Read an Excerpt
Swimming Pool Sunday
By Madeleine Wickham
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Madeleine Wickham
All rights reserved.
It was only May, and it was only ten o'clock in the morning. But already the sun was shining hotly, and the grass in the garden sprang warm and dry underfoot, and the breeze under Katie's cotton dress felt friendly and caressing. Katie gave a little wriggle. She felt like doing some ballet jumps, or rolling down the slope of the lawn until she landed in a heap at the bottom. But instead she had to stand, still as a rock, with elastic round her legs stretched so tightly it was going to give her red marks. She bent down and shifted the elastic slightly.
'Katie!' Amelia, who had been about to jump, stopped, and regarded her crossly. 'You mustn't move!'
'It hurts! It's too tight!' Katie bent her head round until she could catch a glimpse of the backs of her calves. She spotted a small pink line. 'Look! It's making marks on my skin!'
'Well, stand nearer the chair, then. But keep the elastic tight.' Katie gave a melodramatic sigh and shuffled nearer the chair.
They were playing with a chair because you needed three people for French skipping, and there were only two of them. Sometimes Mummy played with them, but today she was too busy, and had got cross when they asked. So they'd had to drag a chair out into the garden, and thread the elastic round its legs, just like human legs. Now it stretched, two white springy lines, a few inches above the grass. The very sight of it filled Katie with an excited anticipation. She loved French skipping. They played it in every single break at school; during lessons she would often put her hand into her pocket and check that the tangled mass of elastic was still safely there.
'Right.' Amelia sounded businesslike. She began to jump efficiently over the taut elastic, biting her lip, and planting her feet carefully in exactly the right places. 'Jingle, jangle, centre, spangle,' she chanted. 'Jingle, jangle, out.' She jumped out without even touching the elastic.
'My go,' said Katie hopefully.
'No it isn't,' retorted Amelia. 'Don't you know how to play French skipping?'
'In my class,' said Katie, raising her eyebrows expressively, 'we play so that everybody has one go, and then it's the next person. Mrs Tully said that's the fairest way.' Amelia wasn't impressed.
'That's just for little ones,' she said. 'We play until the person makes a mistake.'
'But you'll never make a mistake!' cried Katie. She scratched the place on her leg where the elastic had been too tight.
'Yes I will, I expect,' said Amelia kindly. 'And anyway,' she added, 'at least you know it's your turn next; I don't think the chair will want to play.' Katie looked at the chair, standing benignly on the grass. She giggled.
'We could ask it,' she began. But Amelia had started jumping again.
'Jingle, jangle, centre, spangle, jingle, jangle, out.'
They had been sent out to play in the garden until their father came to pick them up. Nobody could quite remember what time he'd said he was coming. Amelia thought it was ten, and their mother thought it was ten-thirty, and Katie had been convinced it was quarter to nine, like school, and had actually stood by the door, ready to go, until nine o'clock had come and gone and it was obvious he was coming later.
Amelia had suggested, sensibly, that Mummy should ring Daddy and ask him. But for some reason she didn't want to. She never wanted to ring Daddy. It was always Daddy who rang. He'd rung during the week, and talked to Mummy, and said he was going to take the girls fishing this Sunday. Fishing! Katie had never even been fishing. They'd both got very excited and gone down into the cellar and brought up all the nets and buckets they could find. Amelia actually had a fishing-rod that Grandfather had given her, and she'd generously said that Katie could hold it with her if she wanted. Mummy had washed out two jamjars for them, in case there was anything small that they wanted to bring home, and they'd chosen a chocolate bar each as a special treat for their packed lunch.
But all of them, even Mummy, had forgotten that this Sunday was Swimming Day at the Delaneys' house. They couldn't miss the Swimming Day. Everyone was going from the village; even people who didn't really like swimming. Amelia briefly wondered what it must be like, to be a person who didn't like swimming. She simply couldn't imagine it. Everyone she knew liked swimming: her, Katie, Mummy, even Daddy when he was really hot.
They'd only remembered about the Swimming Day yesterday, when they bumped into Mrs Delaney at the shops, and she asked if they were coming, and Mummy said that she thought this year, unfortunately, the girls would have to miss it. Katie had nearly started crying right there in the street. Amelia was more grown up than that, but as soon as they were in the car, she'd asked in a desperate voice, 'Couldn't we go to the Swimming Day tomorrow and go fishing another time?' At first Mummy had said no, of course not, in an angry voice. Then, when they got home, she'd said no, but it really was a pity. Then, later, she'd said maybe Daddy wouldn't mind. And last night, as she tucked them into bed, she'd said that as soon as Daddy arrived, she would ask him, and she thought he was sure to agree.
'Jingle, jangle, out.' Amelia thumped heavily onto the grass. 'I'm boiling,' she added.
'So'm I,' said Katie quickly. 'I can't wait to go swimming.'
'I'm going to dive straight in,' said Amelia. 'I'm not even going to feel it with my toe or anything.'
'So'm I,' said Katie again. 'I'm going to dive in.'
'You can't dive,' said Amelia crushingly.
'I can,' retorted Katie. 'I learned it in swimming. You sit on the side and ...'
'That's not a proper dive.'
'It is!' Katie's voice rose in fury. 'It is a proper dive!' Amelia smirked silently. 'I did it the best in my class,' shrilled Katie. 'Mrs Tully said I was a little otter.'
There was a pause. Then Amelia wrinkled her nose superciliously and said, 'Yuck.'
'What?' Katie looked discomfited. 'Why is it yuck?'
'Being an otter is yuck.' Amelia looked at Katie challengingly, and Katie met Amelia's gaze silently for a moment, then she looked away. Amelia's eyes glinted.
'You don't know what an otter is, do you?' she said.
'Yes, I do!'
'What is it, then?'
Katie stared crossly at Amelia. Her mind scrambled over half-imagined pictures. Had Mrs Tully ever actually told her what an otter was? Otter. What did it sound like? Into her mind came an image of blue-green water; of silvery streaks of light and a lithe body shooting through the water in a perfect dive.
'It's like a flower fairy,' she said eventually. 'It's a water fairy. It lives in the water and it's all blue and green.'
Amelia started to crow. 'No, it's not! Katie Kember, you don't know anything!'
'Well, what is it then?' shouted Katie angrily. Amelia brought her face up close to Katie's.
'It's an animal. It's all slithery and hairy and its feet are all webbed and slimy. That's what you are. You thought you were a water fairy!'
Katie sat down on the grass. It didn't occur to her not to believe Amelia. Amelia hardly ever made things up.
'I haven't got slimy feet,' she said, her voice trembling slightly, 'and I'm not all hairy; I've just got normal hair.' She pushed her bright brown fringe off her forehead and looked at Amelia with worried blue eyes. Amelia relented.
'No, but otters are really good at swimming,' she said. 'I expect that's what Mrs Tully meant.'
'Yes, that's what she meant,' said Katie, immensely cheered. 'I'm the best swimmer in my class, you know. Some of them still have arm-bands.'
'One boy in my class still has arm-bands,' said Amelia, giggling, 'and he's nine.'
'Nine!' echoed Katie scornfully. She was only just seven, and she'd been swimming without arm-bands since last summer.
Suddenly there was the sound of a car pulling, up outside the house.
They both ran around the side of the house. There was their father getting out of the car, as tall as ever, wearing a pair of shorts and a very old-looking blue checked shirt. There was a combination of familiarity and strangeness about the sight of him which made Amelia stop momentarily in her tracks and look away. Katie pushed past her.
'Daddy!' she cried. Their father turned and smiled. And immediately, predictably, Katie burst into noisy. copious tears.
* * *
Louise Kember sat in her pretty kitchen and waited for Barnaby to come in. She'd heard the car pull up, heard the girls run out to greet him, and could now hear Katie's muffled sobs. It was nearly five months since Barnaby had moved out, and still Katie wept every time he arrived or left. And every time, a hand seemed to squeeze Louise's heart until fresh painful guilt filled her chest.
Hadn't she been told that it was far better for parents to separate than to stay together, arguing? In those awful few weeks over Christmas, when the rows between her and Barnaby had reached their height, when her frustrations and his suspicions had spilled over into everything they did, contaminating every gesture and giving every seemingly innocuous remark a double-edged meaning, she'd been convinced that when the split did come, it would be a relief for all of them. For her and Barnaby, certainly, but also for the girls.
Larch Tree Cottage wasn't big enough for two shouting parents and two sleeping children; more than once she and Barnaby had been interrupted mid-flow by a white-faced, white-nightied little person at the kitchen door. They would shoot accusing looks at one another as they quickly adopted soothing voices, proffered glasses of water and spoke gaily to Mr Teddy or Mrs Rabbit. And then they would inevitably both go back upstairs with whichever of the girls it was, in a self-conscious togetherness – tucking in and tiptoeing out as though they were once again the young married couple besotted with their first baby.
For a few moments the pretence would last. They would float down the stairs together in a cloud of deliberate good nature, fulfilling the image of the happy, loving, contented parents. But downstairs in the kitchen, the air would be thick with lingering, remembered jibes. The smiles would fade. Barnaby would mutter something incomprehensible about popping to The George for a quick half, and Louise would run a hot bath and weep frustratedly into the foamy water. By the time Barnaby got back she would be in bed, sometimes pretending to be asleep, sometimes sitting up, having formulated in her mind exactly what she wanted to say. But Barnaby would wave her speeches aside.
'I'm too tired, Lou,' he'd say. 'Busy day tomorrow. Can't it wait?'
'No, my life can't wait,' she once hissed back. 'It's been on hold for ten years already.' But Barnaby was already in his automatic, unseeing, unthinking, undressing and going-to-bed mode, and he didn't even reply. Louise stared at him in exasperated anger.
'Listen to me!' she screeched, forgetting the children, forgetting everything but her need to communicate. 'If you really loved me you'd listen to me!' And Barnaby looked up, baffled.
'I do love you,' he said in a low resentful voice, folding up his trousers. 'You know I love you.' And then he stopped and looked away.
And Louise looked away too. Because the truth was that she did know that Barnaby loved her. But knowing that Barnaby loved her was no longer enough.
* * *
Katie was sitting on the grassy bank outside the cottage next to Barnaby. His arm was round her, and she was juddering slightly, but her tears had dried up. On the other side of Barnaby was Amelia, who felt a bit like crying herself, but was far too grown up.
'That's better,' said Barnaby. He squeezed them both tightly so their faces were squashed against his shirt. After a moment Katie started to wriggle.
'I can't breathe,' she gasped dramatically. Amelia said nothing. She felt safe, all squashed up against Daddy, smelling his smell and hearing his laugh. Of course, Mummy hugged them all the time, but it wasn't the same. It wasn't so ... cosy. Her face was pressed up against a shirt button and her neck was a bit twisted, but still she could have stayed safely inside Daddy's hug all morning.
But Barnaby was letting go of them and reaching into the car.
'Here you are, you two,' he said, tossing a package into each lap. 'Vital equipment for the day.' The two girls began to unwrap their parcels and Barnaby watched, a pleased smile on his face. He'd bought each of them a present. For Katie he'd bought a small collapsible fishing-rod, and for Amelia, who already had a fishing-rod, he'd bought a smart little fishing-tackle box.
Katie unwrapped hers first. She squealed in delight and leaped up.
'Goody gum drops! A real fishing-rod! You can keep your smelly old rod, Amelia!'
But Amelia looked up from her tackle box in sudden realization, and said in dismay, 'What about going swimming?'
'What about it?' said Barnaby easily. 'I'm afraid you'll have to leave that to the fish. You might be able to paddle, though.'
'No, silly!' Katie dropped her fishing-rod on the ground and rushed over to Barnaby. 'Swimming Day, at Mrs Delaney's house! Can we go instead of fishing?'
Barnaby tried to hide his surprise.
'What! Don't you want to go fishing?'
'I want to go swimming,' said Katie coaxingly. 'It's so hot!'
By way of illustration she began to fan her legs with the skirt of her dress. It was a familiar-looking pink and white striped dress; a cast-off of Amelia's, Barnaby abruptly realized. He had a sudden memory of a small Amelia wearing it, leaving for a birthday party, excitedly clutching a present, while an even smaller Katie jealously watched from the stairs.
'Mummy said you wouldn't mind,' offered Amelia. She tried to signal to Katie to shut up. She would make Daddy cross if she wasn't careful, and then they'd never be allowed to go swimming. 'We could go fishing next week,' she suggested. Abruptly, she remembered. 'And thank you for the lovely present,' she added.
'Yes, thank you, Daddy,' said Katie quickly. She picked up her fishing-rod and stroked it tenderly. 'For my lovely fishing-rod.' She looked up. 'But can we go swimming? Please? Please?'
'I don't know yet,' said Barnaby, trying to keep his temper. 'I'll go and talk to Mummy.'
* * *
Louise had begun rather self-consciously to make some coffee, waiting for the moment when Barnaby would come in. She moved gracefully around the kitchen, a careless half smile on her lips, noting with pleasure the pretty citrus-tree stencils which she had carefully painted onto the pine back door the week before. Those, and the new curtains, splashed brightly with orange and yellow flowers, had really lifted the kitchen, she thought to herself. Next she intended to stencil the bannisters, and maybe even the sitting-room. Larch Tree Cottage had, in the ten years they'd lived there, always been pretty, in a predictable old-fashioned sort of way, but Louise was now determined to transform it into something different and beautiful; something which people would look at with admiration.
As she heard Barnaby's heavy tread in the hallway, she glanced quickly around, as though to reaffirm in her mind the image which she presented. A happy, fulfilled, independent woman, at home in her own beautiful kitchen.
Nevertheless, she turned away as he got nearer, and turned on the coffee-grinder. Her hand trembled slightly as she pressed the top down, and the electrical shriek meant that she couldn't hear his greeting.
'Louise!' As she released the pressure on the coffee-grinder and the noise died down, Barnaby's voice sounded aggressively loud. Louise slowly turned. A jerk of fearful emotion rose up inside her, then almost immediately subsided.
'Hello, Barnaby,' she said in carefully modulated tones.
'What's all this nonsense about going swimming?'
Excerpted from Swimming Pool Sunday by Madeleine Wickham. Copyright © 1997 Madeleine Wickham. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.