Learning to Swim

Julie Abbott had fallen in. The pool was packed with wet, white bodies like a bucket of angler’s maggots and she’d fallen, slithered on the bottom and choked on the piss-polluted water. Hands soon found her tummy and took advantage of her vulnerability to let fingers rove into the elastic of her yellow shirred cotton costume, tweaking it, fumbling and pulling it aside to invade her in the chlorinated wet. She struggled but was grabbed by a constrictor arm so firmly that the other was free to carry out its rotten work. Her head was thrust clear of the surface but her body was ground hard onto a solid seat of muscled thigh, her first inhalation was of cider tinged breath through teeth that seemed wonky to her stinging eyes. In the midst of the raucous din she heard her friend’s worried voice,

‘Jules, Jules are you okay?’

Julie was released abruptly, her pseudo rescuer vanished into the throng leaving her snorting a mix of pool water and mucous back out of her nose and with a confused sense that something strange had happened.

‘I’m getting out Carol’, she coughed, ‘I feel a bit sick cos I’ve swallowed some water and grazed my knees on the bottom, I’ll see you in a bit’.

That was Julie’s first attempt at swimming in the City baths and several pubertal years passed before she returned. As a fourteen year old she was a pupil at a girl’s grammar school who ordained that everyone should achieve at least a grey swimming certificate. She had a vague unease that she couldn’t quite account for, but it was strong enough for her to plead menstruation for three weeks in a row and get away with it. For those three weeks she had sat on the balcony to watch, but that day for the first time she was alone. She heard the groan of the stair door closing, thought it was another girl skiving off and didn’t even raise her head from her comic when someone sat beside her. When a male voice said,

‘Fancy a kiss?’ her skin prickled like nettles and she turned and looked into the eyes that had appeared in her sleep many times. In a flash she understood, she knew at last what had happened all those years ago, there was no doubt.

He grinned, exposing a furred tongue that flicked downwards towards the folds of his chin, Julie’s belly churned and her vision distorted with images of nearly drowning mixed with a real fear of the man beside her.

‘Go away I’ll tell’, she tried to shout but it came out as a croak that ebbed away under his hog laugh,

‘Ha ha ha, what? I saved you, you would have drowned! Bet you’ve never been kissed, come on you’ll like it, have a try’. He was right, most of her friends had boyfriends, and Mandy Davey had gone all the way. Her memory had been of someone old . . . but . . . he wasn’t really was he . . .?

‘How old are you now then, sixteen? Sweet sixteen and never been kissed? I’m twenty four’, he must have read her mind. ‘I’ll buy you some chips and a cola float at Wimpy after or come back to mine for a gin, my flat mate’s away it’ll be just us’. She decided that maybe he wasn’t so bad. As he reached out to grab her she noticed ginger curls on the side of his hands, she thought it strange that he had soft hands and not the rough arms of her nightmares. And then his mouth was on her, he swallowed her with a gob so wet she felt she was dissolving in his spit. She wriggled but had no strength compared to his toned swimmer’s biceps, she couldn’t breathe and his tongue was deep in her throat. With his hands tugging her blouse, she remembered the same feeling of breathlessness in her nights of fantasy with a pillow, a Jackie mag and her David Essex posters.

Something happened down there inside her, she was aware that she was making a noise but it was muffled with the splashing of normality and the lifeguard’s whistle. He pushed her, fingers probed where they’d never been and weren’t meant to go, it hurt. Panting she pushed back harder.

‘Stop, stop, hold on a minute I’ve got to meet my friend or she’ll come looking, I’ll come back.’

‘What come to my place? Good girl I’ll look after you, you’ll see, be as quick as you can.’


Things looked good when we met in 1995. I was on a three month placement in Zimbabwe, working as a veterinary nurse, when one morning a sandy haired guy burst in with his arms around a tiny, injured lion cub. The cub was bleeding badly and we didn’t think it would make it. Once it was patched up, we watched it through the night, and in that time we didn’t stop talking. He said later that he decided there and then that he would never let me go. If only I’d listened to him instead of just hearing what I wanted to hear. I spent all my free time with him in the following weeks, and on my last full day he brought me here to Vic falls, the most romantic place in the world. With the rainbow over the Zambezi and the sound of Mosi oa Tunya, the smoke that thunders, in the background, he proposed.

The year we were apart crawled by, we spoke several times a week and emailed daily. If I didn’t reply within a few hours he would get anxious and impatiently ask me where I’d been. I’d tease him and most times he’d laugh, but sometimes he’d get sulky and make an excuse to say goodbye.

My family weren’t overjoyed when he flew across for the wedding. They didn’t like him, a white African farmer was different from anyone they had ever met and they couldn’t bear that I’d be moving 5000 miles from home. He kept on trying to please them, only expressing his annoyance when we were alone. One time I heard him shouting down the phone to someone, he was shaking with anger when he came outside to join me. I’d tried to take his hand but he brushed me off. He always apologised though.

In my new home I struggled to get used to other people looking after the house, cooking and cleaning. I remember holding a white t shirt up and finding a stain hadn’t come out in the wash, he snatched it from me and went to the laundry room.  Hearing a shout, I ran to see what was wrong and saw a girl around thirteen run screaming from the house, he drove off without saying a word and didn’t come back that day.

Each year things got tougher for white farmers, and as political tension increased so did his. I felt more and more trapped, he said it was too dangerous for me to go anywhere, if I went alone I could be kidnapped; if I took a houseboy he might kidnap me. I didn’t argue, I rarely did anymore and besides he was probably right, the workers would probably take me hostage as revenge for the way he had treated them, the younger ones often had bruises. He didn’t hit me, he could always find another punch bag, but I’d learnt to censor my words and when it was best to turn away.

A neighbouring farm was raided and torched as part of Mugabe’s ‘Land reform’, and it was then that he made plans in case we had to leave, but at the same time he wanted to stay and fight. One day he called me to the basement to show me where his collection of guns and ammunition were locked safely away. He made me practice loading and aiming at targets, just in case.

The kitchen girl came in late sometimes, she was only nineteen but had a couple of children of her own, so I’d make a start on dinner. He was livid when he found out. That’s when his fist landed on me. I’d never felt such pain. He apologised and tried to make it better, but my heart was numb and my jaw felt like it was broken. I said I had to go to bed and looking remorseful, he agreed. I slept for a while, but woke needing pills and went to the medicine cupboard. I could hear thumping and shouts so in case we were being raided, I took the pistol from his bedside drawer and crept downstairs.

The kitchen door was open and what I saw made me gag, he had the girl spread-eagled on the table with her hands tied and her clothes shredded. With his hand over her mouth he rammed himself into her rigid body until she saw me, then he turned. He eyes widened with shock as he saw the gun.

And so here I am back at the most romantic waterfall in the world. Mary, the kitchen girl is with me, waiting for the last train to cross the bridge for the night. My bag is packed; I’m hoping to make it to Harare and then a flight to a new life. First though, Mary and I have a task to carry out.

‘I hear it coming Mrs’ she said. The smoke from the train gets mixed up with the smoke that thunders, but the steam train smell, which I’ll never forget, is distinctive. As soon as it disappears over the bridge and into Zambia, we pull the body along the tracks until we are clear of the gorge. It was easier than I thought, one good shove and he was gone, like a bungee jumper into oblivion.

In case you wondered, the lion cub made it but couldn’t be released into the bush. Tafadswa – we are happy – as she is called, is in a zoo in England.