Welcome to the latest chapter of my black comedy novel, The Nurse Diaries – The Life and Times of a Brighton Serial Killer. It’s an extremely sweary story, so click away if you can’t handle rude words. Otherwise, enjoy the ride!
The Great Escape
Remembering the bad old days
After Phil sank helplessly under the waves all that time ago, leaving her alone to battle the freezing sea, The Nurse fell into a kind of trance. No wonder she can’t remember all the details of her epic swim, at first paralleling the Scottish coast then down England’s chilly eastern edge, eventually making it to the south coast and the English Channel.
Sometimes floating, sometimes paddling wearily, the sloshy, nausea-making miles passed with terrible slowness. At night she’d turn over and lie flat on the water’s surface, bobbing along barely conscious with gobbets of sea water slowly warming inside her ears, careful to keep the land mass to her right, determined to protect her dwindling stash of energy.
Every couple of nights The Nurse would let the tide and the waves wash her ashore somewhere suitably remote. She’d wrap herself in sharp strands of marram grass – totally crap bedding – or dig a shallow scrape of a bed in the soft sand, or build a little wall of beach pebbles to keep the wind off her back. Then, before dawn rose, she’d lift her exhausted body from the cold, hard ground, force it to stagger to the water’s edge and flop it back in, swimming painfully out to sea until it warmed up and her store of grim determination lent her the strength needed to survive another fucking day.
After a week in the sea her clothing had completely washed off, turned pale and rotten by the spicy, rough, salted water. Naked, The Nurse found it easier to swim. One time a fulmar landed on her head, assuming it was a floating island, so she wrung its neck and ate some of it raw. Fishy bird is not a good flavour, even when you’re desperate, and she threw most of it back up, adding vomit, blood, feathers and fragments of bone to the already-oily surface of the frigid North Sea.
(As an aside, it is interesting to note that even if you have eaten nothing but fragments of seagull, your vomit still comes out like diced carrot. This is one of life’s greatest mysteries, maybe even a law of physics as well as one of The Nurse’s least pleasant memories. Years later, lying awake at night, safe if not entirely sound, she can sometimes still taste the greasy, feathery fucker at the back of her throat.)
Things became dangerously dream-like for a week or two as The Nurse gave up swimming and mostly floated past Bridlington, then Grimsby, then Ingoldmells, Skegness, Cromer and Lowestoft, Felixtowe, Clacton-on-Sea, Canvey Island and the Isle of Sheppey. By the time she’d drifted past Southend-on-Sea, made it across the great Thames estuary and arrived, bobbing weakly, parallel to Margate, she was no more than a mere sliver of a human being, a muddy thing whose mind had gone, who was feeling no pain, who was hanging onto life by the finest of silvery threads. At several points she thought she’d died. And then came Dover, and her beloved English Channel, and after that her first glimpse of France’s own shining white cliffs.
With only the slim Strait of Dover left to navigate, The Nurse felt she might be in with a chance. Either that or she’d finally drown. Frankly, by this stage she didn’t give much of a toss. But the human spirit is astonishingly resilient and even actually wanting to die doesn’t necessarily mean your body will obediently give up the ghost.
It was with some surprise that The Nurse raised her exhausted head that long ago day, discovered she’d been washed up on a beach, and realised she was in France. She was even more surprised when an odd sort of chap turned up and decided to rescue her.
Merci, derriere de la plage!
The Nurse wasn’t exactly a native speaker. She only knew schoolgirl French. But she soon cobbled together a name for her odd-looking rescuer, inspired by his large and fascinating collection of beach detritus. If ‘un derriere de la plage’ isn’t proper French for ‘Beach Bum’, it did just fine and it broke the ice, bringing a wide grin to the man’s toothless mouth.
The beach bum steered The Nurse gently to his hovel and sat her down. He fed her, and gave her a bed to sleep in. A few days later she sat up and looked around. She was feeling better.
It proved pretty restful living with someone who can’t speak. On day two the Beach Bum opened his mouth in response to The Nurse’s first halting French language question to reveal a messy blackened hole where his tongue should be. She smiled back and patted his hand kindly. It didn’t matter. Who needs words when there’s a good supply of fresh seafood, excellent weed, crusty baguettes from the nearby town of Dieppe, a warm bed of straw, and endless bottles of strong, rough red wine, the kind of wine that’s designed for swigging, not sipping.
The man’s simple beach hut felt like the ultimate in luxury after almost four solid weeks immersed in cold salty water. It took a while for her waterlogged, unpleasantly loose skin to grow back, and oddly enough it grew back in beautiful condition: smooth and plumped-up, glowing and dewy. Her poor bald head took longer to fix, but fresh new hair grew back lush and wavy over the long, lazy months she shared a home with the Beach Bum.
When she caught her own reflection one morning in an old car mirror the Beach Bum had hung outside his hut, she was amazed. She looked younger and fitter than she had for years. Maybe it was something to do with being immersed in seawater for twenty seven days. Fuck knows.