Out of My Depth
I was, finally, on the beach at Deauville, ready to relax in the sun. This was the first proper vacation I’d managed since my divorce, and it counted as a real vacation because I was on a beach, in France, and had a chance to be lazy and read. I was sitting cross-legged on a faded striped blanket I had borrowed from the rented farmhouse where the children and I were staying. I was wearing a sweater over my swimsuit, because, in spite of the sun, there was a stiff breeze racing down the coast, even though it was July. The children had picked a spot within reach of the water, but slightly away from the crowded shore, because they needed space for their sand castle. Little whitecaps moved lightly over the waves, and I wondered how warm the water might be. Adam, my seven year old, had been begging me to let him swim.
“But, Mummy, I got my swimming certificate,” he pleaded.
This was true. But a swimming certificate obtained in the Gothic splendor of the Ealing Public Baths (bathing and hot baths available) hardly qualified him to swim in the English Channel on a windy day. We were on the cheaper north coast of France, after all, not the glamorous Cote d’Azur.
“Look, why don’t you and Helenka build a sand castle first, and then maybe I’ll take you swimming.”
Adam bit his lower lip and scowled at me. “You always say maybe,” he muttered, but he picked up a bucket and spade and trudged across to his little sister, who had amassed a pile of shells and was engrossed in sorting them by type and size. At the age of four, she was showing signs of becoming a more organized person than I would ever be.
I settled in to re-read one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss - a million miles away in time and mood from where I was at that moment. As I turned the pages I slipped easily into the mid-nineteenth century, my own preoccupations forgotten for a while.
I looked up from time to time, checking on Adam and Helenka, who seemed contented as they dug a hole in the sand. So, it wouldn’t be a castle, but it would be an easy project. Every so often, Adam would carry his bucket down to the shore to collect water, which he brought carefully back and poured into the hole. It seemed to be an absorbing task for them both. Meanwhile, back in nineteenth century England, Maggie Tulliver was wondering whether she would ever find true love, before the River Floss flooded and destroyed her life forever.
Suddenly, something flashed by my peripheral vision. I looked up, startled. A small brown dog was running down the beach towards the sea, his tail flying behind. In itself, this might not have signified much, but he was dragging a beach chair, to which, evidently, he had been tied, along with him. A few thoughts ran through my mind in quick succession as I scrambled to my feet and scanned the beach.
How odd. Where were his owners? Why were people running down to the sea?
With sickening certainty, I knew. My daughter was still playing happily in the sand, but Adam was missing. I scooped up Helenka and ran for the shore. A babble of French voices, agitated and minatory, increased my sense of panic.
What were they saying? My French was good, but fear was making it harder to understand. There was a child out there, out of his depth. He would drown for sure. He had drowned already. His mother was irresponsible, careless, unfit.
Shoving people aside, I reached the shore, and followed the direction of the fingers pointing out to sea. A small head was bobbing up and down, now visible, now hidden among the churning waves. I thrust Helenka at a woman nearby whose voluble French protests followed me as I tore off my sweater, tossed it toward the same woman and ran into the water. I struck out in Adam’s direction, but I was too late to be his rescuer. Someone was already there, swimming towards the tiny figure bobbing in the waves. The swimmer reached Adam, hooked an arm around his waist, and made for the shore, towing my little boy behind him. Within minutes, Adam was being carried ashore, and I grabbed him from his savior, hugging my child close against me as I babbled my thanks, and apologies.
“It’s nothing,” he said in French. “I’m glad I was able to help.”
The crowd of onlookers was offering a running commentary now. The words that reflected my own feelings rose out of the general babble.
“…could have died...”
“…see if he’s conscious…”
“…got to wrap him up…cold...”
“…something hot to drink…”
“…lucky to be alive...”
“…no thanks to his mother…”
“…shouldn’t be allowed…”
I felt a strange detachment sweep over me as I realized that Adam was safe – more shocked than frightened, it seemed. He was shivering with cold, but safe. The French beach patrol arrived at that moment, summoned by a helpful bystander, and, wrapping Adam in a large blanket, they loaded him onto their Mini-Moke - a pint-sized jeep - and took him to their post, a couple of hundred yards down the beach. They wouldn’t let me go in the vehicle with him -- fit punishment, I daresay, for a neglectful mother. I jogged behind, carrying Helenka, who was now sobbing against my shoulder, having been frightened by the sudden drama around her.
At the post, Adam was being talked to in kind, but broken, English. His eyes looked unfocussed to me. But, as he saw me walk in, they opened wide and he shouted in relief.
“Mummy, you’re here.”
“Yes, my lovely, everything’s all right.” I don’t know which of us needed to hear that most, Adam, Helenka or me. I hugged them both to me.
There were forms to fill in before they let us go. On the way back, Adam was energetically re-framing his experience into an adventure story in which he was the hero.
“So, I decided to see if I could jump up when the big waves came in. And I did it too, millions of times. I would’ve got back by myself if that man hadn’t got in my way.”
I couldn’t decide whether this was bravado or a lack of awareness of just how close he had come to drowning. I stopped suddenly, crouched down next to him and made him look me in the eye.
“Adam, listen to me. And you too, Helenka,” I said, trying to disguise a quaver in my voice. “You must never, ever, go into the sea without me or another grown-up to look after you, do you hear me?”
Adam’s lower lip trembled, and Helenka’s eyes seemed to grow larger as she listened.
“The sea is lovely,” I went on, “but it can be very dangerous because it changes suddenly. Understand?”
They gave me a slow nod each.
“What must you never do?” I wanted to be sure they’d taken it in.
“Go in the sea without you,” said Adam. Helenka nodded agreement.
“Okay, let’s go back to the house and have a nice hot bath to warm you both up.”
We continued walking back to our blanket, as the wind blew sand and scraps of litter against our legs. The sun had retreated behind a cloud, and the beach had taken on a grey aspect that reflected my own sense of shame, now that relief had had its day.
I put the blanket round Adam’s shoulders, hoping his shivers would stop soon. Helenka was wearing my sweater, sleeves rolled up as far as they would go, the hem reaching her ankles. I grabbed a towel and slung it round my neck. Picking up the rest of our things, we made our way slowly up to the road and our car. As we reached the promenade, I rummaged in my beach bag and drew out The Mill on the Floss. I could never bring myself to throw away a book, so I balanced it carefully on the corner of a rubbish bin nearby. Maybe someone else would want to read George Eliot’s story of a brother and sister who drowned in the water they loved.