Writers Showcase

Elspeth Wilson

Sea-swimming

Standing in a love-island swimsuit adorned with saltwater;

more holes than surface untouchable

by anything other than the sea itself. In the heatless

light of the changing room, I met my own eye full-frontal

and told each part of me that I could hold it.

Everything is unthinkable until it is so;

my sixteen-year old self couldn’t see a world

where more of my existence could be a good thing.

Tendrils still reach for the stigmata of my mind

and something lurks in the depths of my stomach at night,

but among the waves I learn that I built this body

and I can live in it.

That bodies are homes and this one is cosy.

Put the kettle on when you get in; everything turns out alright.

There is a moment on the DART when Dublin City lets out its breath. It comes around Sandymount, after the unsuspecting visitor has been exposed to the mundanities of the low roofs of the city, small gardens peeking through the houses like friendly faces. When I was wee, I used to imagine a happy family behind every window, warm and laughing. Now, a man shouts, a dog cowers, a child cringes. What people would see if they looked into my high window, where I am a slowly maddening Rapunzel, I do not know. Strands of hair, quivering like fronds, blow in the wind that sneaks into the stuffy carriage.

The traveller is lulled by these familiar scenes, only to be jolted sharply awake when the particular nature of their location on this earth is made abruptly apparent by the sudden appearance of Sandymount Strand. The Strand is one of the most changeable beaches I have ever come across. Chugging past at all times of day, glimpsing just a passing snapshot of desolate tempestuousness, it is reassuring in its unpredictability. Its aliveness still captivates me every time I journey along its length, reminding me that things that writhe are not always pained. The water is too much and it’s not afraid to be so. It is not the cool girl but the one who weeps, who acts on her whims, who doesn’t supress her rising tides.

 My nose stays glued to the window of the train, where I always sit on the left-hand side to get the best view. Gleeful, finding pockets of joy, pushing at the seams of trauma, forcing it to give me an inch. Sometimes the sea lets go a sigh, waves lapping up almost to the edge of the rail line. Other times it constricts, making you peer miles out over the flat sand to spot the water in the distance. This changeability can make the Strand a fickle place to swim, deceptive in its beauty, ready to catch out unsuspecting parents who find their children are suddenly on islands, besieged by water that was not there only a minute before.

            DART stands for Dublin Area Rapid Transit yet there is nothing rapid about it. The bright green trains with insides to match laze along from Howth or Malahide out to County Wicklow like the last snakes left in Ireland. A hurried disposition will hate the DART. It chugs and rattles, rattles and chugs, soothing my legs first frantic as I run for the train, then steady as its rhythm ebbs and flows. My toes wriggle, my heart shoogles inside my chest, an internal, eternal itch to keep progressing somewhere. Anywhere.

A friend visiting from London couldn’t believe that we had covered only a few miles in half an hour, his forehead pressed against the glass willing the train togo, go, go. Yet if you accept it for what it is, it will offer up its delights and one of the greatest urban train journeys in the world awaits. But accepting situations for what they are is difficult when there is constantly something else you want them to be, other destinations you wish you could reach.

The stations along the line make up a rollcall of my favourite swimming places. From Booterstown onwards, where the swampy nature reserve greets you with an earthy stench on hot summer days, lie some of the best city beaches I have ever seen – if you don’t mind the cold. Sandycove, where the wild of the sea laps against the manicured suburbs, and people of all shapes and sizes come to gather at the tiny beach. One time my extended hand unwittingly grabbed a jellyfish here, my shocked screams igniting delighted laughter from the flirting Spanish teenagers. Further along is Killiney Bay where the aspect becomes even grander, the pebbly beach a long slash of stone enclosed by the hugging arm of Dalkey. It is only a two-minute walk from the station into a windy paradise, where the smooth rocks give your soles a workout as you wade into the shallow, biting water. Pain, discomfort, then relief.

            The smell of salt on my nostrils excites something primal. Like a trigger for the positive. It makes my hands and feet itch, becoming blotchy as blood runs to the surface, desperate to get off the train and out, out and into the sea. I realise that this is what desire feels like, having long dampened down feelings that hover over my carefully balanced equilibrium, waiting to pounce. Naming things has a power. It can bring them into existence. Hands reached into my body, my mind, pulling it out like party streamers, a jumbled, tangled mess. Made it impossible to tell the difference between needing the toilet and feeling anxious. Wanting to live forever, just to prove everybody wrong, or wanting to die.                                                                           

Now the sea provides a space for feelings to exist, where the intensity inside my body, the waves of pleasure, then self-loathing, then fury, then love, then desperation, that threaten to overwhelm me, to sink me, will always be drowned out by something fiercer, more volatile and more angry than I could ever be.

It was not always this way. I grew up by the sea in Scotland, but it did not move me then, other than forcing me to skirt around it or to turn away from its suspicious pull. Mum swam in the sea all the time, the light reflecting off the rivulets on her body, showing her for the goddess she is. But goddesses are not to be emulated, so I was happy to sit by the side, watching over her swimming to keep her safe. Before swimming was trendy, before it was ‘wild’ or hashtaggable, she would declare the water fucking freezing – no panacea for stress and grief, no immaculate environment as we received regular warnings not to swim whenever there was a sewage leak. Still, she kept going back, combing the beach for plastics and cans, knowing she acted upon the water just as it did on her, whilst I stood by watching.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like the sea. I was just wary of it. Bikinis were for photo opportunities, their purpose decorative. Mine were usually strapless or had fiddly halter necks or ties – totally impractical for actual swimming. I was an Instagram-friendly crocheted bikini marked do not get wet. An ornament only seeing other bodies as ornaments, my filter for beauty narrowed to an extreme degree. Jellyfish were things that were only ever found dead on the beach, looking like something that a giant had vomited up, or which Séamus sometimes ate resulting in an urgent trip to the vet. The sea felt like a necessity at a time in my life where I was only seeking luxuries, so I let it be.

            I still maintain the utmost respect for saltwater, but everything else has changed since then.

***

Standing in a Love Island-worthy swimsuit, I am shivering before I even get wet. Hoops and bows adorn the costume that I bought hurriedly in the stark lights of a H&M changing room because it was on sale. The glare of the lights, their judgement, almost sank me, unable to meet my own gaze. My vibrant purple is at odds with the sea which is slate-grey and superficially uninviting. There lies a current underneath the pancake water which has been calling to me for weeks. The ripples that ricochet through my body want to be matched with their own kind; I find myself craving something that can match my own intensity.  

I scream when no-one can hear me, painting my insides in sound. When I was two, we had to leave the supermarket without getting peaches because I threw a tantrum in the aisle, and I didn’t take mum at her word that we would leave if I kept howling. The world was without threats and the possibility of them being acted upon. Years later, when my body was conquered, my mind displaced, I barely said a word. My ability to lay aside decorum has been wrung out of me, dripping away imperceptibly month after month, year after year, until my voice is a rasping husk. I want to regain it, to shout, to push my messiness beyond the skin barrier and osmose onto the pristine streets. Except I do not do this and never would. Never could. Facilitating other people’s comfort has been so drilled into me that it is a mannerism, as hard to shake as a cough. External anger is a fantasy and so the ocean claws at my insides, my belly button a whirlpool, its roaring, mundane, endless cycle jerking my legs, keeping me awake at night.

***

What is nature. Is it an excuse? Something to make ourselves feel better – a conquest, built to overshadow us, to be controlled, put our experiences in perspective? Does it act as an age-old comfort for men, a home to return to when they transgress too far, push too hard, attempt to own things that even money and privilege can’t buy? Or is it a body to sink into when you are sick of your own?

            Boys killing worms is natural but boys doing ballet is not. Gender-neutral bathrooms are against the order of things but girls sewing their mouths shut and no-one noticing for decades – and no-one caring even if they did – is not. White women dying in childbirth In This Day and Age is unnatural, but the necessity of foodbanks is sad yet can’t be helped.

Human nature is dead, should die, won’t die. All we have is the seas, the trees, the animals, the insects, the microbes, the fish who never asked for this. Who don’t want it, who are living under our imposition. And soon we won’t have them either if we do not change. And when I say we, that is to say, some of us – some far, far more than others. Because if we are alone with our humanness (I cannot say humanity) and our ideas of what is natural, then what? Where does that isolation lead?

Elspeth Wilson is a young, disabled poet and writer whose work considers how our identity impacts our experience of the environment. Her debut book which she is currently querying was shortlisted for Canongate’s Nan Shepherd prize. She has a degree in Gender Studies and is passionate about sex education, having twice won Write to End Violence Against Women awards. She is also working on her first novel about drinking societies at universities and can usually be found in or near the sea.