Learning to Swim


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He was always late but he always got away with it, striding through with a sickening smile. Me on the other hand, I was on my last warning. I never knew much about the world except for one thing, there existed a division between two types of people: the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Marx was wrong on one thing, however, as this is not a possession-based phenomenon but one of ease of life, lifestyle, or the ability to move through the world in a frictionless manner. In other words, there were swimmers and there were sinkers. Mike swam in fresh clean waters with a tide that automatically carried him to shore, he had no other option but to make it. Always. Me on the other hand, I was swimming in one of those seas full of old used condoms and MacDonald’s wrappers off the coast of the Costa Del Sol, and the tide was pulling me further and further out. I wasn’t sure if the swimmers knew that they were swimmers, or if the sinkers knew either. Everyone seemed to be trying to get to shore. But some of us were just in the wrong waters.

Mike effortlessly swam into the office with confidently paced strides. As he approached a waft of excessive aftershave drifted past my battered old desk that was currently accommodating an ever-increasing ‘in’ pile. He leaned in with pearly white teeth that exacerbated the orange tone in his heavily tanned skin.

“Hello there, mate. Lovely day outside isn’t it.”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “It was raining when I got here.”

“Unlucky, beautiful sunshine, glorious walk to work it was; I think it’s going to be a good day,” he said, with a slight nudge and a wink that made me almost fall off my chair, which was delicately balanced on different sizes of folded up paper. With a swift turn, he sauntered off flashing his headlight choppers in the direction of the heavily female PR department who responded to his greetings with flirtatious giggles. I could almost hear the adrenalin rush around their undernourished fashion conscious frames. They still call me by the name Martin.

I’m not sure who Martin is; I think he left before me. Apparently there is quite a high turnover in my job so it became pointless to learn new names. It’s like I’m an understudy in a play and the first actor has left. Except that nobody but my line manager knows that I’m here, or has recognised that Martin was 35 years older than me, bald, definitively overweight and spoke in a heavily accented Scottish vernacular.

When I was younger my parents bred me to want to be some business high flyer. They used to sit in front of the television with “Dynasty” blasting and order me to one day show them the life that government benefits couldn’t pay for. And I was. I was going to ‘go’ places. There was going to be fancy clothes, big houses across all livable continents, jet planes, fast cars and even faster women. I was going to have it all. I had mapped out exactly what I was going to do with the fortune that I was to surely acquire, but had left missing the link of exactly how I was to acquire it. So now I was here, entering numbers into a database at Pennethorne pipes and answering to the name of Martin. Next year, I kept telling myself. Next year is when it happens.

Mike swam past for an early ‘business lunch’ at about 12:15. My stomach ached for the cheese and ham sandwich that occupied the top tier of my desk. At precisely one o’clock I treated my self-discipline with its disappointing flavour, then stepped out to receive my daily fresh air courtesy of central London traffic. It was sunny. Tourists swept past me engulfed in their London experience, on the way to the National Gallery to spend exactly 7 seconds perusing each masterpiece and purchasing the postcard of their favourite visual artifact.

A tall enigmatic brunette walked ahead, her oversized sunglasses conquering her petite heart-shaped face. She looked exactly how I had felt my whole life, panicked as to exactly how she’d got here and where she was supposed to be. I watched her without knowing why. I had a strange compulsion to go where she was going. She could lead me to my real life – I was just off track that was all, on a detour, seeing the scenery. It was 1.56 p.m. I could picture my line manager’s eyes glued to the clock that hung on his wall; the clock that regulated his every move, with no rhythmic tick left unrecognised. I had exactly 4 minutes left to stay where I was but something urged me that I had to leave now. Unable to ignore my inner voice’s behest I followed. She stumbled at the end of the street and looked back before turning the corner. “She’s beckoning me,” I mumbled. I took a last visual snapshot of my previous workplace, for my virtual scrapbook of past events. “Goodbye,” I pronounced, saluting the dark figure now grimacing out of the window. It was 2.02 p.m. Martin was leaving. Again.

I moved towards her, my heart thumping through my chest, audible to voyeuristic visitors who offered me scrutinizing glances. I could smell her. The air redolent of the exotic spiced fragrance she mislaid as she passed through it. Her heels beat against the unyielding surface rhythmically. Click, clock, click, clock. She knew I was there, increasing the pace, click, clock, click, clock. She was trying to get me out of here, she was urging me with every step. I weaved and swerved down the road teeming with people swarming the streets and intermittently displacing my image of her. Suddenly a man in an elegant woolen suit and polished hair emerged from the ambiguous mass and moved towards me. He looked pleased to see someone. Looking backwards I expected to see his beautiful perky girlfriend grinning madly. But she wasn’t there. He was looking at me. Sensing my confusion, his smile dissipated in grades with the increasingly cautious treads he made towards me. His image increased in size as he decreased in distance and soon my future was blocked out from view.

“Alright mate how’s it going, you have fun the other night after we left?”

My eyes investigated the visual evidence for some key as to why he offered me such knowing communication.

“I have to go,” I said leaving him mid speech.

“Alright, no need to be rude,” he said, elongating the vowel sound in ‘rude’ as if to prove his point. She was gone. I had left my past, and my future had disappeared. I lost control of my speech and my legs all in one heart palpitation and marched full thrust, legs and arms swinging to the culpable male.

“Now she’s gone! Are you happy?”

“What’s wrong with you? I thought you were alright you know, but you’re a total weirdo.”

“I’m the weirdo?” I exasperated with the end of my rage filled breath, “You’re the one accosting a strange man on the streets and tearing him away from all hopes of a better life”. At this point, he just shook his head at me and told me he’d see me later. Which confused me completely. Just my luck, first ten minutes of freedom and I get propositioned by a mad man.

I walked up to the point I’d last seen her, sniffing the sweet air for some clue as to where she had gone. As the sounds of her clipping heels reverberated in my ears, I felt a curled up magazine being thrust into my arms by a tall bearded man in non-matching sports gear and a dusty old trilby.

“Big Issue,” he ordered with a deadly stare.

This was an instruction, not a question, so I rewarded his visionary tactics with the 2 pound coin that occupied my pocket. As he turned away, with my magazine still in hand, I pulled him back.

“Excuse me, this may seem like an awkward question, but my friend was walking down the street and I didn’t see where she went, did you see her?”

He gave me a blank stare, his mouthing gaping open to reveal teeth that were interchangeably shades of yellow and black.

“Tall, b..b..brunette, big sunglasses, s..s..smart looking?” I stuttered sheepishly. The blood rushed to my face but I assumed this was most likely invisible to a man who had clearly spent the morning drinking high percentage cider cans, like the one he clutched in his left hand.

“Your friend?” he announced. “Don’t friends generally tell each other where they’re going, or is that just old fashioned?”

The end of his question was met with a sly smile creeping upwards into his heavily creased face and sunken red eyes that advanced his years considerably.

“Oh, she just didn’t see me, and…and… I’ve lost her number …I just wanted to say hi.”

With every clause I became less convincing. He advanced his mud-ridden fingers forward and I realised it was not words that were to convince him. I gave him the last creased banknote that had been keeping my redundant bankcard company and he pointed to the second floor of the three-storey office building set ahead of me.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I elated, intoxicated with her closeness once again. He shrugged his shoulders, and walked off, my big issue still in his crusty right hand. I walked up to the door and examined the buzzer buttons.

Ashely & Cowan Ltd
Archers plc

I had a 50/50 chance of getting the right one, but I didn’t think describing a woman’s vital statistics over an intercom would do me any favours. I was no risk taker. I sat outside the building, placing my self on the cold concrete floor and counted the pigeons for four hours. I never got a final count. As the night began to close in, and the warmth of the sun receded I was jolted awake by the harsh electronic buzzing that accompanied the opening of the solid oak door. I curved my body around to face the individual passing through. It was her. In shock my vision blurred and I couldn’t see her face but I could hear her. Her recognisable screams stabbing at my eardrums dulling the sound of the clip clop clip clop that was moving away from me. I ran after her and she swung around.

“Not again, I thought we sorted this, I thought you’d stopped doing this. I thought you were on medicine. They’ll lock you up you know.”
I felt sick and weak to my knees. I didn’t understand the words that were being flung at me.

“What?” I gasped weakly.

“You have to stop following me,” she said, tears now streaming from her well-proportioned face. “You’re ruining my life”.

She searched into her bag for a small pocket mirror that she flung at me and ran. Her image dissipated into the misty air. I opened the polished metal case slowly with shaking hands and my whole reality crumbled before me. Nausea overwhelmed my senses, my mind was hazy, my eyes dizzy. As I focused, the fragile silver framed mirror was dominated by the repugnant depiction of an old, bald, gluttonous man. The man gawked at me, his mouth wide open. It was Martin.

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