I waltz into the hall in my carrot-coloured one-piece swim suit with the bunny on the front; mum follows. It’s not my first time in the community baths in Gdańsk Wrzeszcz, but today is special. I want to jump right in but mum tells me to wait. She walks up to one of the instructors, the one with the big arms, and they start talking. I stay where I’ve been told to wait and watch the big kids swimming in the medium pool. Finally, they come back and tell me to follow. We are going to the medium pool. We are going to the deep end!
The instructor tells me to do a few laps as a warm up and keep count. There and back again are one lap. I am to vary my styles, do a few back-stokes, swim under water if I can. I can! He and mum will sit down over there – he points to a table further off – and talk about my exam for the swim card.
I start off with a breast-stroke and swim back on my back – that’s one. Then a bit under water as instructed. I try the crawl for a few laps, though I don’t like it much. I look in their direction. Two glasses of tea have been brought out and mum and the instructor are deep in conversation but they might glance at me when I’m not looking so best to do the crawl anyway. A few more laps so they see. Then I swim on my back again: view of the ceiling, sounds of the little kids splashing around in the small pool; got to remember not to hit my head. There and back again – that’s twenty. I go back to the breast-stroke again with my head above the water for a few laps. Mum’s playing with her hair. Why is she doing that? Her short chestnut curls don’t need any more curling. Chestnut’s a funny name for a colour but that’s what it said on the box. I turn around and swim under water, watch the blue and white tiles, listen to muffled screams of the small kids playing. Someone jumps in like a bomb and sets off hundreds of bubbles rising around them. On to the crawl for a while just in case they see. I turn around, push away from the side of the pool and go back to the breast-stroke for a few laps.
Mum is laughing now. Why is she laughing? What’s so funny about my exam? Proper breast-stroke now: head under and out, new breath taken with each stroke, a comfortable rhythm. I keep this up for a while. There and back – I’ve done fifty! These big kids are just splashing around too. I’m doing some serious warming up here. I dive and listen to the world through the deep water. Can I hold my breath the whole length? I’m close! I’ll give it a try again later. I do the back-stroke – it’s supposed to count as rest – just need to remember not to hit my head. Turn around again.
There’s only a little bit of tea left in the glasses. They should be finished soon. Why is the instructor holding mum’s hand, though? Is he telling her something serious about my exam? Is that why he’s looking into her eyes like that? I skip the crawl. They’re not looking anyway. My head goes under and up again and under and up again. Cut everything out; cut them out. Just breathe and count laps. There and back is one lap. Under water again, I try to reach the other side. Done it! I glance towards the table. They’re gone! They’ve gone off somewhere and left me alone! I swim back in a furious breast stroke. I’ll have to wait for them to come back. What else can I do? I can swim really quickly in a breast stroke. I’ll stick to that now. I reach the side of the pool and feel and arm on my shoulder when I try to turn around.
“That’s quite enough,” says the instructor, “how many laps have you done?”
“Seventy-two,” I answer and realize I’m panting.
“Seventy-two? And that’s counting there and back again as one?”
“Yes,” I say. Why is he asking me that? He told me about it just before I started. Did he think I’d forget in such a short time? I’m not stupid.
“Oh.” He gives mum an awkward look and that’s when I notice she’s standing there. “Well, there’s no need for the exam in that case. I’ll write you out that swim card.” He walks off and I get out of the pool. My legs are wobbly. I’m getting my swim card. My mother gives me a smug smile.
“Well done,” she says and that’s when I begin to hate her.