At the edge of the lake quarry, they remove their rucksacks. Amber’s deepest dive yet. It’s 105 metres deep but she won’t be going to the bottom, she’s only qualified to 60 metres. Dull matt water laps against slate edges as wind sweeps in from the Irish Sea.
‘You okay?’ says Dave.
Amber nods. She harnesses her inner calm. Visibility’s 15 metres. She’ll be fine. Decades ago the quarry was abandoned and water flooded in. Not long before diving enthusiasts and thrill seekers came, throwing themselves off cliffs in large transparent balls. Amber’s no longer the person who hides in crowded spaces or hyperventilates in a lift. A prisoner of claustrophobia for too long, she’s free. Physically, at least. She pulls off her socks.
‘About yesterday…’ Dave says.
‘It’s fine,’ Amber says, burying her face in her rucksack. She always leaves the good ones. It’s what she does. She wants to be in the water where their words drown.
Yesterday, at the dive school, filling their air tanks. She was about to open the valve to the whip when Dave reached for her spare hand. She’d torn her hand away, as if burnt. No wonder he’s confused. The buzz of her air tank filling broke the silence, and when Dave offered to buy coffee she’d asked for a latte. In the car afterwards, he’d been quiet.
This morning she’s talked fast, leaving no awkward spaces. He deserves better. She lays her wetsuit on the ground.
‘I just don’t know…’ Dave says.
‘It’s me…’ Amber says.
‘You asked for latte though you don’t even like it,’ he says. ‘I just don’t understand.’
She can’t believe he’s still thinking about this. He’s right though. She changes the subject.
‘Do you still want to go in the tunnel?’ He pauses.
‘Sure.’ 18 metres underwater there’s an entrance through the side of the quarry that leads to a hidden pool. They’ll wear their air in side-tanks as the passageway’s shallow.
He takes out the reel and bolt snaps. A guide-line to navigate back. Amber checks her head torch. It’s astonishing how quickly light gets swallowed. She ties her hair up and Dave inspects her straps. Wrongly assembled equipment has been many a diver’s downfall. There’s no margin for error. She lifts her arms up and he tugs at the water tank, then her weight belt. As her instructor, he’s in charge. He slips his hand to her side and she feels the warmth of it through the wetsuit. She leans in. He pulls away and he adjusts his own straps. She’s sweating though the air is only six degrees. Sitting down on the edge of the quarry, he pulls on his fins.
Dave rigs up the guide-line, securing the bolts to metal loops in the sides of the quarry. Amber treads water. Adrenaline pumps. She puts the regulator in her mouth and takes a breath, glancing at the pressure gauge as she does so. The barometer sticks slightly and she flicks it. She’s promised herself an upgrade soon.
They’re off. Dave descends feet first and Amber stays clear of the line that he’s releasing. She orientates herself, noting the shadow of a tree above, their exit point.
Soon the sky is replaced by water. She checks her pressure gauge. Deflates her buoyancy aid a bit. It’s about balance. Too much air and she’ll go up, not enough, she’ll go down too fast. Below her Dave pauses and she draws parallel. He gestures and she equalises her ears. He forms his fingers into a circle. Good.
This is what she likes the most, their silent conversation.
Her breath is loud in her ears. They pass rusted ladders attached to the sides of the quarry. Dave points to the right and she checks her computer. They must be close to the tunnel. She watches Dave move through the water. It’s unthinkable that last week he was inside her, her legs wrapped around his waist. She checks herself. This is not the time to be distracted.
He waits beside the tunnel. It’s less than half a metre deep and one metre wide at most.
Peering into the dark artery, she imagines it contracting. Dave puts his hand on her arm. He nods, checking the reel and releasing more line. It trails through the water above them like a kite string. He gestures for her to lead the way. Pushing her hands against the lip of the tunnel, she’s in.
His light chases the sides of the tunnel behind her. She flicks her head torch on and recoils. Red dust clouds the air in front of her. She can’t see a thing. It’s like swimming through stone. She turns her light back off. It’s an old tunnel made of old bricks. Dust is to be expected. She reminds herself of their plan and turns the light back on. If they reach the underwater pool, she can spin in fucking circles, stretch right out. She inches forward and her hand brushes slippery rock. The roof of the tunnel bangs against her helmet. There are names etched into the bricks.
Stones have fallen to the left of the tunnel and she positions herself closer to the right. Words loom up against her mask before she has a chance to block them. Help me. She rejects her negative response and draws deeply on her air. Not far to go now.
Her light beam falls on solid stone. The tunnel’s blocked. Forcing herself forward, Amber examines the edges. Brick against stone, stone against rock. Grasping the edge of a brick, she tugs. Nothing budges. Dave’s fingers are on her ankle and she turns. He shakes his head and points back behind them. If she could ease some of the stones from around the edges, perhaps the rest will follow. But what if the ceiling has collapsed from here on in? It could cause more bricks to fall, a cascading set of dominoes.
Dave’s retreating backwards. There’s no room to turn. There’s the echo of metal and her helmet hits brick. Her headlamp snaps off. She flicks the switch in the darkness. Nothing. Dave’s light is withdrawing from the edges of the tunnel behind her. If she doesn’t move she’ll be stuck in perpetual black. Feathers of panic rustle inside her. Breathe. Check. Equalise. Check. Pressure gauge. Flick. Light grasps at her fins, thrusting shadows in the water. It’s like being in a throat; like being swallowed; like gasping for air with a swollen tongue. In spite of all her therapy, claustrophobia pants at her back.
She forces herself to fast-forward to later, when they’ll re-live this with bravado. She’ll tell Dave that she loves him. She’ll hold his hand. She pushes herself backwards, fist over fist. It’s like descending into a pit. Water slaps against brick; her heart tick ticks.
The tunnel ends and she’s free falling in an explosion of grey. Dave’s hand is on her shoulder. He makes a circle with his fingers. Are you okay? She nods, fighting back tears.
He points up towards the surface and raises his hands. Retreating from the tunnel has cost them time. Caution is best, but this dive feels important. Today is a day for risks. Amber thinks of the conversation they will have later. She shakes her head and points down, then places her palms together. Will he say yes? Dave tilts his head. He knows how much she’s wanted to do this. He leads and Amber follows.
Ledges are dug into the sides of the quarry. They descend over rooftops, then windows, then doors. A sign sits behind one of the windows. Ground floor flat for sale. Workers’ accommodation, vacant for perpetuity. Beside the front doors there are weighted plastic gnomes, lined up in gaudy colours, peering into gloom. Dave checks his dive computer and gestures. They need to keep moving. He moves away and she follows. Lower down there are cranes and vans and cars. Sealed forever in the water. Despite the adrenaline pumping heat throughout her body, Amber shudders.
The light is more twilight than dawn. The guide-line a silver promise. Dave pauses at the next ledge. Amber moves closer until her mask touches his. Dave closes his eyes and puts his arm around her waist. They float, suspended, in watery embrace. She never wanted to be cruel. Her emotions recalcitrant to her will. She’ll make it better. He lets go of her waist and taps her dive computer, focusing his light on it. How long has it been since she looked? 57 metres down and close to reaching the maximum depth she can go. She checks the amount of air she has remaining in her cylinder. Checks again. Dave leans in and examines it. His eyes confirm her horror.
57 metres below the surface and she’s almost out of air. Dave wrestles with the neon buddy regulator and gestures to Amber. Stay calm. Wings of terror are expanding, pushing against her ribs. How did this happen? She thinks back to yesterday at the filling station, the buzz of the machine as she filled up her tank. What did she set the dial to? Dave trying to hold her hand and her distracted, intuitively obtuse. Him fleeing to get the latte that she never wanted, knowing it would take him longer. The hiss from her tank that she thought she’d imagined. It’s the smallest things that take you. A screw too loose; a bolt clipped the wrong way round; the refusal of a hand. An insufficient amount of air.
Dave holds the fingers and thumb of his left hand together and points them at Amber’s mouth. Out of air. Amber moves closer and gestures to his air tank. How much does he have left? He shakes his head. He points upwards then flattens his palm, pulsating it. Slow, they must go slow. He passes her the valve from his own air tank, holding it as she inhales. Two breaths each. Ascend slowly. Decompress. Panic the most lethal thing. They rise. She can’t calculate if they have enough air. It’s about trust. They’ve been down too long. The water feels heavy whilst they rise past ghost houses that watch; the gnomes in attendance, expressions twisted into smirks. Amber’s lungs threaten to explode and she minimises movement. The valve passes from him to her, from her to him. Buddy breathing is known to be risky, two people using up air at more than double the pace of one. Dave doesn’t let go of the valve. Many divers have fought to the death for the final gasps of air. Has she destroyed his trust?
Her head pounds and lights flicker in the distance. Amber laments not learning the constellations, Venus the only planet that she knows. She should have lived as if time was finite. As if it was the final show.
She was so close to telling him how she feels. The guide-line’s a ribbon of a shimmering path above.
They’ve been rising in tandem but now Dave’s hand slips from her belt. His movements are slow. He has the air. He could leave her. She wants to sleep. She exhales her last breath.
The grip of his fingers is fierce as he shakes her. He forces the valve into her mouth and straps his air tank around her chest. She feels bruised. Breathe, he gestures. She inhales once. Again, he signals. She inhales, holding the air in her mouth. Again, he signals and her body expands with this evidence that he loves her. She breathes, but nothing happens. They’re out of air.
Dave points to his dive computer. Five metres from the surface. Save yourself, he gestures. He lets go.
She’s not leaving. Grabbing his wrist, she pushes her lips against his and releases her final breath. She takes his cold hand in hers. Five metres to the surface, but it may as well be Venus. She holds his hand. She won’t let go.