Saturday 22 June 2013

'Swimming Lessons' by Ken Elkes

On Sunday afternoons they opened up the lake for bathers and Marion said it would be a treat to take Alice. Tom was reluctant, until he recalled his own father had taken him there for swimming lessons.

Alice pleaded for a picnic, Tom disagreed. Marion made sandwiches anyway, placing them in a paper bag she held on her lap as they drove in silence through the hot afternoon.

The lakeshore was crowded and Tom had to haggle for a patch of grass. He tried sounding cheery, but knew such humiliation would never have happened when Thomas Senior was alive. People would have moved without debate. Alice and Marion looked on, eating the sandwiches that were wilting in the heat. 

When they were settled, Alice changed into her swimming costume and began playing with a plastic ball, blinking at each sharp, metallic bounce. When the ball rolled away, a blonde-haired boy brought it back. They began to play catch, Alice giggling loudly as the boy threw it ever higher. 

“Keep your eyes open when you receive the ball,” Tom shouted.

“Just let her be Tom,” said Marion. “Let her learn without you pushing.”

This was how it had been for some time. She faced him down at every opportunity. 

“Why so hostile?” he hissed.  

“Not here,” Marion said.

He was sick of this air of strained nerves. His father would never have stood for it. Tom jumped to his feet. “Right young lady, swimming lesson.” 

Then he strode over to Alice, picked her up and threw her into the lake. Then he stood, arms crossed, as Alice resurfaced, flapping wildly.

“That’s the way. Sink or swim.”

“What are you doing?” shouted a man sitting next to them. 

“I know what’s best for my daughter,” said Tom, as he watched Alice flounder, then sink again.

Marion pushed past, but he grabbed her arm, nails digging into the skin, feeling it yield like a peach.

“Leave her, you said.”

Alice, head arched back and eyes shut tight, began thrashing her way closer the lake’s edge.

“You fool,” said Marion and wrenched herself free, running to pull her daughter from the water. As she carried the girl past him, Tom wanted to tell his daughter she had learned a valuable lesson. The hard way was the best way, or something like that.

But Marion wrapped her up in a towel and rocked Alice as she shivered. 

“You can swim now. It’s how I learned,” Tom said. They ignored him and he realised then he had built up all her fear of life into a wall that he could never scale again. 

Tom turned, throwing open his arms as he launched himself into the cold, dark water, then kicked hard, just as his father had taught him, pressing down into the blackness, further and deeper, pushing himself on and on until the pain in his ears and in his lungs became just unbearable enough.


  1. Oh, what a sad story. Strong characterisation, with Tom caught in patterns of repetitive behaviour.


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