On Tuesday afternoon, two weeks into the summer holidays, I watched the old women swim laps of the 50-metre pool. Up and down the lanes they went, swimming freestyle and breaststroke and something that seemed like butterfly. Sometimes, when they reached the brick wall at the end of the lane, they clung to the edge of the pool and caught their breath. The air was warm and the sky was big and open. Mum never came to the pool, but I swam ten laps every day because she asked me to. Mum wanted me to be someone special, like Susie O’Neill, one of the Olympians who visited our school. ‘You’ve always been a water baby,’ Mum said.
On Wednesday morning, on the way to the pool, Mum and I were arguing.
‘I don’t want to go,’ I said. I smacked my hand against the window.
Mum gripped the gear stick. ‘Grow up,’ she said.
We slowed down behind a row of cars at the traffic lights. The indicator ticked. I breathed in and out. Mum checked the time on her watch, then pushed her sunglasses up onto her head. The lights changed and I slumped down in my seat.
‘We’ve talked about this already.’ Mum said. ‘The pool’s the best place for you this summer.’
‘But you can’t make me go.’
‘Well I’m not going to leave you out on the street.’
‘I’ll run away after you drop me off.’
‘No you will not,’ she said. ‘I’m getting sick of your smart-assed attitude.’
That summer, Monday to Friday, Mum dropped me off at 9am and picked me up after work. I was too old for the school holiday programme and Mum said I couldn’t be trusted at home on my own. As we pulled into the car park, I kicked Mum’s handbag that was sitting in the space under the seat.
‘You have to go now,’ she said.
‘You can’t make me,’ I said.
‘For god sake, it’s already after 9.’
‘Get out,’ she said.
I got out and slammed the door.
‘Fuck you,’ I said.
Mum wound down the car window.
‘Don’t you dare use that language with me!’ she yelled.
‘I’m just being myself,’ I said.
Mum revved the engine, lowered her glasses, and shook her head at me.
I walked up to the booth at the entrance and paid $3.75. I knew everything about the pool, like the secret place where older kids went to smoke and the storeroom that was never actually locked because Terry, the manager, lost the key. One day, when I was meant to be practicing my diving, I memorised the graffiti under all of the picnic tables. Almost everyone who worked at the pool was a teenager who went to the high school behind my house. Every day, the same boy with dyed blonde hair wrapped a yellow paper band around my wrist to show that I was allowed to be there. If you were under 16, your wristband was yellow. If you were older, it was red. I pushed through the turnstile and headed to the shady spot of grass that sloped down towards the diving boards.
Mum had been working as a decorator for almost a year. She spent a lot of time in empty houses, trying to make different rooms look more comfortable than they really were. She left sticky notes around the house with curtain measurements and the names of different carpet companies. Every year, on my birthday, she sat on the end of my bed and talked to me about making plans. She always said I had too much unmanaged energy.
At the pool that day, I was worried that Mum thought I really was going to run away. I thought she might call the pool office and describe me to the lifeguards and ask if they could see me swimming laps in the slow lane. Mum could be a bitch like that. She never let me do exactly what I wanted. At home, it sometimes felt like Mum was spying on me. She always came into my room when the door was closed and she’d go through my school bag when I wasn’t looking.
I stepped up onto the starting blocks and rolled my shoulders back. My bikini bottoms were too tight and my tank top was too big. The lifeguards were changing over. A tall teenage girl in red shorts climbed up onto the seat. Her name was Olivia.
I could swim, but I was still afraid of drowning. The lifeguards were always talking to their friends or drinking whole bottles of Gatorade in one go. Sometimes, while I was swimming, I messed up the rhythm of my breathing and swallowed so much water that I had to stop for air. The lifeguards never noticed. I always swam in an outside lane so that I could reach the edge of the pool if I needed.
I knew Olivia, the lifeguard, because our mums used to be friends. Once, a few years ago, we went to their house for dinner. Our mums drank wine and we all watched a concert on TV that was being filmed live in Sydney. Olivia never said anything about that night so I thought she didn’t remember me. Last week, Olivia looked after me when I hurt my knee. I’d swum my laps and I was playing in the medium-sized pool that was for little kids. I jumped in and scraped my legs against the bottom of the pool because the water was too shallow. Olivia cleaned my scrape with iodine on a piece of cotton wool. She stuck two band-aids over the cut and told me to look after myself. At home that night I took the band-aids off and saw I had a bunch of tiny scabs, clustered together like a group of stars.
I swam three laps of freestyle. I’d trained myself to open my eyes underwater, even though it stung and it felt like all of the water was trying to rush inside me. The tiles around the pool were dark blue and everything underwater was hazy and endless. After nine laps I stopped and clung to the edge of the pool. I saw Bevan, a boy from school, over by the picnic tables. He was with his mum and his little brother, Darren.
Bevan married my friend Lauren only a few weeks earlier. We held the ceremony at lunchtime at the back of the soccer field. We stole confetti from the art room cupboard, and Bevan’s friend Sam brought a bottle of vanilla coke, which he shook and sprayed into the air like they do at the end of a Formula One race. Lauren didn’t ask me to be one of her bridesmaids. She said seven girls were already too many. I was in charge of the flower bouquet instead. I picked a bunch of daisies from the flowerbeds outside the staff room and I stuck them down with sticky tape to the top of a 30-centimetre ruler. When the bell rang at the end of lunch, Lauren threw the flowers into the air. Bevan moved towards her and stuck his tongue in her mouth. Lauren pulled away and made a face, but Bevan put his arms around her and kissed her again. Sam cheered and some of the bridesmaids laughed. Bevan once said I was frigid because I wouldn’t show him the colour of my undies on the bus to school camp. I was glad I wasn’t married to him.
At the pool, I watched Bevan, Darren, and their mum lay their towels on the grass. I pulled myself up out of the water and sat on the edge of the pool. I waved to Bevan when he looked in my direction, but he didn’t notice me. I slipped down into the deep end and swam my final lap, kicking off hard from the wall and staying under as long as I could. I didn’t like school, but I was counting down the weeks until I could go back and get out of this routine. For the rest of the day I lay on the grass and twisted my hair into tiny plaits.
When the lap pool closed at quarter to five, the lifeguards blew their whistles and came down off their seats. They wound up the lane ropes and pushed them into the store cupboard. I waited for Mum in the carpark. As I watched the traffic lights change, and a bird hop across the asphalt, Olivia came out of the turnstile. She was swinging a bunch of keys in her hand and chewing on the end of a lollipop. She leaned against the wall beside me and squinted her eyes towards the sun.
‘Do I know you?’ she said.
I stopped and looked up at her. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘You gave me those band-aids.’
‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘I’m waiting for my mum,’ I said.
Olivia twirled the lollipop in her mouth.
‘What about you?’ I asked.
‘My boyfriend is picking me up.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Cool.’
‘I’m hanging around to take some photos,’ Olivia said. ‘For my art portfolio.’
‘I thought you were a lifeguard.’
She laughed. ‘Only to save money,’ she said. ‘Next year I’m going to photography school. I’m going to make something of it. My granddad used to be a photographer for The Age.’
Mum’s car was coming around the corner. ‘What do you take photos of?’ I asked. Mum pulled up in front of us but I looked away, pretending I hadn’t seen her. I wanted to keep talking to Olivia.
Mum honked the horn. ‘I’ve got to go,’ I said.
I opened the passenger seat door. Mum was wearing bright red lipstick. As we drove home my towel made a damp patch on the car seat. For dinner, Mum made microwaved chicken and sweet potato. She stood in silence by the microwave, watching the container twirl. I wondered if Olivia was at home with her mum, or if her boyfriend took her out for dinner, or maybe they were alone together at his house.
The next day, the boy at the pool made my yellow band a bit too tight.
‘That hurts,’ I said. ‘Can you make it looser?’
‘Nope,’ he said.
I tried to swim my ten laps without any breaks. I didn’t want to see anyone from school. I was bored and exhausted, and the muscles in my thighs kept twitching randomly. In the afternoon, I waited in line at the canteen while two girls in front of me kept flicking water from their hair into my face without realising. They were whispering in each other’s ear. The Frosty Fruits always sold out on Fridays so you had to wait longer while people decided what they were going to buy instead.
I saw Olivia leave the office around the other side of the building and walk across the grass towards the exit. She had her wallet in her hand so she was probably going to buy her lunch from the shops across the road. I decided I wasn’t hungry anymore. I stepped out from the canteen line and watched Olivia walk further away. I went up to the door that said Staff Only. I turned the doorknob and went inside. The office was dark and messy. There was a desk and three walls of shelves and one small window. There were cardboard boxes of plastic cups, and stacks of coloured paper signs left over from the winter that said pool closed for the season. I saw the same orange box that Olivia had brought with her when she gave me the band-aids.
I got down on the floor and sat under the desk and closed my eyes. I just wanted to be inside for a little while. I could feel my heart beating fast and I breathed in and out to try to slow it down. When I opened my eyes, I saw a red PhotoReady packet poking over the edge of the desk above. Outside, the canteen lady was yelling.
‘You didn’t pay for that!’
‘He took my money, miss!’ a boy yelled back.
I pulled the photo packet down to me. I decided that if Olivia came back I’d tell her I was looking for band-aids again. Maybe I could cut my finger with some scissors to make it more believable, I thought. I took out the photos, one by one. I felt like a fortune teller with a deck of tarot cards. I lay the pictures down in rows on the carpet. Every photo was taken last week. I knew that because all of the pictures were of me. There was my face, turned to the side, looking into the water. There I was on the starting block, hugging my arms to my chest, deciding whether to jump. There I was climbing out of the lap pool, looking weak and tired. My hair was slick and my fingers were wrinkled. I felt like I was being pushed underwater.
I crawled under the desk again and pulled open Olivia’s sportsbag. I threw her towel over the chair and stuck my hand inside the bag. I found a tube of sunscreen leaking inside a zip-lock packet, a box of cough medicine, and two pairs of pink underwear. Then I found her camera, disposable, like the kind I took with me to camp. I looked through the little square viewfinder and everything felt far away.
I heard the sound of feet on the pavement outside the door and caught my breath. Olivia opened the door and saw me holding the camera in my hand.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she said.
‘Come with me.’
I followed her out the door, still holding onto her camera. She slammed the door behind us. I squinted my eyes because of the sun. It was hot and I was starting to sweat. The day was turning inside out.
‘Where are you taking me?’ I said.
Olivia led me around behind the building. There was a small ally way, between the brick wall and a barbwire fence. There were four garbage bins and an old hose. The smell of the rubbish was thick in the air and there were flies hanging around. We stopped walking and I leaned against the wall. I noticed Olivia had small sweat stains underneath each of her armpits. She crouched down in front of me so our faces were on the same level. Her skin was oily and her freckles were dark brown from spending so much time in the sun. Olivia opened her mouth and stared at me.
‘I don’t want you to tell anyone you saw those photos.’
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘Promise me,’ she said.
I leaned in closer to her.
Grace Finlayson is a writer from Canberra living in Toronto. Her short fiction has been published in Meanjin, Seizure, Scum Mag and elsewhere. You can follow her on twitter @gracefinlayson.