Swimming Back
Yvonne Jerrold

They say a man's whole life flashes before him when he's drowning. Well, soon it would be his chance to find out.

He was sitting on the beach staring out at the vast expanse of water that is the Atlantic Ocean. He had always felt drawn to the ocean. Gazing at the far horizon used to give him a sense of excitement, of endless possibilities out there for the taking. But that was before. Now it seemed like a very different kind of place - a place of endings rather than beginnings - and seeing it, probably for the last time in his life, he felt only a churning sense of loss and hopelessness.

He was trying not to think about Cordelia who was on the other side of it, and a long way out of reach. Out of reach but not gone away. Her presence still clung to every rock, every pebble, every grain of sand beneath his feet, and all the wild winds that battered the shore, each winter, were not enough to blow it away.

Once Cordelia had been the love of his life. In his championship days, she had also been his inspiration and his goal. His 'jewel of the sea' he called her. At the start of every race he would visualise her smiling face waiting for him at the finishing line, and then he would swim straight towards her.

Now he imagined himself plunging into the waves and streaking out towards the open sea for the last time. How far would he get with his gammy leg? Far enough, he reckoned. He was still a strong swimmer and he liked nothing better than to strike out from the shore, very fast, and keep going until he felt tired. Then he would stop and lie on his back under the endless sky, far away from everybody and everything that he did not want to think about. 

That was why his plan would work. He was known to be a solitary beast and nobody would think there was anything unusual about him swimming a long way out alone. He had done it many times before. Nobody would worry if he was late back and nobody would go looking for him. They knew he always turned up eventually, 'like a bad penny', as his brother-in-law Archie frequently joked. That was something to look forward to - not having to endure any more of Archie's feeble jokes.

It was the perfect day for it, too, with the sun glistening on the water and the white-capped breakers in the distance beckoning him to take the plunge, but he would not set off just yet. He would bide his time. There were too many people at this end of the beach. He would wait until it was nearly empty and the others were ready to go back to the cottage. Then he would say he felt like a last dip and not to wait for him.

And when he did not come back, nobody would suspect it was anything but an accident - not after he had spent such an ordinary day lazing on the beach with his friends. That was important. It must look like an accident, so his kids would get the insurance money. He had nothing else to offer them.

Some children came running along the beach, laughing and calling to one another. He lay back and closed his eyes, in an effort to block out the sound. That was one of the things he must not think about - other people's children. He could no longer trust himself, not after that little incident. It had scared him half to death. It had not gone too far, thank goodness - it was still only a raging nightmare in his head - but how was he going to keep it that way?

Luckily he was good at blocking things out, physical things at least. It was an art he had perfected in hospital, after his accident. Whenever some part of his body started hurting, he found the best way to control the pain was to turn his attention elsewhere.

If only he could do the same with his mind. But that was proving harder to deal with. Ever since his head injury he had been plagued with terrifying thoughts and urges that he feared would take him over. They were not there all the time, but would erupt without warning, like geysers shooting up through gaps in his brain. He dared not relax.

Now he concentrated on listening to the sounds of the sea, willing the squawking gulls to drown out the excited voices of the children. In the distance he heard an old car engine starting up. It sounded like a vintage Ford. Like Dad's wonderful old Ford, the one he drove away that fateful day, not noticing that his son was waving at him.

"Are you okay, Jeff?"

He opened his eyes to find a face peering down at him. The sun was bright and, at first, he could not see who it was, only a dark outline edged with gold. His gave a sudden thump. Cordelia! But, as his eyes focused, he saw it was not Cordelia but his sister, Helen, looking rather worried. She seemed very nervous these days.

"Of course I'm okay," he said, squinting up at her. "Why?"

"I don't know. You'd gone all quiet. It gave me a funny feeling."

"Aren't you feeling well?" Jeff asked, in an effort to distract her. He wished she would not stare at him so intently. It made him tired. Helen was so earnest, always peering into things and asking questions, and his pit of despair was not something that needed exposing. That way lay disaster, for his demons were not something any decent man could confess to. So far, he had managed to keep them to himself, but for how much longer?

He sat up and fixed his eyes on the sea again, but he could feel Helen's eyes still following him. He felt an urge to run into the water to evade her scrutiny, but it was too soon. He must be patient. He must not allow his emotions to confuse him. What difference would a few minutes make, when he was only going to be dead afterwards?"

 "Not that kind of funny feeling," said Helen. Her brow was furrowed into soft creamy folds that reminded him of an old-fashioned loaf of bread. "I'm fine. It's you..."

Jeff summoned his best brotherly smile and said, as nonchalantly as he could, "You know, Helen, it's time you stopped worrying and learned to relax."

"I'm not worried, it's just..."

"Do you know?" he interrupted. "When you frown like that, you look just like a loaf of bread."

Helen's frown deepened. "What?"

"You look like one of those soft loaves we used to pull bits off and eat on the way home. Remember them?"

"I remember you eating the whole loaf one day and coming home from the shop with a hollow crust, and then you were sick afterwards."

"How do you know that?"

"Because I was following you."

Jeff looked sharply at his sister. Then she must also have seen him running after Dad's car and waving at him to stop, but Dad had not looked back. "I didn't know that," he said. "I remember, I carved the crust into a boat."

"I remember Mum called it your 'crusty vessel'," said Helen. "And you kept it so long, it went mouldy."

"Hey, you two!" called Archie's voice across the sand. "We're going back now."

"Okay, Archie!" Helen called back. "Are you coming, Jeff?"

"I'm going for a swim first."

"What, now?"

"Yes. I need the exercise. I've been sitting down too long."

Helen hesitated, then called across to Archie. "You go on ahead, Archie! Jeff's going for a swim. See you at the cottage." Then she sat down on the sand beside him.

Jeff looked at his sister in dismay. He could not carry out his plan now - not with her sitting here, waiting for him - she would be bound to send out a search party. But he couldn't not go for a swim either, having said he would. The only thing to do was to have a quick dip now, and then come back later. He would have to watch the tide, though. It would soon be on the turn.

"I won't be long," he said, getting stiffly to his feet. He felt suddenly exhausted. He had wanted to save his energy for his long swim, but today had been more of a strain than he expected. It was the small talk. It always wore him out. It would be a relief to stop this charade.

"How long?" asked Helen.

"Five minutes - no more."

"Okay," said Helen, taking a book out of her bag.           

Jeff's bad leg felt heavy as he limped towards the shoreline. The sea was quiet, and the incoming waves were spreading across the sand with only the softest of apologetic sighs. But, as he entered the cool water, his energy returned and he struck out strongly through the waves, swimming straight towards the horizon for several minutes without stopping. For a mad moment, he even imagined he was swimming towards Cordelia, who was reaching out to welcome him. He could not see if she was smiling. She was too far away. Then the water became choppier and he lost the image.

His arms began to ache and he rolled onto his back for a rest. Gazing up at the sky, he felt the weight of the day, of the week, of the last few agonising months, falling away from him. Nothing to think about out here. Nothing to regret. Nothing to dread. Nothing to worry about at all as, above him, the setting sun streaked its way towards the horizon in a blaze of puffy orange clouds tipped with gold, red, mauve, grey, tan, creamy white...

He fancied he could make out a mottled brown loaf of bread in the clouds. How many colours were there in a loaf of bread? And should he count the green mould that was devouring his boat by the time Mum threw it away? He had kept it for ages, hidden in his room, hoping to show it to Dad. But Dad had not come home that day. Or the next. Jeff never saw him again.

The police found his vintage Ford stopped on a bridge a few miles away, with the engine running. How could Dad have done such a thing? He had given no warning and he had not put his affairs in order. Was it a sudden impulse? Did he have some awful secret he could no longer endure? Or was it an accident, as Mum preferred to think. And would he have taken more care, if he had known how his actions would split the family?

Jeff was not going to make that mistake. He would not be leaving behind a shattered family. His kids would hardly notice he was gone - he rarely saw them now - and he had put his affairs in order, as much as one could when one was about to have an accident. There were some things he could not do, of course. He could not cancel the gas or electricity - that would look suspicious - but he had made a will.

How much did Helen remember about the day Dad died? Jeff realised he had never asked her, probably because she was only a toddler at the time, and could hardly have registered much of what went on. But she had remembered the crusty boat he made, and she had noticed him being sick in the bushes after stuffing himself with bread. Funny she never mentioned any of that before.

He glanced back at the spot where he had left her. She was not there. His eyes scanned the beach in both directions, but he saw no sign of her. Had she gone back with Archie and the others, after all? It would not be like her to change her mind. Or would it? Jeff had no idea. He did not know that much about his little sister. He remembered how she used to trail around after him, when she was a baby - she could be quite a little pest at times - but he had not noticed her following him on the day Dad drowned.

She hadn't..? It hit him like a thud between the ribs. Helen hadn't followed him into the water, had she? She was not a good swimmer, and how long had he been out here? Five minutes? Ten minutes? He had no idea. He had forgotten the time. And the sea was getting rougher.

"Helen! Helen!" he called out, as he started swimming back.


© Yvonne Jerrold 2011

This story was commended in the Cambridge Writers' Short Story Competition 2007

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