Charlie’s swimming six.
It’s the number of strokes she has to hold on without breathing in. It’s all about holding on, and Charlie wants to go to ten, she always wants to go to ten, but you have to start at two. That’s the only rule, start easy and work up. Although it isn’t always easy to swim properly in here. Sometimes, you have to wait for whoever’s in front of you to touch the wall. Sometimes, whoever it is swims towards the wall, then stops swimming and starts gliding, with an arm outstretched, two arms sometimes, reaching, ready to touch the wall, ready to tag it. Everyone tags the wall, and almost everyone slows before tagging, because they’re stretching and gliding, and sinking a bit. Sinking, instead of swimming, even though the thing they want most of all is to get to the wall. People stack up behind them, but they keep on, arms outstretched and sinking a bit. And people are waiting. Sometimes quite a few people are waiting. Abbott says you have to. Wait, he means.
‘At least you’re safe in there though,’ he says.
Charlie’s swimming. Six strokes then she turns to breathe, six more and all the way to the end of the length. She’s a swimmer, Charlie. She’s a bit of a fish, a slip of a fish. I can hardly think of her without thinking of water. There she is in my mind’s eye, half submerged. There she is, sliding away under skins of brown or green or yellow or blue. An arm here, a leg there, a torso, a head, appearing then disappearing.
There. Charlie, light of my life, swimming six, down the lane, towards me.
At least Abbott can stop worrying.
‘At least it’s clean. At least you know where you are with the baths,’ he says.
And he’s right. We’re not far from the bottom of our hill. The red sign, the revolving door, the changing cubicles with yellow curtains. We know where we are.
We know where we are with the lake too, but sometimes you get lucky. I mean, sometimes it’s possible to swim far enough out so the light catches, or doesn’t catch. Sometimes it’s possible. Really. Sometimes you’re swimming and you look across the water, the water you’ve looked across so many times before. You look for the grassy bank running up into scrub, for the rock, for the spot where you went in, where you almost always go in, and you think the light must have caught, or maybe it didn’t catch, and it must be the light, because it can’t be anything else, because you’re looking across the water for the bank, you’re looking for the alder trees, the spot where you went in, where you always go in and you don’t know. You’re looking, and you don’t know what you’re looking at. You don’t know where you are, although you know you’re far enough out, you know you’ve been swimming for a while, and you like it. You like looking, looking across the water you’ve looked across so many times before and not knowing, and you keep on looking and not knowing, and you say to yourself, you say out loud, ‘If only I could hold on, lost like this, at least until the light comes back.’
But wait, it’s easy to get carried away. Abbott says I get carried away.
‘All the time,’ he says, and shakes his head.
I’ll swim seven.
We’ll swim seven.
You’re supposed to swim in line in here, stay in lane, keep left, keep clear. We’ll swim seven, Charlie and I.
We tag the wall then Charlie stands up. She straightens her goggles. She looks towards the far end.
She says, ‘I’ll go after that man, the one with the magpie tattoo. When he’s tagged the wall, that’s when I’ll go.’
She means she’ll try ten. She’ll try holding on to ten, although she’s never held on that long before, and her face is already red.
‘This time,’ she says.
She holds her fingers up, presses all ten against the air. And perhaps this time will be the time, because the difference between nine and ten is only one, but it’s always been too far.
Charlie’s stopped. She’s standing up, shaking her head.
She’s swimming back towards me with her head above water.
‘I can’t do ten,’ she says. ‘I can’t do it. I’ll never do it and even Dad can do ten.’
‘He can’t,’ I say.
‘How many can he do then?’ she says. ‘How many? Ash, how many can Dad do?’
Abbott’s never been taught to breathe. He used to come to the baths with us when Charlie was small and already going under. He said going under was something all babies do until they learn not to.
‘They learn,’ he said. ‘She’ll learn.’
And sometimes he’d go off and swim a length or two with his neck stiff, his legs down and his face clear of the surface.
But Charlie kept going under, and eventually Abbott stopped saying she’d learn.
Once, after he’d swum his lengths, I told him it was safe, perfectly safe, to put his face beneath the surface. I offered to show him how.
‘You don’t have to swim at first. You can stay where you are. All you have to do is put your face under and breathe out,’ I said. ‘I can hold your hand.’
I think I might have said something about a seahorse too, because that’s what he reminded me of when he swam. Anyway, he shook his head.
He shook his head.
I remember, because his hair was dry.
And now Charlie wants to play the floating game. She wants to know if Abbott can float.
‘Well, can he?’ she says.
I don’t know. I can’t remember him coming down to the baths with us after I offered to show him how to breathe. I can only remember him saying, ‘You two go on without me.’ I only remember going on without him.
‘Let’s just play then,’ she says.
We need waves. There are always waves in the baths. There are always people. It isn’t like the lake, where the water can be still enough, sometimes, to catch the ripples from a dipping toe, a dragonfly. Yes, that’s how it can be, the lake, although not often, only sometimes. But here, always, the thrashing of arms and legs, the twisting and writhing, don’t disappear, but come back. Like the flapping of butterfly wings, I suppose. Almost.
‘Come on,’ Charlie says.
She holds onto the wall and stretches out her arms, so her body and legs come up behind her.
I hold the wall. I stretch out my arms, and on the count of three we have to put our faces in and let go. We can breathe if we want, when we want, but we have to let the waves carry us.
Charlie counts. Charlie’s always the one who counts.
‘One, two . . . ’
You’re on your own. That’s the game. That’s all there is to it. And whatever happens next doesn’t happen quickly. You have to be patient. You have to wait until you’ve given up trying. And that’s the thing, that’s the fly. It’s all in the way you’re not, and then you are. Floating. The way things float, the way boats float, and Charlie and I have never seen a boat on the lake off the Toll Estate. All the water, so much water and never a boat. You’d think there’d be someone who’d like to go out, to row out, someone who’d like to float. You’d think there’d be someone like the man in the book. The man who rows out on a fjord. Out in a storm, he rows. You’d think there’d be someone in Tilstoke who’d like to row.
The man in the book doesn’t come back. His wife waits for him, but he doesn’t come, stays out on the fjord, and doesn’t come back.
The lifeguard blows his whistle. He blows twice, and we’re floating, like things, like boats, like that boat. The little rowboat. Two sharp blows on his whistle, and Charlie tugs at my arm and I can feel in her tug, in the way she pulls, it’s time to stop floating, it’s time to breathe, although there’s something about holding on, something about being pushed and pulled and Charlie pulls, tugs, and I need to breathe, but breathing, even though I need to, desperately need to, isn’t at all like the first breath.
The lifeguard points at us from his tall chair. He points at me and Charlie, he points at us, and Charlie says, ‘We should swim. Now.’ And we swim. And maybe the lifeguard thinks something’s happened, maybe he thinks we’re dead. Maybe that’s what lifeguards are trained to think when you float, the way things float, with faces turned into the water. We swim towards the shallow end, best front crawl, breathing every three strokes, the way we’re supposed to, and when we get there Charlie stands up, and once she’s standing the lifeguard stops looking, and on the way home she says she promises. She promises she won’t tell Dad.
I went into Abbott’s study to find that book, the one about the man who took his rowboat out in the storm. Charlie was at school and Abbott was at work, and the house was quiet. Thinking about it now, there was an air of anticipation about the place, as though something sleeping was about to be woken. It was quiet. Quiet enough for reading, so I went into Abbott’s study to find the book.
I pulled it from the shelf. It was exactly as I’d remembered it; a small paperback, black, with a painted flame, one line each of yellow and red and white. I knelt down on the floor of Abbott’s study and read.
Signe lies on a bench.
That’s how the book begins. That’s how it almost ends too. Signe lies on a bench and sees herself. She sees herself and she sees her husband, Asle, before he went out on the fjord, twenty-three years in the past. It was more or less how I’d remembered it, Signe lying on the bench, seeing herself and Asle, already knowing Asle can’t come back.
I hadn’t really remembered much more of the story than that. I’d read it twice before and didn’t have more than its bare bones rattling around inside my head. The bench, the boat, the waiting, that’s what I had, the waiting. The waiting for something that had already happened. And yes, there was something else in my head. Perhaps it was the waves. I could remember the push and pull of the waves, but there was something else, something beneath the surface. I can’t say, but there was something, about that book, about being inside that book.
I carried on reading. I’d read it twice before and still I didn’t like it. I didn’t like how light the book felt in my hand. I shook it, then told myself to stop shaking it. I suppose I’d wanted to jar the words a little. I suppose I’d wanted to unsettle them.
I told myself I didn’t have to read another word. But I read, and I must have been reading for a while, because I was getting pins and needles from kneeling down for so long. I sat down, then laid on my back. I carried on reading like that, lying on my back, on the floor of Abbott’s study.
I read as far as the part about the boy. I’d forgotten about the boy. I’d forgotten he’d drowned. I’d forgotten he was only seven, the same age as Charlie. I’d forgotten everything. I only had bare bones and sensations. But there he was, the boy, dead. Drowned in the same fjord as the man.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t like how heavy the book had become. I didn’t like the way the words breathed, the way they pulsed. What I mean is I wanted full stops. I wanted something to put a stop to it. Endless daylight. That’s what I wanted. Self-contained, endless daylight, but the words kept coming, one after the other, which was only the way they looked on the page, but wasn’t the way they were.
I went on with it. I couldn’t put it down. I was searching for something to hang on to, something to grasp and make everything else fall into place. I looked everywhere. I searched through those words, but there wasn’t anything. All I could find was Signe lying on the bench, that was all I could find, and it wasn’t enough. One woman, lying on a wooden bench. It wasn’t enough.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was just like Abbott to be there when I needed him. I read on a bit. It was difficult to put the book down, and anyway, I was comfortable lying there on my back. The feeling of his buzzing had calmed me a bit. Here we are, I thought as I read. Two women, lying on our backs. Although I knew Signe couldn’t lie down indefinitely.
My phone buzzed again. I took it out of my pocket and looked at the screen.
Can you get the lasagne out of the freezer? A.
I’d said before, there was no need to sign off with an A. ‘I can already see your name,’ I said. ‘And it makes it feel like the beginning of something else.’
‘Like what?’ he said.
‘A sentence beginning with A. Any sentence. Like that one.’ ‘Which one?’ he said.
I closed the book. I put it on the floor and stood up. I wanted to get the lasagne out of the freezer but I couldn’t get over the feeling that Signe was lying on the bench inside the book, that she would still be inside it if I walked away.
It happened before. The first time I read that book, or maybe it was the second, I woke in the night. I had to ask Abbott if he wouldn’t mind taking the book, although I meant the words, away from the bedroom. I asked him politely. He said he was sleeping. He couldn’t have been.
‘It’s the words,’ I said.
He propped his head up with his elbow and laughed.
‘It’s a story,’ he said. ‘A small paperback. It’s no big deal.’ Kate said it too. It’s no big deal, Ash. It’s not a big thing.
But that was later.
I wanted to get the lasagne. I was standing in Abbott’s study. The sun had taken over the whole room. Its fingers reached down into the space between the carpet and the door. I wanted to get out, go to the freezer, but I couldn’t leave the book. I was looking down at the book, the sun on the book, and thinking about the words, one next to the other, spreading.
‘It’s only a small paperback,’ I said out loud. ‘It’s no big deal, Ash.’
Then I opened the door and ran.
I had the feeling the words were following me, I thought I felt them brush around my neck, then tighten a little. But Abbott’s always said I’ve got a fertile imagination.
The above is taken from Amy Arnold’s debut novel, Slip of a Fish, winner of the 2018 Northern Book Prize. Order your copy here.