Claire Gray

Swimming Lessons

Daisy sits on a wooden bench at the edge of the lane pool. Directly in front of her, a group of mothers and babies are taking a lesson. The babies slap the water with fish-shaped rings, brightly coloured sticks, floating cups. An instructor holds a plastic doll and shows the mothers how to roll their babies onto their backs. As Daisy watches, the group starts to move slowly around in a circle singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star without any perceptible self-consciousness.

Looking across the swimming lanes, Daisy tries to find the bright yellow of Josh’s cap. She feels a flash of panic as if something could have happened to him, even though she’s been sitting here the whole time. Then she spots him, hanging onto the edge of the pool and laughing with a girl from his class. The girl is taller than him and wears a blue cap with the logo of another swim school emblazoned across the side. Josh glances up and quickly looks away. Daisy shifts her gaze to the clock on the wall and stares at it until the numbers start to blur. This afternoon, her new manager had called her into a meeting. “Just to see how you’re doing,” he’d said. “That’s all.” Daisy had thought she was doing fine, but it seems she was wrong.

The next time she looks across, Josh is swimming butterfly. He hasn’t quite got the dolphin kick and is struggling to raise his body out of the water. When he reaches the end, the instructor demonstrates the movement for him, stretching out her arms and then sweeping them down to form a Y shape in front of her body. Josh nods his head and pushes off from the wall again. His stroke looks better, Daisy thinks. Not great, but better.

When Josh was six months old, Daisy went back to work selling carpets and tiles. Each afternoon as she unlatched the white child-proof gate at the entrance to the day care centre, signed her name in the register and made her way down the corridor lined with painted handprints, she would find herself struggling to remember what Josh’s face looked like. When she arrived at the wooden barrier that separated the babies from the older children, she would scan the small figures, desperate to pick out a familiar item of clothing, anything that would give her a clue. Looking at him now in the pool, his ill-fitting body with limbs growing at a disproportionate rate to the rest of him, she feels a similar sense of detachment.

Josh’s swimming instructor starts high-fiving the kids, signalling that class is over. The girl in the blue swimming cap climbs out of the pool, picks up her towel and squeezes in between Daisy and the woman on the bench next to her. The girl’s hair drips silently onto Daisy’s arm and she can feel the press of her damp towel. Daisy sighs. The woman tells the girl to get down and apologises.

“No problem,” Daisy replies, “I’ve got a couple of boys around the same age.” 

“Kids, aye?” the woman says with a good-natured laugh as she flicks water off the seat with her hand.

“Yeah,” Daisy replies, frowning.

She is still frowning as Josh gets out of the pool and walks past without acknowledging her. Her ears suddenly fill with a noise like rushing water and she imagines herself angrily calling out his name. In her mind, he comes to a halt, his neck flushed with the humiliation of being reprimanded in public. Instead, she watches as he reaches down and grabs his bag from a locker. He has taken off his swimming cap and goggles, and his hair is sticking up at the front. His skin is pale and Daisy can see his veins so that he almost seems translucent in places. He looks cold, she thinks, as he makes his way towards the changing room.

She waits in the car while he changes back into his school uniform. Staring at the entrance to the pool complex, she wills him to emerge but the automatic doors stay stubbornly closed. She picks up her phone and opens her email, swiping down to refresh. There are a couple of delivery notes for clients and an invitation from HR to a meeting the following afternoon. That her manager has escalated their discussion isn’t a total surprise, but seeing the request in her inbox makes her stomach jolt. She likes her job. Likes the technical requirements. Likes having to learn yarn ply and count, colour fastness and flammability. It’s not simply a sales spiel. She closes the mail app without responding and opens Facebook, but glances back at the doors before registering any of the stories in her feed. “What the hell is the matter with you?” she mutters at the closed doors.

The plan had always been to leave Josh swimming while she drove to collect Cooper from cricket practice. But in the second week of term, she’d arrived back at the pool to find the duty lifeguard looking for her. He was pleasant enough. Almost apologetic. He’d clasped his hands behind his back and bent forward slightly as he explained how Josh had been excluded for hitting another child. Josh said nothing, the indentation marks under his eyes from his goggles making him look tired and sullen. “It was an accident,” he told her after the lifeguard had moved away. “We were playing tag and the kid got in the way.” She insisted he apologise—both to the lifeguard and to the boy he’d hit—but he had refused. “Jesus Mum, no one does that,” he said. Not for the first time, she’d backed herself into a corner. Now she has to wait and take him with her when she drives to get Cooper, and it always makes them late.

It’s hot in the car. Even with the air conditioning running, she can feel perspiration dampening her armpits. She picks up her phone again but throws it down onto the passenger seat without opening any of the apps.

The automatic doors slide open and Josh emerges. “Thank Christ,” she says, starting the engine. He gets into the car smelling of chlorine and damp wool. It’s not unpleasant— better than he smelled when she picked him up from school earlier—but it’s not pleasant either.

“Good lesson?” she asks in a deliberately bright tone that she hopes communicates interest.

“Sure,” he replies.

“Your butterfly was looking better,” she says, watching her hands on the steering wheel while she waits to hear the click of the seat belt.

Josh stares out of the window.

She drives to the car park exit where she is forced to stop, drumming each of her fingers on the steering wheel until a woman in a black Volvo pauses to let her into the line of traffic. When the light changes to green, she wills the vehicles in front of her to move faster. She is almost at the intersection when the light turns orange again. She thinks she might still make it through, but then the car ahead of her stops suddenly and she has to slam on her own brakes.


“It was orange,” Josh snaps. “You’re supposed to stop.”

“You do realise how annoying it is to be told how to drive by someone too young to have a licence?” she retorts.

Josh rolls his eyes as he turns to look out of the window again and Daisy breathes deeply, filling her lungs and stomach with air. She pushes the thumb and index finger of her left hand into the corners of her eyes. Then she places her hand back on the steering wheel and stares at the traffic light until it changes to green.

Cooper is waiting outside his school when they arrive. He moves towards the back of the car as she pulls up to the curb. The boot is already crammed with Josh’s bags and some product samples Daisy needs for a client meeting in the morning.

“Josh, help your brother,” Daisy says.

“He’s fine,” Josh replies. He has his phone out now and has opened a music app. She snatches it from his hand, “I said, help your brother.”

“Nah, I’m all good,” Cooper says hurriedly.

With one final push, he manages to get the boot closed.

“Mum,” he says climbing into the back seat, “I’m really tired. Do I have to go to swimming today?”

Josh has picked up his phone again and Daisy is distracted by the music he’s put on. Hip-hop. She can only catch the occasional lyric but the words she recognises jump out so that her brain keeps trying to distinguish coherent phrases amongst the incessant droning.

“Josh, can you please change this?” she asks. He’s typing something into the screen of his phone. “Josh,” she repeats, her tone sharper now. He grunts in annoyance, leans forward and slams the stereo off with the heel of his hand.

“I don’t know why you always have to get your own way,” he snaps. Despite herself, Daisy lets out a high, sharp laugh.

“How was cricket practice?” she asks Cooper as she pulls into traffic again.

“OK. Two of the Year Eights took us down to the nets.” He pauses, then asks again, “Mum, do I have to go to swimming tonight?”

Daisy glances at him in the rear vision mirror. He looks tired and hot, his hair plastered to the sides of his head. She hesitates. Josh had asked the same question when she’d picked him up from school earlier.

“Yeah honey, you do. You’ll feel better when you get there. Might cool you down a bit.”

“Yeah,” he replies, dejectedly hanging his head. Then he looks up again. “Do we have any food?”

Josh answers before Daisy can say anything, “She ran out of time.” He says it in a high-pitched tone, as if he’s imitating something Daisy had said when he’d asked the same question earlier.

“Mum,” Cooper says in an exasperated voice.

“I was held up in a meeting with my manager,” Daisy replies. “We’ll stop for sushi after your lesson.” It’s still hot in the car, even with the air conditioning turned up to full.

She glances down at the clock on the dashboard. “Come on,” she mutters at the car in front of her waiting to turn right, “just go for Christ’s sake.” The sun glares through the windscreen and she squints, despite her sunglasses. She sighs. “Chill out, Mum,” Josh says with a look of contempt and she has a sudden urge to hit him. Hard. The impulse is so strong that she has to grip the steering wheel very tightly with both hands. She imagines feeling the lumpy cartilage of his nose against the back of her hand and seeing the blood start to flow. She pictures his top lip swelling as the sharp prongs of her engagement ring cut into his skin; the surly look on his face disappearing as he begins to cry.

They arrive back at the swimming complex three minutes before Cooper’s class is due to start. Daisy pulls into the drop-off zone and tells Josh to take his brother inside while she finds a park. She drives around the car park twice before she spots someone leaving on the side furthest from the front of the building. Locking the car she jogs towards the entrance, her sandals clattering uncomfortably over the asphalt. Near the automatic doors, she can see Josh talking to a boy standing with one foot resting on a skateboard.

“Is Cooper at his lesson?” she calls out.

“I dunno,” he replies.

 “You fucking little shit.” Daisy means to mutter the words under her breath. But she doesn’t.

Josh and his friend turn to look at her. A woman walking past turns her head and then quickly glances away. Daisy doesn’t say anything else, just makes her way inside the building towards the lane pool. Cooper’s lesson has begun without him and she is overwhelmed by a sense of failure that feels like it’s been accumulating for years.

From where she is sitting, in the very same spot she was sitting an hour earlier, she can see Josh through the window. He is laughing as his friend noses the edge of the skateboard off a wooden bench. She turns back as Cooper comes out of the changing rooms and slides into the pool. He looks relaxed as he swims, his body rolling smoothly from side to side. Finishing his length, he empties the water from his goggles and then glances up, giving a self-conscious wave with his right hand.

When she tells Paul later, she’s convinced it was the noise that made her look back out of the window again. Of course, it couldn’t have been. She couldn’t hear anything over the clamour of the pool complex. She couldn’t even hear Josh’s screams until she got outside, let alone the crack of a collarbone or the clatter of a skateboard as it hit the ground. Whatever the reason, she turns and sees Josh lying on his back on the pavement. For Daisy, time seems drawn out, almost as if she’s watching part of a movie in slow motion. A woman in a blue chambray shirt-dress kneels beside him while two children with wet hair stand nearby looking uncertain; Josh’s friend reaches to pick up the skateboard and then stands, shifting his weight from one foot to the other; a man carrying an adidas sports bag walks past and pauses. Daisy sees all of this, and then she gets up off the bench and starts to run. As she comes out through the automatic doors, Josh turns his head and calls, “Mum,” his voice breaking with relief as he sees her. His face is white and tears are rolling down the side of his cheeks, pooling in his ears.

“Mum,” he says again as she kneels down. “It hurts.”

“I know, baby,” Daisy replies.

She bends over and presses her lips to his damp forehead and as she does, she can smell chlorine and stale sweat and, underneath all of that, the familiar smell of him. She looks up to ask the woman in the chambray dress to fetch Cooper from his class and Josh scrabbles around with his left arm. “Mum, don’t go,” he says reaching out for her. “I’m right here,” she replies gently, stretching out her own arm. He smiles weakly, clutching her hand, and she remembers singing nursery rhymes in the pool as his little legs fiercely slapped the surface of the water.

It’s after midnight by the time they get home from the hospital. The house is dark and smells faintly of takeaway pizza. As they walk upstairs, it occurs to Daisy that she never responded to the meeting invitation from HR. She helps Josh into bed but he refuses to hand over his phone and she is too tired to argue.

Claire Gray

Claire Gray writes short fiction about relationships, society, and small towns. She is currently completing a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Victoria University.