WOMEN OF WATER
Solitary confinement drives a person insane, it’s a well-known fact. The medieval oubliette, Stalin’s gulag, or a bare room in a quarantine camp – stay there long enough and you will lose your mind.
He should have spent 12 hours in Hong Kong between flights. After 12 days, he lost track of day and time. No WiFi. No contact with the outside world. No friends in this alien city to bring a SIM card. No info from the anonymous figures in their hazmat suits who left food outside the door and who just shrugged when he asked them when he would be released. Or at least tested again.
Thrown on the resources of his own mind, he spent the hours of daylight in a somnolent trance, interspersed with feverish bouts of calisthenics. He sang every lyric to every song he could remember and hummed the rest, tried to reconstruct the plot of every movie, TV series and novel he’d ever encountered. Revisited evenings with friends and the endless conversations that had flowed through them. Relived the romantic and sexual relationships that had waxed then waned in his adult life, in all their glorious, mundane, painful detail.
When the memories grew hackneyed and tiresome, he lay very still, straining to hear the sea through the open window of his cabin. Gazed at his surfboard and the images he’d painted on it a lifetime ago, or so it felt. He’d spent the summer in Greece, touring the burgeoning surf spots there and teaching at a couple of them. As the season came to an end, he’d sanded down the board and repainted it to look like the sea itself, with images of ethereal females surging up from the water. The Nereids. A big deal for Greek surfers. Friendly sea nymphs who, if you please them, grant great sets and protection from wipeout. He remembered a few of their names – Thetis, Talia, Galatea and Calypso – and wove intricate stories for each of them; sagas that got ever more convoluted as the endless days passed. As for the painful, sleepless nights, that’s when they came to him, his women of water, whispering their promises that this too would pass.
By the time he was released, after who knew how long, all he did know was that they were waiting for him. He was dropped off – without ceremony, instructions, or a farewell, on a road called Fantasy, towards the end of a warm autumnal afternoon. He did the only thing he could and headed for the water he’d been listening to, that they’d been speaking to him through, for all those days and nights. By the time he found the rocky shore, north of the camp, the light was starting to fade and the sea was grey and silver. Alive with their spirits. Breathing hard, he dropped his bags and stripped to T-shirt and shorts. Unzipped the long bag that protected the board for the last time. As he strode down to the shoreline, the Nereids made their presence manifest. Needle-sharp columns of water and light rose, undulated and spun. Some near – his women, ready to bring him to safe harbour. Some far – the ones he would come to know. The water was warm, and he barely registered the transition from wading to swimming to paddling, so entranced was he by the magic that surrounded him. The enchantment that was for him alone. He knew now that the solitude, the sensory and social deprivation, had been a necessary test. And that he had passed.