Nothing could be more unseasonal than this - the bleachy stench of chlorine, Victorian tiled walls the colour of ivory - and yet, thought Marion as she barrelled up the fast lane with flexible body and open chest, perhaps not. It was the winter solstice, December the twenty-first, and so she was also aware of swimming in the dark sea of Time with the old year wheeling wearily across the sky above her, the sun very low and weak, and somewhere beneath the horizon the unmarked infant new year waiting its turn.
Moving her whole buoyant body from head to toe in this other element, she took a deep breath and swam a length underwater with goggled eyes open. A desire for immersion is said to signal a longing for return to the amniotic waters of the womb, a sort of wet version of cosy; but today Marion was looking not for comfort and joy so much as half an hour of daydreaming. Her thoughts were able to roll over weightlessly as she powered along, the centuries revolving back to when (she reflected) men were all fish in Adam's Ale, spermatozoic wrigglers after fusion. It was Saturday afternoon and her husband had taken the girls out Christmas shopping.
The rhythmic movement of the crawl had her blood chiming, and she found herself singing inside her head. Ring out wild bells to the wild sky. Adam lay y-bounden. A mere seven hours of light there would be - at most - on this the shortest day. The year was staggering out on its last legs. As to the bed's-feet life is shrunk; this was the time when very old people decided to give up the ghost. It had been raining for several weeks now, the streets musical with the plash of water cascading from leaking gutters and the busy gurgle of rain streaming down pipes and into drains. People scurried by in moving veils of rain, sneezing like burst paper bags.
A good freeze would be far more welcome; icicles hanging from her nails; like all good swimmers she had long hands and feet. They had looked white as calamari waving there in the inky sea that summer off Lanzarote's volcanic beach. No seafood for her sister, nor much of anything else according to the premonitory answerphone message listing her newly discovered food intolerances - "in fact nothing but lamb, rice and pears, the only three foods towards which no one in the history of the world has ever developed an intolerance, extraordinary isn't it?"
And of course we react chemically towards each other as well as to food (mused Marion as she swam on); think of antipathetic siblings slugging it out during childhood and taking care not to meet ever after, or of those unhappy marriages where each has developed a life-threatening allergy to the other. She herself would not tolerate any fallout this Christmas; no, she would hang a mistletoe-decked banner over the front door - "Be Nice To Each Other". Always a recipe for depression, Christmas, when complex adults demanded simple joy without effort, a miraculous feast of stingless memory.
More than half an hour it had been, and with reluctance she hauled her body up into the air and her mind down to earth. It was just gone six, the hinterland of the afternoon, and the changing rooms were almost empty. A tall basket of silver twigs decked with glitter-blobbed baubles stood by the entrance to the showers. There were a few late stragglers in the gated children's area, from which came the sounds of hooting and laughing and crying, and a voice wailing, "I want my daddy." Marion opened her locker and started to peel off her costume.
In the harsh fluorescence of the overhead strip lighting, the bodies of those changing looked frail and faulty. "I hate swimming," she heard one woman say to another, "I'm doing it for my knee." More design faults, thought Marion; knees, along with ears and teeth, were always causing problems. Doctors and dentists grew fat on them. Choosing charity Christmas cards in the local church this year she had been spoiled for choice, wandering from the Multiple Sclerosis Trust to the Stroke Association, then on to Leukaemia Research, the Alzheimer's Disease Society, the Parkinson's Disease Society and Colon Cancer Concern. Roll on a few decades and we'll all be there, she thought, one thing or another will take us all out, each and every one. And that was without the charities that wrestled with cruelty, poverty and war. Season's Greetings, those cards read; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.
"I want my daddy," howled the child, "I want my daddy I want my DADDY."
"You are being very naughty," came a young voice taut with frustration. "Be quiet! Be quiet!"
Marion and the three other women still there looked up at the scent of danger like antelope pausing on the veldt.
"I want my DADDY I want my DADDY I want my DADDY!"
"Be QUIET. You are not baby! BE QUIET!"
The child started to scream as well as sob and howl. It wired the blood. The woman who had been doing it for her knee looked at her watch and limped briskly off to the exit with her companion. That left Marion, wrapped in a towel and about to have a shower, and another woman who was shaking her head as she pulled up her tights.
This other woman finished changing and went over to the children's area. "Everything all right?" she asked, putting her head round the corner.
"Is FINE," came the voice over the screaming.
The woman mimed a powerless shrug at Marion, then hurried off out into the rain.
"BE QUIET! You are very naughty girl. You want that I should smack you?"
Not your business, Marion told herself, have your shower; how would you have liked it if some nosy woman had come up and criticised you when you were out with Kirsty while she was having one of her tantrums. They used to descend on Kirsty like visitations, fits of hysteria turning her pink and blue and shaking her to the core so that all she, Marion, could do, was wait and hold her until she came down shuddering, storm-shaken, gasping for air. But, she thought, as she held her arms up to the stream of hot water, but . . .
The child's screams continued, ricocheting round the tiles, and rank adrenalin-surging dismay coursed through Marion's veins like some vile drug. I can't stand this, she thought, and knew she'd have to do something. She wrapped a towel round herself before she had time to think, and, dripping, padded over to the source of the screaming.
Within the gated area stood a small girl with scarlet blubbered eyes, sobbing hugely, quite out of control, and a crouching fury of a young woman who looked up, baleful as Durer's engraving of Melancholia. There was nobody else left in the changing rooms, only these two in this enclosure, the air around them charged with violence.
Distraction, thought Marion, I must give her something to look at. But she had nothing interesting back in her locker, only her keys, and although a bunch of keys was supposed to have seen John Ruskin through his childhood, times had changed. She looked around her, then unhooked a frosted Santa from the silver twigs at the entrance to the showers.
"Here's Father Christmas!" she declared. She stepped through the gate and handed him to the sobbing child. The noise stopped as though something had been unplugged. This would last for a few seconds only, if memory served her right.
"It's hard," she said, turning to the scowling young woman, and knelt down beside her, uncertainly reaching out and touching her arm. Would she bite?
Beside herself with dark fury, this girl - not much more than a child herself really at nineteen or twenty - glared at her but did not after all dare push her away. The peroxide in her hair had reacted badly with the chlorine so that green tinged its yellow; her dark painted eyes raged unhappily in her non-blonde face. Here she was, still trying to find herself, still a child exploring her own image, she seemed to say, trapped into fourteen-hour stretches alone with this tiny tyrant. Life was horrible! Life was unfair. Where she came from, it was hard, and here, here she was not free either because she was locked in a daily prison with this screaming lunatic.
Marion patted her arm, then turned to the child, who had started again.
"Now, darling," she said. "There, there. There, there. What pretty beads you're wearing."
The child, puny and fair and hopelessly smudged and blotted and puffy round the eyes, stopped crying for a moment and stood shuddering with sighs, looking back at her uncertainly.
"I've got two girls," said Marion. "They're called Kirsty and Isobel. But they're older than you. They're nine and eleven. And I think you're three. Am I right? Are you three?"
"Yes," nodded the child, gazing at her.
"And let me guess your name," said Marion. "Is it Violet? Is it Amber? Is it Scarlett?"
"No," said the child, shaking her head and giving another long juddery sigh. "It's Lucy."
"What a lovely name," smiled Marion.
She turned to the crouching fury.
"Everything's going to be fine," she smiled at her.
Her nervous system was on red alert, all the circling horrors roused from ten years ago when she was having to invigilate childcare for her own two.
"Have you got any brothers or sisters?" she asked Lucy, who looked as though she were about to start again.
"Yes," whispered Lucy. With her fair curling hair she was a Victorian engraver's vision of the New Year. "I've got four brothers. Gabriel and Jack and then sometimes Peter and Michael but some of the times they're in Wakefield. I want my daddy, I want my da- . . ."
"I know, and you will see him soon, very soon," soothed Marion. "So, I wonder what presents you will get for Christmas! What a lovely Christmas you will have with all those brothers."
Lucy gave a tremulous smile of assent. At this the baleful girl could contain herself no longer. She gave a great snort, and sneered, "Go with the lady! You don't like ME. That's right, you go with HER."
Lucy's swollen red-rimmed eyes widened.
For pity's sake, thought Marion. Another baby. Don't smash it all up. Your turn now.
"It's very difficult for you," she said carefully, turning to the girl. "Little children . . ."
"She is not baby!" spat the girl. Angry tears oozed from her wild eyes, and long black streaks of salt water and mascara crept down her cheeks.
"I know, I know," soothed Marion. "But in the end they are the children and we are the grown-ups. You understand me? We are not children, we are the grown-ups, and we have to . . ."
"It is not just now," snarled the girl. "She is NAUGHTY. She is like this all the days. All the time she cry, ALL the time."
Marion felt herself shudder. Careful, she told herself. Think of this girl, here, now.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"Czech Republic," sniffed the girl.
"Will you be going back for Christmas?"
The girl nodded brusquely.
"Well that will be a holiday," soothed Marion, aware that every minute she spent in phatic chitchat was a minute further from danger. "That will be nice."
"I don't THINK so," said the girl darkly. My family, she implied, is a miserable quarrelsome bunch and things have not improved since our house was caught in the floods and all the carpets and books and clothes ruined . . . And why it is worse for me than for this horrible child is that I have no MONEY and I have to come here in the rain and dirt to work as a servant in loneliness for people I care nothing about who have too MUCH and my boyfriend is a bastard and I HATE this child, she is very bad with her screaming and crying and nobody knows what I suffer.
"But anyway, whatever happens," said Marion, looking her in the eye, "when you come back in the new year, you must find another job."
"Yes," said the girl. They were both surprised; this was so clearly the right next step to take. It was obvious.
She turned back to Lucy, who was still letting out long sighs after her feast of sobbing. Don't touch, she reminded herself; don't hug; she's not yours, you mustn't put your arms round children who don't know you.
"Well, Lucy, everything's going to be all right," she said with the bright simple smile of the fairy on the Christmas tree. This poor youngling for whom we do sing. When she had been upset as a child, her grandmother would say to her, It's not worth crying about, we'll all be dead in a hundred years.
"You're going to have a lovely Christmas," she insisted brainlessly in the teeth of the evidence. "You'll all be together. And your daddy will say, Here's a lovely present for my best girl Lucy. And everybody will be there, in your family, or they will try to be even if they're a bit late, and when they're all there they will all be nice to each other. OK?"
It had got a shade bossy towards the end, she thought, but Lucy's eyes were fixed on her and she had even been tempted into a watery smile. So Marion said it all over again, with extra conviction, and this time it worked even better; as if the more she, Marion, insisted that they would all have a happy Christmas, the more likely it became that they all really would.
(c) Helen Simpson
Illustrations: page 92 - Melancholia, Albrecht Durer, 1514 (c British Museum). "Albrecht Durer and his Legacy" is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 23 March 2003; this page - Day and Night, Margaret Tarrant, 1918 (from The Illustrators: the British art of illustration 1800-2002, Chris Beetles Ltd)