‘The second lesson is about swimming.’
‘We’re going swimming?’
‘No, we’re going to do it here.’ He smiled, enjoying our moment.
‘Swim! In a room!’ Maybe he’d fill it up to the ceiling with water from a hose pipe and we’d swim under the bed and dart like goldfish around the lightshade. The world would become silent and slow and his cheeks would balloon out, bubbles leaving his lips and making for the ceiling.
‘The bed’s a pool,’ he said.
I knew this sort of game. ‘The floor’s lava.’
‘Not today. The third lesson’s on lava. Here. Gently. Gently!’ There was an urgent wince in his voice.
I crawled down his body so that I fitted perfectly between his feet and his waist. He lifted his knees and I lay there with my middle in the air. I closed my eyes and breathed in, out, waiting to be hurled upwards.
‘You’re a right angle,’ he said.
‘You’re a wrong angle,’ I said.
‘You’re a right monkey.’
‘You’re a wrong monkey.’
He pushed the heels of his feet across the bed cover and I sank towards the bed again. I kept my eyes closed and my arms stretched to each side as he pulled his legs out from under me. My nose was pressed into the covers. They smelled of all the clean clothes in our house, but also something else, something sour and grown up.
‘Kick your legs,’ he said, and took hold of my ankles, one in each hand. ‘Like this. That’s right.’ I thumped my toes onto the soft sheets. ‘Now the arms. Push them forwards. No together. Now pull them back out again. No, like this, like you’re scooping water away. Again. No, curl your hands. Not straight down. Imagine you’re pushing water off the bed. Better. Now your feet at the same time. Kicking like you were before. Head up. That’s it! You’re swimming!’
He was standing up, beaming. Against the dark, leafy wallpaper he looked like an explorer in a jungle, beaded with sweat from his long journey to a lost civilisation.
‘I’m in bed!’ I said. ‘I’m not swimming!’
We both laughed. Then the air was split again.
‘Hester! Shoes! Time to go!’
‘Off you go.’ He patted my back. I did a kick or two.
‘The floor’s lava.’
‘No, it’s not. I emptied the pool onto it. Now it’s cold volcanic rock.’
‘I never taught you anything this time..’
‘Next time. Anyway, you teach me stuff all the time.’
‘I don’t know. Kindness. Joy.’
‘I’ll tell you about tigers.’
‘Go. Go.’ He ushered me towards the door.
The floor actually was still lava, but it was perfectly safe if you kept to the edges.
‘They all have a different pattern, so they don’t marry their mum,’ I said as I left the room.