draft working title: Transfomed

Currently this is only a draft of the story I have buzzing around inside my head. I've written the early chapters simply to help get my thoughts in order and story started. I don't write that frequently, so I can't guarantee if and when new chapters will appear.

However, I really would appreciate constructive criticism because I'm trying to learn how to write in a way people want to read, so thanks in advance for your comments!!

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4. The Swimming Trials

 

“Jolitas”, I don't answer, but I hear my Father’s footsteps on the stairs, he pops his head around my bedroom door, rolls his eyes and says “Jolitas, how many more times must I call you?” Since he first called for me to get out of bed come downstairs 20 minutes ago, I've been sitting, dressed except for socks, on the end of my bed reading. I glance at him standing by the doorway and collapse theatrically backwards onto my soft bed, puff out my cheeks and feign exasperation. “Jolitas please” he now sounds stern, he's getting a little annoyed with my reluctance to cooperate, “come down now and set the table, be a good boy, you know how important today is” I sigh, he continues “I will not ask you again, next time it will be your Mother!” He always uses the threat of Mother’s intervention judiciously, when he does resort to it, I pay attention, it's unwise not too. I leap up, fold over the corner of the page I'm reading, close the novel and push it under my pillow to be retrieved and resumed later.

I pull on the knitted woollen socks given to me by my Grandmother, and then bound down the wooden staircase, taking two stairs at a time. I rush into our large, airy, light blue painted kitchen and immediately busy myself. After my bedroom, this is my favourite room; it's always warm and cosy. When Mother is cooking, it's filled with familiar smells, often of my favourite dishes, roast pork, beef stew or potato cakes. Sometimes, when I've finished my chores, I'll sit here eating bread and jam and dreaming. I dream of being a famous swimmer, representing Lithuania at the Olympics. I hear the starter’s gun, the roar of the crowd, experience the adrenalin surge and envision lunging for the finish to win gold by a finger tip. In my dream, the defeated opponent is always a Russian; he looks deflated, crestfallen, whilst I’m deliriously happy and filled with nationalistic pride.

Along one wall are shelves, neatly stacked with jars of home made jams, pickles and chutneys. Furthest from the door stands a big old fashioned black cast iron wood burning stove, with two ovens, one slightly larger than the other, and a pipe which disappears into the white painted ceiling and then up through the house to release the wood smoke. It is the type of stove that, over the last fifty years, wealthy westerners have over come to love although they predominantly prefer the easier to maintain gas fired versions. Known simply by the manufacturer’s name, Aga, they are seen as “social status” objects in the west and are now available in obtrusively bright garish colours to coordinate with fashionable modern western kitchens. The stove, which is always on, as it contains a back boiler for the central heating, ensures the kitchen is warm and welcoming even in the coldest depths of winter. A long rustic rough wood table, a chair at each end and a bench seat either side, dominates the centre of the Kitchen.

It is my assigned job each morning to set the table for breakfast, my movements are well drilled. Four straw placemats, one for each of us, plates, knives and forks are carefully arranged. I fetch the large blue and white ceramic jug of milk from the refrigerator and very carefully lift it up and place it in the centre of the table. Finally, I fill the old blackened metal kettle with water and place it on the stove to boil, never really understanding why, as we have a modern plastic electric kettle which is both lighter and boils faster but mother still prefers the kettle inherited from grandma.

Mother has already put on the table pots of jam, plates of smoked meats and a dish of butter. Mother’s chair is at the head of the table, in front of which I place a large crusty round loaf of dark rye bread on a wooden breadboard together with a bread knife. The freshly baked bread, collected from bakery by father, is still warm. The dark dense rye bread is 'old fashioned' bread, your grandmother would recognise it but you, the eater of tasteless supermarket, bleached white, sliced bread probably would not.

We are all very excited and nervous; none of us really feel like eating. I’ve cut myself a slice of bread, spread butter and a thick layer of apricot jam on it. After a single bite, it remains on my plate untouched again. I really am too excited to eat today. The regional swimming squad trials are being held today and my sister has qualified to compete, I’m so proud of her! She has dreamed of becoming a swimmer since she first heard the stories of our Mother’s success. At school, she learnt how our mum was the best swimmer of her generation; she’s still a national hero today. For 3 years Mother represented Lithuania at major swimming events around the world. She competed at the 1972 Munich Olympics, which were stained with the blood of 11 Israel athletes murdered by Arab terrorists on the morning of 5th September.

Mother finished first in her heat, second in the semi-final and fourth in the Olympic 100 metres Dolphin Kick final. Although respectable, it must have hurt her to come fourth, one place outside the medals, by only two hundredths of a second. I guess no matter how hard you try, it must be impossible not to consider the ‘what ifs’ – what if the tumble turns had been slicker, what if she’d taken one less breath on the final length?

This is a very important step for my sis, Ginta; if she makes the regional squad, which was by no means a foregone conclusion, she’d receive full time training by professional coaches. Every aspect of her technique would be analysed and refined to shave those all important hundredths of a second off her times, which could, as in mothers case, make the difference between success and failure. Each of the 5 regions of Lithuania has its own 10 swimmer development squad for each of the five swimming disciples, Free Style, Back Stoke, Breast Stoke, Butterfly and Dolphin Kick. Once a year the National trials are held and the very best swimmers step up from the regional squads to the professional National squad. Mother has been coaching sis hard for the last six months and you can see from the tension in her face that she is excited and anxious. Sis told me Mother sat her down in the kitchen two days ago, while father and I were out picking mushrooms, to tell her that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she failed to make the squad. For sis it would be, for mother too I suspect, nevertheless it was an important chat, an attempt to keep things in perspective, for both of them.

Today, each competitor must race in 2 of the 5 disciplines and selection to the regional squad for the lucky ones will be for a single discipline. Sis has chosen to race Free Style and her favourite Dolphin Kick. The Dolphin Kick swimmer is under water for 90% of the race, using fast and small leg kicks, undulating their outstretched body like a whip, rising to the surface only to breathe. They are so graceful; like beautiful mermaids. You need to be very strong, yet supple to allow the movement to ripple through your body like a wave from head to toe. You are permitted one stroke with the arms to pull you to the surface to breath and one to re-submerge. The best dolphin kickers have very strong upper arms, abdominals muscles and powerful lungs. They also require the flexibility of a gymnast to efficiently transmit the movement through their body maximising speed through the water. At the highest level, Dolphin Kick is considered the ‘blue ribbon’ swimming event, attracting a huge public following with the top competitors becoming idolised national sporting heroes.

Father encourages me to eat, saying it will be a long day before we return home and sit down to beef stew tonight. I take a small bite of my bread and wash it down with a gulp of tea. I realise sis has left the table; I hear the muffled sound of her being unwell, she’s obviously very nervous but didn’t want to show it. Father starts to get up, to go to his daughter but mother makes a face and says quietly, “No Richard, give her a minute to compose herself, everyone get nerves before their first big race”. I want to run to sis, to hug her, tell her I love her and she’s the best big sis in the world.

Never had beef stew and dumplings tasted so good! I’m gulping delicious mouthful after mouthful. I’m attempting to eat, smile, laugh and chat all at the same time. We are all so happy, sis, yes my sis, gained a precious place in the swim squad for the ‘free style’. She would have preferred the Dolphin Kick, but she’s ecstatic anyway and the two girls that were added to the squad for Dolphin Kick were both much older than her; one had even been rejected last year, so that softened the blow. Red wine, sis and I had never been allowed it before but tonight mother pours four glasses of the strange tasting liquid and passes them around. She raises her glass, smiling broadly at Ginta says, “Congratulations on your success, we’re so proud of you my darling”. Father, smiling broadly, his eyes a little watery, remains silent. He raises his full glass, nods at sis, drains it and slams it down noisily on the wooden table before wiping the back of his hand across his eyes. Ginta blushes, she looks totally exhausted from the days exertions, it’s only adrenalin that is keeping her going.

Maybe it was the effect of the two glasses of wine I drank but tonight was the first time, the first of hundreds, possibly even thousands of times, that I closed my bedroom door and flung myself across my narrow bed. With the mattress supporting my middle, I tried to imitate the movement of a Dolphin Kick swimmer. I tried to move like a wave, attempting to feel the motion flow through my body from head to toe. Although alone, initially I felt self conscious and the movements were ungainly, awkward but with practice they would become refined. In the weeks and months to come, my practice was not confined to my bedroom. Mother’s status guaranteed me free admission to the town swimming pool. During the cold winter, I would rush the three blocks from my school to the pool and practice most evenings. Again because of mother, I was tolerated but everyone knew that Dolphin Kick required greater flexibility and strength than possessed by men and that was why there were no men’s Dolphin Kick races in the championships, international, national or even at local level. At first, when she discovered my interest, mother would encourage me; she would even come to the pool and coach me. At home, she would answer my barrage of questions, “how many kicks between breaths is optimal”, “should you always breath to the same side or alternate”, “how can I strengthen my body without losing flexibility” and more. But as my determination and resolve to get better increased and it became apparent this was not just a passing fancy, so she became more reluctant to provide the guidance and advice I sort, which at the time I couldn’t understand.

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