Friday, 14 June 2013

The Swim by Louise Tondeur

underwater leaves

I came to the park today where the thick hedges have been trimmed to look like giant sandcastles. First I sit in the white café next to a table of cakes and freesias in a glass that smell like water and sugar, piles of strawberries and cones, and statues raising a hand to their heads. I drink tea from a blue and white cup and look out at the rows of hedges which line the path. There is a tree with red branches just outside the window. It could be made of feathers. Afterwards I walk round the lake and watch the geese and smooth white swans. The wind is teasing the surface with light fingers like it is turning cards over blue, white, blue, white. I’m wearing my green anorak. I powdered my face carefully, covering the scars, breathing in the scent like I am one of those people on drugs. I can smell it as I walk past the lake and look at the swans. Then I stand in the middle of the path and let the toddlers and the people on bikes go past me on either side.
            I stop suddenly. I go back on myself and approach the edge of the lake. The geese come up to me in case I start eating sandwiches and drop crumbs. I can still smell the flowers from the white café. Now I can smell the water too and goose shit. Have you noticed how big tea leaves turn when you pour water on them? I noticed it today. They look like the broken bits of leaf that might float in a puddle. I guess they are broken bits of leaf.
            When I go home today I will remember piles of scones and strawberries, leaves that swell and could float in a puddle, flowers, and goose droppings. I take off my anorak. I unbutton it slowly. Someone starts scattering crisps on the ground. The geese waddle towards him. I think about pandas, elephants, and sitting in a jungle. I have a pink and blue and green and white dress on, with flowers. It has white plastic buttons up the front. I can feel the powder as it clutches the hair on my top lip. I can taste my lipstick. It tastes like Mr Kipling’s icing. I undo my dress one button at a time. Now I am in my tights and pants and my cream bra and my pumps. The white ones. The man who scattered his crisps for the geese stands, crisp packet upturned in his hand, mouth open. It’s cold. The autumn air rushes in between my legs and under my arms.
            In cafés that smell of freesias, I think, randomly: the waiters should bring you top ups of boiling water. I think back to my milk-clouded tea, and my silver tea-strainer and how small the holes were. What would it be like to wriggle through one of those holes? The things that tea can do that I can’t. I think all these things while the crisp-packet man and the geese watch and my arms get cold. I notice how flabby they are, how pink and soft, like bread dough. Then I jump into the lake.
            I am glad that I know how to swim, that I’m not afraid of water. I can smell the weeds much more strongly now. I dip my head under the water: to see if I can open my eyes. Everything looks cloudy. What if the world always looked like this? When I reach the surface again a small crowd of people is watching. When I wipe my eyes I can feel the powder smearing across my cheeks. I raise my arms and swim a few strokes. It feels good. I do it again. A swan flaps its wings in alarm and gets out of my way. When I climb out again someone has found a towel for me, like we’re in a film. Where do towels come from in emergencies? Or maybe it is a blanket. Maybe someone has a red checked picnic blanket and they wrap it round my shoulders. Someone else awkwardly hands me my dress and coat like they are giving me flowers. I put them on and walk back to the café, my hair dripping.
            I sit at the same table as before and order more tea. When it comes I lift the lid off the teapot so I can watch the leaves growing bigger.

‘The Swim’ is one of a series of short stories written in different venues around London. This one was written in the Orangery, Kensington Gardens.

About the Author: Louise Tondeur's first two novels The Water’s Edge and The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls were published by Headline Review. She has just finished her third novel and is working on a short story collection written in hidden or unusual places in London. Louise is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton. You’ll find her website here:

Image: (c) dotpolka