Time has slowed down completely since he stepped over the edge. Casually, just like that. One cerise pyjama leg followed by the other and a sound like wings beating against the air, the snap of the fabric over his shins, heels pushed down to brake gently. A gentler silence as he sailed past me and slipped smoothly down into the water; arms folded and his eyes wide open, the way he sleeps under the covers, underwater. My hair lifts and falls with the short breath of breeze from his leap. Ikneel down slowly. Palms flat, then elbows on the hard wet rim of the pool, I lie down on my front. Bikini straps taut, my stomach jerks back from the evening burn of the red wet tiles. My hair, eyes, then nose appear over the edge and I look down, down into the white-green pool. My mouth kisses the hot tile. Under the surface, his black hair has fanned out like an anemone on a deep pink rock. My mouth opens and a bubble pops. Time has slowed down for him, but it is my life that is flashing across the silver screen now.
Here is the first flickering freeze frame: My mother caught and held by my father’s old camera, trapped and taped into the family-album among sand castles and Bettystown surf, gritty sandwiches and sandy grins. Ample swimming costume barely covering her ample bosom, red hair rolled up under a ridged rubber cap and her great nose a headland against the grey line of the horizon. People couldn’t afford colours then. But I know my mother’s hair was red. The picture was taken just before she turned away from us and to the sea, took three giant strides of a colossus into the water and disappeared away from shore. Away from us, we three, Dad and us, standing staring after her wondering if she was really a great blue seal and would she come back home, to us, ever, with treasures from the deep. What a picture we three on the flat sand must have made, mouths open, plastic spades slack by our sides. No snap was taken of her triumphant return from the ocean. Dad was still too shocked to focus. Not one of us had known that she could swim, not even Dad had known. That the woman who absolutely refused to let her children learn to swim had arms that could make arcs like dolphins through waves until we couldn’t see her anymore. She rose up out of the water and walked towards us, flat feet slapping on the sand. Dad mutely handed her a black and white striped towel-or it could have been blue-and unscrewed the lens from the camera, and we watched, aghast, as she wiped the waves from her salt-spanked body. Had there been colour, she would have been bright pink. Then she wrapped herself in the towel, one hand holding everything together, the other letting her costume fly into a clump of dry grass, before disappearing back under the towel to rummage herself into a state of dress. Iran after the sodden togs, rolling them up in a sandy towel before any stranger saw the wet obscene thing. I held the heavy bundle at arm’s length on the long trek back across the sand dunes, single-file with my mother in the lead.
Dad looked sideways at her the whole way home in the car, a smile or a frown under his big moustache, you never could tell. Just as we took the tum inland after the Neptune Hotel, my brother, Calm, wrapped his arms around the headrest in front of him and asked if he could learn to swim too. She told him not to be silly and passed two Mikados over her shoulder. We were quiet, peeling the pink stuff from the biscuit. Calm managed to get jam in her salty hair.
Another snapshot, taken earlier than that: My brother, knee deep in the leaden lake, fishing rod raised to tip the steel edge of the lightning cracking the black sky in two. And the snap sound of my mother’s palm clapping against the side of his cheek when he arrived in the back door, eyes wide and saturated from something I could hear but wasn’t allowed see. That thing that only came on hot nights after sunshine days by the beach, but killed cattle in the high fields and set fire to the roof of the house across the road. A girl in my class had to stay with her aunt while they crumbled away the black charred remains of her home. Calm wouldn’t tell me what it was. Our mother wouldn’t hear him talk about it. God moving his furniture around, Dad said, but that didn’t explain why our mother wouldn’t even let us watch through a gap in the curtains. She thought it could get you through the glass. She was terrified. She terrified me.
One time a large crash in the sky was followed by a second from the cupboard under the stairs. Both crashes sent me running into the dark hall, tripping over the Hoover and anything else metal thrown outside the cupboard door, and her inside, banging away in loud prayer. Another time, a loud bang whisked her away from the enamel mixing-bowl in the kitchen. Her prayers led us to her, louder than the sounds outdoors. We found her upstairs under her bedspread, eyes shut and shaking, two pale eggs still intact in her clutched hands. Her hair was white with flour.
There were no photographs taken of any of the flashes. Dad had set his camera aside and taken to watching the skies after a crack that took her by surprise, sending the carving knife flying from her hand and through the air, missing his ear by a whisker and the wedding-china teapot by a notch. Plaster fell off the wall behind him as the knife fell with a clatter to the floor. Dad slowly touched the teapot, then his ear, then the woman standing shaking in the middle of the room. When the storm was over, he rolled the strap around his camera and pushed it in behind the radio. He started paying attention to Met Eireann, Malin to Mizen, that voice that sounded like it was being tossed among the waves. Dad learned to read the sudden dark evenings, calmly steering our mother towards the centre of the house before trouble rolled in across the lake. She needed sheltering. He was afraid to bang doors.
Another flash, this one is of my first storm: An unearthly charge scoring the sky, flashing twice in the black bushy clouds over a chateau in France. It’s the first night of my honeymoon and my first night to see a thunderstorm, my first time to see a country lit up by the yawning sky and swallowed in an instant. One thousand, two thousand, and then the bang so the storm is only two miles away. Nothing to be scared of, only clouds having arguments. I saw my first lightning strike at the same time that my mother was struck down shaking on the floor in a nursing home hundreds of miles away. The first of many strokes brought on by brittle nerves that couldn’t quite deal with it all, least of all my wedding. She suffered from nervous shock while I almost lost the new ring from my finger in the shock before the clap of thunder.
This is the same shock I learned to hide years later. Sitting up all night picking at the bedspread, clicking my tongue at the clouds refusing to shut up arguing and the tiny white tear-streaked face of my three-year old trusting my calm. I have become a hero, catching spiders in cup and card and smudging moths in toilet roll. I have become a hero to my wee two, just to prove that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Blowing air into their arm-bands, not wincing at the tight squeak of the orange plastic against their skin, and staying with them by the pool, walking up high a metre above them, telling them to be brave. One kicks into the middle of the pool, the other won’t let go of the side, unconvinced. I insist there is nothing to be afraid. of, everybody floats. Everybody except their mother who doesn’t swim because Granny wouldn’t let her or Uncle Colm into the lake when they were kids and aren’t they lucky that I will let them learn how to swim-like dolphins.
Here’s a pile of snapshots to rifle through: The grey lake at the end of our garden, back when we were young and there was no colour on the silver screen. Moorhens in rushes and willow-whips in Colm’s hands. The black pier where all the kids went to watch the storms and learned to dive but not us because it was too dangerous; though not as dangerous as the cliffs in the other photos we found when we were packing up her things after the last stroke finally got her. Colm found the photos at the bottom of the tin of lollipops. Photos from long before she met Dad-in sepia-when her hair was still bright red and the water wild around the cliffs she rowed to and from when she was young and reckless. Long earth-coloured evenings with yellow setting suns, before she got married and had us and gave birth to a fear of heroics. Before the skies weren’t shelter enough.
The last picture is in colour: My five-year-old son who likes to lie down in the white bath or in his friend’s blue paddling pool with his arms folded and his nose barely tipping the glassy surface, more relaxed under water than anywhere above. So relaxed that he will quietly step over the edge of the swimming pool with his cerise pyjamas snapping at his shins. Casually, just like that. With barely a breeze as his heels lift from the evening burn of the red tiles which scorch my stomach as I lie down to watch him slip to the bottom of the white-green pool. His father is too far away in the leafy shade of the deep-end and the arm-bands are thrown on the side because my son can’t fold his arms underwater when he is wearing the tight orange balloons. My son has no fear and I can’t jump in and save him because my mother who was a strong swimmer was too frightened that I would have as little fear as her and drown.
But fortunately, the flickering film has slowed down completely. Enough time for my life to flash by and some time left to lie down on the side of the pool and slip my hand down under the surface. My greeny-white fingers grab the black anemone and pull. I pull him back up and out, up out of the water like a bright pink cormorant and I set him standing on the wet tiles beside me, his eyes wide and saturated. Arms folded and calm. He smiles and asks me if his mammy was scared. Then toddles off to find his sister. I lie back on the hot tiles and watch black clouds roll in. It is time I learned to swim.