An old man swims in his local pool; his mind drifts back to his youth and a fear of water.
He has been here a while. How long? He watches the sweep of the single-handed clock, which makes no claim to measure time in any lasting sense, and wonders how many lengths he has swum in his long life? Put them end to end, each twenty five, each fifty metre shift, and would it be enough to reach all the way across the Atlantic? Maybe. Maybe more than enough. Well, one more would do today. Who was counting?
At the shallow end now, he pauses for breath before the final effort, and looking down at the wrinkled skin on his arms and hands, between the distorted echoes of children’s excited cries, he hears a voice from far away:
“You stayed in too long! That’s why they’re wrinkly! Come on out now, son, the water must be cold. Come on then, you’re tea’s on. You can’t stay in that bath all night!”
It was cold then, wasn’t it, the school pool? Always so cold! It was like torture really. Baths were different. You could stay in a bath all night, if they’d let you, and it never got as cold. It was safer too, because you could always feel the bottom, and no one was watching! Well, only mum and dad.
Only time makes you wrinkly. He looks at his hands again and realises just how true this is. He holds his breath, closes his eyes, and pushes off from the tiles with his long, sinewy legs.
Gliding into the deep end now, and still taking long strokes through the past. So much is the same, isn’t it, the sounds, the smells, the moisture in the air, the chlorine in your eyes and throat? It is an easy place for memory.
Someone takes a dive from the high board. The almighty splash brings his limbs to a stop. He is dragged under by that noise, dragged back to the moss pool and the closest in life he has been to death. He allows his energy to drain and his head to go under. The world goes down two octaves; everything slows.
It was a birthday party, wasn’t it? A treasure hunt on the moors. It was damp. Must have been April, or October. Yes, October, probably. We found a sink pool at the top of a hill, in a crater like a volcano – a dark, Halloween volcano, with a thick green skin like a warty witch. The grown-ups said don’t go near, the bank was slippery, it wasn’t safe. But I saw frogs, didn’t I? I wanted to look. Then I did slip. Slipped under, head first. And I couldn’t swim. Not without my plaggy float! It was the first time I’d let my eyes be open underwater. I could see through yellow-brown murk the tadpoles stuck in the strands of moss; the pool-life dancing in slow-motion, disturbed by the hands that reached under and tried to grab the iron-heavy wool of my jumper. They will be angry when they catch me. I will be embarrassed. The other kids will laugh. Not because I slipped, but because I couldn’t swim out myself. It will be like every Thursday morning. Except it’s not cold here, and it smells of muddy soup. I’m not frightened of dying – I can see their hands, could reach for them if I wanted, but I’m watching calmly instead. There is no eye-sting here, no must swim, must be good. So curious how desperately they want to save me! I will make the effort, just to please them.
His head breaks the surface again, and as his ears and nose drain of water he is back in the deep end, so many years later. He is several metres away from the wall. He can push out and touch it in a few strokes - he is a good swimmer now, an expert swimmer now - but there is no one there to grab his hand. No one is waiting. No one is desperate. Not any more.
Yes, the chlorine stings, doesn’t it? It can choke you sometimes.
He looks at the patterned tiles in front of him. They seem to vibrate as the water ebbs and flows around them, making them somehow unreal, or pointless, at least. He will make the effort, just to please himself. He holds his breath. He closes his eyes. He sets in motion the last few strokes, imagining all the while that when he touches those tiles he will be reaching for the hem of the lady of liberty, a long, long way across the ocean.