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The Swimming Pool

by Alex Woolf

Soft light reflecting from the dark blue surface of the pool danced and swayed on the glass-and-wrought-iron ceiling and on the shiny leaves of the giant pot plants that lined the water’s edge. The room, though dominated by the swimming pool, was also a conservatory, and the proximity of lush, colourful vegetation to the curving, irregular edge of the water called to my mind a rainforest pond. Or a luxuriant fantasy of one – the water was, after all, chlorinated, and surrounded by a good three feet of travertine tiling. The low wicker table and matching chairs in the alcove to my right further softened the initial impression of a jungle watering hole, making it seem closer to a colonial retreat.

I turned to my host. ‘Ferdy, this is lovely – the best room in the house. I want to strip off and get in there right now.’

‘You’ll have to wait,’ he smiled. ‘Supper’s being served in the dining room in ten minutes.’

I almost laughed to hear him say that – Ferdy Stokes, who grew up on a council estate in East London. He probably never dreamed he’d one day have supper served to him in his own dining room, let alone have his own pool. Wealth suited him, though. As did marriage to Susie. I’d never seen him happier. Or fatter.

Susie was on top form at supper. Her liveliness and sparkle kindled a spiritedness in Ferdy that I hadn’t known since the very earliest days of our friendship. You’d have thought that such a normally taciturn chap would have been overwhelmed into silence by her, but no – Susie was forever coaxing contributions out of him: she wasn’t satisfied to let her husband ride on her own conversational coat-tails.

‘Tell Philip about our neighbour, Ferdy,’ she would urge. ‘You know, Old long-hair. What’s his name? Go on – about the time he asked us if he could use our pool.’

So Ferdy would obligingly relate the story of how this chap, Richard somebody-or-other, came to their door one day soon after they’d bought the place and announced that the previous owners had let him use the pool on a regular basis, and would Ferdy be so kind as to continue the arrangement. Ferdy had been taken aback by the fellow’s twinkling eyes and humble demeanour and had agreed without really thinking. And now this Richard had become a bi-weekly visitor.

After supper, Ferdy and I removed ourselves to the lounge to partake of some of his VSOP Hennessy cognac. Susie declined to join us, citing the desire for an early night, what with her ceramics exhibition opening in a few days time. She knew we wished to talk of old times, bachelor days, and it was typical of her thoughtfulness not to intrude. The lounge was more akin to a medieval hall, with its hammerbeam roof, rug-covered stone floor and enormous hearth, where Ferdy soon had a fire crackling away.

We sat there in opposing armchairs on either side of the fire, which warmed our faces (as the brandy warmed our insides) and cast deep, flickering shadows around the room. We covered well-worn paths of reminiscence: school days, old friends, Saturday afternoons watching the football, early business ventures. Ferdy topped up my brandy, then we talked on about other mutual interests. Eventually, he rose and stretched his substantial frame. ‘Well, if it’s okay with you, old friend,’ he declared, ‘I’m going to turn in. But you take your time. Finish your drink. You know where your room is, I take it?’

‘Susie’s shown me where everything is,’ I reassured him. ‘I’ll be fine. You go to bed.’

When Ferdy had departed, I put another log on the fire. I was feeling mellow, yet wide awake – certainly not ready for bed. I found a dog-eared tome on an occasional table: a history of the locality, full of grainy black-and-whites showing horses and carts and people in flat caps. I was soon engrossed, as much by the pictures as the text. I was impressed by the dedication, the love, that had motivated the writer to explore in such detail the history of this small suburban backwater. Why travel the world, he seemed to imply, when you can find these riches in your own neighbourhood. So rapt was I that I failed to notice that I was no longer alone.

‘Good evening,’ said the stranger in a deep baritone, nearly causing me to drop my balloon glass.

He was standing on the far side of the room, close to the doorway that led to the swimming pool. His large brown head was cocked slightly as he looked at me. Long, slightly wet grey hair hung around his shoulders. He was so still, he could have been standing there for ten minutes and I wouldn’t have known it.

‘Good evening,’ I replied uncertainly.

‘I’m Richard. From next door.’ So this was the mysterious water-loving neighbour Ferdy had mentioned earlier. ‘Mind if I join you?’ He pushed his head forward as he said this and clasped his hands, as though I would be doing him a great honour.

‘Of course,’ I said, putting down the book and gesturing to the vacant chair.

‘Thank-you. Thank-you. I need to warm my bones.’

Richard was a tall man of about sixty, with pale grey eyes and a thoughtful demeanour. A small, irregular twitch disturbed his gaunt brown cheek. His knees rose up as he sat on the low chair.

‘Did you have a good swim?’

He didn’t reply. I noticed he had no towel or bag with him. Perhaps he kept his kit here. His red shirt had dark patches on it: he hadn’t dried himself very well. The man didn’t appear inclined to chat – perhaps it was warmth, not company, he wanted. I returned my attention to the book.

‘The world is very big,’ he suddenly said. ‘You can only ever know a small part of it.’

‘You’re right about that,’ I said. ‘In fact I was just thinking a very similar thought myself.’ I began to tell him about the book I was reading, but he cut through my words.

‘– And even the small part that you know,’ he declared, ‘you can never know completely.’

‘Quite,’ I murmered, wondering what on earth the man was getting at.

‘Think for a minute,’ he persisted, ‘of all those quiet spaces: the corner of a field in Sussex; a windblown acre of Russian steppe; a barren Antipodean hill; a clearing in a Brazilian forest.’

‘What of them?’ I asked.

‘So many uninhabited spaces all over this planet. What happens to them, in them, when people aren’t around? Do they just … exist…? Even here in our home town – we think we know it. But we only ever know the smallest part of it. There are spaces even in our own homes that we don’t visit much, if ever. But they go on existing, unobserved.’ His breath caught slightly on the intake, like a small sob. ‘This thought … it troubles me.’

‘I guess the world just goes on,’ I shrugged. ‘Most of it’s pretty uneventful.’

‘It actually seems wasteful,’ he added. ‘For what is the point of something if no conscious being observes it?’

‘None,’ I agreed, ‘from a human perspective at least. But by that reckoning, the entire cosmos, apart from Earth, is pretty much a waste.’

‘If …’ he whispered, ‘you believe that nothing ever happens in those so-called empty spaces.’

I swallowed the remains of my cognac. ‘And you, I take it, don’t.’

His eyes remained fixed on me. ‘There’s a corner of the swimming pool,’ he said. ‘On the far side – the deep end.’

‘What of it?’ I asked.

‘It’s one of those quiet, uninhabited spaces we were speaking of,’ he said. ‘No reason ever to go down there. I’ve been swimming in that pool for over a decade now. I must have done tens of thousands laps, but I’ve never visited that space in the bottom left-hand corner – not even once.’

‘Why should you?’

‘Why should I?’ he echoed. ‘And yet these past twelve months, I’ve noticed …’ He hesitated. ‘That space in the bottom corner is not so … quiet. As I do my laps, I’ve sensed something… watching me from down there.’

‘Watching you?’

‘Of course, I tried to ignore it,’ continued Richard. ‘The mind can become overly susceptible at times. I always swim alone, late at night. And the lighting in that room can play odd tricks, especially when the water becomes choppy and it sends reflections rebounding in every surface. It doesn’t help that my goggles steam up after sixty-odd lengths, making everything a blur. And then the slightest shadow or movement in the corner of my eye can become, in my fevered state, something monstrous creeping up on me.’ He was agitated now. The twitch in his cheek was becoming more persistent. ‘But this… this,’ he said, ‘was different. Have you ever felt like you were being watched, my friend?’

‘Constantly,’ I replied with a smile, thinking of the cameras that had appeared on every major street. But then, seeing his strained look, I reconsidered the question. ‘No,’ I said eventually. It was one of those literary clichés – ‘the girl sensed she was being observed’ – that I’d always found rather implausible.

‘It’s not about something seen or heard,’ explained Richard. ‘It’s closer to the sense of touch. You feel a prickling at the back of your neck, a shiver all along your skin that has nothing to do with the temperature of the water. It is as real a sense as anything told you by your eyes. It is, even now as I speak of it to you here before this fire, quite terrifying. And it began, as I say, about this time last year. This… consciousness that observed me, whatever it was, seemed to inhabit a space deep down in that lonely and unvisited corner of the pool.’ He paused, perhaps to allow his heart to recover a calmer rhythm. ‘I developed a habit,’ he resumed. ‘After every shallow-end turn, as I progressed back towards the far end, I would glance just once towards the left-hand bottom corner – the source of this strange, watchful presence. I would see nothing, of course, but dark blue tiles – what else did I expect? The action began as a form of simple reassurance that the thing did not really exist or, if it did, that it would never manifest itself – heaven forbid – in a form that I could actually see! But after a time, this custom I developed of glancing at the bottom corner became more than a reassurance – it became a necessity. A powerful fancy took hold of me that if I didn't do the glance, the thing would suddenly appear in all its nightmarishness. It would swim upwards with horrid speed, grab hold of me and haul me down to the blue depths and hold me there until I was dead.’

I reached for the cognac and poured some more of the amber fluid into my balloon. My mouth, I discovered, was quite dry. I offered the man some, but he didn’t even notice my gesture. His eyes were now trained on the fire.

‘I did the glance on every length,’ he said, ‘I did it without fail, even while the rational part of me cried out that it was all nonsense. I placated that part by pleading “where’s the harm?” A tiny glance, barely noticeable; a little dip of the head, a clocking of the blue tiles, and it’s over; on with the length... And I developed another habit: when I reached the deep end wall, I always turned my body left. You see, this idea entered my head that if I turned right, I would be turning my back on the demon. And that would provoke it, which would never do. So I always turned left before making my way back to the shallow end. I even timed my strokes so I would be sure of touching the tiles with my right hand, making a left turn more natural – I did that to placate my rational side: I didn’t want to believe I’d gone completely loopy… And yet, despite all of these precautions, I was still terrified that, one night, the thing would appear. The worst times were when I was swimming away from it, back towards the shallow end. Those were the times – especially on the 98th or 100th length, when my swim was nearly over – those were the times I felt most vulnerable. My skin would prickle in dreadful antipation of a touch, the merest feather of a touch – the caress of a falling bougainvillea leaf – would have been sufficient to send me quite mad.’

‘But why,’ I asked, ‘do you continue to put yourself through this torture? Why do you keep swimming in that pool?’

He didn’t answer, just kept staring at the juddering flames in the hearth. ‘When you do something for long enough,’ he eventually sighed, ‘it becomes hard to stop. You learn to live with fear. It becomes part of who you are. I continued to swim, and persisted with my mad, appeasing rituals – glance, left-turn, glance, left-turn, on and on … until tonight.’

‘What happened tonight?’

‘Everything was going fine. I was on my seventy-fifth length. And then, for some reason, as I was swimming towards the deep end, I got my strokes wrong – maybe I was distracted by some play of the light on the water, who knows? Whatever happened, when I reached the deep end wall, I found that I touched the tiles with my left hand, not my right. With my body in this position, it would have been awkward to turn left  – it would have been an open acknowledgement of my enslavement to this superstitious dread. I had to make a quick decision. I chose to turn right. I turned my back on the demon. It was an act of bravado, a demonstration that I was master of my fears. But as I began to swim back towards the shallow end, I cannot describe the terror that overtook me. That suspicion I had of being watched gave way to a certainty: I was now absolutely sure that something malign, something that wished me harm, was coming up very fast towards me. In panic, I pummelled the water with my arms, trying desperately to reach the other end of the pool and escape the inevitable touch of those icy dead fingers on my legs. If I could just reach the other end I felt I might be safe.’

‘And you did it, didn’t you?’ I smiled. ‘You reached the other end. That’s why you’re here. Right?’

Richard suddenly rose to his feet. Turning to me, he said: ‘Thank-you, my friend. Thank-you for allowing me to sit here with you, and for listening to my story. Now I must go.’

There was something odd about the look of the man as he stood there before me, though I couldn’t say exactly what it was. However, it occurred to me then that he didn’t actually know I was there. During our entire conversation, he might just as well have been talking to an empty chair. Feeling puzzled, I bade him goodnight and watched him exit through the door that led to the entrance hall. Then I got up and went through the other doorway that led to the swimming pool. I’m not sure why I did this. Perhaps I thought it might help to ease my bewilderment about what I had just experienced.

The room was cooler than the rest of the house, and pitch dark. With some fumbling, I located the panel of light switches. As I pressed them, spotlights came on in various concealed locations in the walls and behind the plants, washing the room in subtle, green-hued light. The light reflected in the ripples of the dark blue surface of the water and gleamed on the brown skin of the body that floated there, face down, near the shallow end.

© Alex Woolf, 2010

Alex Woolf was born in North London. Since 2001 he has been an editor and author of children's information books, and has written on a wide range of subjects, from spiders to Nazis. His debut novel, Chronosphere: Time Out Of Time, is publishing in March 2011.

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