I can't remember how it started, but I must have annoyed my father sufficiently for him to throw me overboard. This was standard practice in my early teens and it usually ended in two scenarios: I would be allowed back on the boat or if not, I would plead with my mother to throw me a line so that I could be towed back like jetsam to the mainland.
I had never thought there could be a third scenario namely, overboard, no line, and good riddance. My heart dropped when I saw the boat sail off with my parents' back to me and my sisters waving with one hand and keeping back the laughter with the other. And when the boat's wine red sails became dots on the horizon, I knew they would never turn back.
And then it hit me. I had to swim to shore. There was no plan B. And from where I was, the bathers on the beach were the size of ants. I also knew that even if I could have made it to the beach, I would have to climb up seven hundred steps to get back home. SEVEN HUNDRED steps. I tried to push that thought away and concentrate on the swim ahead.
I had never been a good swimmer. I had no style and I found the breathing involved in the crawl too complicated. I figured I needed some reserve of energy for when I got to the beach for the dreaded steps, so I opted for the frog style. Or my inelegant version of it.
I tried to get my head round how far out I was. I had to break the distance down or it would break me. I settled for one hundred strokes. One hundred strokes. Stop. Count to one hundred. One hundred strokes. Stop. Count to one hundred. With each stop, I saw the ants slowly transform into people, and after what felt like hours fighting cramps and panic (I had seen Jaws very recently), I reached the beach. When I got there, I found I couldn't stand, so I crawled out of the water like some primeval creature. By that time the sun was coming down, and there were only a few long-haired couples smoking and laughing or playing cards. Someone's radio was playing Supertramp's The Logical Song:
"When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily, joyfully, playfully, watching me
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical"
I tried to get my breath back and soaked up as much sun as I could. I massaged my arms, legs and feet as best as I could. I turned to look up at the climb awaiting me. On an ordinary day, I would have found those seven hundred steps a tough challenge but nothing more. On that late August afternoon, they were the Himalayas.
The only think going for me was that I knew those steps; I had done them dozens of times. But this time it was as if someone had tied lead weights to my legs and feet. And so I broke the steps down to avoid them breaking me. I climbed fifty steps. Stop. Counted to two hundred. Climbed fifty steps. Stop. Counted to two hundred. When I climbed the last step, I sat down and put my head between my legs. My heart and lungs were on fire but I had made it. The soles of my feet felt burnt and cut but when I examined them they were OK apart from a few thorns here and there.
I limped back home and found the back door was open. I crawled into a shower but couldn't stand up. I don't know how long I sat crouched in there, but when I came out the numbness in my legs seemed to have gone away. By the time my parents and sisters came back, I was sat on the couch pretending that nothing had happened.
The next morning, I felt as if a truck had run over me. And then had reversed for good measure. I walked like Charlie Chaplin and had problems lifting my arms, but for some awkward reason I felt good. I felt I had learnt something. And maybe I had. Maybe what I had learned - apart from not to test my father's temper on a boat far out at sea - was that you can take on any challenge if you can break it down before it breaks you.