Here I am again. They say that talking, talking about events from across one’s entire life, will make things easier. Yesterday, right after I left here, I cycled to Sandvig. I still remember how we used to go there together when I was little. A small, peaceful bay. Some sand on the one side, and on the other, toward the cliff, just flat rocks. I was always drawn to the rocks. I didn’t like the sand, it seemed so rough and scratchy. When I lay down on it, I felt like I was lying on sandpaper. But I had to lie down. For you. Sometimes you’d fall asleep, and when I was sure you were sleeping soundly, I’d move away and head for the rocks. There weren’t many people around, because the sea would throw up lots of seaweed there. First of all it would be slippery, green, and smelly. Then it would start to dry out. It would metamorphose from something slippery and pleasant in its way, into something faded, yellow, rough, and reeking to boot. You know, I think it was that smell that left the rocky half of the beach pretty much deserted. Pretty much, because from time to time I would be there, warming myself like a cat on those stones, and there would also be couples pawing at each other. Looking up at the sky and rummaging around in underwear. I watched them with interest and wasn’t yet able to understand what they were struggling with, the rummaging almost always accompanied by panting and squeezing, the whole works, Mummy, let me tell you. It was painful, watching them, and I thought that adult life must be really hard, and that when I grew up, I wouldn’t be like that. I wouldn’t put my hand in my girlfriend’s pants, breathing heavily. That’s what I promised myself. When I lay on the rocks too long, I became lost to the world, it was so hot. The sky was clear with barely a breath of wind, which happens quite often in Sandvig, even though there might be a change in the weather any moment. You woke up and came toward the rocks. For me. And, of course, you found me on some rock or other and demanded that I come back to the blanket on the rough sand. And I, of course, did as I was told. The only good thing about that side of the beach was that you could get into the sea without any difficulty. I learned to swim when I was quite young, but, you recall, my first adventure in the water was unusual and very nearly ended in tragedy. There’s some kind of jetty. It’s still there today, or maybe that’s a brand-new one, it doesn’t matter. Once, you were lying on the beach and talking to someone, and I went off along the jetty, all the way to the end, where the water’s quite deep. On that day the sea was utterly calm and looked more like an ice rink than something that might start moving in waves. There was a boy standing next to me, older and much taller. He was in a mask with a snorkel and had flippers on his feet. Then he jumped in and you could see just how much fun he was having under the water. I wanted to do it too. I wanted to jump in and talk to him. Under the water. So I did. When I got to him, I opened my mouth. And then things took a turn. He could see that I couldn’t swim, that I knew nothing about diving and that I would drown in a flash. He pulled me out of the water and onto the shore. I don’t know how he managed it. I must have been in a severe state of shock. All I remember is lying on the sand with lots of people around me, and you were there, of course, and you were crying out, “Breathe! Breathe!” Slowly, I came back to join the living, but it was really hard to breathe, because so much water was coming out of me. You automatically reined in my desires. The next time we went to the beach I had to parade around in a lurid life jacket, looking like a visitor from another planet. It was very uncomfortable and I was so hot inside it that I nearly died. But the most important thing was that you were sure I was safe.
There’s a large rock in Sandvig that’s been sticking out of the sea there for as long as anyone can remember. To get to it you have to know how to swim. I’ll tell you what it was like in my class—maybe you know about it, back then you didn’t, so listen up. So, in my class everyone agreed that the way you knew a boy could swim, officially, was if he could get to the rock. You touched it, you climbed up on top of it, and you waved back at everyone on the shore. For us it was a sign that you weren’t a child any longer. Swimming to the rock solo. You don’t know about this, we had to keep it from you. None of our parents knew about it, because if someone had found out, that would have been the end of our fun in the sea. When one of us was ready for it and thought he could swim, having been taught by his father or someone, then—and most often this happened in May, when the beach was deserted and the water very cold—the brave swimmer, his teeth chattering, got in the water and set off for the rock as fast as he could. Some of them didn’t manage it the first time. They thought they could swim, but they couldn’t really, so when they couldn’t touch the bottom anymore, they turned back, saying the water was too cold. But some of them made it, climbed up onto the rock and, freezing cold, gave a heroic wave to everyone on the beach, and then swam, with difficulty, back. Me, before I swam on my own to the rock, I got next to it a few times. Two or three, I don’t remember. When I had my life jacket on, you’d sleep soundly, so I’d get into the water. One day a tourist—he wasn’t from around here, he had a strange accent—he said to me, “Hey, kid, do you want to go to the rock?” Without stopping to think, I nodded and clung on to his back, and we swam there together. That’s to say, he swam, and I waggled my legs. The next time worked in a very similar way. A tourist, a piggyback, and I was next to the rock. I touched its cold, granite surface, studded with barnacles and seaweed, but I could never climb up on top of it.
You know, Mummy, I think I taught myself to swim. Wearing that life jacket. I remember that when I grew out of it, and I didn’t want you to buy me a new one, because I was embarrassed, I got in the water and simply started swimming. And what was the first thing I did, making you cry out in fear? I set off for the rock, of course, climbed up on top of it, and gave you a wave. Although you were a long way off, I could see that you’d taken leave of your senses and that if I didn’t get down right away and swim back to you, you’d come for me yourself and deny me my glory, scolding me before all the creatures of the sea. So my glory was short-lived indeed. Quick as I could, I dived in and swam back to you on the beach. And what did I hear you say? Instead of singing my praises, which is what a father would have done, you delivered a rhapsodic monologue of epic proportions on the fears of a mother, on motherly love, with a stack of prohibitions and crazy notions. But deep down inside I knew that, even so, I was great, and obviously I intended to demonstrate it to my friends. Our arrangement didn’t count during the summer holidays, so I waited until the new school year began to show them what I could do. I wasn’t the first to swim out to the rock on my own, but I wasn’t the last either. I got to the rock quite quickly, climbed on top, and looked at my classmates in the distance. Then I waved to them, and let me tell you, Mummy, although the water was already quite cold and the weather that day wasn’t great, I really didn’t want to get down from the rock because it was one of the rare moments in my life when I’ve felt important and appreciated. I stood proud and tall on that rock and I looked over at them like some kind of general, victorious in some battle or other, and I only jumped back in the water when they started waving at me and whistling because it was time to go back. And do you know what, yesterday I got in the water and swam to the rock. I stood on it, thinking to myself that sometimes it doesn’t take much for a person to be happy.
Excerpt from Bornholm, Bornholm. Copyright © 2011 by Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki. Translation copyright © 2023 by Jonathan Baines. All rights reserved.