Mitch has been waiting all week for Tara to get back to him. Only when in the water is he separated from his phone. It’s lucky, he thinks, as he punches in the code to disable the alarm and lets himself in, that he has to be here. The pool rested overnight, and now lies smooth, ready to give him a break, to take him elsewhere as it always has. Outdoor, indoor, underground, rooftop, exclusive, inclusive, filthy, sparkly-clean, Olympic, twenty-five metre, salt water, UV – any pool will do. Mitch has his favourites but Fourth Street, with its banner: “Home of the Sharks” is the one he thinks of as his. Twenty-five metres, eight lanes, three metres at the deep end, it’s housed in an ageing and never splendid building, yet still seduces him with that turquoise glow, with those threads of reflected light knitting and releasing themselves in a dance that is both loose and contained. The pool promises buoyancy and escape; it taints the air with a tang of chlorine (fainter these days, due to the UV) to which he has no objection at all.
He pulls off his sweatshirt, dumps his backpack on the floor, and pushes through the door at the back of reception on to the deck. The air is warm and moist. Condensation gathers on the picture windows that look out into the woods. The hum of the ventilation and mechanical systems seems oddly loud when the pool is empty, but it is always there, lurking deep beneath the shouts and splashes that bounce themselves to mush between the water and the walls and mount to a crescendo at about four in the afternoon: it is a kind of silence that you only hear if you’re there first or last thing, when the swimmers have gone and the water is, as now, very nearly still, waiting for a dive to break its surface, for the dive which will connect Mitch to all his other dives, and to all the waters of the world.
For a racing dive, you climb on the blocks, which angle towards the water, one leg at the back one at the front. You keep your back straight, offer your chest and the heart beating steadily inside it to the water. Waiting, you push with your legs and you pull back with your arms so that when the light flashes and the buzzer sounds, you spring forward with doubled force. Your arms come back to your sides but right away you bring them up so that they point your way in. You hyper- extend, tense your core and extend your legs so that once your fingers part the surface, you slice into the water and enter it without wasting any of the power you put in to the spring. You’re looking for horizontal distance. On the other hand, diving for diving’s sake from a platform or a springboard depends on the take-off, but is all about the flight and the entry. Straight, pike, tuck, free: it is, when you get down to it, mainly about being in the air, and that has never interested Mitch.
The water closes behind him. He kicks hard, stays under for three quarters of a length before he surfaces, ready to start the routine that will set him up for the day: practise what you preach. Swim the swim. Well, Mitch likes what he does. Whatever happens with Tara, he’ll hang on to that.
“And whatever she says, you are going to have to be fine with it,” Annette told him last night when he couldn’t sleep and tried to slip out of bed without waking her. They sat up and talked in the dark.
“Yes,” he said, “but still…” He stared straight ahead, out of the window, picking out the shapes of the garden trees he’d planted, but he could feel Annette studying at his face. Beneath the sheets, she put her hand on his leg.
“And either way, it’s just good she agreed to think it over.”
“And it will be fine for Tara, whatever she chooses to do.” Annette took her hand from his leg, touched his face, made him look at her, pulled him into a kiss, offered her body for him to forget himself in. Afterwards, he plunged into oblivion and did not wake until the alarm sounded at five. Her side of the bed was empty, and he found her hunched over her tea in the kitchen downstairs, looking every bit of her age. Five, O! More importantly, five years older than him, which these days she could not forget, whereas, left to himself, he would. A decade ago, when he was thirty-five the gap had seemed like nothing at all. In five years’ time it would be that way again, or even something to celebrate: if the years were laps or miles, you’d be proud of them, for heaven’s sake! But the thing is, they’ve not had kids of their own. They met that bit too late for that.
“So then I started worrying,” Annette said, “but not about Tara. One way or another, Mitch, she’ll be okay.”
“Don’t worry,” Mitch told her, “I promise you, the last thing I want to do is drink.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Annette said. She was worrying about the potential impact on their relationship. It was all connected, she said.
“Please. Just don’t,” he said. Running late, he squeezed her shoulder and hurried to the car.
He’d been with Annette for about a year — they had just bought the house – when Tara first showed up on a Friday, late afternoon. He was teaching a shared lesson and noticed a family come on the deck. The mother, skinny, had thick blonde hair and a pierced belly button; the man stood very tall and fit. A tattooed dragon coiled up his arm. The girl Mitch put at about seven, and they’d dressed her in a turquoise bikini — Why, he asked Annette later, do people do that? He watched as the mother, showing off her own figure in a similar suit, crouched down, felt the water, mock-shivered, stood again. For a moment, all three of them waited in a line at the shallow end, considering the expanse of water ahead of them. Then the little one threw herself in – not exactly a dive, and perhaps the lifeguards weren’t looking, or else they let it go. She surfaced, gulped some air and hurtled towards the deep end, her hands smashing into the water, but fast – and, the thing was, it looked messy as all hell, but she pretty much had the stroke: face in, the arm’s reach coming right from the hip the twist of the neck, the timing. It was all there, ready, and Mitch just had to stop and watch.
He didn’t know it then, but nature versus nurture was a topic he and Tara’s mother would in the coming years return to many times. Of course, he’d tell her, you need to train. But some people start from a better place. Height is good; long limbs and big hands and feet are a tremendous asset (look at Mr Phillips, now!), and some (not necessarily the same ones) just have a better constitution and a more efficient metabolism than others. To some extent the lack of any of these assets can be overcome with hard work and the right mindset… But an understanding of how to move in water, feeling the physics, not knowing it – that’s probably innate, and, he’d tell her, that feeling is worth more than anything and it is the very best place to begin. That’s what he’d say, and certainly it seemed to him as he stood waist deep, watching, that this girl had more than begun. She was halfway up the pool before her mother jumped in after her, breast-stroking along with her head up, arms and legs out of sync, fighting her own efforts every inch of the way.
“Tara,” she shouted, “wait! You’ve got to be able to stand!”
Forget that, Mitch thought, as Tara closed in on the end rail, slowing down a bit, but not much. She was pushing it – another thing not everyone wants or is able to do. The two boys in the water with him, for example, were time-wasters, reluctant to go a hairsbreadth out of their comfort zone, and therefore doomed to progress at a glacial pace, but there were ten minutes of the lesson left so he turned his back on Tara and went back to the drill for the dolphin kick.
“That kid could go a long way, very fast,” he told Annette in the evening. “Could be a great swimmer. I’m absolutely sure of it. And I could help. I feel like I should. It’s weird. I’ve not felt like this before.”
After the lesson, he dried off and pulled on his Coach tee shirt for maximum professional effect. The new family were back in the shallows, and he went right over and squatted down.
“That’s some awesome swimming you do,” he said to Tara, then looked at her parents. “Who taught you, your dad?” The man with the tattoo laughed.
“Afraid not, ” he said. “You’re looking at the world’s worst.”
“Her cousin taught her in the lake,” the mother said.
“You’re a bit of a fish,” Mitch told Tara. “How old are you?”
“Seven and a half,” she said. She was looking right at him, had been ever since he came over. It was clear to Mitch that she very much wanted to hear what he had to say.
“One thing,” he told her, “try keeping your hands like this, and sliding them in forwards without a splash, then you can pull more water… See? Angle them like this. It should feel like you’re pulling and the water’s pushing back. But don’t quite close up your fingers. Like so. You’ll catch more water. Feel it? That’s the way.” He turned back to the mom.
“You know, she might enjoy our swim team.” He kept his tone light, even though he had a very serious feeling about it.
“We’re not really joiners,” she said, and looked away. There was no point in being pushy, and, as he explained to Annette, it was all too easy for parents to think you were some kind of pervert, especially once your hair started to thin: these days, he said, it’s probably better all round to be female, but some things can’t be helped. Thank God, Annette said. So Mitch didn’t ask whether they were passing through or new to the area, or where the kid went to school. He just grinned and backed off.
“Mitchell McAllister,” he told them as he stood up. “Here most mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Enjoy the pool.”
“It’s freezing!” Tara’s mother said. They did keep the water cool. That was what swimmers needed. Management appreciated the needs of the club, plus those few degrees saved a fair bit.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” he told her, smiling. “You’ll soon warm up.”
“Maybe I’ll never see them again,” he told Annette.
Back then, the house took up all their free time. That night they were painting the lounge in Ivory and Arctic Moss. He was on the ladder, she was cutting in by the baseboard. They each craned their necks to look at the other.
“Well,” she said, “let’s see how it goes,” and there was a feeling that they had agreed to something, though neither of them knew exactly what.
A week or two after their first meeting, he ran into Tara’s mother in the lobby. Her hair was wet, and she had a rolled up towel under her arm; a nice woman, he thought, but a little too thin and too intense, her eyes shiny-bright, the angles and planes of her face more like sculpture than flesh. He was just arriving, she was on her way out.
“Hey, Mitch, right?” she called out. “We chatted the other week. Tara pestered me to bring her back so she can show you her new arms. She’s been practising in the air.”
“Cool!” he said, feeling his heart rate pick up: excitement, self-justification, hope –a cocktail of many things.
“Well,” she shrugged, “it’s a half hour drive, and we have a lot to look after right now. Fencing the yard, keeping the darn chickens alive, re-plumbing up the house. We just can’t make too many trips. And I’m not a fan of your freezing water! So finally we made it – and then we missed you. Sabrina, by the way.” She offered her hand.
“I start later on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons,” Mitch explained as Tara emerged with her dad from the family change-room. Josh: Mitch shook his hand, too. It was cold still from the pool.
“Scoot back in I’ll watch you now,” he told Tara. The parents looked at each other.
“You two stay dry,” he told them. “Get a coffee, tell Chris it’s on me. Five minutes, okay?”
She jumped right in, looked up at him. She was waiting for his say-so, but at the same time he had a feeling she was in charge. Okay, he thought, I’m yours.
“Up to the end and back,” he told her, “but remember, it’s not a race. I want what’s called good form. I’ll walk up on the side here and I want to see you make your hands go in perfectly and pull back the water just as I told you, every single time.” At the end, she was breathing hard which told him she had tried for speed and form, and that her endurance needed work. But the hands were perfect, and her eyes sought his: How was that? What did you see? What next? Show me! They were blue-grey eyes, big, the same as her mother’s, but her gaze was untroubled and they picked up some of the colour of the water. She was all about what came next, about being in the water, about wanting something from him and wanting even more from herself.
“Attagirl,” he beamed back at her. “You got it. Next time I’ll show you the flip turn.” He picked her out a decent pair of goggles from the lost and found and told her to ask her parents to get her a one piece and book her in for a free trial lesson: that way, they wouldn’t have to get wet themselves.
There was another long gap and then over the course of a six week set Tara learned her dive and turn, and the beginnings of a pretty decent fly. They started on her dive.
“It’s like I’m giving her what she’s wanted all her life,” he told Annette. “Amazing. Totally committed. But she needs to be part of something.”
Maybe she needs other kids to swim with, was how he would put it to Sabrina.
“If your folks do say yes, at this time of year you’d practise every day before school and the dry land training Tuesday and Thursday, after school. Meets, that’s the races, are every month or so until the real season starts and you don’t have to come to every single one. Later it gets to be a little bit more. But we do take August off. You need talk it over with your mom and dad.” Take a deep breath, he told himself. Submerge… Hold it. Let it out very slowly. Wait.
Depth is about the water pushing in on you and separating you from the familiar world. Some of those drawn to go deep want none of the careful calculation of pressure and gasses, the attention to time and meticulous checking of equipment that scuba entails; they prefer to extend their innate physical capacities as far as possible and dive free of equipment, with just a lungful of air to sustain them and a dangling rope to help them find their way back up. A free-diver learns his or her body as if it were both friend and enemy: how deep it will willingly go, how to push it further, how to increase lung capacity and oxygen absorption, how to slow the heart beat and move without wasted effort; to evaluate, accept and transcend pain.
Mitch once witnessed a free-diving record. He was on the crew of the Shirley, waiting for Herman Fischmann (could you make up a name like that!) to surface. He held his own breath in sympathy, but managed only two minutes. He burst into tears when the bloke’s shaven head emerged ¬– it was like seeing a baby born ¬– and on top of that he felt a kind of water-man kinship, though personally he was not especially drawn to depth. For him, it’s speed, economy and distance, not depth, not so much. But he certainly understood the dedication involved.
He knew that Sabrina and Jason did not quite got where – who ¬– Tara was, but he had high hopes that they would.
“If you think about it, what I ask of these kids is no different from, say, learning the piano,” he told Annette. They had the new kitchen in by then: granite, gas stove, the lot, and made a point of using it.
“Hmm… You don’t have to play piano at six-thirty, travel half an hour to get to it and pack your breakfast,” she said, which was fair enough.
Annette owned Valley Fitness, the gym in town. She had it first with her ex, then on her own; she was hoping to sell it before too long. She was a keep-fitter, not an athlete, but she understood training and competition.
“I’m not strict,” he continued. “Intrinsic motivation is where I come from, not carrots and sticks. After a year, I expect a little more, and so on. And she’d lift the whole team: it’s not just about the obvious athletes. Some kids are signed up to get a bit of exercise, others for the friendships, but then once they are in, it changes, and some of them suddenly take off. They all get something out of it. But with Tara, I have to tell you, I’m thinking the Nationals in a few years and then looking right ahead to the Olympics in 2016.”
“That’s an awful long way to look,” Annette said. “What about here and now? Could we forget Tara for an hour so?” He grinned back at her and complimented her on the salmon she had cooked, tried to bring his mind back to the two of them and the here and now, but the truth was he could not forget: even when he did not think of Tara she was there, waiting in the back of his mind. And before long it got to the point where both he and Annette dreamed about Tara, her times, her moments of victory, but also things like injuries, forgetting her suit, losing her goggles, or beginning to struggle for her breath. Many times, in his sleep, he dived in and rescued her.
You must do whatever the lifeguard says, Mitch always tells his swimmers, and use your common sense: don’t swim alone. Remember that water, however much you love it, does not love you back. It simply does what it must do according to the laws of physics and the conditions at the time, and while it is essential to life, it can also end it, and swiftly, too. Humans are not amphibious… How can you tell if someone is drowning? he asks. Hardly anyone has ever had the right answer: swimmers in distress splash and shout, but drowning itself is silent and swift. There’s just not enough air to make any noise. The head goes back, the arms spread out and push down on the water until for a moment or two the mouth breaks free of the surface, exhales, gasps – but then it goes under again. With each surfacing the inhalation is smaller, the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood greater, the arms weaker, and in a minute or less it’s impossible to surface at all; water is inhaled and the larynx constricts, sealing the air tube to protect the lungs. The brain, starved of oxygen by now, soon shuts down – though the victim may still be resuscitated, if pulled out of the water and treated before cardiac arrest occurs.
In order to flush the carbon dioxide from their lungs and so delay the breathing reflex triggered by its build-up, some swimmers hyperventilate before a distance or depth dive. It’s a high-risk strategy, since the diver may black out due to oxygen deprivation before they feel the urge to breathe. Typically, these drowned divers are found, too late, on the bottom of the pool. So, no panting and gasping before you dive in, he tells his swimmers, and no breath-holding contests: I know what I’m talking about, believe me. And even though you are going to be excellent swimmers, please wear your flotation devices when you row across the lake or go sailing with your uncle. Suppose the boom swings and knocks you unconscious before you fall in? And by wear I mean buckle it up…
Sabrina and Jason’s overgrown acreage and 1910 farmhouse with authentic shingles came cheap, but they had to install fences and drains, fell trees, extract rocks from the soil, and then plant five hundred grape vines and two hundred lavender bushes, all at the same time as trying to run a web design business, grow their own ultra-healthy food, including chickens, without using chemicals, and raise a family. Eventually they would be showing visitors round on tours and tastings as well, and Sabrina would be making and marketing organic lavender products: oil, hand cream, soap and such. Big dreams and laudable aims, was how Mitch put it to himself. You never knew how things would turn out, but it sounded to him like a miserable amount of work, unless you had money behind you.
“Nice property,” he said when they showed him and Annette around.
“I wish you hadn’t put this team idea in her head,” Sabrina said. “All that time spent on one thing, especially at this age, seems crazy! The reason we chose home-schooling is to avoid competitiveness and peer pressure and have her enjoy her childhood.”
“Well, yes,” Mitch said, and met the eyes fixed on his face, the mottled grey irises darkly ringed and suspended in blue-tinged white. His feeling was that Sabrina desperately wanted to do the right thing, but had no instinct for what it was. Part of her knew this, but another part, the part mainly in charge, did not.
“There is all that,” he said. “And it would be a big commitment. And you’re her mom, so you know best. The club is competitive, but it’s not just about competition. It’s very sociable. They work hard and they have a lot of fun together – that might be a big plus if she’s mainly with you guys. And some people just naturally like to strive. Look at it this way: she’s competing against herself right now. It might be healthier to let her do it with other kids around.” He kept his voice light. “Why not just try and see?” he said.
“Remind me,” Sabrina said, still locking eyes with him, “how on earth did we get to be having this conversation?”
“You showed her the water,” Mitch picked up on her tone and pulled her towards the laugh they’d share, “that’s probably where you went wrong.”
Her whole body softened when she laughed.
“She’s beginning to understand. But I can’t tell her too much at once,” he told Annette.”
In training, the body is pushed beyond its limits. It suffers, then reconstitutes itself. Muscles strengthen and develop a tolerance to lactic acid. Lung-capacity increases. The heart grows in size. At the same time, understanding of the stroke accumulates. Young swimmers begin with a general impression, and move into the detail. As each new element is assimilated, the swimmer reaches a plateau, or even loses ground before progressing further. The mind too must remake itself.
Mitch swims the sets that he’s written on the sandwich board for his faster swimmers: five hundred metre warm up. Pull four times 150. Swim ten times 100 intervals. Kick for 500, then kick fifteen times 25 metres, intervals. Five hundred butterfly, five hundred choice. He’s working his way one stroke at a time towards the finale, towards sprint 100, 75, 50, 25 with a fifteen second recovery. These days, some of his swimmers are faster than he is.
He working hard enough that the air tastes very sweet when he gets to rest. Water rushes past his ears, his breath’s bubbles burst around his face; each time his ears surface there’s gasp of his inhalation, the sudden emptiness of the air above the pool. When his hands meet the tile another turn begins… The hands of the deck timer mark each second as it passes and sometimes, for length after length he thinks of nothing at all, just feels the stroke.
Though not today. He’s remembering that first time he saw the pool at Braeden Manor: no deep end, the water opaque, unused lane dividers tangled together at the far end. The windows along one side were almost obscured by the bushes and creeper growing outside. A faded sign pointed out that students who swam without a qualified life guard present did so at their own risk. He remembers how his heart lifted, how he almost cried when he saw it. Just the sight of the water, the thought of being immersed.
People evolved from fish. In the early weeks of pregnancy, the human embryo develops the beginnings of gills, which later become part of its ears. Air-breathing and lungs evolved in fish as a way of coping with oxygen depleted waters. It makes perfect sense to Mitch that our brains and bodies carry traces of the distant, aquatic past, and this must account for the affinity some feel for water, for individuals with extraordinary skills. Those free divers, for example: no one can really explain how they descend on a single breath six hundred feet below the surface, much less why they are drawn to sink to such lonely and dangerous depths. Yes, their lungs are more capacious than average, but even so, after fifty feet, they’re compressed to all but nothing, and theoretically, after three or four minutes, all those divers should be dead. Some do die in their attempts, but most live… It’s quite possible, Mitch thinks, that this is because they have retained some fishy capacities, some metabolic trick that scientists don’t yet understand – and it’s got to be the same for exceptional swimmers like Tara. They see the water and feel its pull; they know what to do because it’s buried somewhere in the fish part of their brain.
He volunteered for 5.45 pick up in the mornings and said he could find another parent to drive Tara home after practice.
“All right, then,” Sabrina said. Tara’s arms were wrapped around her waist. “It’s very kind of you to help. I can’t promise, but we’ll take you up on the month’s free try-out.”
That was it. A month later Tara formally joined the Sharks: sixty swimmers from six to seventeen, their coach, Mitchell McAllister, assisted by a series of university students and volunteers – brilliant, abysmal and everything in between. Josh, they decided, could manage the evening sessions. He could sit with his laptop and work while she trained. A bit of time out for you, Mitch pointed out to Sabrina.
“I don’t particularly want that,” she told him, but she returned his smile.
At the first meet, both parents leapt to their feet, yelling and cheering. At last, Mitch told Annette, they saw it: how swimming against someone good could take four seconds off Tara’s time; how close to each other, how grateful rivals can feel at the end of a hard race.
Soon Josh was asking questions about interval versus sprint and making up spreadsheets on his computer, to the point that Mitch had to rein him in. Though Sabrina, who had yelled just as loud, once came up to him at the coaches’ bench where he was packing up his things, and said, “Thanks, Mitch. But this whole thing is weird. What the hell is it about?”
“Being in the water,” he told her. He pointed out how Tara liked the fun stuff, too, water polo, the pyjama swim, all that. That she was not full of herself. Just happy. She was learning how to encourage those in the team who weren’t sure they wanted to be there. The training and the competition, he explained as they climbed the concrete steps and finally emerged from the fuggy humid air into the late afternoon sun, would provide her with many life-lessons: how to decide what she wanted and work for it, short and long term. How to deal with setbacks. “Swimming is a way to find out who you are,” he told Sabrina. She seemed to take it on, but she didn’t often come to the meets after that.
Sabrina missed seeing Tara win the 200 breast, a stroke she’d learned from scratch with Mitch. It’s all about timing, he’d told her: the amount of glide, the moment to pull the arms back, getting the kick and the reach to work together. You begin by thinking it through but in the end, you learn to feel when it’s right. In the pool that afternoon, Tara pushed a v-shaped wave of water ahead of her and overtook her rival in the first of eight lengths.
At the end, she gripped the rim of the pool, heaving for breath. Mitch, watching from the coaches’ bench, knew that she’d be disqualified for not touching properly on her second turn. He watched the white-coated official zone in on Tara as she went to pick up her towel. The woman, hugely fat, squatted down to Tara’s level, holding onto the railings for support. Quite a picture, the muscular little girl who knew how to part the water and pull herself through it with the minimum of wasted energy, the woman who had to drag the equivalent of another person wrapped around with her, day in, day out. On the face of it, Mitch thought as he watched the thing play out, you’d say the wrong one is giving advice here, though the fact is a lot of these amazing little swimmers end up as beached whales in middle age. Tara, he thought, would be bright enough to do the math. She was a great kid all round. She stood straight and looked the whale-woman in the eye. He wished he’d brought a camera with him.
Then she was there in front of him. Subdued, but no tears yet.
“DQ’d,” she told him, looking to see how he took it. Her time, 1:22, would have been a meet record.
“Bad luck, great time!” He watched her break into a grin. Later, he’d explain to her that every disqualification is a gift, and that by the end of the season, she would have her time way further down: it was a given, really, if she just did what he asked of her, and kept on growing, which she surely would, and did.
Annette sold her business and began to come along on the meet weekends. She helped pack up the car, took photographs for the website, and looked after the younger swimmers, the girls especially. Once Sabrina had the twins and needed Josh home to help, it was often just the three of them in Mitch’s car, making jokes, talking things over.
But the first two years were in some ways the best, because then all of it was so fresh, so very exciting. Tara qualified for Provincials with times almost two seconds faster than required. She would have been seeded first, but couldn’t go because of a trip already planned to visit to Josh’s parents in Ontario.
“Of course that comes first,” Mitch told Sabrina. They were in her kitchen; she’d invited him in for coffee when he dropped Tara off. “No problem,” he said, raising his mug as if in a toast, and he more or less almost meant it. He saw her jaw relax as she let go of the fight she’d been preparing for, though the next morning at 5:45, Tara red-eyed, was crying up boulders next to him in the car.
“I hate my parents!” she spat out as they turned into the freeway.
“Whoa!” He glanced across, then grabbed her shoulder for a moment. “They didn’t know. And who pays for all this? Who brings you here, who washes your towels? All you’ve got to do is wait until next year.”
“Next year, you could be six seconds faster. You’re eight,” he told her. “You have nine more years of Provincials. Missing this one will save you from getting bored. And remember, you’re part of a team. All this year, you’ll be pulling the others after you and speeding them up, too.”
Actually, he was sure she’d be in the Nationals by twelve or thirteen. And when she did get to her first Provincials she beat all records and ended up with three gold medals, which she wore to the team dinner that night. The skin on her face looked taut, almost as if it had shrunk, and her eyes were very bright. She looked more like her mother, he thought. There was something other-worldly about both of them.
“I’m starving!” Tara told him as he passed by where she was sitting with her friend Alice and both of her parents. Sabrina had protested earlier about the unhealthy choice of restaurant but now she waved at him and seemed happy enough.
“Good to see you wearing your jewels,” he told Tara.
“Did you get medals like these?” she asked.
“Not at your age, no,” he told her, “I didn’t get any hardware until I was much older than you.”
“I was never in a team at school,” he said, moving on.
He had not always been Mitch, though there was no need for Tara to know that. He grew up under the name of Sebastian McAllister, in England, the only child of an actress and a history professor who believed that from beginning to end, their son’s school experience should be intellectually stimulating, rigorous yet also creative and free. There was no need for Tara to know Mitch’s story, but Annette had required detailed background information. Comprehensive life-story exchange had been part of the deal. And was quite probably worthwhile, he admitted once it was done.
“They were prepared to pay through the nose,” he told her, “but nowhere was good enough.” Sebastian, as he was then, attended four different elementary schools before ending up at Braeden Manor, a cutting edge progressive secondary based in an Arts and Crafts style mansion in Hampshire. It was famed for its dedicated staff, small classes and picturesque, wooded environment. There were professional quality art rooms, laboratories and a well-equipped theatre, in which, despite or because of his mother being an actress, he had absolutely no interest. Braeden was a boarding school, and by that time, he was happy enough to leave home.
“Would he go for arts, languages, or sciences? Perhaps he’d prefer some middle ground between the two? Philosophy? What about the Law?
Braeden’s teachers were on first name terms with their pupils, who were encouraged to create their own curriculum. There was endless freedom, provided it was something intellectual or artistic that you wanted to do, but the school was too small to field teams for any of the local leagues and sports hardly figured at all. In any case, the feeling was that team games were warlike and suspect; the life of the mind was what they were there to explore and the body figured only as an aesthetic object or the subject of scientific enquiry. Physical Education took the form of recreational tennis and occasional runs over the fields, and, tacked on to the side of one of the older buildings, was a neglected twenty five metre pool which students who knew how to swim were allowed to use provided a waiver had been signed.
“That pool saved my life,” Mitch told Annette, on one of their early dates, a hike up the mountain. “They meant well, but it’s tough having parents who ignore what you are. They wanted me in Oxford, never understood that books bored me, much less how I loved the water. By the time I got into swimming, I’d stopped telling them anything. There was the pool, and I was in it, timing laps, practicing how to breathe, growing my shoulders. I got a book, The Science of Swimming, and worked from that. Can you imagine learning technique from a book? But it was a good book, and taught me everything. The strokes, how to train. I still think it’s the best… I timed myself and kept a log. No one took much notice. Perhaps I’d like to make it into a science project? Well, perhaps.
“Poor grades saved me from Oxford, but university of some kind seemed unavoidable. I picked Bristol for its pool, and persuaded them to let me try out for the swim team. I wasn’t quite good enough. If I’d started proper training and competed earlier, they told me, I’d have had a decent chance. Fuck this, I thought, it’s my life. I went AWOL, took off, for years: Turkey, Thailand, India, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand…”
“I’d love to go to New Zealand,” Annette said. And maybe they would. Because it was getting to the point that he couldn’t go on coaching, year on year forever, and financially, a time would come when he would not have to. For a while now, he had had it in mind that he’d at least semi-retire in 2016. Go watch Tara in Rio and leave it at that, that’s what he had been thinking.
The last part of the mountain trail was steep. They passed through old forest and he’d drifted away from where his story was going… In water, he told Annette, you learn yourself. Who you are. How far, how long you will go, what you think and feel as you set yourself on a course, just you and it. Water is always stronger than you, even when you’re the best you can be, and if you make a mistake, it is waiting to fill you up. And if you’re drunk, you shouldn’t swim, especially in the dark, however warm the water and the air and however beautiful the glittering firmament above.
Between Sebastian and Mitch he went by a variety of names. He had been that tanned guy picking grapes, selling sunglasses on the beach, or fish, or worse; he was the bloke running the little boat over to the island, or taking tourist money to see the turtles hatch. Also, he had been that guy passed out on the beach. He did the necessary to keep moving on from one sweet spot to the next, and at the same time he found his own way down and out of his own head. He sent only occasional postcards home.
By chance Mitch arrived at Lake Taupo at the time of an open water meet: a whole scene he had no idea about. Short haul swimmers wear out fast, but he could still train for distance, and had been, informally, for years. So he took up open water competition and for a while it gave a shape to his life: training, and saving for the race fees and travel from one event to the next. And between times he set out solo, crossed bays and straits, swam to distant islands, rested and returned. Though he still drank. But at least when he came to grief it was the in the Mediterranean, and not the North Sea. A yachtsman who’d done a lifesaving course fished him out.
“Chance in a million. I’d passed out, was probably a minute away from death. I remember him slapping my face then going back to pump my chest some more. I vomited up half the ocean. And after that, I went home. My father was dead by then. Mum put me through detox and rehab: nine months, lord knows what it cost. I changed my name to Mitchell, and I met Laura, who brought me back to Vancouver. We lasted almost six years, and here I am now, five thousand miles away from where I began, on the Pacific rim, coaching the swim-team at the Fourth Street pool.”
“What about your mother?” Annette asked. By then, they were sitting at the summit, the city, fields islands and sea spread out below them; the sky, intense cerulean, wisped with puffy clouds. Not a bad view to be sitting in, not at all.
“Annual visit and talk on the phone. She’s forgetful now, lives in a retirement complex with helpers, and is lined up to move into care. She’s never stopped calling me Sebastian. And the way she puts it is that I’m a teacher… She forgets the divorce and tells everyone including me, that my Canadian wife and I live near Vancouver. Some things just stay out of shape and you have to let it be. It’s about as good as you could expect.” Mitch put his hand on Annette’s shoulder, and she leaned in to him. Her story, which had come first, was simpler: a father no man could live up to; difficulties with men who found her too assertive. One of the many things he liked about Annette was that she did not judge or argue with what he’d made of his own tangled experience. She didn’t try to tell him what it all meant.
By the time the twins were toddlers, Tara’s parents had put the property with its lavender and baby vines up for sale. Bad timing: it was on the market for years, but before Tara got to the Nationals, they’d managed to cut their losses and sell it to another set of hopefuls. They moved to the edge of town. Tara got to go to regular school. Jason had a job in IT but they were struggling financially.
“It sucks, but we just can’t come,” Sabrina told Mitch. Her voice was tight and he guessed she was holding back tears. “It’s what to do with the twins and the cost of the flights out east.” Annette offered to donate her flight to whichever parent most wanted to go; Sabrina said they’d be too embarrassed to accept.
“Really, they’re splitting up,” Tara told them on the way to the airport. She sighed, examined her hands in her lap. Mostly she looked older than twelve, though sometimes it went the other way.
“First Mom was bringing the twins to watch and Dad was staying home, then it was the other way around. Now they’ve sent Charlie and Louie to stay with Aunt Karen so they can take the time to try and talk things through, just the two of them. I don’t care.” She glanced at him in the mirror, her ponytail whipping to the side as she moved her head.
“I guess you’re better off without them around,” Mitch said, “if all that’s going on. That’s probably what they think, too.”
“No,” she said, her voice wavering, “it’s not. They just couldn’t agree.” He gripped the wheel as if to throttle it and managed to say nothing. Annette twisted right around and put her hand on Tara’s knee.
“Well, kiddo,” she said, “that sucks. But you know I have a very loud voice and I’d like your permission to cheer for three when you’re on.”
“Sure,” Tara said. Her shoulders seemed to relax a little; she looked out the window. Planes were taking off and landing, and the runways shimmered in the heat. “Do we get a meal on the flight?” she asked, and Annette said no, but she had brought chicken pasta and banana bread in her carry-on.
At the hotel, Tara and Annette shared, leaving Mitch in a room on his own. Mitch barely slept, could only hope that Tara was drinking enough and visualising as he’d taught her to, each stroke of the race, every breath and every single turn, in real time. The feel of the water and the wall of the pool, the sounds, her time on the clock. It had been proved that the same neurons fired whether you were visualizing or swimming for real. You must make a memory of what you wanted to occur.
“You can either let stuff get to you,” he told her when they said goodnight, “or you can say, none of that comes in the water with me. Just swim.”
A 6:30 warm-up. An hour and a half later, she appeared on deck sheathed in her turquoise and black knee-skin. She looked for him and Annette, gave them her thumbs up salute, then as soon as they’d returned it, looked back at the water and rolled her shoulders. She was about in the middle for height, Mitch noted. There were no real giants, no surprises. But he thought she looked pale. No, ¬¬¬¬Annette said, it was the light, they all did except the black girl from Toronto in lane three. And they were all brilliant – he and Tara had studied the stats. This was where you met your match, which for the hundred free was Josie Georgeson, lane five, next to Tara in four: their times were a whisker apart. Across the board it was tight: the race was down to who wanted it most and had best accepted and nurtured that knowledge, fed and groomed it, let it take residence in their mind, day and night – but also on who had a bad day, not enough sleep, or too much going on at home.
“On your marks.” Eight of them, strong, slim and streamlined in their racing suits, climbed up onto the diving blocks, adjusted their goggles and bent to grip the edge. What was she thinking? Of the water, the strokes ahead of her? Of nothing at all?
When the light flashed and the buzzer sounded the swimmers sprang from the blocks, hung for a split second in the air, then sliced into the pool; they came up together. Buried in the crowd’s roar Mitch was counting her strokes, yelling Ra! Ra! Ra! and praying for the turn, because with this talent, a perfect or an imperfect turn would make the difference: arm, arm, tuck, kick up your butt, stay compact in the roll, feet slam the wall, push, rotate, yes! She surfaced half a length ahead of the rest. Mitch and Annette were on their feet with the worst of them, roaring as she came in almost a tenth of a second ahead. She yanked off her goggles to see her time. Mitch was in tears. It was not her fastest, but it was better than anyone else’s and it had got her through. It was good to keep something in reserve. They worked their way down through the sea of parents and coaches.
“Cool!” she said.
“Very cool. Good work! You’re well in,” he said as Annette handed over the recovery drink; she nudged him and he backed off, managed not to say, in a choked voice, I’m gonna be so proud of you. Though as it turned out he was: Two golds, one silver, and one bronze over a long three days: emotionally exhausting in the very best way. The pool and the hotel, the heats, finals, food, drink – it was as if nothing else existed. After dinner, they returned to the rooms and watched old Disney films. And then it was over, and they cracked jokes and gossiped all the way home.
When they got there, things changed. Josh did not appear. In the hall, Sabrina explained to Mitch and Annette that things had been falling apart since before the twins were born. She and Josh were pulling in different directions, couldn’t agree on anything; it had always been that way to some extent and was even part of the attraction. Now, with the three kids, it wasn’t possible any more, not even bearable. Not for her. Counselling was useless. They were going to split. They were aiming to do everything fairly and with as little pain as possible. The twins would stay with Sabrina. Tara could choose where she wanted to live. Either way, there would be plenty of flexibility.
“I’m very sorry,” Mitch told Sabrina. She grimaced, shrugged, turned away.
“I don’t want to live with either of them!” Tara told Mitch when she called him later that night. “Can I come live with you and Annette? You guys are a such a lot of fun.” And now he wonders: supposing they’d said yes, sure, come right on over, we’ll work it out somehow? Supposing they had taken her in? How might things have turned out then? But instead, he called Sabrina.
“Look,” he said after he’d let her know what Tara wanted, “I’m just letting you know. If we can help in some way, please say and of course we’ll do what we can.”
“I think we’ll be fine, but thank you, Mitch,” she replied. Did “we” include the kids? he asked Annette. Couldn’t they have waited a bit, given how long they’ve waited already?
Tara did not choose. She moved between the two homes. After six months, Josh decided to move to Toronto for work. He pointed out that it would make sense for Tara’s training, if she wanted to come too, and by then, she did.
“She’ll keep in touch,” Annette reassured Mitch. He wasn’t convinced, but she did. She called or Skyped pretty much every week, and wrote Mitch long emails packed with details about her training. They still got to watch her major events. She was in a documentary about young athletes, and on TV several times. Her new team practiced in the varsity pool and at the Olympium, great fifty metre pools. School went well and she was being tipped for college scholarships. She was sixteen, and almost six feet tall, with the perfect swimmer’s build. She kept her hair in a pixie cut, for convenience, she said, but it looked great on her. There had been two boyfriends, both swimmers, but neither relationship seemed intense or disruptive: they were probably too tired to get up to much, Annette thought.
After the move, Mitch found it uncomfortable running into Sabrina and the twins at the grocery store and realizing that in many respects he knew far more about her daughter than she did. There was that on his side, and something else on hers, a distance that seemed like restrained hostility. Did she think it was all his fault? Did she blame swimming for the breakup, or at least for the loss of her daughter? Blame him, in fact? Annette thought it very likely, though he hated to think that way. He’d always liked Sabrina. Still, it was Tara that mattered.
“The coaches here aren’t any better than you. Mitch,” she’d told him. “But the thing is, there are three of them.”
“Well they must be doing something right,” he pointed out. It was all going very well, come 2013.
It’s properly bright outside now, almost time for the lifeguards and then the early swimmers to arrive, dropped off by whichever white-faced parent drew the short straw that day. And Mitch has swum the last sprint; he’s feeling the workout, and he’s had enough waiting. He just wants Tara to call as she promised she would, and he wants to say – well what? He’s said so many things in his head that now he doesn’t know what’s best, or even exactly what he thinks. He just wants to hear her voice. He goes, dripping, straight back to reception, and digs the phone out of his backpack.
Nothing. Doesn’t she owe him some respect?
Kelly the receptionist gives him an odd look as she comes in and turns her screen on: semi-naked colleague dripping in office.
“I’m going to get a coffee,” he tells her, makes for the door, then returns for his shirt. During the five-minute drive he remembers something Tara said when she called a week ago with her news: Suppose I was pregnant, what would you think then? I’d be fucking furious, he’d thought.
“I’m not, by the way.”
“Well, I’d be wanting to know how you felt about it… And to be honest, I’d be thinking, well, babies are great, but that is something you could do anytime over the next two decades.”
He had wanted to say:
“Look, sometimes it’s hard to honour your gift, but you’ll feel better for doing it in the long run.
“ You’ll never forgive yourself if you turn away now.
“ This is just a blip.
“ Just hang in there a bit longer and it’ll feel good again.
“ Hang in three more years.
“ Get what you came for, then quit.
“ Why would you not do this?
“ You are so very, very lucky¬!
“ How dare you throw your chance away!
“But the thing was to handle it so that she didn’t get backed into a corner. “Look,” he said eventually, “It’s a big decision. Just do this one thing for me. Take a week to think it over every which way one more time, then call me again.”
She said yes.
So where is she?
He should get some breakfast, but can’t decide what. He stirs cream and two sugars into a cup of strong coffee, carefully fits the lid to the cup, then drives back to the pool. He carries the coffee to the little outside area where there are picnic tables and some play-equipment. He places the phone on the table about a foot away. I’ll drink this, he thinks, and then I will either call her and say What the hell? or smash this fucking phone with a rock. He enjoys the idea of the rock: it’s ludicrous but that does not mean that he won’t do it.
The taste of the coffee, its sweetness and temperature are perfect; he drinks slowly, pausing between mouthfuls to look at the pool building, the yellowing rhododendrons sprawled against it, the car parking area with its forlorn planters and lamps. He waits a little before taking the last mouthful. And then it’s gone, and the phone rings.
“Hi, Mitch!” her voice, light and even, gives no clue as to what she’ll say. “You okay? Got a few minutes?” He doesn’t mention that he should be at work.
“So, like you said, I’ve thought it over. “
“Well, Mitch… I am a hundred percent certain that I’m not stressed. Or in love. And I’ve not over-trained. It’s a fantastic program and they switch things up a lot. And it’s definitely not Max’s or Roxy’s or anyone’s fault that I’ve come to feel this way. They’re great coaches. I talked to them a few weeks ago, and they said to take a break and see if it freshened me up. I’m on my third week of the break now, and I really like it. I really, really like taking a break. And they sent me to a sports counsellor twice a week. Basically, I’m thinking, maybe I’ve swum enough?”
A counsellor once asked Mitch what the water represented for him and when he said nothing, suggested it might be the womb.
“Tara–” he begins, but she doesn’t stop for him.
“Of course, yes, there’s the Big O. And the Pan Am. All these goals I’ve had, we’ve all had, for years. And it’s been great to look forward to, but Mitch, my motivation’s zilch. I’ve lost interest. In winning stuff. In the podium. It’s like, done that.”
But no, Mitch thinks, you haven’t! You’ve got very close, but turned away, which is a completely different thing. He knows he’s right. Also, that it is worse than pointless to say so. Tara’s voice does not waver as she continues: “I don’t hate it, as such, but I don’t feel the pull any more. You just can’t train, you can’t get there unless you really, really want what’s at the end of it… It’s changed. I’ve changed. At first I ignored it, then I freaked out, but now it’s fine, I think. Good, actually. Because why not? Why can’t I be something different? I want to think about new things. The environment, stuff like that. And Mitch, it is so cool to pick up a book and not fall asleep by the end of the second page.”
You have your whole life to read books!
She’s still talking: how she might do volunteer work, and wants to see the world, not just the 50 metre pools in its major cities and the corridors of budget hotels. Could go to Guatemala. Bhutan. Thailand. Peru.
Beware of open water! Wear the life-jacket!
She’s thinking that when she’s earned some money. How? She’ll make some long trips, journeys that include biking, kayaking and camping, but also spend time in cities.
Always learn some of the language. Travel with someone. Buy your own drinks, and watch them!
“I feel awful about disappointing you all. But it is my life. I feel,” Tara says, her voice growing slower and less certain, “like I’ve ended a very long swim. When you climb out of the pool and stand on dry land ¬– you know that soft, heavy feeling while your body adjusts? Odd. And it is scary, because who am I without the water? What’s left of me? I have no idea. But I want to know. And Mitch, I don’t want to fall out over this. I really, really, don’t. Are you hearing me?”
He wants to advise her to at least keep her fitness up – after all, who is he to her if not her coach? He wants to tell her that in six weeks or even six months time, if she changed her mind she could probably still come back. But he takes a deep breath and says none of it.
“Yes,” he says and small as it is, that word comes hard, but then it’s done. The tears that course down his face are a relief. “Loud and clear. Got it, Tara.”
“Cool!” she says, her voice bright and free. “Thanks so much for everything, Mitch. I mean that. I’m heading west in a few weeks time. Guess I’ll visit you guys then.”
“All right, Tara. Take care.”
It’s over. He sits head in hands, alone on the bench outside the pool, his swimmers inside waiting for him, his face wet: it’s a strange feeling, a kind of passionate emptiness, an unexpected calm. Shock? Relief? Release? In any case, the best thing is to keep moving. Mitch stands, slips the cup in the trash and goes back in to the pool.
“It’s just how and what it is, and good luck to her, but I can’t pretend to like it,” he tells Annette later, the pair of them folded into each other, pressed close, rocking back and forth.
“It’s could be the best thing ever for her.” Annette pulls back a little so she can look up into his face. “And now, we have a truly empty nest… Please, Mitch, don’t you dare turn us into a cliché. Let’s go somewhere together, soon. Let’s get away and start thinking about something else.”
He has two weeks coming up. She’s thinking about Iceland. It’s mild and light almost all night long in August. You can cycle right round. It has puffins, geysers, hot springs, black beaches, all sorts of pools. You can scuba dive in the Silfra rift, swim in Viti lake.
Sure, Mitch says. It does sound great, though it’s not cheap, and somehow they don’t make the booking right away.
About a week later, he glimpses Sabrina and the twins in the grocery store, ahead of him in the tea and coffee aisle, and it floods through him: how much she must have been through, how much she has had to let go. He catches up with her in produce, and asks her if she’s heard from Tara. She nods and pulls a quick smile, meets his gaze.
“Apparently Josh took it very badly,” she says. “But she said you were just great… Once she knows where she’s going next, well, we all know she’ll work hard for it.” They’re standing quite close. Her face is open, relaxed. He’s not seen her like this before.
“I worry,” Mitch finds himself saying, “that as time passes, she may miss the training routine itself far more than she expects.”
“You could be right.” Sabrina touches him on the shoulder and her hand rests there a second or two. “Mitch,” she says, “when Tara gets back, we’ll do dinner or something with you and Annette.” Then she gathers up the twins and pushes her cart on towards the baked goods.
It’s such a soft but sudden feeling – something like waking up, something like his first sight of the Braedan Manor pool or of Lake Taupo, something like déjà vu: the sensation of what used to be turning itself, in the space of a breath, into the beginning of something else.
Kathy Page‘s current love is the short story, but her fiction ranges widely in both form and content. Paradise & Elsewhere, her 2014 collection of fabulist fictions, was nominated for the Giller Prize and short-listed for the Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction. Her six novels, include the grittily realistic Alphabet (a finalist for the 2005 Governor General’s Award), The Find (a 2010 Relit Award finalist), and The Story of My Face (long-listed for the 2002 Orange Prize). Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, a novel that interweaves realistic and fantastical elements, will see Canadian publication in the fall of 2015. Two more collections of stories are forthcoming.