Short stories

Treading Water by Jane Ayres

Annie dipped her foot in the water, tentatively at first, then relaxing as the comforting warmth seduced her body.  For once, it was the right temperature.  She glanced at the clock.  It was just seven am.  No competitive lane swimmers, splashing, causing ripples in the water. Today it was tranquil.   She intended to manage twelve lengths this time.  Annie pushed away from the side of the pool and started to count. 

Her breast stroke was slow, leisurely.  She’d learned to swim when she was eight, in a freezing outdoor pool at school, using white polystyrene floats. At first, she needed the props, the water wings, rubber arm bands until she had the confidence to trust her own arms and hands.  Annie took longer than most but she got there in the end.  A slow learner, her teacher said, but once she’d grasped it, she didn’t forget.

Annie had to take a rest between lengths, to catch her breath.  Swimming would be good for her, the doctor had said, and he’d been right.  Last week, she’d managed a trip to Broadstairs, even a walk on the beach. 

Whenever she swam, Annie recalled annual family holidays by the sea, with her Mum, Dad and younger brother, Chris.  She remembered the sun on her skin, soft sand, blue sea.  Floating.  She was impressed at the way her father managed to swim backstroke without getting his hair wet.  She could never figure out how.  Now, many years on, she, too, could swim without getting her hair wet.  She smiled ironically.

She remembered a hot, sweaty August, when she was twelve, and
an invasion of flying red ants that swarmed out of the cracks in the pavement.   They would take sandwiches to the outdoor town pool, she and her brother, Chris.  He could dive, from the deep end.  But not Annie. Too scared.  Her head might crack on the bottom.  Or she would belly flop, hit the water with her stomach.  It could split open, she’d heard. But Annie could swim underwater, for ages, holding her breath, her pale blue eyes wide open. She’d pretend to be a mermaid, swimming like a fish in a sea green dress, her flowing hair decorated with glittering seaweed.  Only she wore a bathing cap.  Otherwise you could pick up things from the pool, her friends said. It was white rubber, like a second skin, but so tight it hurt and when you took it off, it left a red mark around your forehead that lasted ages.

Later, when they left clutching wet towels, she and Chris would stop at the chocolate machine before catching the bus home.  Her hands would be white, wrinkled, like an old lady.

Annie curled her toes around the lip at the edge of the pool and leaned back, letting the water support her as she lay there, relaxed and warm.  She was sixteen again, remembering her first love. They’d lie together on the beach, the heat in their bodies beyond the reach of the cool water.  We’re both Pisces, she said, the sign of the fish.  We were born to water. Later, she had lost him to water.   Tears pricked her eyes and Annie unhooked her toes, twisting and turning her body, pushing away from the side of the pool.  Time to move on again. 

She was halfway there, now.  It wasn’t so bad, after all.  Breast stroke had a rhythm, like gentle music.  Reassuring.  Soothing.

In the autumn, Annie walked alone on the beach at Dungeness, water lapping the shingle.  Shards of rain stung her face.  Cold and wet. Always cold here. Her clothes felt damp, smelt damp, her hair was plastered to her white face. When she returned, she sank into a hot steamy bath, luxuriating in velvety bath milk with sweet almond oil and a hint of gardenia.  That was when Annie discovered the lump.

She was getting tired now.  Her body was starting to ache. This water had too much chlorine, stinging her eyes. She blinked hard to stop the tears coming. 

Annie steadied herself, breathing deeply.  Her pace was slowing.  She had to distract herself from unwelcome physical sensations, not allow her mind to be submerged in thoughts that troubled her. Let her mind float, as it always did when she swam.  Allow the happy memories to flood in, more precious now than ever before. Gliding, her arms parting the water, Annie closed her eyes and pictured the lochs.  The holiday in Scotland was her reward to herself for enduring the first part of her treatment. She’d taken endless photographs, reams of film, but she was never able to capture the magic of the highland landscapes, their dreamlike quality.  She’d gazed at the mystical lochs, their water like glass.  Pure.  Clear.  Clean. Still.  Healing.

Her arms felt like lead, now.  Heavy.  Tired.  Too tired.  She wasn’t going to make it.  She had to.  What if she didn’t? What if she didn’t make it?  Only a few more strokes and the edge of the pool was in sight.  Nearly there. She had to do it, had to defeat this exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm her.  Fight it. 

Ten.  She’d managed ten lengths.  But no more.  She was afraid to try.  Annie sighed. The pool stretched before her, it’s length a vast expanse of unknown blue, waiting for her, beckoning. 

A young girl rushed anxiously over from the poolside, offering a fluffy white towel, helping Annie as she struggled to her feet. 
“Are you okay, Mum?”
Annie smiled.  It was time to give in, to rest.  For now.

But she would be back again tomorrow.


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