I was reading of James Hamilton-Paterson's lost swimmer long before my latest arrival in the Philippines. But not long after that, on rereading his beautiful book Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds (which is one of the abiding joys of owning books), I was struck by the feeling that the swimmer was myself.
Hamilton-Paterson and I are similarly obsessed with the Philippines, its beauty and its sadness. Its beauty and sadness temper each other in fascinating ways. It was he who was swimming one day in the ocean close to his island of "Tiwarik", locatable off the north coast of Negros Oriental, a few hundred miles from where I write this, when he found himself separated from his outrigger. I have spread out his narrative just as he did throughout his book.
Meanwhile, what of the swimmer who lost his boat at the beginning of this book and was left all alone with his panic in the middle of the ocean? That he is here to write the question means the sharks did not get him. Nor pirates, nor fishermen. The engine he heard was another figment. After a long, long time his sights cleared or light rays unkinked and there, no more than eighty yards away, sat the boat. It was solid and unmistakable. It had the air of never having moved, of being practically nailed to the sea, while the swimmer immediately felt his limbs achingly heavy as though he had been on a long and willful excursion and had returned to his senses in the nick of time.
More mysterious still, regaining the boat was like putting on a pair of spectacles, for the low palm-fringed coast became visible exactly where it ought to have been. Ever since that day the swimmer has been unable to account for what happened other than by using a cryptic phrase such as that he fell out of one gaze and into another. He has made the visible a little too hard to see, even though his life depended on it.
Later, he decided the sensation had been less of being lost in the sea, or lost to the sea, than of the sea's being lost to him. He was surrounded by water which could have engulfed him; yet at the same time it was a sea which had receded in a way not immediately obvious, taking with it whatever was essential - knowledge, perhaps - for survival. For a long moment there was a boundary fixed around him, an exclusive zone of taint, while perhaps monsters did swim up unseen from the deep, sadly, to gaze at a pair of tiny white limbs cycling high in their skies on the very edge of space. Even had they eaten him the time of their dominion was past. Eventually the legs vanished and the swimmer made off, leaving silvery paddle pocks like fading footprints. The long subsequent journey, of think about the sea and the oceans, showed him he was treating them as something which had already been lost.