Sam’s dad is not like the other dads at swimming lessons. He does not bring a paper or work from the office, he does not chat to the gym-mums on the sideline or do his own laps. He watches the whole lesson, thirty minutes of his son’s Frog-level swim class. I used to think this was because he genuinely cared about his son’s aquatic development, but now I think that he is watching me.
I duck down in the water, put my hand down the front of my cossie and pull up each tit. The chlorine makes them sticky giving me a push-up cleavage in my bright blue one-piece. It has the words ‘Swim Instructor’ printed in capitals across the bust, which only draws more attention to this little trick. Sam’s dad has only ever seen me in the water, which is good in some ways. I am a strong swimmer and move more gracefully in the water than I do on land. The chlorine dries out my oily skin, and also burns out all my arm and leg hair – I look smoother and softer in the water. However, Sam’s dad does not know other things about me that he could only know through seeing me dry. He does not know that my hair is actually thick and blonde-ish, because in the water it is always brown and thin, or that my legs are longer than average. He does not know that I have a lot of friends and can also run long-distance. He does not know that this is just part-time work for me, and that in my other life I study at uni and have plans to travel.
Sam is the type of little boy that I think Sam’s dad and I would have if we had a child together. He’s solid for a six-year-old, scruffy haired and loud. He hasn’t got that pale, sunken chest that some of the other little boys do. He doesn’t shiver, even in winter, and he’s not afraid to put his head all the way under. With his hair slicked back, you can see he’s got his dad’s face shape, already a hint of a jaw. But I think his lips and even his nose are similar to mine.
Even though he’s not the fastest, I always used to let him go first, but lately I’ve had to mix it up after some of the parents complained. It was funny, because that time I taught Hugo Weaving’s daughter, I always let her go first too, and none of the parents said anything. But I think they were all trying to look good in front of Hugo as well. The parents of my three-thirty class are a bad bunch though. Lawyers, doctors, primary school teachers, anxious stay-at-home mums. Already Amy’s mum has warned me that Amy might be fatigued due to an excursion to the IMAX today, and Todd’s dad has requested a chat at the end of class regarding the development of his son’s ‘windmill arms’. But Sam’s dad just sits back and watches.
Last week, Todd set off a ‘code brown’ mid-lesson, not your simple dip-and-flick floater either. No, Todd’s was the kind that spreads across the surface of the pool, like an oil spill, but chunkier. Some of the parents rushed their kids out to the outdoor showers, but Sam’s dad stayed. In accordance with protocol, Pool One had to shut for twelve hours to let the chlorine do its magic, which meant double classes in Pool Two. The instructors had our own protocol when this happened: ‘double shit or nothing’. If we could get a second ‘code brown’ in Pool Two, that meant double closure, classes cancelled, early home time, full pay. When kids asked us to go to the toilet, we said ‘swim it off’. Except if Sam asks, I let Sam go to the toilet.
Sam’s dad is good to him. He never yells at him from the sidelines or bribes him with hot chips. He doesn’t even really tell him he’s swimming well. But once, every so often, at the end of a truly excellent lap, he’ll give Sam a wink, which I sometimes think is just for me. He takes his time after the lesson too, he never rushes Sam or me. He waits on the sideline until I have given all the children their high-fives. He waits with a kid-size towel ready to wrap Sam up. He dries his son’s chest, his bottom. He brushes over Sam’s face that is like his own, and those lips and that nose, that are like mine. He packs up the swimming bag carefully, making sure he’s got everything, slowing down our last moments together at the pool.
One time we did laps together. It was a Saturday morning but I thought it was a Sunday and had come in for my shift. I was about to leave and somehow I recognised the back half of him swimming in the ‘fast lane’ in the outdoor pool. I stripped down to my cossie and put on my goggles and jumped into the lane. The ‘fast lane’ was for laps under 50 seconds which I wanted to show him I could do. I timed my push off so I’d meet him about halfway when he was coming back. My stroke was strong and smooth, I entered the water fingers first so I that I made an elegant lack of splash. I swam with my face looking forward, which is a weird way to swim, and tried to catch his eye as we passed each other. He had those dark, reflective goggles on so I couldn’t be sure, but I was pretty sure he saw me. At one point I caught up so I was just a metre behind him. I watched his big feet kick in perfect rhythm. I wanted to reach out and tap his toes and overtake him, but I didn’t want him to be embarrassed so I stayed behind and watched his feet.
The first time Sam’s dad spoke to me it was months later – January – just before Sam’s lesson started. He walked right up to the pool edge and squatted down so that his sneakers were on the grate and were getting wet as the children jumped in for their lesson. He said to me that Sam’s school swimming carnival was coming up in a few weeks. Just that. No instructions. Of course, every other parent had said the same thing to me that week, but there was something about the way Sam’s dad said it. The way he looked at me when he said it. The unspoken test he was setting me.
That lesson I trained Sam hard. I made him go first five times in the lesson and announced it with such confidence that none of the other parents questioned it. He slapped at the water with his hands. He swallowed water and burped it up again. His cheeks were wet and red. The next week I taught him to move his arms faster, to grip the water, to take more strokes and shorter breaths. I taught him how to swim without goggles, his eyes pink and watery.
It was the week before his carnival that I told Sam I was going to teach him to dive. He said no, his face suddenly smaller and bluer. The other kids, sensing Sam’s fear, their leader these past few weeks, started shivering and shaking too, looking over to their mums and dads on the sideline. I looked over too. Sam’s dad’s eyes were on me. I knew what he wanted.
Looking at the other mums and dads, I thought back to all those times I’d spent wondering about Sam’s mum. That I’d waited to see her face. It’d been three terms and she’d never shown up to watch Sam swim. I asked for her name once, I made it a game and asked all the kids but only remembered Sam’s answer. Joan. A dry, old name. But Joan didn’t exist in this world, here, at the pool. She was not on Sam’s mind as he stood on the edge of the pool. His toes over the edge, his arms slack, his hands gripping each other, aimed down towards the blue water. She was not on Sam’s dad’s mind, watching his son. They will not remember her when they think back to these moments at the pool. They will remember me.
Sam will remember the feeling of my hands pushing his hands through the water in strong, even strokes, the sound of my voice muffled through water, my face clouded with bubbles, showing him how to breathe underwater. My hand pushing him off the pool edge, the free fall into shallow water. And when he dived in and stayed beneath the water, as he lingered on its shiny bottom, he will remember the quiet as he waited. Waited and searched through blue water, slowly turning red, for my face to appear. And so I dived to the bottom and scooped him up, this little boy. Lighter in the water, smaller in my arms. I swam him to the sideline, pressed his solid little chest like I’d been taught in training lessons on plastic torsos that tasted of vinegar. I pressed and pressed and felt Sam’s chest turning blue and soft as the minutes went by. I put my lips to his lips, my nose to his nose, the resemblance of our features clear, surely, to all those watching. The gym-mums and the lawyers, Amy’s mum, Todd’s dad. But more important than all of them, Sam’s dad, standing not too far away. Kneeling on the floor, I could see his feet that I have seen before, in the water, but this time they are dry and they are not moving. Sam’s dad will remember standing very still and watching, watching that girl at the swimming pool. He will not know my name, or my hair or legs or travel plans. He will remember me wet and strong in my instructor’s swimming costume. He will remember me by the pool side, breathing air into his little blue boy, into Sam. He will think back to this time and he will remember me.