Messing about in the water is best the thing ever. I took my nephew to a beach in East Lothian two weeks ago and we did his favourite thing: threw stones into the water over and over and over again. Then we paddled in rock pools. He splashed through them, waded through them, ran through them, until he lost his footing on the uneven bottom and down he came, clothes on. But did he care? – course he didn’t! He rose up spluttering, laughing at this new game of rockpool tumble. Being fully clothed was no hindrance to him (he is under two) and he seemed to feel no discomfort. I hadn’t brought a change of clothes with me, but the car was nearby and the air was warm, so he ran and splashed for a while longer, carefree, celebrating the glory of water. There is no shame in falling when you are that age, no fear either, no embarrassment in being seen playing on the beach in wet clothes. He has not yet learned all that nonsense linked to the fear of looking silly.
This weekend I am back in Ireland and, last night, myself and middle brother went paddle boarding. I stayed within the harbour where the water was calm and the board was easy to manoeuvre. When I approached the mouth of the harbour I paddled up to the rocks and switched with middle brother who paddled out into the open sea and across to the beach. ‘I’d love a go, Mister.’ A guy in his twenties, down from Belfast for the day, was standing on the strand watching middle brother as he floated in. ‘Would you mind giving me a turn?’ In he went, tee-shirt, rolled-up jeans, enthusiasm. He knelt up on the board, steady enough until the wobble came, which it seemed to take him over, like those videos you see of a bridge during an earthquake. He over-extended on one side with the paddle in an attempt to right himself, but he only managed to wrong himself and into the drink he went, splash! But up he came, roaring with laughing and he rolled on and off the board like a seal on a rock. ‘I’ll get the hang of this yet!’ He seemed impervious to the cold, and eventually he got back on, caught a wee wave that propelled him in, and he held the paddle aloft with a triumphant yell, not caring one bit about his audacious, unconventional style. Girlfriend was on the shore waiting for him. She wanted a go too. ‘Absolutely,’ said middle brother as he held the board steady for her to get on. She knelt and he guided her out until he was thigh depth, then gave her a push. She paddled in a gentle scooping movement: right, left, right, left. A natural, she looked like one half of Lewis and Clark heading up the Missouri. One part of me wishes she had stayed that way: in her comfort zone, dignified and dry. The other part of me is delighted by what she did next, the thing a child would do, someone who doesn’t care, someone who is having so much fun that what other people think of them is irrelevant. She stood up. Her tight Demin mini-dress wasn’t the best attire, but I think there were other factors (one being that she’d never tried it before) that made her teeter and sway and rock. She was a game of Jenga with that critical brick removed. The natural way to fall off a paddle board is sideways with your knees bent, but her fall was much more magnificent, it was that of a lodgepole pine felled by a master lumberjack: in a straight line, headfirst towards the nose of the board, steady and committed. And because she was floating, it happened more slowly, with plenty of time for her to narrate her fall, to literally lean into the joy of the capsize. She was so happy and joyous about it, she loved it the same way as my two-year old nephew loved his fully clothed dip.
When we parted, she came running across the beach with something in her hand. ‘We loved it,’ she said, ‘take this and buy yourselves a drink tonight.’ In a compromise, she said she’d give it to the RNLI, because, as I told her, they gave us as much fun as we gave them. Also, the two of them reminded me that that falling and failing can be much more fun than staying upright.