July 2010. A beach on the NW shore of Sardinia.
It was a perfect day. The sun was warm against my skin and the shushing of the sea lolled me close to the edge of sleep.
But the peace was to be short lived as a group of boisterous teens came running down the beach. Gangly boys, sporting baggy, low slung swimming trunks, hurtled towards the turquoise sea. Slender, girls wearing bikinis adorned with ruffles and embroidered flowers, giggled as they picked their way across the hot, white sand.
The boys ran headlong into the water and threw themselves into the waves. They swam a few strokes then rose, shaking drops of shining water from their hair. The girls followed along behind, high stepping over the breaking surf or stopping to reach down and pick up shells and pretty stones.
I was about to turn away when something caught my eye. Another girl was heading towards the waters' edge. She was not wearing a bikini and she was not skinny or lithe. Her bathing suit was navy blue and clung to her enormous body in unflattering clumps and folds. The suit was skirted and frumpy, the kind no one would ever wish to wear.
The Big Girl plowed through the gentle dunes, scuffing sand into the air. Her legs bent outwards at the knees, as if her ankles and shin bones were not up to the task of supporting her gargantuan size. Her thighs slapped together, trembling with each step and beads of sweat rolled from beneath the sagging hem of the ugly skirt. I could hear her huffing and grunting as she slowly plodded by.
When she reached the waters edge she paused and looked down. The surf washed over her toes, carving hollows in the sand beneath her swollen feet. She walked a little further out. The waves curled round her fleshy calves.
On she went, deeper and deeper until her legs disappeared and the skirt of her swimsuit rose and floated on the surface of the sea. She rested her large hands against the undulating circle of nylon and stopped to stare at the horizon. Her jaw was slack, and her eyes were glassy. Her resemblance to a bull frog sitting on a lily pad was unfortunate. She stood for a moment and let the water lap against her, then she launched herself forward and began to swim.
The Big Girl's arms reached out and back, propelling her away from the others with confident, even strokes. Her swimming style was neat and efficient, not like the untutored floundering of her skinny friends in the shallows close to the shore. She lifted an arm and rolled onto her back floating comfortably. From where I lay she looked like a whale. A seal. A mermaid.
The Big Girl rolled back onto her front and in one easy movement dipped her head and disappeared beneath the waves. For a second her ankles and her toes remained in view, pointing straight towards the sky, then she slipped beneath the shimmering surface and completely disappeared.
I waited for ten or fifteen seconds until I saw her reappear. She had travelled further out to where the dazzling water took on a richer, deeper hue. A few feet away from her a man with child was paddling a shiny, yellow canoe. The child's life-jacket was a brilliant orange, burning brightly in contrast to the cool of the azure sea.
The child waved. The Big Girl waved back. The child scooped up a handful of water and threw it. Big Girl smiled, and flicked her fingers, soaking the child in a shower of sparkling spray. The child laughed loudly and lowered both hands over the side of the boat. But the Big Girl was too fast. She curved her body and, swinging her arms up and over her head, dove beneath the narrow boat and disappeared.
The man lifted his oars from the water and pointed to a shadow circling above the wavering sea bed. The child watched as the Big Girl swam round and round and round. Finally, the Big Girl burst up and out towards the sky. Her dark suit shone like a sapphire and her wet hair dripped diamonds. The child laughed and clapped it's hands and once again Big Girl slipped beneath the waves. Next time she surfaced, she was swimming away. Her game with the child was over and the man rowed on, leaving Big Girl, to dive and twist and play in peace.
For half an hour the teenagers frolicked in the sea. The rail thin girls and the boys with shoulder blades as sharp as knives, leapt and preened and teased. And all the time, the Big Girl passed back and forth behind them. Sometimes she was as fast as a clipper, cutting cleanly through the large expanse of blue. Sometimes she lay, light as a feather, bobbing on the water like a yacht caught in the doldrums, just waiting for a breeze.
And then, from somewhere higher up the beach, there was a shout. The teenagers looked at each other, raised their eyebrows and sighed. One by one the waded back to shore. The Big Girl swam until her knees dragged against the sand, she knelt for a moment then pushed herself up onto her feet. Her bathing suit drooped low and a torrent of water poured from the hem. Her movements were clumsy and ungainly again. Her eyebrows pulled together as if she needed to concentrate all her energy and effort into hauling her bulk up the beach. Even the smile that had lit up her face when she had tumbled and rolled in the sea, dragged at the corners of her mouth and turned into a scowl.
The sea had changed her into something beautiful and free. But now she was back on land and in a world that tied her down. A fish out of water.
I think about her often.