by Shauna Mackay
And she’s off. Eyes ahead, arms extended, Iris throws her body forward to meet the surface of the water. She begins with a placid and effective breast stroke. This is the afterwork swim she enjoys three days a week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, instead of turning left for the pool, she goes straight on to her brother’s place, to check he’s still alive, to make sure he’s eaten and hasn’t sold his phone for a bottle. Her brother’s liver is on its last legs. Yesterday, he was the yellowest she’s seen him. Today though, it’s Friday, and she’s got to swim.
She is grateful for the single swim lane. How it is roped off from the AquaFun area. The children’s noise, joy, is not roped off. Laughter, squeals and whoops for everyone.
Iris never counts her lengths. She’ll get out when she’s had enough. She never counts her lengths because she thinks she could be someone who might tip over into OCD and then thirty lengths one day will have to mean thirty lengths the next, and the next. She plans her evening as she swims. On the way home she’ll swing by the gas station and fill up the car, grab some candy for the TV, death by sugar. She is careful what she eats but weekends are weekends. She hopes the heavy-footed neighbor recently moved into the apartment above is out tonight. Just one relaxing evening with no thumpthumpthump is all she asks. If the noise doesn’t stop she is going to have to complain and she won’t find it easy.
She swims past a little girl in a red swimming costume who is holding onto the thick padded rope which separates the single swim lane from the chaos that is AquaFun. The little girl meets her eye across the dividing line. Iris doesn’t know if she should smile or not. She worries about this a lot—whether a smile has been called for, or not. Beads of water sit on the child’s arms and soaked hair is stuck to her face in fat slices. To keep the chlorine out of her own hair, Iris has it pulled high onto the top of her head though she knows she appears the type who would wear a swimming cap. She knows this because the girls at work have told her so. They probably think she wears an ugly one-piece costume too. About that, they are right.
The liver specialist has washed his hands of her brother. She wonders if she dare ring the hospital, ask if anything more can be done, say if her brother keeps to his end of the bargain this time can anything be done? Her brother is twenty-eight years old. If he dies, it’ll be the end of her.
She has always known that she will bump into Richard from work here one day. She has known it in the way you just know these things, and here he comes now. Bermuda shorts down to his narrow knees, he’s adjusting the rubber strap on the back of his goggles. He pretends to be surprised to see her. She increases speed as she swims by him like a frog past a heron. He hunkers down at the pool edge, waits to pounce. Calls out, Are you having fun? She doesn’t want to stop and tread water with him when he jumps in beside her on the return lap but she does so, to be a polite phony. She’s not interested. She has been holding Richard at bay since her first day at work. Though if her brother dies she will probably screw him till his ears fly off, screw any man who meets her eye. She will act incredibly out of character, to debase herself, to let the shame sit on top of the grief, keep it weighted down forever. This is what she thinks she will do. Before her Ex, James, and her had broken up, they’d worn promise rings. No sex before marriage was the promise. They’d been engaged since college and then they’d split up and here she was now, frog-kicking, chlorine-slimed, virgo intacta. Sorry, I must carry on, she tells Richard, and she does a fast front crawl away from him.
As she swims her final length, she sees that the little girl in the red swimming costume is playing dead, face down, her limbs making a still X on the water’s surface. Iris climbs out of the pool and hurries toward the changing rooms. She knows Richard is watching her 6 out of 10 backside and giving it an idealized 9.5 through his rose-tinted goggles.
At home, Iris draws down blinds and lights candles. She tilts her head, listens out for noise from the heavy-footed neighbor and she is pleased when she hears nothing but her own heartbeat. Her apartment’s on the third floor. Contemporary living. People below, above, all around her, keeping themselves to themselves, which suits her fine. She gets into a soft tracksuit. Should she ring her brother? No, she must switch off. She is in control of nothing but her own self. Her Ex, James, he would say to let God take care of it. Oh, how she wishes she could tip over into devout Christianity as easily as she thinks she could tip over into OCD and then she’d be able to wrap up all of her anxiety into one big hot bundle and plonk it in His arms.
Iris turns on the TV. She watches the local news every night expecting to hear that a man has died of alcoholic liver disease. She knows this is stupid. Men die everyday of things but, unless it’s by some bad accident or murder, it won’t make the news. Her brother’s death will not make the news. It won’t be news to anyone, including herself. The news anchor is not someone she would want to be friends with in real life. She wouldn’t be able to stand him for more than ten minutes. She doesn’t like his mouth. He is reporting that a child, as yet unnamed, drowned in the City Pool today and an investigation into the incident has been launched.
And then the ceiling shakes and she turns the TV volume up against the noise. Presses cushions into her ears which have stolen pool water inside them. She heads for the kitchen as the thuds and thumps continue from above. The candy she bought on the way home is on the kitchen counter. She opens the bag and places a red gelatin worm onto her tongue. She can’t stand the thuds any longer. She hurries to the door, thrusts her feet into the pumps lying on the doormat in the outer landing, and heads up the short stairway to the fourth floor where she knocks quietly on the door of the flat directly above her own. She’ll be calm and polite, which is what she always is, on the surface.
A hippopotamus answers the door. “Can I help you?” it says. Iris can’t find any words to form a reply before the animal speaks again and invites her inside. “Come in, Child,” it insists. The hippo has some difficulty turning its barrel-bodied bulk in the small entrance but it manages and Iris follows it into the apartment. In the living room, the hippo introduces itself. “I am Bapoto, pleased to meet you.” Iris looks around the room. It is cosy. A blood orange glow comes from a lamp and shape-shifting shadows clutter the walls.
“Hello, I’m Iris,” she says, at last finding her voice. “I live under you.” She breathes in woodsmoke and cloves. There is a bowl of potpourri on the table.
“Smells of back home,” the hippo says because it has seen her looking at the bowl. Iris knows this hippo, Bapoto, is a female. She just knows. It’s not the potpourri, it’s the way the hippo’s tiny eyes, sitting within their bulbous mounds, blaze with feminine strength. “Now, my Child, what can I do for you?” Bapoto asks.
“I’ve come about the noise.” Iris feels her face burn up. “I didn’t know…it’s…it’s fine…I can see how things are…the circumstances.”
“Bapoto does not want to disturb.”
Iris nods to show her appreciation.
“I’m in the tub from dawn to dusk,” Bapoto says, “but I must get out to eat, Child. I have an appetite after dark.” Iris knows her expression must have changed because Bapoto laughs now. It is a deep throaty humphhumph and Iris gets a good view of some enormous teeth. “Don’t you worry, my Child,” Bapoto tells her when she has stopped laughing, “hippopotami are vegetarian, unless we are stressed and desperate and then we sweat blood and rip the thin skin off women.” Bapoto humphs with laughter again. “I make a joke,” she says, and Iris finds a smile. “You know where I can get some grass, Child?” Bapoto asks. “I am getting low on grass.”
“Marijuana?” says Iris.
Bapoto laughs again, her great teeth on display. “Do I look like I am on drugs? Plain grass, I need. Field grass, garden grass. Some juicy grass.”
“I work for City Council,” says Iris. “I’ll speak to one of the Parks and Recreation guys.”
“Do not say grass is for Bapoto.”
“Some forget that we are all creatures of Africa, Child. That we are all one old spirit.” Bapoto’s head, held higher now, is in fiery orange and black relief.
We could be in Africa now, thinks Iris. She is sure she can hear drumming or is it just the effect of the water that is trapped in her ears? “I think my brother is going to die soon,” she tells Bapoto. “I have to go to the swimming pool all the time,”’ she confesses. “I might have OCD. I might need to start swimming more, weekends too, so I can stay in control of my breath. I can’t spot a drowned child. Help me, please. Oh, God, I can’t spot a drowned child.” Iris has no breath left and her words come to a stop on lips wet by eyes.
“You have strength,” Bapoto says. “You will know this about yourself when the dark time comes.”
“The dark time is here,” Iris whispers, “that little girl.” She looks into Bapoto’s eyes and they glint with an intense truth and somehow Iris suddenly feels truly safe for the first time in her life.
“Let those fears come up for air, Child,” says Bapoto. “Walk along the bottom of your municipal pool, bounce along the bottom on tippy-toes like I have done in my river back home but, also, you must be brave enough to surface, face your shadows as well as your sun. Believe me when I say there is always sun, Child. There is sun for the living. There is sun for the dead and dying.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means things are better than you think.”
“How can it be?”—
“Bapoto must eat now. Come back tomorrow and we will talk again.”
“You will be home?”
“After sundown. Please bring grass.”
“I will,” Iris promises. “See you tomorrow…I’ll look forward to it.”
The hippo dips her huge head. “Bapoto also.”
“I usually find it hard to open up,” says Iris. “Life is too hard to talk about.”
“Gasp, Child,” says Bapoto, and she opens her breathtaking mouth. “Gasp, and then let it all go.”
“Do you think I can?” asks Iris. She opens her mouth wide and takes a deep breath. She has never felt so hopeful and light.