Basking Sharks Summer 1996
“You can’t go out there! You can’t swim, you idiot.” This is very true, I can’t. Still, I have to go out and see the two basking sharks swimming long lazy circles in the bay up close; I just have to. We are at Kennack Sands on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall on a warm, sunny June afternoon. The surrounding rugged Cornish cliffs are cloaked in green and gradually slope away to sea level, revealing the small, sheltered, little-known sandy bay. The tide is low, exposing the compacted dark wet sand that the next incoming tide will soon reclaim. Further up the beach is the warm dry fluffy sand favoured by the few outstretched sun seekers at this secluded Cornish gem. The shimmering, pale green sea is gently rolling in soft waves that break just offshore into a calm, white froth that lazily flows in to massage the sand and fringing rocks.
I strip to my shorts and make numerous, tentative attempts to summon the courage to enter the inviting but chilly water. I manage to make it no further than thigh deep in the frothy white surf. The courage, of course, is required to face the water, not— as perhaps others might need—to face the huge but harmless sharks. I am becoming increasingly frustrated at my shortcomings in the swimming department as I wade in and out of the surf, only to be encouraged back to safety by Jo every time. Then I experience an aha moment. There is a small beach hut in the car park selling buckets and spades and all the usual beach paraphernalia.
“Let’s go to the beach hut; they might sell body boards,” I say excitedly.
With a groan, a roll of the eyes, and in a tone you might use when giving in to a child’s persistent demands for ice cream, Jo replies, “Come on then.
” Yes yes yes! They do indeed sell body boards. I quickly exchange a twenty-pound note for a brightly coloured polystyrene ticket into basking shark territory. I don’t know how to use this either, of course, but it floats doesn’t it? I’ll be fine.
We make our way across the nearly empty car park and back to the beach where I scamper past the scattered outstretched sun bathers waiting for the ultraviolet light to trigger the melanin in their skin into action. Then, upon reaching the flat wet sand, my trot accelerates to a run until I get to the water’s edge. As soon as I reach the water, I attach the leash to my ankle and excitedly make my way to the water.
Jo has caught up with me now and announces loudly and with a wry smile, “It goes around your wrist, stupid.”
“Oh, does it?” I reply in a sheepish, slightly inquiring tone. “Thanks.”
I correct my rookie error, smile, and off I go wading through the white surf, with purpose this time. The water quickly reaches my chest, so it’s time to get atop my new seagoing companion. I manage to board quickly but just as quickly fall off the other side with a whoops. I am not out of my depth, but I cling to my inanimate new best friend gratefully. My second attempt at boarding is made with slightly less enthusiasm. I’m wobbly but I’m on. I commence paddling, first with one arm at a time and then both together. Neither feels overly effective, but I am less wobbly when I 16 IRMA use both arms simultaneously, so off I go rowing my way toward the waiting sharks with all the grace and agility of a windup bath toy.
The sharks are approximately three hundred feet from the beach, and after a few strokes of my favoured rowing action, I am actually making good progress, albeit still slightly wobbly. Once within a few yards of the sharks, I begin to appreciate their size. The dark triangular dorsal fins stand proud above the surface of the water, and rather than appearing ominous, they beckon me closer while providing a clue as to the size of the harmless, plankton-feeding leviathans swimming below. Both sharks are swimming in large circles and seem to be following the same path. I keep moving carefully with the intent of positioning myself in their path while at the same time doing my utmost not to intrude. Each time they pass, I get a tantalising glimpse, not only of the sharks, but—though I don’t yet know it—also of the future. Suddenly one of them rises higher out of the water and moves closer, revealing its entire dorsal fin, tail, and snout. This enables me to estimate its size, and it truly is huge, easily fifteen feet long. I want to see them under the water too.
“Dammit,” I say aloud, thinking I should have bought a mask or swimming goggles as well. I slip from the board anyway and, despite the attached leash, I take care to keep one hand firmly gripping my small refuge like a climber clinging to a rock face. Without the necessary eyewear, it is difficult to see the sharks clearly under the water. I do, however, see a very large blurry shark shape.
Sharks are not the only blurred thing in my life at this time. Despite being twenty-seven years old, I have no clarity or direction in life, and as for girlfriends—well that’s the most confused thing of all. I like Jo, we get on very well, we have had two or three petty fallings out, but these are always easily remedied too; although Jo has always instigated our making up. Aside from knowing I like her, am comfortable around her, and enjoy her company, I am unable to take it any further or express any feelings whatsoever. I have no idea what she means when she tells me how she feels about me. I experience a sense of dread and completely clam up every time the subject is broached. Something that is not blurry in this regard is being utterly convinced I will not have a happy, healthy, longstanding relationship. How does someone reach this conclusion, and so young? Is it somehow programmed in? I just don’t believe happy, healthy, long-term relationships are for me.
Is it sometimes simply easier for us to dismiss things we don’t understand than to make the effort to try?
Unlike understanding feelings, slipping from the board for the blurry view of the sharks is easy, but getting back on is quite another matter. Now that I cannot jump off the sand, mounting the board is even more ungainly than it was at the beach. After numerous attempts, I make it, but somehow I am sideways. I could attempt to move around for the remainder of my time like a crab, but I’m not sure this will be very efficient. So, after fidgeting and wobbling about, I am now parallel to the board once more. Now that I am safely aboard and facing in the right direction, I elect to stay on rather than risk looking like a fool in front of the graceful sharks. Besides, the clear water penetrated by the early afternoon sun reveals almost the complete shark to me while I remain high and almost dry on my floating platform.
Occasionally, I look toward the beach to check my bearings and see Jo patiently standing there clutching an oversized beach towel. Despite being what should be well outside of my comfort zone, I feel calm, relaxed, and very much at home while also feeling privileged to be welcomed and accepted into the company of these two magnificent creatures. I could stay here all afternoon, but I am starting to feel cold, so it’s time to head back to the beach. I turn to face the shore and start paddling. It doesn’t take long before I start to feel a little tired. A quick glance to the beach and the realisation that Jo has become no larger tells me I have made no progress whatsoever. I pause and can feel myself slowly slipping out to sea. Could this be a reflection of my relationship? My life? Will I soon slip away from Jo? Is this what I want, to avoid the complications of relationships?
At the time, I did a good job of ignoring the finer points of our relationship and Jo’s dissatisfaction, but I realise now that Jo was becoming increasingly frustrated with my total inability to express my feelings. I was, without a doubt, a rubbishy boyfriend in this regard. I don’t believe that younger version of myself was totally useless though. In many ways, I behaved as a good boyfriend should. I helped her whenever she needed help, wasn’t normally mean, wasn’t rude, nor did I raise my voice in anger or frustration. I would gladly transport her to and from work, riding my motorbike at an almost impossible fifteen miles an hour when she rode pillion because she was afraid to go faster. After many very slow rides, one day I realised both her knees were dug into my hips, like a woman on horseback. It was only then I sped up.
Teaching Jo to drive the trusty old Opel Kadett in the Tesco parking lot or the Park and Ride on warm, dry summer evenings provided laughs for both of us. Like the time she forgot to steer and took the elderly but trouble-free car beyond the boundaries of the car park and partway into a grassy ditch. I enjoyed her company a great deal. I know that much. She made me laugh and was so silly sometimes it was brilliant. At times she was perfect in her silliness, naivety, and gullibility.
One particular example of how adorable she was came on one of our regular lazy Sunday afternoons of fresh-bread cheese sandwiches, my favourite salt-and-vinegar crunchy stick crisps that had to be eaten in a very specific way, and TV.
After being engrossed in the computer-generated show recreating the life of woolly mammoths, Jo exclaimed, “Wow, I thought mammoths were extinct.”
Immediately I seized the opportunity to invent a story about their rediscovery some years earlier and explained how they were thriving in the very high arctic. She, of course, absorbed everything without question as I grinned broadly, at least on the inside.
I mentioned not normally being mean, but once I was horribly so. It was during one of those petty fallings-out, after Jo had walked some three or four miles across Exeter to my house in the pouring rain to patch things up. On hearing a knock on the door, I peered from the upstairs window to see a soggy Jo standing there in her favourite green cardigan that was almost the same colour as the fetid, uncared for, lifeless pond beside her.
“Hello,” she said, as she looked up in my direction with a smile that transcended her drowned-rat appearance and made her glow. I don’t know exactly why, but I was in no mood for a conversation.
“What are you doing here now?” I enquired in a sour tone.
“Come down and let me in,” she said, flapping her sodden cardigan-cloaked arms to her side, with sleeves extending well beyond her hands.
“I don’t want to talk now,” I insisted as I turned and closed the window. She knocked on the door again, but I made no attempt to speak to her through the window or otherwise. She knocked with a renewed vigour and in disbelief at my attitude. I had no intention of letting her into the house, soaked to the bone or otherwise.
It would seem abundantly clear to anyone that I was being stubborn and cruel. But I would realise later that the cruelty was a side effect of something more. It was my way of avoiding conflict, at least in part. At the time I knew I was definitely stubborn and didn’t want to talk to her. But looking back, now I’m not sure if my mindset was careless, or if I told myself I didn’t care less.
For close to half an hour, Jo knocked on the door repeatedly, and in between I took a few sneaky looks from the window to see if she was still there. Eventually she gave up and walked all the way back home in the pouring rain. I would soon learn that, even if I wanted to avoid an argument, this was an extremely cruel and hurtful way to treat someone who cares about you, and no way to behave in any relationship.
Looking back now, I seem to have been performing badly in an audition for a part I would never play, a part in something I truly didn’t understand or want to. So was it horribly selfish of me to try out, knowing I didn’t actually want the part?
I’m paddling harder now, and to monitor progress, I look to my left and find a reference point on the towering—from this perspective at least—cliffs that surround me. After being head down and paddling hard for half a minute or so, a quick look left informs me that I am still in the same position. Something clicks, and I suddenly realise why it was so easy to paddle out. I was going with the current. Now, of course, I’m going against it, or trying to. Despite my predicament, I don’t feel stressed at all. I do feel short of breath, but still very much at ease in the water. Now I must really work hard. After a further half-minute or so of intense effort, I look to the beach once more. Jo is bigger now, I’m sure of it. I take a tentative look left and behind, hoping to see my point of reference, but damn, I can’t. Where is it? I keep looking but it is difficult to make out from a different angle. Then I find it, and yes it is behind me. Good. I’m making progress.
My huffing and puffing closely mimics the loud exhales of surfacing whales, and despite my aching lungs and arms, I continue forward with renewed vigour. A few minutes later, I can finally stand and begin wading toward the beach while looking forward to the towel that Jo is holding. Wait. She’s not holding it. I can see it on the sand, the wet sand revealed by the retreat of the tide. She bends down and grabs it for me, and I can tell by her face that she realises what I already know: the towel is very wet, far too wet to provide any comfort.
She looks at me sheepishly while I enquire, somewhat miffed, “Why did you put it on the wet sand?” “Um . . . because I didn’t know the sand was wet,” she replies, lowering her head, peering up at me, and speaking ever more slowly with each passing word. She turns equally slowly to face the warm dry sand just a few feet away.
“Jo,” I say as I shiver, “this flat dark compacted sand is wet.” I moan as I scuff it with the bottom of my foot, “The fluffy sand there is dry,” I add sarcastically while pointing just ahead.
We are soon in the ever faithful Kadett, towel incident forgotten and heater blowing welcome warmth while I excitedly relay details of my first experience with sharks. Why have I not done anything like this before? I was so at home and must do it again. I have no idea how significant today is and where it will eventually lead. Sometimes we just have to act in the moment.
A few weeks have passed since I swam with the basking sharks. It’s Friday night, and Claire, Jo’s housemate, is having a birthday gathering at their house with a Pulp Fiction theme. Most of the girls are wearing wigs in the style of Uma Thurman’s character in the movie. Claire and I are practicing self-defense moves recently taught to me by a work colleague in the dimly lit living room, much to the amusement of the others. After five or ten minutes of slightly drunken shenanigans and unconvincing displays of prowess on both sides, I make a further attack on Claire and she quickly grasps an arm, twists me around, and rather convincingly sends me crashing all the way through a sash window conveniently set at hip height. I go reeling straight out into the back yard. I quickly pick myself up and turn to see Claire peering through the curtain, looking as shocked as I feel at the rather dramatic outcome. I move toward the window where she pulls the curtain aside and looks me over for cuts. Fortunately no harm whatsoever has been done, aside from the window, of course, and perhaps my pride. The heavy curtains dampened my fall through the breaking glass, much as the incident itself will soon dampen the mood.
We pull the curtain further aside and carefully pull two or three protruding shards from the bottom of the frame. Jo appears just as I climb over and back into the room, and she doesn’t look happy. She unleashes a short barrage of displeasure in my direction as others slowly leave the room.
“I don’t understand, what do you mean, your friends are scared of me?” I exclaim. “Claire certainly isn’t.” I grin. “I’ve never done a thing to any of them, have I?”
“No, I know you haven’t,” she agrees, but she still sounds unhappy.
“Have you said something to make them feel this way then?” I shrug and pull a silly face.
A drawn out “No” is her reply, “of course not.”
“Well, it’s their fault then; it’s ridiculous and you should tell them so.”
“You do something about it to make them feel better,” she replies in a heightened pitch, putting the onus back on me.
“How?” I moan. “I’ve done nothing wrong in the first place.” My voice is getting higher too, as I become more exasperated.
“Well you need to do something,” she says, anger in her tone.
An hour before, I had paraded around the house wearing one of the girls’ wigs atop my bald head, looking ridiculous in front of everyone, and—accepting a dare—went out to collect Kentucky Fried Chicken wearing it. When did self-ridicule become a sin? I realise this evening’s antics perhaps weren’t the sole impetus for Jo’s friends’ apparent fear of me. But it does demonstrate my nonthreatening demeanor and makes me wonder where this thinking—which to me is completely irrational—came from. Anyway, since this conversation is going nowhere, I give a subtle shake of the head and walk away without an excuse to find Pete, the other housemate.
“Sorry for smashing the window,” I say with a hint of a wry smile. “I’ll pay to get it fixed.”
“I know someone who can replace it, so don’t worry about it. We’ll sort it out next week, mate,” he says, as if he doesn’t give a damn.
I find Jo and try to talk to her again, but she is clearly upset with me. Since I don’t care to argue, I leave and go home to bed. It’s hard for me to accept that someone is afraid of me when, as far as I’m concerned, I have done nothing to warrant such a thing.
In 1996 I was lifting weights regularly and was a big strong muscular lad weighing between 225 and 235 pounds. When I joined the Spartan Club gym at age eighteen, nine years earlier, I would say I had a physique of absolutely no note. An average frame, not skinny, no muscular definition, not particularly fat either—just nothing, a non-physique if there ever was such a thing. Those early months in the gym were hard work and not enjoyable. After around six months, I still didn’t look like I worked out. But almost from the outset, it was apparent that I was strong and able to lift weights far in excess of what my frail body appeared to be capable of. Being strong was intriguing, so I continued to soldier on, even though it took at least a year before any physical changes were noticeable, and they were minimal. I was what gym folk call a hard gainer.
So why go to the gym in the first place? Eighteen-year-old boys frequent gyms for many reasons. Some to gain muscular weight, some to lose weight, some to get fit, some to develop big arms and chest to impress the ladies, some for the social aspect, perhaps even in the hope of meeting girls there. None of these motivated me. I went to the gym for one reason alone, to spend time with Dad. He had been a regular gym user for many years, and this provided the perfect opportunity to get together with him three or four times a week.
My parents had separated when I was just eight years old. Since this time, I had not spent nearly enough time with Dad, and I missed him. To begin with, I didn’t enjoy the gym, but I did enjoy the company, very much. Eventually, squatting, bench pressing, and dead lifting impossible weights provided a mental lift as well. While there was no need to, I wanted to do well and impress Dad. So I worked hard, and after those initial first few months, I was enjoying the physical challenges and the mental boost the gym provided as much as my dad’s company.
I feel annoyed and upset that Jo would side with her friends and support the idea that I behave in some way as to intimidate them. As far as I’m concerned, my appearance does nothing but reflect the effort I put in to spend time with my dad. My continued presence at the gym does not stem from any insecurity, or a desire to stand out or to intimidate. Yes, I have grown to enjoy it, and through the years I have trained harder and eaten the right food to help me along the way, but is for my own benefit, nothing else. I am good at something and I can see the evidence.
But despite this, I am not actually comfortable with being muscular and oversized. Even though I know my behaviour is not intimidating, I still don’t like the fact that my appearance might be. Even when working out in the gym now with Darron, I remain covered up. In fact, in the summer I am always envious of my brother Ian who is of a more regular build and wears sleeveless T-shirts. I would like to wear a T-shirt and cool off, and sometimes wear no shirt at all and get some sun, but I always feel a bit silly and self conscious, so I remain covered up in public.
A couple of hours later, true to form, Jo turns up at my house in a taxi. She wakes me up, and we make up.