The Swimmer

– Phoebe Hamilton-Jones

The water is warm for October. Sarah watches her feet grow green as she wades into it. Soon the green will be so rich that they will disappear. Nick is behind her; he is shy and she senses that he is scared of the water, scared of the swim that they are to take across to the beautiful island. She asks him if he is sure he wants to do it and in answer he wraps his arms around her waist and plunges them both into the lake. When they rise to the surface they are laughing and his hair is slicked back on his head so that she can imagine what he would look like if he were bald.

They are silent as they swim and it is a relief somehow. They have not been abroad together before – they have not lived together before. So the quiet is pleasant. She watches a lorry wind through the trees on the opposite bank – disappear and reappear – and she thinks that it is moving very slowly and then she decides that this is because it is very far away. Sarah swims breast stroke and she lets her hand touch Nick’s shoulder but she does not turn to look at him. She feels glad that she is here with him; she feels certain that even when she was in love with her husband, he would not have agreed to swim to the beautiful island.

She can hear Nick breathing heavily beside her and so she slows her stroke. She is careful to make sure that he doesn’t realise she is treading water. She has always been a strong swimmer. If she has children she will make them taking swimming lessons from the age of five. She also wants to have a water birth, she thinks – she always liked the sound of the phrase ‘water baby’.

This silence isn’t like the silence between Sarah and Gus. She finds it ironic that she is having this affair because of Gus’ silence, because they started to listen to the radio during dinner and he stopped answering her calls when he was at work. Yes, thinks Sarah, this silence is soft, maybe that is the difference.

‘That was lovely.’ Nick says, ’I’ll admit I wasn’t sure I was up to it before we started but you find a rhythm don’t you?’ They flop on the beautiful island’s beach, ‘I wish we’d brought something to eat, I’m starving.’

For a while they talk about other lakes in the world and other places that they should visit. Nick asks about her swimming career at school and they both laugh when she describes her tantrum in the changing room when her father forgot to bring her flippers.

I grew up in a land-locked village,’ Nick says ‘so swimming wasn’t an option till I was twelve and I started secondary school. We used to take the coach –‘
‘What about Suffolk?’ she asks.

‘What do you mean? God! I was fifteen when I first saw the sea. Fifteen? Can you believe that? That wouldn’t happen now.’

‘But I thought you spent your summers with Gus’s family at the coast.’ And then, because he still looks blank, she says firmly, ‘Didn’t you?’

Yes, she is right, she is sure that she is right. When they were introduced last May at Gus’ aunt’s garden party, she had been told that he was the famous Nick. And then in the car home she had pressed Gus for the story again. He had only had childhood memories of Nick burying him in the sand at the cove and his intense fear that the tide might rise and he might drown. She hadn’t taken it further; even then she hadn’t wanted him to be suspicious.

Sarah throws a handful of sand into the lake and watches it dent the water and disappear.

‘Then how did you know Gus’ aunt?’

She’s irritated when he turns pink at her blunt mentioning of Gus.

‘I don’t know, I – I used to walk her dog when I was a teenager, she was kind to me when my mother was ill.’
Sarah stares out at the lake and a cormorant skids along the surface kicking up spay in its wake. It dives, but it catches nothing. Nick is asking her about their plans for supper but she isn’t listening.

Nick places his large hands on her shoulders and begins to massage them. She sits still for a while and then gets up to pick up a fat black stone. She weighs it in her palm and traces her finger around its contours. She wants to throw it into the water but decides the stone is too beautiful for that so instead she hands it to Nick. For a moment she considers asking him to bury her in the sand but then she remembers that she doesn’t like feeling trapped and she worries that the tide might rise even though lakes are never tidal. Before they swim back Nick tries to kiss her but she turns away.

She swims quickly. She feels guilty and doesn’t know whether it is because of Gus alone in their flat with the radio or because she has not been kind to Nick or because she ruined the peace on the beautiful island. Nick falls behind and this time she doesn’t tread water and she doesn’t wait for him. It is growing dark and she tells herself that they should have started sooner.
She has plunged in too fast. She thought he was a different man. She thought that he liked swimming and that once he had had the better of her husband. Once Nick had made her husband feel trapped. She didn’t know that this had mattered until she had discovered that it wasn’t true. She would like to think that nothing had changed on the beautiful island but something had.

When she reaches the shore, night is falling, she shivers on the sand and waits. She cannot hear Nick and she is worried that he has disappeared into the lake. When he wades out the water the beautiful island is shrouded in darkness and she cannot see his face.