Learning to Swim

Fiction by Eamonn McKeon

They had just arrived back at the apartment. Roy was relieved to be inside, away from the heat. Harry was straightening the dining table chairs and looking around the room.

“One more time,” Roy said. “If it happens one more time, that will be it.”

Harry did not appear to be listening. That was what he did, Roy had noticed: he made himself look vacant, disengaged. It was a skill Roy envied.

Roy stood still, following Harry with his eyes. “I’m serious.”

“Alright,” Harry said. “Ok.” He strolled over to the balcony doors and opened the curtains. The sun rushed in through the glass.

Roy shielded his eyes. “Do you have to?” he said.

“We’re on holiday,” Harry said, opening the doors and stepping out onto the balcony. “Fun in the sun.”

The rhyme echoed in Roy’s mind.  

He rolled his shoulders and grimaced. He wasn’t injured, exactly, but a dull ache was coursing through his body, making cement out of his bones. It was probably from all the swimming Harry made him do yesterday. Or the heat. The heat was like a physical weight.

“Exactly,” Roy said. “We’re on holiday. We shouldn’t have to deal with this sort of thing.”

But Harry was in his own world, rummaging through a canvas bag and humming to himself. He was wearing his dreamy, unphased smile; and there was a kind of petulance to it that made Roy amused and in love and enraged all at once.

He breathed in and gave himself a few seconds to think clearly. They were in Spain, their first holiday, and it was beautiful; the jumble of buildings and meandering streets and patches of greenery sat below the blue sky, and in the far distance the mountains stood watch, like great, grey, overseeing parents. Slivered between the facades of apartment complexes was a long line of silverish sea, stretching to the edges of the world.

Beautiful, yes; Roy couldn’t deny that. But not free of danger.

From the canvas bag Harry retrieved a bottle of sun cream. He handed it to Roy. “You may as well use the rest of this one,” he said.

Roy stared at the bottle absently. It was sticky and misshaped.

He stood at the threshold before the balcony and squinted. Far out in the sky, the sun was poised like a threat. Harry stood at the balcony’s edge, eyes closed, spraying himself with his own lotion; his shadow spread against the beige tiled floor and just about touched Roy’s pale feet.

“I didn’t think we’d get it over here,” Roy said. “I looked on Reddit. People said that Spain was friendly.”

 Harry lathered the lotion on his arms. “It’s not like he shouted at us. We’ve had far worse back home.”

“Oh, come on. He did the thing with his hand. He may as well have called you a poof.”

Harry turned around. “He could have been addressing you.”

Roy sniggered and inhaled slowly. Harry pointed to the lotion. “Come on, snowman,” he said. “We’ve been here one day and your nose is already red. Is your name Roy or Rudolph?”

“Please don’t baby me,” Roy said.

Harry started to sing the song.

“I’m just saying,” Roy said. “You don’t seem to care.”

“I care,” Harry said, flicking a speck of cream off his shoulder.

“If it happens one more time-”

“You’ll kill someone.” Harry’s voice was suddenly flat, his expression at once detached and intense. His eyes were fixed on Roy. “You’ll break someone’s jaw. I get it.”

A soft breeze gathered. The palm trees on the street below seemed to whisper, the branches slipping like flicked pages. Then everything was still and silent once more and the heat raged as if upset that it had been interrupted.

Roy looked down at his feet. They were like a child’s feet, ridiculous how white and soft they looked against the bristling, muscled legs. “That’s fine,” he said, quietly. “Take the piss. You don’t care.”

Harry put the spray down on the table. “So the only way for me to show that I care is to get angry?”

Roy stared at the table, as if in deep thought about something else.

“Look,” Harry said. “I’m sorry that it happened. But what do you expect? A safe space?”

Roy’s lips pulled tight against his teeth. “I do not need a safe space,” he said, squeezing the bottle in his hands. He detested the expression.

“Good. Because you won’t get one. Where’s safe? You know where the most dangerous place is for kids?”

Roy shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. I’m not a kid.”

“The most dangerous place for a kid is their own home.”

Roy took a seat at the table. He picked up a bottle of cider from the night before and found it was still heavy.

“It’s funny you should say that,” he said. “I remember something my mum said to me. When I told her.”

He held the bottle by its rim and rolled it back and forth between his fingers. The glass was hot. Harry just watched him. Roy’s voice was low and distant. “She said, it was like I’d killed the Roy she knew. The little kid. Imagine — hearing that at seventeen? I felt like a murderer. Like I’d killed a child. I don’t think she remembers saying it. I think she’d say I was lying if I brought it up now.”

Roy brought the bottle to his lips. He took a sip. It tasted like one of those hot drinks you have when you’ve got a cold.

He could see Harry trying not to smile. He was trying not to smile himself. But it got to be too much. They both burst out laughing.

“Jesus Christ,” Harry said, pressing his thumbs against his brow. “Talk about heavy.”

“It’s heavy stuff,” Roy said, trying to keep his composure.

“Come on,” Harry said. “Let’s get in the pool.”

The man from yesterday was there. He was sitting at the only table with a parasol. Roy had reserved this table the night before.

The man’s wife was next to him reading a paperback and their little daughter was thrashing about in the shallow end just in front of them.

Roy stopped at the gate. “I don’t believe it,” he said.

“We don’t own those seats,” Harry said.

“I put a towel down.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

The man was reclined in what would have been Roy’s seat. His body was big and doughy, his skin the colour of fried bread. His head, perfectly bald, walnut-shaped, poked out of the parasol’s shade and gleamed under the unremitting sun. “It means something,” Roy said.

“There’s no one else here. We’ve got about six tables to choose from.”

The elderly German couple from yesterday were stationed in the far corner; a middle-aged woman was floating on her back. Otherwise the pool was quiet.

“Are we going in, or are we going to stand here watching like perverts?” Harry pointed at the table next to the bald man’s family. The bald man — somehow Roy knew that it was him and not his wife— had placed their towel on this table. “I guess we know where we’re sitting.”

“He knew that it was our towel. And he sat there anyway.”

Harry closed his eyes.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Roy said.

“My eyes are closed. I’m not looking.”

“Yeah,” Roy said. “You never are. Do you think he’d have done it if we were straight?”

Harry rolled his head back and groaned and pushed his way through the gate. The old metal announced a shrill creak. Roy watched Harry as he walked over to the table. He watched the light, breezy sway of his walk. Then he watched the bald man, who had leant forward now, as if on alert.

The day before, Harry had been teaching Roy how to swim. Harry simply could not understand how a man could get to twenty-eight without learning. For Roy, there was not much to understand: his parents had never taken him for lessons, and it was difficult to find time as an adult. Especially when it involved such humiliation.

The whole time, the bald man had been watching them. His face had been still, his eyes as small and compassionless as a crow’s. His daughter was learning to swim as well, though she had appeared to be teaching herself; this put her in a kind of unspoken competition with Roy, and though she kept away from them, he constantly compared their progress. She was around eight or nine, but there was something shrewd and knowing about her that made her seem older. It was infuriating, watching the grace of her movement, still there even when she lost control. Roy, meanwhile, had never felt so weighty, and he moved through sheer force of will. Harry had told him, over and over, to stop panicking, to be at one with the water. There was no lifeguard at the pool.

By the end, Roy could swim a width, but he had trouble keeping his head above water. He kept seeing the girl’s father in his periphery. His neck would strain with weight; his head would sink downwards. Harry had urged him to keep going, but eventually Roy lost his temper and went inside.

Now Roy made his way over to Harry. He avoided the man’s gaze as he passed. Harry was unfolding the towel. “Jesus, Roy,” he said. “Can you stop with the sulking?”

Roy sat down and kicked off his sandals. Across the pool, the little girl was grinning at him. Her head was teetering above the water, but when Roy turned to face her directly she glided away. She had improved since yesterday.

“Your feet look even whiter today,” Harry said.

“Yes,” Roy said, “It’s not that the rest of me has gotten darker, obviously.”

“Tell me you’ve put cream on them.”

It occurred to Roy that he had covered his whole body except his feet. “Yes,” he said. “I’m not an idiot.” He plotted a way to get back to the apartment.

Harry knelt in front of him, shaking his head. Smiling, he sprayed Roy’s left foot. Then he took Roy’s foot in his hands and began to rub in circular motions with his thumbs, kneading the rough, calloused skin at the base of heel. His fingers were careful and deft; they knew Roy’s feet better than he did. Roy closed his eyes and let it happen. He felt himself loosening.

But the man was watching.

Roy jolted. He kicked his foot free.

“What are you doing?” Harry said.

Roy tried to keep as still and inconspicuous as possible. He barely moved his lips. “Stop doing it,” he said.

“What? I can’t hear you.”


“Stop? Why?” Harry’s voice cut above the gentle ambience like a saw through dry wood.

“Because he’s watching-”

“You’re mumbling. Here. Give me your other foot.” He reached for it but Roy swivelled away. It was then that the man made a noise — short and indistinct, but Roy was convinced it was his way of laughing.

Harry stood up. “I’m trying to look out for you,” he said.

Roy didn’t feel like joining Harry in the pool. He told him that he would come in later. But later came and went. He had closed his eyes to the sound of the water and his mind had wandered. He had thought about the bald man, and the man from earlier in the day. And at some point in the darkness his mind had reeled with all the men and women— not just the ones who had shouted or made a comment or a joke but the ones who had looked, stared, saying everything with their eyes.

He had decided that something needed to be done. He could not share in Harry’s indifference. The bald man would be a good place to start — he could be made an example of. Roy could hurt him.

Somewhere in his violent visions Roy had slipped into a vague half-sleep, and he awoke just before evening. Clouds — the first he had seen since being here — were rolled up in the sky, grey and heavy, and the air smelled like rain. The pool was deserted. Even Harry was gone. Roy sat up, suddenly missing him acutely, desperate for his warm familiar touch. He looked around at the empty tables and the silent street beyond the gate, felt the echoing silence of a public place starved of people. He wondered if he wasn’t at the grips of some heat-induced fever dream.

Then he saw the girl’s head bobbing out of the water. The water was up to her nose, and he could see the bubbles from where she was breathing. He did not know how long she had been watching him.

He sat upright, and a scalding pain shot through his right foot. He looked down. His foot was a dark pink, as if the skin had been sprayed with dye. “Christ,” Roy said, holding the foot out so that it didn’t touch anything. Even the soft breeze made it burn.

The girl pulled herself out of the pool and stood just in front of him, a tiny, dripping silhouette. Roy squinted at her, feeling dizzy and sickish. Trust her parents to leave her alone, he thought. If he were a kidnapper…

“You sun-creamed one foot,” she said, as if reporting the observation to herself.

Roy grimaced. “Yep,” he said, not really noticing her, his concentration fixed on the pink, ugly tragedy before him. The holiday was ruined. He would have to limp around. Maybe he would need a crutch.

“I can swim two widths now,” the girl said. “What about you?”

Roy looked at her. He could feel the corners of his mouth dragging down, his cheeks coarsening. The moon was candling up in the clouds like a blank yellowed iris and flecks of rain were jabbing down from the sky. It was still hot, and his foot was baking.

“I don’t think I could swim at all,” Roy said.

The girl smirked. For a second she looked just like her father, only refined. All the age and weight chipped away; a handsome sculpture.

“I can probably swim a whole length, now,” she said.

“So why don’t you?” Roy had returned his attention to his foot.

“My dad said I can’t go in the deep end.”

Roy glanced at the left side of the pool. It couldn’t have been deeper than eight feet. Then he looked over to where the girl’s parents had been sitting. A hot singe of pain flared once more, and his knuckles clenched. “Well, if he cared that much he’d be watching you.” He leant back in his chair and closed his eyes. The rain was coming down steadily now, and the effect was cooling. “I say do it.” And let him pay the price for whatever happens, Roy thought.

Silence followed. He realised that she was still standing there. It was as if she was waiting for something, but the distant look in her face seemed to register that it would not come.

She approached Roy’s dangling foot. Gently, like somebody handling a small bird, she touched his ankle. She winced through her teeth. “That looks painful,” she said.

Roy studied her. There was real concern in her voice. “It does,” he said. He saw how sombre she looked, how listless and abstracted she had become. Something stirred in him. “You know,” he said, “the doctors are probably going to have to chop it off.”

She stared up at him. She grinned. “No they’re not!”

“They are. If it doesn’t shrivel and fall off first.”

She giggled. Then she turned and peered off at the water. The surface glistened under the moonlight, little specks of light dancing on the small lapping waves.

“Hey,” he said. “Have your parents noticed your swimming? Have they congratulated you?”

She wrinkled up her mouth. “Not really,” she said. “I don’t really think they’re paying attention.”

Roy looked at the girl as if seeing her for the first time. He saw — or perhaps imagined, in the vague semi-dark — that her lips were trembling. He felt the familiar pang: the unstoppable movement of your lips, the horrid dry pain in your throat, as you tried your hardest not to cry in front of an adult.

He stood up. He hopped to the edge of the pool.

“What are you doing?” the girl said.

“Come on,” he said.

She hurried over, her feet slapping against the tiles. “What about your foot?”

“It will heal. And if it doesn’t…” He made a sawing motion with his hands.

The girl giggled. Roy leapt into the pool, and the girl followed.

The water was cool and light. They glided. The girl was fast, as if propelled by the water; every so often she would slide down below the surface with her arms by her side, moving like a song. Sometimes Roy followed her, other times he followed his own course, somehow trusting the water to keep him safe, his limbs lithe and glowing. He knew he was keeping his head above the surface because he could hear himself laughing.

He had no idea how much time had passed but eventually he heard the whine of the gate. The sky was dark and the rain was coming down steadily. Roy looked towards the gate. The girl came up beside him and they both stared at the man, who was standing still, staring back.

“Is that your friend?” the girl asked.

Harry stood there, a giant bottle of water in his hands. He was smiling, even as the rain soaked him. Roy smiled back.

“Yeah,” he said. “You could say that.”

Eamonn McKeon

Eamonn McKeon a writer from Purley, London.