Sally-Anne Wilkinson: No Swimming!

Aaron’s attention is caught by a gull rising from the surf out at sea, and I take the time to scrutinise him, grateful to have something to focus on apart from the water. His features aren’t entirely familiar to me, as I’ve only known him a few weeks. If I’m honest, I’ve kept him at arm’s length – but he’s different to the others, and finally, I’ve allowed myself to enjoy his company; accept the attention he gives me. It’s tough for me to admit it – but I like him. A lot. It’s the fact he’s interested in me; really interested. He encourages me, but doesn’t push. On top of all that, my mother’s not keen, which is another reason to keep him around.

My eyes follow the line of his jaw from his ear to his chin, which is unbelievably smooth.   He reminds me of one of the marble statues in the museum he took me to last week. He takes me to lots of places; makes sure I’m entertained. Earlier today we visited a Turkish barber down a back street in the Old Town, where they shaved every unnecessary hair from his face. At one point, I shrieked at the green wax lathered on his ears; made a joke about him resembling Shrek. It’s a long time since I laughed like that. The sensation in my throat and the sound in my ears felt peculiar.

‘Next, it’s your turn, Selena’ he said, wincing as another slathering of wax tore microscopic hairs from his nose. ‘Why should girls get away with the pain?’

‘No thanks,’ I said, ‘I shaved this morning,’ and he crossed his eyes as me.

Now, he looks boyish. His skin, slightly blotchy from the astringent, smells of peppermint. The scent is alien on him and I miss the gritty texture of his stubble. I’m aware of an impulse to touch where his jaw bends into the angle of his chin. The compulsion is almost a physical ache, but I ignore it. He turns his gaze back from the sea, and catches my stares. Embarrassed, I distract him with yet more teasing about his vanity.

‘So what’s it next week, Aaron?   Full body bronzing?’

‘Maybe,’ he plays along, ‘or maybe I’ll get my legs shaved. Would you like that?’

‘Can’t wait.’

Spindrift catches on the wind, and hits us full in the face. I gasp, breathless, and blink away stray droplets from my eyes.

‘You okay?’ he asks, his forehead creased.

‘You know what?’ I say. ‘I think I am.’

*

During lunch he takes a napkin and cleans a stain from my mouth.

‘What a pig,’ he says, and gives a little snort.

‘Actually, we pigs have a method to our madness.’

‘Really?’

‘I save food around my mouth for a reason, you know?’

‘Oh yes? And why is that?’

‘For my afternoon snack.’

‘Ah really? Then you’d better watch where you save your snacks in future,’ he grins. ’or next time you might find I’ve licked the napkin before I wipe your face.’

‘Oh gross,’ I say, ‘save me from that torture.’

‘And now look – your hair’s in your face,’ he teases. ‘I can’t take you anywhere.’

He tucks a stray lock of hair – blown by the breeze – behind my ear, and the heel of his hand accidentally brushes against my cheek. My skin glows at the contact; alive. The terrace is crowded with people, but for that moment, I am aware of nothing and no-one but him.

*

Even before he spoke, I knew I wouldn’t like the words that came out of his mouth. He’d suggested we stop in the City gardens, and not long after we arrived, he perched on the edge of a wooden bench under a sycamore. The shade from the tree was a welcome relief. As he sat, his knee began a steady quiver in time with the dipping of the leaves, and I knew something wasn’t right.

Half an hour earlier we passed the abandoned outdoor pool – the water thick and green with algae; the red-rimmed, warning sign scored with scratches and blotched with moss; the concrete boundaries beginning to crumble; neglected. No-one used the old pool any more, though not so long ago it was populated by both locals and tourists throughout the summer. My mother even taught me to swim there. Of course I registered where Aaron had taken me but he told me it would be okay.   I ignored the buzzing of my brain as we approached the water; a buzzing which became increasingly frenetic the closer we got. I asked Aaron to stop quite some distance from the edge. Yes, it hurt to be there, but I was also shocked how quickly the place had deteriorated; how much things change overnight.

Despite my misgivings, I attempted to appear casual about being there – I wanted to be brave for him. At one point, he and I even playfully bickered about whether the sign’s message meant no swimming or no diving. The words stung as they tripped over my lips, but I managed to articulate them with traces of humour. I was proud of my achievement, taking it as a sign of how far I had come; that, at last, I was recovering. I want to laugh now, feeling foolish. Obviously, these visits to old haunts were preparation, and the whole purpose of today was to drive me to this moment.

‘You know, Selena – I’ve been thinking.’

‘Oh…?’

‘They’ve built a new spa in the centre of town.’

‘Okay.’

‘Yeah, you should see it. The structure’s amazing – all intricately designed steel and glass outside and – it’s even got a pool.’

I gazed at my hands, flaccid on my lap.   There was burning in my throat, and I tried to focus on it.

‘It’s not big. Small. But not too small. Not like a bath…’ He stopped talking, aware he’s gabbling. ‘It’s all marble inside. I know you’ll love it. Really beautiful.’ He talks in small gasps, as if there’s not enough air.

I sat, not looking at him, not doing anything at all.

‘There’s not many people that go there. It’ll be like our own private party. You know… I know…’ He stopped for a minute, considered what he wanted to say. ’Maybe it’s time?’

I couldn’t reply immediately. It took a minute to push up the word and roll it over the mountain of my tongue. Once I let it go, though, it fell heavily, like a boulder into a ravine. ‘No.’

He continued regardless.

‘Selena, come on. You have to start somewhere…’

‘Aaron – leave it.’

‘You don’t have to, you know, get in the water. Just come with me…’ He paused; smiled; tries a different tack. ‘You’ve never seen me flapping around in the water. It’s embarrassing. I need moral support. An expert opinion. You’ll be there just to explain how it’s done properly.’

He pulled a screwball face, hoping I’d laugh.

‘Aaron – I said no.’

We proceed along the seafront for another hour. I’m subdued since our conversation in the City gardens, and under any other circumstances I’d suggest Aaron took me home, but I know it won’t be any better there. Eventually we reach the newly-built marina, and I absorb how the whole area’s evolved since my last visit. There used to be a cafe situated on the sea front, where Mum sometimes took me after a swim, and right next door, a man who rented out deckchairs and pedalos. Sometimes, Mum and me, we paddled in the surf, saturated by the spray; seaweed and sand stuck between our toes. I grew up right here with the sea charting the milestones of my life.

The heat from the sun dances around us in shimmering waves, from above and below. The flagstone path is fierce, and I wince as I see people on the jetty walking without shoes. In the distance, sun-lovers raise their arms above their heads in worship. They launch themselves into the water in long, graceful arcs, leaving no trace as they cut through the surface. Later they emerge nearer the shore – hair wet and gleaming.   Aaron is looking at me.

‘Just because it’s different now, doesn’t mean it’s gone.’

I want to tell him to leave me alone, but I don’t. Instead, as I watch the divers, following their movements, I remember moments I practised, and sensations I experienced hundreds – no thousands; maybe even tens of thousands – of times: the grip of toes on the edge, the tightening of calf muscles, the arch of the body, the cool air on skin, the rush of water as the body slices down, plummeting, deeper and deeper. I take a gasp of air, as if I’ve resurfaced. The inhalation hurts my throat.

‘I thought you understood.’

‘I do.’

I appeal to him with my eyes. ’You’re meant to be on my side.’

He touches my hair.

‘I am.’

*

We arrive back at the bungalow as the sun begins its dusky descent.   Mum lets us in. She reminds me of a prison warden in her tailored grey shirt.

‘Where’ve you been, Selena? I’ve been really worried.’

She looks at Aaron; the criticism clear in her eyes.

‘It’s okay, Mum – leave it. I wanted to stay out. We had fun.’

For a minute, she hesitates, but she can’t let go.

‘And now, of course, you’re exhausted. I can see it in your face.’ She always sees everything in my face. Sometimes I feel I have nowhere to hide.

‘Mum… relax. Everything’s good. Aaron didn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want to.’ He catches my eye, and I know he’s thinking about the swimming conversation.

‘The City’s glorious in the summer, Mrs C – you know that.’ says Aaron. ‘I wanted Selena to see some places she’s not been before. And maybe some places she’s missed these last few years.’

Mum looks unsure. ’Well, at least you’re back now, though look at the clock. I think it’s time for bed, young lady.’

‘Stop fussing. I’m twenty four, not twelve.’

Aaron makes for the door. ‘Well, I’d better be off. See you tomorrow, eh, Selena?’

As his hand turns the handle, I realise I can’t bear to spend the next hour alone with only my mother for company.

‘Aaron?’ I call after him.

‘Yes?’

‘Do you mind…’ I pause, aware of Mum watching.   Caught between embarrassment and frustration, I phrase my words with her discomfort in mind.

‘Will you take me to bed tonight?’

Aaron blushes slightly, though I ignore the prickle of guilt. Mum’s reaction is exactly what I expect.

‘What? No, Selena.’

‘Why not?’ I say, ‘Why can’t he? Is no one allowed in my life but you?’

Aaron comes towards me. ‘Selena – don’t.’

I stop.

Mum’s face crumples. ’We don’t pay Aaron for the night-time,’ she says, and immediately I feel ashamed.

‘It okay, Mrs C, I don’t mind. Come on, Selena,’ he says, pushing my wheelchair down the corridor into the wing where my bedroom and bathroom are situated. There, he doesn’t use the hoist, but lifts me tenderly onto the bed. I can’t feel his arms around my back or under my knees, but I pretend I can.

*

Once I’m safely tucked in, after my evening rituals have been dealt with, I apologise for my behaviour with Mum earlier.

‘I don’t know what happened,’ I say.

Aaron arranges the covers around my shoulders. ‘It’s hard for both of you.’

I absorb his words. ‘It’s not her fault.’

‘Or yours.’

I nod. ’Thank you,’ I say, ‘for being here.’

‘It’s my pleasure… And anyway, if I wasn’t, you’d only find some way of punishing me.’

I laugh, wanting to cuff him in retaliation, but the realisation that I can’t leaves me feeling heavy.

He pulls up the rail on the side of the bed.

‘You okay?’ he asks.

I glance at the bars stretching down the length of the mattress.

‘I suppose.’

He caresses my forehead, and I close my eyes, enjoying the soothing spirals. He stops, his fingers remaining on my head, and I wait, wanting something that I’ve never dared consider.   There is no sound, not even of our breath, as unspoken words pass between us. After a moment, he sighs, and I hear his footsteps move towards the door. The residue of his touch remains on my skin like a skein of gold. I keep my eyes closed, not wanting the sensations to dissipate, but quickly, the lustre becomes assailed by a seeping inkiness, transforming in my mind into the fetid waters of the abandoned pool.

‘Aaron?’

‘Yes.’

‘You know the pool today?’

‘I’m sorry, Selena – we should never have gone. It was thoughtless of me. I wondered if you could – but I was wrong.’

My closed eyes cocoon me from the memories and allow the gentle vibrations of his voice to ride the shadows of darkness, playing octaves of sensation on my skin, just as his fingers did.

‘What will happen to it?

‘What do you mean? To what?’

‘The pool. Will anyone swim there again?’

‘I don’t know, Selena, I really don’t know.’

‘Do you think they will? I hope so.’ The pitch of my voice rises slightly. I close my eyes tighter, the lids wrinkling, like I did when I was a child – making wishes over a birthday cake or over a fountain. ‘I mean, it would be nice, wouldn’t it? Do you think they will?’

‘I really don’t know.’

*

 Sometime later, the door opens, hazy light filtering into the room.   I’m not sure if I’ve been asleep, but my eyes struggle to fight against the curtain-folds of darkness. Night’s descent has chilled the room somewhat, and my cheeks are cool, exposed above the blanket. Someone leans over the safety rail, the long, black figure blocking part of the hallway’s glow.

‘Selena?’ The voice is a throaty whisper.

I smell the familiar scent of sandalwood combined with peppermint and soap.

’Mum,’ I say, my words barely audible. ‘Mum… I’m sorry.’ Tears well in my eyes. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’

She places her lips on my brow, and slowly, the gentle pressure warms my skin.

black tree

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Photo by Tomek Dzido