The waitress must have been sitting on a small stool behind the counter because when I left my table to find the toilet, I only saw her head between polished yellow cups, a napkin dispenser, the small hand-painted bowl with the label, tips, stuck to the side. She stood up quickly as I passed by.
Later, I caught a glimpse of her putting on mascara. It made me think of this private world she had back there, moments that she could grab for herself. Perhaps it was this that made me feel voyeuristic, but I also felt it had something to do with the level at which she was sitting, so low down, a helpless height, personal and vulnerable.
I asked her if the place got busy.
Oh yes, she said, and the look on her face was of those times: the rush, the panic, the exhaustion.
She told me she was from Poland and I asked her what it was like.
We have four seasons, she said.
I glanced at the window. The street beyond was ashen – the light from the sun kept back by thick, heavy clouds. The whole morning, rain had been coming down in a debilitating way: I’d sat watching it, feeling for the lack of colour – the only shades I saw were where the rain had dampened and darkened. People hurried by beneath umbrellas, their faces flattened, showing nothing.
What do you miss about Poland? I asked the waitress.
The lakes, she said. Here they’re all private.
I thought for a moment and then told her I’d been swimming in a lake nearby.
Where? she said, stepping closer.
In October last year, we finally got our summer. One day, I cycled out to Stanton St John with Dan. This second chance in the weather was apt: Dan and I had been arguing the day before and needed a lift too. We went slowly at first. I was in front, cycling in a daze, my heart sunk.
I’d been in a writer’s fever. Nothing was coming out right. In trying to make my way out of my wordless, black hole, I’d succeeded in thrashing away at everything – even the people I care for the most. I’d seen the expression on Dan’s face, taking in this stranger before him who had put away her love. I could see him grow hollow – although he was trying to hang on. Still, I couldn’t stop.
That morning, he’d taken my hand and said: come on.
I pushed myself on the uphill stretches. By this time, we were beyond the city. Fields stretched out on either side of us and the air was balmy. I felt flies in my face, the warmth of the breeze; I began to surface and see the world again.
We stopped down a side track in the village, lying on the soft earth beneath trees so that when the wind blew the sun appeared as flecks and dots around us. I held out my hand and felt a finger print of heat against my skin. We listened to the birds in the trees, looking up at the loud sounds of rustling foliage to see twigs, falling down. Beyond the treetops, came the beating of wings.
I turned to Dan and whispered: I’m sorry.
He smiled and said: hello.
We set off again and found a quiet road that had turned dark in the heat, the tar almost glistening. There was the scent of sap, of bark and hay. Dan pulled level and, as he began to move ahead, he said: do you think I’ll be able to take my shirt off whilst going along no hands?
He had a bag as well – the strap set diagonally across his chest and back. I watched him pull this upwards, over his head. He wobbled then and had to touch the handlebars. Now, holding the bag in his right hand, he managed to get his t shirt off. I cheered.
We turned to head home and were on a stretch of straight road. We decided to race to see who would reach the bend first. Dan would cycle without hands as a handicap. At first, I was just managing to keep level, knowing that I could build my momentum and change up a gear, increasing my speed. But when I changed gear I lost my rhythm and squealed. I was falling behind. I fought against the now heavy peddles and came level again, knowing that I now had enough to get ahead. Dan grabbed his handlebars.
Hey! I said.
I was wobbling, he told me.
Now, he was going without hands again and I was sliding ahead. I had found a rhythm. I was tired though – almost nothing in my legs – but something kept me on. I could feel the heat in my face. It had nowhere to go with the warm air, pushing back. Then Dan came up from behind, pulling level. He was fully gripping his handlebars, grinning at me. I began to laugh.
I don’t think I would have made it to the bend anyway, I told him, as Dan reached out and took hold of my bike and the two of us rode along parallel.
We came out of Stanton St John and saw the lakes across the field, turning to wheel down a narrow track, which led to the larger of the two. We laid our bikes down and stood by the shore. There were two swans, close to each other, drifting on the water. I couldn’t see how deep it got, but close to shore the bottom was mud and stones, tufts of reeds. Dan began to take off his clothes. He stepped into the shallows. I could tell that it was cold. I watched him, wading in deeper, naked.
Shall I come in? I asked.
No, it’s icy.
He went under and swam out. I thought he would be in the water a while, in which case I would go in. I undid my belt, but he was now turning and coming back. He began to rise out of the water.
I was going to come in, I said. Was it really freezing?
Dan lay his arm against my cheek. It felt cool, refreshed.
You should go in, he said.
I began to take my clothes off and then stepped slowly across the grass to the water. I heard Dan take a picture and turned and grinned at him. He was still naked, waiting to dry, the hair on his body straight with the weight of water.
At first, I stood with my ankles submerged, watching the swans. I was a little wary of them, remembering another lake that we’d been swimming in when we went to Ireland in the summer. This one was salt water, being close to the coast – flooded several hundred years ago. The woman whose Bed and Breakfast we were staying in had taken us there. It had been raining solidly for two days, and when she mentioned she was going swimming in a nearby lake it seemed like a perfect way to be outdoors and defeat the weather. There were two swans, loitering by the pontoon. She told us that it was important to wait for them to swim away as the male could be very protective of his mate.
It is the woman’s friend that I remember now – her Rubensesque figure. She strode up the pontoon in a chocolate coloured swimsuit with large cream polka dots. Her grey hair was cropped short.
A few months ago I was doing badly, she told me. I was overweight, spending too much time indoors. No self esteem.
It was difficult to believe – her eyes gave off light they were sparkling so.
What changed? I asked her.
She smiled and told me that she went to Australia.
I spent a month out of doors, she said. It’s not that I lost a great deal of weight, but I feel fantastic.
I could sense it – her energy, her love for life, more powerful in its gratitude, having lain dormant for so long. She dived into the water after the woman who owned the Bed and Breakfast. They both began to swim towards the opposite shore.
Come on, you two! she called over her shoulder.
Dan was pulling on his trousers now, standing near to the bikes. I began to wade forward into the lake until I was ready to push and bear down, stretching my arms out to reach the water, feeling it icy on my belly first, then covering my back and shoulders, my neck. My lungs squeezed tight and I began to breathe in short bursts. The swans were watching me. Now, I saw a pair of coots, but they were retreating, their necks jerking as their legs worked beneath the surface. I turned onto my back and looked at the sky, empty of clouds, a bright, watery blue: so much light, such a hopeful colour.
When I came out, I felt the air warm on my body, a very faint tightening sensation on my skin as the water began to evaporate. Dan came, clothed, and held me against him. He was breathing slowly, this source of life, my happiness. I felt grateful, knowing him, now feeling our hearts, moving together – cleaned of the scum, which can build up daily and obscure this truth.
That night, I wrote this poem, my block released:
Here, on the lake, the swans live out their lives.
They are country folk – unlike the town birds of the city’s canals.
On the lake, the hours pass with only nature’s clock,
The sun comes and goes, a blooming and fading of colour.
The day slips by in tiny, speechless movements.
Now, the swans face each other.
They dip their beaks into the lake.
At once, their heads follow, breaking the surface,
Their necks coming after,
As a rope might slip from a pontoon, lolloping into the water.
And they surface again, moving with the wind.
One begins to drift away, towards the farthest shore, and the wind shows across the lake,
Wrinkling the space between them.
This is the thing:
They are not apart now because they have argued.
The one, standing in the shallows, is not snubbed.
It does not stretch its neck in protest.
The other does not continue to dive under in a display of no concern.
They simply do what they do.
It is man’s touch that gives the swans a dialogue,
Beyond their own silent rhythms and the beating of their hearts:
Man’s touch that confuses the landscape with pylons,
And thrusts into the air a distracting hum of traffic.
I dream of spending time in a wooden house on a lake. There is a small pontoon and each morning I walk out and dive into the water, and each morning I am renewed.
I met a woman from Canada once, when I was living in Mexico. She had a lakehouse in Nova Scotia. There was something in her manner that would always strike me. I know what it is now. It is the air of someone, needing nothing more than to watch the wind play out across water’s surface – this dance of ripples and circles.
I understand how that waitress can miss her lakes in Poland.