Five-Minute Memoir: Angela Clarke recalls the day she almost drowned

 

Angela Clarke
Saturday 29 December 2012 01:00
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It is the August Bank Holiday weekend, 1986, and I am six. Hurricane Charley has soused the UK, and the rain is jackhammering the roof of the caravan my family has rented for the week. My mum, my dad, my younger brother and I are all rattling around in this metal box in Weymouth. Some holiday.

I don't understand all the adult talk of miles-per-hour winds and cyclones, but I do understand boredom. I'd been promised trips to the beach. I nag my parents constantly. "When will it stop raining? When can we see the sea? When can we go outside?"

I liken my containment to that of the small, smooth carrots in the tins mum's bought for our tea. The tiny, luminous vegetables, too soft in the mouth, are a constant source of fascination and revulsion. They're served with matching canned potatoes; small and anaemic, they taste vaguely of Lego. They are pretend vegetables, suspect to my six-year-old palate.

The caravan has no microwave, my parents don't have the money to eat out every night, and my mum is tired. The cans are convenient. I poke and prod my fake food round my plate. My brother, three years old, copies me.

When the wind finally stops whistling, and the rain eases to a constant drizzle, we venture out. We visit Abbotsbury Swannery, swaddled in jumpers, coats and scarves. My parents laugh about the great British summer. The swans are the warm-up act. I want to see the sea. On the way home, as the clouds draw in, we stop at Chesil beach.

It's deserted. I race ahead, crunching the pebbles under my feet, pounding closer to where the grey expanse of the sea meets the grey expanse of the sky. Freedom. Escape. My parents struggle behind with my brother's buggy.

I reach the water and inhale the salt and the rain and the wide-open space. I hurl small chunks of the prehistoric coast, smooth and icy against my hands, back into the ocean. Goading it. I slide down the wet stones to the lapping edge and race back up and away as the breaking waves turn the ground to foam. Playing 'It' with the current.

I look up at my parents and wave. Look at me! I'm racing the sea! I think they are waving back. They aren't. They are signalling frantically for me to come away from the water. Their warning shouts are carried away by the wind. My brother's buggy is stubbornly grinding its wheels into the stones.

You're it! You can't catch me! I'm as quick as the miles-per-hour winds! As fast as a cyclone! But the sea is quicker. A wave catches at my heels, sucking my green wellies down, pulling me toward it's dark heart. Salt water crashes over my head. For a moment I'm suspended, my hair, a small fish, floating in front of my eyes. Then I'm struggling for air, fighting to get to the surface, while the waves tumble the stones and me over and over. I'm a tiny plastic potato in a boiling pan.

My parents see me disappear into the grey surge. My dad sprints to the place I was standing. Faster than the miles-per-hour wind. He catches sight of a flash of red: my favourite coat. He wades into the freezing water. There's a hand. Big. Strong. It grabs at my hair, and misses. I try to reach it. Again it comes, this time for my waist, gone, swirling, once more for my arm. Dad catches hold and pulls me out. Water pours from my hood, my sleeves, and my boots. I am made of water. Choking, spitting and panting, we stagger on to the shifting stones. Dad half carries, half drags me up the beach. I feel sodden, heavy, like a sponge, dripping. The wind laughs cruelly and coldly.

My mum grabs me and strips me of my clothes. Pulling off my saturated jeans and jumper. My skin is waxy and white and so frozen I almost can't feel the burning wind. My brother's lifted from his buggy and divested of his padded blue all-in-one. Mum pushes and pummels me into my brother's coat, with all the anger of a parent who's nearly lost a child. My brother starts to cry. He's cold. It's getting dark. It's a long, stony walk back to the car.

With time, this event has slipped into the annals of our family history: the legend of Angela falling into the sea. It is told at family meals, wine in hand, with hoots of laughter and the traditional shouts of "We told you so!" from my parents. It's become a hysterically damp example of my stubbornness and inability to listen to advice. Nearly 30 years later, as my friends have children and I contemplate starting a family myself, I see it anew. Less a humorous anecdote and more a close call. How frightened my parents must have been.

'Confessions of a Fashionista – The Good, the Bad and the Botox', by Angela Clarke, is published by Virgin Books on 17 January

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