The Range Rover trundled down the steep slope, skidding on the path slick with mud after the rain. Jake braked hard at the bottom, slid to a halt, wound down the window and switched off the engine. All he could hear was his breathing, slow and measured. He listened hard, but there was not another sound to be heard: no birds, no wind, no one. Through the windscreen he watched the last of the morning mist recede from the chill waters of the quarry below.
"Fancy a dive?" he said to himself, half-smiling. He swung open the car door with his knee and headed for the trunk. Jake unpacked his dive kit, assembling it with effortless speed denoting years of practice. With all his gear arranged on the transom in front of him, he climbed into his dry-suit. He walked to the cliff's edge, gravel crunching under rubber-soled boots. A solitary stone leapt off, sploshing into the water two seconds later. He inhaled the scent of damp vegetation, flexing his fingers with pre-dive anticipation.
Jake gazed across the fifty metres or so of barely rippling water to the limestone cliff opposite, casting its shadow over the cold depths of the man-made lake hidden in the Welsh valleys. A non-diver would say it was pretty, if the sun was shining, taking in the craggy white precipice fringed by grass and a few shrubs. But a diver's eyes were quickly drawn to the darker shades of blue, signalling the water's clarity, its depth, and its danger. But the attraction of diving here was strong. From the surface it was possible to see thirty meters down, a luxury for an English diver whose seas usually resembled pea soup.
But this quarry was much deeper. Impossible to tell how far it plunged just by looking, but he knew it was slightly more than a hundred meters, double the recommended limit for advanced recreational diving, deep enough to swallow men and women and not give them back. At thirty meters, unless you were using trimix instead of air, nitrogen narcosis was a risk, at fifty it was more pronounced, and at sixty-five oxygen poisoning began, ending in convulsions and death if you hung around or drifted deeper.
Three months earlier three divers had perished here, undoubtedly trying to save each other. The connection between divers was strong. The inquest concluded two of them had become entangled in a broken fishing line, hard for divers to see underwater, and not a major problem at shallow depths, but a nightmare at fifty meters. The third -- Jake's usual buddy, Steve -- had died with them, evidently unwilling to leave them as the trio slipped deeper and deeper until it was too late.
He strode back to the car, checked his regulator, the attachments on his jet black inflatable jacket, the tanks ... He paused, lifting the emergency cylinder, the 'pony' bottle, weighing it in his hands. A year earlier he and Steve had touched fifty metres in this very quarry, crossing through a temperature gradient, a thermocline, where a cold layer lurked beneath a warmer one. He'd felt the chill immediately, and then the unthinkable happened: both their main tanks locked open as ice crystals formed in their main valves, going into 'free-flow' -- he felt the pressure wave from his tank hit the back of his head, and saw the flood of precious bubbles streaming from the top of Steve's tank. They gave each other the thumbs-up signal to ascend, and bolted for the required decompression stop at nine metres. By that time both their main tanks were empty. Jake switched to his pony, a smaller reserve tank, and they took turns breathing out of the octopus regulator, two breaths each at a time, each man breathing then passing it to the other, neither of them greedy or panicking, till they finished deco and headed for the surface.
The very next day he'd lectured to a group of novices on buddy-breathing, ramming it home that when you do it for real, you don't take your eyes off your buddy's, nor your hand off the regulator, making sure to ascend slower than the small bubbles around you, listening for the dive computer beeps warning you you're going up too fast, that you're going to get 'bent'. The novices wrote copious notes that day.
Afterwards, down the pub, he and Steve had laughed about their adventure, and Jake had written down in his logbook, 'I love my pony.'
His smile faded. He pushed the pony back into the trunk of the car. Not today. Not on this dive.
Not going too deep today, he told himself, but even in his head it rang hollow, and another voice shouted to be heard. With commando precision he pulled his gear on, the straps and buckles snapping into place. Last, he picked up his diver's knife, with its net-cutting razor-sharp hook, and slid the smooth steel into its sheath on his right calf, until the restraint clicked shut. Most never bothered to bring a dive knife on a quarry dive like this -- there shouldn't have been any fishing line down there, since there were no edible-size fish, and fishing wasn't allowed in the quarry anyway. But Jake never dived without his knife. He grabbed his mask and fins, and headed to the left side of the quarry, the entry for the deepest section.
He checked his dive watch: 07.12am. Pretty early, but irrelevant as the quarry was closed to divers, pending the ongoing safety inquiry following the three deaths, not the first there by any means. He could be back out and changed in time for a mug of steaming tea and a hot bacon sandwich at the local hotel a mile away, just like he and Steve used to do. He stopped -- he'd specifically intended not to think about that. That wasn't why he was here. But then another uninvited thought intruded. The golden rule of diving -- never dive alone -- he'd lectured novices about it many times, and admonished those who'd done it. And yet, here he was.
He thought of his other buddies, his own club, who'd be diving in Anglesey later that morning. Jim, the club's Diving Officer, had called him last night, out of the blue, to ask him to join them on their Sunday dive. He'd be very welcome, they missed him, they needed good instructors, etc. But in the end, the one-sided conversation had petered out. Jim, after all, was a seasoned diver, and had a pretty good idea how it would feel to lose a buddy.
Jake descended the narrow path, and reached the point where he'd have to climb down a few rocks -- he was in good shape but it was easy to slip, especially with 25 kilos of pressurised equipment on his back. He'd never done this alone; divers always helped each other on this part, otherwise the hour-long drive to this dive site could be wasted because of a cracked mask, or a busted rib. He looked carefully to see where to put his feet, where to get handholds on the rocks.
"There," he said, breathing heavily. "Who needs a buddy?" But not even a half-smile this time. Steve would have come this same route that day. Jake had been sick, and so Steve had gone diving with Joe and Rachel. A cold, nothing more, but enough to call off a dive. No one questioned it; it had been the sensible thing to do. Blocked sinuses on land are a nuisance, but underwater can lead to agony on the ascent, or worse, a burst eardrum, the death-knell for future diving. But good sense can be short-changed by consequences, and hindsight is unforgiving.
He stood rigid, recalling that awful day when he'd got the phone call from Jim ...
"Jake ... They've been down an hour. Todd and Ralph just came up from thirty meters, no sign of them ... It's not looking good. I've called the helicopter. At the least we're looking at decompression sickness ..."
Jake had dashed to his car. While driving like a bat out of hell through twisting lanes he'd heard it on the local radio -- three divers found dead in local quarry. He'd swung off the road and screeched to a halt, hands shaking, barely able to breathe. He hit the steering wheel hard, pounded the dashboard and then, though he'd never told anyone, even the counsellor he saw three weeks later -- he punched himself in the face. A fucking cold!
Since then he'd become reclusive. Stopped diving. Stopped teaching. Stopped turning up at the club. Stopped returning calls. He felt dry. Like a beach with no sea in sight.
He peered over the small ledge into the waters below, blue turning black at the centre. He'd lost his buddy down there, his friend. With no warning, not even seeing Steve's face contort as he drowned, not there to help him, or hear those gulping screams. All those years of rescue training and drills, years of diving together, rendered useless by a cold. He could feel his friend reaching out in those last moments, but he'd not been there, not even aware of it at the time.
The bond had been closer than he'd realised, and it felt physical, a hollow feeling in his gut. It was how he imagined police partners might feel, or veterans from some war who'd come through hell together. Even Alice, Steve's wife, knew that his last thoughts might just as easily have been towards Jake, because Steve had died underwater. She'd never said as much, but clearly she'd found it difficult to look him in the eye since Steve's death. As the funeral ended, she'd turned to him and said she was glad he hadn't died down there, too. At those words, Jake had turned to stone.
Now everything else was pale, insipid, irrelevant. No one had anything useful to say to him, to help him deal with his survivor guilt. The counsellor had said he needed to talk more about it. But as divers he and Steve always said the beauty of diving is that you can't talk underwater, no banal banter, only action. Underwater, you see what people are made of, find out what you are made of. So, no, he didn't need to talk. He needed to act, and nothing on land was going to help. The guilt wasn't logical, but it felt real: he'd let his friend down. No, he'd let his friend drown.
He stood on the very edge, looking at his rippled reflection two meters below, a high-entry dive point. Where was his exit point? What was his plan? Every dive must have a plan -- "Plan the dive, and dive the plan" -- he'd heard it and said it a thousand times.
There was no plan.
He reached down to pick up his fins -- but without Steve there to lean on, and with all this kit on his back, he would need to sit down to put them on before jumping in. He moved towards a boulder behind him. As he sat down he noticed, for the first time ever, a small wooden sign a few metres off to the left, half-buried in a bush. He couldn't see what it said from where he was sitting, but it seemed to be pointing to the water below. He put his fins and mask down, got up with an effort due to the weight belt and tank still on his back, and walked over towards it. Although most of the white paint had peeled off long ago, he could still make out a faded picture of someone in a bathing costume diving into the water. Underneath it read:
It took a while to sink in, and then he began to laugh at it. "No diving", he said out loud, and then laughed some more at the absurdity of the sign, maybe put there as a joke, or maybe it really had been there all those years. He kept laughing, and had to release some of the harnesses and lower his tank and dive-jacket to the ground, imagining the shock of diving into such cold water wearing only a bathing suit, though he was sure youngsters must have tried it more than once. He went back to the rock and sat down, and felt Steve laughing with him. His own laughter ebbed. There were tears in his eyes, from laughter or sadness, he didn't know. As he undid his weight belt and let it clunk onto the boulder, he felt an inner release, and the salt water flowed as easily as the sweat had done on many a happy summer's day he'd dived there with Steve. He said nothing at first, didn't move, feeling the burning sensation in his eyes and the tightness in his chest, then let it come out. He said the words he'd never said, to the waters below. "I'm sorry, Steve, I should have been there."
He remained there a long time, more immobile than the rock on which he sat. After a while, he breathed in deeply, tasting the fresh air that divers never took for granted. He glanced at the sign and managed a smile.
'Well, who am I to argue?'
He walked over to the edge again. He took out his diver's knife, hefted it in his right hand, brushing his thumb over the net-cutter hook which could have saved them. Gripping the hilt, he reached back with his arm, and with a grunt that turned into a yell, hurled it with all his might out into the middle of the quarry. It cartwheeled amongst the echoes bouncing off the cliffs, glinting in the sun before it sliced through the water's surface. After a few seconds its ripples were gone.
"A little late, I know."
He walked over to the sign, and pulled at it till he uprooted it. Then he began digging with his hands a small hole at the normal diver entry point. The ground was frosted, and it took a few minutes, grazing his fingers till one of them bled. He propped up the sign with loose earth, then retrieved his tank and used the blunt end to hammer it further into the ground. He stood back and looked at it, hands clasped. He'd received a letter two days earlier asking him to appear as an expert witness at the inquest in two weeks time. Now, he knew he would go.
He turned and gathered up his gear, trudged back up the pathway to the car, and peeled himself out of his dry-suit. He checked his diver's watch. He could go and have breakfast at the nearby hotel, for old time's sake. But then, he thought, if he skipped breakfast, he could be in Anglesey in two hours to help with the novices.
Steve would've wanted that.
Article © Barry Kirwan. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-04-18
Image(s) © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.