Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Learning to Drown (Part 2)

[see previous post for Part 1]

Dear Paula

There’s an interesting thing I forgot to mention earlier. The “quick” in quicksand does not mean “fast”. It means “alive” – as in the phrase “the quick and the dead”. That feels important to know.


The man shouts for help. He is panicking, shouting as loud as he can, suddenly and unexpectedly; very quickly his throat is sore and he is out of breath. As he stops to breathe he realises that this is stupid: it is the middle of the night and there is no-one around to hear his cries. If he loses his voice from shouting now, he won’t be able to call for help later, when someone might be awake to hear.

So he waits.

How long, he wonders, should he wait. It is Sunday morning – when will people be around? Not early, he thinks. He is aware that he is still sinking, just very slowly. He tries not to look at his watch. Despite his discomfort, the tiredness begins to set in and he even feels his head nod a couple of times, and he has to jerk himself awake.

Slowly the sky brightens he can gradually distinguish between the sky and the sand, and between them, a thin sliver of sea, a long way away, across the vast, puddled expanse of beach that stretches out in front of him. He is completely sober now. He thinks about time, and about tides, and he realises what is about to happen. He begins to shout again.

The man’s cries are heard by a farmer, out in his field on the hillside overlooking the bay. Now, the farmer is not usually out in his fields at daybreak on a Sunday morning, and in fact, as he will later tell incredulous newspaper reporters, this is the first Sunday this year that he has been out at dawn on a Sunday. Normally he has Sunday mornings off. But he has been ill for the last few days, and has work to catch up with, and so, just by chance, he is making an early start this particular Sunday. And as he is walking across his field he hears a man’s voice crying for help, coming from the bay below him.

He makes his way down the hillside, towards the shouting voice.

The man has been shouting for some time, perhaps half an hour or more, by the time he hears the farmer calling to him. The farmer has ventured out on to the sand, following the man’s own tracks, but will still not come too close to the quicksand. When the man stops shouting, the farmer tells him that he has called for help, and that the fire brigade are on their way. The farmer tells him not to worry.

The wait begins.

They say that in Morecambe Bay the tide comes in “as fast as a horse can run”. The man watches in horror as the tide, so distant at first, rushes towards him across the vast stretch of sand. As it gets closer, he feels his body begin to struggle involuntarily, causing him to sink a few precious centimetres further before he regains control of himself.

He hears himself cry out as the first shallow waves rush around him. He begins to cry. The farmer is shouting at him, but he isn’t really listening. But a minute or two after the water has reached him, he hears the sirens piercing the air in the distance.

Exactly what happens next is unclear – jumbled, panicked memories conflict with each other trying to recall and explain it - and it all happens so fast. But piecing it together, these are the events that must happen:

The farmer runs back to the road to wave down the fire engines and point the firemen towards the stranded man.

The first fireman hauls a set of metal-work “planks” across the sand. He lays the planks down in the water and onto the sand around the stricken figure, in a triangular formation.

The water is now at shoulder level to the submerged man, and the fireman stands astride him, feet on the safety of the metal, takes his head in his hands and lifts. His job is to keep the man’s face out of the water to allow him to keep breathing. His job is to keep the man alive long enough to be rescued.

Two other firemen make slower progress across the sand with their air pumping apparatus. They get as close as they dare to their colleague and the man, the water now around his neck, the waves splashing his jaw. The pump is attached to a hose, which they stab into the sand and pump air down into the quicksand.

As the waves lap over the man’s face, the air bubbles up from the hose, breaking the viscosity of the quicksand and two of the firemen heave the man up and out. They drag him across the beach, wading knee high through the tide, half carrying him in fact, their pump, hose and other equipment lost to the incoming tide.

I often think about that man, when I am on a beach. And I wonder if he ever goes near the sea any more?

I’ll write again soon,


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