POOL • by John L Malone

We walk up and down in the pool. We talk a lot. She in her lane. Me in mine. Other people swim around us. We exchange pleasantries. Progress to intimacies. I’ve had a heart attack. She’s had breast cancer. She’s in a relationship. I’m not. We both have grandkids.

Up and down. Twenty five meters each way. Forty minutes walking. Twenty swimming. She does backstroke. I do freestyle. After three Sundays of this I realize we don’t even know each other’s names. She’s Joanne. I’m John. There’s a certain symmetry in that.

I would like to ask her out. But would she like to be asked out?

The next Sunday she opens up. It’s her third marriage. She’s submissive. he’s domineering. He’s a computer programmer. She’s an artist. A painter and sculptor. There’s no symmetry there. I tell her I’m a poet. She tells me she’s also an illustrator. She has a studio. I have a work room. She likes fish. I like fish. We are both victims of fish restaurants of long standing and prestige which have suddenly closed down. I feel our souls merge a little closer.

Yet all week I do not think of her. I wonder if she thinks of me. I wonder if her husband knows.

The next week she’s not there. I swim a whole lot more. I walk too, much more emphatically bulldozing my way through the water. I even race other swimmers in adjoining lanes — I’m in the Slow Lane — and for a lap or two I hold a thin lead but then I stop and they power on for lap after lap after lap. I wonder where she is.

I wonder should I phone her. I have her number. She has mine.

I go home, grab the slip of paper she gave me and punch in the numbers. But I hang up before anyone answers. What if it’s him? What do I say? I’ll be patient. I can wait.

The next Sunday it’s cold and frosty. I get up anyway and drive to the pool. I open the door and walk into a fog. The pool of course is heated and the condensation thick. It’s eerie, spooky, the perfect place for a ghost story. Have any, I wonder, ever been set in a pool? I can’t see to the other end. I can’t even see more than a few meters in front of me. I allow my eyes to adjust a little and slide into the water. Will she come?

Then the door opens. A woman enters. It looks like Joanne. When she strips down to her full length black bathing costume, I know that it is. She is slow and methodical. She smiles at me. I smile back. She has olive eyes. I have blue. She slides into the pool. We slip easily into conversation. She tells me where she was last week. A bad cold. I fill her in with what I did which isn’t much. My daughter wonders how we find so  much to talk about when we see each other practically every week. It’s funny, I say, but I’ve only spoken to her in the water. When we get out it’s too cold to hang around. She heads off to her change room and I head off to mine. Anyhow, we walk up and down. We talk a lot, she in her lane, me in mine. The mist slowly lifts.

The door to the pool opens and opens again. A train of swimmers come in. Where do they all come from? They fill up the three swimming lanes. I feel swamped. I move in, for the first time, to her lane. I am careful not to touch her.

She tells me about her blind cat. I tell her about my elderly dog, how she has cancer of the stomach and will probably have to be put down. In the meantime I am her nursemaid. Animals are so demanding, she says. Yes, they are. They are like children, I say. Or like elderly parents, she adds. She lost her mother a few years ago. She was eighty-seven. I lost mine a few years before that. She was eighty-seven too. More symmetry. I’m going to have to ask her out.

As we are about to get out, we hesitate and without saying anything we sit like children on the steps, half in and half out of the water. We sure cover a lot of topics, I say. We sure do, she smiles. We chuckle a lot over the littlest things. Once she made a wisecrack and I BURST OUT LAUGHING,  my dentures almost popping out of my mouth. It didn’t seem to faze her. You can get away with anything in the water. Still, I’m not sure whether to ask her out or not.

I take the plunge. What are you up to, this afternoon? I ask. Not much, she says. How about we meet up for coffee? I venture. I suggest a café half way between her place and mine.

I tell my daughter. She is hopeful that I may be in a real relationship at last. You’ve been on your own too long, she says.

I drive to the esplanade where the café is. I walk up and down. Then she appears. She looks a little different all dressed up. I’ve only seen her in her bathers. We order a coffee. She sits down. I sit down. We look at each other. We are two fish out of water. Neither of us knows what to say to each other.

John L Malone is recently retired. He has had five textbooks published and over 160 children’s poems, but has only recently turned to short story writing — with four short stories so far published.

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  • Nick

    Liked this a lot. Great economy and precision. This story shows how it’s the stuff in the spaces that does all the illumination. Not to be picky, but shouldn’t the last line contain “knows” rather than “know”? (Sorry, that is picky.)

  • I like this story of older wooing very much John. It’s like young love, but with the tone cooled a little, and with much more knowledge of what and how things may switch off if the wrong thing is said or done.
    The metaphor of fish out of water is perfect!

  • Being a swimmer made this story extra-memorable. I must admit, I was expecting the MC at the end to say, ‘I almost didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.’

    If I may also be a bit picky, ‘We sure do, she smiles’ is not correct since ‘smile’ is not a speaking word.

    That said, the well-written, understated style of this story was great.

  • You’re absolutely right, Nick — I should have spotted that — it has now been fixed. (We’re always glad when someone catches something we’ve missed, but it’s even better if you use our contact form to let us know unobtrusively, so these things don’t clog up the comment thread.)

  • Joanne

    I enjoyed this very much. Wonderful writing style. The author, I feel, trusts that the reader is intelligent enough to know what’s left unsaid, and it’s refreshing to read. Throughout, I was curious about how this would end, and I’m glad it ended the way it did. Smart and real.

  • Great, great read.

  • I like the rhythm of this story. I like the open ending, even though it was somewhat expected.

  • joannab.

    this is an excellent cautionary tale. i was relieved at the ending. that they didn’t waltz off to a perfect enduring love. i was left wondering if this was “it” for the intimacy while swimming or if they can pick that up again. i might have liked more insight into the narrator.

  • Very pleasant read… a nice, subtle story with the perfect ending. Also liked your website and the “23 times table” entry.

  • Marilyn Pearson

    Love this story John. It is such a good analogy of so many of life’s encounters.

  • The many water/swimming references made it for me. I enjoyed reading this one. Thanks for that.

  • An enthralling read. I could picture you at the pool doing those leisurely laps, and that romantic friendship unfolding. And yes, it is a good question: has anyone written a ghost story set in a misty swimming pool? Five stars from me!

  • Mariev Finnegan

    I loved this story, always love an emotional story written by a man, because I’m a bitch. I was hung up on this part:

    It’s funny, I say, but I’ve only spoken to her in the water. When we get out it’s too cold to hang around. She heads off to her change room and I head off to mine. Anyhow, we walk up and down. We talk a lot, she in her lane, me in mine. The mist slowly lifts.

    It seems like the tenses change or something. Like the past of her and him doesn’t work with the mist slowly lifts, because of the present tense.
    I’m a hard critic, and never give a five star. But this is 4 and a half.
    I’m a grandmother; I’d love to meet the author.

  • I know the author personally, and I can tell you he’s a lovely person. I feel honoured to be John’s friend. He’s a fine author and poet and he’s generous to others trying to improve their own writing.

  • Perfect understated little moments of a very specific and contextual relationship. Ski instructors are never the same either, when you get them in the bar without their poles!

  • LOL 🙂

  • barryswan7

    Very good story John.
    Is it really saying that all you had in common was the swimming? The relaxed surroundings just bringing the subconcious bubbling up to mind and a mere inconsequential. In other words, were you both led completely astray (deluded) on the meaning of life and romance by the toxic effect of pool water?

  • I don’t know, Barry. A lot of what I write comes from the subconscious. I’m always amazed by what turns up on the page