The Swimmer

Like Water Like Sea Olumide Popoola

The Swimmer. Illustration by Charles Owen (blvninjv) for The Republic.

the ministry of ARTS / BOOKS DEPT.

The Swimmer

‘Here I was on a Sunday morning, sober, alone, in the river without doing anything, just lying on my back, the water holding me.’ An excerpt from Olumide Popoola’s novel, Like Water Like Sea.
Like Water Like Sea Olumide Popoola

The Swimmer. Illustration by Charles Owen (blvninjv) for The Republic.

the ministry of ARTS / BOOKS DEPT.

The Swimmer

‘Here I was on a Sunday morning, sober, alone, in the river without doing anything, just lying on my back, the water holding me.’ An excerpt from Olumide Popoola’s novel, Like Water Like Sea.

This is an excerpt from Olumide Popoola’s novel, Like Water Like Sea. Buy this book, here.

Looking up from underneath, it made the sun blurry. The water swishing against my face, a thin layer, not enough to enter my nostrils. I was looking for her. I wanted to know what it was like, to be drowning, losing your breathing to suffocation. Of course, I didn’t last. I didn’t have enough drive to do it, didn’t have enough reasons. You would have to be invested in the idea, digging deep for this to be your final answer. Nothing like that was on my mind. I wasn’t feeling despair. Not in that way. It is hard to take your own life. I think it is against your own body. Such an effort, incredible. I knew that before I jumped into the River Lea with my clothes on. You had to orchestrate the whole thing and pay attention to the variables.  

The only thing I had done was leave Mum’s after the not-so-unusual but still weird morning. For some reason I went straight to Hackney thinking, let’s see this thing, drowning.  

Mum was stable as we both called it but on the unstable side of that. She had been rummaging through a big cardboard box packed tight with clothes. I thought she was looking for something that belonged to Johari. It was ten years this year. I thought she was reminiscing, going to tell me a story I did or did not know about my dead sister. Instead, she brought out a long cotton skirt. Its pattern pulled me in briefly, blue and pink and red and green. Vertical and horizontal stripes. Flowers and swirls.  

It looked like something my mother would love. Something she had worn on a trip to Palestine in a completely different lifetime when she really worked not just as a fundraiser but also as a witness, as she said. I would have loved to have known the story of the skirt. The story of the trip, the stuff Mum had been doing when she included really in the telling, but her voice already had that edge to it. I could sense that tone even in the tiniest whisper and knew exactly where she was on the spectrum of a manic episode. It was the same with hospital admissions. I would dream she would die and she would be admitted, without fail, soon after that. Sectioned mostly but sometimes she went of her own accord.  

The person who had died was Johari. I hadn’t dreamt about her.  

A couple of morning joggers slowed down when they saw me. I looked up, ready to defend myself. They looked like one of those couples who shared their hobbies and found that it made their bond stronger.  

It was still too early for most people; Mum and I had found ourselves in the kitchen at 4 a.m. She had woken early, and I had not yet slept after leaving Temi in the club. I left two hours later. It couldn’t be late enough for morning activities, I thought. Not on a Sunday morning. 

‘Do you need some help?’ The woman of the pair asked.
So much, I thought. But nothing you can sort out for me.
‘I’m OK,’ I replied instead. ‘Just cooling off my high.’
It wasn’t truthful but then I hadn’t said drugs. My eyes hadn’t felt strained or hot or inflamed, but the cool water was certainly soothing my eyelids. I was telling some version of the truth. It was promising, nice, the way the early sun was filtered by moving water before it reached my eyes, tiny leaves covering the surface that would slap against the concrete when a barge laboured through the water in the daytime. My long sleeve got covered in moss green. So cooling, the green, the colour. 

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Temi had talked about someone we knew who had rearranged someone else’s living room.  

‘You get it, the woman went out to get some beers and came back to all the lamps rearranged, cushions moved about, armchair in a different spot, papers and books on a shelf instead of the table. All in the space of fifteen minutes. It was a completely different room.’  

I looked at her in an ‘and what’ way. 
I said, ‘And what?’ 
‘My friend lost it. She didn’t know how to handle it.’  

I had gotten tired, very tired at that moment. 
‘Let’s go to the other place,’ Temi had said. 
I followed because that’s what I do. I follow Temi and let her let me touch her, only to not hear from her for the following two weeks. And then we find ourselves in an all-nighter that lasts from Thursday evening until Monday morning if I can handle it. Lately, I couldn’t always make it through. Here I was on a Sunday morning, sober, alone, in the river without doing anything, just lying on my back, the water holding me.  

The joggers were still looking at me. 
‘Really. All okay here. I know it looks weird.’ 
I lifted my head and showed them my perfectly sound-of-mind face. I had issues, like everyone, but nothing that required institutional enforcement. At least I didn’t think so. I waved and laughed.  

‘You wouldn’t believe my night or morning. Honestly, I’m just cooling off.’  

‘Oh, okay then.’  

They had been spot-running through the whole exchange, one foot touching the ground, the other one lifted, arms moving along, held up close to the torso. I was relieved their outfits didn’t match.  

‘We’ll be back this side in half an hour. If…’ ‘I won’t be here, don’t worry.’ 
I hoped not.  

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That skirt. Mum had waved it around, then draped it over her head, the fabric falling over her shoulders. 

‘Remember you used to do that, pretend your hair was moving when it was short.’  

It was 5.30am by then.
‘Mum, I was probably three or four.’
‘Yes,’ she’d replied. ‘My skirts were much too long.’
She was laughing in that over-the-top way that you only recognise when you have a parent with serious bipolar. The shrillness that caught people’s attention but they couldn’t quite place. The way it seemed to threaten an unspoken balance. The turned-up-too-high volume, the eyes with something in them that I could never explain.  

She pulled the chair close to the table. Inside I went oh-oh.  

Two years ago, she had climbed the chair, then the kitchen table, had reached for the plant pots she had on the sill under the kitchen window, had picked up the mint and had thrown it against the opposite wall. Then the basil and the thyme, the heaviest, and the rosemary. I had been at hers because of another club night close to her flat. Not yet with Temi, but with a bunch of friends. A vase with dead flowers had followed. When I’d shouted, ‘Why?’ from the kitchen door, Mum said she was repotting. It was spring.  

She had gone on to throw many more things that were above hip level until the neighbours below called the police. It wasn’t that bad, a little loud, but they were always looking for a reason since the day the husband had helped Mum out of the bathtub naked. She had left the flat door open, and he had come back from the terrace above, where he had his secret smokes, and seen the light on at 2 a.m. Mum had fallen asleep in the bathtub. They had it in for us since then. When the police came, we asked why she had to be sectioned for throwing a couple of things around in her own flat. But the officer hadn’t engaged. Of course, she had the shrill laugh then but there was no way he could know exactly what that meant.  

Here we were two years later, another spring and a serious anniversary. I was bracing myself. I needed cooling down, something to keep me mellow.  

She didn’t climb the table.
I climbed down the riverbank.
Mum had taken the skirt down and sat at the table.
‘We should talk.’
There wasn’t anything I feared more than Mum’s talks. They could be like the repotting. Anything could land on you; anything was up for being dismantled and thrown my way. Things I wasn’t ready to hear, details I couldn’t stomach. I left.  

The long sleeves were pulling downward, so were my sweatpants, and the shoes. I had wanted to take them off, my trainers, to spare them from getting dirty. Then I had remembered that here too, anything could come your way; tampons and pads from the sewage that the local water plant released into the river, the regular plastic waste from people too lazy to look for a bin. Fully clothed seemed like the best option, sensible protection for this experiment. I moved my hands, back and forth, the fingers spread a little. The water was too cold to stay for much longer, my lips had started to shiver. I was worried about the joggers. What would they do if I was still here when they got back?  

Temi had been rushing us, taking shortcuts I didn’t know, through back streets that smelled. 

‘Maybe it was the light.’ There was no telling if she was listening. ‘It could have been the light affecting her, that’s why she moved the lamps. It happens with mania, light sensitivity.’  

I stumbled behind her. Her Doc Martens were echoing back from the arches we were under. Her long shirt was hanging over her ripped shorts, moving around her legs where I wanted my hands to be. She stopped suddenly and pulled me close.  

‘It’s not that I don’t like you. I like you a lot.’ 
Inside I was ducking. Were there pots coming my way? 
She kissed me and I sucked on her lips until she pulled back. 
‘It’s just, you don’t talk. You’re not really…here. You just disappear and hang on. Metaphorically.’ 
Her eyes fixed on me as she walked backwards, her hands waving me to follow her. I did. 
We felt like grandparents once we were inside the club. Most people were ten years younger, but the music was hot. We danced and kissed some more, and she whispered something in my ear that I couldn’t hear. When she went to the toilet I ran out and took the bus to Mum’s. My head leaned against the window. I texted Temi, making up an emergency I had to attend to. I would catch her next time.  

It was the first time I had left before her. It was also the first time Temi had talked to me like that. I had complained about her non-committed ways. I had told my friends about her infrequent libido, if that was what it was, of her having a string of lovers, of her not knowing how to be close. She was stringing me along, she wasn’t serious, she wasn’t out. My friends and I had gone over it again and again, but to Temi I had only ever said, ‘Sure, I’m free, let’s go out.’  

Before the skirt, Mum had asked what was wrong. How things were going with that woman. And that she hadn’t expected me that night. 

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There was water everywhere. The river was full of it. I climbed back onto the bank and sat on the bench with my knees close to my body, arms wrapped around my shins. It was dripping from everywhere, the water melting into the wood. I could see the joggers coming up. They were smiling when they saw me sit on solid ground.
‘I should probably get home, inside.’ ‘Probably.’  

They were no longer running but had come to a full stop. The guy took my hand and pulled me off the bench. The woman flanked me on the other side. She picked up my phone, my Oyster card and the keys I had left on the grass before I stepped into the water. 

‘It might even be a warm day today.’
‘Yeah, looks like it,’ I replied.
We walked and my trainers made a slurping sound.
‘How was the water,’ she asked. ‘Cold?’
I nodded. We passed the stairs leading up to the bus stop.  

I didn’t say anything. It felt right, the walking 


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