The Christmas Lights(2)

By: Karen Swan

With a deep breath, she leapt, arms outstretched, able to hear the click of the camera right up until the moment she hit the water and her own splash filled her ears, bubbles fizzing past her as she sank, her muscles gripped in sudden tension. And then she was rising again, the breath in her lungs a buoyancy aid that brought her bobbing to the surface, and as her face hit air again, she felt it – that moment of pure elation. Utter freedom. Total joy. Being alive.

Zac’s splash came only a few moments after she surfaced – he wasn’t one for hesitation – and together they kicked their fins with firm strokes, for there was (as they had been warned) a strong undertow, as they put on their masks.

‘Readywhenyouare,’ Zac said in an unintelligible babble, his snorkel already in. She nodded back, giving him the ‘OK’ hand signal they used on their scuba expeditions, and after several deep breaths she duck-dived down.

In an instant, the smash of breaking waves was replaced by a resonant wallow. It wasn’t the sound of silence for there was too much activity and energy down there to allow that, but as she kicked and began to pass below the mighty cliffs, she felt the vulnerability and inconsequentiality of her life in this spectral watery dimension: one inhale and it would all be over; she was but forty seconds from death down here. That random group of air molecules that she had gulped in the moment before she dived was now solely responsible for preserving her life and, within it, all the memories and experiences of the life she had lived: the sound of her mother’s laugh as she had run to her at the school gate; the heat of her father’s huge hand enveloping hers on a frosty walk; the light in her brother’s eyes as he’d cheated at cards and got away with it; the growing chill in his hands …

But the water slipped over her silkily and even with the undertow trying to pull her back out to the ocean, she was a strong swimmer and knew that any moment now the seal of water above her head would become a ceiling through which she could peer. They had researched this, they knew what to expect and what to do. They were adventurous but not reckless, that was what Zac always said. Sure enough, the domed underwater tunnel became suddenly angular, the water above her lidded and flat. With a hand raised cautiously above her head, she pushed through it and surfaced, blowing hard to clear the snorkel and taking several grateful breaths.

Zac was just behind her, the red light still flashing on the camera.

‘Nice,’ he said with an easy smile, looking around the long tunnel they now found themselves in. It was perhaps fifteen metres long, with roughly a thirty-centimetre drop from the rock ceiling to the water’s surface. With their heads angled, they could breathe easily.

Bo kicked onto her back and floated, allowing the movement of the ocean to bob her about, using her arms and legs to push away from the sides.

‘Hello,’ Zac said, smiling as his echo reverberated up and down through the space like a pinball. … ello … llo … lo … o …

‘I love you,’ Bo called. Love you … ve you … you …

‘Love you more!’ Zac called back. … ove you more … you more … more …

‘Yeah, you do,’ she agreed with a grin, giving a sudden shriek as he swam over and tickled her underwater. She laughed, spinning and twisting on the spot.

‘Always have. Always will.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ she grinned.

‘You’re supposed to say it back.’

‘Am I?’ she asked disingenuously, collapsing into laughter as he tickled her again, the sound of her laughter reverberating around them in amplification. ‘Ah well. I wouldn’t want you assuming anything.’ She wrinkled her freckled, snub nose. ‘Better to keep you on your toes.’

Zac watched her before he suddenly reached up, placing the flats of his palms on the ceiling, like he was Atlas lifting the world, his biceps flexed and gleaming as he used his fins to hold himself higher in the water. ‘Marry me!’ he called.

… arry me … rry me … me …

Bo’s mouth dropped open. ‘What?’ she gasped. It was too quiet a sound to register an echo.