When John first sees Ruta Meilutyte swim, he thinks her breaststroke tidy enough for her to be one of the best swimmers in the world one day. She is a rangy, blond-haired twelve-year old, but there is something in the bone structure of her face – her angular jaw and neat chin, the strength of her forehead – that suggests a body on the eve of might. But it’s also her eyes – pale, bright, unaffected. While other girls her age walk with a glance to the side to see how they are being perceived, Ruta watches the space that awaits her – the space where destiny lies – heedless of people’s thoughts, concerned only of the world and what she will make of it.
My mother, spurred by horror stories of children drowning, had my brother and me, taking swimming lessons at a young age. She grew up on Copacabana beach, in one wave or another, and thought omitting to teach a child to swim was one of the most irresponsible things a parent could do.
By the time I’m seven or eight and we begin swimming lessons at school, I already have most of my badges, earned at the local pool. My favourite part of the assessment had been when we got to wear our clothes in the water. It was bliss to come out of the changing room, walk down the damp pool’s edge, and have no trembles of self consciousness whatsoever. It always seemed my swimsuit was see-through, or that yet again I had chosen badly – as if it was a fault of the design that my tummy protruded.
This particular season, when my mother takes me shopping, I am charmed with a yellow suit that has fine black horizontal lines. My mother buys it for me, saying it will be very sweet.
But in the changing room, walking past the mirror towards the pool for PE, I am struck with the bulbous image that looks back at me, those two stupid stick-like legs, which somehow manage to prop me up. With these yellow and black stripes I have managed to play a prank on myself – fat bumblebee, everyone will think: a big, swollen lump that waggles as if drunk on nectar, scrawny limbs flailing.
After the Olympic semi finals, John tries to talk to Ruta about the strengths and weaknesses of the other swimmers who have made it to the final. She holds up her hand for him to be quiet.
Tell me what I have to do! Tell me what I have to do to be better, is all she says.
I have verrucas. There are seven in total, spread over both feet. Two are much worse than one. I am a bumblebee in socks.
I hate the lengthy process: turning the verruca socks the right way with the elastic making sucking, slapping sounds – filling them with talc in order that they might slide on, but finding always that final half a centimetre that remains slack beyond my toes, where any more pulling will only cause them to rip.
I walk down to the pool, feeling eyes on me – the movement of heads as these eyes follow. There are hushed sounds: ugh! verrucas!
After a few weeks, I decide to leave them at home, telling my teacher as she has us putting away our things to get ready for swimming that I have forgotten them.
She clicks her tongue, and begins searching in her desk drawers. The thought of having to wear a ‘spare’ sock sickens me, but relief floods when she only finds one. I experience an unexpected pleasure in the fact that both feet are infected.
Oh, she says when I remind her. She sighs and glances around the room.
I feel safe, but just as I begin to sink into my seat, she springs up from hers.
We’ll use a plastic bag! she announces.
When the starting beep comes, of all the athletes lined up, it is Ruta who springs from the block first. The fresh green of her cap launches up through bubbles and foam at every stroke. Beneath the water, her blue suit looks metallic – it is like the silvery, rainbow-tinged skin of a fish.
Ruta’s green cap is ahead, reaching the end first, turning three tenths of a second ahead of the field.
Dan and I have sprung to the edge of the sofa. His mum is cheering.
She’s still at school, Dan says. If she wins gold, she’ll be going to lessons and everyone will know she’s an Olympic champion.
At my junior school we were divided into four ‘houses’. For the lower part of the school I was a Tadpole, and when I moved up to the senior part I became a Frog. The houses competed with each other in all areas of sport. Athletics was held on the final day of school, kids sitting with their parents, eating their picnics in between events.
The swimming took place the week before, and for three years Frogs were undefeated. We had a gifted brother and sister duo. There was always a whisper of awe in the air whenever they strode out to take their positions at the water’s edge. The sister is now a pro British triathlete, but even back then, when she can’t have been more than eleven, there was talk of her turning professional. It was absorbing to watch her walk across the slate slabs, simply for this sense of watching greatness, the expectation of seeing something that would give a clue as to what talent really looked like, where it began in the body, how it revealed itself in the move a hand makes to readjust the strap on the goggles. No one ever beat her. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
Ruta is close, so close – fighting, you can tell. The president of Lithuania is in the crowd. Ruta’s father is watching on TV. The other swimmers are trying, but they don’t have what she has.
Oh, Dan’s mum says. It must be awful for the one who comes last.
But even last is the eighth best in the world – not, say, the slowest in the year.
The final race I ran at sports day was the hundred metres. It was the year I would leave and move to secondary school. Parents lay on chequered rugs, the mothers in wide sunhats and floral dresses, their flesh white and a little baggy.
I am good at the hundred meters, quite speedy, but just now, walking down the grassy bank towards the track I am preoccupied with the two horizontal creases my burgeoning breasts are making of my t shirt. I wish my mother had bought me a polo shirt, like the other girls have – the fabric would have been thicker and able to resist the fragile push of growing flesh. But not a t shirt where the material is soft and impressionable. A collar would have also hidden my shapeless, over padded neck. I admire the pale, elusive hollows at the base of the other girls’ throats, enviable above the delicate buttons of their polo shirts.
We begin to line up. I tug at my shorts. They are too tight – hand-me-downs from my brother, which are riding up in the crotch area. But now the crowd is falling silent and slowly the atmosphere, a sense of thrill, drags my thoughts outwards, to the track in front. Some of the girls are taking their plimsolls off. I stare down at my own, glancing over once more as I see feet now bare, stretching freely in the grass. Without shoes they look feminine and light, sprightly. As the assistant headmaster says, on your marks, I quickly take mine off. The ground is baked hard from the summer sun. It is unyielding.
I do not like this unknown sensation beneath my feet. I glance to the side where I have flung my plimsolls, sensing the onset of a great error.
We all release forward, and even though my legs are going, moving with that energy and fast twitch that I know I have for the hundred meters, everyone is getting away from me. I have no forward momentum. Each pace dies on the ground so that I start from nothing every time. I had thought I might win, but the gap grows and I watch as even the two biggest girls from my year move away from me – girls who are tubby all over, not just a swollen bumblebee body.
In this situation, two seconds is an eternity. The finish line waits for me. Everyone else has flown through. I push and push, but I can’t change the fact that this is the last race I will ever run at this school and I am the slowest. All that crossing the line does, is make this official.
Ruta finishes, springing round in the water to look at the stadium. Her eyes seek the board and her hand flies to her mouth as she sees the 1 next to her name. She hops up onto the lane divider and rejoices with her arms rising up, her swimmers’ hands flat and sharp in the air. But she still continues to look around, checking how people react to this display of winning, as if someone might correct her. But the cheering continues. She shakes her head and her eyes have a look of panic rising to the surface, or some emotion made startling for its novelty.
The school had beautiful grounds. I loved the horse chestnut trees, those big floppy leaves, which you could pick at until they were left looking like a fish skeleton. There was a mulberry tree outside the tennis court, with plump sweet fruit that stained fingertips a beautiful shade of reddish pink. Rose bushes had been planted along one side of the pool – at least a dozen varieties, red, pink, white, peach. I remember tiptoeing on the ragged soil, cautious of sharp stones, just to bring a puffed up flower to my nose and inhale. The sensation of petals on the face is like a breath of sorts, an almost wet, but loving breath.
I am on stage in a production of Alice in Wonderland, put on by an after school drama group I’ve joined. My part is disappointingly small. I wanted to be the red queen, but was cast as one of the minion playing cards she orders to paint her white roses red. I have a small group of lines, which I divide my heart between. Each word carries an island of passion.
It is the final night and I have finished my piece. Just as I’m carrying out my last, heartfelt exit, I spot my headmaster in the audience. Had I known he was there I would have given more. I sit back stage and feel like weeping.
The following week he calls me into his study and tells me that he has a very demanding part in the school play that he is thinking of casting me in. It is a part that makes me happier than anything has up until that moment. I am twelve.
Waiting to go on stage each night, I have no thoughts of myself, my body. It is the energy that lies beyond the stage amongst the audience that I focus on – energy which is there for the taking if you give yourself boldly, and let go of fear to take hold of what is beyond.
We march down from the classroom in single file, entering the pool area via the small, iron gate, that is like sandpaper to touch, rusted as it is. We leave our towels on the benches lined up in front of the rose bushes. They are in full bloom and their petals quiver in the wind.
On my left foot, I have the ‘spare’ verruca sock, which has turned a sickly yellow with age. On my right foot, a red plastic bag crackles with each step. It is secured by an elastic band at my ankle. I feel it cutting into my flesh. All I can do is try not to look at it, or think about it, but this is hard.
In the water, my right leg is buoyant, keeping the bright red level with the pool’s surface. It is tough to bring it down beneath me. I am aware of the water in a new and startling way – outraged at its transparency, at the way it seems to act as a magnifying glass.
Older children have begun to line up at the wall to the pool, having come out of lessons already for their break time. When our class is over I do not want to get out of the water.
The teacher shouts my name.
I am at the far side of the pool – the opposite side to my towel. I make to swim across, but the teacher comes tearing over.
Out now, she says.
I cannot even swim to the steps nearby, as she is standing right above, pointing at the edge of the pool by her feet.
I put my hands on the side and struggle for a moment as I try to pull myself up. The bag has now half-filled with water and is heavy and cumbersome. I lie on my belly, the paving slabs warm beneath my bathing suit – a drowned bumblebee, legs and arms trying to work. I get to my feet and begin to walk the width of the pool to my towel. I have to pass right in front of the wall, where the older children are standing. The only way to do it is holding my breath. I take slow, careful steps, trying to ignore the loud sloshing sound, as my right foot – leaden – slaps down each time on the slate.