The last time I swam happily in the sea, I saw a shark, and I have found myself unable to swim happily since. I have tried, just this week I tried. From the Pass where my swim starts, I went straight out into the deep and then headed across towards the pine trees where the swim finishes. But I found myself swimming into shore halfway, my heart in my throat, panting like an unfit dog.
The day I saw the shark was a fine January day, the sea like glass, the water clear. Over the rocks, I’d seen fish of many colours, oblivious to the danger ahead of us. I’d successfully negotiated the dive-boats and grumpy surfers. I was out of the break and had just moved into that lovely rhythm of solitary swimming, putting one arm up and over, breathing, putting the other arm up and over, breathing, swaying with the sea.
In the moment before it happened, a thought came to me as a gentle voice in my head. You’re going to see a shark, the voice said, and it will be all right. Well, I resisted, I resisted mightily, an underwater scream of No! in my mind, and then there was the shark. Down to the right, no more than two metres below, a long perfect shark, the biggest creature I’ve ever seen with me in the sea, a beautiful creature, I can say now, as I sit safely at my little desk surrounded by air and earth and not by water.
I turned quickly and swam for shore, careful not to kick with my feet lest they stir some interest. I did not look back. I swam for shore as if my life depended on it. And then I ran along the beach a kilometre or more to my family and safety and told the story between giant gulps of air. Told it over and over again in the weeks that followed. But the telling hasn’t helped.
In Canada, where I wrote In Falling Snow, people were frightened of cougars. In the time I was there, two young cougars were ‘curious’ about humans. The physio I came to like in Banff – writers invariably develop troublesome backs – said whenever cougars mix with humans, it never goes well for the cougars. And this proved true. Eventually they shot the curious cougars and I felt sad for them and something more desperate.
I used to have a recurring dream that I was still in Banff, a place I love, and packing to leave. In the dream, I can’t get all my things in the bag, I can’t remember where the keys are, where the car is, and the plane is leaving in half and hour and I’ve forgotten about Customs and I’m hours away from the airport anyway. I am missing the plane.
The Buddhists tell us that all our lives we are preparing for death, and the failure to do this stops us from living in this moment. In two days, In Falling Snow will be launched. Next time I hope I will swim regardless.