I wrote this little vignette as a response to a challenge my friend Tatchiana Michaela put on her Instagram.
Essie didn’t love boats, but she had told herself she wouldn’t love hot-sun holidays either, so she knew she should give the boat trip a go. Half a day around the Mediterranean island she was staying on, snorkel near some beauty spots, lunch at a predetermined restaurant.
She didn’t hate it. She wasn’t one hundred per cent sure about leaping from the side of the boat into an admittedly calm tourist-filled sea, though, so she stayed on board at the last stop of the trip. So had a handful of other tourists, all of whom she was far too English to make eye contact with.
Essie leaned on the railing and watched the blue-tinged horizon, marveling at how the sapphire sea made the clear sky seem dull. Sister islands felt close enough to swim to, even though Essie had studied the maps and knew the distance would kill most swimmers. High above, gulls screamed. Essie realised she could smell the calm, contented feeling she’d had since she stepped off the plane.
It was possible that next year she would try to do a week of her usual cultural-city-break and a week of visiting somewhere with a beach. When booking this trip after a horrible year of home and university-based disasters, she wanted somewhere that required nothing of her but the desire to read a book and try new foods. She hadn’t expected the island to feel magical.
Take the night before, for instance: she had been wandering on the beach after dark, appreciating that she felt as safe as she had during the daytime, and spotted a turtle in the surf. Should she call someone? Who? She’d read that the island’s turtles were both endangered and sought after for photograph opportunities. Then she realised that this ethereal, dog-sized reptile was minding their own business, just as she had been minding hers. Humans did not get to assume a front row seat merely because they owned the island. Essie had felt a little ashamed that this had never occurred to her before, despite her membership to the local Wildlife Trust and regular donations to The Ocean Cleanup.
The boat rocked and Essie turned her attention to the tourists splashing away in the shadow of the island’s cliffs. On the far side of the boat, away from the majority of swimmers, someone with pink hair bobbed in the sea. Essie blinked. Pink hair? She looked around the boat. Had anyone on the trip worn their hair pastel pink? She didn’t think so, she would have noticed. It looked cool.
A sound caught her attention: a child in armbands, too far from their parents. One of the bands had deflated and the child was struggling to stay above water. The parents, preoccupied with another child, hadn’t noticed. The child’s blonde mop was flailing, sinking beneath the waterline.
Where was the captain? Attending to a scraped knee. Essie removed her sun hat and prepared to clamber over the side of the boat. Was she confident in lifeguard duties? No, she’d seen the new Baywatch movie once and her attention had not really been on the lifeguard bits. Could she live with herself if she did nothing? No. Before she could get her leg over the railing, the pink haired girl was at the child’s side. Faster than Essie could track, she had deposited them at their parent’s shoulder. They latched onto the nearest arm, chattering in Dutch or German and spitting saltwater everywhere.
None of the other tourists seemed to have noticed. The girl turned to swim away, towards the open sea, and faced Essie for a second. She wore the most fantastic red waterproof mascara and had pink eyebrows. Hardcore. Her scales glinted in the sun.
‘Wait,’ Essie called. The girl froze in the water, looking straight at Essie. For a moment, neither of them moved. Then, in the time it took Essie to blink, the girl was leaning on the edge of the boat.
‘Thank you.’ Essie said.
The girl raised her eyebrows. Her eyelashes weren’t coated in mascara, Essie realised with a thrill, they were made of spiky coral. Her tail, or what Essie could see of it, was the purple black of an oil slick. What was it called? Iridescent.
‘You are not his… family.’ She had very heavily accented English, thicker than all the locals Essie had met.
‘No, but you didn’t have to do… Someone should say thank you.’
‘You are welcome.’
Essie felt suddenly as though she was watching another turtle. The girl smiled faintly—her teeth were pointed and thin, like an angler fish—and turned away. Essie caught a glimpse of that oil-like tail before the water was clear and empty again.
Essie leant back on the railing. It was possible the heat was getting to her. She was militant about emptying a two litre bottle of water over the course of the day, even though she hated all the plastic, but the sun was still high in the sky. She was probably just hallucinating.
Over in the sea, the rescued child was safely in their mother’s arms, watching the horizon.
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Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Burke
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