At the bottom of the backyard pool is a secret.
It wasn’t meant to be dug so deep, but once Father got going with the mini-JCB he’d borrowed from next door, he didn’t seem to be able to stop. Mother was horrified. “We’ve got four children under nine!” she cried when she saw how much water it was taking to fill the thing. It was a round pool, you see, so there wasn’t even a shallow end. Father had basically created a dangerous, deep plunge pool. That was the first time I can remember them arguing and it seemed like they never stopped after that.
Being the youngest, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near that pool until I reached double figures. It was absolutely tantalising in the hot weather, to see that expanse of cold, cold water and my siblings all splashing about, and not even be allowed to dip my toes in it. Even the dog went in sometimes, although only under supervision and then he had to be hauled out by his collar.
The summer I was allowed in the pool for the first time, was the summer I had learned to dive at school. The very first time I went in, I wanted to touch the bottom, so I did my very best dive and went all the way. It was quite dark down there and very cool, with shadows moving on top of the water. The surface wasn’t smooth, it had curvy bumps in it, one of which acted like a pillow when I stretched myself out and lay on my back, looking up at the sky until my lungs ached and I shot upwards, feeling that the breath would burst out of me like an alien.
No one else liked to go down right to the bottom so it became my secret place. I had to share my bedroom with two others so this was my only private space. I discovered that it was a good, safe spot to keep things. I would wrap my diary in layers and layers of plastic sandwich bags, finish it with a solid layer of kitchen foil and then place it in a Tupperware box and take it down to the bottom. I kept lots of things down on the bottom of the pool, carefully wrapped always.
In my final year of primary school, I came down with a nasty bout of glandular fever that saw me first in hospital and, later, recuperating at home for weeks, sleeping constantly, sometimes with a deliriously hot temperature. Mother didn’t work so she was there to look after me – meals on trays, reading stories, cool flannels for my forehead. But most of the time I slept or was in a medicated, syrupy stage between sleeping and waking so her days were largely free. Early one afternoon I woke up sludgily, faintly conscious but couldn’t stir my limbs, as though I’d been hypnotised. That’s when I first heard the voices: my mother’s and another voice, a little lower – a man with a soft voice. I couldn’t hear where they were in the house or what they were saying but I drifted away into a dream where my mother was signing for a parcel from the postman.
After that, I dreamt about the postman a lot, the soft voice muffled by my bedroom door, my mother’s laughter. The dreams still came as I started to grow well until one day it was vivid enough for me to get up and open my bedroom door to see if the postman was real. From the landing I could see straight out into the garden where, just above my secret space, my mother was in the pool, her arms around the neck of a man who was definitely not my father. As I stood with my mouth open, she looked up and caught my eye, laughter frozen on her face. She said nothing to the man, just carried on holding my gaze until I turned back into my room.
We never spoke about it and the postman didn’t come back. I supposed she must have told him she couldn’t see him anymore. She nursed me just the same and I improved rapidly, moving from my bed to the sofa, well enough to watch TV again. One morning, when she’d popped out to the shops, I heard the letterbox clang and the postman, who I hadn’t thought about in weeks, jumped back into my head. I knew that, whoever he was, he wasn’t really a postman, but just the same I ran to the front door to see if I could spot the lean back I’d seen in the pool that day retreating through the glass. There was no sign of anybody but there was a note, written carelessly on lined notepaper torn from a pad. It wasn’t even in an envelope so I didn’t feel like I was prying as I read a message of love and longing, begging my mother to reconsider and informing her that he would be waiting for her that evening in their special spot in town. If she didn’t turn up, he’d never bother her again.
Working quickly, I folded the note, wrapped it over and over in clingfilm and foil, and tucked it into a sandwich box. I hadn’t dived to the bottom of the pool in weeks and, for a second, I worried I wouldn’t have the strength. But I made it, hiding the box at the very edge with rocks balanced on the lid.
I hurried into the shower before I heard the key in the lock and made a good show, of emerging as though I’d been in there for a wash. Mother was outside on the landing holding a newspaper.
“You look tired again.” She put her hand to my forehead and frowned. “Have you been overdoing it?”