The first in a series of pieces written to photographs taken by Nicholas James Seaton on our autumn/winter 2013 shoot in Canada. Each focuses on an element, albeit a new kind of element.

By Olivia Laing.

There was a summer when I swam in the sea every day. Sometimes I swam alone, but more often I swam with my friend Clare. Her kit included a hat and goggles, mine a pair of flip-flops that I'd tuck inside my swimsuit like a kangaroo. Neither of us was very happy at the time. We'd talk our problems over as we struck out for the buoys, tossing sentences back and forth between the breakers.

Because I was miserable, I took more risks than I otherwise might have. We swam when sea-mists had blotted out the horizon; swam in the aftermath of a storm, when the waves were smashing and climbing far above our heads. Just once, I got into trouble, when I got caught in the undertow and slammed repeatedly against the shingle, knocked down and dunked again each time I staggered to my knees. Some days the water was so clear that you could make out each small brown stone, the colour of loaves of bread. Sometimes it was smooth as glass and the sensation of movement was closer to flying than swimming. Out at the buoys we'd turn and see the ruined pier and all the city's Georgian squares, quaveringly redoubled.

All those swims - every swim I've ever made, in fact - are tucked away inside me like a pack of cards. Swimming on Dog Beach in Key West, where Tennessee Williams used to take his afternoon dip, in warm water the colour of Gatorade. Swimming in a rocky cove in Cap Ferrat, or over ruined houses on a tiny beach in Andros. Body surfing in Devon and dropping from rocks into water clear as jelly at the northernmost extremity of Scotland, where anemones pulsed red and pink beneath the lapping surface.

I lived by the sea for twenty-six years, but recently I moved inland. These days, the nearest coast is more than sixty miles from my house. I pine for it, I think. I want to swim out to the horizon, and hang there between the sea and sky: a native, suspended in my element. The shifting, unplaceable colours of seawater tug at my heart: now indigo, now turquoise; now electric and steel; now Egyptian and ultramarine; now the colour Yves Klein saw in his lost dreams of flight.

Olivia Laing's To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring are published by Canongate.

www.olivialaing.co.uk

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