Swimming by Karen Kendrick
I stared down at the softly rippling water and took in a breath. I heard my name being called and felt faintly ridiculous in my swimming costume, wrinkly arms and legs spindling out like gnarled old branches. Then I began to think of Adam and felt instantly calmer.
My mind skipped back to 1976, the year we met. While the UK lazily reclined beneath the hottest summer in years, my 22-year old self sweated miserably in my uncle’s ice-cream van, serving up endless scoops of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla to noisy children and red-faced adults. I helped Uncle George the entire summer, which left me with a little more cash in my pocket and a lifetime loathing of frozen dairy items.
Adam, then a strapping and handsome 19 year old, had come to the park with his grandmother, and had been despatched to buy ice-creams. I noticed him straightaway although I never cared to admit that to him. He was muscular and tall and his skin was a rich dark brown. When he spoke to me his eyes contained gentle laughter. We exchanged a feeble joke and then he left. He returned the next day, this time without his grandmother.
Uncle George found it all very amusing. ‘How many cornets can one boy eat?’ he asked Adam one day. Adam grinned at me and I blushed. One day he was there when we were closing up the van and Adam asked if he could walk me home. Uncle George looked at him warily and then at me.
‘It’s fine,’ I said, a little shyly.
‘Aye, OK then,’ agreed my uncle. ‘But remember, I know your Granny son, so no funny business.’
We walked home the long way, chatting and laughing like old friends. From then on he waited for me every evening.
I discovered that Adam was a student at the local polytechnic and that he was a keen swimmer. On our very first walk home he told me very proudly that he had been selected for the Olympic swimming team but had declined it. He gave me a rather complicated explanation involving Apartheid in South Africa and the boycott of the Games by many African countries. I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what Apartheid was, so I just nodded. At any rate it didn’t sound very plausible, more like a story somebody would make up to impress a girl. I didn’t mind.
We married a year later. Our marriage raised more than a few eyebrows in our culturally retrograde village, although my own family welcomed Adam like a long lost child. His grandmother too was soon a firm fixture at all family events.
Adam graduated and got a job at a bank, and I got a job in Woolworths. We were hoping for children but it never happened for us and although I looked sadly at my friends’ families somehow I knew that Adam and I were enough for one another.
His love for swimming never left him. He found a pool near to his office and swam 60 lengths of it almost every day. He tried to teach me to swim on several occasions but I couldn’t seem to manage more than a few yards before sinking. He never stopped trying though until the day that he died; it was as though he couldn’t rest until I was able to share the joy he felt in the water.
When Adam received his diagnosis he reacted to the devastating news by going straight to the pool. During that time swimming gave him a sense of normality.
It’s been just over two years now since Adam died. I don’t know how other people react to the death of their life partner and it’s difficult to describe without resorting to clichés but once the overwhelming shock of his death had subsided I realised that I felt as though I were a ghost and somehow the real me had been interred with Adam. A hollow woman-shaped thing would get up every day; do the same things I had always done when Adam was still alive, then go to bed.
On one particularly bad day I decided to have a look through some old photos of Adam that he had brought with him from his grandmother’s house. To my surprise I found that tucked into the album was a letter from the British Olympic Association, dated April 1975. It confirmed the offer of a place in the 1976 Olympic swimming team.
The immense pride I suddenly felt in my husband momentarily overcame my grief. I must have sat there for an hour, re-reading the letter. Then I got up and went to the shops. After I had finished in the supermarket I noticed that a new sports shop had opened next door. I went in, a tiny seedling of an idea beginning to form in my mind. Feeling a little foolish I went over to have a look at the swimming costumes.
Two hours later I was climbing into the local pool. I held on to the side and kicked my legs for a while, then tried a couple of strokes. I sank, as I always did, but tried again.
After a few attempts the lifeguard wandered over to me.
“Would you like to learn to swim?” she asked, smiling.
“Yes, please,” I replied, without hesitation. The lifeguard told me that they were running a beginners swimming class every Wednesday evening and that I could sign up for it at reception.
I was the oldest person at the class by a country mile, and I didn’t find it easy straight away. After six weeks of lessons, however, the instructor asked me to take off my armbands and I swam unaided for the first time. Just a few strokes, but my sense of pride overwhelmed me. Now I understand what he meant, I thought.
Every week my swimming improved until I finally found the courage to swim a full length of the pool. Jenny, my instructor, beamed as I climbed out of the pool and handed me a certificate.
This morning I took part in a swimming gala to raise money for a cancer charity. As I stood there shivering on the side in my navy blue one-piece, the only thing that stopped me from bolting for the door was the thought of Adam.
Then they called my name and I knew that this moment was what I had been working towards. I took a deep breath, stretched my arms in front of me. Then I dived into the water. As I swam my concentration was focused entirely on my movements and my grief left me.
When I climbed out at the other end it was to the sound of applause.
Posted on 10/08/2015
by Jack fabian