Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Drowning by Numbers by Brooke Fieldhouse

Otto obsessively collects old post cards featuring swimming pools, but he has never before noticed that several of them feature a particularly captivating bathing belle; by Brooke Fieldhouse.

What a beauty!

Gorgeous legs, hour glass figure; brunette hair cut in a bob - 1920s style.

She's smiling up at him from the post card he's holding as he sits in his long low comfortable chair in his modest flat in Croydon.

The card isn't pornographic - not even 'naughty.' It's classy, vintage - a real bathing belle. The thing is he's never noticed her before.

'Otto, if only you spent as much time on human relationships as you do on your post card collection you'd be the perfect man.'

It's as if he can hear his wife's voice coming from the silver-framed portrait on the mantelpiece... Cruel? She'd been right, and since her death his two children have hardly visited him. Photography has been his life.

Every wall, each horizontal surface in his retirement flat, is covered with framed photos. They are massed on the table, shelves, and the baby grand his wife loved to play.

His favourite is a small black and white print of him, Cecile and Celeste, and his mother Ava taken in 1956. It stands on the piano in a simple wood frame. Ava wears a flower print dress, while he and his sisters are in bathing costumes - he trying to look big and tough next to his bigger sisters. They're sitting on the edge of the lido at Shimmeringham. Shadows are short, bodies bronzed. If there's one image in Otto's mind which could be said to have sparked his love of photography this is it... and what lies no more than feet away, cool, blue, and scintillating: the swimming pool.

He looks back at the card, remembers purchasing it years ago at an Antiques Fair. 'Zwimmin' Pools...? We gat bathin' belles, sporrts starrs, owshan lioness...' But Otto likes to search. It's part of the thrill. He'll stand perspiring in the village hall, hugger-mugger with enthusiasts hell-bent on cards depicting great cricketers, notable village greens, and babies dressed in matinee clothes. Over forty years Otto has amassed what surely must be the largest collection of swimming pool post cards in the UK. Why has he never noticed her before?

There are bathing lakes, brine pools, tidal pools, and ponds; hydros, marinas, baths and spas. There are pools with gushing fountains, their concrete tiers like flying saucers made from sherbet... Bathing-suited bodies clinging as if stuck fast by the sweetness of their white froth. There are packed pools, deserted pools, and pools with mysterious islands; choppy pools, smooth pools, and pools which don't even look like pools... It's understandable that the bathing belle has slipped his mind.

Otto looks further, searches through all six silver-clad volumes with their tough acetate covers. 'The Belle' appears on six cards. Not always the same pose; head sometimes facing front, three-quarter, and occasionally hand gaily placed on hip. In one card the smile has been replaced with a scowl.

Post card publishers sometimes played tricks, superimposed figures where they shouldn't have been. She was probably a well known studio subject of the time.

Otto makes a list of the six pools. That's the kind of thing Otto does. He takes notes when other people talk, wears white gloves to turn the pages of old books, makes a noise when snapping his spectacle case shut.

1. Plymouth Tinside

2. Weston-Super-Mare

3. Worthing

4. Brighton Saltdean

5. St Leonards-on-Sea

That's only five, and it's the sixth appearance of The Belle that really startles Otto - that swings his metronome-like mind over from the perplexed, into the troubled. The card is of the 1st Class swimming pool aboard RMS Majestic. The one in which she is scowling.

There are fluted Greek columns, bronze Roman balustrades, marble Egyptian seats; and there, graceful of body but sullen of air, is 'she' stepping into the mirror-like aquatic depths.

Otto gets the information on Majestic up on his laptop... 'handed over from her Hamburg builders to the UK in 1918 as war reparations...' The photo was most likely taken when the ship was in the service of the White Star Line in 1922, but the other five cards are postmarked between 1935 and 1965, and yet there she is, unchanging; sharp black bob, the same curvy figure.

Otto surfs information on the publishers. Only one comes up and they've stopped trading in 2010. Why send postcards when you can send a selfie? That clinches it. Information is Otto's oxygen, he must have more, he needs a holiday; he will visit those five locations. If there is no more to be gleaned it will still have been an interesting trip.



The Plymouth lido was the only one where it would be possible to swim, so he booked just three nights; Plymouth, Weston, Worthing. He packed his camera, laptop, a pair of new smart black swimming shorts, and the six postcards - carefully stored in clear acetate sleeves. He stood looking at his slick black wheeled luggage, imagined he could hear his wife tut-tutting.

'...You and your laptop! Really Otto, what are you going to do with that lot? You should relax, concentrate on making new friends.'

But he couldn't. That's the way he was, it was in his genes. Teutonic efficiency, naval training... Grandfather had been proud commander of a U Boat in the Great War. Everything changed when Hitler came - Father didn't like Hitler; 'little working class upstart,' so Father came to England. When war was declared his application for a commission was turned down. Senior petty officer was all he'd managed during his time in the Royal Navy. He blamed xenophobia. It was understandable, he'd been lucky to avoid internment.

It looked like the weather was going to hold. Plymouth Tinside was a real 'beaut-of-a-pool', had reopened in 2005, restored to its former 1930's glory... Shimmering water, white curves, endless roof terraces. Otto paid, changed, strode across the sun-soaked mosaic; dived, and swam sixty-eight lengths of stylish crawl - one for each of his years! It was a nuisance when people got in his way. All some folk did was pay to go and splash about.

He climbed out energized, and stood in the hot sun, hand on hip... Felt a pang of something... He'd almost forgotten about The Belle. That's where she'd been standing, right next to the fountain. He collected his camera and postcards from his locker, took shots - same angles. He stared at the postcard in its clear acetate sleeve. The shadows were spot on, flesh tones just right. This was no doctored photo, she'd been here, and the card was postmarked 1958. So how come she'd been here, and on the RMS Majestic in 1922? He could smell the chlorine coming off his sunburnt forearm.

He changed, went landside to the management office; camera in one hand, postcards in the other. For the first time he felt foolish... I'm trying to find out the name of this woman... He needn't have. The walls of the office were covered in photos of the pool, old and new, and 'she' was on several of them. He could see the smile, as if she was laughing at him. One of the photos was modern, late '80s? Yet it was her all right, sharp brunette bob, one piece black bathing costume, hourglass figure.

Otto picked the oldest-looking person in the office - guy with a beard at the photocopier - and stood pointing at the image.

'Real long shot but do any of these people have names?' Otto laughed, patted his camera; held up the postcards. 'Lido enthusiast, you know... hopeless case really.' Laughed again. Three voices answered.

'That's Carla!'

The bearded man elaborated.

'Serious swimmer... Used to come right up till when we closed in '92... Very popular as you can imagine. Nobody's seen her since the reopening.' Otto slipped the acetate pack of postcards back into his trouser pocket. He had a name.

As he sat on the train to Weston-super-Mare he had a peculiar feeling. It was as if he'd peered into somewhere he shouldn't have, discovered something forbidden, was being forced into conflict with an invisible being.

It seems as if Otto is in his flat, but things feel different. He's tip-toeing across the carpet to the bathroom leaving wet footprints on the tufted surface. There's an engine running, pounding away... bm - bm - bm - bm - bm - bm. The acoustic is different, reverberating, and he can hear the sound of rushing water...

He looked at his watch... Four am. He got out of bed and looked from the window toward the sea at attenuated shadows falling across the asphalt of a Weston car park. He sank down on the edge of the bed, disturbed by the dream and depressed at the prospect of going to the lido site.

The pool had been derelict since 1982, its bold art deco diving tower long since demolished. There was no access poolside, but Otto found himself peering over a wall... could see a fountain standing in a sea of mud. He held up the appropriate postcard, could see where Carla - yes, he found himself calling her that - had been posing. He took more shots, telephotos this time. It was a similar story with the shadows and flesh tones.

The developer was expecting him, and for some reason had got it into his head that Otto was from the Press... gave him the full publicity spiel.

'We're gonna redevelop, retaining as much of the original art deco spirit as possible...' The architect's plans for the fun park were displayed on the walls, and so was a multitude of photographs. There was a black and white photographic blow up of the diving tower covering one entire wall of the office, and straight away Otto

could see 'her', leaning against the white concrete of the parabolic arch; sharp brunette bob, hour glass figure. He got up from his seat, and stood in front of the photograph. Her image was life size. Otto felt his legs trembling.

'Striking isn't she!'

'You don't know who she is by any chance?'

Otto didn't need the answer. There was another photograph, small, framed - an old press cutting dated 1938; five female swimmers in a line up, all wearing bathing caps - no bob visible - but Otto could see the beguiling smile. It was Carla and there was a caption; '...our five death-defying divers... Carlotta Caporelli...' Otto could feel the heat vanish from his body. But it wasn't the sight of the name that froze him.

He looked back to the giant image of the diving tower with its five swimmers in full flight, all in the air at the same time. Carla - or Carlotta - was one of them, but there she also was, leaning against the white arch. She was in the photograph twice.

Of course the diver in the air was wearing a cap, Otto could have been mistaken, yet once again he was filled with a restless conviction that he was travelling into an unknown region... A journey he was unable to resist.

It seems as if Otto is in his flat, but things feel different. He's tip-toeing across the carpet to the bathroom leaving wet footprints on the tufted surface. There's an engine running, pounding away... bm - bm - bm - bm - bm - bm. He can hear taps being turned - not ornamental bath taps; bloody great industrial wing nuts being spun. Metal clanks against metal. There's a liquid resonance. The acoustic is different, reverberating, and he can hear the sound of rushing water...

It was four am and Otto was wide awake, shivering, bed sheets soaking. He made himself a cuppa from the room tea bar and gazed through the window at diaphanous shadows falling across the asphalt of a Worthing promenade.

When he arrived at the site he could see the pool had been filled in and replaced with a funfair. He held up the relevant card postmarked 1959 showing graceful Carla on top of a short flight of steps leading to a fountain. Behind her right shoulder was the pagoda-like curve of the Victorian bandstand, and beyond, the grey depths of the English Channel.

Otto had learnt little more than yesterday. The two nightmares had sapped his energy, and for the first time he considered scrapping his plans and returning to Croydon, but as he walked into the station pulling his wheeled luggage he was visited by a notion of synchronicity, something which by way of circumstance and coincidence titillates irresistibly, and he was forced to admit that in spite of Teutonic organization, he was no longer in control of events, they were commanding him.

Number four on Otto's list was Brighton Saltdean. Publicity material referred to its art deco architecture as 'sexy'. Sexy Saltdean? Didn't the Beatles do a song with that title wondered Otto, as he allowed himself the uncharacteristic luxury of a little joke... But the building was sexy - robust geometry, bold symmetry, if nothing else he could feast his eyes. English Heritage Grade 2* Listing... Closed since 2012 so no swimming.

'We're gonna redevelop, retaining as much of the original art deco spirit as possible...' chanted Grayson who was clad in tight black shirt and jeans. Otto noticed that the sales office contained no trace of historic photographs, only a wide cinema screen.

'Get a load of this,' enthused Grayson, finger clicking on computer as the oversized screen flickered black and white newsreel. The Belles of Saltdean, and there they were, all twenty four of them shimmying along the edge of the pool, one-piece bathing suits each bearing a number; and number six was Carla.

An idea formed in Otto's head. That was it, he had all the information he wanted. He would abandon his proposed stop at St Leonards and return directly to Croydon.

On the train he plugged in to Wi-Fi and returned to the section on the ocean liner. Carla was a ghost; the key was all in the scowl as she lowered herself into the pool on the Majestic. No doubt about it - the nightmares he'd had. She'd drowned, her image frozen in time. The 'Carla' on the Majestic image looked about 22, so she must have been born in 1900. But she couldn't have drowned aboard Majestic. True the liner had sunk in 1940 after catching fire at her moorings but she'd been passengerless. There had to be another explanation.

As the train gave a sideways lurch Otto's mind followed suit. He could be mistaken, but he was convinced that the theory which was coalescing in his head was correct. He could feel the flesh on his shoulders creeping, his buttocks tingling. He shut down the laptop. The thought he had just entered into was too momentous to pursue here. He needed calm. He must have the peace and quiet of his own room in which to take the final step in his quest.

As he inserted the key into the door of his apartment he could feel his hair pricking his scalp. He shoved his wheeled luggage through the door, and still wearing his Berghaus anorak hurried to the desktop computer.

There was a whole website... Specifications, facts, figures... and a passenger list... Name, age, class, address, country of origin, nationality, saved/died. Some kind soul had made it available to the public.

But it wasn't the Majestic, it was the passenger list of RMS Lusitania torpedoed and sunk by a German U Boat in May 1915.

Otto could feel the bitter taste of bile in his mouth. He scrolled down. There it was, Caparelli... Ava! No, that was the mother, age 49, '3rd Class, New York, US, died'... here it was; Caparelli Carla, age 22... died. That was her, born in 1893! There was even a photograph of the two of them. Ava seated in a chair with a caption which read '...her unusual occupation of swimming instructor'. Carla was standing in front of her mother, smiling at the camera.

Swimming instructor! Lifeboats had been launched but because of damage from the explosion there was chaos, almost twelve hundred died. Otto's shaking forefinger scrolled on its dreadful downward journey. Whole families had gone to the bottom. Mother, father, two children; mother, father, four children... Passenger ages spanned from 1 to 71. Otto's head fell into his hands. Carla's spirit had been lingering for a hundred years. But why trouble him, and why make his postcard collection her shadow lands?

When he'd calmed down he made himself a mint tea, he contemplated what to do. A bizarre idea came to him. He unpacked and took the six postcards from their acetate sleeves, studied them, and replaced them in the six silver-covered albums. Carla's image had vanished from the cards. She was gone!

A sensation of tranquillity overtook him. All was well. His trip had served a purpose. It was as if he had witnessed - been instrumental in - a kind of exorcism. He had made a small, yet no doubt valuable contribution to the spirit world. His breathing returned to normal, he would sleep well tonight.

It seems as if Otto is in his flat, but things feel different. He's tip-toeing across the carpet to the bathroom leaving wet footprints on the tufted surface. There's an engine running, pounding away... bm - mm - bm - mm - bm - mm - bm - mm - bm. He can hear taps being turned - not ornamental bath taps; bloody great industrial wing nuts being spun. He can smell hot oil. There's a change in rhythm, a hammering; pmm - bm - mm - pmm - bm - mm - pmm - bm - mm - bm... a liquid resonance. The acoustic is different, reverberating, and he can feel a force on top of his head, pressing down, down, and the sound of rushing water...

It was four am. Otto was out of bed in moment. He would make mint tea to calm himself. He padded barefoot into the kitchen - his skin moist and prickling - trying to reassure himself. The spirits had been appeased, all was well, surely?

He carried the infusion in its large white round cup into the sitting room where he placed it on the table by the long low comfortable chair. He hovered - right hand outstretched - and failed to resist the urge to remove one of the six silver bound volumes. He looked at the first postcard - Plymouth Tinside - set the book down on the table top, stepped backwards and stood stock-still, both hands covering his mouth.

There was no sign of Carla, but a new figure had appeared in her place. It wore the uniform of a German U-Boat commander - his grandfather's uniform. But the face was not the face of his grandfather. It was his face... Otto's.

He tore the other volumes from the shelves; 2. Weston-super-Mare, 3. Worthing, 4. Brighton Saltdean, 5. St Leonards-on-Sea, it was the same figure on each card. Even 6. RMS Majestic; there was the figure, U Boat uniform, trousers submerged to the knee, lowering itself into the pool, and the face; his face, Otto!

He slumped down hopelessly in the chair, pulled the back of his hand across his forehead. As he did so his eye was caught by one of the framed photographs standing on the piano. It was the wood framed image; his two big sisters, his mother, and him sitting by the lido at Shimmeringham.

Otto experienced a chill to his torso, just where he imagined his spleen to be. He could feel the cold touch moving, past his duodenum, liver, and round to his kidneys. It travelled into his pelvic area, across his thighs, down through his calves until the flesh over his entire body was creeping.

There was an intruder in the photograph, standing, directly behind his mother; sharp brunette bob, hour glass figure, and scowling, scowling, scowling toward the camera.

Every part of Otto's body that was not bone seemed to have shrunk. His eyes felt as if they no longer fitted in their sockets... Internal organs seemed to have been sucked inside one another, small intestine drawn within large intestine. His cock felt as if it was the size of a pencil stub.

His body is vertical now, but he can no longer feel the soles of his feet touching the tufted carpet. Something is holding him in a state of diabolical suspension, a force pulling him backwards, toward the bathroom... but it no longer is the bathroom. This time he is conscious, fully conscious.

The bathroom door has become a clanging sheet of metal, and beyond is an echoing steel tank of unfathomable dimensions. He can smell hot oil. There is no movement other than a powerful downward force upon his head.

Engine noise has ceased, and there is only a voice which begins as a moist whisper, and rises to a liquid roar.

11 comments:

  1. A brilliantly conceived spine chiller; so much more than a ghost story - an exploration of time, responsibility, vulnerability and the linkages that persist of the ageless chains that bind and ripple and ripple out. The complexities of Otto's unusual psyche render tangible that which might otherwise be dismissed. A fine read, thank you, Brooke,
    Ceinwen

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  2. An odd but good example of a mystic pursuit.

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  3. widower more or less separated from children, too much time on his hands, living in his own world, recipe for his downfall. superbly written stylish original story.

    Mike McC

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  4. Mystery turns into a ghost story, with suspense all the way - the intriguing kind, not the scary kind. Well done. Thank you, Brooke.

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  5. The topic is very original and compelling. The repeating depictions of water scenes are visceral and hypnotic and the reader feels that he/she is drowning in water and time by the end. Well done.

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  6. Thank you all for your stimulating and helpful comments. I must say that until blogs starting coming in I’d failed to see similarity - in message anyway – between my piece and the Virginia Woolf short entitled Solid Objects in which a collector of ‘found objects’ becomes ‘lost’ within his obsessive hobby. For further research Solid Objects was parodied/reinterpreted(?) in a column by Michael Frayn entitled The Subject of Objects!
    Drowning by Numbers is fiction and so contains its own truth, but outside of that my attention was recently (post writing) caught by a TV prog on the Lusitania which suggested that the second explosion – if not caused by ignition of one of its 25 boilers, or by coal dust flash – might have been gun cotton being transported to The Western Front. Passengers had – on ticket purchase - received official warning that attack from U boats couldn’t be ruled out, but the voyage was civilian-only and no mention was made of cargo that might have been controversial. If that were so then the covert shipping of explosives might be considered as great a war crime against the passengers as the pushing of the torpedo button was. Though the wreck lies in only 300 feet of water it’s super-murky, hazardous to access, and a grave, so we may never know the truth!

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  7. I enjoyed the story... quite unsettling in many ways, and I always like your delivery!! Your turn of phrase makes me smile.. subtle comedy, you push the familiarity button so well, and get a character across without actually having to describe him or her.

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