The Swimming Pool by Shaunagh Jones

My patients were always strangely delighted when the pills matched their handbags or polo shirts. I took my belongings out of a time-battered suitcase that belonged to my father, and laid my shirts out on the single bed to decide which was most suitable. There was a cocktail bar nearby, but in a place like Sherman I didn’t expect much of it. At home, I’d grown tired of the prescription drug addicts and d├ębutantes with anxiety disorders, so I’d flown east to find someplace without the designer label boredom, intending to stay a month or two. I was unaccustomed to the high salary I’d been receiving then, leaving much of it unspent, and was pleased to finally have anything to do with it.

When I arrived, the landlady sternly warned that I wasn’t allowed pets, nor overnight guests; she’d said the words: ‘overnight guests’ with particular disdain, but after I told her I was a doctor it seemed to assure her I wouldn’t be lowering the reputation of the place. At home, sidewalks were crammed with people whether it were day or night, the perpetual oncoming headlights made me feel under surveillance. In Sherman the locals were like fat flies batting sleepily against a window. In the wilting summer, the old men wore poorly fitted black suits, like they’d been bought when the men were young; the women’s clothes rarely deviated from muted colour schemes. A sense that the whole place was in mourning, but for what I did not know: nothing had happened there for years.

The cocktail bar was dim-lit and nearly empty; in the background, a slow guitar tune played. The barman stifled a yawn as he prepared the Gimlet I’d ordered and as I looked at the bar’s bland patrons, wondered why I’d expected anything besides. Only two men stood out and they talked with their heads close together, as though they didn’t want anyone to hear; one, dressed in linen with his hair slicked back, his frame thin, but when he stood up his posture was assured; the other, muscular and his clothes were stretched over the bulk of his body: each time he picked up his glass to drink, it looked as though he might crush it accidently. His nose was crooked, as if it had been broken; I thought he might be a boxer.

I stayed in the bar until it shut and stumbled into the twilight. On the hillsides above the town I noticed a cluster of houses with walls so white they practically glowed. But it was the sheer size of them that caught the eye, the windows of them emitted gold lights and I imagined parties and affairs being had within.

One afternoon came a knock at my door. At first, I ignored it. When the knock came again, insistent this time, I rose from my seat. There in the hallway stood the muscular man from the bar, in meticulously ironed black trousers, a white shirt and a tie. But his pristine attire looked incomplete, as he’d chosen to sling his jacket over his shoulder. He asked me if I was the doctor and I told him I was, but not here. I explained that I was on holiday; the man ignored me and asked that I come with him, someone needed my help. Though he didn’t seem concerned, leaning as he did on my doorframe, but there was forcefulness in his voice that made me pay attention. I followed him out to where a car with blackened windows was waiting. Nothing good happens in a car like that, yet this was the most interesting thing that had happened in days and spurred on by the rum I’d consumed that afternoon, I allowed a door to be opened for me.

From the back window Sherman faded into the distance. The car wound its way along roads that spiralled upwards and we passed into the darkness of a forest where two men walked along the road. One was carrying a rifle, and the other had animal carcasses hanging from his arm. They looked at the driver with some recognition, but didn’t raise a hand to wave. Shortly after drawing out of the forest, the driver switched the engine off and the door opened for me again. I thanked the man, but I wasn’t sure why.

Up close, the houses on the hill looked even more impressive, they were the colour of ivory, delicate, not like the glowing monstrosities I’d seen from Sherman. I was greeted by a butler and as we went up the path, I took in the view of the vast manicured lawn, species of plant I’d never seen before, and the fountains that emitted beams of water high into the air. There were gilded fences and marble statues before them, Gargoyles perched on the drainpipes. There were secret windows, only visible from certain angles. Standing at the one of the windows, there was the shadow of a man. Though I couldn’t make out his features, I was aware that he was watching me.

I was shown to a room with bookcases that stretched up the high ceiling. Picking a volume from the shelf, I noticed the text was annotated with looped handwriting. There was a laugh behind me and I almost dropped what I was holding. ‘Caught you.’ The man dressed in linen walked towards me, his hand outstretched. He smelled of sweat and citrus cologne. He crushed my hand in his grip and introduced himself as Richard Stepps. Sitting down in a padded leather chair behind a desk, he lit a cigarette. I noticed a gold paperweight, its surface etched with a map, sat on the desk. I returned to the chaise lounge and awkwardly perched on it sideways. I didn’t want to sit in front of this man.

We talked for a while about my stay in Sherman and despite my probing he told me little about himself. He stubbed out his cigarette and said: ‘I hear you’re good with problems of the mind. My wife, she has some kind of sleeping sickness. She falls asleep at strange moments. Always wide awake at night. She won’t be next to me and I’ll search the house for her. The first time I thought she’d left me. Then I looked out the window and she was swimming in the pool. I’ll be in the middle of saying something to her and all of a sudden she won’t say a word and her eyes will be shut. I don’t know what’s come over Gloria. She used to be so lively. Now all she does is sleep, lie by the pool, swim. Doctors have seen her before, but no one can do anything. They just tell her not to drive, give her meds that only seem to make it worse.’

I told him it sounded like narcolepsy, and if it was, that that wasn’t my area of expertise. I was about to refer him to another doctor when he interrupted: no, it couldn’t be that, it started all of a sudden one day last year, just after Gloria’s mother died. The two women were very close. At first he thought she was grieving, but it was greatly prolonged. He implored me to take a look at her. He said, ‘I’ll pay you, of course,’ rising from his chair. His words were insulting but I agreed to meet his wife as it didn’t make sense to leave without doing so.

Back of the house, there was the bluest expanse of water I’d ever seen, the edge lined with jungle plants and a high diving board rising out of the ground. The sun sparked off the lazily moving water, prompting me to shield my eyes. Richard scanned the pool as his wife couldn’t be found on the sun loungers. He shouted her name and, that instant, she broke out the water.

‘This is the man I told you about,’ Richard said and she nodded. As Gloria rose from the pool and stretched out to dry on a sun lounger, I couldn’t stop looking at her wet, tanned stomach. I wanted to place my hand on it and feel her warmth. She gestured to the lounger next to her. This time, I didn’t hesitate in stretching out, under the pretence it would make her more at ease. Richard stayed where he was, but Gloria told him this would easier if he went inside. Although he obeyed her, a steady stream of staff appeared throughout the course of the afternoon, polite, but ever observing.

Gloria spoke of the parties she used to throw. Actors, musicians, socialites flocked to their house. They would dance, chatter and drink, sometimes for days, then sleep until the next party. When her picture appeared in the gossip pages Gloria would pretend to be annoyed at being featured in such trash, but she was secretly pleased. When things were quiet, she and Richard would leave their ivory house. They went to remote islands in the winter (‘just to see the sun again’) and Europe in the summer (‘because that’s where the most exciting people go’).

Then Gloria’s mother died and she simply didn’t feel like celebrating anymore. Gloria tried hosting a party, a few months after the funeral. It was smaller than they usually were. Yet putting on a cocktail dress and smiling felt wrong to her. The dress became gaudy and her smile felt tight. The whole night she heard her mother’s voice, instructing her to stand up straight and be polite. The voice told Gloria her dress was too short and her laugh too loud. Gloria remembered running upstairs and leaving the dress scrunched on the floor before getting into bed. The sounds of the party carried up the stairs and Gloria lay in the dark, wide awake, her mother’s voice telling her she was being rude and should be ashamed.

‘My mother taught me everything I know,’ she said. She repeated it, this time quieter, like it needed affirming. Then Gloria’s face broke into a smile and she apologised for not offering me something to drink. I declined, but offered my card and asked that she call if she wanted to see me again. The sleeping sickness that bothered Richard was never mentioned. The driver returned me to Sherman and that night, I thought about Gloria’s tanned stomach.

I waited for her phone call. When it eventually came, it was Richard: Gloria wanted to see me. The remainder of my Thursdays in Sherman passed beside Gloria’s swimming pool. I let her talk, sometimes interjecting for clarification or to encourage her to think about what she’d said. Her real name was Mary, but she’d changed it before meeting Richard. ‘Men don’t fall in love with girls called Mary,’ she told me. More than anything, I watched her elegant mouth move and tried to emotionally detach, from her stories about a cocaine addicted father, a childhood in boarding schools where she was beaten. With each session, I stayed in Sherman a day longer than I had first intended.

Gloria rarely mentioned her marriage. At times, Richard appeared overprotective of his wife, reluctant to leave her alone; he interrupted when she spoke, which suggested that he knew more about her life than she did. He clasped her waist and when he finally let go there were finger marks on her skin. Other occasions, he was absent, and I noticed Gloria’s attire was more demure then. Her skirts were knee length and her blouses buttoned to the top, yet I couldn’t stop picturing her in her array of bathing suits. My favourite was rose coloured, with a bow that lay between Gloria’s breasts. Another was white and became translucent when wet.

When Richard would enquire about his wife’s progress I would tell him that the conversations between me and Gloria were private. She did seem livelier though, more animated when she spoke, ‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ he said, nodding in her direction. She lay on a sun lounger, her eyes closed, completely still. Her dark hair hung in loose curls around her shoulders and her skin, damp from her swim, caught the glaring sun. ‘She’s only ever loved me,’ Richard said, patting me on the back slightly too hard.

Gloria had decided to throw a party again. In the mail, I received an invitation printed on shimmering card and naively handwritten across the top was: ‘please do come.’ I tucked it into the front pocket of my suitcase and the night of the party I sat on my balcony watching the cars that drew up constantly at Gloria’s house.

Just after one o’clock, there were footsteps outside my door, followed by a knock. It was strange seeing Gloria somewhere that wasn’t by the side of her swimming pool in or one of the airy, elaborately decorated rooms in her home. Hoping no one had noticed us, I ushered her inside.

‘I couldn’t do it. There were so many people. And Richard kept watching me, waiting for me to slip up.’ The wallpaper was peeling off the walls in my apartment and dust had settled on the surfaces. Gloria was slumped in an overstuffed chair wearing a black velvet dress and heavy diamond earrings. Her hair was coming loose from the elaborate twist at the back of her head.

‘He’s a criminal. Please don’t make me go back there. I don’t love him, you know.’ All summer I’d wanted her to say those words and tell me she loved me instead. I wanted to put my arms around her and bury my face in her neck. For a moment, I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. I imagined us leaving Sherman behind. Gloria looked at me, wide eyed, when I told her she needed to leave, it wasn’t appropriate. When I shut the door, I thought about her, retreating back to her ivory house and her parties, forgetting all about me.

The summer was coming to an end. I packed my belongings and booked a plane ticket home. I would miss looking out at the hills from my balcony, and the afternoons by Gloria’s swimming pool. I lifted the phone receiver. As I dialled Gloria’s number, I didn’t know what I planned to say. The phone rang, but no one answered. Eventually, I hung up, disappointed and relieved in equal measure.

Some days later, there was a furore. The national news was filled with the scandal of the socialite who was found dead in her swimming pool after a party. Reporters milled around Sherman, questioning the locals who told their stories about the beautiful Gloria Stepps and her husband. I hated their delighted, conspiratorial tones when they spoke of her parties, and how sad it all was. The newspapers cited her narcolepsy as a possible cause; she’d gone for a swim and drowned. There were pictures of her and Richard at some event or another, her hand on his chest and looking somewhere off camera. I was angered by the simplicity, and turned away the journalists who inevitably wanted to speak to me. Leaving my card for the police, I got in a cab bound for the airport. As the plane drew away from the runway, I thought about Gloria, her legs kicking and her arms cutting through the aquamarine water.

Shaunagh Jones is a short story writer, whose work has been published in the Bohemyth and Octavius. She recently completed a Creative Writing MLitt at the University of Glasgow. Follow her on Twitter @JonesShaunagh.