Today was cold but bright, the October sun low on the horizon and bouncing rainbows from the car windscreens. The children were laughing as they scuffed their toes through stray piles. Watch for dog poo, she mouthed silently at a lone dad amidst the gaggle of mothers, but he was harassed, clearing snot from a toddler in a pushchair. No time for a drab old lady, especially with that blinding sun blurring the outlines of her face. She was used to the adults’ blankness, but occasionally one of the toddlers would gaze at her and break into a smile. “I see you, you see me,” she would whisper. Small happinesses shared, even if she was soon forgotten in the hurly burly of the school run and the shrieks of friends meeting at the crossroads.
The hill made her puff a little and she was glad to wait amongst the chatter for Charlie the lollipop man. She thought he looked tired. Not surprising, he’s been here forever. “Shall I high five his lollipop like the children? No. Dignity as befits my age. How old am I anyway? Don’t the years drift by?”
At the sports centre she had to wait for the doors to open at 9am. She took the time to lean against a pillar out of the wind and close her eyes into the sunlight. There was no warmth in it for her but it was nice to pretend, plus it shielded her from the effort of trying to make small talk with others in the queue. There were a few like her waiting amongst the fitness freaks who might have been amenable to a vague mumble about the weather if she had the energy. Him, what was his name? He started coming about the same time as her although she never saw him around town, just at the sporty. Maybe it was the clothes, he was always in a baggy t-shirt and old tracksuit bottoms. Who knows how he would look on the high street “Could I ever change my clothes?” she wondered.
“I’ve had this old thing for so long. It’s what I’m used to, it’s practically part of me. And the costume underneath, oh I’m a canny one. Quick in and zoom, barely seconds and I’m changed and into the freedom of the water. Three more minutes until she opens. Never a second early. You’d think we’d learn and come a bit later”. Tracksuit bottom man turned his head and waved at another woman turning the corner towards them.
"Here we are again. How are you?
"Doing away. Aqua Zumba is it?"
He laughed. "Not for me, like. Catch me in there dancing like a hippo. I only ever go to the gym now."
"Do you not mind the smell?"
"I’ve been so long about it I don’t notice, I just run. Well it’s something to do. Not like I’ll ever lose weight."
They laughed, then saw her looking and gave her a quick chin nod of acknowledgement.
"Oh, here they come, to the second. You’d think they’d let us in a wee bit early out of pity."
She lost them in the jumble of bodies heading through the entrance and nipped past the receptionist into the changing area of the pool without bothering to show her pass. No need after all these years. It was such a habitual routine that her brain didn’t bother to record the hows and wherefores and as she hit the water she thought muzzily, “What locker was it again? I never have a pound coin anyway, I’ll just try all the open doors I suppose and then it was all lost in the shock of the cold and the bliss of the movement. I can feel myself,” she thought rapturously. The sting of chemicals in her nose made her sneeze and she wiped her nose surreptitiously with her arm as she glided on the downstroke, but the lifeguard wasn’t looking anyway and she let her head duck the water and sneezed again, defiantly this time. “I can feel, dammit, I am queen of the water! Bloody dolphin that’s me. No dancing hippo on this side of the barrier.” She had twenty minutes before Zumba started.
If you swim during the school holidays the pool is awash (hah) with people and there are so many more swimmers than lanes that it becomes a non issue, one just swims where one can. No one notices if you swerve out of their way, or indeed, under their feet in the hubbub. In quiet times the pool has more lanes than swimmers and one just drifts up and down in solitary territorial splendour. Today was an in between time, just too many swimmers for the number of lanes. So she tucked right into the wall of the pool and concentrated on her side stroke, a nice old fashioned swim that let her face away from trouble and just gaze through the plate glass into the cafe. She could sense another swimmer in her lane but ignored them. There was a young mum at a table with a crying baby in a high chair. “Looks like it’s teething,” she thought as she edged past, peering through glazing. Dried apple rings, that’s what she should use. Remember Lily and her apple rings? She gummed them to mush and wore them like a slimey beard, she loved them so much. Such a beautiful baby. Such a beautiful girl.
Starting back down the pool, she could see the instructor setting out floats against the wall.
“How can I remember every moment of her childhood? Lily with a face like a painting, what was the one? Ophelia floating in the water with eyes like pansies, so deep and almost violet. Who had violet eyes? Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t it. She wasn’t a patch on Lily. So fragile and yet a will of iron. I can only remember her as a child. What happened to her? Still my child but so far away from me now. We can’t talk. I can’t reach out but I try, God knows I try.”
Another length and the crying baby has been given a banana. “Well it’ll soon demolish that,” the thought satisfied. A slight swell behind her as the lane sharer passed by, and she risked a quick glance. “Oh it’s only him,” she realised, relieved. Another one of the gang.
The Zumba instructor turned on his boombox and a frantic electric drumroll ricocheted off the walls while the instructor fiddled with the volume, then he switched it off again and the silence was almost as jarring in its suddenness. “That’s the one with the Madonna remix,” she thought, “Time to get out.”
The only hot tub was unreliable, off for weeks on end waiting for a plumber, muffled forlornly in its cover with a rope across the steps. Not out of order today though, she smiled. She had heard the WHOOM of its jets starting up as she arrived, and she snuffed the hot chemical fug like ambrosia. A young couple of lads were swithering between the tub and the steam room, and she nipped up the steps smartly to get ahead of them.
"Steam first, get the next one as it’s already going?" said the hairier of the boys and she cheered them off silently as she plonked onto the bench near the best nozzle. One of her lot was already ensconced and moved over companiably when he saw her notice his feet bobbing above the bubbles.
"Can you hear me?" he shouted and she nodded and laughed.
"The jets are a bit loud today, do you think it’s going to pack in again?" she said.
"Oh probably. You can never tell."
They settled into the thrum and swirl and eyed each other.
"Come here often?" he asked.
"Oh yes," she replied. "All the time in fact. Not normally on a Tuesday though. Not keen on the Zumba music."
"It’s quieter on a Wednesday but then they have the schools in later on. Doesn’t affect us in here but plays merry hell with that poor bugger." He nodded out at the elderly man who had shared her lane, and she gazed out at him, still gently paddling up and down.
"He’s always here then, fascinating.”
"Oh aye. Always. Never stops."
"Now that you mention it, he is always in that lane when I swim. I like it there myself. You can see the cafe." She stopped and remembered. "Yes, he is always there."
He seemed small, distorted through the glass tiles that made up the wall of the health suite. Up and down. The Zumba class had assembled in the shallow pool and were gazing expectantly at the instructor. The boombox leapt into cacophony and the instructor fiddled with his bluetooth head mic. "Let’s get this party started!" he roared, and the quivering masses of swimsuited flesh jumped obediently to attention. She saw the lady from the outside queue tucked discreetly into a corner waving a leg out of time. The little swimmer kept his steady pace, resistant to the rhythm of the music.” I wouldn’t be able to do that,” she thought.” I would fit my stroke to the beat. He has his own beat. “
“For how long do you suppose?" she asked.
"Since they closed the outside pool at the harbour. When that went he came up here, he likes to swim in straight lines. I don’t think he likes the sea. Keep swimming out there, you'll end up in Edinburgh."
"Or Denmark," she said absently.
"Oh aye I suppose. I don’t know what the rules are for that sort of thing. Whether there are international boundaries and suchlike. Or you just make them yourself. He’s a local lad. Born here. Died here. I don’t think he’d understand people from Denmark. Or Edinburgh for that matter," he laughed.
"So just up and down here then. Why?"
"It’s what he’s used to. What he used to do. Every day, he swam at the lido. It makes him happy, if he can feel happy anymore. It’s been so long I don’t know. He used to stop for a chat. I think he got out, went home even. But he’s lost that now."
"Oh I mean that went years ago, they turned it into flats. But wherever it is you go when you’re not…" he gestured. "You have a habit then you become the habit. You have a routine then you become the routine. I’m out of the game, on the sidelines if you like. I still like a chat with those that can. But you know. It’s soothing here. Find the right jet, you can get it right up your... back."
The whine of the motor eased and the bubbles slowed. They sat in the ripples and then in the stillness. The Zumba music throbbed gently around them.
"So he just swims?"
"They turn the lights out, he still swims."
"I’m surprised he hasn’t dissolved," she laughed, uncertain.
"He might yet. I think he’s losing his, what you call, constructional integrity."
"Aye. Corporeal fuzziness."
"Is that what happens then?" She was puzzled.
"Not to me. But I'm, what you'd call, community outreach." He hesitated. "But if you’re here then dammit you might as well have some enjoyment.” He changed his focus. Look at her out there."
He pointed to the lady in the Zumba, just visible still through the glass tiles, wading waist deep as the other class members flailed foam floaties.
"She always liked to feel part of things. You go down the High Street you get walked through by tourists, nobody catches your eye they’re all into the arty craft shops or trying to park their fancy four wheel drives. It’s a bloody nightmare if you’re local. Here everyone is concentrating on the same thing, you’re all looking straight ahead at the pretty boy there in his lycra. She actually died doing Zumba to a video but those with a bit of gumption, they can adapt to circumstances. She’ll be like “swimmerboy” eventually but not yet, not for years yet. He spat into the hot tub.
"Pardon my manners but it’s diluted enough by bumcrack sweat from the steam room anyway. Speaking of which, shift up."
The door to the steam room opened and the two boys came out and hit the on button. There was a whoom and whoosh and they plunged into the resurgent jets. She found herself side by side with the youngest, and he twitched uncomfortably as if it was her hand slithering across his thigh rather than the wake of bubbles.” It probably might as well be,” she thought mischievously, but she restrained herself.
"She’s still got something about her,'' he said, ignoring the boys, "I have, we’ve had enough going on to keep our marbles for a few years yet. It’s what you’ve done all your life that makes this," his waved largely, "What it is. Him," he pointed back to the swimmer, "I remember him, his wife went first and then he did nothing but swim. It was in his head. It’s what kept him going." He grinned sourly. "And now it’s what keeps him from going. Until he’s gone. But he’s just a habit himself now I’m thinking. Like old faithful out there. He was lollipop man when I was a boy. Always will be. Don’t think he even noticed dying. Bloody world will be a volcano again, he’ll still be lollipopping. And the kids still love him. They don’t notice him but they still tap on that bloody lollipop because he’s there and the love is still there. Parents don’t have a bloody clue, too busy with their phones."
She thought about her own life. The sad little life after Lily left home, and the rows and the drugs, and the scenes and the bruises left on her arms as she clutched and called after her, “don’t leave me, I never meant it.”
“There’s NOTHING for me here,” Lily had shouted. “Nothing. Why the fuck should I stay, what is there? It’s all old women and the druggies behind the rec and the fucking rich kids with their mum’s valium getting screwed against the trees in the park and you want me to stay here? Get a fucking life Mum, God’s sake. “
Heading to the big city and bright lights with more than the small town niceness with the bruises like a stain leaching under her skin, and the people walking through you with their nice empty smiles. And she never had really, never had got a life after that. She walked up the road to the pool and swam, but never on a Tuesday since the Zumba except today, things were odd today. Up the road and down the road, and up the road, and swim, and never noticed the dead man. Well you wouldn't would you? All those small drab people with their small drab habits. Who’s to know the dead from the living? So unlike Lily. Lily, so vibrant and angry; who left her? Why did she leave? She stared at the man sitting in the hot tub, his feet bobbing in the bubbles again, and frowned.
"Are you always here?" she asked inanely. The two boys were chatting freely now, laughing at something she had missed.
"Well, no. I get called in when there's a bit of an issue." Up the road, swim fifty lengths, sit in the hot tub, down the road, up the road, swim fifty lengths, sit in the hot tub, down the road. Stare at the walls. Wait for the pool to open. Up the road, smile at the children, the parents never glancing her way, small person with her drab habits, who’s to know? “Lily, oh Lily,” she thought. “Where are you? Small drab habits, who’s to know who’s dead and who’s -“
"Sorry?" she asked, "I missed that."
The man sighed and leant over the hairier young lad.
"I said, they asked me to tell you, you missed out a bit."
"I missed? I missed what you said, I said."
"Yes but you missed out the…" The boys paused. The hot tub jets seemed somehow whiny, she could hear a vague hum from under her feet. "Can you not remember?" he asked. He was looking at her kindly, but she was suddenly nervous.
"It’s what you’ve done all your life that makes you this?” she said, “ Is this what I am?"
"Yes my lovely. But you never died. Lily died."
"I died,'' she said.
"We thought you were like one of those psychics,"' he said, watching her, "but then…"
He looked toward the boys, who muttered and waded out of the water.
"Fucking broken again," sighed one. She looked down at the water, stray hairs caught on the surface by the meniscus.
“I do hope those are from his chest,” she thought absently.
“Then how did I die? It's good to have a routine, gives you something to live for.” Then, frantically, “I died, how did I die? Like a small bird battering helpless against the glass tiles I can't remember how. They don’t, they can’t see me!”
"I DIED," she screamed, and beat at the water with her fists and smashed at the mosaic, "I DIED I DIED." And the last small ripples stilled and the man stood up.
"Might want to change your days up a bit more,'' he said, not unkindly. And was gone.