Swim: A Short Story

In May 2017, BBC Radio 4 asked if I would be interested in writing a short story, to be broadcast as part of their ‘Short Works’ series. The only limitations were the length (around 2000 words) and the title (‘Swim’).

You can listen to the story here, or read it below.

***

SWIM

I leave the cabin dressed in shorts and ancient sneakers, and walk toward the lake. The sky is low, threatening thunder, and sweat prickles my armpits, my forehead, the small of my back.

As I kick off my shoes, I hear a splash and turn to see two bobbing heads by the rotting pier. One of the boys pulls himself up onto the bleached planks, his blond hair seal-slick, made silver by the sun. He dances backward, fast and light, and I imagine the splintered wood piercing the soft soles of his feet, splitting them, making him bleed. His dark-haired friend treads water and the fair boy calls out to him, runs forward. Dives.

I watch from the shadows as they race the width of the lake, all kicking power and white spray. They reach the far shore, the dark boy winning by a whisker, crawl out and fling themselves down, careless of the earth and twigs that must be spattering that wet, vulnerable skin.

Still watching, I stretch the sleep out of my shoulders, listen to the cowp-cowp call of a dabchick. The boys are standing again, the dark one hopping on a single unsteady foot, arm pinwheeling, picking at something stuck in his heel. Then they are both running into air, their skinny figures small against the pale sky before they are swallowed by the water. They surface and I watch as the fair boy ducks his friend under and the submerged boy flounders, splashes. After a moment, he lets him up and I hear gasps, shouts, the slap of skin on skin.

I smile, then turn away, focus on the sweep of rippling lake in front. I breathe. And I dive down into the cold, my body half-recognising the familiar dark weight of water above me. Liquid ice rushes through my blood like quicksilver, along my arms in goosebump bubbles and down under my hair, inside, into my lungs.

I surface. Flip onto my back and look up at the vast sky, at the gathering clouds.

This is the first time I have been to the lake in twenty-three years. It smells just the same – of green growing things, of damp, of rotting wood. The air still tastes clean and cold, like iron.

*

It was September, not long before school started.

Alex and I were swimming, just the two of us, in the pre-dawn hour before our parents woke.

The coroner said he must have developed cramp.

At the funeral, I told my parents I didn’t want to go back there. Ever.

My mother cried. I watched as her face crumpled and collapsed, as she became ugly.

My father put his hand on my shoulder and cleared his throat. His eyes were loose and wet in their sockets.

“Sure, son. Sure.”

So they closed the cabin and forgot about it, and their lives settled and set hard, like bone will stiffen in unused joints.

I thought that Alex’s death would make them need me. But my father still went to work each morning, swinging up into his truck and driving away with the same smooth automatic movements of a man who moves through life without thinking too hard.

One day, his things had moved from my parents’ bedroom to the den on the first floor. His dressing gown was laid carefully over the back of the sofa. A folded blanket sat squarely at one end. His reading glasses and a stack of Mickey Spillanes were on the bookcase.

When I went up to bed at night, there was a blue strip of light beneath the door, and I would hear the faint sound of canned laughter from a far-off television studio, and the clink of ice on glass. This was the only change in my father, and no-one mentioned it.

The changes in my mother were more obvious. Her life shrank from the edges of our small town to our street. Then to the mailbox. And then to the house.

She stopped looking at me. Stopped touching me.

By the time I left for college, she was living mostly on the second floor, surrounded by dog-eared paperbacks and sticky wine glasses and a sweet smell like something rotting slowly.

Alex’s was the only room she cleaned. I watched from the doorway as she polished each surface in tight rhythmic circles, her eyes filling as she picked up candy wrappers, balled socks, pen lids; as she wiped the place where they had been, and put them back in the exact same spot.

“Mom,” I said. “Mom.”

She kept polishing. Slow tight circles.

I asked my father, “What’s wrong with Mom?”

“She misses your brother.”

“But she has me.”

I came home for Thanksgiving and my father was full of Scotch and holiday cheer. I pushed mashed potatoes around my plate while he talked about his own college days: about football games and frat parties and endless, glorious summer nights.

My mother was mostly silent, her eyes glassy and fixed on the empty fourth place at the table. I realised then that I’d never be enough.

*

That was the last time I went home, and by the time of the accident they were strangers.

I got the call from a police officer who told me about my parents in a slow drawl peppered with sympathy. When I asked what he wanted, the sympathy clicked off like a light switch.

He told me that Eugene, my father’s business partner, had given them my name. That they’d been trying to track me down for days. That I’d missed the funeral.

I called him back the next morning with the details of my flight, and another cop met me at the airport, this one with a nervous stammer and a shaving rash. I showed him my driving licence; he handed me the keys to my parents’ house in a creased brown envelope and shook my hand. Told me he was sorry for my loss.

I nodded and walked to the cab stand, gave the driver the address, and then didn’t speak again until we pulled into the street I still dreamed about occasionally.

When he’d driven away and I was inside the house with the shades drawn and the door locked, I let out a long breath and looked around me.

Everything seemed smaller than I remembered. I breathed in the familiar smell of sweet decay and walked through the dusty ground-floor rooms, letting the surge of memories catch and hold me.

And then I reached the staircase and saw Alex.

A blown-up image of the last photograph, from the last summer. Tan skinny arms cocked, hands on bony hips, grinning into the camera. His eyes were crinkled at the corners, and the memory of that detail – how could I have forgotten how he smiled? – was like a fist in my throat. I sank onto the couch and reminded myself of how Alex had really been.

Once upon a time, there were two little boys. The younger one followed the older boy everywhere. He copied him. Looked up to him. To the younger one, his older brother was a prince. A god.

But then the boys grew up, and the younger one tried to compete.

Over the next week, I cleared the house and took the contents to the dump. I worked fast, falling into a rhythm of folding, stacking, bagging, until the rooms were empty and all traces of life were gone.

Then I called another cab, told the driver to stop off at the first real estate office he saw on the way to the airport. I went inside and handed over the keys and the deeds to the house, proof of ID, my business card. I signed where they told me to sign.

I took one extra bag back with me: odds and ends that looked like they might be important. When I got home, I laid out the contents on the kitchen table. It was mostly paper – letters, contracts, photographs. Four birth certificates. One marriage certificate. One death certificate. And the glint of metal. It wasn’t until I held the keys between my fingers that I remembered the cabin.

*

So here I am: floating on a wide expanse of dark water that’s the final link with my childhood. That last swim with Alex is as clear as yesterday’s drive up here. I remember the rustle of leaves under my sneakers, the smell of citronella from the mosquito repellent our mother smeared on each night. I remember the cracked yellow mud and the dust it threw up as we walked, the dew-heavy webs across the path. And Alex ahead of me – red shorts, narrow shoulders, long legs. He was already faster than me on the track; a few months more and he would have been taller than me and I would no longer have been able to beat him in the water.

The morning he died, the sun was fiery and golden through the trees. Afterward, I remember looking into it, running my tongue over my dry lips, whispering a prayer.

My feet are growing numb. I flip onto my stomach, kick against the cold and feel my legs lengthen, straighten, bend. The boys are nowhere in sight.

I duck under the water, pull through the cloudy green and up to blink against the light, let the cold air fill my mind as I breathe.

Then I hear a splash. I keep my head straight but let my eyes flick to the side, to where the fair boy is pulling level with me. His chin is tucked, his focus absolute. I tip my own chin, feel the stretch in the back of my neck, feel my jaw clench as he pulls ahead, and I kick harder. I reach and kick and pull and reach, settling into the rhythm of it and letting it lift me above the tightness in my chest and above the pounding in my head.

I let the rhythm empty me until I’m almost there, then imagine how defeat would feel, and let rage rush in. I let it take me to that place of red determination, to a narrowing dark tunnel filled with my stretching fingers and the ragged shoreline of the lake. I push through and reach one final time. My hand slaps earth and I duck down to roar my triumph beneath the surface.

When I rise, the boy is not looking at me.

I breathe in his humiliation. Smile at him. “You’re fast. You’ve got a good technique.”

He scowls. “Not as fast as you though.”

He reminds me of someone I used to know.

I move closer, start to lift my hand. I can almost touch him.

“I’ve got twenty years of practice on you.”

He shrugs, ducks under the water. When he comes up, he is wiping his eyes, breathing hard.

“Where’s your friend?”

“Who?”

“The kid with the dark hair. The one who beat you earlier.”

He stares at me. “Jordan. He’s not my friend.”

His eyes narrow and I taste his anger.

I smile at him again. Feed it.

Then he throws himself forward and swims away in a fast crawl, his sun-browned body flickering light and dark as he moves.

I glide backwards into the shadows and wait. I run my tongue around my lips. And just as the sun breaks through the trees, I see both boys on the pier again. They crouch to dive, surface in a shower of light.

And across the rippled distance of twenty-three years, my face lifted to the golden glory of the dawn, I watch as the fair boy ducks his friend-who-isn’t-a-friend. As he holds him there and waits.

The fair boy lets go. The other drifts, rolls, sinks.

And the winner stands tall and straight, his shining body rising through the water, up toward the sun. Like light itself, he moves between water and air.

As the sun touches him, he is bronze, silver. Elemental.

He is weightless.

Triumphant.

Pure.

 

 

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