This short story was written especially for our Charity and we appreciate her kindness
The elderly woman, head bobbing slowly, swam breaststroke back to the shallow end of the public swimming pool. That made forty-two lengths. Her best ever. Pleased, she leaned back against the pool wall and rested a while. She watched the sunlight from the poolside windows dappling the warm turquoise water. To her left were the fast lanes, where adept swimmers were carving their way through the water creating frothy wakes, turning at each end like somersaulting dolphins. She, however, was in the slow lane. ‘In more ways than one, these days,’ she thought.
To her right was the general swimming area. No lane markers there. Just a large area for families to play in. Sunday lunchtime was usually quiet though. Just one young mother today, holding her baby close to her chest as she dipped and bobbed carefully in the lapping water. The young woman was singing quietly to her child. A made-up song. Something about splish, splash, sploosh. As she sang, she dipped just low enough each time to give the child the gentle feel of warm water on her feet and ankles. No further. Safe.
There was a time when the elderly woman could not have watched this. Any sight of a mother and baby in an affectionate moment together would cause a deep pang of loss and regret. Now, not wanting to make the young mother feel self-conscious, she turned her gaze back to her swimming lane. She lowered her goggles over her eyes. Another two lengths perhaps? She swam off and let her thoughts roam.
So ironic, to have tried so hard NOT to get pregnant in her teens and twenties. To have NOT wanted children so much that she had even saved up an abortion fund just in case that calamity should strike. So ironic to have believed back then that, if she did have a dalliance with someone without taking precautions, even just once, she would fall pregnant immediately. One time, one sperm and tra la la that would do it! Ha!
So strange that, even in all those years of being ultra-careful, she still had imagined that, one day, she would have children. She’d often found herself having imaginary conversations in her head with an imaginary daughter, telling her this, teaching her that. When did those imaginary conversations with the imaginary child gradually fade away? She couldn’t remember.
At the deep end of the pool, she reached up for a handhold on the wall and felt for a ledge for her toes. She rested a moment, remembering the years of remarks, often made to her by other women.
‘You’re not a real woman until you’ve had children,’ one had said.
‘Women who don’t have kids are just plain selfish,’ another had said.
‘Try putting on a bit of weight, try placing this fertility symbol under your pillow, try crystals, try…..’ She remembered too those years of thinking up amusing or diverting responses to the ghastly question, ‘Do you have children?’ Or the even more bizarre follow-up question, ‘What about grandchildren then?’ Honestly, some people really had no idea.
She pushed off from the wall thinking of the years of ‘trying’ that had, for a while, changed making love with her man from something natural, spontaneous and joyful into a ritual dance of thermometers and charts, dates, duty, and monthly disappointments. When that was all over, she’d still thought that she might be an Aunty or a God Mother or something, even a babysitter for neighbours. But Fate had decreed that, for her, in the Children’s Department of The Store of Life, the shelves would always be bare. Fortunately, there were other departments.
She rolled onto her back to try a lazy backstroke. There were too many people on the planet anyway, she thought. And they’d been happy together, her man and her. Truly happy, with time for each other, for friends, for travel, for hobbies. She turned again and, holding her breath, dived under the water to enjoy the patches of light playing on the bottom of the pool. She was amused at the sight of the swimmers in the next lane, wriggling their legs like tadpoles.
She felt suddenly grateful for it all. For health, for the swim, for her man, for her life. She may not have had child luck, but she had had all kinds of other luck. It’s a question, she decided, of wanting what you have, rather than the other way around.
Back at the shallow end, she ducked under the lane marker, stood up, and took off her goggles.
‘Is she getting used to it?’ she asked the young mother.
‘I think so. As long as she has this!’ The young woman touched the pink plastic dummy in the baby’s mouth.
‘Good idea to start young,’ said the elderly woman, smiling at the baby. Then, ‘Do you like the water, little one?’
The baby considered her with serious eyes for a moment then hid her face shyly in her mother’s neck.
‘When you think about it, they spend their first nine months of life swimming really, don’t they?’ ‘Yes, and this one was kicking like a frog for most of that time!’ said the young woman. ‘Ouch!’ They both laughed.
‘Well, you’re doing beautifully now,’ said the elderly woman, as she waded past.
The young woman’s expression softened. ‘Thanks!’ and added, ‘Nice to meet you.’
‘You too,’ said the elderly woman, pulling herself slowly up the metal ladder at the side of the pool. She felt pleasure at the encounter. Still, best not to tarry, just in case.
‘How many lengths did you do today?’ asked the pool attendant. She was often on at Sunday lunchtimes.
‘Forty-four, I think. Unless I lost count somewhere!’
‘Well done! More than I usually do!’
© Woodward 2021
About Tessa Wooward
After many years working as a teacher, teacher trainer, author and editor in the field of teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), Tessa Woodward has been enjoying writing short stories. To learn more about her writing please visit www.tessaswriting.co.uk