Thursday, 15 September 2016

Tiny stories 3: Lost boys

I love going to events like this. Finding out about how people lived in the past is so interesting, and the old leisure centre, corners of it untouched for decades, is the perfect place to catch a glimpse of what's not there any more.

Toby loves it too. He pays careful attention to everything our tour guide says. I can tell that he's drinking in the atmosphere. He's sensitive that way. Always has been.

The guide leads us from the worn brick foyer, which was once the second class entrance, into a corridor next to the abandoned pool. This is what I've been most looking forward to seeing. I can actually feel my heart beating a bit faster. I hold tighter to Toby's hand. The woman beside me steps further away.

Our little group squeezes through the doorway and emerges into a wide, sombre space, glazed white and trembling with memories. The floor of the empty pool gleams a little, despite the dust. Toby shivers.

"Everything all right, madam?" asks the guide. I nod and smile. His frown relaxes a little.

He tells us about the pool's glory days, details as vivid as the cobalt tiles. I can almost see the swimmers in their red council-provided trunks, laughing and chasing each other, shouts echoing up to the arched windows.

We hear about the McKenna twins, who trained here as children and went on to compete for their country. About Sammy Murdock, who took forever to learn to swim but turned out to be a very successful actor. Right enough, I've seen him in a few old films.

And we hear about Sol Franklin. He was a friend of Sammy Murdock's, but he was a great swimmer, in here all the time. A kind boy, helping the younger ones, always good-natured. His mam said he was too good to be true, laughing like it was a joke, but really as proud as punch.

Until one day when he went for his evening swim and didn't come home. Everyone remembered him in the pool that night, trying yet again to teach Sammy to kick his feet out properly, pushing Tom McKenna's head under the water and getting a clout round the ear for his boldness, singing a Peggy Lee song and making everyone laugh. But they didn't remember seeing him afterwards, in the changing room or the corridor or the street.

His mam never saw him again. There was no trace of him at all. At first the streets were full of talk about him going off to meet someone or to perform in London. Betty McCavery said she'd seen him with a girl from across the town. Mad old Annie Dornan was convinced it was the fairies who took him. Everyone had a theory, but it didn't bring Sol back. Ever.

There's a moment of silence as we all think about Sol Franklin and his mam. 

I wonder what's going through Toby's mind. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

The group is quieter now, and the guide gives us a few minutes to look round. I'm drawn to the pale blue door in the corner, light just visible behind it. 

And to the steps, down into the water that's long drained away. 

The way things do when they're too good to be true.

We leave the pool by a different door and are ambushed by a Brownie pack armed with lemon drizzle cake and cups of tea. I take a plate for myself and a plate for Toby. I set his plate on the window ledge and look at it for a long moment.

The rest of the group has moved away, but our guide comes across to me.

"You enjoyed that? I was a bit concerned about you."

"Yes, fantastic! No, really, I'm fine."

"Sad story, that, about the lost boy, eh?"

The lost boys. Sol, and Toby.

The echoes impale my heart.

"Sorry, if you'll excuse me..."

I abandon my cake plate, and Toby's, push through the Brownies and the group members and out into the street. It's cold outside.

I unchain my bike from the railings and pedal fast down the avenue.

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