The dark water swallows me whole, pulling me under into blackness, dropping too fast. I cannot let the water take me, so I kick and flail. I push my body up. Water flows. Bubbles stream away. The sound of air and desperate splashes. The scent of damp night. And, at last, I see the inky sky once more. I don’t have enough energy for relief. Instead, I gasp and thrash. All I know is that I must move my arms and kick my legs.
Keep moving forward.
The scent of salt and seaweed. My throat, dry. Lips parched. Head aching. My clothes cling to me, heavy and wet. Cold. Shivering. I can’t think straight.
Eyes closed. A rushing, bubbling, frothing. Birds, wind, warmth. I cough, a dry, echoing scrape. Painful. Everything sounds close by, yet far away. My body is stiff. Numb. I can’t move. Can I?
Water rushes over me. Cold and salty. Like it wants to claim me. To keep me covered. But it seeps away, replaced by a mixture of cool air and warmth.
My eyes fly open.
A fuzzy brightness greets me. I see blurred outdoor shapes in beige and blue and grey.
My head is pressed down onto something cold and hard. Not a pillow. Not a pavement. Sand. Wet sand. Something presses into my temple. A stone? I raise my head with difficulty. And bring up a reluctant arm. My hand peels away a pebble. Tosses it aside with herculean effort. I cough. Retch. There’s saltwater in my mouth. Bile. Tears. Snot.
Please, someone, tell me what’s happening. I feel as though I’m trapped inside my head, unable to look outside. Like I’m covered in a membrane. Sealed in.
A muffled voice breaks through my panic. I try to latch onto it. But the incoming words slip and slide away – a flow of sound that I can’t decipher. I try to keep my eyes open. To focus on something. But neither my eyes nor my ears want to cooperate.
A snuffling black nose and a wet tongue. A whine and a bark.
‘Poppy, no! Come here!’
It’s someone’s dog. I still can’t focus properly.
‘Are you okay? I’m so sorry. Good girl, Poppy.’
I open my eyes once more and order them to focus.
‘Are you okay?’ The same voice, closer this time.
A face looms into my field of vision. I see a nose, a mouth, pink lipstick, glasses.
A noise comes from the back of my throat. But it’s just a rattle and a rasp. Nothing intelligible. What am I trying to say?
‘I called 999. Don’t worry. Poppy, sit! The ambulance will be here soon.’ A warm hand takes my cold one. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be okay.’
Will I? This person is here to help me. I know that much. That’s good. I can give myself over to the help of this woman. I close my eyes again. It’s too hard to keep them open. Too hard to focus.
More voices roll in and out like the salty water, like the breeze on my cheek. A wash of sound trying to break through to me. Part of me tries to resist the voices. Wants to keep them as a distant, blurring sound. Merging one with the other, like the waves and the wind. But a greater part of me needs to decipher the words. Needs to understand what’s happening.
‘Can you hear me?’
Another female voice in my ear. A younger, firmer voice. Her breath warm on my face.
‘Hello, can you open your eyes? Can you look at me?’
I force my eyes to open.
‘That’s it. Can you tell me your name?’
Warmth spreads over my body. Someone has placed a blanket over me. I’d forgotten how cold I was.
‘Look at me again. That’s it. Can you tell me your name?’
I’m staring into kind brown eyes. A woman in uniform. Her hair pulled back in a ponytail. I open my mouth to say my name. But then I close it again. My mind has gone blank. It hurts to think.
‘Can you hear me?’
I want to nod, but my head won’t obey. ‘Yes,’ I say, even though no sound comes out.
‘Good,’ the woman says.
‘Do you know where you are?’
‘Beach?’ My voice is a faint croak.
‘That’s right. Do you know which beach?’
‘Can you tell me how you feel, physically?’
‘Have you been in the water? Been for a swim in the sea?’
‘I think I was in the water,’ I whisper.
‘Are you hurt? Are you in pain anywhere?’
‘I . . . I don’t know. Sore throat. Headache. Cold.’
‘Alright. We’re going to get you up off this sand. Get you away from the waves where you’ll be more comfortable, okay?’
I close my eyes again. I’m scared. They’re going to move me, but what if my body’s broken? What if it hurts when they lift me?
The next few minutes pass in a strange blur. I’m lifted onto a stretcher. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be; my body aches, but there’s no sharp pain. People are watching. I’m awake enough to feel self-conscious. The woman in the glasses with the pink lipstick hovers over me for a moment.
‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘You’re in good hands now. Take care.’ She touches two fingers to my cheek, and then steps back.
And now I’m being moved. Carried away from the sea, across the sand. My body is still cold, but a warm breeze skims my face, the sun heats my forehead. I feel as though I’m floating. Light as air. The woman and the man in uniform talk to me, but I’m too tired to hear them. Their voices sway in and out, merging with the crunch of footsteps and the cry of the gulls.
The walls are toothpaste green, and the air smells of old socks and disinfectant. Stale and recycled like an overheated aeroplane. I’m sitting up in a hospital bed in the Accident and Emergency department, waiting for a doctor to see me. A nurse has already taken my blood pressure and temperature. The curtains are pulled around the sides of my bed, but they’ve been left open at the end so I can still see out. A teenage boy lies in the bed opposite, his mother at his side. I can’t tell what’s wrong with him. My thoughts are clearer now than earlier, my mind a little sharper. But my head still throbs, and I can’t quell the panic in my chest, the constant fluttering in my stomach or the tightness in my throat.
Nurses stride past, calling out instructions to colleagues. Trolleys clatter as medical equipment is wheeled up and down the ward. At least I’m warm and dry. They took my wet clothing, and now I’m wearing a hideous blue hospital gown. I tense as I hear a woman’s voice getting closer. Her accent is pretty, and I wonder where she’s from. Maybe Russia, or Poland?
‘The one from the beach?’ I hear her say. ‘How long?’
Another woman replies: ‘Only a few minutes.’
The women step into my line of sight. One is a young doctor in a white coat, her blonde hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head. The other is an older lady, a nurse. The doctor looks up at me and smiles. The nurse continues on her way.
‘Hello. I’m Doctor Lazowski.’
‘Hi,’ I croak.
She picks up a clipboard from the end of my bed and comes closer. ‘How are you feeling?’ she asks.
‘Strange,’ I reply. ‘A little dizzy. I have a headache. I’m tired . . . and a bit freaked out.’
‘Can you tell me your name?’
I open my mouth to answer, but, like before on the beach, nothing comes out. I give a small embarrassed laugh. ‘I . . . It sounds so silly, but I just . . . I can’t seem to remember.’ I run a hand across my damp and tangled hair.
‘That’s okay,’ she says. ‘Do you know where you live?’
‘I . . . I think. I . . . No. I’m sorry. I don’t know. How can I not know?’ My voice is trembling and I’m on the verge of tears.
‘You’ve had a shock,’ she says. ‘Just try to relax. Try to stay calm. You’re here now, and we’ll look after you. Okay? You have some retrograde amnesia, but with any luck, your memories should return soon.’
The word “amnesia” makes me catch my breath.
‘I’m going to run a few tests,’ she says, closing the curtains fully. ‘We’ll see how you are, physically, and then we’ll try and get those memories back.’
I nod again, hit by a wave of exhaustion. My eyes want to close. I feel the pull of sleep, but Dr Lazowski is talking again. I should try and concentrate.
‘Can you sit up, please?’
I do as she asks.
‘I’m going to listen to your heart and lungs. Just breathe normally.’ She takes the stethoscope from around her neck and begins examining me, first by placing the end of the stethoscope on my back. Then, on my chest.
‘Can you remember swimming in the sea?’ she asks, as I clumsily try to rearrange my hospital gown.
‘Were you in the water at all?’
‘I think so. But I don’t know. I remember lying on the beach, soaking wet. The waves were coming over me.’ I give a shiver at the memory.
‘Hmm, Okay,’ she says. ‘We don’t know how long you were in the water. I’m worried about a possible lung infection, so we’ll have to keep you in for a few days at least. To keep an eye on you.’
‘Is it serious?’ I ask.
‘Just a precaution,’ she replies. ‘We’ll also get you on an IV drip.’
‘A drip?’ I don’t like the sound of that.
‘You’re dehydrated,’ she says. ‘You need fluids.’
I close my eyes and massage my forehead with the tips of my fingers. What’s happening to me? What am I doing here? How on earth did I end up unconscious on the beach?
Why can’t I remember anything?