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ROAM - Summer/Autumn 2023 - ROAM 3

Swimming Lessons

Olivia Rana

Swimming Lessons

The Protestant children sat at the front of the bus, straight-backed, shiny-haired, voices polished from elocution lessons. We, the Catholics from St Mary’s primary school piled into the back, bags bursting with towels and swimming suits, mouths spuing noise and devilment. There were more of us than them, but still we felt outnumbered, unsettled by their silence. They thought that they were better than us. Snobs, Prods, Brits, that’s what we called them.

We all lived across fields from one another, townlands straddling the Irish border, Aghalane, Drumderg, and Gortahurk, places that might as well have been in different corners of the world. We were not only Catholic and Protestant, but from the north and the south of Ireland too, Irish and British. We were all kinds of other. Every Friday we took the bus together into the town of Enniskillen for swimming lessons, because the schools were handed money from the government to bring us together. We never spoke to one another on that journey to and from the pool, and none of the grown-ups ever encouraged us. 

In the locker rooms, we crammed into tiny stalls, discarding clothes onto the wet floor. I was ashamed of my newly acquired pubescent body, which felt like a sinful thing for a child to carry, especially in a swimming suit that had been passed down from two elder sisters and was almost see-through. Protestant girls were stick-thin and they wore suits with dolphins and anchors, and could jump and dive and swim for miles. I stayed in the shallow end with the messers and the ill-at-ease, none of us intent on learning how to swim. I wished that I was like Anne, with her blue swimming cap pulled tight around her long hair, Anne, who kicked off from the side of the pool and propelled herself length after length with ease. 

Sometimes I’d think about speaking to her, asking what her favourite books were, and whether she liked Madonna. We’d exchange secret notes on the bus, and then one day she’d ask me over to her house, which was down a lane in the middle of the army fortification, half in the north and half in the south. We’d watch Top of the Pops together and make up a dance routine to Like a Virgin, and when it was time to go home she’d walk me to the barrier at the end of the lane in case the army wouldn’t let me through. She’d tell them that it was ok, because even though I was a Fenian, I was her friend. Every week I tried to think of a way to speak to Anne, or to get her attention, but when I heard the way people talked about them, the hatred, being friends with Anne felt like an impossible thing, the kind of crime that you might get tarred and feathered for, or a good hiding at least.

We were lined up in the corridor waiting for the bus that day when the snap of bullets rang out, three, four, five. More. ‘Get down,’ the teacher shouted, and we children crouched in the hallway, underneath the windows. We could hear someone shouting outside, and then there was a pause, a deadly silence, as if you’d done something really bad and were waiting for a slap on the back of the legs. Then off it went again, piercing the air, ten, eleven, twelve. I counted twenty shots. The principal was calling at us to crawl back to our classroom, but the boy behind me was kneeling on the end of my coat, pinning me to the floor. Children were crying for their Mammies, and one girl wet her pants. Three more shots, and then the roar of a car as it sped off. ‘It’s the bus,’ someone said. We raised our heads a little to see the bus with shattered windows. There was no driver visible, for he was lying in a pool of his own blood. And when it was time to go home we had to make our way out past the policemen and around the taped-off area. The front of the bus had been covered in a large white sheet, but we could still see the glass on the road, white chalk circles around bullet casings.

Mammy had been at mass in the chapel across the road when it happened, for it was St Brigid’s day, the mother saint of Ireland. She told Daddy that she’d heard the cheers from the killers before they drove away, and the following day it was in all the papers, pictures of the bus outside the school. The driver was a part-time UDR soldier it said, a married father of two, a man who ferried Catholic and Protestant children to swimming lessons every week. ‘He was a sitting duck,’ Daddy said. 

It was several weeks before the swimming lessons resumed, a new driver now in place. We tried to work out if it was the same bus, to find some sign of blood on the seats or the floor. And when we went on past the Protestant school and didn’t stop, some of the boys from St Mary’s cheered and shouted ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’, and more horrible things that made me want to cry. Anne wouldn’t be coming to swimming lessons anymore. I’d never again get to watch her raise her goggles onto her head, and push herself out of the water, shaking off drops from her arms. I wouldn’t have the chance to give her the note in my pocket, or see inside her Protestant house to know how different our lives were, or if they were maybe not that different at all. We were in deeper waters now, being carried further and further away from one another, and I would never learn how to swim.


Olivia Rana


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