You’d be surprised to know I had secrets, if you met me. Useless at eye contact, but oh I can talk. Words pour out, unfiltered. A boyfriend once called it verbal jazz. Said he liked to hear it, jangling in the background, but never paid attention to the meaning.
It’s a nervous tic, like chimps grin when threatened. I guess it sounds like openness.
Really, it’s a wall.
That morass of information, inane and intimate, amusing and harrowing, dull and grotesque, swamps questions, extinguishes them. No-one wants to know more. No-one learns the tricky stuff.
No-one knows I’m a nearly-murderer.
We were used to camping holidays; Devon, Cornwall, till longer drives were bearable, then France. Throbbing ferries, long lanes of elegant trees, fields of sunflowers, quiet country churches then the rocky, precipitous Ardeche, or Camargue’s heat and white horses born black. Ramshackle freedom of soft walls and cooking over blue flames. Sandy toes and shared shower blocks. Never, however, to paddle in the turbulent river or rip-tidal ocean unsupervised.
This year was different. Menorca was the kind of holiday other families took; echoey airport, cramped plane, applause at landing, stark white apartments jagged against navy sky, a swimming pool. Not private, not exactly, but the block was small, the season early and the blue cube empty, water unriffled. No wind or tide to tug us out. No hidden rocks to rip at feet. No kayakers to bash us. Overlooked by our balcony. Safe.
While Mum tugged off rumpled sheets that meant the cleaners hadn’t been yet, and Dad rang the rental agent, my brother and I dumped bags in the middle of the floor and pulled out costumes, desperate to shed travel’s sticky cling. Dad’s arm barred the way.
“Where do you two think you’re going?”
“We’ve not got time right now.”
“It’s a pool. It’s right outside. We’re good swimmers.” A stretch. We were OK swimmers. I’d a few fabric badges and had dived for bricks, and swum in pyjamas, at school.
He wavered. We saw. Ducked beneath the arm and ran out shrieking, jumped right in. Screamed at the icy grip of it. Nobody hauled us out. Later, they joined us.
No point instituting new rules after that.
D and I could swim, so long as we were quiet during lazy siesta time and looked out for each other.
It was in the post-lunch lull the boys appeared. We’d seen a car arrive but thought nothing of it. D and I slithered out and dripped over to greet the interlopers, one about my age, one about his. They were English. A flash of hope we might make friends, before I knew we wouldn’t. I withdrew, girl’s prerogative. Fetched a book and sat on the side, legs kicking glittering droplets. Harder for D; the draw of male company, the shame of siding with a sister.
I wasn’t the best big sister. Four years gave me the sharps and tools for mental cruelty and D wasn’t yet strong enough for his frustrated punches to hurt. I loved him with the passionate irritation particular to thirteen-year-olds. He was funny, though, and, when no-one was looking, we got on. Maybe even liked each other.
Surprising; the ferocity of my reaction when I spotted the bullying. D was laughing along, but hurt and suspicion shadowed the edges of his smile. Proprietorial at first: D was mine to torture. How dare they? Then molten anger obliterated sense. Next I knew I was balled up on the pool’s rough floor tiles, arms locked round the legs of my brother’s oppressor. He wasn’t fighting me much, yet. I was a girl. He was bigger than me. Uncool to acknowledge I could harm him. He thought he could pull us both to the surface with just his arms. Perhaps he thought I was flirting.
The kicking came as I ran out of breath. I held on long enough to show I could. We burst through flurries of bubbles, his eyes huge, face red, movements jerky and desperate. He sloshed onto the concrete and stalked off, his confused little brother trotting behind.
After that, we only used the pool when no-one else was there.
We never told our parents. I doubt D even remembers, but I do.
Sometimes, in the pool at the gym, I swim a length under water, watch the thrashing legs and think how easy it would be. It all comes down to who can hold their breath the longest.
And I’ve got good lungs.