Swimming Lessons

Claire Fuller

February 7, 2017 
The following is from Claire Fuller’s novel, Swimming Lessons. Fuller's first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days was published in the UK by Fig Tree / Penguin, by House of Anansi in Canada, and Tin House in the US. It won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. Her short stories have been published in many literary journals and shortlisted in prizes. She lives in Winchester, England with her husband and has two grown-up children.

The Swimming Pavilion, 5th June 1992, 4:20 AM

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Dear Gil,

Yesterday afternoon I decided to do some clearing. I went through the wardrobes and the chest of drawers in the girls’ room to collect clothes they’d outgrown. On Flora’s side, I found your old dressing gown, a formal shirt you’d spilled red wine over, which I thought had been thrown away, and that pair of reading glasses that went missing about a year ago. When Flora came in and saw me, she clutched the things to her, saying I was throwing away her “hair-looms.” We fought and I slapped her calf hard enough to leave the red print of my fingers on her skin. She didn’t cry; instead her face became stony, an expression I recognised in myself, and she strode outside. I was the one who ran to my room and wept into my pillow. Later, I turned out that suitcase of old papers kept under the bed. I was meant to be sorting, but each out-of-date passport, hand-drawn Mother’s Day card, and photo delayed me. They gave an impression of the perfect family: picnics on the beach, children digging in their flower patch, doting parents—like a photograph album flicked through by a distant relative, oohing and aahing at the happy times without knowing about the hundreds of pictures that had been discarded.

And then, at the bottom of the suitcase, your letter.

I sat on the floor with everything spread around me and imagined you all those years ago in your writing room at the end of the scrubby, gorse-filled field you called the garden, bashing out the letter on your typewriter. You might have been wearing those old shorts you loved so much and flip-flops with sand between your toes, and your hair standing stiff from the salt water after a swim. I reread the letter and felt again the presumptuousness that you could write about love when we hadn’t declared it, the absurdity of mapping out our whole lives when we’d only just met, the shock of you mentioning ageing when I wasn’t ever going to grow old, and laughing at how wrong you were about children. And I remembered too my secret pleasure that you’d chosen me. I was twenty then, a different woman from the one I am now.

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I read that letter so many times, wondering what you hoped your reader’s reaction would be. Rereading it yesterday made me cry for when we were starting out, before I’d come to this house, and because nothing turned out like you said it would. Well, maybe one thing—perhaps I shouldn’t have laughed so readily at the idea of children.

Flora came in while I was sitting on the floor.

“Don’t be sad, Mummy,” she said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

I love who we were then and who we might have become.


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Spanish Green, Dorset, June 1976


If I could, I would turn our love on its head: we would get the anger, the guilt, the blame, the disappointment, the irritation, the workaday, and the humdrum over and done with first. We would have everything to look forward to.

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At the bitter beginning, when I am old and many parts of me don’t work like they used to and other bits have fallen off, you will return. You, so much wiser, will make me wait a long time. Years, perhaps, or maybe even until I’m dead.

After that you will leave. My friends will not be surprised. In public I will be vitriolic; I will get drunk, vomit on the front of my suit, and fall over in the street, but in the privacy of my bed I will let the tears fall down my moth-eaten face.

But you too, Ingrid, will be old: your corn hair blanching to silver, the backs of your hands livered, your skin looser yet more beautiful. In the decade after you leave me, you will insist we switch off the bedroom light before we undress, and when, accidentally, you see me naked, you will sigh and wonder why you hadn’t taken a younger man; one who still had flesh on his backside.

A year after that, you will move out for a week to your sister’s, telling tales of pissing in the nettles at the bottom of the garden, too many books, and toothpaste smeared around the end of the tap where I have sucked the water from it. You will complain that I drink too much and don’t write enough. Your sister will agree about what a shit I am and that you deserve better. Neither of you will speak to me for months. (Tell me, do you have a sister?)

Five years later I will try, and fail, to mend the hole in the Swimming Pavilion’s roof and you will refuse to hold the ladder because you have better things to do. You will ask our neighbour’s thirty-four-year-old son to nail on a new corrugated sheet, and as you hold tight to his ladder, you will look up with regret and thoughts of the different life you could have had in the city. In the evening we will shout at each other; one of us will slam doors.

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In our middle years, we will travel together: I will take you to Emerald Lake in July and hire a boat so you can trail your hand in the water, stirring the blue mountains that pass beneath us. You’ll hum a tune about the lakes of Canada and I’ll put down the oars so I can kiss you; we will hire bikes and cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge on a cloudy day, and the next morning our faces will be pink with sunburn; we’ll travel through Turkey by public transport, standing on the buses and ducking like locals when the driver shouts, “Police!”; in Sweden we will slip duty-free gin into glasses of tonic that we’ve bought in a bar and discuss our children, all six of them.

We will drive up to London for the launch. As we grow younger, I will write a successful novel and dedicate it to you. I will sit at my window and type, happy to see you stroll to the sea for an afternoon swim. When you return, we’ll take armfuls of books out to the unmown lawn and lie on a blanket with them spread about us. We will read to each other and watch the gulls wheeling above. If we are shat upon, you will teach me to swear in Norwegian.

Then one day I will borrow a more sensible car than the one I own now and arrive outside your room in London at five in the morning. I will toot the horn with excitement until you put your sleepy head out of the window above me and we will both laugh, and I will be full of desire for you. We will pack my sensible car with your belongings: your grandmother’s velvet chair, a box of diaries, and suitcases of clothes that you won’t need when you live beside the sea.

After you come to live with me, we will go to the supermarket and I will press you up against the black-currant jam shelf in the preserves aisle and kiss you full on the mouth so that old ladies smile at us, remembering. You will beat me at Monopoly and I will lose my temper and hide the Mayfair card between the sofa cushions. We will take a picnic to the nudist beach and stay there until the sun goes down, and when the sea is lit by the moon we will make love on the sand.

The last time you come to my house it will be stormy and the noise of the rain drumming on the tin roof will be so loud we will have to shout to make ourselves heard. There will be a power cut like there often is here, and we will light candles and I will hold your face in my hands and kiss you again, and when I lead you to my bedroom we will know that everything is as it should be and that we will always feel this way.

Near the end, I will say that I want you to see my house beside the sea, and the next day I will drive us and both of us will know what will happen after we have had dinner. We will cook eggs and bacon and move around my kitchen as if we have been choreographed, and we will eat at the table amongst the books.

The day after that, I will take you to lunch on Candover Street for hot salt beef and a warm beer. I will walk you home and we will kiss for the last time at your front door, on the street where anyone can see, but neither of us will care. Your lips will taste of mustard and cloves.

I will write you a letter.



[Both letters placed together in Prophecy—What Lies Ahead by Oswald J. Smith, 1943]



From SWIMMING LESSONS.  Used with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2017 by Claire Fuller.

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