I once read that the end of a relationship is like being involved in a road traffic accident. Which is quite fitting really, given what happened. Only you’d probably think of an accident as something sudden, out of the blue, and I suppose breaking up is like that for some people. For me, though, the road had been rocky for some time and I could see all too clearly what was about to happen: a multi-car pileup. People screaming and car-horns blaring. And here we were, me and Larsen, gliding towards it, the wheels beneath us slipping and spinning out of control.
It was Spring 1992, a typical blustery April afternoon. The streets of Cambridge were gloomy, the pavements wet and the turrets and spires of the city in the distance were lost in a sepia haze. A strong gust of wind and a smattering of chilly raindrops assaulted me as I jogged across Parker’s Piece and crossed the road at Gonville Place to cut through to the red and grey brick building on the corner that housed the College of Arts. Even after over seven years of living in Cambridge, it still surprised me that such an ancient and architecturally stunning city could be cocooned within the boundaries of what was, on the outer fringes, a perfectly modest late twentieth century town. But this very building, of course, was where it all started for me; this was what had brought me here, to Larsen’s home, and into his life. It suddenly seemed a very long time ago.
I cut through the cemetery behind the college and paused for breath, ignoring the droplets of rain that were dribbling over my forehead. I looked back again at the brick and glass building behind me and the strangest of feelings washed over me, something that I could only describe as homesickness. But – for what? I had my own home – a pretty two-bedroomed Victorian terraced house in Vinery Road – and a stable life with Larsen. I had friends. I had a budding career in broadcasting. My life was full and busy and I had no reason to feel insecure. And yet, something was missing.
I shifted my swimming bag on my shoulder and set off again down Coldham’s Lane, breaking into a jog, and a few minutes later I pushed through the revolving door into the swimming pools complex. I was met by a welcome wall of heat and the familiar scent of chlorine. I picked up my ticket and walked into the changing room, hot steam from the showers rising up to greet me. I didn’t in fact much feel like taking off all my clothes and immersing myself in cold water; I was wet and cold enough already. There was also a knot in my stomach and a heaviness in my chest that was more than the predictable outcome of having drunk the best part of a bottle of wine by myself and smoked numerous cigarettes the night before. I knew that I should have talked to Larsen long ago, about the way I was feeling, about the thing that had come between us. But I couldn’t name it; I didn’t know what it was. So I carried on as if nothing was wrong. Because even thinking that I could lose him made me hold my breath till it stopped short in my lungs, and nothing came back out again. Because saying it would make it real for both of us and I didn’t know how or why it had come to this.
My heart sank even further as I exited the changing rooms onto the pool side; there were no lap lanes marked off. The pool was packed full of dive-bombing eleven-year-olds and elderly people doing widths. (“You’re going the wrong way!” I always wanted to shout). It wasn’t the tranquil haven I had expected; it was one big wet free-for all. I sighed, pulled on my goggles, took a deep breath and plunged in, fighting my way in a frustrated crawl down to the shallow end. A girl on her back clipped me on the right ear as she meandered past me in an aimless kind of circle, then carried on regardless, while I wobbled around in her slipstream. I could feel the tension creeping up my shoulder blades and setting into my jaw. A length and a half later there was a huge splash to my left and an elbow jabbed painfully into my hip. I was in mid stroke. I swallowed a large mouthful of water, choked and gasped for breath. My goggles filled up with water. I shot an angry and waterlogged glance around me and grabbed for the edge of the pool.
A face appeared. “You okay?”
I pulled off my goggles and hauled myself up onto the edge. “It’s supposed to be lengths,” I said, making no attempt to mask my irritation. “Two till four.”
“Sorry love,” said the lifeguard. “Not in school holidays. Different timetable.”
“So where’s that advertised? How is anyone supposed to know that?” I was simultaneously angry and ashamed at the tone of my voice. I seemed to have been speaking like this to people a lot lately. I pulled the elastic back on the strap of my goggles. They pinged out of my hands and landed at the lifeguard’s feet.
“There’s a new timetable in reception.” The lifeguard bent down beside me and, seated on his haunches, picked up my goggles and began adjusting the strap. I watched him with a confusing combination of irritation and gratitude. I knew how to fix my own goggles, for Christ’s sake. But then, despite what Larsen thought, I didn’t always enjoy doing everything myself. I just never seemed to have had much choice.
“There you go,” said the lifeguard, rubbing at the plastic lenses with his t-shirt, and handing my goggles back to me.
“Thanks.” I looked at him more closely. He was tall, well over six feet, with thick sandy-coloured hair, hazel eyes and, I noticed, eyebrows that met slightly in the middle. “Never trust anyone whose eyebrows meet in the middle,” Larsen had told me once. I had forgotten to ask him why. I smiled involuntarily at this thought, and the lifeguard smiled back. His eyes met mine and I turned away, embarrassed.
“So, do you come here often?” he asked. I looked back at him, incredulously. Was he really trying to chat me up? “I just mean… you’re a strong swimmer,” he added. “Your technique’s good. I was wondering if you had ever competed?”
“I used to,” I said. “County level. The ASA. It was a while ago.”
“You should give it another go.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t got time for that amount of training.”
“Well if you change your mind… I do a bit of coaching. I’ve got time for a few private lessons, if you’re interested?” There was something suggestive in the way that he said this and he backed it up with a raising of his eyebrows and a smile.
“I’ll think about it. Anyway… must get on,” I muttered, embarrassed at his attentions and feeling disloyal to Larsen. I stood up to dive back in but became suddenly very conscious of the slippery tightness of my Speedo, which was more than a little chlorine-worn round the chest area. I had been meaning to buy a new one. I lowered myself back down again and glanced back over my shoulder. The lifeguard was still smiling at me.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“See you again, Lizzie?”
I nodded without meaning to. “Maybe,” I added, then turned and plunged awkwardly into the water.
At precisely twenty-nine lengths I went through the pain barrier, the lifeguard was forgotten, and the kids went home for tea. As my body grew lighter and my strokes became effortless and even, my thoughts drifted back to Larsen. The ephemeral nature of everything scared me. Why did nothing last? I couldn’t bear the thought of failure, of losing him, of giving up. And yet I wasn’t happy. I just didn’t know why. Was it me? Was I congenitally dissatisfied? And if so, what did it matter whether I was with Larsen or… or that lifeguard, for instance? How could I be sure that I would not arrive back here again in another seven years’ time, in this fog of unhappiness, the pain of yet another break-up looming up ahead in the distance? This is what scared me the most: how could I be sure that I would ever be happy again?