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At Swim

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The sky is a bedraggled hatchling grey on the first morning.

Andrew squints up, through a thin lick of steam peeling from his coffee mug, and reminds himself that he doesn’t believe in regret.

His old swimming trunks are uncomfortably tight around the waist. He swaps them for a pair of regular shorts instead and walks through the dew-dolloped grass to the bottom of the garden, feet squelching in his flip-flops, cool air shivering along his skin. A mirabelle plum tree stands guard over the river, gnarled and stooping. Wild herbs grow along the bank—sorrel, garlic mustard, chickweed, ribwort, chamomile, dead-nettle, goutweed, they all grow in the soil of Andrew’s brain just as they do in the earth beneath his feet.

He picks a daisy and plucks its petals, letting them drift into the water. The current is strong, stronger than the calm, honeycombed surface suggests. The mirabelle tree groans under the weight of the wind in its branches.

Andrew drops the carcass of the daisy into the river at last and turns back toward the house.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow he will go in.


He wakes early again. The house creaks around him in familiarly unfamiliar ways. A soft rain dapples the window and thunder simmers in the distance.

Andrew turns on his side, wrapping the comforter tight around himself, and squeezes his eyes shut.


On the third morning, he makes it through cinnamon-scented coffee steam and garden dew again, treading gently among the wild-sprouting memories, only to be brought up short by a figure on the riverbank.

The boy has tough browned skin, deeply burnished copper hair, and limbs like nimble grasses. He looks like he bends without breaking, sun-hardened and coral-boned, despite the short-sleeved wetsuit he’s wearing.

Not a boy. A man.

The man looks up from where he’s dipped down in a deep stretch, blue eyes bleached almost grey from exposure. Andrew can’t speak for a moment. Then those eyes narrow, growing sharp and flinty.

“Find your own spot,” he snarls, mouth full of wildflower words.

Andrew looks at where the water lips at the thin, bare strip of ground, just enough to grant access to a single pair of determined feet.

“No,” he says, something stubborn setting its teeth inside him. “This place doesn’t belong to you.”

“Doesn’t belong to you either,” the man insists. “I was here first.”

“Are you twelve?” Andrew asks.

The man merely shrugs and turns back to the river. He finishes stretching out, then wades in without flinching and strikes out upstream, quick and effortless.

Andrew drapes his towel over a low-hanging branch, strips off his t-shirt, and leaves his flip-flops out of reach of the thieving fingers of the water. His first step jolts through him, the shock of the cold radiating painfully up his legs, and he bites his tongue to keep himself from swearing loudly. The next steps are worse, but there’s only forward or back now, so Andrew plunges on with gritted teeth, moving incrementally forward, stones slicing into the vulnerable soles of his feet.

He tries to let his body get accustomed to the cold to take the edge off, except the longer he stands there shivering the colder it seems to get. Finally, he has to concede blue-lipped defeat, glaring at the distant bob of the other swimmer up ahead. Of course, the wetsuit is giving him an advantage.

He walks back to the house on pins and needles and gets straight into the shower, turning the water as hot as it will go.


“It’s not going to get any warmer, you know,” a snide voice pipes up behind him. Andrew resists the urge to whip around and rifles through the water with both hands, willing his body to stop feeling the cold.

“If you’re just going to stand there and block the way-”

Andrew takes a deep breath and propels himself forward and into the water.


“Did you kill her?”


The man came earlier today and is on his way out by the time Andrew makes it to the bottom of the garden with his towel. Water sluices off him, his eyes are dew-bright, his cheeks flush with the morning sun.

He’s not conventionally attractive, but he is beautiful.

“The woman who used to swim here before you,” the man says, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He has a swimmer’s build—short but powerful, every muscle operating with pinpoint precision.

“No,” Andrew says.

Bee had wanted to see her garden one last time. The day Andrew checked her out of the hospital and took her home, they sat on the porch together after dinner. Her in the wheelchair Andrew had liberated from the hospital and Andrew in his usual spot, watching the birds swoop and soar as they sipped the last of the previous summer’s mirabelle schnapps.

It’s gone now, all of it.

Andrew suddenly can’t face the river. He takes his towel back off its branch, turns around, and heads back into the house.


“I didn’t kill her,” he says the next day, swaddled in his towel after only five minutes in the water. “Cancer did.”

“Oh,” the man says. He’s bending over, the palms of his hands pressed flat to the grass at his feet. His hair looks slept-on, but his eyes are wide awake. “Shame. She was a good swimmer.”

There’s a vague tightness in Andrew’s throat, like a wire slowly drawing taut.

The man straightens up.

“I’m Neil,” he says. A concession. Andrew tries to bleach his voice and purge his expression of whatever Neil saw in it and gives his name in return.

He watches Neil swim, shivering in his towel, until the sun tickles his eyes and his stomach gives an audible growl.


It rains again.

Andrew opens the window of the upstairs bedroom, breathing in the thick, wet air, and peers out through the gloom until he spots the inevitable splash of colour struggling against the current.

He draws his blanket tighter around himself, leans his head against the window frame and his mug against his cheek.

He’s almost finished going through the last of Bee’s stuff. There wasn’t much to replace—Andrew was never attached to his old furniture—but some of the pieces in this house are too haunted to keep.

Bee’s spice cupboard was so well stocked that he’ll have something new to dust his morning coffee with every day for a while yet. There are books on her shelves waiting to be read. All her papers are in order. Bee had thought of everything, from teaching him how to take care of her garden to collecting all of her recipes in a binder for him. But she neglected to mention the living human that apparently comes with the river.

Andrew’s coffee is long gone by the time Neil gives up his ongoing fistfight with the current. He briefly disappears among the trees, then emerges fully dressed, jogging down the path along the river and out of sight.

Andrew closes the window.


The sky is still in a foul mood the next day, grumbling and rattling the clouds, hissing and spitting angry bouts of rain.

Andrew goes downstairs on stiff legs and finds a cat curled up on the newspaper by the front door.

He stares at it. The cat doesn’t move.

“Shoo,” Andrew says.

The cat blinks misty green eyes up at him and tucks her leg in tighter. Fuck even knows how she got in. Andrew squints suspiciously at the letterbox, then turns and heads into the kitchen to start his coffee and paw through the fridge for breakfast.

He’s in the process of punching the air out of the bread dough he’s had proving over night when movement at the bottom of the garden catches his eye. He sets the bowl down with a sigh, scrubs his hands at the sink, then throws on a jacket and goes out through the porch doors.

The current is worse than ever. Neil is a wild thing, thrashing in the waves. Wind snaps at the trees like a rabid dog, swallowing Andrew’s attempts at calling out to the figure in the water.

There’s only one thing to do.

Andrew doesn’t bother stripping—it’s all wet already anyway. He loses a flip-flop and shakes the other one off, for once uncaring of the cold as it closes around his legs like shackles. It’s a struggle to even stay in the same place once his feet leave the ground, but at least it draws Neil’s attention at last. They meet somewhere in the middle and Neil lets himself be led back to the riverbank, though they come out further downstream than they started and have to wade back through mud and weeds.

They don’t talk.

Andrew takes Neil back to the house, shutting out the storm. The cat opens one disdainful eye at their dripping entrance and flicks her ears but still doesn’t give up her claim on the newspaper. Andrew fetches dry towels. Now that the noise of the wind is muffled, Neil’s teeth are chattering audibly.

“Bathroom’s upstairs,” Andrew says.

“I’m fine,” Neil chatters. “You go first.”

“So you can snoop? Steal my shit?” Andrew scoffs.

A slow grin spreads on Neil’s thin mouth.

“This old junk?”

“Fine,” Andrew says. “Freeze to death for all I care.”

He doesn’t rush through his shower, but he’s quick all the same. Dressed in blessedly dry clothes, he wanders back downstairs to find Neil bare-bottomed and crouched on the floor, making kissy noises at the cat. His wetsuit is in the kitchen sink, next to the empty wine bottle filled with the guilty remains of flowers that Andrew ripped out of the ground in a fit of destructive rage last night.

“Charming,” Andrew comments, looking at where the hem of Neil’s damp grey t-shirt rides up over a taut, dimpled ass. It’s slightly paler than the rest of him and dusted with fine, reddish hair.

“My pants are wet,” Neil hums absently, scritching his fingers around the cat’s jaw.

“Go shower,” Andrew tells him, handing him another towel. Neil ties it jauntily around his waist, not perturbed by his nakedness at all, and saunters upstairs with a little whistling tune on his lips. A minute later, the shower cuts on.

Left with nothing to do, Andrew makes breakfast.

He rolls out the dough, sprinkles it with parmesan and olive oil and a handful of chopped wild herbs from the garden. Then he cuts it into squares and layers them into a loaf tin. While the bread bakes, he gets out plates, salted butter, smoked salmon, pickled onions. There’s a little bit of cream cheese left over, too. He makes fresh coffee with cardamom pods, sets out the milk. Puts the stupid wine bottle with the wilting flowers on the table too before snatching it up again and shoving it on the windowsill above the sink instead.

When he looks up, he finds Neil watching him from the doorway, once again wearing only his limp grey t-shirt and the towel around his waist.

Thunder crackles like wet-starting fireworks. The light narrows down to a sour pucker. Neil’s eyes are bright and his hair is dripping on the kitchen tiles.

“Stay,” Andrew says, heaving the word out of the morass.

Neil looks at the square of golden light from the oven, humming warmth, and the fresh pot of coffee. He purses his lips, hums, then nods.


After the storm comes the heat.

Already the morning is blistering. Andrew walks to the bottom of the garden like a zombie, having not slept much. The cold of the water stings at first, but after a few moments it becomes a cool balm on his feverish skin. He lets himself drift easily downstream, then struggles for a while to get back to where he started. As he nears the mirabelle tree, Neil is coming down from the other direction, his hair sparking in the sun.

They reach the bank at the same time. Neil grins and does a stilted little bow, motioning for Andrew to go first. Then he sinks back down and floats on his back, face turned to the sky. It is tufted white and enormous today, smothering the day below.

Andrew splashes Neil with water as he passes him.

Neil splashes him back.


Neil invites himself into Andrew’s life much like the cat: now that he’s been grudgingly granted access once, he barges through the door or slips through open windows whenever he feels like it.

Andrew finds him asleep on his chair on the porch one day. The next, he wakes to a tell-tale trail of wet footprints leading from the window in the downstairs toilet to the pantry in the kitchen. There’s crumbs on the kitchen counter, cat hair on Andrew’s favourite armchair, a colourful towel drying on the laundry line in the garden. Paw prints in the pie crust and a jam-smudged spoon in the sink, and an apologetic spray of daisies sitting in a now-cracked espresso cup.


They have breakfast under the mirabelle tree.

“It’s not homemade,” Neil says, a little cagily, when he unpacks a bag of chocolate croissants, a punnet of fresh strawberries, and two cups of iced coffee.

Andrew watches him bite into a strawberry, red juices staining his lips, his own mouth a cold kiss against the morning air, and throws a pebble at him that Neil easily deflects.

The river ripples invitingly. They’ve paid their dues already today, but maybe Andrew will come back tonight instead of sitting on the porch alone with his wine and his sorrow.


He’s late the next morning. Neil is napping on a blanket in the shade, his hair wet and his limbs tired.

Andrew doesn’t wake him.


The night is stifling, and Andrew wakes up feeling black like a summer storm.

Neil, too, is a little storm cloud sitting on a log by the river, cramped up and frowning. Andrew perches next to him, wriggling his toes in their flip-flops, and looks out over the knife-bright water.

A headache throbs behind his temples like a swarm of ants around a carcass.

He hasn’t even had his morning coffee yet. All he can do is sit there, empty-handed and overbrewed, and stare at the hypnotising ripple of the waves.

“Cancer, huh?” Neil says eventually, probing at the tight line of his teeth with the tip of his tongue. “My mom, too. Lung cancer.”

Andrew could correct him, say that Bee wasn’t his mother, say he never had a mother to begin with. But he doesn’t. Neil digs a pebble out of the ground and flicks his wrist. It skips, one, two, three, four, five times before drowning.

Andrew picks up another pebble.

One, two, three, four, five, six.


Andrew drives them out into the endless summer fields. The sunlight is dry yellow and hard on their skin like stalks of wheat. They walk and walk and walk. They lie on the ground, hands shielding their eyes from the cornflower blue sky, the fresh blood of the poppies. Their noses prickle with the honeyed scent of the yarrow, the brandied chamomile, the drowsy clover. A bumblebee lands on Neil’s hand, fuzzy and delicate, and Andrew catches a butterfly between loosely caged fingers and lets it go again.

The air rises and falls with the breath of birdsong. The horizon shimmers behind a haze of distance.

Andrew feels emptied. He turns his hand palm-up and waits for the butterfly touch of Neil’s fingers.

That night, the tail end of a long hot day curling around their ankles, Neil leads the way into the water.

They didn’t stop for clothes. In the shimmery, blue-veined dusk, they are bared but not unprotected. The current is soothed, the water pulls around Neil’s naked hips like caramel, sluggish and warmed by the day but with a cool, liquid core.

They swim together, slow and unhurried, then drift on their backs, holding hands like otters to keep from drifting apart. The sky is streaked in fizzy pinks and sugared orange and riddled with vapour trails like old scarring. The riverbank is alive in the lilac-grey twilight. As soon as they leave the water, Andrew’s legs will be itching from the many mosquito bites he’s collected, but for now, they are content to stay suspended in the soft golden amber of this moment.


Some days Neil still wears his wetsuit. Some days Andrew still can’t get out of bed.

Most days, though, they meet by the river.


The garden is in full flush by July.

Andrew finally makes good on his promise to Bee and invites the Wymacks over for a barbecue. He keeps up Bee’s tradition of providing breads, sauces and salads and letting the guests bring whatever they want thrown on the grill—David comes bearing steaks in a smoky, spicy whisky and honey marinade, Kevin brings chicken satay and halloumi, and Abby offers up little fruit parcels for dessert. Neil noses in curiously while the door is open, trailing Kevin like an afterthought, offering nothing but a ripe, dimpled grin and his charming presence.

To Andrew’s surprise, the Wymacks don’t even question the additional guest. Kevin puts him to work ferrying plates between the grill and the table while David and Abby share sips of memories and beer and Andrew stands guard over it all and feels a little useless.

As always, there is far too much food.

When they’re all full, Abby takes Kevin and Neil along on a rambling inspection of the garden. David and Andrew sit on the porch with glasses of whisky, marginally supervising the fruit parcels that are slowly marinating on the last embers and watching the drunken stumble of the night as it wanders slowly up from the river, spilling stars in its wake.

The cat tries to climb on David’s lap and is unceremoniously fended off. Andrew’s own attempts are less successful, and she vigorously kneads his thighs and turns around a few times until finally settling down.

Andrew has tried to stop her from growing a name, but his traitorous brain whispers Mirabelle every time she shows up now.

“You holding up okay?” David asks him, eyes still firmly planted on the riverbank.

Andrew sips his whisky. Abby’s and Kevin’s voices are drifting up the garden like lazy insects, laughter punctuating the tightly knit summer air. A questioning breeze stirs the hair at the back of his neck, carrying smoke and the enticing scent of melting peaches in butter and honey. Neil is barefoot in the grass, grinning and wild, teasing Kevin about something.

The person who should be here with them is still a wound, but the garden couldn’t be fuller of her tonight.

“Yes,” Andrew decides. He is holding up okay.


The house is wistful after everyone leaves. Lonely, almost.

Andrew watches as even Mirabelle’s tail disappears down the garden, takes one last sip of night air, and closes the door.


“Can I kiss you,” Andrew asks, at swim one night under the stars, unmoored in the blue dark with Neil barely a breath away.

Neil hooks a hand around Andrew’s jaw and reels him in on the fishing line of his mouth, cool and wet against him, a smooth slide, water dripping between them like overripe juices. He tastes like the river and smells like the night, and Andrew cups his hands over Neil’s shoulderblades and dips his fingers left and right of his spine. Neil shivers. They both pant. They sink each other, and Andrew tries to shift them around but his foot slips on a slick stone and they teeter sideways, splashing as they go down.

Neil looks at him with eyes of starlight and laughs silently.


Andrew pours a small measure of this year’s elderflower syrup between the tree roots of Bee’s grave.

He botched the syrup—it’s too sweet, not nearly fragrant enough—but it’s not like Bee can still judge him for it, so it will have to do.

The graveyard is baking in the midday sun. Andrew sits on the ground in the shade and pulls out his notebook, but he doesn’t particularly feel like writing. He’s in between books at the moment, the most despicable stage to be in. His agent checks in regularly and he’s been feeding her bullshit to keep her off his back. Mostly he writes at night, to the distant lapping of the water and the soft, erratic flap of insect wings against his window screen, but so far it’s only aimless wandering. Not so much writing words as writing around them.

It was easier, back when he could still chew over his ideas with Bee.

He taps his fingers against the black leather binding of his notebook, looks at the brittle blue-white of the sky. The tree isn’t even Bee’s alone; several other names on little plaques dot the ground around him, but it was the closest graveyard offering this kind of burial at a reasonable price.

It doesn’t matter. She’s not really here, anyway.

Andrew tears a page out of his notebook, holds it to the flame of his lighter and watches it crumple. He doesn’t need the lighter anymore—Bee made him promise to quit smoking in exchange for her staying alive another year, and Andrew keeps his promises even if she didn’t keep hers in the end. But it’s still a comforting weight in his pocket some days.

He drops the burnt remains of the page on the ground and walks away.


It’s a windy morning. Andrew takes a thermos of hot, milky coffee and a batch of vanilla bean scones down to the river. The mirabelle plums are only just starting to come in, tart green and misted white, but there’s one adventurous branch that can be counted on to offer a preview of the glut to come. Andrew picks a few of those, gently rubs the morning dew off them, and waits for Neil to come out of the water and join him for breakfast.

He takes a picture—the messily arranged food, the whipped surface of the water, the sun sliding off the trees—and sends it to Aaron without a caption.

Aaron replies with an equally uncaptioned picture of the Alps swathed in afternoon light.


On the fifth day of Neil failing to show up for their morning swim, Andrew gets in his car with a batch of sesame and tahini buns, still warm from the oven and packed into a basket.

He picks up Kevin’s usual—jasmine and lemon decaf green tea—and drives to his house, knocking on the door until Kevin stumbles bleary-eyed out of bed and lets him in.

“I don’t know where he lives,” Andrew presses out through the tight clench of his teeth.

Kevin, who has been listening with increasingly wide eyes, only nods once before following him to the car. He’s still wearing plaid boxers, fluffy slippers and a too-short bathrobe, but he gives Andrew clipped, precise directions, until they pull up in front of an old, derelict-looking mill a few miles upstream of Bee’s house.

“Here?” Andrew checks.

“He didn’t want you to know,” Kevin says, apologetically. “It’s… temporary. I’ve offered him my spare room plenty of times, but he always turns me down.”

Andrew doesn’t ask how long it’s been temporary.

He leaves Kevin with the tahini buns and marches up to the front door, banging on the brittle wood. The silence is rich with the glug of the river, the bright notes of the birds. Clouds are still lurking just around the corners and the day is green and ripening.

For a long moment, Andrew thinks Kevin must have been mistaken. The building is mumbling bashfully of its abandonment, trying to convince him to turn round. Then there’s a soft shuffling noise, the dusty ghosts of footsteps on bare stone floors, and at last, the door opens with a soul-wrenching creak and an unholy gust of mildewy air.


The name is punched out of Andrew and leaves him winded. Neil stands there, purple smudges under his eyes like pressed flowers, his hair fluffed up like dandelions. Somehow Andrew never noticed the shimmers of silver and grey amid the strands before, but they suit him.

Neil looks at him, something swimming in the shallows of his eyes, sharp-finned and dangerous. Then he visibly slumps, the fight draining out of him.

Slowly, Andrew lifts a hand and cups it over the back of his neck. Neil lets himself be tilted forward, tucks his face against Andrew’s shoulder, and sighs.


Neil officially moves into Kevin’s spare room.

(Unofficially, he sleeps in Andrew’s bed most nights.)


One bejewelled morning in late August, Andrew wakes up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the first pinch of pumpkin spice in the air.

When he pads downstairs, bed-haired and yawning, he finds a row of upside-down jam jars cooling on the kitchen table. There’s Neil’s favourite sour cherry in vivid pink-red (cheekily labelled Thieves’ Delight in white marker), Kevin’s dark purple damson plum (Queen of Silly Plums), and a handful of smaller jars in the back in dappled shades of gold.

Curious, Andrew picks one up and reads, in Neil’s looping handwriting: Countess Mirabelle von Schwimm.

“Don’t worry,” Neil says from the doorway, where he’s been sneakily watching Andrew again. “There’s plenty of brandy in those.”

Andrew sets the jar down and smooths his thumb over the twitch in the corner of his mouth.

He looks at Neil over his shoulder—sun-drenched, knife-eyed, beautiful man in his kitchen, wearing nothing but a loose grey t-shirt, unapologetically dripping river water on the tiles. A man who’s set Andrew aswim in so many ways.

It occurs to him that maybe, possibly, Bee didn’t forget about Neil so much as consciously neglect to mention him to Andrew in particular.

After all, Betsy Dobson was not the kind of woman to leave anything up to chance, even in death.