The End of the Affair
Motion and the sound of breath, in the cold. In the weeds. This is where you were, leaving no trail of bubbles. Inside my mask, the brother of your own, breathing deafens in rhythm.
The gases are stored here and here. The mix comes through here. The regulator turns murderous pressure into breath moments before it hits my mouth. The red section of this dial tells me when I have five minutes left, which at this depth is equivalent to telling me that I have been dead for some time. Get down to red and it’s when and how, not if—struggle or sink. It’s personal choice, as the pressure wraps lungs in damp elastic bands, twists and folds over twice, three times. Even without the cold and the crush I could no more pull that last string of silver beads back into my mouth, from there into breast, blood, brain, than I could wrench the heavy, welded overcoat from my shoulders and shrug my drenched body into the light. You shuddered yourself out through nose and mouth like a wet sneeze. You left in that motion.
Technology increases the available depth and the comparative comfort, with the human body as the constant. By sensibly doing stupid things, the pilot-fish light attached to my shoulder extends further down every year. The passage of time increases the discoverability of objects. When this hulk’s belly first touched bottom, it crushed into the brass and lead cowries of spent casings, irradiated shells from the last war but one. Try to x-ray that barrow of radioactive ordnance. Like staring down at your feet and seeing the Sun. Human eyes could pick out only the topmost details, and then only on the clearest days. The first hint of movement in wind or water and another day was wasted.
Down this deep, the gentlest finger-strokes on the surface of the ocean become the blows of a fist, the pressure of an island. Despite the time since John Haldane, and despite the cloak of rubber and steel scales that makes me more dolphin than man, trimix steadily inflating into my lungs, I’m taking it slow.
Even now, dolphin-skin, fake air and equalised pressure holding thought in my body, it’s hard to ignore the imminent cessation of life. Things are dying all the time, the weight of the water wringing tiny existences from the clustering weeds and the barnacles growing across the hull. Minuscule lives and minuscule deaths, and the water watching every moment.
This sounds a little morbid, I realise. You try maintaining a sunny disposition with this weight of water between you and the sun, hoping not to be fatally entangled with a war grave. There’s nothing here but you, the weeds and the metal. There’s nobody here to judge, and a feeling of invincibility is the first sure sign that you are going to die.
I don’t know if you remember the dives we used to take. It’s been a while. We followed the stages of nitrogen narcosis. First euphoria, then the slowdown, memory loss and task fixation—the same actions taken over and over again. Partial pressure increase made our lips tingle, made us feel stupid. By the time we heard our own voices clanging like drowned church bells in our ears, and felt fear trickle in through the seams, it was late and we were deep. I don’t know who broke surface, who stayed under.
All of which brings us back to you, and where you are. I drift in place. All Royal Navy submersibles of a particular class have names with the same initial. Vanguard. Victorious. Vigilant. Vengeance. Trafalgar. Turbulent. Torbay. No, really. After a while, desperation must set in. I feel like I should have brought sandwiches. A picnic in the lower edge of the euphotic zone; phytoplankton for dessert. The hulk is covered over, colour throwing itself up and out along the beam of my lamp. These are the colours that cover your eyes. This is the weed bed where you sleep.
This is a war grave, even though no war was being fought. At least, no war under these waters, or under that flag. Lost on manoeuvres, in preparation for a war that never came. Landing marines on friendly shores. That was what caught you—the futility. No records exist of how the men who landed on the beach the night before got home, but they are recorded as returning for duty the following week. Not a man was lost on the ground, not a man was found in the sea.
You went down five times before the last time, but never with me. The people who did dive with you knew not to try to get in. It might still be airtight, or it might still have been airtight. The last time, your partner broke the surface alone. He’d lost sight of you, and searched until he had to come up, slowly, stopping at each watery landing to count the bubbles in his blood. The lungs feel as much as the hulk, or the crew—the pressure inside can be stretching them to bursting point before you feel a thing.
It’s illegal to disturb any site designated a war grave—nobody is permitted to enter or leave, and you can take nothing from it but yourself. Perhaps that’s why we could never work—I read the instructions, and you saw the signs.
They always told me that you couldn’t stay this far down for long; the intricacies of descending so low and the complications of returning leave a few grains of damp sand to spend on the floor. But if you stop worrying about ascent at all, the pressure drops to zero.
Antaeus. Androcles. Abrupt. Antinous. Asperity. Arbiter. Affair. Arethusa. Arjuna. Achilles. Amphitryon.
Nobody goes into a war grave. At least, I don’t go in. I turn and kick for the surface.
By Dan, 31 May, 2006; direct link.