Free Swim by Evie Wyld
A companion piece to ‘Fast in Water’ by Josh Raymond
After mum’s first seizure she thought it was blasphemous to say ‘For the love of God,’ and so instead she said ‘For the love of goodness,’ forgetting she didn’t believe in God in the first place. I will have to book a flight back home. As I think this I am miming to Alastair Sands about how he needs to take his arm high up out of the water and over his head to get the power behind the stroke for front crawl. I catch a glimpse of my underarm and notice there’s a sweat patch in the grey oversized t-shirt that tents over my lumps. It makes me stop miming, but Alastair wasn’t watching anyway. I see that I’m wearing little blue plastic bags over my outdoor shoes. My tracksuit bottoms are an institutional turquoise. I can’t always have been like this – there has been a change somewhere along the way.
I wave the boys into a line by the side of the pool so that they can take one more dive before free swim. They all stand there stamping their feet and looking like they’re freezing to death. One boy, whose name does not come immediately, small and freckled, pale, the type that bruises easily, he’s got both sets of fingers in his mouth as far as he can fit them in like he’s holding his jaw on, but he’s just trying to stop his teeth from chattering together. The first set dive in. Some are streamlined, faces serious, poised, but some still jump with their arms and legs out in front, teeth clenched, like they expect the water to catch them.
On the phone last night, Amanda had been clear.
‘Look, this is no bloody good.’ She’d said, and I could hear her chewing at the skin around her thumbnail. It makes mum look at her like she’s spewed on herself. ‘She’s worse. A lot worse. This year has been hell.’ I think it’s the time delay that always makes these conversations more difficult than they need to be. We talk over each other and then wait too long before saying ‘Sorry’.
I have a memory of mum before the seizures. On the beach with the heat pushing down, wearing a polka dot one piece and no hat. She was sucking the brains out of prawn heads, wiping her fingers on her bare thighs at the beach, leaving trails of orange behind. She’d said ‘Cold beer, pink swimmers an’ no worries in the world.’
Now she uses the term ‘Frigidaire’, but she pronounces it frigid-air, like the Frenchness of the word is altogether too decadent.
‘Carol, fetch the chilled water jug from the frigid-air.’
‘What’s that miss?’ says William Mullins blinking back the pool water, his goggles riding high on his head. He’s pinching his nose over and over like he thinks there might be something there.
‘I wasn’t talking to you William,’ I say and am surprised to see him redden a little and maybe look hurt. To try and soften it I say, ‘I was talking to myself.’ Like that might be friendlier, but William scowls and pushes off from the side, a small float clutched between his anklebones to keep his legs high in the water. The soles of his feet are yellow. The lifeguard gives the thumbs up to a boy who fetches up a quoit from the bottom of the deep end.
‘Good technique fellah,’ he says and the boy swims away smiling, his lips moving like he’s repeating the praise to himself.
The last time I flew home mum had no idea who I was, but then I didn’t really recognize her either. Amanda had taken on the look of someone who did not sleep anymore and never had sex. And I had got fat, so we made a pretty unattractive group. Amanda did a good job of making things uncomfortable. She scurried around, straightening books on the shelf, pushing the chairs of the dining set under the table to mum’s protestations,
‘Mind the parquet, you’ll damage the finish, you’ll take the lacquer clean off.’
Once Amanda had made the tea and finished hovering, she sat down and crossed her legs in front of her, and mum shouted ‘Cover your ankles, for the love of goodness!’
Amanda looked at me then, and I saw that I wouldn’t be forgiven for leaving her. I will have to let her have what is left of her life. All those years ago when I told her I was going to England she sat down hard on the bottom step and jammed the heels of her hands into her eyes.
‘You can’t do that Carol. You can’t.’
But I did, and now here I am with plastic bags on my feet and sweat stains under my arms.
The boy with the pale skin that bruises easily has cut his shin pulling himself out of the pool. His name is Marcus Jennings, I nod to myself and go to administer a small comfort. Another three boys are stood around looking at the blood, of which there is a lot for a small cut. Marcus is not upset by it, he is squeezing as much out as he can.
‘Stop that you numpty’ I say, meaning to sound stern but it comes out like I’m angry, and I wonder why numpty was the word I used. I help Marcus up by the arm and walk with him to the entrance to the boys’ changing room, telling him to wash the blood away and hold a wad of tissue over it to stop the bleeding.
‘I will now fetch a band-aid,’ I announce, but Marcus has gone and I catch a sideways glance from William again, a look that says he knows my sort, and I think he may be right.
The first aid is kept under the bleachers, and there’s only the type of band-aid you have to cut yourself, but no scissors. When Marcus comes back, shivering and sniffing hard, I take a look at the cut. It’s not big, but there’s still blood coming out of it, leaving neat little plops behind him. I wrap the whole length of it around his shin and it goes around three times. It looks ridiculous. I get a frown from the lifeguard when Marcus walks back past him.
When free swim is over, parents start turning up. I’m supposed to tick off on a list those who have been given permission to leave on their own, but I know it’s only that William Mullins, and he doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop swimming any time soon. Normally, out of a sense of propriety, I’d call him out and tell him to go and get changed like the rest of the boys. But I know that when I leave this place it will be to go to the travel agents, and for now I’d rather this lesson went on for as long as possible. I sit on the bleachers and see the boy shooting coolly through the water, and I wonder how much longer he will swim for tonight.
Evie Wyld is the author of the novel After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, (Jonathan Cape 2009)