The Swimming Lesson by Sarah Wallis

‘This is nice,’ said Sharon, ‘thank you for making this a memorable anniversary picnic, one that you actually attend instead of it being just me and the kids. I know it took a lot for you to miss the big match. And I also would like to let you know it doesn’t mean you will have to miss every match. Just because it always lands on our anniversary.’

‘Thanks love,’ said Bill.

‘Well, I know how Sim worries about this sort of thing,’ she said with a grin. ‘Need to get you out from under the thumb of the team captain!’

‘Yeah, and back under Mum’s thumb, where you belong!’ said Toby, their eldest.

‘I knew it was a mistake having three of them, you do realise, Sharon, in a couple of years when Toby has taught Steven all he knows we’ll be hopelessly outnumbered?’ Bill shook his head. ‘Imagine us never thinking of that!’

‘Bit late now,’ said Toby, as he grinned and ran for it, tossing the ball to his sister, Leila. She shook her head at him and frowned, it was not funny to challenge their parents. Especially not when she was wanting a new pair of party shoes. But she threw the ball back to her brother wishing the youngest, Steven, would hurry up and be old enough to play instead of her. This was a picnic, wasn’t it? And however lame that was, it was definitely supposed to be a sedate activity.

Leila pretended to read her book but watched Toby as he zoomed across the muddy riverbank to retrieve the ball, tumbling over itself to get to the river, so she was the only one that saw Toby’s feet starting to slide. Her eyes widened as she saw the danger. She yelled for Bill. Not Dad, Bill.

Sharon was just pouring the wine when they heard the terrified girl.

They leapt to their feet and were running, leaving their youngest still kicking his heels up on the picnic blanket. Leila was running too, towards them and pointing behind her to the water. They needed help.

‘He’s in the river!’ shouted Leila.

‘Toby!’ screamed Sharon. Bill was hauling his jeans off and about to jump in when Sharon flung her arms around him to stop him. ‘No way! I’m not losing you too,’ she yelled. ‘That water…’

‘Mum!’ yelled Toby from the water. ‘Help me! Help! Mum! Dad! Please!’

‘I have to, love, he’s our son,’ said Bill wrenching himself free of his wife’s arms, ‘Phone for help!’ and then he was diving in, a huge horrible splash into the the water carrying all sorts of danger, felled branches, shopping trolleys and the everyday detritus of the city. Soda cans, lunch wraps, plastic bags. Sharon fell to her knees and looked into the face of her daughter with utter misery. You can’t just give up like that, Leila tried to say, but the words stuck in her throat as behind them she caught hold of another thought. A thought that forced her to stare at her mother in utter horror. Safe as they were up on the riverbank, the daughter realised that if she too were in mortal danger, her own mother would ask her father to abandon her. Much as she cared for her older brother and hoped he wouldn’t drown today, she also realised the basic human condition in that moment as it applied to herself.

She was alone.

Sharon went to get Steven, picked him up and blew a raspberry on his tummy, he giggled and his face was transformed with love for his adored mother. The one person whom he believed would never abandon him. Leila looked at her mother playing with Steven and thought, you hypocrite.

‘Steven needs changing, I’d better take him home,’ she said. Leila nodded, too numb to say what was on her mind. And anyway, if Steven needed changing, that was what had to happen. Everyone knew that. He was a baby; he didn’t know what was going on. His needs came first.

Quietly they left. As if they knew what they were doing was wrong but couldn’t stop themselves and didn’t want to stop themselves. And anyway, Steven was a baby and he needed changing, that was what mattered. As they drove away from the picnic site they grew more cheerful and even put some music on. They sang along and then quietened down as the familiar streets drew near. Soon they would be pulling into the driveway. Then they would be going into the house. A house for five that would now be a house for three. Before they opened the car doors and got Steven out, because the baby urgently needed changing now, Leila put a hand on her mother’s arm.

‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ said Leila.

‘Oh love!’ said her mother, as if nothing in the world was, or could be, wrong.

‘But… you were right Mum, you were absolutely right,’ said Leila.

‘About what?’ she said, and opened the door. She sang to Steven as she unbuckled him, carrying him inside the house, in her arms, she was just going to change the baby, because that is what needed to happen next.


Sarah Wallis is a poet and playwright based in Leeds, UK. 2018 publications include Reflex Fiction, the MIND Poetry Project – Please Can You Hear What I’m Not Saying and 50 Best British and Irish Poets from Eyewear Books due out in May.

Image: 44 Degrees North