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  • Writer's pictureSteven Thiele

Beyond the Barrier

The glass doors parted, and I stepped through, greeted by the heady rush of chlorine. I smiled despite puffy, reddened eyes hidden behind mirrored goggles. As I marched down the slippery tiles, I glanced out the window to the car park, deserted save for three cars. Only a single lamp lit the night.

Not a ripple crossed the pool’s surface as I tossed my bag on the bench and took off my outer layers to leave my bathers, slipping off my thongs and sliding across the tiles still wet from the hose.

A splash of yellow entered my vision and I waved to the lifeguard, his waves of brown hair bobbing up and down as he searched in vain for something to do.

I took a deep breath and dove in. Even after thirteen years, the cold still took my breath away. I relished it. I pushed hard in freestyle, relaxing into the motion. As familiar as walking, breathing in even draughts. I rolled, forced the water to move uncertainly, swirling and eddying. Feet hit the wall and I pushed off again, knifing through the water.

I evened out into a longer stroke, left bubbles in my wake. The wall reappeared and I slammed into it, as fatigue coursed through my arms, bone turned to lead.

The air tasted even sweeter than before. And despite myself, I grinned, a fool’s smile, smiling to no one. I could never explain it, that indescribable rush of adrenaline, the feel of the water rushing past, the taste of the air all combining into a heady paradise. The lifeguard was now barely watching, chatting with his manager. I saw the momentary flash of irritation on his face as he glanced at me, but the clock only showed 8:20pm. Plenty of time.

I pushed back through the set, daring myself to go faster, to kick harder, to not breathe at all, flirting with the limit. Using fatigue as an anaesthetic to dull the pain, pretending lactic acid could dissolve tears. Could dissolve heartbreak. A sob caught in my throat, disrupting my stroke, and again I thanked the mirrored lenses on my goggles.

A smooth figure knifed through the water on my right, easily keeping pace. Dark bathers and black goggles over a silver cap. She launched into a tumble turn, effortlessly twisting into backstroke, her stroke moving smoother than I could ever hope to achieve.

I grinned and twisted over myself, pushing myself harder and harder as the ceiling crawled past. I flipped back over at the next turn, strokes lengthening and leaving froth in my wake. And through it all, we stayed level. Pushing ourselves became a challenge, a competition. I feel the familiar burn in my lungs, as though the fluid was being replaced with lactic acid. The sheer euphoria of life beyond the pain barrier. And as we hit the wall in unison, I saw a faint hint of a smile creep across her reddened face. She climbed out of the water while I leant on the lane rope, trying to soak up every blissful moment before facing home again.

But as she looked over her shoulder, those goggles had been hiding a gaze that saw right through me, in a way no-one else ever had. My breath caught in my throat as the squeak of her shoes on the floor was the only sound left on the pool deck.

I never learned her name.

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