She keeps her hands clasped together. She can see the chipped red nail varnish on her toenails. A strand of someone else’s hair disturbs the symmetry of the ceramic floor. Reflections from the water play on the wall. Coach watches her, not the other girls who are narrow shouldered and slim. He moves her elbows forward with a fingertip touch on her upper arm. His aftershave smells stale.
They dive, again and again; it’s never sharp enough, far enough or fast enough.
Finally they race. Her hands slice the water. The lines of the tiles waver, white ribboning against blue. The roll and the push away for the return length, she has that now. She is, for a moment, weightless. Surfacing into harsh light she watches the other girls swim in.
When she hauls herself out of the water she is conscious of her thighs touching and her feet slapping the wet tiles. Her swimsuit is too tight, too high on her legs. She folds her arms across her chest, hiding where her nipples push at the worn nylon.
She sits in the passenger seat of his Triumph Herald for her lift home. His hand brushes her leg as he changes gear. ‘You’re on my way,’ he’d said to her, weeks ago, ‘no point your dad coming.’ They discuss her stroke patterns, the angle of her arm, the number of repetitions of an exercise, who her competition will be in the national trials.
The narrowness of the road makes him cautious. He looks ahead. When he talks, she doesn’t have to look at him.
He stops at the neglected hedge that hides her house and reaches across her to open the glove compartment. She presses back into the seat but his arm still briefly touches her breasts.
‘It’s for you Sheila,’ he says, placing a small carrier bag on her lap, leaving his hand on her leg, as if he has forgotten about it. She can feel the weight of it, the scratch of hair.
‘Well open it.’
The bag contains a swimming costume.
‘… you shouldn’t have.’
He points at the bands on the side
‘Go faster stripes’,’ he says, a childish smile on his face.
He lifts his hand from her leg and puts his arm around her shoulders, pulling her towards him. His armpit is next to her face. Her skin prickles. His stubble presses into her cheek and his mouth slides towards hers. His lips are wet and warm.
She clambers out of the car, the weight of her legs on the tarmac almost making her stumble. She turns away so she can wipe him off her mouth.
‘I’ll pick you up on Saturday,’ he says from the open car window. ‘I’ve told your Dad. He said there was something your sister would have to miss if he took you.’
It’s a journey of more than two hours each way to where the trials are held.
Her Dad is asleep in his chair in the front room. His mouth is slack. A glass rimmed with dried beer sits on the armrest.
‘I saw everything,’ her sister whispers, dragging her hand across her lips. ‘What was it, what did he give you?’
She hands En the costume, navy blue, light, elastic, and puts her index finger to her mouth.
Later, when her Dad asks her how it went, she shakes her head.
‘Mary was faster,’ she says. ‘I’m out of the trials.’
‘That’s daft, after all that work. I’ll phone him.’
‘No Dad. Don’t.’
En sings, quietly and tunelessly.
‘Sheila and a boy in the apple tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G’
‘But love, you’re the best swimmer there. There’s no one near you. You know that.’
He looks tired.
She stands, weighted on the faded carpet.
‘I’m not doing it,’ she says. ‘I’m not swimming.’
‘I hate it,’ Sheila says.
She stamps up the stairs.
Her Dad phones the coach. Sheila listens from her bedroom, her fingers running across the top of the trophies that line the mantelpiece.
‘She is? I must have misunderstood,’ her Dad says. ‘ Yes … See you Saturday then, … thank you, yes, girls, they …, without her … Mum …’ He makes a space around the word. ‘Yes, I’ll tell her.’
When she comes downstairs there are baked beans heating up and toast in the rack.
‘Please love’, he says, ‘tell me what this is all about?’
‘I need to work for my exams. I want to get a Saturday job. I can help out in the house more.’
‘You’re the best in the school, Coach says.’
She crosses her arms.
‘Your … Mum … she’d be so … proud.’
Her Mum is barely a memory, a faded figure always looking after baby En, with no time for her eldest.
When her Dad sweeps the floor, he leaves behind a line of crumbs. Food waste is piled a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table. The paper disintegrates. Flies gather.
‘He’s given you so much of his time. You really can’t stop now,’ her Dad says.
‘I am stopping.’ she says. She slams the door , feeling the draught of it at her back.
On the Saturday of the trials she wakes in the dark, silencing the first ring of her alarm clock which she has placed under her pillow so the sound is muffled. She leaves the house the back way, walking over fields shrouded in a fine mist. It reminds her of taking off the rubber swimming hat after training, her hair that same kind of damp, snagging. There’s some pleasure in that brief tug and tear.
When she comes home her father is out collecting her sister.
She gets a Saturday job in a supermarket. She sees the coach’s wife and is relieved when the woman goes to a different till. Her body softens. She is so hungry she finds herself in the kitchen at midnight, stuffing ham and bread into her mouth.
When her father is out she cleans. There are no more cobwebs, no lines of crumbs.
None of the swimmers in her school get selected for the trials. When they pass her in the school corridor they turn away and whisper, as if it is her fault they are not fit enough or strong enough. When she swims during PE lessons she wears the old costume that’s too small. She tries to get the breathing and the stroke wrong but when they race she still wins.
When she’s alone at home she lies in the bath wearing the new costume. It makes her feel sleeker and fitter. She lifts her arms to make strokes but is stopped by the chrome taps. She lets her arms rest behind her head and places her feet on the rim of the bath, noticing the way the flesh on her thighs has become puckered and soft.
After work she meets up with other girls who have Saturday jobs and no interest in swimming. Boys on bicycles circle. Her new friends disappear with one or another of them, returning with flushed cheeks and a blouse buttoned up wrong. With her wages, Sheila buys clothes that don’t quite fit. She has her hair permed. She talks back to the boys, copying her friends who mock their suitors with harsh words. She’s pursued by a boy whose jeans drag the ground. His fingernails are grubby. She struggles to find harsh words for him. He has a car at home, an old Cortina his stepdad is helping him do up. She listens as he describes the adaptations he has made to his bicycle, the brake blocks made from a special composite he’s purchased by mail order. Sometimes she sits on his bicycle seat while he stands on the bike’s pedals and propels her around the park and his legs brush against hers.
‘Are you going out or what?’ the other girls ask. ‘How far have you gone?’
She hasn’t had to think about the elaborate rituals of ‘when you give top, when you give bottom’. She’s just touched her hand against his once or twice and rested her hand on his back when he’s turned a sharp corner.
Sometimes he turns up outside the supermarket when she’s on her lunch break. She goes with him to the place that sells car parts and stands in a small lobby smelling of rubber and grease. A calendar on the wall displays a naked woman whose proportions she can’t recognise as female, not her kind of female anyway. Bicycle boy stutters his order and she lets her shoulders fall so she is smaller.
Bicycle boy turns seventeen. He picks her up from work in his Cortina. He explains the theory behind the ‘spoiler’ slowly and deliberately. She pretends to listen and is relieved when he doesn’t expect her to talk. There is nothing she wants to say. He parks next to the hedge, still overgrown, and reaches his arm across the back of her seat. Her fists clench. The kiss, when it comes, is dry and mercifully brief.
The Cortina becomes the venue for speechless encounters where she remembers the litany of the ‘virtuous girl’ and sometimes takes pleasure in it. Bicycle boy talks about pistons and gaskets and his family, which spreads across the neighbouring towns. He buys a racing bike. The tread of the tyres, he tells her, picking up strands of her hair to demonstrate, ’is a ridge as thin as this, so there’s no resistance’.
He drives her to his house. His family’s away on holiday. He’s stayed to work in his uncle’s garage so he can finish paying for the bike. A framed jigsaw hangs above the mantelpiece, technicoloured mountains and their reflections. Family photographs record groups of smiling people squashed into small rooms. Lots of them have his dark hair and gapped teeth.
She drinks her first beer. It’s sour. Bicycle boy is unusually quiet. The bubbles in the can rise and make her nose itch. She laughs and he looks relieved. He leads her upstairs, holding on to her hands, just at the fingertips. The bedroom is clearly his parents’, austere and old.
‘Bigger bed,’ he says.
It’s where they have got to on the list. It’s what she’s expected to do next.
She asks him to close the curtains.
‘Mrs Jones over the road, she’ll have seen you come in. She’ll notice. We’ve got the nets.’
A towel is laid over the top of the candlewick bedspread. He will see all of her, her doughy stomach and her thick, mottled legs.
The encounter is awkward and brief. He falls asleep almost immediately after withdrawing. His arm, tanned to the elbow, is thrown across her breasts. She eases it away and gathers her clothes, washing herself in the bathroom, watching threads of blood disappear down the plughole.
She walks home.
Her sister is in the garden wearing the ‘go faster’ swimming costume. En strikes a pose, one leg in front of the other, her blunt fingers splayed.
‘Dad says I can go to the swimming club. He says I’ve got the shoulders for it.’
The costume has wrinkled across her stomach, making her look fatter.
Sheila describes what she has just experienced. It’s a story she’s telling. It doesn’t belong to her.
Her sister’s mouth falls open and her eyes roll.
‘That’s what coach will do to you if you go to the swimming club,’ Sheila says.
‘I wasn’t going to go anyway. I hate swimming. All that water!’
En tiptoes away, her head tilted to one side, already thinking of something else.
Sheila stops going to the park. She takes her lunchbreak in the supermarket canteen, checking for the Cortina’s growling presence in the car park before she leaves work. She doesn’t answer Bicycle boy’s phone calls.
Stretchmarks flow around her breasts.
She urinates constantly. When her father serves their tea, greasy sausages, fishfingers charred at the edges, she feels sick.
She’s beginning to resemble the calendar woman.
En pushes her fingers into her sister’s breasts and laughs.
‘Like Marilyn bloody Monroe,’ she says.
Sheila bleeds her way through two packs of sanitary towels in a day.
She works. She studies. She cleans. She makes sure her parents’ wedding photograph, her Mum and Dad smart in their post war best, is clear of the nicotine that stains everything in their house a pale yellow. When she runs the taps in the bath and feels the water surrounding her she sometimes remembers that weightlessness and the pleasure of victory.
Our friend, Sarah Isaac, died on 26th August 2017, the day after she should have been handing in her own creative dissertation. As this story ‘Father no 1’ demonstrates, she was not just a writer with promise, she was a wonderful writer already. More than that though, as a classmate on the MLITT course, she inspired us with her writing, she inspired us with her dedication to writing, and she contributed to the work of each and every one of us with her honest and insightful feedback, her support and encouragement.
Not long before she died, she had a short story accepted for publication in the prestigious ‘New Writing Scotland; anthology. Reading this book – ‘New Writing Scotland 35: He said She said I said’ – is of course, now, tinged with the sadness of what might have been, but it is a fitting tribute to the writer she had already become. We are glad to report that she was able to see this work in print before she died.
These writings – works from the Writing Practice and Study MLITT class of 2017 – are dedicated to her memory, We miss you Sarah!