It is Saturday, two days before the event which will come close to consuming his life, and C has taken his daughter to the swimming pool. His wife is away from home for the weekend, attending a service-excellence conference on the other side of the country. C is grateful for the time. It is a quiet day, the training pool occupied by only three or four other families, which C finds surprising as in the world beyond the leisure centre it is a bright, white summer’s day, and naturally he associates the heat with the need to escape it. He forgot to put sun cream upon his daughter’s skin, for the walk up from the house. This slight failure still irritates him.
His daughter is four years old and she mistrusts water. She cannot quite comprehend the treachery of its mass, always ready to pull you under its surface. She prefers to stay upon the steps, chattering through a private game while playing with a plastic bucket and a watering can (as he watches, she picks up a small red ball and flings it from her, as though performing her own experiments into the nature of this substance). C is trying to persuade her around from this fear, for which he feels somehow responsible. Not for anything he has done, but perhaps for things he didn’t do, the impossible logic of a parent, the multiplicity of cause and effect. Although he enjoys these visits to the swimming pool, although for his whole life he has enjoyed the proximity of water, the sense of calm it offers as well as danger, C is actually a very bad swimmer.
He is sitting on the pool floor, in the shallows. Although the movement of the water affects his balance, he has found a poise to sit quite comfortably. What does C think about while the irregular beat of the water pulses against his back and shoulders? Work, mainly. Over the years he has loaded his time with projects and side projects which essentially are only there to occupy his mind in moments such as this. For a number of years, C has known that the free time of his youth was only a distraction for him, offering opportunities and tangents which he was unable to calculate. The only way to postpone this sense of hopelessness, he realised, was to always be busy and to never have to think.
But even work is a distant thing for him right now, because he has the responsibility to watch his daughter. This observation is patient, but also demanding; C can’t ever really relax. His daughter could slip at any moment; anything at all could happen. The empty, trembling acoustics of the swimming pool surround him. C thinks about all the swimming pools he has visited, about water passed into water. The sun is bright through the skylight.
A new couple enter the pool from the changing rooms, carrying two small children. Because C is facing the entrance, he notices them immediately. Although the man must be in his late fifties, the woman is younger than C. Her face is sharp with attractive, angular features, but there is a heaviness to her body, the cellulite rippling across the backs of her thighs, her large breasts straining the material of a peacock-patterned bikini. As C watches her step down into the water, leading the elder of the two children by the hand (she winces slightly; the water is colder than she imagined) C remembers how his wife had hit the gym after the birth of their daughter. He remembers driving to collect her from this very leisure centre, waiting in the café and watching her through the glass as she pounded along the treadmill in front of the flat screen television. Her first words, when he greeted her, were always about how she had compared against personal goals. These days they rarely sleep together. He wonders whether this is the reason for the regular visits to the swimming pool: that he is not really interested in educating his daughter and assuage her fears, but indulging in primitive voyeurism. He hopes not.
Recently, C has begun to appreciate the fact of his own mortality: the lines that have sliced into the flesh around his eyes, the slackening at the corner of his mouth, making him look disappointed, querulous. He never thought that the signs of age would affect him, he thought that he would accept the inevitability, that to question the passage of time was only a question of delusion, of vanity. And so, the couple tune into C’s insecurities. Although he glances once or twice at the woman— whose figure, he allows himself to admit, he finds alluring— it is the man who fascinates C the most.He has a swollen pot belly, the skin of which is smooth and pale and oddly delicate. His hair is grey, the flesh of his chest is limp and atrophied. At first, C thinks that he this woman’s husband or partner; the way he is holding the baby, their manner together: it is the obvious conclusion. (Only later, will C realise that they are father and daughter, and he is amazed that this didn’t occur to him immediately). As he walks towards the steps, C notices that the man has two tattoos, one a band of runic shapes around his upper arm, the other curled tribal crests upon his calf, which remind C of flames. And so, C compiles a history of the relationship, and because he is a man of little imagination, he thinks of the man as a boss seducing a junior, a midlife crisis the random logic of which might very well soon claim C himself. The tattoos are the only proof he needs.
C returns his gaze to his daughter. She is now taking small tentative steps into the shallows, watching the water well against her plump undefined thighs, marvelling in the insane intricacies of this liquid mass. His eyes move over the other parents throughout the training pool: the way they look to encourage and guard, to foster independence but not to abandon. And as he watches them it suddenly occurs to C that he is the only adult without a tattoo. The woman accompanying the grey man has a small hummingbird or kingfisher upon her right shoulder blade. One man has a spider upon his chest, and a thorned pattern on his bicep. Another has ‘Carpe Diem’ scrawled upon his lower back in Gothic script. A woman has two hollow stars upon her thigh, another has a butterfly on her right buttock. Names: Christine, David, Stacey; Manchester United. C has always thought of tattoos as being improvised and personal, as unique as the bodies they adorn. And although he doubts whether anyone in the pool has the same tattoo, all the designs he sees seem generic to him, with clean lines and measured precision. They miss the point.
C is still thinking about this when a door opens beside the pool and an attendant in the yellow and red uniform appears. His face reminds C of an actor popular five or so years ago, whose fine good looks C always found sinister, like a china death mask of an infant boy. Already, at his appearance, the other lifeguard, a girl in her late teens, has jumped down from the high stool by the entrance. C watches as they exchange a few words, both of them laughing as the man is apparently late for his shift. Nearby, the couple who occupied C’s attention have now immersed themselves in the water, cooing at the two infant children in a manner that C finds slightly excessive. From somewhere, C’s daughter has found a blue plastic boat. She notices him watching, and smiles, suddenly self conscious.
A boat, she says, and holds it up to him.
Yes, he replies. That’s great.
She places the boat down upon the water. Out of the corner of his eye, C notices that the life guard has jumped down from his stool and is walking towards the edge of the pool. Towards C.
I’m going to sail it, C’s daughter says. On the sea.
The sea is very rough, C replies. Make sure it doesn’t sink.
C’s daughter laughs at this, as though the idea is absolutely absurd, and that C has revealed himself to be a hopeless fool. C loves the ability of children to distance themselves from the logic of their own inventions, maddeningly, automatically, their great intricate dreams deflated at a whim. That’s stupid, she says.
The lifeguard stands awkwardly, waiting for this exchange to finish. C keeps him waiting. He is aware that he dotes upon his daughter, that he expects the world to acknowledge the love he has for her, but this sense of entitlement is his one arrogance. Finally, he looks up.
Sorry, sir, the lifeguard says. I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.
Excuse me, C replies.
You have to get out, he says. You’re wearing a yellow wristband.
I’ve only just got in, C replies. He is laughing as he speaks; this is obviously a mistake.
But you’re wearing a yellow wristband, the lifeguard repeats. He doesn’t look at C, but instead, glances around the swimming pool, a gaze of professionalism and seriousness. His duties are larger than C’s apparent transgression. Lives are at stake.
Unable, at first, to answer, C finds himself glancing around, hoping that another parent is close to hand to support him. But everyone else is at the far side of the pool. C is alone. His daughter is looking at him, now, from her position on the steps. Probably, she has sensed the confrontation; she is, C thinks, peculiarly attuned to those moments when placidity is disturbed into tension. C smiles at her, comforting, consoling.
I’ve only been in the pool for a few minutes, he says, still looking at his daughter but directing the sentence to the lifeguard. He puts a hardness into his voice. It is the voice he uses at work, his telephone voice. You really have made a mistake.
The lifeguard shrugs. I’m afraid I’m still going to have to ask you to leave. Others are waiting to use the facilities. As he speaks, he removes a walkie-talkie from the waistband of his shorts, and holds it inside his bunched hands. The threat is obvious.
When C makes no attempt at leaving, the lifeguard squats down to his level. Despite his delicate features, the muscles are smooth and defined underneath the bright red T shirt and the fine blonde hairs upon his tanned forearms are bleached almost white by the sun. He is at least ten years younger than C, probably, more.
Sir, he says. I’m sorry if you feel there has been a mistake. But there are rules. They extend to everyone. I can see that you are wearing a yellow wristband. And this means that I have to ask you to leave the pool. He spreads his fingers, a theatrical gesture of powerlessness, probably learned from a film, perhaps starring the actor he resembles.
C argues that the attendant on the front desk must have given him the wrong wristband. (Doesn’t he remember two piles of wristbands, and wasn’t the attendant chatting to a colleague when she should have been devoting herself to C’s transaction. Didn’t that happen?) The lifeguard remains unmoved.
Sir, he says. I am asking you to leave.
When C hears the voice behind him, for some reason he imagines that it is the grey haired man, come to intervene. Instead, he turns around to see a younger man, heavily built, with a shaven head and a long goatee beard. His ears are pierced in three or four places. His chest is decorated with a large tattoo, like a dreadful wound. It is convoluted, an intricate, eloquent shape of red and green, a poem of a tattoo, almost like a medieval frieze. Without introducing himself, he begins defending C, pointing a finger at the life guard, aggressive and purposeful. This is totally wrong, he says. You can’t talk to this man like that. He shows his own wrist band. All of us, he says, have yellow wrist bands. Everyone in here. Look around you. Even the people queuing by the wall have yellow wrist bands. Are you going to ask us all to leave. You have made a mistake.
Even before he speaks, it is clear that the life guard has lost his earlier confidence. He offers his hands to the man, shrugging his shoulders. What, he asks, would you like me to do?
The man points at the walkie-talkie. Call the front desk. Ask them about the wristbands. Then we’ll know.
The life guard stands up and steps away from the edge of the pool. C stares at him, but the life guard turns his back. Bringing the walkie-talkie to his mouth, he asks about the colour of the current wristbands. Despite the static over the speaker, the uneven acoustics and the noise from the pool, the answer, when it comes, is perfectly clear.
I can only apologise, the lifeguard says, as he turns around. I made a mistake.
C is angry, irritated. But he does not want to seem petty in front of the other man. Instead, he laughs it off. It’s fine, he says. You were only doing your job. I understand.
As the life guard walks back to his seat, C and the man face one another. These people, the man says, and allows the sentence to die.
They’re given rules. And the rules replaces their minds. It’s frightening to see. He runs his hand over his beard.
I know what you mean. C pauses. I want to thank you for speaking up for me.
It’s no problem. Anyone would have done it.
C wonders if the grey haired man had tried to intervene, whether the life guard would have been so easily persuaded. The man is glancing back towards his family: a women in a green all-in-one bathing suit playing with three children, two boys, one girl. C steals a look at the details of the man’s tattoo: a unicorn rearing upon its hind legs, an archer in a green cloak, a vast, phallic red tree, in the distance, beyond the forest, the tower of a cathedral, morose and sinister.
I designed it myself, the man says suddenly. He is still looking away from C as he speaks.
I’m sorry to stare, C says.
Don’t be. I like people to look at it. He glances down at his chest, but it must, C thinks, be very difficult to actually see his the details of his own tattoo, its intricacies only admirable in the mirror, or reported to him by others. My pet, he says. She’s very talented.
Your wife did this?
The man nods. From my design. Her father was a tattooist, and she took up the craft. It’s in the blood. He laughs at the joke, and C follows.
The detail is amazing, C says and even while he is looking, he notices a white hart deep within the forest, gollums and gargoyles pulling lewd crazy faces within the bark of the trees. A fox. A serpent. An egg. A divine light.
She is a talented woman, the man repeats.
You must be talented too. To draw it.
Oh I can’t really draw. I just have these… He wriggles his fingers near his temple. These ideas. And I describe them. And then Sonja does her work.
They stand together for a few more moments, both watching their families. C’s daughter has retreated from the water’s edge, and is now handling an oblong float, rested upon her knee as though it was a book. She is talking to herself, looking up at the light through the ceiling. The water feels suddenly cold, but C tries to appreciate it. Beyond the walls of the building the day is still, doubtlessly, hot and he has a long walk home. It is Saturday. Only two days later, the disaster for which C feels that he has been preparing for his whole life will strike. The time will be one of frenzy, anguish and regret, yet at the centre of it, C will find a kind of solace. He will realise that up until this point, his life has lacked a dimension of suffering, and about this he has always felt a curious kind of guilt.
Well, the man says. I’d better go. It was good to meet you.
You too, C says. Thanks again.
On their way back through the changing rooms, C is walking slightly ahead of his daughter when she calls after him. At first, he thinks she has found some lost object, a dropped coin from one of the lockers, or a hair band, perhaps even one of the yellow wristbands. But she is standing looking curiously at her foot, which C suddenly notices, is trailing a thin ragged seam of blood upon the wet white tiles. When C bends down, he finds a small circular puncture upon her heel, which seems to stop bleeding even as he examines it. He looks back across the tiles of the floor, but the way seems clear, he can’t understand how it could have happened.
Words © Daniel Bennett