Photograph by Suzanne Plunkett, Story by Helen Trevorrow
I searched for hours for this photograph, frantic to see us together. I am older now than you were then. My once taut and sporty midriff sags. I don’t remember if yours did too at my age but my fingernails oval like the Sydney Opera House in the exact same way that yours do.
I wear a swimming costume now, not a bikini.
Do you remember in Spain when you suddenly thought you knew how to swim? I held your hands and you kicked away. You smiled your way through the salt and the foam, you kept your head above the water, like I always knew you could. It was dangerous, silly really, someone with dementia in such deep and virile water but you loved it.
That wasn’t even long ago, let’s go back further, let us remember a long-ago holiday abroad when I was lithe and young, bronzed sitting at a pool-side making eyes at boys and, speculatively, at girls. Off I went to a disco and then drinking on the way back we took off our clothes and went into the water. We were skinny dipping! I kissed a boy! Then I heard your booming voice. I was pulled out of the water and in such terrible trouble I thought I couldn’t live anymore, but of course I did.
You made me learn how to swim. You stood at the side giving instructions. You who couldn’t get out of the shallow end. You, who as child in Ireland had waded in over emerald moss clad rocks and slipped. You hit your head on the rocks and were carried into the stream. I always imagined it in slow motion down by the river hair splayed wide out.
I could have saved you if I was there. Anyhow, you lived. You always did like to exaggerate. And yes I like to too!
You used to bless our car, you blessed the dog, and you blessed the TV when Ireland were playing football with the water that you had swum in. It is the water of Lourdes where you went long before I was born. You told me it was frigid cold and that the nuns had dunked you down under the icy holy water in a thin white cotton smock. One of them caught the soft flesh of your under arm because, ‘that’s what they’re like.’ You were frozen to the bone afterwards and caught a stinking cold.
The pool in this photograph where you and I once stood, was a beacon of hope. This beautiful tile and marble rectangle made our town, Slough, a paradise. Cousins came from Ireland, we took them there. The first sun of spring time, we all went there. My brother pulling girls, he found them there. I can still hear the splashing echo of happiness.
I’m sure you must have known this but the council filled it in. They levelled the changing rooms, and smashed the diving boards to fragments.
Recently, I drove around where I thought the entrance might have been, now its overgrown with spiky bushes with inedible red berries. There are empty coke cans strewn around the tarmac. I looked for it online. I tried to remember the diving board, the kid’s pool with the slide, the art deco changing rooms; all are gone.
Not even your memories remain so I must never ever forget.
Your room was dry. It was so dry in that little room and it was making your skin dry. I called the nurse to bring water. After a while we knew what to do ourselves. Your hands shed flakes of skin, there were bed sores on your body. You couldn’t clean the sleep from your own eyes. It collected until someone tackled it with a wipe.
You can’t swallow water. We give you a drink through a pipette.
Then you swim away.
I am in a birthing pool. There are candles. We were supposed to play music but it happened so fast. I’m in tremendous breath-taking pain, the contractions are at close intervals. They knock me off my feet. I suck on gas through a blue plastic mouth piece and it makes me so high. I love it, I make jokes, I forget why I am in this pool. I can talk the blarney – just like you could, under any circumstances.
I am ten centimetres dilated. It is time.
It becomes quiet. I need you. I call to you from the water. I save a contraction, I let it sail violently through me while I wait for you to say something. It is 2.47am on a Tuesday morning and outside the clouds over West London are the colour of claret wine. The midwife asks of me;
“Is she okay?” But I don’t answer because I am with you somehow we are together. I truly believe that.
You tell me that I can do it.
“Can I?” I ask
“Yes, of course you can, do it, on the next contraction, do it,” you say.
“Really?” I ask but the contraction is rolling fast into me. I clench the sides of the bath. I give one last massive push and out she swims, literally swims.
“Can I pick her up? Can I pick up my baby?” She is at the bottom of the pool and I hoist her up onto my chest.
I call her Hope. Because that is what she is; she is Hope for you and Hope for me and never ending on we go together, us two, now three, swimming free.
So I searched for this photograph of us together because I wanted to tell you that Hope can swim. She learnt today. No arm bands, no float, she kicks and splutters, it is by no means the most beautiful of strokes but she stays afloat.
She won’t sink. She’s a much better swimmer than you ever were and so much better than I will ever be.
Helen Trevorrow is a graduate of the 2016 Faber Academy creative writing programme. She studied at Leeds University and has worked in marketing and public relations in London. She is a specialist food and drink PR. Helen’s debut novel IN THE WAKE is a feminist crime thriller about family, unrealised trauma and alcoholism. Helen has ghost-written many articles for newspapers, magazines and websites. She lives in Brighton, Sussex with her wife and child. @helentrevorrow
Suzanne Plunkett is an award-winning freelance photojournalist, portrait and corporate photographer based in London. In an international career spanning 20+ years, I've worked as a staff photographer for Reuters, Bloomberg and the Associated Press and contributed to the New York Times. I have been based in Boston, New York, Kabul, Jakarta and London. Find her here @suzanne_plunkett