by Helen Carmichael
The first time our fingers touched it was like butterflies – profound. I was busy crawling towards something, a new job…or something irretrievably forgotten on the shopping list in my jacket pocket in the lockers that sweat behind the fake palm trees near the lifeguard.
And she came through. Feet churning, hips like a belly dancer, face alabaster, a trail of flames for hair and bubbles streaming from her mouth – five beautiful elements in the fast lane. I was disconcerted, floundering slightly and swallowed a little chlorinated water, enhanced with the sweat of my community and the faint odour of cheap perfume perpetrated by a plump lady keeping her chin well above water to safeguard her permanent wave. I’m always impressed by anyone who puts on mascara before entering the water.
For a few moments my focus was on aquatic manoeuvres, an older gentleman was deliberately following his physiotherapist’s advice and, I guessed, attempting to rehabilitate a slightly trailing left leg. I struck out to overtake, wary of appearing pushy, truly unable to wallow any slower. My feet kicked against slimy tiles, mission accomplished.
I missed her for a couple of lengths, my attention diverted by the crocodile of begoggled schoolchildren chirping and waddling from the changing rooms, the polo-shirted swimming instructor and young but tired looking schoolteacher clucking and herding them towards the floats at the shallow end. The space over us filled with watery laughing echoes.
I felt her turbulence at the deep end, moving like an eel just a few million molecules between us. I swam in her wake, in another lane altogether, lumpen and graceless, aware of a large bruise on my thigh and stubble calling out for attention. I must cut my hair and…toothpaste! The shopping list’s lost essential floated back via the tangled mysteries of right brain association.
Shaken from my usual routine of back stroking and crawling I follow an urge to go under. I know I can hold my breath. The children’s sweet effervescence muffled, the sound of swishing water is a heartbeat. I drift in the low-lying frequency of silence where thought stops clean.
Refreshed I emerge, seeing the bright colours awash with fresh possibility.
I see the auburn trail on wet skin near the steps and realise that she is leaving her element. How does she move on dry land? I had planned a further ten lengths but cannot let the trail go cold. I have been drifting under the iceflow of routine – work, eat, sleep, drink, eat, work, swim, sleep, eat…
I try to exit the pool sideways, awkwardly aware of my girth and preferring to remain essentially invisible. A tiny fair girl in a droopy pink swimsuit sees this, and smiles with the twinkling eye of a grandmother. I move quickly past the lifeguard and round the lockers. I want to catch one more glimpse…there, the door swings back and fro. The ladies door is overseen by a severe black plastic gingerbread woman in a trapezoidal skirt. She reminds me of a school dinner lady I once encountered when I pretended to smoke candy cigarettes in the bushes behind the toilet block, a secretive eight-year-old sin.
Fumbling with the ugly key bracelet and a falling pound coin, the worn Queen blackened from countless months at the bottom of a changing bag, I clutch my chlorinated belongings to my chest and inch towards the ladies changing room. Could I enter? I envisage slim highlighted maidens chatting about boyfriends and ringtones as they lather, rinse and repeat. I imagine myself elbowed casually by a lady in a rubber swim hat who tuts and frowns, disapproving.
Drawn like a sailor onto the rocks I nudge the door open tenderly, and sidle through into the tiled and bleachy inner sanctum. It seems quiet. I shuffle past the toilets and the shower area, suddenly aware of the sticky unnatural mixture of chlorine and shoe dirt underfoot. This private place needs some attention. I want to let out a nervous giggle, knowing that my heart does not usually beat so fast. Not sure I should be in here.
I’m sure she’s here somewhere…this redhead I have to stare at for reasons I do not properly understand. I find a cubicle, dressing hastily except for the hopelessly clammy feet that don’t welcome socks. I’m aware of a running shower. It stops. I lurk heavily. My breath comes in, and out. I am present. I am alive. My body slackens but my ear strains with curiosity. I hear rustling and shuffling, and a hairdryer starts blustering near the mirrors.
As though walking through a dream and suddenly realising that I am indeed the dreamer, I have walked out and towards the sound. I boldly grab a hairdryer but do not face myself. I turn slightly, looking aslant.
And she is there, radiant with soft curls starting to billow as they pull free from the wetter strands. She has tight jeans and a baggy, dark green hand-knitted sweater. She wears gold ballet pumps and has freckles on the back of her hand. She seems ageless. She turns a little, and looks at me.
She smiles, catching me with the Autumn’s last sunray.
She asks. She asks me, giving me her full attention, just for an instant.
“Lovely, thanks,” I reply.
As I fumble with the hairdryer, I can see the full curve of my hips in the mirror behind us. I feel a glimmer of beauty moving somewhere deeper, earthed up quietly but stirring like a turning sleeper. Somewhere forgotten in my bag, I find lipstick.
And I hold the door open.