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Twenty Lengths: a love story (extract)

Angela unpeeled herself from the leatherette swivel chair in her office and walked under the viaduct at the edge of town, moving faster on foot than the commuter traffic. She was unwavering on her route through the new housing estate, where the smell of creosote lingered on the fences of the public footpath before it turned through a kissing gate onto the park.

She entered the lido through the heavy iron turnstiles. It was deserted after the heatwave. The ice cream freezer had been decommissioned and wheeled off the premises after the second week of rain.  But by then she was so taken with the euphoria of cold-water immersion that she swam her twenty lengths twice a week, regardless of weather conditions. Angela pulled on her goggles and a tummy-control one piece every Tuesday when Jonathan was at bowls and then again most Saturday mornings when he did his allotment inspections.  Now in her mid-sixties, she didn’t mind how she looked, finding the hair she’d allowed to go grey tucked in very neatly under her swimming cap. 

As she pushed off from the wall into the blue, Angela imagined that the luxurious cooling sensation must be akin to sleeping on silk sheets and revelled in the curative effect of the waters. Breast-stroking the fifty metres end to end, she found the sweep and glide of her body, her deep and measured breaths, somewhat meditative.

Jonathan said she was liable to get Weil’s disease in that cesspool of an excuse for a Public Baths. He couldn’t see the attraction. Didn’t appreciate the clean art deco lines of the parabolic diving boards or the sweep of the reception area that looked like a ship’s bridge. But Angela had come to feel a motherly, almost proprietorial, affection for the place with its sagging ceiling boards, the corroded iron security bars, the ghost of a common ivy torn from the boiler house wall. She’d even risked shredding her cuticles on the melamine when she stuffed a glory hole in the family cubicle with scraps of toilet roll, hoping that would see an end to any febrile teenage antics in the Changing Village.


On Tuesday evening, Lewis and Sara were on duty. They surveyed the pool – Lewis gazed up and chatted to Sara in the observation chair while she looked deliberately away through her Raybans. Sara waved at Angela, her white gold hair flowing over the thick black fleece she wore against the early evening chill. Lewis turned momentarily from his fixation to flash a smile at Angela, the muscles in his bronzed forearm flexing as he held the ladder.

Sara was her neighbour’s daughter – a lovely girl, if a little unworldly.  She’d given up a cream Fiat Uno and a day job on a local estate agent’s lettings desk to take up lifeguarding for the summer. Angela met Lewis for the first time at the neighbour’s impromptu barbecue where they’d gathered to watch a football match.  Jonathan pitched in and stood over the meat on the gas-fired grill, holding a long fork in one hand and wafting the smoke away with the other as he conversed with Sara, sending the smoke up the garden towards his wife. Through watering eyes, Angela watched Jonathan throw back his head and laugh, something she couldn’t recall ever seeing him do before. As if feeling her gaze, Jonathan stopped laughing abruptly and frowned, made a gesture for Angela to refill Sara’s glass, which she did without comment. Angela was like that, never one to complain or make unreasonable demands. By the time she’d settled herself back down, Lewis had joined her, laughing and joking and kindly making her feel for all the world like she was the most important person there.