From WTP Vol. V #5
The Perfect Diver
By Elizabeth Stott
Marjorie swims, her blue hat bobbing like a child’s ball. She repeats her stroke like a mechanical doll. Don is standing at the shallow end, rubbing his hands over his chest and shoulders to keep warm. Overhead, through the glass roof, he can see hail stones falling, like the reverse of a water-ball snow storm. They could be sitting in front of the fire at home with a hot drink and a sandwich, but Marjorie insisted on going to Tuesday swimming straight after her appointment.
Marjorie tells him all the time that if he didn’t shilly-shally getting in he’d warm up sooner. Don is the only man at the pool. The place is swarming with women, as if women are the only sex on the planet, and he is a freak of nature. He remembers vaguely that certain species of fish can turn from male to female as they mature. Or is it to do with temperature? Males need more warmth, but maybe that’s crocodiles….He imagines Marjorie pulling him into the chilly water.
At the far side of the pool, in a roped-off lane, two women practice relay exchanges. He admires the one standing in the deep end—sleek and muscular in her seal-dark costume, grey goggles hiding her eyes. Don fancies that she could be watching him through the dark lenses. He stands taller, holding in his stomach. The woman dives elegantly over her partner, entering the water with barely a splash.
Marjorie is coming toward him, her blue hat a warning beacon. Her stroke reminds him of needlework—tuck and stitch, tuck and stitch. He slaps his thighs, as if to make some monumental leap into the water, but the pool is crowded. He slides quietly in amongst the shoals of women when there’s a space, and pushes off from the side, crossing with Marjorie as she completes yet another length. Her mouth still has a trace of lipstick, a thin line of red that stretches like an elastic band as she takes in air.
Marjorie is always telling him that he must look after his health. She nags him about smoking. Ever since her operation she’s had them on low-fat this and low-salt that; all she eats is salad and raw vegetables. She is so thin that the flesh hangs from her bones. Once, her body had a sweet appley roundness that buoyed her in the water when she swam. Now, all that can be seen of her is her wrinkled blue hat crowning her pinched face, and the red outline of her mouth. She is a strange, rubbery fish.
Don has always been thin; he reckons that he is naturally fit, despite his smoking habit. He is sure that he looks much younger than sixty-three. The high figure of his cholesterol reading does not make sense to him. The doctor said that it was not always related to weight or diet but to inherent predispositions. Sinister little faults waiting to tip a man out of his mortal coil and toss him into the grave. Don tries to dismiss the hidden factors, the numbers that don’t show on his face, and, unlike Marjorie who is lined and grey, he reckons he looks pretty much as he did fifteen or twenty years ago.
Don swims amongst the chattering women, their high voices echoing in the air around him. He slides beneath the water and hears their voices come to him as dolphin sounds, and imagines himself as the alpha male of the pod, and that all these females are his.
One of the women is clearly pregnant, her gravid body waggling awkwardly. He can see her belly-button sticking out through her costume. Her baby must be due soon. Perhaps it’ll be a Christmas baby. He’d like to reach out, touch her swollen belly to feel what it is like, sense the baby swimming inside her, curling and kicking in the warm fluid. He read that the fluid is like warm sea water and the baby a perfect diver, breathing and feeding through its umbilical cord. He is sure he could have fathered a child, and although Marjorie never became pregnant, he wonders whether a baby did once start out in her womb, but for some reason had not developed. Had they known, perhaps they could have coaxed it into life. It was not for the lack of wanting that Marjorie had not had a baby—she had even made little clothes, and painstakingly hand embroidered a cot quilt from her wedding dress. She said it would become an heirloom. It upsets Don when Marjorie uses her friends’ anecdotes about their grandchildren in conversation. They are like virtual grandchildren, no more real than his own occasional imagining of his possible grown-up children out somewhere in the world.
The pregnant woman struggles up the pool steps and waddles to the changing room. Little trickles of water run down her skin to join the water on the pool surround. She pauses and holds her belly, wincing slightly, then walks as quickly as she can to the changing room.
Ten awkward lengths, and he is still cold. He longs for a hot drink—and, for heaven’s sake, something to eat. Marjorie insisted on going swimming directly after her check-up. She always took them swimming on Tuesday, although he’d suggested Christmas shopping to take her mind off things. Who have we got to buy presents for? They’d left early after a skimpy breakfast. Marjorie had given the consultant such a beaming smile when he complimented her on her health improvements. But at least she is all right—Don thought that was what the consultant meant, that she is doing well.
They had driven in silence from the hospital, Marjorie driving frustratingly slowly through the sleet. Ever since his ban, she has to drive, doing it as if from a set of instructions, using the Highway Code the way she might consult one of her diet food books, measuring and weighing everything. She doesn’t have a clue where she’s going and relies on him to direct her. She can hardly take the simplest journey without him beside her. But, nor can he get very far without Marjorie to drive him; he’s lost the knack with public transport.
He flips over onto his back to ease his neck. The windows of the leisure centre restaurant overlook the pool, with floor to ceiling glass. He comforts himself with the thought of the warm surroundings, the prospect of food. He can see people at the window tables, eating. A woman in a white overall pauses and looks down. Above everything, the pool’s glass roof arches towards the steel sky, and rods of ice drop dizzyingly from infinity. He shivers, and attempts a more energetic half-crawl to warm up, clumsily dodging the shoals of chattering women. Once, he could have swum the length of the pool completely underwater.
The relay swimmer is now doing a butterfly stroke, her shoulders lifting out of the water, like a small powerful boat coursing the waves. Don imagines how she would react to him should he meet her in a social context. Maybe she would find him attractive. He still gets checked out by younger women. They look at him with questions in their eyes. That annoys Marjorie. She tells him off for ogling them, for making them feel uncomfortable. He liked it when Marjorie used to attract second glances from other men, but that has not happened for years.
He attempts another length of crawl, but somehow can’t get going, feeling that he is sinking rather than swimming, aware of a growing ache in his foot that warns him of a cramp. He makes his way to the side and edges down the pool trying to keep his foot straight, but the unavoidable spasm seems to fold his foot in two. He hauls himself up the metal steps, hoping that the relay swimmer does not see him struggling. Marjorie continues her clockwork drill, but he knows she saw him get out.
In the men’s shower he stands under thin needles of hot water, willing it to inject warmth back into his flesh. He flexes his foot against the spasm, holding onto the wall. It takes a while for the pain to ease enough for him to limp to a curtainless cubicle.
A young man is hosing down the floor of the changing area, swilling white clouds of disinfectant down the grille. He looks up and asks Don if he is all right. Of course he’s all right, it’s just temporary—he’s not an old dodderer. The boy—yes the boy, he can’t be more than twenty—has the physique of a bodybuilder, muscles bulging from the sleeves of the leisure centre’s uniform orange polo shirt. The lad tells Don to take care on the wet floor as he reels back the hose, whistling a tune that Don recognises, popular when he was as young as the boy. The old tune lodges, like pins and needles, in his head, as he sits on the slatted seat, bending and massaging his foot until the cramp eases.
Don slides off his trunks and wraps the towel around his loins. He walks gingerly over to the mirror, peering into it for reassurance. The man in the reflection has shadows about his face, broken veins on his cheeks and nose. His hair is flattened to his forehead, like crayoned lines drawn on a photograph. Don dries it under the hand dryer, feeling it fluff up as if it has come back to life. He lets the hot air stream over his shoulders and arms and stands there until he is dry.
Marjorie is waiting for him in the crowded reception area. Don pads toward her, his feet still feeling the spasm of cramp. Little kids bubble from the crèche with their damp-haired mothers. Marjorie looks neat again, her hair perfect, lipstick and powder re-applied. It is as if she hadn’t been swimming at all. It’s amazing how quickly she can change. She must have come out just after he did. She’s wearing her best woollen jacket that she put on for her hospital appointment. He hates the way it encloses her like a blanket, and that her tailored trousers sag like old women’s trousers, pouchy and formless. Don preferred it when they were a bit too tight.
They go upstairs to the café, following the piped music to the café. It is a large open-plan space, with an expanse of blue swirly-patterned carpet. He feels as if he is trying to walk upon gently swaying water. His ears still have water in them, and he pokes at them with his fingers, attracting a comment from Marjorie.
The place is crowded—the tables occupied mainly by women and small children. Although it is lunchtime, Marjorie wants only a skinny latte, decaffeinated. No food. Don orders a bacon roll, which Marjorie declares to be full of fat. He fancies a cake too, but thinks better of it. A white-hatted woman behind the counter pours hot water over a teabag in a metal pot for one, and gives him a tiny jug of milk.
They find a small table by the window overlooking the pool. Marjorie sits in her coat, cradling her latte. Don stirs his tea in the pot, watching the teabag spin in the water. Below them, the pool is clearing as the morning bathers leave. The attendants remove the lane marker. There’s a special session for older swimmers after lunch. “Aqua-movers” it’s called. Exercise for the over-65s. Don shudders at the idea, imagining some perverse burlesque form of synchronised swimming—old women in ugly matching flowery hats and frilly swimsuits, waterproof smiles painted onto their wrinkled faces, swimming in circles, singing some high-pitched jolly song before plummeting into the water together and disappearing into a trap door at the bottom of the pool.
Marjorie signals to him; a young woman has brought his food. She’s well-built, her apron barely covering her front, and he gets an eyeful of cleavage. “Nice and warm, eh love? That’ll put some life back into me,” he says. The girl merely places the plate in front of him and retreats, glancing at Marjorie, who holds her latte rigidly in front of her.
Don bites his roll, feeling the fatty juices run into his mouth. He wipes his lips with the back of his hand.
“There’s a serviette, Donald…” Marjorie says, “For goodness sake.”
She makes a thing of tidying the menu card, straightening the plastic sachets of ketchup and brown sauce.
“I don’t know how you can eat that.”
“At least this isn’t rabbit food like you make us eat.”
Marjorie looks away, down at the quiet pool where the attendants have finished their work. The young man who was in the changing room is down there talking to a young woman, also in uniform. He stands, loose-limbed, leaning toward the girl.
At the next table is a young mother with three small children. She is feeding the youngest, a hungry toddler, strapped in its high chair. The child holds out its hand for the spoon. The mother is round, like Marjorie used to be. A mother duck with her baby ducks. Don makes little clucking noises with his mouth full, and bits of roll fall onto the front of his jacket.
Marjorie makes a sound as if she has choked on a crumb. Her latte is back on the saucer, but the cup is crooked and looks as if it will topple. Then Don sees that her shoulders are heaving up and down, under the baggy jacket, as if she is in convulsion. Little whooping noises come out of her mouth, and tears stream down the dry courses of her face. He wants to mop them, stop them, send them back inside somehow. He proffers his unused serviette, but she pushes it away. He tries to put his arms around her but can’t find a natural place to hold her—she is all air and bones under the jacket. Everything he does for Marjorie seems unacceptable, repulsive. She won’t let him touch her, pulling in on herself like a sea anemone.
The children at the next table are pointing and their mother tells them not to. Don stands beside Marjorie, his arms hanging limp, not knowing what to do next. He looks around. It seems that the attention of the restaurant is focussed on them, judging him, whilst the bright music plays almost maliciously. Don imagines being cast into the swirly blue maelstrom of the carpet and being drawn forever into the cold fabric of chaos whilst Marjorie sobs herself into a dry ball and rolls away.
But from behind him, comes a soft voice, “Let me…”
He turns to see a mature woman in a white overall.
Marjorie allows herself to be conducted away. Don follows stupidly, carrying their bags. She takes them through a doorway marked, “Staff Only,” into a low-ceilinged corridor lit by fluorescent tubes. They go into the staff room; it has a few easy chairs and a low table, a sink with mugs draining.
The strange woman is letting Marjorie weep on her shoulder, whilst Don stands there. He doesn’t feel that he should sit down in this room, taking advantage of someone else’s private space. The walls have health and safety notices, something about hygiene and hand washing, a help notice for anaphylactic shock, a list of telephone numbers. The notice board reminds staff of the impending training days. Don hated those events, the false politeness, the embarrassing group exercises. Retirement allowed him to escape from all of that. But for what?
The floor is covered in brown carpet tiles; a pair of woman’s shoes has been tucked under one of the chairs. He can still hear the café music, muffled by the fire doors.
He takes to counting the carpet tiles, noting their differences, the set of the pile. One of them has a piece of chewing gum flattened into it, another has a corner missing.
At eighty-seven carpet tiles, Marjorie stops crying. Don turns around and sees her smile at the woman as she takes a hankie from her pocket and blows her nose.
“I’m sorry to have caused all this fuss.”
“Happens to us all.”
“You’ve been so kind…”
“Here, go into the staff toilet and get yourself sorted out. I must get back to work.”
Marjorie goes off by herself. The woman nods to him. She seems to glance at his jacket. He looks down and finds a shred of bacon on his lapel, just the tiniest bit. He wants to say “thank you” but the woman has gone.
Outside, a cold wind frets across the car park. Marjorie takes the car keys from her handbag. Don follows her to the car. She’ll drive, he’ll guide her. They’ll get home before the weather worsens.
Elizabeth Stott’s work has appeared in Spelk, Firewords Quarterly, Tears in the Fence, and Under the Radar Magazine; her chapbook Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers was published by Nightjar Press in 2013.