about sharks.” And then he flinched, something catching his eye in the water.
“Look, fishies! There’s fishies in the water! Ha ha!”
A tiny school of purple fish were indeed passing by them, flickers of colour in the intense blue.
“Oh! I feel them! They tickle!” She disentangled herself from him and pushed herself away.
“They’re at my toes!” He giggled, squirming.
“Oh, make sure they’re not cannibal fish!”
“Cannibal fish?” He shrieked laughter. “What in God’s name are they? A remote tribe? A death metal band from Sheffield?”
“Shut up!” She giggled and splashed water at him. Staring into the water, her feet blurred beneath the choppy surface, she said: “It’s deep. How deep, d’you reckon?”
“Not sure… more than 12 feet anyway. I’ve been down that far in a swimming pool before, it’s more than that. More than 20 feet, maybe.”
“Hey… what’s that?” She shielded her eyes from the sun.
“That thing down there… d’you see it? There’s something shining down there.”
“No there’s not… oh.” There was something shining, far beneath them. A glint of light, almost too bright to look at directly.
“What d’you think it is?”
“Not sure… it looks like… Ah, I couldn’t really say.”
“I swear, I think it looks like a chain or something.”
“The treasure of the Sierra Madre?”
“It is a chain. Can’t you see it? A necklace. Something like that.” Her hand went to her throat.
He laughed. “Spyros’ pearl?”
“I’m serious. For all you know, it could be.”
“You know, I could try and get it. I’m not as good a swimmer as Spyros, though. Maybe it deserves to be down there. It’s his by rights, after all.”
“But he didn’t get it. He drowned, trying to get it.”
“Two kinds of men I guess, darlin’. Theos, and Spyros…es. What the hell? I can give it a try.”
“Don’t be daft.”
“Seriously, I don’t think it’s too far down. I think I can get it.”
She shook her head. “This isn’t the town pool, darlin’. You can’t.”
“I can.” He began to build up oxygen in his lungs with quick, sharp breaths.
“Don’t be silly.”
“Ah come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?” Then, after one great breath, with greater speed than she would ever have credited him with, he upended in the water. His legs pincered awkwardly in the air and she turned away from the splash, suddenly unsure of herself in the deep water without him keeping her anchored. Then his legs disappeared under. He became a blurred ghost, a wavering white smudge in the blue as he went
Down, down, the water squeezing him. He felt the fear grip his guts as he pushed himself through, shoulders and chest aching, that terrible pressure in his head and sinuses. The blue more brilliant as the water stung his eyes, nothing in the foreground to soak it up. Beneath him the sand was fine and dotted with rocks. In the middle of it all, as he kicked lower and lower and lower, muscles on his chest tight, was that single sparkle, that shard of light.
He had that same illusion of space as when he’d reached for the surface earlier; it seemed that the more he pushed himself towards it, the further away the sliver of light got. The glow was prismatic, as if shone through a crystal or a diamond; he fancied he could see a whole spectrum of colours in the centre of the ray of light.
He stretched, his very fingers strained, and then there was sand beneath his fingertips. He scooped it up and felt the weight of the object. It sparkled one more time before he made a fist over it. He spun around and let the momentum take him right to the bottom, feet sinking into the gungy surface, cold gluey fingers in between his toes. He had expected to find solid ground down there; the suction took away some of the forward motion he had expected to gain by using his legs to propel him upwards. When he launched himself, he did not rise nearly far enough.
Collecting his nerve, he exhaled slowly and reached out, arm over arm, his chest aching, heart thundering. He saw scissoring legs and neon bathing suits as he got closer. But not close enough.
He gurgled, his chest aflame; lights arced across his field of vision like lightning and he had plenty of time to panic now, knowing that he had taken it too deep, that he must soon breathe in, that this time maybe-
He surfaced in a burst of foam, a primal, guttural noise accompanying his first breath. He had breached between a mother and daughter, close enough to kiss them both. They flinched and screamed, causing momentary panic among everyone.
“Terribly sorry,” he said, coughing and doggie-paddling over to Caitlin as the other bathers laughed.
She looked panicky. “What are you doing? I thought you had drowned! You must have been down about a minute, there.”
“Felt like an hour.”
“What a silly thing to try and do. I could have lost you!”
“I got it,” he said.
“I got it.” He raised his fist. There were still traces of grime around his fingers from where he’d gripped the seabed. He opened his hand.
She snorted, then burst out laughing. In his palm, glittering in the light, was a beer bottle top.
Back on deck, with all the heads counted and the sunblock applied, everyone dried quickly in the sun. They had a game of reverse bingo, except the captain called it bella bingo. It involved numbers being called out and the players sitting down if their ticket stub matched it. Caitlin ended up winning the contest at the expense of a crestfallen nine-year-old girl in the final two. Sensing a diplomatic incident as the girl’s lip trembled, the captain decided to award them both a prize. The girl left with a Dinky The Dolphin colouring-in pad and some felt tips; Caitlin got a bangle made out of either coral or milk teeth stolen from the Tooth Fairy. Honour was satisfied.
Trev was shivering when Caitlin made her way back to the seat, the applause of the passengers and crew following her. He’d put his long shirt back on but couldn’t seem to shift a chill that had settled on him since he’d dived for the treasure.
“Look what I got!” She waved her wrist at him.
“All that, and a slap on the backside from the captain. Hmph.”
“Ah, it’s just the continental way, honey.”
The crew returned to their stations, and Trev and Caitlin enjoyed, at last, a bottle of beer. They sat back, both still tired from their swim, legs entwined as they guzzled the cool brew.
She admired her bracelet. It went well with her boho top, oddly enough. “Hey, spooky. I got some treasure after all.”
“Hey! Don’t forget your bottle top. Took a lot of effort, that!”
“What a shame for poor old Spyros. I can’t stop thinking about him. You wonder if his pearl’s down there, somewhere.”
“Maybe he’s still trying to find it. Swimming around, looking under crustaceans and stuff.”
“Don’t say that! Poor bloke.”
They turned back to the sea, to the receding reef that had given way to almost electric blue water. A sudden flicker on the surface caught their attention.
“Hey, did you see that? A flying fish!” Trev leapt to his feet, following the creature as it skittered across the glassy-smooth surface, parallel to the boat.
While he was there, Caitlin did something that she could never fully explain to anyone, or to herself, ever afterward. She slipped the bracelet off her wrist in a single, supple movement, as if it was a garter, and hurled it into the white wake by the side of the boat.
(c) Pat Black 2016