Competition 2008/9 winners

The final judging is complete. Exeter Writers would like to thank all those who entered the competition and wrote such a fascinating and varied selection of short stories. We hope you enjoy reading the winning stories. The final line-up is:

First prize:

Learning to Swim
by Anne Summerfield

Second prize:

Honour thy Father
by Tony Matthews

Third prize:

Swimming Away
by Clare Reddaway


(not in order of preference)

Marigolds in Winter
by Linda Mitchelmore

Life Class
by Anne M Watts

The Scapedog by Anne Goodwin

Rosie's Kiss by Joan Moules

The Dog in the Pram by Maggie Knutson

Gaudy by Martin Sorrell

Straight A's by Ian Burton

Matoose Rowsay by Jenny Knight

Flight of the Worm by Janet Edwards

Ready to Explode by Catherine Scott

Swimming Away / 3rd in 2009/9 Competition


© Clare Reddaway

She is sitting on the beach, alone. Her legs are curled under her, and her hands are feeling the pebbles at her side. They are smooth, like ducks’ eggs. They fit snugly into her palm. The kind of pebble David used to kill Goliath, she thinks. She looks out over the sea. It is pewter, it is lead. The waves are bloated and sullen. They clutch at the shore and rasp as they retreat, surly as a kicked cur. The wet shore shines with the slug trail residue of the waves. The cliffs, honey and butter in sunshine, are the grey of gravestones and loneliness.

She turns the pebbles over and over, rhythmically, rocking. The wind has turned her long hair into whips which lash her cheeks red and raw. She does not tuck it behind her ears. She does not look at the bag that squats beside her. She thinks back, to the time before. She can’t help it. Then, the sun was shining and the beach was innocent.

* * * * *

“Mum!” The child’s voice is high and excited. “Look!”
      Rosie is holding up a strand of bladder wrack as long as her whole body. It is wrapping itself around her legs and slapping against her plump little tummy encased in its white, poppy-splattered costume.
      “Great!” says Rosie’s Mum. “The mermaid’s tail.” She is busy fashioning the stones into a face and body: dried seaweed for hair, razor bills for earrings, limbs a line of carefully chosen white pebbles. Together they place the bladder wrack under the limpet- shell belt and curve the tip towards the sea.
      “She’s taller than me,” says Rosie, and she lies flat on her back, arms outstretched, to demonstrate the exceptional height of the mermaid with her weedy tail.
      “When the waves come in, will she swim away?”
      “Maybe,” says her Mum, “Maybe she will.”

* * * * *

She starts to dig. At first, she is careful. She lifts the pebbles out, one by one, and piles them to one side. They form a cairn. As she gets down below the first layer, the stones are smaller, spikier, wetter, with more sand in the mixture. She scrabbles at them but as she scrapes, the sides cave in on top of her hands. The hole remains shallow. The fingernail on the middle finger of her left hand jangles with pain as a flint drives under the nail. Pleased, she presses down on the stone. A drop of blood falls into the mix. It is deep enough. She begins to widen, lengthen and shape the trench.

* * * * *

Hand in hand they skip down the beach. The waves are big today, topped by white horses whipped up by a summer breeze, but they are clear and clean as they slap on the shingle. The sea has left a sandy strip which snakes the length of the pebbly beach. Rosie and her Mum want to see their footprints: two big, two small. The sand sucks at their feet as they leap.
      “Look how far I can jump, Mum!” cries Rosie, and leaps so high and so far that her Mum thinks she will reach the sun.
      “Look how far Mum can jump!” cries Mum, and it is not so very far, really, but she laughs and hugs Rosie and the sun catches her daughter’s hair and turns it into mermaid gold.

* * * * *

She has finished. There is a shape gouged out of the pebbles. A human figure. A head, two arms, a torso, legs, no tail. Recognisable. Carefully she selects a pebble, white, round, a duck’s egg, and places it on the edge of the shoulder. She finds a second, pure white, and lays it next to the first, not quite touching. She is drawing an outline. Like a murder victim at an American crime scene, she thinks, but the bubble of laughter does not rise in her throat. She does not know why she glances up, at that moment. A man is standing on the edge of the cliff. To her, he is the size of the middle finger of her left hand. Panic sweeps over her like sweat. He is too far away to hear her when she screams, to far to feel the stone she throws, David at Goliath.

* * * * *

“When’s Daddy coming back?” says Rosie.
      “In a while,” says her Mum, but she’s been wondering too. He’s gone for ice-creams and a stroll. He doesn’t like the beach. He says the cliffs make him claustrophobic. That the stones dig into his feet.
      “I want to paddle,” says Rosie and she grabs at her beach shoes. They are at the bottom of the basket, under the picnic. As she pulls the shoes out, the Tupperware box with the sandwiches in it breaks open and the ham and the cheese and the wholemeal bread slices fall into the sand, butter side down.
      “Rosie! Watch what you’re doing!” Her Mum is sharp, harsh. Rosie shrinks, crouching to pull on her shoes, head bowed, face concealed. Her Mum sighs.
      “Never mind. We’ll be mermaids when we eat it. I bet they’re used to sand in their sandwiches.”
      Rosie lifts her head and grins. “D’you think mermaids’ bread gets soggy underwater, Mum? D’you think they have Weetabix for breakfast? Can I stick seaweed on my legs to make a tail?” Rosie chatters as her Mum picks up the food, carefully brushing the sand from each piece to make it clean.

* * * * *

The man has gone. She is alone again. Alone with her shape, white-rimmed, bleached. She smoothes the body, strokes the face. Arms and legs splayed, it is like the sand angel a child makes when she throws herself spread-eagled on to the first beach of the summer. She wonders whether it is a comfortable shape. Should she have formed a curled figure, foetal, protected, warm? Is the sand angel too exposed? Or does it feel wild and free?

* * * * *

The mobile trills. Rosie’s Mum scrabbles through the beach bag. I can c u, the text reads. Her heart thuds as if they were still new lovers and she looks up and around, smiling. There are families on the beach, throwing balls, eating, lying in the sun. She can’t see him. She looks further up. She shades her eyes against the sun with her hand. There is a man, the size of the middle finger of her left hand, standing on the top of the cliff. He is waving. She laughs, and stands up, waving back. He is still waving. Now, he is waving with both arms. She waves back, with both arms, amused. His arms are flailing, urgent. She is puzzled. Is he pointing? She turns around.
      On the top of the nearest wave bobs a white swimming costume splattered with poppies. It disappears from sight.

* * * * *

She reaches into her bag, lifts out the tin canister and stands it on the pebbles. She hesitates before she unscrews the lid and her hand trembles as she reaches inside. There is not much in there, considering. She takes a handful of ash. The flakes are large and sticky. She starts with the head. She trickles the cinders into her outline, filling it in, turning it pale grey.

* * * * *

Running in slow motion. She must go faster, her legs are rocks, she is dragging them and then she is in the water, diving, gasping, down, under, eyes open, arms out stretching, searching, empty, up for air, screaming ‘Help!’, swallowing and choking, then under again, into the swirl of the waves, the water thick, roaring in her ears, blocking her but clear and clean and she sees floating down a flash of white and thrusts towards it, grabbing and pulling, bubbles coming from a tiny mouth, hair weed flowing from a tiny head and out of the water bursting, gasping, holding her daughter in her arms and crying and hugging and struggling to the shore, she puts the little body flat on the sand and wipes the hair from the face.
      Rosie’s eyes open and she smiles. “I was a mermaid, Mum, swimming like a mermaid!”
      She is laughing and crying and hugging and kissing the beloved cheeks, still shiny salty wet. Rosie has held her breath. No water in her mouth, no water in her lungs, no damage, the smile wide and warm. Alive.
      Her breathing slows and her heart calms. She remembers. She looks up, expectant, to the cliff edge, a wave and a smile hovering. There is no-one there. At the bottom of the cliff there is a huddle of people, their backs to the sea, bending over something, staring. A woman is running away from the group, towards the café at the end of the beach. All the families on the beach are staring at the group at the bottom of the cliff.
      As if it belongs to someone else, she hears her heart begin to pound and the blood rush into her ears.

* * * * *

The shape is coloured in. The ash covers the body in a thin layer from the top of its head to the tips of its fingers and down to the heel, instep and toes. She pats it down into a thin paste layer. She had wanted to lie down beside the body, to close her eyes and feel the length once more, but her creation chills her. It is lifeless, flat, colourless. No muscles, no skin, no sinews. No blood. She takes a step back.

* * * * *

Holding her child clasped close to her body, Rosie’s Mum runs up the beach. She screams, demanding to know what has happened, has someone fallen, but she doesn’t need to ask. As they turn towards her, their faces greyed by shock, she knows. They part to let her through. They try to take her child but she clings on even as she falls to her knees beside a body, limbs awkward and misshapen, head broken like a duck’s egg.

* * * * *

She sits at the base of the cliff, watching the waves. They are coming closer now. Licking and biting at the shore, they have almost reached the body. It lies, a grey, cold smudge. The waves are nibbling at the fingers. Soon they will swallow the whole shape, and the ash will be absorbed by the water and swept out into the ocean, a thousand particles floating apart and away, dissolved. All that will be left tomorrow will be some of the outline in white stones. A mother will come to the beach and show her daughter. They will copy, laughing as they lie like angels and draw their outlines in the sand. Next week, next month the white stones will have gone, scattered back into the thousands already on the beach.
      Her mobile rings.
      “Mummy? When will you be back?”
      “Not long now, Rosie. I’ll be home soon.” And she stretches her legs, stiff with cold, as she waits for the waves to take away her love.

Honour Thy Father / 2nd in 2008/9 Competition


© Tony Matthews

The Reverend Theodore Makepeace first got wind of his father’s alleged misdemeanours at the Ivydene Home for the Elderly when he received a letter from the local branch of the Social Services. The letter, signed by the Head of Elderly Services, invited him to a meeting to discuss complaints from female residents and staff ‘relating to your father’s behaviour at Ivydene over recent weeks’.

On the hour-long railway journey to Bluntwell-on-Sea, the quiet East Anglian location of Ivydene, Theodore had time to reflect, with some unease, on his father’s sexual history. Maurice Makepeace was about to celebrate his 85th birthday. Theodore recalled that his father, a former leading actor noted for his rumbustious rendering of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, had also enjoyed a number of mistresses off stage, and that his provincial tours had produced pregnancies all over the country. In theatre green rooms everywhere he was known as ‘the goat’.

Theodore’s life with his father had never been dull. During his childhood he had spent his holidays accompanying the Great Actor on his provincial tours and helping him to learn his words for the next play. Together they would gaily enact Shakespearean dialogues for their own amusement, a habit they had continued whenever they met.

Theodore himself had not followed his father onto the stage. After a lacklustre career in insurance, he felt called to enter the church. He was a childless widower, his wife having died in a road accident soon after their marriage. He now lived alone in a gloomy Victorian manse next door to the United Reform church of which he was the Minister.

As the eldest son of the Makepeace family, and nearing retirement age, Theo, as he preferred to be called, had made himself responsible for his father’s welfare. He loved the old man, despite what he saw as the latter’s libidinous habits. When Maurice had a stroke a year ago, impairing his speech and destroying the use of an arm and a leg, he clearly needed care. Theo had discovered that his father had very little capital apart from his small flat, which had to be sold to finance his move to the Council home at Ivydene. The old man had not been displeased to find that he was the only man in the home.

At County Hall, a brutal concrete and smoked glass edifice built in the 1980s, Theo was greeted by the person who had written to him, a rather bony fifty-something woman called Nancy Flitwick. She wore an identity tag on a ribbon round her neck and spoke very precisely as though addressing someone who did not speak her language. After issuing a brisk order for coffee, she reached for a buff folder and took out some papers.
“Your father seems to be something of a Casanova,” she said, looking up at Theo with a thin smile.
“You say in your letter that you have received a complaint,” he said, not smiling.
“More than one, I fear. Your father has upset a number of the residents and some of the female staff.”
“I thought they were glad to have a man in the home.”
“They were at first, but of late he has taken to groping the ladies.”
“That depends what you mean by groping.”
“Wandering hands, Mr Makepeace.
“Or in my father’s case, hand,” corrected Theo.
“Oh yes, of course. Well, you know what I mean. He also writes odd notes to the residents and female members of staff, asking them to have sex with him.”
“Well, if this is true,” said Theo, “it may be the result of his stroke.”
“How do you mean?”
“He can’t speak all the words he wants to say so he has to resort to other ways of communicating his affections.”
“I hear what you say Mr Makepeace, but things have become serious. We have had to hire someone to follow your father around to prevent him from molesting people.”
“That seems a bit excessive. Look, I will go and see him and find out what’s going on.”
“We would all be glad if you would. I am sure we do not want to move him out from Ivydene.” Mrs Flitwick stood up and went to the window. She turned to face Theo, her features now dark against the daylight behind her. “There is a related issue,” she said, pulling the two sides of her cardigan together across her chest. “Your father has requested our help in hiring a prostitute.”

When Theo arrived at Bluntwell on the single track railway line that had somehow escaped Dr Beeching’s attentions in the sixties, he set off, as was his habit when visiting Ivydene, to walk there along the sandy beach. He chuckled to himself at the thought of the bureaucracy of local government trying to respond to his father’s mischievous request. The idea that his father’s request might be serious never entered his mind. According to Mrs Flitwick it had, however, been passed up the social services’ chain of command and discussed at the highest level. In the end the council, decided to refuse Maurice’s request. It deemed that the satisfaction of sexual needs should be seen as a form of therapy. Therapy was Health. The case should therefore be referred to the NHS.

“Adam, dear boy, what news from the …er..”
“Rialto, Dad. And my name is Theo. How are you?”
“ ‘I have more flesh than other men and therefore more frailty’.”
Theo sat down opposite his father and said: “You look as though you’ve been out in the sun.”
“Yes. I have a son called Theo. A golden boy”
“That’s me, Dad. Look – I’ve brought you a present.”

Theo watched his father unwrap the new shirt he had bought for him. He found it mildly ironic that he was continuing to be his father’s prompter. Communication was still a problem, at times vexatious, at times hilarious. The old man had been steadily regaining his powers of speech since the stroke, but he still had difficulties finding his words, and those he did find were frequently malapropisms. By some neurological quirk, he was more fluent as Falstaff than he was as himself .
“They say you’ve been upsetting the ladies here, Dad. Is it true?”
“ ‘A foutra for the world and wordlings base!’ ” said his father.
“Now come on, Dad. Stop being Falstaff for a bit. This is serious. Is it true that you’ve asked the social services to help you hire a prostitute?”
His father suddenly burst into tears. Theo reached out and held his hand.
“Take it easy now, Dad.”
“They dejected my bequest,” mumbled his father, crestfallen.
“They rejected your request,” corrected Theo. “Were you really serious?”
“Oh yes. It’s my birthweek next day, and I want to cerebrate with a shady lady.”
“Well it’s no surprise they turned you down. Is that why you’ve been harassing the women here?”
“I’m making a road test against the perusal of my human rights.”

On his return journey Theo debated the issues raised by his visit to Ivydene. His father had made an unusual, immoral but legal request for his 85th birthday. If it was not met he would go on being a nuisance at the home and would have to move out. This could plunge him into a depression from which he might very likely die.

Theo had no doubt that the NHS would reject the ‘therapy’ application referred to it by the social services. So the question for him was whether he could bring himself to solicit immoral services for his father. He was aware that the role was demeaning for him and exploitative of women, and of course found this hard to reconcile with his Christian conscience. He had his own position in the Church to consider, which would be untenable if word got out that he was seeking a prostitute. He was reluctant to bother God with a prayer for guidance. So, after further reflection on the risks, he decided that his father’s wishes were paramount. “Honour thy father,” he said to himself.

Theo had just one week to meet his father’s wish. At home he pondered the practical problems he would have to overcome. Just when he had started to wonder if he should go to London and collect some of the cards that regularly festoon the phone booths round Kings Cross, Theo remembered that he had recently seen a television programme in which one of the speakers was from the National Union of Sex Workers. He dialled Directory Enquiries where an impassive female with an Indian accent supplied the number. He rang it.
“Union of Sex Workers,” answered a brisk female voice.
“Oh hello, may I speak to your Information Officer?”
“Sorry, we don’t have one. Can I help?”
“I’m ringing on behalf of my father. I’m looking for someone who would…er.. be willing to offer her services to him.”
“We are a trade union, not an employment agency.”
“I know, but can you recommend someone I could contact?”
“Hang on a minute.” Theo heard her shout for someone called Gina. After some muffled discussion a new voice came on the phone.
“’Ello, what’s this all about then?”
Theo tried as best he could to explain.
“What’s your name?”
“Sorry, I can’t say.”
“Typical. Your old man – ‘ow old is ‘e?
“Eighty five.”
“You’re joking. Won’t ‘e pop ‘is clogs on the job?
“I think he’ll pop his clogs if the job doesn’t happen.”
“So this is a sort of emergency, right?”
“It’ll cost you. We ain’t the NHS. Our members charge premium rates for this sort of thing.”
“Fair enough.”
“‘Old on. I’ll just get me little address book.”
She came back and gave him two contacts.
“Tell ‘em you spoke to Gina. Alright mate? Aren’t you’re a good boy for your old Dad!”

On the Sunday after this conversation Theo took as the text for his sermon John 8 verses 3 to 11 about Christ and the woman taken in adultery. When he came to the words “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone” he looked into the faces of his congregation and paused as if waiting for someone to let fly at him. When no such response was forthcoming he felt his qualms about what he was doing for his father somewhat soothed.

The first candidate met him in a suburban coffee bar. Seeing the red umbrella Theo had said he would have with him, she headed to his table. “Mister Roberts?” she asked in a husky voice. He nodded, feeling as false as his name. “I am Svetlana.” She was a tall peroxide blonde, rather plain, her heavy features thickened with makeup. He guessed she was in her late thirties. She was wearing boots, a short denim skirt and a crop top which revealed a tanned midriff with a silver stud in the navel. She had the longest fingernails he had even seen, as red as blood. She was from Ukraine and spoke English with a strong Russian accent. “I luff old men,” she told Theo. “I make your father ver’ happy. I charge hundred fifty pound one hour straight sex. Plus expenses.”

Dolly was quite different. She had arranged to meet Theo for lunch in a greasy roadside café where everything was with chips. She was late, and he was beginning to think that she was not going to show up. There was a roar outside and he saw someone arrive on a monster motorbike, a highly chromed Harley Davidson. A stocky figure wearing the full rig of helmet, black leather and steel capped boots entered the café. The apparition removed the helmet, revealing a mass of red hair tied up in a topknot. She was a plump and rosy woman in her late forties who seemed to bulge out of her squeaky leather gear in a way that resembled a figure in a Beryl Cook painting.
“’Ello, dear,” she greeted him, recognising him from the red umbrella. “I’m Dolly. Sorry I’m a bit late. I ‘ad to do some shopping for me old Mum. She’s got bad arthritis. ‘Elp me off with this blinkin’ jacket, there’s a good boy. Don’t worry about the trousers. Coo, ain’t it chilly out there? Order me some fish and chips and mushy peas, there’s a love. Must go to the Ladies. Back in a jiff.” Taken aback by this onrush of speech, Theo felt as though he was not meeting a prostitute but an eccentric and garrulous aunt.

“‘Ow’s your old Dad then?” said Dolly with a smile when she came back to the table. “Sounds like ‘e’s a bit of a goer.” Her perfume reached Theo through the smell of cooking oil. He did his best to tell her about his father. “Cor, I never done an old folks ‘ome before,” she said as the fish and chips were served. “Still, I might give it a go. But before we get down to business, like, could I meet your old man first to see if we’d get on? If we do, we could make a date. I don’t like to rush jobs at my age. I could pretend to be an old girlfriend making a visit, OK? Pass the ketchup, dear.”

Theo was impressed by Dolly’s grasp of practicalities, and so sure his father would take to her that he decided she was the one.

Theo and Dolly arrived at Ivydene when most of the residents were taking their afternoon nap. Dolly, now wearing a bosomy floral dress and red high heels, waited in the lobby as Theo went to fetch the old man. They came down in the lift, and when the doors opened Dolly crouched down and kissed Maurice on both cheeks, displaying as she did so a generous cleavage right under his nose. Then she propelled the wheelchair out into the sunshine, singing “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” as she went.

This first encounter passed off as well as Theo had hoped.
“She reminds me of Marie Floyd”, his father said as Theo took him back to his room.
“Marie Lloyd, yes I suppose she has got a touch of the old Cockney music halls about her,” said Theo. “So you’d like to go ahead with this crazy idea?”
“Can’t wait. My flood is up,” said Maurice, looking bright-eyed and rather flushed.
“Don’t get too excited. You’ll have to wait till tomorrow.”

“I like your Dad,” Dolly told him as he saw her to the hotel. “Quite the gent, really.”

Next morning Theo phoned his father:
“Happy birthday Dad!”
“You’re eighty five today.”
“Good dog! So I am.”
“Your birthday present will arrive this afternoon at 2.30.”
“Are you ready for it – I mean her?
“ ‘I am old, I am old’!”
“ ‘But she will love thee better than a scurvy young boy’. I’ve given her a bottle of champagne to bring with her.”
“Thank you, my boy.”
“Good luck.”

Theo’s hope that the day would go as planned was upset by the well-meaning intervention of the NHS. Dolly had arrived at Ivydene in time to see a dazed Maurice being loaded into an ambulance in his wheelchair. Dolly, thinking that he had fallen ill, insisted on accompanying Maurice in the ambulance as ‘a close family friend’. Maurice told Dolly that he had no idea why he was being taken to hospital. At the hospital Maurice was wheeled by a leering porter to a private room off the geriatric ward where who should be waiting for him but the formidable Svetlana. “Happy birthday Mister Maurice,” she said. Evidently the NHS had decided to provide him with the therapeutic birthday present he had originally requested from the Social Services. Moreover, in the best tradition of the NHS, the service would be free at the point of delivery.

Summoned to the hospital by an urgent phone call from Dolly, Theo arrived to find his father in the hospital’s WRVS café playing Falstaff to a puzzled Svetlana. Dolly, having been enlightened by a friendly nurse, told a bewildered Theo what had happened. Svetlana came over and whispered in Theo’s ear. “Sex no good. Sorry.”

Back at Ivydene an exhausted Maurice was put to bed while Theo and Dolly sat drinking tea in the visitors’ room.
“Sex on the NHS, eh?” said Dolly.
“Trouble was he didn’t get any,” said Theo.
“No wonder, who’d feel sexy in a gerry ward!”said Dolly with a giggle.
“Svetlana’s not his type, anyway,” sighed Theo.
“Theo, we can still give ‘im an ‘appy birthday.” And she told him her idea.

After leaving Maurice to rest for a few hours, Theo went to his room and found him looking pale but refreshed, with a glass of whisky in his hand.
“Dolly’s waiting for you downstairs, Dad.”
“Ah, Doll Tearsheet. She’d better be good after that hospital conkerbine”

Dolly was waiting for them, clad from the neck down in her biking gear.
“Fancy a free ride, dear?” she said to Maurice, kissing him. “It’s your present from me.”

They dressed the amused old man in leather gear and helmet, and escorted him out to Dolly’s Harley Davidson. Theo helped him on to the pillion seat, and made him cling with his good arm to Dolly, who, helmet-less, was revving up the engine. Maurice flipped back his visor. ‘“Is’t not passing brave to be a king’,” he declared to Theo above the roar, ‘“and ride in triumph through Persepolis’!”

Theo watched as they bowled along the promenade and down a slipway onto the beach. The tide was low and the evening sun was inking-in the shadows over a vast expanse of firm golden sand. Dolly accelerated, her red hair streaming back over Maurice, and they tore along the strand, scattering the gulls and sending up rainbows of spray as they sped through the shallows of the outgoing tide.

Learning to Swim / 1st in 2008/9 Competition


© 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.
      ‘Ready? Go!’
      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.