Swimming in the 60s by Alan Beard

on the train my face out the window the air like a fist wallops then opens out like a hand pressing deep into and over my head its fingers in my flying hair and the bumpy green squeezing by choked with trees and quarries and dips to roads and a river straightening to a point, and the blue above tubing past my squeezed up eyes, snatching away my words to hand them out down the carriages and the still air behind: I love Emily

under the surface open my eyes to a green world of flickering legs, a dipping white floor smudging and the light as I break the surface sliding and glittering, I swim and dive and dip and jump until my limbs are weak, scramble up bar and tile like leaving a watery painting

Shrugs is there with his white scarred face, he hates me and my family, jumps in bombing up his body, arms clamped under his gingery knees to plonk in the chlorinated sea, boils-on-his-back monster who loves Emily too, great waves now, slapping the sides and causing the swimmy eyed attendant to gesticulate, her whistle lost in the cries and claps and splash

get dressed quickly, sneak up to the café still damp, rolled towel and trunks under my arm, Bovril out of a Styrofoam cup and crisps out of the machine, tasting both in my chemically washed mouth and cleaned out nose, on the look out for Shrugs

can’t see him on the platform, but then he comes running up to the carriage I’m in, I lock myself in the toilet, open to see his long wiry back, his head forward marching down the corridor, intent, smell trailing him of snot, swim and his love for Emily

Emily held ‘psychedelic’ parties and wore a white crocheted mini-dress through which you could see minute medallions of flesh, you paid 3d to get in to hear some of her older brother’s records, Itchycoo Park, This Wheel’s on Fire, and get a cup of orange squash and a Nice biscuit in a room lit only by a lava lamp, the curtains drawn on the afternoon, that smell a josstick burning

two of her girlfriends and boys my own age and older from our street and the next, one with true long hair, curly at the ends, he wore crushed velvet loons and gave peace signs as he came in the room and got near her, Emily moving her head and her black hanging hair

he probably snogged her when we – me, Shrugs – knuckling my arm – and everyone – had all gone

train pulls up to our station, plan a route through the field, run from the platform, see him try to follow me but he’s stopped by the stationmaster

run thinking he’ll catch up, he’s bigger, stronger, faster with those long legs that motor him through the water, I’ll have to hide

leave my rolled wet towel in a bush at the bottom and up my favourite tree, feel the motion of many climbs come, each foot finds the right branches, each hand the right twist of bark to lift me higher until I’m higher than I’ve ever been where the tree is thin and whippy and breaks out into the cloud tinged sky

up here can see the world laid out like a map, level with the church spire, see the rooftops of the estate the dips to park and playing field, lean to see if Shrugs is coming

branch snaps and I’m falling, leaves popping before my eyes, scratches ripping from forehead to chin, whips of pain and bursts of red and a spinning clump of weed and thistle, no pool to slip my hurt body into

grassy squelched up leaf mulch, a bush, life scattering out of it, mice and insects as I crumple into my first great hurt at Shrugs’ large badly shod feet

he lifts me, tuts at my crooked hanging arm, lifts me and brings a winded groan, lifts me out of the snagging bush, the things that cling to me, lifts me through dust and motes and maybe he shouldn’t, but we are one, we are two that love Emily

he will save me because I love Emily he will ruin my arm carrying me to the road and the telephone box on the edge of the estate

putting me down to pull open the red door, hinges creak, I’m shivering in the hot day

I always wanted to ring 999 and crawl into the box to watch him do it, pain like slashes up and down, I am snotty and teary and bleeding and scuffed

inside the box, inside the boy’s smell and the box’s smell as he asks for an ambulance, looking down at me hunched and broken

I would always love Emily and so would he


Alan Beard is a short story writer with two collections: ‘Taking Doreen out of the Sky’ (Picador 1999) and ‘You Don’t Have to Say’ (Tindal Street Press, 2010). He has had work in ‘Best British Short Stories 2011’ (Salt Publishing) and many other places including Critical Quarterly, Malahat Review and London Magazine. His work has also been featured on BBC Radio 4.

%d bloggers like this: