When his brother told him that he should read a short story by an American named John Cheever, Ulrich immediately thought of at least ten better ways to spend the evening. He could gather all the two- and five-rupee coins scattered in different corners of his room and go downstairs to the Irani restaurant and exchange them for paper currency. He could go to the laundromat across the street and finally collect his socks and underwear.
Or maybe he could just stay put. Why do anything? The smallest of his movements would add to the mayhem. Clare Road was a gaudy mix of hair salons, coffin makers, churches, cheap boutiques, and – worst of all – schools. Those screaming brats had managed to hijack Clare Road. Now everyone and everything had that unbearable quality that most children have.
‘Just read the Cheever,’ said Moses. His brother was still looking for the key to his motorcycle, which Ulrich knew was lying on the floor, at the foot of the table. ‘This guy, this loser American rich type, he’s at a pool party, and he suddenly decides to swim all the way home through people’s backyards.’
‘How the hell do you swim through a backyard?’
‘Through their pools, yaar. He’s tipsy and decides to go pool-hopping. But that’s not what the story’s about . . .’
‘What do I care what it’s about?’
‘You’re a swimmer so I just thought . . .’
Moses finally spotted the keychain. It was a terrible keychain for a motorcycle key. It had Moses’s fiancée’s name on it.
Ulrich pulled his white T-shirt all the way up to reveal his round belly. ‘Do I look like a swimmer to you?’ Ulrich slapped it hard, and it felt hard. That was the strange thing about his belly: it looked like fat but felt like muscle. But today it was extra firm – he hadn’t been able to go the bathroom in two days. ‘I’m a coach, man,’ said Ulrich. ‘Very different from a swimmer. Swimmers swim, coaches sit and watch.’
‘Then just sit there for the rest of your life. Just sit there and stare out the window.’
‘Why does it bother you so much?’
‘Because that’s all you do. It’s embarrassing.’
‘So is your fucking keychain.’
Cussing always got to Moses. His brother had always been the more mannered of the two, the darling pupil at school, whereas Ulrich’s brain retained nothing; every single line that he read passed through the way hot chai passes through a strainer. The only thing Ulrich excelled at was sport.
‘I’ll be back late,’ said Moses.
‘So why you telling me? I’m not your mother.’
Ulrich regretted saying that. Moses kept trying to bridge the distance between them by simple gestures; today, it was by asking Ulrich to read a story. That way, the brothers would have something to talk about at night.
From the veranda, Ulrich stared out at Monginis, the cake shop opposite. He envisioned his mother buying sponge cakes. He could still see her, eight years after her death, wiping the edges of her mouth with her small white handkerchief, two dabs on the left and two dabs on the right. It was as though the white handkerchief and the dabbing ensured that nothing cruel ever came out of her mouth. Unlike his mouth.
Below, Moses was wiping the seat of his RX 100. Why did he have to wipe the seat five times? It was not a baby’s bottom. It was a goddamn bike. Ulrich fought the urge to spit on it.
A year ago, he would have done it. At thirty-nine, spitting would have made sense. But turning forty changed things. He had lost almost all of his hair, except for a meaningless tuft, an apologetic afterthought, at the back of his head, for which he still had to pay barbers’ fees. He was now a man with a moustache, a look he had always despised.
As he walked back into the living room, he saw the book by John Cheever lying on the sofa. What the hell, he thought. Cheever’s company in the bathroom might do his bowels some royal good.
He read the story through and through, but he did not know what to make of it. There was a distinct tempo and each time he thought of closing the book, he found himself turning the page instead. His belly was now empty and clean, but his mind was running. He could not understand why the man, after completing a marathon swim through countless private pools (and a noisy public one), and even crossing a highway on foot, had to stand outside his own home, which was locked, and peer into it through the window, thinking his wife was waiting for him when the home was empty and deserted.
But this was not the question that was really burning him.
What the fuck was Moses trying to tell him? From the time his brother left, two hours ago, Ulrich had guzzled five beers. He was tipsy now too, like Cheever’s swimmer. Had his brother finally learned to fight, to spit back? Suddenly, Ulrich was all charged up. He circled the flat, a man on the verge of an important discovery. But when nothing came, and there was only the lazy grey of dusk to contend with, he had a sixth beer and went to sleep.
An hour later, he woke up with a start. He sprung out of bed with the liveliness of a sudden hard-on and rushed to the mirror. ‘I’m Ulrich,’ he shouted. That bastard is messing with me, he thought. I’ll show him.
Ulrich was a distinctive name. Even in the Catholic community in Bombay – the ‘Macs’ as they were affectionately called – he knew no one who shared his name. His mother had named him after St Ulrich, and when he said his name out loud, as he had done now, it felt even more German. Germans were tough. They did not shy away from confrontation. Germany was his favourite football team. The players had the precision of machines, of machines that could produce sweat and were made of blood. As a swimmer, one had to be the perfect combination of human and machine. That was his belief.
He found himself perspiring even though the ceiling fan above him was at full zoom. He took off his T-shirt and threw it on the bed. It wasn’t enough. He took his shorts off too and stood stark naked before the mirror. Then, in a sudden fit, he put his Speedos on, stuffed some money in them, grabbed his swimming goggles and walked out the door.
On his way down the stairs, he passed his next-door neighbour, Sunita, who let out a shriek. Or maybe it was a squeal. Her husband was a scrawny man with toothpicks for legs. Ulrich had done her a favour by showing off his muscular thighs.
With an air of confidence, he stepped out into the street.
It did not matter that people were staring at him. What did these morons know anyway? Cheever’s swimmer had the advantage of plush pools and soft lawns and the occasional fancy drink to help him along his journey. Cheever’s swimmer did not have to contend with the mocking stares of the Bombaywala. When a Bombaywala showed disapproval, you felt it in the very marrow of your being. Tonight Ulrich would use those waves of disapproval to build muscle.
The hot shop lights along the footpath made his dark skin shine, and he took a left towards the fire station. Soon he was walking through Madanpura, a cocoon for the underworld, known for its contract killers and loan sharks. Yet the darkness of the streets was soothing. If he were to walk here in broad daylight, he’d be sure to get a nice tight slap from someone. But now everyone was busy buying sweets or getting their beard shaved. It was only near the Salvation Army that a lady in a burka gasped at him. He did not falter but hurried on towards the YMCA.
‘I lost my keys,’ he told the man at reception and walked past him.
‘But coach . . .’ said the man, leaping up to follow him, whispering that he needed to cover himself.
‘Just chill, yaar,’ said Ulrich. ‘I’m doing only one lap.’
‘Laps? But I thought you lost your keys.’
‘I lost them in the pool, man.’
He dove in with perfect technique. When his large belly hit the water, it just slid in naturally, along with the rest of him, with minimum fuss. In his enthusiasm, he forgot to remove his rubber chappals and the money that was tucked into his Speedos. The chappals he let go of after the first few strokes. They rose to the surface and stayed there, lolling about, as Ulrich reached the other end. The goggles followed. Just like Cheever’s swimmer, he refused to use the ladder to get out of the pool.
He remembered the fat kid that he had trained that very morning and how upset he’d been when the kid struggled to get out of the pool even with the use of the ladder. It was pathetic how this kid’s pudgy arms had no strength; full of milk and butter and biscuits, his body did not deserve to be in the pool. ‘What will help my son?’ the kid’s mother asked Ulrich after the private training session.
‘Iraq,’ Ulrich had wanted to reply.
Dripping wet and sufficiently chlorinated, he coolly walked towards the exit near the kitchen. The canteen owner greeted Ulrich nonchalantly, but then his expression changed to one of bewilderment.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ he asked.
‘I’m broke,’ said Ulrich. ‘Have to walk around in my chaddis. Tell the committee what a state I’m in.’
Outside, stray dogs were tearing apart a piece of rotten meat the butcher had thrown their way. Ulrich slid into the back seat of a taxi despite the driver’s protests.
‘I’ll give you seven hundred rupees,’ said Ulrich, thrusting his hand inside his Speedos and withdrawing a wet bundle of shrunken notes. ‘I want to go to Marine Drive, with two stops in between. That’s all.’ Ulrich spread out all the money he had on the back seat, assuring the driver that none of the notes were torn. Once he saw that the driver was satisfied, he handed him the cash. The driver put it in the glove compartment and took off.
The stale wind hit Ulrich’s chest and sent a shiver through him so he rolled up the windows even though the air was hot. The first stop was outside a newly constructed building at Saat Rasta.
Ulrich walked up to the security guard and told him to let Tony know that he was here.
Tony was the only school friend Ulrich had kept over the years. He was now the creative director of one of the biggest ad agencies in the city. All those long-haired, goateed lunds who walked around pretending they were geniuses, when all they did was come up with a byline for soap. It pissed him off, it really did, but it pissed him
off even more that he did not have a single creative bone in his entire body.
‘Boss, what’s wrong with you?’ Tony asked. ‘You smashed or what?’
‘I need to use your pool.’
‘Ya, men. It’s urgent.’
‘The pool’s closed,’ said Tony. ‘They had some issue . . .’
‘Fuck,’ said Ulrich.
‘Are you okay? Coming here in trunks and all . . .’
‘All okay, men. All good. But I need a favour,’ said Ulrich.
‘Sure, men,’ said Tony. ‘Anything.’
‘I need to swim at the Willingdon. Can you get me in?’
‘Willingdon? No chance! Even I’m not a member. Those chaunts don’t take any new members only. Even if you have the cash.’
The Royal Willingdon Sports Club was the city’s most elite club, with a pool surrounded by bougainvillea and coconut trees Ulrich had never swum in it. He’d only seen it up close once when he applied for the job of swimming coach five years ago. He thought he had nailed it but then the hiring committee asked to watch him interact with the members’ children, to see how effective he was as a coach. He knew he was screwed. Not because he was a bad coach – far from it. He was a terrific coach, but from the pool he had looked up and caught the eye of one of the members who lived near the YMCA. The member recognized Ulrich as the same sick man who had shown Jaws to young boys at summer camp, for training purposes. Ulrich had told them that if they could watch Jaws and then get into the pool that very instant, they would be able to swim anywhere. All of them jumped into the pool immediately after the film, with real gusto, except for one kid, who ended up making an unnecessary fuss, and rushed out to call his mother. No one at the YMCA cared much about the incident; in fact it had garnered Ulrich some accolades from old-timers who felt that kids nowadays had it too easy and needed some mental discipline. And even though Ulrich was doing a terrific job of interacting with his pretend students at the Willingdon, the member grinned through his teeth, and Ulrich could feel this old shark catching up with him, nibbling away at his ankles, then his knees, and then, the final gash in the thigh, in the form of a polite ‘no’ when he called the next day to ask if he had gotten the job.
‘But why you need to swim now?’ asked Tony.
‘I have to,’ said Ulrich. ‘I just have to.’ Then he put his hand on Tony’s shoulder, looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Will you help me?’
‘I’ll get you another pool.’
‘No. It has to be the Willingdon.’
‘Because it’s on the way.’
Ulrich did not answer. He just mumbled something about Tony being the best friend he ever had and forced him into the taxi. On the way to the Willingdon, Ulrich slapped Tony’s thigh. ‘What times we’ve had,’ he said and looked out the window. He was wistful, and when he adjusted himself in the back seat, his wet naked back made a squishy sound against the Rexine, like some small animal being squashed against the wall of a cage.
They asked the driver to wait in the parking lot. It was dark now and the two men stayed close to the bushes. It would be impossible for anyone to enter the Willingdon through the main entrance, but the pool entrance was separate and the only obstacle was the man at the reception desk who handed out towels and placed your wristwatch in a drawer. Tony’s job was to distract him, which he did by telling him that a stray dog was running amuck in the gentlemen’s dressing room. It was easy to believe because stray dogs did walk the lawns of the club from time to time, enjoying leftover sandwiches that patrons fed them from the leisure of their cane chairs.
As soon as Tony led the man into the gents’ change room, Ulrich entered through the white gate that was more like a pretty picket fence. He picked up a fresh towel, slung it around his shoulder and scanned the pool. There were only three people in it: an old man who lay sprawled on the descending steps like some raja with his eyes to the heavens, his tummy partly outside the water, forming a half watermelon; a woman who was conscientiously doing laps, but her technique was all wrong – the way she stuck her head out of the water would surely lead to a neck injury at some point; and a teenager, his muscles rippling with stupidity.
Ulrich threw the towel aside and took a couple of deep breaths. He had come to the realm of the rich and successful, men and women who rang a small bell to summon the waiter, and ordered kejriwal on toast – just egg and cheese, but when they ordered it, it had weight and taste – and when stray cats rubbed against their leather shoes they threw scraps of food towards them, the same way life had thrown scraps of luck towards Ulrich, causing him to jump into the air for more, like a circus animal, only to bite into thin air.
Swimming at the Willingdon, as a member, as he was about to do right now, would give him the illusion of success, a temporary confidence and strength that would help him face these people.
He expanded his chest and dove.
The first lap was purely functional, to get the arms and legs moving again, and get the body adjusted to the pool temperature, which was nice and warm. Once he had his breathing right, which occurred during the second lap, he felt he was on autopilot, and that was the trick, to conserve energy, and during the third lap, he forgot about energy completely, took his mind out of the equation the way yogis discard all thought during meditation but retain a simple and humble awareness.
The pool lights were on. They provided a gentle glow from beneath which reminded him of something – of early mornings spent with his mother as dawn came, so softly, treating all humans like babies, all Earth creatures like fragile, magical beings who needed whispering and encouragement. But the water was too sharp, too chlorinated for him to keep his eyes open. He closed them, his body settling into an easy rhythm the way the heart settles at the onset of an afternoon siesta, that beautiful sinking feeling of falling through the mattress; even though he was on the surface of the water, in a sense he was going deeper, and he made a perfect turn when he hit the other end, his body curling into a foetus, then gracefully springing to life, moving towards the other side with new-born energy. He was at home in the water, and it was from here that he would find ways to live, reasons to live, and he suddenly went deeper, cut across the pool, as though he had spotted an old acquaintance at a marketplace or among a crowd of strangers. No one could see him here, no human eyes could touch him, and he felt secure, un-judged, happy to pull in a modest salary, have enough money to buy the occasional pair of jeans or a round of drinks for a friend or two. Here, inside, it was warm and kind, and he came to the surface not because he needed air, but because he had gotten something that he could take with him to his final visit. It was not what he had expected; he had expected something electric, but he ended up imbibing a soft light instead, which was so much better. He stepped out of the pool, wrapped the towel around his waist and left. Tony would be okay to take a different cab back home.
This time Ulrich rolled the window down. As the taxi took a left turn at Wilson College, he stuck his chest out and let the wind from the Arabian Sea bring its salt to him. At Wilson, Ulrich had been one of the cool ones, smoking joints, wearing jeans that he had rubbed for hours with sandpaper to give the area near the thighs an almost-torn look, and while others studied history and literature, he gave drug-induced sermons on why ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd was one of the greatest songs ever written, and how music could get you in an instant, it was the heroin of life, whereas books took their own sweet time and hardly gave you a lift, which was why even though he was an arts student he refused to read. It was at one such free-falling campus lecture – delivered under a large banyan tree to about four or five regular stoners – that he managed to impress Angela, the hottest Catholic girl at college. He liked that she did not put any powder on her face to make her skin lighter. She had a dark radiance to her, an inner fuck-you shine that resonated with Ulrich. She was like Ulrich, he felt, but she had a brain. So while she was talking to her friend, he took her copy of Chaucer, tore out a couple of pages, put some weed in them and tried to smoke it. ‘It’s useless,’ he said to her. ‘But if you and I smoke a large healthy bugger and listen to Floyd, we’ll be flying.’ She liked his guts, but that was much later, about a year after she slapped him.
Now, as the taxi took the stretch towards Marine Drive, he longed to be that age again, to smoke joints and bite Angie’s dark juicy Christian thighs over long summer days and nights. But they were both forty now, and in different worlds. He was suddenly hungry, for food, but then the very thought of eating anything put him off. Perhaps he was just nervous.
‘Boss,’ he told the taxi driver. ‘Just stop here.’
He looked at the taxi driver and smiled – it was the smile of a man who was thankful and defeated at the same time. The taxi driver just nodded and drove away. By morning the notes in the glove compartment would dry up and have the strange crispy shape of silver foil.
He climbed up the steps to one of the ground-floor apartments and rang the bell. The door opened almost immediately, which he certainly wasn’t ready for, at all.
‘Angie . . .’ he said. ‘ I . . .’
She looked like she had put on some weight, and that made him happy. She had lost some juice; there was no doubt about it.
‘Ulrich?’ she said. ‘What are you . . . you know you can’t come here.’
‘I know, I know. But I just wanted to see you.’
It seemed not to matter to Angela that Ulrich was wearing only a towel. The very fact that he had shown up seemed to bother her and he could sense that.
‘How’s . . .’
‘She’s not here,’ said Angela.
Ulrich felt relieved when she said that. It had been seven years since he had seen them both, and even if he saw his daughter this very instant he would not know that she was his because a baby can grow into anything, there are hundreds of permutations and combinations. The current man in her life, the man who owned this expensive apartment on Marine Drive, who was a Willingdon member, had once been Ulrich’s friend, and Angela had borrowed money from him for her dental work, without asking Ulrich, and it had hurt him deeply, so deeply that he had slapped Angie, and beat the shit out of his friend, and it was soon after his mother’s death, and he was so raw that he eventually drove them into each other’s arms. It was such a stupid reason for the end of a marriage. A slap had started their relationship and a slap had ended it as well. But perhaps Angie was not who he had thought she was. She chose money over love. The reality of spending the rest of her life in one room, in a small flat on Clare Road which Ulrich shared with his brother, was too much for her. The divorce was swift and the deal sweet: his friend, whom Ulrich had beaten up because he thought the two were having an affair, would not press charges if he gave Angie full custody.
But it was not the threat of criminal action that scared him. He signed his name in disgust on that sheet of paper because he knew he would never be able to provide for them the way he wanted to. The signature was the clearest signature anyone could ever make, as clear as his self-loathing.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said to Angela. ‘I shouldn’t have come.’
Here he was, apologizing once again. He saw how Angela leaned against the door, half her body shielded behind it, as if he were a trespasser or common criminal. Slowly, she was closing the door, inch by inch, and just before she did, she looked into his eyes, and he felt a tiny shiver until the sound of the door closing coincided with a stiff ocean breeze hitting the side of his neck and stomach. He suddenly felt very exposed.
He waited for the light to turn red and quickly crossed the road to the huge black expanse of the Arabian Sea. He wrapped the towel around him like a shawl and stood on the parapet. Below, large grey boulders separated the water from him. During the monsoons, the water levels rose so high the boulders were submerged and the waves lashed the shore relentlessly, until the fissures tore at the walls and made them crumble.
It was one big swimming pool out there, and if he swam in a straight line he would reach the Gulf of Aden and enter Oman or Yemen, far away from Angela and his daughter, where he could earn much more as a swimming coach. Around him, the promenade was littered with lovers, holding hands and cooing promises to each other in the same way he and Angie once had. He slowly lowered himself onto the boulders, and in doing so, lost his towel. It didn’t matter. Paper cones were strewn across the boulders and a few plastic bags floated in the wind. To his right, the skyline of the city glittered, the lights in skyscrapers burning passionately, the stars above less electric, less powerful. Tomorrow was Sunday. It was a working day for Ulrich. While the rest of the city read the morning papers, he would instruct a new batch of swimmers.
Perhaps, before going to work, he would wake Moses and tell him what he thought. That Cheever’s swimmer was not mad to look into his own house through a window. He was looking at his past, trying to make sense of it, as all humans do, the way Ulrich had just done, and perhaps Ulrich was luckier than the swimmer because Ulrich knew where Angela was. She wasn’t his anymore, nor was his child, but at least he knew where they lived.
Cheever’s swimmer, it seemed, had come to the terrible realization that he would never see his family ever again. Ulrich also wanted to tell Moses the real ending of the story. Way after Cheever’s story ended, the swimmer went around the house to the pool, to his very own pool, where the water was green and slimy, and he slid in, without technique, without grace, just a body slipping into nature, the chlorine and algae and bacteria touching his skin, causing a chemical reaction, changing him, working his brain, dissolving all its memories, one after another, the way acid works on something, moments shared with his wife and daughter turning into nothing, or perhaps returning to the water, to nature itself, as nature had always intended, and the swimmer, always a mammal, shrinking, collapsing, exhaling, inhaling, and sighing a final breath of relief as the world turned another day.
Artwork © Karine Laval, Poolscape #59, 2010