Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten

The girl on the diving board

‘A bath,’ thought Morris Midgely, ‘that might do it.’

With trembling fingers he picked up the bookmark from the threadbare arm of his favourite chair – companion of his nights for five decades – and stared at the bookmark once again. It had been painted by his three-year-old granddaughter, “Beanie”, and it showed the two of them holding hands, only they looked like two symbols of the feminine – a cross with a circle on top – one big, and one small.

‘Maybe,’ thought Morris, ‘we all become female when we’re holding hands.’ The thought pleased him.

What Beany didn’t know, because he hadn’t told her, was that this bookmark was one of the very best presents he had ever received.

  1. It was handmade.

  2. He used it every single day.

  3. It reminded him that he was loved.

One of the best things about being old, thought Morris as he put the bookmark back into the book, was that for the first time in his adult life he had slowed down enough to truly appreciate things.

He put the book on the table beside his chair, then sat for a while staring straight ahead, adrift in some comfortably vague sense of self.

He sat for ten minutes like that, neither thoughtless nor thinking, inhabiting that blurry zone where self met world without words, serene almost in the sense of having finished something important, until the pain in his wrists and ankles dragged him back to the concrete confines of his eighty-four year old body.

“A bath,” he whispered, regaining the shape of the present. He began edging his buttocks closer to the front of the chair. Only from the edge was he able to pull himself up. What he certainly didn’t like about being old though, was this arithmetic in his hands and feet.

Arithmetic? He knew it wasn’t the right word, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what the right one was. Anyhow, at least he knew what he meant. He chuckled grimly to himself as he pulled himself up with his walking stick.

Amelia would have known the right word, but she was dead – wherever that was. She had been there for years, he couldn’t quite remember how many.

He used to enjoy trying to imagine where she was, but not any more.

He thought about death, of course, but that was nothing new. He had thought about death his whole life. Only nowadays he didn’t take his thoughts on the subject very seriously. How could he, when surely he was getting so close to being proved wrong in his assumptions, one way or another.

“What are the odds of being right?” he murmurred as he began his slow shuffle down the passage towards the bathroom. ‘What are the odds,’ he wondered contemptuously, ‘of arriving in the afterlife and saying: “Gee wiz, it’s exactly as I imagined!”’

A lovely mystery though, no question about it. He reached the bathroom and switched on the light. ‘What a privilege to have such magnificent mysteries to ponder in this life.’

The bathroom, like the rest of the house, was old and cold. Amelia had threatened for years to have it modernised but it never happened.

He pushed the plug in with the end of his walking stick so he didn’t have to bend over and turned on the hot tap. The bath was a free-standing enamel tub on balls and claws, with taps perched on the end, which was fortunate since it meant he didn’t have to lean over the bath to turn them on. At Beatrice’s house Beanie had to help him with the taps.

His rule was to let the hot water run while he was getting undressed so that the steam would heat up the bathroom. He only turned on the cold water when he was down to his underpants and socks.

As he started getting undressed he tried to imagine an existence without mysteries. ‘Hell,’ he decided, ‘pure hell.’

One defence of Capitalism, he mused, as he bowed low to pull his jersey and shirt over his bony back and head, was that it allowed the citizen’s future to remain a mystery to him, for better or for worse, while socialist or communist systems attempted to protect the majority by stripping them of mystery. Science was no different, he decided, battling his belt-buckle lose with trembling fingers. There were two kinds of scientists: those who loved mysteries, and those that hated them. Those who saw mysteries as adventures into places unpopulated by information, and those who felt threatened by the holes in our knowledge and wanted the holes filled.

By the time he was down to his underpants the bathroom was so misty he couldn’t see the door. He switched on the cold tap, and using the basin for support, did snail pace battle to remove his underpants and socks. It was this battling with his clothes that put him off bathing, and why now days he only bathed to help the arthritis.

“Arthritis.” There it was. Funny thing the brain.

Now it was time to get in. This was the most dangerous bit by far and he suddenly wished Beatrice or Ruth were here to help him. He turned his back on the bath and sat down on the rim. Twisting to one side he managed to lift one leg over the edge and into the water. He winced at the heat. Next he brought the other leg over. Now he was sitting on the edge with both feet in the water. He shifted over on his cold, bony arse towards the end of the bath without taps. Then he paused and gathered himself for what was to come…

When the suspense became unbearable he let himself go, sliding in and sending half the bathwater out the other end. Emerging, he gasped and spat.

It always gave him the most dreadful fright but there was no other way to do it. His arms were no longer strong enough to lower him in gently and he was damned if he was going to bath in one of those geriatric bath chairs.

If Beatrice found out about this method he’d catch hell.

Beanie would like it though.

He laughed out loud. He’d survived it again.

He turned on the taps to top up then lay back like an emperor, resting his head on the smooth and reassuring solidity of the tub.

He was grateful for so much. His life had even been meaningful. Imagine that. This was because he had discovered relatively early on – mid forties perhaps – that meaning was not a linear business, not a path leading to victory or defeat. Instead, the energetic repercussions of one’s actions sort of went out sideways into time, forever, like a boat’s wake went out into a lake.

Afloat in the wombish warmth of his bathwater he remembered a cleaner at the University who always blessed him with the most enigmatic and knowing smile. There was a lot of mileage in that smile. He wondered what had become of the man. What became of anyone?

One sent one’s music out into the universe, quite unwittingly, all the time, with everything one did. And the quality of this music, he believed, was the full extent of one’s responsibility.

He was getting too hot, and slowly sat up to get his head and chest out of the water, and turn the taps off. He looked down at his wrinkled old member. “Honourable Member Midgely,” as Amelia used to call it.

Poor old chap, thought Morris, as he had many times before.

No more than plumbing now.

He reached out for the soap.

But it hadn’t had a bad innings, he thought with a certain endearment.

Once the kids had got older anyway, and the work had got less, and he and Amelia had more time for each other…

Tonight his thoughts kept returning to her. A life, he supposed, only really ended when it no longer had any influence on other lives.

He put the soap on the edge and lay back against the bath, closing his eyes.

And for a life to stop influencing others could take a very long time indeed. For a while he was lost in trying to imagine the moment when the very last trace of a life disappeared. Then he wondered what such an event – no insignificant matter after all – might be called.

A “fnibwil” he decided, after some time. That was the name of the moment when the very last trace of your existence ceased to be. He smiled although it wasn’t a particularly cheerful thought.

He was drawn from his reverie by cold. How he could be cold under the circumstances he couldn’t imagine. He opened his eyes and was surprised to see that there was no more steam about. None what ever! He sat up and leaned forward for the hot tap. But something felt odd. The bathroom felt odd. He turned his face towards the door and then he froze. He wanted to shout but his mouth hung open, empty.

There was no bathroom floor.

Everything that had been on the floor was gone too: the chair, his clothes, his shoes, his walking stick.

Instead of a bathroom floor, there was space. An immensity of darkness with pinpricks of light from stars. It was beautiful, no question about it, but it was overwhelming. It was terribly overwhelming.

He slid back into the water, his eyes wide, his old body hanging limp in the soapy water. For a while he hid like that, incapable of forming thoughts appropriate to this new turn of events. As the initial panic began to subside he fell prey to a more specific fear: What was… how was the bath managing to…

He felt an urgent need to look under the bath. The idea that he was separated from an overwhelming infinity of space by the thickness of a bathtub was more than his tired heart and mind could bear.

When he was ready he sat up, keeping his eyes on the soothing normality of the taps. For a while he sat like that, calming himself, and when he was ready he turned his shoulders towards the side of the tub, and pushed his chin over the edge. But when he brought a hand up for balance he knocked off the soap. He froze, watching it fall.

It fell so fast.

Almost instantly it was gone.

This sight didn’t do his heart any good. He slowly sank back into the water and stared at the wall behind the taps again.

For once his mind was silent, a blank slate, white and clear with fear – like ice.

For ten minutes he lay there, staring at the wall, thoughtless and numb, until the water reached room temperature. He sat up just long enough to switch the hot on again, then sank back down. But his silence was growing oppressive.

He thought about Beanie. Beanie at the public swimming pool in her little pink swimming costume. And then Beanie being gone, and Beatrice running about with that wild look in her eyes and asking everyone if they’d seen her. And him looking up and there she was on top of the diving board – halfway up the sky – and Beanie waiting for him to see her, with a finger to her lips. And then stepping off the edge, and falling and falling and falling, straight as a rod – and gone in a splash.

Sitting up for the last time in the cold bath water, he lifted one dripping, wrinkled hand to his lips and blew her a kiss, as if she were standing right there, just beyond the taps…

Then he stood up – naked, cold, old and wet – and carefully sat on the edge of the bath. With great effort he raised one leg over the edge, then the other, and got out.

Share: Facebook Twitter

Comments are closed.