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The brochure promises my first underwater breath will open the door to a different world, one where I’ll be free like never before. So I sign R. White on the consent form, pay the price of freedom ($300) and make for the beach clutching the printed promise that if I dared to open the door to my new underwater world life would never be the same again.
“What’s the score so far, Erik?” Paddy asks.
“We’re even I think,” I say knowing for sure it’s true.
“Well this is the last group of the season so winner takes all, eh?” He nudges me, “And don’t you be thinking you’re gonna beat me. Irish charm kicks Dutch free love’s arse this year.”
“Isn’t it luck, not charm, you Irish are famous for?” I ask as we wade across soft white sand towards a makeshift hut high above the tide-line that is the scuba-diving classroom.
“Aye, well, we’ll see.” Paddy jumps through the door ahead of me, the first to charm-smile at any prospective notches for his bedpost.
And there she is. Mid-twenties, blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun, iced milk skin. Blue eyes dart in and out, snatching glances before retreating like clown fish on the reef. Paddy nods in her direction. The game’s on again.
When I opened the door it led me to here: a classroom. Bare except for a single rickety bench (I perch warily between a jagged splinter and an overweight German), a small green chalkboard and a stack of thumb-bruised textbooks whose spines unanimously chorus, ‘Open water diver manual.’ Shadows of my home classroom haunt me; identical rows of plastic-wood desks and straight-backed chairs, computer and interactive whiteboard, shelves of carefully preserved books (Shakespeare et al.). Me in my navy pinstriped suit. A familiar pain spans my forehead.
We are awaiting Sir. Erik and Paddy arrive. Dressed only in knee-length shorts with ragged hems and deep tans.
It’s my turn now. I manage to choke out, “Rebecca, teacher and because I thought diving might be fun,” in reply to Paddy’s questions.
“Well hello Rebecca. And there’s no need to look so terrified. Unlike the sharks, I don’t bite, do I, Erik?”
Erik says, “Time to get down to it, Paddy.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Paddy replies.
He splits a winks at Erik. I long to run out and slam the door behind me.
Paddy’s comment about biting drowns. Much better to go softly. Don’t stir up the bottom.
I ask them what they think the greatest danger is when diving. Get the usual response: drowning.
“It’s pressure,” I correct, “At sea level we have the weight of one atmosphere on us, that’s the weight of all the air above,” I wave skywards, “When we dive to just ten meters that pressure doubles because ten meters of water weighs the same as all the air. Every ten meters adds another atmosphere of pressure. At forty meters the pressure is five times that on land.”
Rebecca raises a hand. Waits properly.
“Is it safe?”
“Don’t you be worrying yourself,” Paddy interrupts, “Sure, I’ll look after you. Superman of the sea, that’s me, so it is.”
She blushes. I strangle the urge to laugh. Poor Paddy, like a walrus on land he’s clumping around, flattening things. That’s why I won last year. Why I’ll win again this year.
Pressure that can crush us, kill us. Ten meters of water weighs the same as all the air in the world. But it doesn’t weigh as much as forty-five pieces of GCSE coursework on Romeo and Juliet or A-C achievement targets or league table results or the whole of the Ofsted inspectorate. The door to my wide blue freedom stays open.
We drill them all morning; safety stops, hand signals, residual nitrogen. Paddy gets tangled up with an American couple. My chance. I go to mark Rebecca’s knowledge review. Number four’s wrong. I chew on a biro. She should know. It could be dangerous. I put down the cross. She squirms.
“This is strange for you?” I ask, “to be the student?”
She nods. Tries to smile.
“Don’t worry. Nine out of ten. You pass.”
“Thanks.” She doesn’t sound grateful.
Paddy’s still trying wriggle off the American’s hook.
“We’ll be buddies,” I say.
“This afternoon, when we dive,” I explain, “because we are an odd number, you’re on your own, yes?”
“So I’ll be your dive buddy.”
She tries a bit harder with the smile. Her eyes are sea green.
We stand poolside in our wetsuits under the scrutiny of lethargic bikini-clad sunbathers. A trickle of sweat runs between my shoulder blades. My soft organs, suffocated by the wetsuit, jostle each other for space. A lead belt, jammed down on my hips, hugs too possessively. We penguin waddle to the water’s edge. False blue ripples gently. Freedom is only a giant stride away. Erik puts his hand on my shoulder and nods encouragingly.
“You can jump now.”
I plunge in and float effortlessly. A few seconds later we are kneeling on turquoise tiles at the bottom. Undulating water calms everything. We hover, move in slow motion. I draw air in, let it out, and watch as the bubbles rushed upwards. Happily letting them go. Letting everything go. Erik paddles over to me and makes the O.K. sign. I make it back. The he uses the buddy-up sign to indicate ‘you and me’ before imitating drinking a very British cup of tea, his little finger fully extended. Out of my element and high on underwater freedom I reply with O.K. again.
Politely, belatedly, Juliet cautions me.
“It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning which doth cease to be.”
She’s sitting on the balcony, at the table, her head bent low. A slick black pen, slimy like a sea cucumber, moves under her direction. I call up and she stops.
“Do you want tea now?”
“It’s a little late for tea,” she says.
“A drink then? Dinner?”
“But you are on holiday?”
“Marking,” she calls back, “Coursework.”
She is on the first floor only. I’ve climbed higher many times. I grab the trellis and scale the wall. Leap the railings.
“No work when you are on holiday,” I say. The white leaves of paper are stacked neatly on the table. I scatter them to the wind. They land in the flowerbeds, impale themselves on cactus spikes. “It’s forbidden, you see.”
She leans over the side. I think she might cry. Or jump.
“If I help you pick them up will you promise no more work?”
At Erik’s request we don’t eat in the hotel restaurant.
“You say it’s a postman’s holiday?” he queries as he charges his beat-up jeep over cobbled streets.
I laugh. “Busman’s holiday.”
He flashes me his carefree grin. He really knows how to live.
“And you, are you having a teacher’s holiday now?” he asks.
“You don’t understand,” I say, “Your work is a holiday.”
“But you are here,” he says.
“Yes, but, well, I don’t know whose holiday this is. Not mine, I’m sure.”
Erik stops the jeep, reaches over and puts his hand on my shoulder. His touch burns into my chaste flesh.
“Yes it is,” he assures me.
Juliet reluctantly admits, “You kiss by the book.”
After dinner I take Rebecca to the beach. We lie on cool damp sand. Inky sky covers us. The sea murmurs lovingly in our ears. It always works.
“Have you read Romeo and Juliet?” she asks.
“No. Is it good?”
“Year Eleven don’t think so. I have a copy with me, you can borrow it if you like.”
“Yes, please.” I’m sorry for her. I wish it was different. “We are both teachers but your job is not like mine. Yours squeezes all the life out of you. Do you even like it?”
She frowns. I stroke a finger across her forehead, trying to erase the lines of pressure that stretch there.
“Don’t do that. It makes you look old.”
“That’s how I feel most of the time,” she sighs.
“But not tonight?”
“No, not tonight. ‘Look, love, what envious streaks do lace the severing clouds in yonder east: Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountaintops: I must be gone and live, or stay and die.’ ”
“That’s beautiful. What is it?”
“It’s from Romeo and Juliet. It means that I wish I could stay here forever,” she replies.
Two words, down deep, decide it’s time to make a controlled emergency swimming ascent to the surface.
“You don’t mean that,” she says quietly, “Anyway, I have to go home. My students…I’ve got responsibilities and you’ve got…”
“Your pick from the next lot of holiday makers.”
Moonlight colours everything black and white.
“Yes because it is the end of the season,” I grin at her.
“Oh. I thought…never mind.”
“And because even if there were more coming I wouldn’t care. You are the last.” I put my arms around her. Kiss her long and slow.
His life is so wonderfully easy. All he has to do is drift with the tide.
We go back to my room.
He is the tide. He takes me out with him. I want to float freely below whipped-cream waves forever.
So does Juliet.
“It was the nightingale, and not the lark…
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.”
It’s morning. I cross the compound to the staff quarters.
“Guess you’ve won,” Paddy says, “So, tell me. What she’s like?”
“Nice? That it? Did she let her hair down, or what? Don’t tell me she kept that bun in.” He laughs.
I flick him the finger and turn to go.
“Haven’t you forgotten something?” Paddy calls. He produces the trophy he made two summers ago from a broken-legged Barbie that had been abandoned by the pool, her one good leg jammed into the bottom of a polystyrene cup with the words ‘Scuba-diving Summer School Shagging Champion’ scored on it in blue biro. And my name underneath, twice. Outside I put it in the nearest bin.
I don’t recognise the bronzed and smiling face framed by lose flowing fair hair that stares back at me from the mirror. But I like her a lot. She’s happy. All her cares have drifted out to sea.
Dives fill my logbook; Erik fills my bed. A chaotic pile of unmarked marking, stuck with prickles, lies washed up in the corner. Days disappear, melting like snowflakes before I can catch them and look closely into their frozen hearts.
Juliet reminds me.
“It is the lark that sings so out of tune.”
I wait by the scuba hut. Read Romeo and Juliet. Act III, scene V. There are silver traces where her pencil has glided, “More light and light: more dark and dark our woes!” I don’t have time to finish it now. She is going home tomorrow.
“Been stood up?” Paddy gloats, “Still, plenty more fish in the sea, eh?”
I’d like to run him through with something blunt.
“Maybe something’s up? P’rhaps you should go find her,” he suggests smugly.
I set off across the sand. When I know I’m out of sight I run.
I see it lying on the mat, in the corridor outside my room: a Barbie doll, her leg wedged inside a used coffee cup. She’s been dumped like trash, best beloved discarded and forgotten. I pick her up. Blue words are scratched into white polystyrene.
Juliet mocks me. She always knew.
“O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?”
I knock first; breathe later. On the other side her sandals clop towards me. She opens the door. I smile. She slaps me.
The imprint of her hand leaves sting traces on my cheek like jelly fish tentacles.
“Congratulations. Champion two years running.” She presents me with my trophy.
“Where did you get this?”
“Someone left it for me.”
“Please, I can explain.”
“Don’t bother, Erik.”
She slams the door shut.
Romeo and Juliet cower and shiver in my pocket, against my heart.
At least parting will be easy. Was easy. This is not a Hollywood rom-com with a happy ending for one and all. Silly cow.
My suitcase gapes open mouthed and hungry in the corner. I stuff it with everything in the room and wish it would swallow me too.
Erik. On the balcony again. I pull back the curtains but keep the glass between us. He’s holding out my copy of Romeo and Juliet.
He shakes his head and taps on the window. I turn my back. Fool.
“It’s very sad. What is the word? A tragedy?” Double-glazing fades his words to grey.
“Please, Rebecca, I love you.”
I look. Erik presses against the glass and pouts like a fat-lipped parrot fish.
Finally, Romeo speaks up.
“Love goes towards love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, towards school with heavy looks.”