by Rebecca Field
YOU’VE WORKED HERE for two years and never saved a life. Sometimes you wonder if you actually could, if called upon to do so. Your job is to guard lives, not save them. There’s a subtle distinction.
Most shifts you are hungover, not that that impedes your performance. You put on the little red shorts and the yellow polo shirt with the pool logo in red stitching. As you flip-flop past reception you buy a bottle of sports drink from the vending machine because that fits with the sporty lifeguard persona you like to project. But this isn’t an episode of Baywatch, this is the Pyramid Leisure Complex in Barnsley on a Saturday afternoon. And you are no David Hasselhoff, you are just a nineteen-year-old lad trying to earn a few quid to blow on booze and cars and women in the easiest way possible.
The shallow end of the pool is graduated like a shoreline, only instead of seaweed and shells, only balls of hair and old plasters gather at the tidemark. You climb the four aluminium steps to the brittle white seat. The heat is oppressive; sweat trickles down your back, moistening your waistband. The chair sticks to your thighs. From here you can see everyone and they can see you, only you are invisible, omnipotent; they barely register your presence at all. Too busy jumping and diving and whooping without a care in the world. Every half hour the whine of the wave machine starts up and that’s your cue to pay closer attention, to look out for those caught unawares, whose heads disappear under the water just a little too long. You can shut down the waves early if needed, reach out with the long metal pole. There’s a life ring you can toss if things get really desperate.
Of course, accidents do happen. However closely you are watching, the tip of the plastic whistle poised upon your lower lip, left leg bouncing on the metal step, there will always be someone who thinks they know better than you. A kid who thinks the rules don’t apply to him; that he can run poolside without slipping, bomb dive the toddler splash pool or push to the front of the flume queue. You recognise the repeat offenders, those that make eye contact with you like a shoplifter might check for cameras. There’s one here now; the boy with the face like a deflated Yorkshire pudding. Last week you had to warn him as he tried to submerge his sister’s head in the faux waterfall, her screams escalating into genuine terror, bored parents turning a blind eye. You see him now, as he tries to sneak up on her in the deep end like a stealthy manatee, waiting for the chance to grab hold of her ankles and drag her beneath the roiling waves under the cover of wave machine frivolity.
Your eyelids are starting to droop. You sit up straighter in your seat, cast an eye over the other swimmers. You’d never seen so many partially clad bodies before you started working here. Some might consider that a perk of the job, but it was an eye-opener you could have done without. An illumination into the myriad ways a body can be squeezed, sucked and crammed into tiny pieces of lycra. The displays of flesh used to make you feel uncomfortable, like a voyeur. But you’ve become desensitised, hardened, like the way it must feel to work handling carcasses in an abattoir. You look again for pudding boy, but he is temporarily out of sight.
Your head thumps and you’re all out of rehydrating fluids. You look up to the clock with the perpetually-moving second hand. A smile creeps onto your lips. Ten minutes until you are out of here. Out of here for good, because you are leaving this Leisure Complex, this town, this chlorine-scented purgatory. There will be no more filter unblocking, no more pH testing, no more fishing for floating turds. No more dreading the moment you might have to wade into the water and heave someone’s sodden, lumpen form onto the side of the pool, kneel down beside them and attempt CPR.
The waves die down for the last time, the water laps gently at the feet of your chair. A circular sticking plaster floats on the water’s edge. You can still see the spot of blood in the centre, even from this distance. Pudding boy takes a run towards the deep end. His sister drifts by on a foam mat. You fixate on the plaster, the way it settles then re-floats then settles again, ignoring the shouts for help and the flailing of arms in your peripheral vision.
Rebecca Field lives and writes in Derbyshire, UK. She has work in several print anthologies and has also been published online by Reflex Press, The Daily Drunk, Flash Flood, Ghost Parachute and Ellipsis Zine among others. Tweets at @RebeccaFwrites.