The surf on the reef drums a steady beat, the rhythm of ebbing tides the soundtrack to my night, the wind chimes its instruments in palm fronds that clap gently, applauding an orchestra.
I can see the frothy white lace that trims distant breaking waves, it is luminous in the moonlight. The sea is black. This afternoon I swam between tides, wearing a mask, back and forth in gin clear water, shallow and warm, watching gently waving weeds beneath me, tiny fish dart, clouds of polyps hung as dust motes might in bright sunshine. Tonight I am embraced by calm. This afternoon the sea seemed benign.
I shouldn’t still be here. At the beach. I should be far away back home in the west. And I should have written the words I promised myself I’d write daily days ago. I told myself sternly, there will be no excuses for not putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. Except in Emergencies.
So I have an excuse.
Tuesday evening. Amelia is six hours from leaving home to return to London. One last swim we say and we – she, Hat and I – take to the water. The tide is out, the sea myriad hues of aquamarine and bottle green. We wade knee deep then hunker low and we talk and we laugh and we watch the quiet beach and wonder when we’ll be back. The sun is beginning to tip over a western boundary so that long shadows stripe the white sand like a zebra crossing. It will be cool enough to walk soon and then we will crack open a bottle of champagne, to drink to holidays and family and the new year and then Amelia will leave.
Time to get out girls, I say. We debate the best route to the beach. In the event, it’s the worst. We crocodile walk on our hands towards the path we always take through the coral which can prickle with urchins if we don’t watch our step. We are slow, occasionally resting on our haunches, feet planted on the sand, crouching low in the warmbath water out of a nipping breeze.
And then Amelia says. Ow. And she says it again. Ow, ow. More urgently. Ow, what is that? I think, urchin? I think a toe stubbed on an unseen, underwater rock. I even laugh at her expression, I think she is playing, teasing, I think she is cryinglaughing. I raise her foot from the water to see. A puncture mark on her big toe is bleeding, not profusely but energetically. The blood runs. And the pain is building in intensity. And I think it is none of those things.
Now, now as I sit on my verandah, calm, watching the night, listening to a surf trimmed in lacy white, I cannot remember every detail clearly but I remember my daughter’s face, contorted with confusion and growing agony. We urge her out of the water to the beach. The tide’s turned and I am aware of water hastily rising. But Amelia cannot walk and she cannot swim. She seems disorientated by the pain, her distress is palpable and grows louder. A man on the beach looks anxious. Hat and I try to support her weight through the water but she is taller than both of us and slippery when wet. I can’t, she whispers, I can’t walk. We drag her then, me by her feet, Hat supports her head. But her distress grows.
Shall I get dad? says Hat who is beginning to looked afraid. Yes, I say, get Dad. He is swimming not far away. Hat gesticulates madly. Waves. Wades through water fast and carelessly, mindless of urchins and rocks and coral and whatever it is that Amelia has trodden on.
Amelia’s pain accelerates. She is beside herself now. She screams in agony. Her body arches back. It takes all my strength to hold this tall, wet girl above the water, cradling her, telling her it will be OK, I’m getting help. My mind isn’t clear. I only know there are no snakes in our seas. That’s all I can think. What else can this be. I can’t think. I know it’s bad but I can’t think. I hold her. And it is hard to hold her in this quickening tide. Her body is convulsing with muscle spasms. She is terrified. I tell her over and over, it’ll be ok. She is warm still and that is good, her colour is good and that is good. A guest rushes to the water noticing our distress, he is a doctor as is his wife, he feels her pulse, ‘fast but that’s to be expected’. I see the flicker of concern pass between them. Anthony is with us now. He knows immediately that this is serious. He runs for the car, and brings it as close as he can to the beach. I hold Amelia in the water, ‘what is it mama? why won’t the pain stop mama, what is it mama?’. I don’t know. I can’t answer either question. I feel panic rising. For a single awful second I wonder, will I lose my precious, beautiful daughter in this lovely place, the place that my children call home, that their dad calls home. I know I will hate if forever if I lose my girl here. I push the thought from my head.
Then people are helping us to lift Amelia from the water, four men carry her to the car, writhing and crying in pain. I run up the beach, slowed by sand and panic so that my chest is too tight for air. My tongue has stuck to the roof of my mouth. Fear. I throw a pair of shorts and a shirt over my wet costume, I grab a towel for Amelia and then we are in the car, she, Ant and I, speeding to hospital. Recklessly. Ant weaves through tuktuks and drives vehicles off the road. Our car is big, a menacing roo bar at the front ploughs the way forward.
I hold Amelia tight all the way, all 20 minutes of it. She is hysterical with pain, I beg her to breath, she arches her back and then her head tips forward and her eyes roll up and I shake her and beg, ‘breathe Melie, breathe’. And I repeat as a mantra, ‘it’s ok my baby, it’s ok my baby, it’s ok my baby girl’. And she is not a baby girl, she is a woman of 23 and none of this is OK. I have never been so afraid in my life.
When we get to the hospital she is bundled into a wheelchair, in her bikini, a towel around her waist, a t-shirt damply thrown over her head to preserve some modesty and warmth. We are surrounded by worried faces, a doctor, two, and Amelia begs, continues to beg, ‘make it stop, please, please make the pain stop’.
They try lidocaine shots in her foot, for a brief three minutes there is respite and I see relief flood her face, ‘oh thankyouthankyouthankyou’ and then it’s back, whatever appalling agony it is that is consuming her, it’s back in a matter of brief minutes. Morphine. Pethidine. Nothing works. Finally they haul in the anaesthetist who tries to establish from my daughter, strung with pain but trying to comply, ‘where is the pain? where does the pain stop’. she motions to the top of her foot – the pain is climbing, her thigh is beginning to throb – and they draw a line with a pen at the place where the pain stops and then they puncture the line with shots of nerve blocker and finally, finally there is some relief. She can breathe. I can too.
A stone fish they pronounce. There, in her big toe, the telltale black puncture mark is clearly visible. IV lines are strung up about her bed, cortisone, pain relief, antibiotics flood her system to combat the venom. Stonefish are the most poisonous creatures in the sea. They lie in wait, sluggish and ugly, like some monstrous, mythical, prehistoric species that time has forgotten and only remembers when some poor soul stands on one. At the hint of trouble they raise their dorsal fin as a lethal fan, threaded with 13 spines, like hypodermic needles, and inject their venom deep. They are nicknamed the King of Pain, fishermen have attempted to amputate their own limbs to escape the agony, people have drowned because of the incapacitating pain that has hobbled them.
Amelia would have drowned had Hat and I not been with her to drag her from that evening’s rising tide. It is hard to write those words.
That first night in hospital we work on managing her pain, she cries a bit, she hallucinates alot, she even laughs drunkenly and tells us all she loves us in a sleepy slur. Hat’s face floods with relief when she sees her sister. She laughs and she cries a little bit more.
But the next day a fever builds and the swelling begins and her foot wears a hot red sock of growing infection. By evening the sock is pulled higher and her skin is flushed sunburn red by a rising temperature. A second antibiotic is introduced. Marine injuries can grow dangerous bacteria fast.
She lies in her hospital bed for four nights and I doze fitfully on the couch beside her and track the nurses that come and go and change drugs and then IV lines as her veins become inflamed with medication and venom and fever and her own distress. She is pitted with puncture marks, blue with bruises and all the while her foot swells. Somebody mentions gangrene. Only days before we had laughed at losing a big toe, losing a big toe because she’d stubbed it so badly, ‘you won’t be able to wear flipflops’ jokes her dad and suddenly my single ambition for my daughter is that she will always be able to wear flip flops. Alot of people talk about celllulitis. I talk to specialists at a big city hospital, to understand the best drug regime to contain this mounting infection.
But I don’t consult the internet. I don’t want to know how bad this could have been. How bad it may still become. I focus on Amelia. I watch her nurses like hawks. I photograph her foot and her toe endlessly, scrutinizing the images for signs of change, I gaze at her pale face as she sleeps, her long dark hair fanned out and I cannot think about what might have happened had we not been with her in the water.
And I lie and stare at the nicotine yellow that is cast by the security lights outside the hospital and I feel the knot of tension and worry that has wound itself up from my shoulders and into the base of my skull and I can’t get comfortable so I get up again and I place a palm on her brow and will the infection to subside.
And suddenly, quite suddenly, the heat in her foot dissipates, her colour returns to normal, her complexion no longer bears the sheen of fever. And we are home, back on the beach.
She is a long way off being well. She is weak and sore and she still can’t walk. Her toe is hard and blackening and swollen. The doctors have warned recovery could take weeks. But I can breathe again. Slowly I feel it is safe to tell a story, this story. With this ending. I can dip into the ether – my nosy default position as journalist – to take a peek at how much worse this could have been: she could have been stung on a more vulnerable part of her body – higher up could have implicated more organs, created respiratory problems, cardiac arrest even.
She could have been alone in that rising tide.
It is rising now, as I write, the distant rumble of surf crashes closer. I stand from where I am curled on the verandah in the dark and tiptoe into my room. My daughter is fast asleep in the double bed I have insisted we share for now, so that I can have her close, so that I reach out in the dark and place my palm on her brow and reassure myself that she is cool and that the infection is being held at bay.
So that I can reassure myself that she is here.