Howard Cunnell

writing

Extract from 'Forty Metres Down', from The Picador Book of 40 (2012)
picador.com/books/the-picador-book-of-40-40-writers-inspired-by-a-nu
.


Forty metres down in the cold, dark Baltic Sea, off the Hel Peninsula, Poland, feels as deep as forty miles. This is a dive into non-existence. The blackness that surrounds me is so complete I don't experience it as water, but as absence. Somewhere nearby is a World War Two German E-boat. Just moments before I'd swum straight into it, but now I can't find it again in the consuming darkness. I forget the wreck, the reason I'm here. From all directions the cold spears right through me, numbing my lips exposed and clamped down on my regulator's mouthpiece and biting into my gloved fingers. I need to get me and my buddy Nick out, but I'm fighting a feeling beyond panic. An increasing disconnect. A remoteness from everybody I love up on the surface world. My girlfriend and children seem impossibly far away. I know that if I just give in, accept this remoteness and stop this struggle in the dark, then the terror will be over, and I'll be gone. The first clear thought in a long time: I might not make it out of here.

More than ten years have gone since that dive in the Baltic, but it's never far from my mind, especially when I get together with Nick. I'm sure we don't always mean to talk about it, but after a few beers, and if there's no one else around, it's likely we'll go over it once again. There are obvious reasons why we do this. We are divers, and divers love to tell stories about dives that go wrong. and no dive could have gone more wrong, unless we hadn't come back.

I was a professional diver then, and my friend still is, so there's a need to break down the component parts of the day and the dive, the name and isolate the many mistakes we made. Mistakes that began in a waterfront bar the night before, if we're being honest. We need to do this because, panicking and narcotized in the lancing cold and near-perfect darkness of deep water, illuminated only by the feeble and refracted light streams from our torches, it was impossible to know or understand what the other was experiencing. I did not know, for example, that almost as soon as he was in the water, the heavy rope Nick was carrying had become wrapped around his legs.

Mostly though, I think we keep going over it because we haven't yet been able to say how it really was. There always comes a point, most often late in the night when the rum bottle has been opened, when we try and fail to tell one another how it felt to be so close to dying. I can't speak for Nick, but it feels important to try and find the words. If I don't, then a part of me will always be terrified and alone, forty metres deep in the bitingly cold darkness, with the awful weight of all that water bearing down on me.