Learning to Swim
By Eileen Chong
In the morning the sun was out again and Magritte decided to go swimming. She put on her bathing suit, a sundress, and a pair of jelly sandals. She packed a bag; inside she placed a towel, sunglasses, a bottle of water, and a book. She had been trying to read this book for years now. Every time she started she would stop a few pages in. The writing gave her a headache.
She drove slowly to the seaside. Her car was old and sputtered whenever she stopped and started. She enjoyed this; it seemed to her that her car was alive, a complaining companion on her journeys.
There were many cars on the road. She was not the only one headed for the sea. To her surprise she found a parking spot almost immediately, not far from the start of the path. Her car shook irascibly as Magritte eased her into the space, then silenced as Magritte withdrew the key. She took up her bag and turned the key in the lock. There was a dog on the grass behind the car, wearing a collar attached to a long leash. A man standing in the middle of the field held on to the end of the leash. He was smoking and watching his dog and Magritte. She turned away and went up the path towards the rock pool.
She did not like dogs. When she was a child her father had a large black dog, a German shepherd. It liked to bark aggressively at strangers walking past the house. Her father had been very proud of that dog. Magritte had detested how the dog's saliva would trail from its mouth onto the grass, or over the wooden floorboards in the house. Walking barefoot, she would often unwittingly step into a pool of slime.
The path leading to the rock pool was steep. Magritte walked slowly, swinging her bag, feeling its slight weight in her hand. Joggers sprinted past on her left and right, leaving a curious smell of sweat and sea air in their wake. Children hurtled towards her on tricycles. Magritte moved to the edge of the pathway. She did not like children.
The entrance to the rock pool was flanked on either side by a solid fence to keep out prying eyes. The pool admitted only women and children. Magritte liked that about the pool. She liked being freed from the gaze of men when she was swimming and lying in the sun. She felt secure with all the women around her. She did not go swimming anywhere else.
The deep concrete steps went down, winding around the door to the changing room and led to a small patch of grass. There were already two women there, their towels side-by-side, marking out their territory. Their belongings were laid around their bodies like cutlery on a placemat.
The woman to the left lay on her front. She was topless. The white sides of her breasts swelled around her ribcage like strange fruit. Her back was brown and glistening with sweat. She had pushed the edges of her bathing suit up past her buttocks as high they would go. The flesh of her bottom puckered like a plucked chicken. The woman next to her was on her back. She was reading a magazine, holding it so it shielded her face from the sun. Her knees were wide apart. She was tanning the insides of her thighs. Magritte looked away. That was what women did in this place.
Magritte descended more steps, holding the rough wooden rail. The steps were uneven and the paint from the rail flaked off in her hand. The large flat rock was empty. Magritte kicked away small stones, then laid out her towel. She removed her shoes and placed them on two corners of the fabric. The water bottle went on the third corner and her bag on the fourth. Magritte turned towards the sea, stripped off her sundress, then lay down. The sun's rays had warmed the rock. Magritte stretched out on her back. She was a lizard sunning itself. The heat from the rock suffused her body at the same time the sea wind cooled her skin. It was a very pleasant sensation.
She reached into her bag, not looking, rummaging for her book. The book was about a man and a woman, first driving through the countryside, then arriving at a cabin in the woods. They had a baby with them. That was as far as Magritte had ever got. The storytelling confused her. The language was convoluted, but somehow compelling. It seemed like the woman first told the story, then the man. The baby was always crying in the background. Magritte had read the beginning so many times that the events had become like a recurrent dream.
What fascinated Magritte about the book most of all was not the story itself, but the fact that the author had written the entire novel three times. In the foreword the author thanked a Jean for saving him from having to write it a fourth time. Magritte was curious about who Jean was, and what had happened to the first two versions of the book. Perhaps they had been too readable. Perhaps it had been an entirely different story. Or perhaps someone had stolen the manuscripts and burned them, or drowned them in the sea. Magritte caught her mind in mid-wander, and turned her attention back to the book.
There they were again, like old friends performing a familiar routine. The man is driving through the countryside. The woman sits next to him. In a bassinet in the backseat a baby lies sleeping. The woman is watching the trees go by, fingering a long pearl necklace that coils from her neck into her lap. She tells the man to slow down. He is smoking a cigar. The woman hates the smell of it. It reminds her of her father. The man speeds up in response to the woman's request. The woman turns her face to the trees hurtling past. She is very unhappy. The car goes over a pothole in the road and for a few seconds, they are thrown into the air. The baby in the bassinet wakes up from the jolt and starts to cry. The woman turns around in her seat and tries to pick the baby up. The baby cries even louder.
Magritte hated the baby's crying. She had imagined its cry for so long that she could almost hear it, right there by the sea. She wondered why the man was driving so fast, why he seemed to be so angry. She wondered why the woman did not drive. It must be because of the baby. The baby cried in the background as the woman argued with the man, clutching at her pearls, twisting them around her knuckles. Magritte felt her temples throb in response. She closed the book and put it down. She did not need a bookmark; she knew exactly where she had stopped.
From the flat rock the last of the steep steps led into the water. The rock pool was large and filled with seawater. It was high tide, and the waves broke over the edge of the pool and spilled into its depths. The water was green and clear. The bottom of the pool was crusted with sand and rock and barnacles. Magritte stood on the bottom step. The green water licked at her ankles. It was cold, almost too cold to swim. There was only one way to do it. Taking a deep breath, Magritte pushed off the step and made a clean slice into the water.
Underwater, the world was different. Sounds were heavier, fuller. The sea spoke to Magritte in waves, but before Magritte could decipher the messages, she had to break the surface for air. She gasped, her teeth chattering from the chill. She kept swimming in long strokes that pulled her body along from end to end, the salt of the water stinging her eyes, coating her teeth and tongue like a long-held thirst. Eventually her muscles warmed and Magritte felt slick and alive in the liquid sea. She turned over on her back, paddling lazily, and watched the movement of the clouds in the sky. The sea gurgled secretively in her ears.
Above the water and the grass, three women were descending the stairs. They were old, and held on to the rail with both hands as their feet searched blindly for the next step. The rail shook with their weight, but held. They were dressed in grey nuns' habits. This was the only place that the convent permitted them to swim. Step by uncertain step, they lowered themselves onto the path and disappeared into the darkness of the changing room.
The two women sunning themselves came into the water. They squealed like children at the cold, hovering at the edge of the pool. Their nipples stood erect under their thin bikini tops as they waded into the pool, water lapping to their waists. Magritte turned over on her front, and started swimming again. She wanted to get in a few laps before it got too crowded. The women splashed, each trying to get the other wet, and finally immersed themselves, breaking into breaststroke. Magritte swam steadily. By the unsaid covenant of such things, the length of the pool just by the sea was left to her.
The three nuns emerged from the changing room. They were dressed in identical black costumes, high-necked and cut modestly on the bottom. Their skins were white and wrinkled. Their bodies were soft, sagging in places. The tops of their heads were encased in black bathing caps. They looked oddly uniform, three members of a water ballet troupe grown old.
Once again they made their painfully slow descent. Magritte did a final lap of the pool and with strong, final strokes, made her way towards the exit. The women reached the bottom step. Magritte stood on a rock in the water, balancing, waiting for the women to enter the pool. There was only room enough for one to pass on the narrow stairs. Something on the rock was sharp and hurt Magritte's feet. She wished the women could hurry up.
Clumsily they landed in the water. The temperature shocked them into laughter where they were silent before. The sound surprised Magritte. Their laughs were not those of elderly nuns. In the water, stripped of their habits, they were just women. Magritte pulled herself up out of the water. The sea clung to her suit, streaming down her hair, beading on her skin. She wrung her hair out as she ascended the stair back to her spot on the flat rock.
Below her, the nuns were talking. It appeared that one of them was learning to swim. Magritte could not see the women in the pool from the rock. A low, gravelly voice was instructing the learner on how to hold her breath underwater. Magritte put on her sunglasses, lay again on her towel and closed her eyes, breathing deeply. The sun was coaxingly warm on her skin. In a few minutes, Magritte was asleep. She began to dream.
In her dream she was driving her little car. It trembled as it went over the road. The road was long and winding, stretching over a flat, characterless landscape. It was very bright, but Magritte could see no single source of light. She was headed somewhere in a hurry. Her car grumbled to itself, and Magritte answered it sharply. The car went quiet, so quiet Magritte was uncertain if they were still moving. She took her hands off the wheel and her foot off the pedal, but still the wind blew in her face. The car was driving itself. Magritte saw a bump in the road ahead of them and tried to steer the car around it. The car continued on its own path. It hit the bump, and they flew a little way through the air. The baby was crying. Magritte turned around to pick it up, but all she could see was a long pearl rope draped like an arm across the back of the seat. Each pearl gleamed very white in the strange light.
Magritte woke up. She was cold. The sun had gone behind a cloud. There was a terrible racket going on in the pool. Magritte heard shrill calls for help. She frowned, thinking of the baby's cries, before it dawned on her that these cries were real. Magritte scrambled to her feet and darted down the steps as fast as she dared.
At the far end of the pool, the two sunbathers were calling for help. They were holding up between them one of the old women, whose head was barely above the choppy water. They were struggling to keep their balance on the slippery rocks. The other two nuns were clinging on to the sides of the pool, turning their pale faces to the side when the waves battered the wall. Magritte looked at this scene before her, and froze. It was new to her. She did not know what to do. The woman sunning her thighs before screamed at Magritte to get help. This freed Magritte from her paralysis. She turned and took the steps up two by two.
Along the path outside the rock pool, nothing had changed – joggers, walkers, dogs, babies in prams. Gasping for air, Magritte reached out and grabbed at the arm of a passing man. He looked startled at this sudden, unanticipated contact. She pointed towards the entrance to the pool. "We need help." The man hesitated briefly at the entrance, his eyes on the sign forbidding entry to his sex, then sprinted down the steps. Magritte called out to no one in particular. "Help! Somebody help!" As if on cue, several other people appeared, out of nowhere. Together they descended the stairway.
Magritte stood on the steps, helpless, as three men dived into the water fully clothed. She wished she had her dress on, but she couldn't go to put it on right now. Behind her, the sea spread out like a low, flat land greedily fingering the white stretch of sand in the distance. Two women in jogging gear stood next to Magritte. One of them had her hand over her mouth in horror. The other chewed her lip nervously.
One man reached the women on the far end, and relieved them of their load. He cocked his arm under the old woman's chin and started to tow her in towards the staircase. Her rescuers, freed from keeping their charge buoyant, swam slowly in the same direction. The other two nuns were prised like oysters from the wall and towed in a similar fashion, one man to a woman.
Someone had called for the lifeguards, who had come in their red and yellow with stretchers. All the men and women and nuns had emerged from the sea. Magritte had put on her dress and her shoes, and thrown everything else into her bag. The nun who had been learning to swim lay flat on an orange stretcher. Her bathing cap was gone; in its place was a rope of tangled grey hair. Her face was white, whiter than the pearls in Magritte's dream.
Magritte feared that she was dead. She looked so cold and so wet that Magritte stepped forward and draped her towel across the nun's limp body. As the lifeguards lifted the stretcher and made their way up the narrow stairs, the woman clutched at Magritte's towel and opened her ancient mouth to cry and cry and cry.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010