This is the opening chapter from Nic Penrake’s novel, a literary thriller, ‘The Girl Who Wants Out’. Two other chapters already appear in our second anthology New London Writers Second Anthology: Writing From Around The World.
If the biggest lessons in life come from being thrown in the deep end, then this is one of those lessons, one of those stories. Cos there I go–arms and legs flailing, as I fall twenty-five feet into the deep end. It’s probably going to be a belly flop, but no, it’s worse than that: my head and legs register a sickening thud as I collide with a body below.
This beautiful young woman whose upper-second tooth I accidently split in two with the ring on my right hand. I split in two will later become like a drug to me, and my love for her, will cause a large part of my life to unravel at speed. I will never look at another diving board quite the same way again.
On the morning of the fall I was woken by something small vibrating against my thigh. I was lying back in my dentist chair like a space traveller, my mouth half open. The single buzz told me it was a text message. Who could that be?
I delayed the moment of checking my message, the task of getting on with my day–fuck all that. I just wanted to gaze a while at the crowd of happy-go-lucky cartoon characters on the poster pinned to the ceiling above my head. I imagined the horrified faces of some of my more conservative patients as they opened wide and got an eyeful of the same poster but with schoolboy graffiti all over it–tits and erect penises drawn in black marker pen defiling the innocent happy scene. Of course I would never do such a thing–all my female patients would abandon me in a heartbeat–but for some reason this little fantasy gave me the strength I needed to sit up and check my phone.
As I expected, the message was from SYLVIA, my wife. We’d argued the night before–over money. Why had I given her less than usual these past two months? If I was really going through such a lean period at the practice, perhaps she should check my books. You know how scatty you can be with money, she said. I noted the absence of lightness to this familiar criticism of me. If I didn’t want a joint account, fine, but she needed a regular monthly allowance–either that, or I could start doing the bulk buys at supermarkets myself.
“So what is the money going on?” she had demanded.
I could have asked her the same thing about the money I gave to her; but perhaps organic produce really was that expensive. I felt at a disadvantage, seated as I was on the sofa, with my MacBook on my lap. She’d planted herself on the Moroccan rug with a challenging glint in her beautiful Franco Mauritian eyes, as though she couldn’t wait to catch me out through cross examination. With her rich, curly dark hair now like an angry mane, her long, dark eyebrows primed like little curled swords drawn from their sheaths, it was clear I wasn’t going to be allowed to wriggle out of this one–she’d been saving it up.
“Well, let me think… I’ve had to pay General Dental Council fees, indemnity, waste disposal, equipment servicing and certification, these courses I’m on…” I looked to the ceiling trying to think of more items on the list that sucked me dry every month.
“All in one month?”
“No, but recently, yes.”
“But you’ve always had these bills. I’m not asking you for a new pair of Jimmy Choo’s, I need this money to fill up the bloody fridge.”
Sylvia wasn’t one to carp on about money, even when times had been hard; it was only when she felt the kids’ wellbeing was at stake that she would turn into this paragon of steely virtue. I was dangling on the pin of her stare until I insisted lamely, then more heatedly when I saw she wasn’t about to soften, that I’d already given her some extra cash that month.
“When?” she scoffed.
“I don’t know when, exactly, but I gave you some cash. I’m pretty sure it was a hundred.”
“You see–you don’t even remember. The cash you think you gave me recently was months ago–for fixing the car.”
She continued to press while I continued to fudge. It got to the point when I feared I might explode and tell her that, yes, OK, I was holding some money back–and why?
Did she know I thought we were just months away from a divorce? I doubt it. She had always shown herself more committed than I to making our marriage work.
It’s true, both of us had been tired, a little fractious on account of the come-down following drinks that we’d had earlier that evening with our separate friends, but for the first time in a long time I didn’t care too much about making up–as the accusation in her eyes bore into me, my blood began to fizz with a heady cocktail of latent guilt and bristling indifference.
When she stormed off, accusing me of taking her for granted, I got to my feet and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. She bounced back into the room with a fresh round of jabbing questions. I began to catch a whiff of fear coming off her that I was spending my money on another woman. Ironically, although I wished I were, I wasn’t in fact seeing anyone else, not then anyway.
Suddenly I’d had enough. I grabbed my jacket and left the house.
The summer night air gave life to the idea that I was off on an adventure somewhere with a teenager’s kick to my stride.
Half way to the next street, I slowed my pace and seriously considered returning to the house to pack a suitcase. The thing is, I wasn’t thirty-three any more, I was forty-three in all but a few weeks; I was also a dad, a dad who cared. I could just picture Sylvia rousing the girls, dragging them downstairs to witness see their selfish dad walking out on them, a picture to remember for all eternity, the only proof they’d ever need that I was a rotten tooth and best extracted from their lives…
OK, I told myself, walk it down, once round the block, and then…
Then I surprised myself by hopping on a bus, the bus I take to get to the practice in North West Ealing. Hopping off the bus I strolled into an off-licence. A bottle of light, silky Pinot Noir might just turn the evening around.
I punched in the digits to turn off the surgery’s alarm, flicked on some lights and went to the little kitchen to hunt for a glass. I found one, rinsed it out, poured half a glass and took a sip. Raspberry, cherry, and something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on–but very nice. And that’s fifteen pounds less she’ll be seeing this month.
I kicked my shoes off and propped my feet up on the sofa, pointed the remote at the widescreen TV and told myself that I was doing the right thing by avoiding any further conflict. This would give us time to cool down, re-evaluate the situation. But after 20 minutes of listless flicking from channel to channel, and already queasy from the ejaculate of reality shows, I pressed the off button on the remote and sank into a vacuous and dismal silence.
The grainy light of the encroaching night hummed with sexual possibilities beyond my orbit. Cars’ headlights rolled relentlessly over my sorry reflection in the front window. I looked like a Kafkaesque figure waiting to be charged with some sort of crime that would never be fully explained. Here I was in my own surgery, yet more like a stranger who had broken in, seeking refuge.
I got to my feet, turned on the lamp and began flicking through the out-of-date magazines. I was searching for an answer to some ill-formed question in my head. It occurred to me I was due another course of tooth whitening. I quietly noted the irony that I spent my days telling my patients they could look forward to seeing their teeth transformed several shades lighter, while never bothering to do the same for my own.
I sipped my wine, put the cork in the bottle, then took it out again. Who was I kidding? I had every intention of drinking it dry.
Looking around my reception I thought to myself, Sylvia was right–I should never have gone for a toothpaste ingredient as the theme for my waiting room: the minty green of the leather sofa, the pale creamy mint for the wallpaper, the green tint to the landscape photograph–they had all lost their freshness. I didn’t even like the taste of mint. So much for my stab at interior design.
I got behind the reception desk and turned on the computer. It made its usual cheerful song as if to an always-cheerful friend. Logging on to my bank account and scanning some recent statements, I was pleasantly surprised to discover my balance was one thousand less than I’d estimated, until I realised two large bills hadn’t yet gone through. This would be another bad year, even though the economy was pretty buoyant, according to the papers. I knew I should be doing more to market my practice, but I could never motivate myself. Quick prognosis: A guy wrapped up in his marital problems, distracted by sexual frustration, while pretending to the world that everything is just as rosy as the couple on one of his dental leaflets seem to think it is.
What if I sold the practice and took a year off to go travelling? I’d have to get a divorce first, presumably. The kids would be alright, unless Sylvia poisoned them against me (fifty fifty chance of that)–but at least I would feel alive again…
So, should I print off a bank statement and show it to Sylvia as proof I wasn’t being mean and selfish? Thing is, she might then think she had a right to see my statements every month–before too long, she’d be telling me what my allowance was. On the other hand, even at this late stage, could a larger monthly allowance for her do anything to reverse the ‘terminal’ in our sex life?
“What would do it for you?” I remembered asking her back when we’d still believed in ‘talking about things’. We’d got into bed frisky enough to do something–at least, I thought so–but my first advances had ben rebuffed as insensitive to how she was feeling. Which was…?
She made a gently scoffing sound, as if vaguely amused by insane patterns of behaviour. “Why do you only ever bring this subject up when we’re in bed and I’m already tired?”
“You don’t seem that tired.”
She gave out a vexed sigh as if to a dumb student who never learns, no matter how often the lesson is delivered.
“How about with other couples?” I said.
I wouldn’t have minded her derisory laughter, if only she had acknowledged my attempt to make light of the situation.
“Toys?” I continued with more obvious irony.
“I have enough of those going up my bum by accident, when we sit down to watch tele…”
I laughed and she laughed, but when the laughter had faded and I asked her why we’d never tried anal sex–purely out of curiosity, I added–she was back to sighing again. If I liked anal sex, why didn’t I go to a gay bar?
“I’m not gay.”
“You might be. You’ve got a strong feminine side. You might be better off being gay–you’d certainly get more sex than with a woman.”
She almost sounded cheerful at the prospect that I might act upon her recommendation and give it a go–that way she’d be excused from having to entertain me in bed.
“Why does it always have to be something that ends in an orgasm for you?” she put to me.
“Well I always try for us both–you know that.”
“No, I mean, why can’t you just enjoy tenderness?”
She thought about this and, after a time, said, “Not really.”
I thought this was an odd thing to say for a woman who was not especially tender or tactile–or, at least, hadn’t been since the kids were born.
“If I’m tender with you, you always assume I’m coming on to you.”
“That’s because you are.”
“You see: Catch 22. Can’t win, can I?”
“Why can’t you think of a different way of approaching me? Like, why does it always have to be in bed?”
“Like, when else do we have time for each other? You’re always so busy with your studying, or the kids, for us to even think of doing it at any other time.”
“You could watch less TV and then we wouldn’t get into bed so late, when I’m already tired.”
She seemed to forget that I’d already tried coaxing her away from Facebook and online shopping in the hours following the kids’ bedtime.
I logged out of my online account and thought of browsing some porn, more for something to do than anything else, but I wasn’t in the mood somehow. The wine was better value tonight. I should lock up and return home. Pull £250 out of the wall and give it to Sylvia when I got in. Would it feel like I was asking for sex, all that cash passing hands? I had no idea anymore. The last time I’d given her cash she’d said pointedly, “Why can’t you just do an internet banking transfer?” Cash clearly made her feel like a kept woman. Increasingly, it seemed, she liked to keep our dealings on a business footing. I could see her point: don’t mix domestic politics with sexual politics.
I poured a fourth glass hoping to find clarity as to which scene was the more realistic outcome–the forgiving Sylvia or the silent-treatment Sylvia?–and I realised I didn’t want either, I just wanted out. I knocked back the glass. On balance, it was probably best just to give her some space.
By now I was even admitting to the possibility that Sylvia was right about everything–that I was to blame. As if there was anything I could do about it now!
Or could I?
The bottle empty, I went to the pharmacy cupboard and carelessly tipped out a bunch of sedatives into my open palm. I gazed at them, wondering drunkenly whether I wasn’t vaguely suicidal. Us dentists, we’re a pretty suicidal lot, apparently. But I hate to be predictable, so I put all of them back but one and then went to lie in the chair. Where I must have nodded off.
‘Give me a call please,’ read Sylvia’s text message.
I’ll go for a pee first, thanks.
I washed my hands and splashed some water over my face.
“Hi, it’s me.”
“And where did you go?” There was a hint of amusement and irony in her voice, as though she were fully prepared to find an account of how I’d ended up at a brothel totally hilarious. I hadn’t expected that, and was instantly reminded of why I still loved her: for her enduring capacity to forgive and move on.
“I’m at the practice. Um…” I drew breath, rubbing my muzzy head. “I thought I should, um–y’know–check over the accounts… Uh– ”
“You spent the whole night doing that?”
“No, I–I watched a bit of TV…um… You OK?”
“I hope you haven’t forgotten.”
“You’re taking the girls to the pool today.”
“I thought that was Friday–aren’t they meant to be in school?”
“No, don’t you remember? They have an audition for a TV commercial at 2 this afternoon.”
This is where men fall down so badly: it’s not so much we forget about the arrangements for the rest of the week following a bust up, we can’t even imagine any kind of future arrangements. Women, on the other hand, will always stay focused on their children’s appointments, regardless of the idiot father’s behaviour.
“You said you’d take them swimming in the morning,” she continued to remind me, “because they have the day off and you have this engineer coming round to fix the drill or whatever it is. Why do I-Can’t you–”
“It’s OK, yep, I remember now, I can do it. Um–”
She sighed down the phone–to blow away any germ of a lame excuse.
“What’s wrong with your voice anyway?”
I coughed, trying to clear my throat.
“I suppose you were out drinking again last night and that’s why you can’t remember.”
“Going over one’s accounts is very dull and fairly depressing. So yes, I had a couple of glasses of wine to help me get through it.”
“Well, that’s not very bright, is it, checking your accounts when you’re drunk? Your maths isn’t so good when you’re sober, is it.”
It improves when I’m drunk, I imagined saying wryly, but instead I merely inhaled, exhaled–a new coping mechanism that had crept into my repertoire for dealing with my wife’s piques. I expected her to badger me further, but she’d fallen silent, either lying in wait or on the verge of hanging up in disgust.
“So are you coming?”
Yes, I was coming. I reminded her I had to be back at the practice around lunchtime to let in the engineer, who was due to come and fix the drill bit that had been playing up.
“Yes, I know. I don’t need you for the whole day.” She might easily have run on to point out that she could only count on me for one or two childcare tasks per week–but didn’t on this occasion.
It occurred to me that I might still be over the limit and unsafe to drive, but I didn’t dare air the possibility. Perhaps a black coffee would make all the difference.
I hung up.
Fuck. We’re fresh out.
I found Sylvia in the kitchen, wiping surfaces down. Her luscious, thick, frizzy hair was tied back in a simple band. The sleeves of her tight-fitting cardigan were hitched up revealing her elegant, yoga-toned forearms and accentuating the beauty of her tapered fingers (which she’d inherited from the Hindi line in her family, so she’d told me). Her movements were measured–she was absorbed in the choreography of her routine. She barely glanced at me as I appeared–I could have returned from the postbox at the end of the road–so I was immediately mindful of how I should approach her.
“Hey,” I said simply.
“You OK?” she inquired with provisional warmth. “You don’t look it,” she added, stealing a quick glance.
I pulled a face–guilty as charged–and quietly went to put two hundred cash on the table. She avoided turning to look, being careful to take note of it in her periphery vision for now. She paused half way through folding a tea towel, and raised her chin a fraction, her way of asking if we might have reached a truce. I thought I detected a hint of forgiveness about the faintly amused smile on her lips and read from the glint of irony in her eyes that she assumed I knew she was sorry for her harsh attack the night before even if I had deserved it. I hovered, contemplating a hug, but before I could move an inch Michaela, 9, and Mia, 6, and their choruses of “Hi Dad, where’ve you been?! Are you taking us, Dad?!” were filling the room.
“Aren’t you going to shave?” Sylvia asked over the hubbub.
“I don’t think there’s time, is there?”
She clucked her tongue, despairing of the lack of care I took over my appearance these days.
“Can’t you change that awful old fleece top at least? It’s pathetic.”
As I stood before the bathroom mirror squinting at pink eyes and an impudent zit on my forehead, I heard Sylvia calling from the kitchen that she’d packed a towel for me, along with my trunks. Clearly she expected me to join the girls in the water. I knew it was unwise to protest, so I called to her, “Have you seen my goggles? “No! Find them yourself!” she called back, only to arrive in our bedroom seconds later, determined to prove how useless and childish I was when it came to knowing where things were.
As I stood uselessly to one side, I casually reappraised her behind–it was still in good shape after two kids, I told myself, as if merely reading the electric meter–and vaguely went on to contemplate whether a beach holiday for two, (kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s), mightn’t give our marriage the kind of shot it so badly needed. Wasn’t this what couples did?
“There,” she said, turning round, making a face as she planted my goggles in my hands.
It felt churlish not to kiss her on the cheek on the way out of the house, but I wanted at all cost to avoid her smelling the alcohol on my breath.
“Don’t forget to give Mia her armbands if she goes into the deep end!” she called after us as I herded the kids out the door.
“OK,” I said, hardly listening.
Turning to see her wave, I was struck by the depth of her devotion to us as a family unit; my compartmentalising approach to family life struck me suddenly as devious and self-serving by comparison. She called a musical, faintly melancholy “Take care!” after us, which lodged in my throat like a prickly seed of sadness for at least a mile down the road.
The girls were all questions and chat about school and movies, their energy pushing us through the traffic, insisting that life goes on with minimal self-reflection.
“Oh, Dad, haven’t you seen it yet!” Mia exclaimed.
“Sorry, I’ve been a bit busy recently. Is that the one with um–”
“You’re always so busy, Dad!” they complained beautifully together.
“I know, I know, always busy,” I said with a tired, sympathetic cadence that reminded me of how meaningless the word had sounded when I was their age–that’s if it didn’t seem even more meaningless now.
I would always regret that I couldn’t share in my kids’ pleasure upon arriving at a leisure centre, but the fact is I found the whole experience turbulent and overwhelming. And not having eaten a thing that morning, the warm fog of chlorinated air punctuated by the cacophony of echoing voices made me feel instantly queasy as I entered the pool. I was surprised to see so many other children. Did they also have McDonald TV ad auditions to go to that afternoon? My fragile state of mind wasn’t helped when the girls emerged from their changing room and began falling about laughing the moment they spotted me waiting for them in my trunks.
“What’s so funny?”
“You’re nearly as thin as Grandpa!” Mia exclaimed as if she’d never seen me out of trousers before. She was growing up, I realised; little by little social and sexual self-awareness was infiltrating their intelligence.
Michaela and Mia trotted off like fairies on the balls of their feet to the diving area. They sat down together on a corner of the pool and dipped their legs in. I’d been close to my brother, but these two were even closer. How would they ever bear to be apart? I watched them natter happily for a minute, their legs idly kicking in the water, their life stretched before them like an ocean in a magical story.
I wasn’t sure I could face going in, so I parked myself on a wooden bench within a few feet of them. Michaela turned her head and smiled and waved the moment she saw me, and then Mia did the same and I waved and smiled back wishing to encourage them to explore on their own for a while. They slipped in and began swimming widths. It must have been three or four months since I’d seen them swim and, gratifyingly, they were beginning to find their strokes at last. (Perhaps those Saturday morning swimming lessons had been worth it after all).
It hurt to recall Sylvia’s recent criticism that I was ‘missing out on my daughters’ lives’. My friends would readily observe that as far as they could tell I did a lot more with, and for, my girls, than most fathers they knew–although I think I knew what Sylvia was getting at: she meant that even when I was with them, I was mentally elsewhere for much of the time. If I wasn’t preoccupied over the recent ups and downs at the practice, I was asking myself, Did I really want to spend the next twenty years of my working life as a dentist? Or I’d be with them one minute, then dreaming of adventures with other women the next. Which, depressingly, she probably knew. I’m wary of the use ‘other’ when referring to women, he’s with his kids, and dreaming of ‘other women’, it’s not clear that he means ‘other’ in relation to his wife, the text is a bit slippery here. why not just say ‘fantasising about women’. The other woman, or other women invariably refers to women you are not married to, surely. I don’t understand your confusion here.
When I looked around the pool at other fathers my age or older, I didn’t see myself in them. They seemed happier in their softer, sagging flesh and trunks, their baggy jeans and baggy tracksuits. They looked vaguely, or even obviously, smug. Maybe that was because I wasn’t with them, I was apart. I was the same in the playground: it was rare that I’d engage with any of the parents as they waited for their child to exit the school building after their last lesson of the day. I wasn’t unfriendly, I wasn’t shy, I was simply distant–Sylvia had told me some mothers had said I looked ‘unapproachable’–which was quite unlike the person I was with my patients. I suspected it had something to do with a subconscious feeling that being a dad was an emasculating experience in a social, as opposed to a domestic, setting. Which was bizarre, really, because I don’t identify with anything overtly male or macho. Maybe I was just uneasy at playing Mr. Happily Married Man, because I was anything but and probably never could be.
It had been a mistake to try and line my stomach with a few Pringles from the tin Sylvia had slipped in with our things. My mouth felt icky and my head lurched as I moved in my seat. I took out the newspaper I’d stuffed into Michaela’s bag and chopped it into readable portions. I began darting listlessly from one article to the next, often starting in the middle or even the end and reading from random points–like a film editor desperate for a fresh, ‘alternative’ way of telling a familiar narrative–until finally I found the choppy rhythm of it all only added unwelcome definition to my incipient nausea. I put the newspaper away and contemplated slapping myself awake with a lunge into cold water.
Mia was bouncing up and down on the second highest diving board–and off she went, the little daredevil. I realised that watching them both enjoy life was the nearest I got to ‘feeling in love’, and it almost broke my heart to think that they had to grow up and this innocence I so cherished must one day vanish.
Mia’s head bobbed up and she shook the water out of her face calling to her sister with bold excitement, “It’s great Michaela, you should try it!”
I saw Michaela trot along in her funny fox-like gait to the same diving board. Her co-ordination skills as a two-year-old had been so poor I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard she’d come second behind an athletic black girl in the Summer Sports Day race the year before. Now she was running straight to the end of the board, no hesitation, and doing a little twirl in the air as she jumped off, one hand holding her nose. She came up with her eyes closed tight. Mia was already showering her with exclamations about how great it was. She then pushed up and out of the pool and hurried off to go again–with such great fanfare she had boys twice her age coming along to join her.
The sun came out about then, casting a multitude of dazzling scales of golden yellow on the hypnotic, shimmering grid of blue water. The echoing voices sloshed around in my head like memory soup and I was content to drift off into nowhere for a minute and a day. When I next turned to see what the kids were up to, my eyes were dotted with yellow blotches from the sun, and as I slowly began to make out clear outlines again, I saw a flash of red and white costume half way up the ladder of the tallest diving board. I recognised Mia by her sheer Laura Croft energy alone. Three foggy seconds later, I realised something was missing, it was something I’d forgotten–You forgot to give her the fucking armbands!
I dove into the bag on the bench beside me, digging furiously for a pair of fluorescent orange things her mum had specifically reminded me I should give to Mia before she got in the water… My legs scuttling beetle-like toward the boards, I blew air through one of the chlorinated valves. I probably should have been calling to her already. I got to the lower board and waved, hoping she’d see me, but she was absorbed watching some boys take their running jump off the top diving board.
I glanced in the direction of the umpire-like chair, some 25 feet away on the other side, from which the attendants surveyed this end of the pool. It was empty. The guy had left his post to fix a water polo goal stationed in the far corner.
“Mia!” I called up.
Sylvia was right, my voice was lower after drink, more resonant, and yet I hadn’t found the wind to make it cut through the atmosphere of echoing voices and splashes.
I got onto the lower diving board and started up the steps. From the first board there was another flight of metal steps leading to the higher board. It was roughly 25 feet above the water. As I began to climb I grew increasingly anxious. By the time I got to the top, my heart was screaming at me to go the gym more often, I felt slightly faint and, for a brief moment, I lost the point of what I was doing there.
Level with the board I saw Mia wasn’t alone. There were two boys–ages twelve or thirteen–up there with her. With their hair plastered flat to their skulls and their hairless wet bodies glistening in the light, they looked like amphibious humans. They were taunting each other, bandying innuendo about. Mia, who had just stepped back from the edge, turned to beam at them with cinematic confidence. I sensed instantly the boys’ mischievous desire to tease this little girl over the edge was being fuelled and undermined by their adolescent fascination in her beauty and courage. My arrival had introduced a new power dynamic, forcing them to back off or up the stakes.
Before I could say anything, Mia pointed at me and laughed and cried, “Daddy, what are you doing up here?!” as if I’d appeared in a clown’s costume.
“Sweetheart, it’s a little high, OK?”
“Wanna get high, mate? Woah!” It was the skinny boy with dark hair, who took the first shot. A similar olive colour to my lot, almond eyes. He was leering at me with a swagger that boys show only when they know you’re on their turf now.
I ignored the remark and stepped over to Mia.
“It’s really high,” she said, gesturing expansively before her as though surveying a new kingdom she never knew existed. “Can you die if you fall?”
“Hey… let’s put these on, OK?” I started to slip one of the armbands up her slender little arm.
“You’re in our way mate.”
I turned and realised it was the fat boy who’d spoken, talking to me. He had a weak pimply chin and unlovable mouth, and the sloping hound-dog eyes gave him a congenitally bored look that you learn to associate with sociopaths.
“Give me a second, OK?”
Crouching, I was seized by a nasty cramp in the arch of my left foot. Mia asked me what was wrong. She missed my reply on account of the boys’ muttering obscenities behind my back.
“Guys, can you just give me a minute here, OK?” trying to be friendly, Mr Reasonable, even as I was conscious that they might find the familiar tone presumptuous and, in their world, disrespectful.
“You just ‘ad a minute,” the fat one said.
“Yeah, go on, this board isn’t for little girls, y’know,” the skinny one joined in, swinging about on one of the support bars. He had crooked teeth, a fidgety energy, and coldly burning, mixed race eyes. i don’t like it sounds racist. I don’t think it does, not at all. You’re being overly pc about it. My kids are mixed race, I often describe them as such, as does their mother. In fact in Japan if you say mixed race they go, Wow, they must be beautiful! It’s also relevant, because later we learn that the boy is Bantock’s son, who is half Chinese.
“I realise that,” I replied in a controlled voice. “I came up here to take her down.”
“Take her down, boss,” the fat guy echoed back with a mock US accent. good He started making rap noises that descended into farts and giggling.
“Well get on with it then!” they nagged more or less in chorus.
I turned back to Mia to put on the second armband. She’d fallen quiet, instinctively troubled by the boys’ rudeness.
When the fat boy started up a ‘joke’ about touching up little girls and paedos in swimming pools, I jerked my head round, face twitching with anger. Suddenly I was a kid again, defending my turf.
“Hey! Watch your mouth kid! This is my daughter, OK?”
The fat boy bounced back at me, puffing himself up for the occasion. “So what you let her up here for?! Get off this fucking board or we’ll call a guard.”
“You’re in our way, mate.” It was the skinny boy, now delivering a matter-of-fact explanation.
My fingers [ok, we can lose butter, but it’s just an expression isn’t it, for when you’re fumbling. The valve is wet, he keeps losing his grip of it, to me that’s butterfingers] slipped with the valve again as Mia quietly observed that the fat boy had used the ‘f’ word. Mia’s earlier happiness was gone. She was ready to head back down. But then she spotted Michaela, who was waving up at us from below. Mia waved back.
I lost my grip on the valve of the armband. “Sweetheart, stay still a minute, can you?”
As I put my mouth over the nipple of the valve–
“Blow job, blow job!” the boys sounded off, behind me.
I should have realised my posture was an invitation to attack.
I heard a quick rumble of feet and a pair of wet hands landed on my back, a body flew over me, clipping the side of my head, I lurched sideways grabbing at Mia who lost her footing, and as I reached out to grab her … I don’t know, perhaps we were falling already.
As I was flying through the air I felt a crazy sort of joy as I saw the world entirely through his eyes… I had no fear of being hurt or of anyone else getting hurt, because when you’re falling into water anything you hit that isn’t water is a thing to begin with.
Mia went over with a squeal–but it sounded like fun, if only just. I knew I’d get a nasty smack from the surface because of my flailing shape, but then my left hand hit something, someone, and then my knee.
Don’t say you’ve hit Mia.
In the first few moments of being under the water, I wasn’t concerned with pain, I knew that was coming, I was worried I’d seriously hurt someone else. Stunned as I was, everything went into slow motion as I sank to the bottom of the pool. My body pretended to be a starfish, waiting for the current to lift it onto a rock. Time stood still. My lungs seemed capable of holding out for minutes on end. Instincts had assumed command, the body knew to relax and let the brain rediscover coordination in its own time. Like a trapped bubble set free, the thought came to me that I must somehow re-animate myself and swim upwards to check on Mia.
I broke the surface to see one of the attendants diving into the pool fully dressed. He swam out to the skinnier boy who was rolling in the water like a dying fish ten yards away from me. His rescuer scooped him up and safety-swam him to the side of the pool. I saw Mia had made it to the other side, a little shocked by her fall, repeatedly wiping water from her face and coughing to clear her throat of the water she’d swallowed. She hadn’t seen me yet.
A body was bobbing up against mine and caused me to go under. I swam back up, choking, to find myself bumping up against a young woman, her arms and legs, and, as conditioned as we are these days, us stupid men, even in this semi-conscious state, I grew vaguely aware that I might now be accused of sexual assault.
I sputtered an incoherent apology expecting to see a swimmer trying to get round me. But the girl, with long black hair, was treading water, a hand covering her mouth and nose. Her large South East Asian eyes glowered at me–she was scared and in pain. I saw blood running through her fingers, and her mouth was hurt. I tried saying “are you OK?” but my teeth had come down on one side of my tongue, and my ears were full of water. My caveman-like utterances seemed to frighten her and she swam away as though I’d been about to hit or grope her.
I swam after her as instinctively as though she’d been my own child. Dazed and shook up, I flopped into a space beside her, catching my breath. Everything was muffled, the girl had her face turned away from me, her long, dark hair a soaking wet curtain between us. She trembled in the water, but made no sound. The dragon tattoo on her right shoulder seemed to hiss at me.
A few yards further along, Mia was clinging to the side, still coughing. She saw me and sent me a little wave to signal that she was OK. She looked unhurt, and actually she looked rather proud of herself, which was reassuring. It must have been then I grew aware of something warmer than pool water trickling over my left eye and down my face. I could taste it–it was blood; mine, presumably. I dabbed at my forehead but couldn’t feel any opening, just wetness. The pads of my fingers had gone a bit numb.
Turning my head I saw the pool attendant giving mouth-to-mouth to the boy, the skinny one. He’d placed a foam float under his head. The boy was coming round, coughing and jerking about.
I turned back to the girl and put my hand gently on her shoulder.
She moved a fraction, darting hurt and suspicious eyes at me.
“Please, I’m a dentist, let me take a look… Maybe I can help.”
With the word ‘dentist’ her eyes seemed to register a glimmer of hope. I reached out to gently remove her trembling hand from her face. Blood was streaming from one nostril, but the nose didn’t look broken. Angling my head to catch the light, I saw her mouth must have taken a direct hit because her upper second, right, was now but a short stump.
“You’ve broken a tooth, OK, but I can fix that for you.” I said finding my professional voice at last. “Is there anywhere else you’re feeling pain?”
She was gazing at the cut over my eye now; the stream of blood trickling down one side of my face seemed to produce a calming effect on her. She made an almost imperceptible shake of her head. The new expression of trust that had entered her large almond eyes reminded me instantly of my own Mia.
“I’m sorry if I landed on you… I was pushed.”
“My teeth, it’s bad?”
“Could you get out of the water, please, sir!”
A female attendant–shaggy blonde, all discipline in her hips and square shoulders–was calling across to me from the other side of the pool, as though telling me off for something bordering on sexual harassment. I ignored her, pressing on to explain to the girl that I could fix her tooth and it wouldn’t cost her anything.
“Sir, if you would please get out of the pool–”
“Yes, OK! Give us a minute! We’re hurt!” I was surprised at the bark in my voice as I turned to fend off the institutional drone of the busybody attendant, then surprised again by the dizziness that followed in its wake.
An attractive, busty Thai girl appeared next to me, sweet-voiced, calm.
“I’m her friend,” she said. “She get hurt, yeah? Tooth brake?”
“Yeah, we both got hurt. Could you help me get your friend out of the pool?”
She was so light, this girl, maybe 48 kilos, we almost tossed her out onto the side.
Mia was already standing on the edge, expressing wide-eyed amazement and concern at the blood everywhere–on my face, my nose, the girl’s mouth, her hand…
And then there was the male pool attendant waving at me from the other side: “Can you get out of the pool now, mate? Or do you need a hand?” He had an Australian accent. “I think that’s enough, don’t you, high board antics at your age?” He gave his head a shake, like a dog shaking off excess water after a swim, then ran thick, strong fingers through his long blond hair.
I was tempted to say we’d been pushed, but the boy’s father–a broad-shouldered athletic guy of about my age and height, maybe 10 kilos heavier–was standing on the side of the pool, short wet hair pasted to his rectangular Norman skull, swearing and gesticulating and darting increasingly murderous glances at me. The military female attendant had gone to check on the boy and was having a time keeping the dad in order.
“Dad, Dad–are you alright?” It was Michaela, standing on the side, hands clasping opposite elbows–she looked troubled by the unfolding events and was shivering. “Dad, you’re bleeding,” she observed, wishing me to focus on this important issue and never mind everything else.
“I know, darling, I know, it’s OK,” though I didn’t know that and I certainly didn’t feel OK. I couldn’t think how I’d cut my head: maybe the girl’s tooth, or that ring–a gold ring with a leaf-like design–on her left hand, middle finger, or maybe the boy, he could have had jewellery, even chunky bling…
“Guys, can you get dressed, I need to look after this girl–she’s lost half a tooth.”
“Did she swallow it?” Mia asked.
“I don’t think so, I think it must be in the pool.”
My girls gasped in horror and cast pitying eyes upon the slender young woman sitting motionless beside her friend on the side of the pool with her hand to her mouth.
“Mia, Michaela, go and get changed, please!” and they duly ran off to the changing room as if to a burrow underground.
I heard the crackle of a Walkie-Talkie from the far end and saw the bossy female attendant return with a less chunky female attendant and a stretcher.
It was time I got out, got dry, left this cursed place. I put my palms on the tile edge and thrust down. My stomach heaved with the sudden movement. I got my left knee up, but it was the one I’d just bruised, I registered a sharp pain in the area of an old injury, my adrenals surged and I shot into a zone of suspended nausea and fainting. I was no longer a swimmer getting out of the pool, I was a surfer riding a wave, and the wave was curling over me… if I could just thread through it before it swallowed me up…
Half out of the pool, I hung there probably only three seconds, a proverbial lifetime… then, as I bent forward–a serious miscalculation–my stomach heaved up its contents. A roar of vomit shot out of me and a steamy red and white porridge landed ignominiously on the tiles inches from the injured girl. It was so loud and sudden I couldn’t believe it had issued from my own mouth. It came again. With a gasp and a rasp of my lungs I flopped over onto the tiles, my soft cheek biting into the raised circles of the hard plastic.
I could only lie there at the mercy of my spasms. I was too helpless to push the vomit away or even roll away from it. The Thai girls had jumped up with a cry of alarm and begun moving away from me. My eyes blurred with tears and I lost all sense of where anyone was. I wanted to apologise, but I was interrupted again by involuntary retching. My embarrassment ballooning, I was dimly aware of a gathering round of universal disgust aimed in my direction…
The Australian guy was speaking again, this time close to my ear, expressing a mixture of mild opprobrium, embarrassment and disbelief, as though I’d surpassed myself in a display of public disorderliness.
I felt hands grab me under my arms–I was being hauled roughly to my feet and carried away by two very fit young men. That Australian accent was no longer rasping and broad, just matey and chipper, riffing stuff about getting me cleaned up. I felt like a piece of trash I was happy for them to throw away.
We torpedoed double doors and arrived in the changing area where the air was thick and muggy with body odour, the smell of hair products and deodorant. I was bundled into a cubicle, then let down easy.
The Aussie was gently slapping me about the cheeks and saying, “So are you alright in there, mate? Can you hear me…? What’s your name, mate?”
So this is where it begins, the blame, the shame, the legal battles that will take your life to pieces, tooth by tooth…
I told him my name clinging to the belief that if I could just make him understand I was a dentist not a drunken yob and that I would be happy to help the girl and anyone else who’d lost a tooth today, he might give me the benefit of the doubt here.
“The kid pushed us… it was a prank… a leapfrog… He was impatient for his turn…” I blurted out. I badly needed to spit. The vomit was making the cut to my tongue smart and I was slurring my words. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” I said, because it offended my sense of decency to hold a grudge, or look inside my primal self.
“The kid’s OK, mate, just got a bit of a concussion like yourself, alright? But y’know what, you really should’ve left it to one of our guys to get your daughter down. That’s what we’re here for.”
“You weren’t there,” I said dully, less by way of accusation than as a statement of fact.
I looked at the face directly in front of me, and at the blond hair burnished by Sydney sunshine, the blue eyes accustomed to the outdoor life. I saw he was wearing a badge and that his name was GREG. And then I blinked blood again–
“Where’re your little girlies, mate? Are they still in the pool?”
As I told him their names, their ages, told him they were getting changed, I could see people peeping in through the cubicle door behind his back as if at a lunatic in a cage. The muted and shrill pool sounds had a strangely soothing effect on me now and I began to feel as if I belonged here, the way you quickly start to feel you belong at a hospital when you arrive there on a gurney after a car accident.
I noticed a large blob of blood on the floor between my feet.
“Let me get a bandage for that thing on your head there. OK, Anthony?”
At least I was Anthony now, not just ‘mate’.
He’d just gone away, I was sitting there with my forearms on my thighs gazing at the spots of blood on the floor, trying to count them only to find I couldn’t count past 3, when there came a hefty thump against the cubicle walls. I jumped and looked up to see an angry figure leaning in menacingly, he was spitting venom at me, bellowing with such force his words blew any verbal response clean out of my head. It was the boy’s dad, like a pitbull off its chain-leash, and all I could think was that maybe his boy had just suffered a brain haemorrhage. In the first moment of this barrage it was vaguely reassuring to note that he was now wearing a spanking new navy tracksuit with cream zips and a pressed, white T-shirt underneath, a flashy diver’s watch, because dressed like that he was probably less likely to beat me up. The long, squared-off features and short forehead suggested a man with a passion for boxing, but his small, bulbous blue eyes and the rapidly blinking eyelids with their rather effeminate eyelashes betrayed a tendency to panic easily. He was a barker, not a biter, I told myself, as I sat there, taking it, weirdly fascinated by the pink lips of his anus-like mouth that kept puckering with each round of gratuitous vitriol as though it could barely handle the volume of his increasingly piping, absurdly theatrical voice.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry,” I repeated lamely.
“So you admit it, you fucking pushed him off the board, didn’t you!”
“No, he pushed us.”
“Bollocks he did! Bollocks to that! Fuck me!” His hand slammed the cubicle wall. “That’s not what he’s saying. That’s not what he’s fucking saying, you cunt! And my son doesn’t lie–not to me he doesn’t!” An odd qualification, I remembered long afterward.
“Your son pushed me!” I roared back, finally at the end of my rope. My body trembled as my heart and lungs pumped out the words. I was in no physical shape to withstand a physical retaliation. Perhaps my cut was saving me from a second beating.
“Well that’s not what I’m fucking hearing! He went to jump and you fucking barged him sideways!”
“I’m sorry, but it didn’t happen like that. He leapfrogged over me and I lost my
“What’re you doing up there anyway, you twat! He says you were being abusive, totally pissed out of your fucking fart!”
“Alright fella! Easy now… Easy…”
My mate, Greg, had returned from somewhere and was already shielding me from my assailant, backing him up like one of those cocksure Australian documentary filmmakers talking to one of his deadly matey crocs.
“Look at this moron! Half pissed, puking in the pool–”
“Hey hey hey… easy now, my friend,” Greg kept saying in his lazy sunshine drawl.
“Alright alright, I’m not doing anything, I’m not touching him. I just want a reasonable fucking explanation!”
“I know you’re upset,” Greg was saying. “Your boy’s been hurt, but he’s been hurt too, mate, so let’s just take a breather for a minute, OK? We all need a little Zen here, folks.”
The father continued to protest, but he was gradually being prevailed upon by another male attendant to return to the reception area.
Greg returned with a smirking half smile–“Wo, is he a mad one, eh!”
I got to my feet, one hand reaching for the sides of the cubicle, fingers buttery with blood.
“No no–not a good idea, m’man. I don’t think you should be moving for a minute or two. So take it easy now, yeah?”
Just for a second or two I laid my mind against that soft, spongy ‘e’ sound of the Australian tongue. Then I pulled the band and locker key from off my wrist.
“Can you open it?”
“There’s plenty of time for that.”
“I want to give the girl my business card. I’m a dentist. I can help her.”
“She’s got a knocked tooth, has she?”
“In my wallet, there’re some cards, business cards. She needs treatment. I can do that, no charge. I need to do this. Please.”
He thought about it for a moment.
“If you hang there a minute, I’ll see what I can do, sport.”
He took my key and left with a squeak of rubber.
I sat up and rested my back against the cubicle wall. I’d give myself another 60 seconds’ decompression, then I’d step out of here and go find my girls. And maybe that other girl too, if she hadn’t run off yet.