Well baptism - Honor Frost
There were six meters of black water above my head and I sucked air through a mouthpiece, connected by hose to a pump on the surface. Sometimes I forgot and breathed through my nose which meant drawing out the negligible quantity of air in my suit as opposed to the supply to my mouth. A full moon shone on the snow-covered garden, but I was not conscious of that world. This first crazy experiment reduced the act of diving to its essentials. My mind was confused neither by exotic surroundings nor the beauties of subaqueous light and landscape, for the baptism took place in a well in Wimbledon.
I had been invited to try a suit, of the type used for shallow-water work during the war. It was entered legs first through a hole in the belly, this orifice being surrounded by an 'apron' of soft rubber. The final touch was to gather the 'apron' in a bunch in the left hand and close it with an elastic band, like fixing one's own umbilical cord. After the visor had been screwed down and lead hung round my neck I climbed into the well holding a watertight torch.
It was not as easy to sink as I had supposed. The suit was full of air, which had to be let out. Those on the surface helped push me down with planks. Eventually bubbles escaped through a valve on top of the helmet and the heavy canvas closed in, welded to my body by the pressure of the water. A moment before I had been buoyant and struggling helplessly; now, for the first time, it seemed to me that I was free from the laws of gravity. Suspended in black water, I relished the sensation; the pressure of a finger against the side of the well was sufficient to send me up or down. In the silence it crossed my mind that no telephone could reach me here. The only moment of claustrophobia came when actually getting into the suit.
I reached the bottom of that well in a state of euphoria and sat, until I remembered I had promised to give four flashes to show I was all right. There ensued a Thurberian* struggle with the torch, which I had not examined on the surface. When the light finally shone I became so fascinated by my surroundings that I forgot the signals. Had those on the surface been nervous, there was nothing they could have done, beyond trying to draw me up by the rubber tube, like Degas' lady acrobat, who hangs by her teeth and a string from the Big Top. I touched the walls of the well, air bubbles, like quicksilver, adhered to the undercut surfaces. The floor was a cushion of dead leaves in every stage of decomposition. There were red, yellow, and brown ones in shiny completeness, while others were no more than fragile skeletons. Air came short and I surfaced; I was told I must, unconsciously, have changed over to breathing through my nose. I dived again. The second time a trickle of water ran down my neck, gathered momentum and filled on of my shoes. The leak was subsequently traced to a screw on the visor. When I remarked that I had only been under for a few minutes the first time and less the second, the man on the pump corrected me. He had been working for twenty minutes and a quarter of an hour respectively.
Later, when I took to the bottle and became a 'free-diver', one not dependent on the surface and joined to it by a pipe, I sometimes regretted this light suit with its hand-pump. A cylinder that looks like a bomb is not the easiest of travelling companions, nor is compressed air always available. On the other hand, at such tempting places as the 'ginger-pop' spring at Pammukale* and elsewhere in the Levant there is always surplus labour only too willing to man a hand-pump.
Glancing through jottings in an old diary, I find my first account of wearing a mask in the sea. It brought what Proust calls 'cette qualité inconnue d'un monde unique'* and happened just after the war, in Italy. It also somehow convinced me that time spent on the surface was time wasted, though the unique quality is apparent even to one who floats face down looking through a mask and breathes through a tube. I conclude from these jottings that it is easier to dive than to write about it :
“ Masked under water is like going home to a forbidden land. The body, being horizontal, is somewhere behind; out of sight out of mind. No module to measure by. Surrounded by creatures with which one can have no contact. Peace! Fish look coldly in the eye...are they larger or smaller than oneself? Suspended above a landscape of forests, massives and sandy plains. The forests sway, but there is no wind against one's flesh. Progress slow as in a dream. Like being drunk underground or in a smokey night club...no, because it's clean. Reluctance to raise my head; contrast of worlds too violent. Prefer steering by the landscape below. Things enlarged by a quarter because of mask. Not pleasant to feel like Gulliver. Nearest thing to life after death… “
Originally published in in her book of 1963 titled 'Under the Mediterranean', Routledge. Reprinted by kind permission of the Honor Frost Foundation.
Thurberian - the comic trials of ordinary life. From James Thurber, the American cartoonist and writer.
Pammukale - meaning ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish. The natural pools formed by calcium-rich springs in the north of the country.
“cette qualité inconnue d'un monde unique” - ‘ this unknown quality of a unique world’
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