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“I was pressed against a teeming immensity.” A river underwater.

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From age ten I was allowed to swim in the Nieuwe Maas on my own. The cold water shocked me and soothed me and took my mind away. I would enter the water and lie back and close my eyes and drift. Afterwards I came stumbling back along the stony beach, my feet blue and insensate from the cold. I perched with a towel around me, shivering, my head on my knees. As I tipped the water out of my ears the sound of the traffic came back. I didn’t want to go home, and it took a long time to persuade myself to get up again. The stones pressed through my thin soles as I put my weight down, and every time I left the beach I told myself all I had to do was put those same stones in my pockets and walk out into the water and I would never have to go home again.

It was an effective fantasy; I was able to carry on because I knew I didn’t have to. Every time I swam a little further, the stones cutting deeper into my feet as I clambered back ashore. One afternoon in early autumn I felt particularly hopeless. I saw no realistic escape from the situation with Geert and I lived in constant terror of him. Storm clouds were approaching and the beach was deserted. I felt a dangerous sway, the freedom of disregarding my own safety, and I marched into the water, a grimace on my face. The water burned me, sending a startled energy whipping through my body. It was so cold. As I reached the point where my shoulders became submerged, my chest started to convulse and I swallowed mouthfuls of bitter water, and very faintly, as if from a great distance, I sensed that I was about to give way.

I plunged under the water, eyes open, burrowing and kicking out all the way down. It was only a few metres deep, but I felt as if I was tunnelling further, that I had entered a chasm and was swimming in a new territory, a secret chamber of my own. The water was cloudy from the movement of my limbs, but when I stopped I could suddenly see everything very clearly. The larger rocks on the river-bed studded with worms, sponges, limpets and lichen. Beyond them the tufts of floating green and purple riverweed. Nothing made the slightest sound; no thudding in my ears from the water pressure, no chattering voices competing in my head. I gazed at the scene, hanging horizontally, suspended beneath the surface, no further movement to cloud my vision, and as if from nowhere I realised, suddenly, with appreciation, that absolutely everything around me was alive.

There was no gap separating my body from the living world. I was pressed against a teeming immensity, every cubic millimetre of water densely filled with living stuff. These organisms were so small I couldn’t see them, but somehow I felt their presence, their fraternity, all around me. I didn’t look through the water towards life, I looked directly into water-life, a vast patchwork supporting my body, streaming into my nostrils, my ears, the small breaks and crevices in my skin, swirling through my hair and entering the same eyes that observed it. In what felt like minutes, but must have been only seconds, I saw a completely different world, a place of significance and complexity, an almost infinite number of independent organisms among which I floated like a net, scooping up untold creatures with every minor shift and undulation of my body.

Extract taken from In Ascension by Martin MacInnes, published by Atlantic Books. In Ascension is the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club. Sign up and read along with us here


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