but maybe island children grew up fast. There was another boy on board and a little girl who looked barely more than a toddler. Sarah trod water again briefly, looking over her shoulder as she wondered whether there was a parent in one of the nearby fishing boats, but they were all too far away to seem associated with the children.
The older boy chose a wave and paddled furiously to get ahead of it. The water surged behind the boat, lifting it up and pushing it forward. The small girl shrieked with delight as their speed increased but Sarah could feel her heart miss a beat. Sure enough, the boy’s paddling wasn’t strong enough to keep the boat in a straight line. It tipped sideways as the wave broke and to Sarah’s horror the boat overturned and the three children vanished beneath a layer of white foam.
For several heartbeats she could see nothing. The wave was spent. The fishing boats were still bobbing at a distance. The island backdrop looked like paradise and the lagoon was still. And empty. Sarah could almost think she had imagined the whole scene. Then an object surfaced from the still water beyond the waves. A smooth object.
The hull of an overturned boat.
There was no time or breath to waste on exclamations of dismay. Sarah was swimming for all she was worth now. She needed to catch a wave at the right point herself so that she didn’t end up on the dangerous coral reef that bordered the lagoon. Using the powerful overarm stroke that had won competitions in her school days, Sarah got ahead of the next wave forming and stayed with it as it carried her through the gap. The breaking surf pushed her below the surface for what seemed far too long and she shot up finally to catch her breath and start a frantic visual sweep of the calm water around her.
The older boy was still in the water, trying to help the younger one climb on top of the slippery boat hull. He was shouting and someone must have heard over the sound of the surf because more than one fishing boat was now heading in their direction. But where was the other child?
Sarah swam towards the boat. ‘Where is she?’ she called.
The boys both turned. Both looked frightened and neither answered her. Maybe they couldn’t understand her. She took just another second to check that both these children were clinging onto the boat well enough to keep themselves safe and then she turned, desperately searching the surface of the lagoon for any sign of the small girl. She would be floating...unless she was drowning, in which case she would be under the water and not on top of it.
Sarah dived and swam using a rapid breaststroke. Thank goodness the water was so clear. She could see the colours of the coral bed, the startling shapes of sea anemones and the astonishing diversity of the swarms of fish. There were so many fish it made it difficult to see anything else, in fact. Forced to surface, Sarah dragged in a huge gulp of air and then used her flippers to push down and reach the depths of the lagoon again.
It was harder to hold her breath this time. Looking ahead as far as she could, Sarah swam doggedly forward, unaware of the extraordinary beauty of her surroundings, totally focussed on finding something she couldn’t see. The burning in her lungs forced her upwards again and this time she had to take several painful gasps of air.
A fishing boat had reached the boys now and they were being pulled aboard. Another boat was riding the crest of a wave into the lagoon and Sarah could hear shouting from the shore. Islanders were gathering and some were running into the water. They would find the child with such numbers searching but it could well be too late by then. Sarah dragged in as much air as she could and went under the water again.
She didn’t swim forward this time. She stayed in one spot and turned slowly, scanning a full three hundred and sixty degrees, concentrating on areas that were obscured by the tendrils of sea plants.
And there she was. The little girl was floating just above the coral, looking for all the world as though she was peacefully asleep except that her eyes were wide open. Sarah’s heart lurched painfully enough to compete with the agony of lungs screaming for air but the surge of adrenaline was enough to propel her towards the small body. It was no real effort to take hold of the limp form and drag it towards the surface. Please, God, she cried silently, don’t let me be too late.
It wasn’t possible to do more than try a couple of breaths while she was in the water but somehow Sarah summoned the energy to swim rapidly to shore, towing the child under one arm. The villagers fell silent as she ran through the shallows and they stepped back when she laid the girl on the damp sand, opened her airway and felt for a pulse. A woman wailed—a high keening sound that conveyed the very clear message that they knew it was too late.
But it wasn’t. Sarah could feel a faint carotid pulse. She covered the girl’s mouth and nose with her own and transferred a breath. And then another. Her fingers searched the small neck for a pulse again and were rewarded with a stronger beat. And then the limp form of the child twitched. A dark tangle of eyelashes fluttered and her mouth opened. Sarah turned her onto her side at the gagging sound she made and then held the little girl as her body convulsed, expelling the astonishing amount of water that had been swallowed, until the vomiting gave way to a distressed crying.
Sarah had never been happier to hear the sound of a miserable child. She rocked the girl in her arms, knowing that she had tears on her face and a stupidly wide grin as she looked up to find someone better able to give comfort.
There was more than comfort to be found. Both Sarah and the children were whisked back to the village to be fussed over in an atmosphere of having been part of a miracle. Once the small girl was wrapped in a blanket and happily asleep in her mother’s arms, Sarah became the total focus of the islanders’ attention. She could understand very little of what was being said but it was obvious she had made friends for life on this island.
An hour later, with wreaths of flowers crowding her neck, a pile of gifts at her feet and an array of food and drink she couldn’t possibly have coped with, Sarah was relieved to see a new arrival at the village. Somebody had contacted Nasoya, from the dive centre at the resort, and he had come with a boat to collect her. There was no way she could have managed the return swim, quite apart from the pile of gifts. The rescue had been physically exhausting and the emotional aftermath had left her simply wanting to curl up and sleep.
Nasoya wasn’t the only arrival, however. Just behind him came two figures that Sarah had certainly not expected to see.
‘News travels fast in these parts,’ Ben told her. ‘How does it feel to be a heroine?’
Sarah extracted herself from Tori’s hug. ‘Tiring.’ She smiled. ‘Can you check on little Milika? She seems OK but she came very close to drowning and she may well have some fluid in her lungs.’
‘That’s what I’m here for.’ Ben held up the kit he was carrying. ‘I just wanted to check that you were all right first.’
‘I’m fine,’ Sarah assured them both. ‘All I need is a quiet spot in the sun to rest.’
A short time later the boat sped back to the resort island over a calm sea that gave no hint of the kind of horror it had engendered only a short time ago. Sarah sat quietly, still exhausted but very happy. Ben had examined Milika thoroughly and pronounced her none the worse for her ordeal.
‘It was a dry drowning, thank goodness. First hint of cold water gave her laryngeal spasm. I doubt that even a drop got into her lungs. She must have swallowed a fair bit, though.’
‘She did. I’ve never seen such a small child throw up such a large quantity of fluid.’
‘All she needs now is a good rest. As you do.’ Ben’s glance had only been that of a concerned physician, so why did it feel like so much more? ‘Are you sure you don’t need a check-up?’
Sarah turned away, flushing with something rather more than embarrassment. ‘I’m sure. I’ll spend the afternoon resting and I’ll be absolutely fine.’
When they arrived back at the resort’s landing jetty, Tori helped to gather up the gifts, which included a traditional grass skirt.
‘I can just see you in this,’ she told Sarah. ‘It’s gorgeous.’
‘You’ll be able to wear it tonight,’ Ben added.