11th June

My Father, Swimming

Once, I was lost at the seaside. My parents searched for me in a state of panic. It was high tide and I was three. They searched along the promenade and behind the row of beach huts, and with churning stomachs they scanned the grey sea that was level with the top of the steps leading down to the beach, looking I suppose for some small floating thing that might be me. But I was dry and safe: I’d just gone for a wander, and was happily being entertained by some other family to whom I had attached myself. It was my parents who were lost and distraught, and were not found again until the moment they saw me.

I don’t remember this incident, but I do remember other things about those seaside holidays. My father used to go for long swims, when the tide was lower and I was playing on the sand along with the other children. I could see his head as he did the sidestroke or the backstroke. He was a slow, steady, powerful swimmer. How much he must have enjoyed the solitude and peace out there, away from the demands of family. There was a pier about a mile along the coast, and sometimes he would strike out for it, and I would lose sight of his head as he swam further away. I don’t think I was worried. I knew he’d come back. I can still see him in the water. I imagine him reaching the pier, swimming round its barnacled and weed-wrapped legs and heading back to us, always at the same, calm, methodical stroke and pace.

I wonder if he imagines that swim, or even remembers it. Today he needs someone to help him into the shower, to wash his back while he grips the safety handles, to dry him off with a towel and get him dressed. It’s a long distance from now to then, much more than a mile there and a mile back. I wonder if, when he’s in the shower, he ever closes his eyes and for a moment is back in that sea, strong, alone and free, and swimming away from everything.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Harmonium: Kit Downes
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