by Sarah Hills
first coffee of the day
How did I get here? How am I, Mrs Elizabeth Steadman, at this chilly lakeside, swimming costume in a plastic bag like a child at primary school, pretending I am here to get in the water? As if I would even put my feet into that soil-stained water? As if I am 9, not 59 years old, and I still have a heart called Petra.
When I was a small child, my heart became a kind of pet for me. I imagined this half wild, half-tamed fur creature burrowed into my chest, peeking out at the huge world. She was my invisible friend. I was Beth Morris in those days, and I called her Petra, after a dog on a children’s TV show. I invited her to eat small snacks beside my plate at mealtimes, introduced her to people, placed a cushion beside my pillow at night for her. It was a phase that did not pass over as the usual phases of a young child. I grew older, adapted more to convention and no longer announced her to the dinner table. Nonetheless, Petra went everywhere with me.
The things I liked, Petra liked; spring and autumn, walking on clear days with the wind blowing in our faces, bird-watching, being by the sea, parties, presents, the summer sun when it lay like a sheen over everything. As I grew up, I liked to find new things to show Petra, to check out with her – do we enjoy this? Shall we do this? She loved dancing and people who made her laugh, reading books, making things.
I watch myself, a caricature of a middle-aged woman, grey-haired, practical cagul, sensible shoes, large tummy and rounded back, shaking the hands of Duncan and Trish, both comfortingly substantial people. There is a group already swimming round pink and orange buoys bobbing in the black water. I am impossibly outside. The lake itself is implausible. I remember when this was a quarry and a slag heap, places to be avoided. Now, somehow, it is a wetland reserve and a lake to swim in. A future where I will get into that lake is a matter of science fiction.
“I’ve never swum outside.” I begin. “In England, I mean. This isn’t for me. It was the doctor’s idea.”
About the author
Trish smiles. “It’s not deep on this side.” Her plump hands shaking each other encouragingly across her stomach. “You don’t have to swim at all. We have people who come just to walk up and down the far side, for the water resistance training.”
She has misunderstood me. But before I can say anything further, Duncan, with the enthusiasm and exuberance of a puppy, despite his balding head and beer belly, is ushering me into a small prefab and showing me changing cubicles and piles of towels. There are rows of thermos flasks and trays of homemade brownies. For after.
“What have you got to lose?” Duncan says. He holds out a large orange towel. Petra liked orange.
The rough dry material scrapes against my palms releasing memories of swimming lessons as a child, swims with my own children, the feel-good sensation of getting dry after swimming. I let myself be bullied gently into changing.
Pulling on my swimming costume feels like dragging on one of those old diving suits. The ones with great round metal and glass bowls over the head. I cling to the towel round my shoulders and follow Trish out. More like a cow to the abattoir than a patient trying therapy.
The air alone is an affront to my bare skin. What am I doing? Where is the sticking place I can dig my heels in to and say, no way, not me? I count ten people doing laps on the circuit. The water is black, edged by reed beds full of sharp stalks. The sky is heavy with grey clouds.
“Now. It’s best to wear these.” Trish is holding up a pair of fabric slip-on shoes with rubbery soles. “So you don’t slip, cos the bottom is mud, see?”
She is talking to me as if I am a child. She must be a primary school teacher. No. A dinner lady. Kindly, but no nonsense. You get what you are given.
I put on the slippers. Trish takes my hand, guides me forward till my toes are almost in the water. Duncan hovers to one side. He is wearing wet suit shorts and a huge T-shirt with ‘Wild swimmers do it in the Cold’ written across it.
When I met Robin Steadman, Petra loved him, with his wild mane of black hair and his serious politics. She loved his romance, his proposal. She was wild with joy when we married and moved in with him. Petra was there when our children were born. I became Mrs Elizabeth Steadman as Robin’s career in IT took off and we entertained his clients and colleagues. Everyone called me Mrs Steadman, or Elizabeth. I was particularly good at making pavlova.
Life got busy. Children. Work. Robin and I, we were good at life’s administration. We were good at paying bills and making sure the kids got everything. We were good at making sure our house looked like it should, glossy and neat. It all worked like clockwork once we got the hang of it.
I do not know when I lost Petra. I remember thinking, one summer holiday in Greece, on a day so hot for once we could all only sit and be silent, that it must be OK; that Petra and I must have become one. I remember smiling to myself, because of course we had always been just one and it was crazy for me to keep thinking of my heart as a creature in her own right. A childish phase that I had somehow hung on to.
“Now, Elizabeth. Just take one step at a time.” Trish could be encouraging a first day child into the playground. She has taken one of my hands and is looking at my feet intently. As if stepping off the shore is like stepping on to a thin, thin line and, if she is not careful, I might fall.
I am already falling. I think. I have been falling for years.
I take a step forward, up to my ankles.
The water is freezing. I gasp and something blasphemous is forced out between my lips.
Duncan grins. “Cold, isn’t it?” He backs into the lake. “I find it best to take a few steps before you can think about it.” He’s up to his knees, shins showing white through the water, knees above bright red.
Trish frowns at him. “At your own speed, dear.” She says to me. “There’s no rush.”
The swimming group come past us. I fear I will know someone, but they are all strangers. They call out to me. I can tell they think immersing one’s whole body in ice is just one short step to happiness, jollity, even world peace.
I step after them and now I am knee deep. My feet hurt with the ice chill. My teeth chatter with the breeze coming across the lake.
“I can’t do it.”
Trish squeezes my hand. “You are doing so well. Really. It takes some people two goes to get to their knees.”
“It’s too cold.”
Duncan flings out a fist in front of me, turns it up, opens his fingers and there is a jelly baby. “Sugar hit.”
I look at him, but there’s no hint of laughter here.
“Sugar hit.” He repeats. “Helps to distracts you.”
Someone calls out: “It took me a whole packet first time.”
Duncan winks and brings out a packet he has been hiding behind his back. “I come prepared.”
The next time I looked for her, Petra was dead. It was after the youngest child left home. There were evenings long as days and Robin was always at work. One day, sitting on the sofa watching re-runs of old films and eating chocolate, I realised the truth: Petra had died, and there was a dense, impacted weight in my chest.
Soon after that, it turned out that Robin was not at work after all. He and his new partner, Marielle – so bright, so adventurous, so French, so young – cut their ties (his ties) and bought backpacks, a flat in Paris. I kept the house. The children were pleased about that. It is good for holidays, for them.
I lost my part time job when I stopped turning up. That was six months ago. Recently, I realised that I had not left the house for a month; not spoken to a single person face to face.
I am not stupid, I can read the signs, so I went to the doctors. A busy, competent woman doctor diagnosed depression. Not surprising, she said, in the circumstances. She was kind but not sympathetic. The surgery was conducting a new trial, she explained, treating depression by activities rather than drugs. She showed me a list; group walking sessions at the local park; gym sessions at the sports centre; wild swimming. Then she hesitated and said that, unfortunately, only wild swimming was available.
I took the leaflet about it and went home. At first, the thought of water adding to the weight in my chest put me off. But then I realised water would not actually get into my chest and, obviously, there was not really a dead animal in place of my heart. I wondered if I should have told the doctor about Petra, if this would have counted as a delusion, and whether I would have been sectioned for my own safety. Then I wondered whether this thought was not just self-aggrandisement, and I was just over dramatising. A normal person would just get this all into perspective. I was stupid after all.
I have not had a jelly baby since the kids were kids. The sweet dissolves in my mouth as I take two more steps. I hold out my hand and Duncan places another sweet in my palm. Three sweets later, I am up to my middle.
Trish has let go my hand and is patting her shoulders with water. “It helps me prepare for the last bit.”
I cannot do it. I gaze round: Grey clouds layer above, while black water like liquid night stretches away to the reed beds. The peaty smell reminds me of rotting autumn leaves.
Someone calls out “Heron!”
At the end of the lake, a grey sliver unfolds from another dimension huge wings and moves up into the sky. The bird crosses in front of me; a silent geometry of flight before swooping down beyond the reeds. Petra loved herons. I take a step towards it and another.
The mud disappears under my feet, I drop into the lake like the lump that I am. Freezing black wipes out all sensation: No breathing. No hearing. No seeing. I do not know which way is up. Fear and panic burst through me. I kick my legs out and meet nothing. I thrash my arms and feel the drag of the water.
In my chest, that deadweight rolls over. Petra gets to her feet, shakes herself in the cold biting blackness. I stop struggling, suspended in the darkness, my heart is thudding, great drumming beats. Petra looks up, I look up and the water is lighter above me.
Three strokes bring me to the surface. Hands grab mine and Duncan’s bulk heaves me back onto mud. I can hear myself spluttering. I can hear Trish apologising.
“You can go straight in and dry off.” Trish is saying. “That’s quite alright.”
“Now let’s hold on.” says Duncan. “Let Elizabeth get her breath.”
I’m colder above the water than below. I bend my knees to get my shoulders back under, push my wet hair back out of my eyes, Petra still moving about in my chest, making room for herself.
“Beth.” I say. “Call me Beth.”
I look at the expanse of the lake rippling under the open sky with the wind passing over it, the trees at the far end coming into the fresh green of spring. “I think I’d be ok to swim a bit.” I say.