Another summer. Another holiday by the sea, its first few blissfully lazy days wasted on the beach, soaking in the sun, absorbing the iodine breeze, plunging into the emerald water and savouring the exquisite taste of that infantile happiness, the long forgotten joy of a child without a care in the world.
Slowly, I wade into the luxurious, caressing water, looking forward to my next swim. I dive into the cool, mysterious underwater world of the Ionic sea; I hold my breath for as long as I can so as to surface as far away from the beach as possible. I pride myself on being a fairly good swimmer, so I take a deep breath and start on my crawl stroke routine. I am sure that I am not alone in my total devotion to the rich salty seawater, which upholds you and turns swimming into an absolute delight: you need almost no effort to keep afloat in the sea. Feeling completely at ease with the elements, I indulge myself and imagine being the fastest swimmer in the world, which is quite easy for, by now, I am completely alone, surrounded only by the turquoise serene waters: as far as I am concerned, being alone is part of the fun.
Therefore, I get a somewhat unwelcome surprise when I spy from the corner of my eye another swimmer, who seems to be just as fast as me. He, or she, – it’s unclear – is keeping up with my pace, which I am determined not to change. I can only see this person briefly, executing a perfect crawl stroke, when I am just about to turn away from the slick-gliding figure onto my left side.
This goes on for a while, I swim on, but the peaceful mood is broken by now and I decide that I have had enough: I stop and look in the direction of where I think my companion swimmer might be. To my great consternation, I do not see anybody at all. I am quite alone, the calm emerald sea all around me, magnificent in its indifference. I also notice that I have swam rather far this time, much further than usual, and as a result I am feeling a little tired.
I turn towards the beach and begin the much slower journey back. I am rather puzzled: I could have sworn that there had been another swimmer trying to race me today.
Well, I console myself, maybe I imagined the whole incident and did not really see anybody at all. By the time I clear the beach and get out of the water I am rather tired and my only thoughts are about what to have for my lunch, – the phantom swimmer is already slipping away from my mind.
A couple of days pass and I am wading into the water for my by now habitual long swim. The sea is very calm; the sun is a great disk, almost white in the blue, blue sea. I happily start on my crawl stroke, quickly get into a good pace and after a while I notice with a start that there is another swimmer nearby, mirroring my moves in parallel crawl. I try as best as I can not to let him /her get the better of me and keep my strokes steady, I even attempt a slight increase in speed and it seems that I manage to overtake my evasive companion. Eventually I get tired, stop and look back: just like the other day I do not see anybody, not a soul in sight. I look up at the sky and see that the sun has become a huge, almost invisible white orb dissolving into an even whiter sky.
All of a sudden, I feel really tired and when I look for the beach I can barely see only a thin line on the horizon. How did I managed to swim that far in what feels like such a short time? I turn on my back to get some rest before the long swim back to the dry land, people, food and drink. Now I feel only very wet and very lonely.
I tell my friends about my creepy encounter with a swimming ghost and we all laugh it off together.
I spend a few days splashing in shallow waters, but the pull of the sea is irresistible, and, feeling sufficiently rested and much stronger and cockier, I set out on another serious swim. The ghost swimmer is still lingering somewhere on the fringes of my imagination, but I happily dismiss him from my mind.
I quickly pass the screaming shallow water fun seekers and begin my enjoyable quest for swimming perfection. I feel relaxed and happy and as soon as I get into a steady good rhythm, I think of being followed by the same apparition, which I have dismissed as flights of my fancy. I am not scared or worried, and to be completely honest I would be quite disappointed if my mysterious companion had not shown up. It is always like that: you dread something and yet get attracted towards the very thing that unhinges you. That is why people like watching horror films; in them, they can live and experience things that they would not dare dream of.
After my diligent efforts at attaining a decent level of a stylish and steady crawl, I finally catch up with … shall I call it my vision?
This time I make a serious effort to better identify the figure following my progress, at the very least, to find out whether it is a he or a she; I also try not to get too tired without losing my pace, somehow to catch a proper look at or, maybe, even touch the mystery swimmer. In my chase, I momentarily make the mistake of inhaling at the wrong time and swallow a huge amount of salty water, which sets me off into a coughing spell. For an instant, I forget all about my competition with the ghost in an effort not to drown. I have to stop now, to clear my lungs and start properly breathing again. I try not to panic, and at that instant I feel something circling my waist , as if somebody is trying to squeeze the last of my breath out of me and for one terrifying moment it feels like I am being pulled down underneath the water.
I shut my eyes and start breathing almost normally. I realise that I am floating on my back. No, it feels like I am floating on an airbed, except there is no airbed for miles around; in fact, there is nobody nearby no matter how hard you look and the only thing I can see is the deep dark sea, the sky bleached to a white glow, and the menacing brute of a scorching white sun. All the other colours are gone. But what is even worse, I do not see the beach any longer. Where is it? Which direction should I follow?
Now I am deeply, sickeningly afraid.
Out of the blue, I feel a strong push into my back and hear a quiet barely audible whisper echoing somewhere in the back of my head:
“Swim away from the sun… It is not the one you seek”
I turn away from the glaring white monster and begin splashing frantically with my arms and legs in a state of shock and terror. The only thing keeping me adrift and swimming after a fashion, is my survival instinct.
I do not even remember at which point the colours come back and I see the blue sky and emerald water. After a while, I get my crawl stroke back and soon I can make out the beach.
When I can already see individual umbrellas and my friends under some of them, I stop and look back. With all my heart I want to see it, and after a while, I do: by now impossibly far, almost indiscernible against the sun, a diminishing figure swimming away with perfect crawl strokes.
I mouth silently “Thank you!” and turn towards the beach.