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PART OF THE Coasts and Waters ISSUE

‘With each length, I loosen off. Shoulders, hips, wrists, ankles, neck. Heart pumps. Lungs swell.’

In Catriona Child’s second novel, now out in paperback from Luath Press, we are introduced to Hannah Wright, a dedicated swimmer with a promising future in the pool. Then she meets Mariele, an elderly lady with a secret past, and an unlikely friendship is formed.When she is forced to give up her swimming dreams, it is Mariele’s own story that gives Hannah the strength to negotiate her new expectations. Here, we meet Hannah, unsure yet committed.

 

Extract taken from Swim Until You Can’t See Land
By Catriona Child
Published by Luath Press

 

It’s a dumb rule anyway, no diving. Diving is the only way to enter a pool.

None of this descending down a flimsy, metal staircase while it rattles off the tiled walls.

None of this lowering yourself feet first from the edge, the cold water chilling you from the toes up.

No, that just gives the water the advantage, gives it the power. If you don’t dive in, then you struggle to get your shoulders under. You have to bounce, bounce, bounce, try to plunge yourself deeper, deeeper, deeeeper, until you finally build up the courage to submerge completely.

You’re beaten before you’ve even managed to dunk your head under. Game over. Back to the showers with you.

Diving gives you the upper hand, puts you in control.

 

The woman doesn’t speak, although her lips keep moving. Vibrating, quivering. Dark, like she’s wearing purple lipstick.

 ‘Are you okay?’

 Her fingers spread and the purse falls from her hand. Change spills, rolling and clattering off the counter and onto the floor.

 I move out from behind the till but before I can get to her she crumples. There’s a thud as she hits her chin on the glass-fronted counter.

 Shit, that was loud.

 A crack runs out along the glass, slicing the reflection of Panini stickers, Rizla papers and mix-up sweets beneath it.

 My heart’s pounding as I move towards her. She’s lying on her side, blood dripping from her chin. Her false teeth have fallen out. I accidentally kick them in my haste and they spin away across the floor.

 I kneel beside her, knock a display of chewing gum off the edge of the counter. It falls, showering us with packets of Extra.

 ‘Sorry, sorry,’ I say.

 She doesn’t look well, not well at all. She gasps for breath, fumbles with the buttons on the collar of her blouse, blood pours down onto her hands but I don’t think she’s noticed she’s bleeding.

 ‘I’ll get that,’ I say and undo her top button. Her hands grab at mine, clammy and damp.

 She’s wearing a silk scarf tied around her neck so I lift it, press it against the cut. The blood, warm and sticky, seeps into it, turns the pale silk dark.

 Shit, what do I do? What the hell do I do?

 Shirley’s the first aider, not me. Where is she?

 

The chlorine, the wet, the chill, it hits you all at once but it doesn’t matter. Because you’re straight into your stroke and the cold’s gone before you’re halfway down your first length.

I know how to work the water with my hands, with my feet. I know the shapes to make with my arms, my legs. Keyhole, figure of eight, breakout, pull through. My hands are paddles, the roll of my shoulders, the froth at my toes.

Push me on, propel me forward. Push me on, propel me forward.

Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe.

 

My hands shake as I squeeze the scarf. Blood oozes, dribbles between my knuckles.

 ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be alright,’ I say, but my voice is different from how it normally sounds.

 Her eyes roll backwards, eyelids fluttering. She looks worse now, if that’s even possible. There’s no colour in her face, drained away with the blood through her chin.

 Shit, I think she’s dying. She’s dying and I’m just sitting here letting it happen. I need to do something.

 Come on, Hannah.

 I let go of the scarf. My hands are covered in blood and I wipe them on the woman’s jacket before digging my mobile out of my jeans pocket.

 999

 ‘Hello, you’re through to emergency services, what service do you require?’

 My brain has stopped working. Service? What service do I require?

 Ambulance, ambulance, ambulance, ambulance.

 ‘Sorry, ambulance, please.’

 ‘That’s alright. Can you tell me what’s happened and the address?’

 ‘It’s Shop Better, on the High Street in Kinross. I’m sorry, I can’t remember the exact number, next to the Post Office. An old woman’s collapsed, she’s bleeding.’

 ‘Is she breathing?’

 

. . .

 

Cap tight against my skull, costume a size too small, slick against shaved skin. Bubbles rise to the surface from my nose, my mouth.

Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe.

The water slides off me, gathers like pearls on my nails, my bare skin. I’m impervious. Silky and varnished.

Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe.

 

. . .

 

Her face is red, hair stuck to her sweaty forehead.

 ‘I need help can you breathe for me?’

 I know it’s a horrible thing to think but I don’t want to go near that old woman. I don’t want to touch her. Her chin’s stained with blood, seeped into the wrinkles, paint filling in the cracks.

 ‘I don’t know how.’

 ‘I’ll show you.’

 I shuffle forward so I’m on the other side of the woman.

 ‘Pinch her nose, form a seal.’

 I lean forward. She smells. It’s so strong, meaty.

 I put my lips over her mouth, slowly, willing the ambulance to show.

 I try not to think about what I’m doing. Think about anything else, even Shirley doing Dad is preferable to this. Shirley’s tits, Shirley’s tits, Shirley’s tits.

 The woman’s face is cold, clammy. I can taste salt. I close my eyes, blow, but I’m barely touching her, not forming the seal that Shirley’s so keen on. My hair’s covering her face, it makes it easier. I press down harder, blow again. Pretend I’m kissing a mermaid.

 ‘Well done, one and two and t h r e e and four and five and six…’

 Shirley’s counting’s getting slower, her chest heaving.

 Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe.

 ‘…twenty-six and twenty-seven and twent y – e i ght and twenty-nine and thirty.’

 Mermaid kiss, mermaid kiss.

 ‘One and two and three and four…’

 

Dark tiles, T-shaped on the bottom of the pool tell me the wall’s coming. I don’t need the reminder though, I know exactly where I am.

I know the number of strokes, the number of breaths. I close my eyes and I still know where the wall is. I can’t gauge distance on dry land, but in the pool I have an inbuilt GPS system.

I stretch with my arm, a flash of red fingernails. Then my hand pulls me down, flips me over into a tumble turn. My feet plant on the wall, firm, no sliding on wet tiles. Knees bend, I thrust myself forward, arms out in front, head down. Streamline. A short breakout, hips undulating, dolphin kick, then I’m back into my stroke.

 

. . .

 

My knees buckle and I sit down on the pavement. People walk past, stare at the ambulance, at me, try to peer in the shop window. Nosy bastards. I can see the kids from the High School, getting closer, closer.

 Girls and boys in blazers and ties and black shoes, pounding along the pavement towards me. Laughing and joking and bumping into each other. After their crisps and their Irn-Bru and their donuts and their ten pee mix-ups.

 I spit the gum out into the gutter. Everything’s spinning and there’s black spots in front of my eyes. I think I might pass out. Shirley would never survive another cycle of CPR.

 I close my eyes, lean forward and put my head between my knees. I don’t care that the kids are getting closer, that they can see me sitting on the pavement. If I keep my head down and my eyes shut, they’ll go straight past and it won’t matter.

 I won’t see them, they won’t see me.

 Like being underwater, everything muffled.

 Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe.

 

With each length, I loosen off. Shoulders, hips, wrists, ankles, neck. Heart pumps. Lungs swell.

Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe.

I’ve got the lane to myself. Not many people can be bothered getting up this early to swim.

(late compared to when I used to get up)

The Daybreak Dip.

One of the reasons why I like this time so much. I’m free to power up and down the pool, nobody in my way as I count the metres before work.

400m.

800m.

1200m.

 

Swim Until You Can’t See Land by Catriona Child is published by Luath Press, priced £8.99

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