Undrowned by Jess Richards

Undrowned by Jess Richards
Category: Writing

Undrowned is a creative response to performing in Sally J Morgan’s In the Hollow of Your Hand as part of Deep Anatomy/Fluid States, 2015. It is a companion piece to Life Size, published on the Scottish Book Trust website in September 2014.


Wasteland / Paradise

Can anyone tell the difference between a wasteland and a paradise, between a view and a wilderness, between a horizon and a line? Not you, and not me, or not right now. We’re still landing to our bodies being frazzled by jetlag and exhaustion after travelling on five consecutive planes.

This is a jumble of confusions: of place and movement and baggage, and you and I are quickly unpacked. Is there anything needing washing? Does anything smell? Do either of us care enough about this? Two other people cared, before there was an us. They cared a lot. But you don’t seem to think these things are important, and I’d only care if it was something which made you angry.

Herons fly past this screened window changing the view of shallow waters and palm trees into a sky filled with black and white wings. How near they are, how far. Is that an insect or a bat, do bats live here, or should we be watching for flamingos – the ones from the murals at Nassau Airport?

There’s trouble in distance and rumours: what is said of the Bahamas in brochures and enhanced photographs, those envious messages from your remaining and my absent friends, is different to what seems to be really here when vision is blurred. On this tropical island our Facebook messages show that other people think that we’re in paradise. But both of us know we’d never have usually chosen to come here even if we’d stuck a pin in an atlas, blindfold. All the same, you’ve caught a piece of the Caribbean ocean in your eyes and I’m wearing the Atlantic in mine. We’re pale-skinned and allergic somewhere between oceans on this narrow strip of land.

Those stems might be burnt bushes or mangroves or no-human’s lands. We are raw from our journey to get here and insect repellent is our shared perfume. It makes lips go numb, but not blue. There’s a cockroach and a gecko in our room and we’ve been discussing which one will kill the other first.

We’re on a veranda shading our eyes from a bright view of sea and sky. Is that a boat or a branch over there? By those rocks, or are they skulls? My eyes fix to and blur whatever seems stuck. There are mouthwash-coloured waters and scar-pink pools. You would know the right names for those colours, but for now I’m not asking because you’ve got your arm around my waist and I like it best when we’re quiet like this. I smile at you. You smile at me.

There are three different time zones being shown on your watch, our phones, and my laptop. Time seems mixed-up, with jetlag. Memories become recent things, recent things seem like memories.


The boy in the grocers’ shop tells us he won’t ever afford a plane flight and you or I say that he lives somewhere beautiful. We’ve not slept for long enough to say anything complete. We buy enough to eat for a few days – flatbreads and jars of tomato sauce, cheese and jam. Carrots and apples. The packaging seems like a garble of word and colour and you pace the aisles looking confused. The only thing I want to eat is porridge oats, and you remind me to get honey.

Returning to our accommodation, we walk along decking and our movement switches on the emergency lights. They cast moon-whiteness into the shallow water. We pause to watch five bone fish swimming or fighting.

We climb wooden steps and return to our room. You truss the double bed with a white mosquito net. You use red parachute cord to tie it into peaks. It becomes a tent made from wedding veils. I watch you until I remember we need to eat something. I make pizzas in the microwave and pour wine into tall glasses.

I turn off the bedside lamp with a switch which rotates. You’re silent, with your arm outstretched.

In the dark I curl into you and put my arm around you. I can tell from your breathing you’re already asleep.

Sleep drags me down with this thought:             

It was four months ago that your home was taken away from you, and four months ago my father died.

I dream of skeletal fish gnawing on something dead.

You wake in the night and put the covers back over us.

You say, we were cold. I ask, were we?

I think perhaps the bone fish have given us bone dreams.


Usually, though nothing is now usual, you live on the other side of the world, or is it me who lives that far from you? New Zealand and Scotland are the new poles of our globe. After talking without speaking for months, smiling at emails appearing on computer screens, we met in York, then Chicago, then Glasgow. We removed two rings: one which pinched a finger of your left hand and one which burned a finger on my left hand.

Then I travelled to you in New Zealand, and that’s when it was finally agreed that I would come to the Bahamas with you. I knew what you were planning to do while you were here, and wouldn’t trust you in any other hands but my own. So we’ve crossed skies and time-zones and now we’re on Long Island, eating raw carrots in a small hotel room.

Not venturing outside for the morning of the first day, I wash our flightsocks with hotel soap as you make real coffee in the plastic cups I found on the way here.

You paint in watercolours while I write sentences in the wrong order.

Each night we’ve ever spent together I’m glad that we don’t have to argue instead of sleep, and each day we’re together you worry that sometimes you are not enough of one thing, or are too much of another. This is a peculiar discovery, or extraordinary alchemy: that I love you exactly as much as you love me.

It’s been there all along, since we first began talking without speaking. It’s as if love is mirrored and mirrored wherever we are, though neither of us spend much time looking at mirrors.

This island is a place we don’t yet know ourselves in. We’ve been warned of the dangers and told not to stray from the road – there are scorpions and tarantulas, poisonwood which leaves rashes, and there’s always the comedic threat of falling coconuts.

We won’t stray from the road.

If I close my eyes for a moment longer with my arms around your tense shoulders,

if I close my eyes while I kiss tears off your eyelids,

if I close my eyes when I feel your palm stroking my spine in that place it hurts in time with my heartbeat,

I still hear us talk without speaking.

We’re not talking about what we’re here to do, not yet. For now, we’re turning it around in our minds in pictures and phrases. We explore this island on foot, and learn by hearing strangers talking. We can’t travel far but we listen well. This island is poor. People smile often, have parties in caves, and talk softly. Derelict houses and white churches punctuate the eighty mile long Queens Highway. The salt harvesting industry shut long ago, but the salt still remains. We watch an artist place a huge shell on a small hill made of salt. It looks like the shell on a beach we slept together in, long before our bodies ever met. You squeeze my hand. I squeeze yours. Our imaginations have a door which links them together.

In our hotel room, you paint and tell me all the right names for colours, and I write till I find the correct order for sentences. There’s a television on the wall but we’ve been watching the window instead – today it’s showing fanning palm leaves and rain. We inhabit this room with thoughts about drowning, love and trust. We check on each other often, taking turns to offer water and food, affection and space. We fill the gap between our bodies with your pictures and my words. There is the occasional sound of someone else’s door slamming.

I look out of the window again, trying to guess at the landscape beyond this alternating view of paradise and wilderness. We don’t have a map of Long Island. We don’t really need one: there is only one road. I look at your painting. You read my writing. As your pictures meet my words, I think we might have to invent:

a map of love

and a map of trust

then we can peg these maps out in this offshore wind – the tail end of a hurricane that’s happening elsewhere. We can step back and watch wastelands and paradises and wastelands flap along a line. Under torrential rain, my words will smudge their meanings through the colours of your paints as they run, diluted.




Fear / Freedom

We’re at the Intersection Talks for Deep Anatomy/Fluid States and Vertical Blue - the event you’re here to be part of. In a wide room with tall pillars and screened windows we can hear torrential rain outside. The whole event has three acts – it’s a graceful design, placing free-diving alongside performance studies – which includes work by artists. We’re welcomed as part of act three. Hearing divers speak about their freedom within deep waters, about their sense of stillness, about meditation, I imagine that the ocean at its deepest must seem the quietest place in the world. I’ve always loved the space above clouds, seen from aeroplane windows. I ask you where you think the quietest place in the world would be, and you say, a completely silent place would be frightening. But a quiet place would be in the branches of a tree in a forest, listening to birds. Or inside a shell on a pink beach.

A diver tells a personal story – of the freedom which can come after illness – after drug addiction and the threat of a life spent in wheelchairs. I am struck by how brave personal stories are, when told honestly. They resonate for those who are listening, as if heartstrings do strum silently at one another, even if we can’t hear their notes.

I am reminded of how ill I was before I started to write novels, and how I decided to write to save my own life. You squeeze my hand as I think this, as if you know what I am thinking. It’s passion, for anything, which makes life worth living.

An academic talks about the interviews she’s been conducting and shows us graphs of her findings. Her face shines as she talks.

An artist speaks about the islands’ wildlife, about the breath of wild animals and birds. As she shows us her photographs, her voice is a song.

Passion is freedom. A diver’s freedom is diving. My freedom is writing. Your freedom is art. We all need a reason to keep breathing. Those of us who have been most afraid are often the ones who follow our passions like wild animals. We hunt them down and grip them in our teeth. Shake them. Even when other people demand that we let our passions go, we can’t.

We all need something to breathe for.

And I wonder about you, sitting next to me, hearing about the passion of divers. You are so frightened of water, you would never be able to become a diver. And here we are, sitting in two chairs with high arms, listening to divers who find their freedom in this element. I hold your hand, catch your eye a couple of times. You are listening and look interested in what is being said, but I wonder about how you are seeing the images on the television screen. They are underwater images – of these humans who become fish-like, and look like shadows of seals or mermaids when photographed in the depths. Your phobia means that you aren’t even able to sink beneath warm soapy water in the bath.

We watch another underwater film – of spearfishing and sharks. As I watch, I realise that I am holding my breath and my body moves as if the sharks are close to it. I imagine myself inside the picture on the screen, underwater with the divers. I look at your face, and can see no sign of fear as you watch these moving images. You look interested in the sharks. So I lean into you, and ask you if, as you watch, you are inside the picture on the screen or outside it. You tell me, I imagine I’m looking into an aquarium. You place two layers between your fear and the images. One layer: the screen that the film is being shown on, and the other: of an aquarium.

It takes two layers of glass to distance you from your phobia.

When you were about two and a half, you nearly drowned.

You were rescued by your pregnant mother, but the breath had already gone from your small body. You’ve told me about your memories of lying underwater, not able to breathe any more. You were staring up at the surface. This was shallow water, but you only need two feet of water to drown in, for an adult. For a toddler, I can imagine it might be possible to drown in a ditch or a puddle.

Why was no one watching you closely enough?

I wanted to hold you when you first told me this memory. I wanted to cradle you and kiss your hair, as if you still were that small child. But I couldn’t physically hold you - you told me this story by email. So I held you in my imagination where you have always felt real.

I didn’t know about this memory or your plans to drown without dying, when we first started talking on computer screens from opposite sides of the world. I was on a writing retreat for a month on a remote peninsula in the Scottish highlands. There was a bridge and a river just outside the cottage, and I hadn’t spoken to any other humans for quite some time. You knew I was lonely. I’d been lonely for a long time, and didn’t mind it. But even so, you kept me company by sending emails. We talked without speaking and I knew you were there with me, even though your real body was on the other side of the world.

We wrote to each other about art and writing. About relationships and death, ultimatums and images. We wrote about strength and fear, about how we both had our own terrors and courages. We talked about characters and animals. We made up strange places, beings, new objects. You said you were a small scruffy lioness. And that I was a dark lioness, perhaps because I was so often nocturnal. You emailed me a watercolour painting of two lionesses. I sent you a poem, and you sent me a poem in response. One night I sat outside on the cottage doorstep at around four in the morning, smoking a cigarette and thinking of you.

I heard the sound of two great rocks cracking together in the river, so loud and sudden it made me get up and walk towards the rushing water. Through half-dark, I watched a golden-furred creature leap out of the water. It was a small lioness. She ran through thick grass, fleeing the river, dripping water from her fur, and disappeared between birch trees.

I knew you’d be awake on the other side of the world, so I sent you an email. I said, I just saw your lioness. Everyone knows there are no lionesses in Scotland. But I saw her. She was in the river but she was terrified of the water, she ran away. I just need to know if you’re OK?

You replied immediately. You told me you’d just been working on a proposal for a new overseas project about drowning. You told me your memory of nearly drowning. You said you were going to drown without dying, all these years later, and that you would be terrified. You said that the terror in your face would be filmed as someone’s hands held you underwater. You didn’t yet know who those hands would belong to.

I stared at your email on my phone. I looked up at the stars and thought about how near and far away they seemed. My heartbeat stopped for a moment. I looked at my hands, they were shaking. I saw them around your neck, then stroking the terror from your face. I imagined that you would die, in a country you didn’t call home, drowned by a pair of clumsy hands which felt unfamiliar to your body, with a stranger’s eyes staring down at you. I imagined that this time, you would die, as an adult with the terror of a two and a half year old. I know from my own terrors that fear makes us time-travellers.

I imagined that if your mother wasn’t watching you closely enough when you were a toddler, a stranger would not watch you closely enough as an adult.

At this point, our bodies had never touched each other, though we’d travelled through each other’s imaginations from opposite sides of the world. I was already in love with your mind. Your words told me that you felt the same about mine.

I wrote and said that I wanted to drown you without killing you.

You wrote back and said that you could not ask me to do this.

You told me that this project was about love and drowning and trust.

You said you were drowning in the long-term relationship you were in.

You said you felt caged.

You said you felt dead.

I told you I knew what it was like to feel dead while remaining alive.

I said that lionesses should never be caged.

I told you that when my long term relationship ended, I ran away and kept running,

I explained that now I was scared because I couldn’t stop running, like an ostrich with no sand to bury my head in.

Soon after we wrote to each other of all these things, you told me you trusted me.


When you discuss this project with others, you talk about exploring a fear you’ve had since you were small. You don’t expect to conquer or cure this fear. You want to re-experience it.

There is another layer within this project: can you trust someone enough to let them drown you without killing you - is it possible to love and to be loved, without drowning? You don’t expect to conquer or cure love either. But I know, perhaps more than anyone else can, how deeply you experience it.

Now we are lovers, I couldn’t let anyone else drown you. I trust my pale hands on you. I trust your pale hands on me. Our bodies understand each other. Perhaps this is because our minds and imaginations met each other long before our bodies even touched. I loved you before I held your hand, looked in your eyes, or kissed your mouth. Perhaps it had to start in this way, for us. I have my own terrors which I never speak about but you understand them all the same. Last night my thighs and legs were shaking. You held me in your strong arms and talked stories into my ears until I was still.

Tonight, there are storms. We’ve been filming, editing and writing all day, and it might have been dark for some time. Hunting for your watch, you check the time, and tell me it’s now 3am. We watch the horizon as two storms rage at each other in sheet lightning flashes. I wonder what happens if storms collide. Does such a collision make a tempest, and could it make wreckage of this island? But though the winds rise to wailing gales, though the hinges of our door rattle and buzz, we’re exhausted so we try to fall asleep. I half-dream that white sheets billow around our bodies like sails and we’re up in the sky, looking into the eyes of two storms from the deck of a ship. You roll away from me and murmur, be my parachute, so I wrap my arms around your shoulders and hold your back tight to my chest. As I drift, a line from one of Shakespeare’s plays comes into my mind, and changes its words and rhythm like some kind of Siren-charmed tune. I listen till your breath tells me you’re asleep, and whisper, Be undrowned. As you sleep, swim.

This morning, the sunlight bakes down on your wide-rimmed hat. You’re ankle deep in ripples on the edge of Dean’s Blue Hole. Your hands are clenched behind your back. You’re watching the divers and I’m up in the shade on an amphitheatre of rocks, watching you. You’re also looking at the place where light blue water darkens to black. That’s where the sand ends and the deepest hole in the world drops to a depth of 202 meters. Your body shrinks and changes posture so slowly, that no one would notice unless they didn’t blink or take their eyes away from you. You’re completely silent as divers plunge to great depths using just one intake of breath.

You stand as still as a child seeing something impossible.

A child who once stopped breathing, remembering breathing.

It’s the body, more than the mind, which remembers fear.




Drowning / Breathing

At Gordon’s Beach, a patchwork sail stitched from clothing which was washed up along the shore is hanging from the mast of a shipwreck. Patterned dresses and shirts, trousers and skirts tear apart in the winds.

At the Diamond Crystal Salt Ponds, a kayak filled with salt is about to become lost at sea.

On Compass Rose Beach, an anchor is raised from the ocean bed using bottles and plastic containers filled with human breath. It hits the surface, something snaps, and it falls.

Artists make poems of these locations; under water, on the surfaces of oceans and in the air above this island. Their metaphors wave, float and sink, just out of sight.

And here we are, waiting, in our air conditioned hotel room. You’re sitting at a small round table cluttered with laptops, notebooks and biscuit crumbs. You’re playing a computer game to try to calm down and distract yourself from what we’re about to do. Outside, the air is moist and heavy. Your face has gone grey, the colour of fear. I’m asking myself if you’ll go through with this, because you’re not even in the water yet but you’re on the verge of hyperventilating.  

Today we will go to Lovers’ Beach, a place neither of us have ever been to before.

We will go into unknown waves, in an unfamiliar place, no matter how shallow or deep the water is, no matter how hard the undercurrents push or pull.

We wear red clothing in two shades - arterial blood and deoxygenated blood.

You have two lengths of red parachute cord to tie our wrists together with.

On Lovers’ Beach I will push you into the water and hold your body down.

I don’t know how I’ll be able to tell if you’re drowning or screaming, when you’re underwater.

Will I be able to see your face if the surface of water is moving? I need to see your face.

You abandon your computer game, get up from your chair and stand beside me. You say, I might have a heart attack. I could have a heart attack.

Inside, I’m churning because this feels possible. I take your hand, stand up, hug you and say, no, you won’t. Dying is banned.

I am trying to stay calm for you while knowing that fear is contagious. I don’t know if I will be able to remain calm. But I will try to, because you will be two and a half years old when I drown you. And I will be my own age, drowning the one lover I’ve had who knows exactly what to do when my body remembers terror and can’t stop shaking.

Without you, I wouldn’t be able to keep breathing.

So if anyone can be trusted, you can trust me to drown you, and yet still keep you alive.


We’re on Lovers’ Beach, a pale basin of blue sea enclosed within a circle of tall rock formations. A narrow gap shows a darker ocean, just beyond us. You are waist-deep in salt water, I am on the sand. We face each other. You have led me here by tugging on red parachute cord, red rope, red threads, or are these veins which bind our wrists together? I walk slowly towards you. Wrapping red lines around your wrists - as you pull, I am drawn to you. You pull. I step. Again, you pull, and I step.

An image of the two rings we removed flashes through my mind and I blink it away. I am here. You are here. Everything else falls away. For a moment, I think there should be some kind of music, but all noises are echoes and thuds.

When I am close enough to touch you, fear translates your face. You’re trembling, and you look at me as if I will hurt you.

My hands are on your shoulders and you are breathing so fast my throat clenches. I place my feet steady because my body has to feel strong for your body. Sand shifts under the balls of my feet. You are looking into my eyes and I watch you shrink. You are unable to hide anything you feel from me, and I am trying to hide everything I feel from both you and myself.

You say no. Again, you say no. I don’t know if you speak this, or feel this. I can no longer tell the difference between emotions and these vanishing sounds. All I can hear is your breath. Water sends no tune of undrowning to my ears, not when fear can make your eyes look at me like this.

I can’t breathe. I hate this. I have to breathe.

Your body needs to feel that my body is safe and that means all of my breathing is now going to seem slow and you are going to believe that I am incredibly calm. I tell you, I’ve got you, it’s going to be all right. These are nothing words but I have to mean them as I say them, so I mean them.

Your pupils shrink. Your pulse thuds through my palms. You sink a little as I gently move your head back towards the water. You whimper.

You say no, again.

Your forehead has broken sweat. You’re so pale. The skin under your eyes darkens. You are still above the water, and you already look like you’re dying. I can’t look away. The wind blows our hair over our faces and I hold yours back with one hand and mine back with the other so I can look in your eyes and tell you without speaking… trust me.

I push you gently on the shoulders, downwards, and release the pressure. My body is trying to teach your body that it is safe, though it isn’t. Your breathing quickens. I stroke your hair. The fear in your eyes flashes away and I see determination there, but only momentarily. I inhale, and add more pressure to your shoulders. Your breath is shallow, still quickening.

You let me push you further backwards this time. In whispers I talk to you as if you are a frightened child. You’re crying, I think you are. I’m not quite sure.

Your hair spreads on the surface of water like unravelling rope. I ask if you’re ready, with my voice or thoughts, I can’t tell the difference.

You aren’t ready. You will never be ready.

But you have pulled me here to drown you. And I love you, so that is what I will do.

I keep my eyes on yours, barely blinking, voice steady.

I add more pressure through my hands, trying to teach your body a direction.

I tell myself that your heart will not attack you.

I tell myself that this is your fear I’ve caught, and not my own, so I will hide it from you.

I tell myself that I will not become your killer, I will remain your lover.

You’re lying on the surface now.

I tell myself that as long as I trust myself, you will trust me.

Your ears are submerged.

I tell myself that as long as I trust myself not to ever hurt you, I won’t ever hurt you.

Your eyes, nose and mouth are the only parts of you which remain above water.

I tell myself that I can trust your body enough to fight for itself, if it needs to.

I tell myself that there is no danger, other than the danger that is terror.

Your eyes, a slight narrowing, a widening.


I pinch your nose to keep the water out of your lungs.

An intake of breath through your mouth.

My hand pushes down hard on your chest.

You’re submerged.

There is silence. In this moment, not hearing your fast breathing is a relief.

I don’t believe in relief.

I can see your face, but can’t read your emotions. Blue water makes your skin corpse pale. Suddenly you look calm, as if the water has drawn all the fear out of you but I don’t trust that this is the right way to think…

The water could be lying.

There are beads of mascara on your eyelashes which look like black feathers. Your eyes are open, unfocussed, I can’t even see if they’re trying to focus. Bubbles flip as they leave your mouth and rise towards me.

Water makes your eyes look distant because they can’t see beyond it.

Water pretends calmness by making your face expressionless.

Water wears you, or you wear water, like a mask.

It is almost peaceful, up here in air, looking down at you in water. Your face is at peace, your hair floats in ripples…

I don’t trust this sense of peace.

The water is lying.

I trust you more than water.

Even through water, I can feel traces of panic between your skin and my hands, like electricity. Electricity should never meet water.

This is how I don’t really drown you: not trusting the water, but trusting my hands to listen to your body and your body to talk to my hands.

Your body will show me when it needs to emerge. I hold my breath. A flicker somewhere between your breastbone and my palm.

Your expression changes. The mask of water slips away. You’re terrified.

The water becomes waves and now I can’t see your face. My heart thuds in my throat. I was right not to trust water. It is volatile.

You reach out and grip my shoulder. I push down on your chest.

Your fingers and palms find the edges between air and water.

Still, I hold you under.

Your head shakes my hand from your nose. The remaining tight breath escapes from your lungs.

I can’t bear to hold you down any more. I release your chest. As your body emerges, it gasps, flails, grabs me and lets itself be held.

You inhale and I exhale and your breathing fills my ears.

Your arms are trembling.

Your hands are trembling.

Your skull is trembling.

Your spine is trembling.

Somewhere beneath these cold shudders of skin, there’s warmth, a heartbeat, blood and bones. Your body has terror living in it. Terror is far more dangerous than water. Your mind has courage. The body hangs onto its memories, no matter what damage they cause. You nearly drowned as a small child, but you’re not drowning now.

When you’re ready, I will lead you out of this ocean.

This isn’t any cure, it’s your body trusting the body of your lover.

It’s your body trusting your mind to trust.

It’s your body allowing your mind to look at the edges of fear.

It’s the edges of fear which allow you to love and be loved without drowning.

As we stand here waist-deep holding onto one another, we are no more than two bodies in water. You are a body full of fear and I am a body which offers safety. Burying my feet in the sand, I hold your trembling back and stroke you with the palms of my hands.

Jess Richards

Jess Richards was awarded the 2014 Ardtornish Retreat. Her first two novels are Snake Ropes and Cooking with Bones (Sceptre, 2012 and 2013). She is currently working on her third novel.