Toes to the wall behind and fingers to the wall ahead. Palms down and splayed thumbs whispering to the touch.

To pull and push, ease and scoop.

The pool is not blue as it would be in the movies. The tiles are chipped, the water too chlorinated and the life guards lapse. You can carve out a sliver if you choose and many do. Septuagenarians slicing out breast-stroke, heads above water: these are the swans of Spence Street.

For a summer I took a slice of the pool too.

Elaine is a woman with soft large hands who laughs at my jokes. She is also my grandmother. We feed people, her and I. It’s what we do, like breathing and reaching out for warm hands in the cold. Our expansive thick skinned palms can peel, chop, dice, fry, ice and serve. Elaine swims on Monday and Friday and, for a time, so did I.

Somewhere else, there a rats in the Tesco car park and the ATMs outside haven’t worked since 2009.

The cafe coffee makes your eyes water but the lady at the till always smiles. My grandmother and I always get coffee. We are never sure whether we enjoy it. She drinks hers immediately, I follow suit. My tongue was burnt from June through September.

I’m faster than Elaine in Tesco and in the pool. We swim: 30 lengths for her (she thinks) and 50 for me (I count). We shop: bananas, bread, meat for Sunday and the posh yogurts if they are on deal. The rhythm of the routine set a consistent resting heartbeat for the summer. The drive to the pool would be quiet, my breasts bound to my chest, swimming costume digging into my arse under my jeans. 

“Everyone’s half asleep this morning”

Yes, Grandma, so am I. 

Summer mornings are never quite as warm as you think; the air would pinch at our bare arms as we walked from the car to the leisure centre. We would pass inside to the fluorescent lighting of the reception, and as always, she would not let me pay for my swim.

The changing rooms are communal; grey tile and blue pegs line the perimeter. Before is easy, lycra under our clothes, we can untangle quickly and head for the chlorine.

After is harder.

The first time, I can’t concentrate on the swimming. I can’t get the rhythm. I think about my body, whether I could dive to the bottom and hide, my raisin tipped fingers dancing underwater, staying there. My body does not belong in the open. The pool is cold and the showers are warm.  Back in the communal changing room, there is talking and there are bodies. Swimming costumes discarded at feet. Breasts diving towards stomachs. I wrangle with my towel, eyes to the ceiling. My thighs not dry before being swept up in my jeans. My back still slick underneath my camisole. Friday comes and we swim again. I pull through the water and push harder. I watch my grandmother underwater, long legs, arms strong. I am not afraid of the dark but I cannot look at my body in the mirror. I dress too quickly again but this time I take my eyes off the foam board ceiling. There are thighs and there is laughter. Slow, drying their bodies with tenderness. A bra can wait, there is a story to tell. Gossip and garden centres, silver stretch marks lining inner thighs. Soft pocket stomachs and Caesarian scars. Bodies not restless but resting. Contented.

Monday and push, Friday and pull.

We roam Tesco with wet hair and talk of the food we could eat and make. I think of the food I shouldn’t eat, to make a body I can look at. My grandmother buys golden wrapped butter and conference pears. I finish a 52nd length, scooping, elbows kept within the span of my shoulders.

“Everything’s a blur underwater without my glasses but I can see you burst by.”

My grandmother says to me with red goggle marks framing her eyes.

“You’re fast too, Grandma.”

“I used to be faster.

She grins and skims her thumb over my chin.

June to July and August to peaches. I swim faster and dress slower. Towel drying steady. Sat in my pants, stomach folded as I brush through the knots in my hair. I watch my grandmother push moisturiser across the span of her arms and down the length of her legs. Envious of the tenderness in which she handles her own body, the ease of it. She tells me that her knees ache today and that I am lucky to be young. My head breaks through the water and I rest my chin on the surface as I take a breath. I eat because I am hungry and breathe because I am breathless.

Standing in blue towels after swimming in a grey pool before diving into bitter black coffee. This time 100 miles apart. I push moisturiser across the span of my arms and down the length of my legs. I text her.

I swam today Grandma, thinking of you.

And she texts back.

It’s raining here, I swam too. Hope it’s not raining with you.

And it is but my hair is already wet and my cheeks already red and my soft body that is just like hers in all manner of beautiful ways carries me home.

With breaststroke, you can’t kick and pull all at once or you’ll end up going nowhere. You must wait and fruit must ripen. Pulling and inhaling, thrusting legs and exhaling. Floating not falling. I pull with my arms, not at them, and push with my thighs, not pinch.

Elaine and I are soft. Elaine and I swim.

Words: Chloe Weare