Swimming Lessons

Sarah Law

Whose bright idea had it been? Probably Eleanor Hall's, although it might have been Katy Roberts, a tall, wild-haired girl, one of Eleanor's followers, with her own sense of humour that, like mine, sometimes missed the mark. But whoever it was had been well-organised, for the whole of Lower Four L was involved. Poor Miss Bourne, the youngest games teacher, found herself confronted with an entire class of girls declining to change into their regulation green costumes and white caps, but instead, queueing up in an unruly, barefoot row, proffering a total of twenty or so folded white notes. It was April 1st, 1981. On each note was a preposterous excuse:

Kathleen has a wooden leg and cannot swim this week.

Nicola has lost her sense of smell and has been advised not to swim this week.

Harriet has grown out of her swimming costume.

Janelle has developed an allergy to water.

Sarah has had a brain transplant and should not swim this week.

A brain transplant. I was quite pleased with my own ridiculous offering. I had even got my mother to sign it. 'It's a High School tradition on April Fool's Day,' I'd told her. But by the time I got to the front of the queue, Miss Bourne's face had gone red. Her eyes were fixed and glinting; she wasn't smiling. She took note after note and sent girls back into the changing room with a tight-lipped jerk of her head. It seemed a funny way to be cross. Uncomfortable, I joined the others in the changing room, where opinions flew around as to what would happen next.

'I know she looks pissed off, but she's got to see the funny side.' Eleanor didn't sound as sure as she might.

'It's not as if we were trying to humiliate her,' Katy reasoned. 'She must realise it's just an April Fools.'

'I bet she'll let us have a free swim,' said Janelle.

Through the door, the empty pool beckoned, sunlight gleaming onto the water from the wide skylight. I checked my bag to make sure my costume and cap were still there. Clare Harrison had got hers out and had already peeled off her jumper; she looked like a fluffy chick with her short, ruffled hair. But as the seconds ticked by, I felt the concern rise. Someone began to spread the rumour that Miss Bourne had gone to fetch Miss Blake from the games teachers' staff room, which always stank of smoke. Then Brenda Mason burst in.

'She's really, really mad, Eleanor! She wants to send us all to Miss Stanford right now! She won't even read the rest of the excuses. Oh God – what are we going to go? My dad will kill me if I get detention for something like this.'

'Bloody hell,' said Katy. Then, inconsequentially, 'Didn't your dad sign your note though?'

'No, he bloody didn't. I forged it.' Brenda sat down heavily on the bench by the lockers. This was a shock. Sent to the headmistress for something as ridiculous and well, as stupid as this. There was a queasy silence. I felt a tight knot in my stomach. Next to me, Emily Stone sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.

'Let's go back to her. Eleanor – you go. Say we're really, really sorry.' Janelle spoke, and she and Katy got to their feet. 'We'll go with you. But your mum's a teacher. It will sound better coming from you.'

'Christ, it wasn't my idea,' said Eleanor.

The squabbling resolved itself into a delegation. I waited with the others in the changing room, normally so chaotic and noisy; now, so dank and unsafe.

I felt rotten, now, about my note. It had been handed in and was the property of the school. It was a dumb, unfunny thing to have written. I wished I had written something innocuous like has washed her hair this morning and would mess it up if she swam, sorry. Not crude and stark and nasty, like brain transplant. I cringed at my own poor sense of humour. I pictured Miss Stanford, with her regal bearing and audible breathing, reading the pile of idiotic notes penned by twelve- and thirteen-year-old schoolgirls, and tried to imagine the contempt she would feel. Was it contempt that Miss Bourne had been feeling out there in the instructor's recess, with her neat blue register and neat blue tracksuit?

Janelle, Eleanor and Katy returned. 'Get changed as quickly as you can. We've got to train for the distance challenge at the end of term. She's still mad at us, but she's not sending us to the head.' Eleanor delivered the bulletin, now sounding very like her mother, although no one remarked on this. It was mixed news. Distance training was knackering. It would have been much more pleasant to get a free swim. But the immediate danger had been averted.

No-one ever suggested playing up in front of games staff again. Once, in old Mrs Debden's country dance lesson, we all spontaneously changed into our grey gym skits instead of wearing only the green aertex shirt and dark green gym knickers that was the official dance kit. That had felt more like a sort of organic protest, an indication that we'd moved from childhood into young womanhood. But it had been a different sort of moment – and one Mrs Debden had either witnessed every year, or which she simply never noticed at all, for she made no comment either at the time or subsequently.

Miss Bourne gained a reputation for emotional instability. One day, rumoured to have fallen out with Miss Blake, she disappeared from the High School altogether. But before she did, I was briefly able to appreciate her as a teacher – and a human being – after all.

Though I loved swimming, I had trouble with diving. Once in the chlorinated water (I still love the scent) I swam with the instinctive confidence of a fish, but I had a fear of plunging into the surface of the pool headfirst. When there were school swimming contests, I was often chosen to compete, but, embarrassingly, I had to ask if I could begin my race already in the pool. This would give me a sluggish start but saved me from the fear of a public belly flop.

One lesson, Miss Bourne decided that all of the Lower Four should learn how to dive. She took those girls, including me, who were diving refuseniks, to the deep end of the pool for some tuition. Emily Stone was one of the girls; Clare Harrison too.

'You see these rings? They're your targets.' Miss Bourne had pushed a large, inflated ring into the water. 'Arms up, and take your turns diving in.' She made it sound easy, but for me the pool room echoed with increasing anxiety. Clare actually managed it, although she came up coughing and spluttering. Emily faltered at the last minute. Her foot slipped and, with a shriek that echoed around the pool-room, she ended up jumping in bum first, missing the ring altogether. 'It's alright. Just do it again,' Miss Bourne told her. When it was my turn, I felt pretty terrified, but in a different way to the day of the April Fool's notes. I hoped Eleanor Hall wasn't looking at me from the other end. She had no trouble diving in.

'Sarah, we're waiting.' Miss Bourne tapped her sports watch with her fingers. I took aim at the big ring floating in the middle of the deep end, raised my arms, bent my knees – and dived.

I still remember how I felt my body sail – no, soar – through the air, and then tip through an invisible axis where my arms led my head, and my head the rest of my taut, flying form, down into the hole of the rubber ring. I plunged exactly into my target, entering the silent world of water. For a moment I thought I would be stuck, upside down, in the ring, as my hips brushed against its rough rubber sides. But before I had time to panic, I had slipped through, and glided, head and hands first, up to the surface. Reaching the side, I steadied myself and gasped, shaking my head. Braced for the sting, I opened my eyes and turned to look at Miss Bourne.

An odd thing happened. My vision, normally a short-sighted blur in the pool (I left my glasses in the changing room), had been miraculously restored. There was Miss Bourne, small and piercingly well-defined, giving me a gorgeous smile; even her eyes seemed to gleam. And I thought, for the first and only time: she looks absolutely lovely, with her thick blonde hair and her pretty pink face. She's helped me do something amazing, and it's made her happy; I'm so happy that she's happy.

I blinked again. My sight blurred back to its usual myopia.

Vision over, I dipped my head down, pinching my nose as I did so, and pushed off into the water.

About the Author


Sarah Law lives in London, UK, and is a tutor for the Open University and elsewhere. Widely published as a poet, she also writes fiction and memoir on the quiet. She edits the online journal Amethyst Review.