Friday Fiction: A Crack in the Pool
Dad used to take us swimming every Saturday. Me, my sister and my dad always got ready together in one of the big family changing rooms. Emma had her swimsuit on already and just took off the dress she was wearing over the top. It only took her a second and she said voila! when she was ready. She was always showing off. She had a new swimsuit that was pink and had light purple flowers around the top of it and straps that crossed over at the back.
I had packed my bag by myself. I’d remembered everything, even my goggles. My swimsuit was purple and it used to be Emma’s and it was a bit tight, it cut into me under the arms and around the bum. Mum always said I have her thighs. She said that was just the way we were made. You could tell Emma chose that swimsuit it because it was pink. One day I would probably have that one, too. I hated pink.
My goggles were green and they were a bit too small as well, and left deep lines on my face after swimming and made my eyes look like they were popping out. They felt like they were actually sucking my eye balls out.
Dad did a trick with his towel while he got changed into his trunks. He managed to hide inside the towel and get undressed really fast without anyone ever seeing. He could do it on the beach as well. When he had finished he said ta-da and you could tell he was pulling his stomach in.
He put a pound coin in the locker. I wanted to look after the locker key, it comes with a strap and you can wear it like a watch, or put it around your ankle, but Emma said I’d only lose it. You lose everything, she said. You’re always losing things. I said that was not true, she was lying, and Dad said, that’s enough girls, I’ll look after it myself, and he put the key on his own wrist. Right, let’s go, he said.
There was a sign saying no running, so we walked as fast as we could without slipping across the wet tiled floor in our bare feet and when we came through the double doors of the changing rooms into the pool area the noises of the pool all echoed in my head like there was already water in my ears. We were moving fast, swinging out our hips like those speed walkers. The chlorine smell got stronger and stronger, I could even taste it in my mouth. It’s not a race, Dad said, but we both wanted to get to the pool first.
Emma said, you might as well give up because I’m always faster than you. But she only got to the side faster because her legs are longer than mine and anyway she is two years older. So it’s not surprising she got there first. It’s much easier to walk fast when your legs are longer. When she got to the side she did a sitting dive, plouf, into the water.
The water was pale turquoise which is my favourite colour. It’s Mum’s too. Except the thing is when you hold the water in your hands, when you make your hands into a cup and let the water sit in the little dip they make, then you can see the water has no colour at all. I don’t know how that works. I jumped in feet first and tried to feel the moment when the water hit my tummy. That’s when you knew whether it was cold or not. Like when you walk into the sea, it’s always OK until the cold water hits your tummy. That’s when you squeal.
It wasn’t too cold and the first thing I did was a mushroom float, that’s when you pull your knees close and let your body fold round into the water and your back and your bottom float up up up, and your head rolls down, and I could feel the water rushing into my ears, I could see the big bubbles from my mouth floating up and I could feel them against my face, it felt like my nose was filling with water. I wondered what it had to do with mushrooms. I don’t even think mushrooms grow in water. Then I stood up to take a breath and did a star float on my front and looked at the bottom of the pool through my too tight goggles. IT was hard to stay still because there are always loads of people, on a Saturday, and the water moves too much.
I tried to hold my breath as long as I could and looked at the bottom of the pool and I could see one of the tiles was cracked. I wondered if a crack in the tiles could let the water drain out, and if it did what would happen to the water. I wondered whether we would all be pulled spiralling towards the hole like when you take the plug out of the bath and you can feel the water dragging your hand down towards the plug hole. I wondered if the swimming pool would make a flood in the car park and whether the car would be washed away down the road like you see on TV when the weather goes crazy because of climate change. I tried to do a handstand in the water to look more closely at the crack, I wanted to put my hand over it to feel if it would be pulled down, but I’m not very good at those yet and I couldn’t get my hand in the right place for long enough.
When I was doing a star float on my back I saw dad still wasn’t in the pool yet. I was going to call him to come in and play like he usually did, but someone swimming by kicked me and I went under a bit and I swallowed some water. When I stood up I was coughing. Dad was standing by the ladder that goes into the pool a bit further up from where I was. On Saturdays they split the pool into two, on one side it’s for playing and on the other side there are lanes for grown ups swimming lengths up and down the pool. He was squinting at the people swimming lengths in the lanes.
While I watched him a woman passed me, sort of gliding, hardly kicking, I felt her slither past, almost touching me, and she climbed up the ladder. You could see the muscles on the back of her legs changing shape when she climbed up the ladder. Her skin was pale like paper. I thought dad was waiting for her to get out so he could get in the water and play with us, but he stayed standing there and she stood right in front of him and looked up at him. When she stood next to him she looked tiny. He was much taller than she was and looked about twice as wide. She wiped the water off her face and lifted her goggles off her eyes. He was smiling at her and they were talking. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because my ears were full of water and anyway the pool was really noisy on Saturdays.
The woman was wearing a black swimming costume and had a black swimming hat on even though you don’t have to wear one in that swimming pool. I couldn’t guess what colour her hair was underneath. She had a small face with a little pointed chin. Her arms were thin and she kept rubbing the back of her neck with her hand as she spoke to Dad. She had put her goggles on the top of her head like people do with sunglasses. When mum does that with sunglasses they never sit straight, they go wonky. She laughs at herself in the mirror and says she must have one ear higher than the other. This woman looked like everything about her was perfectly lined up. Dad did that thing where you beckon with your finger. He was looking at me.
I kicked hard to swim over to where they were and I pulled myself out of the water on the side instead of climbing up the ladder because I had to practice doing that. I wasn’t very good at it and you had to learn in case you had to climb out like that in an emergency. Like if I fell in a river or a lake or something and I had to get out and there were no steps and no beach. I was supposed to kick my legs and push up with my arms. Emma could always do it really quickly but for me it took a few goes to get it right. After a bit I was on my tummy on the cold tiles, like a stranded seal, dad said, and then I stood up. Emma was about to do another sitting dive but she saw me on the side and got up and came to where we were standing.
There was water dripping off my nose and my ears felt all blocked up. I took off my goggles and felt where they had been with my finger. I could feel they had already left a mark. Dad said, this is Sara, she’s a friend from the office. She was smiling at us and her teeth were really straight. I could see a little bit of red hair by her ears. She had freckles on her nose and her eyes were blue. I wished I had blue eyes like Sara’s. Emma’s got blue eyes but mine are hazel and that’s not really a colour.
Say hello, girls, said dad. This is Emma, he said. Emma said hello. And this is Rachel. Say hello Rachel. I said hello and then I jumped on one leg with my head on one side. I had a swooshing sound in my head because of water in my ears and that is what you’re supposed to do to stop that swooshing sound in your head. She looked a bit surprised and sort of laughed at me, but there was a crinkle on her forehead like I was doing something weird. I wanted to tell her it worked, it got the swooshing sound to go, but she was already looking up at Dad over our heads, then she looked back at me and Emma and she said it was nice to meet us, and she’d heard a lot about us. We should we get you back in the pool now, she said. You look cold, honey. She said that to Emma. Then she slid herself into the pool next to the ladder like a sea snake. I didn’t know anyone else who called people honey.
I’d met people from Dad’s work before. One of the ladies from the office used to babysit for us when we were little, she was nice, but mum wouldn’t let her come again after she found her smoking out the window in the living room when they got back from the theatre one night. I wondered if Sara might come and babysit for us. I thought she probably didn’t smoke but I thought she might be quite strict. She looked quite serious.
Sara put her goggles back on and looked up at us all standing there by the pool. Have a good swim, she said, and swam back to the lanes, then did front crawl down to the deep end. We all watched her. She swam properly with her face in the water, turning her head to the side to breathe. Dad put his towel down on a bench and me and Emma jumped in the pool, then Dad plopped into the water next to us and made a bigger splash. We played shark attack and dolphin show. That was my always favourite game, where I climbed on his back and he was the dolphin and he carried me around the pool.
We didn’t go swimming the next Saturday or the one after because it was half term and we were going to stay at Grandma’s. Dad drove us and he didn’t stop for a cup of tea or anything. Grandma had loads of toys but some of them were really old and fragile. She kept the oldest ones in a box and usually wouldn’t let us touch them. She said some of them were Mum’s and some were even Grandma’s when she was little and this time, if we were careful, we could play with them. There was a doll with red hair and blue eyes and pink painted lips and a pointed chin. Emma said we should call it Sara.
On the Saturday, after tea, Mum came to take us home. Grandma hugged her much longer than she usually did and then Mum drove us home and Emma fell asleep on the way. She always fell asleep in the car. I never did, I liked to look out the window and try to see in through the windows of the houses we went past, or guess what the people in the other cars were talking about. Sometimes I’d pretend to yawn, a really big yawn, and I’d wonder if the people in the car next to us would think I was screaming because I had my mouth wide open.
Mum hardly spoke, she said she had a terrible headache. When we got home it was getting dark and Dad gave us a big hug and said he’d missed us and we could get straight into pyjamas without even having a bath. Then he came up to our bedrooms and said could we come downstairs, please.
On the Monday at school Mrs Knibbs made us write a story beginning with Imagine my surprise when dot dot dot. We could use our imaginations or tell a true story. We could choose. Luna read out hers and it went, Imagine my surprise when I opened the box of cornflakes and a field mouse jumped out and ran across the kitchen table. Mrs Knibbs said that was good use of imagination and Luna said it wasn’t imagination, it was true. But I didn’t think so. I didn’t see how you could have a mouse living in your cereal box in the kitchen and not know about it.
When it was my turn I read out my story. It went: Imagine my surprise when my dad told us that he’s moving out to live with Sara from the office. I didn’t even finish reading it because all at once it felt like I was sinking, like I was being sucked downwards under water. When I ran out Mrs Knibbs came after me.
Even when I had stopped crying I was still sobbing, like I was gulping air, and I couldn’t stop for a long time. Mrs Knibbs put me on a chair in a corner of the staff room with a glass of water and a digestive biscuit and said she would call my mum. I’d never even been in the staff room before. It smelled of coffee and the material on the chairs was rough under my legs and my feet didn’t quite reach the floor. She said, would you like to talk to me about what is happening at home, Rachel? I said no thank you and I looked down and I saw there was a scab on my knee and I couldn’t remember how I got it. I felt the bumps on the scab with my fingers and wondered if it was ready or if my knee would bleed if I picked it off. She patted my hand and then she went to ask Mr Castleton if Emma could be excused, and Emma came and sat with me. The swooshing sound in my ears was not so loud now, it felt a little bit like waves because it was coming and going. I felt a bit better when Emma came. She wasn’t even annoying. We sat in the staffroom on our own and waited for Mum.
Sandra Haurant is a British writer based in France. Her work was shortlisted for Synaesthesia Magazine's 2018 flash fiction contest.