The Sea in Me
by Krishan Coupland
Winner of the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2015
Sometimes in the bath I plunge my head under the water and will the scars on my neck to open wide like mouths. Nothing. Even if I stay under until my eyes sting and my lungs burn and everything inside me feels like it’s about to burst, they stay closed. Perhaps the water’s too hot, or too soapy, or maybe even too shallow. Perhaps my brain knows I’m not really swimming.
At the pool it’s different. I can drift down to the bottom and sit until my fingers go wrinkly. Only when Mum’s not there, of course. When Mum’s there I have to train.
What I like most is when I’m the last one at the pool. They switch off the lights and the boys all watch me as they close the pumps and heave in the lane floats. The one who fancies me—his name is Martin—leans on the rolled up pool cover at the far end and calls to me as I emerge.
“It’s almost closing time,” he says.
“One more length,” I say.
And he lets me. He always lets me. Mum would be furious if she knew I wasn’t a virgin. She’s old fashioned like that. In secondary school she caught me kissing a boy on the field one time and she dragged me off home and yelled about how I was endangering my career. There’s no time for boys, what with training and my competition schedule. That’s what she says anyway.
Every trophy I’ve ever won is in the cabinet downstairs. There’re other things in there too. Every time we go on holiday Mum buys a shot glass and puts it in the cabinet, and there’s a bunch of little ceramic washerwomen as well, all of them grinning and jolly. Mainly it’s trophies though, crowded together like a miniature city made of glass and polished wood and gold. She’s even kept the stupid paper certificates I got for completing my swimming lessons at school.
When my hair went green I told Mum it was because of all the chlorine, and she wrote me a note for school. I like it. Nobody else has green hair, and it’s soft and never gets tangled. When I swim without a cap it floats around my head like a coral reef plant and turns with me, follows me slender and obedient like a tail. I like the way it makes me look: mysterious and strange. And sexy, I think.
Walking me home after a day of school and swimming Martin runs his hands through it, makes a fist of it at the back of my head and pulls. My spine turns hot and liquid. He doesn’t say anything, but I know he likes it too.
It’s hard to spend time with Martin without Mum knowing. Sometimes I don’t do my lengths after school and go to his house instead. When I do that I have to fill his bathroom sink with water and dip my swimsuit in it so that it’s not dry when I get home. Mum checks these things.
“You’ll thank me later,” she says. She’s been saying it for years. Every morning at six she drives me to the leisure centre with the big pool. That early we’re almost always the only ones, and I can have the whole pool to practice in. They’ll let me in for free sometimes, if they recognise me from the local paper. Every time this happens Mum goes all quiet and pink and smiley, and I hate it.
In the empty water I train with a drag suit. It’s like my regular swimsuit but two sizes too big, so that it slows me down and makes me pull harder. Mum stands at the edge watching my turns, watching each perfect lunge through the blueness of the water.
In the changing rooms afterwards Mum stretches me, shakes thick powder into a bottle of water for me. The energy drinks taste like too thick gravy. I’m cold. I put twenty pence in the hair drier and shiver as the heat rushes over my neck and scalp and shoulders. “Drink up,” Mum says, and rubs my shoulders till they feel like they’re about to fall off.
After school that evening, just before they close the pool, Martin jumps in with me and pins me against the wall under the diving boards. The sheltered, deepest corner. With my back against the wall I can’t kick, so it’s only him that keeps me floating. Warm bodies in cool water pressed together. Skin feels different under the surface. Most people never find that out.
“Are you going to come and watch me in the semi-finals?” I ask.
“When?” he says.
As well as being a lifeguard Martin wants to own a store someday. He runs a little one at the moment, just selling stuff on eBay. His room is full of it, boxes of clothes piled everywhere in sight. He’s always so busy.
“You’ll be fine,” he says. “You’re such a good swimmer. You’re gorgeous.”
Most of the time I wear a scarf to hide the scars, or smother them with foundation. For swimming though, it does no good. They only open underwater anyway, and nobody’s ever noticed. Mum buys me waterproof foundation. “Looks are important, love,” she says. “You’ve got to win the crowd.”
She doesn’t have a clue. I wonder what would happen if I could show the crowd everything. The translucent, froggy webs between my toes and the cascade of beautiful green hair underneath my swimming cap. They wouldn’t like it. Would think I was showing off, or that all the success had gone to my head. Nobody can really know what it’s like.
Sometimes I have this dream. In the dream I’m in the water swimming, and it’s the ocean and I’m not alone. There’re all these dark shapes with me cutting through the water. There’s hundreds of them, but they all stay just behind my eyes, flitting into murk the second I turn my head.
I’m so happy. I want to live there forever and ever. Sometimes I wake and I swear I can taste salt, and it takes me a second to realise that what I taste is actually my tears. No way to know why I’m crying. I’m not sad. The dream just makes me feel happy and longing. That’s all. It must just be the strangeness of it.
Before the semi-finals I shave my legs. I shave my pubic hair as well. In the bath, with one of Mum’s plastic razors, carving away the thick blonde hair. The pale molecules of stubble coat the soapy surface of the bathwater. I wonder if Martin likes that I’m all shaved? Boys like that kind of thing. I’ve heard them talking.
The skin on the back of my legs is rough. One patch right underneath my backside and another below my knee, both of them silvery and splitting into scale. I get out of the bath and feel myself all over, twisting to see my pale body in the mirror. There’s another patch low down on my back as well, the same colour as the surface of an oil spill, rough and warm and slippery.
Mum drives me to the pool an hour early, while everyone’s still setting up, and we sit in the cafe. I’m allowed an energy drink, but nothing else. She sips nervously at a watery cup of tea. Sometimes I like feeling this way. It feels like sitting in an aeroplane a moment before takeoff. Today what I mostly feel is tired.
“Remember your turns,” she says. “They’ll be watching you. I’ll be watching.”
The stands are full of people. Absolutely full, not just scattered like they normally are. Mum’s more nervous than I am. The energy drink has made my stomach feel hot and tight. She lets me have my earphones in for a few minutes while I stretch and warm up, then whips them away. The chlorine smell hits me as I step out of the changing rooms. With echoes and ripples and the pool lights, everything is distorted. This, I think, must be what it’s like to live in a bubble on the bottom of the sea.
“And smile,” Mum hisses to me before she disappears.
Minutes later I’m up on the board, a hundred pairs of eyes pressing into me. Can they see the silvery patch of skin on my leg? Is that what all the whispers are?
Noise ripples in here too. The other swimmers like soldiers lining up… Some of them look at me when they think I won’t notice. I hate this part. I want the buzzer to go so I can dive into the water. Once I’m in the water everything’s easy. Once I’m in the water my body knows what to do. If you asked someone how they breathed, asked them the exact way in which they moved their lungs and throat they would be at a loss to tell you. It’s the same with me and swimming. It just happens. In the water it’d be harder not to.
I win, of course. I always win. Swimming’s easy for me. Mum says I was born swimming, which is true because she had a water birth. That’s what she says during every single interview. “She was born swimming, this one was.” Actually, as it happens, she does most of the talking anyhow. It’s best that way. I never know the right thing to say.
The prize is a glass trophy with an etching inside. As we drive home I turn it over and over and, no matter which way I look at it, it’s still a dolphin. I like this trophy. It feels proper, like the ocean, like I’m holding a little bit of the sea in my hand. I want to keep it, but when we get home Mum puts it in the cabinet with all the others, and locks the little glass door.
Sometimes I think about telling Mum I don’t want to compete anymore. I lie on my bed and line up all my words ready like little soldiers in perfect regiments. Ready to run at her words and stick them through with bayonets. It’s too easy. It isn’t fair. Why can’t I ever just swim, without worrying about form or time or turns? I make lists of the reasons and then tear them up and flush them down the toilet so she won’t find them when she goes through my room.
It does no good. I don’t know how many thousands she has spent on pool fees and swimming lessons and competition entries for me. I don’t know how many hundred hours she’s put into driving me to and from and training. With all that weight behind me there’s no way to stop now.
After school I sit on the bottom of the pool and wait. I don’t get cold. I’m never cold in water. My green hair floats up around my head in a big seaweed-coloured cloud, and I watch it. When I’m in water I feel powerful sometimes. I am powerful. I could flick up from the bottom of the pool and swim so fast that nobody could catch me. That’s what all the trophies and the medals and certificates at home mean. Nobody can catch me, even if they tried.
I shut my eyes. And then the dream comes up again, rising like silt: I’m swimming in among those dark slivery shapes, and there are thousands of them, so that the water is them and their shadows and the spaces between them and nothing else. In the ocean I can see for miles.
An arm wraps around my stomach and hauls me upward. There’s that skin on skin underwater feeling and I’m plunged into air, up into air, the last water escaping my lungs in a splutter and cough.
“You’re okay?” says Martin. “You’re okay? God, I saw you down there and I didn’t know…”
I shake myself loose of him. He’s still fully dressed, wet through. “You didn’t need to do that,” I say.
Once he’s dry we sit on the bench outside, and he offers me a cigarette. I pinch a little bit of the skin of his forearm between my nails. “Martin,” I say.
“Can we go to the seaside?”
After missing the semis he’s so anxious to make things up that of course he says yes. And later in his room when he puts his dick inside me it feels right. Doesn’t hurt at least, for the first time in ages. It feels like floating in hot water and I want it to go on forever.
I tell Mum that it’s a school trip. She wants to know if there’s a form but I tell her no since we’re only going for half a day. She makes some noises but doesn’t ask bad questions. She makes me a packed lunch with sandwiches and Babybel. I leave the house in school uniform and get changed at Martin’s house. Martin has a moped. There’s only one helmet and he makes me wear it.
“I don’t want to,” I say. “I want to feel the wind.”
When we stop at the services halfway there he lets me take it off and leave it hooked over my arm for the rest of the trip. The wind lifts my green hair and pulls it straight back. I can feel it combing through, strong fingers that trip and fall and rise as I turn my head. We’re going so fast. I don’t think I’ve ever moved this fast in the open air before. I can smell the sea miles before we get there. It smells delicious, frothy and thick with life.
We’re two of the only people to be seen on the whole wide white beach. A girl is riding a horse out in the surf, and there are men in canoes out on the ocean. Martin leaves his shirt and shoes in the box on the bike and holds my hand all the way down the sand. I want to run, but I’d look silly if I did that. The water when we reach it is dark blue brown and full of sediment.
“Are you going to swim?” says Martin.
I nod. Of course I’m going to swim. I can’t quite wrap my head around it. This is the same ocean that washes up on the shores of America. Huge. This is where life came from, first of all, before there was anything. It looks right. It smells right. I strip down to my bathing suit and wade in. Martin follows, after rolling up the legs of his shorts. He holds both our phones up at his chest, careful not to get them wet.
It’s been years since I last swam in the ocean. The memories are there, all faint and faded apart from the smell: that’s something I could never forget. I was barely taller than the waves that now lap at my knees. Dad was there, I remember. It must have been very long ago.
When the water’s high enough to swim in I lunge down and feel the cold wash of it pass over me and in a second it’s not cold anymore. My hair slicks back along my body, then floats as I plunge under and kick. I can feel how powerful I am. Powerful. In the swimming pool I was like a tiger in a shipping container, always swiping at metal and empty air.
When I pause and look back Martin is awfully distant. He looks like he wants to follow, but he doesn’t know what to do with our things. I wave to him. The waves lift and drop me. I feel like I can breathe clearly for the first time in ages.
When I go under I expect to see them, those shadows from my dream. But there’s nothing there. The sediment rushes past like a shoal of tiny fish. I kick deeper. The water feeds into me and I can feel my body elongating, the web between my fingers and toes becoming thicker. I have to go deep, I know. That’s where they’ll be. I can’t hear anything but in the nothing there is sound, I think, some kind of deep and booming voice.
I surface again. I’m further out than I thought, and I know that the things from my dream are further out still. Beyond the bay and further, further. I’d have to swim for days to get there. My body bobs in the current, the water pressing against my chest. I want to go back under. I want to kick through the water and have it hold me.
“I was getting worried there,” says Martin when I return to him. His shorts are wet against his skin.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” I say. He kisses me for a while and I wonder if he can taste the things that are different about me. The changedness. The sea in me. “You look cold,” I say at last. He nods.
“You can go back to the beach. I’m going to have one more swim. Out and back, and then we can go. Is that okay? Please.”
He looks at me, halfway puzzled, and I feel very sorry for him. “Ten minutes,” he says. “You promise?”
I tell him that I promise, and then watch, waist-deep in saltwater, as he makes his way slowly back to land.
The Sea in Me was the winner of the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2015, chosen by Paul McVeigh, and appeared in Issue 7 of Bare Fiction Magazine in May 2016.