Third in the plymouth writers group short story competition

The Pull Of The Ocean – Kim Stringer

I’d never have gone skinny-dipping if not for the combination of too much beer and too weak a bladder. I couldn’t bring myself to go in the dunes like the lads, so when Si suggested that the six of us went for a moonlit dip, I was well up for it.

Fizz and Christa were keen, until Si said, “It’s got to be nude or nothing.” Jonah and Tim cheered their approval, but they’d have done anything Si suggested.

So would I. I hadn’t believed it when Si started coming on to me. Nobody came on to me, especially not the coolest kid in school. He was new to the area and had this total magnetism that everybody adored. He was the only one of our current underaged sextet that had a hope of persuading the off-licence woman that he was old enough to buy beer. And he did it, no trouble: no need for fake ID; just that overflowing confidence and that twinkle in his eyes.

I was too busy enjoying the reflected glamour of being his girl to wonder why he liked me. Maybe it was because – unlike the other girls – I knew I had no chance, so I wasn’t fluttering my eyelashes and giggling too hard at his jokes. More likely it was because he couldn’t stand being a non-surfer in Devon and I was the school’s best.

He sat behind me in double biology. “You’ll give me lessons, Janey, won’t you?”

I blushed. “Lessons in what?”

“Well, I’ll leave that to you, but could we start with you teaching me how to look cool on a surfboard?”

Si wasn’t somebody you’d say no to, even if you wanted to. And although he could’ve had the pick of the girls in school – and the local college, for that matter – he wanted the goofy-looking one who could handle the waves.

He was a good learner, too. He’d concentrate on what I told him, and laugh when the waves dunked him. The first time he managed to stay upright, I shared his exhilaration and splashed into the sea to high-five him. Which turned into a hug and a kiss. Before you knew it we were chilling to the sounds on his iPod, him wearing the right earphone and me the left.

The rest of his group had no choice but to put up with me, even though they’d ignored me before I hooked up with Si. Fizz and Christa tried to make me wear the in-things, but I didn’t much care what I wore when I wasn’t in my wetsuit. And now I was at the water’s edge hopping out of my jeans, ready to splash into the moonlit sea.

“It’ll be bloody freezing in there,” Fizz called to Si from higher up on the sand.

“It’ll be fun. Come on, don’t be a wuss.” He went up to her and Christa and the boys and said something I couldn’t hear.

He came back down to me and undid his shoes. “Last one to get their kit off and jump in the water gets the lumpy sleeping bag.”

That was enough to spur me on: we were camping just up the road and last night I’d been the one landed with that particular instrument of torture. If I had to bear it another night, especially on a damp ground after the day’s earlier storm, I’d leg it to the village instead, sneak under my own duvet and happily ignore Mum and Dad’s “we told you it’s still too cold to go camping”.

I stripped off my T-shirt and underwear: the dark and the bladder desperation were enough to take me beyond caring. I duck-dived through the waves and relished the sting of salt water in my eyes.

Fizz had been wrong: “bloody freezing” didn’t come close to capturing the discomfort. It certainly got rid of the beer-induced muzz. The only thing to do was swim hard and generate some body heat. I followed the rough line of the headland until I could breathe properly, then I turned round to enjoy the agonies of the others.

There was no sign of them. I was treading water searching when I heard the cat-calls, coming from the shore. The gits had set me up.

Furiously, I crawled my way back to the beach, but they were nowhere to be seen: hiding among the dunes, no doubt. I went to grab my clothes, but they’d vanished too.

“Hey!” I cried. “Give me my clothes, you sods.”

I shivered my way towards the dunes, towards the sound of snickering.

“Where the hell are you bastards hiding?”

A figure stood up: Si. His arm was raised and I couldn’t figure out why. As I moved towards him I saw the light on his mobile, and realised he was filming me.

I reached him and grabbed for it, but he was taller than me. It was too dark for him to get anything too incriminating – I prayed – but it was sure to be on YouTube by Monday and I’d be the laughing stock of the school.

I turned away, blinking back tears. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction.

“Cute butt, Janey,” called Jonah  as I stomped down the beach.

The tears were partly from the humiliation, but mainly because I knew this was Si’s way of dumping me. I’d known we wouldn’t last, and I’d known he was the type who needed an audience for any potential drama in his life. The arrogance that came from his popularity had a cruel side: I think I’d always known that as well.

He came running to my side. “Don’t be pissed, Janey: I couldn’t resist. Look, here are your clothes.”

I took them. “You know I love you?” I said, hating myself for admitting it.

“We’re young: let’s not get heavy. Let’s see other people.”

Our relationship had been doomed ever since I’d coached him to a reasonable standard on the surfboard. The stuff he still had to learn was the stuff that came from experience: he’d used me and now he was done with me.

I choked out a “Sure,” past the boulder in my throat. “Whatever.”

No more of the school in-crowd for me, not that I cared: most of them were tossers. The girls were too obsessed with straightening their hair to within a split end of its life: they laughed at my sun-bleached frizz. But what a prize prat I was going to look. I still had my surfing crowd, but school life was going to be desolate again.

“One last swim?” I said, dropping my pile of clothes. “For old time’s sake?”

“I’m not sure . . .”

“You owe me this.” I let my teeth chatter. “Come on; let’s swim round the big rock in the middle of the bay, then back again. Race you.”

He hesitated, and turned to look back towards the dunes.

“What are you?” I yelled, loud enough for the others to hear. “Chicken?”

He stripped off and for the last time I grabbed his hand. We ran into the sea together.

I crawled until I was through the biggest of the breakers, the spray sluicing away my tears, then turned to look at him. Clouds had cleared from the moon and I could make out Si’s shocked face as he struggled with the cold. “Hurry up, loser,” I yelled, and swam out to the rock.

The rock was an enormous slab that was dead centre in my favourite surfing bay. The crab’s claw of the headlands holding the glistening black pearl of rock meant the waves hit the beach every which way: you had to be at one with the sea here to surf well.

The tide was on its way out and I knew that the earlier storm would have gouged huge channels out of the beach. The resulting riptides would start just beyond the rock and fan outwards towards both headlands.

“Can’t catch me,” I cried. Si thought he was a strong swimmer, but he was little better than average. It would be just like him to turn around and head back to the beach, gambling that the others wouldn’t realise that he’d not swum all the way around the rock. I slowed my stroke until I could see the moonlight on his forearms as they arced out of the water. I made sure he knew that he was in a close race.

The rock seemed further out in the dark, but at last we drew alongside it.

“Let’s go back,” he gasped.

“Sorry: can’t hear you,” I shouted, and duck-dived. When I surfaced, I aimed wide around the furthest point of the rock. I knew he was too cocky to take the inside track, and so it proved.

Suddenly, I could see him power away from me, and I knew the riptide had got him. I was on the very edge of it and could feel its pull, but by angling towards the rock, I eventually broke free.

I knew the exact place to clamber up the rock. I stumbled a couple of times as I struggled to find my footing, but I’d used the handholds for ten years or more, and without too much difficulty I scrambled my way out of the crash of the sea.

I could just about make out Si trying to swim against the strong current.

“You’ll just knacker yourself out, you stupid bastard. You can’t fight the sea,” I sobbed, knowing that he couldn’t hear me. His head disappeared under the water, and I was no longer sure that I could save him even if I’d wanted to.

Shit, it was cold. I rubbed the gooseflesh on my arms and weighed up what would look best: being exhausted and stranded on the rock searching the waves for him, or struggling back to shore and shrieking for help.

I looked to the spot where I’d last seen Si and wiped away the tears he didn’t deserve. I blew him a bitter kiss. Then I looked shoreward and dived in: I never could resist the pull of the ocean.

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