Saturday, 18 June 2022

'Breath' by Ali McGrane

Six a.m. The pool virtually empty. A couple of regulars doing lengths. Sal slips in head first, eyes closed, lets the water silk-wrap her skin, lets herself be cocooned.. She feels her way down the submerged steps, her legs rising weightless behind her. At the bottom, she lets go, and bobs to the surface to float, spreadeagled. Every sound is amplified in the echoing space, the slap of the swimmers’ bow waves against the sides, the voices of the lifeguards exchanging places on their perch. She twists and dives into almost silence, eyes open to refracted light, the tramlines painted along the bottom, the bodies ploughing their lanes above. Deep beneath the surface she can crisscross the pool, free for as long as her breath lasts. She conserves it, arms close to her sides, gentle propelling flipper feet, skimming, bending, rolling. She must have been an otter in a previous life. She would choose that life again.

Twice a week she’s here, regardless. Non-negotiable. The only time she had a break was after Ryan was born. She made do with the bath then, brimful, slopping on the floor if she wasn’t careful, Duncan on baby duty with instructions not to disturb her except in dire emergency. That same silky slide, trying to un-feel the sides, to float free. A kind of deep inhale, as though the pores of her skin can suck oxygen from the water. Breathing by not breathing.

She lets silver bubbles leak from her mouth, chases them to the surface, swings into her efficient crawl, powering along in her lane now, the tuck and curl of a clean turn, up and down, not counting. She never counts. What would be the point? She swims till the clock tells her she’s run out of time.

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