Swimming For Life

A new short story published in the Sunday Express


There was a large turnout at the funeral. Margaret deserved that.

It was dignified. Phyllis from number 97, who’s been dotty for years now, refrained from singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, thank God. Even Simon, my grandnephew, the one with two haircuts, behaved himself. If he was on anything that day, at least it wasn’t apparent.

I accepted condolences.

A number of people said they were surprised I had outlasted her. Me, too.

“Sorry for your loss,” they said. “You couldn’t have had a better wife.” They are right.

Margaret, until the moment of her death, was a shining example to the over-seventies. She was the picture of health, with her glowing skin and healthy chubbiness. She walked everywhere and swam in the sea every day, even in the depths of winter.

I would watch from the warm comfort of the car passenger seat as she surfaced from the steel-grey water into the snow, which swirled about her as if it too was drawn to her like a magnet.

I would have the hot coffee poured from the flask and ready for her when she bounced into the car, teeth chattering, hair towel-turbanned, and every time she said the same thing: “It’s glorious! You must come with me tomorrow!”

I’d shake my head then she’d grasp the plastic cup with both hands, sipping it quickly. She would give me her disappointed smile, rev up the engine and we would speed away up the coast road towards home.

In our day, we were a golden couple. My career as a financial adviser took off while Margaret played the cello in a concert orchestra. We were at the top of everybody’s guest list, honoured members of the tennis club and various charitable organisations.

We were never blessed with children. After five miscarriages, Margaret finally agreed to stop trying. The loss of those babies hurt me but to her, they were amputations and the healing took longer each time. I feared that if she miscarried again, she might never recover and, selfishly, I wondered how I would cope without her.

Many years later, at the time when I was urging people to buy apartments in Cyprus and Croatia, and to spend on stocks and shares, the global financial markets crashed. I didn’t see it coming. “Don’t leave that money in the bank,” I had declared.

“Make it work for you!” and almost everyone we knew was financially wiped out overnight.

Our friends stopped calling and the invites dried up. I still wrote a column for one of the weekend papers, but letters to the editor pointed out that I was the last person who should be advising on financial matters and it was discontinued.

Margaret and I took a financial hit, too, but I had been far more cautious than I had urged others to be. It’s easy to gamble with other people’s money.

So in our latter years, we aged quietly, alone. Ashamed, I went into self-imposed exile and Margaret reluctantly came with me. Her late brother’s children emigrated to Australia, leaving their 20-year-old son behind. Simon. One side of his head is shaved and from the other side, long plaits fall. He has a ring through his nose and a small bone in his ear. He was an embarrassment to me.

Margaret adored him, of course. He would play her some of his music on a small gadget and she would put her hands over her ears and laugh. But one day, she dusted down the cello and they went into the dining room. I listened from my armchair in the kitchen.

It’s now one year since Margaret died. After the funeral, they decided that I could not live alone, so almost immediately I was moved to The Grove – a retirement community on the edge of town – and, until this week, I’ve lived in a state of torpor.

But a most wonderful thing has happened! Well, ghastly actually, but I have had an epiphany of sorts.

Last week a graffiti artist changed the “o” in Grove to an “a”. The residents were in uproar. “We’re not dead yet!” they cried, scandalised. But I laughed, for the first time in years.

I have realised that I am dead, that I haven’t lived for many years. I decided to do something about it.

I rang Simon and asked him to visit. He was unexpectedly enthusiastic at my request. “Thanks for calling! I’ve really missed seeing you and I wasn’t sure if you’d want…”

This morning he arrived.

He has hair on both sides of his head now. It’s blue. He tells me that he is a furniture maker. He loves it because it’s “real” and he’s “creating something”. I wonder what it’s like, to carve wood. He offers to show me. He’s excited because his girlfriend is pregnant. He makes no mention of a wedding.

They don’t bother much with weddings these days.

I ask if he will take me for a drive and I clamber into his nine-year-old Nissan Micra. We cruise down the coast road. Spring is forcing its way through the frosted earth with snowdrops and crocuses. We reach the bathing point and I ask him to stop.

I tell him about Margaret’s daily dip and my refusal to ever join her. I tell him it’s time for me to take a gamble of my own.

He readily agrees.

Tomorrow we are coming back here. We are both going to swim in the sea and Simon’s girlfriend will have towels and a flask of coffee ready for when we emerge.

Simon reckons it will be glorious. I really think it might be.