Backstroke, short story by Amanda Hurley at Spillwords.com
Eduardo Goody

Backstroke

Backstroke

written by: Amanda Hurley

@AmandaHurleyNet

 

Harry dangles a hand in the water, it’s tepid to the touch. Tepid, she thinks. Now there’s a word not designed to inspire confidence. Like insipid. Or moist. A half-word, one that can’t fully commit. Te-pid, she tries the two syllables out again in her mind. Lukewarm. Warm-ish. Barely warm at all.

There’s a nip to the air this early in the morning. A sun promising more than it can deliver, its warmth hurried away by the constant nor’easter that’s whipping white caps on the swimming pool’s surface. There’s nothing enticing about the water today, nothing to encourage Harry to send more than a finger below the surface.

She’s dressed to swim. Hair tucked under a rubber cap, a curl of baby’s breath emerging unnoticed on one cheek. The school’s standard-issue one-piece swimming costume cut high at the chest and low at the thighs, shoulder blades separated by a single strap. She’s wrapped her towel around her upper arms for warmth but her bare legs are exposed, each of the soft downy hairs that covers them standing upright, affronted by the day’s chill.

The pool is empty at this time in the morning. Harry prefers it this way—to rise early, dress quickly and slip out of the dorm room where the other girls lie sleeping, soft breath still staining the air with acrid, gentle snores. To lift the iron bar of the gate and to stand for just a minute inside the fence, the pool pregnant and inviting before her, its surface shimmering malachite.

Before long, the pool will be a bustle of activity; the other members of the swim squad emerging yawning, rubbing sleep from their eyes as they prepare themselves for the hour-long pre-breakfast training ordered by the coach. She’ll be there too, Mrs Huddleston, her sharp whistle disjointing the morning air, as piercing and shrill as her clipped vowels. Crying “Girls!” as if they were seabirds, “Gulls!” not girls; gulls to be harried and bossed, prevented from diving away, deep below the water’s surface. “Girls!” and now often, “Harriet!”—her name cried as if written in both capital letters and italics at once.

At this time of the day, there’s quiet in the air and Harry can start her warm-up slowly. She’s not much of a swimmer, despite the squad and the meets and the matching uniform she shares with the other girls. Not any more at least. There’d been a time when Harry hadn’t feared the water. When she hadn’t minded the ribaldry of the other girls, had jokingly accepted the pushes and the shoves, the splashes and the dunkings handed out after every training session. When she’d been the first in the pool and the last to leave, goading her body into just one more lap. She’d felt the essence of the water then as a part of her; she’d barely needed to surface to breathe.

She lays the towel carefully to one side, baring her arms to the wind’s lapping chill, feeling its fingers find her neck. She stands and walks to the short ladder that drops into the shallow end. A few steps down and she’s standing thigh-deep in the water. She dips her forearms under, letting her body acclimatize to the bite of the pool, then uses her hands as dippers to splash sprays of water up over her upper arms, her breasts, her stomach. And then almost without thought—although she’s planned this, has spent yet another sleepless night preparing herself for this—she bobs down into the water, submerging her shoulders, her ears, her head.

Instantly, panic rises within her and Harry needs all of her self-control to prevent herself from shouting, from flailing her arms and legs in alarm. Her heart rate has skidded up. She can feel her pulse vibrating in her throat. With an effort that requires her entire will, Harry holds herself underwater, forcing her body to calm. She concentrates on the black markings on the bottom of the pool, leading like arrows to the deeper waters. She sees the dip of concrete falling away, the pool seemingly without end. Her breath is caught tight in her lungs, but she hesitates a second longer, pushing her body to accept the water’s constraint. Light-headed, she finally breaks the surface, gulping in deep draughts of air.

She’s exhausted now. That one short dip has cost more energy than swimming twenty lengths ever had. She leans back in the water and reaches behind her for the railing, letting her legs float up and the water suspend her. Gently, Harry pushes away from the railing and pulls herself back in, the movements of her body rippling the surface. She lays her head back in the water and closes her eyes.

The crowd is shouting, that much she can hear. Every time she reaches an arm up above her, hauls herself through the water, she can hear the supporters. There’s a row of little triangular flags above her now, the marker to tell her that the lap is almost at an end, and she pulls harder with her arms, deeper into the water. To her left, she sees a splash from another lane, knows that she’s not in first place anymore. And then she’s flipping around, pushing off with her feet against the wall, gliding under the water until she reaches the surface again, her arms already in fluid motion as she completes the turn.

Harry opens her eyes, momentarily confused as to the stillness of the pool. The memory had felt so vivid; she had felt the roar of the crowd vibrating deep in the water, egging her on. She’d won that race in the end, Harry remembers. She can picture the medal hanging from its ribbon, tacked onto the wall behind her bed in the dormitory, tangled in a mess of other accolades. She loosens her hands from the railing, positions herself so that her head is pointing out into the open water. The others will be coming soon, Harry thinks.

***

It’s a long climb down to the beach, down a twisting wooden staircase nailed precariously to the cliff. There’s quite a view though and Susanna has to be careful to concentrate on the rickety stairs instead of losing herself in the vista beyond. The horizon is hazy with the impending sunset, the first hints of burnished orange beginning to stain the sky. The faint silhouette of a seabird barreling down into the water. An oil tanker, far off to sea.

She’s left the kids sleeping in the car, locked them in from the outside. Placed the keys on top of the front right tire. Maxie, the baby, and Petey, who’s three. There’s no need to worry about Harriet, her step-daughter, safely away at boarding school. A picnic basket filled with food lies open on the passenger seat where Susanna hopes Petey will find it. He’s old enough to release himself from the seatbelt that holds him into his car seat, to clamber forward, to give his sister her bottle. Susanna presumes they’ll be discovered eventually, but she doesn’t want the children hungry while they wait.

She’s reached the beach now and it’s natural for Susanna to cast off her sandals, let her toes feel the soft grains of sand, still warm from the afternoon’s heat. The beach is empty in both directions; even the local surfers who normally come to the break have been kept away by the flattened seas. Not a breath of wind stirs. The air is thick, cloying. Susanna can feel it banking around her like fog. She pushes her way through it to reach the water, imagining the early evening as a gigantic hand, its fingers turning her back to the stairs and the car and the children locked inside.

It’s easier going in the water. The sea, flat as a pond, is cool, washing away the fine sand that has stuck to her legs. As the water reaches her knees, it’s an instant reaction for Susanna to dip her forearms, to accustom her body to the water’s temperature. It’s a gesture that feels so familiar until she realizes she has seen Harriet do the same thing a hundred times. Harry. Susanna pushes the unbidden image of her step-daughter away, blinking her eyes to rid her mind of the girl, standing knee-deep in the local pool, goggles perched on her forehead, droplets of water catching brightly in the sun.

Susanna wades further out; her light summer dress tangled and sodden around her thighs. The seafloor is rocky under her feet and suddenly her toes catch painfully on a sharpened stone. It’s enough to send her off-balance and Susanna falls forward into the water. In an instant, Susanna is submerged, the taste of the salt sea thick in her mouth. She’s spluttering as her head comes back above the water, the sea mixing with the tears that are beginning to come, her throat aching. Now that she’s here, this far out, Susanna is aware enough to feel the first tinge of fear.

***

Harry is swimming a slow first backstroke lap. She shuts her eyes against the drops of water that fall from her arms as they pass over her head. Feels her muscles beginning to waken, notices the stretch in her shoulders as she reaches behind her, tugging her arms through the water, her feet paddling gently beneath.

She takes her time, tensing her body against the panic Harry fears will come again now that she has reached the deeper waters of the pool. If she tried to stand here, she wouldn’t be able to touch the bottom anymore and it is that thought that propels her on quicker. That sense of being enveloped in water, of being pulled down under as if a stone was tied to her feet. Harry can feel her heart quickening again, feels a shadow of alarm creeping across her mind. She battles against it, concentrating on the rhythm of her arms, her feet, until the flags pass over her head and she knows she is nearly at the end of her lap. Without pausing for breath, Harry launches into the next length, forcing her body to comply.

Most days she can master this new terror of the water, conquer her traitorous mind if only she starts early enough, can gently work through her routines. Harry doubts Mrs Huddleston would be able to diagnose a panic attack, would even be able to recognize it for what it is.

“Harriet! Whatever are you doing?”

Harry can mimic her trainer’s voice in such a way it sends the other girls in the dorm into peals of laughter. Or she could, at least. It has been a while since she has been the one to initiate a gag after lights’ out.

***

Susanna is far out now; even if she were to turn and glance back, she’d shock herself at how far away the beach is, the car. She won’t turn though, this much she’s promised herself. She stays focused, fixedly staring out to the open sea as she wades.

She’s surprised at how long the water has stayed shallow, how calm it is. Susanna has a memory of this beach as deep and rugged with spiked, curling waves. She’d come here on one of the first afternoons she had spent with Albie. He’d brought her here on the back of his motorbike, a recent purchase; one of the trappings of a mid-life crisis—the leathers, the bike, the younger girlfriend. They’d sat on the sand, intertwined in one another, watching the surfers master the waves. It must have been around the time she fell pregnant with Petey, Susanna thinks, maybe she’d even conceived that night.

It had not been what Albie wanted, Susanna knows, falling so quickly into the constraints of a new family, so soon after leaving the last one. When they met, he’d been so full of energy, he’d swept her up along with him. She couldn’t help but be buoyed by his dynamism. He’d loved her youth, her lack of commitment, her ability to pack up at a moment’s notice, to head off to the beach, a weekend away.

There hadn’t been time to tell him of her recent depression, the months in the ward, the endless hours of therapy. And she’d felt different around him too, as if he was breathing new life into her with every one of his kisses, easing her mind every time he stroked her hair. She’d hidden her medication from him and after a while, there’d been no need to keep taking it. They’d been so happy.

She’s standing in the lift outside the doctor’s surgery, the doors closing, but Susanna finds she doesn’t have the strength to push the button for the ground floor. There’s a ringing in her ears as she leans her forehead against the display. Thirteen weeks pregnant. She’s thinking of the doctor’s red cheeks as she asked for an abortion, his double chin wobbling as he shook his head. She’s missed the cut-off by six days. She can’t move, is too tired to even pick up her handbag from where it has fallen to the ground. How will she care for a child when she can barely care for herself? She straightens only when she feels the lift begin to move, summoned to another floor.

Here in the water, Susanna pushes the memory aside. Pushes away all thoughts of her children, the first so quickly followed by the second. Their squirming, slippery bodies. Their constant cries for attention. The bags of pungent nappies, the utter boredom of the days alone, the unfinished university degree. The friends that have stopped visiting. The memory of Albie’s touch. More recently the nights spent alone, wondering where he is.

She thinks then of Albie, Albie with all his ties—the ex-wife, the house still demanding repayments until the finalization of the divorce. And Harry, his daughter from his first marriage. So poised even as a child that Susanna had been unable to resist comparing herself to her. That natural beauty, her flickering speed in the pool. The gaggle of friends, always telephoning and visiting during the holidays from boarding school. The long, tanned legs that Harry draped loosely over the back of the sofa as she watched television, hanging upside down. The hissing anger she had displayed as the fact of Susanna’s first pregnancy had become unavoidable. Albie, hurrying to comfort his daughter, the house flinching at the crack of a slamming door.

The tide is beginning to flood in. Susanna feels the quickening of the waters spiraling around her, sucking at the dress uselessly floating around her body. She’s walking automatically, the saltwater reaching at her shoulders, her neck, touching her lips. She’s in too deep to change her mind.

It’s not a last thought of the children wakening slowly in the stifling car that crosses Susanna’s mind. Nor is it Albie, with his deep brown eyes and his back already turned to her, the roar of the motorbike following him up the drive. Susanna doesn’t even consider herself, what she is choosing to do.

It is of fifteen-year-old Harry that Susanna thinks—long-legged, shapely Harry, naive to her own blossoming beauty. Harry standing knee-deep in the pool, splashes of water sprinkling her arms. Unaware of how suddenly her life is about to change, what courage she’s going to need. It’s to Harry that Susanna offers a last silent apology. For choosing Harry’s beloved medium, water, for her final goodbye.

***

The pool gate is swinging open, the latch falling with a loud clunk as the first members of the swim club start to arrive, giggling in pairs, or sleepy-eyed and solo.

“Hey, Harry’s beat us to it, again!”

“How’s the water, Harry, warmed it up for us?”

She flips onto her stomach, paints a smile onto her lips, pushes all thoughts of her stepmother back down, deep inside. Steeling herself, Harry takes a deep breath before waving a blue-ing hand at her friends. “Just breaking the ice,” she calls, hoping her voice is steady.

There’s laughter then and splashes as first one girl and then another join Harry in the water. Towels are thrown carelessly onto the bleachers, swimsuits readjusted at the leg. The whistle of Mrs Huddleston and the first barked “Girls!” of the day. The normality envelops Harry, shrouds her like a fist spreading into a glove.

She ducks her head under the water and swims.

Amanda Hurley

Amanda Hurley

Amanda Hurley is a New Zealand writer, editor and translator, currently based in East Germany. Her poems and short fiction have been selected for publication by Cloud Ink, Flash Frontier, Capsule Stories, Elpis Pages, Flash Fiction Magazine, Globe Soup, and Red Penguin Books.
Amanda Hurley

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