Arm’s Length

story about swimming

Leah gave the junior manager on reception a curt smile as she pressed her plastic pass to the turnstile and moved through.

‘Swimming today, Mrs Dawson?’

‘Yes please.’

‘No problem. The pool is busy today so let me just check. Ah yes, there’s space. Please go ahead.’

In all the years she’d been coming here, Leah had not once been turned away. This was just a performance they acted out every time, both knowing full well the staff were a bit too scared of her lately to refuse entry, even if the pool was full.

For Leah was a long-standing member of the health club: there was even a picture of her on the honorary members wall. A former national swimming champion, she was becoming as well known locally for her unpredictable moods, and she wasn’t oblivious to the menopause leaflets that had appeared in a prominent position on the reception desk.

She wasn’t menopausal. She’d actually been through the change a few years earlier with little bother. She was just cross at life for making her a widow too early.

Entering the changing room, a young girl in a pineapple-patterned swimming costume, fists full of fluorescent googles and dive sticks, was fidgeting next to her mum near the doorway. Leah walked briskly past, spotting that the cubicle she liked to change in was free. Communal changing gave her the shivers; all those bits of body and saggy skin on display. It was hard enough contending with her own body now she was in her fifties, never mind anyone else’s.

Once reassuringly locked inside, she started getting changed. She could hear the girl outside chattering to her mother.

‘Mummy, that’s the lady who likes to splash and take up all the water.’

‘Shush now, sweets. Let’s just concentrate on getting ready.’

‘But I am ready.’

‘Okay, darling. Just give me two minutes and I’ll be ready too.’

‘Hurry up, Mummy. If she splashes me today, I’m going to splash her back.’

Leah smirked at this description of her splasher self.

Since the council shut the only municipal pool in the area, this health club pool had become increasingly busy. Busy pools tested Leah’s patience. Lazy swimmers, slow swimmers, swimmers with poor technique, or just people in her way, were all a nuisance as far as she was concerned.

Her tactic was to keep everyone at arm’s length by deploying an angry butterfly stroke. Her arms would sweep high into the air, circulate and crash back into the water, spray leaping in a wide radius around her. Like a giant butterfly out of a horror movie, nearby swimmers would swerve or try to dodge her, others forced to stop and splutter as water shot up their noses.

It was all against her doctor’s advice. Leah had been told to refrain from this stroke to prevent setting off her lower back injury, but she could manage a couple of lengths before it started to twinge. Sometimes that was all it took to win some space, so it was worth going to these great lengths to achieve it.

Once victorious, she would relax into a gentle breaststroke, swimming 52 lengths — one for every year of her life — and then leave. This was her routine every time. Today, pineapple girl tried several times to get close enough to splash her back but her mum managed to manhandle her away.

On her way out through the exit turnstile, Leah heard her name being called. It was the gym supervisor, one level up from the junior manager, still young enough to be her child. This was the second act of the performance.

‘Mrs Dawson, do you have a minute?’

‘Not really, I’m in a bit of a hurry,’ she lied.

‘No problem. This won’t take long. I know we’ve spoken before, but we’ve received some fresh complaints about your swimming style this morning and would be grateful if you could bear this in mind for your next visit. I’m guessing that will be Wednesday morning?’

‘That’s right. Wednesday. Usual time.’

‘Great. Well don’t forget it will be family swim time again, which is always a busier time to use the pool. Especially now it’s school summer holidays.’

‘That’s my routine. That’s when it suits me to come.’

‘Of course, of course. We can accommodate everyone if all our guests use the pool considerately, that’s all I’m saying. I’m sure you understand. I’ll leave you it with you, Mrs Dawson. Enjoy the rest of your day.’

Leah contained her rage until she had shut herself into the safe haven of her car. ‘For fuck’s sake,’ she shouted, slamming her hands on the steering wheel before turning the engine on and jerkily exiting the car park. This was the final act – her in a purple rage, muttering to herself, as she drove the short distance home.

Today had an unexpected encore though. Waiting to turn left into a side road, an oncoming car suddenly flashed to let her go, she moved quickly just as a teenage girl stepped off the pavement. In one blink, the girl disappeared from view. All Leah heard was a thud. She had run her over.

Frozen in her seat, she blinked a few more times. Then the girl reappeared at her side knocking on the window whilst pulling her air pods out. Leah let the window down, staring aghast at the girl.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she spluttered. ‘I didn’t see you.’

‘No, I’m sorry. I stepped out and wasn’t looking. I was changing the music on my phone. I’m Alice. Are you okay?’

Tears were falling down Leah’s face.

‘Yes. Sorry, Alice. I’m Leah. What a shock. I thought you were dead. Are you not hurt? Can I do anything?’

‘I’m fine. Really. My leg was the only impact and it feels fine. Likely it will just bruise.’ She rolled up her trouser leg to show Leah. ‘See. Are you okay to drive?’

‘Yes, I should be fine. Sorry again. This has never happened to me before.’

‘Me either! But don’t worry, let’s forget about it. Really, no harm done.’ With that, she rolled her trouser leg down, popped her air pods back in and walked on.

Leah started the engine and crawled the rest of the way home in second gear.

On opening the door, her dog came bounding over to greet her. She knelt down to bury her head in his long fur and have her tear-stained face cheerfully licked.

‘Shall we go outside, Max? I need some air. I could have killed someone just now. I was so angry I wasn’t paying attention. This is a nightmare. Sometimes I think I’m going to drown in my own grief.’


Leah’s garden contained a duck-egg blue outhouse full of riverside charm. It was where her writer husband used to work. Sat at his desk, he’d had an unexplained heart attack one day while she’d been out teaching. When she got home, she’d let Max out in the garden and it was his barking that had alerted her something was wrong.

She’d found him stone cold slumped over his laptop, hands still on the keys, mid-sentence in a scene about a boy being dared by his friends to jump off a bridge. The boy who had talked himself up wasn’t actually that confident a swimmer and was hesitating, wishing for the ground to swallow him up before the water did.

She was nagged by the unfinished sentence – did the boy jump or not? Frustrating not to know. And who had been more scared in the final moment, the boy as his footing left the bridge or her husband as he left this life?

At the end of the garden, there was a platform in front of the river which Leah liked to use as a jumping off point to swim in the open water. Swimming quietly on her back watching birds and cloud patterns moving overhead was the only place these days she felt at peace.




Later in the week, Leah was back in the changing room, making a beeline for the cubicle and avoiding eye contact with the other guests.

On her way to the water, she heard the sound of muffled crying coming from one of the toilets. She continued to the pool area but instead of setting off immediately to whip up the water, she waited. A few minutes later, a girl of tween-ish age, eyes red-rimmed, face downcast, emerged and walked past to join her family.

Leah had seen this family here a few times before and this girl always sat on the edge of the pool dangling her long legs in the water. Something about her reminded Leah of the girl she’d run over.

‘Here she is. Come on, Evie, let’s try again. Just jump and we’ll catch you.’

The younger sister went charging past instead and dived in head first. Effortlessly.

‘Like that, Evie. Well done, Emily. You can do it too, Evie.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘Evie, we’ve talked about this. You’ve got to make an effort. Once you’ve done it once, you’ll see it’s really not that bad.’

‘It is. I can’t do it.’

As they continued arguing at the side of the pool, Evie in tears, Leah found herself swimming over to join them.


‘Hi, can we help you?’

‘Sorry to interrupt. I couldn’t help over-hearing. My name is Leah, I’m a swim teacher and wondered if I could help?’

‘Thank you, but I’m not sure…’

‘I actually used to swim professionally. I’m Leah Dawson. I’m on the wall in reception.’

‘Right, yes. Sorry. Of course we know who you are. It’s just we’ve tried several swim instructors before and nothing seems to work. Evie has a deeply rooted fear of the water or being underwater — it’s complicated.’

‘I understand, and it’s not uncommon. I’d like to help. I’m not teaching at the moment and I’m here three mornings a week – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — always at 10am. Evie could join me for some one-to-one teaching time if she likes and we could see if we can make any progress during the holidays?’

Her parents looked at each other unsure what to make of the offer.

‘Thank you, but—’ Evie’s dad started before her mum jumped in.

‘Maybe. I suppose we could try it and see? One of us could use the gym whilst the swimming lesson happens. What do you charge?’

‘Oh, don’t worry about money. I haven’t done much teaching this year because—’

Don’t say because your husband died and you were asked to take an extended break from teaching after several outbursts in class.

‘—of a back injury so it would actually be doing me as much good as Evie.’

Leah turned to address Evie directly.

‘Evie, I believe I could have you swimming in a month. Certainly before school starts. It won’t be easy but all I need from you is your commitment. What do you think?’

Evie was shivering.

‘Okay,’ she said slowly through her chattering teeth. ‘I’ll try.’




Leah was waiting poolside when Evie arrived. They both waved goodbye to her mum.

‘Hello, Evie. How are you?’ asked Leah.

‘Okay, thanks.’

‘Good. Ready to do this?’

Evie nodded slowly. She was curious about Leah; when Leah swam she looked like a dolphin in the water — causing as much chaos as if a dolphin was actually in the pool — but sometimes she could look so elegant it reminded Evie of dancing.

‘Today, the good news is we’re going to start outside the water. Practice strokes on this bench. Tell me, Evie, what’s your favourite hobby or sport?’

‘Gymnastics and dancing,’ Evie replied instantly. ‘I’m in clubs for both and we perform in competitions sometimes. There’s a dance one this weekend.’

‘Amazing. Well, you must be very good to do that. Can you do anything on this bench?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘A gymnastics move.’

Evie stepped on it, delicately walking from one side to the other like it was a beam and doing an arabesque pose before leaping off.

‘Excellent. Right, now I’m going to say a stroke and I want you to demonstrate on the bench how you’d swim it.’

Evie responded obediently. Leah’s voice was quite loud and she was keen to get it over with, feeling a bit embarrassed by the gaze of other swimmers.

‘Just as I thought, you know all the strokes. We just need to get you doing them in water and not on this bench.

‘How about we start with some dance moves in the water? You know, it’s an ideal place for you to practice as it’s low impact on your muscles. You can show me one of your routines.’

Evie started enthusiastically and then stopped, ‘There’s a front flip here.’

‘Not a problem,’ Leah said moving closer. ‘We can do that – I’ll hold onto you and flip you over. Let’s not think about it too much. Just trust me. The water will support your movement. And go.’

Evie was flipped over so fast she didn’t realise it had happened until she was standing upright again.

‘Brilliant. Would you like to do it again?’

Evie, surprised, smiled and nodded. They repeated it a few more times and then moved onto experimenting with some other gymnastics moves.

‘See you again next week?’ Leah asked at the end of the lesson.

‘Yes, thanks Leah.’

‘No problem. Have a good weekend and good luck in the competition.’




‘Hello, Evie. How are you?’

‘Good thanks. We came first in the competition!’ Evie beamed.

‘Amazing! Congratulations, Evie. You can show me some of your dancing later on. Today, we’re starting in the water with some floating, so it will be nice and relaxing after your busy weekend.

‘Let’s begin on our backs. We’re going to tune into the soothing sounds of the water and the gentle swishing of our body’s hand movements keeping us afloat.’

As they pushed off from the edge, Leah said, ‘Feel how the water moves with you, supports you. Whether you’re feeling calm or cross, it responds with your body’s movements.’

Once they reached the other side, Leah said, ‘Now we’re going to add in the arm and leg movements to a simple backstroke – nice and easy.

‘Go at your own pace and I will follow by your side. Good.’

They continued side by side as the lesson went on. When they paused for a break, Leah asked, ‘Do you have any bad memories of the water, Evie, that you can talk about?’

‘Not really. I mean, I don’t actually remember. My mum told me that when I was younger, maybe around three, we were standing in the sea and she had her back to me while my grandma was taking a photo. A wave knocked me off my feet and I didn’t have time to recover before the next one swept over me. My parents were right there, and I was fine, but I have a memory of total darkness and a deafening crashing sound. Ever since, I think I’m going to die from drowning. It gives me nightmares.’

‘That makes a lot of sense, Evie. That would be scary. Thank you for telling me.

‘You know, my husband was writing a story about a boy reluctantly jumping off a bridge into deep water when he died. I don’t know how it was supposed to end but I like to think the boy was a stronger swimmer than he realised, that he lived and didn’t drown. We’re in charge of our own stories, aren’t we?’




The card had arrived through the door yesterday. Sitting in the garden with Max by the water, Leah took it out of her book to have another read. On the front was a picture of a tiny surfer riding a large wave. Inside was written:

Dear Leah

I’ve started my new school and I’m really enjoying it. It has a swimming pool and you’ll be pleased to know I’ve joined the swimming club where I’ve made a new friend, Alice – she’s a really good swimmer and she’s going to teach me how to dive!

Maybe I’ll learn to surf next like the person on the front.

Thanks again for teaching me to swim this summer. I hope you will teach more people like me to swim.

Love, Evie x

At their last lesson, the family had joined them to watch Evie show off her strokes and perform her whole dance routine which had involved going underwater several times. Overjoyed, Evie’s mum had cried. And Leah had felt as proud as when she had been winning medals.

Saying goodbye to Evie, Leah had said, ‘Evie, don’t forget the water is your friend. If you’re ever in too deep, it’s okay to feel uncomfortable because it is deep. But you are a good swimmer now, so you just need to swim through the feeling and trust you’ll be okay.’

This morning on her way out of the club, she’d found herself approaching the gym supervisor voluntarily − she could see him working hard to contain his surprise.

‘Good morning, how are you?’

‘Good thanks.’

‘Good. We’ve been meaning to say, Mrs Dawson, what you did with Evie was really impressive. Her parents have sent us a glowing email full of praise for you.’

‘Call me Leah. And that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve had an idea to offer private one-to-one lessons for beginners or improvers, because—’

Don’t say because it’s the first time you’ve felt anything has value since your husband died. That you can’t bear to swim in your own grief any longer, and that without this distraction and human connection you might submerge.

‘—teaching Evie reminded me how much I enjoyed connecting with students. Is that something I could offer from here? I don’t think anyone else is doing it…’

Leah, it’s a great idea,’ he said warmly. ‘I think it would get a lot of interest. And no, we don’t offer it at the moment. Let’s arrange a meeting later this week to discuss the details.’

As Leah returned the card to her book, a bird soaring overhead caught her eye. It joined a larger group of birds on the roof of the boathouse further up the river. This time they all took off, swooping in a wide synchronised circle before landing neatly back where they started and then doing it again.

The birds taking off and circling back reminded her of Evie, and then of herself.



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For more writing by Becky Jones, read ‘Hammered‘.