Swimming with Mum Ch. 01

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Amateur

Looking back, I had quite a hard childhood. I grew up in a provincial town in the Midlands, the sort of place that periodically appears on TV in one of those property programmes where a middle-class couple from London briefly consider moving there for the ‘quality of life’ and ‘open spaces’ but ultimately decide that the crap train service and ‘easy access to Stoke-on-Trent’ aren’t actually what they wanted at all. Otherwise, very little ever seemed to happen.

My mum and I lived in a two up, two down terrace house just outside the town centre, which she absolutely adored. Her parents, my gran and grandpa, were well-off and lived in a large detached house in the countryside, but they’d more or less cut her off when she got unexpectedly pregnant with me and abandoned her with her boyfriend and a deposit for a house. Whether this assuaged their guilt at kicking their daughter out of the house, I have no idea. But Mum loved the house she’d bought; her boyfriend (my dad) spent three months doing it up, using favours from mates and bits of scrap timber he ‘found’ in skips, before jumping into bed with a barmaid from the pub up the road and disappearing out of her life. But she kept the house in perfect condition, scrubbing it every Sunday from top to bottom. Once a year, usually over a sunny weekend in March, she had a huge spring-cleaning event and turned everything upside down. She was the definition of house-proud. Once I started going to secondary school, she made the little garden my responsibility, and woe betide me if I didn’t cut the grass to her exact specifications.

We didn’t have lots of furniture or things in the house, just the essentials. Mum loved watching soaps, so we had a decent TV and a second-hand leather DFS sofa, but those were really her only indulgences. She worked flat out as a sort of typist and receptionist at a local factory, which frequently meant staying late, yet somehow she always had the energy to put me first. When I was eleven, I was desperate for a pair of really expensive Nike football boots which everyone (in my mind) was wearing at school. They cost so much, it would have been like two birthdays and Christmas rolled into one. Somehow, she must have found a second-hand pair in my size at a weekend car boot sale or through someone at work, and she stayed up late on a Sunday evening polishing and cleaning these old boots until they shone, almost as good as new. Then she presented them to me on Monday morning to take to school, before setting off herself for a long day. I was grateful, of course, but it wasn’t until I was older that I could really appreciate what she was doing for me.

There were always two sides to Mum. At work, and when she was in a good mood at home, she was cheerful and friendly, loved wearing makeup and doing her hair, which was a gorgeous dark auburn. It was easy to see how she’d been popular with the boys at her school, and equally easy to see how dad had got her pregnant at eighteen. On the other hand, if she was tired or stressed, this dark side came out, where she’d sit on the sofa, chomping her way through packets of cheap biscuits from the supermarket, screeching at me or at the TV for any perceived slight. If she’d had a bad day at work, I’d skulk all afternoon in my bedroom, enduring half an hour of frosty silence or constant nagging over tea before retreating back up there until bedtime. It got easier when I was older and could spend time out of the house, kicking a football in the park or hanging around the town, as she seemed to relax more when she didn’t have me to fuss over. But when she got into one of her really black moods, she’d go for an entire weekend without showering, hardly eat anything except tea and biscuits, and get more and more irritable until she found some way to relax and vent all the stress away.

Which brings me to the most special and unique thing about my mum. Apart from me, the one thing she absolutely lived for was swimming. At her slightly-posh school, she’d been able to have free swimming lessons and she’d quickly become one of the top swimmers in the county. Her figure wasn’t exactly the classic tall, thin type you’d expect for a swimmer; she was only average height and more hourglass than willowy, but nonetheless, she was the best. On her dressing table were two medals, which she loved to show off to me: first place in the county seniors, second place at the national trials. At sixteen, she’d been on a national longlist for potential Olympic or World Championship swimmers, but her times were a few tenths of a second too slow. And then, in her own words, “I grew boobs and got more interested in boys than swimming”. But she never gave it up, and if I was the most precious thing in the world to her, then her leisure centre membership card was probably the second-most.

She’d taught me to swim when I was only four or five, and then it became an Armstrong family tradition on a Saturday morning to get up bright and early and go for a swim. When I was an awkward teenager, I occasionally complained about having to get up early, but I could see how much it meant to her and the complaints quickly stopped. However hard I tried, I was never asyabahis yeni giri┼č anywhere near as fast as she was, and even when I was getting personal best times, she could blow past me and disappear up the lane if I ever got cocky. After the swim, we’d dry off and she’d buy me a can of something fizzy from the corner shop on the way home. I loved hanging out with her like that, when she was in her element and didn’t have to think about work or bills or money. She would relax and laugh and play around, and I’d get a little window into what eighteen-year-old Mum had been like, before she’d had to grow up and get responsible.

But, enough boring stuff about my mum. The story actually begins with me, and weirdly enough, my dad.

* * *

“Hiya Cathy, Dave up yet?”

His fake-friendly tones travelled up the stairs and through the open door of my bedroom.

“Hi Ian, yes, he’s upstairs packing. Dave!” Mum yelled, before dropping her voice to talk to my dad again. “Come in for a few minutes, he’s probably just finishing something off.”

I looked around my bedroom. I had actually finished packing quarter of an hour ago, but I was frantically trying to clean a dark smudge off the painted wall where I’d accidentally swung my sports bag and left a scuff. Mum would freak out if she saw it.

“Dave! Your dad’s here!”

“I’ll come down in a second, Mum!”

My best efforts with a slightly-damp towel seemed to bear fruit, and now it was more of a dull patch of paint instead of an outright scuff. I threw the towel onto my bed and bounded downstairs, two at a time, almost clattering into my dad at the bottom as he peered up to see where I was.

“Hiya Dave, you’re looking fit,” he said, punching my shoulder softly. “All set to go?”

My dad had announced to me when I was about thirteen that he’d slept with over thirty women and expected to break fifty before he got too old. He clearly thought of me as an unintended consequence of one of his conquests, someone to drop in on twice a year, stuff some twenty pound notes into my hand, and then go off to live his own life. He actually had a really good job working on an offshore rig, and during his time off he went on motorbike tours of Italy, Spain and Portugal. Not that mum or me ever really saw any of that money, except for the sixty quid he’d give me in lieu of birthday and Christmas presents.

I nodded. “Yeah, everything’s packed upstairs. I’ll bring it down, that way nothing gets forgotten.”

“Tea, Ian?” my mum called through from the kitchen.

“No, you’re alright, love. Keen to get off,” he said back, looking at me and rolling his eyes. “Mums, eh?”

I shrugged. “Let me get the bags.”

Today was Sunday, and tomorrow was a big day – my first day at a real university. My hard work and Mum’s constant nagging about schoolwork had paid off, and a few weeks ago, I’d received confirmation of my place at a proper university, studying History. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but this wasn’t some local-college-turned university where anyone could get in. I’d grafted to get an A and had accepted my place at the University of Sheffield. Mum had been in floods of tears when I got my results, going on about ‘social mobility’ and ‘a better future’, but Grandpa had got a teaching degree way back when so it wasn’t exactly what she made it out to be. Regardless, I’d spent weeks poring over the admissions material, reading words like ‘tutorial’ and ‘undergraduate’ and feeling like I was about to join the real world, in a real city. Yes, I wasn’t one of the cool crowd who hung out behind the fire station smoking weed, and, full disclosure, I’d never even had a proper girlfriend, beyond a couple of drunken snogs at house parties. One time, I was making out with this girl, Lucy, and she asked me to get her a drink. When I came back, she was snogging some older guy I’d never even met who had his hand up her shirt. That pretty much summed up my love life.

Unfortunately, Mum didn’t have a car, and I needed to take far too much stuff to realistically carry on a train with three changes. So Mum had made a surreptitious call to Dad and here he was, parked on the double-yellows outside the house in a white van he’d borrowed from a pal.

It didn’t take the two of us long to load my clothes, sports kit, bedding and towels, a bag of stationery and textbooks and my laptop, which Mum had tried to tell me she’d bought second-hand but I discovered a sticker on the bottom which said it had formerly belonged to her employer. I never asked further, but assumed she’d taken it because it was being thrown out. Dad theatrically slammed the back doors of the van and pointed with his thumb to the cab.

“Hop in. I reckon we’re gonna need a couple of hours to get there and you’ll want to be all settled in sooner rather than later.”

“Let me just say bye to Mum,” I told him, dodging back into the house and pretending not to notice his annoyance.

Mum was, predictably, standing in the kitchen, having a bit of a cry.

“I’ll be back at Christmas, if not before,” I said, putting my arms out for a hug. She grabbed me and started dripping asyabahis giri┼č onto the shoulder of my coat.

“I know, I want you to have a great time, but this place is going to feel empty without you,” she said, sniffing.

“I’m only a train ride away,” I said, patting her back. “And I’ve got my phone so you can call or text any time.”

“Go on, get going. Are you sure you don’t need anything else?”

I shake my head, pulling away from the hug. “I’ve got everything. I’ll text you when we arrive.”

She was developing a fresh round of tears, so I just gave her hand a squeeze and beat a retreat. I felt a bit guilty leaving her on her own, but she’d manage just fine. I couldn’t spend my entire life keeping her company.

I jumped up into the van’s cab, and seconds later we were pulling away, leaving my childhood home for the first time. I watched it grow smaller in the wing mirror, but any sentimentality I might have been feeling was rapidly destroyed by Dad.

“University girls are really easy, so it’s important to practice safe sex,” he said, pulling out in front of a cyclist and then roaring away. “Get plenty of condoms and never believe any girl who says she’s on the pill.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I said, insincerely, grabbing a titty magazine off the dashboard and tossing it onto the floor.

I’d been feeling a little lonely when the van had been emptied into my new room, maybe a bit homesick, and almost felt like I could ask Dad if he fancied going for a coffee or something for an hour. But when I went to find him and ask, he was flirting badly with an obviously married woman who looked like a mum helping her own son to move in downstairs, so I abandoned it and said goodbye. One or two of my new flatmates had already arrived, and music was coming from one of the rooms, but I felt too shy to just barge in and introduce myself. I didn’t want to hide in my room, either, so I made myself sit in the shared kitchen, boiling the kettle every ten minutes so if anyone came in I could offer them tea. After texting Mum, I scrolled around on my phone for an hour, wondering whether I was missing out on something happening elsewhere, when a voice appeared from the doorway.

“Hi!”

I looked up, and I’m reasonably confident that I just stared at her like an idiot. It was a girl, blonde ponytail, with square glasses which looked designer. She was wearing a dark green hoodie and leggings, carrying a box containing crockery. Even dressed casually, she instantly blew every girl at my school out of the water.

Ignoring my slack-jawed silence, she breezed into the room and put her box down on the counter. “Ooh, kettle just boiled, perfect. Are you having tea? I’m Lydia, by the way.” She started digging through her box for a couple of mugs.

“I, um, my mugs are in the cupboard,” I said, jumping up from my chair, which made a loud scraping noise on the cheap flooring. “I’ll get one.” I’d managed to sit there for an hour without unpacking a mug. Idiot.

“Oh, okay,” she said, giving me another bright smile. “Have you got some milk in the fridge? My mum made me bring longlife milk, but it’s in a box in my room, still.”

“Um, yeah, there’s some in there.” I handed her my mug and she gave me another smile, this one more polite than bright.

“Which room’s yours?” she asked, pulling two tea bags out of a box and dropping them into the mugs.

“Uh, I think it’s 12D,” I said, feeling like an idiot.

“Oh, I’m next door, 12E,” she says, but her enthusiasm seemed to be fading.

It hits me. “Um, I’m Dave, sorry,” I tell her, my face burning. I can’t believe I didn’t tell her my name. Idiot.

She brightens up again. “Hi Dave. Has anyone else arrived yet?”

“There’s a couple of other rooms with stuff in but I haven’t met anyone.”

“We can go round and introduce ourselves once the tea’s made. Is there like, a bin to put teabags in anywhere…?”

I won’t bore you with the details of my first weeks at uni, but Lydia was an absolute bombshell. I’d never been so attracted to a girl in my life. She was smart, funny, sexy, confident and always seemed to have time to listen and talk. She’d often just come and knock on the door to my room to ask if I wanted a cup of tea, or just to hang out and watch a movie on her laptop. In fact, going into her room to watch a film was when I discovered her major flaw.

On her desk, right next to the laptop, was a framed picture of her and her boyfriend.

“Is that your…?” I asked, my voice faltering.

“Oh, yeah, that’s Mark. I think I’ve mentioned him? He’s a year older, studying at Lincoln,” she explained, matter-of-factly. “He’s gonna try and come and visit next week, see my new room.”

Totally deflated, I sat on her bed, barely taking in the movie. Part way through, she shifted some pillows around and curled up, her amazing bum stretching out her now-signature leggings. I was sitting on a bed in a room with a hot girl who I really fancied, and she had a boyfriend. Fuck.

* * *

University study was a lot harder than I expected, and I struggled to keep up with the volume of research and reading they expected asyabahis g├╝venilirmi us to do. Luckily, unlike some other people I knew, living with just Mum for so long meant I was already pretty independent, and I didn’t need as long to adjust to things like using the washing machine or cooking for myself. Mum texted me every day to ask how things were going, and we replaced our usual Saturday morning swimming with a Saturday morning phone call, but I gradually found that I didn’t miss home as much as I thought. I joined the university football team and made the B squad, which I thought was pretty good going, especially since I had at least two more years to try and improve enough to make the first team. I also made some friends with other first-years on the team, which meant being added to a WhatsApp group and being invited for nights out in the city. A couple of severe hangovers later and I started to be more selective about which events to go to.

I kept up being friends with Lydia, even though her social life was rapidly increasing and I was feeling more like one of those platonic ‘guy friends’ than anything else. We texted a lot, which helped keep me from feeling too lonely when I was snowed under with work, and she was just a really fun and great person. She was obsessed with Lego for some reason, and had one of those million-piece kits on the go in her room. And, to my secret pride, she turned out to watch my first match in the B team, huddled on the sidelines in a huge fluffy coat and scarf. I fantasised about her dumping Mark and getting together with me, and how great it would be to have a girlfriend who literally lived in the next-door room. Being friends with Lydia made me feel like I was a proper uni student, with new friends and an independent life. When Mark visited (he was a nice guy, but kinda boring, I thought), I compulsively kept my headphones on and music playing just in case I accidentally heard them doing anything sexy through the wall. I knew I couldn’t handle that. Lydia tried to get me and Mark to chat one evening, but we didn’t have much in common and I couldn’t help but feel resentful that he got there first.

With the studying and the football training, my first term pretty much flew by. By the time we were into the last week before the Christmas break, I was feeling more confident in my ability to handle the studying, and I’d even managed to have a couple of very minor flirty text exchanges with Lydia after a few drinks. It’s probably a mark of how pathetic I was that I felt too shy to go after any of the girls who I met in the clubs on football nights out, even though some of my teammates were getting laid, but I obsessed over the exact tone of Lydia’s texts. In any case, I booked my tickets to get the train home for Christmas, and Mum’s daily messages got more and more excited as it got closer to me coming home. It was clear she’d missed having me around, even if I didn’t feel like I’d missed her any more than usual.

The surprise of that week was one evening, when Lydia came and knocked on my door. She’d got used to just letting herself in, and she marched straight over to interrupt my work.

“So, we need to talk about where we’re living next year,” she said, sitting herself down on my unmade bed. “All the good houses go straight away in January when they release the housing list. Have you got any plans?”

I’d barely finished my first term, let alone thought ahead to next year. “Uh, no?”

“Good, I thought maybe you were gonna move to a football house or something. Anyway, there’s this really nice two bed flat in the city centre that one of the third years on my course lives in. She’s leaving, so it’ll be vacant. Cheap rent, great location. I actually asked someone else first, but they’ve got plans, so I wondered if you wanted to move there with me.”

It didn’t feel great being the backup choice, but this was a golden chance to spend more time with Lydia.

“Yeah, definitely, sounds good. I need somewhere cheap, and the football lads will probably want one of those fully-serviced places anyway.”

“Great!” Lydia said, flashing me one of those smiles I couldn’t resist. “I’ll talk to her and make sure we get in there first. I’ve been for a look around and it’s great, don’t worry.”

I just nod. Lydia could have asked me to set fire to my trousers and I would have instantly complied, so this was no problem.

“I’ll text you!” she says, already on her way out of the room.

Tons of holiday homework got dumped onto my plate over the rest of the week, and by the time I was locking up my room and departing for the station, over half the weight of stuff I was taking home was books. I looked in on Lydia to say goodbye, but she seemed to have gone out somewhere, so I texted her instead. I’d spent two days obsessing over whether it was weird to buy her a Christmas present, and eventually I decided it was. It was a freezing cold, icy day, and Mum had agreed to meet me at the station, so I kept her up to date on whether the trains were on time so she wouldn’t need to hang around in the cold. Before I left Sheffield, I thought I’d stop for a haircut at a barbers near the station. I hadn’t had my hair cut all term and it was getting way too long, and I knew Mum would complain about it when I saw her. I stepped into the warm shop and, surrounded by pictures of cool-looking guys with fades and beards, I thought I’d go for something shorter.

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