Swimming Home: A Novel by Mary-Rose MacColl

Swimming Home: A Novel

byMary-Rose MacColl

Paperback | June 20, 2017

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From the author of the international bestseller In Falling Snow, a beautifully written, heartwarming novel of a young woman swimmer in 1925    
 
London 1925: Fifteen-year-old Catherine Quick longs to feel once more the warm waters of her home, to strike out into the ocean off the Torres Strait Islands in Australia and swim, as she’s done since she was a child. But now, orphaned and living with her aunt Louisa in London, Catherine feels that everything she values has been stripped away from her.
 
Louisa, a London surgeon who fought boldly for equality for women, holds strict views on the behavior of her young niece. She wants Catherine to pursue an education, just as she herself did.  Catherine is rebellious, and Louisa finds it difficult to block painful memories from her past. It takes the enigmatic American banker Manfred Lear Black to convince Louisa to bring Catherine to New York where Catherine can train to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. And finally, Louisa begins to listen to what her own heart tells her.

About The Author

Mary-Rose MacColl is the author of five novels, a nonfiction book, short stories, feature journalism and essays. Her first novel, No Safe Place, was a runner-up for the Australian/Vogel Literary Award, and her first non-fiction book, The Birth Wars, was a finalist in the 2009 Walkley awards for journalism. Her novel In Falling Snow was...
In Falling Snow
In Falling Snow

by Mary Rose Maccoll

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The water of life
The water of life

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Title:Swimming Home: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:432 pages, 8.01 × 5.26 × 0.88 inPublished:June 20, 2017Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143129961

ISBN - 13:9780143129967

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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2017 Mary-Rose MacColl1  Louisa Quick emerged into a morning as joyous as London offered. Princes Square was wearing summer finally, this late in August, almost as if the strange wintery weather of these last few weeks had never happened. The still-wet pavement glistened in the sunlight. There were birds—Louisa had no idea where they’d been until today. Her life seemed unimportant suddenly—the waiting room full of patients, the mountain of paperwork in the office, the grumbling nursing staff—all of it gone. Louisa might skip, she thought, or dance a jig, in weather like this. Well, someone else might skip or dance a jig. Normally, Louisa wouldn’t even be outside at this time of morning. She’d be inside, working. Where I would be still, she thought, if it weren’t for Helen Anderson. Louisa had been in the treatment area off the waiting room with a patient when the front desk nurse parted the curtains and told her she was wanted on the telephone.“Can I call them back?” Louisa had said. The nurse shook her head.“They said it was urgent, Doctor.”“From the surgery or here?” Louisa had said. The nurse didn’t know.It was terrible to admit, but Louisa would hurry more for a patient from her surgery in Harley Street. It was a simple equation. The Harley Street patients paid, and expected more. Louisa needed their money for her work here at the clinic. She left her patient with the nurse to finish up and went to take the call.The caller was Helen Anderson, a patient who’d come to the surgery two years before. Louisa couldn’t remember what had been the matter with her, only that she was one of those patients who knew more than her doctor and wouldn’t do as she was told. Louisa had seen her again just before Catherine started at the Henley School in the spring but Helen, the school’s principal, didn’t acknowledge their history. Some- times patients didn’t want to see their doctors in other settings, and who could blame them?When Louisa asked on the telephone now if she was all right, Helen sounded exasperated. “Of course,” she spluttered. “But you must come quickly. Write down the address.” Louisa scribbled down an address as ordered. She was about to ask if anything had happened to Catherine when Helen Anderson hung up.What the devil could be wrong? Louisa had thought. It had been a tumor, Louisa recalled, abdominal, large. Perhaps it had regrown.Louisa hurried through the lane to the Ratcliffe Highway and put her hand out to signal a passing taxicab. As the driver pulled over, she realized she’d forgotten her hat and coat; she must look a fright, her dark brown hair, the armory of pins it took to secure it—she really needed a cut—adding to the view she was fairly confident others experienced of her, a woman of difficult-to-determine age a little addled by life. Forty-one, she’d tell anyone who asked. I’m really only forty-one, al- though everyone thinks I’m a hundred. And I’m not addled, just busy. At least she’d taken off the stained pinafore she’d been wearing—she’d had to dress a nasty head wound earlier and the apron was still covered in blood.“Why you going down there, ma’am?” the driver said, tapping the piece of paper she’d handed him.“I’m a doctor,” she said.The driver turned around and looked at her with raised eyebrows but said no more.Louisa rarely took taxicabs, mostly walked where she needed to go, but she didn’t have time today. What the devil was the problem with Helen Anderson? She wondered.Brusque, that was how Louisa’s colleague and friend Ruth Luxton had described Louisa. “Sometimes, Louisa, you can be brusque.” Ruth said Louisa needed a holiday.She and Ruth were both working too hard, truth be told, keeping the clinic running with the money they earned from their Harley Street practices. Louisa had upset one of the nurses, Ruth said. The girl had handed Louisa a swab when she’d asked for something else. She wasn’t brusque, she was busy, she told Ruth.  Still, Louisa went and apologized to the girl. She wished they were a bit tougher, these nurses. And, yes, she wished she hadn’t been brusque.Princes Square still had the stateliness of the grand London dock years, but it was a tired stateliness now more than any- thing, visited regularly by the reek of burned sugar from the refineries combined with the rich smell of ale from the inn that now graced the opposite corner of the square. The clinic, which both Ruth and Louisa insisted was run on Nightingale principles, was spotless inside, or as spotless as the nurses and orderlies could make it, but it was, Louisa knew, in need of maintenance. And now, the health inspector of greater London was planning a visit, they’d just been informed. Louisa had read through the list of facilities all medical institutions were supposed to provide. Princes Square had hardly any of them. Of course, if they weren’t there, the poor of London’s east would have nothing in terms of health care. But that seemed to matter little to the new inspectorate.The driver turned into John Street. “Ratcliffe will be faster,” Louisa said, looking at her pocket watch. The line of patients had been out the clinic’s front door when she left. It would be all the way down Princes Street by the time she returned, with no other doctor expected in before noon.“No, ma’am,” the driver said evenly. “They’re digging the sewers, so it’s closed further along today.”“Very well,” she said.The driver stopped in Narrow Street near the Ratcliffe stairs, in front of a group of tired brick buildings. Louisa could see the masts of ships at anchor on the wharf to her left. The driver turned to look at her when he handed her the change. “You want me to wait?” he said. He smiled, a gap between two of his teeth, an incisor gone; he’d miss it when he bit into an apple, she thought.“Of course not,” Louisa said.He sighed and shook his head, then drove off.She looked around. Most of the buildings had broken windows and looked as if no one lived in them. It was a forsaken place, she thought, such a contrast with the pleasantness of the day, the only relief a group of boys playing soccer in one of the lanes, using what looked like an unraveling cabbage for a ball, a roughly painted line on the end wall to mark one goal, a couple of dustbins to mark the other. They were dwarfed by the buildings on either side of the lane, which were in worse shape than those on the street, windows boarded over or stuffed with newspaper, laundry hanging off ledges. But the boys’ faces, Louisa saw as she looked over, carried the hope of children the world over, their calls ringing out like an antidote to despair.“Score!”“Nah, you was offside.” “Was not.”“Was too.”“Are you lads playing hooky?” Louisa called to them. They scattered quickly then, disappearing like rats into the maze of passageways that ran off every street. Louisa hadn’t meant to frighten them. Perhaps they thought she’d come to cart them off to school or, worse, give them a needle.In among the houses and inns were the large warehouses of the docks. It was to one of these that Helen Anderson had directed Louisa. She stood in front of the dark wooden door, which looked bolted fast, and checked the piece of paper where she’d written the address. She was in the right place, although she couldn’t imagine Helen Anderson anywhere here.Louisa heard cheering down on the bank below. She turned to see that a crowd had gathered there, perhaps a dozen or more. She looked out toward the river where someone was pointing. Halfway across was a swimmer, solid, strong, deter- mined, an Oxford or Cambridge freshman no doubt, conquering the Thames on a dare. That must be what they were cheering about. How could you swim in that? Louisa thought. She didn’t swim at all, but the thought of the filthy river made her sick.As she watched, the sun shone on the water and it made the swimmer golden. Louisa was mesmerized by the slow, sure stroke. There were two large sailing boats beside the wharf and a steamer coming up the river, half a dozen barges and ferries.What mad boys they were, she thought, a strange feeling building in the pit of her stomach, a nervousness she couldn’t account for. Intuition, Ruth Luxton would say. Never under- estimate your intuition. Something was very wrong. The taxi driver had gone. She was alone here. Where was Helen Anderson?Just then she saw Helen herself, puffing as she climbed the bank. “Well, what do you think?” Helen Anderson said. She was flushed, breathless.“I’m sorry?”“I’m sorry too, Dr. Quick. We’ve tried to be patient, but this has gone too far.” She had her hands on her hips now, trying to get more air into her lungs.“What are you talking about?” Louisa said, beginning to wonder if Helen Anderson was in her right mind.“That.” Helen pointed toward the river, the sun disappearing behind a cloud just at that moment. And then the truth fluttered into Louisa’s brain, where it landed lightly and began to work its way into her consciousness. The lone swimmer, turning over now to switch to a perfectly executed back crawl, wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, wasn’t a man.It was a woman, a girl. It was Catherine.Of course it was Catherine. 2 Catherine had jumped in feetfirst from the steps. The water was deeper than it looked. Her head went right under and she felt as if her whole body had beendunked in a bowl of ice and held there. When she reached the bottom, it was soft and squelchy, nothing like the sandy sea floor at home. She sank down into mud.No turning back now, she’d thought to herself as she pushed up.She began to swim, one arm up and over, the other up and over, kicking with her legs, trying to generate heat. Her head felt as if it would burst from the cold. She was aware of the outline of her skull, her jaw. Her lips wouldn’t move properly. They were too cold to blow bubbles. They were too cold for the laughter that wanted to come, inexplicably. Was it water that made her want to laugh? Was it being back in water, even water so different from home? She couldn’t see her hand in front of her. On the island you’d never go into such brackish water, where a log might be a crocodile. No crocs here, though, no life in the water at all as far as she could tell.Soon she was in the rhythm of the swim, a rhythm she knew so well it was like waking in the morning. It was still cold, but after some minutes the movement of the swim was creating enough warmth to sustain her. Keep swimming. It was her father’s voice she heard. Even now, it soothed her. She loved the story, the story of how he’d saved her. Keep swimming, bonny Cate, he’d sung that night, and she had kept swimming, or at least she’d held on to him, and by morning, when they reached land, Catherine could swim. That’s how her father always told the story. She doubted it now, having watched other children learn. Swimming didn’t come naturally, not even to the Islanders, and Catherine had only been three years old.Her father’s story of that night sounded made up, along with everything he’d told her about her mother. “What was she like?” Catherine had asked. She had no recollection of her, this mother who was the subject of the story—the sailing boat, the storm, her father saving Catherine, losing Julia.“She shone,” Catherine’s father had said. “Am I like her?”Her father couldn’t speak for a moment. “Perhaps you are,” he said then. “Perhaps you are, Cate.”Her father was the only one who called her Cate. She didn’t know what her mother had called her. Mothers on the island who knew the story often said how sad it was, not to Catherine but to one another when they thought she wasn’t listening. If they ever said anything to Catherine, she told them matter-of-factly that you couldn’t miss what you’d never had. “And anyway, I have Florence,” she’d say. “And Florence is worth ten mothers.” They’d look at her more sadly then, as if there were some aspect of their pity she was failing to understand.But sometimes when they talked about her mother, the accident, how awful, Julia so young, such promise, she’d won- der what it might have been like if her mother hadn’t died, what it might have been like if her mother was alive.Catherine had only ever seen one photograph of her mother, deep in the bottom drawer of her father’s dresser. She’d found her father sitting on the little stool by the bed one day. When he’d looked up, she saw there were tears running down his cheeks, which shocked her. She’d never seen her father cry before. He’d wiped the tears away quickly with one hand, while keeping his other hand, the hand that held the photograph, down by his side. Catherine pretended she didn’t notice, but watched from the corner of her eye as he put the photograph in a drawer. Next time he was out at the hospital, she went back to the drawer and found it.At first it gave her a fright. Here was a person, a person who had lived. Not the Julia of her imagination but Julia herself, or her likeness at least. This Julia was sitting on the end of a sofa Catherine had never seen in a room Catherine didn’t recognize. She had an impression it was somewhere in America, where her mother and father had met, but she couldn’t have said why she thought that. Julia was wearing an emerald-green dress and, high on her head, above her dark red-brown hair, a large bronze-colored hat with soft feathers hanging off the sides.Catherine touched the photograph, touched that face, left her fingerprint on it. She couldn’t see herself in this woman the way she saw herself in her father—his laugh, his feet, his way of tilting his head when he was thinking. Still, it felt as if the woman in the photograph laid some claim on her. She ran her finger over the image again, wishing, although she wouldn’t have been able to say what it was she was wishing for.She’d asked Florence about her mother, not mentioning that she’d seen the photograph. “Oh, she was a beautiful girl, your mother, a beautiful girl.” Florence shook her head slowly, ran her long fingers down Catherine’s cheeks, holding on to her chin for a moment, her own fingers soft and warm on Catherine’s skin. “That red hair and those green eyes. But being beautiful can be a curse.”“She was cursed?” Catherine said.Florence’s eyes widened then, as if she’d caught a fright. She paused before she answered. “Being beautiful didn’t make her happy. She wasn’t happy like you. You’re just a bucket of happiness to the brim. It’s children who make women happy.” That didn’t make sense. “So what about my mother? Why wasn’t my mother happy then?” Catherine asked.“Because children make us sad too.” Florence tilted her head.“Why?”“All mothers are sad, because mothering is a giving away, always a giving away.”A bucket of happiness, Florence called Catherine. Catherine didn’t feel that way now in the cold water of the Thames; more like a bucket of cold. She lifted her head out of the water and looked toward the far bank. She was veering off course. The point toward which she was swimming— A. J.  Smellie Warehouses—was to her left now. It should have been directly in front. She was drifting. That was the thing. You had to ac- count for your drift. Perhaps the tide had turned already. Perhaps she’d miscalculated. Michael could aim for a reef a mile out and use the current to get there by the shortest route. Sometimes he’d swim in the opposite direction of his goal for a while, but always he’d come back to it effortlessly.She swam a few more strokes and looked up, correcting again slightly, then put her head back under. She should be better at this, she thought.  She’d pictured the swim in the weeks since she’d made up her mind to do it, but the reality was so different. Think about what you’re trying to achieve. Her father’s voice. And don’t go to sleep. The first shock had been replaced now by a deeper feeling, a hankering in her bones to be free of the cold. It was almost comfortable but she suspected being comfortable might be worse. She suspected it might be how she’d give up.“Swim,” she said out loud, which felt good, to have a voice out in this dark, old water.She could see on the bank the girls who’d come down to watch her this morning. She’d show them, she thought, especially Darcy. It was Darcy who’d dared her. On the island, swimming had been something everyone did, but here in England, Catherine thought, swimming was rare. Maybe if she swum, they would begin to like her. 3 A ferry sounded its horn. Louisa didn’t know if it was a warning or a greeting, but Catherine raised an arm to wave. It seemed a hopeful gesture. Passengers waved and cheered, but the other boats and barges looked as if they might run the girl down. There was a smell like fresh meat on the turn, sweet, a little rancid. Louisa looked back at the bank where half a dozen others from the school were waiting, cheering along with the builders from the next-door site. The beauty of the day was with them all, except for Helen Anderson, who still stood there, hands on hips, awfully red in the face.Catherine’s arms were bare. They looked so slight as they came up out of the water, as if they wouldn’t be strong enough to propel her along at all. Yet she moved so easily, like a creature born to the water. She seemed to drift with a tide. What if she failed? Should Louisa jump in to try to help? Louisa couldn’t, she realized. She couldn’t swim to save herself, let alone someone else. Oh dear, the poor girl, Louisa thought. The poor silly girl.Catherine had asked her aunt about swimming two weeks before, Louisa thought now, although it was Louisa’s house- keeper, Nellie, who first raised it. Louisa had assumed it was some harebrained scheme of Nellie’s. On Catherine’s birthday on the third, Nellie had cooked pancakes. “She’s fifteen now,” Nellie had said, as if that had anything to do with it, “and so perhaps she could swim.”So was this what Nellie meant? It must have been. And Louisa had ignored her. You can’t ignore children, Louisa heard her mother say behind her, so clearly she turned and looked, as if her mother would be there. “I wasn’t ignoring her,” Louisa said.Helen Anderson cocked her head. “I beg your pardon, Doctor?”“Nothing,” Louisa said. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation for this.” Louisa had a hunch there was no rational explanation at all but she desperately wanted Helen Anderson to believe there might be one. “Will she be all right do you think?” Louisa began to feel queasy now. She steadied herself on the railing in front of her.She looked again at the group cheering Catherine on, the girls, the builders, and now a few others from neighboring buildings, Louisa noticed, men in expensive suits. Among the group of builders she noticed a patient from the clinic. What was his name? “Robert!”  she called when she remembered. He turned around, peering into the sun at her. “That’s my niece. Should one of you lads go in and get her?” Louisa could hear the fear in her own voice.Robert jogged up the bank, gave Helen Anderson a sideways glance and stood just below Louisa.  “Oh I wouldn’t think we’ll be needing to do that, Doctor,” he said, breaking into a grin. “She’ll be doing the rescuing, not us. She’s a swimmer, that one. Your niece, you say? Why, she’s just like a little fish.” He laughed. “Don’t you worry about her none.” Louisa felt a little relieved, but still, Catherine looked so tiny in the river among the boats and barges.A motor car pulled up and a young man holding a large camera got out, followed by another in a tan suit. They went running past Louisa and Helen Anderson and down to the group on the bank.“I think that might be a journalist,” Louisa said to Helen, “talking to your students.”“Oh goodness, stop that! Stop that this instant!” Helen Anderson called out, flapping her arms like a flightless bird as she made her way back down the bank toward the group. “Just one minute, young man.”The journalist, a compact lad with blue eyes and a mischievous grin, lifted his hat and said, “I believe she’s one of your students, Miss Anderson. Is this the school’s three R’s, then? Readin’, ’Ritin’ and the River?”They’d tried to be patient, Helen Anderson had said. What did she mean? Had there been trouble for Catherine at the school? Whenever Louisa asked her, Catherine had said it was going well, although in truth Louisa was so busy with work she hadn’t really spoken to Catherine at length of late. Ruth Luxton had asked how Catherine was doing just the week before, and Louisa had said the girl was fine, but afterward it had occurred to her that she had no idea how Catherine was doing. She should know. Of course she should. She was Catherine’s guardian.Ruth had that way of looking at Louisa that made Louisa think she wasn’t telling the truth even when she was.“What?” Louisa had said.“Are you all right, Louisa?” Ruth had said.“We’re not going to discuss this,” Louisa had said emphatically.Ruth had nodded, but there was a little frown on her face and Louisa knew it wasn’t the last she’d hear.Louisa had first met Ruth at the London School of Medicine for Women when Louisa’s own mother, Elizabeth, was teaching there. At ten, Louisa had come along to a lecture her mother was giving because the governess hadn’t turned up at home.“Are you a doctor?” Ruth, then one of her mother’s students, had asked Louisa. Ruth’s hair, dark brown in those days, was middle parted and sat like a heart around her face. Her kindly dark eyes took Louisa in.“My mother is your tutor,” Louisa had said.“So she is,” Ruth said, smiling. “But are you here for the class?”Louisa had considered her answer carefully. “I will be,” she said.“Good,” Ruth said. “You have the eyes of a doctor.”Louisa never forgot. After she graduated, she and Ruth had worked together at the hospital in France. They became dear friends. Ruth had been there for Louisa through the most difficult years. She was the person Louisa was most likely to turn to for advice and support. She also knew more about Louisa than anyone alive. ---- Louisa had picked the Henley School for Catherine, which valued education for women, according to its prospectus, while accepting the importance of manners. The perfect school, Louisa had decided. She herself had been educated in this kind of environment. Louisa’s mother, Elizabeth, one of the first women to study medicine in England, had always believed women were the equal of men, and education mattered a great deal.Louisa shuddered momentarily as she thought of her young niece out there on the water.Henley was the best of the past while keeping a gaze firmly on the future, Louisa had thought, perfect for Catherine, who knew so little about how to behave in the world. They’d teach her manners but remain committed to her learning. It was also a school that didn’t stop for the long summer break all the other local schools had, which meant Louisa wouldn’t have to find something to do with Catherine across a summer holiday.Now, it seemed, either the school had failed. Or Catherine had.Louisa had a notion that Helen Anderson, at least, was convinced it was Catherine.Louisa had a picture in her mind, then, of Catherine on the island at three, running full pelt into the sea behind her father, catching him up, catching him up, Harry pretending to run as fast as he could, letting her grab him around the legs, both of them crashing over into the water, Harry coming up first, shaking the water from his sandy curls. Louisa, waiting on the beach, was afraid, for where was the child? And then, suddenly, there she was, out in the deeper water, calling, “Daddy! Come on or we’ll miss the wave,” just like a little fish, as Robert had suggested.Catherine’s mother had drowned, that was the thing. The water was the last place you’d expect to find her, and yet it was like a siren to the girl. Always had been, Louisa thought now.