I need to build an island

I love my job, I do, and I know I’m very lucky to get up every day and go and do something I think is important and interesting, at least some of the time. But – of course there’s always a but – as time goes on, the time required to do boring stuff just to be allowed to keep doing the job grows, and of course you can still do the interesting things, but the only way that works is if you just work more. That’s why I started writing – to do something that was different, that the work couldn’t eat up.

When I was doing my degree, or my PhD, I felt like I was swimming between a string of islands. For work I swam underwater, looking at the corals, and the fish. Everything was beautiful, apart from when I occasionally got snapped at by a passing shark, and I learned all the time. And then I came up for air, had a look around, maybe got up onto an island and looked around and just lay down and looked at the sky. Eventually, I always wanted to go back into the water.

Now there are no more islands, and I’m not over a reef, I’m in the open sea. The water is full of sharks, but I’ve learned to bite back. There are beautiful new fish, deeper down than I’ve gone before, so I take a deep breath…

I surface. Wow, I’m twenty eight. A great age, still feel young, but I know who I am and what I want. I can keep my head above the waves, and the air is tangy and fresh and cuts into my lungs. A sliver of light moves below me, and I know I should stay up a moment longer, but I have to go down and see if I can catch it…

The next time I surface, I’m thirty. How did that happen? The sea is empty here, and the waves slap my head as I push to stay above the surface. The sky is grey and cloudy, and I feel cold, and I don’t see any point staying up here, so when I see a shadow in the distance – could it be a seal? – I duck under and kick myself down, down, down…

My lungs almost gave out this time – I have to take great, rasping breaths. I’m – what? Thirty five? Surely I would have noticed. Creatures circle below me, many more now, tempting me, but I’ve learned my lesson and I know I have to breathe. Stay up, I tell myself, look at the sky. Think how lucky you are to be alive. There’s a flash in the water and I just can’t resist, just one more, one more and I’ll stop. I duck under and chase the silver idea-fish down, deeper and deeper. I know I can catch it, even though there’s no logical way for me to know, I just have to push and push and reach out and grab it just one more push and it’s in my hand and I’m coming up for –

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