FICTION


Swimming Lessons

By Liam Hogan in Issue Six, September 2022

She came to me on the high tide of a spring storm. I was embarrassed that my uncle's cottage, quivering in the bared teeth of the gale, was not as tidy as perhaps it could have been, nor as homely. And I had nothing to share except half of yesterday's loaf and the better part of a bottle of cheap wine, drunk from a pair of mismatched tankards.

She seemed content enough, sitting before the roaring fire that every so often twirled and fluttered in time to a low moan from the stout chimney, out of the rain that drummed in waves on the slate roof. I'd asked her if she wanted to take off the grey, fur coat that cloaked her from neck to foot, but she demurred. “Not yet, Patrick,” she said. “Perhaps when I am warmer?”

I could have told her she'd not get warm at all unless she did, soaked as her coat must be, soaked as I was in the brief span the door had been flung wide open to reveal her standing in the fierce fury of the night, before I had come to my senses and invited her across the threshold, fastening the door tightly behind.

Though steam gently rose from the furs' short, shimmering hairs, no puddle formed beneath the rude chairs we'd placed so close to the hearth that I feared my boots might crack.

Slowly, driftwood smoke filled the air and wine filled our heads. As the storm continued to lash at the tiny square windows, she spoke of the places she had been, lands far from these shores. Places with peculiar names and peculiar customs. Too many places for someone her age, even if I had difficulty gauging what that age might be.

She was older than me, that was for sure, and no surprise to it. There was more than a streak of ash in her auburn hair, though her eyes were lively and bright as she told her tales, her chin firm and her neck smooth.

“And you?” she asked, with a certain smile, catching my too-frank appraisal. “Where have you been?”

I laughed and waved at the books that crowded my shelves, the paper strewn across the table that formed my writing desk.

“Nowhere and everywhere,” I told her. “My travels are all in my mind, all in the words that I read and that I write. This was my uncle's cottage until he left it to me. I grew up on the outskirts of the city, far inland from here, far from the sea, and I've never even learned to swim.”

“Many sailors don't,” she said. “But it is never too late and not too difficult, if you trust your teacher, if you trust the water. Perhaps,” she said, her gaze steady and piercing, “I might show you one day, just as I showed your uncle.”

“You knew my uncle?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes.” She nodded. “We met on a couple of occasions. I had half expected...” She trailed off as she glanced around the room, the fisherman's cottage set high above the harbour huddled below, proud and alone. From here, once, someone would have kept watch for shoals that darkened the waters of the inlet, ringing a bell to send the little fishing boats chasing after their silvery prey. The bell and the shoals were long gone, and bigger boats now ploughed deeper waters.

And my uncle too, passed three years back. That he had willed me the home he had lived in for half a century had come as a great surprise. I barely remembered the man. It was a providential gift that had come at just the right time, spinning me out of one life and into a brighter one. Or so I had thought, so I had hoped. I had moved into his cottage two winters ago, living frugally to eke out what little I had managed to save from my time in the city, my unhappy stint as a clerk, fixing errors in words that weren't mine. Those funds were on the verge of running out, and all I had to show for it was a flotsam of scrawled-upon pages.

I had begun to seriously wonder if I shouldn't abandon this mad adventure of mine, this failed escape from my dull but inevitable career, this lonely, hermit existence.

The fur coat now hung loosely about her, exposing her shoulders, pale even in the ruddy light of the flickering flames. I caught glimpses of her long legs, curiously muscled, of her bare feet, toes almost as long as fingers. There was no sign of any clothing beneath that great coat, not even a slip, an impression I did my best not to dwell upon. I began to feel uncomfortably warm.

“Well, Patrick,” she said, after what might have been a companionable silence had the door not rattled so angrily in its frame. “The storm is not letting up, and we both grow sleepy. I fear I must stay the night. If that is alright with you?”

I mumbled my yes, my of course, eyes darting about the one-roomed cottage. There was only one bed, and a narrow one at that, already layered with all of the blankets I owned. But I suppose I could heap some clothes by the hearth, a couple of jumpers for my pillow--

She stood, sudden and swift, leaving her coat behind, where it slipped with a sigh to the floor–a sigh that echoed my involuntary intake of breath. She stood, tall and proud and naked. Stood without shame, without defiance, without even a challenge, as if it were just a thing you did.

#

She made love to a rhythm only she could hear. When I tried to speed things up, to give way to my youthful impatience, she firmly took control, slowing us back down, eking out the pleasure for what felt forever. Wave after crashing wave broke over us, again and again and again, seven times in all, the last the greatest and deepest of them, leaving me, perhaps us, deliriously spent.

#

In the early hours, with the first glint of dawn beyond the shuttered windows, I crept from the bed to the cooling hearth, where a few embers still smoked from the remains of the last log I had thrown on. I coaxed the fire back into stuttering life, sacrificed a few more beach-combed branches to its morning hunger.

Her coat was a wondrous thing. I could find no seam, no stitching to join the soft fur to the smooth, slippery lining that I guessed was more waterproof than even sealskin to have withstood the storm she had arrived in. I tried to find a label, a manufacturer's mark, pockets, or even fastenings, but there were none.

I suddenly realised she was awake and watching. Above the nest of blankets, her liquid eyes were shimmering in the pale, pink light.

“Are you wondering where you could hide it?” she asked, voice soft but firm.

I almost dropped it, almost threw it to the ground as though scalded, as though it and not the driftwood was on fire. Instead, I did what I had gotten out of bed to do, and hung it over the back of the chair, though surely it was already dusty from the floor, from the cold ashes, already cold and damp from its night on the bare stones.

“No.” I stood there a moment, shivering and uncertain, before quickly getting back into the narrow cot. She didn't try to stop me. “No,” I repeated, face to face with her, too close to focus, feeling the warmth that my body had lost, stealing it from hers. “It is yours. It will always be yours.”

She nodded lazily, sleepily, touched my nose with the tip of her finger, her skin not unpleasantly rough, like a worn towel or the gentle sting of windblown sand on a summer's day. “Then perhaps I will one day return. But for now, Patrick, I must leave. The storm has finally broken, and I have miles to go before I rest again.”

She slipped on that coat of hers as I scrabbled with my boots, with my shirt. By the time I was out of the door, the wind fresh and the sky a brilliant blue, she had already descended the path from the cliff my cottage perched upon and was striding, almost running, into the welcoming sea.

#

I never told anyone. But somehow, I think they knew. From the way I tended my now tidy cottage. That I called it my cottage, rather than my uncle's. I collected the wildflowers that grew on the hillsides, stuffing them into empty bottles from the wine I didn't drink any longer. I spent more time staring out to sea than perhaps a young bachelor should and none at all staring at the barmaids in the local tavern or at the fishermen's pretty wives on the arms of their husbands. The men smirked and shook their bearded heads, saying I had gone the way of my uncle and was no use to either man or beast. But the women... all the married, unhappy women of that coastal town. They watched me, envious. They no longer sent for me when their husbands were away at sea, no longer asked me to join them at afternoon tea for brief, casual flirtations that could never be more than that, not if I was to remain healthy, not if they were to remain wed.

I didn't mind. I keep myself to myself. Took walks along the cliff faces, making full use of the summer hours. And when I returned to my cottage, to my tidy little writing desk, I discarded projects long ago stalled and started new work, writing to a rhythm I couldn't hear, that I could only remember, only feel, sending my words to publishers in that smoke shrouded city far away, heedless of their reception.

I didn't see her again until autumn, until the equinox had passed. A week of squalls blew through, sending the fishing boats skulking into the safety of the harbour. I tied a ribbon around the final bundle of pages and posted them away, then tidied the cottage as if in preparation for new owners.

She came to me on a stiff-breezed, moonlit night and silently took my hand, leading me down to the still tumultuous seas, the door of my darkened cottage behind us a wordless, startled mouth.

In the slate-grey waters beyond the dazzling white breakers, two sleek pups, born this season and barely larger than cats, were waiting for us. As their twin heads nodded in playful encouragement, I waded out past the rolling waves and into deeper waters for my first swimming lesson.

© 2022 Liam Hogan


Liam Hogan

Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He's been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars' League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.com/.


Fiction by Liam Hogan
  • Swimming Lessons