The Isle of Sheppey doesn’t feel like an island – the bridge to reach it feels like just another bridge over a river. We park by a pub called “The Playa” that doesn’t instill much hope for a peaceful beach, and walk away along the promenade. There’s a long swathe of gravel, backed by a grey concrete path that runs off into the distance at the base of muddy cliffs. The sea is a flat and steady line and the sun, on a hot day, is slowly beginning to lower.
We pass a row of pastel beach huts with big verandas out front. We jump off the end of the concrete walkway, past some teenagers smoking by an impromptu barbecue, and walk on until the shingle thins out to reveal the chocolatey mud beneath. Cliffs, more mud than rock, rise behind the shore, half fallen away to leave raised rings at the base. Grass separates the collapsed cliffs, far enough away to be safe, from the stoney mud flats that meet the water’s edge.
I plunge in, determined after a long week to feel the wake-up of the water. It’s muddy, unsurprisingly. Soupy. The bottom squelches, rising up over my toes, through them even though I have my swim socks on. I can feel it shifting, clinging. Bubbling. I have to wade before I can kick off. It’s not cold, not at all. Maybe it’s the mud, but it’s almost warm.
When I can, I kick up and the fuzz clears from my mind just like I wanted it to. One way, the sun glances off the water, glimmers all that I can see. The last rays of the day glare and blur my vision. The other way, the water is flat grey blue and quiet. It’s not deep, probably only just waist height, but I’d rather keep my feet kicking than disturb the layers of mud on the bottom.
On the shore, teenagers are shouting to each other as they climb the crumbling mud cliffs. They are loud, their shouting sustained for some time, but from the water they are merely a minor nuisance. The sun is dipping lower still, turning the waves soft yellow. When the shouters move off, I swim the other way, blissful in the silence. The waves wash – the water is the only sound. I realise it is coming from me, the water washing up against me as I move through the water, my hand slicing it, my shoulders forcing a barrier. I stop still, barely moving, and then there are no sounds.