So cold. Christ on a tricycle it was fucking freezing. JJ swam on his back and then again on his front and watched DanDan over the way trying to claw up onto the pier, reaching for the three girls who were standing shivering in the night air. Cath, Lucy and Steph looked down at DanDan, shaking their heads as he tried to grab their toes and their ankles, scraping his chest on the corner of the pier.
JJ felt his heart in his chest and his body in the water, the coldness of it rising up and down over his nipples as he bounced on his tippy toes. They’d never been this close to each other before, the group of them, never been so openly aware of each other’s presence, of their bodies. There was something vaguely cinematic about what they were doing, all of them like this in the moonlight. Surely this was what he had been missing, the sense of being part of something, of being present in some significant moment that would stay with him for years to come. He shouted over to them.
—We’ll be in in a minute.
There was something with her and him, JJ and Cath. He was getting a weird creeping sense of it, of something growing without him pushing. Steph nudged Cath and shouted.
—Actually, we might not.
DanDan roared and splashed them.
—Yeah, we’ve changed our mind. Too cold.
JJ copped on, but knew DanDan was still in the dark. He was too easy, DanDan.
—They’re joking, fella. They are coming in, aren’t they?
Lucy bumped her chest with a fist then extended her fingers to him in a peace sign.
—Right on, brother.
Steph and Lucy and Cath all moved to change at the same time. Steph peeled off her jumper and threw it down at her feet. Lucy wiggled off her bracelets while Cath bent down and slipped off her pumps. DanDan whooped.
—That’s right, ladies. Off they go.
Christ, he would go and ruin it, wouldn’t he. JJ did a stroke or two away from them, towards the chains that sectioned off the bathing area of the lake. Steph spoke to DanDan.
—We’re not undressing for you, Papa Bear.
Lucy had her top off and she beat her chest with both hands then raised one arm high up over her head in a Black Power salute.
—Fuck the patriarchy!
Steph ignored Lucy and looked down at DanDan in the water.
—Turn around and fuck off over there like a good fella.
—Fine, fine. I was joking.
JJ pretended not to notice as DanDan splashed a few metres away, then lay floating on his back, watching the moon through the mist that blew in wisps over the surface of the lake. Probably going to sulk now.
JJ needed to get warm, so he rolled into a front crawl and started to swim towards the chain. He just focused on swimming. Hand over hand, right foot left. Swim your little heart out you beast. He began to find his rhythm. With his eyes closed and his head crushed with the cold he kept his face down and reached up every fourth stroke for a breath. Splash splash splash splash breath splash splash splash.
He felt he could swim a mile just like that. More than a mile. Spend the rest of his life swimming like he’d learned in the pool where his ma brought him when it was just them, just the two of them, their one time a week where they were together. Her watching from the viewing gallery and him with chlorine in his nose and mouth, choking but going hard at it because she was there.
He felt he could swim like that again now, hard and fast, out from the chained enclosure of the bathing area and into the great lake beyond, swim past the submerged trees and the islands and the crannógs. He could swim up one of the rivers and go all the way upstream like a salmon. JJ the salmon of Kildare on his way home to die, and all the people passing would try and fish him out of the river. They’d float pills and Druids and CDs, iPods and ham sambos with hooks in them, but he’d know better and continue on. None of it would be any use to him, not when he’d decided to die. He’d swim up and up against the flow and force of the river along with all the other fishes. He’d surge up through rapids and he’d jump over waterfalls, past fishermen and murdered bodies and secrets buried under silt. He’d go so far upstream he’d come up in the cool crisp waters of the mountain, go to the very top, maybe, to the highest peaks and perhaps there locate a secret lake for himself where he could die, but no, JJ wouldn’t stop there, he’d be evaporated up, he’d lose his body as it swirled into steam and cloud and he’d be taken up into the clouds and float over the length and breadth of Ireland. He’d be beyond himself, part of something greater, part of the earth, and he’d no longer worry about where he was going or what he was doing or if he was wasting his life. He’d go up into the clouds and blow out to Kildare, and he’d swoop down to the family farm where his brothers would be sitting in their usual chairs, doing up their cars and drinking from massive two-litre bottles of cider and picking on someone who wasn’t him, because he’d be gone, he’d be a cloud, and his body would be a million, million little droplets of condensation and he’d come down and rust their cars, put water into the petrol tanks of their fucking cars that they’d spent much more time on then they ever had with him and then he’d go in and flood the basement where his dad used to send him when he’d act up. He’d flood the whole fucking place and they’d scream at each other and there’d be no one to clean or mop and then he’d be back up into the sky. He’d turn around and come back, brush up the little streets of Carrig, make everyone who walked the streets cold and give them shivers, and then he’d surround the old house they’d spent the last three nights in and freeze DanDan in his bed but leave off Steph and Lucy and Cath because they were good. Finally he’d go and rain himself back down into Lough Key, rain every last bit of him down into the lake where he could re-form his body and start his journey again the way upstream. Re-form the body that was freezing now and his balls contracting up inside him, keep doing his front stroke, hand over hand over hand. But JJ was past the railings and the chain, into the lake beyond, still swimming. And JJ thought, why go back? Why go back at all? Why not keep swimming till his feet went cold and numb and he wouldn’t go up into the mountains and swim upstream, he’d simply lose the feeling in his arms and sink under the surface, go down to the very bottom of the lake and drown and they’d never find his body. Just sink down, and down, and it’d all go away, but then Cath screamed.
—JJ! JJ! Come back. Come back. NOW.
JJ broke his head full out of the water for the first time, his lungs burning. Treading water, he turned and looked back. He’d swum under the chains and was about twenty or thirty metres gone outside the rails. Cath was there on the pier down to her bra and knickers, and Steph and Lucy’s heads in the water bobbing up and down. He considered keeping going. Just turn, throw another arm into the water and keep going. Keep swimming. He needed some time to himself. But Cath shouted again.
—GET BACK HERE NOW.
Such a simple request. So direct and honest. Yes. Yes, he would. He turned, and realising how tired his arms were, he did a sloppy breaststroke back. Then he was scared. The chains far away. His arms aching and his breath laboured, coming in gulps. The chains swayed squeaking above the water. He inhaled in a mouthful of water and gagged. Vomit rose up into the back of his nose and he felt water and bile flooding his nostrils. Just one stroke more, one stroke more. Get back to the chains. His legs could barely keep him afloat, they kicked weak and feeble. His left arm doggy-paddled as he left his right one stretched out before him, his eyes closed against the rising water that went at his mouth, trying to force its way in, trying to kill him.
He was almost down to his last stroke when he felt the chain slimy in his hands. He pulled himself into the post supporting the chain and spat into the water. He was safe. He pressed his cheek close against the rotten wooden post and tried to get his breath. Calm yourself. Christ. His arms so weak he could barely lift them enough to grab the post. It felt like there was something dead in them.
As he gulped the burning air down, opening his lungs, he wondered if the others had seen him. That was a concern, what the others had seen, or what they thought they’d seen. But Lucy and Steph were in the water splashing each other, DanDan going Arrrgh like a pirate. They carried on noticing nothing. Grand. Grand.
He could see the outline of Cath on the pier. Beautiful she was. There was moonlight on her white skin. Painted her shining silver against the black water. Cath looked at him from the edge of the concrete shelf. It seemed like a moment between them. Something tense he couldn’t explain.
Cath jumped in with a semi-graceful swan dive. Her body slapped as it hit and the black water swallowed her. Lucy and Steph screamed WAHEY and shouted for her to come on play polo.
But when she surfaced, Cath was swimming towards him. A deliberate strong stroke. Half-fish. JJ’d already forgotten what it was he was feeling when he’d gone out beyond. Just a relief now. To be back. He smelled water in his nostrils and inhaled a little and coughed. ACH. Too much. The fuck was he on.
Cath slurped to a halt beside him. He couldn’t see the details of her face. Her hair was wet over her head and spread out, floating around her shoulders in the water. She held on to the chain where it joined the mossy green post at the top. He could see the outline of her nose and her eyes in the dark but not much else, and he tried to hide in the shadow her head was making. Water dripped softly from the end of her nose. She waited a moment then spoke quietly.
—What were you doing?
—You went out.
—Just for a ramble.
Was he? Had he been? Christ his heart was going so fast. He didn’t know. JJ had no fucking clue.
—You scared me.
—Sorry, I didn’t mean to.
Cath was hugging him. Wrapping herself around him in the water. Her hair against his nose. Even in the freezing water she felt warm to him. He allowed her to hug him, and just a little, his left hand felt the curve of her back and his ring finger pressed the edge of her bra strap. She released him slowly and they bobbed together in the icy water.