Whitney Cox was born in the US, grew up in Christchurch and now lives in Whanganui. She studied political science and media studies before getting an MA in Creative Writing.
My writing often takes inspiration from the social sciences. ‘Holding’ came from a question about the way girls gain and lose power in society.
The most responsible lifeguards, which is to say the manager’s favourites, which is to say the teenage girls, get asked to work the private parties on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s a plum job, since the party guests almost never swim. The guards just have to sit on the counter of the concessions stand, tanned legs kicking, and be ready to fetch whatever. Serviettes or plastic forks. A spare towel from the lost and found. The first aid kit, if there’s a splinter or a grill-related burn. They get paid $25 an hour, $10 more than the usual rate, and are almost always given leftover cake.
There is light work after the guests leave: lawn chairs to be reordered, the pavilion swept, black bags of rubbish hauled to the skip. It’s annoying, but a small price to pay for the overall boon of the gig and it goes pretty quick with two people working. Steph is crying though, while she drags the lawn chairs back into line, and Alison doesn’t feel like dealing with it. She tells Steph to go home.
‘Are you sure?’ Steph rubs the back of her hand against her nose. Runnels of tears track from the corners of each eye.
‘Yeah,’ Alison says. ‘I can do the rest.’
Steph shudders from holding in a sob. She’s the youngest lifeguard, barely sixteen. This is her first job.
‘You’ll be OK,’ says Alison. ‘Get some sleep.’
She nods, her fingers moving up her cheeks, erasing the runnels. ‘Are you going to be OK? Here?’
‘I’m fine.’ Alison’s older, eighteen, and she is fine.
As soon as Alison hears the gate slam behind Steph, she abandons the chairs and goes to the office to find her phone. Come over, she texts. She puts the phone back into her bag and accidentally glances at the corkboard with the guard schedule pinned up. Someone’s already taken a black pen to Josh’s column and drawn a hard line through it all. She goes back out to finish her work.
Alison is hauling two bulging rubbish bags to the skip, warm fermenting fluid leaking onto the tops of her feet, when Hugh’s Subaru hoons into the car park. He gets out and watches Alison swing up one bag, then the other. He does not offer to help.
‘I didn’t bring my togs,’ he says. ‘I was at Jayden’s when you texted.’
She scrapes the rubbish slime on her foot with the edge of her jandal. It only smears. ‘Was Will there?’
‘Did you say you were coming to meet me?’
‘I said I had to go make a sale.’ He pulls a tinny out of his jeans pocket.
Satisfied, Alison leads him through the gate and into the back office, where Hugh clears off enough space on Shaun’s desk to roll a joint. Alison notices that what he brought is mostly shake. She wonders if he were hanging out with the boys, with Will and Jayden, if he would he have tried to impress them with better weed. She also wonders if she were a different kind of girl, prettier, nicer, he would have tried to impress her. Maybe, maybe not. The only thing she knows for sure is that Hugh is not her friend. He is her ex-boyfriend’s friend and he knows he doesn’t have to try.
‘I’m going to clean my feet,’ Alison says. ‘The rubbish dripped.’
‘Gross.’ He doesn’t look up.
She leaves her jandals in the office and walks barefoot out to the wide, sloping, shallow bit of the pool they’re supposed to call the Beach. Teenagers lounge there, basking in both the sun and water at once. Little kids wade into it. Bigger kids run headlong, churning water until it’s up to their knees and they fall forward. The parents of the little kids wipe droplets of splash from baby’s goopy white cheeks and look indignant at the lifeguards and ask Are you just going to let that happen? The Beach is the worst chair in the rotation.
The sun’s only just gone down and when Alison steps into the pool, the water and the air are the exact same temperature. The only difference against her skin is density, which is sort of an interesting sensation. She kicks one foot out in a graceful arc, toes pointed ballerina-style. She loves the water. Her whole family are swimmers. Her granddad had been the best of them, backstroking in the Rome Olympics. He hadn’t medalled, but he’d gone. Alison was quite good when she was young, but her times plateaued when she was sixteen and she quit. Swimming wasn’t fun unless you cared about winning and Alison discovered that once she stopped winning against herself, toing and froing across a concrete box was boring. She didn’t understand the other girls on the team, focused on ordinal numbers and which meets were going to be the easiest.
The air temp drops another degree and the pool feels like an old bath. She drags her feet out, enjoying the wet slap of them against the concrete, and makes her way to the pump house, where they keep all the control switches and nets and chlorine tablets. She flicks on the pool lights and turns off the pump. When she steps out, the pool’s silent and glowing a gemmy turquoise. Refracted through the water, the light is fluid, rippling against the underside of the guard stands, making stucco walls undulate. She stares at the pool for a long time, charmed by the wobbling and the blue. When she looks up, Hugh’s calf-deep on the Beach, pointing his phone at her.
‘Don’t put this on Instagram,’ she says.
‘I wasn’t going to.’ He drops the phone to his waist. ‘Because you don’t want Will to see?’
‘Because I’ll get fired.’
‘Yeah.’ He swipes his fingers against the screen. ‘What about Snapchat?’
‘It’s a wicked photo though.’
Alison wades in next to him and looks. She sees herself, shoulders slumped and thighs fat, staring at a wall. Her hair has been wet and dry so many times during the day that her fringe hangs in shadowy cords down her face. She looks feral, which is maybe the effect of being striped from the water-filtered light, and she is shocked that Hugh thinks she’d want to see herself this way.
‘Don’t get your phone wet,’ she says, handing it back. Hugh gives Alison the lit joint in exchange. He goes off to put his phone somewhere dry and Alison sucks in the smoke, dry and crackly down her throat, holding it in her lungs. She exhales and the air gets pungent like lemon rinds and cut grass. They pass the joint back and forth until it’s too small and too hot to hold. Hugh tosses it in a puddle on the concrete, it hits with a hiss, and they both strip: Alison down to her red uniform togs, Hugh to his boxers. They dog paddle in the shallow end, watching the waves their fingers make, minds tweaked just enough to awe at the beauty of surface tension. Alison leans back, a tickle of wet thrilling around her body, and she counts the stars.
‘Did there used to be more stars?’
‘Stars?’ She kicks her feet down so she’s standing again, facing Hugh. ‘There used to be more, right? Now there’s barely any.’
‘I don’t think you’re remembering it right.’
‘I am though. Because I used to know all these constellations. And now they aren’t even there.’
Hugh pulls her arm, dragging her close, and kisses her. She is angry at first, for him kissing her before she could convince him she’s right, but it ebbs. His lips are thick and dry, something salty in the corners of his mouth. It feels good compared to everything else, so she kisses him back. They move slowly towards the beach, stopping as soon as the water is shallow enough for Alison to lie on her back without drowning. Hugh pulls his cock through the fly of his boxers and pushes aside the crotch of Alison’s swimsuit. She’s never had sex with clothes on before and she likes it. It feels furtive and eager. She doesn’t come, but she didn’t expect to. Afterwards, Hugh rolls onto his back and lets the water lap at his sides. Alison swims away.
When Alison was ten, her granddad gave her advice to improve her swimming. He’d told her to hold her breath longer. The less she raised her head between one end of the pool and the other, the faster she’d get there. It was difficult at first, the feeling of air fossilising in her lung was painful, but she figured it out with practice. The trick was to have the mind tell the body to wait, that they would tackle its problems at the end of the pool. Incidentally, when she got to the end of the pool, the body’s problems were all resolved. She got a lot faster.
‘Hey,’ Hugh says, swimming up beside her. They’re in the deep end, which they are supposed to call the Lagoon, and he’s out of breath, treading water. ‘Do you want to smoke more?’ Hugh’s skin looks bloodless and swollen in the blue light. His boxers are billowing and she can see his penis through the fly, curled and pink, like something that ought to be living in a seashell. She feels cruel seeing so much of him without reciprocating.
‘Someone died today,’ she says.
‘Someone drowned?’ He looks at the water, alarmed.
‘No, it wasn’t a customer.’ According to the training manual, they’re supposed to call them guests. ‘It was one of the guards. Josh.’
‘I don’t know.’ Alison’s feet churn, keeping her body upright. ‘Our manager said Josh’s flatmates found him this morning. Just sitting in his chair.’ Those had been Shaun’s exact words: he was just sitting in his chair. Like the detail would be of comfort.
‘So was it… What? Like an aneurism?’
‘Probably an overdose,’ she says. ‘Knowing Josh.’
Two weekends before, at 6 am, the morning guard rang Alison because the keys weren’t in the lockbox and the gate was open. Alison knew she’d locked up properly and drove over to prove it. What happened was that Josh had broken in during the night, high as fuck, because he wanted to clean the pool. They pieced this all together after they found him passed out in the pump house, the pool vacuum half-assembled beside him.
‘Was it an accident?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘Shaun made a point of telling us that it wasn’t our fault, and why would he say that unless it was suicide?’
‘You didn’t ask him to elaborate on that?’
‘Nah, Shaun kind of took off right away. He said he needed to go to Mitre 10. He’s fixing the shelves in the back office. Anyway, I haven’t seen him since.’
‘Shit.’ Hugh bobs up and down, struggling to keep his head above water. ‘Can we talk about something else?’
‘Sorry my day wasn’t more enthralling.’
‘I just mean because it’s kind of heavy. I’d rather talk about something else.’
‘Well it’s not like I can just stop thinking about it,’ she says. ‘Someone I know died.’
Hugh shrugs. ‘You want to smoke some more?’
Alison accidentally swallows some of the chlorinated water. She spits it back into the pool but her mouth still tastes of chemicals. ‘I actually need to finish my work. I’m not done with the chairs.’
‘Do you need help?’
She shakes her head.
‘Is it OK if I smoke while you work?’
‘I don’t necessarily care what you do.’ She swims to the nearest ladder and pulls herself out. The sudden regain of weight makes her nauseous and her sodden legs stumble to the towel she’d left by the concession stand. She keeps her back to the pool while drying off, fantasising about being alone. She can hear Hugh getting out of the water, so she wraps the towel tight under her armpits and walks off to the lawn, taking the least efficient path to the farthest away chair. She starts dragging them, one at a time, to their correct positions.
There’d been a phone call that afternoon, when Alison was on her shift at the front desk. Even though it had been a rotten day so far, she answered the way it’s mandated in the training manual.
‘It’s a great day at South Pool and Leisure Centre. This is Alison, how can I help you?’
The woman on the other end was breathless, talking in fits. ‘Yeah, I, hi, you’ll probably have no idea what I’m on about?’ A pause. ‘But I’m friends with Josh?’ A pause. ‘He’s one of the lifeguards.’
‘Yes.’ Alison’s heart thumped in her throat and she looked around for help. Steph and Peter were on the chairs, Shaun was at Mitre 10 and there was no one on break in the office because they were down one guard because Josh was dead.
‘I know something happened to him this morning,’ the woman said. ‘But I’m having a real hard time getting a straight answer about where he is. I’ve rung up hospitals and the police, but then I thought I’d try you. Does anyone there know what happened? I just want to make sure he’s OK.’
‘I don’t really know what happened.’ Alison dragged each syllable out, afraid of what would happen once she reached the end of the sentence. ‘But my manager told us he died.’ She counted to twelve in her head. Then the woman let out a sharp sob. ‘I’m really sorry. I wish I knew more information, but that’s really all I know. If you want, I can have my manager…’
She was still on the line, crying. Hanging up seemed cruel. Listening in on someone’s grief seemed perverse. Talking was ineffectual. Alison decided to hold the phone out a bit, far enough the soften the cries, close enough that the woman could talk again, if she wanted. Alison sat like that for minutes, each one more swollen than the one before, until the woman hung up. Alison set the phone in the cradle. Nothing like this was in the training manual.
Hugh’s still there when Alison finishes with the chairs. He’s done with his joint and is leaning against a wall, watching.
‘What?’ she asks as she walks past him.
‘Nothing.’ He follows her into the office. The light is harsh and artificial, making the cheap furniture uglier than it already is. Alison squats over her bag, looking for her keys. Hugh keeps talking. ‘I was just wondering, and maybe this is not the most opportune moment to ask this, but I was wondering if you’re on the pill?’
‘Yes,’ she says.
‘I mean, I knew you were because of Will, but then I thought maybe you weren’t on it anymore. Since you broke up.’
‘I’m on it.’ Her keys are in her fist and she hoists her bag onto her shoulder. ‘But I’d just get an abortion anyway. I probably wouldn’t even tell you about it, so don’t worry.’
‘Cool,’ he says and follows her out. They walk silently through the front gate and Hugh waits while Alison locks up. She seals the keys into a box with a combination lock.
‘Do you want to go to Jayden’s?’
‘To hang out with you and Jayden and Will? No thanks.’ She starts walking to her car.
‘It’s actually a party. There’s heaps of people there, so you wouldn’t have to talk to Will.’
She lets her silence be the answer. They stop by her car, but he gets in the way of her door. He seems to want to kiss her so she starts chewing on the skin around her thumb until he says goodbye and walks off. She slams herself inside, relieved to be alone, breathing the stale car air and listening to the radio. She’s so close to being done with the day.
Alison is halfway home when she realises she left the pool lights on. She knows she should go back and flip them off, but an old movie scene fills her head. A busted pool light and a live wire in the water. A little kid edging nervously towards the edge of the pool, urged on by his friends. She feels the scene as though it were real: the lump in her throat, the leaden stomach, the wash of helplessness. Her heart is pounding and her stomach is twisted. All she can think of are bodies in the pool, floating face down, bodies on the lawn chairs, bodies in the pavilion, bodies in the pump room, face up by the pool vacuum, and she doesn’t want to go back.
Alison pulls into a KFC car park, stopping under the red glow of the sign, and takes in a deep breath of salted air. Through the restaurant window, she recognises a table of guys that went to her school. She doesn’t know any of their names, but they were the nice quiet types that probably wouldn’t mind if she sat down with them. She could go in and get a mashed potato cup, smile and take a seat. Imagining it calms her down and that’s enough. She backs the car out of its space. They’d have nothing to say to each other in real life. She turns toward home. She would text one of the morning guards and explain about the lights. No one would blame her for being a bit distracted that night, alone at the pool, in the dark. She knew she was still going to dream of bodies in the pool, in the pavilion, in the pump house. She was going to wake up exhausted. But she could deal with that tomorrow.