The Woman in the Pool’, Isabelle Sanders

Illustrations © 2018 Fluffgar

 [ Laps © 2018, Fluffgar ] Twelve? Or was it ten? Definitely twelve. But just to be on the safe side, I’d better start again from ten. Or should I just add two laps at the end? They could be slower, relaxed laps, so if it is twelve, they’ll just count as cool down laps, not my trying to go over my assigned kilometer.

I’ve heard that to some people, swimming laps is meditative. And I suppose to some extent meditation is all about counting, breaths, laps, floating bits of lint you see in front of your eyes when they’re closed. But it seems a bit petty to me, this keeping count of how many laps I’ve done so far, and bargaining with myself when I lose count. Plus, how hard is it to keep count? It’s not like I have anything else to think about.

The pool I’m in is clean. There is that to say for it. I had worried it wouldn’t be. All these students, without their mothers around to remind them to shower. I’ve heard that some put perfume on to cover the smell of dirt. I’ve never noticed it, because the smell of perfume itself is enough to send me running. It gives me migraines, so I don’t stick around to find out what lies underneath it. But this is clean. And remarkably student free. In fact, for the few weeks I’ve been coming, I don’t think I’ve seen more than half a dozen students. The pool is brand new. And I come at the dead hours between 10 and noon, after the early morning crowd and before the lunch one. I don’t actually know that there are such crowds, especially the early morning one. At least I imagine that some students come before their first class, and others during their lunch break. But really, I wouldn’t know, as I only have access between 10 and 12 on weekdays.

I swim my laps, I shower, I go home. I come back the next day. Except at weekends, when I go walking instead. The walk takes me past the pool, and into the hills behind it. There are a couple of farms up one hill, and sometimes I go past and look at the geese and the chicken that run free. But other times I avoid it, if I see that the dog is out on its leash. It can’t harm me, I know, but I don’t like its bark, and I tend to avoid things that make me nervous. A little further, past the first row of hills, lies the village. And I sometimes walk down there and look around. There’s a small cafe, which rarely has anyone in it, and sometimes I stop there and order tea, and the local dish of a flat bread cooked with spinach. The owner and his wife know me, and they chat to me. I pretend I don’t know the language, and just nod and smile. I don’t really know it much, but I could manage if I wanted to. I just don’t like to talk to strangers.

The village isn’t as empty as you’d think. If you travel further into the country, you’ll find a few villages where most people are old, because the younger ones have moved into the city. But here, we’re close enough to the city that it doesn’t really make sense. And life is not quite as hard as it used to be for them, or maybe it’s hard in a different way. They don’t have the lands to work anymore, as they sold that to the university—whether they wanted to sell or not, that’s another story. So they come and work for us, they clean the offices and the homes of those of us who work here, they look after our children, cook for the students’ canteen, keep the university grounds looking green and tidy, and then they get to bring the money home to their parents, their wives, husbands and children. So they’re better off, in a way, than if they had to break their backs growing potatoes, or move into the cities, packed like rats in tiny apartments, working day and night, never eating a proper meal. At least that’s what Michelle says.

Michelle was my colleague, before I stopped. She’s the one who took me to this pool the first time, and showed me around the village one weekend seven weeks ago. She made an effort to stick around, but we weren’t really friends before, and now I barely see her. Jim says she’s not socializing so much with the rest of them anymore either, so it’s not me, it’s her. He says she has a new boyfriend and spends most of her time with him in his town apartment. I think Jim is trying to make me feel better. On the other hand, I really wouldn’t know. I’m never around any of my ex colleagues anymore. Jim says he doesn’t see them either, but I reckon that on the rare occasions when he says he has to stay late for a meeting it’s actually a social of some kind. I asked him once, around new year, and he said that yes, he’d had to go to a wine and cheese event, but hadn’t wanted to tell me because he thought I’d be upset. I replied that I couldn’t care less, but that I’d appreciate he didn’t lie to me. He mumbled some sort of apology and that was that.

Now he’s home by six most nights. We have dinner at 8. I usually cook—pasta, with sauce from a jar—or we order in—pizza, with sausage and peppers. Then he sits in the study pretending to work, but really playing computer games, till bedtime. I go to bed. I don’t sleep straightaway as I’m not really tired. I stare at the ceiling for a couple of hours, and pretend it’s a pool, and I’m swimming laps.

Then in the morning I get up, just as he’s leaving. I have coffee then I put on a pair of pants, a coat and I head out to the pool. I swim my laps, then I come home, make a sandwich with whatever happens to be in the fridge or cupboard. I shower and I go and lie down. I usually sleep till about 3 and have some tea, and then I get dressed a bit more carefully, as my student is coming at 4. I work with him until Jim comes home. He pays me for an hour, but I don’t have anything else to do, so I reckon I might as well help him as go back to sleep, or stare at the ceiling. Also he’s the only person I talk to who’s not aware of my past, who doesn’t know that I was once a high flying academic who had to leave her job for vague and murky health reasons. He doesn’t know about the episode, so I don’t think about it while I’m with him. It’s just another way of passing the time, but while I help him with his school work, or listen to him telling me about something that happened at school, something funny he learned, I don’t have to think about the time passing. It just does.

This morning I was recognized. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and I thought I was prepared, but it was a shock. I shower, but manage to get a hair stuck under my goggles and as I take it out, the water gets into my eye. Then the light from the bay windows hits the water and reflect in the bleached eye and I stumble into the pool. Instead of swimming smoothly to the end lane I normally take, I tiptoe there uncertainly, bumping into the buoys on the way. I think he’s looking at me through the spy cameras, and laughing. He’s one of my ex-students. Not one from the class where the incident happened, but they all know, so it’s the same thing. He must have taken a part-time job here at the sports center—I remember that he wasn’t one of the rich students. He was at the desk when I touched my card on the sensor to get in. His eyes flashed in recognition and he greeted me by name, without having to look at the card. There was a hint of surprise in his eyes, but no more. Maybe they already know that the professor now spends her mornings at the pool, and her afternoons giving lessons to a middle school boy.

It takes me three and a half laps to get back to breathing normally. The winter sun is shining hard through the windows, and giving a false sense of warmth. I can feel a headache coming. It’s a combination of the stress of being seen, and the hard light coming through the dirty glass. I think I’ll have a migraine later. This is almost a welcome thought—at least I won’t have to ask myself why I’m spending the afternoon in bed. And it will probably be gone by the time my student comes. I try to keep my head under water longer to avoid the sun. I notice that the tile at the far corner is coming undone. I’m not surprised, even though the pool is only a few months old. Shoddy workmanship. Probably the workers were from the village. The kind of men who spend longer on their lunch and tea breaks than they do at work. The kind who work slowly, because they’re talking to their mates at the same time, and have to stop whatever they’re doing to light a cigarette every few minutes. Probably they mixed the cement with something cheaper to save some of it for themselves. When I walk to the village at the weekend, there’s always some new construction project going on, with wires sticking out of the ground and cement being poured into it. A new home for newly weds, a new garage for the business owner, a pen for the sheep. I can see some of the sheep through the window now. Not too close—whoever looks after them, and I never see them, keeps them away from anything that belongs to the university. There’s no actual fence between the campus and the village, but there might as well be. I never see the villagers here, except when they are working at their jobs, and then they’re workers, not villagers.

By the time I’ve done ten laps, I’m good again. The rhythm is back, and I’ve temporarily forgotten about the ex-student. The migraine is still brewing at the back of my head but it’s not bothering me yet. It’s waiting till I’m home, and lying down in bed to hit. That’s fine. I breathe, and I move through the water. It’s effortless, and it’s work. I nearly feel alive. I look at the lint behind my eyelids. I squint when my head comes up, and I see shapes and movements. I see naked feet walking past me on one side, I see an arm rising out of the water and in again on the other. If I open my eyes properly, they disappear. They’re not here. Just reflections of my own movements, the color of my skin, the sound my body makes as it hits the water. They’re familiar ghosts, and I have made my peace with them.

The next day when I come back I am still flustered. The migraine came, and it was a lot worse than I’d expected. In the end I had to cancel my student. I didn’t even call him, but when he came and rung on the bell, I just hid my head under the pillow until he left. I’ll probably have to call later and tell him what happened. I don’t want to, and I hope he’ll just come by as usual and that we’ll pretend nothing happened. Then Jim came home and I muttered something and he left me alone. I heard him potter in the kitchen, making himself something to eat. He didn’t clear up of course, and this morning it was still a mess. We can’t afford a cleaner anymore, so I had to get out the sponge and the spray and do it myself. This is why I only ever cook pasta with sauce from a jar. So we don’t have to peel vegetables, cut meat and fry food, and generally make a mess that has to be cleaned later. But even with a jar, Jim manages to make a mess. He also went out to buy a pack of crisps and there are crumbs in the study. Not that I ever go in there, so I’ll just leave it to him to clear it up.

And then, to crown it all, the student is here again this morning. He asked me how I was. He might as well have asked me what happened, how I have survived since the incident, and how come I’m still around, and what I’m doing with my life. That’s what I hear when he asks how I’ve been. Still, I don’t splash my eyes in the shower, don’t trip in the pool, and I begin to relax as soon as I start moving in the water. It’s quite dark today, cloudy. It could be that there’s a storm brewing, which wouldn’t surprise me—I often get migraines in that kind of weather. So maybe it wasn’t me, my ineptitude, and stress. Maybe it was the weather. This cheers me up and I swim a little faster. Then I slow down. Going faster just means I’ll be out sooner. And then what? At times like these I consider moving from one to two kilometers, or at least from 40 to 50 laps. But that’s change, and I’m trying to ease down on that. Not that I’m worried the incident will repeat itself. I’m not in that kind of environment anymore. But what if I managed to do something worse? What if I lost myself completely?

As I swim to the far corner for the eighth time, I notice that the tile has been fixed. The hairband I was wearing yesterday and didn’t know I’d lost was nearby. They can’t have done a great job repairing the tile, if they haven’t even picked up the rubbish. I swoop and grab my band. These things have a way of getting lost, and then there’s no choice but to go to the shops to buy new ones. Or I could go to the hairdresser. I shudder as my head breaks out from under the water. Much better to exchange the odd greeting with the girl at the till than be stuck in the barber’s chair for half an hour, having to do small talk. I put the band around my wrist and carry on towards the other end. Outside the sky is getting darker, and I see a silhouette of a man standing behind the grills that separate the pool building from the hills outside. He’s not watching me. He’s watching the sky, and smoking. I’ve not seen him around here before. A villager, from his dress, and he is holding a shovel—so a worker, a gardener perhaps. You’d think this time of year there was little gardening to do, but the university administration has these people working all year round. He turns a little and stares towards me. But again, not at me, in the water. I carry on.

Another two days, then the weekend. On the Thursday my student tells me he’s not coming next week. His parents are taking him to the coast. He doesn’t say, but I get the impression that they’re looking into moving, in which case he won’t come back at all. I mind terribly. I have no other source of income and nowhere to go, should my husband decide he’s had enough of dragging me along. You hear of people going home to mother, and generally taking a break from life, but that only works for thirty somethings with young, wealthy parents. For me it would mean going to camp in some NHS old people’s home back garden. That or the cemetery. I think I might have to call the student’s mother, just to find out. Maybe they are just going on a holiday.

She’s nice. I avoid her, because I avoid everyone, but I don’t mind her so much. I met her at the private Sports Center, back when I still had a job. We were taking yoga together. She was telling me about her son, about the troubles he had at school, especially with maths, and how the teachers were failing to help him. She really had it in for these teachers. She thought they were under qualified and arrogant (most of them come from North America) and that they had no or little interest in helping those students that didn’t quite fall into the norm. She’d asked me then whether I took private students, and I’d said no—I still had my job. Because I liked her I didn’t turn my nose up at the offer though, and I kept her card, which came in handy a few weeks later when I needed the money. It’s not much, really. It’s just about enough to pay for my personal needs. And I don’t really have personal needs anymore, I’m happy to wear old clothes, I don’t go to the hairdresser, I don’t buy books or sweets. The money just goes in a box, on my dresser, until such a time as I find myself needing it, or Jim finds it and has some bright idea about what to do with it. I know he’d like to spend time with his parents in the South of Spain. Unlike mine, they’re alive and reasonably well, and they do have a lovely house by the sea. I couldn’t bear it, though. All the questions. And if he goes on his own, they’re bound to fill his head with thoughts of leaving me. I’ll make sure to hide the money tonight. That will be something to do.

Jim says I have three months to get out. Till the end of the semester. And then I have to look after myself. I didn’t tell him I’d lost my student, but apparently that wouldn’t have mattered. He says it’s not him, it’s me. I said that of course I have changed since I stopped working, that I thought he’d give me the chance to get back on my feet, to recover and find something to do. But he replied that it’s not what I’ve become, that bothers him, it’s what I’ve always been. He just hadn’t seen it before because he was so henpecked. Who even uses that word anymore! I wonder who he’s been talking to. I ask him: “Are you seeing anyone else?” He replies, calmly, that it’s not the point. That he wants me to leave because we’re not happy together, that really, we never were.

So that’s it. I have till May to move out, find a life for myself and somehow pay for it. I won’t be able to stay in the country, so I’ll have to go home. And I won’t even be able to claim benefits—it’s too long since I’ve paid any taxes there. At least I’ll have a place to stay, apparently. It turns out we own property: Jim inherited some money from an uncle a few years ago and bought a small flat near his parents’ house—when they’re not in Spain—as an investment, he said. I can have that when we separate. He’ll put it in my name now so that divorce lawyers don’t change his mind for him. It’s small, and it’s close to his family whom I could never stand, and it’s not in a part of the country I like. But it will do for now. The fact that he didn’t tell me he’d had the money, or bought the flat, is the real eye opener. Things weren’t going well even then. The fact that I’m not particularly upset at him having done so, or even leaving me is another. I don’t remember the last time I felt anything towards him other than irritation. I will have to see if I can get money out of him as well as the flat. My savings won’t see me through more than a month with the exchange rate the way it is. I should have asked to be paid in Euros or dollars. I’m sure she’d have said yes. Probably best to wait till the deed is in my name before I make any more demands.

As I walk to the pool, I ask myself who it is that he’s seeing. None of our colleagues fit the bill, somehow. Too old or too male. Unless he’s gay? No, I would have noticed. It has to be a student then, one of those grad students, eager to impress in any they can, to get a foot in the profession by marrying into it. I wouldn’t be surprised—he’s hardly the first in the department to do this. Oh well, I think. Good luck to her. She’ll soon find out what a sap he is. And then, when he realizes she doesn’t appreciate his slow wits, short stature, pea sized biceps and high pitch laughter, he’ll just pick another one. Maybe this one will want children. I didn’t. I still don’t. Not that it was always out of the question. I was pregnant two years ago. Then came the question of testing. I was well over the age for being at risk of having a child with Down syndrome. But the test itself was a risk, apparently. Jimmy knew someone whose sister in law had miscarried after having the needle inserted in her uterus. So he wanted us not to have the test. I wanted it—I wanted to make sure that our child was healthy. To be honest, even then I wasn’t sure I wanted a child at all, and having the fetus marked as defective would have been a good reason to pull the plug (pardon the bad metaphor) on the whole baby thing. So we argued, or what passes for argument in our marriage. Jim never raises his voice but repeats the same arguments again and again, never giving up, always coming with fresh examples and statistics to make his point. I counter them, and when that’s not working I retreat even further into myself. I stop wanting to talk at all. Eventually he breaks as it’s quite hard for most people to live in silence, especially if there’s someone right there you could be talking to. In this case Jim didn’t break, and nor did I. I scheduled the test without telling him. And I had a miscarriage the day before. He blamed himself—the stress he’d caused by insisting I don’t take the test—and I didn’t disagree. We haven’t talked about starting a family since. To be honest, it’s a relief.

 [ In the pool © 2018, Fluffgar ] This is my last day at the pool. I’ve decided to leave this weekend. My student is not coming back so I have no more earnings to look forward to here. But his father owns a company that has branches in Asia and there is a job, training workers how to do stats in English—something like that, anyway. There’s a flat too, although he warned me it is small. But it’s a life, and that’s what I need. Yesterday I celebrated by going to the hairdresser and cutting my hair short.

I feel lighter. Ready for my new life. I swim faster too. The shadows follow me though. A trick of the light and not of my imagination then. There’s one that seems more persistent than the others, an arm, moving to my right, below me. But when I turn my head, there’s no one, as ever.

The tile at the end of the lane is broken again—I knew the repair wouldn’t last. I start to think something along the line of ‘these people’ and ‘shoddy work’ but I stop. I’m not going to live among them anymore. Maybe it’s time to be a little more generous. I see again there’s something brown by the broken tile. Not my hairband, surely—I don’t remember losing a hair band last time, and obviously I don’t have one now. I swim towards it and swoop down. But the brown matter sifts between my fingers. It’s dirt. Dirt from the ground with pebbles. Surely there’s concrete under the tiles? Surely it wouldn’t work if they’d built the pool straight onto the dirt? I’m halfway through to the other side but I swim back to that corner. I can’t see the dirt now. The tile is broken, yes, but it looks like concrete underneath. Someone must have dropped some dirt in the pool earlier, and it dispersed when I picked it up. I start again towards the other end.

By the time I’ve reached the end and I turn, I can see the dirt again in the corner. It must have settled after I disturbed it, I think. But there’s more of it now. A little patch of it. I don’t look at it. I close my eyes and swim, I turn. The shadow is more insistent now my eyes are closed. I can make out the arm more clearly. It is not a naked arm, which is strange—if you are going to hallucinate a person in a pool, they should at least wear proper attire. No, my arm is dressed in layers of colorful cloth, and I’m pretty sure I saw some gold shining around the wrist. When I get to the other end, I turn, take a few strokes, and open my eyes again. And I gasp. The entire pool is covered in dirt. Not just dirt. I can see grass growing out of it. And the water has changed too. It is cloudy, just like a river. I try to put my feet on the ground, but I can no longer reach. I make to turn back, but a hand seizes mine. I turn slowly, with my eyes shut at first. I keep them shut and I swim along with my other arm. Slowly I open one: there’s a woman swimming besides me. She is fully dressed, in old fashioned peasant clothes. I can’t see her face, as she’s facing the other way. She’s swimming in that lazy way I’ve seen people do at the seaside. Pushing one arm in front of the other, hardly raising it. Her legs are moving slowly, close to one another. A sort of cross between puppy dog style and a crawl. She’s as fast as I am though. But she’s not coming up for breath. Nor am I, I realize. I reach the end and break out of the water, panicked. Everything is dark. But I can still make out the walls around me, and the window is there. I make as if to call out. I see shapes there. Faces. At least two dozen. Surely they will help me. I scream but my voice is frozen. I wave my arms. They don’t wave back. Finally, there is a tug on my foot. Her hand is soft, and mixed up with weeds. She pulls lightly at first, then hard, and I follow her down. We swim alongside each other, towards the other end. She is facing me now and I can see that she’s older than me. Or maybe not. Village life can be tough on women’s looks. She has soft brown eyes and a generous smile. She looks like she might laugh. Not at me. Nor with me, I suppose. I look in her eyes and I mouth, ‘What do you want?’ Her smile widens. I wonder what I’ll do when we reach the end, whether I’ll be able to breathe then, whether I’ll call out. But I can’t see the end of the pool anymore. It’s just the river. I recall vaguely my student saying he’d learned about the streams that used to run through this land—long since dried out—and the river itself lost to pollution. This one was clean. I could tell there were no pollutants. This was good as I’d swallowed far too much of it.

I feel surprisingly calm, given that I left the pool for a river that no longer exists, swimming alongside a woman who does not breathe—not that I am breathing much myself. I don’t feel the pressure I am supposed to feel. I don’t feel anything. It’s quite relaxing really. I wonder if I’m dead. If they’ll find my body floating somewhere. I wonder if Jim will be relieved or sad. I realize I don’t care much one way of the other. His life and mine—what’s left of it—are wholly separate now. I’m not even sure I am the same person who was married to him, unhappily, and cast away, deservedly. My old worries about myself disappear in the river water, leaving a clean, smooth patch of nothing behind. I almost feel I could breathe in relief. Then the water clears gradually, and I can see we’re still in the pool. The woman is facing away from me again and we’re swimming together towards the broken tile. I panic: does she mean to drag back there with her? But she lets go of my hand. Again I break through the water and gasp. The room is light again.

There’s no-one at the window. The student who was at reception is standing there staring at me.

“You were under a long time,” he says. “Are you alright?” I nod, and I think, thank god I didn’t scream. All I need really is for him to tell everyone there has been another incident.

© 2018 Isabelle Sanders

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