EVA HAD LOVED the first slap of cold water on her face when she dived into the pool, then the bubbles peeling away from her hands like pearls. A shoal of parrotfish passed on her right, creating a golden wall that reflected the afternoon light. Ahead was a manta ray, its flanks rippling like a silk curtain, while the walrus hovered in the corner of her vision. As she pushed through a forest of kelp, it rasped against her cheeks.
Where she lived, heat stretched into the forties before summer storms and kids were taught to swim before they could walk. Eva, once tossed into the water, never wanted to get out again.
‘It’s all that fat. That’s why you can stay in so long,’ her mother used to say. ‘You’ve an extra layer of insulation.’
‘My little water baby,’ was what her father said, for her tubby body was always rolling and spinning, slick with water.
Eva didn’t care. She imagined peeling starfish from the rocks or tapping a rhythm on crabs’ shells with her nails. Then she plucked out the band holding her plait and unravelled her hair. She exhaled and sank to the pool’s plastic floor, meditating. Her long hair floated about her in a thick, writhing mass.
These days, though, instead of stripping off her school uniform and stepping into her swimmers, she switched on the air conditioning and lay on her bed. Her father had moved them from the farm into a nearby town because they wanted her to go to a better school.
‘You might make some friends,’ they said brightly. Eva heard the underlying message: she didn’t have anyone she could call an acquaintance.
Eva missed waking to the sound of currawongs in the mornings, and the sweet smell of gum blossoms thickening the air. She especially missed the pool and its creatures.
She changed into a T-shirt and shorts and went to the kitchen, which was warm from her mother’s cooking. A plate of pumpkin scones sat on the counter and the jug whirred. Her mother took the butter from the fridge.
‘Nice day at school?’
Eva didn’t answer. If she told her mother about the loneliness that prickled her skin each day, it would mean their move to town had been a failure.
The jug whistled and she slapped off the switch. Her mother handed over the butter. Eva spread a layer onto a scone, watching it melt. Her mother dropped a teabag into a cup and poured hot water over it.
‘Mrs Leigh spoke to me,’ she continued. ‘She says you spend a lot of time at the library during lunch.’
‘Perhaps you should try talking to people now and then.’
Eva continued splitting and buttering scones, placing them on a plate, then took them to her room. She shut the door and sat on her bed, eating methodically. When the scones were gone, she pulled off her clothes and stood before the mirror. Her breasts were heavy. Flesh hung from her stomach. Her thighs were wide and white, the shape of pubic hair ridiculously small between them.
Eva sighed, glancing at the plate littered with orange crumbs.
AT LUNCHTIME, SHE sat on the benches that formed a square around the peppercorn tree. She was alone, as she had been for more than a year, and slowly chewed the crusts of her sandwich. On the bench to her right sat Paula and her friends. They were nice enough to say hello sometimes, but they didn’t make an effort to include her. Occasionally Eva listened in on the conversations but, like a bird with one of its wings clipped, they usually flapped around the same topics of boys, socials and bitchy girls.
This day, during what she thought was a lull in their talk, Eva tried a wavering smile to catch Paula’s attention.
‘How was your weekend?’ she asked.
Paula frowned. ‘It’s Wednesday. The weekend was three days ago.’
Eva hesitated. ‘Yeah, but what did you do?’
Paula’s face went blank. ‘Went shopping with Mum.’
She half-turned back to the circle of girls, who had fallen silent. Eva thought of her mother’s hopeful face, and tried again. ‘What kind of shopping?’
‘Umm, shoes.’ Paula turned around completely, presenting her back.
Eva watched Paula’s friends making significant faces at each other. Her cheeks burning, she packed her lunchbox into her bag and headed for the library.
THE SCHOOL’S SWIMMING carnival was a medley of streamers, stripes of sunscreen rubbed into skin and the smell of chlorine. Eva, sitting quietly on the grandstand among the noisy students, was so delighted by the way light skimmed the water that she forgot about her apprehension.
She had swum in the town pool only once since they’d moved to town. Kids screamed in the shallow end, the lanes were crowded with burly men and Mrs Ferguson, the manager, shouted at a boy who’d dive-bombed his sister. Eva’s sea creatures had stayed away; there was no place in that choppy water for sea horses that hung from her toes like jewels.
On the crackly PA, she heard the call for the next two races. Her mouth dry, she rose, wrapped her towel beneath her armpits and made her way down to water. At the bottom of the grandstand were two older teachers with clipboards.
‘She could have been an Olympian,’ Eva overheard one say as she passed.
‘Poor Mrs Fergo. She should have stayed away from him.’
Eva realised they were talking about Mrs Ferguson, who fired the starter gun at the beginning of each race. She was a squarish woman with thick, greying hair cut short at her shoulders. Eva nodded to her as she stepped onto the block, shaking her arms to loosen them.
She barely heard the starter gun before she dived. The cool water caught her, caressing as she swam. She concentrated on transforming her mouth into gills that snatched the air.
As she applied a last shot of strength, a ball of pleasure burst between her thighs, so intense and pure it seemed like light. It plumed through her body and she slowed, feeling her limbs lengthening into elegant fins that yielded to the water.
She was surprised by the rough concrete of the pool’s end.
‘Well done, Eva,’ said the teacher holding the stopwatch, ‘you came third. It looked like you’d win, but you ran out of puff.’
Eva waded to the steps by the side of the pool and hauled herself out, water rushing from her skin, the glow fading. As she took her towel from the nearby railing, a shadow fell across her path. She glanced up and was startled by a taut, muscled chest. She looked further and discovered a pair of brown eyes. They blinked. Eva mumbled an apology and hurried on.
Sitting on her towel in the grandstand of chanting students, she no longer saw the figures dashing through the water in the next race, or the mottled, burnt shoulders of the person in front of her. Instead, there was the symmetry and golden skin of that boy’s body, and that strange, distracting rush.
BENEATH THE PEPPERCORN tree at lunchtime, the girls on the bench nearby talked about the upcoming social.
‘Michael says he’s going–’
‘Shut up. He’s got a girlfriend.’
‘What’re you going to wear?’
‘When is it?’ Eva asked. The conversation stopped abruptly and four pairs of eyes regarded her.
‘Next Thursday,’ Paula finally offered.
‘Can I come?’ Eva forced the words out.
The eyes widened, but then Paula’s narrowed slightly. ‘Course you can come – who’s stopping you?’
‘No, I mean…with you guys. Can I come with you guys?’
The eyes turned to each other, and Eva watched their flickering communicate some unspoken message. They directed themselves back to her.
‘Yeah, sure,’ said Paula, weakly, ‘sure you can come.’
The girls returned to their conversation and Eva’s gaze dropped to the book open in her lap. Her fingers trembled as she turned the page.
Since the carnival she’d been watching him. The boy’s name was David, she found out from Paula. His friends were sleek and athletic and preened themselves with the knowledge of this. He did, too, but Eva overlooked this fact. She watched him laugh and liked how his teeth were strong and clean. Above all, she admired the caramel tone of his skin and his honey-brown eyes.
She watched the girls he spoke to at school. They were loud, and moved with a languid ease. He spoke often to a girl with blue eyes and freckles on her nose. Her pale face was framed by dark, curling hair.
THE SCHOOL HALL was full of bodies lit by flashing pink and green fluorescent lights. Eva held a plastic cup of sweet red cordial, watching Paula and her friends, their mouths bright with lipstick. Though their conversation was more trivial than ever, Eva was grateful to them for letting her tag along.
‘Come and dance!’ Paula plucked at Eva’s arm. Eva bit her lip. She didn’t like dancing much, but she’d look stupid standing around by herself.
Among the sweaty bodies in the flickering light, she swung her arms and bobbed and tried to look as though she was enjoying herself. All evening she’d been searching for him, but there were too many people. She knocked into someone and turned to apologise, then caught her breath. It was the girl with curly hair. One of David’s hands was woven through it. His other hand rested upon the smooth flesh of her waist, which her tiny shirt had exposed. The girl’s pink lips parted and her eyes shone with adoration. His hand moved from her hair to cup her cheek. He bent his head to kiss her.
Eva turned away, pressing her lips together to keep them from turning downwards. Then she bolted.
She ran for a few blocks, glad she was wearing sneakers and not heels, then settled into a walk. The air was cold and she pulled her sleeves over her hands, moving in and out of the light of streetlamps.
After a while, she found herself outside the pool, which was closed for winter. The manager, Mrs Ferguson, had drained the chlorinated water from the pool, refilled it with fresh, and was now growing carp. She sold the fish to an aquarium in the city at the season’s end.
Eva hooked her fingers on the chicken wire fence. She longed to be enclosed by water again, to feel the sinuous joy of a turn before the blocks and to pull herself through a gorgeous, viscous world, accompanied by slow, swerving turtles.
Mrs Ferguson emerged from the pool’s office near the gates and approached the starting blocks, unscrewing the lid of a white canister. She shook pellets from it into the water and fish swarmed to the surface in a fan of gold. The manager watched them, a smile stretching the loose skin of her face.
Eva’s gaze drifted to the lit-up office. Silver trophies crowded the shelves and a poster of a strong woman in a black swimsuit was taped to the wall.
Mrs Ferguson was waving; she’d noticed Eva at the fence. Eva lifted her hand in response and continued on her way home.
AFTER DINNER THE next evening, Eva sat at the table in the living room with her book. Her mother fussed in the kitchen, making a cup of tea. ‘Do you want another piece of cake?’
Eva didn’t answer, keeping her eyes on the lines of her book.
‘Well I’m going to have some. I need to rest my feet.’ She sank into the chair across the table from Eva, sipping her tea.
Eva looked at the words, not reading them.
‘How did the social go last night, love?’
Hot with shame, Eva smacked the book onto the table. It skidded and knocked over the vase of irises. Flowers and water spilled onto the carpet. Startled, she glanced at her mother’s face and felt a pang when she saw not the familiar, enduring expression, but something hurt.
Eva rushed into the night, banging the screen door behind her. When she reached the pool, she unlaced her shoes and scaled the fence. She peeled off clothes as she strode towards the water. The fish, sensing her presence, rose to the surface, thousands of mouths opening for air and food.
Eva dived into them, the water’s coldness knocking the breath left in her lungs. She trod water, gasping, while flanks and fins rippled against her body. When she began to swim laps, the fish writhed against her, their tiny kisses touching her skin until it came again, that sudden unspooling of pleasure.
ONE LUNCHTIME, SHE followed Paula and her friends to the oval to watch the boys play rugby.
It was a boring game and she didn’t know the rules, but David was magnificent. Eva admired the sinew in his legs and the way the muscles appeared and dissolved in his thighs as he ran. His caramel skin flushed into bronze.
She listened to the coarse shouting around her. ‘Come on, Mike! Ya useless bugger! Come on! Go, go Davie!’
The cries reached a crescendo as David scored a try. Eva watched his face shining with elation, how he returned the fierce hugs of his mates before jogging back to his position.
He was foreign to her. She couldn’t speak his language, nor the language of anyone there.
SLEEP BEGAN TO elude her. Often, she waited for a few hours after her parents went to bed, then pulled on her swimmers and crept out through her window. She was never away for long, just enough to climb the fence, swim a kilometre or so and watch the brassy bodies of carp flaring in the dark water.
The sea creatures didn’t appear. Eva wondered if the manta ray was sulking on the floor of her old pool, or if the lobsters, bored, were getting into fights. Without them for company, she thought about David. She imagined standing before him in his bedroom, her body pale and fragile like his girl’s, the ceiling arching above her like a cathedral. He untied her plait, his fingers scraping against the nape of her neck, before moving downwards to nudge that glowing place between her legs.
Occasionally, another orgasm blossomed while she swam. She guessed they came from the pressure on her pelvic muscles as she kicked. Her body was becoming firmer from that kicking. She dropped a dress size and asked her mother for money to buy new clothes.
‘You seem a bit happier, dear,’ her mother said as she handed over some notes. ‘Maybe moving here was better for all of us?’
Eva nodded mutely.
ONE NIGHT, SHE hit the edge of the pool and smelled cigarette smoke. She ducked down, listening to the sound of shoes approaching.
She pressed closer to the wall, calculating if she could glide underwater to the ladder, climb out and scramble over the fence. She still needed to fetch her clothes.
‘Don’t worry, it’s only old Fergo. I’d be doing exactly what you are, if it weren’t so damn cold.’
Cautiously, Eva lifted her head. Mrs Ferguson sat down heavily on a starting block, her breasts swinging beneath her jumper. ‘I used to swim like you. That poster in the office, that’s me.’ She gestured behind her with the cigarette. ‘I wanted to become a champ. Got as far as the nationals, then fell in love. They didn’t let mothers be swimmers, back then. Though they hardly do now, I guess.’
She stubbed the cigarette out on the cement and looked directly at Eva. ‘What brings you to a freezing pool in winter, Eva? You want to be a champion?’
Eva didn’t dare mention the manta ray and walrus. ‘I feel strange everywhere, except in the water.’
‘I see.’ Mrs Ferguson picked up the butt and put it in her pocket. ‘Anyway, I came to tell you that I have to get the carp out and fill the pool again. Squad training starts in a fortnight. Why don’t you join?’
Eva turned the thought over carefully in her head. It would be a way to meet people, even if she could never work out what to say to them. That would make her mother happy, and she’d be able to keep swimming. ‘I guess I can try.’
‘Good girl. Now you’d better get out. Your skin’s purple.’
EVA WAS SHOCKED to find out that David was on the training team. Reluctantly, she left her towel in the stands, walked to the blocks and did her best to concentrate on the coach. She soon found, by following his directions, that her rhythm and speed improved. The water, rather than resisting her body, carried it along.
Covertly, she watched David on the pale blue blocks, swinging his arms before tensing into a triangular shape, fingers touching his toes. He sprang into the water and streaked through the pool, his long body rippling like an eel. She always took care to turn away before he surfaced.
Weeks passed. Eva loved the new strength in her arms, the straightness of her spine as her muscles gathered round and supported it. She took to wrapping a towel around her waist to show off her shoulders and breasts. Soon she was streaking ahead. The coach waved his stopwatch in admiration as she clung, heaving for air, to the edge of the pool. ‘You’ll smash the district races for sure, Eva.’
Eva beamed. She bobbed in the water while her breathing returned to normal. The rest of the squad pulled themselves out.
‘Want to race?’
She turned her head and met David’s brown eyes. Something jolted inside her. ‘Okay.’
‘Hey, Tommo!’ David called to another boy on the team. ‘Time us, would ya?’
Tommo found a stopwatch in a tangle of towels, then stood before the blocks.
‘Go!’ he shouted.
Eva dived down, surfacing halfway along the pool. Though her lungs seared, she matched David stroke for stroke, just so that she could keep his body next to hers.
When she hit the wall at the end, her vision was fuzzy and she realised David was coming up behind her. She tilted her head back to clear the stars in her eyes. When things were clear, she found Tommo and the rest of the team staring at her.
‘You’re a freak,’ David spat. He climbed from the pool and the squad dispersed.
Eva hung over the lane divider, limp, unsure of what she had heard.
‘You all right?’
Blearily, she looked up again. It was Mrs Ferguson.
‘Here’s your towel.’
Eva swam to the side of the pool, her arms trembling as she pulled herself up the ladder. She took the towel.
‘Come and have a cuppa.’
As well as trophies, Mrs Ferguson’s office was littered with spiral-bound books, receipt pads and discarded pairs of goggles. She switched on a plastic kettle plugged into the wall and took milk from a bar fridge.
‘Have a seat.’
Eva cleared some papers from a plastic chair. ‘I think he called me a freak.’
‘I wouldn’t put it past him. No man likes to lose.’
She handed Eva the mug of tea.
Eva gestured to the trophies. ‘Are they all yours?’
‘Yep. There should have been more.’
‘Where are your kids now?’
‘Just the one. Other side of the country. Rings once a year, at Christmas.’
‘Oh.’ The tea was milky, warm and sweet. ‘Do you miss it?’
‘Yeah, I do. It wasn’t all glory – lap after lap, six hours a day sometimes – but you’d reach this state, like you weren’t a body, you were part of the water. It was you and you were it. Impossible to keep away.’
Mrs Ferguson’s eyes were bright, making her face look younger. Eva wrapped her foot around the leg of the hard plastic chair and looked at the poster. Mrs Ferguson’s shoulders were broad, her arms long and muscular, her eyes set on something in the distance. Eva dropped her gaze to the older woman. The ballast of her body and big arms, her swimming talk and the faint smell of chlorine, it was comforting, she thought.
‘I got a decent whack of cash for the fish,’ Mrs Ferguson continued. ‘I’m putting it in an account.’
‘You. If you want to be a professional, you’ll need money. Lessons, travel, insurance. Income while you’re training, because you won’t have a job.’
‘Or I could blow it on the pokies.’
‘No!’ Eva put down her cup. ‘Are you serious?’
‘About the pokies?’
‘About helping me to swim.’
‘You just beat the senior district champion and you weren’t even fresh. I’m dead serious, Eva.’
DAVID’S PARENTS WERE away, he’d said. The backyard was crammed with people, some gathered around a fire in a forty-four gallon drum. Fairy lights hung from the Hills Hoist and music belted from a stereo parked on a chair. Eva wandered among the crowd, sipping her thick, bitter beer. Although she knew people from the squad team, and Paula and her friends, she couldn’t think of what to say to them.
She headed inside to the kitchen, hoping it would be less crowded. The clock above the fridge read 9 pm. She had at least an hour to kill before she could go home and tell her mother that she’d enjoyed herself. She leaned against a cupboard. People milled around her, talking about football, movies and music.
She straightened when David entered the room, a bag of ice over his shoulder. He slung it into the sink, breaking the plastic open. A mate came behind him, his arms full of beer bottles, which he shoved into the ice. As if he’d known she was there all along, David grabbed a bottle and leaned against the cupboard next to her.
‘Having a good time?’ he asked.
‘Look, I’m sorry about what I said in the pool. You’re a good swimmer, Eva. A really good swimmer.’
He dropped his hand next to hers. The back of it grazed her fingers and adrenalin burst through her body as though a starter gun had fired. Overwhelmed, she turned her face away.
‘Come out the front for some air.’
She followed him into the garden. Someone was vomiting in the oleander bushes beside the kerb. Eva peered through the darkness, concerned, but David grabbed her arm, pulled her close and kissed her. She drew back, alarmed. ‘Don’t you have someone?’
‘That girl with curly hair.’
Eva let her beer bottle drop onto the grass and ran her hands up and down the contours of David’s arms, the arch of his back and his hard buttocks. He kissed her again, pushing his tongue into her mouth so far she could hardly breathe.
‘Dave-eey.’ A slight figure ran onto the front path. ‘Davey, what are you–?’
Eva tried to draw away but he held her tightly.
‘Davey? Who’s that with you?’
‘Let me go!’ Eva hissed. His hands tightened. In fury, she shoved David’s chest with all her strength. He stumbled and fell backwards. Eva took off into the street, her body so hot she could only think of getting into the pool.
When she reached the fence, though, she found someone already there. Mrs Ferguson ploughed up and down the lanes, stately and strong. Beside her swam the walrus, moving surprisingly fast for a creature of so much bulk. When they slowed and stopped, Mrs Ferguson scratched the walrus’s bristly back.
Eva hooked her hands into the wire fence above her, contemplating the ridges of muscle on her arms. Her body was powerful and the sea creatures would take her to the places she needed to go.
HER MOTHER WAS still up when she opened the door to the boxy house. ‘You’re home early, darling. Did you have a nice time?’
‘No, Mum, it was terrible. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be sociable anymore and I’m not going to another fucking party. I just want to swim.’
‘I want to be a champion, Mum. Mrs Ferguson says she’ll help me.’
Her mother was frowning, but her forehead suddenly smoothed. ‘Is that what you’ve been doing?’
In one swift motion, Eva’s mother marked her place in her book, stood and embraced her. ‘If swimming makes you happy, then that’s what you must do.’
Eva kissed her mother’s cheek with relief, and went to her room. Before the mirror, she removed her clothes. Her breasts were smaller. Below her bra were the clear corrugations of her ribs. Her legs were firm and her hipbones stood out sharply. Her skin was almost translucent, showing blue veins at her wrists and ankles, but her back and legs were tanned.
The next day she would get up early and take her body into the pool and swim hard. She would dive with the parrotfish, enjoying their nips, and watch the diamond shape of the manta ray beside her. She would swim with promise of that rapture unfurling, becoming mythical, becoming real.