This is a rewrite of my last short story: In a hurry, at last
A tall, pale, skinny child, shivers as her feet touch the cold water of the unheated, outdoor pool in her small prairie town. The young girl, around seven years old, tried to protect her face from the splashes of older children who were jumping directly into the pool around her. Her lips quickly turned blue as she hung onto the ladder and looked at the other kids who were already trying to dog paddle or float. Even in the shallow end, the water was up to her lips when she stood on her tip toes. She was venturing carefully over toward her group of beginners when some boys pushed her down into the water. She sputtered, fought her way to the surface and rushed back to the ladder. Once safely back on the deck, she grabbed the old towel her mother had given her to take to the pool and wrapped herself in it. Shivering, she headed back to the change rooms. On her walk home, she wondered what she would say about her swim class to her mother, and how she could avoid going back there ever again.
“What do I have to do to become a competent swimmer?” I asked.
“Can you swim at all?”
“Well, jump in and show me.”
I walk over to the ladder at the shallow end of the pool, gingerly lower myself into the cool water, and start doing a side-stroke down the length of the pool. She follows me on the deck. “Can you do the crawl?”
Reluctantly, I take a deep breath, turn on my stomach, and try to remember the crawl, stretching my arms out close to the surface of the cool water as far forward as I can. I take quick gulps of air on alternate stokes, trying to relax. After three breaths, I turn on my back and show her my back stroke, relieved I can breathe again. Soon, we are at the deep end: me treading water, her squatting down, “Not bad, you know how to swim, but you don’t look like you are enjoying yourself.”
She had hit the nail on the head. I want to get as much pleasure from swimming as I do from cycling, hiking or skiing.
The next day, the little girl took her towel and swimsuit and went outside. Cautiously, she turned the hose on and wet her bathing suit, then wrapped it up in the towel and hid it in the caragana bushes. She saw the neighbour loading her three children into their car to take them to the pool, but they ignored her. She wished her dad would buy a car, but she was sure he wouldn’t. She quickly walked up the street toward her grandmother’s house. Every time she thought of her father, the song, “Oh my papa” came to mind and tears would form in her eyes as she silently hummed the tune and wished for a wonderful papa.
“Let’s talk,” she suggested holding out my towel.
Sitting on comfortable lounging chairs, on the deck of this adult-only pool, she waits for me to start.
I am not sure what she needs to know about my life-long fear of water. Maybe I should tell her about how I have tried to learn, my series of failures.
No, I think, she needs to know why I want to learn to swim and my puzzling attraction to water.
“O.K., well, you already know I am 70 years old, seventy and a half as my grandchildren would say.”
She chuckled and glanced at the information sheet I had filled out. Birth date: November 8, 1946. Place of birth: Biggar, Saskatchewan. The prairies, she thought.
Grandma always welcomed her grandchildren into her little house with warm hugs and something good to eat. Tomato soup or cinnamon toasts were the best. Her oldest granddaughter enjoyed checking the garden each time she came for a visit. The cosmos flowers that lined the path to the back lane were already almost as tall as the child. They carefully chose a stalk of rhubarb to eat. The sour fruit dipped into the sugar bowl would take her mind off her troubles.
“I enjoy the water and some water sports.”
She looked surprised.
“During the summer I crew on a sail boat. We race twice a week on Lake Deschenes. Winters, I like to travel to warmer climes. For the last six years, I have been diving.”
Her eyebrows rise involuntarily.
“Scuba diving,” I gushed. “I learned in the Red Sea. The reefs are fascinating.
“I even guided wilderness canoe trips one summer after graduating from university.
“This summer, I am learning to row… those long narrow boats. I like the full-body workout and the team-work. But I would like to enjoy swimming as much as these other sports. I want to be able to dive into the water and swim just for fun.”
Things were OK in grade one. The young girl got into trouble with her girlfriends in Miss Reader’s class. So she must have had friends that year. In grade two, the girls liked to walk their pretty teacher, Miss Page, home. They would take turns holding her hand or carrying her books. After her dad left home, and her mother started going to church every day, the young girl spent more time looking after her little brothers and sister. That year, on her birthday, all her friends came over to her house after school for a birthday party, but her mother had forgotten. There was no cake that year.
“Are you afraid of the water?” she asked.
“Well,” I hesitate, “yes. Not as much as before; but sometimes I still panic in the water.”
“I wonder why. You seem to know the basics.”
“I am the only person in my family who knows how to swim. We didn’t have any lakes around where I grew up. Mom sent me to swimming classes one summer. Maybe I was six or seven, but the pool was crowded and some kids tried to dunk me. It was a noisy, dangerous place. I was afraid and ashamed.”
“Ashamed?” she prodded.
“Yes. Ashamed of how skinny and white I looked in a bathing suit, and ashamed of being afraid.
One day when the young girl was sitting on the front doorstep, she saw her three friends approaching her house: Alex, Janice and Debbie. They hadn’t played together for a long time. Maybe today they would let her join them in their games. She eagerly walked to the sidewalk to meet them. One by one, they walked up to her, and one by one they slapped her across the face. She just stood there too surprised to respond. Then they walked off with their heads held high. What had she done? Why did they do that? She slowly walked to the back yard and cried as she rocked herself on the swing suspended from the branch of a big tree. Her Dad had made that swing when he still lived at home.
“Then one summer, when I was sixteen, I worked as a nanny for a very rich family in Montreal. They had a pool behind their city home and a lovely house at a lake in the Laurentian Mountains. In my spare time I would try to get a tan. One day, at the public beach, I ventured out onto the long dock. I could see people playing in water up to their waists. I walked farther out and jumped in. The water was much deeper out there.
I went down, my feet touched the bottom. I bent my knees and pushed off as hard as I could, hoping to reach the surface and grab onto something. Emerging from the water, I gasped for air and saw a rope that looped along the edge of the dock. I reached for it and missed. I went down again. Tried to push off harder this time. Missed. I think I did this four times before some kind person noticed and helped me climb up onto the dock.
“Wow,” she said, “it is amazing how well you reacted. You didn’t really panic. You had a plan.”
“Well, I never jumped into any water again until I started diving.”
“So when did you learn to swim?” she asked.
“In my thirties, I used to watch our son at his swimming lessons. On Sundays, we would go to the pool and play with him. He would try to teach me. Finally, I decided to take lessons myself, but they could never get me to dive or even jump into the water.
When the young girl’s mother remarried, they moved to the country. She enjoyed making new friends. She learned to ride a horse. The family would go to church together every Sunday; people would drop by for tea or Sunday dinner. Her mother was very busy looking after her growing family, and the young girl became even more useful in the kitchen or the garden. At the one-room country school, she was getting pretty good at baseball too.
“So how did you ever learn to scuba dive?”
“I was teaching in Egypt. The whole staff went to Dahab, on the Red Sea. The water was so warm and inviting. I tried snorkelling out to a nearby reef, but I was very nervous and afraid the water would come in my snorkel. So I rationalized that if I could breathe without fear of water entering my nose or mouth, I could explore the reefs. Scuba diving seemed like the perfect solution.
“My first dive was just an exploratory dive very near the surface of the famous Blue Hole in Dahab. It was spectacular: so many fish, such a colourful variety of coral and sponges. I wanted to learn to dive!
“It wasn’t easy, but that year, I got my Basic Open Water and Advanced Open Water certificates.”
Almost fifteen, the young girl was sent to a French boarding school. She took the train all by herself. Two days and two nights to arrive in Montreal. Everyone thought she was so brave. She knew that was not true. At school she picked up French easily. Everyone thought she was so intelligent. She knew that was not true either.
“What were the hardest things to learn?” she asked.
“Oh,” pausing as I caught my breath, “jumping off the boat into the water. It felt like in those movies where the guy with the parachute is at the open door of the plane, so afraid to jump out. My knees were shaking and the crew would give me the countdown. A couple of time, I almost gave up. Maybe I was just too old to learn. Sixty-four, already.
“Waa7id” (one), “ithnaan” (two), “thalaatha” (three), they would call out. I would take a big step and sink into the ocean before rising again to the surface.”
At boarding school, the young girl was called “la grand anglaise”, for being taller than most of her companions, but she liked her nickname. She had many friends who would invite her to spend weekends with their families. She observed how her girlfriends related to their parents and siblings. Sometimes it was shocking to hear them contradict or argue with each other, and then carry on as if… as if it didn’t matter.
“And now, how are you?” she asked.
“Not a problem,” I smile, “but there are some other manoeuvres that are more difficult.”
“Like taking your mouthpiece out of your mouth when you are ten or fifteen metres under water. You have to learn to do that in case you ever need to use someone else’s air. Some instructors do it for fun. They can blow air rings, or they let a small fish nibble at their teeth! I would like to be that relaxed.”
One day, many years later, this young girl, now a mother, invited her father for a visit. He brought a photo album of pictures of her mother when they were young. Each photo was carefully positioned with silver sticky corners on black pages. Underneath, he had written short descriptions in beautiful, almost feminine-like script: “My pumpkin princess” beneath a picture of her mother sitting on a huge pumpkin and other affectionate descriptions. It was the first time she had realized that there had been love between them.
“O.K., I get the picture. You want to have a different relationship with water. You want to have fun.”
“You are right, fun swimming, jumping in, diving, and playing.”
“Well, you have come a long way already,”
“Yes, let’s get started. I don’t have another seventy years. I need to fast-track this bit,” I said throwing off my towel as I stood up, still tall, white, and skinny.