LEARNING TO SWIM
© Anne Summerfield
Shanthi is teaching us to swim.
‘Now,’ she says, ‘show me your best push and glide. Let’s see who can get the furthest. Yes?’
Here in the shallow end, the pool reflects cloudless blue. There’s a ridge of tiles, a bar that we claw with our hands, our arms stretched taut behind us. We put our best chests forward, feet against tile glaze.
We push hard with our thighs, move our arms forward so the fingers become points, flat palms together. My face is down, so that all I see is the bottom of the pool, the rush of water. The motion is strong. I travel well. When I stop, stand, I find I am almost at the other side. The rest are dotted like fishermen, each in her leggings, t-shirt, goggles over her eyes. We are all smiling. Shanthi is pleased, claps her hands.
‘You have done well,’ she calls, ‘you swimmers.’
Everyone says swimming is a skill best learned in childhood. Most of us had children of our own. Pushpa and Chandrika both had grandchildren, my son and daughter were close to full grown. Shanthi is hardly more than a girl. She makes her leggings merge into the tail of a dolphin when she demonstrates for us.
‘Now, on your backs,’ she says.
Many of us resisted backstroke at first. Pushpa complained about being forced, told me afterwards how she felt a need to see, was terrified of what might be behind her head – a wall, a limb – something she might hit, unprepared.
‘You must learn to float,’ Shanthi had said. So Pushpa learned along with the rest, learned to let the chambers of her ears fill with water and to force her belly up. She would lie, biting her lips till they frayed like unedged silk, but she would persist. As she does today. Shanthi no longer insists on us relaxing.
It was my husband who saw the notice pinned to a telegraph pole in the street. Women’s Swimming. Before, he never would have suggested anything like this. Before, he was more concerned about propriety than anyone I knew.
‘But,’ he said, ‘suppose it happened again? What if I was to lose you too?’ Then he said, ‘I order you to learn to swim.’ But his eyes were smiling. He’s never ordered me in his life. Romesh is a good man. I am blessed.
I said I’d think about the swimming, but I tried to forget. At the market I got the sort of rice he likes best, the first for a very long time. We had good meals. I massaged his feet with oil. He kissed me in our bed at night and asked gently if I was ready for love, but I was not, I was afraid. He held me close and didn’t complain.
Two weeks after he’d seen the notice he mentioned the swimming again.
‘Shall I sign you up? Let me arrange this for you.’ And he did, though I don’t remember saying yes.
‘This is what you are to wear. ’ He handed me a slip of paper. ‘It is all very discreet.’
I have seen pictures of women in books, women from other lands and long ago dressed for bathing. In the changing room at the pool we looked more covered and far stranger.
I was sick to my stomach at the thought of getting into water. I leaned to the basin just in time. I felt a warm press of flesh and fabric across my shoulder, a reassuring arm.
‘I was the same last week,’ the woman said. ‘You will be fine.’
As I straightened, rinsed my mouth she announced, ‘I am Pushpa.’ And she smiled as much as any of us could in those days. She was a little older than me, hair white instead of grey.
‘It is important to learn,’ Pushpa said and I thought for a moment she was the teacher. But she wasn’t, she was the same as me, another beginner. We walked round to the pool.
There was a smell, nothing like the sea. All water must be the same, rolling together like beads of mercury, combining seamlessly, malevolently. I would have to part the water with my skin, break it.
We stood on the side, Pushpa next to me in her dark blue leggings, her t-shirt down to her knees. The other women smelled of cooking oil, of sweat and fear. One was fat with child, dipping her toes.
The instructor, Shanthi, greeted us with a bow. Pushpa and the others sat down, water lapped their ankles and calves. The pregnant girl held the side of her belly, the baby must have been kicking, the unborn protesting. But its mother turned, eased herself into the pool.
‘Sit down,’ Pushpa said. So I did, keeping my knees bent, my feet from the damp.
‘Now wet your ankles,’ she said. ‘I dare you.’
I placed the sole of my left foot on the water’s surface as if I planned to step on it. But the water was choppy, disturbed by the others. Its surface was uncertain, did not hold. My foot slipped through and into the current. Cool and sensuous.
‘Nice?’ said Pushpa, and I had to agree.
‘Time to get in,’ Shanthi said, but she too was kind. I slid into the water, and again it surprised me. I couldn’t resist it. It felt good. Shanthi grinned, just at me. ‘Well done.’ Then more loudly she said, ‘Now ladies, it is time to put your faces in.’
When the world changed, I thought I would never feel any sort of pleasure again. Then, after only a few weeks, I found I wanted Romesh all the time, needed his flesh to remind me that I was alive. He seemed the same. We were locked in a dark honeymoon, greedy with passion. But desire left me as suddenly as it came. I pushed him away. I should have told him I loved him more than ever. I’ll never know if he understood.
But the swimming seems to release me. Six weeks after I start the lessons, Romesh and I make love and it is tender and intense. Afterwards he smiles through his tears, keeps saying, ‘my love, my love.’ I do not tell Pushpa or the others, but they too are smiling more, seem more at ease in their skins. Perhaps there is a cure in this water, in this flow that surrounds us.
‘Front crawl,’ Shanthi says. ‘Shall we race?’
Pushpa is the first to agree. Once she is off her back she is the most eager of us all. She was the first to master the breathing, to learn to snort out and not swallow down.
‘Imagine your nostrils are two upturned glasses,’ Shanthi told us. ‘You can see the liquid at the rim, but there is still air at the top. Unless you suck it up, the water will stay below the air. You must learn not to gasp when you feel it.’
We line up on the side, ready to race, adjust our goggles. If men could see us now, but of course they cannot, they would understand how pure this is. Only an insane man could find us arousing, here with our leggings sagging over our knees, our eyes rimmed with thick plastic and rubber. Everyone’s hair is straggling and tangled. We get into our places, wait for the word from Shanthi, then we are off.
We tear at the water, savage it, curling our hands over as Shanthi has taught us, blading the surface. We kick fast and deep, try to produce motion instead of spray. On alternate right strokes, we breathe. No one is afraid. We are all desperate to win.
This time it is Pushpa. We cheer her, laughing and whooping. Shanthi is jubilant on the bank though we have soaked her yellow Instructor t-shirt.
‘Free time,’ Shanthi says. ‘Practice what you like.’
Some of the women gambol in the water. Pushpa swims conscientiously, seriously, back and forth across the pool. She told me last week, ‘If I can be good enough, I can learn how to rescue others, perhaps even teach classes myself.’ She is restless with the need to be useful, to do more.
I float on my back, look at the new ceiling of frosted glass, the way it softens the yellow sunlight to palest grey. I try to relax, to trust the water. More and more I do. Like a contrite adulterer, it is wooing me back. I am permitting intimacies again.
Pool water isn’t the same as the ocean. It smells of bleach, tastes of chemical blends. Sanitary water, the microbes gone, traces of life and death taken away. The ocean is awash with emotion, sucking and spitting like a new swimmer trying not to drown.
Shanthi says it is time to get changed. Pushpa smiles at me as she finishes her lengths. She would be soaked with sweat if the water had not washed it away.
It takes a while to dress, long hair, layers of garments, but Pushpa and I leave together, as we often do, make our way outside. The pool was one of the first buildings to be repaired. The street shows the damage – trees yet to be cleared, spaces where buildings used to be. The road itself is coated with dried mud that never seems to get brushed away. The gutters, full of branches and leaves, still give off that smell of rot.
‘Will you be back next week?’ Pushpa asks, as she does each time.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘But now I will go and look at the ocean.’
She bows her head in parting.
It is a long walk but I know it well. I travel steadily. There is no reason to rush. From the beach, I look out at the water, think of my son, my daughter, the wave that took them with its fury. Today, the sea is blue as lapis lazuli. Calm. I breathe in the scent of salt and fish, hold it in my lungs without tears or retching, then I take my wet leggings and towel home, hang them to dry in the sun.