A Tale of a Boy Who Cannot Swim and a Girl Who Lives on Camera
Written by Eliot John, and illustrated by Elliott Highmore
“I had a dream last night. More than a dream. I lived it and now it haunts me.”
I was on a beach; like one from the movies. Actually, no. I could see the beach from a distance, but I was standing on wet sand with the sun lingering over my body and my mind as free as the air.
I stood there for a moment, transfixed in watching the clouds rushing by, turning from nothing into something, from white to black. Behind me, not a soul was to be seen. The storm shadowed behind me and it was rushing forward. I tried to get away, into the abyss, the unknown.
I edged forwards and felt my feet sink into the sand. It’s hard grasp clenched down onto my skin and scuffed at my feet.
My hands fell down to the floor and dug away at the concrete. I picked up my pace and ran towards the ocean. My soles burned over the stone and splashed against the resting tide. I skimmed my skin over coupling starfish and aged shells, almost floating. I rose above the ground, just for a moment, just before I hit the water.
The first few paces were welcoming and warm, but I ran further, plunging into the sea. Waves hit up against my fragile body and knocked me back, yet the current dragged me in further. With every knock that drove me backward, every mouth full of water that burned my throat, the tide always drove me further inward. I wanted to delve in. To cleanse my soul from sin and be reborn out in the open: free and pure. I needed to rinse the day off of my body. I swam and swam until I was floating in the centre.
The beach was out of sight, yet the storm still lingered. I was gone. Straddling the waves, beating with the tide.
The waves undid my hanging clothes and clawed at me. They climbed over my curves, fingering my fragmented clothes. A giant surged past and filled my throat with salt. The dry aftershock left me spluttering and gasping for air. Again and again the tide was driving into me. Swallowing turned from instinct to demanding in its infinity. It began to pull me under.
I awoke next to him. In our bed. In his house. There was a wet patch in the centre from the night before. The sickening smell of salt crept up my nose and alarm bells rang in my head.
I swept up my clothes and dove out of the apartment.
I can’t swim, so I’d be a fool to drown.
“You look at him differently from the others.”
He is the man from my dream. I dream of him most nights. He makes me feel warm although I know nothing but this cold home.
The glass makes his appearance gleam and I see his reflection scattered in the water around me. Sometimes the refracted light is so bright that I imagine it burning a hole through the glass. I would break out and hold on to him. To feel my body against his warm, glowing skin.
He’s the only one who looks me in the eyes and holds onto my gaze. Every day he comes and watches me whilst he sets up my display. He makes sure the cameras are on and working so that the globe can watch me from their tablets and televisions.
My eyes are blue and mirror the water around me. The blasé of blue…The nothingness of the clarity of blue. Blue shows only a reflection, blue is hollow and cold. His are brown, like earth, like stone. He grounds me to reality when my whole world is in this tank, on film.
“You can’t even swim.”
I’m not build for swimming, my body is just too dense I guess. Nah, like, I was taught how to swim when I was a kid. My Dad took me into the pool when we were on holiday when I was young. I had on these massive armbands. They were large and orange, I must’ve looked like a floating traffic cone. I can doggy paddle and I’m not afraid of water at all, I just can’t hold myself up. I feel my weight being dragged down and it’s literally terrifying. Don’t get me wrong though, if I was on holiday and it was hot, then yeah, I’d go into the pool. But I wouldn’t jump into the deep end. I think it’s the depth that scares me you know. I guess there’s something about it being so deep, but I dunno. I don’t ever really go into the sea. The ocean is just so vast and you know that we’ve barely even explored it. No-one actually knows what’s out there at all. It’s incredible.
I come and watch her everyday whilst I’m setting up her display. I make sure the cameras are on and working so that the globe can watch her from their tablets and televisions.
I can’t even imagine her life.
Sometimes I feel like I’m being watched too – but I guess everyone feels like that.
I envy her ability to swim. I’ve never actually seen her out of the water although the top of her tank is open. Maybe she has to stay in sight of the cameras or maybe she can’t be physically be away from the water. She practically melts into it – it’s mad. She flows with the water so effortlessly. That’s what I call her. I call her Flo.
I would call her Flo, if I could speak to her, but I’m not sure if she can hear me through the glass.
This morning was different to the other mornings. He came in to set up, as usual, but he didn’t look me in the eyes. He didn’t look me in the eyes, but he wasn’t looking at my body like the others do. He was hiding within himself, burrowing into himself.
I have seen shy people before. Sometimes they don’t know where to look when they see me or I frighten them, but I don’t have the ability to hide. I am constantly under the watch of the cameras. They surround my 360 degree tank, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are everywhere, apart from up there, but that’s forbidden. I’m safe here, the unknown is a dangerous place.
I began to put on a show to gain his attention. I blew bubbles in the water and shaped them into stars and a moon, I pointed my toes and held my legs up against my body to create a rippling effect, I even twirled my fingers to mimic tiny whirlpools. I know that these are crowd-pleasers, I know what makes good television, I know what people want.
He looked up, and looked me in the eyes, but he didn’t look entertained, he looked lost and disappointed. I had lost him. I sunk down to the floor of my tank and sat down with my legs crossed. There was something about seeing him looking so upset, it made my heart sink.
He came up the tank and sat down on the floor opposite me, crossed legged, but looking at the floor. I reached out my hand to caress his face but my fingers just knocked against the glass. He looked up and held out his hand towards me, until it pressed flat against the glass, until there was only a frame of glass between us, between our skin.
He pursed his lips tight together, licked his tongue from top to his bottom set of teeth and expelled a long breath through his open mouth.
“She’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met”
I hadn’t ever seen her smile before. Not like properly smile anyway. She always shows off her teeth in front of the cameras and watching fans, but it never reaches her eyes.
I came in today after having a bad dream last night and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Basically, in the dream, I wake up in a hospital bed, all on my own. I call and call for a doctor and eventually a nurse comes in, looking like a classic nurse, white uniform and red hat, with those crosses over the pockets. Anyway, she’s blindfolded, can’t see me at all. I ask and ask her where my family are but she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t even say anything. I reach up and take off her blindfold and she starts crying and tries to snatch the blindfold back. I get up and put on my clothes decide to look for everyone myself. So, I’m walking down the hospital corridor, but all the beds are empty. It looks like everyone has left in a hurry since loads of stuff has been left behind. I start running faster and faster but the corridor just stretches out infinitely. I can see my family now, in the distance, but they’re covering their eyes and running away from me. I see them getting into the lift at the end of the corridor, so I push through and make it just in time. I slip my hand into the almost-closed door and thrust myself in. My family is nowhere to be seen. I am alone in this lift and all I can see is myself. The inside of the lift is made up entirely of mirrors. But when I look at my reflection, it’s not me that I’m seeing. I remember it then. I remember the accident and I remember what it did to my face. I’m not the same person anymore. I can’t escape it though, the image is everywhere, an inception of a broken man, a broken image. It’s all around me apart from up there, but I don’t know what’s up there. What is outside of the lift. I see her hand reach out from the top. She looks me in the eyes and I know that she’ll save me. She’s not frightened of me at all. But the water starts pouring in and I can’t swim.
That’s when I woke up. It’s haunted me all day because I remember what I thought as the tank was filling up. I had chosen to stay and drown. I was too afraid to go into the unknown with her.
I felt ashamed of myself, in all honesty. I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eyes. I could see her in the corner of my vision putting on her display for the cameras. And I pitied her, in her bubble, with the cameras on her constantly. I looked up for a moment just to read her face, to see if anything was real or if she was just a character.
She sank down and sat with her legs crossed. I instinctively sat down with her. She reached out as if she was going in for a hug. But the glass stopped her a few inches short. I pressed my hand against the glass and looked at how our hands fit perfectly together. She was just like me.
That’s when I decided to save her. To save Flo.
She studied my face and the shape of my lips for a few moments before smiling. Really smiling.
And I smiled too.
We both beamed at each other and it was great.
I didn’t see him for weeks. They hired some new guy. He would stare at my body and look right through me. I turned to water. I turned to nothing.
I got fired from work that day. The cameras didn’t approve of me. That’s not what they want, that’s not good business. She needs to stay pure and untarnished. Her work is her life and I would be a complication. I get that, I do, but I have to see her.
“My Favourite Thing”
I’ve been playing with a new trick this week, but only to myself. I push myself down to the floor as if I’m going to go to sleep. I bring my legs up to my chest and wrap one arm around my body. By doing this I have managed to create a secret zone to practise. With my other hand, I trace images onto the ground before I stretch them up and watch them come to life. My favourite thing is conjuring up two people dancing, but it’s hard because if the separate whirlpools get too close they break and disappear. I imagine that it’s me and him, but I wish we could touch. He’s my favourite thing. And he’s disappeared.
“I want to know more about her”
I know that it’s stupid and I know that I shouldn’t have done it, but I’ve snuck back in to the display, okay? I guess they just figured it was a phase or I’m just a kid or whatever, but it ended up playing in my favour. All I needed was a large coat and false glasses and boom, I was in.
I know the system by heart, where every camera’s situated, all the blind spots, all the glitches in the system. I know all of that. I know that it’s flawless.
Her ratings have spiked interest over the last few weeks. She just lies curled up on the ground, but she’s never been more popular. Man, I thought the display was sadistic before but this is despicable. Her pain is private and priceless, or £10 per month if you have a subscription package.
There’s only one way in, one way without the cameras or an audience. The opening at the top. But, Jesus Christ, who knows what’s up there. Could be anything. Could be more people, more cameras, or the sky, or more water, or just darkness. God himself could be up there for all I know.
I never even thought to look up before. The tank itself is 50metres tall and I don’t even know how much of that vignettes into black near the top. I doubt she could even see what’s at the top. Maybe 10 metres of darkness, and then what? Can she even survive out of water? And what will happen when she’s out of the cameras?
Today has been the worst day so far. I haven’t moved for a few days, I can’t bear it. More and more people have been coming recently. Every time that I blink I see a different set of faces. I like people, they’re so interesting and unique, but now they all fade into one big blur. The more faces that I see the more I want to lay and do nothing and the more I lay and do nothing the more faces come to see me.
They have started pressing themselves up against the glass to try and sneak a peek at what I’m doing, my expressions, my soul. It’s easy enough to perform when you’re in control and you’re pretending, it’s my second nature to put on a show and flaunt charisma, but when your deepest feelings are on display there’s no pretending.
I’ve started swimming up until I am on the edge. The very verge of where the blue turns to black and home becomes the unknown.
“Can you guess the ending of a film from one scene?”
I’ve climbed up the building until I’m finally on the top floor. I open the door in front of me that I assume leads to her. It’s so cold up here, it’s like being inside a freezer on a freezing day. No, actually, it’s like being in a freezer on a really hot day. Colder than ever before. The coldest.
I look around but all I can see is white, white and emptiness. There are no cameras, no people, no God. On the far side there’s a single white desk with a pile of paper and a pen on top of it.
I know, I know, I shouldn’t go up to it. I’ve seen enough films and know what this tableau means. Warning bells are ringing inside my head but you only live once at the end of the day – how could I not? I climbed countless stairs imagining all the various things that I could find up here and as if I’m not going to check it out.
Woah. Did I? Is that?
I can hear her. I’V never heard her before, no-one has. She must be near the top, no chance could you hear that from 50 metres down. It sounds like she’s crying. The media will have a field day with this one. Unless, maybe, because she’s in water no-one can tell if she’s crying anyway.
“Come up. I’m up here.”
Useless. Maybe I could throw something down, but then again, it would only float or sink right to the bottom, either way nothing good would come of it. If it floats, then it’s pointless and if it sinks, then I’ve blown my cover. Too little or too much. I wonder if there’s a light about that I could shine down.
It looks like the paper has writing on it. I can make out my name at the top.
Jesus. It’s a contract for the display, addressed to me.
If they want a show, then I’ll give them a show. I’m done with this torture. It was so much easier before, when I was pretending, when I was crowd-pleasing. My life wasn’t as intense. Fiction is easy. I’m going to swim back down and blow some bubbles and everything will be as it was.
But I want to go up first.
Just a little bit. Just to taste the dark.
So, they’ve been following me this whole time. They’ve been watching me watch her for months now. Predicted my every move.
Do I sign the deal, face the unknown and risk getting in too deep with her?
I’m usually the a-typical ‘go with the flow’ kind of guy.
Go with Flo.
I’m a realist, I can’t live my life on film, even if it is with her. It’s what they want. Of course they want a love interest for her, it’s so cliché, and they’ve already pulled in interest from this whole situation.
And what if I drown? It says here that I’ll be fine but how good can life be in a tank? Seriously. Do I have to be in there with her?
I’ve got nothing to lose though. And I want to be with her, I do. It’s just terrifying. But isn’t this what I wanted anyway? I risked it all for this.
How do I even know if it’s real? Me signing this contract doesn’t actually mean anything at the end of the day. She lives for the cameras and the story. I want to be more than her favourite character. More than a toy.
I know how I feel.
“Like a virgin”
I can hear something whispering from the dark. It’s asking me to melt into it, bleed in to it, give it everything. It’s all I need.
I close my eyes and enter in to the black.
It’s like my dream. I can feel a weight on my shoulders pulling me down and fighting against me. It’s against my nature to stray from my own world. I’m safe there, but it’s not real. I just want to really feel something, to feel alive and to just be.
I look down for a moment and can see nothing but black and the same above.
I can’t go back but the thought of going further petrifies me to the core. Maybe at the top there’s a way out. Maybe it will lead me to him.
I have never done anything like this before. What if it’s too much, what if I can’t do it? I’ve never been out of water before and I don’t know how to live in the real world. How do people breathe?
I force myself up and can feel the waves of water glide over my face and through my hair. I shut my eyes once more and begin to weave myself through the dark.
I have never wanted anything more.
I take hold of his stretched out hand as he pulls me towards the surface. I exhale a lungful of water and then inhale a mouthful of air.
It is what it is
“There are no cameras here. What do we do?”
“Life isn’t a movie.”
“This is my life. I have to go back.
…Come with me.”
“But, I can’t swim. I’d be a fool to drown.
…Stay with me.”
“I’d keep you safe.”
“I’d keep you safe.”
And then they went off into the unknown together.
“I’m Greg by the way”
“I’m Ellie, but you can call me Flo”