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Gripped

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I learnt to swim before I was two. Swam with a squad until I was eleven and my mother, wearying of the early mornings, talked my brother and I out of continuing.

Sometimes, as a kid, I would swim without breathing. Taking breaths took time, so I’d just kick like a maniac, the entire length of the pool. Finish my 50 metres having sucked in two, maybe three, desperate lungfuls, hit the wall with a dizzy slap, my head exploding. I was a skinny-legged girl, full of feist, salt water, sunshine.

Ballsy.

My brother and I had competitions in our backyard pool – how many lengths underwater could we make without surfacing. He was a fish, his flat spatula feet like powerful paddles. Our record was nearly 5 laps. Our skin tasted of salt. Our smiles flashed summer.

I tried to swim a lap underwater a few years ago. No longer all angles in a swimsuit, I was curves and arcs and coves that sheltered lapping waves of doubt and acquired neuroses.

I surfaced in a wild panic before I was even halfway down the pool. An explosion of water cascading from me, a desperate sucking in of oxygen. Thinking, my god, as a kid, I could swim without breathing .

Thinking, my god, who was that girl?

My mother is the custodian of a crystal of stories, a million-faceted crystal, sparking light in all directions. It’s me. A more precious, enchanted version of me, that I don’t recognize, resent, am curious about.

I first swam 50 metres when I was three; eyeing up some eight year olds at the pool proudly dripping on their newly-earned certificates. Me, wanting to be like the big girls, wanting one of those tickets.

My mother tells me I wanted that ticket, and I imagine her fear, looking around at the concrete, the pebbled edge of the pool, all the things that could split a head-strong head open.

The swim coach, a tough, leather-faced woman with a gravelly voice, offered a solution. "Let her try. She’s got to swim the whole distance though."

No soft options. Back and forth across the narrowest section of the pool, my mother and the coach standing guard at each end, keeping count, marking the spot where I had to turn around. Wide-trucking turns, wheeling around without touching the side of the pool.

"You can’t touch the edge, or it won’t count."

They explained the rules, not knowing if I understood.

"50 metres is a long way, so once you start, you just have to keep swimming. Okay?"

I’m twenty six years old when my mother tells me this story, and it feels as strange as a new filling that hasn’t been filed down properly, my tongue running over it, certain it doesn’t belong to me. Who is that ball-busting little bit of can-do willing to kick to the end of the earth?

A rush of bubbles. The churn of water around you. You’re half-fish. The salt water blurs your vision. You blow out bubbles the way they’ve taught you, turn your head, your whole body rolling over for a breath. You just have to keep swimming. You kick and breathe and the water is light and foam and cool embrace.

Suddenly, you’re surfacing from the water, strong hands holding you back, the shock of air on your skin, your legs kicking. Still kicking. Squealing and wriggling like a slippery seal. "My ticket! My ticket!" Kicking to get away, to get back into the water, back to task.

Your name. They’re yelling your name, these soft-curved brown-skinned women, who have marked the two poles, marked the ends of the earth.

"You’re done! You’re done!"

Finally, the message penetrates. They make you understand that you made it, that you can stop now.

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