Photo by Dorothea OLDANI

Slow, slow, only the movement of their bodies sings the sea shanty of the lost.

Collars stiff about their sunburnt necks, watery eyelids clenched against the wind, beneath their wrinkled brows. Open mouthed, yet silent, their hands are wringing wet, etched raw with sand and stinging salt. Their chests rise and fall with each breath as they pull on the ropes which guide the thing out of the water and onto the land. Once, they were conscious of the sound of water, but now they are only conscious of its weight inside this fluid silhouette. At this hour, only the tides go out and the men come in, arrow-shaped clusters, nets and all.

Three from the moor and five from near the old clay mines, brothers out to help with the wreck. Damp planks of wood in the boat knock against rubber boots. Cupped together, all the shells roll around, the mussels, limpets, cockle shells and Venus shells, remnants from the waves. Half a rusty crab shell, or was it a lobster claw, pokes gingerly out from a bucket forever caught in the shape of a strange farewell, or perhaps it was a salute.

The men haul the shape of a giant rock, rigid and lashed. A damp asteroid, it casts its shadow on the beach. Between water and coastline, the shadow hugs the tide. It lies there for days. They have tried to cast great big sail cloths over its asphalt skin, but these only serve to deepen the loss, to mark out its end.

Water finds an uneven path from its back to its underside. A strange ribbon of heat.

A woman in a wet suit with her fist around a pebble walks towards the body of the whale and crouches at its side. She had walked into this story with an urge only to see the thing for herself. As the pebble presses into her palm, she remembers her mother’s hand holding hers as they walked through the galleries of the Natural History Museum in London. Suddenly she remembers this was not the first time she had seen a whale. And this was not the first time she had seen the dead brought to shore.


Every day was the same. She watched the sharp strips of light enter through the narrow pieces of reinforced glass, sideways, as the vessel tilted and she moved one arm out of the shadows. She watched her arms, the same length of bone and colour as her mother’s, and her grandmother’s thin gold bracelet looping over her skin as she moves into the vertical drift, the daylight zone. When her fingertips are near the edge of the cool wall, she rises and simultaneously grasps her hair tie and phone with her other hand. All the time, the movement of the water is replaced with the rhythms of her heartbeat, or at least that’s how it feels. No, she always was aquatic. As a child, she had dreamed she was a seahorse. Now she dreams she is a piece of flickering algology, seaweed, stretching far between things, touching everything.

Shower. Cereal in a bowl decorated with blue anemones, painted by her friend in Europe. The weight of the pottery and its glaze reflecting the steel carcass of the ship. Water in a plastic cup. Take the bowl and the cup to the sink. Suit up.

By the time she has entered the water, the others are reading the data feed, performing the daily checks, and messaging home. She is already in the water. They say, don’t they, that it is like the surface of the moon down there. Without gravity or daylight, she is on some strange kind of moon safari. Even the stars have their place here, a submerged constellation made of tiny shoals of fish whose bodies are like little comets above her head. Notes falling off the page, inked words and inked waters, the shoals scatter like musical staves in the wash.

She had started learning to dive in Cornwall, not in the shallows near the rock pools in Port Quin or St. Agnes, but in the local swimming pool back in town. At eight years old, she practiced drifting towards the bottom of the pool and held her breath, a waterproof timer clasped to her wrist. Her nervous mother in the seated area with its red and blue zig zags, chewing on Indian snacks from a Tupperware container while her daughter jumped from the diving board and blinked through purple goggles with a glittery border. Then, the usual routes into her profession, school, and university, but it was the sea otters which first called her into the depths and further out, as far as she could hear the current of water inside her own body. Slate-coloured boulders with large black eyes, they drew her closer, further out to sea. Eventually, she left the chlorinated water for the saline ponds far from home and then, of course, and then, the ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Black Sea.

Now, she is measuring the autotrophic algae which the German botanist Albert Bernard Frank had first written about in the late 19th century. Each day she says this word to herself like a hymn, autotroph. Converting one energy to another, these living organisms make their own nourishment. Is she an intruder here or simply their water-bound biographer, she wonders, as the brackish liquid becomes her home. Language is, in many ways, also autotrophic. Words like sea otter, zebra, stingray, mussel, goby jelly and actinia give out their own energy in life, linguistically, verbally, but also in the data feed, the marine life reports, the logbooks, and transform the shape of her body, as she finds herself breathing in their new formations of life, once again, as she did in college.

The science of marine biology finds its safety in words, in empirical data and the storing of measurements. The great expeditions of discovery carried men into the ice and through bodies of water for the purpose of exploration, scientific knowledge which led to the acquisition of new geographies, for themselves and their countries, but her body contains another knowledge. It is the intelligence of the body she struggles with here and the invisible language of her great grandparents, exiled from Asia. The shape of the Hooghly River. The enveloping sounds of the monsoon season from her grandparents’ home in Shalimar. That slip stream hydrology, the undercurrent of their legacy spills over into other bodies of water, as well as her own. It had been a long time since she had visited Shalimar.

Increasingly, she follows the rhythms of different currents, knowledge which comes from the body and not from the textbooks of Albert Bernard Frank. Perhaps ageing reveals some truths, the things we truly long for only made visible to us as we leave leap from the cliff-edge of childhood, which at least for her, meant most of her twenties and early thirties sheltered within academia and the cross streams of its institutional and cultural politics, long forged by imperialism and the British Empire. In her mid-thirties, it finally dawned on her, she just liked to swim in dangerous waters. Submerged moon landings were always worth the wait. Why couldn’t she move within everything, stray from the singular current she had always been taught to swim within. All your life you are taught to dart the waves, but what if you could be the tide, too, the shoreline, the ammonite, the algology.

Yes, she admits to herself, there are dangers and these increase steadily as our ecological conditions grow more and more unstable. Another team were out at the Gulf of Odessa. Expanses of ice form on its surface and crack open in uneven places like wood splintering, except unlike that natural substance, ice is granular, it wears its age differently. Here, ice crystals are markers of time. (How long since she has seen a tree?) She imagines the team in Odessa passing through thick curtains of mist. A sky the colour of milk. No horizon, only jagged ice which must be navigated as the crew begin to tunnel beneath it. She knows that at some point their vessel will be swallowed by vapour, while it burns hot at its centre, powered by several engines which turn the propellers all day long.

Back at the coastline, visitors gather as they usually do in Odessa (Odi-sha) and receive deep tissue massages on Arcadia beach. Some linger near the famous painting by Caravaggio in the Museum of Western and Eastern Art. Unlike a Caravaggio, there is only darkness near the seabed, black and blue, but never lit unless someone is carrying light or projecting it downwards. There is rarely any light transmission below around 600 feet into the sea. Definition and volume is marked out by movement, not sunlight or candlelight. Ships, or ocean liners, even in their immensity, cast their own glimmer, merely a refraction. Hers is the study of such things, of reflection and refraction because it is after all the visible wavelengths of light which feeds the chlorophyll-bearing marine plants she researches. How, she thinks, would Caravaggio paint this transference of energy and whose eyes would it be seen through? Whose body would balance the light?

Occasionally, they would receive messages from them, in the other parts of the Black Sea, data feeds containing lists of phytoplankton and algae. She had started to discover anomalies, phrases or nouns which did not fit the language of the lists. She discovered, in between these read outs, little messages in the margins. Once, she had read the words heart-shaped and Jamaica on one of the feeds and instead of crossing them out on the system, which was also her job, replaced them with more specific details. Next to the word Jamaica, she wrote the word Cornwall. She thought of the place where her mother still lived and Daphne du Maurier’s novel Jamaica Inn. While it had not been her home for several decades, she still felt the undertow of her childhood home as she sailed across the Black Sea. A couple of words, still, an incantation, a weight across your left shoulder, an eyelash in the shutter gate. Heart-shaped. Isn’t that another word for home? Every word has its own etymology, but then there was their private history, the way it sung out to you and only you.

Put your ears to a coral shell and you think you can hear the ocean. Isn’t that how the story goes? What if you dive deep enough into the coral reef and hear not the ocean but, as clear as day, the oak floor boards in your childhood home, a grandfather clock from Germany, the wind inside a chimney and, most of all, some kind of singing, which sounded like a woman’s voice: a siren. But it wasn’t a siren. No, because it sounded too much like her own mother’s voice in between the water and the things which are not solid, or melting into air. The ocean makes everything dance, and the dead sing out to muted skies in an upside down mirror.


Every day is the same. The light, strips of luminosity now at the edges of her bed, her hands out of the sheets and the golden bracelet on her arm. Her phone in her hand. Her hair tied twice, wrapped and knotted by the hair tie.

Shower. The taste of copper pipes which cannot be true of this ship, this oceanic vessel. Cereal in the bowl from Europe. A glass of water. Suit up.

Newsfeed. Pips, beeps, and blips wriggle into existence on the monitors. The machines do their work. Someone walks across the decks, and another crew member heats up old coffee in a microwave. She has stopped noticing their voices. Then, a few lines from an old song. As she climbs into the ocean, and before she puts the diving gear on, she shouts out, “No, that’s not how it goes…” She sings a few lines back, and someone laughs. The laughter ripples outwards and then cuts out abruptly.

Every day is not the same.

Still, she is under the water. She is under the water. She is under the water.

The last thing she sees is a pink-veined starfish within a cloud of smoke, or was it ash? Behind it, she was sure she could see the sunset, or some other brightly burning thing exploding in the sky, or was it the sea which was on fire?


A small child’s foot on the edge of a piece of slate. Wet, oddly shaped textures of moss, slippery on the surface. Small, pink flip flops grazing the pebbles. A persistent seagull shakes an empty paper cup once filled with noodles.

“Step into the water,” her father says. “Go on,” her father says, a hand tapping the rocks. Below his rolled up sleeves, half the shape of a small tattoo, a gorse hedge inked into his skin in a knot.

“I’ll stay here. You go,” she says, an absent hand twisting the rubberised backs of her flip flops.

“No,” he insists again, his hand still on the rocks. “Don’t think of yourself as a swimmer. Think of yourself as the water,” he says.

She looks back at him. She doesn’t know how to be the water. Not yet, anyway. But she could try. Maybe that’s a good idea.

The girl slips into water the colour of sapphires, and it reaches her waist. Her father holds her legs, and she stretches out, kicking hard and moving her arms. He lets go of her shoulders. She looks back at the cove and sees her mother on the beach reading her book. The sea is the colour of a blue bubble gum ice cream, a spearmint lolly, a felt tip pen. It is the smell which surprises her. She imagined it would be like the fish counter in the supermarket, or the rubbery tang of old swimsuits, but it was silvery, like pine needles and minerals. She had spent all week wondering about the sea. Next, she would try floating on a bodyboard. Back on the rocks, her mother pours Cornish tea from a flask and arranges sea glass on a blanket into the shape of a bird. Shivering from the sea, the girl spills warm splashes of tea onto her flip flops and her mother wraps a towel around her shoulders. “You’ll like it better next time,” she tells her daughter. The girl has already started thinking about the bottom of the sea and the places where the rock pools stretch out into the ocean.

Fuchsia flip flops and a paper cup on the beach.


There is a glass of water on the sideboard. Well, it looks like water. The glass is a tall one, the kind you see in restaurants with white tablecloths. It is the last thing she sees before she notices that she is not moving, she is not inside the vessel in the ocean. She is entirely static.

“Good morning, Jemma.”

She knew immediately who it was. They were friends even before there was water between them and thin papered walls, even, at college, which they would knock on late at night to see if the other had not fallen asleep yet. She wants to get up but then her body is not having any of it. She slumps backwards and then on to a clammy pillow. There is a gentle hand on her arm and then a quieter voice.

“They brought you here. You were swimming to the shore.”

This white room, she thinks, is nothing like the ocean. How could you say words like shore and swimming in a room which felt like it was emptied of any natural thing. Only the glass of water signified the element she was most accustomed to. Yet somehow it reassured her no longer. Quietly, it was pulling an invisible thread through her insides.

“The others have gone. Do you remember the fire?”


She is still listening to the sound of her name. Jemma. It marked out a space of tenderness between them in a way that reminded her of some else’s voice. But she won’t think about that now.

Her eyes were on the glass of water again. She was so thirsty. She swallows until it is all gone and then looks at her beloved friend. A face framed with red curls and a denim jacket which she thinks she has seen before, many years ago. She could not understand why she was so hot and then there was the snow outside, which couldn’t be right.

Snow starts to drift into the room and across her friend’s hair. She is still gazing at the white flurry of movement when she hears someone close a window.

She looks again and then sees that it is not snow but tiny petals which have blown inside the room.

Apple blossom

Her friend shakes them out of her fringe and brushes them off her bed. Her mind returned to the ice at the Gulf of Odessa and the snow on the Caucasus mountain, but when her hand reaches for the blossom, something new occurs to her: her mother’s garden in Cornwall. But also: the blue anemones on the ceramic cup her friend in Europe had made for her.

“Do you remember?” the voice says once more.

She remembered the sound of the grandfather clock in her mother’s house and the wind down the chimney in the winter. She saw, still, the shoals of fish like staves of music somersaulting into her vision. The Black Sea and the words on the data sheet. While she never planned on saying it, the first words to come out of her mouth: “I want to go home.”

Nr. Port Quin, Cornwall

Gravity changes us. It pulls us in a certain direction, on a cellular level, sure, but it also anchors us in time and space. Those are the laws of nature. The ocean changes us, too. The more time spent below, especially at its deeper levels, the more our connections to things become loosened, unstuck. We might see a hand right in front of us, but as quickly as we try to reach for it, it disappears, floating away. Things don’t do that when you are out of the water. Objects orient us, but what if those objects are never still. What then? Then, we are never oriented. Never bound to anything. Perhaps that is why she loved the sea. It never tried to hold her in one place.

Now, she is not looking at a Caravaggio painting, she has become one. She has struck a match and lit the old oil lamp she had found at the entrance to the cottage. She enters the hallway and carries the light against its walls. Her steps are slow along the oak floorboards, as they were when she was a child in her flip flops, returning from the cove. “Take off your wet things by the porch,” her mother would shout from the kitchen.

Her face is aglow with her black hair lost in the darkness. The line of her eye sockets, her nose and the left part of her face caught in a chiaroscuro light which can only be rendered as matter above the sea and never beneath it. She wonders how her face looks now, aged since she last saw this place and she asks it, in her heart, if it recognises her, too. Surely, it will open up its secrets for her, as it did so many years ago.

Long before he had left for Europe, her father had painted the walls of the cottage bright yellow and built a new door with a piece of glass which resembled a star. Her mother shook out the rugs and made tea on an old Rayburn. The door to the main bedroom was closed, so she didn’t go in there. Rather, she decided not to go in there. There was only one other room which was smaller than the main bedroom and used to belong to her but now contained a child’s cot and a box with board games and old blankets, practical things for families holidaying there in the summer. So she unfolded herself on a small sofa and settled below the sash windows, which shook and rattled. For a long time, she watched the Cornish palm tree in her neighbour’s garden sway and shudder in the wind. She had forgotten what the winds were like here in the North Coast of Cornwall. At around midnight she took off her socks and walked barefoot out onto the patch of lawn at the front of the house. It had not been mown, and the grass reached her knees. The moon was high.

By the time she got back into the house, she realised she was afraid of water. It had occurred to her now, quite plainly, that it had started with the glass of water at the hospital. It seemed to hold something other than water inside of it. It was a dark spell. Now, she was so near the water, but she could not imagine herself inside of it. Then, she turned and she felt her left temple, the skin just above the line of her cheekbones, pound against something; she had been grazed by the side of her neighbours’ palm tree just as if she had walked straight into the path of a drunken stranger at some midnight party which was coming to an end. She was bruised, but it wasn’t as bruising as the thought of the ocean, now, which revealed itself slowly and painfully. The palm tree seemed a better bet. It was rooted, unlike her. There on the grass she thought she had come to the wrong place. The wrong home. Unless there was something else which could make sense here. The Cornish palm seemed to bend towards her. It was, at least, in agreement with her on this point.

She would have to learn to live only on the land and inside a house instead of a ship. She didn’t know if she could do that, but surely her childhood home was the best place to begin.


Two tall buildings standing close to each other. A swept courtyard leading to another, inner quad filled with plants and outdoor seating. Two young women with plastic white aprons tied around their waists take away food trays from a couple of elderly men. They faced the North Atlantic sea, but they could have been anywhere. Their mouths whispered songs only they knew, and the aproned women never sung along.

She rarely takes her eyes off the view of the sea framed by the shape of the courtyard. They have wheeled her out onto the veranda and put a blanket over her legs. Earlier, she had moved pieces of sea glass around on a plastic board, assembling them into the shape of a bird or some other winged creature. Jemma moves a finger across the sea glass and then her hand moves upwards to her mother’s face. She notices her mother’s white hair is thinning and needs a trim.

Jemma holds her hand out and moves some hair across her mother’s face. Her mother nods, briefly closing her eyes.

“Ah. My Jemma,” she says.

“It’s warmer today. Less windy,” Jemma says.

The light alters a little as clouds pass over their heads. Jemma’s mother touches the rug over her legs and pulls it closer.

“You went and got involved with those people on the boats. Too risky, all that way for a few shells.”

“It was an accident. I’m not going back anyway. You could come home and I could look after you.”

Her mother says nothing. It is worse that the moment you realise you are running out of air when you are underwater.

“Jemma, this is my home. They’re good to me. I’m so old. I can’t go back to living in that creepy old cottage. Besides, the lamb is so juicy on a Sunday.”

“I think you could come back to the cottage.”

“People change, Jemma. Sell it or do whatever you like. Those people from London only rent in in the summer months and it needs a lot of work. The windows will go soon and then we’ll have the trouble again. Your father would have done it himself if he was here now.”

“Alright. We’ll sell it. But I need some time.”

“Look after yourself. You look old. When you were a little girl you were always saying to me you were a mermaid. You would take your grandmother’s turquoise silk sari and wrap it around your legs, twirling, twirling the loose ends. My mermaid. Did you remember the story of Suvannamaccha in the Ramayana? The mermaid who helped Hanuman.”

“I remember, mama, but I never wanted to be a mermaid. I was the wave in the ocean.”

“No, child. You were always the creature caught between two worlds.”

Apple blossom, that was her. Coming in through the shutters and transforming into snow. She could live with that, thought Jemma. Mermaids would never be frightened of the ocean like she was now, that was for sure.

Davina Quinlivan

About Davina Quinlivan

Davina Quinlivan is a UK-based writer and academic. She is author of several academic books including 'The Place of Breath in Cinema' (EUP, 2014) and 'The Spirit of the Beehive' for the BFI Modern Classics series (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). Her creative writing and journalism has featured in Cleo, Lola, The Times Higher culture section, Another Mag, Dazed Digital, Little White Lies and Litro. She is developing a memoir/ nature writing about moving to rural England after her father's death from lung cancer and her post-colonial, South East Asian heritage.

Davina Quinlivan is a UK-based writer and academic. She is author of several academic books including 'The Place of Breath in Cinema' (EUP, 2014) and 'The Spirit of the Beehive' for the BFI Modern Classics series (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). Her creative writing and journalism has featured in Cleo, Lola, The Times Higher culture section, Another Mag, Dazed Digital, Little White Lies and Litro. She is developing a memoir/ nature writing about moving to rural England after her father's death from lung cancer and her post-colonial, South East Asian heritage.

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