Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha

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All Those Personal Survival Medals

The Pool continues Short Story Week with Helen Dunmore's All Those Personal Survival Medals

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By Helen Dunmore on

So what’s the memory that really makes you flinch?’ asked Liz.

Melanie and Ros looked at her.

‘Flinch?’ said Ros.

‘You know, like this.’ Liz shrank and shrivelled, hands over her face, body twisting away. ‘I don’t mean serious stuff, I mean those stupid things that last a lifetime. Mine – I’m not saying what it is, but if I ever stop dead and start moaning “Oh no, oh no!” for no apparent reason, that’ll be it.’

‘How long ago was it?’

‘Nineteen ninety-one.’

‘So you were still a student.’

‘Yes. Twenty-one. Peak time for collecting those “Oh no!”
moments, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Definitely.’

Ros, sitting across the table from Melanie, began to spoon organic plum purée into the mouth of her baby, Lucas. Her late baby, as everyone still thought of him. Ros had pulled a fast one on the others, settling all those arguments about whether or not they should slip in one more baby before the guillotine of the menopause crashed down.

Perhaps Lucas had been an accident; Ros wouldn’t say. All the other children were between eight and twelve, long-legged, independent and way down the beach in their wetsuits, bodyboarding. The lifeguards weren’t there at Easter, so the two fathers, Liam and Carl, kept watch at the water’s edge. Lucas, six months old, lolled in his mother’s lap.

‘If they hadn’t changed the rules about pensions, you’d have been able to collect child benefit at the same time as the old-age pension,’ said Melanie suddenly, as if out of long thought.

‘Only for a year,’ Ros said, so quickly that it was clear the same idea had struck her, too, and been worked out as Ros worked everything out.

‘Better than nothing,’ said Liz, rather bitterly.

Everybody seemed to do better out of the system than she and Carl. Melanie no doubt had all those child tax credits now that people talked about: Melanie worked four days a week as a legal secretary. Gary, although the owner of a successful sports shop, had appeared to
have very little income when it came to working out child
support.

Everybody had liked Gary, and the divorce was so recent that its shadow hung over them all. The fact that he had fallen in love with the dental nurse during a complex, costly implant procedure added a touch of the ridiculous which made things even worse for Melanie. How the hell, they asked themselves, could anyone fall in love when he had a suction tube in his mouth? As for the girl, she must have been very determined, that was all Ros and Liz could say. They would have to meet her some time, of course; Gary and Carl played squash, Liam and Gary went to football together, and all that wasn’t about to come to an end just because Gary had been playing away. But for the time being they all wanted to show Melanie that they were with her, on her side 100 per
cent in the miserable battle over the children, the house and Gary’s final-salary pension scheme.

Melanie stared out to sea, shading her eyes against the harsh April light. She’s looking older, thought Ros, and then quickly, loyally: But of course we all are. The fortieth birthdays were over, and the rash of celebrations. Ros felt easier in the foothills of the forties than when she’d clung to the precipice of thirty-nine.

‘I feel so old,’ said Melanie. The light had made teary streaks on her face.

‘You’re not old, what rubbish,’ said Liz stoutly, but Ros wiped her baby’s mouth and said: ‘It’s the spring. People think they’re glad about spring, but really they want to stay wrapped up in winter.’

‘We do, because we’re old. Getting old,’ Melanie corrected
herself. ‘I hate having to take clothes off these days. Bare legs . . . my God!’

‘That’s where wetsuits are so good,’ said Ros, putting the baby up on her shoulder. ‘I used to dread, positively dread, walking down to the water in a swimsuit.’

Liz suppressed the thought that Melanie was going to have to take her clothes off at some point, if she were ever to replace Gary. But that was different. It could be done in the dark; or, at the very least, in careful lighting.

‘What you need to do,’ instructed Liz, ‘is pretend in your mind that you’re ten years older than you really are.’

‘What – fifty-two? How’s that going to help?’

‘Well, then you think: I’m fifty-two, just imagine how great it would be if I could wake up and find I was forty-two.’

There was thoughtful silence.

‘I wonder if it would still work when you were, say, ninety-two?’

‘I expect it would,’ said Ros with automatic, encouraging
cheerfulness. She stood up carefully. Lucas was dropping off.

She rocked back and forth, shielding his head from the wind with her body. She was glad she’d brought his blue hat. Her mind emptied, drowsed. There were her children, somewhere in that cold, surging sea. Specks of life that she’d made. But so strong and solid now, busy with the sea as they were busy with everything. They would come rushing to her later with some plan: a ring of stones with a fire inside to cook sausages, or a deep-dug rock-pool hospital for injured crabs. Their long hair
would be tangled, slapping against their neoprene shoulders.

Yes, Lucas was asleep. She wondered what Liz’s memory was, the one that made her flinch. It was easy enough to remember her own. She was back in the classroom. It was just gone half past three, and they had put their chairs up on their tables. Mrs Curtis was talking to two boys who’d been messing about with water – or
worse – in the cloakrooms, so she didn’t notice Kimberley Hilton come prancing back from the cloakroom with a sheaf of party invitations in her hand. They were coloured envelopes, with stickers on them. Kimberley went from table to table. As far as Ros could see, everybody was getting an invitation. Kimberley was the queen of the class. The Queen Bee, Ros’s mother called her. She was smiling, sparkling, in her little black
furry coat – no one else had a coat like Kimberley’s –
with her very pale hair pulled tight back into a ponytail and her sharp eyes going big as she gave out each envelope and then small again as she considered the next face in front of her.

They were going swimming at the Oasis, with burgers and chips afterwards, then a few of Kimberley’s special friends were going back for a sleepover. Ros knew there was no chance of her being asked to the sleepover. But she’d invited Kimberley to her party, and let Kimberley open the presents. She was getting close. She was in front of Ros. She had an envelope in her hand. She was smiling and sparkling and her eyes were big. She wagged the envelope, stretching out her hand. Ros reached out too.

‘Thank you, Kimberley,’ she said, her voice too loud, clumsy with relief. The envelope quivered. Kimberley’s eyes widened farther in a pantomime of surprise. ‘Oh, sorry, Ros, I didn’t mean you! It’s a swimming party, and you can’t swim, can you? This is Clare’s. I was just going to give it to her.’

Everyone had seen. Ros heard giggling. ‘Ros Howden can’t even swim and she thought she was coming to Kimberley’s party!’ She stood there, red and ugly, as Kimberley danced on.

It was over. Kimberley was forty-two, for God’s sake. Probably divorced. Ros held Lucas to her. She had the children. She had Liam. There were Liz and Melanie, close enough friends to come away together for an Easter break, all eight kids crammed into two narrow
loft bedrooms, knowing that it didn’t matter if quarrels broke out, because Liz or Melanie would settle them in the same way as Ros would.

Why the hell did it matter? It didn’t, not by any possible scale of things that mattered.

‘Ros,’ said Melanie, shading her eyes again, her voice tight.

‘Isn’t that Amy on that dinghy?’

‘What dinghy?’

‘There.’ She pointed; Ros followed. A small yellow dinghy was bobbing just beyond the surf, with two little black figures in it.

‘But we haven’t got a dinghy,’ said Ros stupidly.
One of the little figures in the dinghy stood up, wobbled, sat down again. It was Amy.

‘Where are Carl and Liam?’ asked Liz. But the men were
looking the other way, at the bodysurfers. Ros barely thought.

She pushed Lucas into Melanie’s arms and ran down the
beach. Her breath was hot; her feet flew. She was so close now that the dinghy was hidden by the surf. If the wind veered – if an offshore gust sent the dinghy scudding out across the bay – if Amy panicked – why hadn’t Liam been watching her—

Faces gaped as Ros plunged, fully dressed, into the Easter-cold water. She waded out, the sea dragging at her. She was too slow. She duck-dived under the surf, pushed herself down through the boil of the water, kicked out. She rose, threw her hair back, trod water, pushing herself up to see beyond the next wave that was swelling towards her. She wasn’t far enough out. She dived again, swimming hard and strong underwater as the wave passed overhead. She was beyond the breaking waves.

There was the dinghy, bouncing on the swell. There was a man with it, holding its rope, swimming. She saw the white, scared face of a strange child in the dinghy.

‘Amy!’ she screamed and the man looked her way but he
couldn’t do anything, he was pulling the rope, hauling his own child to safety. ‘Amy!’ The man was pointing. Ros looked to her left and a dark head popped above the surface and went down.

Amy hadn’t been drowning. She made that clear to Ros
afterwards.

‘I’m a good swimmer, Mum.’

She’d jumped out of the dinghy, because it was going the
wrong way and she and the other girl – Talitha, she was called – couldn’t make it turn back. But Talitha didn’t jump even though Amy knew they could easily swim back to shore from there.

But she said all that afterwards, when they were on the way home. After Ros had towed her back to shore, after the doctor who happened to be on the beach had checked Amy over, after they’d all stopped shaking with cold and shock, after Amy had at last stopped crying and holding on to Ros’s waist as if she would never let go. Ros kept running the same loop over and over. Amy going down. The surface of the sea with no Amy.
The grapple for her underwater, nothing there but the sea. And then, as Ros dived for the third time, Amy
rose.

‘He was very apologetic, that other father,’ said Melanie as she ladled sugar into hot coffee from the beach shack for Ros.

‘Trouble was, he’s here on his own with three of them to keep an eye on. He’s divorced.’

‘I don’t blame him,’ said Ros, although she did.

‘They live in Bristol too.’

Melanie’s eyes were bright. And yet she’s a good friend, one of my closest friends, Ros thought. Aren’t people extraordinary?

Thank God I did all those personal survival medals. And the lifesaving course.

Kimberley Hilton flashed into her mind, still smiling and
sparkling, with that neat little blonde head, and big eyes. Still waving that envelope after all these years. ‘If it hadn’t been for me, Ros Howden, you’d never have learned to swim properly,’ she said, and then she laughed, and danced away.

All Those Personal Survival Medals appears in Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore, published by Hutchinson

Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha
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