Emily walked through the school gates like a zombie. Somehow she’d finished her last GCSE exam, quite how she didn’t know. She felt drained, convinced she’d done badly. Her life was over!
Instead of turning left and heading for home, she turned right. Wandering aimlessly, she found herself outside the station. On an impulse she walked onto the concourse and stepped onto a train bound for Penzance. She hadn’t meant to do it.
During the hours that followed she managed to evade the ticket collector. And when she wasn’t playing her game of cat and mouse, she stared mindlessly out of the window, soothed by the clatter of the train on its tracks. What she would do when the train reached its destination she didn’t know.
It was dusk when she alighted from the train, crumpled and thirsty. She drifted along the platform like a discarded piece of paper. She had about one pound fifty in her purse, and little of any use in her school bag. GCSE revision books seemed somehow redundant in the real world.
She drank her fill of water in the ladies’ toilets at the station, then turned left out of the station and walked along the road which led past the port. She was still wearing her school uniform, and felt vulnerable to the stares of men outside the pubs.
So Emily turned back in the opposite direction, along the beach. She walked for miles, past St Michael’s Mount, which she remembered from a family holiday some years before. By this time it was completely dark except for occasional visits from the moon. Still, walking along the beach was easy enough with the constant motion of the dark sea to her right and the lights of sparse habitation on her left. The sand was light in colour, and she could see well enough not to trip over outcrops of rock. She was tired beyond all previous tiredness, but determined to keep going.
Eventually Emily slumped exhausted against a large rock. She must have drifted into sleep for a while, and when she awoke the sea was advancing towards her feet. She blinked, thinking she could see figures moving in the water between the rocks.
Yes! There were people in the water. She could see their eyes glinting in the dark. They seemed to be beckoning for her to join them. The sea was cold, but she hardly noticed the chill in her quest for the mysterious, silent figures as they slipped into the sea. And as they disappeared, others popped up, bobbing like seals on the surface of the water. Perhaps they were seals, and not people? After all, they did not speak.
She was immersed in the water up to her waist by this time. Her feet went from under her body as a wave surged by, and she tumbled into the water in a turmoil of sand and tide. She kept exhaling until there was no more air in her lungs, but when she inhaled she did not feel the choking panic of drowning. She and the water felt as one.
But that fine feeling lasted only for a minute or two, then she clawed her way gasping and spluttering to the surface. Was this her fate, to drown in her school uniform on the night she had failed her GCSE’s? Emily Houghton, This Is Your Life.
But no. One of the silent, firm-limbed swimming people took her in his grasp. His? Her? It was hard to tell in the dark. She was propelled toward the shore, to a rocky place, a type of cavern. The person who had rescued her from drowning hoisted her out of the water and carried her into a cave lit by a greenish light.
Emily wasn’t sure whether this was reality or life after drowning. There were perhaps fifteen people in the cave, talking in low voices among themselves. When Emily and her rescuer joined the group they fell silent.
The young man (for it was male after all) placed her gently on the shingle and stood back.
“Who … who are you?” ventured Emily, scraping her wet hair out of her eyes.
A woman stepped forward. “We might ask, who are you?” she said softly.
“Um, my name’s Emily,” replied Emily self-consciously, straightening her heavy, wet skirt.
“Welcome, Emily,” said an older man with thinning hair plastered wetly to his scalp. “Drink this, it will help you to sleep and recover from your ordeal.”
Emily drank without question from the cup he offered, and remembered nothing more.
She awoke in daylight to the gentle lapping of water against rocks. She felt peaceful, as though she had not a care in the world. She thought she was alone in the cave, but from nowhere came two girls not much older than herself.
“Ah, you’re awake,” said one.
Emily nodded, wide-eyed with wonder. The girls seemed completely normal, except they wore skimpy, green dresses. Oh yes, and their skins were tinged with blue. Other than that, quite normal.
“Drink this,” said the other. “It will warm you.”
Emily did as she was told, and soon felt a warm glow.
“Are you drop-outs? Drug addicts?” she asked. “Will you get me hooked on this stuff and keep me here? Is this how everyone joined your group?”
But the girls ignored her outburst. They turned and walked away without a word.
When Emily woke it was dark once more. She regained consciousness gradually. The cave was once more suffused with a green glow, and several of the Water People were seated nearby on the rocks, talking quietly among themselves. The sound of their voices was so peaceful, and she felt herself drifting once more.
But soon she woke again. She took time to study the people nearest her. They appeared to be mending a net, and they chatted amiably as they worked. That was the main thing about these people: their sense of calm.
Three more figures entered the cave from the water. Emily sat up.
“Ah, you’re awake,” said the woman mending the net. “How are you feeling?”
“Uh, groggy. What’s in this stuff you’ve been giving me?”
The woman smiled but didn't answer. “Fancy a swim? That’ll help you come round.” She put down her end of the net and stretched out a hand to help Emily to her feet.
Yes, a swim seemed like a good idea to clear her muzzy head. Together Emily and the woman picked their way across the rocks to the water’s edge.
“Careful. It gets very deep very suddenly, we’re on the edge of a cliff.”
Emily took a deep breath and launched forward. The woman joined her. The sea was calm tonight, it was like swimming in cool, dark velvet.
“Follow me,” said the woman as she dived under the surface and started swimming deeper.
Emily felt a momentary panic. How would she see to keep up with the woman? But somehow she could see the dark shape ahead, and she could keep up. She was so preoccupied she didn’t notice that she was breathing under water. She felt free, without a care in the world as she swam deeper into the ocean.
Eventually the woman signalled that they should go back. It was only when her head broke the glittering surface of the water that Emily stopped to think about what she’d just done.
The woman broke the surface at the same moment, and turned and smiled.
“Did you enjoy that?”
“Oh, yes!” replied Emily. “How are we able to breathe under water?”
The woman shrugged. “I don’t really understand. There’s something in the potion. We take a dose each day, and that makes it possible. I should introduce myself, I’m Mara.”
Emily studied Mara’s face. It was hard to put an age to a wet face by moonlight, but she looked about twenty-five.
“Where are you from, Mara?”
“I’m from Bristol.”
“And how long have you been here, living like this?”
“Oh, about a year.”
“What about your family? Won’t they be worried about you?”
“There was just me and my husband. Then he went to prison. I couldn’t cope, started drinking. Can’t remember how I came to Cornwall. But like you, I was walking along the beach at night and the others found me. I’d probably be dead by now if it wasn’t for them. So what about you … it’s Emily, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I’ve just done my GCSEs. Think I’ve failed, totally stressed out. So I got on a train and ended up in Penzance. I feel so guilty, my parents will be going out of their minds. But I just needed to get away. I suppose everyone here has a similar story.”
Mara nodded. “All drop-outs. All the same, yet all different.”
“Does anyone know about this place?”
Mara shrugged. “I don’t think so, otherwise we’d have had a visit from the police by now. We mostly sleep in the day, and we don’t need lights at night. Randall’s been here for more than five years, he was the first. He discovered the potion. I’ll introduce you to him, he’s an interesting guy.”
“So what is it that gives off the green light in the cave?”
“Ah, that’s the potion. It glows as it ferments. Seaweed and stuff. Enough nutrition so we don’t need food, and it creates light and warmth, as well as enabling us to breathe under water. Amazing, huh?”
Emily’s eyes widened. “Gosh, I hadn’t even thought about food and I must have been here a couple of days already. This is really weird, like some science fiction story. I’d love to meet Randall. Which one is he?”
Mara gestured, and droplets from her hand sparkled like gemstones in the moonlight. “At the back, the one with the long beard. Let’s go in.”
Emily spent a couple of hours that evening chatting with Randall. He had been a high-flying executive in New York, and had been involved in a plane crash off the Cornish coast. A light aircraft that he’d chartered for the afternoon, more than five years before. So of course he’d been presumed dead, no questions asked when the plane’s wreckage had washed up. But he’d swum to an island and survived on bird’s eggs and seaweed and stuff. And had started to discover the true meaning of life beyond board meetings and profit for profit’s sake. And being alone he’d had plenty of time to exercise his enquiring mind beyond the question of mere survival, towards the idea of humans living as sea-dwelling mammals. But a leader of men could not live alone forever, and it had not been long before he’d met up with other twenty-first century drop-outs and the Water People had gained momentum. All, as far as they knew, without the outside world knowing of the community’s existence.
There was no concept of time divided into hours. There was the dreamlike daylight state induced by the potion which they took each day at dawn. Then, after dark, they awoke to frolic in the sea off the island cliffs. It was a simple existence, they lived for the pleasure of being at one with the sea and engaging in philosophical discussion. No work, no house to clean, no meals to prepare. Their only chore was to gather the natural ingredients for the potion Randall and Charles had developed. Charles, a bald-headed gnome of a man, had been a biological scientist in his former life.
Of course, there had to be consequences. Nothing was perfect, after all. Solemnly Randall described how some newcomers had developed an intolerance to the potion and died in horrible agony.
“Don’t worry,” he reassured Emily. “It would have happened by now if it was going to happen to you.”
Others had had a different reaction to the potion, a type of frenzy. They became hyperactive and would swim so hard and fast and deep that they simply died of exhaustion, burned out from an excess of the thrill it gave them.
“Probably half of the incomers have died,” added Randall. “I don’t want to scare you, Emily, but I feel it is my duty to make you aware of these things. However I must say you seem to have reacted very well to the potion and I wouldn’t expect you to have any problem taking it for the foreseeable future.”
After a few more days Emily realised she was the youngest of the cave dwellers. There was a young man of twenty, and Mara was twenty-seven, but beyond that everyone else was well into their thirties, forties, and older. Randall said he was fifty-three although he didn’t look anywhere near that old, and Charles was sixty one. Randall had showed her the marks they had carved at the side of their cave. It was like something out of Robinson Crusoe. The dawn of each day was marked, and thus the past five years were laid out neatly in rows. Although time did not matter, the conundrum was that they still liked to keep track of the days, weeks and months.
Emily began to grow bored. She still got a huge buzz out of being able to breathe under water, but the endless daytime inactivity got on her nerves and the eclectic discussions were way above her head. She had a burning urge to know what her friends were doing, and what new music was in the charts.
“My poor Emily,” said Randall one evening after Emily had been there for about a week. “I do understand and I sympathise. Would you like to go home?”
Emily could not have been more delighted if Randall had offered her a million pounds. Her face lit up like a birthday cake.
“I can appreciate that you are young, and probably not ready to make a lifetime commitment to our community. You’re not the first, my dear, and I’m sure you won’t be the last. Others have come and gone. All I ask is that you maintain our secrecy. And we will have to work out a plan for your return.”
The Water People had a place back on the mainland where they hid clothing and a little money for the eventuality that anyone wished to return to civilisation. This stockpile had been built up from the personal effects of those who had joined them.
It was about eleven on a Saturday morning when Emily alighted from the train at Exeter station. She spent the rest of the day familiarising herself with Exeter in order that, when questioned, she could make out that she had spent all the time she had been missing there. One of the Water People came from Exeter, and he had told her of a squat where he had been living just a few months before. She soon found the house and familiarised herself with the surrounding area, although the plan was to say as little as possible about where she had been. Then she returned to the railway station and made the momentous call to her parents from a phone box nearby. From that point there was no going back.
That night in the car going home Emily felt numb. There had been a massive outpouring of relief from her parents, accompanied by tears from her mother and stern language from her father. She just hoped she could keep her nerve when questioned during the following days and weeks. She felt the pressure of civilisation reaching out its tentacles. She thought fondly of her time with the Water People and wondered whether she was doing the right thing in returning home.
By Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015