LADY PRUDENCE PERFORMS A SWALLOW DIVE
Jellicoe could not have seen his daughter
that day in Madeira, but if he had been witness
to her stillness and exactitude above water,
he might have recalled the panic and distress
of those aboard the 'Queen Mary', 'Indefatigable', 'Nomad'
and how they flailed their arms and dived into the cold off Jutland,
how the smoke consumed them and their comrades,
how there was no time to contemplate or plan
an intricate manoeuvre like the one upon the cover page
of 'Tatler' with Prudence in both swimsuit and bathing cap
diving below Reid's Hotel, the cliffs and crags a stage
for her performance. No need to agitate or flap,
unlike those seamen on the dreadnoughts,
there would be maid-servants racing round with towels
making sure her trembling skin was warm and wrapped.
Let us be fair. Prudence wrapped others in her care,
those trembling girls who had plunged within their youth
for half-truths, salt-tinged tales of seamen;
spinsters too turned giddy by stories men might bear
to draw loneliness or beauty to their beds.
She possessed compassion very few could find
back then when women confessed they'd dived
and swallowed lies and legends. The poise and judgment
shown that day in Funchal, below Reid's hotel
revealing grace within her, one that served
both her and others well.
It was an age for diving, an attempt to defy
the gravity and weight
overwhelming older siblings
who'd seen friends and comrades die,
when Scott and Zelda arched their naked backs
and leapt off cliff or springboard,
arms braced like blades
as muscle prepared for the impact
of water, imitating, perhaps, that yodel
Weissmuller bellowed in the jungle,
soprano, alto, hog-caller
melding in his Tarzan call.
There was no such cry from Prudence's lips.
Instead silence in that moment of suspense,
elegance and freedom
stretching from toes to finger-tips,
water crashing against breasts and thighs
as into its depths she slipped ...
Donald S Murray is from Ness in the Isle of Lewis. A former teacher now living in Shetland, he has published a number of books and is a winner of the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and the Jessie Kesson Writing Fellowship. He obtained a Creative Scotland travel bursary for researching a non-fiction book about the herring industry – Herring Tales; How The Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste And History (Bloomsbury). This received wide-ranging and positive reviews in a number of outlets, including the Spectator, Economist, Geographical, and BBC Countryfile and was chosen as one of the best nature books of the year in the Guardian. A revised and updated version of his book Italian Chapel, Orkney was published by Birlinn in May of this year. He is currently completing a book about the moorlands of Northern Europe.
In November 2015, he was one of the Scottish writers – including the late William MacIlvanney, James Robertson and Jenny Fagan – chosen to represent the country at the Pisa International Book Festival in Italy.
This year he went on holiday to Madeira, where he encountered the story of Lady Prudence Jellicoe.