The Perfect Stroke

PWG International Writing Competition 2016 highly commended Emma Myatt 

She begins with a length underwater.  Down here everything makes sense and she remembers being here before. She can hear her heart and feel every muscle in her body. She’s free. She comes to the surface at the deep end, takes a breath, executes a supple turn and starts her swim.

Pull, kick, glide… Eleven strokes to a length, a longer glide to the wall and a silky flick to turn. Every now and then she throws in a few freestyle lengths to give her neck a rest. The blue swimsuit is an extra layer of skin, bending and flexing with her body. At the pull she reaches ever further, with the kick she propels herself forwards as hard as she can and at the glide she must be like an arrow, perfectly straight, tips of toes to tips of fingers. Pull kick glide goes her body over and over again in search of the perfect stroke.

There’s always something wrong. One finger will be slightly in front of the other. One toe lags below. Her stomach is more clenched on one side. It’s hard work. Her breathing, too, must be perfect; start the exhale just as her arms are reaching forwards for the glide. The exhale must finish just as her head is reaching its highest point. She wishes she could control which way the bubbles flow but they’re haphazard, running up her face and past her ears.

Pull, kick, glide and she’s pretty sure she’s approaching length number 50, so she makes the length only take seven strokes, gliding spearlike further with each stroke.

Someone’s getting into her lane.

She swims right down the middle of the lane, fast, but the person comes in anyway. It spoils everything and wrecks her count but she’s no choice except to finish the swim. She can’t change lanes partway through. The person is a man – even worse – and he’s wearing blue trunks. Her colour. She turns without giving him any attention at all and pushes off the wall, furiously reaching into the first stroke.

All the way up the pool she can feel him behind her like a shark and her breathing has to change to drive her faster. He must not overtake, that would just ruin everything. At the turn she sees him a quarter of a length behind and is relieved; they’re a similar speed.

She swims on but it’s all ruined. She wants to sink, simply let go and sit on the bottom and breathe there; be unseen until the pool is closed and she can continue on her own, alone. She’s no choice but to leave the pool now.

At the shallow end she touches the wall and bounces up high from the bottom. She rises up out of the water and onto the side.

‘Sarah!’ she hears, from behind.

Head down, she makes for the changing rooms.

He’s there, waiting, by the door. She stops. There’s nowhere to go, only the fire exit and that would make everyone notice.

‘Hey, Sarah.’ His voice is gentle.

‘What do you want?’ she says.

‘To talk,’ he says.

She holds both hands out in front of her. ‘No,’ she says.

‘Please, Sarah.’

But she squares her shoulders against him and slips past and leaves the building. A bus is there waiting.

The following day she’s cautious. She thinks she remembers a man in her lane. It could have been yesterday so she should be careful.

She changes into the swimsuit she bought at the pool shop, a red one. She doesn’t know if red will be all right, but it’ll disguise her a bit. It makes her feel strange, wearing red. She’s got a new hat, too, white with blue stripes. She can’t afford goggles too but she wears a different pair from yesterday, an old pair she found in a drawer.

There’s an empty lane which she takes as a good omen. She slips into the water. After a few deep breaths she sits down, curls herself over and kicks off, along the bottom. She covers the 25 metres with ease, flying along the bottom of the pool, touching the end, feeling as if she could swim forever.

She’s on length 87 when her goggles start to leak. This is a huge problem because if she stops, she’ll have to swim extra, to balance it out. She tries to carry on but her eyes sting and she can’t endure it. She stops in the deep end and adjusts her goggles. She’s just about to push away again when she hears two of the lifeguards talking in low voices.

‘You’d never guess, would you? She’s here every day. Can hardly see the scars. The attack-’

‘Shhhhh, she’s-’

Sarah shakes her head and swims off. None of her business. She hates it when people talk about other people. It’s happened to her sometime, though she can’t remember when.

She’s on 89, trying to work out how many extra she’ll have to do when it all goes wrong and a man gets into her lane. She shakes her head underwater. Was it yesterday there was a man? If she gets out he might follow her but if she carries on swimming he won’t be able to talk to her.

Pull, kick, glide she swims and the rhythm calms her. The man sets off before her, just as she’s about to reach the wall. She sinks down and breathes out a tower of bubbles in the water, watches them go to the surface and sees the man’s feet disappearing. Ahead of her is all right; if he’s ahead she can keep an eye on him.

At 99 she turns and swims back to the shallow end underwater. It hurts. Just halfway down the pool her lungs want to burst, but she pushes on. Spots dance in front of her eyes and a passing thought, just breathe it in, flits across her mind. She makes it to the end; she doesn’t know how but she does. The air is clean and warm and she gulps it down.

‘That was pretty good,’ says a voice. ‘Especially at the end of your swim.’

It’s a man and he looks familiar but Sarah cannot place him. She’s not got enough air to speak yet but she nods. She reaches up and pulls off her swimming hat, and notices it’s not her blue one. Strange, she thinks, and then she looks down and sees a red swimsuit. She frowns.

‘You have a lot of swimsuits,’ says the man.

Sarah stares at him.

‘I was here yesterday. And the day before.’

‘Did we… Did we speak?’ She manages.

The man smiles at her, and nods. ‘We spoke. We speak often. I know a little about you.’

‘I need to go,’ she says in a hurry. Something is wrong with his words. Sarah pushes herself up out of the pool.

Outside he’s there, waiting. He smiles a cautious, gentle smile. ‘I’m sorry, Sarah,’ he says. ‘I thought, I thought you might have…’ he sighs. ‘It doesn’t matter. Can I see you to the bus?’

She doesn’t say yes but he walks next to her anyway. A bus is there waiting for her. A woman – again, familiar – is standing next to the big door.

‘Hi Sarah,’ she says. ‘Good swim? Hiya, Duncan.’

Sarah’s mouth opens as she turns to look at the man. He’s smiling at the woman. Sarah wants to get back into the pool, where things make sense.

‘See you tomorrow?’ he says, as he turns away.

Sarah stares. And shrugs. The woman helps her onto the bus.

‘He likes you. And he’s okay. You can trust him; I’ve known him for years,’ she says to Sarah. ‘He’s been made redundant. You should be kind to him.’

‘What’s your name again?’ Sarah asks the woman.

‘Moira, love. I’m Moira. Not having a great day today, are we? One of your bad ones?’

Sarah shakes her head. Tears prick her eyes and make the world go blurry. She watches the fuzzy cars and people and houses slide past. The woman, Moira, is talking in a whispery voice behind her. Sarah can hear what she’s saying and it’s about her and it’s about that man, and she doesn’t want to hear so she starts humming a tune she knows but can’t remember the name of.

Pull, kick, glide goes her body, up and down and up and down and she’s building a pyramid of strokes; she’s been close to the perfect stroke a few times. It’s a good day. She’s seen Dr Memory, as Moira calls him, and he said she was making progress. Whatever that means. She can remember yesterday, and something last week.

When Duncan slips into her lane she smiles at him and says, ‘Hi, Duncan.’ The reward is a smile so bright it makes her insides go fluttery.

They swim together, side by side, and she likes the way his strokes match hers. He even shares her underwater world for a little while, before he runs out of air and bursts up to the surface. At the edge of the pool he laughs and calls her a mermaid, which she likes.

As they get out he says, ‘Would you like a coffee?’

She discovers he’s divorced and he’s lost his job, which should make him feel sad, but he likes coming swimming and taking the dog for a walk and he doesn’t mind, not really. ‘Another job will come along’, he tells her.

‘How long have we known each other?’ she says.

‘About two months,’ he says, studying her face.

She feels her heart lurch. She wants to run. He covers her hand with his own.

‘It’s all right, Sarah. I’m your friend. I just want to be your friend. Today seems like a pretty good day. Do you remember us talking yesterday? Moira said if you tried to talk about days before, it would help.’

Sarah looks and him and knows he is kind. He has a kind face. But she doesn’t want to talk to him about yesterday, or any yesterdays. There is something, some clue lurking there on the edge of her mind. She knows if she goes digging for it, she could dislodge it. But she shakes her head.

‘There’s nothing. I better go. Moira said there would be a bus for me.’

‘I’ll come with you. You look bonny today, Sarah,’ he says in his soft voice and Sarah feels a strange flutter deep inside her. ‘I’d like to help you get better. Moira said any new friendships are good.’

‘I’ll maybe see you tomorrow then,’ Sarah says.

Pull, kick, glide goes her body, over and over, making its own shapes in the water. Her green swimsuit makes her feel like a mermaid. I’m in love with the water, she thinks to herself. And every stroke feels close to perfect. Toes almost together, bubbles in a stream either side of her head, fingertips touching. Nothing else matters but this. Why can’t she live in the water? Then life would be all right. All the odd stuff that happens when she gets out, the lines that blur at the edges; all of this is gone in the water. In the water she knows who she is. She’s a swimmer, and she can count. She rolls over in the water like a seal, twice, at lengths 49 and 51 and the second time she feels the water caress every inch of her, feels some loose hair escaped from her hat, feels the wonderful weight of water on her back. It is beauty itself. She’ll swim further today. It might make the counting hard, but she’s sure she can manage it. It’s the only thing that doesn’t feel confusing.

But then it’s all ruined. Just as she turns at the deep end, she sees someone getting into her lane.

It’s a man. And for some reason, he’s waving at her.


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