What the water took

Nonfiction / Annabelle Carvell

People don’t seem to have conquered grief like they have water. Perhaps it’s because of how much of us is made up of water; how it’s intrinsic to our bodies, our self. Water’s a little brother chasing us into shore. It teases our toes, makes the ground glitter. We pretend we’re fish, diving deep, deep, down into the ultramarine to tangle with bubbling stripes and pulsing plants that don’t belong to us. Somehow, we’ve made it ours; we think we’ve conquered it. But grief makes us close up like oysters, protecting precious pearls with our outer shell. It’s a secret and it’s ours and it’s not right to talk about the dead or dying because it’s not appropriate and we don’t know how to do it. But I want to. Grief crashed white river marbles against my ribs until there was no more room for bruising.


70% of the human brain is water.


When we heard Tim was missing, I imagined him hitchhiking down dusty Sri Lankan roads with dim yellow light and the noise of motorcycles bleeding into dark skies. Until the sound was punctured: accident. River. Out of reach. The scene changed: a crowd of people and the throng of voices crashed and babbled like the river behind them but no one ever noticed that he was right there, and it was all mixed up in the panic. That’s what I had hoped; the human brain’s capacity to rationalise and fabricate a story to suit wishful thinking. Hopes and dreams swirling in 70% water.

“Maybe you should see if anyone has heard from him?”

“I don’t want to worry people.”

My boyfriend and I didn’t send each other our usual goodbye messages, and I fell asleep with images flashing ochre. He called me the next morning. Just seeing his number up on the screen confirmed there was news and I didn’t want to hear it. Tim was dead.


It wasn’t long after Tim’s death that I began to obsess about water, about drowning. Underwater, the body accumulates carbon dioxide. This gas stimulates you to feel the need to breathe. You involuntarily draw in breath. I was seeing it everywhere—submissions for the magazine I run, poems I discovered online, programmes on TV. Everything seemed to remind me of the sea and when I saw the sea or the river it reminded me of Tim underneath it. I grew an obsession for reading and writing about water, and all the while this little oyster pearl behind my ribcage grew.

One of the hardest things about this grief was, and still is, the unknown—where was he? What did it look like over there in Sri Lanka, and why did he drown? What exactly happened?

This grief was angry and isolating; you can never begin to understand unexpected death. My friends, my boyfriend, were all 200 miles away, and Tim’s body was in another country. It was hard not to imagine what a body looked like underwater. It was hard not to imagine what it looked like out of water afterwards.


A person can live about a month without food,
but only about a week without water.


We sat near the front in a church that I’d never been in, with people I’d never met. I felt like an imposter; I didn’t know his family or most of his friends and the church walls were groaning with the weight of grief that hung in the air from so so many people. Tim knew so many people. It’s strange to think about how much I cried because all that water we need to cry, to swallow, to survive—as much as we need it to survive, it so easily killed him. Minutes with too much water.

In the centre, directly in front of the altar, was his violin. He was twenty-four.

After the service, we went to his favourite pub and drank cider and laughed, and as we got drunk we cried. We talked. We opened up and shared our stories and for just one moment lost our inhibition and desire to protect those little pearls. It felt good to talk about his favourite bands, about the stupid things he’d done. How he could play any instrument he picked up, how he was the only person I knew other than myself that’d sing a second part to any song. It felt good to say we missed him.


1 apple requires 18 gallons of water to grow.


It was hard to allow ourselves to have fun. For months, there was always someone missing on invitations. No one talked about what happened.

We went on camping trips and kayaked in the sea and all the while we shouted at each other to be careful on those rocks. What we were really doing was pleading with one another, saying in not so many words: Tim drowned—please don’t let us lose you too. We stood in wobbly lines at festivals, felt the pulse of happiness and music in the air and thought: if only Tim could see this.


A year after his death, his girlfriend organised a get-together. Not all of us attended; it didn’t feel right, we were scared to see her. But we went.

Tim loved cider almost as much as he loved music. Together, we planted several apple trees in an orchard, plus one oak tree. His girlfriend’s dream was that as the rain soaked the valley and apple trees grew, we’d be able to gather each year and make cider. We’d watch flames flicker deep into the night, the smell of hot apples and smoke in our clothes and in the wood of our guitars. We all knew deep down that he’d have liked that.


They said he died because he was jumping into the water to save his girlfriend, hit his head on jagged rocks and didn’t resurface. Went missing, and was dragged from a shallow river the next morning with his last breaths soaked in river. I couldn’t shake this for months.

But when I think about Tim now, I think less about what the water took. I think of life and laughter and a kindness so indescribable that there’s no better way to remember him than through the music he loved so much. In chords and starlight, and tapping our fingers on cider percussion. In sharing oyster pearls on Sidmouth beach, just like we did that time as we watched fireworks in front of the moon.

Annabelle Carvell has been shortlisted for the 2012 Cinnamon Press Short Story Prize and has work published in Litro Magazine, pioneertown, CHEAP POP, Coal Magazine, Lime Hawk amongst others. She also runs literary magazine, Synaesthesia, which fills her evenings with colour splashes.